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In today’s Journal , Donald Luskin defends Atlas Shrugged as “a plea for the most fundamental American ideal—the inalienable rights of the individual.”

Where does one start? What are “rights” in a universe where there is no morality other than what can be derived from the value one places on one’s own life, and no metaphysics other than materialism plus some more or less trivial residuum to allow for sense perception and volition? If rights are not correlative to duties that transcend our will - and on Rand’s view it is a matter of first principles that there are no duties transcending the will - then what are they? And how can they possibly be “inalienable” if one is morally subject to no will above one’s own?

The original idea behind the phrase “inalienable rights” was that rights are inalienable because they are correlative to duties and responsibilities that exist objectively and transcend the will, and that we are therefore not allowed to shirk. You are not allowed to consent to dictatorial government even if you want to, because that’s inconsistent with your fulfillment of the transcendent duties that you are under, and that are partially constitutive of who you are as a person. This was a point of central importance - for some purposes it was the point of central importance - in the political philosophies behind the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution, from which the phrase “inalienable rights” historically sprang. The argument on the other side (at least among social contract theorists) was that you consent to the king’s absolute authority when you participate in civil society. The word “inalienable” was inserted to deny this, and the only possible justification for it is the existence of transcendent duties.

If there are no duties transcending the will, there really are no such things as either rights or duties - no such thing as morality at all, as that concept is understood by almost all people. There is only rational calculation of what will most efficiently gorge whatever appetites happen to occur to us. The calculation of optimally efficient gorging of appetites will often coincide with the constellation of traditional ethical injunctions not to kill, steal, lie, etc. But it will not do so always, and even if it did, that would not make efficiency in the gorging of appetites a moral virtue.

This is one of the (numerous) gaping holes in the center of Rand’s view of life. Her famous formula is that you should not live for anyone else’s sake, nor demand that anyone else live for yours. But if there are no duties transcending the will, as she insists there aren’t, why should you not demand that others live for your sake? The value you place on your own life does not, in fact, create a moral duty to treat the lives of others as intrinsically  valuable. And it is not, in fact, the case that the optimally efficient gorging of my own appetites always coincides with the traditional constellation of ethical injunctions not to kill, steal, lie, etc.

I believe this is what Whittaker Chambers was trying (unsuccessfully) to articulate in his famous review of Atlas Shrugged . Jason Lee Steorts is right that while the book embodies a horrifying and even murderous contempt for human life , it is not accurate to describe Rand’s political philosophy as in any sense totalitarian . But I think that misses the point Chambers was trying to make. If you read his review carefully, it seems to me Chambers was trying to say that Rand’s approach to morality is inconsistent with her political philosophy, and with any political philosophy that safeguards the rights of the individual. There can be no safeguard for “the rights of the individual” if we begin with a moral philosophy that excludes the existence of any “rights” worthy of the name.

Rand believed that ethical egoism and metaphysical reductionism could be squared with political liberty.

Thomas Hobbes knew better.

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