The Virtue of Selfishness: The Objectivist Ethics: a critique (part 2) April 1, 2014Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethical philosophy, Objectivism, The Virtue of Selfishness
In part 1 of this analysis, we primarily addressed the attempt of Objectivist Ethics to use reason, divorced from emotion, preference, or what Rand calls our mere “whims” in order to establish the “discovery of ethics. Let’s pick up on that theme as we continue, in order to work our way back into the structure of her essay.
Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it “arbitrary postulate” or “subjective choice” or “emotional commitment”)—and the battle is only over the question or whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason—mind—reality.
Perhaps that was true in 1964, but even if this narrative of popular ethical thinking was the case then, to treat the entirety of ethical philosophy, from Plato on through the 1950’s, as if a monolithic set of subjectivist or relativist claims based in a dangerous altruism is over-simplistic at best. And if this was an obscure argument from 50 years ago (The Virtue of Selfishness was published in 1964, and is a collection of essays from earlier years) which had little to no influence today, my pointing out such a problem would be uninteresting and irrelevant. But Ayn Rand’s words are still influential, resonant, and a common voice for many people who have not even read her work.
But the fact that people still make this argument today is problematic considering the wealth of information–from both science and philosophy–about how morality can be built upon objective facts about our actual real life in other ways besides Rand’s egoism. The dichotomies which Rand paints, even if they had been relevant in 1964, are certainly not relevant any longer. We really should leave this simplistic ethical dichotomy between subjectivism/relativism and Objectivism/individualism in the pile of philosophically impotent ideas, where it belongs.
And yet, Objectivism persists. If you think that individual selfishness is a virtue, well OK. But if you think that this alone can inform ethics, then I can’t trust you to be ethical nor do I think you know what ethics is.
Ayn Rand is concerned with things like virtues and values. So let’s see what she means by “value.”
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action….
she continues shortly after by saying
Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.
An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
This is all fine, and I am in general agreement that life is good (I would, being alive) and that in general what supports life is good and what takes it away is bad (not ‘evil’, because I read Nietzsche). However in what follows it seems like she’s making the same mistake she was chiding above (in criticizing how people submit their ethics to a god, society, or others in general); she appeals to an ultimate authority:
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.
But this is absurd. Not only is this not reasonable or rational, it’s not even consistent with er own argument above. What is the desire for life but another whim (if not a deeper one)? It’s not ultimate any more than my preference for vanilla over chocolate is ultimate. She then doubles down:
Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself
This can only be true if we were myopic enough to actually take our own individual perspectives as in some way privileged or ultimate. The level of self-centered bias here is so staggering that it leaves me nearly speechless. Further, so far the ethical perspective being advocated is consistent with the “Nietzschean egoism” she dismisses (putting aside that Nietzsche is not the straw-man she makes him out to be).
Ayn Rand wants to simultaneously decry the subjectivist parade of “whims,” and then proceeds to champion the one whim that (we might assume) we all happen to share. This is not a fundamental metaphysics, this is myopia projected onto metaphysics. The level of obtuseness and lack of perspective here is, perhaps, the key to understanding The Objectivist Ethics. It is this vacuous scaffolding which the whole Ethic is based upon, and I cannot fathom how Ayn Rand, as well as egoists in generall, are so self-absorbed as to miss the error here.
The fundamental problem here is not that Rand’s object of criticism (self-hating altruism) is actually right (it’s mostly a straw-man), but that her alternative to this straw-man is so absurd. There’s this, for example:
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values…
Agreed. I would quibble over the use of “ultimate” ends or goals, but I essentially agree with the above. She then, however, finishes the clause;
and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.
How is any individual life ultimately valuable? Only to itself. But this is subjectivity! This is more people prattling on about whims; it just happens to be her whims. And even if it were the case that the ultimate value is our own life, how does this point to selfish interests rather than either an altruistic value or even a balance of selfish/selfless values? What makes my interests more valuable than those of another? Nothing but a purely myopic lack of mirror neurons in action. Let’s put that aside for the moment. For the moment, something else just caught my eye, and I think David Hume just resurrected and is eloquently screaming from pure frustration.
The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”
(For some context on my views about the relationship between facts, values, is, and oughts, see my post here)
Not only is this mere brush-off of Hume a misunderstanding of the Is/Ought problem (the Naturalistic Fallacy, as G.E. Moore later called it), but it is not even insightful or clever. For some context, here’s David Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Hume here seems to be inferring that we at least need some connection between our declarations of facts and what we should do with the facts. And I agree with him; is can be connected to an ought, but we should at least try to delineate the connection rather than merely assert a connection. Perhaps Rand intuits some obvious logical connection, but if she values reason as highly as she does, she should spell it out in a philosophical defense of her thoughts.
