Thursday, April 18, 2013

Aristotle and Ayn Rand redux

My main article on the subject, from January of this year, is here; I've also provided some notes as to Aristotle-Rand similarities in my "Perfectivism: An Introduction" from December of last year.  As anyone who has done the relevant research knows by now, Ayn Rand's ethics (both the meta-ethics and the normative ethics) is a leading modern contender to the neo-Aristotelian throne.  Scholarly interpretation of Rand's ethics over the last few decades has converged upon a neo-Aristotelian interpretation of her ethical egoism; a very prominent recent case in point of said scholarship is Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge, 2006).

(I'll note as a glaring example of left-"liberal" cognitive bias that many on today's left aren't even aware of literature such as this, else they wouldn't put their ignorance of such way out on display for all to see; I conjecture that the cognitive bias involved here has to do with an unexamined prejudice - perverting their perception of what's fact and what isn't - namely, that "Rand isn't taken seriously by academic philosophers."  This cognitive prejudice is actively encouraged in intellectually-incestuous leftist venues such as reddit and its joke of a "philosophy" forum, via the intellectually and morally corrupt mob rule generated by its upvote/downvote model.  Things were better in the days of widespread Usenet usage.)

So I bring this subject up because of a current internet poll on the subject of the most important moral philosophers in the history of Western thought, supervised by the Leading Brand(TM) among philosophy blogs.  The poll results for the top 10 appear thuswise:

1. Aristotle  (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)
2. Immanuel Kant  loses to Aristotle by 307–170
3. Plato  loses to Aristotle by 341–134, loses to Immanuel Kant by 292–191
4. David Hume  loses to Aristotle by 402–76, loses to Plato by 302–167
5. John Stuart Mill  loses to Aristotle by 407–78, loses to David Hume by 241–223
6. Socrates  loses to Aristotle by 385–77, loses to John Stuart Mill by 249–196
7. Thomas Hobbes  loses to Aristotle by 455–22, loses to Socrates by 266–163
8. John Rawls  loses to Aristotle by 452–31, loses to Thomas Hobbes by 220–212
9. Jeremy Bentham  loses to Aristotle by 439–36, loses to John Rawls by 224–207
10. Aquinas  loses to Aristotle by 445–18, loses to Jeremy Bentham by 241–176

So we have philosophy's "Big Three" at the top, although second place is a distant second and third place a distant third behind second (and fourth place a distant fourth behind third).

Now, the poll's supervisor is a big-time intellectual bigot when it comes to Ayn Rand, and - unsurprisingly - Rand is not included among the 50 philosophers to choose from in the poll.  (In the Irony Dept., this very same blogger has a posting today about injustice within the profession, namely not giving credit where it's due.  Also, in top form for him, he had this to say just yesterday: "What a sick, pathetic country [the United States] is."  Perhaps part of what makes it so "sick and pathetic" is an anti-dialectical estrangement between the professional intellectual class and the unwashed - an estrangement perpetrated and perpetuated to no small extent by the intellectuals themselves?  Physician, heal thyself?)  Anyway, what interests me is: if Aristotle is indeed the most important moral philosopher in the Western tradition, where does Rand (objectively) belong in the results of such a poll?  Who, after all, has been more emphatic than Rand about rationality being the primary virtue, which is the core idea in the most plausible version(s) of Aristotelian-perfectionist ethical theory?

Without proposing a specific answer here, I think the question itself is worth taking seriously.

No, Rand did not write a stand-alone nonfiction treatise in ethical theory.  Her essay "The Objectivist Ethics" runs to all of about 25 pages (and she unfairly denigrates Aristotle in that essay no less).  However, let's not forget about the "authorized" status of Leonard Peikoff's 1976 lecture course, The Philosophy of Objectivism, which devotes one of its 12 two-and-a-half-hour lectures to the subject of moral virtue (which appears as chapter 8 in Peikoff's print-adaptation of that course, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, and which more or less forms the basis of Tara Smith's Virtuous Egoist, which is more or less "vetted" by Peikoff via discussions with the author).  That chapter runs to 75 pages (on top of 45 pages in Chapter 7 on the subject of "The Good," which has a section on Rationality as the Primary Virtue).  Not that any of this is new to seasoned students of Rand, but I'm covering bases for any newbies.  So we have about 120 pages worth of nonfiction ethical writing in the "official Objectivist canon" - not exactly lightweight stuff as such measures go.

And how about Rand's fiction, anyway?  Large books illustrating the principles involved.  There's one thing that I've (inductively) noticed lately about large books: they tend to be written by intellectual heavy-hitters.  (This is not to say that the observation runs in reverse, i.e., that heavy-hitters tend to write large books.)  Large volumes (around 600 pages or more) in my collection of books, in addition to Rand's two big novels, include: Plato: Collected Dialogues; Basic Works of Aristotle; The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson; multiple volumes by Marquis de Sade; The Marx-Engels Reader; The Portable Nietzsche and Basic Writings of Nietzsche; Copleston's History of Philosophy; Mises's Human Action; Letters of Ayn Rand (a page-turner and one of the four most essential Rand books to have, IMHO, in addition to the two big novels and the Lexicon) and Journals of Ayn Rand; Rawls's A Theory of Justice; Charles Taylor's Hegel; Nozick's Philosophical Explanations; Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea; Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near; Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; Zinn's A People's History of the United States; The Freud Reader, the Holy Bible; and last but not least, Shakespeare's complete works.  (Now, if only someone, somewhere could integrate all that's good in these many large volumes into a single unit priced at, oh, say, $4.20 apiece, and not go "on strike" before making said unit available for public sale....)

On a related note, there's moral philosopher Derek Parfit's recent two-volume On What Matters, which, as I've noted, contains next to zero discussion of the philosopher appearing at #1 in the poll above.  Perhaps some prominent academic philosophers have some effed-up ideas about whom and what is important, and thereby lack the wherewithal to unite historical concretes in accordance with fundamentally important similarities?  (I'll just note that when the poll above had only one vote, Nietzsche topped the list.  I wonder who that first voter might have been?  Oh, the irony just keeps on pouring in, dunnit?  What, am I the asshole here?)

Two days left . . . .

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