Thursday, April 30, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 7

Politics and the non-rational 3: the is-ought gap revisited. In the last Objectivism and Politics post, I noted two problems with the view the logical conduct is always better than non-logical conduct:

  1. It is not clear, and cannot be assumed a priori, that non-logical conduct in all instances is “bad.”
  2. A society based solely on logical conduct and “reason” is not possible.

In this post, I will examine the second of these two problems.

In his massive treatise The Mind and Society, we find Pareto making the following observation:

Be it said in all deference to our estimable humanitarians and positivists, a society exclusively determined by “reason” does not and cannot exist, and that not because “prejudices” in human beings prevent them from following the dictates of “reason,” but because the data of the problem that presumably is to be solved by logico-experimental reasonings are entirely unknown…. Social reformers fail to notice, or at least they disregard, the fact that individuals entertain different opinions with regard to utility, and that they do so because they get the data they require from their own sentiments. They say, and they believe, that they are solving an objective problem: “What is the best form for a society?” Actually they are solving a subjective problem: “What form of society best fits my sentiments?” The reformer, of course, [as well as the Objectivist] is certain that his sentiments have to be shared by all honest men and that they are not merely excellent in themselves [or, as an Objectivist might put it, excellent in the light of reason] but are also also in the highest degree beneficial to society [or to the self-interest of “rational” individuals]. Unfortunately that belief in no way alters the realities. [§2143, §2145]

When Pareto denies that the “dictates of reason” cannot be followed because the “data of the problem … are entirely unknown,” he is restating, in his own words, Hume’s denial that moral values can be founded exclusively on “reason.”

Not only did Rand fail to bridge Hume’s infamous is-ought gap, she does not appear to have even understood it. Consider what she writes of it in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics”:

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality [which philosophers make such a claim?], let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between ‘is’ and ‘ought.’ [VOS, 17]

Rand failed to solve the is-ought problem in this paragraph: indeed, she succeeded only in misrepresenting it. Neither Hume nor Pareto deny that value judgments refer to "facts of reality." What they deny is that those judgments can be determined (or “validated”) by “reason” (or, in Pareto’s case, by the "logico-experimental" method). The reason for this is quite simple: no value judgment can be derived without reference to actual needs, sentiments, and desires of human beings, all of which Rand and her followers deplore as mere “whims.” To value something is to care about in the emotive sense of the word; and if you didn’t care about it or were incapable of caring about it, you wouldn’t value it in the first place.

Rand tries to evade this so-called “subjectivist” conclusion by suggesting that, because only living beings can have values, life must be the “standard” of value. Rand never actually attempted to “prove” her argument (i.e., demonstrate it logically), but even if she had, the is-ought gap would have remained ungapped. Life can’t possibly be the standard of all values because most values clearly have no bearing on the question of life and death. This is a point I fleshed out in an earlier post, where I explained why life as the standard of value (or the “ultimate” value) fails to answer Hume’s objections: it covers too little ground and leads to troublesome moral paradoxes. This explains why Rand, as soon she thinks she has established her “reason-based” morality, quietly gets rid of her survivalist morality and replaces it with an entirely different one: “The standard of value in Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good and evil—is ... that which is required for man's survival qua man." As I wrote in the earlier post:

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!

In other words, Rand’s attempt to bridge the is-ought gap collapses under the weight of its own ineptitude. Like every other philosopher of “reason,” she unwittingly equivocated her way to finding some vague solution to the problem so that she could pretend to be following “reason” instead of her own sentiments and desires.

Now since Rand claims to have founded her politics on her ethics, her failure to demonstrate how an ought can be logically derived from an is will have obvious consequences for her politics. Most critically, it will allow us to dismiss Rand’s claim that her political values are founded on “reason.” Rand’s normative political theory is merely the statement of her own personal preferences. Therefore it is pointless to discuss whether Rand’s theory of rights is “correct” or “true” or based on "reason" or "man's nature." If we are to stick to the realm of facts and practicalities, we should instead focus on whether Rand’s political theories are empirically viable: that is, whether they can be implemented as realities, rather than just dreamed about as pleasant ideals.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 6

Politics and the non-rational 2: constructivism. In the last "Objectivism and Politics" post I introduced the concept of non-logical conduct, which I contended is an important element in what happens in society. Now while Rand probably might not have much cared for the notion of non-logical conduct, it is not, in and of itself, contrary to Objectivism. An Objectivist, for instance, could easily accept the fact of non-logical conduct and its important affect on society. What he would have to add, as a sort of caveat to this acceptance, is the conviction that this non-logical conduct is bad society; that is, indeed, primarily what is wrong with society. “Yes, non-logical conduct is an important fact about society,” this Objectivist might admit. “But it’s precisely because people are ‘non-logical’ that things are so bad. If we could teach people not to be non-logical in their conduct, we would have a much better world.”

There are two problems with this view of non-logical conduct.

  1. It is not clear, and certainly cannot be assumed a priori, that non-logical conduct in all instances is “bad.”
  2. A society based solely on logical conduct and “reason” simply is not possible.

