Thursday, February 24, 2011

Rand and Empirical Responsibility 14

“Self-esteem is reliance on one’s power to think.” It's not clear whether this is meant as a definition or as a statement of fact. Objectivists often confuse the one with the other. A definition merely defines how a term is used. One may define one's terms as one pleases, but once a definition is granted, one needs to stay consistent to the usuage. If Rand's statement was meant as a definition, she is guilty of equivocation; for she does not always stick to that particular usage.

Self-esteem, in Rand and other writers, generally means esteeming one's self. Whether such esteem is based on a reliance of one's power to think is an assertion about matters of fact that requires evidence. Such evidence that is commonly available suggests that there is little relation between personal achievement (whether in thinking or in other areas) and self-esteem. American school children test highest for self-esteem and yet rank among the bottom in academic achievement. Criminals also test remarkably high for self-esteem, although their powers of thought are often sub-mediocre. Sometimes it is precisely who think well of themselves who lack the motivation necessary to become powerful thinkers. Why should they? They think themselves great as it is. Why bother with self-improvement if you already think you're great? On the other hand, there are those whose very lack of self-esteem serves as a motivator for self-improvement.

“Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love.” This statement packs three assertions, any one of which could easily be dismissed on empirical grounds. It assumes that, in order to be capable of love, one must be (1) rational, (2) selfish and (3) a man of self-esteem. Does Rand provide any evidence of these assertions? No. Indeed, they are hardly plausible. If Rand's view was true, we would have to conclude that most people are incapable of love. Would any sane person actually believe such a thing?

“Humility is not a recognition of one’s failings, but a rejection of morality.” So are humble people immoral (or amoral)? Again, we are confronted by a grossly implausible statement asserted without a jot of evidence to support it. Worse, Rand seems to be trying to redefine humility without making it entirely clear that she is doing so. Rand's tendency to redefine terms, not merely for herself, but for others, constitutes an egregious intellectual vice. She is, in effect, putting words in other people mouths and then condemning them on that basis. If she wishes to redefine humility, then she should do so in forthright terms, with a complete understanding that her usuage of the word has nothing to do with how the word is used in common discourse. And when chooses to use her redefined term in some controversial statement about matters of fact, she needs to back up her statement with factual evidence. Redefinition does not constitute proof.


Unknown said...

Hey there,

Can you provide a citation for that last baffling quote. I'd love to see what comes before and after.

Rey said...

When I was in grad school (for education), one of my professors talked about his research looking at the link between Self Esteem and Achievement. At the time (the early 80s), the thinking was that students with high Self Esteem would have high Achivement.

He found that was not the case. So they dug deeper and found that Self Efficacy (an awareness of one's actual effectiveness and ability) seemed to be crucial variable.

Students with high Self Efficacy tended to have high Achievement, as well as high Self Esteem.

Students with low Self Efficacy but high Self Esteem tended toward low Achievement. That is, they thought they were great, but really they weren't.

Students with low Self Efficacy and Self Esteem had predictably low achievement.

And there were some students with high Self Efficacy but LOW Self Esteem, who still had high Achievement, but not tending to be as high as those students with both high Self Efficacy and Esteem.

If I could remember my prof's name, I'd look up the paper and link it. Alas...

Michael Prescott said...

I remember reading about a study that showed that mediocre employees typically had a high opinion of their abilities at work, while the most skilled employees typically had more self-doubt. Sadly I don't recall any details, but the findings stuck with me because they matched what I'd often observed in my own life. The 22-year-old clerk already "knows it all" and won't take advice, while the fiftyish manager, who knows much more, is more likely to be humble and receptive to suggestions.

One of the tragedies of human life is that most people confuse bluster with actual ability. The truly able are often self-effacing because they know their own limitations. Incompetents noisily promote themselves because they haven't got a clue that they aren't up to the job. For proof, look at the people who are elected to public office or who end up running major corporations.

stuart said...

Utterly true. The less you know, the less you think there is to know. The highly skilled and educated are usually aware of the vast numbers of minds greater than theirs, and assume that others are too. The narrowly focused are not crippled by such a perspective.

A certain novelistphilosopher sure wasn't. She was merely irrationally obstructed by bad, stupid people.

gregnyquist said...

"Can you provide a citation for that last baffling quote. I'd love to see what comes before and after."

See here.

Michael Prescott said...

From the link Greg posted:

"Humility is not a recognition of one’s failings, but a rejection of morality. “I am no good” is a statement that may be uttered only in the past tense. To say: “I am no good” is to declare: “—and I never intend to be any better.”"

Hmm. Where to begin, where to begin?

It's just untrue that humility equals saying "I am no good." Humility is simply the recognition that you're not perfect ... that you could be mistaken ... that you have blind spots and faults (including faults you may not have identified).

Rand, in her all-or-nothing mindset, seems to have believed that any concession of being less than perfect and infallible is equivalent to an admission of complete moral bankruptcy.

The practical result is that she had to believe she was always right and always in the right. She could never be wrong or "bad" - not once, not even for a second, not in the smallest detail - or, by her own logic, she would be totally depraved.

Imagine the psychological pressure she subjected herself to! Really, it's no wonder she cracked. What's surprising is that she held it together as long as she did.

She may have been her philosophy's first - and worst - victim.

kishnevi said...

I have always those type of statements as definitions, or even less--statements she was forced to make by adhering logically to her various premises.

For instance, the claim that only rational men can love is implied by her definition of love as a mutual admiration society with sex (I'm paraphrasing). If one loves because one recognizes value in another person, and if only rational people can recognize value, then QED.

Unknown said...

Thanks Greg. Much appreciated.

Dragonfly said...

Indeed, it is the mediocre person who thinks that he knows a lot and it's no coincidence that such persons are attracted to Objectivism, it offers them a lot of "certainties", while the educated and intelligent person realizes how little he in fact knows, which makes him much more humble with respect to knowledge than the arrogant know-it-all.

So there are for example Objectivists without any mathematical training who claim that they can prove on philosophical grounds that Gödel's incompleteness theorem is wrong! Such people are so stupid that they don't realize how stupid they are.

Anonymous said...

Don't they believe that philosophy trumps science? That is weird, I mean if an objectivist goes to his dentist and is told he needs a filling, does he have to consult Atlas Shrugged before he accepts his dentist's advice?

Steven Johnston