Tom Bethell on Objectivist Individualism: A Response

Irfan Khawaja

The following essay is a response to remarks about the Objectivist conception of individualism by the journalist Tom Bethell in the January/February 1999 issue of Full Context. The version printed here is a much-edited and expanded version of the original response, which appeared as a Letter to the Editor in the May/June 1999 issue of that publication.

In his interview in Full Context (Jan./Feb. 1999), Tom Bethell complains that Ayn Rand's defense of self-interest is indeterminate to the point of vacuity. This sort of claim is made so often that I thought it might be useful to readers of Full Context to see not only why it's wrong, but why it represents a wholesale misunderstanding of Objectivism.

Mr. Bethell offers us a thought-experiment in which he asks us to imagine Ayn Rand addressing a "community of celibate monks" who listen to her defense of the Objectivist Ethics, who "gravely agree with her," and who then "continue living their lives as ascetic monks with no change." As someone who has taught at a Catholic university (Notre Dame), and has discussed the Objectivist Ethics with Dominican friars and Catholic philosophers, I can assure Mr. Bethell that the scenario he imagines would not transpire. To see why not, let me make two stipulations:

  1. that we are dealing with orthodox Catholic monks, and
  2. that these monks accept the strictures of the 1879 papal encyclical, Aeterni Patris which makes St. Thomas Aquinas one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, a status that gives Aquinas's philosophy special standing in Church doctrine.

Suppose now that Ayn Rand defends the Objectivist Ethics to such monks. What would happen next?

The monks might agree that we should act in our "self-interest," but they would define that concept in terms of the requirements of salvation in the beatific vision. Having done this, they would take issue with Rand's defense of "Man's Life" as the standard of moral value. In doing so, they would likely recapitulate St. Thomas Aquinas's response to pagan Aristotelianism in his Summa Theologiae I-II, Questions 1-10, where he asks about the moral and metaphysical status of our earthly lives, and argues forcefully for the claim that the pagan conception of human happiness and flourishing is "imperfect" by the standards of supernatural salvation ( ST I-II, Question 2, article 7; Q.3 a.8). At this point, Rand and her interlocutors would have to pose the following fundamental question: What are moral values, and why do we need them? The monks would offer the answer that Aquinas gives, which points to God as the source and standard of moral goodness ( ST I-II, Q.1 a.7-8, Q.4 a.8). In response, Rand would repeat her own arguments for "the conditionality of life" as the basis of moral value ("Objectivist Ethics," pp. 15-22).

Having come this far, the interlocutors would face a basic metaphysical disagreement. Rand would argue that since God does not and cannot exist, His goodness cannot furnish a defensible standard of moral value ("The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made," in Philosophy: Who Needs It). The monks might respond by appealing to Aquinas's "Five Ways" of proving God's existence, especially the Fourth Way, which makes explicit reference to God's goodness. Rand would assert in turn that the Fourth Way is fallacious, and then dispute the assumption that moral standards "must" be a certain way apart from the earthly requirements of human life. Why "must" they be so stringent? she would ask. What non-theological justification is there for evaluating "mere earthly life" as "imperfect"? The monks would have to insist that since salvation our ultimate end, no purely secular standard of moral value can be defended. And then we would be back to the debate about God's existence.

Two issues have arisen in this debate. The first concerns the relationship between human nature and the rest of the universe. The monks believe that their earthly, temporal lives are subordinate to a higher form of life that involves salvation in another realm, and demands our subordination to its Ruler (Q.2.a8, Q4a8). Rand believes, by contrast, that each individual's earthly, temporal life is an ultimate value for its possessor and must not be subordinated to anything or anyone ("Objectivist Ethics"). The second issue concerns the nature of the universe as such . The monks see nature as the product of a Divine Author and in principle subject to His whims and discretion. So they seek union with that Author, in gratitude and love for what they regard as his "free gift" to us. Rand sees Identity, Consciousness, and Causality as unalterable metaphysical facts about Existence, and Existence itself as the unalterable fact, whose reality is beyond the power of any conscious will. Instead of being grateful to it, Rand enjoins us to seek knowledge of it in conformity with what she calls "the primacy of existence" and to seek its transformation "in the image of our values." Consequently, we owe gratitude not to the world as such, but to ourselves as well as to those of our human predecessors and contemporaries who deserve it.

Unsurprisingly, given two radically different views of the world and of our place in it, we see two radically different ways of dealing with it. Thus Rand's list of virtues begins with rationality, and takes independence, integrity, pride, honesty, productiveness, justice, and benevolence as fundamental ( OE pp. 25-27; on benevolence see "The Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness and her remarks on cultivating a benevolent sense of life in The Romantic Manifesto ). The monks would accept rationality, integrity, honesty, justice, and benevolence but would have far different conceptions of what they are and require than Rand does. They would reject independence in favor of docility; they would reject productiveness as morally inconsequential; they would reject pride altogether as a sin; and they would insist on tempering justice with mercy. Rand for her part would reject the Christian virtues of faith, humility and mercy, regarding the first two as vices incompatible with her cardinal value of self-esteem and mercy as incompatible with justice. It goes without saying that Rand and the monks would disagree about the nature and value of pleasure, as well—especially sexual pleasure. The monks would be scandalized by her conception of it; she would either be amused or disgusted by theirs. (On faith, see "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World" in Philosophy: Who Needs It; on humility, see "Altruism as Appeasement," in The Voice of Reason; on sex, see "The Meaning of Sex" in For the New Intellectual ; on mercy, see "This is John Galt Speaking" in the same book).

