Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 49

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 3. In “Conservatism: an Obituary,” Rand, after criticizing conservatives for not providing a “moral base” for their defense of the “American way of life,” suddenly turns course and asserts that in “recent years the ‘conservatives’ have gradually come to a dim realization of the weakness of their position, of the philosophical flaw that had to be corrected.” However, “the means by which [conservatives] are attempting to correct it are worse than the original weakness.”

Rand continues: "There are three interrelated arguments used by today’s “conservatives” to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith—the argument from tradition—the argument from depravity."

In this post, we will concentrate on Rand’s analysis of the argument from faith. Rand’s analysis is as follows:

Sensing their need of a moral base, many “conservatives” decided to choose religion as their moral justification; they claim that America and capitalism are based on faith in God. Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues.

It is important to reiterate what I have stated in previous posts: all these “moral-base” arguments are mere rationalizations covering a complex blend of motives, interests, and sentiments that could never be summarized in a handful of broad moral injunctions. Rand commits the error of greatly exaggerating the influence of moral-base arguments. Her remarks about faith-based rationalizations must be seen in this context.

Are the “fundamental principles of America” contradicting by the claim that capitalism and freedom are based on “faith in God”? Well, that all depends on what one means by such vague phrases as “faith in God” and the “fundamental principles of America.” If, however, we frame this matter somewhat differently, in terms that are more empirical and testable, we will come closer to what a more sophisticated conservatism asserts when it attempts to link religion with capitalism and freedom. It is a fact that capitalism, in its early stages, had a “link” of sorts with religion. As the sociologist Max Weber noted: “As a matter of fact it is surely remarkable, to begin with a quite superficial observation, how large is the number of representatives of the most spiritual forms of Christian piety who have sprung from commercial circles…. Similarly, the remarkable circumstance that so many of the greatest capitalistic entrepreneurs—down to Cecil Rhodes—have come from clergymen’s families… Even more striking … is the connection of the religious way of life with the most intensive development of business acumen….” [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 43-44]

Note that Weber does not claim that there is a connection between religious “doctrine” [i.e., religious rationalizations] and business acumen; no, Weber specifies the connection exists between the “religious way of life” and business acumen, a different matter altogether. The religious way of life is rarely, if ever, entirely consistent with religious doctrine. How could it be? Religions contain dogmas which, if taken literally, would overstep important practical realities. Such doctrines have to be reinterpreted to fit the practical demands of everyday life. The effect of religion is not in all cases as irrational as Rand would have us believe. Religion may, and often will, leave plenty of room for practical success in life. This does not mean that the “non-practical” (or “irrational”) side of religion has no effect at all. But the so-called “irrational” side of religion tends to display itself in various non-practical pursuits, such as worship and ritual. To a non-religious person, the amount of time and effort spent by intensely religious people in practicing their faith may seem like a horrid waste of time. Yet, ironically, there may exist positive benefits from this sort of non-logical behavior. Ritual and worship, whatever might be said against them, are entirely consistent, and in some measure may promote, some of the virtues necessary to succeed in business, such as sobriety, monogamy (divorce, mistresses, adultery are expenses the frugal businessmen can do without), self-discipline, etc. In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the early stages of capitalism, the business class tended to be dominated by the intensely religious. This fact can hardly be elucidated on the basis of Rand’s doctrinal view of religion, which attempts to explain the behavior of religious people on the basis of the “fundamental” premises of religion. Neither human nature nor religion work in so simplistic a fashion.

Ignoring these important facts, Rand resumes her harangue against “faith”:

Intellectually, to rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies—that one has no rational arguments to offer. The “conservatives’” claim that their case rests on faith, means that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights, that these rest on a mystic revelation and can be accepted only on faith—that in reason and logic the enemy is right, but men must hold faith as superior to reason.

Consider the implications of that theory. While the communists claim that they are the representatives of reason and science, the “conservatives” concede it and retreat into the realm of mysticism, of faith, of the supernatural, into another world, surrendering this world to communism.

Here Rand reverts to one of her favorite strategies: polarization. An individual either believes entirely in “faith” or entirely in “reason.” Given that Rand claimed to admire Thomas Aquinas, she should have known better. Most religious conservatives do not regard “faith” and “reason” as opposites, but as supplementary. No conservative would claim that his case for capitalism and freedom rested solely on faith. Faith is merely used as a way to circumvent Hume’s is/ought gap in conservative rationalizations about morality. In this sense, there is a point in common between conservatism and Objectivism in that both rationalize their way around Hume’s gap. The main difference is that the conservatives are more honest about it and talk about “faith,” whereas Rand claims she gets around it (per impossible) through “reason.”

