Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 49

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 3. In “Conservatism: an Obituary,” Rand, after criticizing conservatives for not providing a “moral base” for their defense of the “American way of life,” suddenly turns course and asserts that in “recent years the ‘conservatives’ have gradually come to a dim realization of the weakness of their position, of the philosophical flaw that had to be corrected.” However, “the means by which [conservatives] are attempting to correct it are worse than the original weakness.”


Rand continues: "There are three interrelated arguments used by today’s “conservatives” to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith—the argument from tradition—the argument from depravity."

In this post, we will concentrate on Rand’s analysis of the argument from faith. Rand’s analysis is as follows:

Sensing their need of a moral base, many “conservatives” decided to choose religion as their moral justification; they claim that America and capitalism are based on faith in God. Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues.

It is important to reiterate what I have stated in previous posts: all these “moral-base” arguments are mere rationalizations covering a complex blend of motives, interests, and sentiments that could never be summarized in a handful of broad moral injunctions. Rand commits the error of greatly exaggerating the influence of moral-base arguments. Her remarks about faith-based rationalizations must be seen in this context.

Are the “fundamental principles of America” contradicting by the claim that capitalism and freedom are based on “faith in God”? Well, that all depends on what one means by such vague phrases as “faith in God” and the “fundamental principles of America.” If, however, we frame this matter somewhat differently, in terms that are more empirical and testable, we will come closer to what a more sophisticated conservatism asserts when it attempts to link religion with capitalism and freedom. It is a fact that capitalism, in its early stages, had a “link” of sorts with religion. As the sociologist Max Weber noted: “As a matter of fact it is surely remarkable, to begin with a quite superficial observation, how large is the number of representatives of the most spiritual forms of Christian piety who have sprung from commercial circles…. Similarly, the remarkable circumstance that so many of the greatest capitalistic entrepreneurs—down to Cecil Rhodes—have come from clergymen’s families… Even more striking … is the connection of the religious way of life with the most intensive development of business acumen….” [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 43-44]


Note that Weber does not claim that there is a connection between religious “doctrine” [i.e., religious rationalizations] and business acumen; no, Weber specifies the connection exists between the “religious way of life” and business acumen, a different matter altogether. The religious way of life is rarely, if ever, entirely consistent with religious doctrine. How could it be? Religions contain dogmas which, if taken literally, would overstep important practical realities. Such doctrines have to be reinterpreted to fit the practical demands of everyday life. The effect of religion is not in all cases as irrational as Rand would have us believe. Religion may, and often will, leave plenty of room for practical success in life. This does not mean that the “non-practical” (or “irrational”) side of religion has no effect at all. But the so-called “irrational” side of religion tends to display itself in various non-practical pursuits, such as worship and ritual. To a non-religious person, the amount of time and effort spent by intensely religious people in practicing their faith may seem like a horrid waste of time. Yet, ironically, there may exist positive benefits from this sort of non-logical behavior. Ritual and worship, whatever might be said against them, are entirely consistent, and in some measure may promote, some of the virtues necessary to succeed in business, such as sobriety, monogamy (divorce, mistresses, adultery are expenses the frugal businessmen can do without), self-discipline, etc. In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the early stages of capitalism, the business class tended to be dominated by the intensely religious. This fact can hardly be elucidated on the basis of Rand’s doctrinal view of religion, which attempts to explain the behavior of religious people on the basis of the “fundamental” premises of religion. Neither human nature nor religion work in so simplistic a fashion.

Ignoring these important facts, Rand resumes her harangue against “faith”:

Intellectually, to rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies—that one has no rational arguments to offer. The “conservatives’” claim that their case rests on faith, means that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights, that these rest on a mystic revelation and can be accepted only on faith—that in reason and logic the enemy is right, but men must hold faith as superior to reason.

Consider the implications of that theory. While the communists claim that they are the representatives of reason and science, the “conservatives” concede it and retreat into the realm of mysticism, of faith, of the supernatural, into another world, surrendering this world to communism.


Here Rand reverts to one of her favorite strategies: polarization. An individual either believes entirely in “faith” or entirely in “reason.” Given that Rand claimed to admire Thomas Aquinas, she should have known better. Most religious conservatives do not regard “faith” and “reason” as opposites, but as supplementary. No conservative would claim that his case for capitalism and freedom rested solely on faith. Faith is merely used as a way to circumvent Hume’s is/ought gap in conservative rationalizations about morality. In this sense, there is a point in common between conservatism and Objectivism in that both rationalize their way around Hume’s gap. The main difference is that the conservatives are more honest about it and talk about “faith,” whereas Rand claims she gets around it (per impossible) through “reason.”

