Sunday, June 28, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 16

Politics of Human Nature 1: human rationality. The achievement of Objectivism’s political goals rest on the assumption that most human beings are at least potentially “rational.” Nor is it enough for them to be rational merely about the means they wish to achieve; they must also be rational about the ends as well. Rand and her followers are somewhat confused on this point. Rand never explains precisely how one arrives at a rational end and even suggests that her ultimate end is (or is based on) a conditional! However, all of that is of little importance for the issue at hand. For the fact remains that, whether her followers recognize it or not, a substantive rationality (i.e., a rationality of ends) is necessary in order for her politics to work. In order to implement the Objectivist politics, it’s not enough that individuals become rational about the means by which they attain their goals: they must also be able resolve problems that arise from conflicting ends; and if there exists no such thing as a rational end, then there exists no rational means of resolving conflict, because rationality about ends is psychologically impossible. Faction becomes unavoidable and laissez-faire unattainable.

So is there such a thing as a rational end? We have covered this issue elsewhere; but since it is so important, it bears repeating. Can human beings pursue rational ends? Or is it, as Hume asserted, psychologically impossible for reason to generate rational ends?

The philosopher Arthur Lovejoy explored the issue in his excellent Reflections on Human Nature, where he comments on Hume’s discovery:

Hume’s fundamental thesis must have shocked some of his contemporaries… For while they had declared that the Reason seldom if ever does in fact control the passions, they had still assumed, in accord with the long dominant tradition, that it should do so, that control was the function for which it was intended… But Hume challenged the great tradition of moral philosophy, and asserted that it is a psychological impossibility for the Reason to influence volition…. Hume does not … mean by this to deny that the understanding has an instrumental use in the determination of conduct. Given a desire for some end, a reasoned knowledge of the relations of cause and effect may show how to satisfy it by adopting the means without which the end cannot be attained. What he is asserting is that “reason,” the knowledge of any kind of truth, is not a passion or desire, is not the same psychological phenomenon as liking or wanting something; and that a thing can become an end only by being desired. The role of reason consists in judging of propositions as true or false, as in “agreement or disagreement” with the matters of fact to which they refer. “Whatever is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason.” But “our passions, volitions and acts” are “original facts and realities, compleat in themselves… ‘Tis impossible, therefore, that they can be either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason.” And since reason neither is nor can produce a desire, it cannot even tell us what we should desire, it cannot even evaluate desires; or if it professes to do so, it will only the more clearly reveal its irrelevance and impotence. You either have a desire or you do not; unless you have one, you will never act at all; and a desire can be combatted or overcome, not by reason, but only by another desire. [181-183]

Now the importance of this insight into human nature is that it emphasizes the role that motivation plays in human conduct. All human conduct is motivated by non-rational sources—that is, by desires, sentiments, emotions, call them what you will. In Objectivism, there exists a tendency to make light of motives. The issue, for the denizen of Rand, is not what motivates the individual, but why a person should choose one motive rather than another. Objectivism goes so far as to deny that man’s most basic choices can be explained at all. “Why he chooses one or another [motive]… cannot be further explained,” contends Peikoff. “That is what it means to say that man has choice and is not determined. A volitional choice is a fundamental beneath which you cannot get.” [“Philosophy and Psychology in History”]

This extreme view of volition is tantamount to a denial of human nature. For it challenges the view, shared by all those who have a “constrained” vision of the human condition, that most human beings are strongly influenced by innate tendencies and that if you understand the pathology of those innate tendencies, you can make educated guesses as to the likelihood of various types of social conduct and the probability (or impossibility) of various social and political ideals.

I have discussed the issue of innate tendencies in previous posts (such as here). Outside of Ayn Rand and left-wing social science, nearly everyone believes in their existence. In the last half century, behavioral science has further strengthened the case for these tendencies. Indeed, to deny them is to be guilty of a kind of scientific illiteracy, not very different from denying the theory of relativity or the experimental success of quantum mechanics.

