Ayn Rand can be characterized as a virtue ethicist. Rand claimed her virtue theory was inspired by Aristotle. Ayn Rand reinterpreted Aristotle’s eudaimonic virtue theory within the lens of rational egoism. Rand explained her virtue theory as selfish and she had in mind an enlightened selfishness. So let’s consider Rand’s selfish virtue theory.
Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy is called Objectivism. She said her philosophy Objectivism asserts the importance of human rationality and affirms objective reality. Rand highly valued the preservation of an individual’s existence both physically and rationally. She said she would’ve called her philosophy Existentialism because of her concern with existence but the name was already taken. In the area of ethics, Objectivist virtue includes rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness, and pride. These virtues might fit well with enlightened egoism if one defines justice outside its normal definition in mainstream philosophy since acting justly for egoistic reasons seems to defy the normal definition of justice which means treating everyone equally and fairly. One wonders if productiveness is a virtue since it requires a lot of externals outside of one’s control. Virtues aren’t supposed to extend outside of one’s control for the Stoics, they be entirely in one’s control. In regard to productiveness, Rand seems to have in mind an artist or businessperson making goals and completing them. Unfortunately it can be difficult for everyone to have the virtue of productiveness. Some people with disability will find it difficult meeting tasks that Ayn Rand believes would be productiveness. With productiveness being a virtue, one can easily understand why some individuals are attracted to her philosophy. Productiveness might appeal to people who believe welfare recipients are lazy and “milking” the system to their own personal advantage. Also since Rand made it clear that her egoism is categorically opposed to altruism, then feeling sympathy for people who are in need is a feeling that should be expunged. Ayn Rand suggests that one should never live for another but only for oneself and another should only live for themselves and not for another.
Living for oneself sounds alluring. Wouldn’t one want to be their own person, taking control of one’s life, and not allowing other people to determine one’s fate? Unfortunately living only for oneself is incomplete. Objectivism is incomplete because sometimes a person must sacrifice one’s time for another. Sometimes a person must sacrifice a great deal of their time and even live for others. Sure, it’s reasonable to want time to oneself and to have one’s own projects. But don’t we care about others? Don’t we wish to help advance other people’s lives or projects just as well as ours? Never living for another but only living for oneself as a categorical principle is simply uncaring of others’ needs and experiences. Selfishness as a virtue, even if enlightened, doesn’t agree with people’s commonsense notions of what a highly virtuous act would look like. Many find it virtuous for a soldier to sacrifice their life to save the lives of fellow soldiers. That kind of virtue is not consistent with enlightened egoism. How about someone who gives up all their belongings to 20 people who absolutely need the belongings? Many of us could not conceive of ourselves acting so charitably but it would be an act of virtue. It would not be a virtue concordant with Objectivism.
Ayn Rand was once asked if one should save a drowning person and she replied affirmatively. But Rand’s own ethics undermine her reply. Living for only oneself means that one should never sacrifice oneself for another. Clearly, by Rand’s philosophy, one shouldn’t save a person drowning if the danger to oneself is too great. It’s because following Rand’s ethical advice means if saving someone’s life is a threat to one’s own, then one shouldn’t bother.
The Stoic virtues wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage are concerned with acting in one’s own interest and the interests of others. Sometimes doing good will require a person to give up a significant amount of time to her own interests. Helping others doesn’t mean the helper becomes a doormat. It’s important to stand up for oneself and one’s interests and principles. Acting courageous doesn’t mean a person should act selfish without fear of consequence. Acting courageous is doing what’s good for everyone and oneself despite the fear one might feel while doing so. It’s often a Stoic duty to help others when their needs outweigh one’s own needs. Being Stoic doesn’t mean always having to give up one’s life for others needs but it does mean giving up some private time. Ancient Stoics believed in philanthropy, which means love of humanity. Remember what the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius said:
For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away (Meditations II, 1).
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