Saturday, January 05, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 1

Motivation. One of the glaring weaknesses of Objectivism is that it has no coherent theory of motivation. For Rand, individuals were motivated by their values. Where do these values come from? They come from the mind—preferably, from a rational mind. In other words, Rand implicitly believed that motivation can potentially derive from reason: people can use reason to determine the ends, the goals, the desires, of their lives. This is an entirely incoherent position, refuted by David Hume in the eighteenth century. As Hume wrote in his A Treatise of Human Nature:
Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to [reason's] dictates. Every rational creature, it is said, is obliged to regulate his actions by reason; and if any other motive or principle challenge the direction of his conduct, he ought to oppose it, till it be entirely subdued, or at least brought to a conformity with that superior principle. On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy, antient and modern, seems to be founded; nor is there an ampler field, as well for metaphysical arguments, as popular declamations, than this supposed pre-eminence of reason above passion....
It is from the prospect of pain or pleasure that the aversion or propensity arises towards any object: And these emotions extend themselves to the causes and effects of that object, as they are pointed out to us by reason and experience. It can never in the least concern us to know, that such objects are causes, and such others effects, if both the causes and effects be indifferent to us. Where the objects themselves do not affect us, their connexion can never give them any influence; and it is plain, that as reason is nothing but the discovery of this connexion, it cannot be by its means that the objects are able to affect us.
Since reason alone can never produce any action, or give rise to volition, I infer, that the same faculty is as incapable of preventing volition, or of disputing the preference with any passion or emotion. This consequence is necessary. It is impossible reason could have the latter effect of preventing volition, but by giving an impulse in a contrary direction to our passion.... Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse.... We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

Note here first of all that Hume describes the view that morality should be determined by reason as the dominant view in both ancient and modern philosophy. In other words, Rand is hardly the first philosopher to support a reason-based morality. Also note Hume's rejection of the traditional view that sees passion and reason as potentially at odds. No, contends Hume, they are not at odds. Passion (or emotion) serves as the motivation for reason. Passions provide the ends, and reason tells us the means by which those ends can be attained.

