Friday, 23 May 2008

Objections to Objectivism

This is the follow up post to Randy Objectivists summarizing what I have learnt from debating with those who base their moral "philosophy" on Ayn Rand, Randian Objectivists or Randians for short. I am not writing a direct criticism of Ayn Rand, but rather of some of those who elect to endorse and present her philosophy in blogs. Everyone who posts in their own blog has to stand by their own claims, regardless of where they obtained them from and the same applies to myself here.

This summary is in two parts. The first deals with my initial interest in Randianism over objective moral claims and what I found problematical about their moral system in my first correspondence. The second is a very brief analysis of everything else I have discovered specifically the theoretical basis of their philosophy - relying on life as the only ultimate value. Check the other posts from Alonzo, db0 and barefoot bum in the "and Finally" section of the previous post, for other analysis that this post augments.

Equivocation over Morality
This was the original trigger for my interest in Randianism. They were making moral claims including that this was objective. However the concept presented was very different from what I and most people would expect. Much of the Morality in the Jungle thread starting with my comments dealt with this (apart from the "finding my position" diversions).

To summarize this Evanescent' post was about how a man lost in a jungle and struggle to survive was a moral struggle! Db0 adapted Berkeley's "if there is no-one in the forest and the tree falls does it make sound?" metaphor wondering how a person acting alone could be moral. Evanescent made it very clear that this is what morality as about and is just as applicable to the interactions of two or more agents.

A moral code is a set of integrated, non-contradictory body of principles that guide man’s actions. This implies the existence of a volitional consciousness to which a moral existence is an objective value (regardless of whether this is recognized or not).

In this paragraph accepting "volitional consciousness" does not also imply is “to which a moral existence is an objective value”. This point was never resolved. "Consciousness" seemed redundant given "volition" but came important in the next paragraph.

Because there is no such conscious entity as a “group” or “society”, moral codes cannot be premised upon a society or group. In other words, a system of morality is applicable primarily and directly only to individual human beings.

Only individuals have consciousness, and only humans have a volitional and conceptual consciousness; therefore, only individual human beings can act as moral agents. This is why a proper moral system should be concerned with how an individual must act in a given situation–regardless of how many other people he is surrounded with.

This does not follow. It is irrelevant that a group or society is not conscious. What is relevant is that any such group comprises of two or more volitional agents. Morality can be premised on such a group which is quite consistent with only individual human beings acting as agents.

The key issue here was what I called "The Problem of Morality" that is the problem of how a minimum of two or more conscious rational agents can interact efficiently and effectively. There is a substantive - and qualitatively different - jump in the problem space going from a single volitional agent interacting with one’s surroundings to two or more such agents where each agents surroundings now includes the behaviors and responses to other volitional agents. And this substantive jump is the distinguishing feature for defining the problem of morality. I caricatured the difference between us
Imagine that you or the people who inspired your views have written a book called “Morality Explained”. This is pejoratively called by its critics “Morality Unexplained” - why because these critics think this book leaves the “Problem of Morality” untouched and what is discussed under the term morality is a redefinition with an attempted solution of a different problem and one which avoids the problem (of morality) rather than solves it...For our purposes here, the problem of morality is about what a minimum of two people can effectively and efficiently conduct themselves in interactions with each other. The Man alone on on the Island argument shows you are not talking about the problem of morality at all. You have redefined the term to mean something quite different and am proceeding to solve a different problem with it.
None of this was answered. In my view the trick being used was to assert that all values are moral and this includes practical survival values and then everything else follows. This was clearly stated in
Therefore, to eat food is not just generically good (that means nothing), is it MORALLY good! Music, art, love, friendship, pride, ambition, these are good because they enrich and sustain the life of a man; they are therefore morally good. To be moral is to act consistently with one’s rational values.
My parting shot on this issue was that if we grant, for arguments sake, that there is only one value system and all ends are evaluated according to the sustaining or survival of that individual’s life as the only ultimate value, then what is the justification for calling this moral? One could just as easily not make such a move, the choice seems arbitrary and just convenient unless there is some additional justification, as it is it does not answer what everyone else regards as what I have caricatured as the “The Problem of Morality”. If Objectivists use their own definitions , it currently appears to be a case of equivocation. That is when Objectivists talk about morality they mean something quite different to what everyone else means. Indeed lacking such justification one could say that Objectivism has no theory of morality and performs a redefinition move to hide this.

Life is the Ultimate Value
This is a key requirement to make Randianism work. Without it it fails. They assert that life is the only end in itself and everything else is evaluated against this. Animals cannot do this only humans can because only humans are rational.

