A critique of Universal Utilitarianism

Introduction

A popular writer in the atheist “freethinker” blogosphere once offered a moral code called “Universal Utilitarianism” (UU). It is, I believe, an honest attempt to provide a secular non-mystical objective foundation for morality. A lot of the ideas are good. A lot of the intentions sound noble. But they are held in a vacuum without reference to antecedent principles or identification of the concepts involved, despite the writer’s desire to “cut straight to the heart of the matter.”

I will demonstrate why UU is not objective, its terms are poorly-defined (or not at all), and is contradicted by the writer’s (Ebonmuse) politics. Through each stage of the author’s article – I will contrast UU with Objectivist ethics, and show how the former cannot hold a candle to the latter in terms of philosophical robustness, and ultimately – truth.

Reality and morality

Ebonmuse begins by rejecting relativism, and he is very true when he says: “the position of moral relativism is self-contradictory and logically incoherent and therefore must be rejected.” For the purposes of this article, we will take for granted the self-evident fact that relativism is self-annihilating. Also, since Ebonmuse and I agree that only objectivity is worth considering, there is no need to discuss this further.

Ebonmuse says “If intelligent beings were to cease to exist, morality would cease to exist as well.” This is also true. Objectivism sees morality as a code of values to guide actions (through choices). Without life, there is no choice. Without choice, no morality is possible.

He also says: “True, morality is not exactly like science. It is not something that exists independently of us, “out there” in the world. Unlike scientific truths, the basic principles of ethics cannot be discovered by empirical inquiry, no matter how careful. There is no atom of morality, no elementary particle of good or evil.”

Note that Ebonmuse accepts that morality relates only to intelligent beings (I would use the word rational), but he cannot establish the connection between reality and those beings. He states it cannot be “out there” in the world, or identifiable like any other matter of fact, which raises the question of how he connects morality to reality in the first place. This is a connection he never manages to make throughout his system.

Ebonmuse goes onto further explain why moral relativism is silly and self-defeating, which I agree with – so I need not address that here.

Now he gets into the “heart” of the matter: What is the most basic principle, the most fundamental goal, that should underlie the way we treat each other? What is the goal we are trying to achieve, what is the end we are trying to maximize, when we conceive of a moral philosophy?

Note that, at the outset – Ebonmuse presumes that morality is a matter of “the way we treat each other”. But why? He then asks “what goal we are trying to achieve?” But surely the answer to that question has already been assumed; we want to “treat each other” well? But where is the justification that morality is about “how we treat each other”? It might be. It might not be. But you don’t assemble a moral foundation on your preconceived ideas – this is begging the question.

Ebonmuse mentions several political systems (which are predicated on ethics indeed, but they are not ethical systems; he treats political systems as competing ethical systems and then criticises them for not justifying themselves), and asks: “Why should [they] be the foundation of morality and not something else?”

Note also that, thus far – Ebonmuse has not actually defined the word “morality” as he intends to use it.

Ebonmuse now, very shrewdly and correctly observes the following: “If some proposed moral system claims that the ultimate virtue is something like justice or obedience or duty or piety, we can always ask why that should be, why we should choose that quality and not a different one. Granted, there cannot be an infinite regress of justifications; any chain of explanations must stop somewhere. However, we should not stop sooner than we have to. If we are truly to reach the roots of morality, we should keep asking the question of why as long as it can be meaningfully answered.”

If one devotes some thought to the matter, I believe it will become obvious that there is, and can be, only one answer. No matter what quality anyone proposes as the root of morality, it is always possible to ask why we should value that quality and not some other – except for one.

Ebonmuse uses the term “ultimate virtue”, but does not define “virtue” in this context. A virtue is not the same as a value, which is either a grammatical or philosophical mistake on his part; probably the latter. Objectivism defines them: a virtue is that which enables one to achieve a value and keep it. A value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. For example, self-esteem is a value, which one achieves through the virtues of productiveness and pride.

He uses the words quality and virtue interchangeably here, but the word he is looking for is value. Accepting that, what he says is right – there is only one ultimate value man can have in life, because the alternative is self-defeating. He wants to look deeper and deeper until we find an ultimate quality that we can value. But this is epistemologically false. A quality, which I assume is a virtue – is only an attribute that helps us achieve a value. Ebonmuse has not identified any values so far – he has not even defined the word.

“There is only one quality that is immune to this question and that therefore can truly serve as the foundation of morality, and that quality is happiness.”

Ebonmuse does not define happiness – and such definition is essential, because it will form the basis for UU’s entire system. Unfortunately, because he does not identify the term and its nature – UU is on shaky footing from the outset. “Happiness” is not the root of the issue: what is happiness? Why do we desire it? Why is it “good” to be happy? Note that happiness is an emotion; Ebonmuse bases UU on the pursuit of an emotion – without identifying the place of emotions in man’s life – or whether they are indeed good or bad. Ebonmuse presupposes that pursuing happiness is “good” – but good is a moral question, but isn’t that what he’s attempting to lay the foundation for? Why is happiness good for man? In fact, what is good for man? As above, Ebonmuse begs the question.

At this point, I’ll offer the Objectivist theory of ethics: as a rational being, man interacts with reality, and reality can have positive and negative effects on him – things that both enhance and further his life, or things that stifle, ail, or end it. Man can live or die – based on what happens to him (which might be outside his control), or he can act for the furtherance of his life. Therefore, man is faced with a choice – to pursue his life or die. That which enables the former is good, that which furthers the latter is bad. The field that helps man determine between the two is called “morality”. The Objectivist code of ethics therefore is: always act consistently with your hierarchy of values, and never sacrifice a higher value for a lesser (or none) value. Notice how Objectivism identifies morality as arising directly from the nature of man and his relationship to reality? Notice how, since it is objectively possible to identify that which furthers man’s life versus that which detracts from it – we do have a “real life” reference guide to these terms. Which means, that ethics is a science: just as we can establish the distance of the earth to the sun – we can establish whether drinking poison is good or bad, whether violence is good or bad, whether freedom is good or bad, whether happiness is good or bad.

Man’s Nature

If we can identify the good from the bad for man, another question is: “what actually are the requirements of man?” This of course depends on man’s nature. I will forgo the full exposition of Objectivism metaphysics and state that man’s fundamental nature is “rational being.” Objectivist morality is therefore a code of values to guide man as a rational being, in pursuing the good (for his mind and body) and avoiding the bad (for his mind and body). Also notice that the context of good and bad is: man’s life. The choices he makes (choices he can’t make are irrelevant to morality) are ultimately either good for his life, or bad. So here we have the “ultimate value” that Ebonmuse is looking for: man’s life.

Now, it is indeed true that by realising his values, man achieves happiness – but happiness is the result, the reward, the emotion. Objectivism at this point does what Ebonmuse is yet (and incidentally not going) to do; define happiness: “the non-contradictory joy that comes from realising one’s values.” Happiness in itself tells us nothing about HOW to get there; HOW to live our lives – which is the entire purpose of morality.

Happiness is not, as Ebonmuse asserts, the end in itself – it is a consequence. Happiness is the only moral purpose of life – but it comes from pursuing the thing that makes happiness, and indeed all other values, possible: life. Whose life? The life of each one who wishes to live, of course – that is in other words: an individual. And since we are all individuals – the moral code for one is the moral code of each of us.

Ebonmuse does attempt to identify the nature of man, but he is in error: “The occasional aberrant pathology aside, human beings are social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups.” Whilst it’s true that evolution has selected for certain behaviours that are advantageous – the fact of evolution says nothing about right or wrong. For example, a side-effect of selecting for pattern recognition in the human brain might be drawing mental causal links where none exist; hence the tendency to believe in magic. Would Ebonmuse argue that man is a magical thinker because evolution has selected for these traits too?

Claiming that man is a social creature is in fact a gross error; it actually ignores the nature of man. Since man’s most fundamental identifying feature qua man is his capacity for reason, and man must apply his mind to pursue his values, his own mind and his own thoughts determine his actions. No one can think for another – therefore no one can act for another. The problem of survival is one that must be addressed individually – whether one is alone or in a city. For example, if man “the social creature” is alone on an island, or perhaps has no friends, he does not suddenly go into mental shut-down and die – he is still left with the challenge of identifying what is good or bad for him; the reality doesn’t change – if he pursues the wrong thing he will suffer and perhaps die. He must think and act, constantly – to stay alive, and flourish. In other words, regardless of where he is, man still needs a moral code. This is the crucial flaw that Ebonmuse has made when considering ethics: that morality is irrelevant unless others are involved. And of course, this is patently false.

