Doug Rasmussen on Particularized Eudaimonia and Ayn Rand

Doug Rasmussen on Particularized Eudaimonia and Ayn Rand

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)”

Doug continues,

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.

We are all Randian Mutualists Now

Take a look at these quotes:

“In the social order reciprocity is the formula of justice. Reciprocity is defined in the maxim: Do as you would be done by. Or translated into the language of political economy: Exchange products for products, buy your products mutually from one another. Social science means simply the organisation of mutual relations.”

“The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange—an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment.”

It seems to me that these thinkers are on roughly the same page and both share a relatively common intuition about what justice is. They view human relationships as just in so far as each participant of an exchange receives what they deserve. These thinkers build their entire economic, social, and political frameworks around this principle of equal trade or reciprocity. However, despite agreeing on as fundamental a concept as justice, they each come to radically different conclusions in their economic, social, and political ideals.

The author of the first quote is the founder of Mutualism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The author of the second quote is the founder of Objectivism, Ayn Rand. Perhaps the only thing they have in common is this Aristotelian conception of justice. For Aristotle, you have universal justice, which is the moral state of a fair person, and you have particular justice, which is the application of our conceptions of just relations to divisible goods like money, safety, honor, and the like. Justice in this latter sense is specifically a social virtue. It exists solely because there exists a society where people interact with each other. Justice is meant to guide people’s relationships with others.

Furthermore, Aristotle distinguishes between distributive justice, or the distribution of goods (in the broad sense of not just money, but safety, honor, etc) among individuals according to merit, and rectificatory justice, which is concerned with correcting unjust distributions of those goods in society. Rand and Proudhon both have a polar opposite analysis of what the just distribution of goods in society ought to be (Rand viewed “big business as the persecuted minority” while Proudhon wanted to emancipate “the working class”). Strangely enough they share very similar means to what they believe is the just distribution of goods in society. They both want a shift from a society that relies on government and authority to one that relies on voluntary cooperation and individual fairness. Elaborating on his principle and its application here is Proudhon in a very Randian tone:

“Liberty then, nothing more, nothing less. Laissez faire, laissez passer, in the broadest and most literal sense; consequently property, as it rises legitimately from this freedom, is my principle. No other solidarity between citizens than that which rises accidentally from force majeur: for all that which relates to free acts, and manifestations of reflective thought, complete and absolute insolidarity.”

Seeing that Rand and Proudhon share conceptions of justice, though maybe not the exact application of that conception, it’s not too surprising to see that Rand and Proudhon have very reconcilable foundations for property and possession.

First, we have to note that these thinkers are among the hardest to understand and consistently interpret in libertarian history. If people weren’t already using terms in wildly different ways enough of the time, these thinkers were writing in very different eras (almost 1o0 years apart) and even liked to use terms slightly differently than other people of their time did.

Here is Proudhon explaining his theory of property in a way that perhaps sheds light on the oft repeated Proudhon quote, “Property is theft!” and points out that it is hardly the devastating critique that social anarchists want it to be against market anarchists:

“There are different kinds of property: 1. Property pure and simple, the dominant and seigniorial power over a thing; or, as they term it, NAKED PROPERTY. 2. POSSESSION… The tenant, the farmer, the commandite’, the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who lets and lends for use, the heir who is to come into possession on the death of a usufructuary, are proprietors… This double definition of property — domain and possession — is of the highest importance; and it must be clearly understood, in order to comprehend what is to follow. This distinction between the jus in re and the jus ad rem is the basis of the famous distinction between possessoire and petitoire,– actual categories of jurisprudence, the whole of which is included within their vast boundaries. Petitoire refers to every thing relating to property; possessoire to that relating to possession.”

Here, Proudhon uses “property” to refer to merely legal recognitions. He is talking about what the state legal system calls property or “domain.” But as a radical libertarian, Proudhon viewed the state as having no legitimate claim over the things of others, therefore, he was rightfully opposed to much of what was called property in his day. Just as Rand was against much of what was considered property in her day. She was against coercive taxation and instead favored a voluntarily funded government so she was against all the “property” the government claimed to own…just like Proudhon (he also considered lots of the property “owned” by capitalists as illegitimate because of economical analysis that Rand didn’t share and she considered a lot of the property “owned” by the lower classes as illegitimate because of economical analysis that Proudhon didn’t share — again another commonality on principles but divergence in application and analysis of economics and history).

