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Competition over virtue?

While thinking about our recent discussion of “competition” here, it belatedly occurred to me that there’s another (somewhat exotic) kind of competition that hadn’t figured at all into our discussion–what Aristotle describes as competition (or “competition”) for virtue at Nicomachean Ethics IX.8. The good man (or person), Aristotle tells us, assigns himself (herself) the “greater share” in what is noble.  In a sense, then, the virtuous “compete” with one another to become better at virtue. It’s both a profound idea and an odd one. (I’ve often thought it might serve as good material for a Monty Python skit.) The analogy between virtue-competition and other sorts of competition may end up being so attenuated as to make virtue-competition irrelevant to a discussion of the topic, but I throw it out there because it turns out to be a potential counter-example to the idea that competition requires a winner. (Or maybe there is a winner, but there’s no loser.) It’s also relevant to Shawn Klein’s account of the right motive for benign competition–we compete with others at their best to bring out the best in ourselves.

Anyway, the Aristotelian idea of a competition for virtue came up in a response I wrote several years to the commentator (Paul Bloomfield of the University of Connecticut) on my essay, “The Foundations of Ethics: Objectivism and Analytic Philosophy” (published in Allan Gotthelf and James G. Lennox, Meta-Ethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory). I’d anticipated publishing my response in the volume, but the editors decided against including it, so since then I’ve been circulating it privately to people on request. I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone here–reprint the response for easy reference, and call attention to the discussion of competition in the last paragraph. So here it is. (The discussion sort-of presupposes knowledge of the exchange in the book, but for obvious reasons I can’t reprint that here, so…feel free to buy the book!)

Response to Paul Bloomfield

 Irfan Khawaja

Felician College


            Let me begin by thanking the Ayn Rand Society for the opportunity to give my paper, and by thanking Paul Bloomfield for his comments on it. Since I’m about to offer a series of disagreements with Professor Bloomfield, let me begin with a relatively irenic one. Toward the end of his comment, Professor Bloomfield suggests that to a degree he has “not commented on a large measure of” my paper, “and to that degree perhaps apologies are in order.” I don’t think apologies are in order. My paper was a long and sprawling one by any standards, and I’m uncomfortably aware of the fact that its length made the task of commenting on it a difficult one. In any case, I found Professor Bloomfield’s comment helpful and thought-provoking: he raises what strikes me as a series of substantive and important issues that are well worth discussing and perfectly on topic, and I’m happy to have the chance to discuss them.

Professor Bloomfield suggests early on that “there is a rhetorical tendency” in my paper “to portray Objectivism as having some ‘outsider’ status, alienated from the mainstream,” one that he disagrees with, and which he speculates as arising from a problematic sort of romanticism. I think this speculation overlooks the many places in which I identified important lines of affinity between Objectivism and analytic philosophy. After all, to say as I do that Objectivism is “in competition with analytic philosophy on problems that analytic philosophers can recognize as their own” is precisely to deny that Objectivism has outsider status. It’s to say, on the contrary, that Objectivists and analytic philosophers share a common set of problems, and so can profitably discuss them without (necessarily) courting problems of incommensurability at the level of basic vocabulary.

But I would insist that, despite this, there really are respects in which Objectivism differs radically in approach from analytic philosophy, and I would suggest that some of Professor Bloomfield’s puzzlement about my paper reflects this fact.

A crucial and recurring issue concerns Professor Bloomfield’s characterization of the very subject matter of meta-ethics, which he calls “a search for the metaphysics, epistemology, and semantics that makes best sense of our moral discourses and practices” (my emphasis). This seemingly innocuous description actually strikes me as highly problematic; in fact, the logic of the inquiry Professor Bloomfield describes here virtually replicates that of the reflective equilibrium approach to meta-ethics that I described and criticized in my paper. To re-state that criticism in a nutshell: I don’t think an inquiry that starts by giving probative weight to “our moral discourses and practices” can provide a non-question-begging, non-circular justification of ethics.

