Friday, February 05, 2010

The Link between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx

I have been sitting in on Fred Miller's Economics and Political Philosophy seminar here at Bowling Green State University. The seminar is for graduate students in philosophy, but is also attended by faculty members like me and visiting scholars such as Stephen Hicks and James Otteson. The purpose of the seminar is to help its attendees design introductory PP&E courses (that's philosophy, politics, and economics, for the unititiated). PP&E programs have recently been sprouting up in the United States, in imitation of the famous program at Oxford (which shines like a Platonic form in the heavenly firmament, and compared to which our best efforts are no doubt merely degraded imitations).

The central issue of the seminar is whether capitalism is morally defensible. Now, for those of you not in the know, Fred Miller is a director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, a research center which is to capitalism roughly as the Dominicans are to Catholicism. Therefore, one expects to confront more dogmatism than skepticism in the matter of the moral defense of capitalism. Nevertheless, the sessions of the seminar have seemed both fair-minded and intellectually stimulating (albeit from the point of view of this dyed-in-the-wool free marketer). For example, this week we talked about Karl Marx's theory of capitalism and alienation, and I think we did a pretty good job of just trying to understand the theory and its place in the history of ideas, as opposed to trying to just mercilessly rip it to shreads. In particular, we disucssed the inspiration Marx took from some of Aristotle's passages in the Nicomachean Ethics and Politics about justice in exchange and the nature of money.

It turns out that both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand were influenced by the man nicknamed "the Brain" while he was a student as Plato's Academy. It's worth noting that Marx and Rand, like Aristotle, were both empiricists, and they were also both materialists and atheists. In addition, Chris Matthew Sciabarra has argued that both Marx and Rand shared a dialectical methodology. Of more direct relevance with respect to their economic and political views, both Rand and Marx share a similar conception of human flourishing, derived ultimately from that of Aristotle.

Now, on the Objectivist end of the spectrum, Neo-Aristotelians such as Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have taken more than a page from Rand in their attempt to apply an Aristotelian ethic to a defense of capitalism and liberal political institutions. But it was not until yesterday that I realized that Neo-Marxists have done the same with regard to Aristotle and Marx. In particular, Paul Gomberg has done a great job developing a broadly Aristotelian reading of Marx's conception of the good life, and fleshing out the relationship between this conception and a Marxist theory of justice which he calls "contributive justice". I have only read three chapters from Gomberg's book, but I already want to buy it and read the whole thing. Gomberg makes good use of insights from psychological research on human happiness, from shop-worn bits such as the relative independence of income and happiness (once subsistence has been taken care of), to rarer gems such as the importance of a sense of self-efficacy to well-being, the importance of the perceptions of others to decisions we make that might at first seem purely self-interested (such as what car to buy or what career to pursue), the use of social norms to police behavior within traditional and contemporary societies, et multa alia. In particular, Gombeg makes a compelling case for the regarding labor as a good worthy of choosing for its own sake, partially constitutive of human flourishing, following Aristotle's conception of the function of man as an activity involving reason, and against Smith and the other classical economists' narrow view of labor as little more than an odious burden.

And the best part is that Gomberg is scheduled to present to us next week as part of the Economics and Political Philosophy seminar. I look forward to sitting back and letting him entertain us with insights from his book. From each according to ability, to each according to need.

Of course, Marxism is still rubbish. But 'tis a small man who is unable to learn great lessons from his greatest opponents. Besides, I met Gomberg once, long ago when he was visiting Bowling Green for a conference, and he seemed a swell sort of chap. One wishes for more Marxists of his character and intellectual calliber!
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