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:

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Objectivism: an Autopsy, Part 4

In Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of Objectivism" we come across the following observation:

The great, glaring gap in just about all ethical systems of which I have knowledge, even when many of the particular values and virtues they advocate may be laudable, is the absence of a technology to assist people in getting there, an effective means for acquiring these values and virtues, a realistic path people can follow. That is the great missing step in most religions and philosophies. 
You can tell people that it's a virtue to be rational, productive, or just, but, if they have not already arrived at that stage of awareness and development on their own, objectivism does not tell them how to get there. It does tell you you're rotten if you fail to get there.

Rand's failure to provide a "technology" for attaining Objectivist moral values is not her only failure in this regard. She provided very little in terms of achieving any of the things she regarded as desirable, whether it was rationality, persuasion, or laissez-faire capitalism. And on few occasions where she provided at least the outlines of a technology (as in aesthetics and "philosophical-detection"), what she actually gives us is deeply flawed. Hence the ironic spectacle of Rand followers who don't know how to be rational, Objectivists who don't know how to solve moral conflicts with other Objectivists, and the lack of a strong, vibrant Objectivist artistic movement.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Objectivism: An Autopsy, Part 3

In some respects, Rand's ideology of Objectivism can be seen as an over-reaction to the Marxist left. Rand lived through the Russian Revolution and experienced communism first hand. She despised the Marxian creed with every fiber of her being, and in her philosophy of Objectivism she sought to fashion a doctrine diametrically opposed to the collectivist and anti-capitalist dogmas of Soviet communism. Thus Rand wound up advocating a pure (some might say "extreme") form of individualism and capitalism as a way to oppose the murderous collectivism of Marxist-Leninism.

Rand began formulating these doctrines more than seventy years ago. The ideological landscape has undergone significant changes during this time. After the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archepelago, the Soviet version of Marxism became thoroughly discredited in the West, even among radical leftists. But the pathological urge to impose equity fairness on modern society has persisted among our civilizations' left-leaning discontents. To scratch the equity fairness itch, a new type of Marxism needed to be formulated. Thus was born Post-Modernism and Identity Politics, which replaced the class conflict paradigm of the old Marxism with a new paradigm based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. This constituted a real improvement over traditional Marxism in that it justified and nurtured a powerful political coalition between white progressives and non-whites. Demographic changes caused by declining birth rates among whites and increased immigration of non-whites will increase the chances that the left, and quite possibly the radical left, enjoys a permanent electoral majority in the United States in future decades.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Orthodox Objectivism: An Autopsy, Part 2

Orthodox Objectivism may have been doomed from the start, simply because it was a dogmatic philosophy that prided itself on rationality and self-interest yet which, in its specific doctrines and in the behavior of its adherents, often betrayed these stated objectives. Rand's contention that human beings are born "blank slates" is about as rational as the belief that the earth is flat. And as for self-interest: is it really in anyone's self-interest to embrace orthodox Objectivism? Doubts persist on this score. Some years ago Barbara Branden noted that far too many Objectivists came off as bitter and angry. Is it really in your self-interest to be angry all the time? Is it really in your self-interest to continually distort and/or misunderstand the views of people you disagree with, while at the same time being hyper-sensitive to alleged distortions of your own views? Is it really in your self-interest to remain an adherent of a philosophy which has no viable track record of making its adherents smarter, wiser, happier, or more fulfilled? Orthodox Objectivism had so much going against it right from the start. But the dim prospects of the philosophy were made many times worse by Rand's choice for the heir to her literary estate, namely, Dr. Leonard Peikoff.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Brief Re-visitation of Is-Ought Problem

Below is a response to an email request concerning an answer to Patrick Neil's essay on Rand's morality:

 Neil's article refutes the view expounded in Rand's article "Objectivist Ethics." In that article, Rand attempted to refute the is-ought gap by claiming that Hume denies that morality has anything to do with facts. This is just wrong. In a later article, Rand pursued a different tactic. She suggested that ethics is conditional on choosing life. Now logically this does allow Rand to skirt around Hume's is-ought gap, because instead of reasoning from "is" premises to an "ought" conclusion, the line of reasoning goes, "if x, then y," or: "if life, then the ultimate value is life."

While this mode of procedure may solve, or at least mitigate, the logical problem presented by the is-ought gap, it is questionable that it provides an "objective" code of values. The argument is so vague and abstract that it's difficult to logically generate a specific moral code that can guide everyday decisions. How does saying that life is the ultimate value help a person choose their career, or their life-mate, or how to spend their free time? Well, it doesn't help with any of these things. It's not even clear what it means, in terms of practical decision making. If life is the ultimate value, does that mean you should act to survive as long as possible? But that's not the principle Objectivists follow in their own decision making. Objectivists make use of the argument to "prove" the objectivity of their morality. Then they ignore the argument and follow their natural hard-wired and socially fine-tuned proclivities like everyone else. As a point of fact, human beings don't follow articulated moral systems derived from abstract philosophical reasoning. Everyday decision-making involves too much complexity for articulated systems of morality to work and be effective. Our brains have evolved complex motivational systems that help us survive and breed. These systems are hardly perfect and can perhaps be improved here or there through conscious reasoning (although that's not always the case), but it's impossible to entirely replace them with a "code of morality" based on a philosophical system of ethics like Objectivism. The Objectivist Ethics is little more than an ex post facto rationalization scheme to justify behavior Rand and her followers approve of and to provide a moral rationalization for the Objectivist politics. It doesn't provide a guide for how people should behave; it provides tools to rationalize types of behavior approved of by the broader Objectivist community.

For info (and scientific evidence) on how morality works in the real world of fact, see James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, and/or Jordan Peterson's YouTube lectures on "Personality" and "Maps of Meaning."