Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 15

Randian virtues: pride. The worst and most fatuous of the Randian virtues, displaying an obtuseness to the human condition that is really lamentable to behold. Here’s how Rand initially justifies her choice:
Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value and, like all of man's values, it has to be earned—that of any achievements open to you, the one that makes all others possible is the creation of your own character—that your character, your actions, your desires, your emotions are the products of the premises held by your mind—that as man must produce the physical values he needs to sustain his life, so he must acquire the values of character that make his life worth sustaining—that as man is a being of self-made wealth, so he is a being of self-made soul—that to live requires a sense of self-value, but man, who has no automatic values, has no automatic sense of self-esteem and must earn it by shaping his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of Man, the rational being he is born able to create, but must create by choice—that the first precondition of self-esteem is that radiant selfishness of soul which desires the best in all things, in values of matter and spirit, a soul that seeks above all else to achieve its own moral perfection, valuing nothing higher than itself—and that the proof of an achieved self-esteem is your soul's shudder of contempt and rebellion against the role of a sacrificial animal, against the vile impertinence of any creed that proposes to immolate the irreplaceable value which is your consciousness and the incomparable glory which is your existence to the blind evasions and the stagnant decay of others.

The first thing to note is that, in her description of pride, Rand unwittingly embraces relativism. “Pride is the recognition of the fact that you are your own highest value,” Rand states. In other words, each person is their own highest value; which means the value of each person is relative to each individual. This would be all fine and good were it not for the fact that Rand insisted her values were “absolute.” (I realize her apologists at this point will counter-insist that her absolutes are “contextual”—whatever that means! I suspect she’s merely trying to have it both ways, and thinks she can get away with it by playing games with words!)

What is even more striking is the famous passage where Rand insists that man ought to be a “being of self-made soul.” Just as Rand embraced free will in its most extreme form, so she embrace a most uncompromising version of pride. We can be proud of ourselves not merely because it feels good to think that way; we can also be proud of ourselves because this self is our own creation! One can hardly imagine greater effrontery or arrogance as this.

According to both traditional authorities and the latest scientific evidence, Rand’s view of the self-created self has no empirical ground to stand on. Not only does there exist well documented genetic factors in personality, but there also exists a cognitive unconscious that quite literally has a will of its own. In other words, we don’t, nor can we, control everything about ourselves. Even worse, the extent that we can control ourselves depends, in crucial part, on taking countermeasures against our limitations. But how can these countermeasures take place when we refuse to accept the existence of these congenital limitations? How can we overcome the bad qualities in our cognitive unconscious when we deny, as Rand did, that a cognitive unconscious even exists? Throwing pride into the mixture only renders the situation worse, making it even less likely that the individual is going to face up to his limitations.

As is well known and has been demonstrated by hundreds of psychological experiments, there exists a human tendency toward self-deception. “Most people claim they are above average in any positive trait you name,” notes the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. In other words, the tendency to see ourselves better than we are is built-in. Why, then, does this tendency need encouragement? If people already tend to think better of themselves than is warranted by the facts, why would any psychologically astute person wish to encourage them to be proud? The better strategy, it would seem, would be to pump a bit for humility—if for no other reason than as a sort of countermeasure against the innate bias towards pride.

“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” the Bible claims. Is this just mystical nonsense? Or is it one of those sayings that causes most people to regard the Bible as a repository of wisdom, since it backs what people have learned through hard-earned experience? Most traditions of folk wisdom contain warnings about the dangers of pride. Literature, from the Greek dramatists through Dante and Shakespeare to the great novelists of the last two centuries, repeatedly warns against the dangers of pride. Where did these warnings come from? Why do they continue to resonate with most people? Is it merely because most people are envious, or corrupted by religious teachings and Immanuel Kant? Or does the experience of the human race testify to a truth about human nature and the psychological dangers of encouraging people to think too well of themselves? And what about the effects of pride on Rand herself? Was it pride that encouraged her to begin an ill-advised affair with a man half her age—an affair, moreover, that turned out to have disastrous consequences to both her personal life and the intellectual movement devoted to her philosophy?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 14

