Monday, November 22, 2010

Intellectual Sources of the Latest Objectischism 2

According to Rand, the Objectivist Ethics "holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value." Now it seems likely that this principle was devised primarily (and perhaps solely) to convince herself and her followers that it is never in an individual's rational self-interest to violate the rights of another person. Rand never considered the implications of this principle in other venues, such as a voluntary organization such as ARI.

In the latest Objectischism, there exists a conflict of interests between Leonard Peikoff and John McCaskey. The fact that such a conflict exists at all indicates that one (if not both) of the parties are "irrational." Indeed, the fact that conflicts exist within orthodox Objectivism -- conflicts so intense and irresolvable that they can only be ended by one of the parties exiting the scene -- suggests something profoundly amiss. If individuals passionately devoted to Rand's philosophy of "reason" and "reality" are incapable of resolving their differences "rationally," what hope is there for the rest of us?

The philosophical problem at the base of the issue stems from Rand's conception of "reason." I have suggested in previous posts on this blog that "reason" is a mythical faculty. None of its champions have ever provided empirical evidence demonstrating it's reported efficacy. It's merely a term used by those seeking to justify contentions based on insufficient evidence. Human discourse is most efficacious when it is subjected to rigorous testing, whether scientific or practical. The best justification for an idea or theory is that it works in empirical reality. Seeking justification for a theory in "reason" is merely an invitation for rationalization, which is the bane of rational inquiry.

Now if Objectivist "reason" were everything it is cracked up to be, we would expect to find evidence of this in the lives of Objectivists. Nothing could be more to the purpose along these lines then an empirical examination of how reason works to solve disputes within an organization run by leading Objectivists. Rand believed in the existence of an objective reality that could be understood by "reason." Rand insisted that, despite man's fallibility, anyone using "reason" could arrive at true and even "certain" conclusions. As a consequence of this, rational men (i.e., men using "reason"), assuming they had access to the same information, would always arrive at the same conclusions. This, incidentally, provides a rationale for why there are no conflicts among "rational" men. Since reason inevitably leads to the same conclusion, rational men will always find themselves on the same page. Differences of opinion can be settled by "reasoned" discussion.

So how does this theory work in practice? Obviously, if ARI is our test case, it doesn't work at all. Peikoff admits, for example, that "Ultimately, someone has to decide who is qualified to hold such positions [on the ARI board] and where the line is to be drawn." Someone has to decide? Shouldn't "reason" decide? Since reality is objective and "reason" the only "valid" means of knowing reality, what need is there for an individual to decide these things at all? Shouldn't a committee of rational men do just as well? But no, of course not; even Leonard Peikoff understands that a committee of rational men would not do at all. Peikoff is right to insist that someone must decide, that hierarchical leadership is necessary even among Objectivists. This suggests that "reason" is not all it's cracked up to be. Why should this be so? What is wrong with the Objectivist conception of "reason"?

(1) Differing "context" of knowledge among men. Within the Objectivist ideology, the idea of context is used as a kind of conceptual escape hatch to explain, for instance, why a moral absolute may not apply in all instances (because moral absolutes are "contextual") or why an individual may be certain yet wrong (because certainty is "contextual"). It could also be used to explain why hierarchical leadership based on "authority" is necessary even for Objectivists. Since individuals have differing "contexts of knowledge," they will not always arrive at the same conclusions. While their conclusions, if backed by all the evidence within the "context of their knowledge," will be "certain," they won't be identical. Those with a wider context of knowledge will (presumably) achieve a higher level of "certainty." They will know more and will hence be in a better position to make rational decisions.

So far so good. But if this line of reasoning is accepted, it creates problems in other areas of Objectivism. If differing contexts of knowledge cause rational men to arrive at different conclusions, then Rand's contention about "no conflicts of interest" among rational men must be dropped. Here is yet another example of Rand and her disciples failing to consider all the implications of a specific doctrine. Since a rational man's interests must, according to Rand, be discovered through "reason," and since knowledge is contextual, the conclusions that a man reaches concerning the interests of himself and others (including organizations like ARI) will depend on the context of his knowledge. Different contexts lead to different assessments of interests, even among rational men; and differing assessment of interests will inevitably lead to conflicts.

2. Interests are fundamentally non-rational. Rand's conviction that there exists such a thing as "rational" interests, discoverable by "reason," is incoherent and poorly thought out. Neither Rand nor any of her disciples have ever provided us with a detailed description of how to distinguish a rational interest from a non-rational interest. If we go by Objectivist writings, a "rational" interest is merely any interest that Rand and her disciples approve of, while a non-rational (or "irrational") interest is an any interest they disapprove of.

