Monday, September 10, 2012

Ayn Rand & Epistemology 14

Relation of moral concepts to reality. Rand contended that the failure of "modern" philosophers to solve the "problem" of universals led to a "concerted attack" on man's conceptual faculty. A closer reading, however, suggests that Rand believed that "abstract" concepts constituted the chief problem, rather than just conceptual knowledge in general. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Rand argued that the formation of concepts refering to "perceptual concretes" is "fairly simple." [21] Only when the "conceptual chain" moves away from these perceptual concretes do problems emerge. In other words, it's not so much a "concerted attack" on man's conceptual faculty that concerns Rand. Despite Hume and Kant, Rand does not contend that people have trouble learning such concepts as fish, banana, or penis. It's the moral concepts that tend to preoccupy Rand. The primary practical raison d'etre of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is to demonstrate the connection of Rand's moral concepts to reality. How does it fare in this regard?

Per usual with Rand, not very well. In IOTE, Rand prefers to discuss simple "perceptual concrete" concepts, like table, furniture, desk, man, animal, etc. She says very little about moral concepts. The one exception is the concept justice, which gets an entire paragraph of analysis:

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them. Is his judgment automatically right? No. What causes his judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or his evasion of the evidence, or his inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is he to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn’t this a description of “objectivity”? Yes, “objective judgment” is one of the wider categories to which the concept “justice” belongs. What distinguishes “justice” from other instances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is “justice.”
She begins by asking which facts in reality gives rise to the concept justice, and then spends the rest of the paragraph artfully dodging the question. Instead of showing what the concept refers to, she opts instead to explain why human beings need justice, which is a different question altogether. Once again Rand makes big claims, only to let us down.

The simple fact of the matter is that IOTE does not explain how moral concepts are connected to reality. We get (vague and not entirely satisfactory) explanations of how concepts such as table and man refer to various "perceptual concretes" in reality; but on the issue of moral concepts, she is either evasive or silent. Why is this? It's really quite simple: Rand could not give a coherent explanation of how her moral values relate to reality because her moral theory is wrong.

Morality can refer to two possible elements of reality: (1) to some kind of quasi-Platonic "transcendental" values; or (2) to natural needs of each individual person, as reflected in their desires, sentiments, and other predominant emotions. Rand referred to the first type of values as intrinsic, the second type as subjective. She claimed to have discovered a third type, which she called "objective." But she never explained what this third type referred to in reality. Instead, she merely attacked both "intrinsic" and "subjective" values for being arbitrary.

Now it is not clear that "intrinsic" moral values exist (or, if they do exist, that we can know anything about them). However, if such values did exist (and we could establish and verify their existence), they would hardly be arbitrary. On the contrary, they would be fixed absolutes. What could be less arbitrary than an absolute? And even subjective values, as long as they are rooted in the natural, long-terms needs of each individual, suffer from no taint of the arbitrary. Such values are not, as Rand constantly impugned, mere whims, but are in fact important data necessary for making moral calculations. A creature who experienced no emotions, desires, sentiments would be incapable of leading a moral life. (For a more advanced treatment of this topic, see here.)

So while Rand's primary goal in her epistemology is to defend the universality and "absolute" character of moral values, the actual epistemology conspicuously fails in achieving this goal. But while IOTE may fail in terms of raw theory, in terms of practical consequence, it becomes mighty handy as a tool of rationalization. Rand may have failed in providing a coherent explanation of how her "objective" moral values relate to reality; but she could develop out of her epistemological theories useful verbalizing tricks to delight her followers and confound her enemies. The most useful of all these rationalizations relates to her view of definitions, which will require a number of posts to anatomize.


Anon69 said...

This reason more than any other is why I eventually tossed my entire collection of Rand books into the trash. Rand advises that concepts are formed on the basis of two or more concrete instances, but she never provides a specific example, particularly when it comes to ethics. Assertion after assertion is paraded before our eyes, with the validation always left as an exercise for the reader. (On one occasion she did say "as proof, I offer any dictatorship" -- okay, how about naming two specific dictatorships and showing, step by step, how the process of measurement-omission works to draw the conclusion? Of course, that could not be done, because no such process actually exists). In this respect, Objectivism is worse than incorrect, it is an outright fraud, and the misdirection exemplified in the quote about "justice" shown above -- the fact that man needs to make judgments does not join with a similar fact to form the concept "justice", as distinguished from "injustice" -- only adds salt to the wound.

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

I'm reminded of another total failure of Rand's theory, as elaborated by Peikoff. To illustrate "the vast and complex category of concepts that represent integrations of existential concepts with concepts of consciousness," he uses the concept of "friendship." He tells us that "[t]his concept cannot be formed or grasped merely by observing what the individuals do or how much time they spend together. It requires that their actions be integrated with several concepts of consciousness, such as 'value,' 'interest,' and 'affection.'" (OPAR p. 95).

Which should leave the thinking reader wondering how it is that every 5-year-old can so easily tell you who her friends are.

Anon69 said...

Echo Chamber Escapee said, "Which should leave the thinking reader wondering how it is that every 5-year-old can so easily tell you who her friends are."

Almost any 5-year old can tell you, idiot.

Anon69 said...

Laughably, that was another person posting as "Anon69". I'm gonna have to register an account or something.

Kin Yutaka said...

I consider myself an actor of Objectivism, as opposed to a follower. Ayn Rand taught me not what to think, but how to articulate my thoughts regarding Reason as a primary source of volition and direction in life.
It seems to me that early proponents of any philosophy struggle to form the initial concept, yet are forced into a position of superiority when they teach the next group of people.
It is one of the reasons that Objectivist philosophic views can be found in both the Atheist movement and Tea Party Republicans. different trains of thought coming from the common station.
To me, Ayn Rand is only a turning point, where I directed my aimless mind into a goal further beyond.

Anonymous said...

To me, [insert name of any philosopher] is only a turning point, where I directed my aimless mind into a goal further beyond.

See, it works with any philosopher.

Anonymous said...

I consider myself an actor of Objectivism...

Please don't ever say this in public.

Kin Yutaka said...

I know it sounds like a strange assertion, but there will always be some part of any philosophy that one disagrees with. As Objectivism was a direct brainchild of Ayn Rand, she was unable to flesh it out properly, in my opinion.

When it comes to my form of her philosophy, I am not a student of hers. I am not a teacher, proponent, or advocate. I am an actor, charged with giving the best performance of the source material, at my own direction, with my own costumes, and my own take.

And, yes. That way of thinking can be used for any philosophy at all.