Saturday, July 17, 2010

Defending the Impossible

Over at, there's a bit of a philosophical duel going on between myself and Rand apologist Paul Beaird. While it hardly reaches the exalted rank of Lincoln-Douglass or Wilberforce-Huxley, it will give Rand watchers a chance to witness an intelligent advocate of Rand trying to defend three impossible positions, namely: (1) that Rand logically derived an ought from an is, a value from a fact; (2) that there exists no equivocation between "man's life" and "man's survival qua man"; and (3) that Hume denied the possibility of any connection between fact and value. Since these positions are indefensible, Mr. Beaird spends most of his time try to divert attention through various debating tricks, particular the old the best defense is a good offense trick. Instead of defending Rand, he attacks what he imagines are my failings, with predictable results.

Empirical responsibility is not exactly one of Mr. Beaird's virtues. He twice insists that "Rand's use of observable facts and the relationships between them [which facts and relationships are those? can he state any?] to demonstrate the natural foundation of the concept 'value' is so well-known by now that, for you to still insist Hume had not been refuted reveals an uncomprehending mind..." Of course, no evidence is brought forth to back this extraordinary claim. Rand critic Michael Huemer expresses a very different point of view:

Objectivists seem to find "The Objectivist Ethics" completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views. This is not true of most of her other views: one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless thinks Rand’s political views are reasonable, or her epistemological views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory of “The Objectivist Ethics” is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas. (Here is a nicer way to say that: all of Rand’s other major theories are more plausible and better defended than that one.)

Now who is right? Is Rand's argument in "The Objectivist Ethics" so "well known by now" that only an "uncomprehending mind" would fail to understand that Rand had "refuted" Hume? Or is the argument only accepted by Objectivists, who are committed to accepting everything by Rand, in defiance of fact and logic? Huemer's contention is by far the more plausible. I can't think of a single non-Objectivist who accepts Rand's argument. And most people have never heard of it at all, and would not be able to make heads or tails of it if it were explained to them.

In my exchange with Mr. Beaird, I have made repeated calls for Beaird or any other Objectivist to back their talk and produce this marvelous refutation of Hume. Of course, no such proof will ever be produced. Ironically, however, the aforementioned Michael Huemer has attempted to state the Objectivist argument in logical form. I have linked to it before, but its worth the occasional perusal. Huemer finds all of Rand's premises to be dubious for one reason or another. Nor is Huemer able to complete the chain of reasoning all the way to Rand's "man qua man." That, of course, is impossible, since it involves a palpable equivocation ("'man qua man' and 'rational' [are] fudge words" is Huemer's verdict).


Anonymous said...

Just back from reading it...the usual response from an objectivist. Do they ever give you a straight answer? We all know that they can't answer the question(s) you have asked and will try to hide behind attacks on yourself, straw-men, wilfully mis-understanding your point of view etc. So far, so typical are you going to continue with this joker or have you given up?

Steven Johnston

gregnyquist said...

"So far, so typical are you going to continue ... or have you given up?"

I'm a bit hard-pressed for time right now so I'm going to lay off for a week or so. There's a few more points I would like to make in order to clarify what's really going on in the debate, then I'll be ready to move on to other things.

DocBadwrench said...

Terminology. Obsfucation. Debate over intent. My brain hurts. I'm going to leave this to you folks that are more educated. Thanks for linking to the debate, though.

Daniel Barnes said...

Whoops, I added the wrong link in my previous comment.

That guy is comedy gold.

宮惠如宮惠如 said...

多謝分享~ 真是意料之外的收獲!!............................................................

Anonymous said...

At best it's a duel between Paul B and you guys, maybe a slight edge to him. Take a gander at today's
(July 23) Justin Raimondo column at on Mad Lenny and his Holy Crusade to prevent a mosque center being built at the former WTC site.He has totally flipped out.
Also see ARI Watch run by my friend Mark in Virginia.

Makoto Azuri said...

I'd like to answer your question. And it most certainly will be a straight answer. (Mind you, there isn't a single attack on you or misunderstanding of your views here. As an objectivist should, I do not argue to prove my argument is better than yours. My argument stands regardless of what stance you take on the subject. As such, I do not attack your argument, but simply prove mine).

