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.)

Scientific experiments on human behavior only serve to reinforce Pareto's hypothesis. What they demonstrate is that human beings develop a sense for morality well before they are ever exposed, or could even understand, abstract moral philosophy. As Jean Piaget noted about justice, "The sense of justice, though naturally capable of being reinforced by precepts and practical examples of the adult, is largely independent of those influences, and requires nothing more of its development than the mutual respect and solidarity which holds among the children themselves." [Quoted by J. Q. Wilson in The Moral Sense, 58] So if children have a moral sense before they are exposed to philosophical morality, this suggests that the moral theory comes before the philosophy. Moral behavior and a sense for morality is noted even in toddlers.

When we apply these insights to the Objectivist ethics, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Rand's moral system, like the moral systems of so many other philosophers, consists almost entirely of the rationalization of moral ideals that existed well before any set of abstractions was built around them. The equivocations, ad hominem attacks, and intimidation tactics which Rand used to give her ethics persuasive force all provide additional evidence that it is sheer causistry, rather than sober elaboration of eternal truths about the human condition. Yet the strongest evidence of all consists in the rather surprising fact, unnoticed and evaded by most Objectivists, that Rand's ethical philosophy is devoid of specific content, and that no one could actually use it as a guide for behavior. As Nathaniel Branden noted, "The great, glaring gap in just about all ethical systems of which I have knowledge, even when many of the particular values and virtues they advocate may be laudable, is the absence of a technology to assist people in getting there, an effective means for acquiring these values and virtues, a realistic path people can follow.... Ayn Rand’s work [contains] an ethical philosophy with a great vision of human possibilities, but no technology to help people get there."

Lacking a "technology" means that no Objectivist, including Rand herself, actually follows the Objectivist morality. They do not follow it because it is just not possible: Rand's ethical system is far too general and abstract to apply to all the many unique situations the individual confronts in everyday life. Now if it is argued that the Objectivist ethics is not intended to be applicable to every situation or to cover every detail of human conduct, that, on the contrary, it merely covers the most important "essentials," such as whether one should be honest, rational, productive, and so on, even with these qualifications added to the analysis, serious doubts arise as to whether the Objectivist ethics offers any real, practical guidance: for all these virtues, although given out as "absolutes," are, as it turns out, merely "contextual" in nature, which means they are, in fact, not always applicable (it depends on the "context"). Unfortunately, Rand provided no technology for determining context. Other than a few vague hints, Rand and her disciples never bothered to explain how to distinguish those contexts in which such virtues as honesty, productivity, integrity, and rationality were absolutes from those contexts in which these fine virtues no longer applied. The huge amount of ambiguity which characterizes the Objectivist ethics renders it, for most practical purposes, inefficacious and useless. An enormous amount of futile argumentation and wasted scribbling could have been avoided if Rand had just told her followers, Behave in a way pleasing to me, because that, in the final analysis, is what the Objectivist ethics amounts to.

Now consider the irrationality of propagating an ethical system that doesn't give any real, practical guidance. How is that to be explained? Why would any philosopher, especially a philosopher who made so much virtuous noise on behalf of "reason," do such a thing? If Rand's ethics were intended (as Rand insisted) to provide a manual for survival, how come the manual doesn't come with any instructions? The most plausible explanation is that the Objectivist ethics is a rationalization of Rand's own moral preferences, many of which were the product of her own, private cognitive unconscious, which she misidentified with "reason" and objective truth. Any ethics, whether Objectivist, Kantian, utilitarian, etc. which provides little if any guidance in everyday life is almost certainly a product of rationalization. In the majority of cases, moral conduct primarily arieses, not from abstract principles, but from the "tacit" knowledge of the cognitive unconscious guided by an intuitive moral sense.


Neil Parille said...


Off topic, but are you going to discuss Rand's views on intelligence?

In her Q&A she said you could raise your IQ from 110 to 140.

Peikoff was once asked if Rand thought IQ was genetic. He said that to Rand it didn't matter because we only use a small amount of our intelligence. (This is rather silly. If a lost 20% of my mental ability because of an accident, I can compensate by "focusing"?)

As I understand it, mainstream psychology says that around 50% of someone's intelligence is due to heredity, with plenty of researchers putting it in the 60-80% range.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...


I probably will get around to discussing Rand's view on intelligence, either in this series or a future one. Her views on this issue, however, are not really part of the "official" Objectivism. They are valuable more as an insight into sort of the inclinations of her thought, especially her desire to make as much possible a matter of will and accepting the right premises, rather than heredity or "fate."

Peikoff's remark that we only use a small amount of our intelligence is used is simply false. It's based on the old canard that people only use a small part of their brains — again false.

Neil Parille said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neil Parille said...


I think Peikoff's response was in the Ford Hall lecture in 87, the one where he answered a question about Barbara Branden's biography.

I recall Harry Binswanger saying something to the effect that IQ couldn't have a strong genetic component because it would hurt our self esteem.

A strong environmentalist approach is certainly consistent with Rand's thought. Or maybe one's self created environment would be a better way of putting it.

