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A Reply to Huemer on Ethics

by Richard Lawrence

Michael Huemer (who was commonly known on the internet as "Owl") is the author of a lengthy essay, "Why I Am Not an Objectivist." The following essay is a response to some of the issues he raises. The original version was written as a post to the newsgroup humanities.philosophy.objectivism in April 2000 (although some of the material in it was drawn from earlier posts). This version has been revised from the original. Interested readers can find the original posting and the responses to it in the Google archives. (Anyone reading the archived discussion should remember that the essay on this page has been updated to correct deficiencies in the original.) For the benefit of those searching for detailed discussion of Rand's ethical egoism, I have added suggestions for further reading at the bottom of the page.

Prefatory Note

Huemer's lengthy essay covers a variety of topics, but I will be confining my comments to a small subset of his arguments -- specifically, issues from Section 5 ("More on Ethics") -- and spending no more time on any of them than I think they warrant with regard to Objectivism per se. This leads to me giving short shrift to some sections that I don't think have much in the way of implications for Objectivism. These are mostly minor items that have little direct impact as criticisms of Objectivism, since for the most part it does not make the claims that Huemer addresses at length in those portions of his essay. Also, to keep the length of my own essay more reasonable, I have limited the amount of quoting that I do from Huemer's essay. The original is readily accessible, so I don't think this should be a major issue. My responses follow Huemer's arguments as he presented him and are subdivided based on the section headers from his essay.

The content of my responses is as follows:

Response to 5.1. "The Value of Life"

In this section, Huemer argues at length that merely defining "good" as "promotes (my) life" is not a sufficient defense of egoism. For the most part, I consider this to be an extended proving of the obvious -- although I do think it could lead some to incorrectly infer that the definition of the term "good" (or some equivalent) is irrelevant to ethical argumentation. Overall, though, I see little direct relevance to Objectivism here, although Huemer is evidently attempting to be as thorough as possible in his arguments against egoism in general. (Here and elsewhere in this response, when I refer to "egoism" unmodified, I mean ethical egoism, and I presume Huemer does as well.)

Response to 5.2. "Rand's Derivation (?) of Egoism"

This is another section about which there is little to say, because in it Huemer says little about Objectivism. Although he says in section 3.3 that he cannot follow Rand's basic meta-ethical argument (which leads directly to her argument for egoism), he declares here that, "As far as I know, no ethical egoist has ever offered any non-question-begging argument for the conclusion that we ought only to promote our own interests ...." His criticism of Rand in section 3.3 can be summarized as, "I don't understand her argument, but it must be in error, because all arguments of this type are in error." In the circumstance, it would seem that nothing short of a recasting of "The Objectivist Ethics" to achieve Huemer's understanding would suffice to address that sort of "objection," and that might not even be enough. I am not going to attempt this within the time and length limitations I have for this essay. (Readers who are familiar with Rand's essay on "The Objectivist Ethics" and would like a more detailed, philosophically technical explanation of the basis of the Objectivist ethics should read Tara Smith's Viable Values, an academic study on this very subject.)

The remainder of this section is similar to (and may simply be a rehash of) the straw man version of Rand presented by James Rachels in The Elements of Moral Philosophy (cf. Chapter 6 of that book). Huemer at least has sufficient understanding to say only that Rand "comes close to offering" this argument, rather than attributing it to her outright. Absent some effort by Huemer to claim that this argument really is one intended by Rand in support of egoism, I see no need to consider it further.

(In an essay written subsequent to this one, Huemer has offered another, alternative reconstruction of Rand's position. It would go well beyond the scope of my essay to include a detailed critique of this additional work by Huemer. I will therefore content myself with saying that this subsequent reconstruction also misrepresents Rand's views, although it is much closer than the attempt in "Why I Am Not An Objectivist.")

Response to 5.3. "Is Egoism Self-Evident?"

No, egoism is not self-evident, and an Objectivist who made such a claim would be undercutting his own supposed philosophy. As Huemer puts it in a parenthetical: "I am not saying an Objectivist egoist would appeal to self-evidence; I am just considering the possibility." Since such a claim would fly in the face of Rand's own explicit arguments for egoism, this portion of the essay is not directly relevant as an argument against Objectivism. However, Huemer's positioning of egoism as supposedly self-evident in the eyes of its supporters also has an impact on later portions of his critique.

At this point, an odd thing happens to the outline of Huemer's arguments. The next six sections are numbered 5.3.1 to 5.3.6, and are introduced as follows:

How do we resolve a dispute when one person says that p is self-evident, and another says that the denial of p is self-evident? [...] One way is to test the principle in specific cases. [...] Another way would be to draw out the logical relations of the principle to other principles that we hold. [...]

Both of these methods may be applied to the issue of egoism. As far as I know, they are the only ways to test the thesis of ethical egoism.

The implication of the outline and Huemer's comments would seem to be that the discussions in the next six sections are all oriented towards disputing the idea that egoism is self-evident. But since Objectivism does not include such a claim, that interpretation would make a large portion of Huemer's ethical discussion irrelevant to the ostensible topic of his essay! I believe his arguments are intended to have a broader effect than that. Arguments against egoism would presumably be acceptable even if egoism is not held to be self-evident -- indeed, they would appear to be even more relevant in that case. Therefore, although a dismissal on grounds of irrelevance would be a great way to save time and verbiage, I will consider each section in its turn. (In subsequent discussions well after this essay was originally written, Huemer has indicated that he did not mean to imply that all of his subsequent arguments were directed only at a version of egoism that was claimed as self-evident. He intended them to be arguments against egoism in general. However, as discussed later in this essay, the assumption that egoism is considered self-evident -- rather than grounded in some specific arguments and supporting philosophical structure -- is crucial to making some of his arguments against egoism seem plausible.)

Response to 5.3.1. "The Use of Hypothetical Examples"

In this section, Huemer argues in favor of "the use of hypothetical examples to test moral principles." Although Objectivism per se does not inveigh against hypotheticals, Huemer correctly notes that many Objectivists often object to them. The most common objection is "that the hypothetical examples do not represent reality," an objection that is "vaguely felt by many who object to thought experiments in philosophy in general" -- i.e., not just by Objectivists and not only in regard to ethics.

Huemer argues that this objection is in error. He correctly argues the following:

You can validly deduce a categorical proposition from hypothetical premises. For example:A -> (B -> C).

B -> not-C.

Therefore, not-A.

is a valid form of inference, where the "->" stands for the "if ... then" relation (i.e. "If x were true, y would be true")

Insofar as this argument is applicable, it shows that it is not valid to object to a hypothetical simply because the example is not true in reality. However, as the examples Huemer himself uses later show, there can be other grounds for objecting to arguments based on hypotheticals. Huemer has significantly understated the possible motivations for the "vaguely felt" dislike of hypotheticals.

The simple example that Huemer gives for this type of argument in action immediately shows one of those other objections:

The typical form of thought-experiment-based arguments in moral philosophy is as follows: "If moral theory T were true, then in situation S, it would be right to do A. But in situation S, it would surely be wrong to do A. Therefore, T is false." Notice that this form of argument is perfectly valid: the conclusion deductively follows from its premises (it's a variant on modus tollens).

Taking Huemer's model (the symbolic argument quoted earlier) and expressing it in this sample argument shows an important difference between symbolic models and real disputes. The difference lies in the affirmation of the equivalent of the "not-C" from Huemer's model. In the model, we can simply postulate that "B -> not-C" is true. But when the example argument says, "in situation S, it would surely be wrong to do A," then we are just as "surely" justified in asking why A would "surely be wrong." Huemer's sample is admirably true to the usual course of such arguments: it offers no evidence for that assertion. In the model, "B -> not-C" is a premise, and that is exactly what it is in the sample argument as well (and Huemer identifies it as such, although he does not emphasize the point). As is obvious from his arguments elsewhere, Huemer's ultimate defense for such premises in these arguments is an appeal to moral intuitions. I will touch on that issue again later, but for now I think it is sufficient to point out that the mere expression of such a premise is hardly enough to make the argument sound. In any instance where it turns out that "B" does not imply "not-C" (or where it cannot be shown one way or the other, in spite of the use of biased terminology like "surely"), an argument of this form will fail.

