I wrote this and originally posted it online in 2010.
Rand and the Greeks
In the “The Objectivist Ethics” Rand stated: “Aristotle did not regard ethics as an exact science” (14). “He based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise” (OE 14). Insofar as Aristotle’s approach was indeed as described in the preceding quotation (see e.g. NE 1140a24–25), Rand stakes ethics in a dramatically different way. Rand aims to ground an ethics in something more firm, namely, in biology.
In the soul, Aristotle marks three divisions: passions, faculties, and states. He argues that excellence, or nobility, cannot be a passion nor a faculty, and so must be a state. In particular excellence “will be the state which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well” (NE 1106a22–23). More particularly still, excellence “is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it” (NE 1106b36–1107a2).
A number of thinkers sympathetic to Rand’s rational, life-centered ethical egoism have argued that, in a variety of ways, her ethics is closer to Aristotle’s than she had expressly gauged it to be. One of the additions Rand made to the exposition of her ethics in “The Objectivist Ethics” beyond the exposition in “Galt’s Speech” was her introduction of the phrase ultimate value. Rand rejected the Aristotelian conception of vegetative and non-conscious animal activities as being due to some sort of “teleological principle operating in nature” (OE 16). Like the early moderns Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, like we moderns today, Rand held the domain of Aristotle’s final causation to be confined “only to a conscious being.” Final causation in its only reality is “the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it” (CvD 99).
Taking that modern layout for understood, Rand wrote:
“In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life. Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organisms life.
“An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are to be evaluated.” (OE 16–17)
The only such ultimate value, the only end in itself, is the life of the individual organism, in Rand’s view. In the vegetative and appetitive organizations within the human animal, that end is supposed by Rand to be their healthy overarching one. Those systems run that way automatically. But the human individual is fundamentally free to choose how far he keeps his mind and actions set upon that same ultimate end, the preservation and fullness of his own life. There is a parallel here with Aristotle’s conception of the mature human ability to craft deliberate virtues upon natural virtues (see Lennox 1999). Then again there is the glaring difference that Rand would not have philosophical contemplation to be the overarching end driving a human life taken to be happiest of all other human lives (NE X, 7).
In his 1975 work Human Rights and Human Liberties, Tibor Machan argued that “only if a specifically human goal can be identified—one shared by all people just in virtue of being the kind of thing they are—could an identifiable standard for moral valuation be found. If there is nothing on that order that human beings ought to achieve, no summum bonum, then the idea that they ought to achieve it could not be meaningful” (71). Rand had argued that “it only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of ‘value’ is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of ‘life’” (OE 17; see also Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984a, 65–67). What goes for value goes as well for the Aristotelian coins excellence, success, and doing well. Life—the physical phenomenon of life—is their original and perpetual grounding context (cf. Kelley 1992, 58).
Professor Machan went on to endorse an argument by function-explanation put forth by Eric Mack (1971) to the conclusion that “the end of the objective function” of an individual’s choices and actions “is the sustenance of his life” (72). Machan then linked Rand’s summum bonum, as defended by Mack, with Aristotle’s idea that “the proper goal of each person is his own success as a human being, his own happiness” (72). Tightening the link, Machan observes: “The happiness discussed by Aristotle is far broader than what people usually mean by the term ‘happiness’. It is closer to what Ayn Rand has characterized as ‘a noncontradictory state of joy’. The main feature of this state is not pleasure, fun, or excitement. Instead it is a self-acknowledgement of worth, a sense of being a successful living entity of the kind human beings are” (73; see further, Lawrence 2006).
There is considerable difference, nonetheless, I should say, between what Aristotle and Rand conceived the human mind and life to be and between what they took as the source of ethical norms (see e.g. Long 2000). Aristotle argued for happiness as the unique final end; Rand found life as final end-giving end of happiness. Moreover, Rand conceived happiness, with its self-sufficient quality, to be integral with, not aloof from, the pleasure of human animal life (see Frede 2007, 264–67, on Aristotle; cf. Saint-André 1993, 152, 159–66, and Branden 1964, on Rand).
