interviewed: May 1997

In the following excerpts from Full Context's conversation with Mack, he and editor Karen Reedstrom discuss Ayn Rand, F. A. Hayek, David Kelley, the "Jewish connection," and libertarianism in academia.


Q: What thinkers would you say have influenced you the most?

Mack: Rand, of course, where it usually begins. Perhaps, the second most important influence has been F.A. Hayek—more than anything else for his multi-leveled account of the nature and importance of spontaneous orders and the types of processes that sustain such orders, his emphasis on the importance of rules and rule-governed behavior, his emphasis on the fragmentation of knowledge and of the need for social structures that allow this fragmented, local, knowledge maximally to come into play, and his account of the pathology of constructivism and the desire for imposed order. My favorite Hayek book is a collection of his essays, Individualism and Economic Order. The best of his later semi-systematic works in political and legal theory is his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. And his The Counter-Revolution of Science is terrific. Readers should not approach Hayek as a normative political philosopher but rather as a theorist about the nature of social and legal order.

Certainly some of my recent thinking about how to acknowledge the rationality of acting on behalf of the good of others without being committed to bad theories about reasons for actions has come out of being pressed in arguments with Loren Lomasky.

And, of course, my wife has influenced me a lot—partially by her conspicuous lack of enthusiasm when she’s read drafts of dumb or confused arguments, but mostly by her encouraging confirmation when I’m doing a bit better and by being someone I can express philosophical misgivings or puzzles or hunches to almost no matter how inarticulate they are.


Q: What was your early reaction to Rand’s novels and ideas and have they changed much over the years?

Mack: I don’t have any specific memory of reading The Fountainhead. But I remember very vividly that soon afterward we were having a discussion in my English Lit class of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. We were talking about Johnson’s posturing before and bullying of the hangers-on in his circle and someone described this behavior as "selfish." I remember saying that Johnson’s behavior was selfless and that’s what made it so unattractive and thinking, "yes, that’s one of the main things Rand is saying."

Also, at this point, I was in quite a bit of conflict with my parents because I was dating a non-Jewish girl and, therefore, all of Rand’s powerful case on behalf of living by one’s own lights and not by the judgments of others was very important for me. Very quickly I read everything of Rand’s that was available and become pretty much of a "boy Objectivist." One of the good effects of this was that I became much more interested in the world of ideas. Even in high school a small group of us met at lunchtime to discuss Brand Blanshard’s Reason and Analysis.

Certainly for at least five or six years, I would reread all of Rand’s novels regularly—perhaps I should say, had to reread them regularly having acquired the feeling, as so many Objectivists do, that only in Rand and Objectivism was any respite to be found from a hostile, contemptible, and threatening world. I haven’t read any of the novels in many years now. But I have just ordered The Fountainhead as one of the texts for an ethics course I am teaching next fall on the theme of integrity.

Q: Given your Jewish background, can you comment on why Jews appear to have a higher propensity to get tangled up in Objectivism?

Mack: I think the explanation has something to do with higher than average intelligence combined with higher than average combativeness. I suppose the alternative and less attractive explanation would have to do with transference or substitution of allegiance from one powerful female figure to another. It’s worth noting—partially as evidence against this second explanation—that individuals from Jewish backgrounds are also very disproportionately represented among libertarian theorists who do not come to these views through Rand. In fact, individuals from Jewish backgrounds are very disproportionately represented among major contemporary political theorists of all ideological stripes. If you find yourself at a meeting involving a dozen of the top social and political philosophers in the English-speaking world, typically five or six or seven of them will come from Jewish backgrounds. That suggests a more fine-tuned analysis of the barriers to further acceptance of libertarian thought—there are still too many Jews on the other side!

Q: What has helped you the most by your exposure to Rand’s views?

Mack: The gift of a systematic world view most of the main features of which I still accept, and which gave me an intellectual framework from which to work and evolve.

Q: Would you describe yourself as an Objectivist, then?

Mack: If being an Objectivist only [!] meant being a strong realist in metaphysics, being an advocate of something like Rand’s perception-based rationalism in epistemology, being an opponent of the ethics of selflessness, being an advocate of individual rights as the fundamental political and legal norms, being an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, being an advocate of minimal, highly constitutionally constrained government, and liking Rachmaninoff, then I’d be an Objectivist.