Man – by metaphysical nature, does not depend on other men to survive. He survives by use of his mind. Whatever the accident or incident he finds himself in, however much he benefits from or avoids society – the prime mover is man’s mind. Man is not a “social creature” but a “rational creature.” To finally concretise this point: you can take man out of society and he is still a man. But take the mind out of man and he becomes an animal. UU is an ethical system for man that doesn’t correctly identify man, and is therefore doomed to failure.

Ebonmuse continues: “Just as food and water are basic human needs and therefore it is generally a good thing to provide them”. It’s not generally a good thing to eat and drink – it IS a good thing to eat and drink! It’s essential. Of course, that raises the question of WHO will provide these things, which we will address later.

So too it seems that living among happy individuals can significantly contribute to one’s happiness.” Ebon is right here, but vague. Living among happy people can certainly be a positive thing, but if one is not realising one’s values in life, being surrounded by happy people is of no comfort. Other people being happy, in and of itself, says nothing about your happiness. For example, just knowing that other people in the world are happy doesn’t make the man happy who just lost his family in a house fire. Who these people are is a vital factor in how it affects you. Also notice that he justifies considering the happiness of others on selfish terms: it contributes to one’s own happiness. (This is in fact the Objectivist ethics, that morality is egoistic.)

Ebonmuse: “In addition, there is a strong, purely practical reason to create a moral system that encourages individuals to contribute to the happiness of others, rather than the opposite.

Remember, the purpose of a moral system is to tell man how to live his life; as we saw above, it cannot mean anything else. Now, Ebon phrases this strangely: a moral system should – as a consequence of training man to pursue his life, mean he also values people in his life. But Ebon makes the sudden leap that a moral code should also encourage man to “contribute” to the happiness of others. If by “contribute” Ebon means ‘give at no cost’, he hasn’t in any way explained why this is a benefit. Bear in mind that man will always try to pursue his perceived vales, which includes the people he cares about. “Contributing” to another’s life in this sense is not only perfectly fine, but rationally necessary. One would have no hesitation in being generous with friends and family. But Ebon uses the word “others” without identifying who he means. Since those one values are covered by the Objectivist theory of ethics, and presumably Ebon concurs, who else can he mean? Does he mean we should contribute to those we DON’T value? Does he mean that the happiness of others that we don’t value should be a concern in our lives? If so, he doesn’t explain why. A moral code for a man’s life that doesn’t relate to that man’s life is meaningless.

As noted, he tries to root “contributing” to others in “selfish” terms – i.e. that it ultimately benefits us in some way – but he breaks the connection between those who man chooses to value, and those he doesn’t or chooses not to value. And again, it is not clear whether Ebon is saying that we should contribute to others’ happiness because it will make us happy, or whether we should contribute to others’ happiness because it will make them happy – regardless of how we feel. And again, remember that Ebon is still yet to define happiness – nor explain HOW ones arrives at it. And again, Ebon misses the point that since happiness comes from realising values, and only individuals can think and pursue their values, it is simply not possible to pursue someone else’s happiness for them. We can of course help other people – but that is not what I believe Ebon means.

Also, the whole notion of happiness without a context is so vague it’s almost meaningless. For example, if one is happy under the influence of drugs, should one wish to maximise this pleasure for all humanity? If one is happy cheating, or stealing, or lying, or having unprotected sex, should we maximise this? Well it depends how you define happiness. Is happiness the same as pleasure? Which sources of happiness are good or bad for man? Objectivism clearly defines all of this and prescribes moral decisions on all. UU doesn’t even come close.

Ebon continues: “if your happiness is obtained in a way that makes other people unhappy, they will always oppose you and work to hinder your goals. On the other hand, if your happiness is derived wholly or partially from other people’s happiness, they will be far more likely to assist you, since their goals align with yours, and you will be more likely to achieve your own ends and be happy as well.”

This is where I believe Ebon is totally confused. For a start, he immediately assumes that the happiness (the word he should use is interests) of rational men are automatically in conflict. He does not justify this unspoken assertion. He assumes that man can derive happiness from the unhappiness of others – but what is the justification for this cynical worldview? This highlights how if one has faulty premises, one’s resultant chain of thinking will be fatally flawed.

We saw above that man is a rational being (NOT a social one); he must use his mind to identify his values and pursue them. A man knows that he can wish for water and food and shelter and love, all his wants – but wishing doesn’t make it so. A rational man doesn’t wish or pray for his values, he knows he must act to pursue them. He knows that when he produces, he has earned. But by extension, (and I am not doing full justice to Objectivist ethics here), he does not wish for results he cannot earn. He knows that praying for a fountain, or a house, or a job – won’t make it magically appear. And he knows that wanting what he hasn’t earned is irrational, because there is no moral or logical link between the two. He knows that the only way he is able to think and act in the first place around others is freedom. He acknowledges that this freedom is essential for him to pursue his values as a man. Therefore, he must necessarily accept that this freedom applies to other men too. And so a man knows that he is free, but that freedom ends where another man’s life begins.

So Ebonmuse is wrong that the “happiness” of men conflicts. Again, since he talks of happiness which is the result of achieved values, he ignores the actions that make those values (and ultimately happiness) possible. That is why he should really use the word “interests” instead. Since the pursuit of a man’s life does not clash with another man’s pursuit of his life, there are no conflicts of interest between rational men. (For a full elaboration on this, I recommend Tara Smith’s book: Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics). Because man should not desire the unearned, and because man cannot claim another man’s life – if there appears to be a conflict between men, the dispute will not be rational. (This is a principle – I will not apply it to real life examples here, such as wanting the same job, or the same woman – but can do so separately if prompted). Essentially, I am observing that Objectivism sees no conflict between the rational interests of men on principle – and how UU does not explain what men’s interests are, how they are achieved – but just vaguely alludes to happiness as some goal to be achieved (how?) and assumes without argument that men must necessarily clash at some point.

Ebonmuse: “the straightforward conclusion is that happiness should be maximized.” Whose happiness? How? If Ebonmuse intends to maximise the achievement of values for individuals (and therefore happiness, but since he hasn’t explained how else happiness is to be achieved I must provide the Objectivist version), how does he propose to do this? Since the pursuit of values is primarily an individual effort, what Ebonmuse should be saying is that the happiness of the individual should be maximised – in other words, man should try his best to achieve his values – in other words, we need a social system based on this moral code that best allows man to achieve his values. As we saw above, since man achieves values through the use of his mind and resulting action – the best way to ensure this happens is freedom.

Now Ebon makes another unwarranted and illogical leap forward in saying: “Giving aid to people whose aim is to reduce the happiness of others…will actually decrease, not increase, the total net happiness of humanity.” What does the “net happiness” (whatever that means) of humanity have to do with a moral code to guide man the rational individual? Collectives don’t think and choose – only individuals do – so moral codes only apply to individuals. And “humanity” or “society” is just a collection of individuals.

If morality is not a guide for individual living, i.e. if an individual’s life is not his ultimate value, then what else is? What else can morality apply to? There is nothing else. Remember, although Ebonmuse never uses or defines the term “value”, Objectivism defines it as that which one acts to keep and/or gain. A value without a valuer is a contradiction in terms. Ebonmuse wishes to claim that “net happiness” is a value, or that “humanity” is a value – a value to whom?? This is actually an appeal to intrinsicism – a mystical notion that must posit some external standard of valuation. In religious circles, this is explicitly given the name of “god”. Ebon makes the same mistake, only he doesn’t call it god, he calls it “humanity”. But “humanity” is of value to no one – only individuals can value, and a value to man’s life external and beyond that life – is a contradiction in terms.

Ebon: “Aiding people who already enjoy a high level of comfort is unlikely to increase their basic happiness significantly, and so is far less urgent than aiding people who are in need of basic necessities.” Urgent – to whom? Significant – to whom? Need – whose need? Notice the error? Ebonmuse commits the fallacy which Ayn Rand called “concept stealing”. Ebon uses the words urgent, significant, and need – which presuppose some standard of valuation. He then severs the link between valuation and any party which can value. As I don’t need to remind Ebon, there is no god looking on weighing up human lives and counting “value”. Now, certainly, people who “need” “significantly” “urgently” value their own lives, and people who are wealthy and happy value their own lives. Are less happy people more valuable than happy people? Valuable to whom? Why?

