Monday, February 18, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 7

Limitations of rational ethics. Rand set out to formulate a rational ethics. As I noted in my last Rand’s Ethics Post, Rand does not evince any real understanding of how best to formulate a such an ethics. She never grasped that any system of rational ethics must take the natural demands of human beings, as expressed through their emotive psychology, as givens. Rationality demands this because the only other option, within a naturalist framework, would involve reasoning from is premises to ought premises—which is hardly a rational way of going about formulating one’s ethics.

Even if we avoid Rand’s errors and build our rational ethics on the foundations laid by Socrates and Aristotle, Spinoza and Santayana, there are still immense cognitive and psychological obstacles to be overcome—obstacles which may prove, for all practical purposes, as insurmountable. They are:

(1) The representational nature of all pursued goals and values. Reflection on the predicament facing each individual soon makes it apparent to an intelligent being that the pursuit of every immediate impulse would be irrational. Concern for future well-being is a built-in feature of the human brain and is almost synonymous with rationality. But here we run into several difficulties. In estimating the value of any experience, we are unable to compare the actual experiences as they are felt; instead, we must compare our memories of them as represented to the mind. Representation of feelings, particularly memorized feelings, is notoriously unreliable. We tend to remember only the salient highlights, rather than the emotive experience in its entirety. In addition to this, there is tendency to rationalize experiences. Because the terms of thought in which experiences are represented are themselves inherently ambiguous, research shows that most people take advantage of these ambiguities to make things look better than they really are. It has been found, for instance, that people think better of consumer products right after they buy them than immediately before the purchase. Once an act becomes a fait accompli, the natural tendency is to give it a positive spin.

Just as we tend to misrepresent our past feelings, our projections of how we are going to feel in the future—so necessary in forming future plans and goals—is also prey to all sorts of congenital illusions. The fact is, we don’t know really know how we are going to feel in the future and so we must make use of our imaginations to prophesy how we will feel down the road. This is a procedure fraught with uncertainty. Our present feelings tend to color our future feelings. We are very poor, for instance, at anticipating how we will feel toward traumatic events. And our imaginations tend to oversimplify the future, leading us to omit important details which will have critical ramifications on our future feelings.

In short, it is not clear that rational thinking can in fact lead us to happiness. An impressive amount of psychological evidence supports this conclusion. (See Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for more details.)

(2) Human beings are not inherently realistic. Rand defined rationality as, among other things, “a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power.” By this definition, human beings are palpably irrational. Most people have what psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks facts and shifts blame in order to offer a more positive view” of ourselves and our experiences.
There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets. Good scientists deal with the complication by choosing the techniques they consider most appropriate and then accepting the conclusions that these techniques produce, regardless of what those conclusions might be. But bad scientists take advantage of this complication by choosing techniques that are especially likely to produce the conclusions they favor, thus allowing them to reach favored conclusions by way of supportive facts. Decades of research suggest that when it comes to collecting and analyzing facts about ourselves and our experiences, most of us have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Really Bad Science.

(3) Realism not necessarily conducive to happiness. There may be a very good reason why human beings are not complete realists: a commitment to a complete, aggressive realism may prove hazardous to the emotional health of most people. Stark reality, in all its brutality, may be too much for many people. But isn’t evading reality harmful? Well, that depends on precisely what we are evading. Again to quote Gilbert:
The research I’ve described … seems to suggest that human beings are hopelessly Panglossian; there are more ways to think about experience than there are experiences to think about, and human beings are unusually inventive when it comes to finding the best of all possible ways. And yet, if this is true, then why aren’t we all walking around with wide eyes and loopy grins, thanking God for the wonder of hemorrhoids and the miracle of in-laws? Because the mind may be gullible, but it ain’t no patsy. The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world—how we see it, remember it, and imagine it—is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it—to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (“I’m sure this thing will fly”), plant the corn (“This year will be a banner crop”), and tolerate the babies (“What a bundle of joy!”). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the others, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Gilbert here makes a key point entirely ignored by Rand. If by rational we mean “commitment to the fullest perception of reality,” well, in that case, we need to be rational only about those things that affect our well-being. On issues that don’t affect human well-being, people can be as irrational as they damn please. And this is precisely what we find when we observe la comédie humaine. On matters involving imminent issues of well-being, people tend to be, at the very least, functionally rational. If it were not so, if they were irrational about matters of well-being, reality would’ve punished and corrected them long ago. But on issues that don’t lead to any practical results, they are free to wallow in whatever mire of irrationality happens to tickle their fancy. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. For example, Rand considered religion to be irrational. Well it just so happens that religious believers tend to be less likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs or alcohol, experience debilitating stress, or get depressed. People with religious faith also report higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do atheists. Since religious belief, as it exists in the First World, rarely leads to overtly harmful behavior, it poses little threat to human well-being, and indeed, may even help well-being by raising people’s morale and sense of optimism.


Moony said...

Thank you for that! I've been maintaining for years now that we depressives actually see things more clearly than the rest of you. It's not a popular theory I find.