I agree with the latter point since "life" is an abstract concept only available to sentient beings with a language and a capacity to abstract based on having such a language. But so what? The real problem is the assertion - without evidence - that life is the only ultimate value. A number of fallacies and tricks are used here

1. The Leg Hopping Fallacy (thanks to Barefoot Bum for this): No-one denies that life is instrumental in enabling human agents to achieve their ends. Additional argument needs to be made for this to be an end in itself. However when challenged they defend the absurdity of saying life is not even of instrumental value (which no-one denies) and then hop to the other leg to say therefore life is an ultimate value.

2. The Unfalsifiability Trick: When any other ultimate ends are presented, they show how these are not ends but means to the end of life itself. Well this can be done with any equivalent value system such as pain/pleasure, happiness, satisfaction and so on. It fails as a differentiator to make the case for any of these, as all are unfalsifiable and subjective arguments.

3. Define it away Trick: This compounds the above trick when they then claim that they have seen no other ends in themselves and that "being unable to see" is an instance of this trick. That is everything is defined a priori so as to make challenges invisible. So all value is moral value and any specific problem of morality disappears. All other ends in themselves can be made to appear as means to the end of life as the only ultimate value. This trick was made popular by Heidegger and is much used in new age human potential movements such as Est and Landmark Forum. Problems are defined away and made invisible by using the jargon internal to the system. In this case the jargon utilizes widely divergent definitions of terms whose popular or standard meaning is quite different, which leads to equivocation which has already been covered above.

4. Singular Ultimate Value: They also fail to show why there should be only one ultimate value invoking an invalid use of infinite regress. As long as there are ends in themselves, there is no infinite regress. This does not mean there is only one - which might be a nice simplification - if it were empirically correct. All presentations of other "ultimate ends" were rejected due to the "define it away" trick. There can be multiple ultimate ends and this may be unproblematic most of the time but can be problematic and this does capture real world data better including such problems than their idealized single ultimate value system which dissolves away all such dilemmas.

5. Alternate Singular Ultimate Value: They also fail to show why the evolutionary biologists methodological ultimate value of "successful reproduction" is to be preferred over their own ultimate value of "life", making question begging arguments showing how the former is a means to the latter and ignoring the fact that evolutionary biologists make the opposite argument but to a justifiable methodological and pragmatic end.

6. Committing the Is-Ought Fallacy: As Ayn Rand put it "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.'" Randianism seems to be based on a non-solution to the Is-Ought problem and the Fact-Value distinction. They assert that all facts are values and all 'is's are 'oughts', quite openly committing the is-ought fallacy and explicitly dismissing it as a problem without argument! For example, it that it cannot be used to derive their notion of rights, which is required in order for rational humans to interact without argument - by respecting each other's right to life. It does not answer why one ought to respect the right to life of others objectively, in this system it becomes subjective choice.

7. Against Subjectivism: Where we agree is that there is no value without a valuer. In my terms there is no value without desires and only agents have desires. From both mine and the Randians perspective this, of itself, does not lead to moral subjectivity. Or that morality is subjective in the sense that it is partly dependent on desire or life as the ultimate value but that standard moral subjectivity does not follow from this recognition.

8.Definitional Dependency: Now definitions are subjective - is Pluto a planet or not? Is Egypt in North Africa or the Middle East ? Yes both are examples of recent subjective re-classifications. I repeatedly challenged Randians to make their arguments without being dependent on their definitions. If they really have an objective solution then there should have been no problem doing this. Definitions are subjective but if one has an objective model, what they point to are not. Whether one defines Pluto as a planet or not, it still objectively exists and its existence unaltered by such definitions, that is why definitions are subjective, they make no objective difference. They failed to rise to this challenge, nor do I see how they can, and basing an entire system on definitions, which is what they seem to be doing here, is indicative that this system is subjective itself (regardless of agreeing on point 7 above).

Contrary to the claims to be objective built into the name itself, this a subjective moral system, since it based on only (unorthodox) subjective definitions and the other subjective tricks noted above and lacks any capacity to empirically demonstrate its claims to be objective.


Tim said...

By your morality theory you cannot condemn the stoning to death of a women in sub-Saharan Africa for being raped (one example).

You cannot resolve your differences with Objectivist opinion by focusing on these morality hypotheticals.
You need to debate the underlying metaphysics and epistemology where you obviously have differences.

martino said...

Hi Tim

By your morality theory you cannot condemn the stoning to death of a women in sub-Saharan Africa for being raped (one example).
This approach most certainly can and does condemn such desire thwarting actions. Unlike the Randians this approach is actually based on facts and is universally prescriptive.

You cannot resolve your differences with Objectivist opinion by focusing on these morality hypotheticals.
That is not what I am doing

You need to debate the underlying metaphysics and epistemology where you obviously have differences.
This is exactly where the main points of difference lie. They claim an objective approach they cannot substantiate looks subjective and so it fails in my search for the best available objective approach.

Naviya Nair said...

Wow. This really made my day. Thanks a lot!

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