At the core of Rand’s criticism is the implicit claim that her moral rationalizations are superior (i.e., more convincing) to those of conservatives. Yet this goes against a very well established fact—namely, that there are a great many more conservatives than there are Objectivists. Of course, such rationalizations are only persuasive to those already inclined to believe them; which is why Rand’s complaints on this score seem much ado about nothing. Claiming that the moral base for capitalism is religious faith may not sound very convincing to the secular enemies of the free market; but Rand’s "reason"-based rationalizations have not been a jot more convincing to such individuals. Changing people’s minds through arguments (i.e., rationalizations) is very difficult and not very effective. Especially ineffective are broad arguments based on abstract moral principles. Most human beings instinctively sense that such arguments are hollow and not to be trusted. Moreover, because of their vagueness, broad, abstract principles do not yield any clear specific guidelines for practical actions, but can be interpreted to fit a variety of specific guidelines. So people tend to follow, instead, the complex web of strategies for navigating through the problems of life that they have learned and absorbed through years of trial and error experience.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Objectivist Fundamentalism

Commenter Orin T sends us to the following excellent post on fundamentalism by David Sloan Wilson. Wilson analyses Rand and finds her work as fundamentalist as an Hutterite epistle of faith.

I now had a serviceable definition of fundamentalism--a system of beliefs that alleviates serious decision-making on the part of the believer. A fundamentalist belief system is manifestly false as a factual description of the real world; otherwise the believer would be confronted with messy trade-offs. Nevertheless, a fundamentalist belief system can be highly adaptive in the real world, depending upon the actions that it motivates. It can even outcompete a more realistic belief system that leaves the believer fretting endlessly about all those messy trade-offs.

My second insight about fundamentalism came when I coded Ayn Rand's book of essays setting forth her creed of objectivism titled The Virtue of Selfishness, along with a more obscure book titled The Art of Selfishness written by a self-help author named David Seabury. Once again, after dozens of words and phrases had been coded, written by Rand with her highbrow pretentions or Seabury in his homey style, two boxes of my table remained empty. Judging by the absence of tradeoffs, their tracts were every bit as fundamentalist as the Hutterite epistle of faith. It didn't matter that Rand was an atheist who called herself a rationalist. She used her talents to create a belief system that becomes a no-brainer for anyone who steps into it. She even stated explicitly in one of her essays that "there are no conflicts of interest among rational men."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 48

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 2. In her “Conservatism: an Obituary,” Rand proceeds with one of her favorite arguments: the “moral” base argument. It’s is Rand’s contention that capitalism requires a “moral base.” “Politics is based on three other philosophical disciplines: metaphysics, epistemology and ethics—on a theory of man’s nature and of man’s relationship to existence. It is only on such a base that one can formulate a consistent political theory and achieve it in practice.” The moral base of capitalism, Rand averred is “egoism” or “selfishness.” “Altruism,” however, was antithetical to capitalism.

[Conservatives] are paralyzed by the profound conflict between capitalism and the moral code which dominates our culture: the morality of altruism . . . Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.

Rand is wrong in so many ways on this one that it is difficult to untangle the masses of intertwined error. But let us give it a try.

Error 1: The Incoherence and unreality of Rand’s distinction between egoism and altruism. I wrote about this in-coherency in an earlier post:

Both from common experience and psychological research we know that human beings, generally speaking, are inveterate rationalizers, particularly when it comes to issues touching their own interests and predilections… What makes rationalization so very easy and so very inevitable is the scandalous ambiguity of words. It is so very easy to equivocate our way to the conclusion we desire. The equivocation is so artfully masked by the ambiguity of the terms used that it remains unnoticed…. Rand makes use of [this] ambiguity ... when distinguishing between egoism, on the one hand, of which she approves, and altruism and “self-sacrifice” on the other, of which she strongly disapproves. Self-interest, for Rand, is good; living for others is evil.

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

The idea, therefore, that there can be a moral base that is either “altruistic” or “egoistic” is chimerical. Human beings are motived by both self-interest and concern for others. This is why, in practice, Objectivists can't always provide a coherent explanation of how to distinguish between egoism and altruism. As I wrote in the earlier post:

These paradoxes arise because Rand could not bring herself to be consistently selfish. There were some conventionally altruistic acts which she approved of. But since she was loathe to admit this, she merely called meritorious altruistic acts selfish and rationalized this odd usage away by redefining the term sacrifice in a way that entirely flouts and tramples upon common usage. Thus we find her declaring: "If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty." So the mother who values her child more than she values her hat is acting altruistically if she buys the hat! And the mother who buys food for her child although she would prefer a hat is also acting altruistically!

Error 2: Rand assumes, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that ethical theories—or, rather, ethical rationalizations—determine political conditions. It is important to understand what Rand asserts in this context. By ethics, she does not mean proclivities of action, sentiments, interests, or any other emotive or non-logical phenomenon. On the contrary, she means a specific ethical theory stated in broad principles. It is these principles which Rand declares determine all the sentiments, interests, and political motives that shape the social order. In countless posts (including this one ), I have criticized this conviction of Rand's. It goes against everything that scientific psychology and cognitive science teach us about human nature.