OK, so the connection between her is and her ought is a little shaky, but perhaps we can take a look at what kinds of actions we ought to take, and perhaps that will shed some light hat kinds of actions we should take as living things. Lets start with the question “what has value?”
Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain.
she continues a bit later by saying that
The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action.
If it’s pleasurable, it’s right. If there’s pain, it’s not. The childish simplicity of this is mind-boggling. The moral implications are, to me, startling. Contemplating the kind of mind that can seriously propose this as a means to defining a set of ethical actions is terrifying. And yet, if we remember from her introduction, she does delineate between a ‘Nietzschean egoism’ and hers, but so far here I’m not seeing any reason to not simply do what you will. Perhaps there’s more below.
After some discussion of the hierarchy of life, based upon differing levels of consciousness where we go from plants, animals with mere “sensation,” and on through “perception” we get to people, who are different from animals and plants in a significant way. And I know that Rand is writing 50 years removed, and that we understand a lot more about how the brain processes information, feelings, and decisions, but the following is just silly;
Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, no automatic set of values.
We, unlike the animals, don’t have things like instincts or any unconscious moral sense (Rand claims). As I referred to in my critique of the introduction, this is flatly false. The research of people such as Jonathon Haidt (cf. The Righteous Mind), who have shown that much of our ethical reasoning is post-hoc rationalization of our automatic moral senses, simply contradicts Rand’s view here.
The simple fact is that Ayn Rand is stuck inside a Platonic-style dualism wherein the intellect is separate and superior to the animal instincts and material existence of us as animals. Our rational processes, moral thinking, etc are not separate and logical structures floating over a miasma of sensations and feelings. We cannot pull apart the rational, logical, and coldly logical from the mess of instincts, emotions, and “whims.’ This ontological dualism, one that Rand thinks she’s transcending, is exactly the delusion that Objectivism is subject to.
The faculty that directs this process [of "concept-formation"], the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking.
We cannot always separate, at least with any meaningful certainty, reason and whim. Ayn Rand’s whims, which are based on the preservation of human life, is no better than a whim for the preservation of the society. Granted, this tension between the focus on protecting the society or the individual is a real one in ethical history, but the stark dichotomy between the sacrifice for the self for the society versus the society for the self (remember, Ayn Rand escaped soviet Russia) is hyperbole.
Perhaps this hyperbole is understandable given Rand’s experience within the problems of Russian Communism, but it is no less reactionary because of those considerations. Ayn Rand is as much the crystallization of the cultural phenomenon of the “Red Scare” than any American writer, and the kinds of thoughts that she proposed have influenced a large segment of people who seek to fight for individual rights at the very expense of the culture in which they live.
Any way you cut it, the subjectivism that Rand criticizes is as much a part of her thought as anyone else’s. Pleasure, happiness, and reasons are no more a way to advocate for a rational morality than pure asceticism or extreme altruism.
Rand wants us to actively pursue this thinking, because to not do so is to choose death:
Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death.
Constant diligence, therefore, is necessary. Now, to a certain extent I think there is something of value here; it is good to be able to maintain focus and attention, but I don’t accept that to stop doing so is analogous to a kind of mental death. There are times when we need to slow down, quiet our minds, and allow our unconscious processes to do their thing. When we are too involved and attached to a process, a set of arguments, or even a conclusion then we can often miss too much. Sometimes, we need to listen and be passive in order to learn. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.
But then Rand says something, occasionally, which I fully agree with. The following is an example.
But man’s responsibility goes still further: a process of thought is not automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary—nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic, to direct his thinking. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of the efficacy of his mental effort.
Yes. Because even if we cannot divorce reason and logic from ours whims completely, we can sharpen those tools to be more effective. The mistake, one that many people make, is in concluding that when we sharpen those tools enough, such tools are no longer subject to bias or emotional influence. I know of too many ‘skeptics’ and atheists who fall victim to this vanity, and it is as universal an attribute as there is.
What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover it or not, whether he will choose the right goals and values or not. He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.
Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.”
And then she loses me again. Now, if this is merely equivalent to the ancient idea of “do thy will,” then I can be on board, insofar as the traditional “harm no one” follows it. But it doesn’t, here. Here, Rand wants us to associate what is (our pleasure, which comes from our physical nature) with what we ought to do. What is good for us, what is pleasurable, is good. Full stop.
But what about ‘ethics’?
What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.
OK, finally, we get to the meat! Now we can leave the confines of selfish desires and pleasure-fulfillment and get to how we should behave, ethically.
Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.
Ethics is a real thing, observable and scientific, which is not dependent upon gods or neighbors. OK, I will agree that we don’t receive moral absolutes or conclusions from neighbors, but I think that without consideration for the interests of our neighbors we might have some trouble developing an ethical sense. Without that, we’re just concerned with the effects as they pertain to us, which while important, is not ethics.
