Monday, December 03, 2007

Rand's Style of Argument 2: Ethics

Guest blogger Neil Parille from Objectiblog takes a two-part look at Rand's typical standards of argument.

In the first part of this post, I discussed Rand’s style of argumentation as found in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. As I pointed out, Rand often defends her position using as a background the supposedly failed views of other philosophers. She takes much the same approach in “The Objectivist Ethics.”

Rand quickly disposes with the entire history of ethical thought. “In the sorry record of the history of mankind’s ethics—with few rare, and unsuccessful, exceptions—moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational.” Rand does not provide us with the names of those “rare” philosophers who consider ethics to be based on something other than whims. In any event, her claim is certainly exaggerated.

First, as Huemer notes, it is inaccurate to say that Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Aquinas, Butler, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Bradley and Moore regarded ethics as the province of whims and the irrational. And, even if unsuccessful, they are not the few.

Second, there is an entire traditional of natural law ethics which seeks to derive universal ethical principles from objective reality. Aristotle was called the “father of natural law.” Heinrich Rommen writes that, for Aristotle, “The supreme norm of morality is accordingly this: Realize your essential form, your nature. The natural is the ethical, and the essence is unchangeable.” (Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 15.) Thomas Aquinas, among others, passed this tradition to the West via his synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought.

Natural law theories were prominent in the Enlightenment. As Lord Kames, an important thinker in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote, “A lion has claws, because nature made him an animal of prey. A man has fingers, because he is a social animal to procure food by art not by force. It is thus we discover for what end we were designed by nature, or the Author. And the same chain of reasoning points out to us the laws by which we ought to regulate our actions: for acting according to our nature, is acting so as to answer the end of our creation.” (Henry Home (Lord Kames), Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion. pp. 25-26.)

Natural law ethics wasn’t dead by Rand’s time either. One example is philosopher Henry Veatch who published a defense of Aristotelian ethics in his 1962 book Rational Man. (Rand dismisses Aristotle with the debatable claim that he based his ethics on observations of what wise and noble men did, without asking why they did it.)

Since nature law ethics have commonalities with Rand’s ethics (and in many ways hers seems to be a version of it), her readers would certainly benefit from a discussion of why these theories are unsuccessful.

Rand’s first failed school is the “mystics,” who allegedly hold the “arbitrary, unaccountable ‘will of God’ as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics.” No mystic is mentioned, but I assume that these are conventional religious thinkers. Even so, the description isn’t apt. Most religious philosophers would probably disagree with the claim that they consider God’s commands “arbitrary.” The Ten Commandments, for example, contain a mix of religious injunctions (e.g., have no other gods) and practical commands (e.g, don’t steal). Religious thinkers often adopt a natural law ethic, arguing that God created human beings with a certain nature. (See the above quote from Lord Kames.)

Rand next turns to the “neomystics.” These philosophers attempted to “break the traditional monopoly of mysticism in the field of ethics . . . . But their attempts consisted of accepting the ethical doctrines of the mystics and of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God." Particularly problematic is Rand’s claim that apparently all neomystics are advocates of the unlimited state. Her statement is so sweeping that it should be quoted in detail:

“This meant, in logic — and, today, in worldwide practice — that society stands above any principle of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since ‘the good’ is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that ‘society’ may do anything it pleases, since ‘the good’ is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And—since there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men-this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they are entitled to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desire.”

Taken literally, Rand is arguing that no secular philosopher places any limits on the state’s power over the individual. This hardly seems the case, the utilitarian Ludwig von Mises being an obvious counter-example.

As in ITOE, Rand’s scholarship is quite poor. Rand mentions only Aristotle, Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill and Comte. None of these philosophers is discussed in any detail, and none is quoted or cited. Rand’s only quoted source is herself, principally John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. (Galt is called, curiously, Objectivism’s “best representative.”) The amount of hyperbole is excessive, even by Rand’s standards. Rand is certainly entitled to disagree with altruism, but do altruists really hold death as their ultimate value?

28 comments:

Jay said...

I do think it's a reach to quote your own fictional character as a source. It would have been nice to have more citations from the philosophies being criticized.

That said, I do think Rand was pretty much on the mark. Growing up I've repeatedly heard that ethics are subjective or irrelevant, and that hard to start somewhere, right?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Growing up I've repeatedly heard that ethics are subjective or irrelevant, and that hard to start somewhere, right?

Hi Jay

Just for a bit of background: This modern view of ethics is due to Hume's discovery of the "is/ought" problem in the 18th C, and which was largely ignored until the last century or so.

This "is/ought" dualism is easier to understand as the dualism between facts and decisions, which we had a recent post on.
The "is" is a fact; the "ought" is what I should decide to do, given this fact.

