Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 4

Moralism. The most regrettable aspect of the Objectivist Ethics is its moralism, its mania for pronouncing moral judgments. Rand did not beat around the bush on this issue. "One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment," she vociferously declared. The operative word here is pronounce. If all Rand meant by the insistence on moral judgment is that the individual should evaluate whether this or that individual constitutes a threat or danger, there would be nothing to object to. Simple prudence dictates that we have to be on the look out for people that can harm us. But this is not merely what Rand had in mind. In addition to prudential evaluation, she wanted specific moral pronouncement. It was not enough for Rand to quietly say to herself, "I have evidence that Jones lied; therefore, I can't trust Jones." Nor could she content herself with merely warning her friends about Jones' mendacious tendencies. No, she had to come and out and pronounce moral judgment on Jones.

What is gained by such pronouncements? Except in extreme cases involving terrible crimes (murder, torture, mass killings, etc.), running around morally judging and condemning people is entirely pointless. Nothing is gained except the resentment of the condemned. Indeed, if anything, such moralistic grandstanding, by antagonizing potentially dangerous people, only puts oneself at greater risk. If you really think a person is "evil," the last thing you want to do is give that person a reason to resent you. By all means, warn your friends and loved one; be on guard against him; but don't antagonize through the use of morally charged rhetoric.

Not only does pronouncing moral judgment potentially harm the pronouncer, it hardly ever does anything for the person judged and condemned. When a person is condemned morally, they either shrug it off or become defensive and hostile. They hardly ever agree with their condemner. When was the last time you heard someone who had just been morally condemned say, "You know what—you're right, I am evil. I'm going to punish myself by dangling my organism by its testicles from the nearest lamppost"?

What makes Rand's moralizing particularly senseless and irrational is the triviality of its occasions. Rand and her orthodox followers have made a specialty of morally judging those they disagree with. So it's not merely what a person does that is important. An individual may be entirely inoffensive—never harmed anyone in his life. But if he occasionally indulges in some rather odd speculations, he deserves to be morally judged! So if he spends his spare hours trying to bend spoons with his mind, or indulges hopes of reincarnation, or recounts past lives, or is fascinated by the art of Jackson Pollock, or enjoys muddling his way through Hegel and Bradley while whistling to himself Schoenbergian tone rows, or has the epistemological temerity, like most Americans, to believe in God—if he does any of these things he could very well be a candidate for averse moral judgment. That, in any case, is the verdict Peikoff's infamous "Fact and Value" essay. To be sure, Peikoff, following Rand, admits the possibility of "honest errors of knowledge."
But such errors are not nearly so common as some people wish to think, especially in the field of philosophy [he insists]. In our century, there have been countless mass movements dedicated to inherently dishonest ideas—e.g., Nazism, Communism, non-objective art, non-Aristotelian logic, egalitarianism, nihilism, the pragmatist cult of compromise, the Shirley MacLaine types, who "channel" with ghosts and recount their previous lives; etc. In all such cases, the ideas are not merely false; in one form or another, they represent an explicit rebellion against reason and reality (and, therefore, against man and values). If the conscientious attempt to perceive reality by the use of one's mind is the essence of honesty, no such rebellion can qualify as "honest."

This is not very good reasoning. An idea cannot be inherently dishonest: only people can be dishonest. And it is not at all clear that anyone who holds false ideas, even obnoxiously false ideas such as Nazism and communism, must ipso facto be dishonest. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that intellectual honesty has little to do with the ideas people hold. Most people really have no idea what it means to be intellectually honest. They engage in fatuous speculations quite innocently, without having a clue at how far they have wandered off the cognitive straight and narrow. Intellectual honesty requires an intelligent commitment to empirical criticism, experimentation, fact-checking, and openness to criticism, all of which are lacking, not merely with the human race in general, but within the folds of orthodox Objectivism as well, which uses ideas, not as symbols to interpret and gain insight into reality, but as shields to seal themselves up within the ideological constructs of Ayn Rand. How else can we explain Peikoff's strange descent into Harriman's anti-science physics? or his unwillingness to reform the Objectivist epistemology in the light of evidence brought forth by the Cognitive Revolution?

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

"When a person is condemned morally, they either shrug it off or become defensive and hostile. They hardly ever agree with their condemner."

That's because in our day and age, people follow your policy and almost never pronounce moral judgment. So moral pronouncements are reserved only for the vilest of the evil. Of course vile people don't pay attention. If more people pronounced moral judgment, on their friends and acquaintances, their audience would be more receptive.

