Friday, February 29, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 9

The personal versus the political. Rand held that politics was an extension of morality. “The answers given by ethics determine how man should treat other men, and this determines … politics.” [PWNI, 4] Here Rand committed one of her major errors. She confounded the personal with the political. She assumed, at least implicitly and tacitly, that ethics is all one: that how men treat other people in their personal life is how men should treat each other in political life. Ironically, this is a view that many on the political Left tacitly assume; only they come from a different ethical orientation than Rand. The Left wants the state to be run on the basis of the ethical norms that govern relations between family members, particularly the relations between parents and children. Hence the so-called “Nanny state” that has long been the horror of political individualists. Rand attempted to counteract this ethical orientation by claiming that the altruistic, humanitarian ethics of big-government Liberalism and the socialist Left were evil; that selfishness was the moral ideal that everyone should embrace. Her adoption of selfishness, then, was at least partially motivated by political concerns. She wished to use ethical egoism to defend capitalism against the ethics of the political Left.

It is generally a bad idea to allow political concerns and ideological commitments to affect one’s personal conduct. A morality founded on the need to defend a particular political or economic arrangement is bound to lead to problems. The main difficulty for Rand is that, as a matter of fact, political morality and personal morality can never be one. The rules we follow in the family setting cannot be identical to the rules that statesmen, judges and legislators follow in the political and social realms. We don’t treat strangers the same as we treat family members—nor should we. There are important differences between the personal and the political, the micro and the macro. If Rand had understood these differences, she could have seen her way toward developing a moral defense of capitalism without taking the extreme step of advocating selfishness. Since even Rand herself did not advocate a pure selfishness in family relations, she had to redefine common terms in bizarre ways in order to give it a specious appearence of coherency. And so we find her defining sacrifice in a way that not merely tweaks or flouts common usage, but which stomps on and makes a mockery of it. She does the same with altruism, turning it into a caricature that fails to accurately describe even those on the Left who take their humanitarianism to pathological extremes.

Understanding Objectivist Jargon:"Metaphysical"

"Metaphysical"= a) used by Rand to provide pseudo-intellectual gravitas to otherwise completely banal statements eg "By normal conditions I mean metaphysically normal.."(VOSp47) Often so italicised for double-plus good philosophical importance.
b) Occasionally used as a peculiar substitute for the word "physical" eg:"...metaphysical facts are are unalterable by man..." (ITOE p110) This would typically be expressed in non-Objectivist terms as something like "ye cannae change the laws of physics."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 3: Metaphysics

Neil Parille takes a further look at just how "unprecedented" Rand's ideas really are:

In my previous posts Part 1 and 2, I reviewed Ayn Rand’s ideas on human nature and social and political philosophy, highlighting many similarities with other thinkers. Now I turn to Rand’s metaphysics and epistemology. In this and the following post I will rely at times on the works of Orthodox Objectivists like Leonard Peikoff, who discusses certain topics in more detail than Rand.

The Primacy of Existence
Rand argued that the “basic metaphysical issue” is “the primacy of existence or the primacy of consciousness.” (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs, p. 24.) She traces the modern revival of the primacy of consciousness to Rene Descartes. She puts it as follows:

“Descartes began with the basic epistemological premise of every Witch Doctor . . . ‘the prior certainty of consciousness,’ the belief that the existence of an external world is not self-evident, but must be proved by deduction from the contents of one’s consciousness—which means: the concept of consciousness as some faculty other than the faculty of perception—which means: the indiscriminate contents of one’s consciousness as the irreducible primary and absolute, to which reality has to conform.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 28.)

Thomistic philosopher Fredrick Wilhelmsen said something quite similar in his 1956 book Man’s Knowledge of Reality:

“As indicated, there are only two fundamentally opposed positions of the first principles or truths from which philosophy should begin and upon which philosophy should be grounded: Philosophy must seek its point of departure in the mind or philosophy must seek it in things.” (Wilhelmsen, Man’s Knowledge of Reality, p. 17.)

“This issue is Descartes’ insistence that philosophy must begin in and from the mind and proceed to things; that the first unshakeable truth known to man is the existence of himself as a thinking principle; that everything known else known to man is dependent on this first of truths; and that, consequently, whatever is known about the world is critically dependent on what is first known about one’s own knowing. If a man accepts Descartes’ initial principle, he is forced immediately to ask the following question: If I am philosophically—that is, critically—certain of only one thing at the outset of my philosophizing, and if this one thing is the existence of myself as a thinking principle, then how am I able (if I am able at all) to move from this primitive certitude to a knowledge of other things, and, most especially, to a knowledge of the existence of the extra-mental world, of things existing independently of my own understanding.” (Id., p. 14.)

Atheism and Anti-Supernaturalism
Rand rejected God and the supernatural. She believed that the “natural elements” of the universe were uncreated and that everything in the universe (with the exception of human consciousness) acts deterministically. (Peikoff, OPAR, pp. 25 & 64.) Rand’s secularism and naturalism are not unique in the history of philosophy, and many secular thinkers have embraced free will notwithstanding its apparent contradiction with a deterministic universe (some Epicureans for example).

Leonard Peikoff argues that the law of causality is a “corollary” of the law of identity. According to Peikoff, the “validation of the law of causality consists in stating this relationship [an entity’s nature and mode of action] explicitly. The validation rests on two points: the fact that action is action of an entity; and the law of identity, A is A. Every entity has a nature; it is specific, noncontradictory, limited; it has certain attributes and no others. Such an entity must act in accordance with its nature.” (Peikoff, OPAR, p. 14.)

A book which is popular in Objectivist circles is H.W. B. Joseph’s An Introduction to Logic, first published in 1906. Here is part of Orthodox Objectivist Harry Binswanger’s favorable review:

“On causality, for example, Joseph states: ‘The world, as we have already insisted, is not a mere procession of events, but the events concern things; a cause is a thing acting; it produces a change in some thing.’ And: the law of causality ‘is no more than a corollary of the Law of Identity, that the same thing unaltered on different occasions, or two things of the same nature, should under the same conditions produce the same effect.’ And: ‘A thing, to be at all, must be something, and can only be what it is. To assert a causal connection between a and x implies that a acts as it does because it is what it is; because, in fact, it is a.’”

Laws of Logic Are the Laws of Reality
According to Rand, there is a close connection between the laws of logic and the nature of reality. She said:

“Logic has a single law, the Law of Identity, and its various corollaries. If logic has nothing to do with reality, it means that the Law of Identity is inapplicable to reality. If so, then: a. things are not what they are; b. things can be and not be at the same time, in the same respect, i.e., reality is made up of contradictions." (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 15.)

