Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Tibor R. Machan on The Moral Vision of Ayn Rand

Tibor R. Machan
The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand
Edited by: Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen 
University of Illinois Press, 1984

For those who are interested Ayn Rand’s ideas, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand is a must-read. This well organized book contains 10 essays which cover Rand’s premises in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. I find the book intellectually stimulating because along with explaining Rand’s arguments it also conducts a meticulous scholarly critique of her ideas.

In this article, I am looking at the book’s 10th chapter, “Reason, Individualism, and Capitalism: The Moral Vision of Ayn Rand,” by Tibor R. Machan. A follower of Rand for many decades, Machan was convinced that Rand’s ideas are vital for mankind, but he never lost sight of his critical task as a philosopher and he offers a completely objective discussion of her philosophy.

His essay has a threefold agenda: first, to investigate the philosophical weaknesses in capitalism which Rand has tried to address in her ethical theories; second, to answer the critics of her ideas; and third, to explain her moral vision for capitalism.

In the beginning of the article, he says that Rand’s literature and philosophy provide “a philosophical foundation for a rational moral and political system and a vision of human life lived in accordance with such a system, superior to all other systems.”

Capitalism lacks a system of philosophical ethics and it is mainly regarded as an economic system, even though, as Machan points out, “capitalism is quite attentive to values, for it fosters personal responsibility and excludes force from human relationships.”

The contemporary intellectuals address the lack of ethical base in capitalism in two ways: some intellectuals advocate religious ethical traditions, while others argue that culture rests on human drives, vested interests, and economic, psychological, or social instincts. Both categories of intellectuals make compromises between liberty and slavery, and are spiritual or welfare statists.

Machan says that Adam Smith has observed that “modern philosophy is defective, and the defect to which he pointed suggests that a better philosophical approach to morality would be supportive of the free society.” Rand’s ethical theory offers a solution for this defect in modern philosophy.

Thinkers like Michael Novak have criticized Rand’s ethics because they believe that to ask humans to seek their own flourishing is insufficient inspiration and is, thus, socially and politically self-destructive. But Machan argues that “Rand’s ethical theory… enables each of us to construct our own personal—but always human—ideal; and her philosophical inquiry demonstrates that that is everything there can and should be to a moral vision.”

Rand’s ethics, Machan says, does not aim at making mankind perfect; rather, it promises the possibility of self-perfection—in context of his existence an individual has the chance of being the best person. “This requires, however, that humans undertake the supreme moral effort to think conscientiously and to live by the judgement of such conscientious thought—and nothing else.”

At first sight Rand appears to be reducing all human relationships to exchange value. For instance, John Galt, in his speech, says: “We who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the unearned.” But Machan points out that Rand’s trader image of man is not purely materialistic.

“For Rand emphasis is on the terms of human relationships, not on their motivation or the alleged economic impetus for all human conduct. A rational egoist is not a utility maximizer, a calculating hedonist, but an individual who acts on principle, by reference to a code of values that is not reducible to, but merely subsumes (within a certain social domain), market values.”

Machan defends Rand’s view that in the marketplace where people know very little of each there, the exchange value may be the best way of measuring personal worth. He points out that in societies where free trade is banned people loose the ability of measuring personal worth and they start regarding with suspicion and hostility. “To fantasize about a closer relationship is to build utopian dreams that are the stuff of fairy tales, not of political philosophy.”

Towards the end of the essay Machan comments on the intellectual community’s failure to recognize Rand as an advocate of the philosophical and ethical base of a free society. “Although her novels have been bestsellers since their original publication, intellectuals have merely alluded to her ideas in asides.” 

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