Sunday, May 1, 2011

On 'The Objectivist Ethics' (Pt 2)

Last time, I showed how Objectivist metaethics define 'good' and 'evil' according to what extends or shortens a living being's own life. In this post I'll explain how Ayn Rand applies this principle to specifically human action.

Plants Have It Easy
The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. The higher organisms, such as animals and man, cannot: their needs are more complex and the range of their actions is wider. The physical functions of their bodies can perform automatically only the task of using fuel, but cannot obtain that fuel. To obtain it, the higher organisms need the faculty of consciousness. A plant can obtain its food from the soil in which it grows. An animal has to hunt for it. Man has to produce it.
So living beings without minds carry out their moral good automatically, just as humans automatically digest their food once they have eaten it. By contrast, thinking beings must have proper thoughts to fulfill their moral imperative to stay alive.

Rand goes on to argue that 'animals' (i.e. non-human animals) may have to think, but their thinking is automatic and rigid: 'an animal has no choice in the knowledge and the skills that it acquires; it can only repeat them generation after generation.' We might say that animals aren't able to think about their thinking, and then adjust their thinking.

Humans Must Choose To Think Properly
Man’s particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional.
In order to fulfill their moral imperative to stay alive, humans require what Rand calls 'conceptual knowledge' which doesn't come naturally, but must be intentionally acquired. Basically, she means abstract reasoning. And not just accepting abstractions given by society, but making an effort to make the right abstractions which effectively lead to a longer life.

It's a lot like Sam Harris' claim that 'science can determine human values,' except with a completely self-oriented moral goal.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Up until this point, I've disagreed with Rand's definition of moral goodness, but could at least appreciate Rand's consistency given her premise. Now she places an additional restriction on human good and evil which does not line up with her groundwork.
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 suddenly a human's good is not just whatever helps her live longer, but what helps her live long as she does not rely on other people for her survival. The problem with this is that relying on other people — to some extent — is one of the most effective ways for a human to live longer, especially if one can manage to take more than she gives.

If Rand were consistent she would say:
It's morally good for me to 'mooch' as much as I can from others.
It's morally good for others to 'mooch' as much as they can from me.

It's morally bad for me to allow others to 'mooch' from me.
It's morally bad for others to allow me to 'mooch' from them.
Instead, we get this from her:
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.
Which makes me conclude that she's both incorrect about the meaning of morality and inconsistent in its application. Morality — if it means anything at all — has to do with taking the welfare of others into consideration, while Rand's metaethics explicitly deny this. The only place Objectivists manage to present any fa├žade of morality is in that very part of Rand's normative ethics which flatly contradicts her (anti-)moral foundation.

1 comment:

  1. I've also found her condemnation of "altruism" to be confusing. It goes something like "in the name of the greater good, so many individuals (society, really) have suffered," but if we're out to praise selfishness, shouldn't she be glorifying tyrants? Aren't dictators the ultimate in selfishness?

    Her claims that Objectivism justifies capitalism also seems pretty dubious. After all, Adam Smith's argument was that rational self-interest was good for the economy not because it (seems) selfish, but because of how it ultimately serves the greater good. Indeed, the ideals of capitalism don't maximize our own self-gain. Recognizing private property and the rights of others doesn't do anything for ME. If anything, making myself a god-king with unquestionable taxation power and the ability to repossess any property seems to make me better off than following the rules of trade, at least materially. But the moment we consider other aspects of the human experience, say, the peace of mind of mutual respect of rights, and things that Rand condemns like family love become fair game.

    Great post!