Ayn Rand and Alienation


Ayn Rand and Alienation, by Sid Greenberg, San Francisco: Sid Greenberg, 1977, 131 pp., $3.95 (paper).

A recurring complaint about capitalism (or liberal democracy) is its lack of moral foundations. From Marxists to neoconservatives, all varieties of intellectuals have mounted this attack on the system. That classical liberals, despite their inclinations toward amoralism, did very well at formulating a benign, free, productive system of human community life is often simply ignored.

Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher, has attempted to show capitalism's moral basis. She has done so in her novels and philosophical essays. Although one cannot ferret out from these a full-blown case for capitalism, by comparison with what Marxists and theists have had to offer as the rational basis for their moral or political beliefs, her contribution has been considerable. No longer is it honest for capitalism's critics to claim that it is backed up only by Locke's sketchy natural law system, Bentham's hedonistic ethic, Mill's collectivist and hopelessly muddled utilitarianism, or Spencer's evolutionary ethics. Rand's Objectivist ethics, the morality of rational egoism, should by now be attended to by critics of laissez-faire capitalism.

Yet the neo-conservatives, for example, simply refuse to take on Rand. Instead, there are books by psychologist Albert Ellis, economist John Robbins, pedagogue William O'Niell, and now by artist and limerick composer Sid Greenberg—all rather puny efforts to come to grips with the philosophical system of Objectivism.

Greenberg's book has some value. It serves as a puzzle to be solved. He claims to have shown Rand's several important points (in ethics) contradictory, dichotomized, and definitionally circular. But is Greenberg right?

Greenberg sees Rand advocating that a person live up to the abstract standard "man's life" rather than live for his actual happiness. But he gets this interpretation by converting her definition of happiness into a circular one by equating value and "that which makes one happy"; by treating happiness and life as synonymous, when the passage of hers that he quotes calls them "two aspects of the same achievement"; by claiming that Rand dichotomizes "standard" and "purpose" so as to exclude happiness as a measure of good—yet when she includes happiness as a corollary of regarding one's own life as one's highest purpose, he claims she's "slipping it in."

Still, he has one interesting question. "Consider…a person [who] loved to play the guitar and had an opportunity to play professionally while also liking to write and having an opportunity to write professionally. The only basic difference between them as values is the level of pleasure involved" (p. 36). "Rand…never approaches the question of how one chooses between alternative personal prolife values" (p. 26), claims Greenberg. "Pleasure is the only intelligible criterion of action here—yet according to Objectivism, it is irrational to guide oneself on the basis of pleasure or happiness" (p. 23).

It is Greenberg who confuses the abstract and the concrete, giving this "counter-example" as proof that general principles will not work in every case. This won't do—not without more details about the life and context of the person described. A thorough ethics offers a method that not only generates the broadest standards of value and virtue but also enables one to make choices of detail. Rand's discussion of teleological measurement (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pp. 34-35), her essay "Causality versus Duty" (Objectivist, July 1970), and many other passages present such a methodology.

Why is "man's life" the standard of morality rather than happiness? From "Causality versus Duty" we learn that in a rational ethics one's knowledge of causal connections guides one's choice of means to attain a chosen end. In Rand's discussion of teleological measurement we learn that the widest end one can choose serves as the indicator of the standard against which to measure all means and lesser goals. In "What Is Capitalism?" we learn that things are objectively good or bad depending on their causal consequences for human life; these consequences are determined by human nature, which is thus the objective standard. We learn more in "The Objectivist Ethics," which shows it to be the objective standard and discusses just what kind of knowledge of causal relations is included in this standard, man's life qua man.

Human nature can be the standard because humans have objective needs against which other things can be measured on the basis of their causal consequences for those needs. Happiness cannot be the standard by itself—it is an emotional response to the achievement of one's values. But by what standard does one choose those values? Happiness will not guide you there; it can only come later, in response to the success of whatever values you choose. It is Ayn Rand who asked the question, Will you choose values that are consonant with man's needs or that violate them? By themselves, emotions—as reactions to evaluations—cannot tell you what to choose. If they seem to favor guitar playing over writing, it is because you have already made choices, which themselves will enhance or frustrate your life as they are or are not in accord with the standard.

Greenberg perpetrates other misinterpretations—for example, of Rand's point that "life" is the root of "value." In the philosophical struggle between the free society and varieties of statism, such fine points have often decided the issue. (Utilitarianism's inability to give a clear definition of pleasure and happiness, Spencer's failure to see the necessary link between free will and ethics, and Hayek's troublesome characterization of coercion all have made the task easier for the enemies of liberty.)

But beyond raising some interesting issues, Greenberg's book is simply amateur psychology. It speculates about why some of Ayn Rand's admirers exhibit certain psychological or (to Greenberg, at least) annoying traits. Is the book worth reading? Is it fascinating to see someone rediscover the truths of alchemy—as Greenberg rediscovers hedonism and offers it as a moral system? Unless one is desperate for fascination, it would be much more profitable to study the works of serious thinkers.

Paul Beaird is a graduate student in philosophy at California State University at Los Angeles and is a computer scientist.