Response to 5.3.2. "The Case of the Hurried Objectivist"

Huemer next provides a more detailed hypothetical example that is supposed to serve as an argument against egoism. But far from being a good argument, this example serves as a showcase for the shortcomings of certain types of hypotheticals. Since there are several problems to discuss, I have broken the discussion into subsections.

Problem 1 -- The Case of the Complex 'B'

First, his example shows the misleading nature of representing such arguments as simply as "A -> (B -> C)." The "A" is supposed to be egoism, which Huemer claims is supportive of "B -> C," where "B" is his hypothetical scenario and "C" is the conclusion that one should kill strangers on the street. Of course, "B" is hardly a simple premise -- it is a scenario that includes several different assumptions, both about ordinary factual circumstances and about the nature of human psychology, social relations, etc. A better representation would be "A -> ((B1 & B2 & B3 & B4 ...) -> C)."

Far from denying this complexity, Huemer embraces it: "The creator of the counter-example gets to stipulate what goes on in the example. So I get to stipulate, by fiat, that, in the hypothetical situation, I do not receive reprisals for my action, et cetera." It is with these stipulations that Huemer is able to cash in on the background of assuming that egoism is supposed to be self-evident. If egoism is not grounded in any facts of reality (beyond its own "self-evidence"), then Huemer can demand that it apply to any stipulations of unreality as well.

Huemer apparently believes the use of stipulations is essentially unlimited. "The only thing that I do not get to stipulate is the verdict on the example," he declares. But if that is his belief, he is wrong. The creators of hypotheticals can and do sometimes stipulate themselves into irrelevance. They do this in one of several ways: 1) stipulating contradictory or incompatible premises, or 2) stipulating premises that make the theory they are testing inapplicable to the example, or 3) stipulating premises that make it impossible in practice to know what would be the conclusion of the theory being tested.

It is easy enough to understand the problem with (1) -- inconsistent premises can be held to imply any conclusion one wishes, and thus imply nothing in particular -- but (2) and (3) probably require more explanation. An example of (2) might be stipulating that the sole character in the example is a robot with no ability for moral choice, in a hypothetical case that is intended to test which of two choices is right. Such a stipulation renders the example useless, because the claim to be tested is only relevant in a situation where moral choice exists. To put it another way, the existence of moral choice is a foundational requirement of the claim being tested, and any example used as a test will only be relevant if it does not contradict that foundational requirement. Similarly, if the purpose of Huemer's example is to test a particular theory of egoism, he cannot create a situation where the foundational requirements of that theory are not present.

The above shows why Huemer's use of "self-evident" egoism as the standard is critically important. Since neither Ayn Rand nor any other Objectivist that I know of ever claimed that her moral theories were self-evident, Huemer's stipulations must be examined for the possibility that one or more of them contradict foundational requirements of her moral claims. Unfortunately that is not possible, because he has not specified all of his stipulations, and probably doesn't even know what all of them would be. He has simply rested on the idea that he can make unlimited stipulations with impunity, which is in fact not true.

Situation (3) occurs when the premises stipulated are such that it is impractical to apply the theory being tested. This typically occurs because the stipulated premises are vague or ambiguous, leading to more than one possible conclusion. It can also occur because the theory being tested is "underdetermined" for that set of premises -- that is, there is no fixed conclusion supported by the particular set of premises. For example, if Huemer presented us with an example of an anonymous person contemplating whether to have broccoli or asparagus for lunch, and asked which one that person should choose, we would not be able to determine a specific answer. (I do not believe this particular objection is applicable to Huemer's "ray gun" scenario, but I include it because it is one of the possible problems with hypothetical examples.)

Problem 2 -- Who Says A -> (B -> C)?