The preceding issue explains why I accord relatively little weight to the (admittedly genuine) affinities that Professor Bloomfield sees between Objectivism on the one hand and, say, formalism (à la Falk) and/or Greek eudaimonism (à la Aristotle) on the other. Invoking formalism, Professor Bloomfield says that Rand “was not arguing for a concept of morality that was unheard of at the time” she wrote up her views. That’s true, but it’s a very weak claim: I agree that she employed a concept of morality made familiar by the formalists, but I would insist that she was offering a hitherto unheard-of justification of morality. About Aristotle, he asserts that it’s “simply false to suggest that Aristotle did not even try to answer foundational questions regarding moral philosophy.” I agree that he tried, but Rand’s suggestion is that given his reliance on common beliefs (endoxa), he didn’t succeed.metaethics

A second issue concerns realism and moral semantics. Bloomfield finds it puzzling that I omitted any sustained discussion of these topics, but I think his puzzlement presupposes that those topics are more fundamental than the topics I did discuss. And on the Objectivist view, that isn’t so.

            Regarding realism, I follow Geoffrey Sayre-McCord’s suggestion that realism is fundamentally a thesis about (the ontological status of) the truth-conditions of moral propositions.[1] On the Objectivist view, life-conducivity is principally what morality is (and so, moral propositions are) about. So an account of the truth-conditions of moral propositions presupposes an (elaborate) account of the nature, requirements, and essence of human life, far more elaborate than I offered in the paper. Whether this (more elaborate) account ends up being realist (and in what sense) is an extremely complex affair, eminently worth discussing, but not easily mappable onto the menu of theories Professor Bloomfield mentions in his comment.[2] Pace Professor Bloomfield, it’s not easy to see where Rand stands on realism, but for my purposes, it wasn’t necessary, either.

Moral semantics is a matter of how moral terms “hook up” to features of the world. On the Objectivist view, this inquiry presupposes an account of (a) which features of the world are relevant, and (b) the cognitive vehicles by which the mind-world connection takes place. The account of (a) is, again, the (elaborate) account of the conditionality of life just alluded to. The account of (b) is a theory of the concepts underlying moral language, a theory that Rand conceives of as a fundamentally epistemic one into the nature of concept-formation from the perceptual level. I admit that this is a highly controversial view of semantics, but in a way its controversiality underscores my point. Few analytic philosophers, I think, would agree with it, much less adopt it.

           Finally, a word about my description of the “competition” between Objectivism and analytic philosophy. There are two senses of the word “competition,” one benign, one less so. The benign sense, which I intended, is captured by Aristotle’s comment that the virtuous compete over virtue, not to undercut one another, but in a way that permits every party to the competition to achieve his good in and through the competition.[3] The Law of Excluded Middle tells us that two claimants to truth asserting incompatible claims cannot both be right. In that case, the argument that ensues can fairly be regarded as a benign competition over who (or what) is right. It would be a mistake to think that anyone loses out in a competition of that sort. But it would equally be a mistake to forget that, in the end, we need a verdict.



Aristotle. 1999. Nicomachean Ethics 2nd ed., translated, with introduction, notes and glossary by Terence Irwin. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Copp, David. 2001. “Realist Expressivism: A Neglected Option for Moral Realism,” in Moral Knowledge, ed. Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred Miller, and Jeffrey Paul. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1-43.

Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey. 1988. “The Many Moral Realisms,” in Essays on Moral Realism, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1-23.

1.Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, “The Many Moral Realisms” (1988), 1-23, 14-22. I should emphasize that Rand’s Objectivism is not equivalent to what Sayre-McCord describes as “objectivism” (Sayre-McCord 1988, 19-22).

2. In my view, the Objectivist theory is clearly not expressivist or a form of error theory, nor is it a form of Kantian constructivism, cognitive expressivism, or realist expressivism of the sort defended by David Copp, and alluded to by Professor Bloomfield (see David Copp, “Realist Expressivism” [2001]). Nor (despite superficial similarities) is it profitably grouped with response-dependent theories of the sort associated with David Wiggins and John McDowell.  Whether we describe it as “realist” turns on precisely how we characterize the “mind-independence” of the truth-conditions for moral propositions, and possibly, on a theory of truth—both topics beyond the scope of my paper.

3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1999, IX.8 (1169a7). The Greek runs: “hamilomenon pros to kalon,” describing “those who compete with respect to what is noble.”



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