Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Ayn Rand and the Is/Ought Problem"

Over at Mises.org we find Patrick M. O'Neil's detailed breakdown of Objectivist ethics, and despite Rand's claims to the contrary, exactly how it fails to overcome Hume's problem. The result is what he calls the "essential subjectivity of Objectivism.":

"...It is at this stage in her argumentation, at the very point of seeming triumph over subjectivity, that Rand loses the battle. She takes aim at the Humean disjuncture of the prescriptive from the descriptive and fatally wounds the pretentions to objectivity of her own systematic ethics: "The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between 'is' and 'ought'"("The Objectivist Ethics"). In these two sentences, Rand reveals a serious misconception of the nature of the Humean is-ought gap and introduces a dangerous potential for self-contradiction into her own ethical system.

In his work A Treatise of Human Nature, the Scottish philosopher David Hume challenged the basis of all objective systems of morality:
"I can not forbear adding to these reasonings an observation, which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for sometime in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God. or makes observations concerning human affairs: when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not. I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new revelation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether
inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it."
Clearly, Rand thinks that Hume denied a connection between facts and systems of morality. This error is not uncommon, and forms the basis for A. C. MacIntyre's revisionist reinterpretation of Hume's famous paragraph. Claiming that Hume could not have meant to establish a total divorcement of facts from values because Hume uses facts in his own ethical system, MacIntyre interprets Hume to be assaulting only theologically-based morality. In fact, there is nothing in the Humean formulation of the problem which hinders the simple integration of facts and values. The sole difficulty arises over the derivability of values from facts...In conclusion, then, Ayn Rand's system of Objectivist ethics does not provide the basis for a solution to the Humean dilemma of the is/ought gap; nor have attempts by a new generation of natural law ethicians to rework her system succeeded in subduing that central ethical difficulty. Since no ethical system has been demonstrated to have solved the is-ought problem, it may be thought a minor flaw in Rand. It is her specific claim to have overcome this difficulty that magnifies its importance in regard to her system."

20 comments:

Jay said...

I am starting to side with Greg that this entire thing might just be something philosophers dreamed up to feel like they have important problems to solve.

That said, I do believe that Rand solved this dilemma in principle. If you adopt X goal, you need to do X, in some form that you as a being with freewill and consciousness decide. To that, people have said "Yeah, but without a goal the problem remains unsolved. It's only once you introduce a goal that you can answer this dilemma." The implication seems to be that introducing goals into human affairs is some strange and philosophically verboten act that invalidates Rand's reasoning.

All I can say to that is: DUH! We're human beings, it's in our nature to conceptualize. The very fact that we are equipped with long-term thinking skills, that we don't start life over one day at a time, makes goals a necessity for us. Without goals (even simple ones) we could not functionally survive. Therefore, I don't see what the big fuss is about how you can only solve is/ought once you adopt a goal. The thinking seems to be "Yeah, but what if we didn't have goals?" Well, we do. It's, dare I say, a fact of reality. So why posit these imaginary problems of how would we get from is to ought without goals?

Another commenter (I believe Daniel Barnes, but am not 100% sure) said something like: You can't objectively get from "It's sunny outside" to "I should go for a walk in the park." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the jist of it. Why is this even a problem? I know no one who is vexed by, nor can I think of one problem being caused by, the inability to objectively affirm the choice to walk in the park on a sunny day.

I need to do some more thinking and reading on this, but it seems like such a manufactured problem to me.

Daniel Barnes said...

HI Jay,

>I am starting to side with Greg that this entire thing might just be something philosophers dreamed up to feel like they have important problems to solve.

In that quote, Greg's referring to the "problem of universals", not the "is/ought" problem. Two very different beasts. The first is epistemological, the second ethical.

>Another commenter (I believe Daniel Barnes, but am not 100% sure) said something like: You can't objectively get from "It's sunny outside" to "I should go for a walk in the park."

Yes, that was me. The point is that you can't logically derive a decision from a fact. In Objectivism they call this fact and value ; but of course facts are facts, whether we like them or not, but adopting a value requires a decision ; ergo the fact/decision dualism is a more fundamentally accurate description of the situation.

My example was trivial, primarily because so often this topic gets dressed up in quite overblown ethical situations; I was seeking to show how you can't get there-from-here even in an incredibly simple case.