Once we have established the reality of innate tendencies, the next step is to investigate what those tendencies are and how they effect the social and political order. That will be the subject of the next half dozen or so “Objectivism and Politics” posts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Charlie's Atlas

Ayn Rand was well known to be a fan of '70s TV show Charlie's Angels. But what's lesser known was that she approached the show's main attraction, the late Farrah Fawcett Majors, for the role of Dagny Taggart in a proposed mini-series of her novel Atlas Shrugged. Makes a strange kind of sense; Rand had a thing for critically underrated blondes, and the disembodied voice of John Galt finds a distinct echo in the speakerphone commands of the mysterious Charlie. Anyway, one thing's for sure: Farrah would have been a way cooler choice than Angelina Jolie.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ayn Rand Contra Evolutionary Dynamics

Writer and philosopher Stefan Pernar (from and believes he has found a serious flaw in Rand's ethics. I will let Mr. Pernar explain his point of view in his own words:

When I started to research Objectivism, I was very excited. Ayn Rand’s philosophy seemed to be founded on axioms that are very similar to mine — namely the axiom of existence in the form of “existence exists” from which Rand derives life as the ultimate value (from Wikipedia):

According to Rand, “it is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible,” and, “the fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.” She writes: “there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action… It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death…” The survival of the organism is the ultimate value to which all of the organism’s activities are aimed, the end served by all of its lesser values.

She continues to argue as following:

As with any other organism, human survival cannot be achieved randomly. The requirements of man’s life first must be discovered and then consciously adhered to by means of principles. This is why human beings require a science of ethics. The purpose of a moral code, Rand held, is to provide the principles by reference to which man can achieve the values his survival requires. Rand summarizes:

“If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many ‘must’s,’ but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘you must, if -’ and the if stands for man’s choice: ‘if you want to achieve a certain goal’”

So far so good. However, it is the next step that leads her to advocate selfishness in achieving the goal of existence where she loses me. In this context I would like to put forward the following key quotes of hers to illustrate the Objectivist perspective.:

“Man knows that he has to be right. To be wrong in action means danger to his life. To be wrong in person - to be evil - means to be unfit for existence.” (source)

The second one is a quote that epitomizes Objectivist Ethics and the proclaimed Virtue of Selfishness:

“I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” — John Galt, Atlas Shrugged

It is not surprising that since these postulates contradict my own concepts of morality as well as the centrality of compassion in it, I was keen to disprove selfishness as virtue using a third party, an ‘independent’ concept if you will. Well, meet the Price equation and how it applies to the evolution of altruism.

In this context altruism is defined as the genetic predisposition to any behavior which decreases individual fitness while increasing the average fitness of the group to which the individual belongs. Or in other words: a group with sufficient altruists will out-compete a group of egoists.

A similar example would be kin selection; and without wanting to get into too much details J.B.S. Haldane had full grasp of the basic quantities and considerations that play a role in kin selection when he famously said that:

“I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”

However you slice it, the question remains how the Objectivist ideal of selfishness as a virtue holds up against these insights in evolutionary dynamics? In short: it doesn’t. Egoists can only exist as parasites in groups of altruists—period. Fully selfish groups would be out-competed over the course of evolution because they are simply “unfit for existence” to use Rand’s own words.

Valentin Turchin probably put it best when he wrote:

“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. [...] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution [...] will be erased from the memory of the world. [...] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success.” — Valentin Turchin, The Phenomenon of Science, Ethics and Evolution

Sorry folks — the math says Objectivist Ethics is not one of them.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 15

The Objectivist cure for faction. In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Rand equates political faction (i.e., "Lobbying") with a mixed economy:

“Lobbying” is the activity of attempting to influence legislation by privately influencing the legislators. It is the result and creation of a mixed economy—of government by pressure groups. Its methods range from mere social courtesies and cocktail-party or luncheon “friendships” to favors, threats, bribes, blackmail. [168]

Rand, however, appears go beyond merely equating a mixed economy with government by pressure groups. She seems to have believed that a mixed economy is the cause of warring pressure groups; that, in other words, there would exist no pressure groups, no political faction, no competing political interests under laissez-faire capitalism, so that the problem of faction could be cured merely (per impossible) by instituting laissez faire.

