Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 10

Randian virtues: rationality. We have reached the tenth Rand’s Ethics post, with, alas, more to come before we’re done beating this particular dead horse! One of the criticisms I’ve made against Rand’s ethical system is that it doesn’t actually explain how to arrive at specific values; that it uses vague principles which, by their very lack of distinctness, allow Rand to justify any values she pleases. If Rand liked a particular value, she had little trouble rationalizing it as rational, selfish, and good.

Rand’s apologists might object that Rand, as a matter of fact, did introduce some specific virtues that she had drawn (or at least claimed to have drawn) from her vaguer principles. What about these virtues? Are they not specific enough? Well let us take look, beginning with the first of them, which is to say, with rationality. Here’s how Rand introduces rationality in Galt’s Speech:
Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking—that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action—that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise—that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from the task of perceiving to the task of faking reality—that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind—that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.

We here find Rand taking a rather consequentialist view of rationality, which is just as well, given that she never was able to state precisely the how of rationality. Rationality means for Rand perceiving and understanding reality. How is this perceiving and understanding accomplished? Although Rand sedulously avoids providing helpful details, from what we can gather from hints scattered throughout her writings, she seems to have bought into the classical conception of reason shared by Aristotle and the medieval scholastics. Despite denials to the contrary, there are also parallels between Randian reason and the rationalisms of Descartes and Hegel. (Rand thought well enough of Brand Blanshard’s Reason and Analysis—a thoughtful, but ultimately specious, defense of neo-Hegelian rationalism—to publish Nathaniel Branden’s laudatory review of the book in her sixties newsletter.)

We have already offered a number of critiques of Rand’s notion of reason, but one problem that we have not touched upon in detail involves the issue of whether traditional knowledge, based on the trial and error experience of many generations, may in some instances prove a more reliable guide to truth in the moral and social realms than Randian rationality. Friedrich Hayek, whom Rand particularly despised (for obvious reasons), saw unrestrained reason as a threat to freedom. As he explained:


Of [the] conventions and customs of human intercourse, the moral rules are the most important but by no means the only significant ones. We understand one another and get along with one another, are able to act successfully on our plans, because, most of the time, members of our civilization conform to unconscious patterns of conduct, show a regularity in their actions that is not the result of commands or coercion, often not even of any conscious adherence to known rules, but of firmly established habits and traditions. The general observance of these conventions is a necessary condition of the orderliness of the world in which we live, of our being able to find our way in it, though we do not know their significance and may not even be consciously aware of their existence. In some instances it would be necessary, for the smooth running of society, to secure a similar uniformity by coercion, if such conventions or rules were not observed often enough. Coercion, then, may sometimes be avoidable only because voluntary conformity exists, which means that voluntary conformity may be a condition of a beneficial working of freedom. It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles….
It is this submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional, that the rationalistic type of mind finds so uncongenial, though it is indispensable for the working of a free society. It has its foundation in the insight which David Hume stressed and which is of decisive importance for the antirationalist, evolutionary tradition—namely, that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” Like all other values, our morals are not a product but a presupposition of reason, part of the ends which the instrument of our intellect has been developed to serve. At any one stage of evolution, the system of values into which we are born supplies the ends which our reason must serve. This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand…. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance….
There are good reasons why any person who wants to live and act successfully in society must accept many common beliefs, though the value of these reasons may have little to do with their demonstrable truth. Such beliefs will also be based on some past experience but not on experience for which anyone can produce the evidence. The scientist, when asked to accept a generalization in his field, is of course entitled to ask for the evidence on which it is based. Many of the beliefs which in the past expressed the accumulated experience of the race have been disproved in this manner. This does not mean, however, that we can reach the stage where we can dispense with all beliefs for which such evidence is lacking. Experience comes to man in many more forms than are commonly recognized by the professional experimenter or the seeker after explicit knowledge. We would destroy the foundations of much successful action if we disdained to rely on ways of doing things evolved by the process of trial and error simply because the reason for their adoption has not been handed down to us. The appropriateness of our conduct is not necessarily dependent on knowing why it is so….
While this applies to all our values, it is most important in the case of moral rules of conduct. Next to language, they are perhaps the most important instance of an undesigned growth, of a set of rules which govern our lives but of which we can say neither why they are what they are nor what they do to us: we do not know what the consequences of observing them are for us as individuals and as a group. And it is against the demand for submission to such rules that the rationalistic spirit is in constant revolt. It insists on applying to them Descartes’ principle which was “to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt.” The desire for the rationalist has always been for the deliberately constructed, synthetic system of morals… [The Constitution of Liberty, 62-65]
If Hayek’s analysis is correct, then rationality is not quite the virtue that Rand made it out to be. Indeed, in some contexts, it may be more of a vice than a virtue. Deliberate conscious reasoning tends to break down in the face of complex problems. In such instances, intuitive and traditional forms of knowledge may prove better guides than mere reason.