Hume's argument in the Treatise is a bit obscure to modern readers, so it helps to supplement it with passages from a later work. In Hume's An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, he explains with greater clarity the impossibility of a morality solely based on reason.
It is easy for a false hypothesis to maintain some appearance of truth, while it keeps wholly in generals, makes use of undefined terms, and employs comparisons, instead of instances. This is particularly remarkable in that philosophy, which ascribes the discernment of all moral distinctions to reason alone, without the concurrence of sentiment. It is impossible that, in any particular instance, this hypothesis [of a reason-only morality] can so much as be rendered intelligible; whatever specious figure it may make in general declamations and discourses. Examine the crime of ingratitude, for instance; which has place, wherever we observe good-will, expressed and known, together with good offices performed, on the one side, and a return of ill-will or indifference, with ill-offices or neglect on the other: Anatomize all these circumstances, and examine, by your reason alone, in what consists the demerit or blame: You never will come to any issue or conclusion.
Reason judges either of matter of fact or of relations. Enquire then, first, where is that matter of fact, which we here call crime; point it out; determine the time of its existence; describe its essence or nature; explain the sense or faculty, to which it discovers itself. It resides in the mind of the person who is ungrateful. He must, therefore, feel it, and be conscious of it. But nothing is there, except the passion of ill-will or absolute indifference. You cannot say, that these, of themselves, always, and in all circumstances, are crimes. No: They are only crimes, when directed towards persons, who have before expressed and displayed good-will towards us. Consequently, we may infer, that the crime of ingratitude is not any particular individual fact; but arises from a complication of circumstances, which, being presented to the spectator, excites the sentiment of blame, by the particular structure and fabric of his mind.
This representation, you say, is false. Crime, indeed, consists not in a particular fact, of whose reality we are assured by reason: But it consists in certain moral relations, discovered by reason, in the same manner as we discover, by reason, the truths of geometry or algebra. But what are the relations, I ask, of which you here talk? In the case stated above, I see first good-will and good-offices in one person; then ill-will and ill-offices in the other. Between these, there is the relation of contrariety. Does the crime consist in that relation? But suppose a person bore me ill-will or did me ill-offices; and I, in return, were indifferent towards him, or did him good-offices: Here is the same relation of contrariety; and yet my conduct is often highly laudable. Twist and turn this matter as much as you will, you can never rest the morality on relation; but must have recourse to the decisions of sentiment.
When it is affirmed, that two and three are equal to the half of ten; this relation of equality, I understand perfectly. I conceive, that if ten be divided into two parts, of which one has as many units as the other; and if any of these parts be compared to two added to three, it will contain as many units as that compound number. But when you draw thence a comparison to moral relations, I own that I am altogether at a loss to understand you. A moral action, a crime, such as ingratitude, is a complicated object. Does the morality consist in the relation of its parts to each other? How? After what manner? Specify the relation: Be more particular and explicit in your propositions; and you will easily see their falsehood.
No, say you, the morality consists in the relation of actions to the rule of right; and they are denominated good or ill, according as they agree or disagree with it. What then is this rule of right? In what does it consist? How is it determined? By reason, you say, which examines the moral relations of actions. So that moral relations are determined by the comparison of actions to a rule. And that rule is determined by considering the moral relations of objects. Is not this fine reasoning?
All this is metaphysics, you cry: That is enough: There needs nothing more to give a strong presumption of falsehood. Yes, reply I: Here are metaphysics, surely: But they are all on your side, who advance an abstruse hypothesis, which can never be made intelligible, nor quadrate with any particular instance or illustration. The hypothesis which we embrace is plain. It maintains, that morality is determined by sentiment. It defines virtue to be whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary. We then proceed to examine a plain matter of fact, to wit, what actions have this influence: We consider all the circumstances, in which these actions agree: And thence endeavour to extract some general observations with regard to these sentiments. If you call this metaphysics, and find any thing abstruse here, you need only conclude, that your turn of mind is not suited to the moral sciences.

And Hume concludes as follows:
It appears evident, that the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man, why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.
  Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other... Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.

Rand either never read these passages in Hume or, if she did read them, she failed to understand them. If reason is perceived as a method by which matters of fact and relations are grasped and elucidated, how can a mere method generate a motive, let alone a moral end? Reason is but an intellectual tool; and since tools don't generate motives, but are merely methods or means by which some end is attained, something outside of reason, some appetite or passion or intention, must motivate reason to get it to do its thing. Rand's failure to grasp this led her to attempt the impossible: to create a morality based solely on "reason." And since, as Oakeshott reminds us, "to try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise," so Rand's so-called rational ethics terminates in what can only be described as a rationalistic moral code, where reason becomes a mere euphemism for casuistry.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Silly. As usual, you misconstrue Rand's position and omit what is inconvenient. Rand thought that morality derived from reason in the sense that reason is used to prove morality's content. That's not the same as saying that reason is a source of motivation. In fact, Rand thought that ultimate source of motivation was the choice to live, a choice that did not admit of or require justification. See "Causality vs. Duty" and just about any treatment of Objectivist metaethics.

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...

Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to [reason's] dictates.

I don't know about Hume's time, but that certainly isn't true today. How I wish it were!

Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse.

This is speculation of the highest order. Unless you stretch "passion" to mean any desire from any source whatsoever, it simply has no validity. What about drug addicts who retard the impulse to get their next fix by sitting down, death-gripping the kitchen table, and resolving that "no, this is harming me and I need to stop." That is cognition, not mere impulse, and similar examples can be generated ad infinitum.

I will concede that reason in and of itself does not provide human motivations. Take careers, for instance. Some people are naturally inclined to athletics; others to art, others to law, medicine, construction, or architecture. However, reason can and does factor into the motivational equation. Before I decided I wanted to go to law school, I knew I wanted a career where my communicating and argumentation abilities could shine. But passion didn't identify law to me or motivate me to pursue it.