Randian virtues: productiveness. Finally, a virtue we can all agree on! Or is it? Leave it to Rand to screw up even the most obvious virtues by distorting them with false ideals. Here’s how Rand introduces productiveness:
Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man's consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one's purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one's values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others—that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind's full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road—that the man who has no purpose is a machine that coasts downhill at the mercy of any boulder to crash in the first chance ditch, that the man who stifles his mind is a stalled machine slowly going to rust, that the man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap, and the man who makes another man his goal is a hitchhiker no driver should ever pick up—that your work is the purpose of your life, and you must speed past any killer who assumes the right to stop you, that any value you might find outside your work, any other loyalty or love, can be only travelers you choose to share your journey and must be travelers going on their own power in the same direction.

Rand is here guilty of over-romanticizing her virtue. “All work,” she declares, “is creative work if done by a thinking mind.” Really? And even worse, Rand goes on to insist that “no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others.” So in other words, routinized work, doing as your told, is ruled out of hand. Such work is not virtuous; perhaps is even vicious.

Consider, in terms of contrast, Thomas Carlyle’s view of work:
All work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble: be that here said and asserted once more… A man perfects himself by working. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seedfields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these like hell-dogs lie beleaguering the soul of the poor day-worker, as of every man: but he bends himself with free valour against his task, and all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man.

Carlyle also romanticizes work; but what a difference between his romanticization and Rand’s! Rand turns work into an adventure of creativity and self-actualization. But is that what most people find in work? Not at all. Plenty of uncreative work out there. Floors that need to be scrubbed; toilets that need to be cleaned; snow that needs to be shoveled; ditches that need to be dug; garbage that needs to be picked up. What has Rand to say to the those selected to do these unappetizing tasks? Nothing but a kind of mockery: be “creative” in them, she insists; don’t repeat a routine learned by others! There are two reasons why advice of this sort is bad to the point of cruelty. In the first place, most people who do menial work are not known for their creative intelligence; so that to urge them to think for themselves and work creatively will probably lead to trouble. And secondly, organized work requires hierarchy: bosses and managers telling workers and subordinates what to do. How much better, then, is Carlyle’s romanticization of productive work, since it includes work of all description, even of the meanest variety, and doesn’t romanticize independence and thinking for oneself!

Another possible mischief in Rand’s virtue of productivity is the implication that what is virtuous is not work per se, but the productivity of work, so that greater productivity is equivalent to greater virtue. But what constitutes greater productivity? Is Warren Buffett, the richest man in the world, more productive, and therefore more virtuous, than the Mexican field hand picking grapes from sun-up to sun-down for fifty dollars a day? What about the so-called “idle” rich? Not so many of such types any more, because of high tax rates; but they weren’t so uncommon a hundred years ago. Although most individuals who lived on their savings did not have regular jobs, they were not always completely idle. They may have had hobbies or pursued other interests. Could such hobbies or interests be consider productive even though they earned no income from them? Take, as one example, Arnold Bax, who lived in England during the first half of the twentieth century. Bax, due to his family, did not have earn a living. So he composed music—tone poems, symphonies, chamber works, songs, etc. Made very little money from his compositions, none of which ever became permanent fixtures in the standard repertoire. Can Bax be credited with practicing the virtue of productiveness? And if so, on what basis? What does it mean to be productive? Does it mean the production of market value? Or is it the production of anything, as long as it involves creativity? Or is it the “objective” quality of the thing produced that determines whether productiveness, and hence virtue, went into its making?

So many questions—yet all remain unanswered by Rand, shrouded in the ambiguities of her overheated rhetoric! Why could not Rand have contented herself with saying “Work is virtuous,” rather than creating this romantic ideal which few, if any, ever have a chance of reaching?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Does "Focus" Give a Truer Picture of Reality?

