Thursday, October 04, 2007

Understanding Objectivist Jargon Pt 13: "Sacrifice"

"Sacrifice"= giving up a greater value for a lesser value.

As someone once remarked about Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand often does not seem to know what words mean. This peculiar usage is quite opposed to the standard meaning of "sacrifice", which is usually where one gives up something of lesser value for a greater value - for example, sacrificing a Queen to win a game of chess. As a result of this basic confusion, Rand ends up with confounding formulations such as the following:

"The word that has destroyed you is 'sacrifice'...If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a 'sacrifice': that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty."- Ayn Rand, "Atlas Shrugged"
Ergo: It is immoral for the mother whose highest value is buying a hat to feed her starving child instead!

Either Rand intended this absurdity to be her argument - perfectly possible, given the thrust of her theory - or she got tangled up by her own inversions of meaning. Either way, it's yet another Randian pronouncement which is at first plausible, but on examination we might - with maximum charity - describe as confused.

27 comments:

Jay said...

The "standard meaning" of sacrifice is not the actual meaning. She is drawing attention to how definitions are obscured.

"Definitions are the guardians of rationality."

4. To sell at a price less than the cost or the actual value. [Tradesmen's Cant]

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Jay,

You write:
>The "standard meaning" of sacrifice is not the actual meaning. She is drawing attention to how definitions are obscured.

Now this is one of the biggest, and most often overlooked, problems with Objectivism. Rand inherited this basic logical error without realising it from Aristotle.

The error is this:
Rand, ITOE:"The truth or falsehood of all of man's conclusions, inferences, thought, and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions."

Now this is a potentially long discussion, because it involves an idea that is probably powerfully counter-intuitive to you. But it's a very important one nonetheless.That is to say that while this is a sound logical argument, you will almost certainly find it difficult to accept at first.* It's also something that Rand fulminated against regularly - but wrongly. (It's actually a problem she has in common with much philosophy she disliked, it turns out, such as the Logical Positivists). I view this argument, which is aimed at the Aristotelian doctrine of definition that Rand adopted wholesale, as extremely important. It's the equivalent of the Economic Calculation Argument against Socialism. That is, once you grasp it, it's impossible to remain a Socialist...;-))

I'm not going to outline Rand's problem now. I'm going to suggest you read the essay by Karl Popper at this link here and see if you see the problem for yourself. (I'm not being cryptic, I just believe it's better for people to work out problems for themselves as much as possible)

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2007/05/aristotles-secret-revolt-against-reason.html

It's reasonably long, but not for a sharp fellow lke you. It's also simply written, and does not assume any particular philosophic knowledge or loyalties. Then come back and we'll get into it.

*(Incidentally, there's psychological research that, unfortunately, suggests logical arguments are the least likely to persuade...;-))

Wells said...

Jay, Definition four? You can do better than that. Let's try this again.

Sac*ri*fice (sak're-fis') n. [ME < Ofr < Lat sacrificium : sacer, sacred + facere, to make]
1. a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, esp. the ritual slaughter of an animal or person. b. A victim offered in sacrifice.
2. a. Forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one thought to have a greater value or claim. b. Something so forfeited.
3. a. Relinquishment of something at less than its presumed value. b. Something so relinquished. c. A loss so sustained.
4. Baseball.. A sacrifice hit.
-v. -ficed, -fic*ing, -fic*es. -vt,
1. To offer as a sacrifice to a deity.
2. To forfeit (one thing) for another thing thought to be of greater value.
3. To sell or give away at a loss.
-vi
1. To make or offer a sacrifice.
2. Baseball. To make a sacrifice hit.
-sac'ri*fic'er n.
-sac'ri*fi'cial (-fish'el) adj
-sac'ri*fi'cial*ly adv.

Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary (1984)

While doing this little exercise, you may have noticed that definitions for words, particularly older words like sacrifice, are very overloaded. Plus there are definitions that people do not use much any more, and technical uses that pertain only to a few fields. Arguing over the definitions of words is not the most fertile area of human knowledge.

Even if I was to take your definition as the only valid definition, one still needs to ask why a tradesman would sell something at a loss. Usually people try to sell things at a profit, but there are good business reasons to sell inventory at a loss. The tradesman may need cash right now, the price of the good may never go back up, it's taking up space that could be used for more profitable merchandise, Its obsolete and room needs to be made for this year's model, etc. Yes, it's a loss but other business considerations may be more important.

Definitions prove surprisingly little.

Daniel Barnes said...

Wells:
>Definitions prove surprisingly little.

Wells is onto it...

Astronomer said...