Is there a cosmic scale “we” need to balance up? What is this scale? Where is it? What is its name? How does it value? Only living beings can value – could this external intrinsic immanent valuer be given another name – say, God??

Social interaction and Rights

Ebon: “Regardless of whether we recognize it or can tell what it is, there is one way of living, one way of structuring society, that will produce greater happiness than any alternative method for all concerned. That one true path is what constitutes objective morality.” What Ebon is now getting onto is a system that regulates social interaction based on a moral code. However he reverses the order of morality and social interaction. Social interaction does not constitute objective morality, rather: morality constitutes how one should interact socially. Morality therefore lays the ground for politics – not the other way around. Before you even get to politics, to social interaction, you have to know why are you right, and why this or that is good or bad. Objectivism provides a moral code for individuals from the start, but UU stumbles and assumes its way to social interaction, then tries to work backward. This is the classic fallacy of putting the cart before the horse. It is also why UU’s politics, as we shall see, fail.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, Objectivism identifies that man needs a moral code to live his life – wherever he is. How does he live his life? By using his mind and acting accordingly. Ebon would agree that there is no dichotomy between the mind and the body – the mind/body problem or dualism as theists would put it (bear this in mind as we go on). Man’s action, and his produce – are the physical realisation of the mental effort to pursue his life. Man may choose how to live, but it is only by property that he can exercise this choice. Unless his property is his own, his mind is not his own. Without his mind, man is nothing but an animal. There is only one thing that can prevent man acting freely: force. When you introduce force, you prevent man from following his own thoughts through to their conclusion. And, since this is the only good way for men to live, force is antithetical to individual well-being. And, force can only exist in social settings. On an island, there is no one around to use force against a man – but in a society, there is. It is therefore necessary to establish a moral principle that restricts the initiation of force. This principle governs how men should interact with each other. This is the foundation for the concept of Rights. Since Rights arise from the principles of individual well-being, Rights only apply to individuals.

Rights only impose a negative obligation on others: “you must not initiate force against me.”

Now, rather than recount the entire Objectivist philosophy here, I am trying to point out how detailed, objective, logical, and grounded in reality Objectivist ethics are compared to what Ebon presents in UU. Notice how Objectivism defines all its terms, and works from the start through each link in the chain in a consistent rational manner? UU does not do this. It uses ill-defined or undefined terms, taken without context, with too many unwarranted assumptions, starts with incorrect premises, and makes too many non-sequitorial leaps to its next stage. At this point in my critique, UU is actually less consistent than another ethical theory: religion. Religion states and defines its premises much clearer than UU has done. Religion is open about its mysticism and appeal to intrinsic values external to man. UU, like all secular humanist positions, borrows these religious premises without noticing.

Ebon continues: “Justice – defined as giving people what they deserve and not giving them what they do not deserve – is and must be a bedrock principle of universal utilitarianism.” He is right. Objectivism similarly defines justice as “a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion” (ITOE). Ebon further explains why justice is important: “It is easy to see why: a society where justice is not ensured vastly increases both the actual and potential suffering of all its citizens, actual because of people who legitimately do not receive the reward their efforts merit, potential because all people will have reason to fear that the same will happen to them.” However, the Objectivist theory of ethics has already established a principle upon which people receive the reward for their efforts: individual Rights. Since no one may use force against another, man can fully realise his rewards, but only his rewards. Therefore, reality ensures that man gets what he’s earned but no more – and freedom prevents him losing it through force (or fraud). In other words, assuming force is not introduced, justice is easily realised by simply letting reality be the arbiter of success or failure, not some external bureaucrat.

Ebon goes on: “By a very similar argument, we can establish a basis for many fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, the right to pursue happiness, the right to freedom of conscience, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of protest and assembly…” Ebon asserts that the basis of human rights is therefore justice. However, justice itself is based on a preceding moral code. Ebon throws all these Rights together as one – without clearly identifying the causal connection: it is a man’s Right to his own life (and therefore property, without which the former would be meaningless) – that gives rise to his corollary rights to pursue happiness, freedom of speech, etc.

Now, the principle of justice means that just as man is entitled to his own rewards, he is also responsible for his own failures – and he is morally accountable for his actions. We can dismiss the concept of “original sin” as mystical nonsense, because justice tells us that moral guilt is not transferable. But if a man cannot take the blame for someone else’s crimes, he cannot take the praise for someone else’s virtues either. In practice, a man cannot take the rewards for someone else’s effort.

Therefore, morally and judicially, a man’s life and his rewards are exclusively his own. So far, UU would seem to agree with this.

Ebonmuse asserts that the political system that is based on freedom and justice is “otherwise known as democracy.” He has not defined democracy at this point, nor explained why democracy is necessarily based on these things. Democracy is, essentially, unlimited majority rule. It makes no assurances that individual rights will be fully protected. It’s not certain why Ebon automatically leaps to the conclusion that democracy is the only moral politic setup, as if this was a given, except perhaps that he’s already picked it as his favourite. When establishing an ethical system from the ground up, one needs to do a little better than this.

He is right though, when talking of “fundamental human rights…that these rights exist not for mystical or supernatural reasons, but because they are the principles that, when enshrined into law and consistently obeyed, create a society that guarantees the best chance of peace, security and happiness to all of its members.” Notice that: consistently obeyed (or applied). A principle that cannot be applied consistently is not worth applying at all. Since Ebon agrees that individual rights must be consistently applied, he must favour a political system that consistently applies this principle to its logical conclusion.

However, when perusing Ebonmuse’s statement of principles I encountered more in the way of his politics that are not the logical application of his own ethical system, and wildly diverge from the alternative objective morality I have contrasted his with (Objectivism).

Incidentally, Ebon identifies his metaphysics as “atheist” – with is not a metaphysical position. One cannot base an entire worldview on one isolated opinion that is the result of rational enquiry; by definition, rational enquiry can only be conducted once one has established a metaphysical basis.

Ebonmuse identifies himself as a classic liberal, and believes that democracy is the only fair and feasible choice. He does not define democracy (again), but suggests that it “gives all adult members of a society an equal say in how that society should be governed”. He once again begs the question in assuming that society needs to be governed in the sense he means. What exactly do adults in society need to decide on? What matters are appropriate for vote and which are rightfully outside that power to change? And why? To what extent should “government” govern?

Ebon says: “To safeguard the rights of minorities, however, every society should agree to bind itself by a constitution which guarantees fundamental human rights and puts them beyond the shifting dictates of popular will.” Ebon is right that Rights should be constitutionally guaranteed, but makes another flaw (or assumption) that “minority” rights must be given extra consideration in case in the future some power of the majority changes society. The glaring oversight he makes is that in a system where Rights are guaranteed, no one may change them at any time, by any action or majority vote. There cannot be a Right to violate a Right – therefore you either have the Right to vote to violate someone’s Rights or you don’t. You have either initiated force against another person, or you haven’t. That is why there is no such thing as “minority Rights” – there are only Rights – and remember, the smallest minority is the individual! Under such a system, every man has the same Right to his own life and property, whether he is rich or poor, black or white, a businessman or a janitor.

Ebon’s system pretends to establish itself on Rights, then, in an attempt to solve a problem of its own imagination (that is, that Rights will necessarily clash), it declares that some Rights need to be protected more than others. Not only is this merely an assumption, and a contradiction of its own system, but it’s egregiously false; Rights are, by definition – the same for everyone.

(What I believe Ebon is alluding to, is a preconceived Egalitarianism notion that, quite simply, not all men are born equally beautiful or clever, and that this is unfair and we must artificially compensate for this perceived inequality. Note, egalitarianism is not the belief that all men should be treated equally; the principle of individual Rights ensures this. Egalitarianism wants to make all men equal in consequence, but not action; equal in effect, but not cause. As Ayn Rand said: “Since personal attributes or virtues cannot be “redistributed,” they seek to deprive men of their consequences—of the rewards, the benefits, the achievements created by personal attributes and virtues.” As she also points out, since it’s not possible to reverse reality – the simple fact of existence that some people are smarter and more productive than others, and therefore more successful – since egalitarianism can’t change reality, it tries to change people. And since the ones with “more” have supposedly received some lucky advantage, they must be penalised in practice to compensate those with “less”. In other words, the best of humanity is penalised for being the best, and the worst is rewarded for being the worst.)

At this point I should point out that, despite stating that UU ensures Rights are respected – Ebon has not, nor will, define the word Right. I did this some time ago on behalf of Objectivism. Ebon, like so many other concepts, takes their meaning for granted without clarification or justification. What is the UU basis for individual Rights? There isn’t one. Since Ebon doesn’t identify or morally justify Rights, he lets distorted interpretations of the term creep into his political system.

