Rand's Consequentialist Theory of Rights
by Ari Armstrong
Some commentators claim that Ayn Rand's Objectivist ethics is a deontological moral theory, at least as it pertains to political rights. Others claim that it is thoroughly consequentialist in nature. And yet others argue that Objectivism "transcends" the division between consequentialism and deontology, incorporating aspects of both. My central thesis is that the Objectivist ethics, including its theory of rights, is a variety of consequentialism. Thus, Objectivism is not deontological in any way and is antithetical to deontological ethical theories. To sustain this argument, I have to define what consequentialism and deontology mean and explain why Objectivism must be one or the other. I must also show that Objectivism is consequentialist, both by the logic of the philosophy and by the explicit writings of Ayn Rand. In the process of pursuing these points, I'll be able to place Objectivist ethical theory within the broader conceptual hierarchy of ethics.
A Difference of Interpretation
Everyone grants that Rand's ethics is egoistic at least on the personal level. That is, in that realm of activity which doesn't affect others, one ought to pursue one's (rational) self-interests. But this leaves a rather large area of ethics unspecified, as much of one's action affects the person and property of others. Rand claims that one should pursue one's own interests, and also that one should respect the rights of others to do likewise. Within the Christian tradition, these two goals, self-interest and rights-respectfulness, have been seen as antagonistic. So Objectivism must come up with a good argument relating self-interest and rights-respectfulness. Unfortunately, there's no broad agreement as to what Objectivism has to say on the matter. I'll note a few representative interpretations of Rand's theory.
R.W. Bradford, editor of Liberty Magazine, calls Rand (along with Murray Rothbard) a "moralistic" rights theorist, as opposed to a "consequentialist" political theorist. The March 1999 issue of Liberty refers to "the obligation-based libertarianism of Rand and Rothbard" (Bradford March 1999, 43). In the May 1999 issue of Liberty, Bradford confirms that by the term "moralistic" he means, "deontological." Bradford writes,
...I'm tempted to wish I'd chosen different labels for the two libertarianisms. The most philosophically descriptive labels the two approaches are probably the rebarbative terms 'deontological' and 'teleological,' since the Randian-Rothbardian approach is grounded in a theory of moral obligation, while the consequentialist approach has its origin in the ends of social and political institutions and arrangements. (30)
This conflation of Rand with Rothbard as deontological rights theorists continues throughout Liberty. An introduction to a series of articles in the May 1999 issue states,
R.W. Bradford concluded that there had been a substantial decline in the sort of libertarian thinking that emanated from Rand's non-aggression imperative. At the same time, the survey showed an increase of support for the other approach to libertarian thinking -- that liberty is desirable because it maximizes people's ability to flourish, to achieve their goals, and to be happy. (18)
So Bradford, representative of many peoples' take on Rand's moral theory, sees Rand's ethics of rights as moralistic, deontological, non-consequentialist, obligation-based, and duty-oriented.
But this interpretation strikes many Objectivists as antithetical to what Rand's theory is all about. Ayn Rand, not interested in "people's ability to flourish, to achieve their goals, and to be happy?" Are there two different Ayn Rands putting out conflicting books by the same titles? In the books I own, Ayn Rand says things like, "[T]he achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose" (Rand 1964, 27).
The philosopher Eric Mack, too, has seen Rand's theory of rights as a system of deontological constraints joined to personal egoism. He interprets Rand's view by writing,
When a person evaluates his actions, plans, and choices in terms of an outcome, he should do so on the basis of how well they serve his life and well-being. But a person must also evaluate his activity with regard to the treatment of other people that it involves. (Den Uyl and Rasmussen 1984, 157)
In other words, there is egoism AND rights theory, not an egoistic rights theory. Mack explains that Rand's burden is to demonstrate a "congruence" between egoism and respecting rights (158). This precludes the possibility of respecting rights for the reason that doing so furthers one's egoistic interests.
