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Ari Armstrong’s *What’s Wrong with Objectivist Ethics*

Summary:
It usually begins with Ayn Rand, the proverb goes. If so, let’s hope it doesn’t end there. Ari Armstrong recently released What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics. It’s an engaging discussion and critique of Rand’s metaethics and ethics. Armstrong is a sympathetic critic, and takes great care to present Rand’s arguments and views correctly. Nevertheless, he finds her theory is full of big holes each step of the way. For instance, Rand’s metaethical position is supposedly based on induction: She notes that only living things seem to pursue value, and concludes from this that the ultimate aim of every living thing is to preserve its own life. But, Armstrong notes, as an empirical observation, this is easily falsified–in fact, animals and other living things regularly

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It usually begins with Ayn Rand, the proverb goes. If so, let’s hope it doesn’t end there.

Ari Armstrong recently released What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics.

It’s an engaging discussion and critique of Rand’s metaethics and ethics. Armstrong is a sympathetic critic, and takes great care to present Rand’s arguments and views correctly. Nevertheless, he finds her theory is full of big holes each step of the way.

For instance, Rand’s metaethical position is supposedly based on induction: She notes that only living things seem to pursue value, and concludes from this that the ultimate aim of every living thing is to preserve its own life. But, Armstrong notes, as an empirical observation, this is easily falsified–in fact, animals and other living things regularly prioritize, say, reproduction over survival. Humans rationally do make trade-offs between survival and other values. Talking about survival as “man qua man” ends up being Rand’s largely ad hoc way of fudging her argument.

Rand is a strong advocate of individual rights. Yet, as both Mike Huemer and I have pointed out, as an egoist, she can only contingently endorse human rights. An egoist by definition cannot regard other people as ends in themselves and cannot hold that one has non-derivative, non-instrumental duties toward others. Armstrong tries to respond as sympathetically as possible on Rand’s behalf, but in the end, argues that Rand cannot overcome this objection. The problem is not merely–as some have suggested–that Rand isn’t really an egoist (or that she uses the word “egoism” incorrectly). Rather, her metaethical survivalism allows no place for rights.

While Armstrong is a critic, he also sees a great deal of value in Rand’s work. Rand extols the heroism of everyday people, who work with purpose and who do not simply capitulate to others’ values out of fear. She recognizes and defends productivity as a moral virtue. She sees people as actors, not merely as stomachs to be fed.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Rand. Her fans could learn that she is not an infallible god. Many of her critics can learn that the proper way to criticize someone is to first get their views right before criticizing them.

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Author: Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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