Former Objectivist and regular ARCHNblog commenter Michael Prescott replies to current Objectivist and regular ARCHNblog commenter John Donohue, Pasadena with a simple yet devastating summary of the problems with the Objectivist Ethics.
Prescott: John, I'm afraid you can't dismiss the is-ought issue merely by saying that Rand didn't regard it as a problem. It remains a huge stumbling block (in my opinion, a fatal one) for any naturalistic ethics, whether Rand chose to acknowledge it or not.
"The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do."
In a certain sense, this is true, but it is not helpful to Rand's ethics. Here are some of the questions Rand needed to ask:
1. Is self-preservation the primary imperative of living things, or is it procreation? (Many species risk or even lose their lives in the act of reproducing, so it would appear that reproduction is, or can be, a stronger biological imperative than self-preservation.)
2. Does the concept of values apply to living things that have no conceptual consciousness? If not, isn't it a category error to talk about the "values" of plants and insects?
3. If biological self-preservation is the standard of value, then are we talking about the preservation of the individual or the community/species? If the former, then can't the individual do whatever is necessary to survive, even if it means looting and killing? If the latter, then can't the individual be sacrificed to the collective?
4. Isn't it begging the question to say that man's standard of value is the life "proper" to man, when determining what is "proper" requires a standard of value in the first place?
5. Using the vague concepts of "life" and "what is proper to man," couldn't we rationalize and justify almost any course of action? (In fact, this is the is-ought problem in a nutshell; the ethical naturalist always makes an unwarranted move from facts to values, blurring the distinction with rhetoric or equivocation. The values in question are never necessitated by the facts, but rather are values that the ethicist happens to prefer - in Rand's case, honesty, integrity, productiveness, pride, etc.)
6. Is it really the case that man cannot survive unless he practices the Objectivist ethics? Do people who are dishonest, who lack integrity, who are nonproductive, who have self-esteem issues ... really die? Or do they somehow usually muddle through? Isn't it the case that some dishonest people make out very well in life? Is material success inextricably tied to personal virtue, so that millionaires are inevitably more virtuous than people who are less well off?
7. If life is the standard, then what exactly do we mean by life? Are we talking about simple longevity, or about quality of life? If the former, aren't there are many evil and destructive people who live to a ripe old age? If the latter, how do we use "quality of life" as a standard of value, when we need a standard by which to judge "quality"? And how can we objectively judge "quality of life" anyway?
8. Rand says that people who don't live up to her standards are subhuman. Isn't this is a backhanded way of admitting that it is possible to live a long, comfortable life without practicing her virtues, but then waving off this fact by asserting that such people "don't count" because they're not "really" human? In other words, isn't it just a rhetorical device used to disguise the fact that non-Objectivists often survive and even flourish - a fact that, if openly acknowledged, would prove fatal to her argument?
9. If man cannot survive without an explicit code of values, then how did human beings survive for all the centuries before philosophy came along to enlighten them?
There are other questions, but I think that's enough to show that Rand's argument doesn't amount to much. It is good rhetoric, though. She was a first-rate polemicist, just not a first- or even second-rate philosopher.