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Randian egoism: time to get high

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On the first page of his book, On Ayn Rand, the late Allan Gotthelf writes:

It is high time that academic philosophers accept the responsibility of understanding, thoroughly and with full, professional expertise, this highly original thinker and the scope and content of her often groundbreaking thought.

This seems to me a fairly reasonable demand, but one more often ignored in the breach than in the observance in our profession.

One common breach is the practice, in anthologies intended for philosophy students, of including a critique of Ayn Rand with no corresponding text of hers to read. The pedagogical principle here seems to be: it’s crucial to see Ayn Rand attacked in print, but not that crucial to read what she actually wrote. The more general methodological assumption here seems to be that you don’t need to read an author to be in a position to read and accept a critique of her views. If this seems objectionable when Objectivists attack Kant without reading him, I’m not sure why it’s better when professional philosophers suborn the same tendency in their students and readers. But hey—they’re the “real philosophers”; she isn’t.

So I’m sitting here with the new Oxford University Press Higher Education Group “Books for Courses” catalog in front of me. Let’s go through it and see how the “real philosophers” do things.

Turn to p. 3 of the catalog, and you find Louis Pojman and Lewis Vaughn’s Philosophy: The Quest for Truth whose section VI is devoted to Ethics. Under section VI.B, there are three readings on egoism:

1. Plato, Why Should I Be Moral? Gyges’s Ring and Socrates’ Dilemma

2. Louis P. Pojman, Egoism and Altruism: A Critique of Ayn Rand

3. Joel Feinberg, Psychological Egoism

Why a critique of Ayn Rand but no reading by Ayn Rand?  That doesn’t sound to me like a “quest for truth.” It looks more like a quest for indoctrination.

On p. 6, we get to Lewis Vaughn’s Great Philosophical Arguments: An Introduction to Philosophy. Chapter 6 is on Ethics, and section 21 is “Argument against Ethical Egoism.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Louis P. Pojman, A Critique of Ethical Egoism

Joel Feinberg, Psychological Egoism

Gee, looks familiar. So the cookbook, sorry, I mean textbook formula should be clear at this point. You want to discuss egoism. The aim, of course, is not precisely to discuss but to discredit it. You set the agenda with a classic text designed to discredit it. Which will it be—Glaucon and Adeimantus, or Thomas Hobbes? Either choice sets the agenda in the same way, fixing in the student’s mind the idea that human interests consist of predation driven by quasi- or proto-Malthusian assumptions about scarcity and quasi- or proto-Augustinian assumptions about innate depravity. Having set the “discussion” up in this way, you saddle Ayn Rand with an essentially predatory-narcissistic conception of self-interest, then attack her, and finish by attacking psychological egoism for good measure. Having covered the bases, you’re done: now you’re free to discuss “real” ethics, to be covered by some equally hackneyed formulae.

The absence of real-live Randian texts absolves the textbook reader of the need to ask questions like the following:

1. Why does Socrates accept the challenge of offering an egoistic defense of justice in the Republic? How well does he succeed? Why would he have regarded success on those terms as success in the first place? What is going in Republic IX, and how does it connect with Republic I?

2.  Is predatory egoism the only species of egoism? What other species might there be? Does it even make sense to regard predatory and non-predatory forms of egoism as species of a common genus? If not, what’s the point of calling them both forms of ‘egoism’?

3. To what extent do Rand’s and Hobbes’s egoisms overlap? To what extent don’t they? When you’re done with the preceding inquiry: does it make sense to regard Rand’s egoism as a species or instance of Hobbes’s?

4. What did Ayn Rand say about egoism, anyway?

5. Suppose, purely as a thought-experiment, that Rand was right to think that the interests of rational agents harmonize qua rational. How would the truth of this claim change the nature of the debate about egoism?

A wild and crazy list of questions, I realize, but Ayn Rand was a wild and crazy thinker. If philosophy students aren’t asking these questions while thinking about her ethical views, are they really thinking about those views at all?

Anyway, let’s move now to p. 9 of the catalog. Here we encounter Louis Pojman and James Fieser’s Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition. Section VI is “Moral Philosophy.” Section VI.B is “Morality and Self-Interest.” I guess you could see this coming:

Plato, Gyges’ Ring, or is the Good Good for You?

James Rachels, Ethical Egoism

J.L. Mackie, The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution

Yes, the same old variation on the old formula: classic text, followed by critique of Rand, followed by discussion of psychological egoism.