Will Thomas, as of April 1999 a visiting scholar at the Institute for Objectivist Studies, argued at the July 1996 IOS conference in Boulder, Colorado that Rand's theory of rights is completely consequentialist. That is, it is an extension of rational egoism. One ought to respect the rights of others because it is in one's own interests to do so. During that summer, Thomas put out a draft paper entitled, "Rights, Egoism and the Trader Principle," which to my knowledge has not been subsequently published. I expect he'll include his perspective on Objectivist rights in his forthcoming book, which he's writing in cooperation with David Kelley, head of the Institute. In his summary notes for the lecture, Thomas writes, "Rights-respecting behavior is... strictly in the self-interest of any person."
I have subsequently pushed the case that Objectivist rights are consequentialist in nature, both in moderated internet discussions and in a paper, The (Five) Objectivist Ethics.
The present essay is not the place for me to make a detailed defense of an egoist-based theory of rights. Skeptics of the theory commonly argue that it is not in the actor's interests to respect others' rights. Objectivist theory, however, provides a rich basis for believing the actor serves his or her own self-interests by respecting the rights of others. In brief, by respecting the rights of others, the actor is able to realize material gains from trading with others. Looters face retaliatory force and lose their reputations as honest traders. Those who respect others' rights also experience psychological benefits impossible to either party of a master-slave relationship. Friendship is obviously a value, as is "psychological visibility" as detailed by Nathaniel Branden in his works on psychology. For now I'll have to defer to the broader Objectivist literature concerning these issues.
Some interpret Ayn Rand (in her theory of rights) to be purely deontological, while others view her as a pure consequentialist. The third group argues that Rand's theory of rights incorporates elements of both approaches. While the possible ways of combining the two strains of thought are limitless, perhaps the most well-known approach of this type is taken by "the Dougs," Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl argue that humans are beings whose proper nature is to follow certain deontological constraints. Thus, by following such constraints, one achieves the "consequence" of living up to one's nature. While Rasmussen and Den Uyl attempt to sustain their theory independent of Rand's works, many in fact take the pair's theory as synonymous with or at least parallel to Rand's. In Liberty and Nature, the Dougs write,
Since we need to conceptualize principles for successful living (flourishing), it is important to understand the general nature of these principles, or at least the ones most properly associated with ethics. The principles we have designated as ends in themselves are also known as 'virtues.' These principles or virtues share a characteristic which transcends the usual consequentialist/ deontological way of considering rules: actions which instantiate the principles not only contribute to the achievement of our natural end (consequentialism), but the very performance of the action is itself what constitutes our natural end (deontologism). (59)
A straight-forward counter to this argument is that nothing which is merely hypothetical or potential can be regarded as "human nature." Blood, now that's part of human nature. But deontological constraints? These are intellectual constructs, and as such ought not be considered "natural" simply to make them seem obligatory.
Do Rasmussen and Den Uyl "transcend" the deontological-consequentialist division, as they claim, or do they merely create a constuctionist-dualistic theory which, as such, is fundamentally untenable? Chris Matthew Sciabarra explains the difference between constructivism and transcendence: "Rand does not literally construct a synthesis out of the debris of false alternatives. Rather, she aims to transcend the limitations that, she believes, traditional dichotomies embody" (17). Constructed dualisms are ultimately arbitrary and ungrounded in reality. For instance, one could construct a mix of Christian ethics, by which one obeys god, with an egoist ethics. Perhaps one could obey god on certain points and follow the ego on others. In terms of "the Dougs'" argument, perhaps human nature is to follow the edicts of god, so therefore the true egoist will follow such edicts.
To determine whether Rasmussen and Den Uyl have created a dualism or transcended a false dichotomy, it will be necessary to more carefully define deontology and consequentialism and examine the relationship between the two concepts.
The Meaning of Deontology and Consequentialism
A deontological ethical theory is one which considers a type of action as good or bad in itself, without regard to consequences relative to an ultimate end.
A consequentialist ethical theory is one which considers types of actions good or bad, based on the consequences of such actions relative to an ultimate end.
In deontological theories, the focus is upon the type of action. In consequentialist theories, the focus is on the consequences of action relative to an end. That is, in a consequentialist ethical theory, the point of ethics is to achieve or support some particular existential state, such as life or happiness.