The problem is purely logical, as there is no way to derive a decision from a fact, or from any number of facts. (Decisions pertain to facts, but cannot be logically deduced from them).

You may try this yourself. Here are two facts: Today is Tuesday, it is sunny outside.
What shoud I decide to do?

What happens is people usually end up accidentally smuggling premises in to such problems in order to solve them. Rand's solution in "The Objectivist Ethics" is basically to equivocate between "survival" and "survival as man qua man", the latter being the smuggled premise as "man qua man" simply means being an Objectivist...;-)

It turns out that the fact/decision dualism is actually a feature, not a bug. It means the responsibility for our ethical choices must ultimately remain with us, and cannot be fobbed off onto an abstract system such as logic. (if it could be, one could simply write a reference book filled with correct ethical decisions, like a book of log tables). So rather than destroying personal responsibility, the fact/decision dualism makes it possible!

Jay said...

Daniel,

That makes sense. In "Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics", Tara Smith writes that Rand's ethical principles have to be "intelligently applied" to one's own life. That seems to be what you are driving at.

Jay said...

However I don't think that ethics are a big toss-up either. There are definitely facts of reality that validate independence or honesty as virtues. For example, the empty, directionless lives lived by followers, or the final realization that you are living a lie experienced by dishonest people.

I think that is what Rand was driving at when she spoke of an ethical system grounded in facts.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I think that is what Rand was driving at when she spoke of an ethical system grounded in facts.

Well I don't know who denies that ethics do not pertain or relate or have some kind of relation to facts.

What Rand refers to is the "is/ought" problem, which is the logical one described by Hume in his famous passage . It is a problem of logical relation, not some other unspecified relation.

The issue is simply nothing to do with "grounding" or what not. Hume does not complain that such a relation is not "grounded" in facts, but that it cannot be a deduction from them. Hence subjectivity must enter into ethics at some point, despite always being "grounded" or "pertaining" to facts at all times.

RBram said...

Barnes writes,
"there is no way to derive a decision from a fact, or from any number of facts."

Then in his next comment says,
"I don't know who denies that ethics do not pertain or relate or have some kind of relation to facts."

Contradictions don't matter to Barnes, as long as he can fool some enough people to have a following, and appear to be profound.

As for "smuggling in premises", sure most people do that, but Rand laid them out, step by step. Barnes just ignores Rand's explicit presentation of them, to carry on his own pseudo-reasoned, anti-Rand, anti-reason diatribe.

Jay, read Rand more carefully. If you are honest you will come to grasp how profound Barnes's perfidy is.

Jay said...

Dan,

When Rand wrote that "is" implies "ought", I don't think she meant "ought" as specific ethical decisions. For example, I don't think she meant "any rational Objectivist could look at your life and tell you what job to take, who to marry, and how loudly to defend your convictions."

I think she meant that there are certain principles in play that should be heeded to maximize your effectiveness in reaching goals and pursuing values.

Daniel Barnes said...

rnbram is rapidly becoming one of my favourite commentators!

It reminds me a little of what PJ O'Rourke once said while touring the decrepit, hopelessly constructed buildings of Soviet Moscow; that the Russians loved concrete so much, you'd think they'd know how to make it.

Soviets and concrete are like rbram-type Objectivists and logic; they talk about it so much you'd think they'd know how to use it....;-)

rnbram, old fellow, there is no contradiction there. You just don't know what you are talking about. But carry on, by all means.

Jay:
>When Rand wrote that "is" implies "ought", I don't think she meant "ought" as specific ethical decisions.

Well, there is only one "is/ought" problem I am aware of, and that is Hume's logical one. It is as I have laid it out. If she was talking about something else, well fine. But if so obviously this means she did not reply to Hume.

Jay said...

But how exactly can you derive an "ought" from an "is"? In other words, given our knowledge of the way the world is, how can we know the way the world ought to be? That question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned the position that such a derivation is impossible.
SRC: Wikipedia, "Is/Ought"

I do think Rand replied to is/ought. Her reply was that we can answer ethical questions in principle, but the concrete decisions must still be made by individuals.

Furthermore, such derivation is not "impossible." We do it anytime we make any kind of ethical decision based on facts. When a crucial decision "is" pressing itself upon us, we "ought" to independently assess our options and carry out the best solution. When a long, hard-fought goal "is" achieved, one "ought" to take pride in it. Exactly what that best solution will be and how that pride will manifest itself are individual concerns, but that the solution should be thought of and that we should take pride are completely derivable from facts.

Anonymous said...