You see, the full exercise of properly-defined individual Rights can only be realised by the political system of laissez-faire capitalism, which is founded on the non-initiation of force principle.

Politics and Economics

I recognize the power of free markets to generate economic growth and spur innovation, yet when unchecked, they lead to greed, corruption, and inequality that’s impossible to justify by any rational accounting and corrosive to society as a whole.” This is a slew of unsubstantiated assertions and accusations. Ebonmuse here directly attacks capitalism, yet he would be unable to provide any historical evidence for his claim. Laissez-faire capitalism has never truly existed, but the closest the world came to it was 19th century America – and any historian will tell you this was the longest period of sustained and highest economic growth in history – and, by no coincidence, also the longest era of peace the world had seen until that point, and since. (Should we compare this to those periods and regimes that embraced the opposite ideals of capitalism, i.e. the rejection of individual Rights? Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan, Soviet Russia, Communist China – all spring to mind.)

Ebon believes that free markets need to be regulated (a contradiction in terms) “To ensure that markets serve the needs of society, rather than vice versa.” Notice again the malevolent premise taken for granted? That if one man wants to be successful (or ‘happy’ to use Ebon’s word of choice), another one must pay. He offers no metaphysical justification for this claim. He does not explain why the nature of man is necessarily predatory (because it isn’t), or why one man’s achievements must come at the expense of another’s (because they don’t).

Also note that the sentence above removes the individual from the picture altogether. But what are the needs of society? Are these any different to the needs of its constituent individuals? Why? Society is not a lifeform, therefore it has no needs or values. The individuals in society do have needs and values, but as Objectivism clearly demonstrates (and UU is powerless to), these values are pursued through individual effort, and the reward is individual happiness. Is this not what Ebon seeks to maximise? What other kind of happiness does he want? “Net happiness”? Since Ebon seems to clearly believe that the happiness of men will always conflict (and therefore he seeks to redistribute “happiness” – how?), and some men are happier than others (though he doesn’t identify why), he must mean that the happiness of some men is more important than the happiness of others. Important to whom? And why? He doesn’t explain, because there is no possible answer. I think Ebon assumes that this is somehow important to “us” in some way – and by “us” he doesn’t mean “us” the individuals, who clearly cannot have a vested interest in every other person in society as a whole, but “us” the collective – the mystical consciousness that arises from society – which is an appeal to supernaturalism; it is just a secular take on pantheism.

The regulation of productive individuals in order to “serve” some other collection of individuals is the founding principle of the systems socialism and communism; communism being the same moral principle applied totally.

Trade

There is one essential and beautiful aspect of human interaction that Ebon, and other collectivists, totally ignores: trade. In Objectivism’s words: “The symbol of all relationships among [rational] men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.” Since Objectivism defines happiness as the lasting non-contradictory joy that arises from the achievement of values, and since Objectivist morality is a moral code of values to guide action, the loss or surrender of values therefore leads to unhappiness. I cannot compare Objectivist ethics to UU’s in this regard, because Ebon did not define happiness, or value, or how happiness is achieved – he just tells us to increase it (somehow…)

During trade, men exchange value for value – and they both win! During trade, because no party can force another to agree to something they do not want, there are no losers. During trade, both men give something of value in exchange for a greater value (to them). Note again that values (in this case material) have their place in the context of man’s life; a man who buys a new car does not want his own cash anymore – he wants the car! The seller has no interest in keeping the car – he wants the cash! But both parties recognise that neither of them have the Right to the other’s property outside of trade. The car dealer cannot take the cash and not provide the car, and the buyer cannot drive off in the car without paying. Of course, the principle of individual Rights outlaws such behaviour in a free society by making the use of force (and fraud) illegal.

Ebon: “I advocate strong regulations and a system of progressive taxation that reinvests the bounty of the market in ways that benefit all members of society”. Ebon asserts that the market, which is really just a very complex series of interactions between individuals, belongs to society. To put this in explicit terms, this is what he means: the myriad private agreements of voluntary trade between free men belong to all the other men that are not involved in any voluntary agreement. There is no justification for this thinking that isn’t based on mysticism; only believing in collective consciousnesses will get you here – and last time I checked, I don’t have any Borg nanites floating in me.

This shouldn’t need further deconstructing, but I shall do so anyway: consider the trade example of the car above. Does a passer-by in the street have a vested interest in the transaction? No. Does his family? No. Does his village or city or nation? No. Now, I imagine Ebon would argue that all members in society (I don’t object to this term, as long as it’s used properly) have an interest in what happens in it. This is only half-true – and let’s be clear: you can’t have in interest in something which you cannot affect (for example, you can have an interest in going to college to educate yourself and get a better job, but you can’t have an interest in an asteroid not destroying the earth.) Individuals in society do have an interest in what happens in that society, inasmuch as it affects them and it’s within their right to act on it. But how are we to tell who has an interest in what? Fortunately, there is already a principle in place to identify where the interests of men lie: trade! We can see where men’s interests lie by who they choose to deal with. A party external to a trade cannot have an interest in that trade, because they cannot act to influence it, not should they. Wanting a piece of someone else’s pie is not having a rational interest.

The collectivist might argue that even in buying a table there is more involved in the trade of that table than simply handing over money for wood – but collectivists drop the context of trade, specifically: the division of labour. Every link in any transaction, from cutting down a tree, to transporting the wood, to assembling the table, to varnishing it, to selling it – involves free trade between individuals – as those traders pay for each step along the way with those involved. The man who buys the table doesn’t need to pay the courier; the supplier already did that. The supplier doesn’t need to pay the van driver; the wood-cutter already did that. And so on. No matter how vast, complex, or interrelated the traders involved, you can be sure that all of them played their part in “the market” and exchanged value for value. But, what Ebon wishes to assert is that, on an undefined principle, all external parties to any market have an interest in that market and must be “served” (his words) by that market. In fact, he must necessarily mean people who played no part in the market because, if they were involved, they’d be covered by the trader principle above and exchange value for value. Ebon wants external parties to do nothing and receive values. Why is this good for anyone? How is this at all consistent with Ebon’s declaration of justice above; to give people what they deserve and don’t give them what they have not deserved?

If trade is the free exchange of value for value, what is the exchange of value for nothing? If men produce to share their work and mutually benefit, what happens when a man works for another with nothing in return? If trade is voluntary – to give in order to receive, what it’s called when man doesn’t have a choice but to give with nothing in exchange? This is the alternative to trade: slavery.

When Ebonmuse says that “the market”, in other words, all markets – all voluntary trades between specific individuals, must serve society – he is saying that individuals who trade must serve those who are not involved in the trade and those whom one hasn’t chosen to deal with. There is simply no other word for this than slavery. He is saying that all other men you aren’t dealing with have a claim on your business, your property, your life. Property is how man physically pursues his life; to have a Right to one without the other makes no sense. Is this justice?

The Wealth-Happiness Contradiction

But there is another contradiction in Ebon’s politics and a rather glaring one too. Remember, UU seeks to maximise happiness (leaving aside that “net” happiness is a stolen concept, and because Ebon never asks WHY some people are happy and some aren’t; WHY some are successful and some aren’t, a question that Objectivism certainly does answer) – but happiness comes from fulfilling values – it cannot be redistributed! Objectivism shrewdly observes that simply giving someone what they “want” (or even need) will not make them happy, because you cannot substitute it for the rationality, productiveness, and pride – that goes into achieving values. Objectivism also points out that merely existing isn’t the same as living and flourishing. This is of course why earning a car or house through hard work brings happiness, but simply stealing doesn’t. And why making love to the partner you adore is more fulfilling than having sex with a prostitute. Should there also be a government program to redistribute lovers from one person to another, because some have “too many” and some have none?

When UU seeks to redistribute happiness, what it really means is redistribute wealth (“progressive taxation”). Since the former is impossible, Ebon settles for the latter. This is what he really wants. He thinks that redistributing the values of men that have worked to produce, to those who have not worked nor earned – will make the latter happy. But he then goes onto say: “There’s no reason not to do this, anyway, since wealth doesn’t buy happiness.” Well if wealth doesn’t buy happiness, there is no reason to redistribute it! If simply taking wealth from those with to those without, won’t make those without happy – and it certainly won’t make those with happy – whose happiness is actually being increased? Is Ebon, in Ayn Rand’s words “raising men to the mountains” or “razing the mountains”?