Identical twins reared apart have IQs that closely correlate and correlate more closely to the biological parents than the adoptive parents. Same with fraternal twins and siblings (although to lesser extent). This is exactly what you would expect if intelligence was largely a question of heredity.

-Neil Parille

Anon69 said...

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.

Lloyd Flack said...

That old claim that we only use 10% of our brain appears to be a garbled version of the fact that not all of the brain cells are neurons, what you normally think of as nerve cells. It was thought that the rest of the cells hat only support roles and were not involved in neurotransmission. This turns out to not be the case. Neurons handle the fast processing. The glial cells, especially the astrocytes appear to be responsible for much of the slow processing.

Ken said...

Another version of the 10% story is that it was based on early brain testing, where the methodology was "apply a microcurrent and see what the patient reports". Only 10% of the accessible surface produced any reactions. Nowadays with CAT, PET, MRI, ETC we can see that the whole organ operates, though most of what's happening isn't apparent to our conscious minds. (How about a "Rand and Modern Neurobiology" topic?)

Neil Parille said...

I imagine that Rand did most of her mature thinking on human nature and intelligence in the 50s, when genetic and hereditary interpretations were in decline due to the bad rap they got from Nazism.

In the 60s, 70s and 80s there was quite a disconnect between what psychologists were finding about intelligence (fixed and largely hereditary) and what the popular press was reporting (IQ tests are bogus, intelligence is a vacuous concept, etc.). This culminated in Gould's 86 book The Mismeasure of Man.

The Bell Curve blew the lid of this in 94.

Here's a report of a new study showing that mathematical ability is largely innate.

-Neil Parille

gregnyquist said...

I imagine that Rand did most of her mature thinking on human nature and intelligence in the 50s

Whereas Rand might have done some "mature thinking" on human nature in the 50s, I doubt she did much thinking at all on intelligence, particularly as it relates to heritability. She doesn't seem to have an entirely consistent outlook on the question, as her views on the matter seem to have been turned this way and that by various conflicting agendas in her psyche. One of the major tendencies in her thought involves the desire to believe that the individual can take credit (or blame) for all his mental and emotional capacities. In her novels, she even implies a connection between physical features and character (which she regarded as self-created); while in her journals Rand extends her theory of emotions even to desires. But in her explicit philosophy she backs aways from some of these extreme doctrines. There is a passage in one of her essays (I have forgotten from where) where she pretty much acknowledges at least the possibility that an individual's cognitive abilities might be at least partially heritable. The character of Eddie Willers in Atlas seems to exemplify this tendency in her thought. There is, finally, a 3rd strand in her thought, exemplified by Peter Keating in The Fountainhead and in her essay on cognitive deprivation that a person's cognitive abilities are fluid and volitional early in life but after a certain point in adulthood become fixed and inalterable.

Francois Tremblay said...

"The Bell Curve blew the lid of this in 94."

Huh. I just noticed this while reading through old entries... I never noticed that Neil Parille was a racist before. The Bell Curve is discredited neo-racist pseudo-science, and was financed by the Pioneer Fund, an organization which supports modern eugenics (this is actually all public knowledge, look it up).

That being said, he's right about intelligence being hereditary to a large extent, but you don't have to bring up white supremacy into it. Is Parille a white supremacist or was he just hookwinded by The Bell Curve?

Neil Parille said...

The Pioneer Fund didn't fund The Bell Curve. It did fund some of the research that TBC cited favorably.

Since most of TBC doesn't involve race and you admit that there is a large hereditary component to intelligence, then the book obviously isn't "neo-racist psuedo-science."

Francois Tremblay said...

Please... I never said intelligence was racial in nature. Heredity does not equal racism. The Bell Curve, on the other hand, holds that intelligence is correlated to race, in a hierarchy that is exactly the same as the ones which actual racists believe. Good try at diverting the topic, though, although it is very disingenuous on your part.

I did find an article that detailed that the Pioneer Fund didn't fund the book itself, although the president of the Pioneer Fund said he'd have financed them if they had asked. Not very relevant detail, but there you are. The data WAS funded by a eugenics group. The fact that you see no problem with that speaks volumes.

Francois Tremblay said...

Frankly, I have detected some racist tendancies in this blog before. I outright ignore anything about morality or politics, because I know the authors are hardcore conservatives, but this is just too much. I sure as hell hope they don't support The Bell Curve.

Daniel Barnes said...

>I know the authors are hardcore conservatives...

Hi Francis,

Be careful what you think you "know", I always say. Greg is more conservative it's true, but I am a Krugman-flavoured liberal. Now, apply this to your suppositions of "racism"...;-)

Francois Tremblay said...

I don't know anything about Krugman, so I will refrain from commenting on that... but as for my supposition of racism, there is an entry, unfortunately I don't remember which one but I ran into it again in my re-reading of this blog, where it is posited that inferior races cannot understand philosophy or something of that sort.

Neil Parille said...


Whether group differences in intelligence are a result of heredity is a scientific question. So what The Pioneer Fund thinks on eugenics or race (I don't have a clue personally) isn't relevant.

Of course, I'm interested in knowing who funds studies on global warming when evaluating them, but it's a secondary concern.