Friday, December 31, 2010

Rand and Empirical Responsibility, 8

“Man’s values control his subconscious emotional mechanism that functions like a computer adding up his desires, his experiences, his fulfillments and frustrations.” Again we are faced with the question: How does Rand know that this is true? Rand, per usual, provides no evidence for her contention. How then is a rational person supposed to evaluate it?

If we go by the evidence collated from common experience (i.e., so-called "common sense"), it is far more likely that man's "values" are an expression of his emotions, rather than vice versa. Rand is here guilty of assuming that man's values are (or ought to be) the product of non-emotional cogitation. But since cognitive science has discovered that non-emotional cogitation is probably a fantasy, we have every reason to believe that emotions must play at least a part in the forming of values. Indeed, it is difficult to understand how it could not be so. Ask any individual why he values something, and it will be found that some emotion or desire or sentiment is at the bottom of the whole thing. If a man values a certain type of music, it is because listening to it causes him pleasure; if he values meditation, it is because it improves his well-being (i.e., it makes him feel better); if he values self-flagellation, it is because he believes it will improve his well-being in the hereafter. Some values, of course, are rather contrived and even mad, such as values attached to ideological and religious systems; but there's still some sentiment or desire that is at the bottom of it, however twisted or narcissitic it might be. The individual who values mercy to child molesters might be guilty of entertaining a perverse and artificial value, disconnected from any natural need or sentiment, but that value has its root, not in "reason" or logic, but in some kind of pathological humanitarian affectation.

This point was fleshed out by Hume more than 250 years ago, as follows:

It appears evident, that the ultimate ends [i.e., values] of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man, why he uses exercise; he will answer, because he desires to keep his health. If you then enquire, why he desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason, why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.

Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee or reward, merely, for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys; it is requisite that there should be some sentiment, which it touches; some internal taste or feeling, or whatever you please to call it, which distinguishes moral good and evil, and which embraces the one and rejects the other... Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.

Not only did Rand fail to provide evidence for her curious contention, she made no attempt to grapple with contrary arguments. Hume's position, as stated above, appears nearly irrefragible. In any case, if Rand wishes her contention to be taken seriously, at the very least she should have given us compelling reasons to reject Hume's argument. How, if not on the basis of some sentiment or affection, does man come by any values at all? If Rand had been a serious thinker dedicated the discovery and elucidation of truth, she would have attempted to provide a serious, detailed, fact-based answer to this question.

[This being the last post of 2010, I'd like to take the opportunity to wish all the good readers of ARCHNBlog a happy New Year. And to our bad readers, also, a happy New Year.]


Xtra Laj said...

Merry New Year to you too!

It's so funny that Rand's article on VOS that claims to refute Hume is trying to do something along the lines that Hume did - link virtues to fundamental human drives. Of course, the fact that the drives themselves are not "rational" but are specified by Rand is not apparent to her...

Rey said...

I like this blog a lot because you quote extensively from these old philosophers whose ideas and arguments so misunderstood that her refutations of them come across as Quixotic, philosophical non-sequiturs. Rand's output as a philosopher puts me in mind of the following passage from Cervantes:

"In Sevilla there as a madman who had the strangest, most comical notion that any madman ever had. What he did was to make a tube out of a reed that he sharpened at one end, and then he would catch a dog on the street, or somewhere else, hold down one of its hind legs with his foot, lift the other with his hand, fit the tube into the right place, and blow until he had made the animal as round as a ball, and then, holding it up, he would give the dog two little pats on its belly and let it go, saying to the onlookers, and there were always a good number of them:
'Now do your graces think it's an easy job to blow up a dog?'"

caroljane said...

Daniel, what happened to my suggestion for the ARCHN dating advice line, "Ask Aristotle"? I posted it twice and it disappeared into the ether. As a seriously lazy person plus very old, I feel overexerted and underappreciated.

If it is my fault (maybe it is, I have only sole-owned a computer for a few months and basically treat it like a typewriter with benefits) what am I doing wrong?

caroljane said...

Daniel, just heard bout the earthquake in NZ.Don't know where you live there, let us know you're OK.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Caroljane

Thanks for your concern. I'm in Auckland, which is in the upper North Island, well away from the quakes. Christchurch is, however, in very bad shape indeed. I appreciate your concern.

Also, I hadn't noticed your earlier comment re Aristotle's dating service. Did that post show up eventually? I seem to recall it did. Sometimes Blogger throws a gear for some reason, so apologies.

caroljane said...

Glad you're Ok Daniel. Yes, Ari turned up I think, he knows a thing or two about earthquakes so he and the Oracle were concerned also.

Jeffrey Newholm said...

Yep, that's the biggest problem I have found with Objectivism: is 'good' really objective? Hume's analysis is a tough nut to crack. I realzed this when I read Andrew Bernstein's book Capitalism Unbound. In his futile attempt to overcome Hume, he says at one point: "Human Beings must choose values, they must choose life, they must choose egoism" (77). Well-says who? I argue this with an Objectivist friend all the time, and this is the best answer he could give me (to be fair, I haven't finished the long and dry Objectivism: the philosophy of Ayn Rand yet, so...): 1)if you choose reality as your starting point, which I think we all do 2)choosing life=choosing reality (I guess this means that when you die you aren't in reality anymore, but he said no, not sure what else it means...) 3)you've already choosen life, so now you ought to do what furthers it.

Hrmm...I'm not sold yet, that's why I came here, this is a pretty good anti-rand blog.

Interestingly, tonight this friend and I watched the podcast of Yaron Brooks's speech in USC called 'Why Ideas matter". Through my friend (he provided the wording but got the insipration from me) I asked:why choose life?

Dr. Brooks said there really is no why, other than "it's pretty good".

Pretty good? What, we have an emotional preference for it?

Objectivism is on pretty thin ice here.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Jeffrey

If you are interested, you may want to read Greg's 16-part series of critiques of Rand's ethics, starting here. I have a little houskeeping to do here at the ARCHNblog to make Greg's various series a little easier to read in order, but for the meantime you can find the rest of them just by searching the blog.