If my argument here is right, then Mr. Bethell is wrong to think that "Ayn Rand and the monk[s] are agreed upon an ethic of individualism." What they agree on is merely that the individual is responsible for his or her own actions, and that we are "saved" as individuals for those actions. But what actions should we perform, and why? And what is it to be "saved"? Here, there is basic disagreement. In fact, I doubt that Rand and the monks even agree on the fine print regarding moral responsibility, since the monks would believe in a radical dependency on God that Objectivists reject, and Objectivists believe in a radical self-sufficiency that Catholics reject. Again, Aquinas's Summa Theologiae is worth consulting ( ST I-II, Q.9.a6, Q.10.a4), to be compared with Rand's remarks on the relevant subjects (see The Ayn Rand Lexicon).

Mr. Bethell's comments on self-interest involve a common error: he takes the word "interests" to denote "the desires that a person happens to have at a given time," assuming that if an Objectivist takes the promotion of Objectivism to be in his or her interest, there is no disputing that conception of interests any more than one can dispute a conception enjoining asceticism. But neither Rand nor any Catholic monk worth his salt would agree with that. Unlike Mr. Bethell, Objectivists and orthodox Catholics agree that de gustibus non disputandum is not the right maxim for discovering the nature of human interests. For both parties, "interests" denotes "human needs that we ought, in reason, to recognize as worth pursuing." Such claims are as true or false as the claims of natural science, and are susceptible of rational assertion and argument.

To see the stark contrast between Catholicism and Objectivism from yet another angle, let me close by quoting once from Aquinas, and once from Rand. In the Summa Theologiae , Aquinas writes,

Man is not to be loved for his own sake but whatever is in man is to be loved for the sake of God. Therefore happiness does not consist of any good of the soul…. Consequently, none of the goods belonging to the soul can be the ultimate end of man. ( ST I-II, Q2a7, sed contra, respondeo ).

In the Objectivist Ethics, Rand says,

Man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose (p. 27).

And at the end of Galt's speech, she has Galt say:

"I swear--by my life and my love of it--that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

These quotations prove beyond any reasonable doubt that one of the most authoritative Doctors of the Catholic Church repudiates the very individualism that Ayn Rand affirms. For Aquinas as for Catholicism generally, human life remains an object of sacrifice to a higher power and higher good. Consequently, a good person on the Catholic conception is caught in a peculiar bind: he must love his earthly life as the virtue of hope requires, and yet long to transcends it as salvation demands. Unfortunately for this conception, the two principles—life and afterlife—are logically, psychologically, and ethically incompatible. One can't wholeheartedly and simultaneously make both goals one's governing concern in life. The attempt to do so, as Aristotle put it in a slightly different context, is a sign of great folly (Eudemian Ethics I.2).

Such folly seems to be the hallmark of the Catholic approach to life in the modern world. No wonder, then, the strife within Catholicism over its teachings about "life." One side, "the traditionalists," dogmatically defends the imperatives of other-worldly salvation in defiance of the needs of human life on earth; the other side, "the liberals," quixotically defends the value and pleasure of our earthly endeavors on the basis of dogmas that exalt the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. No wonder, also, that the political vision that emerges from Catholicism is so confused: compare the politics of William F. Buckley with that of Alasdair MacIntyre, or the political economy of Lord Acton with that of Mother Teresa! And no wonder that the distinctively Catholic aesthetic is so broodingly ambivalent about human happiness, and indeed, life on earth: consider the novels of Walker Percy or Iris Murdoch, the writings of Thomas Merton, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot. If there is any one theme that unites these writers, it is their implacable hostility to individualism. (The anomalous exception is Acton. But Acton was hardly the model of an orthodox Catholic, was far from consistent or rigorous in his commitments to individualism, and hardly makes up for the anti-individualism of the others.)

The explanation for such paradoxes is not far to seek: an orthodox Catholic is constantly torn between two metaphysical realms, ready and willing to sacrifice values in this realm for values in the next—and required both to cultivate a love for oneself and to see oneself as an object of sacrifice. That's no easy task. It's not even a possible task. It's no surprise, then, that the attempt ends in paradox.

For Objectivism, by contrast, a rational man or woman has a fundamental choice: learn to love your own earthly life—or leave it. Objectivism rejects—"root and branch"—every fundamental of the Catholic conception of the world. Human lives, Objectivism says, are not objects of sacrifice. There is no higher good than the human good. There are no insuperable logical, psychological, or ethical binds in human life to which we ought to be reconciled: moral perfection consists in undoing or cutting them. Such claims are the very foundation of genuine individualism—and the very claims that divide Objectivism from Catholicism, Christianity, and indeed, all religion.

Mere philosophical arcana? Irrelevancies that should be papered over in the name of an alliance between Objectivists and conservatives, (as e.g., David Mayer has recently suggested [ Navigator April 1998])?

No. Recall the first few lines of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal : "I want to stress," Rand writes of the Objectivism, "that our primary interest is not politics or economics as such, but man's nature and man's relationship to existence " (italics hers). Recall, in the same connection, Rand's ferocious criticisms of the Catholic Church in "Requiem for Man" (criticizing the encyclical Populorum Progressio and "Of Living Death" (criticizing Humane Vitae Those criticisms strike at the very heart of the Catholic conception of "man's nature and relationship to existence." If so, Objectivists and orthodox Catholics (and by implication, Christians and conservatives) have plenty to disagree about, and little basis for common political action. In this context, the prospect of a political alliance between Objectivists and Catholics, Christians, or conservatives is about as plausible and purposeful as the attempt to persuade the Church to canonize Ayn Rand as a saint. Not in this lifetime!