Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 3

Moral Relativism. There exists a great deal of confusion over the issue of moral relativism. Most people—including Rand and her followers—equate moral relativism with moral subjectivism, which is to say, with moral nihilism. While people can define terms as they please, it is important to note that, philosophically speaking, the most coherent account of moral relativism eschews the subjectivism of social relativists and instinctive hedonism. This brand of moral relativism assumes (in the words of Santayana) that the "only natural unit in morals is the individual man." Moral values arise out of the relation between natural dispositions and capacities of the individual on the one hand and the occasions for satisfying those dispositions in external circumstances on the other. Such dispositions, capacities, and occasions are all "objective" facts well beyond the control of subjective wishful thinking. But as these factors may differ from individual to individual, so moral values may differ from individual to individual. The good for Peter may not be identical to the good for Paul.

This brand of moral relativism is the only morality fully consistent with naturalism. Its main alternative and rival is moral absolutism. The most coherent form of absolutism assumes the existences of a transcendent moral law imprinted on the universe by the will of God. Less coherent forms of absolutism have been attempted on secular grounds, but have not fared well. G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell were the last big name philosophers to attempt a fully consistent secular form of absolutism in the opening decades of the twentieth century, but their ethical pretensions were decisively refuted by Santayana.

Given Rand's vehement hostility to religion and the supernatural, we might expect her to be hostile to any form of moral absolutism. Unfortunately, she also despised any morality based on natural disposition, because such dispositions are emotional in content and therefore "irrational." She also assumed that an "objective" ethics must be a "universal" ethics, and that any ethics that was not universal must be "subjective," and hence morally abominable. She was also well aware of some of the shortcomings of absolutism, even in its secular guise, as her criticism of intrinsic morality demonstrates. So what was she to do? She decided, in effect, to embrace a form of moral eclecticism, drawing whatever features she liked from each system and then declaring, in her usual ex cathedra manner, that her morality constituted a third alternative which she called "Objectivism." The problem with doing this is that, without realizing it, she was throwing together incompatible elements. What Rand claimed of "intrinsic" moral theories is true of all absolutist theories. "The intrinsic theory," she wrote, "holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved." But this is true all absolute moral theories. Once we begin talking about the consequences of moral actions and the benefits and injuries of individuals, we are speaking in relativist terms. Benefits and injuries can only be determined in relation to natural dispositions and capacities. Since these dispositions and capacities differ from individual to individual, they cannot play a role in any absolutist moral system. Rand's criticism of intrinsic moral theories borrows from and assumes moral relativism. It is not consistent with the absolutist and universalist strains in her system.

Now Rand adopted several strategies to try to circumvent the contradictions that arose in her ethics as a result of her embrace of moral absolutism. To begin with, she adopted a standard of value destitute of ethical content. She asserted that the standard of value is man's life. But what could that possibly mean? Since most moral decisions have, at best, only a negligible and uncertain bearing on life, such a standard is not very useful. So Rand added the qualification "man's life qua man," or, as it is sometimes interpreted, man's life as a rational being—alas, an even vaguer standard! The practical effect of a vague standard is that you wind up with no standard at all. This allows one to surreptiously adopt some relativist standard (such as eudaemonism) while pretending all along to be an absolutist. Or, even worse, one can project a morality based on one's own moral dispositions on the universe at large, claiming that your values ought to be everyone else's.

Another strategy Rand adopted to evade the difficulties inherent in moral absolutism was to qualify this absolutism by calling it "contextual." This is her most unequivocal concession to moral relativism—though only a partial one. Contextual absolutism embraces only one side of the moral equation: it admits that external circumstances play a role in formulating moral precepts. "Internal" circumstances—i.e., the natural dispositions and capacities of the individual—continue to be ignored and disparaged as "whims." For Rand, ethical conduct has to be (per impossible) controlled entirely by "reason." Hence the contradiction in the Objectivist ethics between the naturalistic strains in her thought and the absolutist strains.

A naturalistic morality must be based on natural dispositions—on human nature in the traditional sense of the term. As Santayana put it: "Morality—by which I mean the principle of all choices in taste, faith, and allegiance—has a simple natural ground. The living organism is not infinitely inelastic; if you stretch it too much, it will snap; and it justifiably cries out against you somewhat before the limit is reached. This animal obstinacy is the backbone of all virtue, though intelligence, convention, and sympathy may very much extend and soften its expression."

When, however, some moral philosopher, in pursuit of absolute moral ends, extends his moral precepts "beyond their natural basis, [his morality] not only ceases to be rational in its deliverances, and becomes fanatical, but it casts the livid colours of its own insanity upon nature at large.... No true appreciation of anything is possible without a sense of its naturalness, of the innocent necessity by which it has assumed its special and perhaps extraordinary form. In a word, the principle of morality is naturalistic. Call it humanism or not, only a morality frankly relative to man's nature is worthy of man, being at once vital and rational, martial and generous; whereas absolutism smells of fustiness as well as of faggots." [The Genteel Tradition at Bay, 54-55, 73-74]

Is Rand in fact guilty of casting the livid colors of her own insanity upon nature at large? In one respect, yes, she was guilty. Rand's moral absolutism helped to justify her moralism, which will be the subject of my next post.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

This blog would be far more interesting if every single post didn't follow the same formula: We just read some other philosopher or psychologist who disagrees with Rand! Here are some quotes from this person!

