- It is not clear, and cannot be assumed a priori, that non-logical conduct in all instances is “bad.”
- A society based solely on logical conduct and “reason” is not possible.
In this post, I will examine the second of these two problems.
In his massive treatise The Mind and Society, we find Pareto making the following observation:
Be it said in all deference to our estimable humanitarians and positivists, a society exclusively determined by “reason” does not and cannot exist, and that not because “prejudices” in human beings prevent them from following the dictates of “reason,” but because the data of the problem that presumably is to be solved by logico-experimental reasonings are entirely unknown…. Social reformers fail to notice, or at least they disregard, the fact that individuals entertain different opinions with regard to utility, and that they do so because they get the data they require from their own sentiments. They say, and they believe, that they are solving an objective problem: “What is the best form for a society?” Actually they are solving a subjective problem: “What form of society best fits my sentiments?” The reformer, of course, [as well as the Objectivist] is certain that his sentiments have to be shared by all honest men and that they are not merely excellent in themselves [or, as an Objectivist might put it, excellent in the light of reason] but are also also in the highest degree beneficial to society [or to the self-interest of “rational” individuals]. Unfortunately that belief in no way alters the realities. [§2143, §2145]
When Pareto denies that the “dictates of reason” cannot be followed because the “data of the problem … are entirely unknown,” he is restating, in his own words, Hume’s denial that moral values can be founded exclusively on “reason.”
Not only did Rand fail to bridge Hume’s infamous is-ought gap, she does not appear to have even understood it. Consider what she writes of it in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics”:
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality [which philosophers make such a claim?], let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ [VOS, 17]
Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem in this paragraph: indeed, she succeeded only in misrepresenting it. Neither Hume nor Pareto deny that value judgments refer to "facts of reality." What they deny is that those judgments can be determined (or “validated”) by “reason” (or, in Pareto’s case, by the "logico-experimental" method). The reason for this is quite simple: no value judgment can be derived without reference to actual needs, sentiments, and desires of human beings, all of which Rand and her followers deplore as mere “whims.” To value something is to care about in the emotive sense of the word; and if you didn’t care about it or were incapable of caring about it, you wouldn’t value it in the first place.
Rand tries to evade this so-called “subjectivist” conclusion by suggesting that, because only living beings can have values, life must be the “standard” of value. Rand never actually attempted to “prove” her argument (i.e., demonstrate it logically), but even if she had, the is-ought gap would have remained ungapped. Life can’t possibly be the standard of all values because most values clearly have no bearing on the question of life and death. This is a point I fleshed out in an earlier post, where I explained why life as the standard of value (or the “ultimate” value) fails to answer Hume’s objections: it covers too little ground and leads to troublesome moral paradoxes. This explains why Rand, as soon she thinks she has established her “reason-based” morality, quietly gets rid of her survivalist morality and replaces it with an entirely different one: “The standard of value in Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good and evil—is ... that which is required for man's survival qua man." As I wrote in the earlier post:
this little man-qua-man qualification changes everything. It's not just any kind of survival, but a very a special type, that we are to pursue. What precisely it is, though, remains somewhat nebulous. Rand clarifies "survival qua man" with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being." But since this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated, this will not do. Observe closely, for we are here confronting as good an example of circular reasoning as one is likely to find. When we ask Rand and her orthodox followers, How are rational values discovered? they answer By determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being! In other words, Rand’s attempt to bridge the is-ought gap collapses under the weight of its own ineptitude. Like every other philosopher of “reason,” she unwittingly equivocated her way to finding some vague solution to the problem so that she could pretend to be following “reason” instead of her own sentiments and desires.
Now since Rand claims to have founded her politics on her ethics, her failure to demonstrate how an ought can be logically derived from an is will have obvious consequences for her politics. Most critically, it will allow us to dismiss Rand’s claim that her political values are founded on “reason.” Rand’s normative political theory is merely the statement of her own personal preferences. Therefore it is pointless to discuss whether Rand’s theory of rights is “correct” or “true” or based on "reason" or "man's nature." If we are to stick to the realm of facts and practicalities, we should instead focus on whether Rand’s political theories are empirically viable: that is, whether they can be implemented as realities, rather than just dreamed about as pleasant ideals.