Unfortunately for Huemer's argument, not being able to freely stipulate creates another problem, one which he already recognizes and which explains why he needed to defend unlimited stipulation in the first place: For a given set of realistic circumstances, a particular egoistic theory might not lead to the conclusion Huemer says it does. In the typical pattern for such examples (which he follows), the conclusion that "B -> C" is not one that was made beforehand by supporters of theory 'A'. Instead, it is a conclusion that an opponent of the theory has drawn up as part of the effort to refute it. The actual supporters of the theory (in this case, egoism) are not committed beforehand to this analysis, and may very well disagree with it. If they have a good case that egoism does not lead to "B -> C," then Huemer's argument against egoism falls apart.This possibility is supposed to be made moot by Huemer's unlimited stipulations:

But even if the egoist is able to think of some very plausible harm that I would be likely to suffer from killing another person, I will just modify the example to remove it.

However, if unlimited stipulations are not allowed -- and they cannot be, for the reasons discussed above -- then objections of the type described dismissed by Huemer can be fatal to particular examples (assuming they haven't already fallen prey to Problem 1 above). That doesn't mean that Huemer can't try, of course, but it does mean that he cannot appeal the blanket idea that he could come up with an example where "A" does imply "B -> C," if he simply added in enough stipulations.

Problem 3 -- Hurray for C!

As Huemer notes, an alternative possibility to Problem 2 is for egoists to, in his words, "Reject the intuition." That is, they could accept that it is true that "A -> (B -> C)", but say that there is nothing wrong with that. In other words, they could claim that "C" is actually a morally acceptable outcome in situation "B". When the outcome is one that would normally be considered immoral and even horrifying -- in one of Huemer's examples, killing a homeless man, in another the deaths of four million people -- then people are often reluctant to take such a stance. However, it is not clear that such reluctance is justified. The scenarios typically set up to lead to such conclusions are far from commonplace situations, and thus there is often no reason to think that any ethical evaluations made in such a hypothetical situation have implications for real-world situations. For his more detailed example, Huemer finds it necessary to equip himself with a disintegrator gun, as well as making several dubious stipulations about social conditions and human psychology.

Why should any ethical analysis for such a way-out situation, however repulsive the conclusion may seem, affect our acceptance of one ethical theory versus another? Imagine that Huemer got Objectivists to agree that if rat poison were safe and nutritious for human beings, it would be acceptable to sell it as food. It would be very misleading for him to turn around and say, "Objectivists think it is sometimes OK to sell rat poison as food! They're evil!" To develop a hypothetical filled with assumptions that are not true in the real world, and which probably never will be true in the real world, and then denounce a moral theory for the conclusions it draws from it, is no less inappropriate than the rat poison example.

Huemer's position that such denunciations are warranted is based on his acceptance of ethical intuitionism -- the belief that, as he describes it later in his essay, "some moral principles are self-evident" and that these can be known through the "direct awareness that reason provides us." On the basis of this intuition, Huemer can declare that evilness of certain outcomes is self-evident. For those who choose to dispute his claims, Huemer moves quickly to what is commonly the ultimate resort of intuitionists -- what Rand called the Argument from Intimidation:

If someone says this, then I have nothing further to say. One who would say this is either insincere or morally corrupt.

Rand explicitly (and correctly) rejected this type of response as "a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent's agreement." Later in her essay on the subject, she wrote:

[A] moral judgement must always follow, not precede (or supersede) the reasons on which it is based .... [T]o condemn without giving reasons is an act of irresponsibility, a kind of moral "hit-and-run" driving .... ("The Argument from Intimidation" in The Virtue of Selfishness)

Now, Huemer would undoubtedly object to this characterization. He has a "reason" for denouncing anyone who endorses "C": his "direct awareness" of the supposed moral facts. For non-intuitionists, however, it is clear that despite his protests to the contrary, all this so-called awareness amounts to is "an inarticulate sense of something caused by one's experience with similar situations" (to use a description that he says does not apply). In other words, Huemer feels that "C" must be wrong. An Objectivist is likely to wonder why Huemer's feelings, even if they are shared by many others, are supposed to outweigh Rand's arguments for egoism.