So is rationality a virtue? Not if we equate rationality with the classical conception of reason shared by philosophers of the Aristotlean and Cartesian traditions. The actual knowledge-methodologies that people use to get things done and achieve well-being draw on a number of different cognitive processes, including intuition, unconscious thinking, emotions, ingrained habits, illogical generalizations and inferences from experience, custom and tradition, trial and error, empirical criticism, peer review, empirical documentation, and scientific experimentation. The ability to choose and utilize whichever method (or combination of methods) is most appropriate to the situation at hand is called wisdom. It is this sort of wisdom, and not Randian rationality, that constitutes the great cognitive virtue.




19 comments:

JayCross said...

a set of rules which govern our lives but of which we can say neither why they are what they are nor what they do to us..

It seems like he could've saved a lot of words by saying "oh well, whaddaya gonna do?"

I don't think Rand eschewed all traditions. Rather, she admonished us to think critically about them and challenge them when necessary. For example, it was once an unquestioned tradition in Europe that peasants couldn't own private property. Now, if I read it right, this seems like precisely the tradition Hayek would tell us to passively accept. Why? Because it exists.

And here's the really interesting thing about Hayek's position. You criticize Rand because according to you, her principles are too vague. So vague that you can derive anything from them. In actuality, it seems like Hayek is guilty of this. Look closely at what Hayek is saying.

a regularity in their actions that is not the result of commands or coercion, often not even of any conscious adherence to known rules, but of firmly established habits and traditions.

Taken literally, this could sanction damn near anything! In some parts of the world, female genital mutilation is a firmly established habit and tradition. Should we adhere to it? Everyone on this site would probably say no, but Hayek's theory gives us no leg to stand on.

Upon examination, it seems that Hayek's theory is just an excuse for uncritical acceptance of whatever happens to be the norm.

MAC said...

Despite the fact that I and presumably most other people dislike females being circumcized and want to get rid of the phenomenon, how does one go about deducing that we should or should not adhere to it without introducing seemingly arbitrary normative premises?

JayCross said...

Female genital mutilation is an arbitrary tradition to begin with, that was my whole point. The fact that something is a tradition, in and of itself, says nothing about whether we should adhere to it. It just means that it exists and has the weight of inertia behind it.

The normative question comes when we ask (or don't ask): is this necessary? Is this conducive to a happy, successful life?

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>I don't think Rand eschewed all traditions. Rather, she admonished us to think critically about them and challenge them when necessary.

If that was the case we would have to agree. But I don't think it is the case.

My view is that we must indeed take a critical attitude to tradition. This is why we are not Positivists (whose motto is "What is, is good.")

However we must also face the fact that:
1) The human inheritance of tradition and culture is too large and complex to be completely criticized by anyone
2) This means that much of it must be accepted uncritically

I don't think Rand understood this. I think, with her rather romantic/meglomaniac Nietzschean tendencies, she believed she could "revalue all values" in the light of her personal theories. Yet, like Marx, she often would just lay on the invective without providing a solution of her own. (Take for example Rand's rejection of the common law tradition, which she claimed should be replaced by a unspecified "rational" law - presumably a legal system magically derived from A=A!)

Jay:
>In some parts of the world, female genital mutilation is a firmly established habit and tradition. Should we adhere to it? Everyone on this site would probably say no, but Hayek's theory gives us no leg to stand on.

This is a misunderstanding of Hayek. Here is the key passage:
"...freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles…"

Note that he is talking about reducing coercion by voluntary conformity; as one might voluntarily conform to the rules of trade in a market. It's clear that Hayek wants to minimise coercion, and sees voluntary tradition as, in general, an important way of doing this.

Now, in the subject of the tradition of female circumcision, this seems to be mostly forced upoon young women, and not voluntary, so it is irrelevant to this discussion. However,where this tradition is voluntary and not coerced, it is hard to see on what grounds Libertarians at least can credibly condemn it.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>Female genital mutilation is an arbitrary tradition to begin with, that was my whole point.

This is another common but important Randian confusion right here. It runs right through her work, and her followers regularly fall into this themselves.

It is the confusion of arbitrary with artificial. Rand constantly confuses the two.

Female circumcision is not an "arbitrary" practice, like Dada or a random number generator. It is based on a set of beliefs regarding the control of women's reproduction, where men attempt to ensure that the offspring they work to support do in fact carry their genes (by lessening a woman's desire to mate with other men). Viewed in the light of these basic biological economics, it is an artificial attempt - a crude, violent, and condemnable one - to solve a perennial problem. Thus it is not "arbitrary", but is in fact perfectly explicable and indeed, may well have been successful in its aim.

Jay said...