The "ought" in Rand's ethical system is one's happiness, which she defines as "that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values" -- desire-satisfaction, in other words -- and all the Objectivist virtues center around that idea. Rationality is to employ the value-obtaining tool of reason; Honesty (i.e. the honest appraisal of facts) is to enable good reasoning; Integrity is to ensure that values and value-seeking actions don't conflict with one another, and so on.

-- Ian.

Wells said...

Everyone, here's how it works. You cannot get from is to ought because is's do not imply oughts. Just because potassium cyanide is poisonous does not mean that you should not drink it. If you want to live, it would be a spectacularly bad idea to drink the stuff. If you want to die, it becomes a better idea to drink it.

If you have a goal in mind that's different. Then is's imply oughts if the is's help you achieve your goal. If your goal is to become a scholar, then plagiarism is probably not a good idea. If you just want to the bare minimum to get a degree so that you can work, then cheat away, just don't get caught.
Obviously, there are some goals that you should have, and some goals that you shouldn't. Intuitively you can tell the difference, maybe logically too, but that last part is something I don't know how to do yet.

Suvine's blogger account said...

I love Ayn Rand and Aristotle

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Wells

You are right, but the underlying issue is this: adopting a goal requires a decision to do so. As we have seen, no decision can be deduced by applying logic to facts.

Thus the subjective element enters. I have already explained why this is ultimately not a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

If you have a goal in mind that's different. Then is's imply oughts if the is's help you achieve your goal.

My point is that there is such a goal (the maximization of personal happiness) that informs Objectivist ethics. So when Rand says her values are objectively true or that they're derived from the facts of reality, she's not committing the is/ought fallacy. She sees her virtues as fundamental means to an end, neither subjective constructs nor virtuous in and of themselves (which tends to be the religious view).

Anyway, just trying to shed light on Objectivist ethics (having once been fascinated by the subject). If I'm misunderstanding something, feel free to correct.

-- Ian.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ian:
>Anyway, just trying to shed light on Objectivist ethics (having once been fascinated by the subject). If I'm misunderstanding something, feel free to correct.

No, I think you're pretty spot on. The issue tho is that Rand thinks she's overcome the fundamental is/ought dualism, but she really hasn't. This is because I don't think she really grokked it in the first place.

The situation is analagous to her view of the problem of induction, where she seems to think it would take an "accomplished scientist" to illustrate "the process". But of course the problem of induction is logical, not "scientific." She just basically doesn't get it. Likewise, it seems, "is/ought." But unlike the latter, at least she did not claim to have solved Hume's problem of induction.

Michael Prescott said...

The "ought" in Rand's ethical system is one's happiness, which she defines as "that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values" -- desire-satisfaction, in other words -- and all the Objectivist virtues center around that idea.

Wouldn't this make Rand an ethical hedonist? Yet she insisted she was not a hedonist ...

Jay said...

I doubt Rand would've called the values "desire satisfaction." After all, some people desire to shoot black tar heroin or rape people. Rand believed that her ethical virtues stood in an objective, all-things-considered position of value to a person's life.

Again, she solved is/ought in principle. We have freewill, there's no way to have an concrete, specific "ought" for every person's "is." That would only work if we were deterministic, which we aren't. I don't know if anyone's tried to dismiss is/ought on the basis of freewill before, but that's how I unpack it.

Jay said...

To elaborate a bit.

An employee of a large company is asked to sign false invoices and mislead suppliers. Now, Ayn Rand (nor any other philosopher) can tell this employee "You need to quit at 2:05PM this afternoon and write these words in your resignation letter with black ink and slide it under the boss's door in a manila envelope." Any specific actions would be subjective.

What Rand can tell this person, on the basis of facts, is that working for someone so dishonest will only jeopardize your future prospects. How? By pointing to countless examples of corporate fraud gone wrong. By making a persuasive case for an honest career. No one could come in and rebuke this with a rational argument for fraud and deception. However, the exact way in which this employee leaves that job is up to him. Maybe he needs to ensure that he can get his money out of their 401(k) plan. Maybe he needs to line up a new job first so he can continue supporting his family. Whatever the case may be, Rand can't tell him how or when to quit, but she can tell him that he must quit, or out the boss, or do something that preserves his integrity.

That is what I mean when I say, she solved is/ought "in principle."

Anonymous said...

I doubt Rand would've called the values "desire satisfaction." After all, some people desire to shoot black tar heroin or rape people. Rand believed that her ethical virtues stood in an objective, all-things-considered position of value to a person's life.

This is true. I used "desire-satisfaction" to express the idea in a way that wasn't rooted in Objectivist rhetoric. Rand was certainly opposed to hedonism, as do-what-you-feel pleasures tend to come at the expense of long-term values. (Or at least that's how I understand it. The lexicon damns hedonism for being subjective and irrational. That rationale, I think, is unconvincing. If rationality is both the means-to and criterion-of value, you've got a circular argument.)

