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.


JayCross said...

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.

This seems like a very passive point of view. Some people "really and truly esteem" total submission to other people, or self-pity, or excuse making. But is that really a "given?" Not in the sense that gravity or season changes are given. Environment has a lot to do with it, as Nathaniel Branden writes in his essay "A Culture of Accountability."

Children are unlikely to learn self-responsibility from adults who are passive, self-pitying, prone to blaming and alibis, and who invariably explain their life circumstances on the basis of someone else’s actions or on “the system.” Such adults do not teach self-responsibility, and if they do pay lip service to it, they are probably not convincing.

If, however, children grow up in a home or are educated in a school system among adults who hold themselves accountable for what they do, are honest about acknowledging their mistakes, carry their own weight in relationships, and work for what they want in life, there is a good probability, although never an absolute guarantee, that this behavior will be perceived as normal and as what is appropriate to a human being.

Would Santayana uphold the desires of a child in the first scenario because "that's the way he learned?" Would he really say that a life of excuse-making and squandered potential is "what he wants", even though he only "wants" it by default of his parents failing to provide a proper upbringing? I cannot accept this to be the case. A desire that you reach randomly because of how you were raised or the people you were surrounded with isn't something you "really and truly esteem."

JayCross said...

And upon further reflection, is Rand's ignorance of cognitive science really that devastating to her goal of a rational ethics? I can concede that reason and emotion are intertwined. However, as Santayana admits, a rational ethics is still something that should be pursued.

Someone who grows up being brainwashed to hate America should study history and abandon violent jihad as his life's purpose. Someone whose mother and grandmother wasted their lives in empty, loveless relationships should look around and wonder if that's all there is. Someone who meanders through life with no real purpose should spend some time thinking about what he truly wants.

Any ethical system that said, in effect, "Well whatever, you want what you want and there's really no changing it" is lazy, lying, or both. It might as well be called "The Ethics of Chance", since how things randomly came to be is what is worshiped and made the center of all decision making.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "This seems like a very passive point of view. Some people "really and truly esteem" total submission to other people, or self-pity, or excuse making. But is that really a 'given?'"

It would be a given if people "really and truly" esteemed it. It's not likely, however, that anyone truly or really esteems self-pity and excuse making, though some may really and truly esteem submission to a wise and great leader. You have to keep something in mind here. The adverbs "truly" and "really" signify that what is esteemed is natural. Santayana was a thorough naturalist who believed that innate impulses were natural adaptions of organisms to the world. Therefore, except in extreme pathological cases, these impulses are not something that should be distrusted or discounted. They are signs telling us what we really need and value. All moral decisions have to be made with them in mind.

Jay: "Would Santayana uphold the desires of a child in the first scenario because 'that's the way he learned?'"

No, what a person learns is not necessarily in line with their natural dispositions. In fact, it is just such learning that Santayana tends to oppose as artificial, as something based on "partial interest" or "partial disillusion." The main point where Santayana and Rand disagree is on the question of natural dispositions. Rand doesn't believe any such dispositions exist, so of course from her point of view what a man "truly and really esteems" is simply a cover for whatever artificial dispositions the individual formed for himself, either form his own thinking or the thinking of others. But that is false psychology: the Cognitive Revolution has long ago refuted that blank slate view.

If one is to take a naturalist point of view, one has to admit natural dispositions: the evidence for them is overwhelming. But can we trust such dispositions? Well, if one believes that these dispositions are a product of evolution, I don't see why not. If these natural dispositions really were bad, they would have long ago been weeded out by natural selection.

By not accepting the existence of natural dispositions, Rand is basically denying the existence of natural values. Her ethics, in this sense, is a manifestion of an anti-nature point of view. We are asked to decide what we want, based on some process nebulously described as "reason."

Now the real difficulty in a naturalist-based rational ethics is that a lot of people don't know what they really want. They've been told what they should want, or they want contrary things, so that's why Santayana emphasizes self-knowledge and discipline. One does not merely blindly follow whatever impulse swims within one's ken, but one subjects oneself to a kind of Socratic inquisition to determine which impulses represent something vital and central to the organism. Not some "random" or "learned" or the product of artifical "brain-washing"; but something that expresses a genuine, natural demand of the pscyhe. This natural demand, whatever it may be, is not an epistemological given: it is not something that is cognitively obvious. Hence Santayana's assertion: "Happiness is hidden from a free and casual will." Through experience and discipline the individual learns to distinguish between the natural and the artificial. But once natural disposition is glimpsed and discovered, it is, and cannot help being, a moral given. Keep in mind: in order to avoid Hume's fallacy, you have to take something as a given. You can't reason from an is to an ought. You need the ought premise to get your rational ethics off the ground. Your choice is between natural disposition and artificial disposition. Which should one choose? Which is more "rational"?

JayCross said...

simply a cover for whatever artificial dispositions the individual formed for himself, either form his own thinking or the thinking of others.

How is something I form for myself by my own thinking "artificial?" After all, our minds are part of us; they too are natural.

One big problem I have with natural dispositions (and maybe it's because I haven't done enough reading) is they seem very vague. How do we know whether someone's desire is the product of natural disposition, environment, or conscious deliberation? It seems that very often, all three come into play. I also question whether natural dispositions are always more powerful than thought.

An anecdotal example: I am one of the only males in my family who does not have and has never had a drinking problem. I grew up being told constantly that "alcoholism is in my blood" and the like. Now, I'd like to think the reason I'm not an alcoholic is because I've seen what it's done to my family members and resolved not to repeat their mistakes. But if the abuse of alcohol is a natural disposition in males in my family, would Santayana say I should not repress it? Or more to the point, shouldn't it have overpowered my meager attempts to overcome it?