At this point Huemer's use of the idea that egoism is supposed to be "self-evident" rears its ugly head again. If egoism is supposedly self-evident, then there would be no arguments for it, so we might have less compunction about rejecting it based on a contrary feeling. Rand, on the other hand, did not claim that egoism was self-evident, and did offer arguments for her ethical beliefs, so Objectivists are on much sturdier ground if they decide to reject Huemer's intuitions.

(True to his own expressed convictions, Huemer apparently decided after our initial exchanges on this subject that he has nothing further to say to me. He has killfilled my newsgroup postings so that he does not even have to read my "insincere or morally corrupt" arguments.)

Problem 4 -- Is This Objectivism?

Despite the opportunity provided by Problem 3, most Objectivists probably would not embrace the idea of disintegrating the homeless man, much less killing four million people. In fact, the obvious response that would probably be made by most Objectivists is one which Huemer completely ignores: that it would be wrong to kill the homeless man, because it would violate his rights.

Huemer does go on in his next section to claim, without reference to his previous examples, that rights and egoism are inconsistent. That claim is discussed further below. For the time being, however, I will simply note that if respect for rights is sufficient grounds for an Objectivist egoist not to pursue the courses of action Huemer claims follow from egoism, then all of Huemer's examples "refuting" egoism on the grounds that it might justify the wanton murder of innocents are irrelevant to Objectivism. Once again, the idea of a generic egoism that is claimed as self-evident is a poor match for the philosophy that Huemer is supposed to be criticizing.

Summary of the Problems with Huemer's Example

The upshot of all this is that it is by no means clear that the "A -> (B -> C)" claim is true for this example, or if it is true, whether the "A" correctly represents Objectivism as it is understood in our universe. Even if both of these could be conclusively demonstrated, Huemer has not offered any legitimate reasons for using this as a grounds for rejecting Objectivism.

Response to 5.3.3. "Egoism vs. Rights"

In this section, Huemer argues that egoism is inconsistent with rights "properly so called." To be "properly so called," he says, rights must be viewed as "side constraints," and side constraints are incompatible with egoism because egoism is consequentialist. This argument is to some extent correct: side constraints are incompatible with pure consequentialism. However, there are two significant problems with Huemer's approach.

First, although Huemer correctly attributes the description of rights as side constraints to Robert Nozick (specifically his Anarchy, State and Utopia), he fails to note that Nozick does not offer any convincing argument for why rights must be viewed this way. Nozick argues at some length that viewing rights as side constraints is not irrational, and he suggests some positive aspects of viewing rights this way, but these points are not the same thing as showing why rights must be so viewed. In Anarchy, State and Utopia, the idea that rights could be portrayed as something other than side constraints is fobbed off to an arcane footnote that doesn't actually address the issue. Huemer does not make up for Nozick's omission with any arguments of his own, so the claim that only side constraints can be "properly so called" as rights comes to us as an assertion without supporting argument. (This is not to say that arguments cannot be given for the claim that rights must be viewed as side constraints -- only that none is provided in Huemer's essay or in the source cited.)

Second, even if we accept the idea of rights as side constraints, Huemer has not shown anything about Objectivism per se in this section. Instead, the generic "self-evident" egoism with which he started the section is the only theory in play. Huemer has not shown that Rand's ethics are purely consequentialist, so that side constraints would be incompatible. Now, Huemer might respond by saying that if Rand's ethical theories are not purely consequentialist then they should not be called 'egoism', so that this term can be reserved for theories that are. However, such an argument would be one of terminology and classification, not any sort of refutation of Objectivism. In any case, a strong argument can be made that a theory which combines self-interest with a rights -- side constraint or not -- should still be described as a form of egoism -- perhaps with some modifier, such as "rights-constrained egoism."