As Joseph put it in An Introduction to Logic:
“We cannot think contradictory propositions, because we see that a thing cannot have at once and not have the same character; and a necessity of thought is really the apprehension of a necessity in the being of things. . . . The Law of Contradiction then is metaphysical or ontological.”
The Joseph quote is taken from Brand Blanshard’s The Nature of Thought. Rand was familiar with Blanshard’s writings and corresponded with him. (Berliner, ed., The Letters of Ayn Rand, pp. 629-30.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Atlas Shrugged": Take Two

In comments, novelist Michael Prescott offers a quick fix for the proposed "Atlas Shrugged" movie:

Since it sounds like they've been having some trouble with the script (three writers and counting), allow me to contribute my own version of Atlas Shrugged: The Movie. I believe it offers everything fans are looking for: action, romance, plot twists, a fast pace, philosophical deepness, and characters who are relatable.



TITLE: "The People's State of America, sometime in the relatively recent past or future."


WESLEY MOUCH, ROBERT STADLER, MR. THOMPSON and other VILLAINS are interrogating HANK REARDEN. In the audience, DAGNY TAGGART (wearing a blousy smock to conceal pregnancy) looks on.

MOUCH: Mr. Rearden, why should you be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Software?

REARDEN: Bite me.

A stir among the SPECTATORS. Flashbulbs POP. Newsreel cameras WHIR. DAGNY, unmoved, shows only a cool, mocking smile.

MR. THOMPSON: I hereby declare Rearden MicroSystems and Steel Imports, Inc., to be the property of the state!

Over the heads of the committee, a big-screen TV flashes on. JOHN GALT faces the camera.

GALT: A is A.

Pandemonium erupts. All the VILLAINS fall down dead. FRANCISCO D'ANCONIA parachutes down from a skylight and tosses MAC-11 machine guns to REARDEN and DAGNY. Together the three heroes BLAST their way through the rioting crowd.

FRANCISCO: Hasta la vista, parasites!

They reach the main door, where a frightened SECURITY GUARD throws down his gun and puts his hands up.

SECURITY GUARD: You can't shoot an unarmed man!

DAGNY (in CLOSEUP to conceal pregnancy): Check your premises.

She UNLOADS fifty rounds into his chest.


DAGNY, FRANCISCO, and REARDEN race down the steps to a Taggart Transglobal spaceliner parked in the street. They board the ship and TAKE OFF in a ROAR of flame.


DAGNY at the controls, REARDEN and FRANCISCO seated behind her.

DAGNY: I'm taking us to Atlantis. And when I get there, I'm dumping you, Hank.

REARDEN: It's all good. Whenever I pour a heat of steel or write a new line of code, it'll be like you're going down on me. Anyway, these days I'm more in the mood for something Latin...


FRANCISCO: Ai chihuahua!


The spaceliner touches down. DAGNY (carrying a beach chair to conceal pregnancy) runs from the ship and embraces JOHN GALT.

DAGNY: We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?

GALT: Shut up and kiss me.

They kiss passionately. Soundtrack SWELLS with the theme of Halley's Fifth Concerto (or ELO's "Hold on Tight to Your Dream," depending on availability).

On the screen appears "THE END," which morphs into a QUESTION MARK.




Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Trainwreck Foretold

The Atlasphere carries an interview with the proposed "Atlas Shrugged" movie's Executive Producer John Aglialoro. Aglialoro, who has no previous movie credits but who does manufacture high-end fitness equipment, says he expects it to be released in Fall 2009. He also claims "it will be set in modern-day American"(sic), have a budget of $70m and, he proudly proclaims if we were really still in the 1950s, "it will be in color." However, as yet no major stars are attached to the project other than Angelina Jolie and she is now likely to be pregnant, thus making this date even more unlikely. Jolie also provides us with this priceless quote: “Dagny Taggart is the most relatable character to me of all the extensive literature I have ever read.” The inevitable "Who is John Galt" question remains unanswered; oddly enough for the lead in a big budget picture, Aglialoro suggests he will be probably played by an "unknown." The script of this vast novel, long enough to be at one stage proposed as a movie trilogy, is now down to a trim 2.5 hours - barely enough to get through Galt's speech, one might have thought. Unless they're thinking of cutting...surely not!
In other words, "Atlas Shrugged" looks like doing for the entertainment industry what Founders College did for education. The real entertainment, however will be the fact that Aglialoro has chosen The Objectivist Centre's David Kelley as the consultant on this project, saying "he has been integral in helping with the philosophic judgments in approving the script, and keeping true to the Objectivist view of the message of the novel." Aglialoro is even trying to get Kelley a writing or production credit, thus guaranteeing the undying emnity of Kelley's arch enemies, and Ayn Rand's best funded, and most fanatical and vocal fanbase, Leonard Peikoff and the Ayn Rand Institute. Pass the popcorn.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Robustness of Selfishness

Economist Paul Krugman provides an argument for the moral basis of capitalism that at first blush might remind one of Ayn Rand's. But it contains a important difference; whereas Rand tried haplessly to transmute "selfishness" into a virtue in order to justify capitalism as a moral system, Krugman argues that the very brilliance of capitalism is that man does not have to be virtuous in order for the system to function successfully.
Krugman:"In the end, then, capitalism triumphed because it is a system that is robust to cynicism, that assumes that each man is out for himself. For much of the past century and a half men have dreamed of something better, of an economy that drew on man's better nature. But dreams, it turns out, can't keep a system going over the long term; selfishness can."

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 8

Distinguishing selfishness from altruism. Both from common experience and psychological research we know that human beings, generally speaking, are inveterate rationalizers, particularly when it comes to issues touching their own interests and predilections. What is worse, human beings rationalize quite unwittingly, with consummate innocence, never realizing the extent to which they are deluding themselves.

What makes rationalization so very easy and so very inevitable is the scandalous ambiguity of words. It is so very easy to equivocate our way to the conclusion we desire. The equivocation is so artfully masked by the ambiguity of the terms used that it remains unnoticed.

Rand’s use of this technique is rather of the more blatant sort, which is why her philosophy doesn’t appeal to particularly sophisticated or subtle intellects. She likes to base her arguments on irrefragable premises—on palpable truisms and even tautologies, which, however, she introduces as if she's made a great discovery that goes against the predominant grain of the culture. Thus she declares that modern philosophy, particularly of the Kantian vintage, is involved in a grand revolt against A is A. A similar tactic is used in her ethics, the central premise of which is that life or death is man’s fundamental alternative. People who disagree with Rand’s ethics are therefore sometimes accused of being anti-life and pro-death.

Rand makes use of ambiguity in a somewhat different fashion when distinguishing between egoism, on the one hand, of which she approves, and altruism and “self-sacrifice” on the other, of which she strongly disapproves. Self-interest, for Rand, is good; living for others is evil.

The chief difficulty in taking this approach stems from the fact that many human interests are inter-personal. Hence an individual’s self-interest is normally intertwined with interests of family, friends, and society at large, so that the distinction between egoism and altruism is, at its very root, an artificial one, intelligible, if intelligible at all, on paper; much less intelligible in reality, where selfish and social interests are, more often than not, all jumbled up, making it problematic to determine whether a given interest is selfish or altruistic.

Rand attempts to get around this difficulty by insisting that altruism demands that a person give up (or, as Rand puts it “sacrifice”) what he values for what he doesn’t value.
Thus, altruism gauges a man's virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less "selfish," than help to those one loves) [Rand explains]. The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
But this way of approaching the problem simply will not do; for it not only badly misrepresents altruism, it fails to solve the issue at hand. Rand is telling us that it is selfish to pursue what we really value, while it is altruistic to renounce and betray our values. This way of framing the issue leads to some curious paradoxes. For example, suppose you had an individual who genuinely valued strangers more than himself. In that case, if he chose to take care of his own needs before those of strangers, he would be betraying his values and therefore acting altruistically.

These paradoxes arise because Rand could not bring herself to be consistently selfish. There were some conventionally altruistic acts which she approved of. But since she was loathe to admit this, she merely called meritorious altruistic acts selfish and rationalized this odd usage away by redefining the term sacrifice in a way that entirely flouts and tramples upon common usage. Thus we find her declaring:

If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.

So the mother who values her child more than she values her hat is acting altruistically if she buys the hat. And the mother who buys food for her child although she would prefer a hat is also acting altruistically.

If ethics is about determining what we should value, then what Rand is practicing here is not ethics, but semantics. The whole debate between altruism and egoism is not over whether we should pursue our values; no, everyone agrees on that, altruists as much as egoists. The question is over what we should value most. Should a mother value her child more than she values a new hat? Most people would say, Yes, she should value the child more than the hat. Whether we call this value-choice “selfish” or “altruistic” is a matter of nomenclature, not ethics. Rand has once again failed to a give us a coherent account of why we should value one thing more than another.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 2: Social and Political Philosophy

Neil Parille follows up on his previous post concerning Ayn Rand’s view of human nature by looking at parallels with other social and political thinkers

Laissez-Faire Capitalism
Rand advocated laissez-faire capitalism. She was not, of course, the first. Like Rand, previous thinkers supported freedom of contract, private property, private roads, the gold standard and opposed censorship, the draft, and anti-trust laws as incompatible with a free society.

The Non-Initiation of Force Principle
A central tenant of Objectivist politics is the non-initiation of force principle. She accused libertarians of “plagiarizing” her on this. However, classical liberal thinkers including Lysander Spooner (1808-1887), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) taught similar versions of this principle.

Voluntary Taxation
Rand opposed taxation and believed that, ideally, government should be financed by voluntary contributions. Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) was a well-known advocate of voluntary taxation who, like Rand, was not an anarchist.

Government Coercion Generates Conflict in Society
Rand argued that excessive government was a central source of friction in society. She was not alone in this. As Auberon Herbert’s said, “So long as force is paramount, so long must men stand in hate and fear of each other . . . the old saying, homo homini lupus, remain true.” (Herbert, The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State and Other Essays, p. 176.)

Society of Contract
A staple of libertarian and classical liberal thought is that a free society is one of contract, replacing the previous societies of class and status. Isabel Paterson (1881-1961) writes: “In a Society of Contract, man is born free, and comes into his inheritance with maturity. By this concept all rights belong to the individual. Society consists of individuals in voluntary association. The rights of any person are limited only by the equal rights of another person.” (Paterson, The God of the Machine, p. 42.) Compare this to Rand: “In a free society, the ‘rights’ of any group are derived from the rights of its members through their voluntary, individual choice and contractual agreement, and are merely the application of these individual rights to a specific undertaking.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 102.)

Methodological Individualism
Rand stated “there is no such entity as ‘society’, since society is only a number of individual men. . . . “ (Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 320.) This is, in essence, the theory of methodological individualism, which had been developed in greater detail by Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and other thinkers in the Austrian tradition.

Pyramid of Ability Principle
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand advances what Objectivists call the “pyramid of ability principle,” namely that those less capable benefit when the more capable are allowed to advance to the limit of their abilities. (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 185-86.) This concept is not unique to Rand, being found in numerous classical liberal and conservative works. For example, in 1894 book Labour and the Popular Welfare, W. H. Mallock writes: “Equality benefits no one. It frustrates men of talent; and it reduces the poor to a poverty still more abject. . . . For inequality produces the wealth of civilized communities: it provides the motive which induces men of superior benefit to exert themselves for the general benefit.”

As an aside, George Reisman in his treatise Capitalism claims that Rand “first indentified” the pyramid of ability principle. (Reisman, Capitalism, p. 357.) It is rather surprising that someone could be so uninformed about the general tradition in which he writes.

Capitalism Is Based on Reason and Self-Interest
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Rand’s defense of capitalism is her claim that it is the political system consistent with reason and self-interest. Even here, it appears that Rand had predecessors. Jeff Walker points to books from the 1920s such as Charles Fay’s Politics in Business and Garet Garret’s novel The Driver which anticipated Rand’s portrayal of the businessman as the rational, selfish hero. (Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult, pp. 288-89, 305-07.)

- Neil Parille

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ixnay on the Jectivismobay

The latest confidential techniques in spreading the message of Objectivism are apparently too double-plus secret to be revealed to the general public, and must be privately circulated by invite-only blog. Such is the new Intellectual Activism, started by a member of Diana Hsieh's private Obloggers list. Given Rand's novels were bestsellers, that the ARI have airlifted almost a million free copies of her books into U.S. schools over the past 5 years, that that same Institute has a funded program for infiltrating Objectivist scholars into academia, and also that Rand received immensely more PR over her lifetime than any philosopher before or since, it is hard to see what the inevitable suggestions of database construction, newsletters, coffee klatches, cake-stalls etc is going to achieve. Not that there haven't been recent attempts to divert the eternal Objectivist blab-fest in an "activist" direction, like this extremely exciting "activism" site here. The actual activism component at RoR seems also pretty secret, brilliantly disguised as yet another blab-fest. At any rate, one is forced to conclude that the "Intellectual Activism" cone of silence conceals from prying eyes not a Galtian premise-correcting ray gun, but rather a lame list of DIY Avon marketing tips.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Objectivism: The Video Game

Game Developer Ken Levine's hit Bioshock was developed, he says, due to his fascination with "utopian civilizations" and his "discomfort with extreme ideology." Perhaps it's little surprise then that he chose Objectivism as the underlying philosophy behind Bioshock's virtual dystopia. This Randian influence has attracted comment from the ARI's Executive Director Yaron Brook, who claims that while Levine has "misrepresented" Rand, nevertheless "any publicity is good publicity."

The Project

aThe Ayn Rand Institute directs us to a delightful tale of ordinary folks:

"Facets of Ayn Rand"

The offical Ayn Rand Idolatory Project is clearly proceeding apace. With James Valliant having wiped the Brandens from the page of Objective time by declaring them an "aribitrary" zone, this new phase of The Project, a book of interviews with Charles and Mary Ann Sures about Rand, seems to aim at secondary issues such as the structural justification of Great Leader's Official Humanising Character Flaw, her occasional anger. Bonus for enthusiasts of this particular brand of Kremlinology is also the vigorous en passant fluffing of Dear Leader Leonard Peikoff's own outstanding genius. Some offhand gems Neil Parille and I have spotted already (our emphases):

Did she ever get angry during philosophical
discussions when people were slow to get her point?

I wouldn’t call the response “anger” — it was more
exasperation bordering on impatience. The best example
of this I can remember was a group discussion, before
Atlas was published. Some of the Collective, myself
included, were having difficulty demonstrating that
life is the standard of morality. So, the issue was
explained again, and we were asked to write an essay
on the subject and bring it back the following
Saturday night. A few of us did, and she was surprised
to learn that only Leonard was able to do it
correctly. The rest of us made errors or left out
steps in the argument. I remember her looking puzzled
by it, for the issue had been discussed in detail and
we had all read that section of Galt’s speech over
and over. But she did get very annoyed when some one,
I think Nathan, suggested that maybe that section
needed more explication....

That's part of it. What we, and many, many others,
owe to her is incalculable. But, in addition to that,
we have read things about her that give a distorted
picture of what she was like. We want to correct the
record. It should be said here that we are not
referring to Leonard Peikoff's essay, "My Thirty Years
with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir." That is a
brilliant analysis of her thinking methods, and it
captures the spirit of Ayn Rand the philosopher and
Frank painted in a style which Ayn personally liked —
a style of clarity and precision, but not one of dry
details. She would say things like “Make that edge a
little sharper, darling,” or “The colors are running
together,” or “It’s a little blurry in this part.”
Now, Ayn was very enthusiastic about what Frank was
doing, and I don’t think she made these comments as
criticisms. She was calling things to his attention,
things she thought he would want to be aware of. He
listened, but didn’t say anything. She would return
to her desk, and he would resume painting. Once he
said to me, “If she wants to paint, let her get her
own canvas and paints and do it her way.” This was
followed by some of Frank’s good-natured laughter...

Monday, February 18, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 7

Limitations of rational ethics. Rand set out to formulate a rational ethics. As I noted in my last Rand’s Ethics Post, Rand does not evince any real understanding of how best to formulate a such an ethics. She never grasped that any system of rational ethics must take the natural demands of human beings, as expressed through their emotive psychology, as givens. Rationality demands this because the only other option, within a naturalist framework, would involve reasoning from is premises to ought premises—which is hardly a rational way of going about formulating one’s ethics.

Even if we avoid Rand’s errors and build our rational ethics on the foundations laid by Socrates and Aristotle, Spinoza and Santayana, there are still immense cognitive and psychological obstacles to be overcome—obstacles which may prove, for all practical purposes, as insurmountable. They are:

(1) The representational nature of all pursued goals and values. Reflection on the predicament facing each individual soon makes it apparent to an intelligent being that the pursuit of every immediate impulse would be irrational. Concern for future well-being is a built-in feature of the human brain and is almost synonymous with rationality. But here we run into several difficulties. In estimating the value of any experience, we are unable to compare the actual experiences as they are felt; instead, we must compare our memories of them as represented to the mind. Representation of feelings, particularly memorized feelings, is notoriously unreliable. We tend to remember only the salient highlights, rather than the emotive experience in its entirety. In addition to this, there is tendency to rationalize experiences. Because the terms of thought in which experiences are represented are themselves inherently ambiguous, research shows that most people take advantage of these ambiguities to make things look better than they really are. It has been found, for instance, that people think better of consumer products right after they buy them than immediately before the purchase. Once an act becomes a fait accompli, the natural tendency is to give it a positive spin.

Just as we tend to misrepresent our past feelings, our projections of how we are going to feel in the future—so necessary in forming future plans and goals—is also prey to all sorts of congenital illusions. The fact is, we don’t know really know how we are going to feel in the future and so we must make use of our imaginations to prophesy how we will feel down the road. This is a procedure fraught with uncertainty. Our present feelings tend to color our future feelings. We are very poor, for instance, at anticipating how we will feel toward traumatic events. And our imaginations tend to oversimplify the future, leading us to omit important details which will have critical ramifications on our future feelings.

In short, it is not clear that rational thinking can in fact lead us to happiness. An impressive amount of psychological evidence supports this conclusion. (See Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness for more details.)

(2) Human beings are not inherently realistic. Rand defined rationality as, among other things, “a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power.” By this definition, human beings are palpably irrational. Most people have what psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system” which “cooks facts and shifts blame in order to offer a more positive view” of ourselves and our experiences.
There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets. Good scientists deal with the complication by choosing the techniques they consider most appropriate and then accepting the conclusions that these techniques produce, regardless of what those conclusions might be. But bad scientists take advantage of this complication by choosing techniques that are especially likely to produce the conclusions they favor, thus allowing them to reach favored conclusions by way of supportive facts. Decades of research suggest that when it comes to collecting and analyzing facts about ourselves and our experiences, most of us have the equivalent of an advanced degree in Really Bad Science.

(3) Realism not necessarily conducive to happiness. There may be a very good reason why human beings are not complete realists: a commitment to a complete, aggressive realism may prove hazardous to the emotional health of most people. Stark reality, in all its brutality, may be too much for many people. But isn’t evading reality harmful? Well, that depends on precisely what we are evading. Again to quote Gilbert:
The research I’ve described … seems to suggest that human beings are hopelessly Panglossian; there are more ways to think about experience than there are experiences to think about, and human beings are unusually inventive when it comes to finding the best of all possible ways. And yet, if this is true, then why aren’t we all walking around with wide eyes and loopy grins, thanking God for the wonder of hemorrhoids and the miracle of in-laws? Because the mind may be gullible, but it ain’t no patsy. The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world—how we see it, remember it, and imagine it—is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers. We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear. They can’t be opaque because we need to see the world clearly enough to participate in it—to pilot helicopters, harvest corn, diaper babies, and all the other stuff that smart mammals need to do in order to survive and thrive. But they can’t be clear because we need their rosy tint to motivate us to design the helicopters (“I’m sure this thing will fly”), plant the corn (“This year will be a banner crop”), and tolerate the babies (“What a bundle of joy!”). We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the others, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Gilbert here makes a key point entirely ignored by Rand. If by rational we mean “commitment to the fullest perception of reality,” well, in that case, we need to be rational only about those things that affect our well-being. On issues that don’t affect human well-being, people can be as irrational as they damn please. And this is precisely what we find when we observe la com├ędie humaine. On matters involving imminent issues of well-being, people tend to be, at the very least, functionally rational. If it were not so, if they were irrational about matters of well-being, reality would’ve punished and corrected them long ago. But on issues that don’t lead to any practical results, they are free to wallow in whatever mire of irrationality happens to tickle their fancy. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. For example, Rand considered religion to be irrational. Well it just so happens that religious believers tend to be less likely to commit suicide, abuse drugs or alcohol, experience debilitating stress, or get depressed. People with religious faith also report higher levels of personal happiness and psychological well-being than do atheists. Since religious belief, as it exists in the First World, rarely leads to overtly harmful behavior, it poses little threat to human well-being, and indeed, may even help well-being by raising people’s morale and sense of optimism.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ayn Rand Quotes of the Week 18/2/08

The Objectivist Ethics (p17-18):
"The pleasure-pain mechanism in the body of man - and
in the bodies of all living organisms that possess the
faculty of consciousness - serves as an automatic
guardian of the organism's life. The physical
sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the
organism is pursuing the *right* course of action. The
physical sensation of pain is a warning signal of
danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the
*wrong* course of action..."
But wait! On the very next page we find that... (p19)
"Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no
automatic course of action, no automatic set of
values. His senses do not tell him automatically what
is good for him or evil, what will benefit his life or
endanger it..."
When encountering statements like this, just remember that Ayn Rand always wrote and thought clearly, precisely, and without contradiction, not like other philosophers.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ayn Rand's Originality Part 1: Human Nature

Guest poster Neil Parille from Objectiblog wonders just how original the key elements of Rand's philosophy are:

One of the appeals of Objectivism is the claim by its advocates that Ayn Rand has created a strikingly original philosophy. Leonard Peikoff writes that Rand “discovered true ideas on a virtually unprecedented scale.” Rand herself claimed that her only philosophical debt was to Aristotle, although she occasionally praised others such as the American Founding Fathers, John Locke and Thomas Aquinas. Even in the area of politics, Rand accused libertarians of “plagiarizing” her ideas although laissez-faire and the “non initiation of force” principle predated Objectivism by many years.

In this series I will show how many of Rand’s central ideas were advocated by numerous philosophers before her. It should be noted that a philosopher might advocate commonly held ideas but present new arguments for them, integrate them differently into his system, or extend them in ways previously not done. My comments here, then, should not be taken as implying that Rand had nothing original to say on these topics.

Turning first to Rand’s view of human nature, there are quite a few parallels between Rand and other thinkers.

Man Is Born Tabula Rasa

Rand believed that man was a “blank slate,” which she defined as follows: “Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments. Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are ‘tabula rasa.’ It is man's cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 28.) Perhaps the most famous advocate of the tabula rasa view was John Locke. Many trace its philosophical origins to Aristotle who was interpreted by the Medievals as holding that “nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses.”

Rejection Of Original Sin

Like many secular thinkers, Rand took offense at the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. She was hardly original in this. As Alister McGrath notes, Original Sin was "vigorously opposed" in the Enlightenment, naming Voltaire and Rousseau as two examples. “The rejection of the doctrine of original sin was of considerable importance, as the Christian doctrine of redemption rested upon the assumption that humanity required to be liberated from bondage to original sin. For the Enlightenment, it was the idea of original sin itself which was oppressive and from which humanity required liberation.” (McGrath, Christian Theology, p. 84.)

Free Will

Rand’s belief that man has free will has been widely shared by thinkers from diverse schools.

Cognitive Theory of Emotions

According to Ayn Rand, “Emotions are the automatic results of man's value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man's values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.” (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27.)

Anon (apparently Anon57), one time poster on the ARCHNBlog, stated:
“Incidentally, your aversion to the Objectivist theory of emotion, which I've seen both on this blog and in your book, is a particularly odd bone to pick when it comes to assessing Objectivism's theory of human nature. That's because the cognitive view of emotions is hardly distinctive to Objectivism. It has been held by Aristotelians for decades (see Magda Arnold), and more recently by the highly successful discipline of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and a number of other more theoretical branches of cognitive science, viz.:”

“Perhaps cognitivism about the emotions is not entirely uncontroversial, but it's also not so at odds with reality that no scientists take it seriously.”

Magda Arnold (1903-2002) was a devout Roman Catholic.

Mind/Body Dualism

Rand never discussed the mind/body problem in any detail, but her general approach was that conscious states could not be reduced completely to brain processes. Official Objectivist Harry Binswanger says, “Yes I am a dualist. . . . We [Objectivists] believe that both consciousness and matter exist and neither is reducible to the other.” Dualism is traced back to Plato and Aristotle, and its most famous advocate in modern philosophy was Rene Descartes.

Reason Is Man’s Distinctive Characteristic

Rand’s definition of man as a rational animal was hardly unique. As von Mises says, “Reason is man's particular and characteristic feature.”

- Neil Parille

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wednesday Morning Whim-Worshipping: "Impossible Germany"

Wilco channel Tom Verlaine in probably the best song on their "Sky Blue Sky" album. They're touring my way soon, can't wait.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Still Foundering

In comments one of our many Anons contributes some additional links (here, and here) to our extensive Founders coverage. Unpaid taxes seem to be the latest issue.

Update: Regular commenter Behemoth points us to the latest story from The News & Record - who have been on this Founders story like a duck on a junebug - which says Founders owner Tamara Fuller has been hit with an $8.2m judgement in another of her businesses. That's gotta hurt.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 6

Rational Ethics. Rand is not the only philosopher to attempt the formulation of a rational ethics. Starting with Socrates, many philosophers have attempted to square this particular circle, with varying degrees of success and failure. Perhaps the most successful attempt at a rational ethics was sketched by the Spanish born American philosopher George Santayana in his five volume Life of Reason. Santayana exhibited greater breadth of intellect, sounder judgment, and a significantly higher degree of philosophical literacy in his ethics than Rand did in hers. It is therefore instructive to compare his conception of a rational ethics, as outlined in Reason and Science, with Rand’s.

Santayana begins by admitting that a truly rational morality never has existed and never can exist. But this does not mean, he argues, that it isn’t an ideal to be pursued:
A truly rational morality, or social regimen, has never existed in the world and is hardly to be looked for. What guides men and nations in their practice is always some partial interest or some partial disillusion. A rational morality would imply perfect self-knowledge, so that no congenial good should be needlessly missed--least of all practical reason or justice itself; so that no good congenial to other creatures would be needlessly taken from them. The total value which everything had from the agent's point of view would need to be determined and felt efficaciously; and, among other things, the total value which this point of view, with the conduct it justified, would have for every foreign interest which it affected. Such knowledge, such definition of purpose, and such perfection of sympathy are clearly beyond man's reach. All that can be hoped for is that the advance of science and commerce, by fostering peace and a rational development of character, may bring some part of mankind nearer to that goal; but the goal lies, as every ultimate ideal should, at the limit of what is possible, and must serve rather to measure achievements than to prophesy them.

When Santayana claims that the knowledge necessary to achieve a fully rational ethics is “beyond man’s reach,” he is factually correct, as psychological studies have proven. Rational ethics, then, must be a goal to be aimed at rather than a goal to be achieved. This contrasts with Rand’s conviction that a rational ethics is not only possible, but necessary. Santayana continues:
In lieu of a rational morality, however, we have rational ethics; and this mere idea of a rational morality is something valuable... As founded by Socrates, glorified by Plato, and sobered and solidified by Aristotle, it sets forth the method of judgment and estimation which a rational morality would apply universally and express in practice. The method, being very simple, can be discovered and largely illustrated in advance, while the complete self-knowledge and sympathy are still wanting which might avail to embody that method in the concrete and to discover unequivocally where absolute duty and ultimate happiness may lie.
This method, the Socratic method, consists in accepting any estimation which any man may sincerely make, and in applying dialectic to it, so as to let the man see what he really esteems. What he really esteems is what ought to guide his conduct; for to suggest that a rational being ought to do what he feels to be wrong, or ought to pursue what he genuinely thinks is worthless, would be to impugn that man's rationality and to discredit one's own. With what face could any man or god say to another: Your duty is to do what you cannot know you ought to do; your function is to suffer what you cannot recognise to be worth suffering? Such an attitude amounts to imposture and excludes society; it is the attitude of a detestable tyrant, and any one who mistakes it for moral authority has not yet felt the first heart-throb of philosophy.

Santayana here equates rational ethics with the Socratic method, which means: with applying a searching, questioning, critical self-examination of our own wants or needs. There are both strengths and weaknesses in this position. The best that can be said of it is that it truly is the only fully rational method for achieving ethical science. Unfortunately, it may not be a very fruitful method. Despite Santayana’s caveats about the difficulties of realizing a rational ethic, they may turn out worse than he expected. Psychological experiments are beginning to demonstrate that conscious deliberate reasoning cannot tell us what we really want. If that turns out to be true, than Santayana’s Socratic method simply will not do.

Would Rand have regarded the Socratic method as the cornerstone of a rational ethics? Not in the sense advocated by Santayana. Rand’s and Santayana’s ethics aim at somewhat different things. Rand holds life as the ultimate value. Santayana, on the other hand, holds that values can only be determined by consulting what a man really and truly esteems. These Santayana takes as givens. They are based on natural dispositions. Rand could not have accepted a morality based merely on natural dispositions, because she wanted her morality based solely on reason. However, by rejecting natural dispositions, Rand runs right smack into Hume’s is-ought fallacy. By taking natural disposition as moral givens, Santayana triumphantly surmounts the logical problem of reasoning from is to ought. Here’s why.

Consider the following syllogisms.
One ought not to eat human beings.
Socrates is a human being.
One ought not to eat Socrates.
Eating human beings is not in a person’s self-interest.
Socrates is a human being.
Therefore, One ought not to eat Socrates.

Hume’s argument against arguing from is to ought only applies to the second syllogism; the first syllogism is entirely valid. In other words, it is logically valid to argue from one ought premise to an ought conclusion; what is invalid is to argue from is premises to an ought conclusion.

As Patrick O’Neil has argued, Rand’s ethics can be summed up in the following syllogism:
The adoption of value system x is necessary for the survival of any human being.
You are a human being.
Therefore, you should adopt value system x.

This is an invalid syllogism. Rand’s ethical argument, therefore, at its very foundation, is logically invalid. Her ethics, for this reason, can hardly be regarded as rational.

Another area of divergence between Rand and Santayana involves the whole notion of moralizing. By adopting the individual’s natural dispositions as the source of value in ethics, Santayana has embraced a relativist morality in which the unit of ethics is the individual person. This relativism is what allows Santayana to avoid Hume’s is-ought problem. It enjoys the further advantage of placing Santayana squarely against all forms of moralizing. As Santayana explains:
In moral reprobation there is often a fanatical element, I mean that hatred which an animal may sometimes feel for other animals on account of their strange aspect, or because their habits put him to serious inconvenience, or because these habits, if he himself adopted them, might be vicious in him. Such aversion, however, is not a rational sentiment...
Ethics, if it is to be a science and not a piece of arbitrary legislation, cannot pronounce it sinful in a serpent to be a serpent; it cannot even accuse a barbarian of loving a wrong life, except in so far as the barbarian is supposed capable of accusing himself of barbarism. If he is a perfect barbarian he will be inwardly, and therefore morally, justified. The notion of a barbarian will then be accepted by him as that of a true man, and will form the basis of whatever rational judgments or policy he attains. It may still seem dreadful to him to be a serpent, as to be a barbarian might seem dreadful to a man imbued with liberal interests. But the degree to which moral science, or the dialectic of will, can condemn any type of life depends on the amount of disruptive contradiction which, at any reflective moment, that life brings under the unity of apperception. The discordant impulses therein confronted will challenge and condemn one another; and the court of reason in which their quarrel is ventilated will have authority to pronounce between them.

Reprobation, or Randian moralizing, is not based, Santayana tells us, on a rational sentiment. In any truly rational system of ethics, values must be based on natural dispositions. Otherwise, any attempt to rationalize morality in the Randian fashion will inevitably lead to Hume’s is-ought fallacy.

There is another critical point in this passage that also raises problems for the Objectivist Ethics. Santayana writes about “the amount of disruptive contradiction” that life brings before human sentience. What he means is that people have contrary impulses, and in order for them to achieve the maximum of satisfaction (i.e., happiness), they must seek to satisfy only those impulses that are consistent with each other, thus creating a kind of harmony between the dispositions of the psyche. Now Rand also sought a harmony of sorts——a psychological concord where “no inner conflicts” disturb the soul, where the emotions are “integrated” and “consciousness is in perfect harmony.” But Rand believed that this could be established outside of the human emotional system, in the absence of motives, feelings, or any sort of emotive foundation. Feelings could be programmed into man’s emotional mechanism by an emotionless, rational mind in such a way that they never conflicted.

Rand’s ideal of the perfectly integrated man is based on a false psychology. Man’s affective system is a product of evolution; it is not, as Rand gratuitously assumed, a product of man’s conclusions. Emotions are not only prior to thinking, they are a prerequisite of thought. So any harmony of emotions that takes place in the psyche can only be imposed on impulses already clamoring for satisfaction. For Santayana, the role of reason is to select those impulses which can attain a consistent satisfaction and discard those that imperil not merely the organism’s life, but the satisfaction of the rest of the organism’s impulses. As Santayana puts it:
The direct aim of reason is harmony; yet harmony, when made to rule in life, gives reason a noble satisfaction which we call happiness. Happiness is impossible and even inconceivable to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure, and fear. The moralists who speak disparagingly of happiness are less sublime than they think. In truth their philosophy is too lightly ballasted, too much fed on prejudice and quibbles, for happiness to fall within its range. Happiness implies resource and security; it can be achieved only by discipline. Your intuitive moralist rejects discipline, at least discipline of the conscience; and he is punished by having no lien on wisdom. He trusts to the clash of blind forces in collision, being one of them himself. He demands that virtue should be partisan and unjust; and he dreams of crushing the adversary in some physical cataclysm.
Such groping enthusiasm is often innocent and romantic; it captivates us with its youthful spell. But it has no structure with which to resist the shocks of fortune, which it goes out so jauntily to meet. It turns only too often into vulgarity and worldliness... Happiness is hidden from a free and casual will; it belongs rather to one chastened by a long education and unfolded in an atmosphere of sacred and perfected institutions. It is discipline that renders men rational and capable of happiness, by suppressing without hatred what needs to be suppressed to attain a beautiful naturalness. Discipline discredits the random pleasures of illusion, hope, and triumph, and substitutes those which are self-reproductive, perennial, and serene, because they express an equilibrium maintained with reality. So long as the result of endeavour is partly unforeseen and unintentional, so long as the will is partly blind, the Life of Reason is still swaddled in ignominy and the animal barks in the midst of human discourse. Wisdom and happiness consist in having recast natural energies in the furnace of experience. Nor is this experience merely a repressive force. It enshrines the successful expressions of spirit as well as the shocks and vetoes of circumstance; it enables a man to know himself in knowing the world and to discover his ideal by the very ring, true or false, of fortune's coin.

The moral ideals implied in this passage are not fully consistent with Randian ideals. The major difference stems from different view of rationality. For Rand, the rational is a disembodied force (disembodied because free from emotion) that is directed solely toward determining the facts of reailty, which she believes (in defiance of Hume) includes moral precepts. For Santayana, reason and emotion are intertwined from the start. Indeed, reason is merely an impulse for harmony allied with intelligence, a fusion of emotion and reflection, of instinct and ideation. This conception of reason anticipates the discoveries of Antonio Damasio and other denizens of the Cognitive Revolution who have found that emotion is necessary to rational thought. Santayana’s rational ethics, whatever its shortcomings in terms of vagueness and lack of a detailed “technology,” at least can claim that in its broad outlines it does not clash with cognitive science. Rand’s attempt at a rational ethics, on the other hand, on the account of its false psychology and its philosophical illiteracy, stumbles headlong into error and contradiction. Rand reasons from is to ought in defiance of Hume and divorces reason from emotion in defiance of cognitive science.

Slow read with commentary: "The Ethics Of Emergencies"(2)

Continuing our para by para examination of Rand's "The Ethics of Emergencies"(Part 1 here):
By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue of ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence or good will among men. It has indoctrinated men with the idea that to value another human being is act of selflessness, thus implying that a man can have no personal interest in others - that to value another is to sacrifice oneself - that any love, respect, or admiration a man may feel for others is not and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to his existence, a sacrificial blank check signed over to his loved ones.
Comment: In this para we begin to realise that far from solving the problem of ethics, Rand has, just as she did with her proposed solution the "is/ought" problem, entirely missed the point. For obviously our personal interests, and those personal interests of others do not always clash; in fact there is no reason to think that they are not mostly compatible. Thus, where there is no clash of personal interests there are no ethical difficulties. Of the millions of letters about ethical dilemmas written to all the "Dear Abby" type advice columns ever printed, precisely zero will be about where personal interests don't conflict. While Rand may claim that her definition of ethics starts with the way the individual treats himself, that ethics are necessary even to Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, we might rightfully reply "so what?" The way Robinson Crusoe behaves only affects Robinson Crusoe; and unless we take it upon ourselves to care about him there is nothing much more to say. Thus Rand's diversion of ethics away from conflicts of personal interests produces a solution without a problem.
The men who accept the dichotomy but choose its other side, the ultimate products of altruism's dehumanising influence, are those psychopaths who do not challenge altruism's basic premise but proclaim their rebellion against self-sacrifice by announcing that they are totally indifferent to anything living and would not lift a finger to help a man or a dog left mangled by a hit-and-run driver (who is usually one of their own kind).
Comment: This para is a good example of Rand's quite blatantly bamboozling the reader - and quite possibly herself too. Somehow extreme egoism - someone who wouldn't even make the sacrifice of lifting a finger to help a man in a hit-and-run accident - is a product of altruistic ethics?? A completely self-interested psychopath doesn't "challenge altruism's basic premise"?! Pull the other one, as the Cockneys used to say, it's got bells on.

Monday, February 04, 2008

"What does a rational person do in regard to anti-concepts?"

The Ayn Rand Institute's Harry Binswanger, he also of the HBL, drops by the ARCHNblog to comment on "anti-concepts", and exactly what should be done about these pesky critters.
An example of an anti-concept

An "anti-concept," as Ayn Rand identified and defined this perversion, is "an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept."

She identified the following as anti-concepts: "consumerism," "duty," "ethnicity," "extremism," "isolationism," "McCarthyism," "meritocracy," "polarization," and "simplistic."

