Sunday, April 05, 2020

The Objectivist "Tradition" Going Forward

Philosophical traditions, like viruses, must mutate if they wish to remain relevant even among their adherents. Orthodox Objectivism has remained steadfastly true to its author's original vision, sedulously resisting the temptation to evolve in ways that would enable it to better fit with emerging paradigms and concerns. The denizens of ARI still hold fast to a hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East, even when most Americans have tired of the endless wars; they still believe in “open borders," even when most people toward the right side of the political spectrum (outside of a few elites) are against them; they are still for absolute “free trade,” even though free trade in both capital goods and the basic necessities of a principality cause harm to millions of Americans and constitutes a threat to national security; they are still somewhat militant in their atheism, despite growing awareness of a meaning crisis among the younger generations; and they remain stubbornly resistant to allying themselves with to their potential allies on the political  the right, preferring instead to retreat into ever increasing ideological and political isolation.

The leading active orthodox Objectivist in the world day is, astonishingly enough, Yaron Brook, who evinces no special expertise in the philosophy of Objectivism and has achieved his eminence among Rand’s current disciples primarily from his skill at fund raising and administration. This is always the risk of trying to institutionalize—essentially fossilizing—ideas: the money people and the administrators can easily take over. What could be called the "institutionalizing" of a philosophy becomes almost inevitably if its ideas are not allowed to grow, develop and adjust to prevailing issues, discoveries and trends. 

While orthodox Objectivism remains frozen and embalmed in the 1960s, the philosophical tradition that Rand inflicted upon the world has taken a life of its own and spawned new philosophical outgrowths, often containing elements which Rand and her most adamant disciples would heartily despise. Philosophies like Objectivism, having, as their base, nothing more solid or permanent than the private inspirations and wishful fancies of their progenitors, lack any real logical or empirical protection against amendment and development. Objectivism can insist all it likes on "reason" and "objectivity," but that's just a pose—a kind of faux-rationality that impresses the naive and the credulous, but which the rest of us are wise to. There's very little reason or evidence in such Objectivist doctrines as the blank slate, the self-created self, emotions as automated value judgments, the "philosophy" of history, or the so-called solution to the so-called problem of universals. It's rationalization through and through, and not necessarily very good rationalization at that. Poor as it may be, nonetheless there are people, usually young people, who are taken in by it. This suggests at least some element of skill in the presentation of the material. Rand is truly eminent in at least one sense: she was able to bring her views, miserable as they often are, to a much broader audience than nearly any other philosopher of her time. There really is something to be said for that. A philosopher can't be judged only by the quality of his philosophy; the number of people the philosopher reaches must be taken into account as well.

Objectivism is often judged on the basis of its claims—that is, on the broad philosophical position it takes on epistemology, ethics, politics, etc. But in terms of its long-lasting philosophical influence, perhaps its the methodology of Objectivism, the way in which Rand and her disciples play at being "rational," that's most critical in defining an Objectivist "tradition." There is a distinct style to Randian "reason." The manner in which Rand goes about "establishing" her various contentions relies rather heavily on rhetorical and pseudo-logical tricks. Rand and her disciples seek to provide a semblance, however weak and faulty, of logic and "reason," and it is this special character of Rand's philosophical work that distinguishes Objectivism from other forms of ideological special pleading, which tend to rely on sentimental moralizing and simplistic generalization rather than a showy but meretricious displays of "reason" and "objectivity."

The philosopher on the current scene who, following in this Objectivist tradition of faux-rationality, has gained the largest following is the Canadian YouTube philosopher, Stefan Molyneux. The fact that Molyneux, technically speaking, would not be regarded (or regard himself) as an Objectivist is of little moment. Both his introduction to and education in philosophy was through Rand's philosophical writings. And while he may depart from Rand on many important points of the application of philosophy, Randian methodological tropes dominate his philosophical cerebrations. You find in Molyneux the same obsession with foundationalism, with self-refuting arguments (i.e., the fallacy of the stolen concept), with the reification of logic and the subsequent confusion of logical with empirical truth, and with portentous conclusions derived from trivial assertions.

Using the Objectivist metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of history as his starting point, Molyneux has fashioned his own philosophy of "voluntarism" and "peaceful parenting." In his early years he could be rather clumsy in his imitation of Rand. His book Universally Preferable Behavior, published in 2007, reads like a manic parody of Randian "reason." It's a book whose insistence on logic and evidence goes hand in hand with reams of logical fallacies and a sad dearth of relevant evidence. That Molyneux winds up fashioning an ethical system that in many important respects departs from Objectivism is hardly to the point. Objectivist "reason" being fallacious and mostly arbitrary, the intrepid philosopher can take it wherever he pleases. Philosophies that adapt this method will of course diverge from the original tenets of Rand. What in Rand's method of philosophizing, in her careless and irresponsible descent into rationalization and special pleading, can prevent the emergence of conflicting assertions?

Molyneux's anarchism is a case in point. Rand heartily despised anarchism and considered it a horrible transgression of reason. But there is nothing in her philosophy qua philosophy that is inconsistent with anarchism. Rand's opposition to statelessness was simply a reversion on her part to good sense. But if human beings really are, as she supposed, the products of their premises, why couldn't they accept just those premises that would make a stateless society possible? If in reply to this criticism Rand's disciples were to insist that the acceptance of anarchist premises on a society-wide level is improbable, and therefore not likely to happen, then they are denying Rand's version of free will, which insists that people can make whatever choice they like, without the interference of innate predispositions, because they are equipped, most astonishingly, with a "volitional consciousness." 

Taking this method of irresponsible faux-rationality, Molyneux has used its wanton flexibility to adjust his philosophy to the evolving concerns of his YouTube audience. While remaining nominally an anarchist, in recent years Molyneux has taken a serious turn toward the contrary position of Trumpian nationalism, which has enabled him to retain relevance among the dissident right. While this reinvention of himself has moved him further from the crude Rand-inspired sophistry of his younger days, there are still aspects of his philosophy that remain strongly colored by Objectivist tropes and rationalization strategies. Consider, as one example, the following passage, quoted from his most recent book The Art of the Argument:

The Argument is the rational map that allows us to navigate and meet in reality. The Argument keeps us sane by reminding us of facts and reason and evidence. The argument stops wars, abuse, bullying, manipulation and aggression of every kind. The Argument is the robust sport that stops hysterical escalation. The Argument prevents the scourge of violence: it is the only thing that can. 
The Argument favors the intelligent, the prepared, the resourceful, the courageous, and the well-trained. The Argument rewards intellectual and moral virtues of every kind. The Argument promotes the most civil to the highest reaches of influence in society, and demotes fools and bullies to the basements of irrelevance. 
In short, we can embrace The Argument and have civilization—or we can reject The Argument and descend into a living hell without end. 
There is no other choice.

This is essentially Molyneux's own peculiar jazz riff on Rand's "philosophy of history." He has merely made a change of emphasis, transforming what Rand would have called "philosophy" into "The Argument." In the light of what we've learned in recent decades from cognitive science and experimental psychology, it should be obvious that Molyneux's enthusiasm for "The Argument" tramples over obvious facts. Undoubtely, Molyneux's fans would insist that he is thinking of a very ideal type of argument, of the type of verbal wrangling that "ought" to exist (or is "universally preferable," to translate this phrase into Molynese), rather than the type of arguments you're likely to find in the real world of wayward human passion and brute fact. But that's just the problem. Molyneux is advancing an unrealistic ideal concerning arguments, just as Rand advances an unrealistic ideal of man. Although both and Rand and Molyneux maintain a theoretical allegiance to realism in their metaphysical speculations, both verge toward idealism when it comes to psychology and morals. 

Molyneux's most ambitious philosophical project involves his attempt to provide a rational proof to secular ethics—namely, his theory of "universally preferable behavior." In recent months, Molyneux has debated several self-described "moral nihilists" concerning this theory. These debates have been painful to watch. Molyneux's theory is in some ways quite clever. He bases his theory of universally preferable behavior (UPB) on a debating trick where he insists that the very act of debating involves tacitly accepting UPB. This has confounded each of his antagonists in turn and led to a great deal of dialectical cringe. Yet it is not so difficult to articulate what is wrong with Molyneux's theory. It is just a matter of entangling the masses of confused arguments that have been woven around it, which will be the focus of the next few posts. 


max said...

Close Our Borders!
Gary North - May 06, 2019

“Who? Whom?”
What does “who” mean? What does “whom” mean? In a nation like the United States, in which the politics of plunder has become a way of life, it is exceedingly important to defend one’s wallet from gun-toting agents of voters with thinner wallets. Politics is mostly about getting into the other guy’s wallet more effectively than he gets into yours.
So, when someone speaks of “our” borders, he has in mind legal access to the political process by which voters decide who will hold the credit cards. He wants his kind of voters in those voting booths, not someone else’s kind of voters.

"Free Trade Destroys Jobs."
Gary North - December 13, 2014

The case for voluntary exchange has nothing to do with the question of the number of jobs that voluntary trade is supposed to create, or not create, or even destroy. The case for voluntary exchange is based on the case for economic liberty. It is based on the idea that two individuals who want to better their condition have a legal right to make an exchange that each of them believes will improve his situation.

The defenders of mercantilism have a religion: the religion of state worship. They do not believe that individuals acting in their own self-interest by trading with each other in order to benefit themselves are reliable sources of innovation, exploration, and creativity. They believe that the free market is an incomplete organization. They believe that there must be a sovereign judicial entity which provides guidance, by which they really mean coercion, in directing the flow of scarce economic resources. They believe that bureaucrats are trustworthy, that politicians act in the interest of the people. They believe that the state is a reliable source of economic wisdom, correct understanding of the future, correct understanding of the present, and is therefore the proper agency to equate supply with demand.

max said...

Hamilton and Clay were supporters of privately owned central banking.

Government and business should be "one big happy family." This was Clay's American System.

the basis of what is called the government-business alliance. In early modern European history, this was called mercantilism. In 19th-cenrtury America before 1865, this was called the American System. In the mid-1930s, it was called the New Deal. It was called fascism in Italy.

On October, 1957, Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged first appeared. It was greeted by one reviewer with what I regard as the supreme put-down in the history of literary criticism: "This is the worst American novel since The Fountainhead."
It is a conceptually confused novel. It was offered in the name of individual liberty, yet its description of how capitalism works is so wrongheaded that it undermines what Rand regarded as a call to economic liberty. I can think of few books that have more completely misunderstood how capitalism works. It has always baffled me that anyone who understands the nature of the capitalist system would find much in this book to praise.

Anonymous said...

"Orthodox Objectivism has remained steadfastly true to its author's original vision . . . The denizens of ARI still hold fast to a hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East, even when most Americans have tired of the endless wars; they still believe in “open borders," even when most people toward the right side of the political spectrum (outside of a few elites) are against them . . ."

It's not clear to me that Rand would have supported "open borders" (the preferred O'ist term is "open immigration"). She did say in a Q&A that she supported "open immigration" but who knows if she meany by it what O'ists mean by it today. She never wrote about immigration.