Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 12

Randian virtues: honesty. This is the least controversial of Rand’s virtues. The problem is the arguments Rand presented to defend it:
Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value, that neither love nor fame nor cash is a value if obtained by fraud—that an attempt to gain a value by deceiving the mind of others is an act of raising your victims to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness becomes the enemies you have to dread and flee—that you do not care to live as a dependent, least of all a dependent on the stupidity of others, or as a fool whose source of values is the fools he succeeds in fooling—that honesty is not a social duty, not a sacrifice for the sake of others, but the most profoundly selfish virtue man can practice: his refusal to sacrifice the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.

In this passage, Rand is trying to convince us that it is in our self-interest to be honest. While this is an entirely credible position, Rand’s arguments for it are mostly bad.

To start out with, Rand urges us that values obtained through dishonesty are not really values. Why not? Because she says so. But if a person uses dishonesty to get what they value, why isn’t it a real value? Value, for Rand, “is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” If one attains that which one acts to gain and/or keep through dishonest means, why isn’t it still a value? Even more odd is Rand’s claim that honesty is “the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value.” This implies that the dishonest person does not recognize the unreal as unreal—which is a palpable absurdity. The dishonest person is not necessarily guilty of believing in the unreal; no, what the dishonest person seeks is to trick others into believing in the unreal.

Rand’s claims get stranger as she proceeds. Dishonest people, she claims, are guilty of raising their victims “to a position higher than reality, where you become a pawn of their blindness, a slave of their non-thinking and their evasions, while their intelligence, their rationality, their perceptiveness becomes the enemies you have to dread and flee.” What can all this moral fustian possibly mean? What Rand seems to be saying is that dishonesty is bad because it only works with people who are blind, stupid, evasive, and non-thinking. But from an egoistical point of view, what’s so bad about that? There are sheep and sheep need to be sheared. So why not shear them?

About the best that Rand can do, in response to this line of thinking, is to try to paint this sheering in as unpleasant a light as possible. The self-interested individual shouldn’t seek to swindle the congenitally stupid because that would make him “dependent on the stupidity of others.” Yet what’s so bad about that? If an honest man was selling a “rational” product, he would find himself dependent on the judgment of “rational” individuals. Anyone trying to get money from other people, either by fair or foul means, is going to be dependent on those other people in some respect or other.

Rand concludes her argument with yet another vacuous platitude. The selfish man, she argues, needs to be honest because the alternative involves sacrificing “the reality of his own existence to the deluded consciousness of others.” But this is a glaring non sequitur. How can anyone, dishonest or not, sacrifice the “reality of his own existence”? If he exists, he is, ipso facto, real. He can no more “sacrifice” his reality than he can sacrifice his position in time and space. Rand is her guilty of biting off more than her rhetoric can chew.

Rand could have avoided all this confusion if she had been content to adopt a more sensible line of argumentation—one that relates to the legitimate interests of real people. Why is it in the individual’s interest to be honest? Because, more likely than not, if you’re dishonest, you’ll be found out and this will hurt your reputation. People will not do business with you. Decent people will stay clear of you. No one will trust you. None of this is in your self-interest.

Why didn’t Rand make this simple argument? Well, probably because she feared it might undercut some of her other virtues, such as her virtues of independence and integrity. To claim that dishonesty is bad because it hurts one’s reputation is tantamount to admitting that we should care about what others think of us, because we depend, to a certain extent, on the opinion of others. It is difficult for the individual to get on in life if everyone despises him. Most people are at least somewhat dependent on others; so a reputation for honesty is an advantage in social competition. A complete independence, a complete "I-don’t-care-what-anyone-else-thinks" integrity, are false ideals because they don’t represent the natural needs and demands of actual human beings.

23 comments:

Red Grant said...

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Rand could have avoided all this confusion if she had been content to adopt more sensible line of argumentation--one that relates to the legitimate interests of real people. Why is it in the individual's interest to be honest? Because, more likely than not, if you're dishonest, you'll be found out and this will hurt your reputation. People will not do business with you. Decent people will clear of you. No one will trust you. None of this is in your self-interest. - Greg
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The sensible argument you make above, is it your reason why one should be honest?

Or

Is it the reason you think Ayn Rand should have made?

Cavewight said...

gregnyquist wrote: 'To start out with, Rand urges us that values obtained through dishonesty are not really values. Why not? Because she says so. But if a person uses dishonesty to get what they value, why isn’t it a real value? Value, for Rand, “is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.”'