Rand did not directly address the issue of whether rights as defined in Objectivism are side constraints or not. Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which is supposed to represent Rand's views, also does not directly address the issue. Tara Smith's Moral Rights and Political Freedom makes a case that Objectivism is better described as "teleological" rather than "consequentialist," and portrays respect for rights as a necessary instrument of that teleology. In any case, extremely strong instrumental goals and side constraints are virtually indistinguishable in practice. Incorporation of rights as either a side-constraint or as an extremely strong instrumental goal would both suffice to rule out Huemer's examples.

Response to 5.3.4. "Egoism vs. the Intrinsic Value of the Individual"

The problems of this section are essentially similar to those of the previous section. The "intrinsic value of the individual," as portrayed by Huemer, is not argued for, and Huemer's straw man of "self-evident" egoism stands in for Objectivism. Enough said.

Response to 5.3.5. "Are There Conflicts of Interest Between Rational People?"

Why this particular topic is part of section 5.3 is something of a mystery, since it has nothing to do with whether egoism is self-evident of not, or even with whether egoism is a correct moral theory. But ironically, this is one part of Huemer's arguments that actually applies directly to Objectivism, making it more relevant than most of the section.

Before I address Huemer's arguments on this subject, I want to offer a side note on an issue which I believe Huemer understands, but which is a common misunderstanding among other people who comment on Rand's position on this issue. The Objectivist idea that there are no conflicts of men's interests does not refer to the type of situation that is commonly know as a "conflict of interest," such as when a judge has to excuse himself from a case because he knows one of the parties. That type of situation is one in which an individual has two or more conflicting motives. The issue being discussed by Rand, Huemer, and me, is that of conflicts between the interests of different individuals. These are different subjects, although the terms are very similar. That said, let us get on to Huemer's arguments.

Huemer begins somewhat inauspiciously by saying, "I do not understand how Objectivists are able to maintain that there are no conflicts of interest in a rational society ..." Apparently he really doesn't understand what the argument for the Objectivist position is, because he follows almost immediately with an example that raises issues which Rand addressed in her primary article on the subject (that is, "The 'Conflicts' of Men's Interests" in The Virtue of Selfishness).

Huemer offers the following example:

Suppose I own a store, a small market. Across from the street there is another store of the same kind, owned by Bill. When a customer comes down the street, it is in my interests for the customer to enter my store. It is in Bill's interest for the customer to enter Bill's store. The customer will not enter both stores; if he goes to my store, he will not go to Bill's, and if he goes to Bill's store, he will not go to mine: a conflict of interests, pure and simple.

Presumably Huemer means to imply a situation where the customer is going to make some type of transaction that would be exclusive to one or the other store. The example continues:

Since the result that Bill's and my interests have come into conflict follows from just three propositions, there are only three ways for an Objectivist to counter this argument. The Objectivist would have to argue:

(1) That it is not in my interests for the customer to enter my store.

But this is highly implausible. [reason omitted -- I'll come back to it]

(2) That it is not in Bill's interests for the customer to enter his store.

This is implausible for the same reason.

Why does Huemer think (1) and (2) are implausible? He argues that:

If it isn't in a store-owner's interests for a customer to enter his store, why do they spend money on advertising, try to offer a wider selection or lower price than competitors, et cetera?

First, even assuming Bill and I both engage in the behavior Huemer indicates, this reasoning does nothing to show that it is in my or Bill's interests to have this particular customer come in at this particular time. It simply indicates that we want customers to come in, generally speaking. As Rand points out in her essay, conflicts of desire are easy to come by. That doesn't mean conflicts of interests exist. Rand made this point as her first major consideration in the essay: Reality. A rational egoist seeks to determine what really is in his interests, not simply what he desires. Huemer has missed one of Rand's fundamental points right off the bat.

Second, I don't find either (1) or (2) to be "highly implausible," even if one did substitute 'desire' for 'interest.' Huemer may, but that is because he is ignoring the second major consideration Rand gives in her essay: Context. (Non-Objectivist readers who dislike the term 'context' should feel free to substitute equivalent terminology that they find less offensive, such as 'circumstances.')

