Monday, 15 January 2018

Is Ayn Rand’s Ethics an Exact Science?

Ayn Rand believed that Aristotle’s greatest achievement was in epistemology, and not in ethics or politics. In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” she says: “The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise”

But she has not clarified what she means by “exact science.” She has also not provided any evidence to show that her own objectivist ethics is an exact science.

Jack Wheeler, in his essay, “Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist Ethics and Aristotelian Ethics,” (Chapter 5; The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand; Edited by Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen) comments on this issue. Here’s an excerpt:
Again, Rand’s criticism that Aristotle did not regard ethics as an “exact science” is equally odd, for this has nothing to do with “observing wise men,” but rather, as Aristotle notes: “It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits.” Or does Rand really wish to claim that one can have mathematical precision for ethics on a par with physics? 
What is doubly puzzling about all of this is that, upon close examination, there are extraordinary similarities between objectivist and Aristotelian ethics in both metaethical and normative categories. Thus we find the strange situation of Rand praising Aristotle above all other philosophers on the one hand and ignorantly criticizing his ethics on the other. At the same time she presents an ethical system of her own that she claims is original yet that is in many ways strikingly Aristotelian. 
I agree with Wheeler, Rand’s criticism of Aristotelian ethics is puzzling. She criticizes Aristotle for not regarding ethics as an exact science, but she does not offer any evidence to prove that an ethical system can be an exact science on a par with physics.

I think Rand had the protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt in her mind when she wrote her commentary on objectivist ethics. Galt is perfect in every sense; there is not a single flaw in his philosophical and political ideas; his science is great; he has never fallen sick, he is always emotionally stable, and he never makes a single mistake in his life. He automatically knows what he must do in any situation. When Rand calls ethics an exact science, she is asserting that human beings can be (or ought to be) exactly like Galt.

But it is biologically impossible for a human being to be like Galt—nature does not allow such perfection to exist. 

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