UU gets it right and then sadly wrong

Let us briefly return to individual Rights and show that Ebon is not consistent or true to his own premises: “following the principles of justice and human rights and being consistent in doing so, even if an immediate gain can be realized by violating them, is the course of action that truly will produce the best outcome in the long run. There is and can be no conflict between universal rights and specific situations; the conflict is only apparent, due to our limited perception which can see the immediate consequences of an act but cannot as easily view all its ramifications.” (Bold mine).

Ebonmuse is spot on. In fact, so cogent and remarkable a statement is this I have trouble understanding how he goes so wildly astray. I don’t know what he means by “universal” rights but I’ll assume he means individuals Rights which of course apply to everyone.

It is precisely because we cannot foresee every single outcome that we need principles. Objectivism defines them thus: “A principle is ‘a fundamental, primary, or general truth, on which other truths depend.’ Thus a principle is an abstraction which subsumes a great number of concretes. It is only by means of principles that one can set one’s long-range goals and evaluate the concrete alternatives of any given moment. It is only principles that enable a man to plan his future and to achieve it.” Ebon points out, rightly so, that it’s useless to speculate on specific incidents that appear to cause a moral dilemma; we should simply apply our principles consistently. With this in mind, does UU fully apply the principle of individual rights, or does it pay lip-service to those Rights, but then convolute isolated examples in society that appear to cause a dilemma, or “conflict between universal rights” – and then contradict those principles in order to solve its own “dilemmas”?  It most certainly does.

One such “conflict” is that some men are happy and some men aren’t. Since happiness is an end, a result – and not a commodity, it cannot be traded or even pushed upon men. Property can however, through force. UU sees a conflict between the property of some men and that (of the lack of such) of others. But, since we know that man has a Right to his own life and necessarily property, the apparent contradiction is resolved: there cannot be a Right to violate a Right; so the apparent Right of some men to the property of others is an illusion. As I said above, principles that cannot be applied consistently should not be applied at all.

But if you want to think in terms of consequences, and put effect before cause, or argue that the ends justify the means – even that will get you nowhere; the consequences of a system that does not consistently apply Rights will be of ever increasing restrictions and violations of those Rights; observe that every regime and nation in history that did not apply this principle had, and has, slid into Statism – investing more and more power into the government, and decreasing civil liberties. The end result of collectivism fully realised is communism. Socialism is a less potent facade for this. The principle is the same.

Again, if you want to talk about consequences, observe that free men can only exchange value for value – they cannot exchange value for fresh air. They exchange currency for value, but they cannot exchange paper. Observe that money represents actually produced but unconsumed goods. But when you have an agency that can replace value for paper, or take without return, or consume the stock seed (capital) of citizens, and pretend that paper can replace actual goods – you get inflation and recession. Only one institution has this power – and that is the one vested with the duty to protect Individual Rights: government. You cannot protect a cause by violating it.

If you want more consequences, consider that every single totalitarianism regime in history; every war ever started; every butchering or genocide of people; every sacrifice of an innocent life, was justified on the grounds of an appeal to “the greater good”; the tribe, the gods, the führer, the state, the society. Every dictator in history demanded that the needs or Rights of some collective outweighed those of the individual; that the individual must come second to others. Now consider that absolutely no evil, no enslavement, no crime, no war, could ever be achieved under capitalism. Under capitalism, every human being, including the government – is constitutionally prevented from violating another’s Rights. No one has ever justified dictatorship or enslavement on the grounds of capitalism and individual Rights. Why? Because it simply is not possible. So if you really want to achieve freedom and peace (and happiness) – what does experience tell you is the best way of getting there? Capitalism or collectivism (in all its forms)?

Finally, even if the sacrifice of values was moral (it can’t be), and even if giving up values instead of pursuing them made you happy (which it doesn’t), and even if it was moral or noble to pretend some men are more worthy of value than others simply from having a deficit (which is meaningless) – the forced redistribution of wealth would still not be moral, even under UU’s own rules, because if morality is a code to guide actions, then where choice is impossible morality is impossible. You cannot force someone to do a moral deed. At the point of a gun, it doesn’t matter what you choose. You cannot be praised or condemned for it. If freely choosing to help someone is noble, how is being forced to? One might call this Universal Totalitarianism.

If you’re so convinced your political system is the only moral one, the only one based on reason and practical for man, trying to force it upon others is a gross contradiction. What do collectivists have to be afraid of? I’ll tell you: collectivism cannot work without force. It is based on the initiation on force, on the premise that man must be compelled under duress to act against his will, in order to do the right thing, but this somehow is “good” for everyone. This is the noble system Ebonmuse advocates?!

Miserable view of life

The worst part of UU is that it actually undermines genuine sources of human generosity, benevolence, and compassion. UU wants to achieve these things, by force. It thinks it has the best system to achieve happiness, but if you don’t agree – you’ll be thrown in prison. Force is what you use when you can’t get someone to agree with you through reason.

The kind of heavy regulation of people under a government that sees its citizens as cash-cows, instead of clients – is incredibly impractical. By comparison, capitalism needs no such artificial manipulation and restriction. Capitalism doesn’t see men at war with each other – nor does it need to force them to act against their free will through force and tax. Capitalism actually requires nothing – except the prevention of force. Hence, capitalism needs a government dedicated to protecting individual Rights – and since such a government’s only purpose is that protection, it cannot become the violator, for any reason.

When men are free to deal with each other as traders, i.e. as equals – neither slaves nor moochers – they are demonstrably more generous (where do you think aid and charity comes from, if not free people?) – and as with all trade: everyone wins. Man will necessarily seek to act in his best interest. Rather than pretend this is a vice, capitalism is based on the fact that this is man’s nature – and it’s a good thing. Name any noble or moral deed, and I will show you the selfish interest in it. No good action is born out of selflessness, ever. In every action, a man will be pursuing something he sees as a value in his own life. This isn’t something to be critical of, but appreciative! Human beings can choose to deal with each other – where they both win! Doctors can save lives; parents can bring children into the world; free citizens without having their investment capital squeezed dry by a greedy power-hungry government can choose to help others, if they encounter people they consider worthy. Similarly, businessmen can pursue wealth and prosperity for themselves, and countless others directly and indirectly benefit as a result of their innovation and business needs.

I am sure Ebonmuse might counter with a hundred examples of emergency dilemmas, or apparent “conflicts” (his words) between Rights. But by his own reasoning, he knows that even apparent moral dilemmas do not violate principles. It is not my intention here to review potential objections and elucidate how Objectivism overcomes them. It is not even possible unless one first rejects their improper view of man and their mystical metaphysics. A discussion of what capitalism means for an economy is fascinating and illuminating – but this isn’t the place. Doubts are not valid philosophical objections. I’m sure Ebonmuse would agree that using “God of the Gaps” reasoning, and suggesting that just because some aspects of a free society are unclear in practice – does not invalidate the legitimacy of the principles upon which it’s based. “What if?” is not a philosophical rebuttal, but merely the enquiry as to how some objective principle will be applied in practice.

An objection I often encounter from honest enquirers regarding a free society, is what happens to those who can’t directly support themselves. It’s a legitimate question. I will not answer it here, as I have written on my blog before on this subject, as have other Objectivists. The reason I mention this is because I find it rather illuminating as to a person’s worldview and their view of man. The cynics say “if no one was forced to help others, no one would.” What they are really saying is one of two things:

1. ‘I am so good and generous and caring that I would always look after people, but you can’t count on others to be as moral and noble as me – so we should force our noble ideals on them.’

2. ‘If no one was forced to pay for others, I know deep down that I never would. So it’s a good job the decision is taken out of my hands, meaning I don’t have to think about the problem.’

I have a much more optimistic view of the human race. I think that human beings, when left to rely on their own minds and reason, act more rationally than one might generally expect. It takes no great mental effort to see that living in a benovelent and respectful society is to one’s own direct advantage. It is obvious that fostering a friendly atmosphere amongst people costs so little and reaps great rewards, especially when this is natural and free, and not forced. I believe that having an intrusive government that interferes in almost every aspect of human life has atrophied man’s thinking process and rendered his moral capacity useless. As a result, people are so used to government regulation and involvement they find it hard to foresee any alternatives.

As regards optimism, speaking for myself, I respect others unless they give me a reason not to, and I treat other humans with dignity, and am more than willing to assist people, but I have no desire to serve them, nor rule them. Should I not expect that other people are at least as virtuous as me? I believe that when the collectivist criticises the benevolent nature of people left to their own devices, they are revealing a much more sinister and cynical view of the world than they’d care to admit.