But being an Objectivist involves much more baggage than this. First of all, it involves much more specific positions and arguments in each of the areas I have just alluded to. In some cases, I think Rand’s arguments are just bad, such as her arguments about moral rights and their ethical foundation. In some cases, I think Rand’s stance is in the right ballpark; but I think that neither I nor she has the expertise to be confident about that conclusion. Moreover, Objectivism involves a certain intellectual style that I find very off-putting. Even at its best—for example, in David Kelley’s Unrugged Individualism—it is highly parochial. It addresses questions within itself, that are cast within and answered in terms of the preestablished vocabulary of the system. What is absent is an active engagement with and against all those good arguments out there in the real world. It’s left to apostates such as myself to confront those arguments and carry on the intellectual battle in that larger world.

Lastly, there is an awful word that the multiculturalists use, usually without any genuine denotation, but which does seem to apply to some manifestations of Objectivism. That word is "totalizing." What I have in mind is that, at least for many people who think of themselves as Objectivists, having Objectivist beliefs—and perhaps infrequently acting on them—constitutes all or almost all of their lives. I am, I gain my reality and worth, from my belief in these doctrines—that’s what certifies me and sustains my self-esteem.

It reminds me of the psychological strategy that Isaiah Berlin calls the retreat to the inner citadel. And this fits with the fact that so many Objectivists seem to live their lives as good believers in Objectivist doctrines and as not much of anything else. This is the way in which the question, "Are you an Objectivist?" is like the questions, "Are you a good member of the Party?" or "Have you been born again?"

Q: How successful did you find Kelley’s efforts to develop Rand’s egoism in Unrugged Individualism?

Mack: I like Kelley’s essay because I think he does the best one can at providing a sketch of a theory of benevolence that inches right up to, but never embraces, the rationality of acting on behalf of another’s good.

I think he is very tempted to say, that sometimes it’s just good for me to act for the sake of another’s good, or that it’s good for me to partake of relationships that depend upon my being disposed to act for the sake of another’s good. I think he is tempted to say this because it’s true. And this is part of the explanation for why one can act for the good of another—for the sake of some vividly apprehended good of some particular other individual—without acting selflessly. The other part of the explanation has to do, not so much with the value to one of partaking in such relationships and of having the disposition necessary for such relationships, but with the value of seeing the types of states one values being realized in the world. Kelley talks a bit about this latter issue.

But, as I read Unrugged Individualism, Kelley thinks that to accept that an essential part of one’s rational motivation is the good of another is to abandon egoism. Since he thinks that and he is not willing to abandon egoism, he has to continually draw back and say that, in the final analysis, the only person whose good plays any essential role in one’s rational action is oneself.

This felt need to insist that it is never valuable for one to act on behalf of another seems to me to continually undercut Kelley’s capacity to provide an account of benevolence. Thus, for instance, when he talks about Dagny’s kindness to the tramp, he begins promisingly by saying that she was eager to see any signs of competence, self-respect, and civility—an eagerness that might well prompt her to facilitate the tramp’s attainment or maintenance of these qualities. But this edging up to a motivation that essentially involves value for another—because it is in virtue of these qualities being valuable for the tramp that Dagny values seeing them realized—is cut short by a reinvocation of Kelley’s investment/trade model.

My complaint is not the Kelley fails to endorse an account of benevolence that construes it as selfless or self-sacrificial. My complaint, instead, is that Kelley’s position—the Objectivist position—shares a crucial premise with the selflessness account of benevolence. This is the premise that, if another’s good is essential to one’s motivation, then one’s action must be selfless or self-sacrificial.


Q: As an academic, have you witnessed the progress of libertarian or Objectivist ideas in academia?

Mack: Let me answer in terms of philosophy and, more specifically, moral and political philosophy. That, of course, is the arena in which "libertarianism" exists and in which I would have noticed Objectivist accomplishments had there been any.

The striking fact is that Objectivists in good standing have contributed almost nothing within the academic domain to the defense of individualism, moral rights, property rights, free markets, anti-statism, anti-collectivism, or anti-egalitarianism. These doctrines have a considerably greater respectability in philosophical circles today than 25 years ago. And credit for this is shared about equally between individuals who started out with Rand but have independently developed their own views and attempted to engage in hard debate and those who were at most marginally aware of Rand and Objectivism.

