Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


3. Happiness as Moral Purpose, Cont'd.

Rand makes no allowance for a moral sense other than that which comes via reason.

But why such a simplistic alternative? Why must moral instinct be opposed to reason? Why cannot reason be a supplement to instinct? Certainly, Jefferson would see it as an unreliable supplement, and that a professor following only reason is likely to be "led astray by artificial rules," whereas a ploughman might instinctively do as well or better. Indeed, Jefferson saw brain-based morality as possibly in opposition to a genuine moral sense.

In fact, Jefferson sees instinctual morality as a part of the design of Nature and evidence of that design.

Suggesting that the only moral values worthy of the name are those determined rationally is contrary to every-day observation. Relying solely on reason can result in a "Dr. Strangelove" kind of thinking, without any humane or natural center, governed by a studied, artificial, abstract ideology. Nevertheless, Rand says,

Of course, the ultimate standard of ethics is man's survival as fully man! But here again, this is saying nothing until one specifies what that phrase really means. Till then, it is hardly more than saying man=man. When Rand writes,

she apparently specifies what this standard means, but does she? "The terms, methods, conditions and goals" are unspecific generalities that define nothing. What are they? Who decides? To use a series of non-specific terms to define one non-specific phrase tells us little.

As we have seen, man's survival as man cannot be understood in isolation apart from other men, since all our destinies are tied together. Any philosophy that considers only the individual's happiness apart from social considerations is only a partial philosophy, unworthy of the name of philosophy. But Rand, in effect, denies the existence of man's social nature.

If man's moral purpose does not encompass his indispensable interrelationship with others, then his philosophy provides no necessary support for his not sacrificing others to himself. Forbidding that becomes mere dicta if it is not founded in philosophic necessity. Why should he not sacrifice others to himself if his own happiness is his only guide? Just because he believes that every man is an end in himself? That belief becomes mere dogma if the equal rights of others is not a necessary part of his own existence. And if it is not, why should he heed some sentimental admonition to respect the rights of others? And if it is, then the extent to which he is concerned with the welfare of others becomes a consideration in his own welfare. Indeed, when government is properly conceived, it acts for the general welfare of all.

Thus it appears that personal happiness that does not include a consideration of others as, taken a moral principle, is a formula for alienating an individual from the world in which he lives. Many individuals readily adopt such a "self-only" principle because it reinforces an anti-social inclination they already feel, i.e., a tendency merely to use others for whatever they can get out of them. Such a principle can be phrased in terms that are laudatory, especially if it includes the idea of not being used oneself, for in truth, no human being was put on this earth to serve the ends of any other.

And a person's first obligation is surely to himself.

This, however, is a principle of equal rights and liberty, not a justification for social irresponsibility. When a disregard of others is pursued, as it often is in real life, the result is not something noble as portrayed by Rand in her novels, but something destructive, as seen in the pages of our newspapers. When people are led only by their own interests to seek their own ends, they invariably take what they can and run rough-shod over the rights of others. Indeed, the tendency in man is to distort every right and power he can to further his own interests.

This we see all too often in the behavior of children who try to do whatever they can get away with. Having a philosophy that justifies such behavior no doubt serves a useful end for such grown-up children. But to serve only his own interests is hardly a moral principle for man. Indeed, it is more often an immoral principle as it seeks gain by whatever means it may. To make self-interest a moral principle can be a self-deluding path to corruption. We act as moral agents when we deal rightly with the other members of society for the mutual benefit of all, not when we focus on our own interests and concerns in disregard of our responsibilities to others.

"Self-interest" could properly be defined as the essence of Ethics, which Rand does. But it would need to be understood in such breadth and depth that it would cancel out the whole principle of selfishness, which Rand does not. Thus we find again, that it is a simplistic idea to define ethics as self-interest. Philosophically, it is to say nothing if the broader context of self is left undefined. The task of philosophy consists in determining wherein lies one's self-interest, and the extent to which participation in society and fulfilling the duties and responsibilities owed to others is actually in our own self-interest.

Rand describes the ideal social relations as follows:

This contains a certain appeal to justice and fairness in it as we think of two individuals both interested in exchanging value for value, each wanting something else and willing to give up something of their own for it. On paper, it can have a kind of symmetrical beauty to it. But anyone who has lived through even the brief span of childhood knows that is pure fantasy. The Trader sets out naturally to get the better of the other person to the trade. Without law and regulation, every trade tends to become, not a respect for human beings, but an attempt to cheat the other. As Jefferson noted with respect to human nature in government,

Moreover, the trader is concerned only with exchange, not with the person. It is, in truth, the ultimate relationship of alienation, with the minimum of contact between human beings as human beings. When the Trader is the basic relationship, economic gain replaces benevolence, concern and respect. This idealization of the Trader may work nicely on paper, in the novelist's imaginary world of contrived relationships, but in the real world, as even a child knows, it is always caveat emptor.

One of the purposes of government is, as much as possible, to protect the people from "The Trader." When morality thinks only in terms of individual happiness (translation: personal gain), and when society is so organized as to foster that principle, the glue that holds society together is undone, and each individual functions as if he were alone in this world. The Trader becomes, not the symbol of the honest exchange, but the spectre of exploitation, the person on the make.

This nation was founded on the principle that "All men are created equal," which, as a moral principle, acknowledges individual rights, but it also includes an acknowledgment by the individual of the same rights in every other member of society. Moreover, these individual rights are guaranteed, not to each individual separately, but to the whole people, because these rights cannot be secured except on a mass basis. The whole point of the first part of the Declaration of Independence was to show that these inalienable rights were the foundation of rightful government. In composing the Declaration, Jefferson began with the basic rights of human nature, and declared, "to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men..." Man may, by nature, be entitled to his inalienable rights, but that is merely an empty promise unless there exists a government that will secure those rights for "all men," jointly and severally. Or, as Jefferson copied into his Commonplace Book from Montesquieu,

Man's inalienable rights are inherent, but when he comes together in society, those rights can be secured only under the protection of the laws of rightful government. The Declaration uses plural forms, not singular ones, because man enjoys his rights en masse or not at all.

NEXT ESSAY 4. Selfishness as Virtue

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Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy

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