What is wrong with this point of view? The main error is one of mistaking the effect for the cause. Faction (Rand’s “government by pressure groups”) is not the inevitable byproduct of a mixed economy; rather, a “mixed economy” is the inevitable byproduct of faction. As James Madison put it: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires.”

Rand’s cure for faction is no cure at all, but on the contrary, is the very cause of faction. Indeed, for Madison, there exists no cure for faction, because faction is “sown in the nature of man.” Madison therefore concludes that, since “the causes of faction cannot be removed, … relief is to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”

What reasons are there to believe that Madison, rather than Rand, is right on this issue? Well, besides the testimony of history, we have the evidence of the science. As Steven Pinker explains in The Blank Slate:

Liberal and conservative political attitudes are largely, though far from completely, heritable. When identical twins who were separated at birth are tested in adulthood, their political attitudes turn out to be similar, with a correlation coefficient of .62… Liberal and conservative attitudes are heritable not, of course, because attitudes are synthesized directly from DNA but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments… But whatever its immediate source, the heritability of political attitudes can explain some of the sparks that fly when liberals and conservatives meet. When it comes to attitudes that are heritable, people react more quickly and emotionally, are less likely to change their minds, and are more attracted to like-minded people. [283]

In other words, political divisions are built-in: they part of the hardware of human nature and cannot be abolished by merely changing people's premises. There exists an ingrained psychopathology behind the phenomenon of faction that we will expore in the following "Objectivism & Politics" posts, which will cover the politics of human nature. It is on the issue of human nature that Rand’s politics goes awry. Human beings are not constituted so that they are likely to ever fully accept Rand’s political ideals. This is why her politics, in the final analysis, must be reckoned as “utopian.”

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Cavewight's Objectivism Criticism

A belated shoutout to the blog Objectivism Criticism run by regular ARCHNBlog commenter Cavewight. This blog is of particular interest as Cavewight explains, he was "a one-time Randroid, and I was Leonard Peikoff's "number one fan" up to around 1998. I already knew, at that time, that Rand and co. were wrong about Kant (and about most other philosophers), but it took some more time for me to realize that they were just plain wrong about almost everything." His aim is to keep his critique of Objectivism focussed as much as possible on "facts and logic." Sounds good, we've added it to our sidebar.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 14

Interests and spoliation. In many of the previous “Objectivism and Politics” posts, I have slowly been building the case against Peikoff’s assertion that “Philosophy shapes a nation’s political system.” The main pillars of my argument are: (1) The influence of non-rational factors, such as Pareto’s residues, on political conduct; and (2) the inability to determine political ends via rational means (i.e., Hume’s is-ought gap). Yet we must consider one other major factor in the determination of political conduct: interests.

In society, the interests of men often conflict. The interests, for example, of members of the ruling elite often conflict with the interests of ruled masses. Since there exists no absolute harmony of interests, divisions exist within society that cannot be resolved by “reason.”

Few political thinkers have understood the fact of conflicting interests in society better than America’s founding fathers. As James Madison wrote in The Federalist:

The latent causes of faction are … sown in the nature of man…So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interest forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

According to Madison, factions based on sentiments and interests are part of the human condition. There is nothing that can be done to make them vanish. They will always exist in society.

Objectivism attempts to counter Madison’s view of the inevitably of faction with the assertion “that there are no conflicts of interest between rational men.” [OPAR, 236] Now on the face of it, this seems like a hopelessly naive view. If you are an auto worker making $70,000 a year working in a GM plant, isn’t it in your interest for the government to bail this company out and allow you to continue making your handsome salary until you retire? If so, then your interest conflicts with taxpayers and consumers of automobiles. If you are a company specializing in environmental products, isn’t it in your interest to have the government support legislation which, in effect, forces businesses to become buy your products? If so, then your interest conflicts with consumers, who now have to pay more for products that fall under environmental regulation. If you are unable to afford health care, isn’t it in your interest to have the state force medical facilities to treat you if you are ill? If so, then your interest conflicts with taxpayers and with other consumers of medical goods.