Rand's definition of "value" is ripped-off from Ludwig von Mises' "Human Action" - "The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man." (Hardcover, 17)

But I'm not equating Mises with Rand as they each had a different basis for their respective theories. Because obviously Rand branched away from this idea, and it does seem rather subjective, especially this sort of thing from Mises: "Concrete value judgments and definite human actions are not open to further analysis." (Ibid.) Rand would strongly disagree with that, but only because it is treated axiomatically by Mises when it would actually be deemed a "stolen concept" used to subvert the very grounds in which valuation takes place: reason.

This is where Rand enters the picture, not in concluding that a value is that which is gained and/or kept, but to use it as a starting point for developing a theory grounded in rational axioms as opposed to Mises' arbitrary subjectivist base.

And so I would argue that Rand's definition of "value" must be understood in the light of an attempt to ground it in something other than itself. And while though the very definition she used seems to do commit a similar kind of fallacy: "a value is -- what? -- that value which one acts to gain and/or keep," this is tautological as hell when pulled out of the context of the rest of Rand's arguments.

Yes, Rand was superb at loading down tautologies with meanings not directly found in them. This is the case with 'A is A,' and it is a methodology she used throughout her works, and to good advantage: it forces her readers to look at the context, the whole picture, while the failure to do so would only lead to the charge of (e-vil) linguistic analysis. (See, for example, ITOE2, page 159.)

Jay said...

Greg,

The problems with dishonesty go beyond damaging your reputation. As you are undoubtedly aware, humans are creatures of habit. When you consistently engage in dishonesty it becomes a part of you, unless you consciously labor to stop it from doing so. Even then, it is extremely difficult to "localize" dishonesty. Like a struggling dieter who "just wants one more", it simply becomes "what you do." That's a deeper problem than perpetually having your reputation at risk. You become a different person. Living in constant fear of being caught out creates a huge burden of stress and anxiety. Who needs to live that way? Clearly, the correct approach is to use only honest, ethical means to sustain yourself. Doing so allows you to forge a guilt-free life that you can be proud of.

gregnyquist said...

Red Grant: "The sensible argument you make above, is it your reason why one should be honest?
Or
Is it the reason you think Ayn Rand should have made?"

I think its the first argument Rand should've made, because, from a secular/naturalistic/self-interested point of view, it's the best argument for the position. This is not to say there aren't other arguments—just not as good arguments.

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

While it is true that the problems of honesty goes beyond reputuation, that's not an argument for honesty. Such considerations as the hazards of becoming a habitual liar assume, ahead of time, the value of honesty, and therefore cannot be presented as an argument for honesty (because you would be guilty of assuming the point at issue—i.e., reasoning in a circle).

Red Grant said...

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Clearly, the correct approach is to use only honest, ethical means to sustain yourself. - jay
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Does this mean then you would not have lied to the Nazis even if doing so would have enabled you to save a Jew whom you had regarded as a nice human being without getting caught?

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Doing so allows you to forge a guilt-free life you can be proud of. - jay
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Does this mean then being honest with the Nazis about where the Jews whom you had regarded as nice human beings were hiding would have allowed you to forge a guilt-free life you can be proud of?

Jay said...

Red,

Absolutely not, to both questions. Rand advocated honesty because it is appropriate to peaceful, rights-respecting people. That is the context in which one should be honest. Nazis, in contrast, viciously murdered people for belligerently collectivist views about racial superiority. Being honest with them would be completely inappropriate, because it puts your life in the hands of savages.

And to anticipate your next question: yes, the same applies to Native Americans. They should not have been honest with American settlers if they asked where other natives were hiding. However, this is not a blow against the point being made. Agreement with Ayn Rand's philsophy is not blanket agreement with everything Americans have ever done.

Red Grant said...

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And to anticipate your next question: yes, the same applies to Native Americans. They should not have been honest with American settlers if they asked where other natives were hiding. However, this is not a blow against the point being made. Agreement with Ayn Rand's philosophy is not blanket agreement with everything Americans have ever done. - jay
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Didn't Ayn Rand say the Natives were vicious savages, who had not had, and had not deserved any rights to the land?

Does this mean then the U.S. should not have been honest in dealings with the Natives according to your interpretation of Ayn Rand?

If so, then doesn't it mean your agreement with Ayn Rand's philosophy agree with what the U.S. has done to the Natives?

Jay said...

Red,

In some respects, the natives were savages. Any student who takes a US history course in college learns that natives treated each other pretty barbarically before the settlers even arrived. Does that mean the natives were worthless people? No, but it seems pointless to dwell on it in the present because no person living today had anything to do with that.

For the record - yes, I do believe the settlers should have been honest with the natives. They should have paid just compensation for the land they wanted. They should have treated them with respect. However, my argument was not that English settlers were perfect embodiments of Objectivist principles. My argument is that honesty makes sense if you live in a civilized society of decent people.

Red Grant said...