Error 3: Rand assumes, without doing any research, that people determine their ideological allegiances based on their ethical premises. It is amazing how many times one finds Rand taking this controversial point for granted. But perhaps that’s just as well, because the way Rand sets it up, her view becomes empirically untestable. If an individual supports socialism, Rand would tend to believe that individual held “altruistic” ethical premises, regardless of that individual’s professed beliefs. (If the socialist professed himself an "egoist," Rand would probably claim that he held "altruistic" premises in his subconsious.) How does she know this? She simply takes it for granted that ethical beliefs must determine political beliefs, regardless of the evidence.

Error 4: Rand suggests (at least tacitly) that no individual can consistently favor free markets because they produce more wealth and a greater standard of living for more people than alternate systems without suggesting or implying “altruistic” premises. Rand is (perhaps unwittingly) implying that it is dangerous or ineffective to base arguments for free markets on benevolence. But assuming that that more people will be “better off” under free markets than under other systems, why is it wrong to support capitalism for this reason rather than for self-interest? Many people are turned off by self-interest arguments for the very sensible reason that self-interest is not always benevolent. Rand’s stress on the so-called "moral base" inevitably suggests a motivational argument that stresses intention (egoistic intentions versus “altruistic” intention). But it’s not clear that intentions are all that important in social issues. What is most crucial is the end result. And if the end result of free markets is “better” than the end result of other systems, wouldn’t arguing on the basis of the end result prove more effective?

The tendency of conservatism is to look beyond the intentions and motives of actors and focus on the end result of social processes. As Adam Smith put it in a famous passage from the Wealth of Nations:

...every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

Rand simply misunderstands conservatism when she tries to interpret and criticize it through her assertions about capitalism requiring a moral base. Sophisticated conservatives don’t frame the issue in that way. They look at outcomes, not motives, intentions, or moral bases. They understand that what Rand calls a “moral base” is, for many people, merely vague moral sentiments that can often be interpreted in disparate, conflicting ways. Most people have both egoistic and altruistic sentiments. But because people seek pleasure and avoid pain, the self-interested motives, in the ordinary course of life, tend to predominate, regardless of whatever moral principles they pretend to pursue. Hence the value of Rand’s moral base argument is grossly exaggerated by her disciples.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 47

Ayn Rand contra Conservatism 1. One of Rand’s weakest articles is her “Conservatism: an Obituary,” which was based on a speech she made in 1960. Rand had at one time identified with conservatism and had even taken part in the nascent conservative movement of forties. But she had become frustrated at the lack of ideological purity she found among her conservative friends. “[T]hey were not for free enterprise,” she complained, free enterprise “was not an absolute in their minds in the sense of real laissez-faire capitalism. I knew then that there was nothing that I can do with it and no help that I can expect from any of them.” Nathaniel Branden encouraged Rand to break with conservatism. “We have nothing philosophically in common with them,” he told her (which is true). [Goddess of the Market, 146] When William F. Buckley, through the auspices of Whitaker Chambers’ incendiary review, “Big Sister is Watching You,” basically made it clear that Rand was not welcome within the conservative movement, Rand’s separation from her former allies was complete. Rand’s essay “Conservatism: an Obituary” must be seen in the context of Rand’s growing hostility toward the Right in America.

Although Rand was especially sensitive to any criticism which, in her opinion, distorted her own views, she showed no such sensitivity when it came to distorting the views of ideologies and philosophies she didn’t care for. Prima facie, one might have thought that an advocate of objectivity and egoism would wish to reassure people that selfishness was not merely
the Golden Rule turned upside down, in which one expects to be treated better than one treats others. But no, Rand was apparently too self-absorbed, too narcissistic to even notice she was reinforcing the very stereotypes about egoism and selfishness that she had so strenuously denied in her ethical rationalizations.

The first accusation she levels against conservatives is a moral one. She denounces conservatives for refusing to own up that their goal is freedom.

What is the moral stature of those who are afraid to proclaim that they are the champions of freedom? What is the integrity of those who outdo their enemies in smearing, misrepresenting, spitting at, and apologizing for their own ideal? What is the rationality of those who expect to trick people into freedom, cheat them into justice, fool them into progress, con them into preserving their rights, and, while indoctrinating them with statism, put one over on them and let them wake up in a perfect capitalist society some morning?

These are the “conservatives”—or most of their intellectual spokesmen.

Since Rand does not give any examples, it is difficult to figure out what on earth she is talking about. In any case, the contention that “most” conservative intellectuals are guilty of “apologizing for their own ideal” and attempting to “trick people into freedom” is grossly implausible. Wherever we find Rand failing to provide evidence for some controversial and implausible assertion, there’s usually a very good reason—namely, because she doesn’t have any evidence to provide. She’s merely making stuff up (no doubt unconsciously) to fit a particular ideological narrative which she wishes to promote.

Rand next turns her attention to her favorite political argument, that is to say, her contention that capitalism requires a “moral base.” It is this contention, and the criticism of conservatism that Rand infers from it, that will be the subject of my next “Objectivism and Politics” post.