On the is/ought question:

A dog is. Therefore, a dog ought to act like a dog. (which it does).
A cat is. Therefore, a cat ought to act like a cat. (which it does).
A man is. Therefore, (like any other animal) he must exist in the way appropriate to a man.

But man has a choice, unlike the animals. He can act like he ought or he can act like he oughtn't.

Man's choice is represented by morality. Therefore, the way he ought to act is moral, the way he oughtn't act is immoral. Therefore, it is his nature to be moral. (you could argue the opposite is true too. But it would be a very twisted outlook on life. The decision is not arbitrary because in order to claim man's nature is to be immoral, you must also accept the corollary that it is man's nature to not exist (But he does)).

I'll now prove this last point: Death is man's enemy. Life is his friend. Therefore, he must accept the standard of life. (morality)
If you accepted immorality as man's nature, you of necessity side with Death. (non-existence). And man does indeed exist, you need only to look at Rand's three axioms to prove this. To prove he doesn't, you must have reason, consciousness, and existence. (If you don't exist, not only can you not prove anything, but you cannot disprove me).

Going back: man is, therefore he ought to act like man (ie. morally)

Now a question follows. "Does that mean if a man doesn't act as he ought (morally) he is not a man?"


In the physiological sense, Hitler was a human. But on a more metaphysical level, one can hardly call what he did human. (ie. immoral). Because Rand' values worked in a hierarchy, the more immoral you were, the less of a human you were.

For creatures like dogs and cats it is appropriate to exist only in the physiological sense. But because man has a mind and a consciousness (not just existence) he must then necessarily fulfill extra requirements for a man's survival qua man. (morality)

So because he exists, he ought to do certain things (exist in the manner appropriate to a human).

Or, in Rand's words "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'"

Just because she felt it was self-evident doesn't make it not true.

You can reach me at if you'd like to pursue a lengthier argument, I have no wish to impede on the one you already tend to. And please, offer this argument to your opponent Paul as well. I would enjoy his opinion.

Andrew said...

"A dog is. Therefore, a dog ought to act like a dog. (which it does)."

That's circular. After all, how do you know how a dog ought to behave other than by observing how dogs do behave? And conversely, any behavior a dog might exhibit can be lumped under that label. There are dogs that walk upright on two legs. Is that like a dog? Is that against how a dog ought to behave?

For that matter, imagine I were a mad scientist who really loves his dog. So I decide to uplift Fido and load his cranium with computer hardware in order to do so. By radically increasing his mental capacity, allowing speech and human-like reasoning, I would also alter his behavior. Would that be immoral since I caused the dog to act unlike a dog?

"I'll now prove this last point: Death is man's enemy. Life is his friend. "

What support have you for this? This requires a value statement about life and death. It requires that living is the function of man. But function, as Searle as pointed out, is entirely subjective. Things do not have objective function.

Or consider this. Men have chosen death. They have at times done so for ethical reasons. A man living two hundred years ago that chose death is no more dead now than a man who chose life. So in the big picture, what makes life and death so special that you think their moral function is self evident?

Anonymous said...

Andrew, stop playing Kantian word games. People normally choose life
unless life's conditions become so unbearable that they no longer wish to go on living.
Every dog normally walks on four legs though you will see the occasional three legged dog after an amputation to stop the cancer.
Dogs have a certain specific nature as do cats, humans, reptiles and rodents.
John Searle is the most pretentious fraud on the Berkeley campus, his entire corpus of guesswork on the human mind adds up to one big zero as Thomas Szasz noted years ago. If you can't the difference between life and death, Andrew, maybe your ready for a visit from Jack Kevorkian.
Ayn Rand wrote that modern philosophy since Hume was a gold mine for "intellectual" shysters
and this site proves it daily.
I'm not saying that you people don't occasionally get it right, particularly about statist idiocy that came out of Rand's mouth over the years. Support for statist Chicagoite Greenspan, Nixon, Ford, Israel, the space program, compulsory subpoenas, window censorship and according to Hospers
support for eminent domain and determinism at least up until the 60s. If you want political philosophical perfection you go to Murray Rothbard. When you recycle the Whittaker Chambers smear job and have contributors that claim Anthem was her greatest novel, you really are in the depths of the intellectual fever swamps.

