Masterful Metaethics

 Posted by on 20 April 2006 at 5:52 am  Uncategorized
Apr 202006

I am reading Dr. Tara Smith’s new book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, and along the way I thought I would share little glimpses of what it is like for the benefit (i.e., torture) of those who don’t yet own it. Today’s posting is brought to you by the chapters 1 and 2.

1. Introduction

Smith opens with a brief survey of contemporary scholarly work that, as she puts it, has danced around the edges of egoism. Now, being the sort that often suffers from having the attention-span of a parakeet, I quickly began to wonder if I was going to be grinding through an entire book focused on comparing and contrasting near misses and close calls. But it soon became clear that the purpose was motivation for scholars in the ethical neighborhood to accept an invitation: Why not judge ethical egoism by squarely confronting it in its most powerful and consistent form? Smith then gives the obligatory chapter-by-chapter overview of the course that she will follow in offering Rand’s ethics for such consideration. What is nice here is that we are given more than the usual skimmable list of topics-that-shall-be-addressed in each chapter: even in this summary, Smith is busy reinforcing essentials and sketching broad, illuminating connections to orient the reader to the overall logic of the presentation and Rand’s ethical thought.

2. Rational Egoism: A Profile of Its Foundations and Basic Character

If I had to pick just one word to describe Smith’s summary of Rand’s metaethics, it would be masterful. The bulk of this chapter represents a condensing and clarifying of the work Smith did in Viable Values, to set the context for the ensuing exploration of particular virtues. Smith’s explanation traces Rand’s exposition, weaving together elements of her own prior work, Rand’s ideas, and Peikoff’s illumination in Objectivism. Along the way, her running commentary shows the relationships to wider scholarship and highlights the conceptual distinctions and clarifications needed to grasp Rand’s metaethics more fully. I call it masterful because of her pacing and clarity in laying the essentials out, her wonderful and often witty examples, her running explanation of what is important and why, the warm tone she uses to lay out hard facts of life-and-death importance, and her timing in addressing how various ideas can and should be understood (or may be misunderstood). On this last, for example, there was the discussion of how she uses “life”, “happiness”, and “flourishing” as largely interchangeable terms, with each expressing connotations that highlight different aspects of the same thing as needed. Far from waving her hands at what some have taken to be confusing and clumsy equivocation, I appreciated her explanation of how this clarifies what is at hand and strengthens her presentation.

Smith’s summary of Rand’s metaethics is so well executed that I was regularly shaking my head and smiling at how effortless she was making it look.

Coming up next: Chapter 3 on rationality, the master virtue.

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