The economic facts are, whilst charity might have its place, even ignoring tax altogether, no one “contributes” more to society than a businessman.

Summary

UU is a hodgepodge of isolated notions and ideals, taken out of context, weakly joined by faulty logic and leaps of faith, and founded on the altruistic basis of religion, itself a product of supernatural metaphysics. UU is another example of collectivist mentality and altruist ethics. Altruism is the code that says you must sacrifice your values. Religion and UU are just variations on this theme.

However, I do believe that UU is an honest and genuine attempt by Ebonmuse to provide a secular foundation for morality. It is no mean feat, and credit must go to Ebon for tackling the problem – especially when so many in the world today see non-religious morality as impossible. If I didn’t believe Ebon’s intentions were genuine, or that he wasn’t beyond honest discourse, I wouldn’t have taken considerable time to compose this critique in the first place.

Unfortunately, Ebon’s mistake is that rather than build an ethical system from scratch after basing it on objective reality – he actually assumes all his premises and does not define his terms – and then goes from there. Ultimately, Ebonmuse begs the question.

Ironically, as a self-professed champion for humanity, freedom of thought (and by corollary: property and action??), and opponent of mysticism – Ebonmuse, like all secular humanists, would do well to find an ally in Objectivism – which provides what they so clearly lack: an objective philosophical foundation from which to defend their ethics and politics. Until they do so, they will be trapped in the same nihilistic mire as the irrationalists they seek to oppose.

24 Responses to “A critique of Universal Utilitarianism”

  1. barn Says:

    My lack of bonafides: only read Fountainhead, have heard criticisms of objectivism, but am relying primarily on what you say here. Please forgive any misunderstandings of it I’ve picked up along the way.

    Something confused me before I got very far reading your post. Maybe you’ve misstated something since its not clear to me. It doesn’t seem accurate to say, as you do, without making any exception that dieing is bad. I read a story the other day that I found quite moving. Two sisters approached Tahrir square and were menaced by pro-Mubarak thugs. They stood their ground in the face of the threats of the armed men, and eventually were able to pass, bluff called. When they left their homes they had no guarantee that they’d return unscathed. They could be among the 300 dead or the many more injured.

    But being someone who in their shoes would hope to do the same, take the same risks for a greater cause and a whole nation’s freedom, I can say that is what would have made me happy.

    I suppose their choice would be acceptable in objectivism if life were not (trying to use your terminology) the highest value. If I placed the freedom of other people above my own life (since I’m taking a risk of death). But you seem to say that life *is* the highest value, that its objective and true for everyone. In fact, you speak of “always act[ing] consistently with YOUR (my emphasis) hierarchy of values, and never sacrifice a higher value for a lesser.” But there can be no objective ranking of values since it depends on the person. If it depends on the person then good and bad become relative, the very thing you say you and Ebon agree can’t be true of an ethical system.

    How can morality be a science where all the good and bad can be classified if the hierarchy of values is not fixed, except apparently for life being at the top? That is the crux of my confusion.

  2. evanescent Says:

    It doesn’t seem accurate to say, as you do, without making any exception that dieing is bad.

    Hi Barn.
    I didn’t actually say that dying is bad without any exceptions. I said that the concept of value is founded on the more fundamental concept “life” – therefore without life there can be no values. To pursue values is to pursue life. Life is the ultimate value that provides the context for all other values.

    There are circumstances where it might be entirely moral to die or want to die.

    But being someone who in their shoes would hope to do the same, take the same risks for a greater cause and a whole nation’s freedom, I can say that is what would have made me happy.

    What you’ve dropped here is the context of: why does it matter TO YOU if your nation is free or what moral stand you take? Of course, the answer is presupposed by the inclusion of “you”. YOU care about your moral stand and the freedom in YOUR country so you are prepared to make a brave move, perhaps even a risky one. But the appeal here isn’t to some “greater good” as if it was something you had to do but had no interest in. It’s actually in your own self-interest.

    Making a brave, even a dangerous, stance of moral defiance can be moral if one is acting rationally to pursue or preserve a value. A perfect example of this is a soldier. A solder isn’t a slave pressed into service, but a man who is prepared to fight and even die because he values intensely that which he fights for.

    I suppose their choice would be acceptable in objectivism if life were not (trying to use your terminology) the highest value. If I placed the freedom of other people above my own life (since I’m taking a risk of death).

    Well for one, there’s nothing in that story to suggest the actions of these women made any difference to the political setup of their nation as a whole. Usually, long-term freedom of this sort comes from intellectual and philosophical revolution. The sacrificial actions of people don’t generally change things. And no human being should see themselves as a martyr to compensate for the evils of others.

    When you say place the freedom of “other people” above your own, which other people do you mean? Do you mean that of those you love and value, like your wife or children – or just “other” people in general regardless of who they are? If the former, that’s fully compatible with Objectivism. The latter would be an act of sacrifice, of altruism.

    But you seem to say that life *is* the highest value, that its objective and true for everyone.

    Yes, life is necessarily the highest value for each individual who chooses to live a good life.

    In fact, you speak of “always act[ing] consistently with YOUR (my emphasis) hierarchy of values, and never sacrifice a higher value for a lesser.” But there can be no objective ranking of values since it depends on the person.

    The objectivity arises from the metaphysical fact of human nature. We are rational beings with mental and biological needs. Just as the human body has objective nutritional needs, so does the human mind in order to function properly. Note: Objectivism doesn’t recommend how to exist, but how to live. There is a difference.

    Since it is proper for ALL of us to live as rational beings, there are things which have objectively positive or negative effects on our lives. Objectivism identifies three cardinal values: reason, purpose, self-esteem. These three are most fundamental in pursuing life, and all other values help achieve these, and so on and so on, and in hierarchy of interrelated values.

    If it depends on the person then good and bad become relative, the very thing you say you and Ebon agree can’t be true of an ethical system.

    There is a difference between personally-chosen values and the “metaphysical” values, if you will, that apply to all humans. The difference is those “personal” values take their place within the core values. For example, you may or may not value poetry or monster-trucks, but you cannot value anything without reason.

    I listed the 3 core values above. A value is anything which one acts to keep and/or gain. Individuals have their own values, like their job, their wife, their car, their house, their piano etc. This doesn’t make values relative; rather, all these personal values also take their place in a system of fundamental objective values.

    In other words, you might value your car, but I don’t have a car, I have a bike. We both value them in that they enable us to further our lives. But the moral principle is the same: act consistently with your hierarchy of values. For example, you value your car, and I value my bike, but neither of us would save our car or bike over our best friend, nor would we risk our own life to prevent a puncture in the tire.

    The principle is objective for all people.

    How can morality be a science where all the good and bad can be classified if the hierarchy of values is not fixed, except apparently for life being at the top? That is the crux of my confusion.

    Ethics is a science because its terms are objectively defined, it’s based on reality, and it’s empirically-validated: the good is that which benefits the life of a rational being. The bad is that which detracts from it. For personal action, it’s quite simple: pursue your values and never sacrifice them. This is a code that can be applied by all people, at all times, in all circumstances (except where force is present) – and it is not based on faith, personal whim, societal norms, “net happiness”, or the consensus of the majority.

    It is objective because it is based on the nature of man (the same for everyone); the nature of reality (the same for everyone).

  3. barn Says:

    Thanks for your thorough reply. I know you were trying to make things more clear to me, but I’m afraid I still seem to be looking at the same confusion I had before.

    How does having values that aren’t life (ultimate) and are not reason, purpose, or self-esteem (cardinal), in the third category of personal values which allows variation from person to person make this not relative? Can objectivism definitively say for every issue that this is good and this is bad when two different people based on two different sets of personal values will come to different conclusions?

    And what should people be told is moral when the cardinal values are in conflict with each other?

    I don’t have a husband or children, so if I pursued the greater good (what you called altruism) it would merely be due to purpose, and possibly self-esteem. If I were a citizen in Egypt, I would certainly have some self-interest in the outcome. In a situation like that I can’t credit reason for actually protesting since the addition of one person in a sea of so many thousands makes it easy to stay inside, safe. I could selfishly allow other people to take risk for something that I could benefit from and hope they succeed while not similarly putting myself at risk for their benefit (freeloading! Not sure I should use that word, I think its got some bad connotations amongst objectivists).

