Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 5

Incest Avoidance. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt often confronts participants in his lab experiments with the following scenario:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on a summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. Was it okay for Mark and Julie to make love? [Out of Character, 41]

Almost everyone posed with this question answers with a resounding no. Yet when asked to explain their rationale for their answer, no logical answer can be provided. Since there are no objective consequences to this sort of incest, how can anyone, on rational grounds, possibly object to it?



Objections to incest clearly arise from strong innate predispositions against it. It is not a consequence of philosophical or moral premises imbibed in childhood. While the horror of incest may be rational in the sense that it helps prevent problems associated with inbreeding, the emotions one feels are not a consequence of such careful, thoroughly researched and peer reviewed scientific calculations. The science came only much later, long after the predispositions arose.

Rand claims that there is no such thing as an innate predisposition (or tendency), since that would contradict free will:

A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.

This being the case, how would Rand explain the strong predisposition, nearly universal, against incest? Why does nearly everyone make the same choice about incest, but not the same choice regarding which political or economic system they prefer? Why does there exist a near universal horror of incest, but not a near universal horror of eating broccoli, or folk dancing, or socialism, or many of the other irrational follies of mankind?

Not only is Rand unable to adequately explain the predisposition against incest, she would fail at providing a moral rationale against it as well. Yes, she could, like everyone else, invoke the horrors of inbreeding. But if the participants used birth control (or were sterile), that reason no longer applies. So what other "rational" reason can be invoked? Could psychological objections be raised? But how can they be when one assumes that a person's psychology is a product of his premises? If psychological problems arise, why not just change the person's premises, thus adapted their psychology to specific conduct?

These difficulties aren't noticed because Rand never allowed herself to be challenged on such issues. Without effective criticism, human beings tend to slip into rationalization, which is the default form of thinking in ethics (and philosophy).

32 comments:

Govi said...

OTT but I hope someday you can write a speculative post as to possible reasons why Rand's books have been so popular, and particularly among certain demographics (i.e. the mass public more than "intellectuals," adolescents rather than adults, and North Americans rather than than the rest of the world).

Govi said...

Also OTT, but a disorder exists called "hybristophilia," i.e. the sexual attraction to convicts, and Ayn Rand obviously had a certain attraction to William Edward Hickman, who murdered a 12 year old girl. When I read the Fountainhead decades ago, I could hardly help but notice how much relish she has in describing Roark's body, and in person, it's hard also not to notice how extremely unfeminine she was in appearance and mannerisms. Then there's the uncontrollable libido she exhibited in her personal life, which suggests to me she might have had high testosterone levels. Again it's just speculating, but I've always thought that Rand's whole oeuvre was a rationalization of unconscious motives, and that the motives were sexual, i.e. not the ideal man intellectually, but the dominant, even criminally violent man her hormones were telling her were the right ones.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Govi: I hope someday you can write a speculative post as to possible reasons why Rand's books have been so popular, and particularly among certain demographics ...

I think it's actually pretty well understood. Here's my take:

The mass public is interested right now because she's been made a hot topic by the right-wing in American politics. She offers a simple explanation for every problem of society -- it's all due to too much government interference -- and the masses, or at least a certain segment thereof, like that, probably in part because it's so easy and in part because it gives them a clear target for their frustrations. Contrast with the political mainstream, where the debate is always about what tradeoffs to make among competing interests and concerns. This is a hard problem; there's no obvious right answer, and an answer that works today may not work so well tomorrow. (This is not to say that the right has a monopoly on wanting simplistic answers; there's a segment on the left that reflexively blames corporations for every problem.)

Intellectuals are far less impressed with Rand. They've figured out that her answers are too facile, and they have the mental toolkit to dissect her reasoning and identify the errors and the many problems she just skates over. When her supporters decline to engage in debate (either by not showing up at all or by showing up only to dismiss out of hand every opposing argument), the intellectuals interpret it as a sign of Objectivism's weakness, not strength. They quickly lose interest.

Adolescents tend to be more favorably impressed than adults because adolescents know a lot less about how the world works. (Indeed, nearly all new Objectivists are adolescents or young adults.) I think most adolescent admirers are initially hooked by Rand's exhortations to think for oneself and her confidence and certainty in her own rectitude; her young readers lack the thinking skills to see the gaping holes in her allegedly airtight reasoning, and they lack the real-world experience to recognize that Rand's ideas, consistent though they may seem in her carefully crafted fictional world, don't translate well into the real one. Most adolescents grow out of their infatuation as they learn and observe more of the world; it may take months or several years. But some don't; they become the next generation of Objectivists.

