Saturday, April 11, 2009

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)


Xtra Laj said...

I think it was Scott Ryan that argued that whether in the absence of specific moral commands about what should motivate a person's behavior, any system can qualify as a moral system.

For Objectivism, it's just a slew of things - a form of mostly rational self-interest tinged by Rand's borderline psychopathic tendencies (I think Michael Prescott's essay on her thoughts about the serial killer made this point perfectly).

John Ku made this point about the way that Rand's ethical system had elements that could be placed in any ethical camp more extensively than anyone else, I thik:

Not for those who don't enjoy some of the linguistic joust that pervades much of philosophy - a fun read if you do.

Xtra Laj said...

I read in the comments some statement to the effect that "moral obligations" are not the same as "duties". Can anyone with familiarity with the Objectivist distinction explain to me what the distinction is?

Xtra Laj said...

I read the comments more closely and it's just more silly equivocation. If some translator of Kant had used the term "moral obligation" and not used "duty", Objectivists might have preferred the term "duty" to moral obligation. Isn't the requirement to follow any normative principle a duty of some sort? But maybe I'm being overly linguistic here.

Neil Parille said...

In The Ethics of Emergencies, Rand says that in such situations that it is "morally proper" to render help. (Page 52.) A little later she says one "should" help. (Pages 54-55.)

I discuss some of this here --

Daniel Barnes said...

Yes, Laj, it is typical Objectivist hair-splitting:

1. something that one is expected or required to do by moral or legal obligation.

gregnyquist said...

Laj: "John Ku made this point about the way that Rand's ethical system had elements that could be placed in any ethical camp more extensively than anyone else."

This could be said of many ethical theories, particularly those that believe in "absolute" values. Let's face it: there's far more agreement on morality than there is disagreement. A few moral free thinkers excepted, most people believe that it is wrong to steal, murder, bear false witness against one's neighbor, etc. etc. They also believe it's right to help strangers in mortal danger, provided that such help doesn't put oneself in mortal danger as well. People tend to believe this because they derive their values from their sentiments, which can be fairly uniform on many issues, though they tend to diverge on issues dealing with "social" justice, "rights," and sex. Moral theories often are nothing more than rationalizations based on sentiment. They provide a logical varnish to what is not actually based on logic. So while the theories may differ in many respects, the sentiments that provide the principle motivation for the theories may be quite similar. Most such theories will disparage self-interest while making blatant appeals to it (Kant is quite representative in this respect). Rand turned this around by disparaging, often to hysterical lengths, what she called "altruism" while, however, lightly commending altruistic acts and even admitting that charity was a "virtue" (if only a "minor" one). Her followers have taken Rand a step further by making more blatant appeals to altruistic sentiments, while at the same time maintaining the verbal barrage against the "theory" of altruism.

The contradiction in all this is not noticed because the real point of these theories (rather than formal, consciously intended point) is to appeal, not to logic, but to sentiment. When the appeal to sentiment is successful and the right emotions are evoked, the contradictions are simply not noticed (and when they are pointed out by moral skeptics they vehemently denied, often in an angry tone accompanied by the usual ad hominem fusillades).

Xtra Laj said...


I see how my statement could be read equivocally. I was focusing on Ku's making the point "extensively", not on Rand's being all over the map "extensively". I agree that most moral philosophers are trying to justify their moral sentiments.


Nizleib said...


I find the hypothesis of moral reasoning as conditioned by sentiments very fascinating. While interesting, I have yet to see any rigorous attempt to give empirical justification for it. Have you, or have you read, any attempts to deduce implications of the hypothesis in order to test it?


Curtis Edward Clark said...

Peikoff is right to say, "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." That explanation defines the absolutism of helping--when helping is not self-sacrificing.

And it's pretty clear by now that altruism in Rand's book was directly opposed to Auguste Comte, not to the current usage of the words as meaning something like 'pay it forward' or charitable actions; Comte specifically stated that even charity itself was not altruism because one acted out of charity, not from a duty one did not choose, but from the selfish feeling of goodness. Comte's altruism is directly opposed to Rand's 'selfish egoism'.

Daniel Barnes said...

So Curtis, if Rand was really only addressing Comte's meaning of "altruism" and not the meaning of the word everyone uses, and if almost no-one actually uses Comte's version, then haven't you just made the case that Rand's argument is almost entirely irrelevant?