Let me explain in more detail for this particular example: Like most hypothetical scenarios, the one offered here by Huemer does not detail every single element of the situation. To do so would make the description of the hypothetical excruciatingly long, and probably impossible. Therefore, people naturally add in their own presumptions about the elements that aren't specified. In the circumstances that most people would automatically add into Huemer's hypothetical, it might seem implausible that I wouldn't want a customer to come into my store. But there are many possible circumstances (contexts) in which I might not want that, including:

Now, I realize that Huemer could construct a more detailed hypothetical (even without unlimited stipulations) that ruled out these specific situations. These concrete examples are simply intended as illustrations of the idea that there is an unmentioned context to the example. The point is more general than these examples: Huemer's assertion of implausibility is itself plausible only if one ignores the context in which these supposed interests occur. That context goes well beyond the sorts of concrete items I listed above. It also includes the wider moral context in which my specific interests are formed. The Objectivist ethics includes a belief in a hierarchy of values. Some potential interests are more important than others, and if a less important value is incompatible with a more important one, then the less important value is not in my interests, no matter how "implausible" that may seem to Huemer. Indeed, since my own life is my standard of value, and Bill's life is his standard of value, ultimately there can only be conflicts between our (rational) interests if there is a conflict between our lives (e.g., Bill can't live if I do). There is no reason given in the example to believe any such conflict exists. (For more lengthy discussion of this point, see Chapter 6 of Tara Smith's Viable Values pp. 182-185, paperback edition.)

In short, Huemer can only assert that that (1) and (2) are "highly implausible" by conflating desire and interest, and by ignoring the possibility of contexts in which they would be true.

Finally, whatever Huemer may think is "implausible," this argument does not demonstrate that (1) and (2) are false. In fact, at least one of them is true (in some circumstances, both may be true). Huemer's hypothetical scenario does not provide enough information to determine which of them is true, but that doesn't make them false. (Harking back to the discussion of Huemer's section 5.3.2, one problem with the hypothetical is that it is "underdetermined" on this issue.)

What information is needed to determine which is true? Answer: knowledge of what the customer's choice is. It is in both my interest and Bill's that the customer act as a rational free agent. If he doesn't, one of us might have a short-term desire met -- the desire for a customer -- but more important values would be damaged -- the value of living among and interacting with rational free agents, for example. Depending on the specifics, other important values could be in jeopardy (e.g., if the customer was not free to choose between us, then it is almost certain that our freedoms are also restricted). These broader, more important interests -- part of the context missing from Huemer's hypothetical -- are what makes one of the two possibilities true. If the customer's choice is to go into Bill's store, then it is not in my interest for him to come into mine. Thus, in that case, (1) would be true.

Technically, even to talk about the example in these terms is misleading. Remember that the purpose of my moral code is to tell me what I should do, not to tell me what I want others to do. To say I have an interest in the customer choosing to visit my store commits me to doing something that I cannot do. After all, I cannot directly choose for the customer, since his choice is controlled by his own will, not mine. (As Rand says in her essay, "Reality" is one of the key issues here, and that is the reality of the situation.) Things that I cannot do, such as making the customer's choice for him, are not part of my moral interests -- they are outside the realm of my own moral choice. I do have an interest in trying to influence the customer's choice (see below). However, just because it is in my interests to attempt to influence the customer's choice, does not mean that my interests are harmed if the customer chooses differently than I would like. I have other interests that are more important than my interest in influencing the customer.

Unlike the concrete examples of context I raised above, the issue of the customer making his own free choice cannot be waved away by changing the hypothetical. It is a universal situation for anyone who has the opportunity to live in a free society. This is Rand's major point in her discussion of "Context" in her essay.

