Saturday, February 02, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 5

Life as the ultimate value. Despite all the fine noise Rand made on behalf of logic, she could contradict herself with the best of them. Her favorite type of contradiction involves equivocation. She would begin reasoning with some very broad abstractions—so broad, in fact, that the equivocations she accomplished with them have gone unnoticed by her denizens. One minute, she'd be saying one thing with them; the next, something else. She equivocated to draw causation out of identity, certainty out of fallibility, and dyophobia out of realism. We find her up to her same old tricks in her ethics. Man's life, she asserted, is the ultimate value. This suggests a survivalist ethic. Life über alles. And if there be any doubt on this subject, at least as far as orthodox Objectivist opinion is concerned, consider the following extraordinary statement, compliments of Leonard Peikoff: "An action without effects on man's life (there are none such) would be outside the realm of evaluation." ("Fact and Value," emphasis added)

Could Peikoff have really meant that "there are none such" actions without effects on man's life? Not if we interpret man's life in the survivalist sense suggested by its introduction in Rand's ethics. In the survivalist sense, the statement is largely false; and whatever small element of truth may linger in the statement is incalculable. In other words, even though there are some actions that marginally increase the risk of mortality, it's very difficult to specify precisely what that risk is (particularly when its very small). It may well be, for example, that adultery increases, if ever so slightly, one's risk of mortality, either because of increased risk of a murderously jealous spouse or the increased risk of venereal disease. But these are, admittedly, very negligible risks—so negligible, that it is not clear that they exist at all. Which is precisely the whole point: most human action does not contain any clear, verifiable risks in terms of mortality. And those few actions that could be calculated in terms of risk would not normally be given any moral significance except in extreme cases. Is hiking in the mountains immoral? Who would dare say so? Yet it is clearly more risky to go hiking in the mountains than to stay at home. The risk is very small, but it is there nonetheless. Indeed, it's probably greater than the risks involved in committing adultery. But who would dare say that hiking in the mountains is more immoral than adultery?

Rand was well aware of the shortcomings of a survivalist morality. In her Playboy interview with Alvin Toffler, she said: "If the value is great enough, you do not care to exist without it." Well now wait a minute! If life is the ultimate value, how can any value be great enough so that you would not wish to live without it? There are other passages sprinkled throughout the orthodox Objectivist canon where Rand and her apologists back of from the survivalist implications of her life-as-ultimate-value morality. This retrenchment is rationalized by the fundamental equivocation in her ethical system. Thus in Galt's speech Rand wrote: "The standard of value in Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good and evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man." Now this little man-qua-man qualification changes everything. It's not just any kind of survival, but a very a special type, that we are to pursue. What precisely it is, though, remains somewhat nebulous. Rand clarifies "survival qua man" with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being." But since this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated, this will not do. Observe closely, for we are here confronting as good an example of circular reasoning as one is likely to find. When we ask Rand and her orthodox followers, How are rational values discovered? they answer By determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being!

So all that stuff about life and death being man's only fundamental alternative was just window dressing! It has nothing to do with her conclusion, which is merely a vague standard that has no relation to anything and which, precisely because of its indeterminate nature, is no standard at all. Rand has failed to achieve her stated goal of delivering a rational ethics. Is, then, a rational ethics even possible? That will be the subject of my next post.

15 comments:

Jay said...

Greg,

Of all your criticisms this is the one I'm starting to agree with most. There is a huge gap between mere survival and flourishing. However, I think this might be an easy error to correct.

Why not just unapologetically say that the goal of your morality is to succeed, thrive, and flourish? It presupposes survival, so that's taken care of. And if people say "Whoah whoah whoah, what about people who don't want to succeed?" you can just roll your eyes and go on along your way.

I dunno, I guess that wouldn't be totally objective and wouldn't satisfy academic philosophers. But it would be much more straightforward.

Daniel Barnes said...

Great post, Greg.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Why not just unapologetically say that the goal of your morality is to succeed, thrive, and flourish?

I know what you mean and agree in a very broad, general sense, but think about it for a moment.

What goal do you want to succeed, thrive, and flourish at? What if that goal clashes with someone else's ideal of flourishing - say, an industrialist who dreams of building a new factory in the same spot where an ecologist dreams of establishing a nature reserve. And then, what means of achieving this flourishing should you properly use?

