Comments on Rand’s Moral Philosophy for a Danish Journalist

I gather that there is a scandal in Denmark concerning some private parties took advantage of some provisions in the Danish tax codes that enabled them to somehow reap tax revenues and these parties cited Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy as justifying their actions. I recently had a brief correspondence with a Danish journalist writing about the case, and was quoted in his story about it. Since I don’t read Danish, I’m not in a position to comment on the story itself. I tried to read it through Google Translate and took away three things from doing so: (1) the material quoted from me seems to have been used accurately and reasonably; (2) some of the other academics questioned falsely attributed “social Darwinism” to Rand and the journalist gave too much credence to that attribution; (3) Google’s automatic English translations of the Danish versions of the titles of Rand’s novels are amusing.

I thought it might be useful to reproduce here the things I wrote to the reporter, both so that the parts he quoted are on record in English (rather than in Danish translation), and because I said more than he was able to quote, and some readers of this blog may find the other things I  said useful.

Rather than quoting his questions (which I assume I’d need his permission to do), I’m putting my comments under headings that reflect the gist of what I was responding to. I’ve also lightly edited a few sentences to fix grammatical errors. Here goes:

Re whether Rand would approve of the controversial tax practices:

Rand was very critical of those business people who she thought got rich not by productive achievement, but by using special government favors to plunder others.  The main villains in Atlas Shrugged are corrupt businessmen of this sort.

But the tax laws and regulations in most countries are so complex that it’s often hard to know who is plundering and who being plundered. And claiming whatever deductions or benefits are due one under existing law is a very different thing from defending or advocating for laws that unjustly advantage your business. So in order to morally judge the tax practices of the groups you mention or to speculate on how Rand would judge them, I’d need to know more than you’ve said in your email.

Re the objection to egoism that if all life has value one should pursue the interests of all living things, rather than just one’s own:

This objection presupposes that value is an intrinsic property that things have independent of their relation to any valuers. This “intrinsic theory of value” is one common view held in philosophy (e.g. G. E. Moore held it), but it is not the only theory. Rand rejected it. Values, on her view, are things that one acts to gain and keep (or create and sustain). So the concept of value  presupposes an entity capable of valuing and a purpose for which that entity acts to produce, obtain, or sustain it. Only living things are capable of valuing and their lives are the ultimate value to which their other values contribute in various ways.  Different things will be of value to different organisms. For example: if we think of a fish in a school of fish, the other fish in its school are of value to it, because they contribute to its life as companions, protection, mates, etc., but the fishermen who want to catch and eat the fish and the bacteria that make it sick are not of value to it, even though both the fisherman and the bacteria are alive.

Which things (living or otherwise) are of value to a given organism will depend on many factors, but most importantly on that organism’s nature. Human nature is such that other human beings (both certain specific other human beings and living in a human society) is of tremendous value to any rational individual, and such individuals will properly feel a generalized good will towards humankind as such. But this does not mean that a rational person will value others’ (much less all others’) interests as highly as he values his own. Nor does it mean that he will value every individual human being. I, for example, do not value Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, much less Kim Jung Il, at all.

Re whether egoism implies that one should hurting others when it is his interest to do so:

Rand’s ethical egoism doesn’t tell you to do whatever you think is in your interest, regardless of what that may be and what effects it may have on others. Rather, her view is that you need moral principles (based on human nature) to determine what is in your interest in the first place. She argues that an individual’s interests lie in living a rational and productive life in which one’s relationships with other people are to mutual advantage by mutual consent. Morality shows us that it is not in our interest to attempt to live by preying on other human beings. 

So if preying on others (steeling, raping, etc.) is what you mean by “hurting” others, then it’s wrong according to Rand’s egoism. That wrongness depends on one’s interests in the sense that it is wrong because it is bad for you. But it doesn’t depend on the details of you specific interests or circumstances or choices. Human nature is such they it is necessarily contrary to the rational interests of any human being to attempt to live in that way.

But of course there are lots of other cases in which it is morally permissible or even mandatory to “hurt” someone. For example, it’s wrong to remain in a romantic relationship that is making you miserable, even if your partner would be hurt by the breakup.