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And, yes, the Rachels reading is an explicit critique of Rand. Apparently, the introductory philosophy student need not actually read Rand to evaluate the cogency of Rachels’s critique of her. The student need only take for granted that whatever Rachels said about Rand, whether in exposition or critique, must be true. After all, one could hardly expect a selection by Rand in a 704 page paperback containing a critique of Rand, and priced at the bargain-basement price of $89.95. I mean, let’s be reasonable.

Turning to p. 23, we find Steven Cahn’s Exploring Ethics: An Introductory Anthology. Part I consists of “Challenges to Morality,” and reading 9 is James Rachels, “Egoism and Moral Scepticism,” another explicit critique of Rand. No, there is no reading by Rand in this book, either. You wouldn’t want, after all, to take “exploring ethics” too literally. It’s just a title. And you could hardly expect the book to be called, “Going Over Ethics the Same Old Conventional Way It’s Been Done From Time Immemorial, Down to the Same Old Tired Critiques of Ayn Rand We’ve Been Anthologizing Since the 1980s, and the Same Old Procedure of Excluding Her from Debates About Her.” It’s too long, and it wouldn’t sell. I mean, we all have to make some concessions to self-interest, if only when we’re marketing philosophy textbooks.

Could the problem be that Rand’s texts are unavailable for inclusion in anthologies? Well, the same catalog suggests otherwise. Justin McBrayer and Peter Markie’s Introducing Ethics contains a selection by Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness,” followed  (of course) by Rachels’s critique. The fifth edition of Pojman’s The Moral Life: An Introductory Reader in Ethics and Literature has “Ayn Rand, In Defense of Ethical Egoism,” followed, for good measure, by Pojman’s and Rachels’s critiques. I guess the point of the tag-team effort is that it’s one thing to allow Rand to make a pro forma appearance in the book, but you wouldn’t want those impressionable little minds to get the idea that any decent person agrees with her.

While I’m on this subject, I might offer the admittedly far-out observation that Rand wrote on topics in ethics other than egoism—moral judgment, racism, envy—a fact that anthology editors might profitably exploit. Of course, doing so might necessitate commissioning an appropriately large selection of extremely critical essays, followed by explicit directions to the student not to take Rand seriously or believe anything the old psychopath said. But to paraphrase that little kid in “The Sixth Sense”: I see revenue possibilities.

That completes our survey of the OUP catalog. Really professional.

Maybe we should re-write Gotthelf’s demand to make it sound a bit more prosaic, less ardently homiletic, and less hagiographical. How’s this?

It is high time that those academic philosophers who insist on criticizing Rand accept the responsibility of understanding her writings before doing so, and cultivate the same attitude, toward Rand and others, in their students.

Sorry, but I couldn’t resist the “high time” entree.

Is it really such an unreasonable demand, at least phrased in this way? Unlike Gotthelf, I don’t think everyone has to be interested in Ayn Rand. I go through phases when I’m not. I do think that if you insist on critiquing someone, whether Rand or anyone else, you should be sufficiently interested in her writings to pay attention to what she’s actually saying in them. And if you’re modeling the activity of philosophical criticism, you probably shouldn’t be inculcating the habit that it’s legitimate to criticize someone at length without reading what she has to say in her own words. I realize that old habits are hard to break, especially ones that have acquired the luster of professional respectability. I just think it’s worth remembering that there is such a thing as fool’s gold.

Rand opens The Virtue of Selfishness with the notorious claim that, despite its offensiveness to some, she uses the word “selfish” to denote virtuous qualities of conduct “for the reason that makes you afraid of it.” This claim is often misconstrued to mean that Rand wants you to be afraid of egoists and egoism. Actually, she means just the reverse. Her point is: if your reflexive reaction to the word “selfishness” is fear, her book is the antidote to that fear, intended to induce you to confront the reasons behind that fear. If the fear really is entirely reflexive (and in my experience, it often is), the reasons for it will be buried beneath irrational defense mechanisms, and a confrontation with the book’s claims will be a salutary exercise in self-confrontation and self-discovery.

Frankly, that isn’t the way I would have opened a book on egoism, and it isn’t the way I think a book on the subject should begin. You can’t complain about “arguments from intimidation” at the end of a book if you begin the book by suggesting that opposition to your claims is most likely based on self-deception and irrationality.

The Sixth Sense kid seeing dead people rather than revenue possibilities.

The Sixth Sense kid seeing dead people rather than revenue possibilities. Possibly thinking about “selfishness.”