Anonymous said...

Left the word "see" in sentence six of my post above.

Anonymous said...

"A dog is. Therefore a dog ought to act like a dog."


What does "ought to act like a dog" mean?


Anonymous said...

"Andrew, stop playing Kantian word games. People normally choose life
unless life's conditions become so unbearable that they no longer wish to go on living."

Andrew is actually taking the right approach and is not ignoring inconvenient facts in order to push a bad conclusion. On the other hand, you are. What people "normally do" does not conclusively show what they should do. Do you think your abrasive language affects this point to any degree?

Anonymous said...

"Death is man's enemy"

BS, we all know we are going to die which gives us the impetus not to waster time whilst we are here. If we all lived forver nothing, not even the washing up would get done.

You might as well say that night is the enemy of day and green is the enemy of yellow.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

I let the more philosophically articulate of you demolish Makotos points. It really is standard objectivist fare, opinion masquerading as fact. Straw men and smoke and mirrors. Examples of which have been dealt with already. But what really rankles is the example he uses of Hitler. Yeah right, cause if you ain't an objectivist you must be like Hitler huh? Why don't they ever use the example of say, a neighbour you may have, who votes for the Democrats and loves modern art. Where would he fit on the heirarchy of humanity? Would such an individual deserve to die? But it gives the game away when he talks about Hitler and a heirarchy of humanity. Erm...can somebody tell him that the Nazis had their own heirarchy of humanity and we all know what happened to those that did not meet their standards.

But if this is the objectivist point of view about morality and humanity then the philosophy sows it own seeds of destruction. For the vast majority of us, say 99.9999% of the World's population the battle lines are not as sharply drawn as they are for the objectivist. We don't consider ourselves better human beings than the example of the neigbhour I've given. Nor do I, as an atheist consider myself better than the religious man. Though no doubt to the objectivist mind they, all religious people, come in one size; the suicide bomber. We don't hate the lover of modern art, nor do we wish to hurt a woman who would say to her children "Don't be so selfish and share your toys with the children next door".

Granted Hitler managed to achieve this, for a short time, to make this idea that some people are less human than others. But I can't imagine the likes of LP are going to inspire such madness in others.

But I take it Makoto would use objectivism to kill you and your loved ones and then dance on your graves? That is, if they plumbed the depths of the objectivist herirarchy of humanity.

If Makoto is familiar with sceintology would he tell us, is the 'Suppresive person' their version of the 'looter'?

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the poor spelling in one of my enteries!

Is death really man's enemy? Well it does end our life but we all got die sometime. As I said before you can look at death to spur you on to produce quality and quantity in this life. It would be eternal life that would truly be man's enemy.

Steven Johnston

Daniel Barnes said...


I'm sorry to break this to you but you have no idea what you are talking about.

This "is/ought" problem is not solved by saying that what a man is determines what he ought to do. Rand didn't understand the problem she claimed to solve. And neither do you.

What you have to do is show a valid logical derivation from a fact (is), or set of facts, to a value (ought), or set of values. Just asserting a man will have values due to the fact that he exists is beside the point.

This is the challenge Hume sets - it is a logical issue. Rand talked big, but never even showed up for the game - nothing, nada, zip. Beaird does exactly the same thing - he'll do anything to obfuscate and avoid producing an actual logical relation, which is the only thing which would make Rand right and Hume wrong. It's fakery to the point of self-delusion. And until you do, I'm sorry, but you're just another well-meaning noob hopelessly confused on a basic issue. You don't even know you're wrong, let alone why.

Oh, and I see we have Hardesty back in comments, like an eccentric and mostly dim comet.

gregnyquist said...