Proudhon then ventured to explain what actually counted as “ownership” and for him that wasn’t property, as for him that term referred to false, unjust “state ownership.” Instead, his explanation for just ownership was rooted in an occupancy-and-use standard, “domain and possession…” It’s not that you first appropriated something that gives you ownership, it’s your just acquisition (which could be first appropriation, but also through gifts and contractual exchanges) of something and your possession of that thing.

Of course this begs the question (just as any “property theory,” for lack of a better term, does) of what counts as just possession? A Rothbardian would say “mixing your labor with something or acquiring it through gift or contractual exchange, of course.” But is this really the only requirement? Suppose someone “mixed their labor” with a plot of land 20 years ago and hadn’t used it since and someone walking through the woods sees it and decides to use it to set up camp as it was the only land around with the resources to live? Is the camper violating the property rights of the first mixer? Or is there another requirement for retaining ownership over an object as such? Is this standard of just external property really consistent self-ownership fully understood? No Rothbardian would seriously argue that merely “mixing your labor” with a plot of land one night 20 years in the past gives you a just property right over that plot today if another person started mixing their labor with that land and incorporating it into their projects.

Similarly, to take an example from Robert Nozick, what if you spilled a can of tomato juice into the ocean and the juice particles mix with and percolate out to the entire ocean? Do you own the ocean? The point of this question is to figure out just what we mean when we say “mixing your labor” with an object. The juice can in the ocean could hardly count as mixing your labor with the whole ocean and no Rothbardian would, rightfully so, consider that a legitimate form of property acquisition.

On the other side of the coin, the notion that if you leave your house to walk down the street and buy some milk, that someone can justifiably come into your house and claim ownership on the grounds that they are “occupying and using it” is rightfully not supported by any Mutualists.

I believe there is a false dichotomy between the Mutualist conceptions of property and the Anarcho-capitalist conceptions of property. If you take both ideology’s foundational principles far enough, you will find some position on a a conflict that is just nuts to embrace (like any of the above three). I think they are a different in degree (here, they disagree on what counts as “reasonable abandonment time”), but not in kind. If you scratch a Mutualist hard enough, they will cede their strict “occupancy – and – use” standard in favor of a more reasonable norm to be settled on locally and democratically. If you scratch an Ancap hard enough, they will cede their strict “labor-mixing” standard in favor of a more reasonable norm to be settled on by private defense companies and contracts.

So what do we make of this false dichotomy between “occupancy-and-use” and “Rothbardian-Lockean” property rights theories? I could preface my analysis with “like the mind-body dichotomy…” like Rand did whenever she was talking about a false dichotomy (which she was doing a lot as she liked to uncover them and offer a third way), even if the only similarity is that both were a false dichotomy, but I’ll save that analogy for another post. Instead I’m just going to offer a third way in the Randian, Proudhonian tradition.

I think that third way is ultimately a reconciliation of Mutaulist and Ancap conceptions of property and at the same time draws heavily on Rand’s theory of property. Rand writes,

“A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)”

Rand thinks there is fundamentally only the right to life (makes sense considering she usually argues life is the end of action and our purpose on this planet), and from this, all other rights, including the right to property, follows. This is a distinctively anti-Rothbardian meta-ethical view. Where Rothbard says all rights, including our right to life, are ultimately applications of our property rights, Rand says the reverse, that all rights, including our right to property, are ultimately applications of our right to life. (Again, this may be more of a difference in terminology as Rand liked to use terms slightly wonkishly since her “right to life” could be read as “self-ownership,” which is the fundamental and axiomatic right according to Rothbard — in this sense they are closer to agreement than it sounds).

Regardless of what is the most fundamental right, life or property, for Rand we have the right to both and they hard to distinguish. After all, “Man has to work and produce in order to support his life. He has to support his life by his own effort and by the guidance of his own mind. If he cannot dispose of the product of his effort, he cannot dispose of his effort; if he cannot dispose of his effort, he cannot dispose of his life.” Rand thinks the right to property, the right to appropriate ownership over another object is an extension of our right to pursue our own life and happiness. (It’s worth nothing that I see no reason Proudhon would quibble with Rand’ usage of “property” as that which man uses to “support his own life,” other than semantic or rhetorical reasons).