JayCross said...


Seeing reality as it is does not preclude is from imagining better things. In fact, it is the precondition of such desires. We couldn't design helicopters unless we knew the pertinent laws of physics and aerodynamics, for example. Gilbert makes it sound like we have to trick ourselves to make progress. I do not follow this line of reasoning. You don't have to jettison your grip of reality to imagine something new.

People with religious faith also report higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do atheists.

How did you come to this conclusion? And what about the countless wars and battles that religious beliefs have caused over the centuries - and are still causing today?

Anonymous said...

By this definition, human beings are palpably irrational. Most people have what psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks facts and shifts blame in order to offer a more positive view” of ourselves and our experiences.

Probably true, but her wording makes this sound like an immutable law of human consciousness that we're powerless to change or question. I think a different cause is to blame.

A popular saying from goes "Hard work usually pays off over time, but laziness always pays off now." It's easier (in the short term) to take the path of least resistance. However, like anything else, this is a habit that someone either accepts or resolves to overcome. Contrary to the sanctity of "emotive givens", this is a choice every person makes. (Even if they don't make it.) Psychotherapist Michael Hurd explores the issue further:

Refusing to face one’s emotions usually serves a subconscious, perverse kind of psychological "purpose." This purpose, at its core, is to escape the responsibility of thought, judgment, and decisive action. If one refuses to think and judge, then one need not face reality and responsibility. One need not be awake, conscious, and alive -- or, at least, that’s the illusion people create for themselves. When this refusal to think becomes deeply ingrained and automatic, psychologists refer to it as denial.

If human nature has one central, built-in flaw, it is the capacity for denial and evasion.

Yet the flaw is not inevitable. Humans are not destined to engage in denial. There is an antidote: thinking. Thinking is the human tool for survival and coping. The self-initiation of thought -- of consciousness, the willingness to be awake -- is the tool of survival upon which all other tools of survival (and coping) depend.

This is critical, because ignorance does not immunize you from the facts you avoid seeing. And that's why this post contains no downsides of being realistic, only excuses for why it's easier not to be. Of course, it's only easier in the short term when the broader consequences have not yet actualized.

Unknown said...

Jay, Greg had this caveat on the issue of religion: "Since religious belief, as it exists in the First World, rarely leads to overtly harmful behavior, it poses little threat to human well-being, and indeed, may even help well-being by raising people’s morale and sense of optimism" [emph. added].

JayCross said...


I saw that. However, I am not entirely convinced of that point. He is right in that we aren't torn in religious civil wars. But what about people who roam the streets passing out cards with things like this on them:

"You are guilty! We are all sinners! Your only hope of being spared from His righteous justice is to obey the word of God! To do this is very simple. Just read the Bible and obey its pages!"

I have gotten cards like this everywhere; when I go running, on my windshield while I'm in class, at concerts, etc. While not overtly harmful in a physical, immediate sense, these beliefs are not healthy.

Fearing retribution from imaginary beings is delusional. "Obeying the Bible's pages" instead of critically thinking about them leads to passivity. This is why many religious people repress their emotions and become despondent in their later years, when they realize that life passed them by with nothing but blind obedience to show for it.

Religious beliefs such as these are overtly harmful, when the psychological chickens come home to roost.

Unknown said...

"I saw that. However, I am not entirely convinced of that point. He is right in that we aren't torn in religious civil wars. But what about people who roam the streets passing out cards with things like this on them..."

What a brazen equivocation! Greg's right about religion in the developed world, therefore you're going to change the target from "the countless wars and battles that religious beliefs have caused over the centuries" to the alleged psychological harm done by religious beliefs.

Yet, Greg cited data which shows that there are psychological benefits to religious beliefs and that more often than not, the psychological chickens don't come home to roost.

Maybe this is because not that many religious First Worlders hold the fire-and-brimstone beliefs you describe, or maybe they hold other beliefs (like the belief in Heaven) that mitigate their sufferings in this world, or maybe the religious aren't as completely credulous and uncritical as you imply they are.

JayCross said...


I'm not equivocating. (Though let's not forget that we were the targets of a religiously motivated terrorist attack 7 years ago.)

My point was that religious beliefs tend to metastasize until their influence is felt all throughout the culture. Places like Iran didn't get that way overnight. I then qualified my statement by saying that consequences are felt when psychological chickens come home to roost. I even said "While not overtly harmful in a physical, immediate sense."

So clearly, I was speaking of a gradual unfolding of problems over time, not the immediate carnage of warfare.

Unknown said...

Jay, again your aim is wide of the of the mark. The 9/11 hijackers were not from the First World. Iran is not the First World and wasn't the First World when the Ayatollah Khomeini took over*.

And the First World is what Greg was talking about when it comes to religious beliefs and mental health.

I don't know else to call it but equivocation if Greg is talking about one thing and part of your rebuttal deals with another.

To be fair, the other part of your rebuttal presumably did deal with the effects of religious belief in the first world - about the passive, uncritical acceptable of Biblical literalism, fire-and-brimstone belief, and the roosting of its psychological chickens.