Among others stressing the kinship of Rand’s ethics to Aristotle’s would be Jack Wheeler in his contribution “Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics” (1984). Similarly, Peter Saint-André stresses that Rand’s project, and Aristotle’s too, is “at root metaphysical,” both projects dealing with “‘what is possible’ to the human individual” (1996, 209). He objects to Rand’s representation of Aristotle as only “sifting through what the noble and the wise say and do” to uncover norms. That may be what Aristotle sometimes says he does, but, Saint-André would have us look at Nicomachean Ethics I, 6–7, “wherein Aristotle investigates the ontological status of the Good and derives the nature of happiness from the ergon or ‘characteristic work’ of man quo man” (1996, 210).
In his 2005 paper “Ayn Rand as Aristotelian: Values and Happiness,” Fred Miller observes that Aristotle’s presentation is open to interpretation among noted scholars. John Cooper, Terence Irwin, and David Reeve read Aristotle along the lines read by Machan, Den Uyl and Rasmussen, and others, which allows one to see Aristotle as near Rand in pattern of meta-ethical reasoning. Gabriel Richardson Lear reads Aristotle along those lines in her deep study (2004, 121–22, 145–46). Sarah Broadie dissents from the Grand End reading of Aristotle (1991), though she takes Aristotle as having practical reason discern right action, rather than constituting it (2006, 348). John McDowell finds Aristotle more like Rand found him: “Rather than giving a criterion that works from outside the ethic, [Aristotle] says that such things are as the virtuous person determines them to be” (1998, 35; quoted in Miller 2005). In any case, biological existence is not among the candidates for external ultimate criteria for ethical norms various scholars have drawn from Aristotle’s text.
Professor Miller draws attention to Rand’s remarks on Aristotle a couple of years after her critical remarks on Aristotle’s ethical theory. Rand approved of Aristotle’s conceptions of life and knowledge as naturalistic facts. She viewed Aristotle as giving “living entities, the phenomenon of life,” a central place in his philosophy (1963, 10). “Life—and its highest form, man’s life—is the central fact in Aristotle’s view of reality. The best way to describe it is to say that Aristotle’s philosophy is ‘biocentric’.” (The same can be said for Protagoras, who influenced the Cyrenaics and Epicurus, I should note.) Rand continues: “This is the source of Aristotle’s intense concern with the study of the enormously ‘pro-life’ attitude that dominates his thinking” (11).
When it comes to his ethical writings, however, I do not find Aristotle bringing biology expressly to bear. I do not see he has any understanding that the physical phenomenon of life, and its continuous self-generated struggle for continuation, is the source of all value.
Happiness is not ordered to life by Aristotle in the express and deep way it is ordered to life by Rand.
“Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering.” (OE 27)
“The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. . . . When one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: ‘This is worth living for’—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the metaphysical fact that life is an end in itself.” (OE 29)
Aristotle recognized that there is no desire, no valued thing, where there is no life (EE 1281a26–27). That is short of seeing that and how the concept value, or goodness, presupposes the concept life. Aristotle observed that pleasures complete competent activities “as an end which supervenes as the bloom of youth does on those in the flower of their age” (NE 1174b31–33). Life is desirable, and pleasure completes the activity that is human life (NE 1175a10–21). Moreover, the life of the virtuous is pleasant, and its pleasures are harmonious because they are pleasures taken in things that are by nature pleasant (NE 1099a6–14). But Aristotle does not proceed expressly from pleasure to joy to happiness, and on the steps life, life, life.
Aristotle held that eudaimonia is a complete thing, an end in itself (NE 1097a30–35; 1176a36–1176b5; EE 1219a24–39; see further, Richardson Lear 2004, 69–71). He held it to be something of a self-generated achievement (NE 1114b30–1115a3; EE 1215a15–19). One barrier to Aristotle fully seeing happiness as emblematic servant of life itself, morality’s true ground, is perhaps this: Although he recognized the self-generated dimension of life, he “did not clearly identify that a living organism’s existence depends on this activity” (Smith 2000, 119n11).
Born nine years after Aristotle and living five decades beyond him was Epicurus. He promoted a form of eudaimonistic hedonism, directed by the reins of physical life, which life dwells in a world devoid of Aristotelian natural teleology. That Epicurus keeps ethics close to biology is fast upon his view that “the soul is a body [made up of] fine parts distributed throughout the entire aggregate, and most closely resembling breath with a certain admixture of heat . . . . All of this is revealed by the abilities of the soul, its feelings, its ease of motion, its thought processes, and the things whose removal leads to our death” (Ltr. To Herodotus 63). Human nature “was taught a large number of different lessons just by the facts themselves, and compelled [by them]; . . . reasoning later made more precise what was handed over to it [by nature] and made additional discoveries” (H 75).