Now let us go back to Huemer's point about store owners and their competitive practices. If Bill and I are rational and realize that it cannot simultaneously be in both our interests for the customer to enter our respective stores, then why spend money on better selections, etc.? The answer lies in Rand's last two considerations: Responsibility and Effort. In order to match my desires and my interests -- or if you prefer, to keep my apparent specific interests in line with my broader, long-term interests -- it is my responsibility to create a context in which the customer's choice matches my desires. In other words, if I want the customer, I have to work to get him. And wishing is not work -- I have to make the actual effort that is needed to accomplish that goal. Because I keep reality in mind, I know that my desire still might not be achieved, but that's OK, as long as I retain the context of my broader interests and don't start making efforts that undermine them in pursuit of that (subordinate, short-term) desire.

I will not address Huemer's possible argument (3). It is irrelevant, since either (1) or (2) is true, even if in some circumstances we do not have enough information at hand know which one is true.

And, lest someone want to come forth with yet another example of the same objection, let me note that the general reasoning applied to the example above can be applied to any other specific example. As long as one follows along with Rand's four considerations -- Reality, Context, Responsibility and Effort -- any such apparent conflict will resolve itself by reference to the actors' more important interests. All of which was of course the point of Rand's essay, whether Huemer understood it or not.

Response to 5.3.6. "The Fundamental Contradiction of Egoism"

Huemer quotes a well-known criticism of egoism:

G.E. Moore identified the following as the fundamental contradiction of egoism (Principia Ethica, section 59): The egoist says that each person ought rationally to hold, "My own happiness is the sole good": "What egoism holds, therefore, is that each man's happiness is the sole good - that a number of different things are each of them the only good thing there is - an absolute contradiction!"

This argument is little more than a facile misrepresentation of any theory of egoism, including Objectivism. Egoistic ethical theories, Objectivism explicitly included, are agent-relative (this term should not be confused with "relativism," which is something different). That is, "the good" is that which is good for a given person -- it is that which serves that person's interests. Egoistic theories do not claim that there is such a thing as "the sole good" that is held in common by all individuals.

If one accepts that what is good is agent-relative, then any well-formed statement about something being good should specify to whom that thing is good. Not doing so creates an ambiguous statement, which can lead to fallacious inferences, such as Moore's claim above. "My own happiness is the sole good, and your own happiness is the sole good," sounds like a contradiction when you use the ambiguous phrasing, but "My own happiness is the sole good for me, and your own happiness is the sole good for you," is less problematic. (To prevent any confusion, I should note that the phrasing Moore uses, "My happiness is the sole good," does not match Rand's terminology. Rand expresses the issue of agent-relativity in terms of value -- "The concept 'value' ... presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?" -- and refers to each individual's achievement of his own happiness as his "highest moral purpose." ["The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness, emphasis in original])

The "fundamental contradiction" turns out to be a fundamental red herring.

Response to 5.4. "My Ethics"

In this final subsection of his Section 5, Huemer briefly describes his own ethical intuitionism, and addresses some possible objections to it. This section does nothing to directly critique Objectivism. Therefore, I will not address it here. Readers can refer to my comments on intuitionism in my response to subsection 5.3.2 for a little more insight into my thoughts on the matter. Suffice it to say that Objectivism is certainly not compatible with ethical intuitionism, and I do not find intuitionist claims at all convincing.

Further Reading

As this essay has been online for several years now, I have noticed that it is often found by people searching on more general subjects, such as "ethical egoism" or "criticism of Objectivism." This essay covers a very specific set of issues, based on arguments made by someone else, and only covers them to the extent needed to respond to those arguments. For those who are interested in more in-depth discussion of topics discussed on this page, below are some suggestions for further reading.

Books by Tara Smith:

Smith has made a career out of explaining and defending Rand's ethics in the academic arena. For those seeking a systematic and technical discussion of Randian egoism, her work is the best on the subject. I refer to the first two books in my essay above. The third was written later, and I have not revised my text to incorporate any insights from it.

Other academic explorations of Rand's ethics (mostly critical):

Notable non-academic works about Rand's ethics:

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention Rand's novels, notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, as important sources for understanding how Rand envisioned her ethics being practiced.

Additional keywords: Ann Rand, Anne Rand, Any Rand

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