In this post, I will examine the first of these two problems.

Despite Rand’s vehement denial, it simply isn’t true that “reason” (i.e., consciously deliberated reasoning which applies logical reasonings to facts) can be the only guide to one’s life. Reason tends to break down and falter whenever it is facing any issue of great complexity and uncertain outcomes. Few things are quite so complicated as the social order. To believe that one can, through “reason,” construct a rational social order is to commit what F. A. Hayek called “the fatal conceit.” Civilization itself is the product of “non-logical” conduct. Nor does can it be otherwise. As Hayek notes:

We flatter ourselves undeservedly if we represent human civilization as entirely the product of conscious reason or as the product of human design, or when we assume that it is necessarily in our power deliberately to re-create or to maintain what we have built without knowing what we are doing…. Many of the greatest things man has achieved are the result not of consciously directed thought, and still less the product of a deliberately coordinated effort of many individuals, but of a process in which the individual plays a part which he can never fully understand. They are greater than any individual precisely because they result from the combination of knowledge more extensive than a single mind can master….

[The] belief that processes which are consciously directed are necessarily superior to any spontaneous process is an unfounded superstition…. [The] spontaneous interplay of social forces sometimes solves problems which no individual mind could consciously solve, or perhaps even perceives, and if they thereby create an ordered structure which increases the power of the individuals without having been designed by any one of them, they are superior to conscious action… Insofar as such processes are capable of producing a useful order which could not have been produced by conscious direction, any attempt to make them subject to such direction would necessarily mean that we restrict what social activity can achieve to the inferior capacity of the individual mind….

It may prove to be far the most difficult and not the least important task for human reason rationally to comprehend its own limitations. It is essential for the growth of reason that as individuals we should bow to forces and obey principles which we cannot hope fully to understand, yet on which the advance and even the preservation of civilization depend. Historically this has been achieved by the influence of the various religious creeds and by traditions and superstitions which made men submit to those forces by an appeal to his emotions rather than his reason. The most dangerous stage in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the powers of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them. This may well prove a hurdle which man will repeatedly reach, only to be thrown back into barbarism. [The Counter-Revolution of Science, 149-163]

Hayek’s discussion is rather abstract, so we might do well to flesh it out a bit. His focus is primarily on those who believe that all institutions ought to be based on “reason” (i.e., “conscious direction”). He believes that the desire to found the institutions of society entirely on “reason” is incompatible with freedom. “Those who believe that all useful institutions are deliberate contrivances [of reason] and who cannot conceive of anything serving a human purpose that has not be consciously designed [i.e., not product of logical conduct] are almost of necessity enemies of freedom.” [Constitution of Liberty, 61]

Now while Rand is not an enemy of freedom, her belief in the “supremacy” of reason leads her to a kind of social constructivism that is more compatible with the social views of the political left. Rand’s constructivism arises mostly clearly in remarks she made about common law:

Common law is good in the way witchdoctors were once good: some of their discoveries were a primitive form of medicine, and to that extent they achieved something. But once a science of medicine is established, you don’t return to witchdoctors. Similarly, common law established—by tradition or inertia—some proper principles (and some dreadful ones). But once a civilization grasps the concept of law, and particularly of a constitution, common law becomes unnecessary (p. 44). [because "reason" provides a better guide than established usage.]

In other words, Rand is admitting that in the past there was some real utility in non-logical conduct, but now that “rational” law has been (or ought to be) established, we can do away with Hayek’s spontaneous formations and found everything on “reason.” But if this is true, why stop with the law? Why not found economic policy on “reason.” Yes, I know, Objectivists believe that a rational economic policy entails laissez-faire. But that is a minority opinion among those believing in the supremacy of reason, most of whom are interventionists or socialists of one stripe or another. Before World War II, many intellectuals were convinced that “reason” supported socialism, because a system of production consciously directed and planned by experts seemed more “rational” then the “anarchy” of the market. Yet the fact remains that the so-called “blind” forces of the market do a much more efficient job of coordinating the factors of production than conscious reasoning on the part of a central planner ever could. An economy is far too complex to be governed by “reason.” Non-logical conduct therefore has an important place and society, and the prejudice against it is simply that: a prejudice.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Taking Ideas Seriously Pt 2: Peikoff's "The Ominous Parallels"

Objectivists claim to "take ideas seriously," yet are notorious for bad arguments and worse scholarship. Regular ARCHNblog contributor Neil Parille continues his series detailing some key examples of this problem. (Part 1 here) This week, he examines Leonard Peikoff's debut "The Ominous Parallels."

In part one of this essay I discussed some of the problems with the Objectivist theory of history. Here I will discuss Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, in which Peikoff applies Rand’s philosophy of cultural change to a concrete historical episode.