What Rand can tell this person, on the basis of facts, is that working for someone so dishonest will only jeopardize your future prospects. How? By pointing to countless examples of corporate fraud gone wrong.

No, she'd argue that the dishonesty was existentially immoral. The countless examples of corporate fraud gone wrong would be validation that it's immoral -- not the reason. That's one of the problems I have with Objectivist ethics: Either the facts verify the universality of the ethics, or they will.. in the future... when society collapses. It's a self-sealing argument.

If this person kept with his job because (a) prosecution is unlikely, and (b) the supplier's personal happiness is unlikely to be affected by a business matter, and (c) the company will eventually implement more stringent invoice standards... Objectivism would damn him as a pragmatist even if he was right.

That is what I mean when I say, she solved is/ought "in principle."

Eh, I tend to agree with Mr. Barnes. Rand didn't solve the is/ought problem; she circumvented it. The "in principle" emphasis does nothing for me. Nothing!

-- Ian.

Jay said...

Anon,

That is why in the very next sentence I added "She would make a persuasive case for an honest, successful career." I should have clarified. In my mind, that encompassed the virtue of honest work as against the vice of fraud.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ian:
>The "in principle" emphasis does nothing for me.

Me neither. It just moves the problem back a step: why should we decide to adopt this principle? The answer is that there is no logical way to do this without smuggling in extra premises.

As to "survival" - There are plenty of examples of frauds - for obviously not all dishonesties are illegal - that have hugely benefitted the survival of the fraudulent individual, and plenty of examples of the honest man paying a high price, even his life, for his virtue.

To get around this Rand equivocates between this initial straight "survival" premise in her "Ethics" essay and her "survival as man qua man" premise, which she introduces later in the essay without batting an eyelash. This "man qua man" thing makes everything completely vague once more, and allows her to condemn the obvious "prudent predator" objections to her first premise. I agree we could also take "man qua man" to have a kind of "existential" bent as Ian suggests, but I think "man qua man" ultimately means being an Objectivist.

I've mentioned this before, but as an interesting sidelight, legend has it Rand was going to call Objectivism "existentialism" but it was already taken...;-)

Brendan said...

Jay: “…but she can tell him that he must quit, or out the boss, or do something that preserves his integrity.”

There’s no “must” about it. The employee may comply with his employer’s demands or he may quit. The fact – the request to sign false invoices – does not logically imply that any particular action ought to be taken.

The “ought” only comes into the equation if the employee wishes to “preserve his integrity”, that is, subsequent to a value judgement regarding the situation. But in that case no facts are being derived from values; rather, values are being derived from other values.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Daniel wrote:

...as an interesting sidelight, legend has it Rand was going to call Objectivism "existentialism"...

'Tisn't "legend": it's Nathaniel's report, but where did he report it...? I think in his memoir...

E-

Jay said...

Brendan,

I believe that preserving one's integrity is a virtue that can be validated by facts as well. This topic needs a bit more elaboration than I can do on a comment. Maybe a blog post is in order.

As an aside, I myself am not troubled by is/ought one bit in my daily life. I know roughly what I need to do in various situations and, as a being with freewill, am free to choose how to carry them out.

Neil Parille said...

Jay,

My guess is that the claim that values are subjective comes from logical positivism (the idea the value statements are only emotive) and cultural relatavism.

David said...

Michael Huemer takes Rand's ethical argument apart: http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm

And excellent analysis and critique, IMO.

Brendan said...

Jay; “I believe that preserving one's integrity is a virtue that can be validated by facts as well.”

One can use the facts to validate several conclusions, but “validation” is beside the point. The issue is ‘necessary connection’, a logically binding argument where the premises is a fact and the conclusion a value.

As far as I am aware, nobody has come up with such an argument.

Anonymous said...

The stlye of argument of the Objectivists leaves a lot to be desired to. At least over here in the UK. I was told by them that Objectivism was growing year on year. But when I told them that even if Objectivism grow by 10 000 per week and the population stayed stable it would take until the year 10 000 till everyone was an Objectivist, they changed tack and told me the UK was doomed to fascism.

Why do they make such silly statements that are obviously false?

When pressed on a time line for fascism in the UK all they could come up with was that the UK was turning into a fascist state because, wait for it, police could issue on the post fines for speeding. Yeah, that's fascism eh? Even though you can challenge the fine and that on the spot fines might free up the courts time to prosecute some real criminals. Gosh, statements like that make them come across as loony left wing studenty types. Man that pig is a fascist, he gave me a ticket for speeding!