I was randomly reading this essay today and came across an insight that hit me in the face like a (pizza) pie. I don’t know how I never made the connection before. But first, let me give you some context.
In discussing the nature of value, Doug writes,
Though there are some advocates of eudaimonia that take an agent-neutral approach, I don’t think agent-neutrality is the hallmark of the eudaimonist tradition. This is not the basic issue, however. As I implied in my earlier remarks, it has to do with the place of individuality in one’s understanding of human good. Human flourishing is always and necessarily individualized, and this means not only that human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals but also that it only exists in an individualized manner. Though we can speak abstractly of generic goods and virtues and thus note what is common, these goods and virtues do not take on determinacy, reality, or worth apart from the excellent use of practical reason. This does not mean that there must be conflicts between one individual’s good and that of another’s, but it does mean that there can be. But more importantly, it does show that human flourishing is something different for each of us. Here is the pluralist dimension of ethics. (See Norms of Liberty, chapters 6 and 7)
Doug packs a lot into this concise passage, but I think we can draw two morals from it:
1. Agent-neutral value doesn’t exist. How can something be valued if not by an agent? To be valued is to be valued by someone. While there are values that are “generic” and “common,” it makes no sense to talk of things that are really valuable, “apart from the excellent use of practical reason” since “human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals,” and practical reason necessarily only takes place from an individualized level by a single agent that isn’t conceptually capable of taking a “neutral” perspective of the world (we can’t step outside our own perspective*). The very meaning of the term “value” implies a relationship to a thing that can value. So if goods are only valuable insofar as they are valuable to a thing that can value (so far, only humans and perhaps some higher level animals), ethics, or the branch or philosophy that deals with what’s good or choice-worthy, concerns individual agents and their use of reason to determine whats really valuable to them (this is what I mean when I say I’m an ethical egoist).
2. It seems reasonable to call a thing that consistently achieves its values determined using (theoretical) reason and appropriately acts upon them using (practical) reason to be flourishing (or to have achieved the Greek eudaimonia). But while some values (those that are generally involved in theoretical reasoning) are related to the kind of thing you are (the good for a human will be different than the good for a dog will be different than the good for a chair), other values (those that are generally concerned with practical reasoning, which is built off of theoretical reasoning) are related to the particular thing you are (For example my values are partially informed by the fact that I’m someone who likes pizza, is a student, likes reading comics, and all the other specific facts about me that make me who I am). That is, our values and goods are informed both by our nature as the kind of thing we are (human), but also the content of our particularized individual character (dispositions, innate desires, biological traits, etc) and commitments (our contracts, obligations, relationships with others such as family and friends, etc). For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says,
To be sure, there may be occasions when a good person approaches an ethical problem by beginning with the premise that happiness consists in virtuous activity [thanks theoretical wisdom -cm]. But more often what happens is that a concrete goal presents itself as his starting point—helping a friend in need, or supporting a worthwhile civic project. Which specific project we set for ourselves is determined by our character [thanks practical wisdom]. A good person starts from worthwhile concrete ends because his habits and emotional orientation have given him the ability to recognize that such goals are within reach, here and now.
Or as Aristotle puts it, “excellence… is a settled disposition determining choice, involving the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, as the practically wise person would determine it. (emphasis mine)”
This is why Rand’s failure to have a place for practical wisdom in her ethics is so disappointing. Practical wisdom is necessary for the presence of all of the virtues, including the ones she notes, as well as those she ignores or fails to emphasize [Doug is mainly talking about generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity here.-cm]. Indeed, it is indicative of a failure to truly appreciate the importance of individuality for ethical deliberations. I think this comes from an excessive rationalist approach to morality. I [and this is the (pizza) pie in my face. -cm] also think that this is part of the reason for the cultish behavior of many of her followers and some of the foundations devoted to her thought [emphasis mine].
After so much time reading Rand and interacting with Objectivists of all sorts of stripes, Doug’s explanation for that tendency makes a lot of sense to me. Rand didn’t seem to distinguish between theoretical and practical rationality, which proves to be a crucial mistake later down the line. Without a good sense of the individualized nature of eudaimonia and the crucial role that practical rationality plays in achieving one’s values, its easy to start assigning one’s own purely individual, unique preferences objective moral weight.
Clearly Rand and her followers, to varying different degrees in different kinds of ways, are guilty of this rationalism and preference for one’s…preferences. While you can’t step outside your own agent-relative perspective to the world, we can see the difference between a morality that respects the irreducibly individualized nature of one human being’s eudaimonia and a morality that treats humans as generally the same in terms of their values and goals. But the fact that one uses their own practical reason to determine their truly subjective and unique values in life (ones that are partly contingent on and take into account one’s individualized character and commitments), means that when others use their practical reason, which references their subjective character and commitments, they will naturally come to different values and goals. The values that leads to one’s flourishing are contingent upon two things:
1. The essential characteristics of the kind of thing we are (human being) and the conceptual implications of being that thing determined through theoretical reasoning.
2. The individual characteristics of the kind of thing we are (specific roles like father, debtor, doctor, pilot, student, which inform our responsibilities, commitments, and goals) and the practical implications of being that thing determined through practical reasoning.
The former is something we can’t choose. The latter is. If we confuse cases of the latter for the former, morality can be used as an excuse to justify one’s own desires and preferences by passing them along as objective and rational, while also convincing others they ought to pursue those desires and have those preferences instead of the ones that can be determined by their own practical reason in the context of their own life and their own individual existence. And the more that someone’s subjective desires and preferences are commonly viewed as the acceptable or appropriate standard even when there is no clear derivation of those principles from basic moral premises, the more that that person is treated as special, flawless, or more knowing than others. We are in dangerous territory. For Rand’s popularity to grow and the philosophy of rational egoism to gain momentum, this kind of moralizing should be avoided like the anti-mind, anti-life, collectivist ethical rationalization it is.
Doug concludes, “but I think that the omission of practical wisdom is a fundamental flaw because it undermines her ethical individualism.” As first and foremost individualists, we must remember the importance that practical reason plays in determining one’s own good and be very careful to not drift into the waters of agent-neutral value. Or as Robert Nozick (far from an egoist, but his point is all too relevant) puts it,
Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?
Acknowledging that everyone is who they are not someone else (A is A!) requires acknowledging the existence of specific, subjective characteristics about each person, the context they are in, and the “golden mean relative” to them. People are very special, and hence each of their paths to eudaimonia will be special and particularized. Ironically, Objectivism (or at least an Aristotelian reading of Ayn Rand) implies a very subjective content of morality, despite correctly acknowledging the existence of objective reasons to act.
*It may very well be good to strive towards a somewhat neutral perspective in decision making in an effort to cultivate virtues such as fairness and justice, which are constitutive of a rational agent’s good, however, the reason to strive towards a neutral perspective is not because that perspective is fully possible or an end in itself, it’s valuable insofar as it advances your own agent-relative value.