Ayn Rand and the Coronavirus
Applying Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism to the Current Crisis
I’ve had a lot of time to think about how philosophers might describe the coronavirus outbreak with respect to our personal responsibilities. It seems to me that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of individualism is a good place to start. What would Rand say about it during the current crisis?
Rand believed that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. She believed this is the guiding principle of capitalism. We know the story: If each person acted in his or her best interests, then the benefits would trickle down to everyone and we would all be better off.
Rand’s philosophy of individualism has been called objectivism. It holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. Happiness is achieved through rational thought. Thus, the promotion of one’s own interests is rational and always in accordance with reason; in other words, an action is rational only if it maximizes one’s self-interest.
What is the best action for us during the crisis? Proponents of Rand would say it is to do what is necessary to protect our self-interest. On the one hand, staying at home and practicing social distancing might protect us from getting the virus. We’re told not to go out and mingle with others and to wear a facial covering if we do go out in public to protect others from being exposed to us because we may be asymptomatic.
On the other hand, we could say it’s in our best interests to hoard essential materials during the outbreak. This certainly occurred during the early stages of the virus. It’s not in our self-interest for our neighbor to buy 20 rolls of toilet paper with only one role left for us. So, here’s one problem with Rand’s theory: If each individual pursues his or her own self-interest, then someone may be worse off because we don’t have an infinite supply of certain essential products.
It gets worse when we think about state and local governments competing against each other – and the federal government – for scarce resources such as masks, protective equipment and ventilators. We’ve heard stories of one entity outbidding the other thereby driving up the price of an item for all.
How do we factor in the needs of health care workers? Don’t we want to make sure they have all the equipment they need? They are on the front lines and if they go down then there may not be enough trained professionals to care for the sick, including ourselves. We need to subjugate our own interests to theirs unless we get the virus. Thus, a common good approach to ethical decision-making makes sense.
In rational egoism, individuals are treated as ends in themselves – the ultimate value in life – not the means to the ends of others. If it’s true that the pursuit of self-interest is the rational basis for decision making and coincides with happiness, then it may seem that acting in the interests of others can never bring true happiness. If this is the case, then the sacrifices individuals make to improve the lives of others that do not create happiness for the decision maker never make sense. But, how do we account for sacrificing some of our needs and wants to benefit others because it brings a sense of pride in our actions by treating others the way we wish to be treated (The Golden Rule)? These “intangible benefits” are ignored in objectivism.
A better ethical theory is to evaluate personal responsibility from the lens of enlightened egoism. Here, we pursue our best interests but only after evaluating how our actions may affect others (i.e., the stakeholders) and the main stakeholders are the health care workers and society in general.
The reasoning goes something like this: Acting solely out of self-interest may jeopardize the health of front-line health care workers. That could make our effort to stay healthy (individualism) more difficult. If we don’t practice social distancing and isolate ourselves for a period of time, more folks in our community may become infected, which increases the likelihood that we become infected. The ethical action would then be to protect others by staying home other than to get food and medicine, both of which can be delivered.
Virtue ethics has a role to play as well in analyzing the ethics of the coronavirus. Each of us should act in accordance with positive traits of character such as truthfulness, integrity, kindness and compassion. In other words, ethical behavior should be viewed from the lens of how we act to bring happiness and meaning to our lives and the lives of others. It is a community-wide standard that could bring maximum benefit to all of us during the coronavirus ordeal.
Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on April 7, 2020. Dr. Mintz recently published a book Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior that is available on Amazon. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics.