Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Brief Re-visitation of Is-Ought Problem

Below is a response to an email request concerning an answer to Patrick Neil's essay on Rand's morality:

 Neil's article refutes the view expounded in Rand's article "Objectivist Ethics." In that article, Rand attempted to refute the is-ought gap by claiming that Hume denies that morality has anything to do with facts. This is just wrong. In a later article, Rand pursued a different tactic. She suggested that ethics is conditional on choosing life. Now logically this does allow Rand to skirt around Hume's is-ought gap, because instead of reasoning from "is" premises to an "ought" conclusion, the line of reasoning goes, "if x, then y," or: "if life, then the ultimate value is life."

While this mode of procedure may solve, or at least mitigate, the logical problem presented by the is-ought gap, it is questionable that it provides an "objective" code of values. The argument is so vague and abstract that it's difficult to logically generate a specific moral code that can guide everyday decisions. How does saying that life is the ultimate value help a person choose their career, or their life-mate, or how to spend their free time? Well, it doesn't help with any of these things. It's not even clear what it means, in terms of practical decision making. If life is the ultimate value, does that mean you should act to survive as long as possible? But that's not the principle Objectivists follow in their own decision making. Objectivists make use of the argument to "prove" the objectivity of their morality. Then they ignore the argument and follow their natural hard-wired and socially fine-tuned proclivities like everyone else. As a point of fact, human beings don't follow articulated moral systems derived from abstract philosophical reasoning. Everyday decision-making involves too much complexity for articulated systems of morality to work and be effective. Our brains have evolved complex motivational systems that help us survive and breed. These systems are hardly perfect and can perhaps be improved here or there through conscious reasoning (although that's not always the case), but it's impossible to entirely replace them with a "code of morality" based on a philosophical system of ethics like Objectivism. The Objectivist Ethics is little more than an ex post facto rationalization scheme to justify behavior Rand and her followers approve of and to provide a moral rationalization for the Objectivist politics. It doesn't provide a guide for how people should behave; it provides tools to rationalize types of behavior approved of by the broader Objectivist community.

For info (and scientific evidence) on how morality works in the real world of fact, see James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, and/or Jordan Peterson's YouTube lectures on "Personality" and "Maps of Meaning."

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

http://www.jailbase.com/en/arrested/mo-scso/2015-08-05/gary-leonard-hull-15-080501

LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

Daniel Barnes said...

THAT will teach him to violate the Law of Identity.

gregnyquist said...

According to a commentator named "Anna":

"Gary Hull ... was recently arrested in Galena, Missouri for identity theft and a felony fugitive out of state. Arrest number 15-080501. The fugitive charge is from NC where he fled from Duke after being charged with embezzlement. I am sorry to have to tell you that you are among the many that were duped by him. The only person at "Voltaire Press" has always been Gary. There has never been anyone else involved. You misrepresent his motives for publishing as brave when, in fact, it was merely a vehicle for self-promotion and a marketing ploy. He has always twisted the ideas and ideals of Objectivism to suit his own personal interests and desires trying to justify even his own immoral and, now, criminal behavior. Gary Hull believes his own intellect to be so superior to others that the world owes him. If you are truly aware of everything going on, you would not continue to promote his false personna. Those involved with Founders College know better the extent to which his delusions of grandeur led to massive misrepresentations and outright lies."

I actually met Hull years ago. All I can remember is that he complained about the length of von Mises' books, which suggested he regarded them as too long to read. For years he was a protege of Leonard Peikoff. He used to sub for Peikoff on Peikoff's mid 90's radio show on KIEV in Glendale.

Gordon Burkowski said...


The case of Gary Hull should be no surprise. Remember Dr. Lonnie Leonard? See Ellen Plasil's book "Therapist" - an account by one of his victims.

Anonymous said...

Small correction: Hull CLAIMED to be LP's protege. When LP found out Hull was making that claim, LP (finally) got wise to Hull's scamming and denounced him.

gregnyquist said...

If Hull was LP's protege, he was certainly a close younger colleague. The two men co-edited a book together (i.e., "The Ayn Rand Reader").

Gordon Burkowski said...


The Objectivist notion that knowing people's "basic premises" tells you every essential thing you need to know about them means that Objectivists can be all too easily scammed by a Gary Hull or a Lonnie Leonard. As Nathaniel Branden correctly observed in his essay on "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand": ". . .most students of objectivism are pathetically helpless when faced with the task of carrying their ideas into the real world and seeking to implement them. They do not know what to do, most of the time. Objectivism has not prepared them. There is too much about the real world, about social and political institutions, and about human psychology, of which they have no knowledge."

Anonymous said...

You guys are missing a lot of juicy objectivist gossip recently. Is that Jay Snider - son of Ed Snider, David Kelly's first patron - I see on this year's list of OCON speakers? Speculate!

ungtss said...

As a point of fact, human beings don't follow articulated moral systems derived from abstract philosophical reasoning. Everyday decision-making involves too much complexity for articulated systems of morality to work and be effective.

What you've articulated here is a moral system derived from abstract philosophical reasoning: an abstract, philosophical, articulated moral system called "pragmatism."

To the extent you live by the principle that decisions are too complicated to live by principle, therefore, you are living by a moral system derived from abstract philosophical reasoning.

And therefore contradicting your own "point of fact."

The real problem here is that you are unable to distinguish between your own philosophical point of view (pragmatism) and a "point of fact" applicable to all people at all times.

It is possible to live by principle rather than by pragmatism. Many of us do. And it's rewarding. Your wish to believe that nobody lives by principle is most reasonably viewed as a rationalization for your own failure to live by principle. Essentially, the rationalization goes: "I don't live by principle, which makes me a dirtbag if other people do live by principle. So I'll choose to believe that nobody lives by principle, because it makes me feel better about the fact that I don't."

Anonymous said...

Wow, ungtss, projection much?

ungtss said...

^ The sort of arguments people resort to when they abandon principle and adopt pragmatism. No logic, no evidence, no substance. The only purpose of an argument like this is to accomplish the concrete goal of communicating social ostracism and disapproval to me and to communicate your rejection of me to your allies. The goal is not to actually make any sense, because that requires principles that have been abandoned.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's not like you used any "logic" or "evidence" in your screed, either. It's just assertion based on your own unfounded theories about other people's minds. And what's the goal of your own post if not to communicate your own form of public disapproval? Why should anyone feel any pity for poor "ostracized" ungtss, the asshole whose sole purpose here appears to be tearing down whatever Nyquist says? Who is it that's in danger of ever considering you a nice person, but won't, not because of the dumb things you say, but because someone points out that you're kind of a sneering twat? You bring about your own rejection.

Not only that, your whole argument shoots itself in the foot. You go on about how "pragmatism" is its own moral system, its own set of principles, and then ultimately cast it as NOT living by principles - as opposed to living by principles - somehow. Well, which is it? This has got to be one of those "stolen concepts" O-ists like to crow about, or some kind of logic fault.

And what's "pragmatist" about accusing you of projection? That just doesn't make any sense at all. It's as if you just chose that buzzword to use as a generic "you bad" descriptor-of-the-moment.

It takes no superior intellect to put words in another person's mouth and set up your straw man and your faulty arguments. I could do a better, more accurate job, observe:

"I claim to live by principles, but if I seriously self-examined my life I'd probably find out that I do not adhere to my avowed principles as strictly as I claim; moreover some of these principles don't hold up to logical scrutiny. I would therefore be no better than the people I cast as 'dirtbags', so I must avoid facing that truth at all costs, and attempt to tear down any person or argument that casts doubt upon my illusions of superiority, as my ego can't handle it."

Gordon Burkowski said...

@ Anonymous:

:)

ungtss said...

There is one meaningful argument in there, so I'll address it. The idea that it's self-contradictory to call pragmatism a principled philosophy and at the same time say it has no principles. That is of course the contradiction inherent in pragmatism. It is self-contradictory to reject principles on principle. But that's exactly what pragmatism does. It's not a contradiction on my part. I'm identifying the contradiction at the root of pragmatism, which is also at the root of this blog post.

As for the rest, it just makes me smile, because it tells me that my argument hit close enough to home to trigger your narcissistic defenses.

Anonymous said...

"As for the rest, it just makes me smile, because it tells me that my argument hit close enough to home to trigger your narcissistic defenses."

Well, again, PROJECTION. I mean, why write your original post if not for the fact that you feel the need to defend Rand, and by proxy your own particular outlook on life, because oh boy Nyquist said something that challenges your worldview! If you were as self-assured and cool as you like to pretend, you'd be able to walk away without comment. But no.

What hits home is not any of your argument, which I've addressed, but the fact that you make the argument in such a way as to be snidely insulting while you're doing it. With no prior provocation, you create a sentence that's supposedly in Nyquist's voice, as you portray it: "I don't live by principle, which makes me a dirtbag if..." implies he, or anyone else adopting pragmatism, secretly thinks of themselves as "dirtbags" by not following the supposedly "principled" life you espouse.

And, you know, THAT'S what gets you ostracized. Not that you want to say, "well, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, I believe I somehow can live by a rigorous adherence to a strict moral code," but that you feel the need to tack on your idea that anyone who doesn't is some kind of scum, and deep down knows they are scum. If you weren't that kind of an asshole you'd probably get far less of a negative response.

Furthermore, your thing about principles is still so much garbage. The problem is that you see principles as absolute. They could be conditional. You seem to have trouble wrapping your head around that, and the idea that someone might adopt a principle that does not match your own. Pragmatism is only a contradiction in your own head, based on assumptions which are likely untrue.

Gordon Burkowski said...


@Anonymous:

Well, the response you got was entirely predictable. Followers of this blog could give literally hundreds of examples.

The hilarious point for me was: "narcissistic defenses". For this guy to describe anyone as a narcissist is like Bernie Madoff calling someone a crook.

Anonymous said...

Can't people make their points without personal insults?

But I guess it wouldn't be as much fun!

Gordon Burkowski said...

Yes, it might be good to get back to is/ought after the usual pointless U-turn. Thankfully, this one took up only 10 postings (apparently) rather than 200.

Rand's “solution” to the Is-Ought problem owes its plausibility to the apparent appeal to biology. Something of “value” to a plant or animal is what promotes its life; so the ultimate value to man must be man's life. But anyone familiar with the argument knows that this apparent grounding in biology is abandoned with blinding speed. Suddenly, we are talking, not about the biological requirements for human survival, but about the values allegedly necessary for the survival of “man qua man”.

“Man qua man”. What you have here is not a philosophical innovation: rather, it's an example of the old bait-and-switch. No more talk of biology – or of psychology – or of history. Just a philosophical construct – and a demand that biology, psychology and history must all somehow be subservient to it.

In point of fact, we have lots of information about how various human societies have adapted to their environments – how they have survived, in short. There is a discipline which studies such adaptations – technical, social and intellectual. It's called Anthropology. Not surprisingly, Objectivists show no interest in it. What we have instead is Rand's sophomoric analysis of human history as a conflict between “Atilla and the Witch Doctor”. It's really not enough.

Anonymous said...


Actually Atilla & the Witch Doctor might correspond to Pareto's "lions" & "foxes".

The lions rule by force & the foxes rely on cunning.

In ATLAS SHRUGGED John Galt would be the fox & Ragnar the Pirate would be the lion.

I believe that Mr. Nyquist made this point in ARCHN.

Kudos to Mr. Nyquist;he is the greatest political analyst since James Burnham died!

Kudos

Jzero said...

Plus the idea of "life" as the ultimate value to the animal or plant kingdom is scientifically untenable. The natural world is full of organisms that give up their lives willingly (as much as any non-human can be said to have a will), usually in the pursuit of mating, such as salmon or various forms of mate-eating insects.

Not only that, if life itself were the goal of life, evolution would have selected for it. There are creatures that can have far longer lifespans than man. There's even a type of flatworm that is so efficient at regenerating and maintaining its cells and their genetic code that they don't age at all, and simply won't ever die, given enough food/water and safety. Since such biological immortality, and even longer-than-human lifespans are possible, why didn't humans (or many more organisms) develop it in nature?

The answer seems to be that, in the scope of nature, "being alive" is not the primary goal of most organisms. Maintaining one's life is only a means to the greater goal of reproduction. Life exists to make more life, to spread new life.

Of course, I doubt Rand would have ever acknowledged any scientific findings that indicated that her biological imperative was to have kids. But in any case, her contention that organisms are most motivated to preserve their own lives is at least poorly founded if not completely wrong.

Gordon Burkowski said...

@Jzero:

Yes, survival in the natural world means not survival of the individual (after all, all of them will die no matter what they do), but rather survival of the species.

This doesn't sit very well with Objectivists of course - because this would mean that the highest value is the survival of societies, not individuals. But it's pretty good at explaining all the aspects of human behaviour that Objectivists have trouble giving a sensible explanation for - such as having children or dying for one's country.

Rand fans reply that society is only a number of individual men - so there can be no rights belonging to a society other than those belonging to individual men. If you follow the analogy between a species and a society, this doesn't make a lot of sense. But not that many people believe that it ever did.

Gordon Burkowski said...

"Of course, I doubt Rand would have ever acknowledged any scientific findings that indicated that her biological imperative was to have kids."

In his essay on the benefits and hazards of Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden mentions that Rand was curiously sceptical about Evolution, labelling it as only "a hypothesis" (which would be news to any biologist). No doubt she was all too aware that the implications of Darwin's theory did not sit comfortably with her ethics. She was too smart to deny the theory; but she was still ready to minimize its authority.

gregnyquist said...

What you've articulated here is a moral system derived from abstract philosophical reasoning: an abstract, philosophical, articulated moral system called "pragmatism."

There's a number of problems here. In the first place, when I say (based on experimental psychology) that people don't generally follow articulated systems of morality, that doesn't mean their pragmatists. They're not simply doing "what works." The moral foundations theory of Jonathan Haidt is a description of moral behavior arises. It's a scientific elaboration of the old moral sentiments theory of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is not a system of morality. People don't follow its precepts. It doesn't have precepts. It's descriptive, not normative, in scope. When we say that people aren't following an inarticulable system of morality, that's another way of saying they're not following a system of morality. Morality, in this sense, is like grammer. Rules of grammer were not formulated prior to grammer. It's not like one day human beings got together, formulated a series of grammatical rules, and then began following them in everyday speech. On the contrary, grammer developed spontaneously, without conscious intention or awareness, and was only noticed and codified long afterwards. At its core or foundation, grammatical rules are mostly descriptive: they arose from noticing certain linguistic uniformities. Later on, conscious refinements were made to these descriptive rules, in order to increase clarity and to remove ambiguity. However, outside of formalized writing, these added "articulable" refinements are rarely followed in the real world. Most people, when they speak, follow tacit, inarticulable "rules," which they learned without reference to any articulable system. Morality, both in terms of judgment and behavior, emerge much in the same way.

The true progenitor of morality and grammar is not philosophy, but evolution.

Gordon Burkowski said...

The comparison with language is spot-on. One of the standard Objectivist ploys is to say: "Everyone has a philosophy!" - then demand that people defend the philosophy which they are assumed to possess. If the starting premise is accepted, it's easy enough to reduce most people to a state of irritated incoherence: they feel they know what's right and what's wrong, but they have no experience in systematizing their beliefs - nor have they ever felt that such systematizing is necessary.

Here the parallel with language is apt. Most people speak English well enough to be understood - but that doesn't mean that they can write Fowler's English Usage.

That's not to say that systematizing isn't helpful. However, contrary to the Objectivist position, it isn't necessary for human survival. Believe it or not, you don't have to have a philosophy starting from basic principles in order to have the sense to come in out of the rain.

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