What Is Included In Virtue?

Comments on Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist

Lester H. Hunt

University of Wisconsin - Madison

There is certainly a great deal in Tara Smith’s wonderful book that is worth discussing and pondering. From the many possible topics I will select one, simply on the grounds that it touches on matters that I have thought about and written on myself. It is a point on which I seem to disagree with her.

Smith remarks, in her preliminary discussion of the nature of virtue in general, that Rand’s conception of virtue differs from many traditional ones in two ways. First, many traditional theories hold that a virtue is a trait of character. In Rand’s view it is not (p. 49). Second, many traditional views hold that virtue involves doing the “the proper action with a certain spirit and inclination,” whereas Rand denies that “a particular feeling on a given occasion is a requirement of moral virtue” (p. 51). The latter denial is a potentially deep difference between Rand and the Aristotelian tradition. It has often been remarked that a basic difference between Aristotle and Kant is that Kant sees virtue as by nature standing in opposition to “inclination” (Neigung), while in Aristotle the closest concept he has to this “inclination” actually appears to be part of what virtue is. Aristotle actually distinguishes between virtue (arete) and the strength of will that enables one to do the right thing despite inclinations to the contrary (enkrateia). For him, the need to struggle to do the right thing suggests that you aren’t fully virtuous. This difference between Aristotle and Kant rests, I think, on a deeper difference, between their views on the relation (or lack of one) between emotion and reason. What I find puzzling is that both Smith and Rand are on Aristotle’s side on this deeper issue. It seems to me that they ought to agree with him on the less fundamental issue, about the nature of virtue, as well. In addition, I have a suspicion – and I will put this forth with great trepidation – that Smith has misinterpreted Rand on this point, or rather that she has over-interpreted a peculiarity of the way Rand expresses herself in certain passages in her works.

The underlying difference between Kant and Aristotle, as I understand it, is this. Kant thinks of inclinations, and for the most part emotions in general, as irrational impulses, in the sense that they are not guided by the agent’s mind. Though one’s emotional constitution is capable of being shaped by one’s moral education, the part of one’s training that accomplishes this is the part that proceeds by rote and drill. It takes place independently of the child’s still-undeveloped capacity to grasp practical principles. It is a sort of training to which not only human beings but also animals are subjected.1 Kant defines “inclination” as “the dependence of the power of appetition on sensation.”2 What he appears to mean by this is that what goes on in this part of the agent’s consciousness is due purely to what sensory experiences one has, and not to any thinking one has done on the conceptual level. Suppose we add to these ideas the plausible assumption that things that take place in the entirely sub-conceptual part of one’s mind are automatic, unchosen. Then we immediately get an interesting ethical result: namely, that one gets no moral credit for such things. One might however get moral credit for the fact that one resists and overcomes such factors, just as one does for resisting and overcoming external obstacles. And that, of course, is Kant’s view.

For present purposes, the closest corresponding notion in Aristotle’s ethics is “passion” (pathos). Aristotle speaks of the passions as logoi ennuloi.3 However one decides to translate this curious expression – embodied ideas? en-mattered essences? – it obviously is meant to suggest that the passions represent a region of overlap between conceptions and sensations, or between the mind and the body. Aristotle as far as we know never developed his views on this subject, but one plausible way to begin to do so would be this. Though it is generally true that passions are automatic and unchosen, they are the automatic and unchosen consequences of one’s evaluative thoughts and judgements. If I react with fear to an unexpected turn of events, it is because I judge it to be a threat to something I value, and this in turn is the result of a lifetime of experience and thinking (or failures to think) about which turns of events are and which are not threats, and which things I should and should not value. Most of this is material that I am not consciously aware of at the present moment, but its practical import is encapsulated in my present emotional reaction and in the resulting desire to neutralize the perceived threat somehow or other.4

I would argue that this way of developing the relation between passions and thoughts changes everything, as far as the ethical import of emotional responses is concerned, opening up possibilities that differ sharply from the Kantian position. There are two reasons for this. First, my emotional reactions reveal much about what it is that I really value. Secondly, a great many of the inputs into the thinking and failing to think that resulted in my values are factors that are chosen by me. What my emotions reveal about me, to a significant extent at any rate, is my values as formed and conditioned by my choices. That is actually close to being a statement of what it is about me that can be ethically good or bad. For completeness, we may only need to add “... as revealed in my actions.” If this is right, then the emotions that lie behind my actions can be ethically very significant.

