Saturday, March 08, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 11

Randian virtues: independence. Since independence can mean different things to different people, it is best to begin by going straight to Rand herself to try to get an idea what she meant by it:
Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.


As usual, Rand has overstated her case, thereby undermining her position. The phrase “subordination of mind” can mean a number of different things, from deferring one’s judgment to a wiser individual to blind obedience to a psychopath. To insist, however, that one must always judge for oneself is a false ideal that no man can follow. Reality, taken as an object of knowledge, is too multifarious, too complex, too deep to be grasped by any one mind. We can’t know everything on our own. We must perforce rely on other people for most of what we know. All of our non-intuitive, technical knowledge is founded on the appeal to authority. There is no way to get around this. The immensity of modern knowledge makes division of labor absolutely necessary, so that various experts, or authorities, have to be assigned to various fields of inquiry; and those of us who are non-experts have to yield, in judgment, to the socially appointed experts.

If it be argued, in Rand’s defense, that her defense of independence in thinking does not mean denying the necessity of an appeal to authority, all that I can say in response is: I certainly hope not. She did, nonetheless, leave herself open to just this kind of interpretation. She even went so far as to advise us to, “Redeem” our minds “from the hockshops of authority.” What she should have said, and perhaps meant to say, is that one should think independently about which authorities to trust. This, in any case, is a less indefensible position. Even so, there are still problems with it. Even if we admit the importance of authority into our view of independent thinking, it is still not clear that this sort of independence is a virtue for everybody. Yes, people should think for themselves, provided they are capable of thinking for themselves. But what if they are not capable of thinking for themselves?

Although it is fashionable among intellectuals to praise “thinking for oneself,” it is not clear that, were such thinking universal, it would be a good thing. Conformity, or thinking like others, is the glue that holds society together. As the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto explained:
Societies of all and every kind subsist in virtue of the fact that the sentiments corresponding to the residues of sociality [i.e., the desire of individuals to be like other people, to conform to group standards, to think like others] are lively and strong in most of their members. But in human societies there are also individuals in whom at least some of these sentiments are weak or have even disappeared. This produces two notable and apparently contrary effects: the first threatens the dissolution of the society concerned; the second promotes its progress in civilization. Substantially, there is always movement, but the movement can be in several directions.
Clearly if the need for uniformity [i.e., for everyone conforming and thinking the same] were so powerfully operative in each individual as to prevent the detachment of even one man from the uniformities subsisting in society, then there would be in this society no internal causes tending to dissolution. But equally, it would have no causes tending to change, whether in a direction of an increase or of a decrease in the utility of individuals or of society. Conversely, if the need for uniformity were absent, society would not continue in being and each individual would “walk by himself” after the fashion of lions and tigers, birds of prey and other animals. Societies which continue in being and change are therefore in a state intermediate between these two extremes. [Mind and Society, ∞2170-2171]

In other words, society requires both individualism and conformity, independence and dependence. Conformity and dependence for the many; individualism and independence for the innovative few. To much independence, and society begins to disintegrate into moral and social anarchy. Too little independence, and society becomes static and moribund, incapable of meeting new challenges.

It is important, when discussing moral ideals, to appreciate the practical effects of those ideals, as opposed to the mere “theoretical” effects as they appear to the imagination. How an ideal is transformed once it is mixed into the cauldron of human passion can befuddle the calculations of the even the most rigorously thoughtful moralist. The sort of independence preached by Rand may work perfectly well in the imaginative world of her novels; but in the real world of fact and congenital human sentiment, it would likely lead (if it led to anything at all) to what philosopher Richard Weaver described as “anarchic individualism” which Weaver contrasted with “social bond individualism” as follows:
[I]f we are interested in rescuing individualism in this age of conformity and actual regimentation, it is the [social bond] kind which we must seek to cultivate. Social bond individualism is civil and viable and constructive except perhaps in very abnormal situations. Anarchic individualism is revolutionary and subversive from the very start; it shows a complete [disdain] for all that civilization or the social order has painfully created, and this out of self-righteousness or egocentric attachment to an idea… It is charged with a lofty disdain for the human condition, not the understanding of charity. It is not Christian to accept such a view; or, if that is too narrow, it is just not possible. Such a view ends in the extremism of nihilism. The other more tolerant and circumspective kind of individualism has enjoyed two thousand years of compatibility with institutions in the Western world and is our best hope for preserving human personality in a civil society.

An uncompromising independence for all but a few rare individuals is hardly the virtue Rand made of it. It points in the direction of an anarchic individualism which most people would find intolerable and inhuman.