The Ominous Parallels (“OP”) was published in 1982 with a preface by Ayn Rand. Peikoff’s thesis is that the rise of the Nazis was the direct result of the influence of Immanuel Kant on German philosophy and culture. Kant inspired even more irrational philosophers as Hegel and Fichte, who went on to influence twentieth century German speaking irrationalists such as Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Karl Barth, Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger (most of whom, curiously enough, were anti-Nazi). This intellectual climate paved the way for the Nazis to take control of Germany in 1933. Peikoff gives short shrift to the Great Depression, the Treaty of Versailles, and mistakes made by anti-Nazi politicians to mount an effective resistance to Hitler as explanations for the rise of Nazism.

The most obvious problem for Peikoff is that Kant was not a Nazi or even a proto-Nazi. His political views were generally of the classical liberal variety. The second formulation of the categorical imperative (which Peikoff never quotes in his lengthy discussion of Kant’s ethics) is the rather un-Nazi sounding “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.” For any number of reasons, Kant seems particularly ill-suited as the intellectual godfather of Adolph Hitler.

A larger problem is Peikoff’s assumption that the influence of ideas flows one way (from bad to worse) and that later thinkers will inevitably draw the conclusions that Objectivists assert must be drawn from bad ideas. Peikoff does not establish (or even attempt to establish) that his and Rand’s idiosyncratic understanding of Kant was accepted by German philosophers and intellectuals. In addition, Peikoff does not show (or again even attempts to show) that German intellectuals drew the political conclusions that he thinks are inevitable from Kantian philosophy. Such a demonstration would require the review of an enormous amount of literature (most of it untranslated) by German intellectuals from Kant to 1933. If Kant’s immediate followers were not collectivists of the Nazi variety, any claim that Kantianism leads inevitably to collectivism or Auschwitz (which Peikoff alleges was Kant’s “dream”) is rather dubious.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that there are only a couple of Nazis whom Peikoff cites as finding support in Kant. The first is Lothar Gottlieb Tirala. Peikoff calls him a “philosophically trained Nazi ideologist” who believed that Aristotle was non-Aryan. (OP, pp. 57, 65-66.) I suspect that Tirala first came to Peikoff’s attention through von Mises’ works Human Action and Omnipotent Government. Von Mises discusses him as a representative advocate of “polylogism,” the belief that different classes or races employ different logic. Tirala was a physician who headed the Nazi’s Institute for Racial Hygiene. He was seen as something of an eccentric even by most Nazis because of his theory that proper breathing could cure a host of diseases. He does not appear to have been taken seriously as a philosopher. (Best I can tell, his only work translated into English was The Cure of High Blood Pressure by Respiratory Exercises.)

The second is Adolph Eichmann. Peikoff relies exclusively on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, her famous account of his 1961 trial. According to Peikoff, “[h]e was a faithful Kantian Adolph Eichmann told his Israeli judges.” (OP, p. 96.) As Fred Seddon shows, Peikoff’s use of Arendt is highly misleading.

As David Ramsay Steele notes, one of the presuppositions of Objectivist theory is that there is a “tight fit” between metaphysics and epistemology on the one hand and ethics and politics on the other. However, the one theme running through Nazi ideology is not Kantianism or even philosophy, but biology and race. Fanciful theories of Aryan supremacy were probably accepted by the average Nazi not because of epistemology but because of the all too human need to find scapegoats in a time of crisis. Peikoff is aware that the rise of the Nazis took place simultaneously with the acceptance by many intellectuals of esoteric racial theories of Aryan superiority, but makes the dubious claim that these ideas were believed only because bad philosophy paved the way for them. Of course many German philosophers such as Hegel and Fichte were ardent nationalists, but it does not appear that they advocated proto-Nazi racial ideas. Even the most prominent philosopher who was a member of the Nazi party (Martin Heidegger) did not accept Nazi racial theories completely. If one had asked the average Nazi (or even Nazi intellectual) why he believed in racist ideology I would be surprised if he gave reasons having anything to do with the philosophies of Kant, Hegel or Fichte.

Interestingly enough, probably the most widely quoted philosopher by the Nazis was Friedrich Nietzsche. Unlike the obscure and abstruse Kant, Nietzsche actually sounds like a Nazi, at least at times. His philosophy is also tinged with racial and biological overtones. This is not to say that he would have approved of the Nazism, but if Nazism should be laid at the feet of any thinker (a dubious proposition) it would be Nietzsche. As readers of the ARCHNblog know, Rand admired Nietzsche and echoes of his philosophy show up even in her later works. So we shouldn’t be surprised that Peikoff (always eager to defend Rand) tells us that his influence on the rise of the Nazis is “debatable.” (OP, p. 43.)