To do that, I had to evaluate different careers, read about people who chose them, consider what each one consists of on a daily basis, and ultimately conclude that law is right for me. Now, I'm certainly motivated: motivated to take out thousands of dollars in student loans, stay up on law journals, prepare for the LSATs and ace the rest of my undergrad courses. That's a pretty powerful motivation encompassing tons of money and hundreds of hours of effort, and passion alone didn't generate it. It was passion, combined with a full, thorough consideration of the facts.

Moral of the story? Reason doesn't solely motivate people, but it does play an important role.

Moony said...

"What about drug addicts who retard the impulse to get their next fix by sitting down, death-gripping the kitchen table, and resolving that "no, this is harming me and I need to stop." That is cognition, not mere impulse, and similar examples can be generated ad infinitum."

And your evidence for believing that this ever happens is ...?

The question interested me because I'm currently on my 26th miserable nicotine-free day and however much I can - and do - dress giving up smoking in the clothes of reason, in fact the decision to stop was the result of an impulse every bit as irrational as the original decision to start 37 years ago.

I think we're all very much better at rationalising our decisions than discerning the real motives behind them (although obviously it may just be me who's like that!).

joyclean said...

hume never understood that an image
suggests its opposite. is the river
dark or does it let in enough light
to make the dark visible? we travel
beyond ancient combats of dualisms to arrive at the objective reality of today; words define words after
the images they produce are placed
in brackets. you stand before bars
of justice as that individual who has made choices

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "Rand thought that morality derived from reason in the sense that reason is used to prove morality's content. That's not the same as saying that reason is a source of motivation."

All this shows is that Anon doesn't understand the point at issue. Does Rand regard motivations as rational or non-rational? And what is their source? Is their source the affective system, or the intellect? Can one's motivations be defended, in their entirety, by reason?

Anon: "Rand thought that ultimate source of motivation was the choice to live, a choice that did not admit of or require justification."

This is an entirely incoherent position, possibly formed to dodge the whole issue of motivation. Choices presuppose motivation, and thus cannot be their source. But even if we were to ignore this objection, is this choice that does admit or require justification itself "rational," a product, so to speak of reason, or is it non-rational, and independent of reason?

Rand's survivalist meta-ethics does not get her off the hook on this question.

Jay said...

Moony,

Why on Earth is quitting smoking "irrational?" It's going to save you money, improve your health, and end an addiction. This is where I think the whole "there's no such thing as a rational end" argument becomes filibustering rather than serious thought.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "This is speculation of the highest order. Unless you stretch 'passion' to mean any desire from any source whatsoever, it simply has no validity."

In fact, that is how the term "passion" was in fact stretched in the 18th Century. Hume uses the term to mean the entire emotional system, particularly the more stable and constant emotions. Later he would use the term "sentiment" to refer to what he meant.

Jay: "What about drug addicts who retard the impulse to get their next fix by sitting down, death-gripping the kitchen table, and resolving that 'no, this is harming me and I need to stop.' That is cognition, not mere impulse."

It is cognition and impulse—which is Hume's entire point. Hume is not arguing that reason has nothing to do with morality; he is merely pointing out that moral ends cannot be determined solely by reason. A person is "harmed" by drug usage because the effects of addiction cause uneasiness and pain, which are part of the affect system. If they caused no pain, they would cause no harm and there would be no incentive, no motivation to get off of drugs. So the conflict here is not necessarily between reason and passion, but between two passions: the passion for drugs on the one side, and the passion to escape the harmful effects of drugs on the other. The intellect must choose between these rival passions. But even this choice must be founded, in part, on desire: the desire to maximize one's overall well-being, to harmonize, as much as humanly possible, the rival impulses making havoc in the individual's psyche. Such a harmonization is adumbrated in Socrates and Plato, is further solidified by Aristotle, and is fully integrated with a thorough naturalism by Santayana.

gregnyquist said...

mooney: "however much I can - and do - dress giving up smoking in the clothes of reason, in fact the decision to stop was the result of an impulse every bit as irrational as the original decision to start 37 years ago."

