Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 2

Eudaemonism. Objectivist morality is often described as a species of eudaemonism. Yet, oddly, Rand herself, although she sympathized with eudaemonism, could not bring herself to endorse it. She wrote, rather incoherently, "Happiness can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard." This is an odd distinction. It arises from a central contradiction in Rand's morality: that is, from Rand's conviction that "reason" can determine moral ends. Happiness, for Rand, can never be the standard of morality because happiness is just an emotion, and to make emotion the standard of morality would constitute a surrender to the irrational.

The incoherency of the Randian distinction can be easily be illustrated by merely quoting any philosopher who understands the main points at issue. Consider what George Santayana has to say about Eudæmonism in Reason and Common Sense:
Eudæmonism is another name for wisdom: there is no other moral morality. Any system that, for some sinister reason, should absolve itself from good-will toward all creatures, and make it somehow a duty to secure their misery, would be clearly disloyal to reason, humanity, and justice. Nor would it be hard, in that case, to point out what superstition, what fantastic obsession, or what private fury, had made those persons blind to prudence and kindness in so plain a matter. Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment. The question, however, what happiness shall consist in, its complexion if it should once arise, can only be determined by reference to natural demands and capacities; so that while satisfaction by the attainment of ends can alone justify their pursuit, this pursuit itself must exist first and be spontaneous, thereby fixing the goals of endeavour and distinguishing the states in which satisfaction might be found. Natural disposition, therefore, is the principle of preference and makes morality and happiness possible.

Since Rand would probably have regarded "natural disposition" as a mere "whim," it is unlikely that she could have ever agreed with Santayana's conclusion that "natural disposition ... makes morality and happiness possible." "To take 'whatever makes one happy' as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one's emotional whims," Rand insisted. "Emotions are not tools of cognition; to be guided by whims—by desires whose source, nature and meaning one does not know—is to turn oneself into a blind robot knocking its stagnant brains out against the walls of reality which it refuses to see." [VOS, 29]

We know from cognitive science that Rand was wrong about emotions not being tools of cognition; and we know from Hume that Rand was wrong about deriving moral ends from reason alone. With this knowledge in hand, we can appreciate what strange circumlocutions Rand forced herself into by her false moral ideals. These jejune ideals led her to deny happiness as a standard of morality because happiness is an emotion—a mere "whim"! Informed that their natural dispositions were merely whims that could not be used to judge how they should act, many of Rand's followers in the sixties and seventies wound up repressing their emotions and, because they could not derive moral ends from reason alone, turned to the heroes of Rand's novels. But here, as Nathanial Branden has pointed out, they were given examples that led them astray. In Rand's novels, moral behavior is characterized "by ruthlessly setting feelings aside," while immoral behavior is characterized by headlong dive into "feelings and emotions." By denying the role of emotions in moral knowledge, Rand became, whether wittingly or not, a voice for repression and dishonesty about the self.

6 comments:

Jay said...

I've read the Branden essay in question. What he's saying is that Rand's novels show something her philosophy itself doesn't endorse; the repression of emotions. His point was that what she showed people stuck more than what she wrote in the abstract. However, all that means is she made a mistake with her characters.

Any system that, for some sinister reason, should absolve itself from good-will toward all creatures, and make it somehow a duty to secure their misery, would be clearly disloyal to reason, humanity, and justice.

True enough, it would! Fortunately, Objectivism doesn't "make it somehow a duty" to secure anyone's misery. Objectivism, rather wisely, recognizes that some people would say crushing debt and drug abuse makes them happy and therefore you need a method, not an emotion, to judge your ethical decisions.

Anon57 said...

Nyquist: "These jejune ideals led her to deny happiness as a standard of morality because happiness is an emotion—a mere 'whim'!"

This is merely a small sample of more crapola from Nyquist. All the proof needed is to compare it to Rand's own words.

"Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless "kicks," like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment's relief from their chronic state of terror. Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims." (Virtue of Selfishness, p.31)

gregnyquist said...

