October 2007 -- Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge University Press, 2006), hardcover, 328 pp., $80.00.
Tara Smith’s new book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, is not revolutionary, but it is a thorough and valuable work. Smith’s goal is, first, to explain Ayn Rand ’s theory of egoism and the virtues that theory requires, and, second, to provide insight into how to apply those virtues to one’s life. To that extent, she is very successful and offers a book that anyone interested in Ayn Rand ’s ethical thought should read.
For those less familiar with Rand’s ethics, Smith’s book offers a straightforward account. She closely follows Rand’s and Leonard Peikoff’s arguments, but casts these without the polemics that often haunt their writings. And for those who know the arguments well already, Smith’s book is a worthwhile read because it is the first to integrate Rand’s journals, letters, and other previously unavailable works into the exposition of the arguments. This adds a new and often clarifying dimension to a familiar account.
Smith discusses the main virtues that Rand presents in her work: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. Each virtue has its own chapter, and each of these chapters shares a basic structure: She tells us what the virtue is, then why it is a virtue, and closes with a discussion of what the virtue demands in terms of an individual’s life.
In describing what the virtue is, she often employs examples from Rand’s novels. But, Smith also brings in conventional accounts of these virtues from the philosophical literature and from the general culture. In the chapter on honesty, for example, Smith cites Sissela Bok’s well-known work on lying to highlight the contrast between Rand’s understanding of honesty—as primarily a relation to reality—and the more standard outlook of honesty as a relationship with others. This is a marked improvement over many Objectivist works that often ignore the philosophical literature all together.
Nonetheless, Smith falls short of truly engaging this literature. Even in the honesty chapter, she gives little more than a few citations to mainstream thinkers on honesty. And she does not address at all the literature on so-called “positive illusions” that argues that some dishonesty is necessary for a healthy psychological life.
Where Smith presents the argument for why the virtue in question is a virtue, her exposition is clear and persuasive while eschewing an overly rationalistic approach. She grounds each virtue explicitly on a foundation of the values that the virtue produces and the role that these values and virtues play in an individual’s life and flourishing. She employs real-world examples to illustrate the need for these virtuous activities and the values they produce.
For example, part of the reason that integrity is a virtue is because we often find that acting on our principles is not easy; we are distracted or pulled in other directions. Smith demonstrates several such distractions:
He does not speak at a meeting on behalf of a policy he deems important, for instance, because he thinks he will seem foolish. . . “It just feels safer” to avoid taking a risk, so he allows feelings to prevail instead of mailing resumes or making the phone call that his rational judgment tells him he should (179).
A general weakness of these sections, however, is that Smith often does not consider the tougher cases or counter-examples to her argument. When discussing the virtue of honesty, Smith writes “if he obtains a goal such as a job through dishonesty, he cannot experience pride for having earned it.” This is true, but what about the experience of pride at having duped someone? This is, of course, not the sense of pride that Smith is shooting for, but it is nonetheless a common response to the point for which Smith is arguing, and she does not address it.
Smith offers practical advice and insight on how to apply and live the virtues.
Another example, also involving honesty, is where Smith argues that the dishonest person will damage his self-esteem because “he will continually encounter evidence indicating that honesty does work and that faking does not.” A counter to this view is the cynical perspective that the dishonest person thinks everyone else is dishonest, and that evidence of honesty is merely evidence that someone has not yet been caught. Given such a perspective, would the dishonest individual damage his self-esteem? Smith does not discuss such cases and so fails to show how Objectivism can handle these potential counter-examples.
These kinds of examples are important because they are where many people who otherwise might by sympathetic to Objectivist arguments take leave. A sound and effective argument must be able to show how it deals with these cases and examples from the edge. This is not to advocate some kind of “lifeboat ethics.” To show how Objectivism deals with these cases is not to make them the basis for the ethical principles; but instead, it demonstrates the strength and applicability of Objectivism . The Objectivist literature, however, is often silent on such cases, and Smith often, though not always, follows form here.
The most novel part of each chapter is the practical demands section, where Smith offers practical advice and insight on how to apply and live the virtues. This advice also gives us a deeper understanding of the virtue itself. The chapter on integrity is a good example of this “self-help” aspect of the book. While discussing the intellectual demand of integrity, that one always acts according to one’s principles, Smith considers a classic question about this demand. If a KKK member “exhibits diligent devotion to his values,” can he have integrity? She argues that such an individual cannot; since “allegiance to irrational principles could not sustain human life, it is not what the virtue of integrity calls for.”
Smith does not stop there, but goes on to identify the truth underlying this question. There is, after all, a sense of integrity that “does not hinge on the propriety of one’s values.” One can be faithful to one’s values and principles even though those values are not, in the end, the correct ones. We all know people whom we hold in high regard as persons of integrity though we may disagree with some of their deeply held moral principles. We can do this so long as we believe these persons are striving to discover and live the correct principles. Integrity requires that one strive not only to be true to one’s values, but also to get them right. The practical advice here is that one must demand from himself (and from others) a commitment to stick to his principles and to get those principles right, but one cannot demand omniscience.