In Objectivism, much is made of "focussing" your mind as the basis of gaining a proper grip on reality. Dr Leonard Piekoff calls the choice to focus "man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend.” But how reliably does focusing your mind vouchsafe a true and undistorted view of reality? Here's a recent variation of a well-known psychological test. There are two teams, and your task is to try to count the number of passes the team in white makes in the confusing scenario. Get ready...and ...focus!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 13

Randian virtues: justice. This is the most ambigious of Rand’s virtues. Justice means different things to different people. For some people, an unequal distribution of income is inherently unjust. For others, any attempt to redistribute income on the basis of egalitarian "justice" itself would be unjust. It is curious to note that Rand ignores this aspect of the question in her introduction of the virtue of justice in Galt’s speech:
Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero—that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men's vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence.

Note the emphasis Rand places on judging. You would think that Rand, when introducing justice, would want to state clearly her definitional notion of the concept. How does one distinguish between justice and injustice? Why are leftist notions of justice mistaken? What is wrong with the concept of distributive justice? Her treatment of justice does not address these problems, but merely assumes that her own notion of justice is right from the start and goes on to insist on the rigorous application of this view of justice, not just in the legal or political sphere, but in all of life. In short, Rand is insisting, in a particularly vehement manner, on the necessity of judging people and treating people exactly as they deserve.

It is important to understand the extent to which Rand, by her emphasis on moralizing, is challenging traditional norms of morality and judgment. Consider what Hamlet says on the subject in Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet is discussing with Polonius how to treat the actors that have come to give a play.
Hamlet: Good my Lord, will you see these players well bestowed? ...
Polonius: My Lord, I will use them according to their desert.
Hamlet: God’s bodikins, man, much better; use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

Polonius is here stating Rand’s view of the matter; Hamlet is sticking up for the traditional view. Now it is important here not to misinterpret Hamlet’s views by taking too literally what he says. The traditional view does not hold that one ought to treat the worst sort of murderers and other criminals with greater consideration because of their viciousness. Hamlet’s stricture applies only to ordinary non-criminals, such as the players of the acting company. It is based on several assumptions about human nature that Rand either ignored or denied:

(1) Human nature is encumbered by “frailties” that render it impossible for any individual to be morally perfect.

(2) People don’t always intend to do bad things, yet end up doing bad things regardless of intention.

(3) Because of the unintended aspects of human behavior, it is impossible to determine the exact degree of moral culpability of other people.

(4) Because moral insight into the behavior of others is fraught with uncertainty, one should not be overly quick to judge others; on the contrary, one should be eager to cut others slack and temper justice with mercy. Moralizing and being excessively judgmental is a vice caused by arrogance and narrow-mindedness.

(6) Since most people are decent but flawed, treating them with kindness even when they seem to stray from the moral straight and narrow demonstrates a nobility of character and generosity of heart that is morally commendable.

The views summarized here are a product of aristocratic sensibilities tempered by Christian sentiment. In other words, they constitute the code of the gentleman, which is to say, the ideals of chivalry. Rand’s notion of justice sticks a dagger into the very heart of chivalric ideals. Justice, she insists, should never be tempered by mercy. Reason can determine exactly what people deserve—and that’s exactly what they should get! Everyone has the responsibility to be morally perfect and to demand from others moral perfection. Nothing less will do!

What is particularly mischievous in the Randian notion of justice is the combination of a moral perfection as defined by “reason” with an intransigent moralizing. Rand’s “reason” is a mere rationalization of artificial sentiments based on mere ideology. It denies not only the frailties of human nature, but even more critically, it disavows the traditional customs and habits that arose to deal with these frailties, such as the chivalric notions about treating people better than they deserve that Hamlet speaks up for in Shakespeare’s play.

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.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Do We Deserve Our Incomes?

I received an email this morning from Chris Colin, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, who has written an article flirting with the notion that no one deserves what they earn or what they have, because it's all based on the fortune of birth and the fortune of innate faculties. What is noteworthy about Colin's article for our purposes it that it includes a brief interview with Yaron Brook, the head of Ayn Rand Institute.

Here is the brief snippet:
"The essence of morality is the extent to which you apply your free will. If we're going to get rewarded for anything, it's for this," Brook told me.

And if someone doesn't have that free will for some reason, or doesn't exercise it as effectively as someone else?
"Then they don't deserve it."

Brook and I went back and forth over free will, and whether it really just comes from all those raw ingredients we acquired through sheer luck — my position.

"If we're completely determined, the whole concept of 'deserve' is out. Computers don't deserve anything. Animals don't deserve anything. What makes humans unique is we have the capacity to make choices," he argued. "Some people make choices that lead to success and prosperity and happiness, and some people don't ... (When) people make bad choices, they deserve the consequences."

I couldn't get Brook to agree that people who make bad choices have something in them leading them to do so — something the good-choices people don't have — and that this quality was just a more complex version of height or eye color. But Brook did acknowledge that at least sometimes our stations in life are undeserved: an inheritance, a lucky Lotto ticket, being born on a poor continent. Still, he said, just because our fortunes aren't always deserved doesn't mean we're not entitled to them.

"People are born in Africa and they're out of luck, and it's sad. But the fact they were unlucky enough to be born in Africa doesn't place a claim against me and my life and my wealth," he said. And if he won the lottery, "I wouldn't say I deserve this money. I'd say it's mine, not yours, and I get to decide what I do with it. The fact that I have money, no matter how I got it, doesn't give you a claim against it."

Finders keepers, in other words. I can't say I find it compelling, but at least it addresses the issue.

I don't find either side in this debate fully convincing. Colin exaggerates the extent to which people are determined by innate capacities while Brook exaggerates the extent of free will. And neither seem to entirely grasp the functional purpose of the idea of deserving. If we were to assume that we don't deserve our incomes because all that we earn is based on our innate faculties, then the obvious question would be: who then does deserve our incomes? If it is claimed that no one deserves it, then the argument is futile and we pass on. If, however, someone should argue that half our income is deserved by the homeless, then we have tacitly adopted a different criterion of deserving: to wit, that dysfunctional and/or unfortunate individuals are deserving of income because they are dysfunctional and/or unfortunate! The problem with this criterion is that, if dysfunction and misfortune becomes the standard of deserving in your society, what would likely be the consequences of such a moral revolution? Wouldn't it lead to a lot more unfortunate/dysfunctional individuals? You reward dysfunction you'll have more of it!

Moral standards need to work for the well-being and eudomania of individuals in society, while at the same time maintaining the necessary strength and coherence of that society so that it can defend itself from its enemies at home and abroad. Moral standards that don't work for these goals are self-defeating and, ultimately, suicidal.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 11

Randian virtues: integrity. This is another one of Rand’s more questionable virtues. She introduces and explicates the virtue as follows:
Integrity is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake your consciousness, just as honesty is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake existence—that man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions—that, like a judge impervious to public opinion, he may not sacrifice his convictions to the wishes of others, be it the whole of mankind shouting pleas or threats against him—that courage and confidence are practical necessities, that courage is the practical form of being true to existence, of being true to truth, and confidence is the practical form of being true to one's own consciousness.

In other words, individuals should have the courage of their convictions. Doesn’t matter what other people think; doesn’t matter how much pressure there may be to conform; the individual’s judgment is paramount. “There can be no compromise on basic principles,” Rand insisted. “There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.” Rand’s insistence on this point might carry some weight if knowledge and truth were free of controversy. Where controversy exists, however, Randian integrity quickly turns vicious.

Compromise is a necessary ingredient to any free, democratic society. In an open society, disagreement on moral and social issues is inescapable. Human nature is not homogenous. Individuals fall into several congenital types, such as liberal or conservative. Factions inevitably arise. “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” James Madison warned us in Federalist 10; “and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Given these factious dispositions of the social order, how does any society manage to cohere well enough make collective decisions? Well, there are several methods that can be used to reach a kind of functional unity. But an open society can resort to only one: namely, democracy. As I put it in my essay “The Democratic Farce”:
The rise of an elective, “democratic” method of settling political conflicts came about largely because of the bloody wars and revolutions that characterized the pre-democratic era in European history. Through a process of trial and error, societies discovered that representative institutions provide a better way of resolving political differences than internecine strife. The representative system allowed nations to make collective political decisions that most societal factions could live with. Compromise is essential to the democratic process. Each person in society accepts an outcome he regards as sub-optimal to avoid the bloodshed that would inevitably result if the political process were determined solely by force.
Democracy, then, is a political method that evolved to avoid sanguinary conflict arising from the fact that human beings can never agree about politics. In lieu of settling these inevitable differences through violence, society plays a game called democracy. We have elections, legislative bodies, presidents or prime ministers, and judges. In the helter-skelter of the political process, an outcome is reached that most of us can live with, even if none of us particularly care for it.

When Rand declares “There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction,” she is ignoring the stark reality of the alternative. If you want to be part of the social order, you may not have any choice. In the real world, Howard Roark would’ve been sent to prison for dynamiting the housing project. Compromise is a necessary component of a democratic society. Integrity, then, as a virtue, must be reserved for truly momentous issues: i.e., issues involving the most fundamental liberties, the honor of one’s women, and the most crucial aspects of one’s personal honor. In other words, one only has integrity over that which one would willingly die for. If it’s not worth dying for, it may not be worth having integrity about. Hence, in a democratic society, we find ourselves compromising on a host of issues, including the amount of government intervention in the economy, tax rates, abortion (pro or con), judicial review, etc. etc. No real person achieves the integrity of Howard Roark because Roark takes integrity way too far. If everyone had that much integrity, we would all find ourselves behind barricades shooting at each other.

Perhaps the least appetizing aspect of integrity is its tendency to glorify martyrdom, particularly over essentially trivial aesthetic or ideological differences. H. L. Mencken was baffled by this sort of self-immolation over mere ideas. “I can't understand the martyr,” he confessed. “Far from going to the stake for a Great Truth, I wouldn't even miss a meal for it.”

Ayn Rand Quote of The Week 14/3/08

'Some day I'll find out whether I'm an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless—honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.'- Ayn Rand, May 15, 1934

Hat tip to commenter Cavewight

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Check It Out: Check-Your-Premises

The ARCHNblog welcomes an interesting new voice in the firmament: Henry Scuoteguazza's Check Your Premises blog. What differentiates Henry's blog is his stated intent to think critically about Objectivism, whilst still being an Objectivist. (He also thinks critically with Objectivism too). This is especially noteworthy given the efforts of Rand and her followers to quash internal criticism of her philosophy, or to evade such criticism via obscure jargon and word games. A shame and an irony, as this tradition of criticism is an essential part of our Western tradition of freedom. We like the cut of Scuoteguazza's jib with comments like his review of Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis":

Why do I have a post on Haidt's book? Because I believe Objectivists would benefit from his observations even if you ultimately disagree with him. The Objectivist literature is quiet on how our evolution as a species affects how we think and feel. Rand did say we are rational animals but I believe the animal part of this formulation was shed and/or buried in the emphasis on reason.

Also he links to us, showing that he is clearly a man of quality and distinction. We look forward to reading more.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ayn Rand Quote of The Week 12/3/08

Question from audience:
[muffled audio which sounds like:] "...why is this culture..."

[loud noise which sounds as if it represents a point where the tape has been edited]

Rand: [mid-sentence] "...for healthy children to use handicapped materials. I quite agree with the speaker's indignation. I think it's a monstrous thing — the whole progression of everything they're doing — to feature, or answer, or favor the incompetent, the retarded, the handicapped, including, you know, the kneeling buses and all kinds of impossible expenses. I do not think that the retarded should be ~allowed~ to come ~near~ children. Children cannot deal, and should not have to deal, with the very tragic spectacle of a handicapped human being. When they grow up, they may give it some attention, if they're interested, but it should never be presented to them in childhood, and certainly not as an example of something ~they~ have to live down to."

- Ayn Rand, The Age of Mediocrity, Q & A Ford Hall Forum, April, 1981

(hat tip to Jonathan in comments)

Ayn Rand's Originality Pt 4: Epistemology

Neil Parille continues his exploration of Ayn Rand's much vaunted originality as a philosopher.

Epistemological Realism

Ayn Rand is an epistemological realist. She believes that the mind perceives the external world, a world of individual entities. Orthodox Objectivist Allan Gotthelf explains that Rand is a “direct” realist. We are directly aware of people, trees, cars and the like. (Gotthelf, On Ayn Rand, p. 54.)

Gotthelf discusses the most common objection to direct realism: the problem of seemingly false perceptions. The classic example is perceiving a stick in water as bent when it is straight. Doesn’t this prove that we are not in contact with entities “as they really are”? Gotthelf responds that perceptions don’t deceive us because perceptions must be interpreted by the mind. The mind, applying reason to concepts, determines whether judgments are correct. (Id., pp. 54-55.) Frederick Wilhelmsen said the same thing years before. “[P]erceptions always represent what is perceived. Falsity results from faulty judgments made about perception.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, p. 31.)

Skepticism Is Self-Refuting

Rand argued that skepticism is self-refuting. “’We know that we know nothing,’ they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge . . . .” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 154.) Non-skeptics often argue that skepticism is self-refuting in many ways. (See John Greco’s Putting Skeptics in Their Place.)

Concepts Are Objective

Rand defends at great length the claim that concepts are objective, almost implying that she is alone in this. John Dewey (1859-1952) wrote, “[m]eaning is objective and universal . . . . It requires the discipline of ordered and deliberate experimentation to teach us that some meanings, as delightful or horrendous as they are, are meanings communally developed in the process of communal festivity or control, and do not represent the polities, and ways and means of nature apart from social control . . . the truth in classical philosophy in assigning objectivity to meanings, essences, ideas remains unassailable.” (Dewey, Nature and Experience, pp. 188-89.)

Concepts are Mental Integrations Based on Common Properties

According to Rand, "[a] concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s) . . . ." (Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2d Ed., p. 13.)

Lyle Bourne said something similar in 1966:

"As a working definition we may say a concept exists whenever two or more distinguishable objects have been grouped or classified together and set apart from other objects on the basis of some common feature or property characteristic of each." (Lyle Bourne, Human Conceptual Behavior, p. 1.)*

Correspondence Theory of Truth

According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand embraces “the traditional correspondence theory of truth.” (Peikoff, OPAR, p. 165.)

Stolen Concept Fallacy

Objectivists make frequent use of what they call the “stolen concept fallacy.” According to Peikoff, “The ‘stolen concept’ fallacy, first identified by Ayn Rand, is the fallacy of using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots, i.e, of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends.” He explains in more detail:

“Observe that Descartes starts his system by using ‘error’ and its synonyms or derivatives as ‘stolen concepts.’"

“Men have been wrong, and therefore, he implies, they can never know what is right. But if they cannot, how did they ever discover that they were wrong? How can one form such concepts as ‘mistake’ or ‘error’ while wholly ignorant of what is correct? ‘Error’ signifies a departure from truth; the concept of ‘error’ logically presupposes that one has already grasped some truth. If truth were unknowable, as Descartes implies, the idea of a departure from it would be meaningless.”

“The same point applies to concepts denoting specific forms of error. If we cannot ever be certain that an argument is logically valid, if validity is unknowable, then the concept of ‘invalid’ reasoning is impossible to reach or apply. If we cannot ever know that a man is sane, then the concept of ‘insanity’ is impossible to form or define. If we cannot recognize the state of being awake, then we cannot recognize or conceptualize a state of not being awake (such as dreaming). If man cannot grasp X, then ‘non-X’ stands for nothing.”

(Binswanger, ed., Ayn Rand Lexicon, pp. 478-79)

Wilhelmsen’s description of this “fallacy” is almost identical. He writes:

“At this point the idealist and the skeptic . . . usually advance the problem of hallucinations, pathological sense states, and dreams. Because there are false perceptions such as hallucinations, so goes the objection, I could never be certain that there were any true perceptions. How can I know that what I perceive really does exist and that I am not dreaming or imagining, etc. This position . . . . is a painful sophistry. How can I even speak of false perceptions unless I can measure their falsity by a true perception? . . . . The fact that I can even raise the problem of false perceptions indicates that there are true perceptions and I know them to be true. The false can only be measured by the true.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, pp. 31-32.)

The stolen concept fallacy didn’t begin with Wilhelmsen either. He acknowledges his indebtedness to a 1947 work of Etienne Gilson (1884-1978).

*According to Dan Ust via Ellen Stuttle

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.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Compassion of Ayn Rand

While we're on the subject of Randian ethics, it's worth noting that there has been considerable campaign of late to relegate Rand's Nietzschean influences to her early years; as merely "a phase" she grew out of by the time of her major works. A regularly cited example of this "phase" is her swooning in her early twenties over the multiple murderer William Hickman in her notes, and her proposed use of him as the basis of the hero in her planned novel, "The Little Street" (see regular ARCHNblog commenter Michael Prescott's fascinating essay on Rand and Hickman, "Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer" for more). However, this is simply not the case. A Nietzchean contempt for the weak, and for "subhumans" in general is, while less overt, still clearly visible in her later work. For example, her breakthrough novel "The Fountainhead" contains a fascinating episode where the hero, architect Howard Roark, is forced to have his Stoddard Temple of the Human Spirit remodeled by his arch-enemy, Ellsworth Toohey. What is the most awful fate Rand can concoct for this building, the greatest antithesis of her hero's values, ethics, and aesthetics? Perhaps a politician's office? A trade union hall? A branch of the Inland Revenue Service? No, the most vile, disgusting insult Rand can find for Toohey to besmirch the Objectivist Human Spirit with is to make it a home for intellectually handicapped children.

The original shape of the building remained discernable. It was not like a corpse whose fragments had been mercifully scattered; it was like a corpse hacked to peices and reassembled.

In September the tenants of the Home moved in. A small, expert staff was chosen by Toohey. It had been harder to find the children who qualified as inmates. Most of them had to be taken from other institutions. Sixty-five children, their ages ranging from three to fifteen, were picked out by zealous ladies who were full of kindness and so made a point of rejecting those who could be cured and selecting only the hopeless cases. There was a fifteen year old boy who had never learned to speak; a grinning child who could not be taught to read or write; a girl born without a nose, whose father was also her grandfather; a person called "Jackie" of whose age or sex nobody could be certain. They marched into their new home, their eyes staring vacantly, the stare of death before which no world existed...

...Catherine Halsey was put in charge of the children's occupational therapy, and she moved into the Home as a permanent resident. She took up her work with a fierce zeal. She spoke about it insistently to anyone who would listen. Her voice was dry and arbitrary. When she spoke, the movements of her mount hid the two lines that had appeared recently, cut from her nostrils to her chin; people preferred her not to remove her glasses; her eyes were not good to see. She spoke belligerently about her work not being charity, but "human reclamation."

The most important time of her day was the hour assigned to the children's art activities, known as the "Creative Period." There was a special room for the purpose - a room with a view of the distant city skyline - where the children were given materials and encouraged to create freely, under the guidance of Catherine who stood watch over them like an angel presiding at a birth.

She was elated on the day when Jackie, the least promising one of the lot, achieved a completed work of imagination. Jackie picked up fistfuls of colored felt scraps and a pot of glue, and carried them to a corner of the room. There was, in the corner, a slanting ledge projecting from the wall - plastered over and painted green - left from Roark's modeling of the Temple interior that had once controlled the recession of the light at sunset. Catherine walked over to Jackie and saw, spread out on the ledge, the recognizable shape of a dog, brown, with blue spots and five legs. Jackie wore an expression of pride. "Now you see, you see?" Catherine said to her colleages. "Isn't it wonderful and moving! There's no telling how far the child will go with the proper encouragement. Think of what happens to their little souls if they are frustrated in their creative instincts! It's so important not to deny them a change for self-expression. Did you see Jackie's face?" - Ayn Rand, excepted from The Fountainhead, p397-398

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Thursday Nite Whim-Worshipping

New York's Interpol with their irresistibly titled new single, "There's No 'I' In Threesome."

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.