At the core of Rand’s criticism is the implicit claim that her moral rationalizations are superior (i.e., more convincing) to those of conservatives. Yet this goes against a very well established fact—namely, that there are a great many more conservatives than there are Objectivists. Of course, such rationalizations are only persuasive to those already inclined to believe them; which is why Rand’s complaints on this score seem much ado about nothing. Claiming that the moral base for capitalism is religious faith may not sound very convincing to the secular enemies of the free market; but Rand’s "reason"-based rationalizations have not been a jot more convincing to such individuals. Changing people’s minds through arguments (i.e., rationalizations) is very difficult and not very effective. Especially ineffective are broad arguments based on abstract moral principles. Most human beings instinctively sense that such arguments are hollow and not to be trusted. Moreover, because of their vagueness, broad, abstract principles do not yield any clear specific guidelines for practical actions, but can be interpreted to fit a variety of specific guidelines. So people tend to follow, instead, the complex web of strategies for navigating through the problems of life that they have learned and absorbed through years of trial and error experience.

14 comments:

Mark Plus said...

Rand's own background shows the benefits of seemingly "irrational" religiosity. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to live as an orthodox Jew, especially when a Jewish community has to exist precariously in a hostile gentile society. Yet when Jews gained access to careers outside of the ghetto, starting a few centuries ago, the habits which Jewish men cultivated to gain status in their own communities also helped them to succeed in secular careers when they competed with gentiles. A Jewish boy who would have made a good Talmudist and rabbi could just as easily master the coursework to become a lawyer, physician, or in the case of Rand's father, a pharmacist.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree as an atheist it pains me to admit but some of the finest minds out there and in history have belonged to religious men and women. As I've stated here before I don't think you'll name a greater scientist than Isaac Newton, yet objectivists claim that he was irrational due to his religious studies. Christianity certainly did not harm his mind.

Yet according to the doctrine laid down by Rand, his religious beliefs would have made him irrational and ergo a danger to everyone else.

Steve

Stephen said...

>Rand commits the error of greatly exaggerating the influence of moral-base arguments.

See: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc, etc.
Rand, via philosophical fundamentals, predicted this decades ago.

>I don't think you'll name a greater scientist than Isaac Newton, yet objectivists claim that he was irrational due to his religious studies. Christianity certainly did not harm his mind.

Newton harmed his mind outside of his scientific context.

Stephen said...

>Here Rand reverts to one of her favorite strategies: polarization. An individual either believes entirely in “faith” or entirely in “reason.”

Rand frequently discussed mixed cases, eg, Aquinas. In _For The New Intellectual's lead essay, she notes that most people swing back and forth between reason and irrationality. A major character, Wynand, in one of her two most important novels, _The Fountainhead_, is a mixed case between independence and dependence.

And, in "Credibility and Polarization," ("Ayn Rand Letter"), she defends polarization as a method for identifying the fact that principles are a need of focusing mind onto reality.

Anonymous said...

"Newton harmed his mind outside of his scientific context."

Thankfully the 'harm' didn't stop his epoch making work in the field of optics or the laws of motion. Phew eh?

We await with baited breath a similiar contribution from an objectivist scientist. I mean what will they achieve with a mind neither harmed inside or outside the scientific context?

Well, nothing so far, but early days eh?


"And, in "Credibility and Polarization," ("Ayn Rand Letter"), she defends polarization as a method for identifying the fact that principles are a need of focusing mind onto reality."

Such as stamp collecting? Or having affairs with younger men who eventually grow tired of her?

"A major character, Wynand, in one of her two most important novels, _The Fountainhead_, is a mixed case between independence and dependence."

None of the characters in that novel bear any resemblence to a real person. They, in the Fountainhead, are all two-dimensional caricatures. Though that is/was better than her characters in AS, which were one-dimensional.


Steve

Anonymous said...

"See: Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, etc, etc.
Rand, via philosophical fundamentals, predicted this decades ago. "

If you are naive enough to believe that what is said in a manifesto is exactly what will happen once elected then yes, she may have had a point.

But isn't a case of election promises, what election promises? You don't subvert the system it subverts you.

Steve

gregnyquist said...

"Rand frequently discussed mixed cases, eg, Aquinas."

