Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Short Reply to Rand's View of Moral Perfection

"On Rand's view, a person is perfect when he does his best"
- Tara Smith p. 238, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.

Compared to what?

11 comments:

Jay said...

Compared to the other, more short-sighted, lazy, or mindless choices.

For example, studying for a challenging final exam rather than putting it off to go get drunk, or making the effort to understand a problem with your girlfriend rather than simply ignoring it.

Neil Parille said...

I think Smith's 2 books on Rand's ethics are quite good. I don't think her section on perfection is convincing, though.

Jay said...

Here's a little personal anecdote that might illuminate the issue..

A friend of mine, for some odd reason, stays with someone who insults her, stops her from seeing her friends, and is generally a complete asshole. Naturally this leads her to frustration about what to do. So recently I asked her, "When you think about the ideal relationship you'd like to be in, how close does this one come to meeting it?" She looked puzzled and said "Ideally? This relationship doesn't come close."

So then I asked her if this struck her as a problem. Here she is, ready to someday marry a guy who is "nowhere close" to her ideal relationship. But it didn't strike her as a problem. She said, like I assume most people would, "Ideals are impossible anyway, no one would come close to that so that's not really important." In her mind there were only 2 alternatives: be miserable with someone totally unlike what you want, or some completely impossible, pie in the sky dream guy that doesn't exist.

Now, this is exactly the notion I think Smith (and Rand) was trying to dispel. What my friend should do is pursue someone who is MOST like what she wants. Someone who might not be her dream guy in every single way, but someone who values her, treats her with respect and is for the most part compatible. The alternative isn't "nowhere close" or "absolutely perfect", it's "as best as you can do."

Wells said...

Jay does make a good point.

Maybe perhaps there are several types of perfection, and amongst the two are 'The best there is' and 'The best you can be'?

Daniel Barnes said...

Haven't had much time to elaborate here but briefly there are two points to touch on:
1) The obvious verbalism here: "doing your best" now equals "perfection". Having changed the meaning, Rand then turns around and slams other thinkers who say perfection in the ordinary sense is impossible...;-) It's the same move she makes with Objectivism's "absolute precision."
2)More subtly, as with her "absolute precision", her error is the denigration of abstract standards. Note to do "our best" implicitly assumes an abstract standard of perfection anyway - otherwise what is our "best" (or anyone else's) being compared to? In fact, our inability to physically attain an abstract standard by no means involves invalidating man's mind, rejecting reality etc. In fact abstract standards - like my usual example of absolute zero temperature - are incredibly useful, not least in giving us something to aim at; and our knowledge grows as we attempt to, and sometimes even succeed in, getting closer.

Jay said...

Dan,

In fact, our inability to physically attain an abstract standard by no means involves invalidating man's mind, rejecting reality etc.

It does if the abstract standards have no referents in reality. To continue my example: it's simply impossible to expect that one person will be exactly, without flaws or shortcomings, what you want in a partner. And I'm not altogether convinced that we need impossible standards to shoot for improvement. What's wrong with "the best we can do?"

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>It does if the abstract standards have no referents in reality

Dude, this "referent in reality" thing is a Randian straw man. You can't draw a perfect circle. Does that mean it has no "referent" in reality? Actually no. There are plenty of circular things in physical reality which the abstract (or "conceptual" if you like) circle refers to. They are just not identical with it. You can, however, describe a perfect circle mathematically; ergo, it exists. It is just abstract, that's all.

The relationship analogy is more complicated. We'll leave that for now, other than to say human norms are also a form of abstract standard.

>To continue my example: it's simply impossible to expect that one person will be exactly, without flaws or shortcomings, what you want in a partner

What, you mean you'd settle for the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the in-between!?...;-)

See what I mean? You take a perfectly realistic attitude, as you have above, and Rand comes back and slaps you upside the head for it. No wonder there are so many f*cked up Objectivist (yourself and others excepted, of course) It's double-talk.

>And I'm not altogether convinced that we need impossible standards to shoot for improvement. What's wrong with "the best we can do?"

If you're not convinced, just think about it. "The best we can do" compared to what?...;-)

I'm quite serious. This is a highly confusing issue. Complicating it is a certain reflexive, and indeed somewhat justified anti-Platonism. However, we should not let it blind us to Plato's original insight that there is an abstract "world" related to yet autonomous from the physical one.

Jay said...

Dan,

Compared to what? Compared to other, lesser choices that are actually open to you. I can generate such examples ad infinitum.

Example #1

A) Remain alert and take detailed notes during class to retain the material.
B) Daze in and out of the lecture but remain aware enough to jot down the essentials.
C) Skip class to smoke weed.

In this context, A is the perfect choice.

Example #2

A)Set reasonable financial goals for yourself like savings targets and investment returns.
B) Tuck some money under the mattress when the whim hits you.
C) Blow most of your money on lottery tickets.

See what I mean? The "compared to what?" question is answered by the countless inferior choices open to us. Choices that, in reality, you could take. I guess some lite Platonism offers the philosophical motivation to keep aiming higher but I don't know that it's critical.

Wells said...

Ayn Rand's argument is probably worthless. But Jay's argument, like I said before, is actually pretty good. Take for instance Jay's example #1 (example #2 doesn't actually support the argument)

Recall Example #1

A) Remain alert and take detailed notes during class to retain the material.
B) Daze in and out of the lecture but remain aware enough to jot down the essentials.
C) Skip class to smoke weed.
D) Know the material already, because you are God and created the Universe.

Option D is the most perfect option of course. And it's worth studying perfect things, Like perfect falling objects with no wind resistance (To learn physics equations) Or perfect computers, with infinite time to calculate stuff, that also never break (To see what is theoretically possible).
But A is the best option of things that are actually going to happen. There are reasons to worry about stuff like that too (For optimizing real world decisions, for example)

gregnyquist said...

Jay:

Example #1

A) Remain alert and take detailed notes during class to retain the material.
B) Daze in and out of the lecture but remain aware enough to jot down the essentials.
C) Skip class to smoke weed.

In this context, A is the perfect choice.


Set up like this, A is the perfect choice. Unfortunately, in life, our choices never range themselves so neatly in multiple choice questions. If we say our choice is between studying and getting drunk, it's no brainer: obviously, if you're trying to do your best, you should study. But if we ask: How long should a person study? then, the whole "do your best" standard begins to break down. How many hours of studying qualifies for your best? If you studied for five hours, is that really your best, if you could've studied for six or seven hours? Now obviously there is a point of diminishing returns in studying, but how do you know where that point is? The fact is, you don't. Which is precisely the problem with explicit ethical philosophy. As long as you talk in generalized terms about stuff most people agree with it, there's no problems. But when you get into the details, or in controversial gray areas, explicit ethical philosophy tends to break down and people revert quite openly to what they've been doing all along: following their feelings.

Jay said...

Greg,

That's why Rand's ethical principles are policies, not Commandments or categorical imperatives. It's assumed that a person following them is self-aware enough to implement them in the best way. For example, I know from experience, trial and error that I can study effectively in an hour or less. Some people need two or three hours, or even less time than me.

Ethical principles provide overarching guidance, not step-by-step commands like a programming language.