What else? Well, more quoting from John Galt, of course! (Which is really just her quoting a character from a book she wrote)
“Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice…”
and then some more commentary about choice. I’m not even touching the implications of determinism and free will on this, because Ayn Rand seems to take free will for granted. So, leaving that aside, what should we choose to do? And by what standard?
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.
OK, going around the circle again. We covered this already. Survival is good, and in general I agree. So what? What kind of survival? What kind of life? And what about other people’s lives?
Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.
OK. A reasonable and rational life. That sounds good, I guess. But, again, we covered that. What kind of reason? what factors should we consider? How should I weigh my reason in comparison to the reasons of others? How do you know when it’s reason and not merely a “whim” that feels like reason?
Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.
OK, that’s a little better. We need to think (good) and we need to produce, through work. OK, as an economic principle that is true. But this is true within a world of altruistic self-sacrifice and of selfish egoism just as equally; whether we are working for our own benefit, for everyone else’s benefit, or for a mixtures of all of our benefits, work and thinking can still be good qualities. I’m curious what makes these two things important to Objectivism specifically.
So, what kind of work? And, again, what kind of thinking?
If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine of sounds and motions they learned from others, never making an effort to understand their own work, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think and to discover the motions they are repeating. The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance; their unfocused minds are unable to know whom to imitate, whose motions it is safe to follow.
In other words, think for yourself. Good advice for individuals in any situation. Learn to think independently, reason out the world for yourself, and don’t merely follow. That’s good advice! However, that still could be true in an altruistic and selfless society of individuals. I am not seeing, here, how this reasonable ethics differs from an altruistic and social morality. I don’t see the contradiction between altruism and reason.
I’m not seeing what this reasonable selfishness is offering me that another set of values couldn’t. Just like when religion offers me community, shared values, and morals, my answer is “I can do that without religion too!”
I can have free-thinking and productivity without the virtues of selfishness.
But then, something bizarre happens:
If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing. Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.
Now, I imagine that here is where Rand differs from the egoists (she calls the “Nietzschean egoists” in the introduction) who simply do what they will. The difference seems to be that one produces while the other simply takes. But I don’t see how one could not start with the valuation of pleasure and life (as Rand does) and not logically be able to get to being a thief. A thief, after all, is following his or her pleasure, and many a thief or robber is quite capable of survival. Also, I know many people who strive to work and produce who are on the edge of survival, because those who control the means of production….
Oh, wait, I’m starting to sound like a socialist….
I was about to associate those who are at the top of the economic food-chain, the so-called producers (we call them “job creators” now), are making it so that one might consider crime in order to survive, because having the value of production and work are insufficient what the system is tilted against you. But that would be associating the “Robber Barons” with the mere “robbers.” As we saw in the introduction, Ayn Rand dislikes this comparison. I’m guessing that Ayn Rand would not have been at Occupy Wall Street, except to tell them all to get a job (or to be some sort of entrepreneurial genius, like John Galt).
Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature and he can turn his life into a brief span of agony—just as his body can exist for a while in the process of disintegration by disease. But he cannot succeed….
No, I have not stopped quoting Ayn Rand and started quoting recent Republican speeches. if this rhetoric sounds familiar to you, it’s because of the influence of the “teabagging” right-wing of American politics these days. Because while Ayn Rand was not the only influence of this political set of ideologies, she was a strong influence. The fact that these ideas have subsequently been hitched to conservative religious ideas is, to me, high comedy.
But more than being comedy, this fact demonstrates the center of my critique; Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy here is not, in fact, a reasonable discourse divorced from the human whims and fancies from which religion, dictatorships, and crime arise. This delusion of being above the fray is the source of this ideology becoming the new fray.
For every person who claims to be above being superior to the faults of human bias, error, and self-deception, I give you a person steeped in such biases. The way to escape is not to rise above it, it is to dive down into it and get to know them. Because we can only avoid traps if we are on our hands and knees, in the mud of our messy emotional selves, feeling for traps. Ayn Rand thought she transcended the mucky swamp of human whims, but like the rest of us she was swimming waist deep in her own shit, but just not looking down.
We have to have the courage to look down. And when we do look down and see the abyss, and that abyss looks back, we need the courage to not blink or look back up out of fear. Because whether we look back up to a god (as Rand encouraged us to avoid) or to some Platonic ideal of pure reason (it amounts to the same), we are deluding ourselves.
And here we must pause again. Later this evening or tomorrow, I will post the final part of this analysis, where we will discuss the cardinal values of Objectivism and how they might usher in a utopia, somehow. Stay tuned.