As far as North America vs. the rest of the world, I suspect the key difference is that rugged individualism -- the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit -- has always been a theme that resonates more strongly in the US than elsewhere; it's part of "the American way." In cultures with a stronger sense of community, Rand's extreme individualism just doesn't resonate.

Lloyd Flack said...

Agree with what Echo Chamber Escapee wrote. Another part of her appeal is that people want their morality to be placed on a demonstrably correct basis and she promises that. They want it both for their own peace of mind and as a way to resolve conflicts. That was the main appeal for me even though Objectivism had consequences that I did not like. Nevertheless I accepted its ethics provisionally. But eventually it became plain that they were not going to work and had not worked.

intplee said...

Rand's example of loaded dice is fascinating. Would man be more free if the dice were fair? But that would just be random.

Daniel Barnes said...

i agree, intplee.

Daniel Barnes said...

I will add to Echo Chamber Escapee's comments only in that I think the fundamental appeal of Objectivism is the promise ofpower. You Too Can Master The Secrets of The Ages With The Minimum Of Work!

It's a bit like those X-Ray Specs that you could win from those comic book ads for selling seeds or greeting cards back in the '70s. Doesn't really work, but as an adolescent you really want it too...!

Govi said...

Just to attempt to get back to the inherent "human nature" angle, Rand's books are popular, so they obviously have to speak to something in human nature, though something I may not quite share so much.

To me, her own inherent "human nature" as expressed in her books looks an awful lot like an unusually demanding libido for brooding powerful men that were even more masculine than she was, which she had to unconsciously rationalize somehow to conform with cultural norms. Thus the whole philosophy of the ideal man, and later the unwillingness to admit to the affair, all a round about way of saying "This is the kind of man I want in bed."

I can't be sure about her hormones, or other things like how her amphetamine habit affected her cognition (her conduct bears some resemblance to that of a speed freak), but AFAIK it's a general scientific consensus that testosterone causes elevated libido, and masculinized facial features, and she had both. Plus, women usually suffer decreased libido after menopause due to declining testosterone levels, but Ayn Rand seemed to have no loss of carnal appetites into her 60's. It does make me wonder.

Anonymous said...

An interesting theory, Govi, though I'm starting to feel that an awful lot of pathologies have been proposed to explain the direction in which Rand's ideas go. Is that a necessary part of critiquing her?

I'm not singling out Govi's post, I've just noticed around the web that sociopathy, drug addiction, and a host of other physical and psychological ailments are used by some to explain why she ended up with such "wrong" ideas.

- Chris

Andrew Priest said...

I would tend to agree. Ultimately, a person's argument is valid or invalid on its own merits and why a person would reach their position is irrelevant. By itself, speculating on Rand's mental states is not ad hominem. But it gets uncomfortably close at times.

On topic, one thing that sticks out is the 'nearly' universal part. I looked around a bit and discovered there was at least one culture that had incest on a significant scale. That is, more than just a rarity among a select few elite.

It seems that research in the Roman census data reveals a high rate of brother/sister marriage in Egypt during the first few centuries CE. It could just be an oddity, but it's a bad habit to dismiss negative findings too easily. If nothing else, this implies culture can overcome innate tendencies.

Dragonfly said...

An ad hominem means that you dismiss someone's arguments on the basis of his or her personality. But I haven't seen anyone doing that here. It's the other way around: that Rand's philosophy is full of gaping holes has been shown often enough and with valid arguments, there is absolutely no need for an ad hominem.

But the question why and how Rand arrived at her ideas and how she created a cult has in itself little or nothing to do with philosophy, but it is an interesting psychological or sociological question. Don't forget that some people close to her found symptoms of madness in her, so trying to find out more about her psychology isn't so different from trying to discover the psychology behind a mass murderer or the psychology of Jesus (supposed that he existed more or less as described in the bible).

Xtra Laj said...


On topic, one thing that sticks out is the 'nearly' universal part. I looked around a bit and discovered there was at least one culture that had incest on a significant scale. That is, more than just a rarity among a select few elite.


Brother-sister incest or cousin-cousin marriage?

Xtra Laj said...

The unfortunate( or fortunate?) truth of the matter is that many of our attitudes and values do depend on hormones etc. You can easily change a man's behavior by raising his testosterone (or reducing it). The same to some degree for women.

I second what Dragonfly said and in Rand's case, it is the fact that she is so given to rationalizing without empathizing or reviewing broad swathes of evidence that deserves an explanation of her agenda/behavior.

