Rights, Egoism, and the Foundation of Ethics I , By Joshua Zader

This essay was orginally published on 2 Aug 1996 on OBJECTIVISM-L@cornell.edu.

The following brief essay outlines a perspective I take on the foundations of Ayn Rand's ethical system. To start, I would like to paraphrase two examples of a certain argument I have seen made on several occasions by enthusiasts of Rand's philosophy.

1. Sure it's immoral to break into somebody's house, but the real reason is that it's not in you long-term self interest: every time you pull off a heist, there is a significant chance you will be apprehended, prosecuted or even killed. 2. You should never copy music from a friend's album. Doing so reduces the musician's incentive to write, the producer's incentive to record and the record label's incentive to distribute. In the long run it hurts you, the music lover. You should respect copyrights because it's in your self-interest.

The thrust of each of these arguments is that the logical justification for respecting rights lies in the egoistic reasons for doing so. Why would someone make this argument? One common justification is that, quoting Rand, There are no unchosen obligations -- implying that, if we assert people have an obligation to respect the rights of others, we are appealing to a deontological ethic, one based on duty instead of selfishness. And, as we all know, Rand rejected the very concept of duty.

Before addressing whether the concept of rights is dependent in this way upon the concept of selfishness, I want to point out that the two arguments presented above are supreme examples of rationalism -- of nice, logical-sounding arguments utterly detached from perceivable reality. With respect to the first argument, how can one bear the implication that, were it practical to thieve, such would be moral? With respect to the second argument, it is simply false to suggest that copying an album instead of buying it wouldn't be to my advantage, even in the long-term; one violation is not enough to even begin bringing the predicted consequences.

If we are to argue the immorality of being thieves or music pirates, we will have to look beyond pragmatism.

Let me begin my analysis of the relationship between rights and egoism by reviewing the foundation of the Objectivist ethics. Ayn Rand's approach, as we know, begins with observing the facts of reality that give rise to the need for a code of action. Her principal metaphysical observation is that life is an end in itself. Combined with the fact that human life is sustained by the exercise of reason -- and the fact that the exercise of reason is a volitional process -- we reach the ethical premise that each human life is an end in itself, not a means to the goals of God, society or government.

While it is an intermediate step I have never seen Ayn Rand explicitly make, I submit that this is the most important ethical (i.e., not metaphysical or epistemological) premise at the foundation of her moral system: Each human being should be regarded as an end in him- or herself.

The premise leads us to two conclusions: that each human being should (1) act for the furtherance of his or her own life and (2) recognize that it is proper for others to further their own lives. In other words, it leads to both a selfish and a rights-based system of ethics.

Would Rand agree with the perspective I advocate here? John Galt would: I swear by my life and my love of it never to live for the sake of another man, nor to ask another man to live for mine. Or, stated positively: I swear to regard my own life as an end in itself and to regard other people's lives as ends in themselves. It should be obvious from this perspective that the concept of rights is, in fact, not dependent upon the concept of selfishness. The two concepts come into being simultaneously and because of the same facts of human nature.

Having said this, let's stop and look at what it means to regard a human being as an end in him- or herself. I have not studied Kant's philosophy carefully but I am told that, as part of his categorical imperative, he advocated that the humanity in all of us should be treated as an end in itself, to which all else should be forsaken. Only, by humanity he meant the whole scope of human interaction, including his view of the proper ethical and social structures. As only one consequence, regarding individuals as ends in themselves meant never seeing them as a means to one's own ends.

This is, emphatically, not what it means to regard humans as ends in themselves. Regarding a person as an end in him- or herself entails treating them as the proper primary beneficiary of their own actions -- i.e., as an end with respect to their *own* actions, where, in Kant's view, I should treat them as an end with respect to *my* actions. (I should mention that I think this is an important distinction to make whether I am accurately portraying Kant's view or not.)

There are other interesting points that follow from this perspective, which I will not try to address in the present essay. For example, in addition to deepening our understanding of the nature of political rights, this perspective provides a basis for understanding what might be called ethical rights, i.e., rights we possess but which should not be enforced by the government (for example, the right not to be cheated on by a lover). If a political right is the right to be treated as an end in oneself with respect to the initiation of force, an ethical right is the right to be treated as an end in oneself in *every* respect.

On second thought, since the liberals are having a hard enough time understanding political rights, perhaps we should keep the notion of ethical rights to ourselves. But I thought I would bring it up since several people have asked whether I thought people had rights other than political.

In conclusion, I want to return to the two arguments I paraphrased at the beginning of this essay. The error they make is one of hierarchy. The concept of rights is not dependent upon selfishness. And does accepting this mean we are appealing to a duty-based ethics? No, because we are not extolling unchosen obligations, but negative obligations -- that is, the duty to leave others free. But, as we can see, this is not so much a duty as an identification of the nature of human life.

I look forward to reading your comments.

Joshua Zader

Los Angeles, CA


(c) 1996 by Joshua Zader



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