I recently wrote the following:
Rand’s [moral] theory does forbid human sacrifice, but only contingently. Ethical egoists are committed to the view that if raping, dismembering, and murdering some other person were slightly better for you than any alternative action, then you’d be justified, indeed, obligated to rape, dismember, and murder some other person. Randians of course deny that raping, dismembering, and murdering someone could ever serve your interests. It’s possible they’re right about that, though it seems easy to imagine thought experiments where doing so would serve your interests. Still, it doesn’t matter if they’re right that the conditions under which it would be serve your interests never obtain. They’re still committed to the view that you should rape, dismember, and murder others when it serves your interests. For more on this problem, including why Objectivists can’t, on pain of violating the rules of logic, deny the validity of philosophical thought experiments, see Huemer here.
Of course, the Randians weren’t happy, and accused me of misrepresenting her views. See one instance here.
I have no intention of smearing Rand. So, since it wasn’t obvious to some readers before, let me just clarify now:
1. I acknowledge (and acknowledged) that Rand in fact believes human beings have rights and that she believes that ethical egoism forbids us from sacrificing one another in order to promote our own interests.
2. More strongly, I acknowledge (and acknowledged) that Rand thinks it’s pretty much impossible for us to promote our own objective interests by preying upon other people.
3. However, I claim that Rand is mistaken about what ethical egoism implies. Her moral theory has horrific implications, implications which she thankfully does not endorse. As the Huemer link above explains, ethical egoism logically implies the following claim, “If it were in your interest to kill an innocent person, you may do so.” Rand can’t escape that implication. (To see why Rand’s theory implies this, see Huemer’s example here, of a person zapping a homeless man as if he were a piece of trash.)
Rand does not endorse zapping homeless men But Rand doesn’t get to stipulate what ethical egoism implies. No one, not even an imposing person like Rand, gets to decide what the logical implications of one’s statements are.
Just as hedonistic act utilitarianism implies the statements “We should torture people to satisfy sadists” and “Omelas is a good society,” ethical egoism implies the statement “I may kill innocent people if doing so would serve my interests slightly more than not”.
Ethical egoism, by definition, cannot allow you to value other people as ends in themselves. As soon as you endorse the statement “Others are ends in themselves, not merely means to my own ends, and not merely constitutive of my self-interest,” you reject egoism. Egoism implies that other people can at most only have 1) instrumental or 2) constitutive value to you. Suppose, to be charitable, that Rand is right about what constitutes a person’s self-interest. She might then be able to show that in most cases, the rationale egoist will have reason to respect people’s rights. However, that’s not good enough. As Huemer points out, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which 1) another person has neither instrumental nor constitutive value to an Objectivist egoist, and 2) the Objectivist’s objective self-interest would best be served by killing that person. In this case, egoism implies that the Objectivist *must* (or *may*, in a non-maximizing version of egoism) kill that person. Since that’s false, egoism is false. Huemer’s thought experiment is not incoherent or metaphysically impossible.
At the end of the day, Rand is probably not actually an egoist. She’s probably just a neo-Aristotelian eudaimonist with esoteric views about altruism. One of Rand’s persistent problems is that she uses philosophical words (e.g., analytic, synthetic, a priori, altruism) incorrectly; she defines them improperly.