Your decision to stop is not merely an "irrational" impulse: it is an impulse generated from fear of what might happen if you continue smoking (i.e., the health problems brought on by smoking). Whether its rational or not depends on what is more important to you: short-term well-being (i.e., relief from your nicotine cravings) or the possibility of greater long-term well-being (i.e., avoiding the very real possibility that smoking will lead to nasty, life-threatening illnesses further down the road).

Anonymous said...

Say what you like about whether or not the choice to live idea is incoherent or arbitrary. It is Rand's position, and your original post did nothing to address it. To address it, see the easily available print material I've mentioned (like AR's "Causality vs. Duty," Peikoff's section in OPAR on the choice to live, and Tara Smith's *Viable Values*). These answer most of the questions you've raised in your response. The fact that you've not considered these sources shows that your knowledge of Objectivism is cursory.

The material from Hume is totally irrelevant to Rand's position, and was originally written as a response to a very different rationalist theory of ethics (what she would call "intrinsicist") that is entirely foreign to Rand's view. Like so many of your other posts, you can't just take random items from the history of philosophy or from psychology which attack various views of "reason" and expect that they relate to Objectivism.

Jay said...

Anon,

I think you're right about Hume's passage responding to intrinsicism. Still, Greg has more than a cursory knowledge of Objectivism. We disagree on several large issues (as my upcoming review of ARCHN will demonstrate) but his knowledge of Objectivism is undeniable.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "The material from Hume is totally irrelevant to Rand's position, and was originally written as a response to a very different rationalist theory of ethics (what she would call 'intrinsicist') that is entirely foreign to Rand's view."

I'm sorry, but this strikes me as mere evasion. Hume's remarks are directed at any theory of ethics, intrinsicist or otherwise, which claims to be exclusively determined by reason. Hume's claim, if reinterpreted into Objectivist language, is that capacity for desire, interest, caring, etc. is what makes values possible; that these things are the moral ends of life, whereas life is merely a means to those ends.

This point is made explicit in J. Charles King's devastating refutation of Randian Ethics, where King notes that "Rand's account allows an insufficient place for the importance of the activities of preferring, desiring, and the like. I repeat, it is true that such things as desiring and preferring may well be informed by the information gathered by reason. Nonetheless reason, as Rand has explained it, cannot provide motivation toward one alternative or another."

And King concludes: "Rand's account of the standard of the value of man's life, qua rational creature, would provide us, strictly speaking, no actual standard of action at all. For reason must be provided with ends to seek before it can serve as a guide. These ends must come from outside reason itself. Therefore, to set as a standard for action the life of a rational being is to set no determinate standard at all."

Ellen Stuttle said...

"Causality Versus Duty" is an article which people keep overlooking. It contradicts what she says about is/ought in "The Objectivist Ethics" -- unless she was using clever side-stepping language in the latter with her "no relation" and "implies" -- i.e., side-stepping that the "relation" "those philosophers" were talking about was one of logical entailment. In "Causality Versus Duty" she plainly says that all shoulds are conditional on "ifs": IF you want X, then you should do what getting X requires.

Ellen

Anonymous said...

Ellen,

You're right that people keep ignoring "Causality vs. Duty." It's the article that shows that Hume's objections do not tell against Rand, and for the reason that you note. It does not tell against any theory that claims that morality is "determined by reason," because that is an equivocal statement. What *about* morality is "determined" by reason? Its content or its motivation? It makes a difference.

