Friday, March 02, 2007

Rand's Morality: A Brief Autopsy 2 - addendum

Before being interrupted by other pressing issues (JARS, etc.), I had been doing a short series of posts on Rand's morality. Originally, I had thought of trying to give the actual logic argument for Rand's ethics. One small problem: since Rand herself never provided a logical argument for her theory of morality, it's difficult to know what that would be. One has to build the argument entirely for oneself, trying to draw implicit premises from the rather vague and not terribly enlightening rhetoric that make up Rand's official theory. Fortunately, Michael Huemer has done this troublesome and thankless work for us. His article not only presents the Randian argument in logical form, but he provides, as a kind of bonus, a devastating critique of that argument, in both its logical and rhetorical forms. Here's an example of the most salient point in Huemer's critique:

"The problem is that ... 'rational' and 'man qua man' are simply fudge words. That is, their function in the theory is that they enable Rand to claim almost anything she likes as being supported by her theory, and also to reject any attempt to infer conclusions that she doesn't want from the theory....

"[A] 'fudge word' is a word that functions to make fudging easy. 'Rational' and 'man qua man' are Rand's fudge words. She never gives a precise and unambiguous criterion for their applicability. Thus, suppose someone tries to argue that, on Rand's theory, it would be morally acceptable to steal from people, provided you could get away with it. Then she has at least two fudges she can employ (probably more): (a) She could claim that this is not in your interests, because there is always a risk that you might get caught, and it's not worth it. This works because no one knows how to calculate this risk, so no one can actually refute this claim. This is the sort of thing I have seen many Objectivists do. However, Rand doesn't do this in 'The Objectivist Ethics'; she goes for the second sort of fudge: (b) She can claim that although you would gain money from this, it would not be in your rational interests, or it would not be serving the life of 'man qua man', or that it would reduce you to a 'subhuman' status. Thus, she can immediately bog down the counter-example in an interminable debate about what is or isn't 'rational', 'subhuman', etc., because no precise and unambiguous criterion of the rational, or the human, has been identified. She gets to make it up as she goes along.'

1 comment:

Neil Parille said...

A couple of years ago, Eric Mack wrote a piece in JARS making similar points to Huemer's. In the Spring 2006 JARS there is a response by Tibor Machan and Chris Cathcart. I don't think they overcome Mack's arguments.