    So I could see reason, purpose, and self-esteem conflicting. And if they do, some people will decide not to take to the streets (reason wins, and probably their self esteem will also be fine), and then people like me would choose to do so (purpose wins, and my self esteem would be great, unless I died, then I’d be dead).

    Anyways, still slowly reading through your piece. I haven’t had the time to look through the whole article and ebon’s original yet. I found ebon back when I was acknowledging that I was atheist and his trove of deconversion stories made it easier on me. I found you when checking out a blog story on his page about Eypt and someone pointed out that there was an objectivist critiquing UU. :)

  4. evanescent Says:

    How does having values that aren’t life (ultimate) and are not reason, purpose, or self-esteem (cardinal), in the third category of personal values which allows variation from person to person make this not relative?

    To live “properly” as a human being (proper is a word that religion has stolen for itself and the secular thinkers seem happy to let this be. We should reclaim it for ourselves!), that is, live as a rational person, there is no alternative but to have reason, purpose, and self-esteem as your primary values.

    Can objectivism definitively say for every issue that this is good and this is bad when two different people based on two different sets of personal values will come to different conclusions?

    Yes – because people have free will and their decisions can be wrong. Also, people make decisions in context. There is no “greater” intrinsic value (God or Society) to appeal to.

    Remember, personal values are not relative. Personal values apply to persons and it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. Is your lover a value? A value to whom? You. It’s your lover – no one else’s. To say this makes it relative is to say that there must be an external omniscience omnipresent valuer to value you’re lover when you’re not around, and like I state in the main article, this makes no sense. Our lovers can only be values in the context of our lives! Reason however is a necessary value in everyone’s lives.

    And what should people be told is moral when the cardinal values are in conflict with each other?

    Rational values are never in conflict.

    I don’t have a husband or children, so if I pursued the greater good (what you called altruism) it would merely be due to purpose, and possibly self-esteem.

    You can’t have very high self-esteem to see yourself as an expendable pawn for something of no value to you. If you give up a value to obtain or protect a greater one, that is not altruism.

    If I were a citizen in Egypt, I would certainly have some self-interest in the outcome. In a situation like that I can’t credit reason for actually protesting since the addition of one person in a sea of so many thousands makes it easy to stay inside, safe.

    I don’t think reason is the primary thing in the minds of the protestors over in Egypt, rather an undefined unarticulated demand for freedom, to not live as slaves, to live for their own sake. This is after all the natural state for human beings. Of course, why they want it or what they plan to do with it is another matter…

    I could selfishly allow other people to take risk for something that I could benefit from and hope they succeed while not similarly putting myself at risk for their benefit (freeloading! Not sure I should use that word, I think its got some bad connotations amongst objectivists).

    A full elaboration on why honesty and reason are opposed to parasitism or living over the productive efforts of others is outside the scope for a reply like this. You can read the article in full or a number of others on my blog or those of other Objectivists if you want. Or I recommend the book The Virtue of Selfishness which you can pick up very cheaply from Amazon.

    However, benefiting from other peoples’ actions is most certainly not lazy or “freeloading”. We all benefit from the lightbulb and automobile whilst not invented them ourselves. What freedom the US has got left is thanks to the efforts of the rebels of the 18th century who broke away from Britain. The point to remember is: your life is its own sake, and you are not called to fight or die or live for any cause against your will. You must make this decision in the context of your life and circumstances. A pregnant mother will be less inclined to storm the palace in defence of individual rights than a young strong single male. They are both acting selfishly in pursuit of their values.

    So I could see reason, purpose, and self-esteem conflicting. And if they do, some people will decide not to take to the streets (reason wins, and probably their self esteem will also be fine), and then people like me would choose to do so (purpose wins, and my self esteem would be great, unless I died, then I’d be dead).

    One person’s pursuit of their life never conflicts with another person’s pursuit of their own. The only exceptions to this rule are where reason isn’t possible, i.e. due to force or immediate disaster. Objectivism doesn’t prescribe under what conditions you should die, but how is best to positively live your life.

    You can’t separate reason from purpose from self-esteem. Reason is your primary means of survival. Purpose is the overriding long-terms you are striving for. Self-esteem is the confidence you have in your mind to accomplish your goals. The three values are harmonious and subsumed in whatever productive activity you take in life. Of course, people can act contradictorily and work against themselves – but then they aren’t being rational.

    To concretise this point for you: in order to live well over the course of your life, you need to: 1. Know how to do it (reason), 2. Have a goal in mind (purpose) 3. Have the belief and confidence in yourself as able to accomplish anything (self-esteem.) In a wonderful triad, any two of these are pointless without the third.

    I found ebon back when I was acknowledging that I was atheist and his trove of deconversion stories made it easier on me.

    I also deconverted several years ago from fundamentalist Christian. You can read my story here if you wish: http://angel14.com/2007/06/20/my-fall-from-grace-wed-20th-jun-07/

    Ebonmuse was also a big help for me during that stage too. Ebonmusings is a superb website and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s deconverted.

    I considered myself a secular humanist until I realised how lacking my understanding of politics was, and how philosophically weak humanism is. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is radical today, and a great many wannabe-bloggers out there jump on the bandwagon, especially taking her statements and positions out of context and twisting them – precisely the thing they accuse theists and creationists of. Fortunately, the same honesty that led me to deconvert also led me to realise that Objectivism is true.

  5. barn Says:

    You said a lot of very interesting things, but I’m still pretty much focused on just the one issue that confused me. When I copied over your article to read it was 15 pages long (and pretty dense stuff). I’ve gotten through ⅓. But I think this will be the last I need to focus on that topic. I think I’ve understood what my misconceptions were on the original issue.

    “Remember, personal values are not relative. Personal values apply to persons and it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. Is your lover a value? A value to whom? You. It’s your lover – no one else’s.”

    So my complaint stems from your earlier assertion of ethics as a science that can separate good from bad. It seems to me the systems of both you and ebon are not clear cut in every situation what should be done. He allows for individual variation by talking about happiness, which is clearly individual and subject to a gradient of correctness or fuzziness rather than being binary, and your objectivism allows for it by saying there is such a thing as personal values, but the answers will still basically be binary.

    I think there’s only so much relativeness that can be cut out of the system when we’re talking about humans.

    I think I formed a mistaken understanding. Basically, that you could swap out any “rational” human being and they would make the same choices.

    But it doesn’t sound like rational people are replaceable cogs. If in some parallel universe one sperm over another fertilized the same egg and both resulting people were rational (I suppose they were raised by objectivist parents) do you think both would end up taking the same lover eventually?

    For all I know slight initial differences in the two babies would result in one having a thing for redheads and the other for brunettes and they would take different lovers.

    So…I think the study of ethics is a science (what ethical systems exist, how to get desired ethical outcomes, how morality develops), but I don’t think objectivist ethics is any more a science than christian ethics are.

    And I think after going over this and reading further into your document that the biggest hurdle there is to being an objectivist (not being one, once you accept the initial premises I’m sure the rest is not hard) is that I don’t think people are rational.

    I don’t think human nature is rational, like valuing the quality of red hair over brown hair is irrational. Is our nature being rational an axiom of the objective system? All I found on the wiki page was “ he is a human and therefore rational organism”, so it sounds like an axiom and you’ve stated it like one so far.

  6. evanescent Says:

    . It seems to me the systems of both you and ebon are not clear cut in every situation what should be done

    Actually Objectivism is. The moral principle of Objectivism is to always act consistently with your values. You can’t get more clear cut than that. Of course, you might have to apply some thought to some matters more than others.

    UU simply says “maximise net happiness”. Why? How? For whom?

    and your objectivism allows for it by saying there is such a thing as personal values

    Personal values are individually chosen. They are, by definition, applicable to those that choose them. That doesn’t make them subjective. I think what you’re looking for is something like “this is the right action in this circumstance for all people”, but this is a strawman of objectivity and is based on a fallacious notion that objectivity requires omniscience. This is a mystical assumption and Objectivism dispenses with it. I think you’re dropping the context that values presuppose a valuer. For example, everyone wants a job. Joe down the road decides that given his skills and passions, he wants to be a construction worker. Does that mean construction worker is the objectively right job for every person on the planet?? Of course not. The right job for Joe depends on what is right for Joe! It is objective – but contextual. But whatever job anyone wants, their degree of success will depend on how much they pursue values that are necessary for all people: reason, purpose, and self-esteem.

    This is why morality is a *code* not a set of rules. Just like in algebra, the letters represent particulars – but the formula is objective and unchanging, and applicable for all.

