Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

Jan 1, 1975

Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and Veatch, “Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics”

“Without wishing to belittle…Rand…it is simply untrue that her general conception of ethics…is unheard of in the history of Western philosophy.”

When David Hume argued that “vice and virtue” have no basis in fact, but are mere “perceptions in the mind”—that the condemnation of murder, for example, is a matter “of feeling, not of reason”—ethical theory was placed on a small raft and cast adrift from human nature and the business of living. Its lifeline to reason and reality thus severed, ethics has since floundered on the waves of subjectivism and emotivism.

Many philosophers, notably linguistic analysts, have abandoned any hope of rescuing ethics in its classical, Aristotelian sense—as the discipline that seeks to gain knowledge of the good life for man. Instead, these philosophers have lost themselves in the labyrinth of contemporary “meta-ethics,” where they ponder such monumental issues as whether the act of uttering a moral judgment is “locutionary,” “illocutionary,” or “perlocutionary.” Moreover, the analysts have given notice that their excursion into meta-ethics is the only legitimate function of moral philosophy. The philosopher may analyze what we mean by moral terms, or how ethical judgments function in discourse, but any defense of a system of precepts, especially if that defense is impassioned, is strictly forbidden.

The analysts thus obliterate, in a single ex cathedra pronouncement, what has been the central focus of ethical theory for over 2,000 years. And our fragile raft seems more doomed than ever.

Fortunately, there is more to ethical theory than one encounters in the typical university classroom, and there are still philosophers who, at the risk of heresy, run against the grain of contemporary thought in their insistence that ethics is nothing less than the application of reason and knowledge to human life. To fail to arrive at moral precepts, in their view, is a shortcoming of the ethicist, not of ethics itself. And to divorce values from facts, to drive a wedge between what “is” and what “ought” to be, is tantamount to the dissolution of ethics as a rational enterprise.

Two extremely articulate defenses of this rational approach to ethics are The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, and Rational Man by Henry Veatch. Despite their disagreement over specific points, both Rand and Veatch fall squarely within the Aristotelian, natural-law conception of ethics.

Generally speaking, natural law theory, as it has passed from Aristotle through Thomas Aquinas, has eschewed any radical dichotomization of values and facts; indeed, it has maintained that values are a kind of fact. Using this criterion, Rand and Veatch qualify as natural-law theorists. “The validation of value judgments,” argues Rand, “is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality.” And, in a similar vein, Veatch contends that “values are simply facts of nature.”

There are many other areas of basic agreement between Rand and Veatch. Ethics, according to Veatch, “can be based on evidence and…is a matter of knowledge.” Rand concurs. “Ethics,” she writes, “is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival,” and falls within “the province of reason.”

Rand and Veatch also agree that happiness is properly the purpose of ethics. In accordance with Aristotle, who held that “whatever creates or increases happiness or some part of happiness, we ought to do,” Rand argues that “the task of ethics is to define man’s proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness”; and Veatch maintains that “moral rules are more in the nature of counsels of perfection or instructions as to what one ought or ought not to do in order to attain happiness.”

But both writers view happiness objectively, within the total context of one’s life, and not merely as momentary satisfaction or pleasure derived from any random, unthinking action. “Happiness,” Rand contends, “is possible only to a rational man.” Similarly, Veatch argues that any so-called “happiness” that comes from something other than “living intelligently” has “somehow become perverted and corrupted.”

In other words, both Rand and Veatch see happiness as a concomitant of the good life, which consists of pursuing rational goals in a rational manner. Writes Veatch, “Man’s true good, his natural end or goal, and his livingintelligentIy, may, in turn, be equated with happiness.” Rand stands in basic agreement: “The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.”

It is within this natural law framework that one must consider Rand‘s’ advocacy of egoism—rational self-interest—which is often, and inexcusably, misrepresented by her critics. Egoism, Rand says, is not a license for man “to do as he pleases.” Rather, the principle that man ought to be the primary beneficiary of his own actions “is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.”