This brings us back to the first of the two denials that I referred to at the outset: Smith’s denial that virtue is a trait of character. If the ethical value of one’s actions is to some extent based on the values from which they spring, then the acts of a virtuous person cannot exist in isolation. If my values really are my values, and consequently are embodied in my emotions, then I will characteristically act in the appropriate ways. And this does mean having traits of character.

As I have already suggested, the Aristotelian view of the emotions I have just imagined is just the one that Rand herself held. Indeed, Smith quite properly points this out in her book, though in a different chapter (and a different context) from the one I quoted earlier. As she tells us, an emotion for Rand is “an affective response to a subconscious evaluation of a perceived or considered object” (p. 70). For this reason, “emotions are the voice of values in one’s consciousness” (p. 71). Obviously, we are dealing with something like Aristotelian pathē here, and not Kantian Antrieben.

I also suggest, though with the appropriate trepidation, that there is reason to think that Rand drew that Aristotelian conclusion, that virtue, at least consummate virtue of the highest sort, includes as a part of itself not only the act but the spirit in which it is done. In a letter to John Hospers, she said: "Do you accept reason vs. emotions as a dichotomy? . . . In a man of fully rational, fully integrated convictions, emotions follow the judgements of reason as an unforced, automatic response."5 This is just what would seem to follow from the Aristotelian view of the emotions. In a person whose real values are perfectly rational and consistent, there will be no basic conflict between the emotions, nor between emotions and reason. Moreover, she is clearly saying, and quite rightly in my opinion, that a life that is integrated in this way is higher, better than one that is not.

I think the most eloquent evidence on this exegetical point comes from a source that Smith does not use very much: namely, the characterizations of the heroes of Rand’s novels. Smith, inevitably relies on the things that these characters say as evidence for Rand’s ethical views, but I think we are missing a rich source of material if we do not also look closely at what these characters are. Rand famously described her overriding purpose in writing her novels like this:

This is the motive and purpose of my writing: the projection of an ideal man. The portrayal of a moral ideal, as my ultimate literary goal, as an end in itself – to which any didactic, intellectual or philosophical values contained in a novel are only the means.6

In order to understand just what that ideal is, we should of course look at what Howard Roark says in The Fountainhead, but we should also look at how he acts, thinks, and feels. Here again I can to some extent quote Smith’s words to support my case. She points out that “in her journals, Rand describes ... Howard Roark ... as acting, when confronting difficult decisions involving his values, as if he sees only one choice open to him” (p. 52). Smiths, admittedly, a rather different conclusion from this evidence than I would. She says: “Rand sees no value in struggle per se.” That is, Roark would get no extra moral credit, as it were, if he had to wrestle with himself, Kant style, in order to make the right choice. This is of course true. But surely there is more to it than that. Surely many of The Fountainhead’s millions of readers have sensed that the wonderful serenity with which Roark does things that most of us would do, if at all, only with a struggle against ourselves is part of what indicates how good (that is, how virtuous) he is.

This feature of his character is evinced in many scenes in the book, but one of the most eloquent, partly because it is one in which Roark is most severely tested, is the one in which he turns down the Manhattan Bank Company commission. It is a commission he desperately needs. If he does not get it, he will have to close his office, at least for the time being. At the beginning of the meeting, Mr. Weidler, the company’s agent, says, “Well, Mr. Roark, the comission’s yours.” Roark simply bowed his head: “It was best not to trust his voice for a few minutes.” He soon learns, though, that there is a condition attached to this offer. He must change the buildings too-radical appearance, incorporating Greek elements throughout its facade, “to give the public the impression of what they are accustomed to.”

Roark got up. He had to stand. He concentrated on the effort of standing. It made the rest easier. He leaned on one straight arm, he hand closed over the edge of the table, the tendons showing under the skin of his wrist.

He speaks at length explaining why the requested changes would spoil the building’s integrity, but to no avail. The decision has already been made: if he does not accept the compromise, the commission will go to someone else, someone more malleable. So Mr. Weidler can only put the question to him:

“You understand the situation, Mr. Roark?”

“Yes,” said Roark. His eyes were lowered. He was looking down at the drawings.