But, still, I see her point. Much of the fear of egoism really is reflexive. The fear wouldn’t be so bad if there were reasons for it. But to qualify as a fear of Randian egoism (not Thrasymachean, not Hobbesian, not Nietzschean…), such fears would somehow have to be rooted in the Randian texts. And that presupposes acquaintance with the texts themselves. I am not saying a priori that there can be no such reasons. I am simply pointing out that if the reasons are there, there should be no reluctance to anthologize Rand’s writings in textbooks that criticize Rand. After all, if we have reason to fear Rand’s views, let’s read them, and be afraid—very afraid. But it makes no sense to refuse to read them and be afraid. Or rather, it makes sense, but it involves an abject sort of intellectual cowardice.

The remedy is relatively obvious. I leave it to you to figure out. But who will tell the textbook editors?




  1. djr says:

    I remember reading one of Rachels’ critiques of Rand (but not any Rand, of course) when I was an undergraduate in an introductory ethics course. But even without reading any Rand, I didn’t find his critique convincing. In the spirit of his treatment of Rand, I won’t bother to go back and re-read his piece now, but what I seem to remember is an argument that egoists like Rand contradict themselves if they argue against altruism on the grounds that altruistic motives often lead us to treat others in ways that are not genuinely good for them. I recall thinking that the obvious response was that (a) arguing against your opponents by showing that their own premises conflict with their conclusions doesn’t commit you to accepting those premises, and (b) even an egoist who reduces his interests in others completely to his own independent self-interest nonetheless might have pretty good reasons to avoid treating others in ways that are not genuinely beneficial for them. At the time, though, I just took Rachels’ critique of egoism as one of a series of ridiculously weak arguments he made.

    You might note, as an exception to the trend you note here, that Russ Schafer-Landau’s anthology Ethical Theory includes Lester Hunt’s “Flourishing Egoism,” which explicitly defends Rand’s egoism. I would think that, whatever one’s ultimate position, Rand or an essay sympathetic to Rand would make great introductory reading to questions about self-interest, rationality, and morality, precisely because it’s hard to read Rand on egoism without concluding that what she is saying is important, even if it’s important because it’s wrong. If philosophers are willing to take Peter Singer seriously, they should be willing to take Rand seriously.

  2. Marsha says:

    Informative examination of what goes on in the textbooks – good evidence supporting the ongoing indoctrination/ideological anathema to Rand.

    Do they ever compare Rand to Aristotle? I noticed that Spark Notes seems to think Aristotle is an ethical egoist:

    A search shows many objectivist writings on such a comparison, and then there’s this, but he may be objectivist-influenced too:

    And the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy at least treats of the subject:

    And Routledge’s Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics discusses the issue at some length:

    Seems a little odd that the philosophy textbooks make no attempt to compare the two.

  3. irfankhawaja says:

    I agree with that, and you’re right that there are exceptions to the rule, like the Lester Hunt piece in Shafer-Landau’s book.

    Your Peter Singer comparison is very apt. Every textbook has Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in it, but no editor has ever found it necessary to explain to anyone the historical or political context of the “civil war” glancingly alluded to in the opening of Singer’s article (and neither does he): “Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million people into destitute refugees…” The place is East Pakistan in 1971. Singer refers to it as “East Bengal.” Evidently, the introductory philosophy student can theorize about a place and an event without knowing such elementary facts as “What is the difference between East Bengal and East Pakistan?” “What is the underlying causal explanation for the ‘constant poverty’ in that place, whatever the name happens to be?” “Is the cyclone a one-off event, or recurrent? Does that complicate anything?” “Does the simultaneous occurrence of a civil war and genocide tend to complicate what we say about this event, or should we just bracket that and discuss the case as though it wasn’t happening?” And so on. Not that these are the fundamental philosophical issues, but it is revealing of the mind-set that students are supposed to discuss an event without any attempt at “contextualization” whatsoever. Try the same thing in your classroom on, say, 9/11.

    Incidentally, the thirteenth edition of Feinberg/Landau’s Reason and Responsibility (an intro philosophy text, 2008) includes Feinberg, Rachels, a bit of Plato, and a bit of Nietzsche, in the “Morality and Its Critics” section, but I know an earlier edition had Rand in it. Anyway, imagine that they’d stuck Rand in there. In what sense, exactly, is Rand a critic of “Morality”? She’s actually rather moralistic, sometimes excessively so. Clearly, a very specific conception of “morality” is being presupposed. Whose? And why?