Note that a consequentialist ethical theory is necessarily also a teleological one. Consequences can be measured only in reference to an ultimate end, some final telos. Without an end, consequences are meaningless and arbitrary from the moral standpoint, merely part of an eternal causal chain. "Consequentialist" and "teleological" refer to the same set of ethical theories. Why, then, the need for the two terms? The former emphasizes the results of actions, while the later emphasizes the existential state which is impacted by the results of actions. That is, a consequentialist/ teleological theory consists of both means and ends.
Rasmussen and Den Uyl's theory is not as easy to classify as, say, consequentialist egoism or deontological Kantianism. Conceivably, "the Dougs" could argue that rights-respecting behavior leads to social-utilitarian goodness. But they're not ready to accept social-utility as their ultimate telos -- they want to stick with a broad form of egoism. To the individual actor, then, the sole reason to respect rights is that doing so is in harmony with his or her "nature." The edict to respect rights, however, is not grounded in any further telos, and so it is deontological.
By the way, the "human nature" argument could be invoked with any deontological ethics. Kant could say, "Follow the categorical imperative, because doing so is harmonious with your true nature." Does that make Kant a consequentialist? Only at the risk of subverting the meaning of the concepts.
The main problem with Rasmussen and Den Uyl's theory is that it ignores the rich Objectivist foundation that establishes the respecting of rights to be in the actor's egoistic interests, apart from any hypothetical "human nature" argument. That is, if "the Dougs" are correct, all the inductive arguments about material trade and psychological visibility become irrelevant to morality. The trouble with this is that real actors, who will very likely answer the "human nature" argument with something like, "damn my hypothetical 'nature' -- I'm going to do what's good for me relative to my currently realized nature," will fail to see the genuine egoistic usefulness of respecting others' rights. If the consequentialist Objectivists are correct, this will result in harm both to the actor and to others.
Incoherent Definitions of Deontology and Consequentialism
The main objection I've seen to the claim that the Objectivist ethics is a type of consequentialism is that the terms have been mis-defined. However, my usage of the terms "deontic" and "consequentialist" is both consistent with the historical use of those terms (check any good dictionary) and internally coherent. Alternate definitions of the terms, on the other hand, are incoherent.
All the counter-definitions I've seen are of a similar type. They try to define "deontic" in terms of principles and/or they try to define "consequentialist" in terms of pragmatism.
I would first note that clear, widely used labels already exist to cover the concepts "principle" and "pragmatism," which are those very words. There's no point in making "deontic" redundant for "principled" and "consequentialist" redundant for "pragmatic." And indeed the problem with such definitions is that they leave vacant the concepts which I name deontology and consequentialism. This would be akin to defining "egoism," "selfishness," and "self-interest" to mean "egoTism," leaving no word to describe the concept of egoism in the Objectivist meaning.
Consequentialist theories may be either principled or pragmatic. Such theories as "rule-utilitarianism" are principled consequentialist. While it doesn't make much sense to talk about deontological theories apart from rules, or about pragmatic theories apart from some telos, it makes perfect sense to speak of a principled consequentialism. Therefore, defining "deontic" in terms of principles or "consequentialist" in terms of pragmatism is highly misleading, with the result that the conceptual scheme breaks down and coherency becomes impossible.
I want to head off a possible confusion on this matter. A principled consequentialist ethics need not claim that every instance of following principle will lead to good results. Indeed, the possibility of principles itself implies that people cannot perfectly predict the future. In any given instance, one might follow a principle and attain quite unexpected bad results. On the other hand, one might break a principle and accidentally achieve good results. Moral credit still goes to those who follow the principles, because in general the principles yield good results, and one cannot be held responsible for events beyond the predictive power of the ethics.
It would be a mistake to claim that, simply because principles do not always yield the expected results, the principles are dissociated from the telos and therefore deontological. The principles remain consequentialist if their purpose and sole justification is to further or sustain the telos, as in the case of the principles of Objectivist egoism.
The Deontological-Consequentialist Dichotomy
Chris Matthew Sciabarra describes Ayn Rand as a "dialectical" thinker who seeks to transcend false dichotomies and consider all things in their broader context. This view toward transcendence is the main reason some have attempted to "transcend" the deontological-consequentialist dichotomy. However, a deeper understanding of dialectics and of the concepts "deontology" and "consequentialism" suggests that this particular dichotomy is a true one.