Rand says yes, we use reason to determine the content of ethics. We even use it to realize that the choice to live is foundational to ethical obligation. But reason does not give us a desire to live. As both Rand and Peikoff explain, that is a choice. If we make that choice, morality tells us what we must do to achieve it. It is not a choice that is justified or unjustified. It is a pre-moral choice, in terms of which any other choice is justified or not. (To ask for a justification of the choice to live is a stolen concept.)

But I think that you're mistaken in thinking that what she says here about the conditionality of moral obligation contradicts what she says in "The Objectivist Ethics." Immediately after the point about how every "is" implies an "ought," she quotes the following passage from Galt's speech:

"Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."

The fact that man has to hold a code of values by choice is *one* of the facts that gives rise to moral obligation. Yes, the nature of an organism determines what it ought to do. And if the organism is a man, its nature determines what it ought to do--if it wants to live. For man, the most important facts giving rise to morality are: his biology, and his choice to live.

Daniel Barnes said...

Ellen writes:
>In "Causality Versus Duty" she plainly says that all shoulds are conditional on "ifs": IF you want X, then you should do what getting X requires.

Anon replies:
>It's the article that shows that Hume's objections do not tell against Rand, and for the reason that you note...

Anon, I would like to suggest politely that you do not really understand the issue.

The issue is the logical relation of facts ("ises") and decisions ("oughts"). This is what Hume is talking about. You cannot make a derivation logically determining a decision from a fact - at least, you can't without smuggling in a decision as part of your premises. And as moral choices are all decisions, the situation is clear cut.

Stay focussed on this key point. If you want to say Rand asserted some vague "relation" between facts and decisions other than that of logical determination, well feel free. But if you do, you will be admitting Rand did not in fact discover such a relation, thus she does not in fact reply to Hume at all. This, along with the fact that she did not solve Hume's problem of induction either leaves the score in Rand vs Hume at Hume 2, Rand 0.





*"The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the relation between 'is' and 'ought'."

gregnyquist said...

"In 'Causality Versus Duty' she plainly says that all shoulds are conditional on 'ifs': IF you want X, then you should do what getting X requires."

Actually, I don't thinks this necessarily contradicts Rand's position in the "Objectivist Ethics." It all assumes on how it is interpreted. For it must be kept in mind that not all conditional moral statements are created equal. For example, the statement If I want to be a doctor, I must study and work very hard is morally quite different from the statement If I want to eat human flesh, I have to butcher and roast my neighbors. The problem with Rand is she doesn't provide a criterion that is both logically grounded and practicable to distinguish between good moral conditionals and bad moral conditionals. Of course, everyone but a cannibal (including Objectivists), understand that the second conditional is immoral; but that's because we all share sentiments of horror at cannibalism. When it comes to make ethical evaluations regarding moral ends, Objectivists are Randites in theory, but Humeans in practice.

Jay said...

If ethics are nothing but (or predominantly) manifestations of passion, how do we explain vastly different ethical choices made by people in different countries? The different sentiments come from different thinking.

After all, American kids don't have the "passion" to become suicide bombers. Why not? Because they aren't indoctrinated with fundamentalist dogma. (With the exception of some southern schools.) On the contrary, most Americans are repulsed at the idea of kids being raised in such a way. "But repulsion is just a sentiment!" True enough: a sentiment shaped by reason, by assessment, by cognition.

Again, you're right that there's more to the motivational puzzle than reason, but I think you (and Hume) are dramatically downplaying its importance.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "If ethics are nothing but (or predominantly) manifestations of passion, how do we explain vastly different ethical choices made by people in different countries? The different sentiments come from different thinking."

