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."

Friday, March 10, 2017

Orthodox Objectivism: an Autopsy, Part 1

While it may be an exaggeration to say that orthodox Objectivism, since ARI continues to exists and apologists for that organization still exist. But as an intellectual force, it is dead --- and probably not revivable. Some might argue it's been dead, or close to death, for several decades. But there was always a hope, however dim and unlikely, that the corpse might be resusitated. Indeed, in 2008, orthodox Objectivism showed a brief flicker of life. Sales of Atlas Shrugged surged, and Rand once again became a favorite target of the left. But in the end, nothing came of it. In 2010, Leonard Peikoff conspired with ARI executive director Yaron Brook to force John McCaskey, a lucrative donor, to resign from the ARI board of directors for the sin of challenging then Peikoff protege, David Harriman. In retrospect, that unsavory episode appears to have been orthodox Objectivism's last gasp. While ARI will undoubtedly persist for many decades to come, perhaps even longer, in terms of intellectual significance, it's impact on the culture will be so close to zero that it might as well be zero.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Haidt versus Rand

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is a leading researcher and writer on what could be described as the scientific view of human nature --- a view, in other words, based on research and experimentation rather than armchair speculation and/or wishful thinking. If Haidt's views on human psychology, motivation, reason and morality are largely right, than Rand's views must be largely wrong. As it turns out, Rand's epistemological, moral, and political views all rest, at least in part, on her views on human nature; so that if she's wrong about human nature, she must also be wrong, at least in part, on human knowledge, ethics, and political theory.

Recently Sam Harris made a curious wager. He offered to pay $10,000 to anyone who could disprove his arguments about morality. Haidt decided to make a counter-wager. He bet $10,000 that Harris would not change his mind. And then he went on to explain why he made the bet. What Haidt wrote provides an excellent brief on what is wrong with the view of reason and morality which both Harris and Rand share.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Ayn Rand as Word-Thinker and Persuader

Scott Adams, the creator of "Dilbert," has recently gained a bit of notoriety for claiming that there is a method behind all the Donald Trump madness. Trump, Adams insists, will probably win the Presidential election "in a landslide" because The Donald is a "master persuader." As bewildering and counter-intuitive as this assertion may seem at first blush, Adam's claims are, at least in part, based on a scientific understanding of human nature. That doesn't mean, of course, that Adams is right about Trump. He may be guilty of reading into Trump what isn't there. But Adams' view of human nature, nonetheless, remains largely sound. And for this reason, it might be illustrative to view Ayn Rand through the lens of Adam's own views on human nature and persuasion.