- Neil Parille

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Visions of Reality: New Ways of Conceiving Old Problems

In case y'all weren't aware, Greg Nyquist has a new book out. I haven't read it yet, but am looking forward to it. It's called "Visions of Reality" and it sounds like he brings his refreshing brand of "truculent" realism to bear a variety of perennial issues. Here's the product description from Amazon:
In an age when political correctness, ideological myopia, political partisanship, and other sundry inanities have utterly mangled truth and clear insight beyond all recognition, nothing can be more to the purpose than an open and honest examination of some of the more salient issues confronting the civilized world. In Visions of Reality: Viewing Old Problems in a New Light, philosopher and independent scholar Greg Nyquist takes a fresh look at some of the central issues confronting civilized man in the twenty-first century, eschewing the conventional platitudes that have enveloped them and instead opting to go wherever the evidence leads. Essays on conservatism, democracy, moral externalities, the psychopathology of the left, economics, business cycles, and intuition all bring a fresh perspective on some of the chief problems tormenting mankind. The book concludes with two ambitious essays on the meaning of life. The essay "Realism and the Spiritual Life" attempts to give an unbiased, agenda-free account of the evidence for and against theism. The book concludes with essay "Freedom and the Spontaneous Universe," which introduces a bold conjecture that rejects the determinism implicit in the cosmologies of neo-darwinists and creationists in favor of a vision of the universe that is compatible with mankind's experience of individual initiative and freedom.

If you're a fan of Greg's writing here, or his previous book of which this blog is the namesake, "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature", I suspect you're likely to enjoy it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 5

Politics and the non-rational 1: non-logical conduct. In 1962, Rand wrote the following in a letter to a fan:
It took decades of collectivist philosophy to bring this country to its present state. And it is only the right philosophy that can save us. Ideas take time to spread, but we will only have to wait decades—because reason and reality are on our side. (Letters of Ayn Rand, 596)
We find Rand in this passage making two very broad assumptions:
  1. That’s Rand’s own philosophy represents “reason and reality.”
  2. That rational ideas (that is, ideas based on “reason and reality”) spread quicker than non-rational ideas—presumably because most human beings prefer “reason” to "non-reason."

In the previous Objectivism and Politics post, I showed how rationality can be compromised by lack of specific knowledge. In the next series of posts, I intend to explore the influence of the non-rational in politics. I will begin by explicating a category of action identified by Vilfredo Pareto: non-logical conduct. James Burnham, in The Machiavellians, describes the distinction between logical and non-logical conduct as follows:

A man’s conduct (that is, human action) is “logical” under the following circumstances: when his action is motivated by a deliberately held goal or purpose; when that goal is possible; when the steps or means he takes to reach the goal are in fact appropriate for reaching it…

If … any one or more of the conditions for logical conduct are not present, then the actions are non-logical.

Actions may, for instance, have no deliberate (i.e., conscious) motivation at all. This would be true of all or almost all of the behavior of animals; and Pareto, in spite of the prejudice of rationalists, believes it to be true of a surprising percentage of human actions [a view that is now receiving empirical support from cognitive science]. Taboos and other superstitious acts, which are by no means confined to primitive peoples, are obvious examples, as are many rituals, sports, courtesies. Human beings simply do things, without any [conscious] purpose at all; it is natural for them to be active, whether or not there is any consciously understood point in the activity.

Very common, also, are cases where the purpose or goal is impossible. The goal may be transcendant—that is, located outside of the real spatio-temporal world of life and history… On the other hand, the goal, if not impossible in strict logic, may nevertheless be impossible for all practical purposes, granted the nature of the real world…

Finally, action is non-logical when the means taken to reach the goal are in fact inappropriate to that purpose. If … the carpenter tried to pound his nails with a sponge, then his means would be inappropriate, no matter how suitable he might himself think them. So, too, if … a democratic electorate believed that by voting a change of parties in power they might be guaranteed an era of endless prosperity.

Everyone knows that a certain amount of human conduct is non-logical. Pareto’s stress is on the enormous scope of the non-logical—his book lists many thousands of examples, and each of these could suggest a thousand more of the same kind… Pareto not only shows that non-logical conduct is predominant; his crucial point is that the conduct which has a bearing on social and political structure … is above all the arena of the non-logical. What happens to society, whether it progresses or decays, is free or despotic, happy or miserable, poor or prosperous, is only to the slightest degree influenced by the deliberate, rational purposes held by human beings. [193-196]

There exists a tendency in Objectivism to deny or belittle non-logical conduct. Rand tended to believe that human conduct is logically derived from an individual’s “premises.” This, in any case, is the implicit reasoning behind Rand’s view that human beings are the product of their premises. It is also behind her view that capitalism is incompatible with altruism and mysticism. She even went so far as to imply that non-logical conduct is impossible: “Capitalism and altruism are incompatible,” she characteristically wrote; “they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.” It is difficult to take this statement altogether seriously; but it does betray the drift of Rand's sentiments, which is clearly opposed to the whole idea of non-logical conduct.

Pareto has some interesting comments on those who either deny non-logical conduct or regard it, as Rand apparently did, as scandalous:

In certain writers the part played by non-logical actions is suppressed altogether, or rather, is regarded merely as the exceptional part, the “bad” part. Logic alone is a means to human progress. It is synonymous with “good,” just as all that is not logical is synonymous with “evil.” But let us not be led astray by the word “logic.” Belief in logic has nothing to do with logico-experimental science; and the worship of Reason may stand on par with any other religious cult, fetishism not excepted…

In the eyes [of these cultists] every blessing doth from “reason” flow, every ill from “superstition.” Holbach sees the source of all human woe in error; and that belief has endured as one of the dogmas of the humanitarian religion, holiest of holies, of which our present-day “intellectuals” form the priesthood. All these [cultists] fail to notice that their worship of “Reason,” “Truth,” “Progress,” and other similar entities is, like all cults, to be classed with non-logical actions. [The Mind and Society, §300, §303-304]

Pareto’s remarks on this subject are helpful in several respects. They remind us that Rand is not the first philosopher to sing the praises of that vague, cognitively empty philosophical abstraction known as “reason”; and they also remind us that Rand’s very commitment to “reason” is itself non-logical, based, not on Pareto’s logico-experimental method (i.e., science), nor even on the pragmatic, trial-and-error reasoning of everyday life, but merely on Rand's own sentiments and wishful thinking and on her insufficiently detailed knowledge of "things in general."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting Mediaeval

Despite the lipservice paid to "reality", Rand's philosophy is primarily a verbalist one straight out of the Middle Ages; that is, due to the unfortunate influence of Aristotle on her epistemological method, Objectivist arguments quickly reduce to Scholastic hairsplitting over the meaning of words. Here is a classic example from a thread we mentioned earlier over at Diana Hsieh's Noodlefood. A commenter, Frank, is understandably confused by Peikoff's apparent volte-face on the ethical obligation to assist someone in trouble. In response Richard Lawrence of the Objectivist Reference Center gets mediaeval on him:
"I don't think anyone here is claiming that there is a *duty* to provide assistance. 'Duty' and 'obligation' are distinct concepts, and it is possible to have obligations without having duties."
"Duty" and "obligation" are "distinct concepts"? Really? Let's see what says:
1. something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.
Or perhaps the OED:
1. a moral or legal obligation.
Clearly a hugely important "conceptual" distinction!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 4

"Reason" in Politics. Ayn Rand once described “rationality” as “a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception.”  Using Rand’s description as a standard of rationality, how should the following assertions be judged? Which statements are “rational” and which are not?
  1. Fear of flying is irrational because many more people die in automobile accidents.
  2. A house with guns represents a greater danger to your child than a house with a pool.
  3. Rudolph Giuliani drastically cut crime in New York with his innovate “broken window” policing strategy.
  4. “Reason is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge.”
Which statements would an individual with a “commitment to the fullest perception of reality” likely accept? Answer: probably none of them. While all the statements seem plausible and even “reasonable,” they all rest on certain factual inaccuracies. Let us examine each statement.

1. Fear of flying as irrational. While it is true that many more people die in car crashes (40,000 per year) than in plane crashes (less than 1,000), it does not therefore follow that flying is safer than driving. The per hour death rate of driving versus flying is about equal. So neither form of travel is any riskier, in terms of mortality, than the other.

2. Guns more dangerous than swimming pools. Not according to the evidence. In the United States, about 550 children every year die in swimming pools, while 175 children a year die from playing with guns.

3. Giuliani’s broken window crime strategy. According to statistical analysis, it is not likely that Giuliani’s policing strategy had all that much to do with the drop of crime in New York. Economist Steven Levitt has found that New York’s drop in crime was largely due to four factors: more police officers, more criminals in prison, the waning of the crack of epidemic, and the passage of Roe vs. Wade.

4. Reason the only means of knowledge. Before this claim can be validated, we have to tease out the meaning of the word “reason.” Defining reason as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” simply will not do, because there may be other alleged “means of knowledge” that do the same thing, like intuition or (allegedly) “mystical” experiences. So how are we supposed to distinguish the kinds of identification/integration that takes place under reason from the kinds of identification/integration that take place under other mental processes? We will assume, from various hints dropped throughout the Objectivist literature, that Rand means, by reason, basically deductive logic, “induction”, probability reason (although Rand never mentions it), scientific method, and conscious-directed concept-formation. We’ll assume that reason does not include, as Rand herself put it, any “non-rational, non-definable, non-identifable means of knowledge, such as 'instinct,' 'intuition,' 'revelation,' or any form of 'just knowing.'" With this description of reason in hand, does it follow that “reason” is the only means of knowledge? No, not if we abide by the evidence. Cognitive science has found plenty of evidence for intuitive forms of knowledge that don’t rely on conscious inferences. As the experimental psychologist Guy Claxton notes:
The greater part of the useful understanding we acquire throughout life is not explicit knowledge, but implicit know-how [i.e., Rand’s “just knowing”]. Our fundamental priority is not to be able to talk about what we are doing, but to do it—competently, effortlessly, and largely unconsciously and unreflectingly. And the corresponding need for the kind of learning that delivers know-how ... is not one that we outgrow. The brain-mind's ability to detect subtle regularities in experience, and to use them as a guide to the development and deployment of effective action, is our biological birthright.... Yet we ignore or disparage ... [unconscious intelligence] at our peril, for it turns out that there are things we can learn through this gradual, tacit process which d-mode [i.e., conscious reasoning] cannot master; and also that d-mode, if used over-enthusiastically, can actively interfere with this way of knowing.