We do conform to trading, but not just because it exists. We conform to it because it objectively benefits us. Supply and demand is the most efficient way of determining prices. The division of labor allows us to pursue the work we choose and profit it. Capitalism doesn't exist (to the extent it still does) "just because", but because we are unquestionably better off for it. It's more "voluntary recognition of reality" than voluntary conformity.

Female genital mutilation offers no benefits. It harms the female, and builds the expectation of distrust into relationships from day one. Neither of these things are healthy. Rationality would say that males who do this need to eliminate distrust in a healthier way. For example, approaching relationships more selectively, so that fidelity is assured without resorting to brutality. Coerced or not, conforming to this tradition is mindless and harmful.

That's the crucial distinction here. Trading in a market has been rigorously studied and proven to be the best. Female genital mutilation comes from primitive, barbaric beliefs that have no grounds in reality.

MAC said...

We conform to it because it objectively benefits us.

You could just as well turn that into:

"We conform to it because it benefits us."

True or false, "objective" is a word that Rand was much too fond of, using it often in a seemingly haphazard, meaningless way. I think it was used for rhetorical effect alone in many instances, even if Rand didn't realize this.(We could also say that because trading benefits subjects, those people benefit subjectively.)

It's more "voluntary recognition of reality" than voluntary conformity.

"Reality" is another such term. In my opinion, it would be far more comprehensible to say "[voluntary] recognition of facts", for example. But in answer to your comment that I've quoted here, recognition is not action. Hence, voluntary recognition of facts and voluntary conformity are not the same.

Female genital mutilation offers no benefits.

Assuming it does what it's intended to do (or rather, to prevent), it offers benefits to specific males. Note that Muslim female submission does benefit Muslim men; it doesn't matter whether or not the net benefits could be better if conditions were more favorable from our point of view, the fact is that there are benefits to it for some parties.

Rationality would say that males who do this need to eliminate distrust in a healthier way.

Rationality says something different for them. One big issue I have with Rand and Objectivists is that they idealize rationality. Can a person who produces numerous valid, yet unsound, arguments be considered rational? I would say so--just not as rational, perhaps, as someone who goes all the way and grounds their deductions in fact.

Female genital mutilation comes from primitive, barbaric beliefs that have no grounds in reality.

Oh, they have grounds... those grounds just haven't been examined with the rigor of science.

If the standard for what counts as rational is reaching sound conclusions most of the time, then I'd say most humans are not rational most of the time since, as Daniel said, there are many things we just have to accept pretty much at face value. But is there necessarily anything wrong with this?

JayCross said...

We conform to it because it objectively benefits us.

You could just as well turn that into:

"We conform to it because it benefits us."


I disagree. I might say my heroin addiction benefits me, but that doesn't make it true. In reality (there's that dread word again), heroin would be cutting off my body's natural opiate production and kicking me down the road of horrific withdrawls and pain.

Oh, they have grounds... those grounds just haven't been examined with the rigor of science.

That's because they are utterly mystical in nature. Literal followers of Islam believe that their god wants women to be submissive. In reality, this is just an rationalization for their powerlust. Supernatural beings are imaginary and the only reason their teachings sanction these awful thigns is because primitive men needed justification to carry them out.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>That's the crucial distinction here. Trading in a market has been rigorously studied and proven to be the best. Female genital mutilation comes from primitive, barbaric beliefs that have no grounds in reality.

But the argument is not "is capitalism better than coercive female circumcision?"

It's about the following facts:
1)Human cultural inheritance is not rationally founded or designed
2) It is so vast it cannot be rationally redesigned by any single person
3) Ergo it must in large part be tacitly accepted by individuals
4) This does not prevent people from rationally criticizing parts of our inheritance (for example, female circumcision)
5)This lack of fully conscious design does not make culture arbitrary, however. All traditions pertain to or relates to real problems, and represent artificial, man made efforts to solve them.

All these facts of reality are contra Rand.

JayCross said...

But the argument is not "is capitalism better than coercive female circumcision?"

I wasn't arguing that it was better (it inarguably is.) I was arguing that we've accepted it with full understanding of how and why it works. Cultures that accept female circumcision have accepted it out of ignorance and irrationality. The same can be said for many traditions in many different cultures. The only point I was trying to make is that we should try to act consciously and change things that need to be changed.

JayCross said...

As an aside..

..she often would just lay on the invective without providing a solution of her own. (Take for example Rand's rejection of the common law tradition, which she claimed should be replaced by a unspecified "rational" law - presumably a legal system magically derived from A=A!)

I agree that this is a copout. There is nothing more annoying than people who criticize something while proposing no solution themselves.

MAC said...

We conform to it because it objectively benefits us.

You could just as well turn that into:

"We conform to it because it benefits us."

I disagree. I might say my heroin addiction benefits me, but that doesn't make it true. In reality (there's that dread word again), heroin would be cutting off my body's natural opiate production and kicking me down the road of horrific withdrawls and pain.