I mean, geesh. Everybody knows lots of people disagree with Rand. This is not news. If *you* were Santayana, writing this critique of Rand for the first time, that would be interesting. But there's nothing interesting about getting news about all the dozens of different people and positions that disagree with Rand.

Jay said...

I disagree. This site is actually extremely helpful in getting me to challenge my views. My first loyalty is to my own mind, not Objectivism. Therefore I have no problem processing other viewpoints and either arguing or accepting them.

As for original criticisms, Greg has plenty to offer. Look through the archives, or buy/read his book. As a proud Objectivist I'm glad to have read it.

Daniel Barnes said...

Y'know, I was just thinking that the Ayn Rand Institute would be much more interesting if every single article didn't follow the same formula: some philosopher or psychologist or political pundit or whatever who agrees with Ayn Rand!

I mean, boooorrrrinnggg! Everyone knows lots of people agree with Ayn Rand. This is not news. Now, if these people actually were Ayn Rand, writing these articles for the first time, that would be interesting. But geesh, surely there's nothing interesting about getting news about all the dozens of different people and positions that agree with Ayn Rand...;-)

MAC said...

Excellent post! I was under the impression that Objectivism could be used to justify both sides of a moral conflict. This post elaborates on that thought. Thank you.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Besides ARI whackjobs, few people actually agree with everything Ayn Rand says. Similarly, few people actually disagree with everything Ayn Rand says. Although this blog is mostly about discussing and refuting Rand's philosophy, it also includes broader discussion on philosophy and life in general. That's what makes it interesting.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "This blog would be far more interesting if every single post didn't follow the same formula: We just read some other philosopher or psychologist who disagrees with Rand! Here are some quotes from this person!"

I doubt anything we did would please this critic, as I have difficulty believing that our penchant for quoting other sources is the reason for his dissatisfaction. If we didn't quote anyone at all, we'd be charged with pretension and not backing up our claims. Or we would be attacked for not being famous or best-selling authors like Ayn Rand. With such critics, we can't do anything right.

The reason for my earlier quotations from "psychologists" (really from cognitive scientists) was to provide evidence with which to evaluate certain epistemological and psychological claims about matters of fact made by Rand. In recent posts, I have quoted Hume and Santayana because they are particularly eloquent exponents on views that present problems to Rand's ethical beliefs. I also wish to use such quotations to give people a hint of the richness and variety of contrasting views. There are people who, in following Rand, are under the illusion that the only alternatives to the Objectivist Ethics are subjective ethics and intrinsic ethics. But that clearly is not so, as the example of Santayana demonstrates.

Jay said...

I disagree with your dismissal of contextual absolutes in Rand's ethics. In your book, you point out Peikoff's example of how it's okay to lie to a criminal demanding to know where your kids are. This is okay, because he is being dishonest to protect a value, not gain one.

Then, you say (paraphrasing), "Well, what if I stole a home security system from a store? I'm just protecting my home, right?" This, you say, invalidates Rand's contextual absolutist ethics because supposedly you can justify anything from them. But this doesn't hold up.

Peikoff's example involves lying to someone who has forcefully imposed on you in your private home. At this point you cease dealing with rational men. Your life is at stake, and morality cannot properly demand that you turn it over to a thug. That's the difference. Deciding without duress to rob an innocent man puts you on the side of evil and drops the context that permits dishonesty.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

Hence the contradiction in the Objectivist ethics between the naturalistic strains in her thought and the absolutist strains.

It's a bit late for me to read everything in depth, but I don't see this contradiction you are referring to. Internally a person should live by reason if they wish to continue to exist. Externally things outside of your control will occur creating an environment in which you exist. I can't see a contradiction between these internal and external realities, or how they lead to contradictions between 'absolutist strains' and 'naturalist strains'. For any specific set of circumstances you can formulate a rational moral system, beginning with the universal ultimate value - a person's life. Your life, your very existence, is effectively a universal value. If you don't value your existence I agree that Rands moral system doesn't apply, but if you don't value it you will ultimately cease to exist. Hence, we can assume that everyone remaining has their existence as their basic value. Hence, essentially for everyone who is alive we can say this value is universal. We can also say in the broader sense that we exist in the same environment i.e. human beings on earth. From these facts we can derive a universal morality (for human beings on earth) according to reason.

I recall reading an Ayn Rand quote where she said her moral system was for people living here now, and that didn't apply beyond that. However, I don't have the specific quote at hand and it's a bit late to research it. You might know it?

Anonymous said...

Michael Sutcliffe said...

"If you don't value your existence I agree that Rands moral system doesn't apply, but if you don't value it you will ultimately cease to exist."

It seems to me that you will ultimately cease to exist whether or not you value it. What am I missing here?

Michael Sutcliffe said...

What am I missing here?

That the people who are dead may or may not have wanted to live, but the people who are alive are choosing to live. They want to exist. They hold their existence as a value.

