The Night Watchman

A Small Beacon in the Night of Unreason
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Smith, Rand and Flew - Examination of a Folly

This is an answer to a piece of nonsense by Anthony Flew, published in a small conservative magazine called Taurus in 1981. I sent my reply to the magazine, but never received an answer. And I am afraid my reply was en example of "throwing pearls to swine".

Any attempt at a serious discussion about the philosophy of Ayn Rand is, no doubt, a very laudable thing. Professor Anthony Flew has made this attempt in a two-part article (Taurus 1-2/1981). I am sorry to say, though, that he has failed, and failed miserably.

This failure may be summarized in two points. Firstly, in discussing Miss Rand's views on egoism and altruism, professor Flew systematically misses the point. Secondly, although his whole piece is entitled "From the Virtue of Selfishness to the Invisible Hand" and is built around this dichotomy, it is not at all clear in what way those two constitute mutually exclusive alternatives. On both points the reader is left, if not actually in the dark, then certainly in a mist.

I shall try to show what I mean by taking up professor Flew's main arguments one by one.

The gist of his first argument is as follows: traditionally, the term "selfishness" is one of opprobrium; this tradition must not be challenged; Miss Rand challenges it; ergo Miss Rand is wrong.

Flew does not put it in those gross terms. He actually states the traditional view in an admirably clear sentence:

When I strive to maximize my own utilities I am selfish only when and in so far as my striving tresspass against the rights of other people.

From Flew's account one would never guess that Rand has ever given a thought to this seeming truism. But in fact one only has to go to the third page of the Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness to find this very straightforward answer:

If it is true that what I mean by "selfishness" is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man - a man who supports his life by his own efforts and neither sacrifices himself nor others.

Of course, this statement may be debated. What is significant, however, is that Flew does not debate or challenge is, he merely pretends it has never been uttered.

The second argument is that Rand attacks a strawman: altruism, or unselfishness, is not merely evil but impossible to practice, so why fight it?

Now, this very point of altruism's impracticality is taken up so many times in Miss Rand's writings that quotations are superfluous. (I will just give one, which should be fairly well known: "Don't bother to examine a folly - ask yourselves only what it accomplishes." Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead.) The point in essence is this: when you preach a morality that is either impracticable or suicidal, the result - and the motive - is to induce unearned guilt.

Professor Flew's ignorance on this point is quite enigmatic. How can he possibly miss something that is repeated countless times in the work he is discussing? Possibly he himself has taught the tenets of self-sacrificing action "by reference to actual cases" and "by reference to specimens that are at the same time models to be imitated1)" for such a long time that he has good reason to be defensive. That is, if he does not simply base his discussion on an extremely superficial reading.

However that may be, one can hardly argue against a theory, much less against an integrated philosphy, while ignoring or circumventing the essential points of it. This has a peculiar effect on the rest of professor Flew's article. While reading it, I feel almost like a drunk who sees every object in double exposure. Two Rands are evoked in my mind, firts the Rand I have studied, and then, superimposed on that, the Rand about whom Flew is arguing. Sometimes the images mingle, sometimes they drift apart. For example, at the end of section (2), I cannot for the life of me figure out whether Flew wants to contrast Rand's and Aristotle's views on sacrifice, or whether he wants to demonstrate that they are in essential agreement. Knowing Miss Rand's works fairly well, I would say the second interpretation is the correct one; sensing professor Flew's ignorance on the subject, I would guess he intends the first one; choosing between the alternatives makes my mind reel.

I must mention another weirdity that occurs at the end of section (1): desires can be either selfish or unselfish or neither, according to Flew. Now, the only "unselfish" desire I could think of would be a desire for its own non-satisfaction, such as "wanting to marry the girl one does not want to marry". Psychologically possible perhaps, but logically?

We may however leave this conondrum aside. For again Flew manages to miss (or side-step) a basic Objectivist tenet: that desires (or feelings) are not and cannot be valid criteria in ethics. The whole point of ethical egoism is that one must find out, analytically (and not emotionally) what actually constitutes one's own selfish interests. (This, by the way, is quite plainly told in Nathaniel Branden's article, "Isn't everyone selfish?", the one which professor Flew refers to.)

In view of that above, the dangling participle which introduces section (3) of Flew's article ("These things now being understood...") dangles not only in the purely grammatical sense. He then goes on to dictate, not only what his readers should now understand, but also what they should feel embarrassed about. This kind of insolence may safely be disregarded. The philosophical issue that Flew takes up deserves a bit of analysis. The idea that there is no conflict between rational men ("true Objectivists"), according to him, is a common feature to both Objectivism and Marxism.

Now, this idea is not as novel, nor as paradoxical, as Flew seems to imagine. In fact is is found in slightly different wordings throuhout the free market tradition, from Smith via Bastiat up to Mises (and, I hope, beyond). The latter calls it "the harmony of rightly understood interests". The emphasis here is on "rightly understood". There obviuously can be no harmony between wrongly understood interests (or, as I think Rand would put it, between men who permit themselves to be irrational.)

