Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 16

Post-Rational Morality. Objectivism presents itself as a rational system of ethics. Indeed, Rand goes so far as to suggest that her system is the only rational system ever devised. This is clearly an exaggeration. Systems of rational ethics go back to Socrates and Aristotle and have found modern exponents in Spinoza and Santayana.

Many ethical systems aren’t so much rational as they are “post-rational.” As Santayana explained:
Aversion to rational ideals does not ... come ... from moral incoherence or religious prejudice. It does not come from lack of speculative power. On the contrary, it may come from undue haste in speculation, from a too ready apprehension of the visible march of things. The obvious irrationality of nature as a whole, too painfully brought home to a musing mind, may make it forget or abdicate its own rationality. In a decadent age, the philosopher who surveys the world and sees that the end of it is even as the beginning, may not feel that the intervening episode, in which he and all he values after all figure, is worth consideration; and he may cry, in his contemplative spleen, that all is vanity…


Pessimism, and all the moralities founded on despair, are not pre-rational but post-rational. They are the work of men who more or less explicitly have conceived the Life of Reason, tried it at least imaginatively, and found it wanting. These systems are a refuge from an intolerable situation: they are experiments in redemption. As a matter of fact, animal instincts and natural standards of excellence are never eluded in them, for no moral experience has other terms; but the part of the natural ideal which remains active appears in opposition to all the rest and, by an intelligible illusion, seems to be no part of that natural ideal because, compared with the commoner passions on which it reacts, it represents some simpler or more attenuated hope—the appeal to some very humble or very much chastened satisfaction, or to an utter change in the conditions of life.


Post-rational morality is, then, the morality of a chastened experience, of disillusion and societal decadence. Santayana identifies not merely religious moralities as post-rational, but even such secular moralities as stoicism and Epicureanism. These are all moralities of despair. They are devised by philosophers who have found the eudaimonism of rational ethics unworkable. Happiness is ephemeral, vain, and impossible, these philosophers decided. Retrenchment in some other moral standard, such as the absence of pain (Epicureanism), indifference to fate (stoicism), comfort in the benevolence of the supernatural (Christianity), the embrace an "unworldly" “spiritual life” (Plotinus, Spinoza, Santayana), or the achievement of “nirvana” through ascetic or spiritual discipline (Schopenhauer, Buddhism) becomes the central focus of the moral philosopher.

When Santayana, in the first decade of the twentieth century, introduced his theory of post-rational morality, he was clearly on the side of rational ethics. But later in life, he slightly modified his view, supplementing his rational ethics with post-rational values. In 1940, he was criticized for this change by some American pragmatists, who, sympathizing with Santayana’s earlier views, regarded the Spanish-American philosopher’s increasing obsession with the “spiritual life” as a betrayal of The Life of Reason. In his “Apologia Pro Mente Sua,” Santayana responded by pointing out that rational ethics is itself based on pre-rational impulses. After all, there can no such thing as a rational end—as Hume demonstrated. “ Reason alone can be rational, but it does not follow that reason alone is good,” Santayana explained. “The criterion of worth remains always the voice of nature, truly consulted, in the person who speaks.”

Since the voice of nature speaks uniquely to each individual, secluded in the egotism of his personal perspective, what is to prevent morality from sinking into narrowness and provincialism? Santayana proposes, as a counter-measure to moral perspectivism, an “ulterior shift” to post-rational morality. Rational morality seeks to establish harmony within the human psyche and the human world. But an individual chastened by the ultimate vanity of human goals might wish to extend this harmony, “not merely within the human psyche or within the human world, but between this world and the psyche on the one hand and the universe, the truth, or God on the other.” This involves a passage “from morality to religion,” admitted Santayana; “but not so as to destroy morality, because religion itself only adds a fresh passion (reason raised to a higher power and taking a broader view) to the passions that reason undertakes to harmonize.” By “higher power” Santayana does not mean some type of religious entity, like a God or a spirititual power. The phrase is used here to suggest an expansion of reason from a mere method of determining the means to achieving ends to a species of wisdom that seeks to see truth under the aspect of eternity, as Aristotle and Spinoza, in their more grandiose moments, sought to see truth. In other words, we are talking about viewing truth for its own sake, rather than as means for attaining some naturalistic end. The chastened spirit, recognizing the ultimate vanity of rational ethics, seeks consolation in purely intellectual pursuits. “I see the perfect continuity of post-rational with rational and pre-rational morality,” explained Santayana. “We begin with the instinct of animals, sometimes ferocious, sometimes placid, sometimes industrious, always self-justified and self-repeating [i.e., we begin with pre-rational morality]; we proceed to a certain teachableness by experience to a certain tradition and progress in the arts [i.e., we proceed to rational ethics]; we proceed further to general reflection, to tragic discoveries, to transformed interests [i.e., we culminate in post-rational morality].” “To draw the sum total of our account, and ask what do we gain, what do we lose, is possible at any moment of reflection, whatever the wealth or paucity of our experience,” Santayana noted. “But it is the impulse to reflect, not the impulse to acquire or to venture, that is here at work; and reason, instead of looking for the means to achieving given ends, has become an autonomous interest capable of criticising those ends. To itself therefore it seems reason liberated rather than reason abandoned.” In other words, the shift to a post-rational attitude, although ultimately founded on pre-rational sentiment, is nevertheless in accordance with reason, and is therefore entirely consistent with rational ethics, even when it criticizes these ethics or finds them vain or comfortless.

