A Dog-Eat-Dog World: Rand vs. Rawls

Today’s quiz: Match the political philosopher with his or her view of human nature.

Hint: They both believe we should design political systems for a society of rational citizens all pursuing their own self-interest.

A: You meet a man. He appears to be like you—a rational fellow looking out for himself. You recognize that his goal is the same as yours—to keep as much of his own stuff as possible and get as much of the other fellow’s as he can. A third man, similarly rational and selfish, joins you. What should you all do? You realize that with all these rational selfish individuals, there is an inherent conflict of interest. So before the fighting begins, you all strike some deal. None of you will get everything he wants, but each will walk away with something. You will each need to restrain your rational self-interest, but at least the deal keeps you all from a battle of blood and guts.

B: You meet a man. He appears to be like you—a rational fellow looking out for himself. You recognize that his goal is the same as yours—to get as much of value out of the interaction as possible. A third man, similarly rational and selfish, joins you. What should you all do? You realize that all these rational selfish individuals are different. What is valuable to one is not necessarily valuable to the other. In fact nothing the other guy has is inherently valuable to you. Really, nothing has any value in and of itself. Something has value only to the extent you keep your wits about you and act rationally. If all of you do the same, you find no conflicts of interest. No blood. No battle.

Answer: The first view of human nature is, of course, John Rawls’, and the second is Ayn Rand’s. Both of their theories presume a society of rational and selfish actors. For Rawls, the interests of everyone in such a society are inherently in conflict. For Rand they are not. For Rawls, to avoid a society red in tooth and claw, people need to restrain their rational self-interest. For Rand, to avoid a society red in tooth and claw, people need to fully exercise their rational self-interest.

This presumption of a fundamental, inescapable, metaphysical conflict of interest among rational human beings underlies everything in Rawls—the original position, the veil of ignorance, the two principles, the difference principle, the basic structure, the criteria of stability, justice as fairness, . . . everything. The premise appears on page 4 of the 514-page A Theory of Justice.

In our acquisitive culture, maybe Rawls’ presumption seems obvious. But Rand emphatically rejects it—and does so in a way only she can, that is, in a way that relies on her distinctive conception of what makes anything good or bad, better or worse, that is, on her distinctive concept of value.

Value, she says, is not intrinsic to anything. Not to money. Not to fame. Not to love. Not to food, clothing, and shelter. Not even to air. Nothing has any value to a dead man. Nothing. It is only to the living that anything has value. And exactly what has value depends on the life one leads, on the commitments one makes.

This doesn’t just mean different people like different things and so gain from trading, though it means that too. More fundamentally, it means nothing can be of value—nothing can help you lead a happy life—if you don’t live by certain principles, such as the principle that you don’t go around hitting people or taking their stuff. It’s like sports. Crossing the finish line before others is of no value unless you are playing the game and playing by the rules. For Rand, stealing things is like winning a game by cheating. To someone not paying enough attention, it might look like you have achieved something valuable, but you haven’t really.

Of course, even if you do want to follow the principles of a good life, you can still make a mistake. You can think something is good for you that isn’t. You are not omniscient or infallible. To find what is and isn’t valuable, you must, Rand says, think rationally and commit to act accordingly. Nothing, she insists, has value to an adult human outside of his or her commitment to lead a principled and rational life. Justice, integrity, honesty, productivity are values only to a person making rational commitments. All the money in the world has no value to a man who has no will to live. Absent a commitment to live and live by certain principles, even air has no value.

Consider: You meet a man. He appears to be like you—a rational fellow looking out for himself. You each seek to get as much of value out of the interaction as possible. But you find that there is value to be gained only to the extent you commit to an honest, rational, and uncoerced engagement with this fellow. Taking his stuff by fraud or force will not in fact get you something of value.

Photo of Ayn Rand

: ‘Ayn Rand’

Photo of John Rawls

Harvard University News office: ‘John Rawls’

Rand says irrational people are a threat to us. Rawls says rational people are.

This is Rand’s view: The more rational you each are, the more you have to gain from each other and the less your interests conflict.

For Rawls, it is the opposite: Another man’s rationality is a threat to you. The more rational we all are, the more our society is dog-eat-dog. The more rational your neighbor is, the bigger threat he is to you, and we need government to protect us from the rational actions of others.

For Rand, the more rational your neighbor is, the less of a threat he is to you, and we need government to protect us from the irrational actions of others.

For Rawls, we need to protect ourselves from people who would act rationally. For Rand, we need to protect ourselves from people who would act irrationally.

Now maybe my short summary of Rand here is unconvincing or even inaccurate, but this part is inescapable:

If Rand is right that there is no conflict of interests among rational men—however strange that may sound—then all of Rawls’ edifice collapses. If his system is to be marshaled in defense of socialism or liberal democracy or bleeding-heart libertarianism, someone first needs to go back, correct that error he made on page 4 and then redo the derivation of all that follows from his presumption that a society of rational men all minding their own business is a dog-eat-dog community, red in tooth and claw, and not the one of good will and benevolence that Rand envisions.

For more on Rand’s view see “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

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