7 comments:

Cavewight said...

Ayn Rand had no real theory of 'responsibility,' what she created was just another unworkable utopian ideal of what her "instincts" tell her 'responsibility' should be in reality. It goes along with your thesis contained in "contra," as I understand it, it is another utopian rejection of human nature.

She seemed to go over the top with her concept of responsibility due to her rhetorical effort to make people believe in her, while attempting to come across as a reasonable, philosophical thinker, one who would be solving human problems for their own sake and not for the sake of her own utopianist vision.

Cavewight said...

I pretty much agreed with Nyquist but focused on responsibility of judgment as fundamental to understanding Rand's idea of 'independence.'

The responsibility of judgment is unworkable because it requires her believers to "judge, and be prepared to be judged," night and day, without cessation except for times of sleep. Her idea of morality in general was monastic, to say the least, even in a very general religious sense, substituting "philosophical" ideals for spiritual pursuits. But they share the same purity of ideal, along with a detached attitude which nevertheless remains attached to external goals, and a stark severity of method.

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight: "Ayn Rand had no real theory of 'responsibility,' what she created was just another unworkable utopian ideal of what her 'instincts' tell her 'responsibility' should be in reality."

Interesting theory, and is almost certainly true up to a point. If, however, by "instincts" you mean innate sentiments or predilections, I'm not so sure about that one. I'd almost think better of Rand if that were the case, because at least then she would be following her natural dispositions and being true to her self; but I suspect she was following learned "instincts" imported artificial notions she fabricated in adolescence and beyond. There is in Objectivism something unnatural and imposed. Reason has not tried to purify or strengthen natural impulse, harmonizing it into a beautiful whole, but has replaced it with something else.

JayCross said...

We must perforce rely on other people for most of what we know. All of our non-intuitive, technical knowledge is founded on the appeal to authority.

This is true, but even this can be done in an independent way. For example, one of the great, pervasive myths among business wannabes is that you can "just hire the right people" to do what you don't have the skills for. Well, that introduces a problem. How do you know what a "good" accountant is? Or a "good" lawyer? Or even a "good" plumber? Obviously, you don't. So you get suckered in by glossy testimonials, hype, or pie in the sky promises that amount to nothing.

Or...

You approach the matter independently. You ask around among friends and co-workers. What were their experiences hiring accountants? Maybe you do a Web search on the profession in question. Are there certain things to look for in competent accountants? This type of research will tell you. It is easier today than ever before to do your homework and make rational decisions, even when you need to rely on someone else to do something. You may be more ignorant than someone in some context, but you can still put yourself in a position to decide whom you partner with and whether they are performing up to par.

As best I can tell, this is the type of independence Rand advocated.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "As best I can tell, this is the type of independence Rand advocated."

Up to a point, yes, that is probably true. However, Rand and her orthodox followers seem to stretch the idea of relying exclusively on one's own judgment, even to the exclusion of recognized authorities, farther than anyone else. Rand was a little more cautious than her followers—but only a little more. She had suspicions about darwinian evolution, for example, but she knew well enough not to openly question the theory. Peikoff, however, does not seem to know better about questioning relativity and quantum mechanics through his collaboration with Harriman. Here's the problem: you tell people that they should rely only on their own judgment and what's to stop them from making a mess of it? Most people don't have good judgment; and it's best for these people to follow societal norms in regards to authority. Are these norms perfectly trustworhty? No, of course not. But they're often better than the alternative of having everyone rely on their own judgment or choosing, on the basis of eccentric ideological considerations, which authorities they are going to trust.

Another troubling aspect of this virtue is that, given the fact that most people can't always judge for themselves, it suggests that most people, at least on this issue, are immoral. In other words, independence as a virtue is (except for a small minority) a false ideal.

Jay said...

Most people don't have good judgment; and it's best for these people to follow societal norms in regards to authority

That's true, but Rand's advocacy of independence presupposes that you are also rational. Like you said, some societal conventions are conventions because they make sense. Others aren't, which is where rational, independent people should deviate from them. If someone is not rational, they should try to be.

It's also not clear that all ideological considerations are "eccentric."

Cavewight said...

gregnyquist wrote: 'Interesting theory, and is almost certainly true up to a point. If, however, by "instincts" you mean innate sentiments or predilections, I'm not so sure about that one.'

I mean by 'instincts' whatever Rand meant by it in her 1934 journal entry. And that is only something she could tell us.