Not quite. You've got it mostly backwards. While some level of reciprocal causation may occur between sentiment or thought, the evidence strongly suggests that sentiment is more powerful than thought, and that ideological systems are largely rationalizations of sentiment. Now in any decision that rises above the merely instinctual or intuitive level, you will have some level of thought involved. A human being wants something: how is he to get it? This is where thinking can play a role. In traditional societies, the scope of thought is limited by strict taboos which, despite their limitations, serve as an important glue which hold these primitive societies together and allow them to be strong against their enemies. The development of societies which provide a greater role for thought is not a simple matter, as is imagined by naive rationalists. It requires a certain amount of social sophistication which took Greece and Rome, and later Europe and America, centuries to develop. It's not the product of the application of a few ideas. Individualism can be profoundly disruptive to soceity, because it tends to dissolve the bonds that hold society together, thus weakening the society in the face of its enemies. To develop a society that can be both strong in the face of its enemies and individualistic, giving free (or somewhat free) reign to how people satisfy their desires and sentiments, is one of the great achievements of Western Civilization. The conflict between the West and Islam is coming about because the Islamic world is being asked to modernize in a matter of a few decades, rather than over the course of centuries, and the process is very traumatic for ultra-conservative muslims, who like the old ways because those ways give them power and respect. You will never win these people over by convincing them their ideas are wrong. They can only be vaquished either by (1) creating the social conditions under which modernization can thrive in their societies, thus isolating the ultra-conservatives against the moderate muslim majority; or (2) exterminating them. Both solutions are very difficult to implement.

Jay said...

Greg,

I hold no illusions about the power of reason to reshape the Middle East.I just want them to stop threatening America. And the ethical defense of that position - that we are a free country with a moral right to exist - is validated by thinking. Nazi Germany or the USSR did not have moral rights to exist as dictatorships. Such claims could be easily refuted by reference to reality. States that violate and destroy rights do not have rights. We disagree here: I don't see ethics as mere rationalizations of sentiment. Not necessarily. Some sentiments are 100% justified by an honest assessment of facts.

Jay said...

1) creating the social conditions under which modernization can thrive in their societies, thus isolating the ultra-conservatives against the moderate muslim majority

This, however, is spot on.

Wells said...

Jay,

I would argue that neither Saudi Arabia, nor America, nor any other nation, regardless of form of government really has rights. Nations are collective entities, and only individuals have rights.

Jay said...

I would argue that neither Saudi Arabia, nor America, nor any other nation, regardless of form of government really has rights. Nations are collective entities, and only individuals have rights.

That being the case, surely a nation that bans individual rights doesn't have any of its own?

Wells said...

Jay said this

That being the case, surely a nation that bans individual rights doesn't have any of its own?

I can't really argue with this statement because it is correct.

However the problem is not that certain countries violate individual rights. The problem is that a government is not a person. A government is a group of people and a group cannot possess rights.

They reason why is that dealing with individual people is about ethics but dealing with groups of people is about politics. People have been arguing since the beginning of philosophy that these two things are somehow related. And on some levels they are, but not on all levels. Normative politics (what politicians should be doing) is based on ethics, however positive politics (what politicians actually do) is not. Normative ethics (what people should do) and positive ethics (what people actually do) are of course about ethics. But the difference between politics and ethics is the reason why countries do not have rights.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Some sentiments are 100% justified by an honest assessment of facts."

I can't quite agree with this, if for no other reason than that "justification," in the moral sense, stems from sentiments, not from facts. Facts, by themselves, are morally neutral. It's only sentiment that gives them moral import. Sentiments are self-justifying—they are the "given" element in morality. An honest assessment of the facts (as well as an honest assessment of one's sentiments) are needed so that we can figure out the best way of honoring and satisfying our sentiments. Those individuals who have strong feelings of what Pareto identified as sentiments of integrity and freedom should, as a matter of course, do everything in their power to oppose anyone or any nation who wishes to take their liberty and destroy their way of life. Any other conduct would constitute a self-betrayal (i.e., a betrayal of the deepest values of the self), and, in this sense, would be "irrational."

Jay said...

Those individuals who have strong feelings of what Pareto identified as sentiments of integrity and freedom..

This seems like a stolen concept to me. After all, where on Earth does a "sentiment of integrity" come from? Clearly, from evaluation, and some kind of conceptualization about what "integrity" means and requires. It looks like Pareto is completely sidestepping the cognition involved.