In seome respects, the natives were savages. Any student who takes a US history course in college learns that natives treated each other pretty barbarically before the settlers even before the settlers even arrived. - jay
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Why do you think they were savages?


Can you give an example or two of their barbarism?


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For the record - yes, I do believe the settlers should have been honest with the natives. They should have paid just compensation for the land they wanted. - jay
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They[the Natives] didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using.... - Ayn Rand at Westpoint
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Any white person who brings the elements of civilization has the right to take over this continent. - Ayn Rand at Westpoint

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However, my argument was not that English settlers were perfect embodiments of Objectivist principles. - jay
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Was Ayn Rand perfect embodiments of Objectivist principles?

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No, but it seems pointless to dwell on it[robbing and murdering the Natives] in the present because no person living today had anything to do with that. - jay
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So do you think it's pointless to dwell on what justification Ayn Rand tried to use about the robbery and murder of the Natives
so long as there are people who take Ayn Rand seriously as a philosopher, (especially, as a "moral philosopher") and strive to propagate her "philosophy"?

Jay said...

Red,

Here is a Wikipedia page linking to more information about various Native wars. Keep in mind that many tribes asked settlers to help them wage war against other tribes. This is a fact often glossed over by revisonist historians.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_indigenous_peoples_of_North_America

No, I do not believe Ayn Rand was a perfect embodiment of Objectivist principles. It is possible for the originator of a philosophy to misapply it. However, I also do not think most Objectivists were drawn to Rand for her remarks about Native Americans. They certainy do not invalidate the self-interested value of honesty.

Red Grant said...

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No, I do not believe Ayn Rand was a perfect embodiment of Objectivist principles. - jay
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Then, who is?

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Here is a Wikipedia page linking to more information about various Native wars. Keep in mind many tribes asked settlers to help them wage war against other tribes. - jay
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I've already been aware of it; I just wanted to hear your reason for classifiying the Natives as savages.

Does this mean then you believe the Greeks of the classical antiquity (Aritotle, etc) were also savages as well for the similiar reason you subscribed to the Natives?

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In some respects, the natives were savages. Any student who takes a US history course in college learns that natives treated each other barbarically before the settlers even arrived. - jay

Being honest with them[the Nazis] would be completely inappropriate because it puts your life in the hands of savages. - jay

For the record - yes, I believe the settlers should have been honest with the natives. - jay

In some respects, the natives were savages. - jay
____________________________


Does this mean then you believe the settlers should have been honest with the Natives even though they[the Natives] were savages?

Or

does this mean you believe the settlers should not have been honest with the Natives because they[the Natives] were savages?





Being honest with them[the Nazis] would be completely inappropriate because it puts your life in the hands of savages.

And to anticipate your next question: yes, the same applies to Native Americans. They[the Natives] should not have been honest with American settlers if they[the settlers] asked where other natives were hiding. - jay
____________________________


Does this mean then you believe the settlers were savages as well?

Red Grant said...

____________________________

My argument is that honesty makes sense if you live in a civilized society of decent people. - jay
____________________________


Decent by whose standard?

____________________________

Rand advocated honesty because it's appropriate to peaceful, rights-respecting people. That is the context in which one should be honest. - jay

In some respects, the natives were savages. Any student who takes a US history course learns that natives treated each other barbarically before the settlers even arrived. - jay

Being honest with them[the Nazis] would be completely inappropriate because it puts your life in the hands of savages. - jay

In some aspects, the natives were savages. - jay

Here is a Wikipedia page linking to more information about various Native wars. Keep in mind many tribes asked settlers to help them wage war against other tribes. - jay

For the record - yes, I believe the settlers should have been honest with the natives. - jay
____________________________

Does this mean then you believe the settlers should have been honest with the Natives because they[the Natives] were peaceful, rights-respecting people?

Or

does this mean you believe the settlers should have been honest with the Natives because they[the Natives] were savages?

____________________________

They[Ayn Rand's remarks about the Natives] do not invalidate the self-interested value of honesty. - jay

Rand advocated honesty because it's appropriate to peaceful, rights-respecting people. That is the context in which one should be honest. - jay

Being honest with them[the Nazis] would be completely inappropriate because it puts your life in the hands of savages. - jay

In some respects, the natives were savages. - jay

For the record - yes, I believe the settlers should have been honest with the natives. - jay
____________________________


If Ayn Rand's remarks about the Natives as savages do not invalidate the self-interested value of honesty, then why do you advocate that the settlers should have been honest with the Natives even though you claim that they[the Natives] were savages?

Cavewight said...

Jay wrote: "They certainy do not invalidate the self-interested value of honesty."

True, Rand's philosophy invalidates itself.

gregnyquist said...