Daniel is right: you need to come up with an actual logical proof—that is, a logical chain of reasoning that goes from premises to conclusion. There is no proof in you comments, just a grab bag of pseudo-arguments culled from Rand. "man i... must exist in the way appropriate to a man," is not an argument, it's empty chatter. It's doesn't tell us what an individual actually should do. How does one distinguish between existing "in a way appropriate to a man" to other types of existence? And why should I prefer existing as a "man"? This is an argumentum ad hominem (and, as Santayana pointed out, there can be no other kind of argument in ethics). You're appealing to sentiment: who wants to be described as not living as a human being? But what if someone snaps his fingers at your argument, such as it is, and says, "I don't give a fig about 'living as a man' (whatever that means!)." What kind of consequences would such an individual face? What really is at stake? Why should an individual care, one way or the other? Objectivists could not answer this question without implicating themselves in some premise or another that would either contradict their "Objectivist" ethics or lead to a reductio ad absurdum.

BenSix said...

O/T, but I liked this...

What gets me is that this self-proclaimed "philosopher," and advocate of the "supremacy of reason," doesn’t even bother to get his facts straight: Peikoff’s ignorance of the history of the Middle East, and specifically Iran, is monumental – and he knows it. But history, knowledge, and facts are unimportant to him...If history won’t conform to Peikoff’s ideological delusions, he simply makes it up...

Curious Reader said...

I cannot find a more general comments space so I am putting this here.

I generally find this site very intruging.

I sort of found Rand's philsophy in high school (as so many do) by a back door. The Fantasy Novelist Terry Goodkind writes novels with what he calls "essential human themes." What he means is Objectivist themes.

As a pseudo philsopher, Mr. Goodkind has no really original take on objectivim.

However, most of the objectivists I know either came to objectivism through his works or consider him the (second best) author of all time.

I told you that to make this point. In your debate with Paul B. the ONLY time he choses to actually quote a text or provide an element of hard evidence he chooses ATLAS, a novel, instead of ANY of Rand's Essays or non fiction works.

This is hardly unique to Paul B. Many objevistis will admit that will they have read atlas dozens of times they have never been able to finish a single non fiction work of hers. Using a novel passage allows much more interupration than a similar passage from an essay or logical proof might.

The point is: Many objectivists seem to hardly understand their OWN philsophy and ethics, instead relying on sermons from John Galt or Howard Roark to explain their belief system to them.

Indeed even amoung her own followers miss rands actual philsophy seems little used, understood, or applied. Sort of like a church that preaches the gospels but then ignores the rest of the new testiment as unimportant.

Also, I wonder if there might be column material for you in the reliance on novels as a subsittute for actual philosphy.

And pleae look into Mr. Goodkind, as I said he is a force driving people to rand's objectisim at least as much as any "real" objectivist outreach. (As a note he is also a personality of equal to Rands. He tends to make pronouncements such as "he does not write fantasy literature he writes novels with human themes" and then in the same interview will claim to have "changed the fantasy genere forever"

Anonymous said...

What an entity IS determines what it OUGHT to do. What could be more
self-evident ? Was Rand the first person to demolish Hume ? Not so.
Why should Barnes and Greg exist as men ? They don't and we should take them at their words.
Let Danny Boy Barnes and Greg You
Can't Prove You Exist Nihilyquist
do their word masturbation numbers. This recent visit was my first in three years, time for another sabbatical. Readers are invited to the Amazon site for the battling reviews of Greg's crappy book and you will see that Danny Boy Barnes does not pass muster.

Anonymous said...

"Readers are invited to the Amazon site for the battling reviews of Greg's crappy book..."

But surely anon, you as on objectivist would want us to make up our own mind if its crappy or not? As is not one of the hallmarks of the new intellectual (along with the old) that he could think for himself? It is a moot point but what exactly do the points you make about Greg or Daniel add to this topic? Nothing...I guess. If this is the best you can come up with in three years then please don't hurry back.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

"he does not write fantasy literature he writes novels with human themes" and then in the same interview will claim to have "changed the fantasy genere forever"

Talk about having your cake and eating it! What a pompous braggard. I've seen his books at my local library, great slabs of books, thicker than house bricks and there are at least 10 of the buggers! He must have one hellva mortgage to pay off. But he ain't getting any help from me. I tried to read this drivel by gave up after about 30 pages. For all his pretension he is no better than Tolkien and far worse than Robert E. Howard. The later who at least got his rubbish over with in 20 - 30 pages of zestful pulp. But in Goodkind a character make take 20 TO 30 PAGES TO MAKE AN APOLOGY arrrrgghhhhhhh. Though I like the idea of the hero who gets followed around by a lithe babe in red leather. Kinky or what?