Moreover, many people (not just young people) who find Rand inspirational fail to realize the difference between liking/sharing some of Rand's values and considering them objective values. Sharing someone's values says something about you as much as it says something about the values you support. Since Objectivism deals heavily with ethics and politics in the most parochial fashion, no one make sense of it objectively without trying to understand the motives of Rand.

Xtra Laj said...

To me, her own inherent "human nature" as expressed in her books looks an awful lot like an unusually demanding libido for brooding powerful men that were even more masculine than she was, which she had to unconsciously rationalize somehow to conform with cultural norms. Thus the whole philosophy of the ideal man, and later the unwillingness to admit to the affair, all a round about way of saying "This is the kind of man I want in bed."

I think Rand also had a significant "smartest person in the room" problem that led her to worship intelligence (which she ended up making synonymous with rationality) without fully understanding its social basis and its epistemic limitations. In fact, I think when she worships "rationality" or "reason", she is really worshiping intelligent reasoning with values consonant with hers.

gregnyquist said...

I agree with Laj on this one, although I would rephrase "smartest person in the room" problem to "smartest person in the class," because that's where many of the core attitudes regarding one's own intelligence begin to take shape. People tend to think highly of precisely those qualities in which they most excel, while disparaging qualities in which they struggle. Within the social sphere of school girls, being the smartest person in the class doesn't really pay big social dividends. It doesn't automatically grant one status; on the contrary, it can be a liability, as it tends to enflame envy and resentment. So Rand not only had incentives to think highly of her own intelligence, she had incentives against thinking well of social status and peer group pressure and all those social forces that lead to pecking orders. These attitudes would only be strengthened later by her experiences with Soviet communism, which would cast group values once again in a sinister and horrid light. In the context of group dynamics, which disparaged individual initiative and intelligence used in the service of self-aggrandizement, Rand could never distinguish herself. Hence the appeal of extreme individualism to Rand.

Curiously, Rand's extreme individualism, within her own social sphere, applied only to herself: she did not grant it to others. Whether she had an innate bias for wanting those around her to conform to her own individuality, or whether it was a trait picked up from her upbringing in Russian and Soviet culture, is difficult to determine. But Rand's individualism was applied, speculatively, to her politics and ethics, and practically, only to herself.

Govi said...

I completely understand why some/many people feel uncomfortable identifying with groups, but I think this discomfort emerges on an unconscious level and not some principled critique of the "collective."

I don't think there's ultimately any way to completely reconcile individualism with reproduction short of cloning yourself. Reproduction entails a collective of at a minimum two parents and at least one child. The family is the most basic and ubiquitous collective of all, and even Ayn Rand wasn't brave enough to attack this institution because there weren't, and aren't any alternatives yet.

I also wonder why Rand so equates capitalism with individualism when I don't think the two really have all that much to do with each other. Passionately asserting your individuality, at least from what my own eyes persist on telling me, doesn't seem to do much to make one rich. I wouldn't be much of a good capitalist if I wasn't worried about what other people think and want, and how I could sell it to them.

Govi said...

And when I say individualism arises from discomfort with groups on an "unconscious level," I refer to traits like introversion/extroversion, which do seem to be inherent.

Ken said...

@Govi: I also wonder why Rand so equates capitalism with individualism when I don't think the two really have all that much to do with each other.

Especially not capitalism as practiced in the modern corporate environment. Sure, companies compete with one another, but inside it's often the kind of top-down control of every aspect of the workers' activities that the Soviets dreamt of.

Jeffrey said...

My favorite quote regarding morality comes from the "evil" Lord Voldimort in the first Harry Potter film: "There is no good and evil. Only power, and those too weak to seek it". Nowhere in the reaminder of the 6+ books in the series nor from any other ethical argument I have ever heard has there been a convincing rebuttal to this that didn't play on what we already happened to like (with the exception of christianity's "Grand Sez who" with God as the ultimate arbitrator of morality).

Jeffrey said...

P.S. I recentely completed an economics paper where I take Rand to task for her founding her economic recommendations based of the faulty "rational man" model, and explained why, contra to Galt, coercion is not inherently evil. If the readers at ARCHNblog would care to read it I would be glad to publish it.

Daniel Barnes said...

by all means, flick it to us.

Jonathan said...

From the intitial post:
"Objections to incest clearly arise from strong innate predispositions against it. It is not a consequence of philosophical or moral premises imbibed in childhood."

