Why Ayn Rand’s novels do not excite ethicists (at least not me)

We’ve been chatting over the weekend on Quora about “Why Don’t Philosophers Take Ayn Rand Seriously?” The usual responses come down to some kvetches that philosophers are all lefties and are, therefore, biased. Or academic snobbery. But I think the answer is easier than that. I think she’s got some fairly simple dictates about ethics that don’t require a lot of elaboration, and thus, there’s just not much to do with it.

Now, keep in mind, I’m talking about her novels, most of which are morality tales and meant as models for her ethics. I’m not talking about her metaphysics, which I haven’t studied.

The space for exploration in ethics as field concerns what we owe other people. Rand’s answer to that question is “nothing.” To the degree that you want to argue this position, all you have after that are consequentialist claims about how we are all better off if we just pursue our own interests and don’t interfere with others doing the same–a claim that I don’t even see Rand herself making. All she seems to care about is the singular liberty and self-ownership of individuals, and in the novels those concepts are presented as deontological. People should not interfere with other people because they shouldn’t, not because there are, necessarily, any aggregate gains from that noninterference. But let’s play along with thinking about outcomes because that’s the way I think it’s presented mostly commonly today: individuals get freedom, which is the highest priority, and society gets more–more innovations, more well-being (because we’re all pursuing our own ends and not being used as ends), more individual, and thus aggregate, utility.

If you allow the idea that we owe each other something, then you can at least spend some time thinking about what the contours of those obligations should be. There’s something to do there. If your answer is ‘nothing other than noninterference’ like Rand’s, it’s pretty much a mic drop in ethics. Instead, you spend your time, as Rand does, envisioning the possibilities of noninterference. Or you can outline what the duties and rights of noninterference entail–which also boil down to applications of negative rights.