Claxton's views are fairly well supported by experiments in cognitive science. Unconscious cognition (more commonly known as intuition) is well documented in the literature. It turns out, then, that Rand was wrong on this issue and that reason is not the only means of knowledge.

Looking back on our list, what do all four errors have in common? Well, in the first place, they are all plausible assertions—that much we can admit on their behalf. Any intelligent individual would likely consider each one a reasonable position to hold and might even be surprised that anyone would challenge all of them. The source of the error in all four cases involves an over-reliance on general information, which is used as the basis of premises from which common sense inferences that seem both reasonable and “true” are drawn. If many more people are killed in automobile accidents than on airplanes, doesn’t it make sense to conclude that traveling by airplane is safer than traveling by car? If we equate “reason” with science, logic, and clear thinking and we equate “unreason” with arbitrary assertions relating to altogether fantastic things, blistering contradictions, mystical revelations and other palpable absurdities, doesn’t it make sense to assume, with Rand, that “reason” is the only means to knowledge? But in relying merely on reasonable inferences based on general knowledge, we are failing to demonstrate a “complete commitment to the fullest perception of reality,” that is, we are not being rational in the Randian sense!

Much reasoning done about politics by laymen is precisely of the reasonable-inferences-from-general-knowledge variety. It may seem true to a reasonable person. Yet this very quality of “reasonableness”—based, as it is, on incomplete and partial information—merely serves to conceal ignorance of important details and facts. Rand, even at her most reasonable, never got beyond this general knowledge stage. Her political reasonings, as we shall see, are therefore empirically unreliable.

Rand's Ethics: Now They're Deontological?

Rand's epistemology is still probably her biggest intellectual trainwreck, but her ethics is a close second. It's so confused not even the top dogs can seemingly get their heads around it. For example, over at Diana Hsieh's Noodlefood one of Leonard Peikoff's Q&A podcasts is transcribed as follows:

Episode 41: 10:25 - 11:37

Q: Am I morally obligated to call for help if I see someone in a car accident or experiencing a heart attack?

Peikoff: This is obviously from someone who does not know what the Objectivist view of selfishness is. Absolutely yes, you are morally obligated. If you have chosen to live in a society of human beings and your mode of survival depends on your trade with them then you have to value human life so far as it's not guilty or criminal to your knowledge. In that case if you know no evil about a person and no sacrifice is involved then only a psychopath would turn away from such cases. And that would mean besides all the psychological things a direct contradiction of the value of human life. You can't value your life and decide to live with others of your species and say, "They're nothing to me, I don't care if they live or die." That's self-contradiction.

Actually, I think the closest Rand gets to "absolutely morally obligated" in these situations is a grudging "may be permissible" and no better in "The Ethics of Emergencies" (I don't have my copy handy), although it must be said this is a typically confused Randian essay. Can anyone supply a quote from anywhere in Rand which says helping a stranger in trouble is an "absolute moral obligation" or similar? If not, looks like the Doctor is freestyling, although I note that as usual Peikoff gives himself a have-it-both-ways-clause with the "no sacrifice involved" qualification whilst not providing us with any actual examples of what a "sacrifice" might be. At any rate, weasel-wording aside, the only thing that's clear about Rand's ethics is that little is clear about them.

(hat tip Objectiblog's Neil Parille)

Socialism: Not So Bad, Say Americans.

While "Atlas Shrugged"'s rise in the bestseller lists has been duly hyped as a sign of the times, it also seems that surprisingly few Americans are opposed to socialism. In the latest Rasmussen poll, only 53% of Americans favoured capitalism over socialism. This seems to be the result of a mix of factors, the state of the economy for one, and the understandable distrust of the financial elites who have consistently portrayed themselves as the apogee of capitalism. However, just as the "Atlas Shrugged" hype seems to have been strongly driven by the media (with endless plugs by Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh to name a few) a good deal of this softening attitude may be simply be a media phenomenon too - an unintended consequence of Republican PR tactics that have, since the fall of the Berlin wall, started portraying Western Europe (eg France, Germany, Sweden, Britain etc) as "socialist", and recently Barack Obama too. Trouble is, Western Europe is hardly the former Soviet Union, and Obama is hardly Stalin. In fact, they're both actually kinda...popular, whether to visit or to vote for. We might speculate that "socialism" isn't now associated in American's minds with the total government ownership of the means of production - for example, in another poll only 15% of Americans think a wholly government-managed economy is best - but instead with a set of popular programmes also regularly denounced as "socialist" by Republicans such as Social Security, Medicare, and the regulation of big business which despite being interventionist, still leave the vast majority of the economy in private hands. In other words, in their enthusiasm Republicans may have accidentally made "socialism" more or less equivalent to a mixed economy controlled by a representative democracy. Not so bad at all.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Dubious Parallels, Continued

We've already discussed the dubiousness of Atlas Shrugged's relevance to the current economic crisis, which seems to be largely due to a confusion between cause and effect. Now the great William K Black, investigator and author of the '80s S&L expose "The Best Way To Rob A Bank Is To Own One", accuses CEOs and management of a calculated dishonesty that lies at the heart of the problem.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn't let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again, as you say, this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about the Bush administration. Of course, there's that famous photograph of some of the regulators in 2003, who come to a press conference with a chainsaw suggesting that they're going to slash, cut business loose from regulation, right?

WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, they succeeded. And in that picture, by the way, the other — three of the other guys with pruning shears are the...

BILL MOYERS: That's right.

WILLIAM K. BLACK: They're the trade representatives. They're the lobbyists for the bankers. And everybody's grinning. The government's working together with the industry to destroy regulation. Well, we now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.

(Italics my emphasis).

Hat tip to Calculated Risk.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 3

Pareto and the Objectivist. G. Stolyarov, a “science fiction” writer strongly influenced by Rand, wrote a review in 2004 of Pareto’s The Rise and Fall of Elites which allows a convenient glimpse of the contrast between ideological and non-ideological forms of thinking. Stolyarov, like most Objectivist ideologues, is more interested in finding “intellectual ammunition” to support preconceived positions than he is in discovering truths about the real world of fact; and as a consequence, he falls into several misrepresentations and errors of fact and analysis. Pareto, Stolyarov claims, “repeatedly and eloquently demonstrates aversion and loathing” to the “socialist elite.” Stolyarov obviously approves of this alleged “aversion and loathing” and wishes to make Pareto an intellectual ally. But before doing this, he must acknowledge that Pareto’s “groundwork ... is immensely shaky.”

[Pareto’s] basic premise with respect to human nature is that people’s motivations are inherently irrational and based on sentiment rather than logic, and that any reasons that individuals ostensibly present for their actions are in fact post-rationalizations. To this my response to Pareto would be a paraphrase of Rand: “If you do not consider people capable of genuine rational judgment, do not check their premises, check yours.” Certainly, some individuals, perhaps most of those who lack a systematic worldview, do act on whim and impulse, and Pareto may well have been one of them, which might have led him to attribute his own inner state to all others. Indeed, he had not presumed to use rational thought to justify the very premise about people’s sentimental motivations! He merely stated that the matter is out of the scope of the given treatise.

This a typical example of muddled Rand-inspired analysis. First, we find the mania for polarizing arguments. Pareto, complains Stolyarov, believes in the “inherent irrationality” of human motivation. But that isn’t quite true. Human motivation is not, for Pareto, “irrational,” but “non-rational”—an important difference. Nor is Pareto required to use “rational thought” to justify his view: his book is not a treatise on psychology, and he addresses the issue in greater detail in The Mind and Society, which Stolyarov conveniently ignores. Even more curious is Stolyarov ad hominem attack on Pareto. Despite all their virtuous noise about logic, rank and file Objectivists frequently resort to ad hominem arguments, particularly of Stolyarov’s type. Stolyarov simply cannot admit that perhaps Pareto had reached his judgment about human beings from his own personal experience and his extensive knowledge of history! No, the only possible explanation is that Pareto himself is an irrationalist!

Yet if this is so, why does Stolyarov spend the rest of his review extolling Pareto’s analysis and making use of Pareto’s intellectual tools for his own ends? If Pareto’s “inner state” is that of an irrationalist, then what can he possibly say that is of any value to a follower of Rand, particularly when what Pareto says about elites is partially based on the very theory about human nature which Stolyarov, in deference to Rand, presumes to reject?

Stranger still, Stolyarov finds in Pareto an important Objectivist principles: the sanction of the victim! Can this really be? Can an individual whose inner state is confounded with irrational motivations be capable of anticipating a discovery of Rand by a half century? Well, not quite. While there are points of similarity between Pareto’s view and Rand’s on this issue, there are important difference as well. For Rand, the sanction of the victim occurs when the victim accepts the morality of the victimizer. According to Rand, businessmen allow themselves to be attacked because they agree with the morality of the attackers. That is not quite Pareto’s view. Pareto believes that businessmen who allow themselves to be attacked are merely cowards who are afraid to fight. Any agreement with the morality of their attackers is merely a rationalization to hide this pusillanimity.

Stolyarov concludes by attempting to enlist Pareto as a supporter of an optimistic scenario in which free market values triumph over the leftist elite:

If Pareto’s theory is to be extended to today’s conditions, the socialist/hippie elite is clearly in decline.  No more does it arouse college campuses in waves of violent activism [that’s because there’s no draft]; no more do its youngest heirs champion “saving the world” (though the hippies could only have ruined it), but rather they seek to pay ritual homage to left wing principles in order to get acceptance into elite academic institutions and thus “get ahead in life.” Gradually, the young elites are falling prey to the rising doctrines of materialism, self-interest, and prudence, which are to overturn all remaining vestiges of socialism. Government continues to expand and redistribution of wealth continues to occur, but this more due to cultural inertia rather than any deliberate, devious, and coordinated scheme from the New Deal or the Great Society. In the meantime, a growing, vigorous, dynamic, principled, and broad-based ideological backlash is emerging [Really?]; it covers multiple constituencies, as Pareto said it well might; from the neo-conservatives to the libertarians to the Objectivists, [but Objectivists hate libertarians!] the advocates of limiting government, liberating free enterprise, and making more room for individuals to exercise their own self-responsibility, are colorful, creative, industrious, and vocal personalities. The spokesmen of the leftist elite, on the other hand, are bland, predictable rehashers of the same credos they had espoused forty or even seventy years ago. [But this rehashing is very effective at stimulating the sentiments of the lower classes.] They have nothing new to offer, and are gradually themselves being infused with bits of free enterprise materialism in their personal lives, if not their explicit statements. [In other words, they are perfect exponents for a European style welfare state.]

Alas, those very same “bland, predictable rehashers” of the Left have retaken power and are in the process of extending government well beyond what FDR or LBJ would, in their wildest dreams, ever imagined. Stolyarov’s analysis, posted in 2004, does not, in retrospect, appear in the least prescient. Where did he go wrong? Well, to start out with, perhaps Pareto was right after all about human beings being motivated by non-rational sentiments. Stolyarov also failed to note that, unlike Italy at the turn of the last century, American society is not threatened by any violent domestic faction. Stolyarov’s “socialist/hippie elite” is not going to be attacked with force by any neo-conservatives, libertarians, or Objectivists any time soon. As long as they feel safe, the Left will continue to hold its own on the political stage.

Note that Stolyarov omits the religious right among his “multiple constituencies” opposing the “socialist/hippie” elite. Here is another possible source of error in Stolyarov: he would like to see the Left opposed by a “rational” elite. In this wish, he clearly misunderstands Pareto’s position. Pareto doesn’t necessarily conclude that all non-rational motivations will have a bad issue. Some may prove helpful. In politics, one can’t be too squeamish about alliances. The religious right was an important component of the Reagan revolution. Reagan doesn’t beat Carter without the help of religious conservatives. This very alliance, however, is regarded as sinister by Leonard Peikoff and other orthodox Objectivists, who regard it as a precursor of a theocracy! They believe they can “change the culture” by refuting Kant’s obscure subjectivist philosophical legerdemain. What would Pareto think of such a view? He would find it silly and patently non-rational. He might even suspect it of being a mere rationalization of powerless intellectuals afraid to own up to their own powerlessness. What do Objectivists want? A society in which all initiation of force is verboten. How do they expect to reach this state of affairs? By doing what intellectuals do best: caviling about obscure ideas. How wonderfully convenient! Too bad it isn’t true.

Are You A Rand Cultist? Take Our Simple Test.

It's often hard to distinguish people who like Ayn Rand's books and find her work as a general inspiration from those who, at the other extreme, fit in with what Jeff Walker called the Ayn Rand Cult. So the ARCHNblog has created a simple litmus test to help tell the fans from the Randroids. The first three statements are from Nathaniel Branden's description of the original '60s cult, the rest are derived from Rand herself or various of her orthodox followers, such as Leonard Peikoff or Harry Binswanger, or from the ARCHNblog's own observations. Give yourself a point for every statement you agree with.

1) Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.

2) "Atlas Shrugged" is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.

3) Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.

4) Acceptance of Objectivist epistemology is essential to mankind's future survival on earth.

5) Immanuel Kant is the most evil person who has ever lived.

6) Immanuel Kant deliberately set out to cause the Nazi Holocaust.

7) Nathaniel and Barbara Branden are only slightly less immoral than Immanuel Kant.

8) James Valliant's book "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics" is a profound, brilliantly argued expose of the above.

9) Modern physics, such as Einstein's theories, are philosophically corrupt and must be urgently replaced by a new physics based on Ayn Rand's epistemology.

10) Words have "true" meanings that are only available to superior Objectivist philosophers, whose job it is to inform those in lesser disciplines, such as scientists, of these true meanings. Where these special true Objectivist meanings clash with conventional dictionary meanings, those conventions are false and corrupt.

11) Ayn Rand invented a new, Objectivist super-logic which incorporates the standard bi-valent logic formalised by Aristotle, yet dramatically improves on it, solving among other issues Hume's problem of induction.

12) Ayn Rand is the only true Objectivist that ever lived, and will ever live. Everyone else is merely a student of Objectivism.

0 points = Congratulations, you are an Ayn Rand fan who while rightly inspired by her vision of productivity, reason, and human achievement is nonetheless sensible enough to have avoided her various cultic incitements.

1-6 points = Amber light: definite Randroid tendencies. However, this may be avoided by taking a suitably hard-nosed approach to her work, especially in epistemology and human nature where her defective theories are most evident to the critical eye.

7-12 points = Ultra-Randroid, and proud of it. You are welcome to debate with us here at the ARCHNblog (despite the fact you would be giving your sanction to our evil by doing so) but to be honest you'd be better off talking to a deprogrammer.