Jay wrote: "They certainy do not invalidate the self-interested value of honesty."

It is readily admitted by most moralists (Kant is an exception here) that honesty is not a virtue in all situations. Objectivists try to explain this with their notion of "context"—not a very good way of framing the issue, to say the least! If you examine the Judeo-Christian tradition, the emphasis is on the rationale of the dishonesty. The Ten Commandments don't say "Thou shalt not be dishonest." No, they say "Neither shalt thou bear false witness against thy neighbour." In other words, the stress here is on whether the dishonesty is used maliciously against other people. This suggests that what is wrong with dishonesty is not dishonesty per se, but the harmful effect it may have on other people; so that the real virtue at the core of this debate is don't harm (except in self-defense) other people. Indeed, in some situations, it may be virtuous to not be honest, as when asked to give one's opinion of the looks of a homely woman.

Now the trouble, for Objectivism, with the do-no-harm-to-others moral ideal is that it is not fully consistent with self-interest. When the interests of two people clash, what then should be done?

Cavewight said...

Greg,

It sounds to me like you're getting into the whole "conflicts of men's interests" discussion that Rand wrote about in an article with a similar title. She concluded that conflicts of interests do not exist between rational men, and that two men competing for the same job do not have conflicting interests because they are both interested in the same principle of morality.

To me this reflects Kant's moral distinction between lower and higher interests. The higher interest in this case would be the principle of productivity (acquiring a job, being self-supporting).

Kant wrote about this subject in the 18th century, he wrote about it first, and he did it far better than Rand could ever manage. But this isn't because Kant was more intelligent than Rand. It was because Rand always had one foot of her moral theory in the Kantian realm of duty, but she didn't dare take it all the way or, heaven forbid, to call following a moral code a 'duty.'

However, of all the elements of Rand's philosophy, the ethical theory has been most often compared favorably to Kant's in the Rand literature.

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight,

That's right, I'm touching on the issue of conflict of interests. The Randian assertion is that, provided that these interests are "rational," they won't conflict. The trouble is, Rand doesn't explain how to distinguish, in practical terms, a rational from a non-rational interest. And since ultimately, all interests are groundless, it is difficult to see how the term rational can be used, in regards to interests, in a way that does not reduce itself, ultimately, to a term of approbation. A "rational" interest, then, is simply an interest that Rand and her followers approve of (and think others should approve of).

Cavewight said...

However, approbation would constitute a ground for an interest, where you asserted there was none in that interests are groundless.

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight: "However, approbation would constitute a ground for an interest, where you asserted there was none in that interests are groundless."

But then what is the ground of approbation? Let us say that it is a natural demand of the human organism. What, then, is the ground of this natural demand? Well, ultimately, it can have no ground—not in the sense of an ultimate rational explanation. Secular ethical systems can have no ground, as is illustrated by Hume's is/ought gap.

Cavewight said...

Greg,

So are you implying that the only possible ethical ground would be a non-secular one?

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight,

Yes, the only possible ethical ground would be a non-secular one, that is, it would be some sort of transcendental one, but that would only be true if the transcendental claims were empirically true. If God existed, then it is possible a ground for ethics might exist, but if God doesn't exist, then there can't be a ground. That is to say, the ground can't be based on a figment. You can't argue: there must be a ground, therefore God exists. That's an invalid argument.

It's also important in this context to distinguish ground from basis. Ethics can still have a basis under secularism/naturalism; only that basis must be, as all of existence is on naturalist premises, contigent. There is no necessity in it, no transcendental meaning or purpose. While theism does not insure that there exists ground, it at least makes ethical grounding possible. Also note that the wisest as most clear-headed secularists (Mencken comes to mind here) are not bothered in the least by the groundlessness of ethics or the essential meaningless of existence—although many people are bothered by it and a number of secularists are in denial about it.

Red Grant said...

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If God existe, then it is possible a groun for ethics might exist, but if God doesn't exist, then there can'be a ground.

You can't argue: there must be a ground, therefore God exists. - Greg
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Are you talking God in biblical context or something else?

Cavewight said...

Greg wrote: 'You can't argue: there must be a ground, therefore God exists. That's an invalid argument.'

If in the post I’m quoting from you mean “transcendental” in the Kantian sense, then the answer would be to postulate ‘God’ as a moral ground, not to assert God’s existence. And in this sense, God is also postulated as existing but only as required by Kant’s moral theory, not metaphysically. (Objectivism would clumsily call it an “axiom” and not merely a “postulate.”) God exists, in the same sense that space, time, and causality exist: as necessitating factors in transcendental methodology. As infinity does for mathematics, ideas such as “God” make architectonic work, or better, they bring it to systematic completion.