Good and bad arise only within sense experience. So death cannot be the root of that which is bad (Ltr to Menoeceus 124–25). “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears death” (M 126). Among natural desires, “some are necessary for happiness and some for freeing the body from troubles and some for life itself” (M 127). As for the first two, Epicurus writes: “The cry of the flesh: not to be hungry, not to be thirsty, not to be cold. For if someone has these things and is confident of having them in the future, he might contend even with [Zeus] for happiness” (Vatican Collection 33).
Epicurus held to a conceptual primacy of pain over pleasure—the latter is only the absence of the former—although plenty of harmonious pleasure is possible in life if one keeps ones desires limited to what is necessary for a modest style of life (M 128–32; Principal Doctrines III–V). “One must not force nature but persuade her. And we will persuade her by fulfilling the necessary desires” and the natural but unnecessary ones, provided they are not harmful (VC 21).
Epicurus anchors happiness to absence of bodily pains and harms. This suggests he takes physical life to be the basis of right desires. In addition, as seen in the paragraph before last, some right desires are necessary “for life itself,” in the view of Epicurus. I do not find in Epicurus the insight that it is the concept of life, with its fundamental perpetual alternative, that makes the concept of right desire possible. Still, it should be clear that on the relation of moral values to life itself, there are precursors of Rand’s pages in the writings of both Epicurus and Aristotle. (See further, Shelton 1995, 1996, and Saint-André 1996.)
(Coming in a few weeks: Salmeiri 2020.)
Aristotle 1984. The Complete Works of Aristotle, volume 2. J. Barnes, editor. Princeton.
Branden, N. 1964. The Psychology of Pleasure. In Rand 1964.
Broadie, S. 1991. Ethics with Aristotle. Oxford.
——. 2006. Aristotle and Contemporary Ethics. In Kraut 2006.
Den Uyl, D. J., and D. B. Rasmussen 1984a. Life, Teleology, and Eudaimonia in the Ethics of Ayn Rand. In 1984b.
Den Uyl, D. J., and D. B. Rasmussen, editors. 1984b. The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand. University of Illinois.
Epicurus 1994. The Epicurus Reader. B. Inwood and L. P. Gerson, translators and editors. Hackett.
Frede, D. 2006. Pleasure and Pain in Aristotle’s Ethics. In Kraut 2006.
Kelley, D. 1992. Post-Randian Aristotelianism. Liberty (July).
Kraut, R., editor. 2006. The Blackwell Guide to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Blackwell.
Lawrence, G. 2006. Human Good and Human Function. In Kraut 2006.
Lennox, J. G. 1999. Aristotle on the Biological Roots of Virtue: The Natural History of Natural Virtue. In Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. J. Maienschein and M. Ruse, editors. Cambridge.
Long, R. T. 2000. Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand. Objectivist Studies. No. 3. The Objectivist Center.
Machan, T. R. 1975. Human Rights and Human Liberties. Nelson Hall.
Mack, E. 1971. How to Derive Ethical Egoism. The Personalist (Autumn):736–43.
McDowell, J. 1998. Some Issues in Aristotle’s Moral Psychology. In Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge.
Rand, A. 1961. The Objectivist Ethics. In Rand 1964.
——. 1963. Review of Randall’s Aristotle. In The Voice of Reason. 1990. Meridian.
——. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. 1964. Signet.
——. 1974. Causality versus Duty. In Philosophy: Who Needs It. 1982. Signet.
Richardson Lear, G. 2004. Happy Lives and the Highest Good. Princeton.
Saint-André, J. P. 1993. A Philosophy for Living on Earth. Objectivity 1(6):137–73.
——. 1996. Epicurean Pleasure and the Objectivist Good. Objectivity 2(4):205–11.
Shelton, R. 1995. Epicurus and Rand. Objectivity 2(3)1–47.
——. 1996. Parallel Metaethics. Objectivity 2(4):213–25.
Smith, T. 2000. Viable Values. Rowman & Littlefield.
Wheeler, J. 1984. Rand and Aristotle: A Comparison of Objectivist and Aristotelian Ethics. In Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984b.