This is in direct contrast to the subjective, voluntaristic kind of egoism found in Stirner and Nietzsche, and it is perhaps best described as “natural-law egoism.” It is interesting to note that, although most explicit Aristotelians, such as Henry Veatch and Mortimer Adler, do not label themselves egoists, there is a strong current of egoism in their approach nonetheless, stemming from the belief that the purpose of moral principles in human life is to attain the good, and that the good consists of the development of man’s potential powers and capacities as a human being. Thus considered, ethics, as Veatch puts it, instructs man in the “art of living.”

Indeed, on several occasions, Veatch makes it clear that “learning how to live,” which is what ethics teaches us, is “no more than [learning] what is in one’s own best interests.” As for the view that the goal of ethics is self-sacrifice, Veatch maintains that

any such identification of ethics with altruism is radically at variance with the sort of ethics of the rational man that we have been trying to defend in this book. In Aristotle’s eyes ethics does not begin with thinking of others, it begins with oneself. The reason is that every human being faces the task of learning how to live, how to be a human being. just as he has to learn how to walk or to talk.

Although the terminology differs, this passage is clearly in alliance with the following excerpt from Rand:

A being who does not know automatically what is true or false, cannot know automatically what is right or wrong. what is good for him or evil. Yet he needs that knowledge in order to live…. And this…is why man needs a code of ethics.

The above parallels. of course, deal only with those basic issues where The Virtue of Selfishness and Rational Man overlap. Each book, however, contains lucid discussions of various topics not treated by the other. and, were Rand and Veatch to deal with precisely the same areas. they would undoubtedly disagree in many instances.

In addition, some of the subjects treated in common by these works contain significant differences. I shall narrow the field to three. which, in my opinion, are among the most important.

First, although Veatch does not rely on belief in God for his ethics. he plainly believes theism and a rational ethics to be compatible. Here there is no rapprochement with The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand, an atheist, holds belief in the supernatural to be irrational and unfounded and therefore inimical to any discipline, such as ethics, that requires uncompromised rationality.

Second, although Rand and Veatch agree that values are grounded in facts, they disagree as to precisely what those facts are. According to Rand, “it is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.” This statement is partially derived from a prior assertion that values require goal-directed behavior—“‘Value’ is that which one acts to gain and/or keep”—and that goal directedness is a characteristic applicable only to living organisms. Rand explicitly denies “the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature.”

Veatch, on the other hand, bases his concept of value on the Aristotelian distinction between potency and act. “The good of any thing,” he writes, “is to that thing as the actual is to the potential.” Operating from a teleological view of nature, and from a stricter adherence to the metaphysics of Aristotle, Veatch argues that “the whole of nature is permeated with values”—thus extending the idea of value to inanimate nature.

Finally, Rand and Veatch differ in their expressed indebtedness to Aristotle and the natural-law tradition. Whereas Veatch, who subtitled his book “A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics,” is quite aware of the historical tradition in which he falls, Rand seems curiously oblivious to historical precedents. In fact, referring to Aristotle, Rand says that “he based his ethical system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the question of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise”—which is scarcely a judicious interpretation of the Nicomachean Ethics. Without wishing to belittle the many respects in which Rand is brilliantly original in her moral theory, it is simply untrue that her general conception of ethics—its nature, scope, and function—is unheard of in the history of Western philosophy. On the contrary, as we have seen, it comprises a major school of thought.

In those areas, such as value theory, where Rand and Veatch disagree, I find myself most often in agreement with Rand. But, regardless of which author one finds most convincing, both The Virtue of Selfishness and RatIonal Man are extraordinarily worthwhile books. Together they succeed in returning ethics to the solid ground of reason. Reviewed by George H. Smith / Philosophy / Virtue of Selfishness / LR Price $5.95 (207 pages, cloth) $1.25 (151 pages, paper) / Rational Man (226 pages) / LR Price $1.95.