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Monday, February 11, 2019

Eric Mack’s Rescue Operation for Ayn Rand’s Ethics

Ayn Rand
Today I read Eric Mack's essay, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” (The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies; Vol 5; No. 1; Fall 2003; Page 1–66), which, the author declares, is a rescue mission to save Ayn Rand’s deep ethical insights from her own awful line-by-line arguments.

Mack approaches Rand’s ethics through Craig Biddle’s book Loving Life: The Morality of Self-interest and the Facts that Support It, which is a primer on Rand’s ethics. While conducting a critical analysis of Biddle's presentation of Rand's arguments, Mack conducts a critical analysis of Rand’s own writings in ethics.

That Mack is inspired by Rand’s ethics is beyond doubt—why would he launch a rescue operation if he wasn’t? He writes:

“I think that Rand has offered us some very deep ethical insights, e.g., about the essential relationship between valuing and the human good and about the relationship of affirming the ultimate separate value of each individual's good and affirming each individual's possession of moral rights. Beyond that, Rand is simply without peer as an insightful, powerful and heroic ethical crusader on behalf of individualism, individual freedom, and a free social and economic order.”

But in the lines that follow, Mack notes that Rand’s arguments are awful:

“Unfortunately, I also think that line-by-line many of Rand's ethical arguments are just awful. It is not merely that she does not bother with fine distinctions and academic niceties. Rather, her arguments all too often consist of gross misrepresentations of her opponents's views, conflations of importantly distinct doctrines, crucial equivocations, and massive beggings of the questions at hand. And the awfulness of these arguments is compounded by the arrogance, contempt, and hostility with which they are usually expressed.”

He takes Rand to task for her tirades against historical philosophers, chiefly David Hume and Immanuel Kant. “One of the major defects in Ranďs ethical expositions is antecedent to her arguments per se. It consists in her frequent misdescription of the targets of her criticism and her conflation of distinct philosophical stances under a single label.”

On Biddle’s remark on Hume, Mack says:

“Biddle's remark reveals colossal ignorance about a man [Hume] who, e.g., articulated a powerful theory about the rationality of compliance with principles of justice and who, throughout his life, strove to advance a secular, religion-free defense of commercial society. Biddle's linkage of Hume to Hider replicates the lowest moments of Randian rhetoric.”

On Biddle’s remark on Kant, Mack says:

“Rand condemned Kant; so Biddle feels that somewhere he must also do so. He does this by declaring Kant to have been the "father"of "social subjectivism" which, in the relevant paragraph, is characterized as "the notion that truth and morality are the creations of the mind of a collective (a group of people)—or matters of social convention.” Now there is a sense in which the mind, as reason, does have primacy in Kantian metaphysics and ethics. But this primacy of mind as reason is a long way from the subjectivism that Biddle has targeted—in which the notion of arbitrary, nonrational will is paramount. Whatever the ultimate philosophical errors of Kant, it is a canard to accuse him of advocating the primacy of arbitrary will in metaphysics or ethics.”

Mack goes on to note three interconnected features in Rand’s writing:

“The first is enormous ignorance about the actual views of the thinkers discussed—especially the views of those on Ranďs philosophical enemies list The second is an inclination to conflate into one strawman many distinct views, so that these views can all be tarred with the same broad brush. The third is a tendency to cast all opposing views in their most unfavorable light—as views that only an idiot or moral monster would advocate.”

The problem, according to Mack, is that Rand exercises such power on the mind of her followers that they cannot conceive of making any corrections and improvements in her arguments. The mere thought that Rand can be wrong on anything is an anathema to her followers, who continue to use her awful arguments in their own writing. There is, however, much more in Mack’s essay than what I can say in this article. 

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