Roark did not answer.

“Yes or no, Mr. Roark?”

Roark’s head leaned back. He closed his eyes.

“No,” said Roark.

After a while, the chairman asked:

“Do you realize what you are doing?”

“Quite,” said Roark.

The reader knows that, during those pauses in the conversation, Roark is not, or not primarily struggling to defeat his urge to accept the commission and compromise. To some extent, he is merely as it were watching the collapse of the hopes raised by Mr. Weidler’s offer moments before, given what Roark is sure he must do.

Rand’s description of Roark’s speech to the bank company officials obviously applies to much more than its explicit subject:

He explained why an honest building, like an honest man, had to be of one piece and one faith; what constituted the life source, the idea in any existing thing or creature, and why – if one smallest part committed treason to that idea – the thing or creature was dead; and why the good, the high, and the noble on earth was only that which kept its integrity.7

Rand is applying the same ideal here, a certain ideal of loyalty to one’s underlying theme, to the aesthetic issues of architecture and to the ethical issues of human life. One of the things that she is expressing, as far as the ethical issues are concerned, is the particular virtue of integrity, which Smith explains so well in Chapter 7 of her book. This is a certain consistency between one’s actions and one’s explicit values. But this passage could also be taken as referring to the same sort of consistency among one’s values, and between ones thoughts about those values and one’s emotions about them. Seen in the context of the characterization of Roark, which is a glowing instance of these sorts of consistency, it is actually hard to avoid taking it this way.

The general issue of the importance, for issues of virtue and vice, of the “spirit” in which one acts is eloquently expressed, though in a very different way, by another of the characters in The Fountainhead: namely, Roark’s antipode, Peter Keating. Here is a person whose outward behavior is often, at least in the earlier parts of the narrative, quite attractive and charming. With his boyish ebullience, it seems to the people around him that he values them for their virtues, and that he is excited about his new job at the firm of Francon and Heyer because it is an opportunity to produce things that are good. The author shows us, by showing his actions from the inside, that none of this is true. His apparent friendliness has little to do with genuine benevolence. Except in relation to Roark and Catherine Halsey, he is simply is a user. Other than in these two relationships, which until his character has disintegrated are his points of contact with decency and values, he is constantly striving to manipulate or defraud others to confer on him a false semblance of value, which consists mainly in being admired. In this way, virtually everything he does, so pleasant and likeable to the casual observer, is profoundly corrupt. I have long thought that Rand’s characterization of Keating is one of the most vivid and convincing presentations of the idea that, as far as ethical value is concerned, the spirit in which one acts is very important.

Smith makes it fairly clear how she would answer at least some of the things I have said. Soon after her comment contrasting Rand’s view of virtue with views in which virtue includes doing things with “a certain spirit and inclination,” she says:

The more naturally inclined a person feels toward performing a particular proper action, the more likely he is to do it. If the action is indeed rationally egoistic, then he stands to benefit from that affective disposition. (p. 51.)

Of course, this sounds initially like an argument on my side of this issue. If your conception of virtue is egoistic, and feeling naturally inclined to do the right thing is a character-state that is in the agent’s interest, then why isn’t it (perhaps with relevant qualifications) a part of what virtue is? The answer has to do with agent control:

Nonetheless, Rand rejects the idea that a particular feeling on a given occasion is a requirement of moral virtue for the simple reason that feelings are not under a person’s direct control. ... We might take actions that can eventually alter some of our inclinations, such as engaging in psychological therapy, but we cannot directly and immediately manipulate our emotions and inclinations, as they are largely a product of subconscious premises. And morality cannot fairly demand what a person is incapable of delivering. (pp. 51-2.)

Up to a point, what she is saying here is very plausible. What morality demands or requires must be in one’s direct control. But I am also fairly sure of the proposition that some things that are ethically good or bad are not things that are directly in our control. I suppose I should conclude from this that the content of virtue and vice, the difference between the ethically good and the ethically bad, is not exhausted by what morality demands us to do or not do.