How did you the come to the conclusion that objections to incest are innate and not a consequence of philosophical or moral premises learned in childhood? In order to come to such a conclusion, wouldn't we have to present Haidt's brother/sister scenario to people who were raised in a controlled environment where they were never exposed to any social pressures, judgments or guidance on the subject of incest? We live in a world in which consensual incest is highly taboo, and even illegal in many areas, so it would be almost impossible to find interview subjects who have not been exposed to very strong "philosophical or moral premises imbibed in childhood."

J

gregnyquist said...

How did you the come to the conclusion that objections to incest are innate and not a consequence of philosophical or moral premises learned in childhood?

Very simple. Incest avoidance is so widespread, currently and historically, that it is grossly implausible to assume that it is merely a philosophical or moral premise learned in childhood. Philosophical/moral premises are diverse, and whatever influence they may have can go in any number of directions. If incest avoidance was merely a cultural phenomenon, we would expect to find at least a few examples of cultures where brothers and sisters freely copulated without guilt or shame; but no such culture has ever been found (the example of 1st century Egypt is hardly conclusive, as it is not clear that the so-called brother-sister marriages found in documents really were between actual siblings — as "sister" could mean lover, mistress, concubine, niece or aunt! — and whether these marriages involved procreation). Moreover, it's important to understand that it's not the taboos against incest that are universal, but the desire not to participate in the act itself, a desire all the more odd as it goes against the very strong desire, on the part of males at least, to have sexual relations with comely women their own age. Psychological research gives strong grounds for believing that incest avoidance is strongly affected by growing up with intimate closeness to a person, a phenomenon that has been observed in many different cultures.

Jeffrey said...

What's more, even if we could rule out a genetic basis for incest avoidence, exposure to cultural norms against it could be used just as well for an argument for classical conditioning as opposed to conscious reflection/volitional philosophical premises.

Jonathan said...

Greg: "Very simple. Incest avoidance is so widespread, currently and historically, that it is grossly implausible to assume that it is merely a philosophical or moral premise learned in childhood."

The fact that ~you~ find something implausible is not exactly a scientific approach to the subject. You really seem to be trying to downplay the social pressures involved by characterizing them as "merely a philosophical or moral premise learned in childhood." Incest is ~highly taboo~ and often ~illegal~, so it's not an issue of its "merely" being a "premise" that is "imbibed" or learned in childhood, but something that is ~forbidden~ and has involved the threat of very negative judgments and punishments, including public embarrassment, stigma, ostracization, imprisonment, stoning, etc. You make it sound as if it has little or no social consequences, as if it might be the equivalent of something like a contemporary American Catholic kid getting caught eating a slice of pepperoni pizza on a Lenten Friday.

Greg: "Moreover, it's important to understand that it's not the taboos against incest that are universal, but the desire not to participate in the act itself..."

How did you come to the obviously false conclusion that the desire to not participate in incest is ~universal~? It's simply not true. There have been countless people who have chosen to participate in incest. Besides, if the desire to not participate were universal, why would societies need laws against incest among consenting adults?

Also, in the example that you posted in the initial comment, you mention that psychologist Jonathan Haidt ~confronts~ participants with a fictional incestuous scenario and gets their responses. Well, that doesn't sound as if the participants are being allowed to respond with guaranteed anonymity, and therefore would have reason to fear telling the truth in the event that they did not feel that certain incestuous relationships were disgusting. From what you've presented here, it sounds as if the "research" done on the subject hasn't taken into account the effects that fear of the law and of strong social condemnation can have on people's willingness to respond openly and honestly to psychological inquiries.

J

Jonathan said...

Greg: "Very simple. Incest avoidance is so widespread, currently and historically, that it is grossly implausible to assume that it is merely a philosophical or moral premise learned in childhood."

The fact that ~you~ find something implausible is not exactly a scientific approach to the subject. You really seem to be trying to downplay the social pressures involved by characterizing them as "merely a philosophical or moral premise learned in childhood." Incest is ~highly taboo~ and often ~illegal~, so it's not an issue of its "merely" being a "premise" that is "imbibed" or learned in childhood, but something that is ~forbidden~ and has involved the threat of very negative judgments and punishments, including public embarrassment, stigma, ostracization, imprisonment, stoning, etc. You make it sound as if it has little or no social consequences, as if it might be the equivalent of something like a contemporary American Catholic kid getting caught eating a slice of pepperoni pizza on a Lenten Friday...

Jonathan said...

Greg: "Moreover, it's important to understand that it's not the taboos against incest that are universal, but the desire not to participate in the act itself..."

