New Article on Rand’s view of Self-Interest

Stephen Hicks has a new piece in the Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers titled “Self-interest in Ayn Rand.” The Encyclopedia, which seems to be in its early days, is part of a project at Paterborn University called History of Women Philosophers and Scientists.

It is nice to see both that Rand is being included in projects on the history of philosophy, and that the editors of this project found someone knowledgeable about Rand to write the piece. This has not always been the case with pieces on Rand in reference volumes, but things have improved since the embarrassingly unprofessional entry on Rand in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy both have articles on Rand by authors who take her seriously and are well acquainted with the primary and secondary sources. Hicks is the author of the Internet Encyclopedia piece, and he has written insightfully in other contexts about Randand about various figures and movements in the history of philosophy, so he’s a good choice to author an article that situates Rand’s conception of self-interest relative to more familiar views in the history of philosophy.

The article is illuminating on the issue of how philosophers’ views of self-interest (and their evaluations of it) reflect deeper views of the self. And I think Hicks is right to draw connections between Rand’s position on these issues and Aristotle’s. However, I was disappointed to see nothing in the piece on what makes Rand distinct from Aristotle (or from the Aristotelian tradition). Despite its title, the article doesn’t read as a piece on Rand at all. Indeed, her name appears only in the following sentence:

Aristotle and Ayn Rand, in contrast to both positions above, have a positive view of self-interest based on a view of the self that is potential, but with objective physical and psychological needs and the capacity to develop itself in a way that self-responsibly and productively meets its needs.

This sentence begins the last of the article’s four paragraphs. The paragraph goes on to elaborate on the consequences for ethics of the views expressed in the first sentence, and it does so without differentiating Rand’s ethics from Aristotle’s. I can see why one might proceed this way, if one were mentioning Rand in an article about different schools of thought on self-interest. But in an article titled “Self-interest in Ayn Rand,” it creates the impression that she had nothing distinctive to say on the subject and that the only reason to take cognizance of her is that substituting her in for Aristotle on certain topics introduces a female voice (though one that’s not saying anything that hadn’t already been said by a man).

In fact, however, there is much in Rand’s writings about the self and self-interest that sets her apart from Aristotle and from other canonical thinkers. Rand is always focused on the individual human being, who has distinctive ideas and personal values that set him apart from others in his community and that may put him in conflict with them. She presents her moral philosophy in explicit contrast with moral codes that call for the individual to sacrifice his ideas and values to the demands of others. And, likewise, her political philosophy is formulated in explicit opposition to political philosophies that justify the sacrifice of individuals by the state. In this respect Rand has more in common with 19th Century individualists like Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche than she does with Aristotle. This individualism is also characteristic of the Romantic movement in literature, which Rand saw herself as a part of. All of these individualistic thinkers extol emotions (and/or will) as the seat of individuality, whereas Rand identifies a person first and foremost with his reason. In this she agrees with Aristotle, but her view of reason includes elements that were absent or under-emphasized in Aristotle.

Whereas Aristotle’s discussions of reason’s role in life are impersonal in character, Rand held that an individual’s reasoning is the source of the personal values (e.g. his love of his job or romantic partner) that make his life meaningful to him. This is because, in her view, reason is an attribute of the individual and it does not function automatically. Each individual must initiate and sustain reasoning by choice, and must learn how to discover knowledge and to choose values that are based on facts and integrate into a self-sustaining life. To function in this manner by choice is to be objective in Rand’s sense of this term. I elaborated on this point in Chapter 6 of A Companion to Ayn Rand:

Only insofar as an individual chooses values in this way does he have a self‐interest at all. Values chosen subjectively, without regard for the requirements of human survival, will not form into a self‐sustaining whole; so rather than a coherent self‐interest that he can act to advance, the individual will have a motley assortment of conflicting desires. But neither can self-interest be intrinsic: there is an inexhaustible variety of possible combinations of values and activities that could cohere into a self‐sustaining human life, and there is nothing other than an individual’s choosing and pursuing one of these possibilities for himself that can make this particular life constitute his self‐interest and ultimate goal.

Rand’s view of objectivity (and of self-interest as objective) reflects her libertarian view of free will and her identification of the choice to think or not as the locus of freedom. This differentiates her from thinkers like Neitzsche, who was a determinist, and who wrote before the tensions between free will and determinism came sharply into focus. (Aristotle did stress the role of choice in the development of moral character, and the later Aristotelian, Alexander of Aphrodisias, did develop a libertarian account of freedom that is strikingly like Rand’s, but he did not develop, as she did, the view’s implications in epistemology, ethics, and politics, nor did he write much about the self or self-interest.)

I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough to indicate that there is much distinctive in Rand’s view of self-interest. Hicks was tasked with treating a complex issue in a very short article, so he had difficult decisions to make about what to include and omit. The article he came up with is thought-provoking, but given its title, I wish he had found a way to say something about Rand’s position per se rather than about a wider philosophical tradition to which she belongs.