Forgive me if the following seems stilted - I've always had trouble making a stylish philosophic argument!

First let me say that I am no fan of Ayn Rand - why I enjoy your blog and book so much (though I don't agree with all your positions, to be sure).

I'm also not the biggest fan of Popper, but the essay you linked is excellent and one I had not seen before.

However - though I agree with Popper that there is an inherent and even useful limit to the preciseness of words - words have to have some level of precision to be useful at all, a position with which I don't think he would have disagreed. I think the confusion here is that Rand has mixed up her concept and the (unrelated?) word sacrifice so much that, for her at least, the word has lost the minimum required precision for normal communication.

The problem with Rand's argument is only partially that she's using the wrong word. She is, but it's not enough to just point out her word-choice error. The concept she is referring to has to be attacked, regardless of what word we attach to it (whatever you want to call 'Giving up something greater for something lesser').

I think this is easily done - even her own villains justify their sacrifices as 'for the greater good.' It's hard to think of any examples of anyone doing what Rand accuses altruists of - why on Earth would anyone (knowingly, which is another point Rand misses - even her superheros aren't omniscient) give up a greater value for a lesser one?

Am I on the right track here?

Daniel Barnes said...

Astronomer:
>I think the confusion here is that Rand has mixed up her concept and the (unrelated?) word sacrifice so much that, for her at least, the word has lost the minimum required precision for normal communication

Hi Astronomer,

In this case, the confusion over the word "sacrifice" is certainly there. It doesn't make her argument any better, that's for sure.

But what I'm honing in on is actually Jay's reply, as it touches on one of the major unwitting errors in Objectism. Let's run the tape on Rand again:

She reckons that: "The truth or falsehood of all of man's conclusions, inferences, thought, and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions." (emphasis mine)

Jay reiterates this principle here:

Jay: The "standard meaning" of sacrifice is not the actual meaning. (ditto)

But there's one little problem: the "truth" or "falsity" of definitions is not logically decideable.

There are multiple meanings of the word "sacrifice". But there is no one "true "(or what Jay means by "actual") meaning. If he were to insist on his version, and I on mine, there is no logical way of deciding whose is the "true" meaning. Conversation then becomes stalemated. (Further, as Popper points out, attempts to improve the precision of words thru definition lead to an infinite regress into ever vaguer terms - so reminiscent of allegedly "philosophical" conversations...;-))

Thus words are in fact, contra Rand, conventions. Arguing over their shades of meaning to determine the "true" one will get you nowhere in the most serious logical sense. What is important to argue over is not definitions, but proposals, theories, problems etc. The consequences of understanding this also mean that you should therefore use words as plainly as possible, and avoid esoteric meanings for common terms, as these are inevitably misleading.

This method of supposedly using only "true definitions" is a central Randian doctrine, on which, recall, "the truth or falsehood of all of man's conclusions, inferences, thought, and knowledge rests..."

Unfortunately, it is based on a logical fallacy.

Daniel Barnes said...

PS glad you're enjoying the book and the site...;-)

Jay said...

1. a. The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, esp. the ritual slaughter of an animal or person. b. A victim offered in sacrifice.

You're right, I guess definition one is a great ideal to base a society on.

Jay said...

Btw, can you repost a link to the Popper essay? The one provided did not work. ;)

astronomer said...

Hi Daniel!

Ahhh, thank you for your follow up post, I see what you are getting at. I could not agree more with you more. :)

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Jay

Odd. Try going back to the May 07 link in Archives in the sidebar. There's a post called "Aristotle's 'Secret Revolt Against Reason'" which contains Popper's famous essay, "Two Kinds of Definition."

Wells said...

If you have a big long link, sometimes it will cut off the end of it. To get it all you can highlight the empty line above it and empty line below it. You should get something that looks a bit more like this.

http://
aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/
2007/05/
aristotles-secret-revolt-against-reason.html

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "The 'standard meaning' of sacrifice is not the actual meaning. She is drawing attention to how definitions are obscured."

What can it possibly mean to say that the "standard" meaning is the "actual" meaning? The "actual" meaning is the intended meaning of the person using the word. By claiming that there is some kind of "actual" or "real" meaning beyond the intended meaning of the word assumes language exists in some kind of platonic heaven and that words have meaning independent to how they, in fact, use them.

The point of language is to communicate one's thoughts and views to others. If you want to understand what people mean by what they say, the last thing you should be doing is imposing meanings on the words that contradict the meanings they intend.

gregnyquist said...

Here's a linkable version of link to the Popper essay:

Click here for Popper essay

Wells said...