How did you come to the obviously false conclusion that the desire to not participate in incest is ~universal~? It's simply not true. There have been countless people who have chosen to participate in incest. Besides, if the desire to not participate were universal, why would societies need laws against incest among consenting adults?

Also, in the example that you posted in the initial comment, you mention that psychologist Jonathan Haidt ~confronts~ participants with a fictional incestuous scenario and gets their responses. Well, that doesn't sound as if the participants are being allowed to respond with guaranteed anonymity, and therefore would have reason to fear telling the truth in the event that they did not feel that certain incestuous relationships were disgusting. From what you've presented here, it sounds as if the "research" done on the subject hasn't taken into account the effects that fear of the law and of strong social condemnation can have on people's willingness to respond openly and honestly to psychological inquiries.

J

gregnyquist said...

The fact that ~you~ find something implausible is not exactly a scientific approach to the subject.

Here you've put the cart before the horse. The notion that incest avoidance is a value premise is not implausible because I find it so; rather, I find it implausible because both the experience of mankind and scientific research find it so. Let's put it in practical terms. If incest avoidance were not largely an innate trait, but rather a value premise imbibed via the culture, this means that a society could exist in which incest avoidance is largely absent. Anyone believe that that is really possible?

The blank slate view is usually driven by a desire to see human beings become something different from what they are, so that they can fit within some political or moral ideal, arbitrarily chosen as an ideal. It's a view usually found on the utopian left, which would like to see society run like a giant family. Ayn Rand seems to have been attracted to it because of her hero worship, and her desire that men could be as she arbitrarily decided they ought to be. However Rand came by the theory, in the light of a very large body of evidence, it's not a plausible theory. In practice, no attempt to make human beings act against predominant innate inclinations has ever succeeded. And whatever harping one can make against this or that aspect of the view that some traits are partially innate, it should kept in mind that there is no credible evidence for the blank slate view advocated by Rand and the much of the Left.

Govi said...

Because ... incest avoidance (or inbreeding avoidance) is pretty much the norm in animals from insects to primates because evolution has made it so. Natural selection has killed off almost all organisms with a propensity to inbreed (at least where more genetically distant alternatives are available) because inbred organisms that reproduce sexually are much more likely to have double doses of recessive genes and are less likely to live to sexual maturity. Incest avoidance can be readily observed in animals, and unless you're going to claim they have philosophical premises, incest avoidance is innate.

Lloyd Flack said...

Echo Chamber Escapee said
As far as North America vs. the rest of the world, I suspect the key difference is that rugged individualism -- the pioneering, entrepreneurial spirit -- has always been a theme that resonates more strongly in the US than elsewhere; it's part of "the American way." In cultures with a stronger sense of community, Rand's extreme individualism just doesn't resonate.

What is interesting is that Australia was also a frontier society but here the result was mateship, an ethos of mutual support. I'm not sure why the difference occured. I think some of it is that Australia was a more hostile environment with smaller scope for big rewards and with the greater climate extremes there was more chance of things going wrong. American style rugged individualism would be likely to lead to personal disaster. Other reasons might be the lack of a revolution on our history and the lack of a bill of rights that tacity encourages people to make a point of asserting what they see as their entitlements.

Govi said...

I think the American "rugged individualism" of the Little House on the Prairie variety is more like "my immediate family firstism" or "get off my propertyism," and not what I generally think of when I think "individualism." It does not necessarily entail tolerance for the lives or personal tastes of others even if they do not directly harm oneself. Rand was a great example of someone who had little tolerance even for people who didn't share her taste in music.

A. said...

Govi said: Because ... incest avoidance (or inbreeding avoidance) is pretty much the norm in animals from insects to primates because evolution has made it so. Natural selection has killed off almost all organisms with a propensity to inbreed (at least where more genetically distant alternatives are available) because inbred organisms that reproduce sexually are much more likely to have double doses of recessive genes and are less likely to live to sexual maturity. Incest avoidance can be readily observed in animals, and unless you're going to claim they have philosophical premises, incest avoidance is innate.

Absolutely, I'm surprised nobody brought this up before. Most animals will avoid incest where alternatives exist; conversely, where these alternatives do not exist (e.g. in species that are almost-extinct) it is commonplace.

I would expect most cases of human incest to emerge in unusual scenarios which are more condusive to incest e.g. children being brought up in isolation from peers.

Some organisms however frequently engage in "incest", e.g. many plants, usually where there is less disadvantage to doing so.