So how does Objectivism deal with such conflicts of interest? By the very simple but controversial strategy of claiming that such interests are not “rational.” According to the implied logic of the Objectivist position, it is not rational for a GM autoworker to support the bailout of the company he works for, even if the only viable alternative for him is to take a low paying service job; nor is it rational for a company specializing an environmental products to support environmental legislation, even though, in the absence of such legislation, the company will almost certainly go out of business and its stockholders will come away empty handed; nor is it even rational for a poor person unable to afford health care to desire forced medical care on his behalf, even if the alternative means death. Consequences are of little importance in determining the rationality of interest. What is important is that individuals do no violate the political and social ideals of Objectivism.

One of the most critical assumptions behind the Objectivist denial of conflicting interests between “rational” men is the notion that it is not in the interest for one individual to exploit or despoil another because, sooner or later, this will lead to a complete despoiling of the productive classes, resulting in impoverishment for every one. While there is always a danger of the despoilers killing the goose that lays the golden egg, there is no guarantee that this will happen. All human societies, past and present, have featured a certain amount of spoliation of the many by the few; yet some of these societies have flourished for hundreds of years.

How is this possible? How can spoliation occur without wiping out wealth altogether? The main reason for this stems from a kind of asymmetry of motivation that exists between the despoilers and the despoiled. As Pareto explains: 

It is a curious circumstance, and one meriting attention, that men are often observed to act with much more energy in appropriating the property of others than in defending their own. As we have noted elsewhere, if, in a nation of thirty million, it is proposed to levy one franc per annum on each citizen and to distribute the total to thirty individuals, these latter will work night and day for the success of this proposal, while it will be difficult to get the others to bestir themselves sufficiently to oppose the proposal, because, after all, it is only one franc! Another example: it is proposed to establish a ‘minimum salary’ for the employees of public administration. The people who in consequence of this measure will receive an increase of salary are perfectly aware of the advantage this proposal has for them. They and their friends will exert themselves all they can for the success of the candidates who promise to provide them with this manna. As for the people who are going to have to pay for this salary increase, each of them has great difficulties in working out what this is going to cost him in tax, and if he manages to access it, the amount seems of small significance. In most cases, he doesn’t even think about it…. One of the hardest things to get tax payers to understand is that ten times one franc makes ten francs. Provided the tax increases occur gradually, they can reach a total amount which would have provoked explosions of wrath had they been levied at one swoop.

Spoliation therefore seldom meets with a really effective resistance from the despoiled…. Rules for the distribution of goods … have to be applied by human beings, and their conduct will reflect their qualities and defects. If today there are arbiters who always decide against persons belonging to a certain class and in favor of persons belonging to certain other classes, there will very likely be ‘distributors’ in this society of tomorrow who will share out the loaf in such a way as to give a very little piece to A and a very big piece to B. [Les Systèmes Socialistes, Vol 1, ch 2]

Now while Objectivists may, if they wish, denounce those who engage in spoliation as “irrational,” such condemnations are not likely to prevent the spoliation from taking place. The term “irrational” in this context is merely an epithet of abuse. Objectivists, when using it, are clearly involved in an argumentum ad hominem. If an individual is given the opportunity to enrich himself at the expense of more productive individuals, why is it rational for him to abstain? If selfishness is a virtue, shouldn’t an individual seek to enrich himself in any way he can? As long as runs no great risk of retribution, his self-interest would appear to demand the use of every means at his disposal.

Once we grasp the motivational and situational logic of spoliation in society, it becomes clear that, as Madison warned us, “the latent causes of faction” are in fact “sown” in the nature of man and society. Rand’s assertion that no conflicts exist between rational men is irrelevant nonsense. Because of the asymmetry of interests between the despoilers and the despoiled, it is idle to denounce spoliation as “irrational.” Whether irrational or not, those who benefit from it are not going to give up their ill gotten gains without a fight. This means that in every society there will always exist powerful vested interests that will use every means at their command to support spoliation (and oppose Rand's "laissez-faire"). In short, there will always be factions, including, most ominous of all, factions in support of spoliation. Nor will these vested interests go away merely because Rand claimed she solved the problem of universals. Reality doesn’t work like that.