“I should therefore ask [my critics] to admit post-rational sentiment into their life of reason as an element,” concluded Santayana, “and to coordinate it with all the other profound and perennial elements in human nature. If they refuse to do so, it seems to me that rational life in them would itself sink to the pre-rational level. They would be fighting for a closed circle of accidental interests, established by them as absolute and alone legitimate, and fighting in the pre-rational jungle, like cats and dogs, or like prophets crying anathema to all other prophets.” [The Philosophy of George Santayana,, 560-565)

There is every reason to believe that Rand would have despised the notion of a post-rational morality based on “tragic discoveries” and “transformed interests.” Rand’s view, as stated by intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff, is that, while “accidents and failures are possible, they are not ... the essence of human life. On the contrary, the achievement of values is the norm”—provided that the individual follows the Objectivist morality. There are a number of serious problems here. In the first place, Rand’s notion of the benevolent universe principle is fraught with mischievous implications. Achievement of values and the personal happiness that goes with it are, Rand declares, the norm for those who follow her morality. So what does this mean for the person who does not achieve their values, but who instead endures misery and hardship? What does Rand have to say to this individual? Only one of two things: (1) that this individual is an unlucky exception to the general rule; or (2) that this individual has not followed the Objectivist morality and therefore deserves his misfortune. I would suggest that neither of these answers is adequate to console the individual in the face of suffering and tragedy. Indeed, Rand's two responses verge toward mockery and denigration

There are also serious questions whether “achievement of values” really is the norm. In real life, people experience both achievement and disappointment, suffering and happiness. A philosophy with any depth or wisdom at its core will take account of both the good and the bad in human life. It won’t simply sweep the bad under some jejune “benevolent universe” premise. Nor will it moralize the issue by implying that unhappy people are immoral and deserve their unhappiness. Psychology has discovered that, at least for some people, the level of happiness they are capable of reaching is probably genetically determined. For this reason, a rational ethics, with its stress on eudaimonic values, cannot serve everyone’s needs. People cannot be happy all the time. One way or another, whether they like it or not, they will suffer. Achieving moral perfection, even on Objectivist terms, will not cure the ills of the human condition. A philosophy that merely tells people to be happy, or insists they would be happy if only they followed this or that code of ethics, is a philosophy addressed to only one aspect of existence. It’s a philosophy for those unserious, superficial thinkers afraid of tackling the really difficult issues confronting the human species.

Philosophy is chiefly concerned with tackling problems—the more difficult, the better. Happiness, benevolence, joy are not problems. Most people agree in finding them desirable. Suffering, pain, disappointment, tragedy constitute very serious problems. They do so even when they don’t represent the norm. The fact that they occur at all gives them a special importance that no serious thinker can ignore.

Post-rational moralities such as stoicism, epicureanism, Buhddism and Christianity have each, in their own way, tried to grapple with these darker issues. For this reason, if for no other, such systems have a leg up on Objectivism when it comes to dealing with the tragic side of existence; which is to say, there is much that can be learned from them. We can learn not merely from their successes, but from their failures as well. To approach these moral systems with contempt, merely because they are not fully “rational” (i.e., because they don’t agree with Objectivism), constitutes yet another lapse into superficiality and fatuousness.