What is to be gained from this? If the audience really has done something wrong, maybe they'll, I don't know, change their behavior?! Either because they actually understand the judgment against them, or at least because they don't want to be shamed in the future. This is obvious.

Anonymous said...

And, by the way, my point above makes sense in light of the fact that when one morally judges another, one is not necessarily saying that the other person is an evil person. It's possible for a basically good person to act in an immoral way. Those are the kind of people who need moral judgment the most.

The usual misrepresentation of the Objectivist view on moral judgment is to assume that moral judgment entails condemning the moral character of another. That is not always the case. In fact usually it is not the case.

And, by the way, the examples you give of "trivial" Objectivist moral judgments are cherry-picked, if their is even evidence that these judgments have been urged.

Anonymous said...

Also: you are ignoring the effects of moral judgment on third party observers. Even if a vile person doesn't change his mind because of a moral judgment, other people who deal with him may.

So there are quite a number of factors you are failing to consider.

Jay said...

Rand gave exceptions to the always pronounce rule. For example, it is not a compromise of integrity to avoid confronting your boss about his irrational ideas; it's only a compromise if you claim to hold them yourself. So when you claim..

It was not enough for Rand to quietly say to herself, "I have evidence that Jones lied; therefore, I can't trust Jones."

She actually acknowledged several cases where it was perfectly fine to do just that.

An idea cannot be inherently dishonest: only people can be dishonest.

This looks like a package deal to me. I'll start with the part I believe, which is that people can hold ideas honestly or dishonestly.

A person can honestly advocate a dishonest idea. Peikoff finds this impossible. If you believe in communism, you are ipso facto dishonest. I disagree. There is a huge difference between some "True Believer" New Left protestor and an impressionable high school student. The former probably knows better. But some people are just ignorant and actually believe communism will do the world some good.

However this does not change the external facts, only that person's perception of them. Considered soberly against the facts of history and logic, communism is a dishonest idea. I don't see how you can claim otherwise.

Can you propose an "honest" application of Nazism?

Neil Parille said...

One problem with moralism is that it often prevents you from understanding what other people are trying to say.

Take Rand's "Marginalia" for example. She is so busy denouncing people like Hayek and Lewis that she almost always misunderstands them.

Anonymous said...

Jay

Communism is an ideology rather than an idea, but even so I find it hard to understand how any of the beliefs and values of which it is comprised can be 'dishonest'.

Is the contention that these ideas set out to mislead people? This is obviously ludicrous since ideas possess no awareness and no volition.

Do you mean that Marx and Engels set out to mislead people? This seems unlikely given the amount of energy which they devoted to their theories and the apparent sincerity of their writing in support of them. Is this really what you are arguing?

If we exclude these then what we seem to be left with is the belief that communism is so obviously flawed that nobody could advocate it without dishonesty. That might be so (although I don't think it is), but that simply means that the advocacy is dishonest not the ideas themselves.

Would you please elaborate on your statement that "considered soberly against the facts of history and logic, communism is a dishonest idea" as I really don't understand it.

Dragonfly said...

Indeed, that we find an idea despicable does not mean that the idea is "dishonest". There was nothing dishonest in Nazi ideas like the need of Lebensraum or the "final solution" (which of course in its turn doesn't imply that the people behind those ideas couldn't be dishonest). "Dishonest" refers to a person who for example is misleading you by lying about his true intentions. But it is meaningless to call those true intentions, no matter how bad they may be, "dishonest". That's like saying that the gravitational force is yellow.

Meg's Marginalia said...

It's called having a stick up your ass. Seriously, who has the time/who cares to go around pronouncing moral judgements on others peoples affairs that are none of your business. Didn't Leonard Peikoff or some other objectivist bigwig do a whole series about how to blow people off when they ask you questions that are none of your business?

Jay said...

Yes, what I mean is that in logic, communism cannot lead to freedom or prosperity or happiness, or even survival if practiced consistently. Its very nature is grounded in subsistence living. It only functions by forcing everyone into a common mold regardless of their abilities or desires. The proponents of communism claim that this leads to desirable outcomes like justice or prosperity but this is demonstrably not the case.

As evidence, examine the failed regimes in Germany, and the former USSR. For more recent evidence, see the forever-declining economy of France.

Jay said...