Obviously, not every dichotomy is false. There are two other main types of dichotomies: true and relational. True dichotomies describe differences which exist in reality, such as life-death. There's no way to transcend life-death, just as there's no way to be partially pregnant. Relational dichotomies describe two aspects of a single phenomenon in reality. Relational dichotomies denote epistemological distinctions, while real dichotomies denote existential differences. An example of a relational dichotomy is mind-body. The mind-body dichotomy is false only when mind is taken to be fundamentally different than body. Once the two concepts are properly understood, the false dichotomy is transcended and the relational dichotomy achieved.
A categorized list of some of the more common dichotomies will prove helpful.
Some of these dichotomies over-lap, of course. For instance, the master-slave dichotomy is only false when one assumes those categories exhaust the possibilities. A true trichotomy would be master-slave-free person, whereas a relational dichotomy of master-slave would recognize both as aspects of a single, unfortunate phenomenon that need not exist.
True dichotomies can be further devided into two types, what I'll call true-real and true-hypothetical. A true-real dichotomy would be capitalism-statism, if we consider that capitalism exists in some form in some geographic areas, at the same time that statism exists in other geographic areas. (The two exist as a mix in America.) However, capitalism-statism is also a true-hypothetical dichotomy if we consider one element of industry in one region, which can be either capitalistic or statist but not both (at the same time and in the same respect). Similarly, life-death is a true-real dichotomy if we consider that, at the present moment, some people are alive while others are dead. It is a true-hypothetical dichotomy relative to a single person, who can be either dead or alive, but not both at once.
Another point we can glean from this analysis is that false dichotomies are the result of mis-understood relational dichotomies. For instance, the mind-body dichotomy is properly relational. However, when the nature of mind and body are misunderstood in the Cartesian sense, this mis-conception gives rise to the false dichotomy of intrisicism-subjectivism. The mis-conception of egoism gives rise to the false dichotomy of egoTism-altruism.
The legitimate dichotomies -- the true ones and the relational ones -- describe differences and relationships which exist in reality. False dichotomies are floating abstractions which arise from confused thought. Sciabarra differentiates between false dichotomies and relational dichotomies:
In some cases, the transcendence of opposing points of view provides a justification for rejecting both alternatives as false. In other cases, the dialectical thinker attempts to clarify the genuinely integral relationship between spheres that are ordinarily kept separate and distinct. (16)
Perhaps Sciabarra thought the existence of true dichotomies too obvious to merit much explicit analysis. However, the fact that the deontological-consequentialist dichotomy is a true one escapes some commentators. There is a real difference between ethical theories grounded by some telos, and ethical theories not so grounded. Or, in the eternal words of Dave Barry, "I'm not making this up!"
A Conceptual Hierarchy
What is Objectivism's place in the conceptual tree of ethical theories? A graphic representation will serve better than an explanation. Obviously, the tree is by no means complete. The "subjectivist" theories are those which claim ethics arises by whim, either on the social or the individual level. That is, there is no ultimate foundation for ethical beliefs, other than what societies or individuals happen to think at any given time. The main consequentialist theories, egoism and social-utilitarianism, may be either pragmatic or principled. (Objectivist egoism is obviously principled.) Christianity is placed as a type of deontology, but some forms of Christianity are deistic-consequentialist (serve the end of god) or even egoistic (obey god so that he'll make life good for you).
Looking to Rand's Work
Absent from much of the discussion over Rand's theory of rights are appeals to what she actually wrote about the matter. Deontological interpretations of Rand have percolated for over a decade, and they now continue by their own power, quite apart from what Rand actually wrote about rights. However, a careful reading of Rand's relevant writings reveals that she is in fact a consequentialist in her rights theory.
To be sure, those who paint Rand with a deontological brush pull out an occasional quote that might make Rand seem to share deontological sentiments. But when read carefully and in their proper context, such quotes are found to instead support a consequentialist framework for rights.
