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Flourishing Egoism*

  • Lester H. Hunt (a1)

Early in Peter Abelard's Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian, the philosopher (that is, the ancient Greek) and the Christian easily come to agreement about what the point of ethics is: “[T]he culmination of true ethics … is gathered together in this: that it reveal where the ultimate good is and by what road we are to arrive there.” They also agree that, since the enjoyment of this ultimate good “comprises true blessedness,” ethics “far surpasses other teachings in both usefulness and worthiness.” As Abelard understood them, both fundamental elements of his twelfth-century ethical culture — Greek philosophy and Christian religion — held a common view of the nature of ethical inquiry, one that was so obvious to them that his characters do not even state it in a fully explicit way. They take for granted, as we take the ground we stand on, the premise that the most important function of ethical theory is to tell you what sort of life is most desirable, or most worth living. That is, the point of ethics is that it is good for you, that it serves your self-interest.

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1 Abelard Peter, “Dialogue 2: Between the Philosopher and the Christian,” in Abelard, Ethical Writings, trans. Spade Paul Vincent (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995), pp. 9394.

2 “Common sense,” in this context, means: the views that people in a given culture hold before theoretical considerations convince them to change those views.

3 Slote Michael, From Morality to Virtue (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 91.

4 Ibid., p. 92. The objection to egoism that Slote raises in this passage is actually about egoism regarded as a theory of what makes actions admirable, and not (at least not explicitly) about egoism as a theory of reasons for performing actions. His claim is that egoism clashes with “the ground floor admiration for acts and traits that help others” which “most of us are disposed — and happy to be disposed — to feel.” The objection I have just presented is stated as an objection to egoism as a theory of reasons for acting and thus constitutes a different, though related, problem. It seems likely that a satisfactory response to the objection I am considering would contain clues pointing to a response to the problem Slote raises, but an adequate discussion of the latter problem would require more attention than I will be able to devote to it in this essay.

5 This theme runs throughout much of Parfit Derek's Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), ch. 1, esp. sections 1–8.

6 See the preceding footnote.

7 Rand Ayn, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Rand , The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 23.

8 Ibid., p. 31.

9 Ibid., p. 27.

10 Rand Ayn, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Random House, 1957), p. 1018.

11 Rand , “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 25.

12 Morrison Hugh, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (New York: Norton, 1935), pp. 180–81.

13 Rand Ayn, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), p. 206.

14 Rand , “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (supra note 7), p. 44.

15 Ibid., pp. 44–45. Rand has John Gait put the same idea this way: “If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is” (Rand , Atlas Shrugged, p. 1028).

16 My main source is Railton Peter, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 1984), pp. 134–71. See also his “How Thinking about Character and Utilitarianism Might Lead to Rethinking the Character of Utilitarianism,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, vol. 13 (1988), pp. 398416.

17 Railton , “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” pp. 153–54.

18 Ibid., p. 144.

19 Ibid., p. 154.

20 For discussions of the ways in which human reason is able to avoid pointless or counterproductive thinking, see Polanyi Michael, The Tacit Dimension (New York: Doubleday, 1966), ch. 1; and Polanyi , Knowing and Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), Part III.

21 For further discussion of the difference between habits and traits of character, see my Character and Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), ch. 1.

22 I can also refer the reader to Aristotle's account of the value of character friendship, which is both egoistic and nonconsequentialist; see Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX, chs. 4 and 9. Another example would be Rand's account of love relationships, which is actually rather similar to Aristotle's account of character friendship, and which can be found dramatized and discussed in various passages in Atlas Shrugged, but especially in the character Francisco d'Anconia's speech about the meaning of sex (Rand , Atlas Shrugged, pp. 489–95).