The point at issue is not whether Rand discussed them, but what she thought of them. Rand believed that "When men share the same basic premise, it is the most consistent one's who win." She also tended believe that the bad premises inevitably corrupt the good ones, because, as she put it, illustrating the point in a metaphor, if you mix water with poison, poison wins. In other words, if a person has bad "premises," if he believes in both faith and "reason," faith will win out. Now this view is not borne out by empirical reality, because there are many people who are very religious and espouse some rather odd and empirically dubious claims, and yet who thrive in the world through the use of their own minds in business, science, and even in government (e.g., Oliver Cromwell). Indeed, some of these people turn the irrational toward a "rational" outcome, as when Cromwell used religious faith to motivate his soldiers to become more disciplined and to fight more courageously.

Now as far as the example of Aquinas is concerned, it hardly proves that Rand didn't believe that bad premises win out; it merely proves that Rand was not as consistent and logical and she claimed to be. In other words, it refutes her very own assertion about bad premises winning out in mixed cases, which is why I brought up Aquinas in first place. Had Rand taken Aquinas' case to heart, her criticism of the "appeal to faith" brand of conservatism loses most, if not all, of its polemical force.

Anonymous said...

"Indeed, some of these people turn the irrational toward a "rational" outcome, as when Cromwell used religious faith to motivate his soldiers to become more disciplined and to fight more courageously."

Well said. As, according to Rand Cromwells troops should have been less effective at combat as a result of this, yet they won the civil war. I suppose objectivists might counter this by saying that the Royalist forces were more irrational but surely that misses the point. Cromwell's troops, by following irrational premises should have been a danger to each other and ended up as 'keystone kops' style soldiers.
Can you imagine what Rand would have wrote about them had they lost the war "If Cromwell had not used religious faith to motivate his soldiers perhaps he would have ended the victor"

Steve

Abolaji said...

Here is a link to a review of a recent book by AC Grayling.

http://lastditch.typepad.com/lastditch/2007/05/the_failings_of.html#more

It doesn't on the face of it have any link to Objectivism and I haven't read the book so I can't speak to the fairness of the review. However, the reviewer is highly critical of Grayling, accusing him of thinking that rationality is the solution to all human socio-political ills.

In that light, the link is clear.

Neil Parille said...

As far as scientists who were religious such as Newton, the Objectivist claim is that they were inconsistent and that their good ideas were in spite of their bad ideas.

I suppose it's true for all of us that we hold our good ideas in spite of our bad ones.

The problem for Objectivists is that their conception of reason is very hierarchical. According to Rand the fate of science and human rationality depends on a correct view of concepts. But since that didn't come until c. 1968 why was Newton able to make any scientific discoveries?

-Neil Parille

Neil Parille said...

One of these years Leonard Peikoff is going to explain in this in his DIM Hypothesis book --

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQomhCVmDto

-Neil Parille

Neil Parille said...

Leonard Peikoff will be giving part 2 of his DIM series at OCON in July 2010:

_____

Dr. Peikoff’s book The DIM Hypothesis identifies three different modes of integration, i.e., of interrelating concretes, such as individual percepts, facts, choices, story events, etc. As Dr. Peikoff explains: “My thesis is that the dominant trends in every key area can be defined by their leaders’ policy toward integration. They are against it (Disintegration, D); they are for it, if it conforms to Nature (Integration, I); they are for it, if it conforms to a Super-Nature (Misintegration, M).” The book—focusing on literature, physics, education and politics—demonstrates the power of these three modes in shaping Western culture and history.

In 2007 Dr. Peikoff presented the first and more theoretical half of the book. Now comes the cashing-in: his identification, on the basis of his hypothesis, of the rules that have governed each of the major changes in Western culture (e.g., pagan to Christian or Enlightenment to Modernist); his analysis of the DIM factors defining the condition of the United States today; and then, applying all this, how those rules predict our future; or, as the title of his last chapter puts it: “What’s Next.” (Along with his prediction, Dr. Peikoff specifies a timeframe and a degree of probability.)

Leonard Peikoff's appearance at this conference does not imply that he agrees with the ideas or formulations of any other speakers.

____

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

"But since that didn't come until c. 1968 why was Newton able to make any scientific discoveries?"

Given Newton's enormous and well deserved reputaion in the annals of scientists it makes it doubly mystifying. I put this to an objectivist whose answer was "just imagine what he could have achieved had be not been religious...". Wow, those objectivists have high standards. Can wait for the discoveries they will erm...discover. Armed as they will be with the 'correct view of concepts' How long before we are holidaying on Alpha Centurai?

Steve

Christian Prophet said...

Ayn Rand is so thoroughly misinterpreted! You may or may not have seen the article: "Ayn Rand, 20th Century Prophetess."
http://acimmessages.blogspot.com/