To that roll of dishonor, I would add "socialization." This term is used, ostensibly, to refer vaguely to the process by which a child comes to adopt the elements of civilized existence in society. A definition I found on the web states:

"Socialization is the process by which culture is learned; also called enculturation. During socialization individuals internalize a culture's social controls, along with values and norms about right and wrong."

A definition given at a medical dictionary site is more explicit, and therefore uglier:

"the process by which society integrates the individual, and the individual learns to behave in socially acceptable ways."

Right there, you can see the incredible package-deal the term is trying to put over on us. The first part of the definition speaks of society acting upon the individual, as if society were an entity and the individual a lump of clay, waiting to be molded by it. The second part of the definition refers to learning. (And even with regard to that the definition's author felt the need to add "socially acceptable" into the mix.)

"Socialization" packages together rational learning and mindless conformity.

The purpose of the package is to eliminate from the user's mind the idea that there is such a thing as rational learning. Note, in regard to this purpose, that the two parts of the second definition are joined by "and"—as if there is always an element of second-handedness in a child's acceptance of morality, etiquette, etc.

But there is no more fundamental difference in a child's development than that between first-handed and second-handed functioning.

Both Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey came to hold moral (or, in Toohey's case pseudo-moral) principles. But the difference in how this happened is the difference between . . . well, it's the difference between Roark and Toohey. Packaging both their developments into one concept, "socialization," is designed to obliterate this difference, to make the idea of Roark unthinkable—by implying there is no essential difference between Roark's mental processes and those of Toohey and Keating.

Indeed, the anti-concept "socialization" is aimed at wiping out the very idea of a mental process, suggesting that everyone is molded unconsciously by "society," passively absorbing his conclusions, his convictions, his standards, from his interactions with others.

Note that the first definition says "individuals internalize social controls." You "internalize" the food you eat. If you are simply eating up the "values and norms" tossed to you by others, there's something very wrong.

The term "socialization" has currency because it resonates with the experience of second-handers. To the extent one has not engaged in rational learning, and has passively absorbed his ideas from others, he has difficulty even conceiving of an alternative. People who blithely write about society "integrating" the individual—without shuddering at the implications for how they themselves developed— are either unaccustomed to applying ideas to their own lives or confessing so thorough a second-handedness that they have lost the idea of rational learning altogether. Or both.

What does a rational person do in regard to anti-concepts? First, he doesn't allow them into his own thinking. He refuses to use words such as "socialization," consigning them to oblivion. Second, he doesn't give them further currency in communication with others; where appropriate, he unmasks them for the mind-busters that they are. Which is what this post has been designed to do for "socialization."

Harry Binswanger, HBL

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Founders Founders

A few weeks ago more news of the quasi-Randian Founders College's ongoing woes surfaced; at the time the ARCHNblog fearlessly resisted the temptation to say "We told you so" and to make yet another obvious headline pun on the hapless College's name.

However, the skies are further darkening over the Berry Hill Estate, with news that Founders have defaulted on a $3m loan and have further action initiated against them to the tune of $120k. In a followup story it seems likely that CEO Tamara Fuller is going to take the hit financially. Of the hoped-for 100 students originally envisaged lining up for philosophy, art, politics, history and life from an (implausibly denied) Objectivist perspective, as of now, in Founders second semester, they only have 5 students.

Rand's Ethics, Part 5

Life as the ultimate value. Despite all the fine noise Rand made on behalf of logic, she could contradict herself with the best of them. Her favorite type of contradiction involves equivocation. She would begin reasoning with some very broad abstractions—so broad, in fact, that the equivocations she accomplished with them have gone unnoticed by her denizens. One minute, she'd be saying one thing with them; the next, something else. She equivocated to draw causation out of identity, certainty out of fallibility, and dyophobia out of realism. We find her up to her same old tricks in her ethics. Man's life, she asserted, is the ultimate value. This suggests a survivalist ethic. Life über alles. And if there be any doubt on this subject, at least as far as orthodox Objectivist opinion is concerned, consider the following extraordinary statement, compliments of Leonard Peikoff: "An action without effects on man's life (there are none such) would be outside the realm of evaluation." ("Fact and Value," emphasis added)

Could Peikoff have really meant that "there are none such" actions without effects on man's life? Not if we interpret man's life in the survivalist sense suggested by its introduction in Rand's ethics. In the survivalist sense, the statement is largely false; and whatever small element of truth may linger in the statement is incalculable. In other words, even though there are some actions that marginally increase the risk of mortality, it's very difficult to specify precisely what that risk is (particularly when its very small). It may well be, for example, that adultery increases, if ever so slightly, one's risk of mortality, either because of increased risk of a murderously jealous spouse or the increased risk of venereal disease. But these are, admittedly, very negligible risks—so negligible, that it is not clear that they exist at all. Which is precisely the whole point: most human action does not contain any clear, verifiable risks in terms of mortality. And those few actions that could be calculated in terms of risk would not normally be given any moral significance except in extreme cases. Is hiking in the mountains immoral? Who would dare say so? Yet it is clearly more risky to go hiking in the mountains than to stay at home. The risk is very small, but it is there nonetheless. Indeed, it's probably greater than the risks involved in committing adultery. But who would dare say that hiking in the mountains is more immoral than adultery?

Rand was well aware of the shortcomings of a survivalist morality. In her Playboy interview with Alvin Toffler, she said: "If the value is great enough, you do not care to exist without it." Well now wait a minute! If life is the ultimate value, how can any value be great enough so that you would not wish to live without it? There are other passages sprinkled throughout the orthodox Objectivist canon where Rand and her apologists back of from the survivalist implications of her life-as-ultimate-value morality. This retrenchment is rationalized by the fundamental equivocation in her ethical system. Thus in Galt's speech Rand wrote: "The standard of value in Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good and evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man." Now this little man-qua-man qualification changes everything. It's not just any kind of survival, but a very a special type, that we are to pursue. What precisely it is, though, remains somewhat nebulous. Rand clarifies "survival qua man" with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being." But since this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated, this will not do. Observe closely, for we are here confronting as good an example of circular reasoning as one is likely to find. When we ask Rand and her orthodox followers, How are rational values discovered? they answer By determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being!

So all that stuff about life and death being man's only fundamental alternative was just window dressing! It has nothing to do with her conclusion, which is merely a vague standard that has no relation to anything and which, precisely because of its indeterminate nature, is no standard at all. Rand has failed to achieve her stated goal of delivering a rational ethics. Is, then, a rational ethics even possible? That will be the subject of my next post.