Consider an interpretation of Rand put forth by Bradford:
[T]he fact that the percentage of libertarians who do not agree with Rand's non-aggression imperative -- "no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against another" -- has increased five-fold over the past is a very powerful piece of evidence for my view that libertarians are moving away from the Rand-Rothbard position and toward the consequentialist view. (Bradford May 1999, 29)
So we can take Rand's "rights imperative" to be a cousin of Kant's categorical imperative, right? Hardly. In her essay The Objectivist Ethics, Rand sums up her position of rights rather differently: "The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others" (Rand 1964, 32). This is not an absolutist imperative in the deontological sense. Rather, a principle is a generalized description of proper action, relative to an ultimate end. As Rand puts it, a "principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes" (Rand 1967, 144), which means that a principle is supported by inductive evidence concerning the efficacy of certain types of behavior. Moreover, Rand explicitly rejects duty-bound, "deontological" ethical theories in her essay Causality Versus Duty (Rand 1982, 97). So Bradford's characterization of Rand's statement is false.
The two other quotes which are frequently mis-interpreted are also from The Objectivist Ethics. One relates to "man qua man," and the other has to do with Objectivism's "social principle." Both of these quotes fit perfectly within a consequentialist interpretation of Rand's theory of rights; neither supports a deontological interpretation. I'll here detail some of the more important arguments from that essay which relate to consequentialist rights.
First I might note that The Objectivist Ethics is reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness, a virtue which Rand defines as "concern with one's own interests" (Rand 1964, vii). Right away Rand takes issue with the supposition that "the brute's activities are in fact to one's own interest" (ibid.). That is, acting civilly is what is truly in one's own interests.
Rand could hardly be more clear when she states, "The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest" (Rand 1964, x). To make clear that by "rational" she does not mean to include possible deontological rationalistic constructs, she states further that
...man's self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest -- or of rational selfishness. (Ibid.)
Similarly, Rand does not permit a deontological interpretation of her "man qua man" standard. In the first sections of her essay, Rand argues that the telos of ethics is a person's own survival and happiness. Rasmussen and Den Uyl's supposition that "human nature" necessitates acting upon deontological constraints is foreign to Rand's thought. Rather, Rand describes the general facts of (real) human nature that ground egoistic principles. She discusses the relationship between principles and teleology:
The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value -- and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.
Perhaps the passage most often misconstrued is Rand's aside about "social principle:"
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others -- and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. (27)
A superficial reading might suggest Rand's position is that the fundamental reason one ought to respect rights is that every person is an end in him or her self. However, this would contradict the egoist framework she is at pains to lay out in the rest of the essay. Egoism recognizes that each person is an end in him or her self, but does not count that fact as the primary reason to respect rights.
What is a "social principle" for Rand? Remember that Rand defines principles as broad abstractions describing types of actions. Certainly she would not have us reify society, as she makes clear in Collectivized "Rights" in the same anthology. A social principle, then, is merely a principle active in or relative to society, rather than to a single person.
She brings up the matter of a "social principle" as an aside, after spending several paragraphs discussing those principles relevant to the single person. In this section of the essay, she is outlining principles, not providing a justification for them. The justification comes in other sections of the essay, along purely egoistic lines. To find deontological implications in Rand's paragraph on "social principle" is to read it completely out of context.
Several pages later, Rand discusses the "trader principle," which approaches the heart of what justifies rights-respecting behavior. According to Rand, "human good does not require human sacrifices" (31), which means that the egoist need not prey on others to pursue his or her self-interest. A universalized trader ethic "is the only rational ethical principle for human relationships."
"Can man derive any personal benefit from living in a human society?", asks Rand. Yes, she replies, "if it is a humansociety," which means one organized according to the "social principle" of rights. For the rational egoist, the "two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade" (32). According to Objectivism, then, the egoist has an interest in respecting the rights of others and in creating a political regime in which rights are respected universally. Only in such conditions can the egoist fully pursue his or her self-interests.
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Bradford, R.W. The Rise of the New Libertarianism, Liberty Magazine, March 1999.
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Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B. Rasmussen, Ed. Rand's Theory of Rights, by Eric Mack. The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand, University of Illinois Press 1984.
Rand, Ayn. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Signet 1967.
Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It, Signet 1982.
Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet 1964.
Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Douglas J. Den Uyl. Liberty and Nature, Open Court 1991.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Pennsylvania State University Press 1995.