Saying "goals are a necessity" is just ducking the problem, because the point of ethics is which goals, and how ?

What you have to do is follow Rand's argument step by step, just like any other argument, and see if it stands or falls. Michael Huemer has a handy breakdown of it (which we cited on this site a while back) here:

http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm

Also check out Greg's posts on the matter in the ARCHNFiles sidebar. And of course in your free Dead Tree Edition ARCHN currently winging its way to you.

Bottom line: Rand didn't really understand the problem she claimed to be solving.

Jay said...

Michael's critique is now on my to-read list.

In the meantime, I think I can account for Rand's conception of "which goals." Begin with who we are: we have freewill, the most advanced form of consciousness, and the power of conceptualizing. From this, it follows that our choices should be integrated towards an overall purpose: goal-directed happiness and fulfillment. Pursuing other goals (whim-of-the-moment hedonism, for example) would be denying our nature. We cannot, as Tara Smith wrote, "successfully steer our lives on a case-by-case basis", ignorant of the broader context and interrelations we as people are uniquely equipped to know.

But because we have freewill, we will all approach those goals in a slightly different way. That's why there's no objective proof of "It's sunny so I'll go for a walk in the park." It's entirely conceivable and logical that your happiness will be served by that, but mine will be served by going to a Mets game. Or visiting Monticello. Or going to the beach.

I know this isn't a very well-developed hypothesis right now, but I really think our possession of freewill makes is/ought less of a problem. We need to follow certain principles if we adopt certain goals. But trying to nail down the exact course of action seems like trying to grab water pouring out of a faucet.

Jay said...

From the analysis cited by this post:

"One may..feel that anyone who could reject the conclusion that one "ought to act in accordance with his nature" is " a bit weird", but..."
- Osterfeld


It's more than "a bit weird." It's arbitrary and pointless. I don't even see how "Well maybe some people don't want to live" or "maybe some people don't want to act in accordance with their nature" are serious arguments that invalidate anything. It reminds me of toddlers who question everything just because. And you guys think Rand's philosophy is verbalizing and wordgames?

If someone doesn't want to live, let them die. If they want to reject their nature, let them reject it. What bearing do they have on rational people who want to make the most of their lives?

Dragonfly said...

But what is acting in accordance with your nature? Isn't a parasite or a criminal or a whim-of-the-moment hedonist acting in accordance with his nature? Some of them may flourish better than many Objectivists. The hidden assumption is that you can only be happy by living according to Objectivist principles. That has not been proven, it is an example of wishful thinking.

Neil Parille said...

Jay,

If what Rand said is true, government employed diversity trainers should have shorter lives and be less happier than the rest of us. Do you have any evidence that this is the case?

Jay said...

I don't have any evidence of that. But I do have to wonder: does anybody grow up dreaming to be a government-employed diversity trainer?

Jay said...

Dragonfly,

I must have missed the "hidden assumption" that only Objectivists can be happy. However, I would wager that rational, honest, principled, just, productive, prideful people are happier (for the most part) than those who reject those qualities. It would make for an interesting study.

Anonymous said...

In the meantime, I think I can account for Rand's conception of "which goals." Begin with who we are: we have freewill, the most advanced form of consciousness, and the power of conceptualizing. From this, it follows that our choices should be integrated towards an overall purpose: goal-directed happiness and fulfillment.

No, see, that's the problem. You simply are who you are. To be "who you are" isn't necessarily good (that's the naturalistic fallacy) and there's no imperative to be the best "who you are" you can be. It's fine to posit that as a premise, but what that means is that Objectivist ethics is not absolute. It's more akin to a scientific hypothesis.

Thing to keep in mind is that most philosophies have their own hypotheses about what the overall purpose is and how it is best obtained. Is the goal to maximize happiness or minimize suffering? Is suffering better reduced by active problem solving (Popper) or by mentally conditioning oneself to embrace it (Buddhism)? Is happiness better accomplished through goal-directed achievement (Rand) or by an equilibrium of simple, more easily maintained pleasures (Epicureanism)? Does it even matter (Nihilism)?

Anyway, food for thought.

-- Ian.

Wells said...