I'm wanting to know what the substantive difference is between something being beneficial to a person and something being objectively beneficial to a person.

But if you want to talk about the benefits and hazards of heroin consumption, the net result, long-term, is negative, but it provides short-term psychological benefits, where "benefit" is understood loosely.

Daniel Barnes said...

Jay:
>The only point I was trying to make is that we should try to act consciously and change things that need to be changed.

Well on that point we most definitely agree.

JayCross said...

I'm wanting to know what the substantive difference is between something being beneficial to a person and something being objectively beneficial to a person.

The difference is hierarchy, really. In a vacuum we can say that almost anything benefits you. It's only when you judge your life by a standard that you can draw a line in the sand and say "This might be cool right now, but taking everything into account, I probably shouldn't be doing it."

So to use a few examples...anti-depressants might seem like a benefit, but if you never see a psychotherapist and get to the bottom of your depression, then those drugs just numb you to stimuli and you have nothing but a totally artificial, unearned happiness. Many also believe that crushing consumer debt is an acceptable way to take vacations, get new stereo systems, etc - after all, who could argue with the benefits of vacations and cool stuff? However, when you look at the big picture, those things are not values. Not if they destroy your credit standing and cost you more money down the road in higher interest rates and fees.

Something becomes objectively good or bad when you decide "I want to live a happy, fulfilling life." Whether happiness means a challenging career, the ability to travel, or whatever, you have to do certain things to obtain it and avoid certain things as well.

MAC said...

However, when you look at the big picture, those things are not values. Not if they destroy your credit standing and cost you more money down the road in higher interest rates and fees.

If a person acted to gain and/or keep those things, how are they not values, by the Randian conception?

Jay said...

That's a damn good question.

JayCross said...

My best answer is that they aren't acting in a way that will really let them keep those values. They are taking shortcuts to experience the benefits of being someone other than who they are.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "[I]t was once an unquestioned tradition in Europe that peasants couldn't own private property. Now, if I read it right, this seems like precisely the tradition Hayek would tell us to passively accept. Why? Because it exists."

No, this is a mistake. You didn't read the entire passage, as, for example, the following:

"The scientist, when asked to accept a generalization in his field, is of course entitled to ask for the evidence on which it is based. Many of the beliefs which in the past expressed the accumulated experience of the race have been disproved in this manner."

Hayek does not oppose challenging tradition. He just believes that we have to be very careful about doing so because reason is not as powerful a cognitive tool as rationalists, whether of Randian or Cartesian persuasions, think it is. It adheres to false ideals about the simplicity of the world and the power of language to communicate all aspects of reality.

There is also another argument Hayek is making that is even more important in the context of this debate. Hayek is arguing that tradition is necessary for freedom. But note a very important caveat: Hayek does not mean just any tradition, or tradition in general. Oriental traditions that stress obedience to a handful of masters obviously are opposed to freedom. But western traditions, particularly the English tradition of liberty, are necessary for freedom. If you undermine this tradition simply because not every aspect of it can be defended by "reason," you undermine freedom. An implicit premise behind Hayek's arguments is the notion is that you'll always have some kind of tradition. For this reason, it is simply not possible to replace tradition with "reason." All that "reason" can accomplish is to dissolve one tradition to make way for another. Traditions, or non-rational belief systems, are inescapable because (1) social reality is far too complicated to be fully rationalized and (2) the ends of human action, based, as they most manifestly are, on the affect system, are also non-rational. For these two reasons you'll always have a non-rational element governing the social order. Hence if you want "freedom" (free markets, private property rights, "judicial defense") you need (non-rational) traditions of freedom to support that. If you don't have those (non-rational) traditions, you won't have freedom. Freedom cannot be based solely on rationality.

Keep in mind that not all traditions are morally equal. So bringing up genital mutiliation is nothing to the purpose, because that's clearly a bad tradition. Common law and democratic institutions are examples of good traditions, because they encourage the impersonal application of the law ("government of laws not of men") and compromise between political factions in the social order.

Cavewight said...

Greg: "We here find Rand taking a rather consequentialist view of rationality."

That's more or less true, in that consequentialism is a moral theory, and this is an ethics discussion. But the role it plays in her argument is a fallacy known as the argument from consequences.
http://www.nizkor.org/features/
fallacies/appeal-to-consequences.html


You will find this argument used in various forms scattered throughout Rand's theoretical teachings, but as far as I know she never argued for consequentialism itself. On what basis would she do so, more consequentialism? Will there be consequences for not accepting her fallacious consequentialist method or argument?

This is the kind of "moral theory" which is really nothing more than the kind of advice given by parents to children: "Your face might freeze that way!" And so it tells you something about how "highly" she regarded her readers' intelligence.

Is this why Objectivism appeals to such a low common denominator?