Among the former are a batch of people who finished graduate school between twenty-five and fifteen years ago including Neera Badhwar, Douglas Den Uyl, Lester Hunt, Tibor Machan, Fred Miller, Ellen Paul, Jeffrey Paul, Douglas Rasmussen, Daniel Shapiro, and Stuart Warner. Rod Long is a more recent member of this group. Among the latter are Tris Engelhardt, Loren Lomasky, Jan Narveson, and David Schmidtz.

I don’t really know how to justify my belief that these groups of people get the credit I ascribed to them—partially because of the indirect mechanism at work in making certain doctrines more respectable. The process is not primarily that of people publishing books or essays or presently papers that convert others to one or another libertarian position. Rather the process primarily is one of offering philosophical defenses of these positions which are interesting, cogent, and forceful enough to make these and related positions credible and to earn professional credibility for the individuals who are advancing these positions. So it is not so much the content of the arguments that are made as their quality and the resulting view that these positions may be correct because, after all, credible and intellectually interesting people argue for them.

In effect, there’s a cycle in some turns of which it’s the intellectual respectability of known defenders of libertarian positions that makes people think the positions must have something going for them rather than those people making first-order assessments of the soundness of the arguments that have been advanced. So the evidence for the influence I asserted is that people such as those I just mentioned are highly regarded—except in the "higher circles" of the Úlite and strongly left-leaning departments—on the basis of their intellectual advocacy of libertarian positions.

One important institutional development, due to Fred Miller, Ellen Paul, and Jeffrey Paul, has been the creation of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center and its journal Social Philosophy and Policy—which is now one of the three top journals in ethics and political philosophy in the English-publishing world. Typically, each topically-oriented semi-annual issue of ten or so essays will contain two to five essays by libertarian or libertarian-leaning philosophers, economists, or political or legal theorists.

But where have all the heroic Objectivists been? I am not talking here about people like David Kelley who both do interesting things and have made the judgment that the university world is not where the action is. This may be a very sensible judgment. The overall importance of the university may be very much in decline.

The live question is, whither libertarianism within academic philosophy? I think that, at the moment, philosophical libertarianism is in danger of losing whatever momentum it has. Part of the problem is that the shock and novelty value of libertarian theses have worn off! Part of the problem is that because individualist, pro-rights, and pro-market positions are somewhat better known, they have are increasing under attack from a wide variety of directions and there aren’t enough of the good guys to response to this continual barrage. But, also, there isn’t enough new and exciting material being produced—perhaps because some of us are slowing down or repeating ourselves too much and certainly because not enough new young people seem to be coming on line.

I’m continually hearing, either through semi-Objectivist grapevines or through contacts with organizations like the Institute for Humane Studies, of impressive young Objectivist or libertarian minds coming down the pike. But rarely does anyone of this description show up.

One reason it is hard to spot these people is that they spend a lot of time and effort hiding their spots. My sense is that the advice given to, and accepted by, young Objectivist-minded philosophers is to hide their convictions at least until they get tenure—this means for four or five years in graduate school plus at least six or seven years afterwards.

The Institute for Humane Studies, which wonderfully provides financial support for graduate study to libertarian-minded students including philosophy students, gives essentially the same advice. The result is that lots of promising people spend lots of time working on issues which are not of primary interest to them and are not that motivating for them. And after ten or more years of suppressing one’s original primary interests and getting proficient at keeping one’s mouth shut, there’s not much ideological commitment left to reveal and to drive the work that finally one will be "free" to do.

Eric Mack, Ph.D. is a Professor of Philosophy at Tulane University, where he joined the faculty in 1975. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1973. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, working on a book tentatively entitled Moral Individualism and Libertarian Theory. He is the editor of Herbert Spencer’s The Man versus the State and Auberon Herbert’s The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays. He is the author of about seventy articles in scholarly journals and anthologies on topics within moral, political, and legal philosophy—especially on egoism, moral individualism, natural rights, property rights, distributive justice, justified killing, and the distinction between causing and allowing harm.

Professor Mack lives with his wife (Mary Sirridge, who is a Professor of Philosophy at Louisiana State University) and their two children (Joshua and Rebekah) in Baton Rouge, LA. He backpacks in wilderness areas of the West whenever he can.

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