Is the Is/Ought | Fact/Value | Fact Decisions dichotomy Important? Like in the sense that the war in Iraq is Important, or how the ultimate fate of subprime lenders is Important, or in the manner that your paycheck is Important?
No, it is not. Everyone functions just fine without having a logical answer to this question. They always have, and they always will.

Not to say there cannot be some benefit in attacking this question. Obviously in order to bridge this thing you need a goal. So the problem starts at finding out how to logically determine which goals someone should be pursuing. A human nature based argument would probably be the best I've got, but Jay is espousing it, so I'll just listen to him continue in that vein.
Then all that a person would need to know is what human nature actually is, and the problem is just about solved.

Now to say something deep sounding. Perhaps the reason this question feels so difficult is because it is too easy. I imagine everyone here knows what goals they should pursue already without waxing philosophical about most of them. That was the easy part. The hard part is getting some paper and writing some argument that gets from the facts as you know them, to what you want to do and have that argument be logically valid.

If you can do it, there would no doubt be instant fame, you could even start some kind of an institute.

Daniel Barnes said...

Wells:
>Is the Is/Ought | Fact/Value | Fact Decisions dichotomy Important?

Here's what I think is important about understanding the problem: it means you can't fob off ethical responsibility for the consequences of your decisions on to some abstract system, some book of "oughts", neatly derived like a book of log tables. Can't fob it off on the Holy Tablets handed down from the Forefathers or the World Historical action of the Dialectic or "A=A". The "is/ought" gap means the responsibility for our decisions ultimately rests with us; it's not a bug, but a feature. That's why Rand's whole discussion of the problem is doubly misguided; not only did she not solve the problem that she claimed to, but if she had, ironically it would have undermined the very principle of individual responsibility that she championed.

As Greg N says, one of the chief problems for the critic of Objectivism is the complexity of its confusions!

Jay said...

Wells,

Perhaps the reason this question feels so difficult is because it is too easy. I imagine everyone here knows what goals they should pursue already without waxing philosophical about most of them.

That was what I was trying to drive at in my last couple of comments. Well said.

Dan,

Can't fob it off on the Holy Tablets handed down from the Forefathers or the World Historical action of the Dialectic or "A=A"

Sadly, I'm sure some Objectivists do just that. However I think that results from the widespread desire to take the path of least resistance. We can probably agree that Rand did want people to think seriously about their ethical choices.

Anonymous said...

Man is a machine. All life forms are machines for processing the information that is availble to their being. The creatures that are highly evolved can predict the way the world works. Man uses symbolism to achieve a deeper level of prediction. Our words, equations, numbers and theories are all ways in which we device symbols and manipulations of symbols that track reality. Why? To predict what will happen. Why? To survive. The equation:

F = M x a

Pretty much describes all motion. Whatever the "real" truth behind existence, this equation allows us to predict and control motion.

For all the credit Newton gets for this equation, most animals have in encoded in their brain this equation.

Epistimogy and all Rand's freaking out over it, really doesn't matter. We are creatures that are on a quest to device expicit symbolic systems that track reality. So what if concepts can be vauge, or adhoc, or ill defined. If they pragmatically track reality that is all that counts. Rand was obsessed with precission. I think it was a bogus quest on her part. As long as our symbols, and culture, and other things give results that describe reality, then that is enough. Rand's theories were okay, but not the final word, and not great enough to warrent her blanket condemnation of all thinkers before her.

John Morris said...

The problem really is human free will. It is the fact that humans can choose NOT to act according to their nature; therefore, we grasp at ethical standards and are confronted with is/ought dichotomies - eating right and exercising IS reasonably proven to create health and we probably OUGHT to do those things; however, don't HAVE to... we CAN choose otherwise. And, that creates the IF... IF you want to [achieve said value] you OUGHT to [follow said guidelines].

It's choice. As in the Matrix, choice is the fundamental problem (flaw).

YET, choice is a part of human nature. Choice is the constant variable that must be accounted for. Therefore, creating or even seeking to create a system of philosophy that doesn't account for human choice seems to be the *real* problem. It simply cannot be done, because choice is an integral part of human nature - and, the nature of choice IS arbitrary and subjective.

Thus, I see no problem in saying, "goals are a necessity", because what it really means is "choice is a necessity" - and choice IS a necessity FOR humans.