Rand: "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless 'kicks,' like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment's relief from their chronic state of terror. Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims." (Virtue of Selfishness, p.31)

This passage, far from answering any of my criticisms, merely reinforces them. First of all, she's not really backing off her rejection of Eudaemonism: she's merely qualifying it, and in the process, contradicting herself. She rejects Eudaemonism, but then she turns around and says: if you pursue my values, the values I approve of, you will be happy. If you pursue "irrational" values (and she gives extreme examples such as sadists, anti-life mystics, and thrill seekers), you will not be happy. But since there are thrill seekers and mystics who claim to be happy, Rand has to qualify even this view. The emotional state of these people, even if it feels like happiness, cannot be "properly designated as happiness." You see, it's not real happiness. How does Rand know this? After all, she has no direct access to the emotional states of these people. And while it is true that someone can lie about whether he or she is happy, one cannot simply assume, a priori, that anyone who achieves happiness through means one doesn't approve is lying. Nor can one assume that everyone that follows a given set of values will be happy. People are different. Their natural dispositions and capacities differ. Hence, people find happiness in different ways. This is so abundantly established by the experience of mankind that to deny it for the sake of ideology is morally perverse.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "What [Branden] is saying is that Rand's novels show something her philosophy itself doesn't endorse; the repression of emotions."

That is true, but I'm merely supplementing what Branden claims by suggesting that, while Rand didn't explicitly endorse the repression of emotions, her refusal to whole-heartedly embrace eudaemonism amounts to the same thing. If you claim that happiness is not achieved by doing what actually makes you happy, but only by following a set of so-called "rational" values, provided by Rand, then you may be in fact be securing the misery of at least some of your followers. The situation is further worsened by the fact that Rand gave no details, no "technology," as Branden put it, on how to implement her values. So of course her followers had no choice but to look to her novels. Where else were they to find the details?

There is another point here that needs emphasizing. Rand was paranoid about emotions. Because some emotions can lead us astray, she was suspicious of all emotions. But its only through emotions, through the affect system, that one can determine what makes one happy. It can't be determined solely by reason, but only by the intelligent examination of what one really feels, so that to try to achieve happiness without consulting one's emotions is a hopeless pursuit. But this is what some of Rand's followers in the sixties tried to do. As Branden testifies: "I know a lot of men and women who, in the name of idealism, in the name of lofty beliefs, crucify their bodies, crucify their feelings, and crucify their emotional life, in order to live up to that which they call their values." This is the consequence of Rand trying to achieve eudaemonistic ends while misrepresenting and demonizing eudaemonistic means.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I don't know. My understanding is that Rand's philosophy on virtue and the highest good were lifted from Aristotle's (i.e. eudaemonism).

Virtue:
'Ethical virtue [according to Aristotle] "is a habit disposed toward action by deliberate choice, being at the mean relative to us, and defined by reason as a prudent man would define it.'

Highest Good:
'Aristotle begins the work by positing that there exists some ultimate good toward which, in the final analysis, all human actions ultimately aim. The necessary characteristics of the ultimate good are that it is complete, final, self-sufficient and continuous. This good toward which all human actions implicity or explicitly aim is happiness‹, in Greek, "eudaimonia," which can also be translated as blessedness or living well, and which is not a static state of being but a type of activity.'
(sources)

And just as Aristotle makes a distinction between happiness and happy feelings (or pleasure), so too does Rand.

-- Ian.

Jay said...

Greg,

I agree with you (and Branden) that Rand was short on "technology" advice. In fact, your website has helped me realize how lucky I was to discover Objectivism through a psychologist's writings and not just Rand's.

Here is a pertinent blog post of his that demonstrates what Rand's ethics demand in practical situations.

-----

Q: Dr. Hurd, how can you say that values are objective and not relative? Isn't this like saying that chocolate is the right flavor, and vanilla is the wrong one? Or that being a surgeon is the right career and being a musician is wrong?

A: To say that values are objective is to claim that a value either serves your interest or it doesn't; that it either advances your life, or it doesn't. This is what I'm claiming. Being a surgeon might advance YOUR life. If you have the ability, the tenacity and the intelligence to take this on, and you really are committed to it, then, objectively speaking, it's a rational choice for you. If you flunk all the medical school entry tests and get sick at the sight of blood no matter how hard you try, then becoming a surgeon is an objectively wrong choice for you.

When I state that values are objective and not relative, what I mean is that values are not determined in relation to other people. They are only determined by facts relevant to the individual who is doing the valuing. For example, if most people think that something you value is irrational, yet you have objective evidence to the contrary--then you go with that evidence, not "most people."

Also, motivationally speaking, an individual should be concerned primarily with the facts of a situation, not how well he or she is doing in relation to others. If you have the ability and desire to do everything it takes to become a surgeon--or a musician--then you ought to do so, whether you scored as high on the entry test as others, or whether your music is as well-received in certain circles as others, or not.

People who look at facts and evidence in forming their values are individualists. People who look elsewhere are going by relative standards, rather than objective ones--and tend to fall into the trap of looking to others to tell them what to do. They become the psychological equivalent of sheep.