Jaideep A Prabhu
Aristotle and Ayn Rand – Can both their philosophies be Virtuous?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

The following is a most delightful submission by Dr. R. Srinivasan, who views the recent CRI post comparing Aristotle and Ayn Rand with an Indian sensibility.

At the outset itself let me declare that the foundation of this article rests on Mr Jaideep A. Prabhu’s (JAP) erudite dissection of Aristotle’s “eudaimonia” – altruism based virtuous life and Ayn Rand’s “maximization of self-interest”,  as so lucidly explained in his recent post, “Ayn Rand vs Aristotle – Self-Love, Selfishness and Egoism”. I have used Mr. Prabhu’s article so extensively that it may not be possible to provide individual quotes. I therefore request the reader to study Mr. Prabhu’s post first to become familiar with the concepts.

In this article I shall attempt to explore how these Western concepts can be further advanced and applied in our local milieu with the help of our indigenous ancient philosophy. I hereby posit the following three points:

1.There is no dilemma between Aristotle’s altruistic motives and Ayn Rand’s maximization of self interest – both are virtuous.

2. Character friendships between persons encourage the development of the individual whereas utility friendships lead to betterment of the society. However, it is also true that sometimes character friendships based on affection can cause conflicts of interest in the persons concerned.

3. If altruistic self loving and selfish self love are both virtuous, encouraging such behaviour patterns, albeit in their respective contexts, contributes to the overall benefit of society.

1. Virtuous Acts: If eudaimonia implies living in accordance to virtues, and virtuous activity is the very substance of happiness, the question of what precisely constitutes a virtuous act and life arises. I would consider any rightful deed (i.e not illegal) based on one’s temperament (svabhava) and duty (svadharma) as a virtuous deed and a life spent doing such virtuous deeds is in itself a virtuous life. Such virtuous deeds need not necessarily be altruistic. Actions in conformity with a person’s svabhava and svadharma, done even in self interest, can be considered virtuous if performed for the proper upkeep of social order. An example of a virtuous life in self interest would be any legitimate business. A shopkeeper’s duty is do business, serve his customers and maximize his wealth. All legitimate business practices like sales promotions, discounts, advertisements and refusal to sell at a loss are all par for the course. That is his duty (svadharma), and he should have a businessman’s temperament (svabhava) to be able to do that successfully. A shopkeeper cannot afford to be altruistic. He may try to interest a potential customer with his wares even after realizing that he does not have a ready stock of the customer’s requirements rather than guide the person to the next shop. (“Shopkeeper, do you have sugar? I have salt, sir!”) A good businessman sacrifices neither himself, nor his customer. Just because a businessman doing honest business is not altruistic does not mean that he is not leading a virtuous life. “He deals with man, by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, un-coerced exchange – an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgement.” (JAP) On the other hand, a doctor cannot behave like a businessman. He cannot sell a wonderful deal for hip replacements to a patient with a headache! Here, a doctor has to be altruistic and provide the patient the correct treatment even though such an action results in a potential loss of income. A doctor has to be altruistic whereas a businessman has to act with self interest and in their respective spheres, both of them, by simply acting in conformity with their individual thumos – svabhava and svadharma, are leading a virtuous life. I would qualify the statement “activity by virtue is the very substance of human happiness”, as, “activity, based on individual svabhava and svadharma, becomes virtue, and is the very substance of human happiness.” Such virtuous actions are given to everybody in societyand not the sole prerogative of altruistic persons.

2. Friendship: Character friendships – end love, i.e friendships between persons are required for the individual self-construct. These friendships initially develop on the basis of association or affection (classmates at school) and can be between persons of dissimilar svabhava. These friendships are truly altruistic (provided they be between good persons!) and are based on mutual trust and goodwill. They help in development of character and contribute to the moral advancement of the individual. They are “…essential for avoidance of self delusion and false assessment of one’s virtuousness.” (JAP) While such end love helps in the betterment of the individual, utility friendships – means love, between persons of a similar svabhava and svadharma, contribute to the betterment of virtuous actions. For example, a doctor would not like to be dishonored by his peers in his Medical Association by indulging in malpractice. This association between persons with similar temperaments, by enforcing the individual to act honorably, helps to suppress the latent baser selfishness present in all and thereby contributes to the well being of the society as a whole. Both end love and means love are essential for an individual, the former at a ‘personal’ level and the latter in a ‘public’ capacity. Neither is superior or inferior to one another, both kinds of friendships are obligatory and blossom to their fullest extent in their unique contexts.

A note of caution. Sometimes, character friendships can also have a destructive tendency. The material success of a businessman may induce his doctor friend to adopt his friend’s ‘business tactics’ in his medical practice with catastrophic results! “People must be both intelligent (dianoetikous) and spirited (thumoeideis) if they are to be led easily to virtue.” (JAP)

3. In practice: Eudaimonia, thumos, swabhava and swadharma sound so lofty in theory but is it at all possible to apply these concepts in practice?

As explained above, altruism and self-interest (not base selfishness) are both virtues in their respective contexts. It behoves us to identify these contexts correctly and apply these concepts with intelligence. Professions where fiduciary responsibilities and asymmetry of information predominate, for example, medical care, have to be necessarily altruistic and treating such occupations as mere trade leads to perversity (docsters!) Conversely, where caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) applies, example, a shoe salesman, Ayn Rand’s self interest reigns supreme. Both are virtuous in their respective contexts and catastrophic if thoughtlessly interchanged. A doctor’s svadharma (duty) demands he be altruistic and if his svabhava (temperament) does not permit him to be so, he ought not to be doctor in the first place. Likewise, a pawn broker’s svadharma does not permit altruism and woe betide such a pawn broker whose svabhava obliges any and every sob story!

Ancient Greek philosophy forms the foundation of Western Society, and Aristotle’s altruism and especially Ayn Rand’s self interest may find considerable support in their local milieu.  Likewise we should apply our indigenous philosophy in the construct of our society and seek seek local solutions for local societal issues.The root of our moral law is the concept of Dharma (that which sustains the individual and society). Concepts which confirm to and have Dharma as their basis will usually withstand the onslaught of Time. The complexity of human society usually permits space for co-existence of diametrically opposite concepts like altruism and self-interest, but within their respective contexts. It would be very difficult to prescribe solutions straightjacketed by unipolar ideologies like ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’ to all of society’s problems. Every contentious issue has a solution and it is incumbent on us to apply our intelligence to find correct answers which are rooted in our own philosophy and Dharma. Western concepts may appear to work in their environs and but simply transplanting those ideas locally may not be successful. The beauty of a philosophy which proclaims the concept of doing (legitimate) work on the basis of one’s svabhava and svadharma lies in the fact that it makes all work and all persons performing such works virtuous. All sorts of work whether be a teacher, soldier, shopkeeper or a sweeper are equally virtuous and completely essential for the welfare of society. If all kinds of work are equally virtuous where is the need to discriminate between altruism and self-interest or superior and otherwise?

            “Sreyan svadharmo vigunah: paradharmaat svanusthitaat

            Svabhavaniyatam karma kurvan na ‘pnoti kilbisam

            Better is one’s own duty, though imperfectly done than the duty of another,       well performed. He who does the duty ordained by his own nature incurs no           sin.”  The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 18, Verse 47.