Egoism needs Virtue Ethics

I have an intense interest in ethics and using philosophy to discover general rules for how to live life and interact with others. This passion has always lead me to take the position of ethical egoism very seriously. Ethical egoism, which i’ll just call egoism for the rest of this, is the idea that when at the crossroads morality, you ought to always choose the thing that is in your self interest. Of course egoism doesn’t mean you can’t help others or value the interest of others. Simply that the core principle that should motivate one’s moral actions should be based in self interest.
Virtue ethics is the idea that morality is not about specific actions, or specific results, but about the character of the person making those moral choices. Aristotle is the old dead philosopher often credited with its creation. He starts with idea that all people want to and should seek their eudaimonia. The simple translation of this word is happiness, but that’s a bit misleading. Eudaimonia is a much grander final goal in life. Think of it as fulfilment beyond just simple fleeting pleasures and temporary happiness. The major way Aristotle thinks we can reach such a state is through learning to live out the virtues. The virtues are the characteristics one can embody when making choices. The virtue of courage is needed to make the action to defend your community against an invader. The virtue of temperance (not to be confused with the temperance movement) is needed to learn how to enjoy alcohol in moderation without going overboard. For Aristotle, the way in which me discover the virtues is by finding the middle of two extreme vices. Courage is in between being a coward and seeking out danger for example.
Though I think this sort of middle ground approach for discovering the virtues, has its flaws, I’m very interested in the synthesis of virtue ethics with egoism. Obviously one can see where valuing eudaimonia can be interpreted as a sort of egoism. If at the core of our ethics is the question of happiness and fulfillment for ourselves, then the core is a matter of self interest. Maybe more intriguing is how virtue ethics helps us flesh out egoism. It’s not enough to say “you ought to act in your self interest”. The question that must follow is, how do we know if something is actually in our self interest or not? We could simply it down to impulsive wants, that may lead us to some confusing contradictions. I may want to shoot up heroin all weekend but I also have a value for maintaining healthy relationships with my family and friends. Both of these are my expressed values, yet It’s unlikely I will be able to successfully do both. If the standard for self interest is simply “what I want to do”, then I’m not really closer to knowing which choice is best. It may be tempting to resolve this by categorizing specific actions as good or bad. But such an approach isn’t very universalizable. Shooting up may be intuitively in the bad category, but there’s certainly cases where it might be in your self interest. Soldiers in Vietnam used heroin was a way to self medicate and deal with the horrors of war. Most of which were able to come home and quit cold turkey. This is where the virtue ethics comes in. If you want to truly act in your self interest, then the specific actions you take are less relevant than the mind set and intentions of why you took those actions. It would make sense to embody virtues and characteristics, that are universalizable, to help insure you always make the choice that is in your best interest. For example, If you want to know what the best choice to make is, then you must live with the characteristic and virtue of valuing truth and logic. This is what helps us reach a better egoism. It’s through embodying virtues that we can get closer to resolving the question of knowing what is truly in our self interest.


Queer Themes in Ayn Rand

I’m reading a very fascinating book called “Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand”. A collection of essays and articles written by feminists on Rand and her books. It’s been several years since I last read any Rand, so the book has been a very unique re-introduction to her writings and ideas.

One thing pointed out by a few of the authors has been the queer undertones in her novels. Non-monogamy is prevalent in both of her major novels Atlas Shrugged and the Fountain Head. All of her hero’s range in complicated webs of relationships. Some characters cheat on spouses in the name of authentic love. Others like Dagny find themselves passionately loving multiple partners without concern for labels or exclusivity.

Homoerotic tension is also ripe between the male heroes in Atlas Shrugged. Rearden literally has this exchange with Dagny after he meets Fransisco.

“I’m saying that I didn’t know what it meant, to like a man, I didn’t know how much of missed it — until I meet him.”

“Good god, Hank [Rearden], you’ve fallen for him!”

“Yes, I think I have.”

Keep in mind Rand was a careful writer every word on her page had meaning and justification. She once told Braden that “there was not a single word in her novels whose purpose she could not explain”. It would make a lot of sense given how Rand understood love that she’d include queerness as a theme. Love for the rational human is derived from mutual virtue not collectivist norms or pressures. Love is not about the Christian standard of one man and one woman for procreation. Love is instead a selfish action, a rebellion against selfless society that says you can not love who you wish.

I recognize Rand did say some irrational things about homosexually during interviews. A victim of the culture of her time. However, for the young queer kid who wants to love based on who they are and not who society wants them to be maybe they can find some solace in Ayn Rand’s novels. Love yourself, do not suppress your being in the name of the greater good.