It used to be commonly said that “Until Robinson Crusoe is joined by Friday there is no need for ethics on a desert island.” Rand replied that it was on a desert island that ethics was most needed because on a desert island you cannot free ride on the virtues of others; if you are to survive you must yourself exercise the virtues of rationality, independence, and productiveness. As her reply indicates, Rand was an exponent of virtue ethics, the Greek/Aristotelian idea that ethics is about how one should live. Indeed, although she does not get much credit, Rand is the most prominent and lucid, contemporary exponent of virtue ethics.
I think Rand’s version of virtue ethics is compelling because it is explicitly modern – where the recent literature still sometimes seems to focus on the virtues required of a Greek olive grower, Rand’s virtue ethics is post industrial-revolution, a virtue ethics for the capitalist world.
If ethics is about the virtuous man then politics is about
the social requirements for the virtuous man to exist (the modern literature
lags behind Rand in connecting ethics and politics). One can understand Rand’s novels as an
extended disquisition on virtue ethics and the political and social requirements
necessary to practice such an ethics. In particular, she argued that rights, a legal concept creating a protected sphere for
independent action, were a necessary condition to live a life of virtue.
One need not buy Rand’s deductive argument that laissez-faire
capitalism is the sine-qua-non of ethical action to appreciate her insights
connecting the good man and good woman with the good society. Relatedly, I do think that Rand was absolutely right to say that capitalism requires a moral
defense. Moreover, the only plausible defense must involve the virtue of
selfishness. It is all too obvious that
capitalism promotes and rewards self-interest and, Mandeville nothwithstanding, no defense which simply
excuses this fact will succeed.
Rand’s language hasn’t done much to advance her case and
indeed it has obscured areas where her insights are now widely accepted. Today, for example, you can find many books
attacking the evil of altruism. Surprised? Of course, the books
don’t use those terms, instead they call it the problem of codependency (or
some other such). Relatedly, it’s no
accident that Hillary Clinton was once an avid Randian (recall her political
career started with Barry Goldwater) because Rand
is an important feminist. Rand’s
portrayal of strong, independent, intelligent women is coming to be recognized
as a landmark in fiction but in addition Rand’s attacks on self-sacrifice have
special meaning in a culture that has long used the “caring ethic” to bind
women to the service of others.
Of weaknesses there are many, most of which flow from the combination of Rand as philosopher, novelist and powerful
personality. John Galt, for example, is
but one instantiation of the Randian/Aristotelian virtue ethic, an
instantiation which was created for a particular aesthetic purpose by a
particular person. To often both Rand and
her detractors have taken the instantiation for the class thereby limiting