Before I comment further on this conclusion, I obviously should say more about this proposition of which say that I am fairly sure. Here is an example. When Roark is designing a building, he is doing something that is admirable. When Keating is designing a building, he is doing something that is – well, the opposite of admirable. As I have suggested, part of the difference between them is the purpose with which each of them acts. Roark does it in order to achieve the rich complex of values that a great building can embody. Keating does it to stun his clients, impress the critics, and win the admiration of people whose opinion he has no reason to respect. Is this feature of the situation in the “direct” control of both of them? I think the answer is “no.” For one thing, the word “purpose” here constitutes a rather crude simplification. One thing that is virtuous about the way Roark does what he does is his total dedication to the values involved, the sharp difference between the importance these things have for him and the importance he places on other, lesser goods. Is Keating ever capable of that? Probably not.

Further, whether one is pursuing a given ethically relevant purpose at all may not always be in one’s direct control. There is a very sad sequence of scenes involving Peter Keating near the end of the novel that I think illustrates this point very well. He has lost his popularity with clients and critics and, without the one prop on which he had always leaned, every aspect of his life and character begin to disintegrate rapidly. He will soon make an open confession of mediocrity to Roark and beg him, as his own last chance to save his career, to design the Cortland housing project for him. In the midst of all this, for no obvious reason, he remembers his childhood ambition (abandoned because his mother thought architecture was more “respectable”) of becoming a painter. He rents a shack in the hills and furtively, unknown to anyone else, tries to paint:

He had a quiet pain as sole conception of what he wanted to express, a humble, unbearable tenderness for the sight of the earth around him – and something tight, paralyzed as sole means to express it. He went on. He tried. ... There was no pleasure in it, no pride, no solution; only – while he sat alone before the easel – a sense of peace.8

What is it that he is trying to do here, and yet is unable to do? I don’t think it is a matter merely of lost artistic abilities. It isn’t that he has the same goals that a real artist has, but has allowed his technical abilities to get rusty. He has lost more than that. To some extent, he wishes to want goals that the artist seeks, but no longer knows how.

Clearly, though, the reader is meant to realize that Keating is the way he is now, because of past choices. Once, in the past, he had a chance to avoid becoming what he is now, but now it is too late. Further, the actions he could have taken, in the past, to avoid becoming what he is now, were the indirect, imperfect sorts of measures that Smith mentions in the passage I quoted earlier: engaging in psychological therapy and the like. Yet surely this indirect and perhaps imperfect degree of control is enough to allow us, now, to blame him for the way he presently is.

My own view is that the move from an ethic of duties to do particular actions to an ethic of virtue probably does require us to loosen somewhat the requirement that credit and blame presuppose that the agent you are admiring or blaming had a strong, direct sort of control over the things for which you give them credit or blame. In my view, the idea behind an ethic of virtue is that ethical value resides not merely in what particular things you do but also in what sort of person you are. It probably is true that I have less control, or less direct control, over the sort of person I am, than I have over which particular acts I do.

Perhaps we should say that what morality “demands” or “requires,” to use Smith’s words once more, does presuppose a strong, direct sort of control. But perhaps not all ethical principles are demands, or requirements. What else could they be? Well, I would say, ideals. That after all is the word Rand used in describing the heroes of her fictions. One of the most effective ways to state a moral ideal is to describe a character-type. This is what I have always thought Rand was doing.

In conclusion, I wonder: If Tara Smith’s interpretation of Rand’s ethics is right, if “virtue” for Rand is not a trait of character and does not include a propensity to act in characteristic ways, and does not include acting with the proper spirit or inclination, and if it in addition it does not include emotions as part of itself – then in what sense is Rand’s ethic a virtue ethic at all? Rand does express her views by using the word “virtue” frequently, but of course one could also set forth a Kantian or utilitarian view using that word. Is she really practicing virtue ethics, in the sense in which Aristotle and Nietzsche were, or is her virtue-ethics, on Smith’s interpretation, merely a matter of word-choice?

1. Immanuel Kant, Education (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960), esp. Ch II. For a fuller discussion of Kant’s views on these matters, see my Character and Culture (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), pp. 6-9.

2. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans. by H. J. Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p. 81 fn.

3. Aristotle, De Anima, 403a24.

4. For a classic statement of a closely related view, see Magda Arnold, in Emotion and Personality, vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), Ch. IX.

5. Michael Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), p. 526.

6. From “The Goal of My Writing,” a speech given in 1963 and quoted in the “Introduction” to The Fountainhead (New York: Signet, 1968), p. vii.

7. Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943), pp. 203-06.

8. The Fountainhead, pp. 611-12.