Thursday, July 18, 2019

Objectivism vs. Sam Harris

To say that Sam Harris entertains a low opinion of Ayn Rand and her disciples would be something of an understatement. He once referred to Rand’s philosophy as “basically autism rebranded.” Nonetheless, there are very definite parallels between Harris’s views on religion and morality and Rand’s. Harris and Rand both take a dismissive view of Hume’s is-ought gap; they both believe that science and rationality can determine moral ends; they both are uncompromising critics of religion; they both tend to assume, somewhat naively, that if we could only (per impossible) persuade religious people to dispense with their “superstitious” beliefs and embrace “reason” and science, the world would be a better place; and they both take a dim view of much that passes for academic philosophy.

Despite these parallels in their viewpoints, Objectivists have found plenty in Sam Harris’ moral philosophy to quibble about. Ari Armstrong has been the chief critic of Harris over at The Objective Standard. He makes three main criticisms of Harris’ book The Moral Landscape:

  1. Harris’ concept of well-being lacks the clarity of meaning to sufficiently ground it in a bonafide theory of ethics. 
  2. Lacking a clear conception of well-being, Harris embraces hedonism as the standard of value. 
  3. Harris merges his vague conception of well-being with a form of utilitarianism, which constitutes “a collectivist form of hedonism holding that the good consists of self-sacrificially serving the greatest happiness for the greatest number."

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

The Evolution of Orthodox Objectivism

The Ayn Rand Institute has recently introduced a new set of YouTube videos, many of them hosted by Dave Rubin, called "Objectivism on Happiness." The videos give an insight in how a new generation of "orthodox" Objectivists are framing (or rather re-framing) Rand's ideas. In what I've heard from Yaron Brook, Greg Salmieri, Onkar Ghate, and Tara Smith, there seems to exist a drive to portray Rand's philosophy in such a way that it does not come into conflict with the sciences of human nature. Ayn Rand believed that human beings were, at birth, "blank slates," and that it was through exposure to philosophical premises that they developed personalities and character. The strategy that this new breed of Objectivists appear to have concocted to separate themselves from this embarrassing doctrine is to make it clear that, while they have no intention of explicitly denying the possibility of heritable traits of character, they nevertheless continue to insist that, through the use of "reason" and "free will," they can achieve Rand's vision of the self-created man.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Did Rand read Kant?

In an interview, Shoshana Milgram, Rand's "official" biographer, is asked whether Rand ever read Kant. Given how far Rand's interpretation of Kant departs from the views of actual followers and admirers of Kant, many people have assumed that Rand must never have read Kant. Objectivists tend to regard this assumption as derogatory of Rand and deplore it. But it's not necessarily any worse than the alternative. For if Rand had in fact read Kant and still gotten him so very wrong, that would speak poorly regarding her ability to interpret philosophical texts. So what is worse? Mis-interpreting Kant because of a lack of familiarity with the relevant texts? Or reading Kant with great attentiveness and still getting him wrong?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

McCaskey: "Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic"

John McCaskey, the former ARI board member forced to resign for mild criticisms of a Peikoff protege, wrote in a blog post a few years back about Rand's "method of arguing."

Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic. She has her own distinctive method of arguing. If that method is valid, her moral and political philosophy stands. If it is invalid, her whole system comes crashing down. 
What is her method and is it valid?... 
Rand’s distinctive method to answering many philosophical questions is to ask what knowledge is already presumed by the very terms in the question. 
You say, “Miss Rand, I want to argue with you about the proper role of government.” She replies, in effect, “OK, but let us first unpack the concepts you are using. What are you already assuming by using the words ‘proper’ and ‘government’?” If you think of a government as the owner of buildings where you fill out forms and “proper” as whatever avoids your mother’s wrath, then Rand will insist that the two of you first work out a mature and essentialized understanding of these concepts.

In other words, Rand seeks to answer very complex philosophical questions via an explication of the meanings of words. Is this an effective way to answer moral questions? Is it an effective way to determine matters of fact?


Monday, July 23, 2018

What was Ayn Rand Wrong About?

What follows is my answer to a question posed on Quora: What was Ayn Rand Wrong About?
On the technical side of things, Rand was wrong about (1) the need to validate man’s knowledge—i.e., foundationalism; (2) that concepts require definitions and that definitions can be true or false; (3) that emotions are automatic effects of man’s value premises; (4) that abstract philosophy determines the course of history; (5) and that emotions are not “tools of cognition.” If we wished to really get into the philosophical weeds, we could probably ferret out even more technical errors, but beyond a few hard-core Rand acolytes, I doubt that anyone really cares about any of these largely technical issues. Nowadays Rand is mostly known for her zealous affirmations of egoism, “selfishness,” and laissez-faire capitalism, and her concomitant denunciations of altruism and all forms of government interventionism. Perhaps her most influential contention is that freedom and capitalism require a moral foundation, by which she meant: convincing philosophical arguments on their behalf. This conviction is based, however, on faulty assumptions about moral philosophy, human reason and psychological motivation.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Peterson at OCON: A Quick and Dirty Review

Those of us who are cognizant of orthodox Objectivists at their worst knew that the discussion/debate with Jordan Peterson that was held at OCON could have ended very badly for the Randian cause. Luckily for the denizens of ARI, Brook and Salmieri managed to escape any serious mishaps. They wisely avoided challenging Peterson on issues relating to psychological science and tried to keep to discussion restricted to areas where they thought they had an advantage. Consequently Peterson delivered no Cathy Newman killshots (not that he wanted to) and Brook and Salmieri escaped relatively unscathed. While that's a kind of a win for Brook, on the other side of the coin, I don't believe things ended quite the way Brook had hoped. It appeared to me that Brook and Salmieri were using different strategies. One of the great weaknesses of orthodox Objectivism is that they have trouble understanding non-Objectivist thinkers. They are more interested in refuting and/or condemning people with different views than understanding them. This approach to their adversaries caused Brook to adopt a strategy that wound up backfiring. Brook seems to have gone into the debate under the illusion that Peterson is an opponent of metaphysical realism). At one point in the discussion, Brook waxed on about the independent existence of his water bottle, only to be stymied when Peterson kept agreeing with him.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Jordan Peterson is going to OCON

Yaron Brook has announced that Jordan Peterson will involved in a debate/discussion entitled "Philosophy and Man's Soul" at an Objectivist conference (i.e., OCON) on July 1. Peterson will be joined by Yaron Brook, Onkar Ghate, Greg Salmieri and Dave Rubin. The event will be live-streamed on The Rubin Report: