Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting Mediaeval

Despite the lipservice paid to "reality", Rand's philosophy is primarily a verbalist one straight out of the Middle Ages; that is, due to the unfortunate influence of Aristotle on her epistemological method, Objectivist arguments quickly reduce to Scholastic hairsplitting over the meaning of words. Here is a classic example from a thread we mentioned earlier over at Diana Hsieh's Noodlefood. A commenter, Frank, is understandably confused by Peikoff's apparent volte-face on the ethical obligation to assist someone in trouble. In response Richard Lawrence of the Objectivist Reference Center gets mediaeval on him:
"I don't think anyone here is claiming that there is a *duty* to provide assistance. 'Duty' and 'obligation' are distinct concepts, and it is possible to have obligations without having duties."
"Duty" and "obligation" are "distinct concepts"? Really? Let's see what Dictionary.com says:
du⋅ty   
1. something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.
Or perhaps the OED:
duty
1. a moral or legal obligation.
Clearly a hugely important "conceptual" distinction!

103 comments:

Red Grant said...

Focus - a center of interest or activity

Interest,


You can say the similiar thing about 'Focus', and 'Interest'.

Nizleib said...

Daniel,

The dictionary is wrong. That is all.

Samuel

Daniel Barnes said...

Samuel:
>The dictionary is wrong. That is all.

Hi Samuel,

How do you come to that conclusion, and what is "right" then?

Anonymous said...

Please don't use a dictionary as a source for the meaning of someone's words, *especially* in the context of philosophy: a general dictionary is meant to be used as a resource in figuring out what a word means *in the context in which is was found* and therefore will be general and broad in its definitions.

Dictionaries are meant to find out the meaning of words that we encounter, not to make authoritative pronouncements on what are and are not "distinct concepts."

Using a dictionary in this manner is an Appeal to Authority fallacy. While I think there's no way to justify the idea that "duties" and "obligations" are "distinct concepts" in this context, that can only be done by showing the flaws in treating them as such, not in using a book intended to help a person understand the language and in no way intended to make a philosophical argument as some kind of gospel.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>Using a dictionary in this manner is an Appeal to Authority fallacy.

I quite disagree. Firstly, I am not using the dictionary as an authority but to illustrate the point that what is going on there is a lot of hairsplitting over vague and basically interchangeable terms. Secondly, Rand regularly asserts herself as the authority as to the so-called "proper" or "true" meanings of words constantly - she even declares that its her job to tell people such as scientists what their terms truly mean! - and declares the conventional meanings of words, such as those found in dictionaries, as illegitmate. (There is, in fact, no "ultimate authority" as to the meanings of words; not even dictionaries. This "authority" cannot be found by logical means either, as Rand erroneously claimed). So the "argument from authority" fallacy in this debate is in fact Randian. And of course it is faux, and involves the pretence that some important "conceptual" distinction is being ignored, rather than Peikoff is indulging in typical double-talk. One can tell this by Diana Hsieh's demand for a "retraction" from poor Frank, as though Peikoff had compared an apple with an astronaut, rather than two essentially interchangeable terms.

The authoritarian trend in Objectivism starts at the same point as many similar ones: in the attempt to control language.

Anon69 said...

Using the dictionary is not an illegitimate appeal to authority. Knowledge is contextual. The dictionary reflects social context and is hence objective. One cannot simply relabel concepts without throwing the objectively-applicable social context out the window.

Richard said...

The arguments Frank was using were off point because Peikoff was talking about 'obligation', while the quotes Frank gave from Rand were about 'duty', and Rand herself explicitly distinguished between the two early in the same essay that Frank was quoting. If someone tells you up front that they make a distinction between two terms, and you then criticize them for not using the two terms interchangeably because the dictionary does, it would seem that you are the one turning the discussion into one about the meaning of words.

If I wanted to engage in hairsplitting, I would complain about you referring to the Objectivism Reference Center as the "Objectivist Resource Center".

Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>...Rand herself explicitly distinguished between the two early in the same essay that Frank was quoting.

Thanks for pointing this out. As you don't give that actual cite however, I will look up the passage in question and then we can see what this distinction actually consists of.

>If I wanted to engage in hairsplitting, I would complain about you referring to the Objectivism Reference Center as the "Objectivist Resource Center".

My apologies, slip of the keyboard, duly corrected. You'll note we do correctly refer to you in our sidebar, and it is indeed an excellent resource! ...;-)

Xtra Laj said...

If I wanted to engage in hairsplitting, I would complain about you referring to the Objectivism Reference Center as the "Objectivist Resource Center".Then why mention it? Hair splitting through the back door?

The arguments Frank was using were off point because Peikoff was talking about 'obligation', while the quotes Frank gave from Rand were about 'duty', and Rand herself explicitly distinguished between the two early in the same essay that Frank was quoting.She explicitly distinguished between the two early in the same essay in the same way that she claimed to have some dictionary that defined selfishness as concern with one's interests, leaving out the "excessive" nature of such concern, especially without regard for others, that is attached to just about every dictionary except the one Rand used that as far as I know was never discovered.

If someone tells you up front that they make a distinction between two terms, and you then criticize them for not using the two terms interchangeably because the dictionary does, it would seem that you are the one turning the discussion into one about the meaning of words.It's a good idea to be generally distrustful of people who need to redefine common sense meanings of words to make their arguments work.

I mean, let me know of anyone you know who takes the Kantian conception of duty seriously. Just about everyone who uses the term uses it in the sense of "moral obligation".

One of my favorite examples of ridiculous Objectivist terms is the "unchosen obligation". I'm still trying to wrap my head around why so many intelligent people think that unchosen obligations make sense.

Richard said...

"Then why mention it? Hair splitting through the back door?"

Your deep understanding of irony impresses me.

"One of my favorite examples of ridiculous Objectivist terms is the "unchosen obligation". I'm still trying to wrap my head around why so many intelligent people think that unchosen obligations make sense."

I'm trying to wrap my head around why you think 'unchosen obligation' is an Objectivist term.

The rest of what you wrote was new criticisms spinning off from my responses to the prior ones (implicitly admitting that the prior criticisms were wrong?). More importantly, the new criticisms are of things Rand wrote, whereas what I was responding to were criticisms of what I wrote. Since I am not Ayn Rand, I suggest you find one of Rand's blog comments so you can address your critique to her directly.

Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xtra Laj said...

Richard: Your deep understanding of irony impresses me.


Merci beaucoup, mon cher ami.



I'm trying to wrap my head around why you think 'unchosen obligation' is an Objectivist term.





Stick "unchosen obligation" into Google and let me know what you come up with. It's not that hard for a head like yours.

4/14/2009 08:15:00 PM

Richard said...

"Stick "unchosen obligation" into Google and let me know what you come up with."

Don't confuse "a term Objectivists use" with "an Objectivist term." Objectivists use lots of words and phrases that aren't used or defined in a way that is special to Objectivists. 'Unchosen obligation' appears to be such a case. As far as I can tell, what Objectivists mean by the phrase is the same as what anyone else would mean. For example, this commentary from NRO (definitely not an Objectivist outlet) seems to use the term in the same way, except that in this case the author thinks that correct morality does include unchosen obligations, whereas Objectivists believe it does not.

I was able to find assorted essays, books, even a movie review using the phrase in a non-Objectivist context, all seeming to mean the same thing by it.

Xtra Laj said...

Richard,

By Jove! You are right. I need to get around more (not that I think I would have much fun around people who use phrases like "unchosen obligation" on a regular basis.

So Objectivists believe that morality involves NO unchosen obligations? If so, how do they get morality off the ground? Aren't obligations of some sort required, even in the lightest sense of the word "obligation", to have a morality?

Richard said...

"So Objectivists believe that morality involves NO unchosen obligations? If so, how do they get morality off the ground? Aren't obligations of some sort required, even in the lightest sense of the word "obligation", to have a morality?"

Blog comments aren't really a good place to provide a full explanation of the Objectivist meta-ethics, but the very short answer is that Objectivists consider all (legitimate) obligations to be conditional. One is obligated to do X in order to obtain value Y, all leading to the ultimate value of one's own life as "man qua man". If you want the details, I recommend Tara Smith's Viable Values as a rigorous but still readable source on the Objectivist meta-ethics.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>...Rand herself explicitly distinguished between the two early in the same essay that Frank was quoting.

Ok, I have the passage in question. As it is rather lengthy, and contains additional qualifications towards the end of the essay, I will do a separate post so we can examine it in some detail. But my first impression is that a)it doesn't really do what you think it does and more problematically b) if it does "explicitly distinguish" between the two, it does so in a way that is irrelevant to Peikoff's contention. But more soon.

Richard said...

"But my first impression is that a)it doesn't really do what you think it does and more problematically b) if it does "explicitly distinguish" between the two, it does so in a way that is irrelevant to Peikoff's contention."

Let me perhaps spare you some effort and say that I did not have the essay in front of me when I made my earlier comment, and having re-read it subsequently, I would not use the word 'explicitly' if I were to repeat my comment now. However, it is clear to me that Rand made a distinction between the two terms, and if Frank accepted Rand's arguments to the degree indicated by his quoting of them, he should have recognized that she made this distinction.

As to whether Peikoff's claims pass muster under Rand's arguments, that's really for Peikoff to address, although I doubt he will be responding to anything you blog on the subject.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>Let me perhaps spare you some effort and say that I did not have the essay in front of me when I made my earlier comment, and having re-read it subsequently, I would not use the word 'explicitly' if I were to repeat my comment now.

Nor emphasise "explicitly" in italics either, I suppose...;-) For of course you are right; Rand does not explictly distinguish between the two terms. Hence Frank's confusion is quite understandable. But we'll see this when we look at the text.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>As to whether Peikoff's claims pass muster under Rand's arguments, that's really for Peikoff to address, although I doubt he will be responding to anything you blog on the subject.

Well, hang on a minute Richard. You were the one who was quick to Peikoff's defence, claiming that Frank had got it wrong.

You now say its up to Peikoff to explain himself? Does that mean you wouldn't defend Peikoff's contention after all?

(I do agree, however, that we are unlikely to see the Lenster address the subject here at chez ARCHNblog....-))

Richard said...

"Well, hang on a minute Richard. You were the one who was quick to Peikoff's defence, claiming that Frank had got it wrong."

If you read my original comment on Diana Hsieh's post, you should see that I criticized Frank for using arguments that in effect misconstrued the people he was criticizing, which included Peikoff, Hsieh and various commenters on her blog. I did not endorse the substance of Peikoff's (or anyone else's) claims. You may interpret that as being "quick to Peikoff's defence" if you wish, but the rapidity was primarily in recognizing a noteworthy error in what was the most recent comment at the time I viewed the post.

"You now say its up to Peikoff to explain himself? Does that mean you wouldn't defend Peikoff's contention after all?"

I mean that I do not want to give the impression that I intend to defend it. That does not mean it isn't defensible or that I have some major disagreement with it, but if you post some screed against Peikoff and/or Rand on this topic, I'm not planning to respond just because you chose to draw attention to a single comment I made elsewhere. As I noted to Xtra Laj, my initial comment here was to respond to something written about my own statements, not Peikoff's or Rand's.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>...if you post some screed against Peikoff and/or Rand on this topic, I'm not planning to respond just because you chose to draw attention to a single comment I made elsewhere.

Well, hopefully it wasn't going to be "some screed"...;-) Rather I was going to go over Rand's actual text from that essay, something that no-one on the Noodlefood thread appears all that familiar with, despite having some strong opinions on the subject.

> I mean that I do not want to give the impression that I intend to defend it [Peikoff's statement]...my initial comment here was to respond to something written about my own statements, not Peikoff's or Rand's.

OK, well, let me put it to you directly then: if put this into Objectivist terms, and we accept Rand's idiosyncratic definition, do you think Peikoff was correct to use "obligated"?

Anonymous said...

"I quite disagree. Firstly, I am not using the dictionary as an authority but to illustrate the point that what is going on there is a lot of hairsplitting over vague and basically interchangeable terms."

If you're not using the dictionary as an authority, how can simply quoting dictionaries "illustrate" that what a person is doing is simply hairsplitting?

Calling someone's use of two words for two different concepts "hairsplitting" with no other support than quoting a dictionary isn't anything more substantial than trying to make the other person look silly while avoiding the task of dealing with their actual argument.

The way to show someone is hairsplitting is to show that while they say something like: "yes X; no Y" that things you and everyone else commonly label Y would, if they were translated into the other person's system, be labeled X. Or show how they themselves can't keep the distinction between X and Y and still hold something else that is essential to their philosophy.

Simply quoting a dictionary cannot do anything like that, because dictionaries are not written with that purpose in mind.

"Secondly, Rand regularly asserts herself as the authority as to the so-called "proper" or "true" meanings of words constantly - she even declares that its her job to tell people such as scientists what their terms truly mean! - and declares the conventional meanings of words, such as those found in dictionaries, as illegitmate."

Two wrongs don't make a right.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>The way to show someone is hairsplitting is to show that while they say something like: "yes X; no Y" that things you and everyone else commonly label Y would, if they were translated into the other person's system, be labeled X.

And that was, I thought, what the dictionary definition illustrated; it was a distinction without a difference. Hopefully when I get a moment to write up the Rand passages from 'Causality vs Duty' we will get a chance to see how the confusion is established. We will also see how Peikoff himself is confused by it!

Anon69 said...

But Anonymous, in a social context the conventional usage is the objectively correct usage, precisely because it follows the agreed-upon social convention. The dictionary reflects the conventional usage and hence is relevant.

A comparison to Rand's support for civil laws requiring a shop to not display pornography in its window is apt. Such laws are not arbitrary because they are based upon the social context, namely the common expectation that sex takes place in private.

Social context matters in Objectivism. It is hard to see how it fails to apply with respect to the usage of words as with anything else. I won't go so far as to say that Rand is guilty of a civil wrong by redefining terms. But then, maybe I should. ;)

Anonymous said...

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>The way to show someone is hairsplitting is to show that while they say something like: "yes X; no Y" that things you and everyone else commonly label Y would, if they were translated into the other person's system, be labeled X.

And that was, I thought, what the dictionary definition illustrated; it was a distinction without a difference.
The dictionary is a guide to general usage in the broadest terms possible. For instance, if I looked up 'robbery' on dictionary.com, the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary entry reads:

"1. The act or practice of robbing; theft."

in one definition, but then goes on in the next to state:

"2. (Law) The crime of robbing. See Rob, v. t., 2.

Note: Robbery, in a strict sense, differs from theft, as it is effected by force or intimidation, whereas theft is committed by stealth, or privately."

This is why you never just plonk down a dictionary definition to show you are right: dictionaries themselves engage in what you are calling "hairsplitting" once you go beyond the first definition.

In fact, checking that dictionary.com definition of "duty" further down it contains this section:

"1. Duty, obligation refer to what one feels bound to do. Duty is what one performs, or avoids doing, in fulfillment of the permanent dictates of conscience, piety, right, or law: duty to one's country; one's duty to tell the truth, to raise children properly. An obligation is what one is bound to do to fulfill the dictates of usage, custom, or propriety, and to carry out a particular, specific, and often personal promise or agreement"

Hopefully when I get a moment to write up the Rand passages from 'Causality vs Duty' we will get a chance to see how the confusion is established. We will also see how Peikoff himself is confused by it!My guess is that it will be along the lines 'a duty is something people say you have just by virtue of your nature/being born/etc. while an obligation is something that is a consequence of a decision of yours.'

Considering you can find a similar distinction--"what one performs, or avoids doing, in fulfillment of the permanent dictates of conscience, piety, right, or law" vs. "An obligation is what one is bound to do..to carry out a particular, specific, and often personal promise or agreement" I don't think even the dictionary you are citing to backs up the idea that "there is a lot of hairsplitting over vague and basically interchangeable terms" considering it, well, distinguishes between the two words in the section titled Synonyms.

Anon69 said...
But Anonymous, in a social context
Even granting the argument you make in the rest of your response, the statement was not made in a social context, it was made in the context of a philosophical discussion, I think.

Anonymous said...

A dictionary definition is the conventional, default meaning of a word. There are also stipulative and precising meanings.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition

Anon69 said...

Anonymous: Even granting the argument you make in the rest of your response, the statement was not made in a social context, it was made in the context of a philosophical discussion, I think.Apart from the fact that any discussion is social by its very nature - and relies on such context for meaning - there is this problem: Rand put philosophy at the fount of all knowledge. Philosophy, in Objectivism, is not a special science or branch of knowledge, but is meant to be accessible to everyone. An Objectivist is the last person who can reasonably argue that "philosophy is special" and requires special definitions of terms, contra the conventionally accepted meanings.

Richard said...

"OK, well, let me put it to you directly then: if put this into Objectivist terms, and we accept Rand's idiosyncratic definition, do you think Peikoff was correct to use "obligated"?"

I do not have a firm opinion on that specific question. Although I definitely think one should make the call that Peikoff discusses, I am not entirely convinced that one is obligated to do so. This is not because I don't believe in moral obligations, but because I'm not entirely convinced one way or the other about whether the specific act in question falls into that particular category.

Note that either way, I think Peikoff's explanation is largely correct, and far from the typical misunderstanding of egoism. And Frank's criticism, in response to which I supposedly went "mediaeval," is still wrong.

Damien said...

Daniel Barnes,

I think that Peikoff's saying that duty and obligation are two separate things maybe an act of desperation. I wonder, if this is a sign of him seeing a problem with Objectivist moral theory, but not being able to admit it, because of where it might lead him?

Anonymous said...

Apart from the fact that any discussion is social by its very nature - and relies on such context for meaningIf "any discussion is social" then why bother saying "in a social context"? What other context is there for word use if any discussion is social?

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>My guess is that it will be along the lines 'a duty is something people say you have just by virtue of your nature/being born/etc. while an obligation is something that is a consequence of a decision of yours.'

Correct! But what I'm saying is that there is no necessary reason for one to be called a 'duty', and the other to be called an 'obligation', other than Rand's whim. I do take your point, but that's not what I'm really on about. Words are always a little vague, with shades of meaning. The fact that Rand mistakenly believed they could be - indeed must be - defined with absolute precision, and possess some kind of "true" and "false" definitions - is an important logical error on her part. That's why we shouldn't take the insistence that there is an inherent "conceptual' difference between those two terms seriously. If you, or Rand, or anyone else personally decide to use them in a particular sense, and make that specific usage clear, well that's fine. But that's not what Rand is arguing.

>.. dictionaries themselves engage in what you are calling "hairsplitting" once you go beyond the first definition.

Of course! This is the logical problem I refer to, which is the old infinite regress of statements, definitions being types of statement. You can, in principle, go on forever. Dictionaries are no more immune to this than Objectivists...;-)

Anonymous said...

Barnes: Correct! But what I'm saying is that there is no necessary reason for one to be called a 'duty', and the other to be called an 'obligation', other than Rand's whim.In other words, Barnes can't tell the difference between a commandment alleged to be from God to be dutifully followed and his obligation to repay a loan after borrowing. Barnes will use any whim to take a cheap pot shot at Objectivism.

Anon69 said...

Anonymous: If "any discussion is social" then why bother saying "in a social context"? What other context is there for word use if any discussion is social?Personal writing? Muttering to oneself? The point of mentioning social context wasn't to distinguish those cases but rather to show, particularly to Objectivists (to whom all knowledge is contextual), why the dictionary is relevant and not an illegitimate appeal to authority. The social context behind it is the authority, and the objectively correct one.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>In other words, Barnes can't tell the difference between a commandment alleged to be from God to be dutifully followed and his obligation to repay a loan after borrowing.

And Anon - hopefully it's the same one, would you guys mind using some kind of ID, like good old Anon69? - would argue that to say one had a "duty" to repay a personal loan, and an "obligation" to follow the word of God is an important "conceptual" error? Would you really? Or would you say it was merely pendantic, trivial hairsplitting?

Daniel Barnes said...

Damien:
>I think that Peikoff's saying that duty and obligation are two separate things maybe an act of desperation. I wonder, if this is a sign of him seeing a problem with Objectivist moral theory, but not being able to admit it, because of where it might lead him?

I quite agree. I deeply regret being a bit tied up with work at the moment to write up my commentary on Rand's "Causality Vs Duty" essay, as examining this makes the situation quite clear. Or it makes the internal confusion in Objectivism quite clear, at least. For if Rand uses "obligation" to refer to a strictly personal commitment or promise - and this is I think what she aims at, tho it is neither explicit nor well argued - what personal commitment or promise can one have to a stranger who happens to be in a car accident or having a heart attack? Yet Peikoff claims Objectivism says we have an absolute moral obligation to help them! Thus as I said from the start; Rand's ethics, far from being clear, are in fact so confused not even the top dogs can get them right.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Barnes said...

Correct! But what I'm saying is that there is no necessary reason for one to be called a 'duty', and the other to be called an 'obligation'...personally decide to use them in a particular sense, and make that specific usage clear, well that's fine. But that's not what Rand is arguing.
That's what you should have posted in the first place, then.

Not here to argue anything substantive about Objectivism, just wanted to point out that we shouldn't use dictionaries like that, especially if we're going to just read the first definition--which is usually the most broad and generalized definition--and not all the way to the end of the entry.


Anon69 said...

Personal writing? Muttering to oneself?
Those aren't really discussions, then.

The point of mentioning social context wasn't to distinguish those cases but rather to show, particularly to Objectivists (to whom all knowledge is contextual), why the dictionary is relevant and not an illegitimate appeal to authority. The social context behind it is the authority, and the objectively correct one.The social context of this particular case is that you're in a discussion with Objectivists: it's a bit silly to criticize Objectivists for using unconventional definitions of the words "duty" and "obligation" when you know the whole ideology is built around the totally unconventional definition of "selfishness" as a 'virtue'.

Daniel Barnes said...
And Anon - hopefully it's the same one,
Nope--different one. I'm just here to complain about the misuse of dictionaries, not to discuss anything substantive about Objectivism.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>Although I definitely think one should make the call that Peikoff discusses, I am not entirely convinced that one is obligated to do so.

Now, I don't mean to pick on you, as you seem a reasonable person, and I think the ORC is a very good site. But this is precisely the hairsplitting that I'm talking about, brought about by the underlying fallacy that Rand inherited from Aristotle, and I hope I can make you see this point, and not take it personally. For now we have something that is not a "duty", nor an "obligation", but you think we nonetheless "should" do. So is "should" something that is another important "conceptual" distinction from the first two? Did Rand supply us with her definition anywhere, that is the Objectivist version of "should"? Or will we have to rely on the dictionary definition? In which case, how does this help, because a typical definition in this sense includes things like "must; ought (used to indicate duty, propriety, or expediency): You should not do that." Uh-oh...!

Richard said...

"Yet Peikoff claims Objectivism says we have an absolute moral obligation to help them!"

I think you should be more cautious about misinterpretation. The questioner asks, "Am I morally obligated to call for help ...?" Peikoff replies, "Absolutely yes, you are morally obligated." In one fell swoop, you've substituted "help them" for "call for help," and moved the adverb "absolutely" from modifying "yes" to modifying "moral obligation." The former is probably not significant, but the latter is, since it is very likely that Peikoff (following Rand) holds that obligations are conditional, not absolute.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>In one fell swoop, you've substituted "help them" for "call for help," and moved the adverb "absolutely" from modifying "yes" to modifying "moral obligation.

Ok, lets move it back then. It's not about "absolute", it's about "obligation."

Richard said...

"But this is precisely the hairsplitting that I'm talking about, ..."

What you call "hairsplitting," someone else might call "recognizing nuance" or even just "distinguishing." Attaching an insulting label to something may be rhetorically useful, but it is not really a sound refutation of anything. It is particularly not helpful to immediately label something as "hairsplitting" whenever someone makes a distinction that you don't fully understand and agree with.

You seem to be confusing the making of fine distinctions, which is sometimes helpful or even necessary to accuracy, with sterile arguments over what meaning should be associated with a particular word label. Going back to the genesis of my commentary here, my point to Frank was something else that you labeled "Scholastic hairsplitting over the meaning of words." But I was never arguing that there is something necessarily wrong in using the words 'duty' and 'obligation' differently from the way Objectivists do, or even using them interchangeably. Rather, I was trying to point out that Frank was was misrepresenting Rand, Peikoff, et al, by arguing as if they used the terms interchangeably when it is evident that they use these terms to refer to different concepts. (FWIW, I do think the distinction being made is relevant, and I'm perfectly happy to use 'duty' for one and 'obligation' for the other. But the distinction is not dependent on those particular words having those particular meanings.)

"For now we have something that is not a "duty", nor an "obligation", but you think we nonetheless "should" do. So is "should" something that is another important "conceptual" distinction from the first two?"

It is a distinction I make, yes. I do not know if it is a distinction that Peikoff makes, and I did not intend to attribute it to him.

Perhaps I have created some confusion because I did not answer your question directly. The literal phrasing of your questions seems to be about whether Peikoff should have used the word 'obligated'. My response was about my thinking on whether a person in such a situation was in fact obligated, rather than narrowly addressing the linguistic question about Peikoff's usage. But then I thought you weren't interested in "verbalist" arguments over words.

"Did Rand supply us with her definition anywhere, that is the Objectivist version of "should"?"

Did I say or suggest that she had? Or perhaps you assume I have no thoughts of my own, other than channeling Rand?

Have you considered that maybe you really are interested in "verbalist" disputes, as long as they involve you taking a position opposed to whatever you perceive to be the views of Objectivists?

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>Have you considered that maybe you really are interested in "verbalist" disputes, as long as they involve you taking a position opposed to whatever you perceive to be the views of Objectivists?

Well, Richard I don't think there is any doubt about the role of the vital importance of having "true" and "false" meanings of words in Rand's epistemology; recall:

Rand: "The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions"

And further, I don't think there is any doubt that this claim of Rand's is an important logical error; ironically one that Aristotle himself identified in terms of statements, but overlooked when it came to definitions.

Were you aware that this was the case? It is a rather widespread problem throughout philosophy, due to the unfortunate influence of Aristotle's methodology, but it is in particular a problem for Objectivism given Rand's heavy reliance on his methodology (but of course not his metaphysics). To go big picture for a moment, I've long conjectured that it is this erroneous methodology accounts for much of Objectivism's apparent failure to thrive over the last 50 years; certainly it is far more interesting explanation than say, far-fetched conspiracy theories about the Brandens etc.

I chose your example to illustrate just how this process plays out in practice. First very similar - indeed interchangeable - terms are claimed to have important "conceptual" differences; then when these supposedly important differences turn out to be confusing even to those who've studied Objectivism all their lives, such as Peikoff - and even you aren't prepared to say he's got it right! - how in turn are lesser enthusisasts such as Frank supposed to get it right? And surely it is unwittingly tipping into hairsplitting pedantry to claim that something one "should" do is somehow importantly different from something one is "obligated" or has a "duty" to do. (In fact you have bumped up against the limits of language, and don't know it).

I think the root of the confusion is a fundamentally mistaken methodology; an error that is easily demonstrable logically, and one that you may possibly benefit from being alerted to, if you did not know it already. You could put this down to mere contrarianism on my part, but I think you'd be missing the point.

Richard said...

"Well, Richard I don't think there is any doubt about the role of the vital importance of having "true" and "false" meanings of words in Rand's epistemology"

You are far too intent on framing everything as being for or against Rand and Objectivism. I tell you what I think about something, and you respond with quotes from Rand and comments about the history of Objectivism. It's like something a stereotypical "Randroid" might be expected to do, except that it is negative. You are a mirror image of what you claim to oppose.

Speaking of that Rand quote: "The truth or falsehood of all of man’s conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge rests on the truth or falsehood of his definitions"

Personally, I think Rand placed too much emphasis on definitions, and in particular this statement by her is wrong.

"First very similar - indeed interchangeable - terms are claimed to have important "conceptual" differences"

This is backwards as a description of Rand's epistemology. As she said, "A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; .... It is not words, but concepts that man defines ..." (ITOE) No one sane, Objectivist or not, is trying to come up with conceptual distinctions to match all the available words. Rather, when someone identifies what they believe is a significant conceptual distinction, they try to express it in words. Since English has a rich variety of synonyms, one way to do this is to use existing synonyms to represent the distinguished concepts. What is critical is whether the distinctions themselves are useful, not the choice of one synonym over another in picking a label.

"then when these supposedly important differences turn out to be confusing even to those who've studied Objectivism all their lives, such as Peikoff - and even you aren't prepared to say he's got it right!"

I never said that Peikoff had failed to correctly distinguish between 'duty' and 'obligation', which is the distinction that raised your dander in the first place. If he doesn't make a distinction between 'should' and 'is obligated to' as I do, that has nothing to do with his lifetime study, because I've never instructed him on the matter.

"how in turn are lesser enthusisasts such as Frank supposed to get it right?"

Frank could have started by reading the essay that he was quoting from to see that Rand clearly spoke positively about 'obligation' even as she railed against 'duty'. That should have been a bit of a clue that she did not consider the words to be identical in meaning.

As to any additional "hairsplitting" on my part, this comment is already quite long enough, and any discourse on ethics that I might make would probably fall on deaf ears regardless.

gregnyquist said...

Richard: "No one sane, Objectivist or not, is trying to come up with conceptual distinctions to match all the available words. Rather, when someone identifies what they believe is a significant conceptual distinction, they try to express it in words."

I don't believe anyone here is suggesting that Rand is trying to match every conceptual distinction with a word. The question is whether the conceptual distinction Rand makes is credible, in the sense of being rationally justifiable. And it is precisely here where it fails, and that's what this debate is really all about.

The real problem of Rand's ethics is that she failed not merely to solve, but even to understand Hume's is-ought gap. The consequence is that Rand's ethics is not reason-based: it's merely a rationalization of her own sentiments. Because there's no "reason," no "logic," behind Rand's ethics, Rand must make recourse of other methods to try to give an aura of logic to her morality. This is why she makes use of such verbalist tactics as definitional thinking and other forms of "hairspliting." When individuals can't argue their case based on its logical and empirical merits, they often try to take advantage of the vagueness of words to establish their points through equivocation. This is why Rand's verbalism is objectionable: it's a symptom of the poverty of her rationality.

In common parlance, there is no distinction between duty and obligation. There may exist some obscure formal (i.e., imaginary) distinction in Objectivism (i.e., duty is "irrational," whereas moral obligation is based on "reason"), but that's not a real distinction based on logic and fact. "Duty," "moral obligation," what one "ought" to do, it's all the same: what's different is the sentiments these notions may be based on (Rand's sentiments or someone else's), and the rationalizations used to defend it.

Now as a matter of actual practice (rather than stated intention), Rand's real definitions for these terms would be something as follows:

1. Obligation: something that is "morally" required or expected of an individual by Rand or one of her othordox disciples, and which is putatively followed for reasons which Rand and her disciples would approve.

2. Duty: something that is "morally" required or expected of an individual by someone other than Rand or one of her orthodox disciples and which uses rationalizations which neither Rand nor her disciples would approve of.

Of course, if Rand came out and stated this distinction in these terms she would look pretty silly; so instead she plays games with words to try to put across what can't be put across with strict accordance to logic and fact.

Richard said...

"The real problem of Rand's ethics is that she failed not merely to solve, but even to understand Hume's is-ought gap. The consequence is that Rand's ethics is not reason-based: it's merely a rationalization of her own sentiments."

I disagree with your views on this subject.



I just said in one sentence essentially the same thing that you said about Rand in several paragraphs, just without the need to dress it up in accusations about rationalization.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>You are far too intent on framing everything as being for or against Rand and Objectivism. I tell you what I think about something, and you respond with quotes from Rand and comments about the history of Objectivism.

Well, this site is called "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature...and other Criticisms of Objectivism"...and it's also hardly unreasonable to assume that you, as founder of the Objectivist Reference Centre would, in fact, have views closely consonant with Objectivism and Ayn Rand. Hence one would have thought quoting Ayn Rand in debates and commenting on the history of Objectivism would not exactly be inappropriate!

However, it turns out you have some disagreements with Rand's doctrines, and at least fundamental one: her claim that all man's knowledge rests on "true" or "false" meanings of words.This is highly interesting. May I ask how you came to this disagreement? Where you aware of the multiple underlying logical problems with this contention? Or did you come by it another way?

>This is backwards as a description of Rand's epistemology. As she said, "A word is merely a visual-auditory symbol used to represent a concept; .... It is not words, but concepts that man defines ..."

First of all, my description was of a discussion between Objectivists, intended as an thumbnail of the confusion wrought by the verbalist method. If that discussion runs "backwards" to Rand's supposed epistemological principles, this only illustrates my point. Secondly, it is true that Rand makes comments like the above that not only make little sense on their own - how exactly does one define "concepts" without defining words? - but that even charitably interpreted, as, say, a form of methodological nominalism, flatly clash with Rand's other statements about the vital importance of "true" and "false" definitions for man's knowledge, and that one of the key roles of philosophers is to instruct people the "true" meanings of the words they use. But this confusion is surely Rand's problem, not ours. (as to the rest of your remarks on this, see Greg's succinct comments).

>I never said that Peikoff had failed to correctly distinguish between 'duty' and 'obligation'...If he doesn't make a distinction between 'should' and 'is obligated to' as I do, that has nothing to do with his lifetime study, because I've never instructed him on the matter.

Well, Objectivism is supposed to be a set of established principles, which can be intepreted correctly or incorrectly. I was asking as to whether you judged Peikoff's statement to be consistent with Objectivism, not consistent with your own personal philosophy (my apologies, it is now clear that while sharing much of her view, you have a few significant disagreements with Rand's doctrine).

Daniel Barnes said...

I wrote:
>...but that even charitably interpreted, as, say, a form of methodological nominalism, flatly clash with Rand's other statements about the vital importance of "true" and "false" definitions for man's knowledge, and that one of the key roles of philosophers is to instruct people the "true" meanings of the words they use.

I suppose it may be useful to clarify this passage for the general reader, as it all sounds rather obscure. "Methodological nominalism" merely refers to the attitude of using words as a kind of "label" that you can stick on whatever you like to make useful distinctions. They are only useful as a method of communicating clearly, so everyone knows roughly what you're talking about. They are mere conventions, and not really important in themselves. Little rests on their meaning other than that we all agree on it and there is nothing to be gained by arguing over a mere label.

This is to be contrasted with a different methodological approach, which we could call "essentialism", which is handed down to us from Aristotle. This holds that the definition of terms is all-important and that they captured a kind of "essence" which was fundamental to human knowledge. Now, Rand disagreed with Aristotle on exactly how that "essence" was acquired (Aristotle claimed it was via intuition) but otherwise adopted his methodology wholesale. Unfortunately this turned out to be a major logical error, one that Aristotle himself overlooked. For details see Karl Popper's very important essay on the subject we reproduce here.

Michael Prescott said...

I just said in one sentence essentially the same thing that you said about Rand in several paragraphs, just without the need to dress it up in accusations about rationalization.As far as I know, no one seriously disputes the fact that Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem. Maybe the one exception is Chris Sciabarra, but he allows Rand to solve the problem by reworking her argument into something like a "tangled hierarchy," which hardly appears to have been Rand's intention.

This blog has covered this subject in the past, and so have other writers. See Without a Prayer by Robbins, for instance, or Michael Huemer's essay, or Patrick O'Neil's essay (PDF).

Since Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem, or even to understand it, her ethics is (and, logically, must be) a rationalization of her sentiments. This isn't an "accusation." It's just a fact.

Daniel Barnes said...

Michael:
>As far as I know, no one seriously disputes the fact that Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem.

Other than, of course, Objectivists.

Within this there is in my experience, two types:

1)The more junior-woodchuck level fans who are simply ignorant of the logical situation.

and

2)Those more experienced (and this includes Peikoff, Binswanger etc) who try to fudge the issue by claiming Rand uses a special Objectivist "super logic" that subsumes and transcends standard logic. The details of how this "super logic" works, and how it solves this problem are however, not offered, other than somewhere on a 27 hour cassette lecture series available exclusively from the ARI at the bargain price of $500 or so...;-)

Richard said...

"As far as I know, no one seriously disputes the fact that Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem."

That's a surprising and unlikely claim.

"This blog has covered this subject in the past, and so have other writers. See Without a Prayer by Robbins, for instance, or Michael Huemer's essay, or Patrick O'Neil's essay (PDF)."

Just to be sure I gave a fair and unhasty response, I re-read these three sources. (I only re-read the relevant portion for the Robbins book, not the whole thing. By the way, to recommend the Robbins book in the same post where one complains about rationalization is at best ironic.) O'Neil's seems to understand much of Rand's metaethical argument and represents it pretty accurately up to a point. Robbins isn't really trying to understand Rand's argument as opposed to just sniping at it. In contrast, Huemer is presumably trying, but gets Rand's argument completely wrong.

Briefly considering the best of the three: O'Neil loses his way when he comes across an aspect of the argument that he simply labels as "unacceptable." (It's not clear whether he finds it unacceptable, or he thinks Rand would find it unacceptable, or both.) Specifically, he objects to the implication in "The Objectivist Ethics" that ethics is conditional on the choice to live, and thus the choice to live itself is not an ethical choice. But he doesn't really critique the idea, he just dismisses it, apparently thinking it reflects an unintentional oversight in Rand's argument. From there he goes off the rails and starts talking about arguments from Den Uyl and Rasmussen, etc.

O'Neil was writing in 1983, and therefore lacked access to later Objectivist materials that were more forthright on the issue that raised his concern. It is clear in Smith's Viable Values that she embraces the view that he declares "unacceptable." This same view is less explicit, but still evident in a number of other post-1983 Objectivist works. If O'Neill was aware of this, he might have dealt with the position in some way other than brief dismissal. But alas he did not, so his critique falters on this misunderstanding.

"Since Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem, or even to understand it, her ethics is (and, logically, must be) a rationalization of her sentiments. This isn't an "accusation." It's just a fact."

To call something a rationalization is to make a claim about the motives of the arguer, not about the truth of the argument or the conclusion it is claimed to support. To believe or even know that a argument and/or conclusion is mistaken does not tell you whether the argument was a rationalization. So it is not the case that her ethics "logically must be" a rationalization if she (arguendo) failed in a particular argument. And of course it is an accusation. I could say you are a liar and murderer, then follow up with, "This isn't an accusation. It's just a fact." But it would still be an accusation, even if it were also a fact.

Anyhow, discussing the is/ought issue is heading away from what brought me here. So after finishing a couple of other responses, I shall retire from the field.

Richard said...

"Well, this site is called "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature...and other Criticisms of Objectivism""

I'm aware of that, but being public about your bias doesn't make the bias itself any wiser. The problem is that when someone is actively trying to find fault in a pre-defined opponent, it is likely that they will find it even where it does not exist. This is a natural but nonetheless counterproductive tendency that you should try to work against rather than embracing it.

"...my description was of a discussion between Objectivists, intended as an thumbnail of the confusion wrought by the verbalist method."

One of your mistakes is to imply that what you call "Scholastic hairsplitting over the meaning of words" is specific to some "verbalist method" that is Objectivist and/or Aristotelian. Arguing about definitions is a common human behavior that cuts across ideologies. Your own willingness to jump into exactly such arguments even as you condemn them is a case in point.

Richard said...

"Those more experienced (and this includes Peikoff, Binswanger etc) who try to fudge the issue by claiming Rand uses a special Objectivist "super logic" that subsumes and transcends standard logic. The details of how this "super logic" works, and how it solves this problem are however, not offered, other than somewhere on a 27 hour cassette lecture series available exclusively from the ARI at the bargain price of $500 or so...;-)"

I think an emoticon at the end does little to excuse this gross misrepresentation. If there is even an iota of seriousness in this, you should do a full posting with quotes and citations for the supposed claims of "super logic" from Peikoff, etc. In truth, the Objectivist argument on the is/ought problem is laid out clearly in books that can be had for far less than $500, and shows no indication of being based on any claims of "super logic."

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>The problem is that when someone is actively trying to find fault in a pre-defined opponent, it is likely that they will find it even where it does not exist.

Ok, so you think Rand has got this fundamental notion wrong (and it is fundamental - to all human "conclusions, inferences, thought and knowledge" she claimed). I apologise for assuming you adhered to this doctrine, although it was a fairly understandable assumption. Can I ask how did you come to realise it was false? How does this realisation affect the way you approach debate with other Objectivists?

>Arguing about definitions is a common human behavior that cuts across ideologies.

It is indeed widespread, but this is particularly so in the field of philosophy due to the massive influence of Aristotle, and even more so in Objectivism due to Aristotle's influence on Rand as typified by her fallacious view already cited above. (Have a read of Popper's essay linked above to see how it shakes out).

>Your own willingness to jump into exactly such arguments even as you condemn them is a case in point.

No, I think you misunderstand my point. I haven't claimed that Rand's definitions are somehow "false" and the dictionary's are somehow "true". I'm saying that hairsplitting over esoteric interpretations of generally interchangeable terms is a) logically irresolvable and therefore b)inherently unproductive and c) confusing even for the top dogs, let alone the less knowledgeable.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>If there is even an iota of seriousness in this, you should do a full posting with quotes and citations for the supposed claims of "super logic" from Peikoff, etc

Well, it seems Peikoff et al are understandably a little cagey about stating some of their views on logic in public. For example, Leonard Peikoff has claimed for a number of years to have solved the logical problem of induction, but as yet there's nothing but some audio tapes that supposedly have his solution (we await the book...) But for a rare statement of the situation, here's Harry Binswanger from a month or so ago:

"The Objectivist theory of logic is a super-set of ordinary, Aristotelian logic. (Like those Bounty ads: "I don't use Bounty--I use New, Improved Bounty.)"

The "new and improved" elements of Objectvist methodology, in brief, are: context and hierarchy...The closest I can think of in the history of philosophy to our idea of hierarchy is Locke, but, as you know, he's very sketchy (and somewhat confused) on this."

Is Binswanger wrong? Is Objectivist logic actually no different from standard bi-valent logic that us non-Objectivists use? If so, what's he on about then?

Neil Parille said...

As an aside, I do think essentialism is a defensible position. Readers might want to check out David Oderberg's excellent Real Essentialism. Unfortunately it's $90. You can see a good chunk on google books.

Xtra Laj said...

I read parts of "Real Essentialism" on Google Books/from the publisher and I expect it to gain a lot of support from neo-Aristotleians, including Objectivists, if they haven't already pushed it. Totally classical, happy to argue with scientists on what they can/cannot say about reality - have the Objectivists found an ally?

I wasn't quite convinced when I read the Popper critique that he fully appreciated the confirmation bias inherent in many essentialist views of inquiry. On the other hand, he did remind me of why I try hard not to debate differences that to me don't end up being substantive, because the view he presented is the way most people think about science. And since I'm not a philosophy nut, I'll leave the debates to people who are and will review the arguments from the sidelines in my spare time.

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil:
>As an aside, I do think essentialism is a defensible position...

Undoubtedly. That book looks interesting, I will have a look.

Michael Prescott said...

To call something a rationalization is to make a claim about the motives of the arguer, not about the truth of the argument or the conclusion it is claimed to support.Well, I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand's psychology, and I'm happy to impugn Rand's motives whenever possible, but in this case that wasn't quite my point. The word "rationalization" does not have to connote anything about motives. It can mean simply a conclusion arrived at through a process of tendentious or fallacious reasoning (or the process of tendentious or fallacious reasoning itself).

In this sense, at least, the word certainly applies to Rand's meta-ethical argument, which is a tissue of fallacies. The most obvious fallacy, which has been pointed out many times and never rebutted, is Rand's equivocation between "survival" and "the life proper to a rational being." The two concepts are clearly different, but Rand struggles to create the impression that they are one and the same. She does this, of course, so as to be able to seemingly ground her argument in biological facts while at the same time avoiding a survivalist conclusion. I'm not saying she was consciously aware of committing this fallacy, any more than she was aware that her analogy of an "immortal, indestructible robot" is fatally flawed. Most likely she genuinely believed she had proved her case, but because she was reasoning backward from the conclusions she wanted to arrive at, she could not avoid "rationalization."

She is also guilty of question-begging, inasmuch as she uses "the life proper to a rational being" as the basis for her ethical system, when the issue of "what is proper" can be addressed only in the context of an ethical system that is already in place. (If it is argued that by "proper" she meant merely "objectively necessary for survival," then we are back to a survivalist position, which she expicitly rejects.)

Not to mention the purely factual errors in her argument, like the claim that the primary impulse of all living creatures is to survive (a biologist would have told her that survival takes a backseat to reproduction much of the time, and that some creatures routinely die in the act of reproducing). If Rand had really wanted to build a moral system on a biological foundation, she should have argued that childbirth is the ultimate purpose of human life! After all, reproduction is evidently the ultimate purpose of most plant and animal lives; their individual survival is only a means to this end.

Objectivists often respond to such criticisms by saying airily that the subtleties and complexities of Rand's argumentation have been misunderstood ("Robbins isn't really trying to understand Rand's argument.... Huemer ... gets Rand's argument completely wrong"), but for some reason they never get around to explaining just how Rand's argument is supposed to work. As David Ramsey Steele observed:

Rand fed the appetite for certainty. She spoke as if she had a fully worked-out system which accounted for everything. Such a system. if it could exist at all, would be a vast structure made up of minutely-reasoned segments. Rand's theories, such as they are, do not form a vast structure, and she had no talent for minute reasoning. The impression of all-encompassing explanation is given by bold, broad, sweeping, imprecise assertions. An unrelenting covering fire of vituperation and demeaning is maintained against anyone who might point to any of the difficulties with these assertions.... The doctrinal structure of Randism is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics.

Daniel Barnes said...

Mike P
>...but for some reason they never get around to explaining just how Rand's argument is supposed to work.

Er, yes. However I've had Objectivists (eg Roger Bissell, as I recall) tell me that it does work, but only under the Objectivist conception of logic....;-)

gregnyquist said...

Richard: "To believe or even know that a argument and/or conclusion is mistaken does not tell you whether the argument was a rationalization."

If we were accusing Rand of rationalization on the basis of one argument, that would be true; but the accusation is based on the analysis of many arguments. Moreover, these many arguments are not merely mistaken, they are riddled with equivocations and non sequitars. Worse, they rarely demonstrate anything remotely approaching empirical responsibility—often making assumptions about matters of fact that are not justified without greater empirical support. Now I suppose it is possible that all this is just a mistake. But that doesn't seem to me a very plausible position. Equivocation and the sedulous use of essentialistic reasoning tactics combined with rationalistic disdain for doing hard empirical work are all symptoms of rationalization. And what clinches the deal is Rand's intelligence: I find it difficult to believe that someone as smart as Rand, someone with her obvious genius, can reason so poorly and be so cavalier about matters of fact without being guilty of rationalizing.

Richard said...

"Well, I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand's psychology, and I'm happy to impugn Rand's motives whenever possible, ..."

But Rand is taken to task for being "tendentious." Interesting.

"The word "rationalization" does not have to connote anything about motives. It can mean simply a conclusion arrived at through a process of tendentious or fallacious reasoning (or the process of tendentious or fallacious reasoning itself)."

I'd suggest you look at one of those dictionaries that folks were citing earlier in the discussion. Rationalization is what you later describe as "reasoning backward from the conclusions she wanted to arrive at." The words for "tendentious or fallacious reasoning" are 'tendentious' and 'fallacious'.

Greg Nyquist's reply was much more to the point, so if you don't want to listen to me on the subject, you could at least take a cue from him. Although I still don't see the value in dressing up what would otherwise be a simple statement of disagreement with a lengthy accusation about rationalization.

"Objectivists often respond to such criticisms by saying airily that the subtleties and complexities of Rand's argumentation have been misunderstood ("Robbins isn't really trying to understand Rand's argument.... Huemer ... gets Rand's argument completely wrong"), but for some reason they never get around to explaining just how Rand's argument is supposed to work."

You referenced two essays and a book. It is not practical for me to respond at length to even one, much less all three, in a blog comment. So I picked what I consider the strongest of the three to comment on at slightly more length, and dismissed the other two, giving a very brief impression of their deficiencies. I said nothing about "subtleties and complexities of Rand’s argumentation," so I don’t see how a claim that "Objectivists often respond" in that way is relevant, or why you would quote my words as if they were an example of such a response. Similarly, I am not sure what relevance I should attribute to the quote from David Ramsey Steele about "vituperation" and "abuse of all critics." If you wish to accuse me of such behavior, I would ask that you do so directly and in your own voice. You may also wish to remember that unlike some people you discuss here, I am neither dead nor absent nor unwilling to respond, and therefore I am not a sitting duck for casual misrepresentation and impugning of motives.

As to explaining "how Rand’s argument is supposed to work," that is also a task ill-suited to this form, but I have twice now referenced a book by a professional philosopher that explores the Objectivist meta-ethics at length, including responses to many common criticisms.

Richard said...

"Well, it seems Peikoff et al are understandably a little cagey about stating some of their views on logic in public. For example, Leonard Peikoff has claimed for a number of years to have solved the logical problem of induction, ..."

I have no idea what the status is of this purported solution from Peikoff (the lectures that discuss it were released several years ago, and drew criticism within Objectivist circles), but a theory that Peikoff has developed only recently could not be part of any "super logic" supposedly used by Rand, which was the initial claim. Also, by Peikoff's own standards, theories that he has developed on his own are not part of Objectivism.

You quote Harry Binswanger:

"The Objectivist theory of logic is a super-set of ordinary, Aristotelian logic."

Calling something a "super-set" carries only the specific meaning that there are additional elements beyond a smaller set (in this case, the smaller set would be Aristotelian logic). Referring to "super logic" carries a different connotation. This reminds me of the way you transformed "absolutely yes, you are morally obligated" into "absolute moral obligation" earlier in the discussion.

For a modern understanding of logic to be a superset of logic from thousands of years ago is not especially surprising. For example, if you accept "ordinary, Aristotelian logic," but also add a belief that attempting to bridge the "is-ought gap" is a fallacy, then your logic has just become a superset of Aristotelian logic (but, alas, not super logic). The specific additions that Binswanger mentions, hierarchy and context, are not ones that I had ever thought of as being part of "logic," but they are hardly esoteric beliefs that can only be obtained from expensive lectures. They both have entries in the Ayn Rand Lexicon, which is available for free online, and are discussed in books that you can buy for less than $20.

Richard said...

"If we were accusing Rand of rationalization on the basis of one argument, that would be true; but the accusation is based on the analysis of many arguments."

So, since the conclusion of rationalization is based on an accumulation of evidence, it is not the case that the (supposed) failure of one argument by Rand means that her ethics "logically, must be" a rationalization. Which was my earlier point to Michael Prescott. Thanks for your support.

Michael Prescott said...

Richard wrote, If you wish to accuse me of such behavior, I would ask that you do so directly and in your own voice. No, I was making a general point about Objectivists I've encountered. I like the Steele quote and often cite it, but in this case I shouldn't have used it, since it came across as a personal attack when none was intended. My apologies.

unlike some people you discuss here, I am neither dead nor absent nor unwilling to respond,and therefore I am not a sitting duck for casual misrepresentation and impugning of motives.Other than Rand, I don't think I've impugned anyone. (Maybe Peikoff.) I've never hidden the fact that I have a very low opinion of Rand as a philosopher and as a person (though unlike some others, I think The Fountainhead is a legitimate modern classic and will stand the test of time).

I'd suggest you look at one of those dictionaries that folks were citing earlier in the discussion. Rationalization is what you later describe as "reasoning backward from the conclusions she wanted to arrive at." Here are dictionary definitions of "rationalize":

1. To make rational.
2. To interpret from a rational standpoint.
3. To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for (one's behavior): "Many shoppers still rationalize luxury purchases as investments" (Janice Castro).
4. Mathematics: To remove radicals, such as from a denominator, without changing the value of (an expression) or roots of (an equation).
5. Chiefly British To bring modern, efficient methods to (an industry, for example).

v.intr.

1. To think in a rational or rationalistic way.
2. To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for one's behavior.

"Rationalization" is defined as:

1. The act, process, or practice of rationalizing.
2. An instance of rationalizing.

I would call Rand's argument an example of rationalization on the basis of definition 3: "To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for _____."

In this case, Rand devised self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for her views on ethics. Her reasons were self-satisfying because (yes) she reasoned backward from her conclusions. In the process she ignored or misrepresented relevant facts (tendentiousness) and made numerous logical errors (fallaciousness). I'm sure it's possible to disagree with me on this, but I think my position is tolerably clear and at least internally consistent.

My difference with Greg and Daniel is that I don't think she did these things intentionally. I suspect she was entirely unaware of her errors. I don't believe she was lying or trying to mislead anyone. I think she just reasoned poorly.

So if the word "rationalization" connotes bad motives, then I'm not accusing Rand of rationalization. On the other hand, if "rationalization" means devising self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for a position one wants to maintain, then I do think she was rationalizing in her essay on meta-ethics.

I have twice now referenced a book by a professional philosopher that explores the Objectivist meta-ethics at length, including responses to many common criticisms.Fair enough. I haven't read Smith's book and don't plan to. My reason (or rationalization?) is that it strikes me as a waste of time - I simply can't imagine any argument Smith could make that would salvage Rand's essay. The whole premise of the essay is that living creatures are driven primarily by the impulse of self-preservation. But this is untrue; they are driven by the impulse to maximize their reproductive success, which often leads them to behavior directly contrary to optimizing their survival chances. Therefore the essay is fatally flawed from the start.

By analogy, if someone developed an argument based on the premise that water turns to ice when it's heated, I wouldn't be interested in reading philosophical disquisitions on the theory, no matter how learned the proponents might be, because the foundational premise is simply wrong.

The rest of Rand's essay is equally inept. The only way to salvage it would be to reformulate the argument in its entirety. But then it would not be Rand's argument anymore, even if it still reached the same conclusions. My beef is not with the conclusions (most of Rand's "virtues" are unobjectionable), but with the route taken to get to them.

Anyway, I don't think Richard and I are going to agree, but I'm glad to give him the last word. Again, my apologies for using the Steele quote in that context.

Michael Prescott said...

Sorry that there are no breaks between the italicized quotes and my own comments. The Blogger software seems to be glitching.

Daniel Barnes said...

Michael P:
>My difference with Greg and Daniel is that I don't think she did these things intentionally. I suspect she was entirely unaware of her errors

Hi Mike

I don't argue that she made these errors deliberately. Her basic problem was that she was a very unselfcritical thinker. (Combine egoism with introspection and this is hardly surprising!) I think there is some papering over the cracks which is basically dishonest - for example, her blatantly faux "dictionary" definition of selfishness - but I feel like this was really self-delusion rather than straight fraud. If she'd looked at the truth - just opened up the dictionary and written what was there, instead of faking it - she would probably have been unable to write "The Virtue of Selfishness". So she had to pretend the definition everyone used was really something else, something that suited her romantic worldview. And if you're prepared to pretend too, then you too can live in what Anne Heller is rightly calling the world that Ayn Rand made. As there was never anyone there to call her on it - or at least, no-one she would listen too - she slipped deeper and deeper into this world of her own, coming up with laughable oxymorons like "contextual absolute" and thinking this was some kind of profound insight. Then you end up like Harry Binswanger, so lost in this world of your own with its own logic and its own meanings for words that you are almost entirely unable to communicate with anyone outside of it.

So I think it was primarily self-deception in Rand's case, combined with a system, rather like Marxism, which is something of a unintentional mousetrap.

Neil Parille said...

Michael,

If someone is going to criticize Objectivism and not just Rand, then I think it's important to read the secondary literature which, as I've said before, is rather slim.

One of Rand's problem is that she didn't like the typical mode of philosophizing -- trying to respond to counterarguments.

It's been a while since I read Tara Smith's book, but I do recall that she responded to common objections to Objectivist ethics.

Michael Prescott said...

I don't argue that she made these errors deliberately.Sorry. I guess I misunderstood your position.

It's been a while since I read Tara Smith's book, but I do recall that she responded to common objections to Objectivist ethics.Out of curiosity, do you recall how she responded to the objection that an organism's survival takes a backseat to its reproductive needs?

Michael Prescott said...

As it turns out, an excerpt of Smith's book Viable Values is available on Google Books. I didn't have to look very far to find what I would consider to be serious errors. Smith even endorses Rand's analogy with an "immortal, indestructible robot that cannot be changed, damaged or destroyed" (Smith's words, p. 87).

This is a very poor analogy. By saying not merely that the robot is immortal but that it cannot be changed in any way, Rand has loaded the dice. To argue properly, she should have omitted the part about being unchangeable, since it is possible to imagine an immortal being that still prefers certain activities to others. But then the analogy would not have served her purpose. Robbins (Without a Prayer has a good discussion of this point. (Robbins himself is very rationalistic in his thinking, but sometimes it takes an arch-rationalist to pick holes in a rationalistic argument.)

Smith argues that the robot could not prefer one thing over another because "We could not find certain things pleasurable if we did not face the alternative of life or death" (p. 89). But the evolutionary argument she makes in support of this claim is so heavily qualified that it supports nothing. (She has to admit that the pleasure-pain mechanism does not necessarily correspond to life-and-death consequences.) Apparently aware that she has not made her point very well, she fails back on the claim that an immortal being "would lack the end that serves as the basis for distinguishing things as good or bad." But this is the very point she is trying to prove. She's arguing in a circle.

As best I can tell from the excerpt, she does not address the issue of self-preservation vs. reproduction at all.

Richard said...

"I simply can't imagine any argument Smith could make that would salvage Rand's essay."

For what it's worth, my thinking is that one of the main reasons to read philosophical writings is to encounter arguments that one can't imagine oneself.

Anon69 said...

An an apology for Objectivism and defense of reading Tara Smith, that argument is ludicrous. Objectivists would be the first to dismiss alternate presentations of arguments that have already been proven false by reference to the facts of the reality. Nothing less has been asserted here (the fact being that reproduction is often a higher value than survival for an organism). I suggest that if this fact is in dispute, that such point be argued directly and not from behind Tara Smith's proverbial skirt.

Richard said...

"An an apology for Objectivism and defense of reading Tara Smith, that argument is ludicrous."

If you are responding to me, then I can only say that I was not offering my comment as "an apology for Objectivism," and don't know why you think I was, especially considering my earlier comments here disclaiming any intention of defending Rand or Peikoff.

As to defending the reading of Smith's book, my point was more general than that, although it is related. People have a tendency towards reading sources that confirm what they already believe, and I think that is unfortunate. If Michael finds it hard to believe that he could find Smith's arguments convincing, I'd consider that a point in favor of reading it, not against it.

"I suggest that if this fact is in dispute, that such point be argued directly and not from behind Tara Smith's proverbial skirt."

As I said before, I didn't come here to argue over such matters, and I don't intend to do so. If I did, I expect it would be an exercise in futility anyway. The three essays cited previously by Michael contain dozens of different criticisms, and none of the three focus on the life vs. reproduction issue that you want discussed. (Two of them don't mention it at all, the third only briefly.) Any success in refuting one criticism would simply lead to a different criticism being deployed. I'm not particularly excited by playing intellectual whack-a-mole. Plus there are other issues, such as the awkwardness of the format and the opportunity for dipweeds to deploy insults behind a cloak of anonymity. So, thanks for the suggestion, but no thanks.

Daniel Barnes said...

Yes, well, Tara Smith. People have occassionally urged me to read her books, but I admit I have yet to, but this is because I have been unable to find anything interesting or original in what I've read of hers so far, and much that is simply embarrassing.

For example, Smith adheres to one of Rand's silliest arguments: the one about "moral perfection." She reckons "perfection". like "absolute" is, well...."contextual"...;-) It consists of following one's moral code to the best of one's ability. If you miss fulfilling that code exactly, well that's "perfection". Of course, the question is "miss what?" Something "perfecter" than "perfection" obviously! And of course anyone who fulfills this code better or worse than you, well, they are "morally perfect" too, so long as they tried their best. And so on. The whole idea is farcical.

I'm sorry, but this is like having a science book recommended to you, and you find the author enthusiastically endorses phlostigon theory. It's not going to exactly inspire you to take them seriously.

Daniel Barnes said...

PS Richard, I apologise for not responding to your earlier comments but I have been travelling, and will post soon.

JayCross said...

LMAO @ the Phlostigon theory! I like Smith's book but that was an amazing analogy.

Daniel Barnes said...

Cheers Jay...;-)

Richard said...

"As best I can tell from the excerpt, she does not address the issue of self-preservation vs. reproduction at all."

I believe you are correct that Smith does not address this particular criticism in Viable Values.

The subject is discussed (although not specifically as a response to a criticism of Rand per se) in Harry Binswanger's The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts. Note the subheadings under chapter 9.

Neil Parille said...

As others have noted, a better thought expirement would be an immortal human being. If you could take a pill that made you immortal, would you still have values or find things valuable? Yes, we would still appreciate friendship, honesty, a nice sunset.

This shows (at least to me) that we generally conceive the good as being intrinsic to things.

Daniel Barnes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>I have no idea what the status is of this purported solution from Peikoff (the lectures that discuss it were released several years ago...

Do you think Peikoff's solution succeeds? Or do you think that again, explaining how that works is " ill-suited" to online discussion?

>...and drew criticism within Objectivist circles).

Is that so? Objectivists saying that Peikoff was wrong and Hume was right? Could you supply a reference for this?

>but a theory that Peikoff has developed only recently could not be part of any "super logic" supposedly used by Rand...

Why do you think that? Surely Peikoff could - and almost certainly will, I suspect - claim that the solution is implicit in the Objectivist version of logic, thus is ultimately due to Rand. After all the problem of induction is a logical problem.

>Also, by Peikoff's own standards, theories that he has developed on his own are not part of Objectivism.

See above.

>Referring to "super logic" carries a different connotation.

Yes. I am making fun of it, obviously...;-)

Why? Because Binswanger's claims seem to be radical, Richard - so radical, and yet simultaneously so groundless it is hard to take them seriously. He is, in effect, claiming that Objectivist logic contains major improvements on standard bivalent logic - with at least one such improvement, hierachy, almost unprecedented in the history of philosophy, and combined an new way and developed into a whole theory. Furthermore, it seems from what little we can glean, it is on the basis of these purported improvements to standard logic by Rand that Peikoff claims that major problems that have dogged philosophy for hundreds of years, such as the problem of induction, can be solved; the POI being, as I said before, a logical problem.

Look, it's like someone claiming they’ve solved the problem of nuclear fusion using their own special version of physics, which in turn is validated by their own special version of maths, and this math is really great, because it’s got these new things called “hierarchy” and “context”, but that’s they really tell you about it. Oh, and if you want my nuclear fusion formula, I can’t tell you what it is but it’s on an audio tape available from my institution for $500…

Let’s face it: Peikoff’s solution to the problem of induction gives every indication of being as embarrassing as Peter Schwartz’s attempt to employ “context” to overturn the well-known fact that it’s possible derive a true conclusion from false premises. (Bill Dwyer gives Schwartz a well-deserved three part kicking here). Likewise for Binswanger, as you say, “The specific additions that Binswanger mentions, hierarchy and context, are not ones that I had ever thought of as being part of "logic." Well exactly! You’ve been studying Objectivism for how long now, and you’ve never even heard of this? This “new, improved” logic which, for Objectivists, is supposed to be the fundamental concept of method “on which all others depend”, and you have no idea how it works? What’s up with that? (Certainly, the cites you mention from the Ayn Rand Lexicon leave us none the wiser, and certainly don’t show any actual workings using this “new, improved” logic. No actual workings are evident either as far as I am aware anywhere in Rand’s works).

Of course, I realize there’s little I can say to change your mind if you really believe in all this. But at least by now you should be aware just how cranky this looks to the rest of us; and how, given the burden of proof neither rests with we non-Objectivists, nor seems to be forthcoming anytime soon from the makers of these grandiose claims, it’s almost impossible to take them seriously.

Daniel Barnes said...

I wrote to Richard:
>Of course, I realize there’s little I can say to change your mind if you really believe in all this.

I see I have overlooked the following remark of yours in another comment to Anon69:"...considering my earlier comments here disclaiming any intention of defending Rand or Peikoff."

I replied to you assuming, once again understandably, that as the founder of the ORC you considered their views worth defending for the most part. How far does this disclaimer reach? Or is my basic assumption quite wrong?

Michael Prescott said...

Neil wrote, "As others have noted, a better thought experiment would be an immortal human being."

Tara Smith would counter that analogy by saying that human beings, as living organisms, have evolved the pleasure-pain mechanism, which would continue to function even after taking the immortality pill.

But suppose we imagine an immortal, indestructible angel who draws pleasure from being close to God and who experiences pain when separated from God. Then we would have a non-biological entity that has preferences and values.

An Objectivist would say, "But there are no angels!" Well, there are no immortal, sentient robots either.

Truth is, we can imagine any type of unknown being (angel, sentient robot) and ascribe to it whatever traits we like, in order to "prove" just about anything. Who can say what an immortal, indestructible, sentient robot might or might not feel? It's pure speculation.

Debates about Objectivism often end up embroiled in weird minutiae like this. Here's a thought experiment: Imagine a group of otherwise sane adults sitting around arguing about the emotional responses of a hypothetical robot ...

HerbSewell said...

http://aynrandcontraaynrand.blogspot.com/2009/04/on-getting-medieval.html

HerbSewell said...

Once again, Mr. Nyquist tries to misguidedly and randomly find some insignificant "flaw" in Objectivist thinking that if true would not even have a remote impact of any fundamental aspect of Objectivism. If only he was actually honest instead along with desperately trying to find some minuscule flaw in Objectivism


I really hate having to do this. Because the difference is so utterly clear and obvious to people who don't have an amazingly blinding bias against any subject whatsoever, he seems to turn off that aspect of common sense, in which no body seems to notice because the effort to put into words something so ridiculously elementary. I will now attempt to explain the difference between "duty" and "obligation" to Mr. Nyquist.

Firstly, it makes absolutely no sense to compare the same words on two different dictionaries, finding one to be necessitate circular reasoning of the other. If one wished to ascertain the difference between two words, you would use the exact same source. From dictionary.com:

Obligation: 1. something by which a person is bound or obliged to do certain things, and which arises out of a sense of duty or results from custom, law, etc.

Assuming Mr. Nyquist can read things that deviate from his senseless bias, (which is certainly against all the evidence so far), there is a distinct differential aspect of the words "duty" and "obligation". While denotatively, the words lack sufficient distinctions, connotatively, the differences are quite clear. As duty only suggests something that is required to be done by an entity, (dropping contexts in the process), obligation presupposes a specific cause or reason for this requirement. There is no intrinsic duty by one to help others in desperate need, but there is an obligation, leading to their specific nature in relation to their ethical value to the person who would be saving the one in need. It arises, (as stated by Dr. Peikoff), from the fact that other people are needed for one's survival, as well as the fact that one could never have a voluntary moral claim to the help of another person if here were not do offer the same. While the concept of duty needs no rational and objectifiable source, (a la Kant), obligation does.

Daniel Barnes said...

Don't blame poor Greg, Herb, blame me...;-)

Herb:
>There is no intrinsic duty by one to help others in desperate need, but there is an obligation, leading to their specific nature in relation to their ethical value to the person who would be saving the one in need.

Here's a little verse for you, Herb:

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"

I put it to you that you are making a distinction without a difference; splitting hairs to avoid an embarrassing situation for Rand's ethics.

For if one ignores a stranger having a heart attack, and chooses a) not to call for help on his behalf or anything else simply because as a matter of fundamental principle one puts one's own selfish interests before that of a stranger, then Objectivist ethics look psychopathic. However, if one feels b) a sense of responsibility, because, unasked for, unwanted and by chance, fate has forced their life into your hands, and you undertake to do something about it despite it being against your interests to some extent, then this is a perfectly common human reaction to the situation and there is nothing distinctively Objectivist about it. In short, Rand's prescription can either be a) psychopathic or b) unremarkable.

As Rand dearly wants to impress us that she offers a radical break from traditional ethics, yet can see the slippery slope of psychopathy ahead, she tries to create a faux, hairsplitting distinction between "duty" and "obligation" into b) to make it sound as if she has really does have something radical to say. But all it really does is introduce one of her typical word-games.

gregnyquist said...

HerbSewell: "Because the difference is so utterly clear and obvious to people who don't have an amazingly blinding bias against any subject whatsoever"

Okay then, where's the difference? We are all waiting in great excitement to be enlightened.

"there is a distinct differential aspect of the words 'duty' and 'obligation'. While denotatively, the words lack sufficient distinctions, connotatively, the differences are quite clear."

Unfortunately "distinct differential aspect of the words" is not very clear. The distinction between denote and connotative is even less clear. It is to suggest that, literally, the words have the same meaning, but that they "suggest" different things—which is a distinction that fits better with my view of the matter, which is that the words mean the same but because they are different words there is a suggestion of difference that is not real.

"As duty only suggests something that is required to be done by an entity, (dropping contexts in the process), obligation presupposes a specific cause or reason for this requirement. There is no intrinsic duty by one to help others in desperate need, but there is an obligation, leading to their specific nature in relation to their ethical value to the person who would be saving the one in need."

But I don't see how this contradicts my own description of what Objectivists really mean by the term "duty." I wrote: "Duty: something that is 'morally' required or expected of an individual by someone other than Rand or one of her orthodox disciples and which uses rationalizations which neither Rand nor her disciples would approve of." Everything HerbSewell writes about duty is entirely consistent with this description. Duty, for him, is bad because (or so he claims) it is "intrinsic," it "drops" context, it fails to "presuppose" a "specific" cause or "reason." But this is just his way of saying that he doesn't approve of the rationalizations brought forth by the champions of duty (whose notions of duty, incidentally, don't always match up with HerbSewell's slanders of it). Rand and HerbSewell are simply arguing with ethicists using different rationalizations. After all, they all agree that one should not ignore a stranger having a heart attack. They are simply quibbling about: the "reasons" why one should not ignore the heart attack victim; and (2) whether one should use the word "obligation" or "duty" to describe what is morally owed to the stranger. The Objectivist position seems to be that one should help the stranger provided: (1) you aren't doing it for "bad" reasons (i.e, reasons involving dropping context or, perhaps worse, "intrinsic" reasons!) and (2) you don't say (or think) that it is your "duty" to help him.

Let's be honest about this: all these rationalizations, whether they come from Rand or Kant or whoever, are childish. Just help the poor stranger and get on with it!

HerbSewell said...

Okay... I'll use a better definition.

obligation: The act of binding oneself by a social, legal, or moral tie.

duty: An act or a course of action that is required of one by position, social custom, law, or religion

The fact that one uses other humans as a means of survival puts an obligation of saving them.

It's as simple as that.

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg:
>The Objectivist position seems to be that one should help the stranger provided: (1) you aren't doing it for "bad" reasons (i.e, reasons involving dropping context or, perhaps worse, "intrinsic" reasons!) and (2) you don't say (or think) that it is your "duty" to help him.

Yes, and as I meant to say, note the degree of pure Objectivist mind-reading required to ethically judge the motives of someone who does help!...;-)

Daniel Barnes said...

Herb...that's exactly what i mean by pointless hairsplitting. You really think there's an important difference between "a social, legal, or moral tie", and something that's "required of one by position, social custom, law, or religion"???

I don't think so...;-)

Anon69 said...

HerbSewell: "There is no intrinsic duty by one to help others in desperate need, but there is an obligation, leading to their specific nature in relation to their ethical value to the person who would be saving the one in need. It arises, (as stated by Dr. Peikoff), from the fact that other people are needed for one's survival, as well as the fact that one could never have a voluntary moral claim to the help of another person if here were not do offer the same."

This ethical formulation is lousy. In any major metropolitan area, the alleged trading value with a given stranger is far too attenuated and remote to justify on such a broad basis as "the fact that other people are needed for one's survival". To paraphrase Peikoff in another context, to say that other people are needed is not to say that THIS person is needed. As far as having a "moral claim to the help of another person", that would fail the same way in reverse.

The only way you could possibly attempt to make this work is to shift the issue to one of epistemology, i.e. ducking the problem of inductive weakness in a concrete case by resort to abstract principle. But this merely begs the question of whether the principle properly applies to this case. Assuming you have no reason to think that this particular stranger will be a benefit to you in trade, it would not.

Note that I would help the stranger, but for different reasons. In brief, because it helps create the kind of world in which I want to live, a world where people voluntarily help one another.

HerbSewell said...

This entire freaking post and website is about hair splitting. Firstly, this isn't even by Ayn Rand, which makes it not part of Objectivist doctrine. You took one sentence of this man and use that to attack Objectivism as a whole? It's like your literally scrounging the internet looking for a hair to split to criticize anything to do with Objectivism. So what if he uses an insufficient way to explain the answer. You can't use him as some example that supposedly represents a flaw in common literary techniques in Objectivists.

At the best, this a pathetic attempt to smear this man's thinking on the subject, not even remotely Objectivism as a whole. At worst, it is a straw man of epic proportions by critiquing a negligently insufficient explanation and somehow using that to bash a supposed flaw in Objectivist thinking.

HerbSewell said...

Anon69:

Then you have placed an obligation upon yourself to live up to your moral ideal.

Anon69 said...

HerbSewell: "Then you have placed an obligation upon yourself to live up to your moral ideal."
Perhaps. But I think that this has more to do with empathy for my fellow man, sentiment, and the natural impulse to create than with the application of an abstract ethical principle or self-imposed obligation. Were I to apply reason, I might very well walk away from the stranger. This, then, would be an example of non-logical conduct being good.

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

Oh, well then it's purely in pursuit of rational happiness, and no, I don't think it would be non-logical conduct. Your premises determine that you wish to see men cordial and caring for one another, in which you logically determine that acting this way towards others would fulfill your premise. If the authors of this site present logical and non-logical conduct as an emotional-logical dichotomy then they are sadly misguided.

Daniel Barnes said...

Herb:
>This entire freaking post and website is about hair splitting.

Herb, we love you but now you are projecting...;-)

If Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand's self-proclaimed heir and head of the ARI, cannot formulate the Objectivist ethical position without verbalist legerdemain this is not the ARCHNblog's fault.

Yelva said...

No, I'm not. There is no justifiable purpose for this post other than to create a straw man for Objectivism. Also, that quote is not from Leonard Peikoff, so your justification for a lack of relevancy of this post is moot.

HerbSewell said...

No, I'm not. There is no justifiable purpose for this post other than to create a straw man for Objectivism. Also, that quote is not from Leonard Peikoff, so your justification for a lack of relevancy of this post is moot.

Daniel Barnes said...

Err...Herb, do you have a double identity?...;-)

HerbSewell said...

Sorry, that was just someone else's identity I was using.

Richard said...

So I go on vacation and come back to find the discussion has continued without me, which is for the best. I'm just going to make this one last post to respond to a few items and then I will take my leave. First up is Daniel Barnes from 4/24:

"Do you think Peikoff's solution succeeds? Or do you think that again, explaining how that works is "ill-suited" to online discussion?"

I haven't heard the lecture and don't know what his proposed solution is.

"Objectivists saying that Peikoff was wrong and Hume was right?"

Only the former.

"Could you supply a reference for this?"

A quick Google search turned up a couple of relevant items.

"Surely Peikoff could - and almost certainly will, I suspect ..."

If you have concrete evidence of Peikoff backdating his theories about induction onto Rand, you should show it. Otherwise, you are just speculating, and you have an obvious bias towards making unflattering speculations about Objectivists.

"Yes. I am making fun of it, obviously...;-)"

Yet at the same time you seem to take your characterization of it seriously, because you react as if Binswanger had actually claimed to have "super logic" rather than merely claiming to have additions to Aristotelian logic. You emphatically describe his views as "almost unprecedented in the history of philosophy," which you apparently take to be a bad thing, even though novelty is not directly associated with truth or validity, and every good idea was novel at some point. (It's also not clear that Binswanger would agree with this characterization, since he says that he is "not claiming that no one in the history of philosophy ever said anything like this before," and he mentions Quine and Locke in the course of his discussion.)

"Likewise for Binswanger, as you say, “The specific additions that Binswanger mentions, hierarchy and context, are not ones that I had ever thought of as being part of "logic." Well exactly! You’ve been studying Objectivism for how long now, and you’ve never even heard of this? This "new, improved" logic which, for Objectivists, is supposed to be the fundamental concept of method "on which all others depend", and you have no idea how it works? What’s up with that?"

What's up with that is that you just made it up. I don't recall previously seeing that particular term ('logic') as opposed to a broader term (such as 'epistemology') being used to categorize those particular theories. (Maybe I did see it used that way but didn't take it to heart. It's not a detail that I would focus on.) That is entirely different from having "no idea how it works." You repeatedly bring forth these distortions of what I say -- for example, interpreting my comment about criticism of Peikoff's theory of induction as implying that some Objectivist had said "Hume was right." You also distort what other people say -- for example, referring to Binswanger's "super-set" comment as a claim of "super logic." You don't even notice that Binswanger's remark was part of a denial of earlier claims (which you instigated) about Objectivists having what he calls "some weird logic." Instead, you take a distorted version of it and layer it into your already distorted view of his beliefs. And then you marvel at your own inventions and how "cranky" people are to believe such things. Quelle surprise.


Next up, Daniel Barnes again from 4/24, but a different comment:

"I replied to you assuming, once again understandably, that as the founder of the ORC you considered their views worth defending for the most part. How far does this disclaimer reach? Or is my basic assumption quite wrong?"

Well, you've used an invalid thought process, going from "he has a website about X" to "he must consider the views of those who believe X to be worth defending," which doesn't follow. But you are correct that I do consider many of their views "worth defending." That does not, however, mean that I came here for that purpose. I was drawn here by a reference to my own comments at NoodleFood. I've already posted here more than I probably should have, since the task of defending my comments there was done with several posts ago. But while this points out my weakness for online disputation, I'm not going to serve here as a defender Rand and Peikoff (or more recently Binswanger and Smith), a thankless and unwanted task that I will leave for others.


Finally, Michael Prescott from 4/24:

"Truth is, we can imagine any type of unknown being (angel, sentient robot) and ascribe to it whatever traits we like, in order to "prove" just about anything. Who can say what an immortal, indestructible, sentient robot might or might not feel? It's pure speculation."

That's correct. This type of thought experiment is virtually worthless, and it is a mistake on both Rand's and Smith's part to indulge in it. However, it is unfortunately common for such speculations to come up in philosophical discussions, and the habit is not particular to Objectivists.

And that, I think, will be my last comment in this thread.

Daniel Barnes said...

Richard:
>A quick Google search turned up a couple of relevant items.

Thanks, I will investigate further.

>If you have concrete evidence of Peikoff backdating his theories about induction onto Rand, you should show it. Otherwise, you are just speculating and you have an obvious bias towards making unflattering speculations about Objectivists.

One would think merely reading, say, Peikoff's forelock-tugging in the introduction to OPAR, where he banishes the idea that he might have added anything to "the substance of Objectivism", and where he specifically denies any "collaboration" "I asked questions, she answered them"), not to mention his many other obsequies and self-effacements where Rand was concerned would be enough to reasonably suspect where he would credit any successful Objectivist answer to a major philosophical problem. And in "Objectively Speaking", recall that one of the three questions he would ask Rand, if he had one last evening with her, would be the solution to the problem of induction. Which seems to indicate he thinks she would have known the answer, no?

So it's not really just a figment of my nasty, biased mind...;-)

>Yet at the same time you seem to take your characterization of it seriously, because you react as if Binswanger had actually claimed to have "super logic" rather than merely claiming to have additions to Aristotelian logic. You emphatically describe his views as "almost unprecedented in the history of philosophy," which you apparently take to be a bad thing, even though novelty is not directly associated with truth or validity, and every good idea was novel at some point. (It's also not clear that Binswanger would agree with this characterization, since he says that he is "not claiming that no one in the history of philosophy ever said anything like this before," and he mentions Quine and Locke in the course of his discussion.)

These are rather feeble criticisms. Firstly, I don't decry because Binswanger because he's presenting a novelty, but simply because he's making a major claim unsupported by any evidence. That is to say, Binswanger appears to be what one might in strictly philosophical terms call bullshitting...;-)

Secondly, if you read Binswanger's post you'll find he clearly does claim that Objecti-logic is almost unprecedented in the history of philosophy. To wit:

Binswanger:"The closest I can think of in the history of philosophy to our idea of hierarchy is Locke, but, as you know, he's very sketchy (and somewhat confused) on this."

Yeah, no-one in the whole history of philosophy else came close to Objecti-logic's fundamentals other than Locke - but oh dear, he's just so "sketchy" and "confused"! Clearly these are strong claims, and the fact that he confuses matters by making a vaguer and weaker claim earlier in the post is hardly my problem.

Also I am curious about this passage:

Richard:
>(It's also not clear that Binswanger would agree with this characterization, since he says that he is "not claiming that no one in the history of philosophy ever said anything like this before," and he mentions Quine and Locke in the course of his discussion.) (emphasis DB)

Actually, Richard, you'll find in the passage in question Binswanger is citing Quine in opposition ("Vs., e.g., Quine...") to this purported Objectivist innovation, not as a precedent to it as you seek to imply. This really is rather careless of you - one could form quite the wrong impression of Binswanger's modesty...;-)

Richard:
>You don't even notice that Binswanger's remark was part of a denial of earlier claims (which you instigated) about Objectivists having what he calls "some weird logic."

Well, Richard, when Binswanger says that Objectivists don't use "some weird logic", and then in the next breath spouts off about this "new improved" logic that involves some Objectivist-only thing called "hierarchy" and something called "context", all combined in some unique yet unspecified way - in effect, some weird logic - then it's somewhat wishful thinking to try to airbrush it away as somehow a "distortion" on my part. In fact, your whole response to this seems to a case of choking on my stylistic gnats whilst blandly swallowing Binswanger's whale of tale. Just read the text, man! There's nothing I need to distort, it's there in black and white.

>But while this points out my weakness for online disputation, I'm not going to serve here as a defender Rand and Peikoff (or more recently Binswanger and Smith), a thankless and unwanted task that I will leave for others.

Well there's nothing wrong with a weakness for online disputation. And regrettably, we here at the ARCHNblog also know a little about thankless tasks too...;-)