If he is turning people on to objectivism then ye gods! Are literary standards that low in objectivist circles?

Steven Johnston

Daniel Barnes said...

>Are literary standards that low in objectivist circles?


@Bensix: Nice link, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Steven the Limey, I never accused you of having a mind, to make up or not. An honest person can look at the Amazon review I referred to
and come to but one conclusion. The
"reasoning" of Danny Boy And Greg N are quite defective to put it charitably.
Intersted, if any, readers can simply order Peikoff's audio history of western philosophy,
which tapes version comes in four large containers with full contents description. He deals with every issue raised here at length, particularly Hume and Kant and the main moderns. Curious Reader, you might learn how to spell PHILOSOPHY. Order Peikoff from ARI Bookstore, well worth the 600 bucks.

Curious Reader said...

The reason I bring in Goodkind and talked about Rand's work as a novelist is because THOSE are the sourcematerial for the "common" objectivist.

Rand as a fiction writer is decidely average. Atlas as a LITERARY work is overlong, and often turgid. Its hallmark is a 50+ page speach by the main character where he literally gets to tell off the entire world.

Goodkind's characters were apperently, all raised in Galt's Gulch where taking 3+ hours to get to your point is not only allowed but normal.

Fantasy as a genre alwasy has a wish fullfillment element, and an objectivist fantasy is finally able to take the obvious extreme ends of the philosphy and write them as good ideas no matter how seemingly horrible.

The main character exists in a world where his actions are right because he has been defined as the perfect moral actor and therefore the death of great loads of people is itself defined as the MORAL answer. Strangly, even in the literary world Objectivists cannot unhitch themselves from Rand's legacy as the final culmination of the great 13 volume epic Mr. Goodkind has written is to send all the non objectivists to a world of their own, effectively turning the entire "world" into a galts gulch and condeming all the "villanous" moochers to live in a world of their own.

Anyway, many objectivists are really only familar with objectivism from its layout from Rand's Novels and other literary sources. The problem is that Atlas is NOT Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Its a 50's quasi sci-fi novel that fits on the self between "stranger in a strange land" and "Foundation". And yet, more typical libertarians don't go around quoting Lazurus Long as the key element of their philsophy. However John Galt, the fictional character is treated like some sort of saint (In my state I have begun seeing "WWJGD" stickers on vehicles even).

I really think you might consider exploring this link between the "common" objectivist and there own lack of understanding of the philsophy they so steadfastly support except as it appears in Rand's and others novels.

Anonymous said...

"An honest person can look at the Amazon review I referred to
and come to but one conclusion. The
"reasoning" of Danny Boy And Greg N are quite defective to put it charitably"

Thanks for that. So if we don't agree that their reasoning is defective ergo we/they are dishonest? I admire your logic! You will come to one conculusion - why? I don't know he does not state why - that they are dishonest.

Well EXCUSE ME! But I am an honest person, I looked at that review you referred to and came to the conclusion that their reasoning is neither quite or even slightly defective. So bang goes that assertion.

Feel free to call me limey but don't ever, ever, EVER ask me to listen to Peikoff's audio tapes. There are some things even a limey won't do.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

"Its a 50's quasi sci-fi novel that fits on the self between "stranger in a strange land" and "Foundation"."

It may fit on the same shelf but it does not belong on the same shelf as either of these two work. The former is over rated tripe...but still light-years ahead of AS and the later is probably the finest novel written by that incredible man Uncle Ike (Asimov)

Daniel Barnes said...

Curious Reader wonders:
>Also, I wonder if there might be column material for you in the reliance on novels as a subsittute for actual philosophy.