Rand’s failure to appreciate and learn from other points of view is symptomatic of her general failure to take a broader point of view. Her ethical philosophy is indeed guilty of “fighting for a closed circle of accidental interests, established ... as absolute and alone legitimate.” Most of the virtues she extols are virtues that apply, if they apply at all, only to a small number of people—nor could they ever be extended to mankind in general without doing a great deal of mischief. Her moralizing contempt for people who disagree with her only serves to isolate herself more firmly within the pre-rational jungle. It also prevents her and her orthodox followers from ever incorporating post-rational sentiment into their philosophy. Yet without this post-rational incorporation, Objectivism can never be considered a complete philosophy addressed to the chief problems of human existence.

11 comments:

Damien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Damien said...

One of Rand's character flaws was her quickness to condemn. Sure in some cases people clearly should pass negative judgments.
But, Most people realize you can't go around condemning people who don't agree with you. Simply calling people who think you are wrong irrational is not a good idea. Objectivities and other should be careful not to just condemn anyone who disagrees with them without first at least hearing their arguments. It is not a sign of reason or intelligence to treat people who simply disagree with you as irrational and not worthy of respect.

robert574 said...

Would someone mind giving the quote in her writing where "Rand goes so far as to suggest that her system is the only rational system ever devised."? I need a quote so I can understand the basis of your argument. And how can someone (Santayana) who espouses "The obvious irrationality of nature" represent a rational morality? To talk about rationality is one thing; to present a morality that advocates rationality is another. Can you please explain in brief what Santayana's rational morality is? I think that is critical to your point that there were other rational moralities before Rand.

gregnyquist said...

Robert574: "Would someone mind giving the quote in her writing where 'Rand goes so far as to suggest that her system is the only rational system ever devised'? I need a quote so I can understand the basis of your argument."

Rand: "No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values." (VOS, 14) Rand obviously didn't mean to include herself in this observation.

Robert574: "How can someone (Santayana) who espouses 'The obvious irrationality of nature' represent a rational morality? To talk about rationality is one thing; to present a morality that advocates rationality is another. Can you please explain in brief what Santayana's rational morality is?"

It's important to understand in this context that Santayana has a weaker standard of rationality than Rand. Rand more or less holds that for an ethics to be rational, the values themselves, the ends of human action, have to be rational. However, this insistence is not realistic since it commits Hume's fallacy of reasoning from an is to an ought. Santayana accepts Hume's is-ought gap so that the ends of ethics are not rational, but goes on to argue that the means by which these ends are achieved can be rational. Ethics, in Santayana's view, cannot be fully rational, but that doesn't mean it has to be fully irrational. A rational ethics, is then a moral system that has the maximum amount of rationality possible.

Santayana does, it is true, suggest that reason can criticize and reflect on the ends of human action, but not in the way that would commit Hume's is-ought fallacy. Here Santayana is simply equating reason with reasonableness, not with "exact," logical thinking.

Santayana's view about the "obvious irrationality of nature" has nothing to do with his views on rational ethics. He doesn't share the Objectivist tendency to believe that rationality in cognition and morality depends on rationality in the external world. Santayana would have regarded the Objectivist view that contradictions cannot exist "in reality" as a confusion between dialectic and thought on the one side and matter and existence on the other.

Ellen Stuttle said...

Greg:

Santayana's view about the "obvious irrationality of nature" has nothing to do with his views on rational ethics. He doesn't share the Objectivist tendency to believe that rationality in cognition and morality depends on rationality in the external world. Santayana would have regarded the Objectivist view that contradictions cannot exist "in reality" as a confusion between dialectic and thought on the one side and matter and existence on the other.

I think that "arationality of nature" would have been better wording than "irrationality of nature." The latter falls prey to the same objection of "a confusion between dialectic and thought on the one side and matter and existence on the other." Viewing nature as neither "rational" nor "irrational" -- hence, arational -- I suspect is what Santayana meant.

Ellen

Cavewight said...

I wasn't very interested in the discussion of post-rational ethical systems because there was nothing up-front to indicate how it applied to Rand's ethics. The discussion of moral pessimism reminded me of the Critique of Practical Reason (Immanuel Kant, 1788) and the way it addressed this very issue. The very purpose of the work was to avoid moral pessimism, which in the long run seemed inevitable, and to find a positive solution. And I have never seen any improvement upon Kant's arguments contained therein. Kant addressed happiness as a moral end, and swept it away within just a couple paragraphs, along with all of Randian morality which is just a slightly more superficial variation on a theme which was common long before Kant's time.