What does this mean in practice? Well, Rand also says, “The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action.” So for her, all rights, including rights to property, are legitimate only insofar as they are maintained by life-serving action. But this begs the question of what counts as “life-serving”? (Again, Rand is difficult to parse out in regards to whether she thinks our ultimate end is mere “life” or full-on “happiness” as in “man qua man” or the Greek eudaimonia).

While Rand has ideas about life-serving values (reason, purpose, and self-esteem), she thinks that man must ultimately act on his own judgement and that rational egoism requires treating others as ends in themselves rather than mere means. So to impose her “objective” values on others would be contrary to either’s interests. This means she thinks “rights” are all variations on our freedom of action as an extension of our freedom to pursue life and happiness. And if rights, even property rights, are exercised through freedom of action, then property applies not to what we merely “occupy and use” nor to merely what we “mix our labor with,” but rather, to what we “incorporate into our ongoing projects” as Roderick Long has proposed:

“…if I own my self [which is defensible and arguably implied by the “Golden Rule” standard of Proudhon and Rand. -cm], then I must own the particles of which my body is composed; thus the means by which I acquired those particles (most of which were acquired post-birth) must be a legitimate means of acquiring internal property. Labour-mixing is an analogous means of acquiring external property; in both cases I transform external material in such a way as to make it an instrument of my ongoing purposes.”

Mere “labor-mixing” may not meet the requirements for justice for reasons stated above, but when it’s accompanied by the incorporation of whatever you’re mixing your labor with into your ongoing projects, we have something else. Where Roderick writes “ongoing purposes,” Rand would write “life and happiness.” The specific content of “ongoing purposes” for a given case can be determined through the mutual adjustment of the concepts aggression and self-ownership in either logical deduction or conversation, but this defense better gets at the principle I think Proudhon and Rand both aimed to apply.

Thus, this subtly Randian solution avoids the pitfalls of arbitrary and extreme standards, like occ-and-use and Lockean homesteading, since it incorporates the intuitive value and moral requirement of some kind of “labor-mixing” and “owning the fruits of one’s labor” (and also a generally libertarian theory of contracts and property acquisition) but also acknowledges the intuitive value and moral requirement that in some sense, that to be just, “labor-mixing” must be part of an ongoing project that you undertake, even it is just living peacefully. The plot of land is, in no way, still part of the ongoing projects of the original labor mixer, nor used in their pursuit of life and happiness. Merely spilling juice into the ocean cannot be reasonably said to count as project or life incorporation even if it can be said to be the mixing of labor. And while the milk buyer may be said to not have been “occupying” or “using” his home for the time he was away, his home was still certainly part of his “ongoing projects’ and “pursuit of happiness.”

The Long-ian conception is more fundamentally Randian and more fundamentally Proudhonian than either of their respective conclusions about economic systems. It’s also both more capitalist than Proudhon would have wanted and more Mutualist than Rand would have wanted. It clarifies both the requirements of Proudhon’s “possession” and the limits of Locke’s “labor mixing” and it all works because it is a better expression of the Aristotelian justice that Rand and Proudhon both talk about.

The “Golden Rule” or “principle of Reciprocity” or the “Trader Principle” all rely on the same notion of equality of moral worth and what makes for just human relationships. In my view Rand and Proudhon both go astray in their political, economic, and social conclusions at various times, but the Randian ethical justification for property (and her broader theory of justice) is much more Mutualist than she probably would have liked, and Proudhon’s theory of justice is much more Objectivist than he probably would have liked. This shows that you can, with some work, possibly draw out a more Proudhonian, Mutualist social system from Randian ethical premises and it also shows you can draw out a Randian, Capitalist social system from Proudhonian ethical premises; the difference might lie in mere economic and historical analysis.

I would like to close with this quote:

“A Social System Based on Equal Freedom, Reciprocity, and the Sovereignty of the Individual Over Himself, His Affairs, and His Products; Realized Through Individual Initiative, Free Contract, Cooperation, Competition, and Voluntary Association for Defense Against the Invasive and for the Protection of Life, Liberty and Property of the Non-invasive.”

If you had told me this quote with no context I would have guessed it was Ayn Rand talking about why capitalism was best. This is actually the definition of Mutualism according to Clarence Lee Swartz in What is Mutualism?