23 The fundamental idea that underlies what I have just said is a point made in a number of ways by Aristotle: my friend and the good of my friend can be valuable in themselves and for me, if only because my being conscious of them is valuable in the same ways. An episode from Ayn Rand's life illustrates this idea vividly. In a letter to John Hospers, she explained why a favorable letter from him about a book she had just published was more important to her than a blisteringly unfavorable review in Newsweek: “It is not an issue of how many people will see your letter vs. how many people will see the review. Your letter proves the existence of a man of intelligence and integrity; the review proves the existence of a fool and a knave. The first is important, the second is not. (Or, to use your terms: the existence of the former is an ‘intrinsic’ good — while the existence of the latter is not even an instrumental evil.)” Berliner Michael S., ed., The Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 562. It would not be so plausible to say that, if Hospers had written the same letter to someone else and Rand had never learned of it, the letter and its author would still be “intrinsic” goods (i.e., good in themselves) for her. But she does know about them, and that in itself seems to suffice to give them that status. This suggests a solution to a problem that I have so far not touched on directly: What about the good of strangers? To avoid wildly counterintuitive results, it seems that the nonconsequentialist egoist would need to show how the good of strangers, and not just the good of my friends, can to some degree be included in my own good as a part. The solution I have in mind would be based on the notion that strangers I do not know about pose no ethical problems, but once I become aware of them, to some extent my consciousness of their weal or woe adds to mine.

24 Rand , “The Ethics of Emergencies,” p. 44.

25 See Epictetus , The Discourses, 1.2 and 1.4.

26 This may be the place to briefly raise an exegetical issue. Tara Smith and Irfan Khawaja have pointed out to me that Rand, in one of her later writings, uses strongly consequentialist language which appears to conflict with the nonconsequentialist interpretation of her position that I am presenting here. See Rand , “Causality versus Duty,” in her Philosophy: Who Needs It? (New York: Signet, 1982). In the main, this essay is a critique of Kantian deontology on the grounds that thinking in terms of consequences and, more generally, causal thinking, is absolutely essential to rationality. I think the first thing to say about this is that this argument is, so far, perfectly consistent with the view I am attributing to Rand. Nonconsequentialist egoism does not claim (as deontology does) that thinking in terms of consequences does not belong in the ethical realm; it only denies the consequentialist claim that nothing else does belong there. It can also claim (what seems clearly true) that thinking in terms of consequences (e.g., Will this food nourish me or poison me?) is an absolutely indispensable part of discerning what one's interests are. It only denies that the relationship between them is identity. There is, however, one passage in which Rand seems to go beyond this and claim that thinking in terms of consequences is identical to rationality in ethics (“Causality versus Duty,” p. 99, third full paragraph). I would argue that here she is falling into the understandable temptation of overstating the difference between herself and Kant, and that the argument she is giving in that passage can be stated in overtly nonconsequentialist terms.

27 If we introduce the assumption that the function of virtue is precisely to maintain this rational hierarchy of values, then virtue and self-interest would appear to b e very nearly the same thing. The idea that something like this is indeed the case is typical of philosophers in the tradition of flourishing-based egoism, including Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. For an insightful discussion of the views of the Stoics on this issue, see Michael Slote's comments on Stoicism and Epicureanism as opposed forms of ethical egoism in From Morality to Virtue, pp. 201–10. The Epicureans, of course, were proponents of consequentialist egoism.

28 I cannot resist making the following comment, which will have to wait for fuller development. One could say that what flourishing traditionally did for the concept of self-interest is precisely analogous to what virtue traditionally did for the concept of ethical merit. In both cases, there is a certain shift from the act to the agent and from the episodic to the settled and the structural. When we evaluate what a person does from a virtue-based point of view, we do so on the basis of what an act indicates about the person who performed it, and the things that it indicates are relatively enduring aspects of the person. In that case, the value of the act is explained by the sort of life of which it is a part. This is exactly what happens when we understand self-interest by way of the notion of flourishing.

29 I should mention that, according to my own view of these matters, there are a number of radically different sorts of virtues, and only one of them has the hierarchy-preserving function that is essential to the argument I have just given. See my Character and Culture, chs. 1–4. The virtues that do have this function are the subject of ch. 2. It would take us too far afield to discuss how self-interest and egoism are related to the other sorts of virtues and, to tell the truth, my views on this subject are presently amorphous and changing.

* I have benefited from comments by many people on various drafts of this essay. Tara Smith served very ably as the commentator when it was presented at the 1996 annual meetings of the Ayn Rand Society. Ellen Frankel Paul was good enough to send me comments in writing, as did Irfan Khawaja, Eyal Mozes, Chris Sciabarra, and Douglas Rasmussen. Remarks made in oral discussion by Richard Kraut and Richard Arneson also proved to be helpful.

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