Monday, 11 February 2019

Eric Mack’s Rescue Operation for Ayn Rand’s Ethics

Ayn Rand
Today I read Eric Mack's essay, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol 5; No. 1; Fall 2003; Page 1–66), which, the author declares, is a rescue mission to save Ayn Rand’s deep ethical insights from her own awful line-by-line arguments.

Mack approaches Rand’s ethics through Craig Biddle’s book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It, which is a primer on Rand’s ethics. While conducting a critical analysis of Biddle's presentation of Rand's arguments, Mack conducts a critical analysis of Rand’s own writings in ethics.

That Mack is inspired by Rand’s ethics is beyond doubt—why would he launch a rescue operation if he wasn’t? He writes:

“I think that Rand has offered us some very deep ethical insights, e.g., about the essential relationship between valuing and the human good and about the relationship of affirming the ultimate separate value of each individual's good and affirming each individual's possession of moral rights. Beyond that, Rand is simply without peer as an insightful, powerful and heroic ethical crusader on behalf of individualism, individual freedom, and a free social and economic order.”

But in the lines that follow, Mack notes that Rand’s arguments are awful:

“Unfortunately, I also think that line-by-line many of Rand's ethical arguments are just awful. It is not merely that she does not bother with fine distinctions and academic niceties. Rather, her arguments all too often consist of gross misrepresentations of her opponents's views, conflations of importantly distinct doctrines, crucial equivocations, and massive beggings of the questions at hand. And the awfulness of these arguments is compounded by the arrogance, contempt, and hostility with which they are usually expressed.”

He takes Rand to task for her tirades against historical philosophers, chiefly David Hume and Immanuel Kant. “One of the major defects in Ranďs ethical expositions is antecedent to her arguments per se. It consists in her frequent misdescription of the targets of her criticism and her conflation of distinct philosophical stances under a single label.”

On Biddle’s remark on Hume, Mack says:

“Biddle's remark reveals colossal ignorance about a man [Hume] who, e.g., articulated a powerful theory about the rationality of compliance with principles of justice and who, throughout his life, strove to advance a secular, religion-free defense of commercial society. Biddle's linkage of Hume to Hider replicates the lowest moments of Randian rhetoric.”

On Biddle’s remark on Kant, Mack says:

“Rand condemned Kant; so Biddle feels that somewhere he must also do so. He does this by declaring Kant to have been the "father"of "social subjectivism" which, in the relevant paragraph, is characterized as "the notion that truth and morality are the creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people)—or matters of social convention.” Now there is a sense in which the mind, as reason, does have primacy in Kantian metaphysics and ethics. But this primacy of mind as reason is a long way from the subjectivism that Biddle has targeted—in which the notion of arbitrary, nonrational will is paramount. Whatever the ultimate philosophical errors of Kant, it is a canard to accuse him of advocating the primacy of arbitrary will in metaphysics or ethics.”

Mack goes on to note three interconnected features in Rand’s writing:

“The first is enormous ignorance about the actual views of the thinkers discussed—especially the views of those on Ranďs philosophical enemies list The second is an inclination to conflate into one strawman many distinct views, so that these views can all be tarred with the same broad brush. The third is a tendency to cast all opposing views in their most unfavorable light—as views that only an idiot or moral monster would advocate.”

The problem, according to Mack, is that Rand exercises such power on the mind of her followers that they cannot conceive of making any corrections and improvements in her arguments. The mere thought that Rand can be wrong on anything is an anathema to her followers, who continue to use her awful arguments in their own writing. There is, however, much more in Mack’s essay than what I can say in this article.


Roger Bissell said...

Anoop, you've done a good job summarizing Mack's very important constructive criticism ("rescue operation") of Rand's ethics. Thank you. I hope people will read this and take it to heart, instead of just knee-jerk condemning and mocking you (and Mack) for it.

Mack has Rand (and Biddle) dead to rights on their ignorant and wrong-headed criticisms of Hume and Kant.

As for Rand's arguments for her ethical views, they have gaping holes in them which CAN (I am convinced) be filled, and have already to some extent by thinkers such as Mack, Tibor Machan, and Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl.

However, until the people in control of Rand's legacy and estate lift the ban on actually fixing Rand's errors and providing the missing connections in her arguments, she will (justly) continue to be regarded as just another opinionated "pop" philosopher whose novels and essays manage to stir up discontented young people, but whose philosophy cannot deliver the coup de grace to the ruling mystic-altruist-collectivist cabal who have been controlling our lives and usurping our pursuit of happiness for the past two millenia.

Anoop Verma said...

Roger, Good points. I agree.

Douglas Rasmussen said...

To those schooled in Aristotle’s ethics, there is much to appreciate in Mack’s essay—especially, his distinction between a categorical imperative, which an Aristotelian would reject, and a categorical end, which an Aristotelian would accept, The implications of this distinction Mack develops in his essay, as do I in my JARS essays on Rand’s ethics.

Douglas Rasmussen said...

What is crucial in Mack’s essay is his distinction between a categorical imperative and a categorical end. The former an Aristotelian rejects, and the latter an Aristotelian accepts. Randians confuse the two. Mack notes this in his essay, as I do in my JARS essays on Rand’s metaethics.