Monday, August 29, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 6

Sexual Attraction. Rand's views on sex constitute one of the most absurd doctrines in her philosophy -- so absurd, in fact, that many Objectivists ignore it:

The men who think that wealth comes from material resources and has no intellectual root or meaning, are the men who think—for the same reason—that sex is a physical capacity which functions independently of one’s mind, choice or code of values. They think that your body creates a desire and makes a choice for you just about in some such way as if iron ore transformed itself into railroad rails of its own volition. Love is blind, they say; sex is impervious to reason and mocks the power of all philosophers. But, in fact, a man’s sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions. Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself.

While this doctrine may appear absurd in light of common experience, it is entirely consistent with Rand's general views of human psychology. If, like Rand, you believe that an individual's psychology is the product of his "choice or code of values," then of course his sex psychology must be a product of his "choice or code of values" as well. What is particularly interesting about this passage is the suggestion that desires are a product of choice. Rand had speculated that desires are a product of one's thinking (or choice) in her journal, but she generally kept a distance from that view in her public writings, opting instead to merely insist that emotions, rather than desires, are the product of value-premises. However, as Rand left no detailed account of her view of human nature, it's difficult to determine exactly what she thought, or how far she wished to extend her belief that value-premises and choice determined psychology. As usual for Rand, she opts for grand, sweeping rhetoric, mixed with scolding against unspecified dissenters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 5

Incest Avoidance. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt often confronts participants in his lab experiments with the following scenario:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on a summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. Was it okay for Mark and Julie to make love? [Out of Character, 41]

Almost everyone posed with this question answers with a resounding no. Yet when asked to explain their rationale for their answer, no logical answer can be provided. Since there are no objective consequences to this sort of incest, how can anyone, on rational grounds, possibly object to it?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 4

The Trolley Problem. Experimental psychologists are fond of posing the following moral problem to their subjects:

A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Most people resist the idea of pushing the fat man over the bridge. If, however, the problem is reworked, so that the five people can be saved (at the cost of one life) merely by flipping switch, most people accept the necessity of sacrificing one life to save five. The question experimental psychologists are eager to answer is:

...why do countless studies reveal that when confronted with the otherwise equivalent version where you have to physically knock someone off the footbridge to save five others, the vast majority ... -- a staggering 90 percent -- believe it wrong to do so? Logically, it's the same trade-off in numbers saved and killed. The answer, however, has nothing to do with logic. It's much simpler: the two situations feel different. Take a moment to think of how it would feel to wrap your hands around the flesh of another living, breathing human as he teeters perilously at the edge of a high bridge, to see the fear in that person's eyes as he struggles fruitlessly to escape your grip. Assuming you don't have psychopathic tendencies and aren't smiling right now, that pit you feel in your gut when thinking about shoving the guy, even to save five others, results from intuitive systems ... screaming: "Don't do it!" For most of us, this impulse usually wins. [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 46-47]

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hoisted From Comments: Anon69

Commenter Anon69 makes the excellent point that by evading normal standards of criticism, Objectivism is "defenseless against rationalization":
In the final exam for the introduction to logic course I took in college, we were required to compare two passages, one from Descartes and one from Hume, and argue, first, that there was no difference in epistemelogical position between the two, second, that they manifested fundamentally different approaches to knowledge, and third, to give our own reasoned judgment of the matter. That is, we were to argue both sides of a position and then draw our own conclusion. More than weighing pros and cons, it meant striking forcefully against the position that I preferred. This was new to me, and I found that the benefit of that process was that it required me to neutralize my own feelings and tendencies in formulating the counterargument, which enabled me to proceed from a more dispassionate position than I otherwise could have.

Objectivist epistemology, as given in the rough-sketch ITOE or elsewhere, has no process or technique for such a critical examination of ideas, Rand's exhortation to "check your premises" notwithstanding. Objectivism is thus defenseless against rationalization. It sees no benefit from searching cross-examination. How could Objectivist epistemology justify such things as academic peer review or adversarial courtroom proceedings? It can't. In fact it survives by isolating itself from critique. When a process to take opposing argument seriously is eschewed, truth cannot be far behind.

For a philosophy supposedly devoted to reason, Objectivism's failure in this respect is breathtaking.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Rand & Human Nature 3

Moral Philosophy = Rationalization. There are convincing and powerful reasons to believe that nearly all that passes for what might be called exhortive, "normative" ethical philosophy is almost certainly rationalization. The first strong hint that this might be the case was unconvered by Hume, who persuasively demonstrated that, logically speaking, it was invalid to derive an ought conclusion from two is premises. Hume further demonstrated the psychological impossibility of generating moral ends from "reason" alone; that in the absence of some desire, sentiment, or other natural and emotive need, no moral end could arise.

The second strong hint comes from George Santayana, who, in his demolishment of Moore's ethical philosophy (as limned by Russell) , noted that all arguments for morality committed the ad hominem fallacy:

That good is not an intrinsic or primary quality, but relative and adventitious, is clearly betrayed by Mr.Russell's own way of arguing, whenever he approaches some concrete ethical question. For instance, to show that the good is not pleasure, he can avowedly do nothing but appeal "to ethical judgments with which almost every one would agree." He repeats, in effect, Plato's argument about the life of the oyster, having pleasure with no knowledge. Imagine such mindless pleasure, as intense and prolonged as you please, and would you choose it? Is it your good? Here the British reader, like the blushing Greek youth, is expected to answer instinctively, No! It is an argumentum ad hominem (and there can be no other kind of argument in ethics); but the man who gives the required answer does so not because the answer is self-evident, which it is not, but because he is the required sort of man. He is shocked at the idea of resembling an oyster. Yet changeless pleasure, without memory or reflection, without the wearisome intermixture of arbitrary images, is just what the mystic, the voluptuary, and perhaps the oyster find to be good.

The third strong hint was noticed, among others, by Pareto when, in his mammoth work investigating the relation between conduct and belief, Trattato di sociologia generale, he noticed that most moral philosophies were devoid of specific ethical content. For this reason (among others), our conduct could not be governed by a moral philosophy, since the purpose of moral philosophy is not to provide guidance (how could it when little or no specific conduct can be deduced from it?), but to coddle and flatter human sentiments. (For Pareto's analysis of Kant's ethics, see here.)