The larger problem is assuming that ethics itself is a question of oughts. That, what IS should apply to a broader societal context as a standard for everyone. This assumption, again, fails to integrate choice into the equation. That is, some people my choose to value one thing over another.

As Daniel brilliantly put, "the point of ethics is which goals and how..." That IS the problem. Assuming that universal goals (values) should be identified. Again, this negates choice. The answer to which goals is... *the ones YOU choose*... that is the base ethical standard that integrates choice into the equation. From there, we can identify the "how" using facts without a problem.

The dichotomies that exist in philosophy almost always stem from the failure to integrate choice into the system. The is/ought ethical dichotomy is no different.

Instead, ethics may be accurately applied as a series of if/then identifications that allow people to see what actions create what effects - given the desire for a certain effect (value).

Thus, it is not what you OUGHT to do, necessarily... but, what you can CHOOSE to do.

Daniel Barnes said...

John Morris:
>The problem really is human free will...

Hi John

I agree. In fact I often say that the inability to derive decisions from facts (the is/ought problem) is not a bug, but a feature. For it means that you can't avoid responsibility for the ethical decisions you make - you can't blame some kind of inexorable logical formula or book of rules, like a kind of moral log table. You have to choose. This is what makes morality important in the first place.

equsnarnd said...

"In fact, there is nothing in the Humean formulation of the problem which hinders the simple integration of facts and values. The sole difficulty arises over the derivability of values from facts..."

Are you kidding me? The sole difficulty arises over the derivability of values from facts is exactly what Rand answered and she did it well. She did not think the problem Hume presented was one of the 'simple integration of facts and values.' I don't know how anyone who has read Rand and Hume could think that.

Lumnicence said...

Rand did okay bridging the is/ought gap... she filled the gap with a desire. The unfortunate consequence of this is that man ought to do whatever he wants to do, leaving the door open to all kinds of madness.

The is/ought gap is also filled with a promise... i.e.
I did promise to pay 5 dollars;
I ought to pay five dollars.
This bridge, rather than the bridge of desire, seems to be a more perfect understanding of what the word "ought" actually means, which is to say, things that I do, not because I want to do them, but because I must do them, should I like to remain a credible person.

Anon69 said...

Lumnicence said...


"Rand did okay bridging the is/ought gap... she filled the gap with a desire. The unfortunate consequence of this is that man ought to do whatever he wants to do, leaving the door open to all kinds of madness.

An Objectivist might reply that fullfillment of desire entails existence, which for man means existence as man, thus long-range conceptual thinking, thus the whole Objectivist kit-n-kaboodle. I agree that this doesn't do the job because, for example, one could desire to live, but only for a short time - which immediately short-circuits Rand's argument on its own terms. Even if one were to accept Rand's formulation of the "fundamental alternative", living for the "whole of [one's natural] lifespan" is not necessary because a different kind of life (not qua Rand) might be entailed by the initiating desire. The "fundamental alternative" begs the question anyway.

So we have a gaping hole that is fatal to the Objectivist ethics. Per impossible, one must share all of Rand's specific proclivities as a starting point. In this way, the Objectivist ethics, far from being universal, is self-limited and applies only partly to a small number of persons who happen to share some of Rand's natural inclinations; in the final analysis, Objectivism is the philosophy of, for, and applicable only to Ayn Rand (and, given some of her patently irrational behavior, maybe not even to her).

Anonymous said...

Right at the outset, O'Neil's misunderstanding of both Rand and ethics is made clear. He says, "There can be no doubt that she intends to construct an ethical system in which
the standards of morality operate independently of their subjective acceptance by
individual human wills". No, she does not intend to do this. Implicit here is the notion that if you have a choice about the matter, it is not ethics, i.e. ethics is about duty. This is an invalid assumption which virtually every ethical philosopher in history has made and Rand explicitly rejects it as all people should, regardless of whether they go on to agree with her. Every following mistake from O'Neil flows logically from this initial one.

Daniel Barnes said...

A remarkably stupid comment.
Do you think you can declare a statement contains "implicit" assumptions without providing any demonstration that it does?
Do you think just declaring an assumption "invalid" makes it so?
It's quite possible O'Neil has made a logical error. If you think he has, please demonstrate it and its consequences.