Meg,

I think too much is being made of this "never pass up a chance to pronounce moral judgment" thing. In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand excellently summed up "A compromise is not a breach of your comfort, but a breach of your convictions." I take this to mean that you can and must speak up when your values are at stake. This doesn't obligate you to make a scene in the local diner or coffee house when someone utters a socialist opinion, or refuse to work for anyone but Objectivists.

I really think you guys are reaching on this one.

Kelly said...

Jay Said
"As evidence, examine the failed regimes in Germany, and the former USSR. For more recent evidence, see the forever-declining economy of France."

Jay,
France is not a communist state.
Why exclude China?

Also, logic cannot determine whether an idea leads somewhere.

Kelly

Jay said...

You're right. I sometimes use socialism and communism interchangeably, which I should not do.

China is increasingly a "mixed" economy, with their successes due to whatever elements of capitalism that exist.

Logic combined with analysis of facts can absolutely tell us where an idea leads. That is a completely anti-conceptual statement. Have I not described communism accurately and named its essence? Had it not led to destruction whenever implemented? What am I leaving out?

Kelly said...

Jay, as I understand logic it’s for checking the consistency of our statements in an argument, I could be wrong. So all a’s are b’s and all b’s are c’s therefore all a’s are c’s. Logic doesn’t have anything to say about whether or not the statement all a’s are b’s is correct or not. That was all I was getting at. I don’t think it’s an anti-concept.

"Have I not described communism accurately and named its essence? Had it not led to destruction whenever implemented? What am I leaving out?"

Did i disagree with you?

Kelly

Jay said...

Kelly,

Fair enough, you did not disagree. But that being the case, how can you uphold communism as neither honest nor dishonest? I guess it depends on what you include in your conception of communism. As I have always seen it, the very concept of communism promises very positive, desirable outcomes. My only point was that since these outcomes never actually come about, the idea is dishonest.

I mentioned logic because upon examination of what communism is, it's no wonder it leads to disaster. Maybe I am using logic improperly.

Kelly said...

I have a problem with describing ideas as dishonest. Communism implemented has been disastrous, and my bet is that it will continue to be disastrous. But if you look at the conditions in Europe at the time that Marx and Engles where developing the ideas, it’s much easier to understand where they are coming from. Evaluating the idea, even without looking at the implementation, after the years, from the States puts us in a much better position to evaluate it. Without the same conditions it’s difficult to understand why it would be so appealing. Maybe some of the people advocating an idea could be dishonest, but most likely they are just mistaken.

“My only point was that since these outcomes never actually come about, the idea is dishonest.” This statement could apply to almost any idea. As an ex-objectivist I can think of a few outcomes that objectivism did not return on, and I still wouldn’t think of objectivism as a dishonest idea. If objectivism’s capitalism and ideas about government were put into practice, we may find that some of the outcomes we are promised may not materialize either. Would that make objectivism a dishonest idea?

Kelly

Meg's Marginalia said...

Jay,
I hardly think it's a stretch when the recent history of Objectivism is riddled with people publicly and embarassingly feuding and "breaking" with each other over ridiculous things and issuing long public statements of it.

Jay said...

Maybe some of the people advocating an idea could be dishonest, but most likely they are just mistaken.

I acknowledged this in a comment a little higher up on the page. Absolutely, you can advocate a bad idea with honest motives.

Jay said...

Meg,

The Rand/Branden split and the Peikoff/Kelly split (and even the apparent Transcinki/ARI split) are an interesting case. They are in the public eye and that may increase their desire to "make a stand" or some such. What about regular, everyday Objectivists without a platform and an image?

Do you think the majority of Objectivists really run around condemning every objectionable thing they see? I'm sure some of them do, but those who actually read what Rand wrote know she didn't advocate that.

Wells said...

France has money. They probably blow it on wine, big homes, and high fashion.
But they do have money. Countries that don't have money also don't have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons.

Jay said...

I don't consider "having money" a value out of context. Not when nearly half of it goes to the government,

Anonymous said...

Jay

"As I have always seen it, the very concept of communism promises very positive, desirable outcomes. My only point was that since these outcomes never actually come about, the idea is dishonest."

The concept of communism promises nothing at all, it simply consists of a set of economic and social principles for organising society. People who advocate communism may make all sorts of claims for it, but to the extent that any of these claims are dishonest, the dishonesty is that of the advocates not the concept. In most cases I suspect that the claims are not dishonest at all, but merely mistaken.