Jay, Definition one from my dictionary really did help your argument. See, I told you you could do better than that.

The real problem though is that the purpose of language is communication. What this means is that words mean what people think that they mean. I wouldn't use the word sacrifice to talk to an objectivist, because they will have a negative reaction towards that word. I might attempt a metaphor like 'You have to spend money to make money'. A religious person would have no negative reaction, and therefore the word sacrifice would be fine.

Something you may also want to consider is that words have multiple definitions, I could say sacrifice, and be talking about a play in baseball. This is even true in mathematical operations to a certain extent. For instance, in programming, '+' as in 'add' can add all kinds of numbers to each other, concatenate two strings, concatenate a string and a number, and sometime serve as a sort of poor man's 'or'. You can even overload the + operator yourself to make it do even more things.

What someone is talking about has to be considered in context with the rest of what someone is talking about.

Jay said...

Wells,

I agree that it's important to me mindful of who you're talking to when you use certain words.

I don't know if I agree, however, that the primary purpose of language is communication. I think (as Rand did) that the most critical need for language is personal: to help you think in an organized way. Now, I'll admit that Rand is the first person who got me to stop and really consider that, but once I did it seemed obvious to me. Language is just as important (if not more so) to someone on a desert island as it is to someone living in western civilization.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I don't know if I agree, however, that the primary purpose of language is communication.

Y'know what, Jay...I think this is one of the places where Rand is saying something interesting, and even radical.

Because while language has a communication function, it also has other properties. One of them - and one that is very often overlooked - is its potential for self examination, to objectify the swirling subjective thoughts in your head. You know how it can clarify things immensely if you write it down? That kind of thing.

Rand really got a glimpse of something here, I think. It's a pity she didn't really follow it up. I think she is quite wrong in her language theory in most other respects - but in spotting this she is quite original.

A better development of this basic idea is Karl Popper's "World 3" theory - but I would say that, I'm a Popperian....;-) Many people can't take his hypothesis seriously, but I do; I even find it rather beautiful. Here's a little about it here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popperian_cosmology

Jay said...

Interesting stuff about Popper.

I still need to read that essay. Just been a busy few weeks preparing for midterms ;)

Daniel Barnes said...

H Jay,

Take your time. Glad you're finding it stimulating at least.

Jay said...

Greg/Dan

A bit off topic, but..

http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,300299,00.html

Can you guys read that article and tell me what is really so wrong with Atlas Shrugged? This man described the intellectual thrill ride of reading it better than I ever could, and even though you guys don't like Objectivism, I really wonder what, concretely, you would dispute about that review.

Interested in hearing your thoughts either way.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Can you guys read that article and tell me what is really so wrong with Atlas Shrugged?

Compared to what? is the question.

It's apparently a very teachable version of Austrian economics. That's a plus.

Lots of people find it inspirational. Does that mean its good literature?

Anyway, thanks for the link, I'll hoist it.

Jay said...

Well you guys are pretty critical of Objectivism, so I figured, seeing as that book was written to portray Objectivism you guys must have some kind of negative reaction to it.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Well you guys are pretty critical of Objectivism, so I figured, seeing as that book was written to portray Objectivism you guys must have some kind of negative reaction to it.

Yep. Suffice to say it's not our favouritist book...;-)

As far as my tastes go, I'd give an offhand list of Nabokov, Tolstoy, Dickens, Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, Doestoevsky, Hugo among many others as having written some of the books that have influenced me. Rand's novels I don't like, with the exception of "We The Living" which I only got around to recently. Up till then I thought the best one was "The Fountainhead", even tho that's quite painfully repetitive and predictable to my ear. "Atlas" is just the same, only with the volume on 11. Rand is best at polemical essays it seems to me.

Wells said...

Atlas Shrugged was a decent enough book. The story is solid, but the telling of it could have been a whole lot better.

There is good Ayn Rand though. Anthem was good, and "The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy" is a good essay concerning the Czechoslovakian revolt against Soviet domination in the 1950's.

Bart Lawless said...

It seem to me that Rand criticism is the word's use.

Whoever it is she is criticizing is using the word 'sacrifice' merely to mean 'to give something up', applying even when what they believe they are getting in return is greater than what they are giving up; she seems to be correcting them on this.

It is this use of the term 'sacrifice' that she is claiming is immoral, or at least how I read the quote.

Matt said...

Maybe not the right place, but an idea for a Jargon piece I think is "Selfishness".

I believe she wrongfully defines that one as well.

Daniel Barnes said...

Good man, I'm well overdue to write on that one.

It's a particularly interesting case. Leave it with me.