Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Randian Heroes as Perfectionists

I am coming to grips with what all I am prepared to say and what I am not yet prepared to say in my book. Tying my central perfectionist thesis to the issues that the leading academic philosophers - particularly those in epistemology - are concerned with, it just not going to be possible in this first book. I do not have the requisite training (from self or others) and context for it. I am quite rusty at my academic-style philosophizing after a decade away from graduate school. Further, my book is conceived as aiming squarely at the intelligent layperson; and the intelligent layperson is far removed from what Quine's "Two Dogmas" is all about. The perfectionist in me says this tying-in would make a good candidate for a second book, though.

My academic area of specialty was ethics and political philosophy. My grasp of these issues is a lot more sound than the issues that the likes of Quine, Kripke, Davidson and David Lewis specialize in. However, I think my perfectionist thesis is plenty good enough to blow away the competitors in the field of ethics, and that includes the leading "contemporary" moral philosopher, Rawls.

Ethical perfectionism is a synonym for eudaemonism, which is best defended in the "canon" literature by Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics. Up until about 30 years ago, the main alternatives in ethical theory (aside from forms of rejection of moral theories) were "utilitarianism" (or, more broadly, consequentialism) and "Kantianism" (or, more broadly, deontology). This alternative is what was being presented to students in college philosophy courses as the best that philosophers had to offer in the field of ethics. Pretty sad, huh? So, since that time, Aristotle and "virtue ethics" have surged into prominence, and as recent or contemporary literature is scoured for "virtue-ethical" positions within this Aristotelian tradition, Ayn Rand's name naturally comes up. Her ethical egoism is hardly dissimilar to ancient Greek and especially Aristotelian ethics on the matter of being self-centered in ethics, with virtue defined in terms of promoting self-actualization or eudaemonia or real happiness. Whether the academic literature has fully made the identification yet, eudaemonism and perfectionism and self-actualization and virtue ethics (with some kind of stress on the needs of the self foremost hierarchically) are synonymous because they all are descriptions of the same basic concept. As academic literature goes, David L. Norton's Personal Destinies is the best contemporary statement of eudaemonist or virtue ethics.

What really reveals someone's ignorance of Ayn Rand and of the history of philosophy, is comparing her ethics and her idealized heroes to Nietzsche's Ubermensch, usually package-dealt with some strawman claim that Rand, "like Nietzsche," is an elitist, and more likely than not looking for a moral justification (through hijacking Nietzsche, more or less) for capitalist exploitation. Yes, it's one of those eye-rollers students of Objectivism have been confronted with thousands of times. Why don't these idiots appreciate Rand for what she actually said, the students of Objectivism keep asking. (Good question, actually.) Further, it really reveals a lack of intellectual sophistication to hone in on similarities to Nietzsche rather than similarities to Aristotle.

(Let's say that Nietzschean-style "nihilism" is the main alternative modernity has to clinging on to religion-and-morality. I mean, that's what has plunged the political left into a deep-structural moral vacuum (see the '60s and its effects), and the right into fear that the world will collapse without a return to religion-and-morality (see the right from Buckley to today). Aristotelian-Thomistic-Lockean-Jeffersonian-Randian "natural-law" perfectionism is the third way that would give us the fix we need, but unfortunately there is massive ignorance of this tradition. So the typical little left-wing college know-it-all has a context where Nietzsche is taken to be a, or the, leading voice of the secular world, and where leftists succeeded in rewriting America's history into a class-war context rather than an individualist one, and compares Rand to other thinkers in that context. Really lame and so cliched, right?)

Randian heroes are perfectionists. Rand is clear about this in some of her Letters ca. 1946, so it gives some idea of where Rand was in her intellectual development at that time, and how she viewed the relation between moral perfection and traditional religion. (This was around the time she was most embroiled in discussions with Isabel Paterson about all the Big Issues - God, religion, morality - and "Pat" informed her that her ethics had a character all its own, simply distinct from the egoists Nietzsche and Stirner.) This is around the time she was also studying the history of philosophy, with emphasis on the Aristotelian and Thomist traditions; this was around the time that the significance of the "problem of universals" became known to Rand, and the time she made her earliest identifications leading to her theory of concepts. In her maturest stage of intellectual development, her ideas were far more Aristotelian or Thomistic than Nietzschean. This goes for her eudaemonist-perfectionist ethics.

The heroes represent what a eudaemonist-perfectionist ethics lived-out might look like. Her heroes were always reflections of her husband Frank or herself, and there's nothing of an "Ubermensch" character about them (either the heroes, Frank, or herself); they're just normal human beings reaching their full potentials through virtue (rationality), and doing so with an individualistic pride - like what America's supposed to be about, right?

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