Maybe that's a bad example, it's just the easiest one I can think of offhand.

Daniel Barnes said...

>How do we know whether someone's desire is the product of natural disposition, environment, or conscious deliberation?

That is the $64,000 question, and you will not find the denizens of the ARCHNblog or anyone else with any real knowledge of the field telling you the definitive answer. All this is still unknown, hence vague, but some really big pieces of the puzzle are now to hand, and the shape they are forming empirically seems to strongly falsify Rand's contention that man is a "blank slate" and that all desires are the byproduct of man's philosophical ideas.

On the alcoholism issue, little is still known about its cause, and less is known about the genetic vs environmental influences on it. There is mere speculation at this point a)because it turns out genetic disposition itself is way more complex than might have been imagined even a few years ago and b) environment has a strong influence of the expression of genetic tendencies anyway and of course c)obviously not all offspring inherit all traits in the first place. Anyone who gives you a definitive answer to such a question is simply pretending to know.

Rand, however, would give you a definitive answer: alcoholism is the result of your philosophical premises.

Hence she is pretending to know. And Greg is painstakingly compiling the evidence demonstrating this.

JayCross said...


I appreciate Greg's investigating her claims. In fact, he's completely convinced me that Rand was clueless on psychology.

However, I'm not convinced that part of alcoholism doesn't emanate from a person's view of the world. I don't think it's something you can will out of existence overnight, because there is clearly a chemical element at work. But there are definite attitude similarities among alcoholics. Many, for example, are extremely hostile to introspecting their thoughts and feelings. Many of them do feel that the world is set against them from the start so why bother. When I see things like that I can't help but think, "Gee, if this person had a freakin' attitude adjustment, they might be able to kick that habit." The truth of that statement is properly the work of painstaking study but, if all we're doing is speculating, it seems like a halfway decent hypothesis.

Anonymous said...


Is there a resource you'd recommend to read alongside Life of Reason? The language, while poetic, is a bit beyond my ken.

-- Ian.

Daniel Barnes said...

While we're speculating, you may be interested in this approach:
Narrative Therapy.

I've personally seen this approach dramatically working in with other, non-alcoholic psychological problems. It's been around for about 20 years, and while it has definite postmodern influences such as Foucault, it also coheres with some of Karl Popper's theories about the objective-abstract nature of problems.

In narrative therapy, instead of following the old psychological idea that the source of a problem is rooted in a person's psyche somewhere, and needs to be uncovered and repaired, problems are treated as separate from the person involved. They are more like a virus, carried around in the cultural atmosphere, which people might have a predisposition towards catching or resisting. Rather than being deeply and even intractably rooted and then inevitably manifesting in various ways, they are seen as invasive forces that deprive people of their lives, which the person might be aided by outsiders in resisting.

The basic logical problem with the traditional approach, which I'll call the "inherent problem", is that the person is the problem. How are you supposed to fix that?! It's like trying to get a hard drive to reformat itself. With the narrative approach, the problem is separate from the person, with its own life cycle and goals. Thus the logical issue is overcome. The person is the person, the problem is the problem.

The consequences of this shift are enormous. It means we can think of the sufferer as, say, a country under hostile invasion, who we can help in their own resistance movement. This resistance movement can be detected even in the most seemingly overrun cases if the therapist is careful enough.Often, like a cowed nation, the sufferer has been propagandised by the problem into thinking themselves beaten, when this is actually not quite the case.

The other issue is that even professionals are not good at detecting mental problems, often reading completely normal symptoms as problem symptoms. This was decisively illustrated in the famous Rosenhan experiment in the 70s. (see also the wiki entry)

There are of course good criticisms of narrative therapy (such as whether it is falsifiable). However at the very least it opens up some intriguing approaches, ones that as I have mentioned I have personally seen succeed. Perhaps the pomos have hit on something here.

gregnyquist said...

Ian: "Is there a resource you'd recommend to read alongside Life of Reason? The language, while poetic, is a bit beyond my ken."

Sorry, I don't know of any good resources along those lines. Life of Reason, particularly the first and last volumes, may be the most difficult well-written work of philosophy ever produced. It's worse than Nietzsche in this respect. Even so eminent a philosopher as G.E. Moore confessed he couldn't make heads or tails of it.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "How do we know whether someone's desire is the product of natural disposition, environment, or conscious deliberation?"

Most impulses come from all three sources (although innate and environmental factors tend to dominate). Innate factors, particularly those that go beyond immediate life sustaining functionality (such as hunger and thirst), generally require some environmental factor to trigger them. There is, for example, no such thing as an innate snake phobia in the absence of some event (i.e., an unpleasant encounter with a snake) that triggers it. In addition to this, all such a impulses pass through some kind of intelligence involving such issues as discovering the means to their satisfaction and coordinating them with other impulses.

The source, then, of the impulse is no criterion of whether it's natural. What would be a criterion? Simply this: the satisfaction of natural impulse leads to what the Greeks called eudomania, which can be translated as "well being" or "a life lived well" or "happiness." Artificial dispositions are those that don't achieve this eudomania. They are just the sort of desires or impulses the satisfaction of which doesn't make us as happy as we expected—indeed, often makes us rather disappointed (though we may be loathe to admit it}. A rational ethics simply means using intelligence to distinguish between these artificial dispositions, based on errors of judgment and false ideals, and those dispositions the satisfaction of which would really make us happy.

Anonymous said...

"Rand reasons from is to ought in defiance of Hume and divorces reason from emotion in defiance of cognitive science."

You said in another post that Rand said that that emotions follow from cognitive contents. You also said there was no evidence for that. Busted x 2.