The problem here is insoluable on Objectivist premises. That's because interests are fundamentally emotive in nature. While emotions are not the sole arbiters of an individual's interest, they do provide data essential for developing an intelligent appreciation of what these interests might be. An interest must be rooted in some natural need or desire if it is to be an interest at all. An interest that satisfied no need or desire, but was entirely independent of the affective system, would be an imposition rather than an interest. To pursue interests that satisfy no natural need is to act contrary to nature.

Now it just so happens that human nature is not homogeneous. The natural needs of men differ from one individual to another. Worse, some needs (such as the need for status) cannot be harmonized within a social system (i.e., Paul's need for status cannot be completely harmonized with Peter's need for status). Conflict of interests are therefore a built-in feature of the human condition. To deny this is to live in fairy-tale world.

What perhaps shocked rank-and-file Objectivists more than anything else in Peikoff's now infamous email is where he wrote, "I hope you still know who I am and what my intellectual status is in Objectivism." Objectivists are not supposed to be concerned with status. It is a product of that horror or horrors, social metaphysics. It reeks of authoritarianism and the appeal to faith. Yet status can no more be exorcised from man's "emotional mechanism" than sex or hunger can. To deny or evade it merely serves to make it more poisonous, since what is repressed cannot be forthrightly combatted or rechanneled.

Rivalries of status and pre-eminence do exist within the Objectivist community. Of course, no self-respecting Objectivist could ever admit this; so the fact itself must be repressed, which in turn leads to rationalization on an immense scale. When intellectuals rationalize their desires, a duality of meaning develops within their thought. Everything they think or say has a "formal" and a "real" meaning. The "formal" meaning is the literal, conscious meaning; it's the rationalized meaning, meant to persuade and deceive both the rationalizer and his audience. The "real" meaning accords with the unconscious motives that are prompting the whole business.

So if an aspiring Objectivist came out and said, "I'm supporting Peikoff because I think it will further my career as an Objectivist spokeman," he would ruin any chances of achieving the object of his ambition. Hence the need of concealing one's real motives. The trouble here is that human beings are pretty good at detecting this sort of insincerity. It's not enough to conceal one's motives; one must also believe in the "truth" of one's deception. In short, one must accept one's own lies and become, if you will, a sincere hypocrit.

Once this dynamic is in full play, any claims about "reason," logic, or reasoned discourse must be treated with the utmost suspicion. When people are forced to repress and conceal their true motives under a veneer of logic, rationalization becomes the order of the day. Hence the fanaticism and irrationality one detects in so many orthodox Objectivists. Hence their inability to engage in reasoned discourse with those who disagree with them. Hence their inability to even understand, let alone refute, their critics. Hence their inability to use "reason" to resolve differences among themselves.

3. Rand provided no "technology" for "reason." In Nathaniel Branden's essay "The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand," we run across the following observation: "So here in Ayn Rand’s work is an ethical philosophy with a great vision of human possibilities, but no technology to help people get there..." This absence of a "technology" doesn't only afflict Rand's ethics; it is a problem with Rand's epistemology, particularly in relation to her much ballyhooed "reason." Rand actually never bothers to explain, in a clear, detailed, empirically testable fashion, how one goes about using "reason." About as detailed as she gets is the following:

In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective.

I will provide a more detailed explanation of what is wrong with this when I get around to doing my "Objectivism and Epistemology" series. For our present purposes, I will merely note that Rand's inclusion of concept-formation in her conception of reason is deeply problematical. Concept-formation is an extremely complex process involving unconscious process that cannot be directed by the conscious mind. For this reason, no articulable, formalized technique can ever be devised to control or direct, let alone even describe, the process of concept-formation. But without an articulable, formalized technique, reason cannot be "followed." Unconscious processes can at best be "evoked" by the conscious mind; they can't be controlled or directed, since the individual cannot control what is beyond the range of sentience. Rand's "reason" is therefore mythical. No such technique exists or is possible. What is possible, instead, is rational and empirical criticism. While we cannot direct the process by which conclusions are formed, we can test such conclusions, once they become availabe to the conscious mind. Empirical testing and rational criticism therefore constitute the chief ingredients of rationality, not concept-formation or "reason."

"Reason" being mythical, any attempt to resolve differences among men (whether they are "rational" or not) via "reason" must come to grief. Hence the necessity within the Objectivist movement of an authority based on "status" who can settle the conflicts which, in the absence of an objective arbiter, will inevitably arise among Objectivists. If Leonard Peikoff did not exist, Objectivists would be forced to invent him. Without a central authority, Objectivism would splinter into hundreds of fragments, each claiming to follow "reason" and crying anathema on all other fragments. The Objectivist movement, precisely because it follows "reason," which is entirely mythical faculty, must be authoritarian at its core. It cannot exist on any other basis.