So I repeat that Greg cited evidence showing that more often than not the psychological chickens DON'T come home to roost. You offered nothing but supposition based on personal experience.

So to summarize, one part of your rebuttal is off topic and the other offers nothing to refute or dilute the evidence offered by Greg.

Finally, I cannot let this piece of empty rhetoric pass:

"My point was that religious beliefs tend to metastasize until their influence is felt all throughout the culture."

Wonderdul word choice! "Metastasize" carries the connotation of creeping cancer and disease, which then colors religious belief's influence as something decidedly negative - all without having to deal with specifics, because those specifics would show that religious beliefs can have positive and negative effects** depending on a whole host of other cultural, political, and economic factors.

That religious belief can have positive and negative effects on the individual and the culture at large should lead a reasonable person to look for the factors that determine which beliefs cut which way.

Had you chosen a neutral word and said, "Religious beliefs tend to spread until their influence in felt throughout the culture" your statement would have been more easily recognized as empty a statement as "Ice cream tends to be eaten until its gone" or "A is A."

It wholly ignores the questions of which religion (Mithraism or Christianity?), which beliefs (Free Will or Predestination?), and which culture (Elizabethan England or Puritan New England?).

* I was going to type a little primer on the salient factors that lead to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, of which the fundamentalists were but one faction, but it would have been too long and too far off topic.

** 19 Muslims committed the terrorist attacks of 9/11 for the glory of Allah, but other Muslims preserved the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Archimedes, also for the glory of Allah. Torquemada and his Inquisitors tortured, mutilated, maimed, and killed countless Jews and heretics to bring them to God, but hundreds of bishops, cardinals, and popes commissioned some of the greatest works of Western art and architecture, also to bring people to God. At the same time the Catholic church was burning witches and heretics at the stake, Thomas Aquinas sat in his abbey paving the way for Ayn Rand. While the Calvinists were (still are) telling people that they had no free will and were predestined for Heaven or Hell, those same Calvinists were also preaching the virtues of hard work, frugality, and honesty and were among the first capitalists.

JayCross said...


What evidence? Greg quoted Daniel Gilbert on the subject of self-deception. Religion wasn't mentioned at all until this one sentence near the very end of the post.

People with religious faith also report higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do atheists.

Where was this reported? What were personal happiness and psychological well-being defined as? What questions were asked of these people? Maybe Greg does have a study supporting this. But he didn't specify, and there is a significant amount of evidence supporting just the opposite conclusion. The way he said it made it seem like this was an established fact which no serious person would challenge.

Now, I am not denying that there is a continuum of religious belief. There is a difference between the person who passes out the cards I mentioned and the person who goes to church on Sunday and tosses a dog-eared ten dollar bill into the collection plate. The latter person's beliefs are fairly inocuous. However, there is a growing element of religious dogmatism in this country. Take my example of those loony cards. I live in the richest county in the nation (Fairfield county) in a mostly liberal/secular state (Connecticut.) If my friends, family and I are being bombarded with that stuff here, imagine the prevelance of these beliefs in other areas of the country. Imagine how many people probably live by those awful, guilt-inducing doctrines.

And those chickens do come home to roost. That's why a true limited government conservative cannot get elected without pandering to the "religious right." What does it mean to pander to the religious right? One way is to try and outlaw stem cell research that offers us the potential to regrow lost limbs and cure crippling diseases. Why? Because maybe people who have those problems have them because it's "God's will" and we should just accept it.

Just repeat that to yourself a few times. There are large numbers of influential, educated people who believe we should live with disease because curing them would contradict the will of a supernatural being that created a;; we see. That is not healthy and if I seem overly heated on this issue its because it's extremely frustrating.

Unknown said...

You're right Jay. Greg didn't cite a specific study or a specific number. I apologize for mistakenly claiming that he did.

Looking back on your first comment, I see now that you were genuinely ignorant of the literature re: mental health and religious attitudes and that you were earnestly asking about how he accounts for religious violence. Because I had read reports of such studies before, I assumed that you must be equivocating between two distinctly different religious phenomena. I apologize for bringing your sincerity and honesty into question.

(BTW, here's a excerpt from a paper on the subject:

As for your views regarding religion and its perniciousness, I think you're being overly pessimistic. I also think your analysis of the stem cell debate is flawed. (For opponents of stem cell research, it's a not about thwarting God's Will to smite humanity with plague and pestilence according to His whim. It's about the belief that human life begins at conception and that sacrificing that life to cure someone else's disease is immoral. The only Christian denomination that I know of that believes that modern medicine is against God's Will are the Christian Scientists and they are hardly numerous or influential, even if they do run a bang-up newspaper.)

But all of this is a digression from the point Greg's original post re: self-delusion and mental well-being.

JayCross said...


Thanks for the link.

Right, I figured that since Greg was trying to make a point about humans in general (not just in the First World), it's worth exploring why religion has led to so much violence and war.

Also, I know the 9/11 hijackers were not from the First World. However because we suffered the attack here, I deemed it relevant.