Wells said...

Don't quite know what you are talking about Jay. If I want to speculate about a country and its institutions I check the scoreboard just like you probably would if you were speculating about a sports team.

France has a higher life expectancy, fewer people below the poverty line, a higher rate of investment, lower inflation, and a lower Gini index.
America has a higher GDP, lower unemployment, a higher growth rate, and a lower tax rate (hint compare budget/expenditures to GDP to find the tax rate, not budget/revenue).

Frances institutions are probably fine.

France is also privatizing many industries that were formerly state owned. There might be some money to be made. (One day I should write about ethics)

Kelly said...

“Do you think the majority of Objectivists really run around condemning every objectionable thing they see? “

Jay, as an ex-objectivist I’ve seen this behavior from objectivists all the time. Perhaps it doesn’t not apply to you, but to be honest you do not seem like a typical objectivist, and I would even question why you use the term. Typically objectivists do not spend time testing their ideas and reading criticism like you do. I’m not sure how much exposure you’ve had to other objectivists, but if you are really perplexed as to why people have a negative opinion of objectivists behavior go to a local objectivist group or a conference and discuss or defend ANY view that is contrary to objectivist dogma.

Jay said...

Kelly,

Maybe you are right. I personally chalk that up to emotional immaturity on the part of those people rather than a necessary outgrowth of Objectivist principles.

As to why I use that name, well, I more or less always lived those ideas before I could explicitly named them. I knew, almost intuitively, that deceiving myself was no way to live because I saw the results of people around me who did that. I always felt a burning desire to see justice prevail and I despised how adults always said "You can't be rigid about things, life's all about compromise, when you're older you'll see that life's all about gritting your teeth and getting through that grind."

I didn't know why at the time but I knew I could never look at life that way. So when I discovered Rand it was a very powerful message that no, there IS more to life than soul-crushing submission and ignorance. And I guess I try to look past some of the fools calling themselves Objectivist and just see the genius (flaws and all) in what Rand herself said.

Kelly said...

Jay,

I can relate to your story, and even though I disagree with much of the philosophy there is still a core that I retain. The one warning I would give is that the world is not filled with quite as much soul-crushing submission and ignorance as Rand said there was, and it’s much easier and productive to view people the way they are as opposed to the way Rand wanted them to be. People are complicated. Things are complicated. The world is complicated. Many objectivists I’ve met, myself past self included, seem to fight against that idea and it seems to lead to a very dogmatic and angry way of thinking.

Kelly

Meg's Marginalia said...

Kelly said...

Jay, as an ex-objectivist I’ve seen this behavior from objectivists all the time. Perhaps it doesn’t not apply to you, but to be honest you do not seem like a typical objectivist, and I would even question why you use the term.

Jay's an ex-objectivist in the making
;)

Behemoth said...

This has nothing to do with the current conversation, but after a bit of searching I found a sobering update on Founders College:

http://www.thenewsrecord.com/founders011407.htm

Jay said...

Peikoff answered another one of my questions. Do I get a free copy of ARCHN Volume 2 when it comes out? Seeing as I got the first one already...;)

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

Sorry, there won't be an ARCHN 2 (this website is the closest thing to it), but congrats on getting a second question answered by Peikoff.

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "That's because in our day and age, people follow your policy and almost never pronounce moral judgment. So moral pronouncements are reserved only for the vilest of the evil. Of course vile people don't pay attention. If more people pronounced moral judgment, on their friends and acquaintances, their audience would be more receptive."

A curious theory. Do you have any evidence for it? If more people pronounced moral judgment on their friends and acquaintences, I suspect that all that would happen is those people would have fewer friends and fewer acquaintences.

"What is to be gained from this? If the audience really has done something wrong, maybe they'll, I don't know, change their behavior?! Either because they actually understand the judgment against them, or at least because they don't want to be shamed in the future. This is obvious."

No, it's anything but obvious. Moral judgments involve the use of fighting words. They make people defensive, and therefore less receptive to corrective criticism.

"And, by the way, my point above makes sense in light of the fact that when one morally judges another, one is not necessarily saying that the other person is an evil person. It's possible for a basically good person to act in an immoral way. Those are the kind of people who need moral judgment the most."

This argument is stated at such an abstract level that its difficult to evaluate it. If all that is meant is by "moral judgment" is friendly, constructive criticism, then fine. But I suspect that Rand meant something more than that. Anecdotes from her personal life demonstrate that she revelled in moral judgments, and that her moralism was anything but constructive.