To that end, Smith closes the chapter with a discussion of how to deal with failure of integrity. One is advised not to bury himself in guilt, but to use it as a learning experience to understand better why and how he erred so that he can avoid such failures in the future. For a moral theory that demands moral perfection, this is important advice.
As mentioned, Objectivism demands moral perfection, but most of the literature on Rand’s ethics ignores this idea. Smith tackles this issue in a very helpful way. Rand argues that pride is the virtue that, in part, strives for moral perfection. A person with the virtue of pride, she writes in For the New Intellectual, “ seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection.”
Moral perfection is the commitment to be rational in each of area of one’s life.
Critics hold that such a view is too lofty and idealistic for human beings; moral perfection is unobtainable and therefore an improper goal. To counter this criticism, Smith draws a distinction between two different conceptions of perfection. There is the conventional notion that perfection is some god-like state where it is impossible to err, where one’s goodness is assured. This is not Rand’s conception. For Rand, moral perfection is the idea of an “unbreached rationality.” This means, Smith explains, that “whenever a person acts, based on everything he knows and on the best reasoning capacities at that stage in his development, he must do what is rational.” Moral perfection, then, is obtainable by any human being capable of sustained rational thought; it is the successful commitment to sustain this thought and follow through with the appropriate action. This is not to say that moral perfection is easy, but it is an achievable goal.
Smith’s analysis also establishes why moral perfection is a required part of virtue. To accept less than moral perfection is self-defeating because “an individual’s flourishing depends on fidelity to rational moral principles,” and any “breach of such principles is self-defeating.” Moral perfection, then, is the commitment to be rational in each of area of one’s life, all the time. There will be, of course, moments of weakness where one fails to be rational in a given context. This recognition does not mean that one should not strive to be always rational. There is a difference between failing to achieve a goal and rejecting that as a legitimate goal. As we saw in her discussion of failures of integrity, moral perfection does not require that one never falter, only that that one always strives to correct and avoid such failures. By making clear these distinctions in the understanding of moral perfection, Smith not only rescues this idea but also deepens our conception of the virtues as a whole.
Smith extends her analysis of Rand’s ethics into areas that Rand did not touch on or only dealt with in minor ways. She discusses four traits that are traditionally considered to be virtues: charity, generosity, kindness, and temperance. Smith concludes that none merit the status of virtue and that what is right in these putative virtues is incorporated into the major virtues that she has explained in the previous chapters.
There is a lot worthwhile in this chapter, but one of its main weaknesses is that Smith does not, in a clear and unambiguous fashion, explain what the conditions are for a trait or disposition to count as a virtue. The main condition on which each of the four she discusses appears to come up short is that they are not universally applicable. They are not activities that “a person should adopt as his regular, standing policy.” The activities that these four conventional virtues recommend are often appropriate, sometimes even required. Nonetheless, they are not always appropriate and so, according to Smith, fail to be virtues. However, she does not explain why this condition of pervasiveness is so essential for something being a virtue or why these traits cannot be considered merely minor or restricted virtues.
Smith could have benefited from considering the analysis that David Kelley offers in Unrugged Individualism. In this monograph, Kelley extends Rand’s ethical reasoning to defend the egoistic basis of the virtue of benevolence. As a precursor to this, he offers an analysis of what makes a trait a virtue and draws a helpful distinction between major and minor virtues. Major virtues are aimed at fundamental values and facts of one’s life, and minor virtues deal with values and facts less significant. This distinction allows us to identify restricted virtues that require actions only in certain areas, but it also explains why the major virtues have to be universal: They deal with fundamental and major issues present in all of one’s life. Smith’s verdict on the four conventional virtues may have turned out the same, but her analysis would have been stronger and clearer had she made use of Kelley’s analysis or something like it.
In many ways Smith's book is a triumph and in other ways a disappointment.
In many ways Smith's book is a triumph and in other ways a disappointment. Clearly written in straightforward and readable prose, it demonstrates a thorough and deep knowledge of Objectivism . She makes a significant contribution to the Objectivist literature by integrating Rand’s letters and journals into the arguments for the Objectivist ethics. Yet, it is disappointing because it repeats some of the errors of traditional Objectivist scholarship. She flatly ignores significant chunks of relevant Objectivist literature that do not precisely conform to her favorite interpretation. This weakens the scholarship of the book, as we see in the chapter on the conventional virtues and in other parts of the book.
There is also a hope in the beginning that Smith will more fully engage the philosophical literature beyond Objectivism . She starts out by connecting Objectivist ethics to contemporary virtue ethics and discusses some of the contrasts between the two approaches. This analysis, however, is brief and does not continue in the body of the book. Smith is at her best when she brings together Objectivist thinking and more mainstream philosophical thinking and shows the superiority or compatibility of the Objectivist analysis. But she does not do this enough. Her book would have been stronger and more effective if she had.