These are the fundamental ethical problems, and the type of problems which Rand claimed to have solved on a so-called "rational" (or logical) basis. But unfortunately she did nothing of the sort.

Daniel Barnes said...

I wrote:
>And then, what means of achieving this flourishing should you properly use?

I should add that Rand got closer to what I think is a satisfactory answer on this issue with her Non Initiation of Force principle, an idea she apparently picked up from Lysander Spooner.

Dragonfly said...

Jay: "I dunno, I guess that wouldn't be totally objective and wouldn't satisfy academic philosophers."

The point is that Rand and her followers claim that it is objective and that is simply not true. Most critics of Rand will have no problem with Rand's argument that leading a productive life is in general a good idea, but they do have a problem with the notion that people who live according to such Objectivist standards are the only ones that can thrive. A Randian slogan that is often repeated as a mantra is "The moral is the practical". That may in somecases be true, but there are many situations in which immoral behavior (i.e. behavior that goes against the Objectivst mores) will be more practical than moral behavior and will lead to greater flourishing.

The usual Randian objection is then that it may perhaps seem more practical (like having financial success), but that it is not really practical, as it would be bad for your psychology (feeling guilty, fear of discovery, etc.). Poppycock! How could they know? They may point to criminals who didn't fare well, or even to junks who are caught stealing, but how representative are those examples? There are also many examples of people who were far from moral or even known to be criminal, that lived a long, prosperous and comfortable life. And how many people are successfully hiding the less savory aspects of their behavior, so that we even don't know that they are not exactly the paragon of virtue that they seem to be? On the other hand there are many examples of honest people who are not flourishing in life.

It's just wishful thinking to assume that the bad guys somehow will be punished for their sins. Traditional religion came up with punishment after death, Objecivists invented the hell of psychological punishment to save their fallacious argument.

Jay said...

Dragonfly,

I see what you're saying, but you can't deny that many criminals do break down under the weight of their guilt. Hell, I know it's just a movie, but look at Godfather 3. Michael Corleone lives a fast-paced life of luxury with awesome power and thrilling business deals with some of the most influential men in the world.

But he lives out his days haunted by the memory of killing his brother and dies completely alone in some obscure Sicilian villa.

True, some criminals don't let it bother them. The stronger argument (I think) for honesty and virtue is that it's far more straightforward. Rather than concocting some crazy scheme for duping investors and bribing people, you can create a new product. You can get an education. You can take countless legitimate, respectable avenues to future success that don't involve putting yourself and those you love in the constant threat of danger.

Jay said...

Daniel,

Your answer basically sums up what I would've said. Let the free market decide between the factory or the nature reserve.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Let the free market decide between the factory or the nature reserve.

Well yes. However, notice how this acceptance of the mutual social rules of a market entails always to some extent putting one's self-interest, and in some situations perhaps even one's survival and flourishing, to one side. In the first instance, it's in a buyer's self-interest to want a good cheaper, and the seller's to sell it more expensively. Both have to put their absolute self-interest aside to a certain extent in order to make a trade possible. In more critical cases we might see a real ethical dilemma; if the factory owner doesn't get that piece of land, he and his family will go broke; if the ecologist doesn't get that reserve his life's work will be for naught. If we see them play by the rules (presumably fairly constructed) and accept the outcome, albeit with a heavy sigh on one side, then we say they have acted ethically, even when at least one of them will suffer by the outcome. Whereas if it were down to simple "survival and flourishing", as Rand initially suggests, then it would be ethical to get your own way by fair means or foul.

But of course Rand realises this won't fly , so she equivocates between this type of "survival" with "life" as the ultimate value and the basically circular "survival" as "man qua man."

Jay said...

Daniel,

I'm sure harsh alternatives like that do exist but I doubt they are as common as many people think. If I were that ecologist I wouldn't just mail it in on my life's work because I couldn't set up shop at this one place. If the man is educated and experienced enough to own a factory, will he really starve without this land? Or would he use his skills and connections to prop himself up? I know what you're trying to say, but still. There are usually at least somewhat bearable fallbacks.

The overarching point: the free choices of individuals putting their own money and lives at stake will, on net, achieve greater harmony than corrupt bureaucrats spending tax dollars on pet projects for lobbyists and shakedown artists.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I know what you're trying to say, but still.

My point is exaggerated, but not tremendously so. While there are few "make or break" moments in life, they are very important, and put your ethics to the test.