Jay said...

Rand's personal choices have no bearing on putting her ideas into practice. The important thing is making sure you can rationally evaluate people and situations. As far as knowing when it's appropriate to outwardly condemn them, use common sense. Or, read Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics for further guidance.

I will again repeat one of Rand's best soundbytes. "A compromise is not a breach of your comfort, but a breach of your convictions." The older but equally apt phrase "Pick your battles" is good advice here as well.

Jay said...

http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard23.html

Wow..that is all I have to say. I don't know how much of this is true but if so I am in utter disgust. I can't believe the same person who tells us to "ask why and let nothing stand between your mind and the answer" banned people for marrying non-Objectivists and had best friends kick excommunicate each other to "prove their loyalty" to the movement. There's even a rumor that one of Branden's best friends sent him a letter advising him to commit suicide! What the fuck?!

Who the hell lets someone do that to them? I remember reading The Virtue of Selfishness and thinking that no one who holds these ideas could be spineless. I guess I was wrong.

Forgive my language, but I would've told them to go fuck themselves. I am finding that I have to ignore Ayn Rand, the person to appreciate Ayn Rand, the philosopher. If I had met her I do not think her and I would have gotten along.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Jay said...

I will again repeat one of Rand's best soundbytes. "A compromise is not a breach of your comfort, but a breach of your convictions." The older but equally apt phrase "Pick your battles" is good advice here as well.

According to the dictionary, compromise means:
[n] a middle way between two extremes
[n] an accommodation in which both sides make concessions; "the newly elected congressmen rejected a compromise because they considered it `business as usual'"
[v] settle by concession

Dan was right when he said that like Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand didn't seem to know what words mean. (this post http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2007/04/rands-anti-heroic-ethics.html).

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay,

Rothbard's description is essential reading. I've just posted his one act play "Mozart Was A Red" which was based on his experiences with Rand. You may find it amusing.

However, there have been attempts to dispute Rothbard's essay. Objectivist Jim Peron wrote a rebuttal of Rothbard here, accusing him of plagiarism among other things:

http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/essays/obj_cult2.html

Joseph Stromberg, from those mortal enemies of Objectivism the Rockwellians, rebutted Peron's rebuttal:

http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig/stromberg4.html

Whatever. Having debated Objectivists for enough years now, seems to me Rothbard's description is pretty much bang on.

MAC said...

I'd like to advertise this philosopher's site, which I recently discovered:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2178/

He has a page of criticisms of Objectivism that I am pleased with:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2178/oism.html

(Can't find the path from his homepage, though.)

Ellen Stuttle said...

Jay wrote:

I can't believe the same person who tells us to "ask why and let nothing stand between your mind and the answer" banned people for marrying non-Objectivists and had best friends kick excommunicate each other to "prove their loyalty" to the movement. There's even a rumor that one of Branden's best friends sent him a letter advising him to commit suicide! What the fuck?!

No one was banned for marrying non-Objectivists. Rand didn't approve of Rothbard's wife's Christianity, if that's the story to which you refer. But this is not why he was "banned" -- nor is "banned" even quite the right word, since he never was properly a part of the "Inner Circle." Nor is the story which Rothbard told about smoking being required true. Nor some of the other stories he tells -- I've forgotten details; it's been quite awhile since I read his piece, if it's the Ayn Rand Cult piece to which you refer.

Nor was the person who sent Nathaniel a letter advising suicide "one of Branden's best friends."

There's lots about which eyebrows can legitimately raise, to which outrage is legitimately a response, pertaining to the dynamics of the group surrounding AR, and those of the wider O'ist world, most strongly among Rand loyalists in NYC. I saw and heard lots myself in the 12 years -- September '68 through the end of '80 when I knew many of the persons, including some of Rand's closest (remaining) associates.

But I strongly advise extreme caution -- and requiring independent verification -- before believing anything Rothbard reported. Rothbard had a policy of deliberately exaggerating and even inventing negatives about enemies. This policy led to his break with some of his own former allies, such as George Smith. Reader beware.

Another to be especially careful of believing is Roy Childs, for a different reason. Roy was a great raconteur and was prone to making a better story out of something than the facts provided.

I repeat, there's plenty of real negative stuff, but not every negative report you can find is among that stuff.

Ellen