    I think the underlying issue that has to be dealt with is Rand’s conflicts-of-interest thesis and relatedly, her view that we incorporate the good of (virtuous) others in our own good and pursue both simultaneously as a common good. This conjunction of claims strikes most people as very counter-intuitive, and let’s stipulate that Rand left it under-argued. Still, it should be permissible to try it on for size. It’s amazing to me how many philosophers not only won’t do that, but think it impermissible to allow anyone else to. That’s where I think the argument has to begin.


  4. irfankhawaja says:


    Comparisons of Rand to Aristotle are comparatively rare, but a rare exception is Neera Badhwar’s and Roderick Long’s entry on Ayn Rand in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Incidentally, whether or not Aristotle is an egoist is itself controversial, and the “yes” or “no” answers there raise some of the same issues as the debate over Ayn Rand.

    I think the early Platonic dialogues are more obviously egoistic than Aristotle’s ethics, e.g., the Gorgias. Socrates takes it for granted that virtue must benefit its possessor, then has arguments with sophists who have corrupt conceptions of “benefit.” The Gorgias seems to me the single most pedagogically useful ancient text because it’s so utterly relevant to life in 21st century America. Ayn Rand focused on the pathologies of altruism, but the Gorgias focuses on the pathologies of pathological versions of egoism, something familiar to me as a citizen of the Garden State.

    Two other historical comparisons worth making. Rand’s theory of love and friendship bears similarity to the Stoic theory of oikeiosis, the idea that you make another’s good your own and pursue them (well, it) that way. Also, Spinoza (in his Ethics) was more explicit than Aristotle that the interests of rational agents qua rational don’t conflict: “Man is god to Man,” as he puts it (referring to man qua virtuous, not just anybody at any time). Unfortunately, much of the rest of Spinoza is fairly crazy.

    Thanks for the links, which I’ve looked at but not pursued in detail quite yet.


  5. Marsha says:

    Thanks for the info Irfan. Hah, no wonder the Stanford Encyclopedia even contemplates the topic!

  6. Merlin Jetton says:

    The 2005 edition included a reading Ayn Rand: In Defense of Ethical Egoism, which is at least partly excerpted from John Galt’s speech. I don’t have the book but used the Look Inside feature on Amazon, which shows only about the last 1/3rd of the reading. I suspect you refer to a later edition that does not contain said reading. Regardless, your link goes to the 2005 edition, not a later one. You might want to fix that.

  7. Merlin Jetton says:

    I meant the 2005 edition of Philosophy: The Quest for Truth.

  8. irfankhawaja says:

    Yes, you’re right on both counts. I just clicked the “apply links” function without thinking about that. I’ll get rid of the link.


  9. One common breach is the practice, in anthologies intended for philosophy students, of including a critique of Ayn Rand with no corresponding text of hers to read

    In fairness, I don’t know how hard it is to get permission from the estate to publish Rand selections in an anthology.

  10. irfankhawaja says:

    Well, if it’s that hard, then: either don’t publish a critique of Ayn Rand at all, or if you do, offer some kind of caveat to the effect that the student ought to go out and read her independently, to evaluate the cogency of the critique included in the anthology. I’ve never seen one of the latter, and I’ve looked.

    I’m not sure that it is that hard, however. Some textbooks do include readings by her, and the people associated with Rand’s estate seem pretty eager to have Rand discussed and taken seriously in academia. They may be inclined to reject requests that truncate or edit the original texts, but I myself would be inclined to do the same.

    A non-Rand example: In his Introduction to Philosophy, Pojman actually has the nerve to make random out-of-the-blue changes to classic texts on the grounds that, well, the students won’t understand the original, so it’s OK to change it to something clearer. There’s a reading from Kant on retributivism in that anthology that turns every instance of “serpent windings of eudaemonism” systematically into “serpent windings of utilitarianism” (!). (“Eudaemonism”–spelled that way–is Mary Gregor’s translation in the Cambridge edition of the Metaphysics of Morals.) Pojman’s justification: “Latin words have been deleted where they were provided for comparison with translated words.” Uh, Professor Pojman, could you translate that, while you’re at it?

    Having told us that “Latin words have been deleted,” we then get: “This is the right of retaliation (jus talionis)…” Not very deleted. But to make it more absurd, Pojman himself uses jus talionis in his own introduction to the piece. “In this essay Kant (see biography in Part 2) gives the classic argument for retributivism (jus talionis).” So he introduces the things he tells you that he’s deleting, and deletes the things that are crucial to the text. I mean, you’re prepping for class and thinking: what the hell is this?

    Anyway, this sort of thing is pretty common with textbooks/anthologies, and I wouldn’t criticize the Estate for saying “no” to it, if they do.


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