It usually begins with Ayn Rand, wrote Jerome Tuccille back in 1972, and so it did with me. My first exposure to libertarianism was Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, and it didn’t take long before I adopted her strong rights-based view of libertarianism as my own. Heck, I even started my own student club, with the appropriately deferential, Rand-sanctioned title and everything.
I grimace a bit on reading that interview again now. I still think The Fountainhead is a terrific book. And I still think there is a lot to admire in Rand’s fiction and (somewhat less so) in her explicit philosophy. But as one might surmise from the title of this blog, I’ve moved quite some distance from Objectivism in terms of political philosophy.
Up until now, I hadn’t taken the time to write up any of my reasons for disagreeing with Objectivists. Partly, that’s because I thought that several of the critiques that had already been published did a very good job of expressing my concerns. Like this paper by Eric Mack, for instance. And this, this, and this by Michael Huemer. Still, it was always something I wanted to get around to, eventually.
So when the Ayn Rand Society asked me to comment on a paper by Fred Miller and Adam Mossoff on “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights” at the upcoming Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (right here in sunny San Diego!), I gladly accepted.
You can read the full version of my comments here. My critique focuses on what I see as three problematic elements of the Randian theory of rights.
First, the relationship between Rand’s egoism and support for individual rights. The fact that your life is a value to you gives you a reason to preserve and promote your life. What is less clear is how it gives you a claim on anybody else not to be interfered with in certain kinds of ways. But such a claim is precisely what’s involved in the right to life.
Second, the nature of value and its connection to the Objectivist support for property rights. Rand famously held that man’s mind is the ultimate source of all value. And Adam and Fred make the even stronger claim that natural resources like land are, in themselves, no value at all. This makes the Randian justification of property rights easier, I think, than it ought to be. Whether natural resources are valuable in themselves, they are at the very least necessary preconditions for value. And this, again, raises the question of why others should respect your claim to exclusive ownership over those resources.
Finally, I raise some questions about the role of the Non-Aggression Principle in Ayn Rand’s theory. Rand opposed the initiation of physical force because she thought that force prevents individuals from acting according to the dictates of their own reason. But whether this is true – and whether force is the only way in which individuals can thus be hindered – depends on whether we understand the concept of “force” in a moralized or a non-moralized way. Unfortunately, either approach raises difficulty for the Randian argument.
After I present them this Friday, I’ll be revising these comments for publication in the proceedings of the ARS. So comments and feedback are more than welcome.