>The overarching point: the free choices of individuals putting their own money and lives at stake will, on net, achieve greater harmony than corrupt bureaucrats spending tax dollars on pet projects for lobbyists and shakedown artists.

This is so, but you've shifted over to economics, not ethics. The overarching point is: your individual survival and flourishing (ie self interest) cannot be the ultimate value which overrides all others. For we regularly put it aside to "play by the rules". While Rand clearly starts from this position in "The Objectivist Ethics", she elides this away into the vaguery of "man qua man", leaving us basically back where we started.

George Saad said...

>Both have to put their absolute self-interest aside to a certain extent in order to make a trade possible.

This distinction really adds nothing to our understanding of markets or Rand's philosophy. The ethics of rational self interest require that man pursue his self-interest within a given context of others pursuing their's.

>"The moral is the practical".

You have taken this quote out of context and changed its meaning to imply that Rand was a pragmatic survivalist. Rand does NOT mean that the moral is that which is expedient. Rather, she means that the good is that which is sanctioned by reality, that which is practicable. Her statement is a response to ethicists who claim that man cannot achieve the good, not an endorsement of acting in the expediency of the moment.

Her justification for rational self-interest lies in her metaphysics and epistemology. Reality exists, and man's mind is capable of perceiving that reality. Since the proper perception of reality is an individual endeavor, since only individuals can properly think, man, if he is to endure nature and secure his survival, must act in his rational self-interest, as defined by the nature of reality. Her moral standard is not "survive at any and all costs" but "fulfill the demands that reality makes of a rational man". Your survivalist argument simply ignores the real force of Rand's argument, that man should pursue his self interest since reality demands it. Oftentimes rational self interest would lead to death, such as a dissident who speaks out against dictatorship. The dissident is not immoral for losing his life, the ultimate standard of value. Rather, he is moral for understanding the preconditions of any man anywhere to truly live (the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

Daniel Barnes said...

GS:
>You have taken this quote out of context and changed its meaning to imply that Rand was a pragmatic survivalist.

Actually, my primary thesis is that Rand is a particularly confused and contradictory thinker and writer, and that these basic confusions are covered for the most part by verbalist word-games and vaguely intimidating rhetoric. As Greg has noted, the most problematic features of Objectivism is the complexity of its confusions.

For example, in the first part of "The Objectivist Ethics" Rand does in fact start out as a pragmatic survivalist, albeit a biologically ignorant one, by proposing that "his life" is man's ethical standard, and uses other living organisms as direct comparisons. As is now becoming well recognised however, later in the essay she simply equivocates this crude standard into the circular "survival as man qua man" - probably to avoid the obvious problems like the "prudent predator" objections inherent in her first standard. This basic equivocation,along with other key logic errors such as her lack of comprehension of is/ought problem, pretty much destroy her claims. I recommend you re-read her "Ethics" with a reasonably critical eye and get back to us.

Rainpic11 said...

Greg, the only thing I can determine from your post is that you haven't read enough Rand to properly evaluate her Ethics. Rand was not a survivalist. All you've done here is take her out of context, which is a shame.

gregnyquist said...

rainpic11: "Rand was not a survivalist. All you've done here is take her out of context, which is a shame."

Where did I say Rand was a survivalist? I think you've missed the point of the post. Of course, we all know Rand was not a survivalist. But that doesn't prevent her from trying to defend her ethics on a survivalist basis. In other words, her basic arguments don't line up with her conclusions. Rand by all rights should have been a eudaemonist. But she was so afraid of the "subjectivity" of emotion that she came up with this man's life-survivalist rationale so that she woudn't have to accept emotional imperatives as givens.

Peter M. said...

"Rand clarifies "survival qua man" with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being." But since this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated, this will not do. Observe closely, for we are here confronting as good an example of circular reasoning as one is likely to find. When we ask Rand and her orthodox followers, How are rational values discovered? they answer By determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being!"

I have been somewhat of an Objectivist for a few years.

I have spent hundreds of hours studying Objectivism at this point. I have listened to countless hours of lectures. I have read OPAR three times. I have read Rand's biographies. I have dived into Peikoff's podcasts. Listened to Diana Hsieh for countless hours. Tara Smith. Binswanger. Etc.

What annoys me most is when people misrepresent Rand's ideas. Most people do that.

And I can say that the way you present her ideas here on the standard of value and how to deterimine rational values is, in my honest estimation, spot on.