The point here is that one has to be able to perform a process of abstraction in order to grasp the harmony of interests. The concrete-bound mentality kills or gets killed. The slightly less concrete-bound at least tries to make friends. Thinking men (including the Rand hero) engage in trade. Non-thinking men (including socialists, fascists and a great many others) pervert trade into warfare. A great philosoper, like Spinoza, sess everything "sub specie æternitatis". A slightly smaller philosopher, like Marx, sees everything as a "class struggle".

Now, what is the real difference between Objectivism (and "Austrianism") on one hand, and Marxism on the other? It is the time element. There is all the difference if the world between "there is" and "there will be". The Utopian has to place his conflict-free society in the distant future (actually, outside reality). The "true Objectivist" (I am using here professor Flew's terminology, which is slightly inaccurate but no doubt well-meaning) achieves it right here and now by being able to think in broad abstractions.

(All this has to do with a peculiar feature of the Hegel-Marx tradition. These philosophers regard abstractions as some kind of living entities. Therefore, their conflict-free state has to be "born" out of conflicts. The notion of abstract principles as something to be applied to concrete reality if foreign to them.)

Flew's contention, in section (3), that Rand "collapses the distinction between rights and interests" sounds rightly interesting. But his argumentation for it is unintelligible. It is unintelligible for the simple reason that he never attempts a definition of the concepts involved ("rights", "interests"). Moreover, his reasoning ends up in a flat, prima facie contradiction: that the concept of "obligation" can be somehow divorced from the concept of "right". (If I have an obligation toward another person, he has a right to demand that I fulfill this obligation; if he has no right, I have no obligation to fulfill. I may of course act out of generosity, but that is another thing. To make generosity the sine qua non of morality is of course the big trick of altruism.)

Let me proceed now to the second main point. Is the dichotomy Rand/Smith a true one or a false one?

Professor Flew is extremely vague on this subject. He freely acknowledges that Smith's famous words about the butcher's benevolence and self-interest have a "Randian" ring about them. What does he say on the other side? Not much. He notes that Rand seems to be more interested in producers than in consumers. That is all.

What is significant here is what he does not mention (and this ties in with his views on altruism versus egoism). Rand has repeatedly argued that capitalism is being destroyed not so much by its avowed enemies as by its own alleged defenders - and mainly by their attempts to base capitalism on the altruist morality.

This is a horrible accusation and one which should encounter serious opposition - if it were false. Yet it is never discussed outside "the sadly thin ranks of Objectivists" (to quote another of professor Flew's snide sallies). Why this avoidance? Why write page after page, purporting to show how "un-Randian" Smith is and how "un-Smithian" Rand, without ever mentioning the real dividing issue?

Smith saw what had not been seen before, namely that self-interest is a useful thing, something that has good consequences. But he never went so far as to say it is morally good, a value in its own right, a value to be fought for, and not just the Mephistopheles of the Market Economy.

And therefore, while Smith left us a great heritage and inaugurated the science of economics, he also left us with a lethal contradiction, and thus opened the field for any Keynes to come along and tell that the evil is useful and the good useless.

The Invisible Hand does work. The self-interest of each individual does combine to create prosperity for all. What one may wonder at is the fact that the Hand works even while being crippled by a morality that brands self-interest as immoral. One might only guess at how much better it would work in an uncrippled state.

Something should be said also about the producer-consumer nexus. When one says that the consumer is "sovereign" in the market economy, one refers to the fact that the consumer can always abstain from buying. What is overlooked is the fact that the producer is as sovereign as the consumer, because he can abstain from selling. In fact, the consumer who abstains from parting with his money ("buying") ipso facto abstains from selling the product of his efforts.

One must understand that there is no such thing in real life as a class of "producers" and another class of "consumers". Those terms do not refer to different persons, but to different aspects of the same individuals.

Furthermore, there is within each individual a hierarchy between the producer aspect and the consumer aspect. In order to consume, one first has to produce something to consume. In order to engage in an exchange of products (buying and selling), one must first have produced something to offer in exchange. Man the producer is primary, man the consumer secondary. The "sovereignty" of the consumer presupposes the sovereignty of the producer.

Therefore, if "[Ayn Rand's] words are largely about, and seem in the main to be directed towards an elite of the creative" (Flew, section 6), this may be taken to express a social philosophy. But more importantly, her words are directed towards the best within each one of us, the creative or productive faculty on which all comsumtion ultimately rests. No one can live as a "pure" consumer, having only his need to offer; everyone must live according to his ability. This holds true, not only for the "actual or potential enterprisers", but fully as much for the "immemorable mass". No single part of that mass can just stand there, waiting for spill-overs to enjoy. Those who try sooner or later get what they deserve.

I hope that these reflections may help to clear the mist I talked about in the beginning of this article. I want to emphasize that they are my reflections and not an attempt to express any kind of collective Objectivist opinion. (It is a basic Objectivist tenet that one must rely upon one's own judgement and bear responsibility for that judgement.)

Eskilstuna, Sweden, October 11, 1981
Per-Olof Samuelsson


1) Flew writes "initiated", but I suppose this is a typo.


Post scriptum 2007: Flew has recently achieved some herostratic fame by abandoning atheism. Surprised, anyone?


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