Anon69 said...

Part of the problem seems to be that Rand herself was an author who sought to create an attractive air of certainty in her published works. There was no room for reasoned discourse because the first say had to be the final say. Any discussion could only take the form of instruction and clarification to subordinates, but not reconsideration or revision from debate with peers.

Rational argument has no place in such a system of thought; the "conveyor belt" of ideas must always move in one direction only. How fun it must have been to imagine oneself above all others as the ultimate fountain of truth! Yet the impossibility of reasoned debate is profoundly unwise and a fatal flaw of Objectivism. It is hard to see how such things as academic peer review, adversarial legal procedures, respect for others' rights, friendly criticism or even friendship could fit. Organized Objectivism has carried on this absurdity, and is reaping the whirlwind.

Daniel Barnes said...

Great comment Anon69.

Brendan H said...

Greg: "Different contexts lead to different assessments of interests, even among rational men; and differing assessment of interests will inevitably lead to conflicts."

And when the conflict is serious enough, it leads to accusations of "irrationality", since as you point out, the alternative is that other "contexts", including non-Objectivist contexts, can be rational.

In some matters, such as tastes in food, and perhaps even voting preferemces, the context argument can work well enough without threatening the ideology, giving Rand's thought the appearance of flexibility and nuance.

But "serious" interests involve the likes of control and property, and here rationality often takes a back seat to status and the drive for dominance.

As many have pointed out, the great irony in Objectivism is that the self-described devotees of reason are so consumed by conflict. Although I remember one young chap enthusing over the fact that "Objectivism is a fighting creed". Indeed.

Sometimes I think Peikoff is bit of a Breshnev-type character, sclerotic and clinging to power despite the many "mental health" scares.

But even if there's a general openness and relaxation after his death, I doubt that Objectivsim will go the way of the Soviet Union.

Organisations are not territories, and there will always be young people smittten enough by Rand's vision to work their way though the many contradictions, helped by her passion and the "contextual" arguments of her followers.

Xtra Laj said...

Empirical testing and rational criticism therefore constitute the chief ingredients of rationality, not concept-formation or "reason."

I think my appreciation of this point was the beginning of my break with Objectivism specifically and historical and philosophical speculation generally. So many subtle points are related to the above conclusion: an appreciation for the limits of rational discourse, and why actions often speak way louder than words.

It was interestingly enough the debate on determinism vs. free will that started this off for me. It was clear to me that Objectivism caricatured determinism. What wasn't so clear was why people felt so strongly about "genetic determinism". Just so happened that "The Blank Slate" was released around the same time so I purchased it and entered a whole new world.

There is a paper by Sperber and Mercier on "The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning" which argues that our ability to reason is designed primarily to win arguments, and not primarily to arrive at correct conclusions, and that arriving at correct conclusions are more about criticism and testing. It also showed that groups often manage to do better at many reasoning tasks than individuals do in that there are quite a few cases where groups of people can arrive at the correct solution when none of the individuals arrived at it himself.

Of course, when I point my Objectivist brother to this paper, he argues that the authors do not understand what "reason" is. The irony of it all!

Xtra Laj said...


Objectivist lack a commonsense understanding of "trivial". Exhibit A: The Romantic Manifesto.

gregnyquist said...

It was interestingly enough the debate on determinism vs. free will that started this off for me.

This was a big issue for me as well. It's what turned me into a critic of Objectivism. Even before my exposure to Objectivism, I had come to the believe, as a result of my experiences in college and from reading Nock, Mencken, and Schumpeter, that most intellectuals were genetically biased toward liberalism and radical leftism, so that any attempt to reason them out of their delusions was largely hopeless. I was shocked when I discovered that Peikoff believed Objectivism just needed to be taught at a few Ivy League schools in order take over the culture. Whenever I challenged this point to other Objectivists, I was always taken to task for denying "free will." In one argument, the Objectivists I was debating all agreed that it was "invalid" to make predictions about human behavior, since people had "free will." (Never mind that Peikoff's belief about getting Objectivism taught at Harvard and Yale also involved a prediction about human behavior!) When I found out what this "free will" was based on (i.e., the purely rationalistic argument about determinism being self-refuting), I became suspicious of Rand's "reason." From that point on Objectivism merely became for me a useful foil through which I could develop my own philosophy. From Rand I learned how not to philosophize, and for that I'm grateful to her.