Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Art of Reclaiming a Word: Ayn Rand and Deirdre McCloskey

Ayn Rand; Deirdre McCloskey
In her moral theory, Ayn Rand aspires to reclaim the word “selfishness.” In her economic theory, Deirdre N. McCloskey aspires to reclaim the word “bourgeois.” But there is a significant difference in the method adopted by the two thinkers for reclaiming the word of their choice.

Rand’s case for the word “selfishness” is contained in a few short essays in her only book on ethical theory The Virtue of Selfishness. But these essays do not hold up very well because many of her assertions are not backed by evidence. She does not acquaint the readers with the background of the problem: How did the concept of selfishness originate? How did the wrong meaning got attributed to this word?

Rand does not consider the actual arguments of the other thinkers who have philosophized on the concept of selfishness. Did she believe that she was the first thinker in history to regard selfishness as a virtue? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I know is that the idea of selfishness being a virtue has been expressed by several thinkers before Rand.

One of these thinkers is Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733)—in his famous work The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits, he has challenged the traditional ideas of morality and religion. He argues that happiness and progress are possible only when men are left free to pursue their material self interest. But there is no mention of Mandeville in Rand’s book. I am not saying that Mandeville’s conception of selfishness is same as that of Rand, but he was writing in the 18th century and for his time he was a very original thinker on this subject.

By neglecting the philosophical evolution of the word “selfishness,” and confining her thesis to merely lambasting the traditional conceptions of morality and religion, Rand has created a rather weak system of morality. Her thesis on selfishness being a virtue is not convincing.

In contrast to Rand, Deirdre McCloskey offers an engrossing thesis on the word “bourgeois.” She has written three books (combined length of around 2000 pages): The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of CommerceBourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern WorldBourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World.

McCloskey talks about the way in which the philosophers and theologians have vilified the markets for almost two millennium, and the scornful manner in which the intellectuals, artists, and politicians have treated the bourgeois class in the last 150 years. She offers arguments to prove that the arguments against the markets and the bourgeois class are wrong, and shows that the bourgeoisie is a noble class, that it is the chief repository of the virtues instilled by commercial life, and that there is a strong correlation between bourgeois virtue and laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand’s case for reclaiming the word “selfishness” is not strong because she is unable to offer convincing philosophical arguments. McCloskey has done a far better job in making a case for reclaiming the word “bourgeois.”

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