Thanks for your insightful remarks. The thing is Objectivists, starting with Rand herself, seem to rely on her novels as a substitute for reality, not just philosophy. That's why they'll use Galt's speech as support for their arguments before they use empirical science, or even standard logic. Gradually the real world starts to slip away, and is replaced by a fictional one....

I was aware of Goodkind's Objectivism, but can't say I've ever read him. I'll take a look. It may be a while though, my next project is a review of this baby.

Josh said...

Greg, Contrary to a Fox News screenshot of a year or two ago, Lincoln debated Stephen Douglas, not Frederick Douglass.

Otherwise, love your work; glad Balloon Juice linked it.

Daniel Barnes said...

Thanks Josh.

I'm Greg's co-blogger. it's a bit of an arcane area - critiquing an already somewhat arcane belief system. But ironically, as she hasn't been taken seriously by the academic establishment it means that her followers can shrug off a lot of criticism to date as ad hominem, which only strengthens their determination to believe. Actually, the main problem(s) with Rand, as Greg's book and this blog has been chipping away at over the last five years or so, is that her stuff has little or no basis in science or logic. That's why her followers mainly quote Atlas Shrugged in support of her arguments - which, um, happens to be a work of fiction....;-)

Anonymous said...

Well I e-mailed this page to the UKOA but all I got back was that it was a difficult question to summarise (AR's 'solution'to the is/ought question). As the answer is found not in one article but over her whole writings...erm...right.

But he did say that man is a rational being...he/she can try living like an animal...but this will be like a bird breaking its wings or a fish living on land.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

"Of course, no such proof will ever be produced."

Except, of course, that you have just relied on the validity of deriving a value from a fact, in the very attempt to reject such a possibility -- viz., I have relied on certain *facts* to evaluate Baird's position (AR's position) as *wrong*.

Or if you want: One *ought* to reject Baird (AR) because his position *is* logically wrong.

One can attempt to continue rejecting the laws of logic, but at some point, one is reduced to "babbling. (HT Aristotle)

Anonymous said...

"That's why her followers mainly quote Atlas Shrugged in support of her arguments - which, um, happens to be a work of fiction....;-)"

...and a lousy one at that. Were you to read from it aloud birds would drop out the sky stone dead. Even political speeches by the Chinese communist party politburo come close to matching the depths of awfulness this 'novel' plumbs. She was to literature what Uri Geller is to science.

Steven Johnston

Anonymous said...

"Or if you want: One *ought* to reject Baird (AR) because his position *is* logically wrong."

That it then anon? The conundrum has finally been solved?

Steven Johnston

Daniel Barnes said...

>Except, of course, that you have just relied on the validity of deriving a value from a fact, in the very attempt to reject such a possibility -- viz., I have relied on certain *facts* to evaluate Baird's position (AR's position) as *wrong*.

>Or if you want: One *ought* to reject Baird (AR) because his position *is* logically wrong."

PJ O'Rourke once remarked upon looking at the hopelessly constructed buildings in the former Soviet Union that the Russians loved concrete so much you would think that would learn how to make it.

Well the same is true of Objectivists and logic.

Here we have yet another Objecto-anon attempting to make some logical claim with about as much success as a Russian labourer making concrete out of old grass clippings.

Actually, Beaird is simply unable to produce a logical formulation of Rand's alleged refutation of Hume. As Hume's fact/value problem is a logical one, therefore neither Beaird nor Rand has refuted Hume, despite the claims of both. From this fact, we form the perfectly reasonable hypothesis that neither of have the faintest idea of what they're talking about.

As to whether one "ought" to accept the results of logical conclusions that one is unable to refute - well, clearly Objectivists should try doing so sometime...;-)

Anonymous said...

Just picking from your debate on Amazon (didn't manage to post it out there)

" Suppose five soldiers are standing around and a grenade lands between them. One of the soldiers dives on the grenade and, though instantly killed, saves the other four. According to the logic of Rand's philosophy, the soldier who dove on the grenade is evil and the other four are also evil for benefiting from the self-sacrifice of another. "

This conclusion of yours can only be arrived at by engaging in context-dropping (wilful or otherwise). Hence, I fail to see why you make sense.