This applies to all people who are alive, so we can say human life is a universal human value.

(Note that Ayn Rand's definition of 'a man's life' as the yardstick of value goes beyond simple existence in it's most basic form, but this is the basis of it.)

MAC said...

Michael,

"the universal ultimate value - a person's life"

What about that scenario where you jump on a grenade to save comrades? Let's assume you wouldn't have died if you hadn't, but they would have.

"Your life, your very existence, is effectively a universal value."

Not in reality, though, and it's up to Objectivists to demonstrate the truth of their claim that other moral systems are irrational.

"If you don't value your existence I agree that Rands moral system doesn't apply, but if you don't value it you will ultimately cease to exist."

We will ultimately cease to exist, anyway, and people who don't follow Rand's morality can end up living a very good life.

"Hence, we can assume that everyone remaining has their existence as their basic value. Hence, essentially for everyone who is alive we can say this value is universal."

I doubt it, given my conception of "basic value".

"We can also say in the broader sense that we exist in the same environment i.e. human beings on earth. From these facts we can derive a universal morality (for human beings on earth) according to reason."

How is using Earth as the environment not arbitrary for purposes of scope? It doesn't get us anywhere. (And I shouldn't have to point this out, but reason is a tool--it doesn't provide the inputs or dictate the methods of reasoning. Derivation requires using reason, anyway, so your last statement contained a redundancy.)

gregnyquist said...

Michael: "Your life, your very existence, is effectively a universal value. If you don't value your existence I agree that Rands moral system doesn't apply, but if you don't value it you will ultimately cease to exist. Hence, we can assume that everyone remaining has their existence as their basic value. Hence, essentially for everyone who is alive we can say this value is universal."

This is a pretty good defense of the Objectivist position on ethics, so let's examine it in more detail. Life is declared a universal value for people who are alive, because in order to be alive, one must hold life as a basic value. Now while this may be true in most cases, it is hardly true in all. There are people who don't value life as a "basic" value but who keep on living because they believe it a duty, either to God or to loved ones, etc. But even if we were to discount this and assume, for sake of argument, that all people who are alive value life, this does not mean that life is a universal value—not in the sense that I use the term universal. A universal value would be a value that applied to everyone. The moment you qualify your universal value ("everyone who is alive we can say this value is universal"), it is no longer universal. Keep in mind that any could thus be qualified as a universal value using this logic. Anyone can assert, say, that value X is a universal value. When challenged about it ("But not everybody values X") one simply says: "Well, it's a universal value for those who make use of X, because they couldn't use X unless they valued it." This is just not very sound reasoning. It's not very different from saying that value X is a universal value for those who value it—a species of circular reasoning if ever there was one.

Life is a value as a means to other ends. Life can be seen, therefore, as a "basic" value in the sense that it is a precondition for many other values. But that does not mean that it is an ultimate value or an end in itself. Emotions are also a precondition to values. After all, a person incapable of feeling would be utterly indifferent and hence would not value anything. So why isn't emotion also a basic value in Rand's system? Here we hit the crux of the issue: Rand does not want to admit that emotions, natural dispositions (call them what you will) play a central role in any non-theistic, non-transcendental, naturalistic system of ethics.

Anon57 said...

More crapola, more straw men, from Nyquist.

This is a pretty good defense of the Objectivist position on ethics, so let's examine it in more detail. Life is declared a universal value for people who are alive, because in order to be alive, one must hold life as a basic value.

She didn't say life is a "universal value", but the ultimate value.

Unfortunately, she also despised any morality based on natural disposition, because such dispositions are emotional in content and therefore "irrational."

I assume "natural dispositions" include to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, seek warmth when cold, take medicine for pain, etc. Nowhere did Rand say she despised such things.

Anonymous said...

Greg Nyquist wrote:

"Benefits and injuries can only be determined in relation to natural dispositions and capacities. Since these dispositions and capacities differ from individual to individual, they cannot play a role in any absolutist moral system."

If you hit someone with a baseball bat and break their arm, does the fact that it injures them depend on that person's individual dispositions and capacities? Aren't some forms of benefit and injury universal, independent of who the receiver is?

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

Aren't some forms of benefit and injury universal, independent of who the receiver is?

They may be universal, if by universal, you mean they apply to the natural dispositions and capacities which all people have; but they are not universal in the sense of being independent of those dispositions and capacities. And, even more critically, there are some dispositions which are not necessarily shared by everyone, and here you could get different values leading to conflict.

I assume "natural dispositions" include to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, seek warmth when cold, take medicine for pain, etc. Nowhere did Rand say she despised such things.

Rand may not have despised some natural dispositions (such as eating and drinking); but that doesn't mean she viewed favorably all natural dispositions. She speaks quite vehemently against desires being taken as an "emotional primary," and even went so far as to criticize eudaemonism for leading to an emotion based ethics. Emotions, however, are sort of signals which allow the individual to discover what his natural dispositions really are. While emotions are not be followed blindly, they need to be listened to, and interpreted with intelligence. In any case, that is what a consistent eudaemonism (the only moral morality, as Santayana once wrote) would have us do.