Rand's claim to possessing the
only rational moral system is premised on the notion that all other systems relied on intuition, subjectivism or faith. As usual, she delivered no evidence to support this assertion. But when you say that many rational systems were devised before Rand's, all you're saying is that they were produced in a philosophical context, when in fact the systems were not premised in reason at all. Reason was only the handmaiden to these various, "eeee-vil," irrational premises, reason being employed in support of irrationalism.

gregnyquist said...

Ellen,

I agree that "arationality" would be better, but I rather think that Santayana would have stuck to his guns and kept insisting that the external world was irrational in the sense that it was ultimately inexplicable. Reality is a "surd," as he would put it.—Perhaps in overreaction to the reigning Hegelian idealism of his college years (J. Royce was his adviser at Harvard)

gregnyquist said...

Cavewight: "I wasn't very interested in the discussion of post-rational ethical systems because there was nothing up-front to indicate how it applied to Rand's ethics."

I'm not sure what is meant "up-front." Not immediately noticable? Well, perhaps. It is a more subtle post and probably would need to be fleshed out a bit more to really make its point. I realize that it's not a huge attention grabbing subject, and many will not appreciate it. But I decided to indulge in it because it makes a nice transition from this current ethics series of recent weeks to my next series on Objectivism and religion.

Even with these caveats, I still think the subject of post-rational morality does in fact touch upon a major failing in Objectivism. Rand's philosophy does not provide anything in the way of consolation for the tragedies and tribulations of existence. It's a good weather philosophy. This has particularly important ramifications in the context of the appeal of Objectivism to large numbers of people. Objectivism simply does not have the appeal that other belief systems, particularly those of a post-rational cast, such as Christianity. This lack of appeal well it make it very difficult for Objectivism to ever gain large numbers of converts.

Cavewight: "But when you say that many rational systems were devised before Rand's, all you're saying is that they were produced in a philosophical context, when in fact the systems were not premised in reason at all."

I'm not sure what "premised in reason" means. If it means that the premises are not determined by reason, well I agree with Hume that they cannot be. And so if that is your standard of rational ethics, then a rational ethics is impossible. But if one listens to the voice of nature and conscience "truly consulted," I think you can formulate a "rational ethics" (i.e. eudaemonism).

Anonymous said...

Loons, there is no such thing as pre-rational or post-rational. Those are terms that your irrational philosophers made up to make them look reasonable when they spout their nonsense. If Santayana didn't really mean the word "irrationality," then why did he call it the "OBVIOUS irrationality of nature?" Must you whitewash everything those freaks say?

George Saad said...

I disagree with your premise that philosophy exists to deal with problems, and so must chiefly focus of pain and suffering. How can we contemplate pain and suffering without reference to an ideal, a telos, state? Is not death painful for its contrast to life, and suffering for its contrast to joy? If we are to understand suffering, we must formulate the positive concept of joy (and joy cannot be defined recursively, as in "an absence of pain" as the Epicureans would have it.). I think that Rand's paucity of work on suffering is explained by the fact that suffering-centric systems preceded her, and she was hoping to reorient philosophy so as to achieve the understanding of happiness. There is no doubt that suffering is a part of life, Rand would not deny this. The question is how do we incorporate this suffering into our body of "shoulds" in ethics. Must our ethics be responsive to tragedy rather than constructive of good? Consolation for loss is not an end, but a response to an unfortunate situation so as to achieve the end of the sufferer's happiness.

And I think that Rand would be amenable to post rational notions, though not as expressed here. She did not view reason as a means to an end- she also thought that certain ends were rational and others were not. She viewed reason not as the means to arbitrary ends but rather the means with which to achieve one's life, a rational end. This end is rational given the fact of one's own existence and the necessity of living it.

gregnyquist said...

George Saad: "I disagree with your premise that philosophy exists to deal with problems, and so must chiefly focus of pain and suffering."

I would disagree that merely because philosophy (and human thought in general) focuses on solving problems, that philosophy must therefore focus on pain and suffering. That is not the point of the post. We solve problems to attain well-being. But there will be times when we fail to attain well-being, so that philosophy should deal with problems arising from this as well. That is why Santayana does not say we should abandon rational ethics for post-rational ethics. No, he merely suggests that some post-rational elements should be added as a supplement to rational ethics.

George Saad: "Must our ethics be responsive to tragedy rather than constructive of good?"

Why shouldn't our ethics do both? No matter how constructive we are to the good, we are not likely to evade tragedy altogether. Bad things do happen to good people; nor can all tragedies simply be smothered in constructions for good. Tragedies may be (hopefully will be) infrequent, but when they do come, consolation is called for: so why shouldn't philosophy play a role in this consolation?