    But it doesn’t sound like rational people are replaceable cogs. If in some parallel universe one sperm over another fertilized the same egg and both resulting people were rational (I suppose they were raised by objectivist parents) do you think both would end up taking the same lover eventually?

    I’m not sure what the point of the question is but my answer is no: I don’t necessarily think these people would pick the same lover – there are far too many variables and factors to take into account to draw any meaningful conclusion from this thought experiment.

    For all I know slight initial differences in the two babies would result in one having a thing for redheads and the other for brunettes and they would take different lovers.

    I think preferences like this can be the result of far more factors than we can account for. On the other hand, one might simply like blondes because it reminds one of their first girlfriend etc. It could be simple or complex. I wouldn’t try to read too much into this sort of thing.

    but I don’t think objectivist ethics is any more a science than christian ethics are.

    Well I can only assume you haven’t understood what I’ve said so far. Objectivism is a moral code of egoism based on objective reality. Christianity is a code of altruism and self-sacrifice based on mysticism. Objectivism says that good and bad are specific identifiable objective concepts. No other moral code does. So if you can’t see the stark differences here I’m not sure what to suggest…

    And I think after going over this and reading further into your document that the biggest hurdle there is to being an objectivist (not being one, once you accept the initial premises I’m sure the rest is not hard) is that I don’t think people are rational.

    Really? Did you reach that conclusion through a process of reason? :)

    Objectivism doesn’t say that people are rational. Humans are not inherently rational or irrational. Rationality is a choice; one has to CHOOSE to think. It is actually the most fundamental decision we have to mak: to think or not to think. Objectivism says that if a man wants to live properly in accord with his nature, he should be rational.

    I don’t think human nature is rational

    To live properly as a human being should, one must act rationally. That doesn’t mean that everyone does, and it certainly doesn’t mean that people are naturally rational. By the same token, we aren’t all naturally irrational either. Acting rationally is a conscious effort.

    However, the certainty is that choosing to be irrational is positively self-destruction.

    Is our nature being rational an axiom of the objective system?

    No. The nature of man is not an axiom here – it must be identified.

    We have the capacity for reason, and we should exercise it.

  7. barn Says:

    “I think what you’re looking for is something like “this is the right action in this circumstance for all people”, but this is a strawman of objectivity”

    Exactly! If you have a system that says something is the right action in a circumstance for *all* people, then you have a system that allows for no relativity!

    Maybe I need to back up a bit. I thought I was pretty clear in my previous comment about the understanding I had come to, but apparently not. I really think I understand this, so maybe I’m just not clear on my presentation.

    Picture a scale with moral relativism on one end (and since I’m not too familiar with moral relativism, I’ll say that I’m thinking it means that all moralities are considered equally good and if an individual is following their own or group morality, then their actions are good or bad in the context of their moral system, basically all moral systems are equals and there is no universally applicable good or bad) and then on the other end of the scale I’ll posit a hypothetical authoritarian system with a lot of “thou shalts” that don’t depend on who the person is but merely the circumstances in which they find themselves.

    Now, I’m seeing you and ebon occupying the same part of that scale, which is somewhere in between. There’s a feeling that there are *some* universal truths of morality that the individual may not violate (though you may differ on the specifics) but they are also systems that try to take into account individual variation. One thing which might be morally right for one individual (ex getting married to a woman) might be completely wrong for another individual (a gay man getting married to a woman), while for both killing another person to steal their car is equally morally wrong for both.

    As an analogy, its not much different from frames of reference when using physics to describe motion. When I’m sitting by the road side and you go by at 40 miles an hour, I see you going by at 40 miles an hour. When I’m sitting the car with you I see you at 0 miles an hour. When either of us see’s light going by, both of us regardless of our speed see it going by at 299,792,458 m/s.

    For me to say objectivism is relative is not me saying objectivism is wrong (I think me saying people do not have a rational nature might be me saying some of its tenets are wrong) it is merely an observation of fact.

    And by the way, I would tend to occupy exactly the same part of the scale as you and ebon. It just seems like the right place to draw the line, somewhere between people being allowed to eat each other (kill each other, steal from each other, injure each other) and forcing everyone to follow the exact same code regardless of their individual variation.

    You called it a code, like algebra, just fill in the variables and it works for everyone. The same is true for ebon’s system and the same is true for moral relativism (as I understand it and stated above). They are codes where you fill in the variables and out comes the answer of good or bad.

    In ebon’s system I think all the variables would be what makes you happy and then your best guess as to what makes other people happy and then solving for the optimal happiness point.

    In moral relativism you would have to stick in what moral system the individual follows and then evaluate the good or bad based on that system of rules.

    In objectivism you insert the personal values of the individual and then any other individual his/her actions effect.

    In each case “the formula is objective and unchanging, and applicable for all.” And unlike an absolute system with a bunch of “thou shalts” they’re all capable of changing with the individual. Now, I think there are some caveats there. While moral relativism may be objective, some of the codes that would fall under its umbrella clearly have some issues. If I’m stating it generously, some codes appear to have a tenuous connection to reality (christianity thinks an omnipotent omniscient being cares about their sex life, objectivism strikes me as highly utopian, and which one has turtles all the way down?). And is it really a virtue for a code to be unchanging? I’m sure people in the past couldn’t begin to imagine what modern morality would look like. I won’t pretend to know that in the future current me
    wouldn’t be executed for barbarism (unless they do away with capital punishment).

    So I hope we’ve put this relativism question to bed.

    “I think preferences like this can be the result of far more factors than we can account for. On the other hand, one might simply like blondes because it reminds one of their first girlfriend etc. It could be simple or complex. I wouldn’t try to read too much into this sort of thing.”

    What I read into it is that if the root of one’s values are irrational, ie not subject to reason, then the idea that man’s nature is rational has to be incorrect. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for some of the preferences people have. I suspect lots of men have had first girlfriends who were blonde, and many of them won’t go on to only have a thing for blondes. I suspect figuring out why is impossible. If its only deterministic events that determine attraction, then it looks like its subject to chaos due to human complexity. If its not deterministic, there’s a random element involved, then there’s definitely no way to figure it out. So randomness and irrationality lie at the heart of each human’s existence.

    If “Acting rationally is a conscious effort” and there wasn’t any conscious effort involved in figuring out one’s personal values, then I’ve identified (since its to be identified, and not an axiom) human nature as irrational. I think part of being rational is recognizing the areas in which we are irrational and then choosing what to do about it.

    I’m just going to throw this in, but do you remember seeing this study?

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/science/july-dec08/warmth_10-24.html

    I think that’s fascinating. That our impression of another person can be influenced just by whether we’re holding a warm cup or a cold cup. Now choosing what to do about this…I think I’ll only meet salesmen in cold rooms and only visit my mom when its warm. Solves all my problems :)

    “Well I can only assume you haven’t understood what I’ve said so far. Objectivism is a moral code of egoism based on objective reality. Christianity is a code of altruism and self-sacrifice based on mysticism. Objectivism says that good and bad are specific identifiable objective concepts. No other moral code does. So if you can’t see the stark differences here I’m not sure what to suggest…”

    I can see the stark differences. What I can’t see are how either one are science. You listed what you felt were necessary to making objectivist ethics a science, “its terms are objectively defined, it’s based on reality, and it’s empirically-validated.” That’s not the definition of science. The third thing, empirically validated, might be true of a scientific theory or law, but its not true of science. I mean, do we say that string theorists aren’t doing science because they haven’t been empirically-validated? No. And objectivist ethics to my knowledge have not been empirically validated any more than christian ethics. Until I’ve seen that man’s nature is rational, then its just as much based on reality as christian ethics are. And its terms are objectively defined is again more fitting to say of a scientific theory than a science.

    So I’d be more comfortable if you were trying to say objectivist ethics were scientific (which would mean to me, falsifiable, having explanatory or predictive powers), rather than they *are* science. But even then I’d still disagree and consider it philosophy, not science.

    And that’s why I feel its no more a science than christian ethics. Its terribly nit-picky of me and probably not even worth mentioning/discussing.

  8. evanescent Says:

    “I think what you’re looking for is something like “this is the right action in this circumstance for all people”, but this is a strawman of objectivity”

    Exactly! If you have a system that says something is the right action in a circumstance for *all* people, then you have a system that allows for no relativity!

    I think you’re equivocating on the word “relative”. If you want to say that taste in music or beauty is relative in a casual sense, fine – but if we’re talking about moral relativism, this isn’t the same thing. Objectivist ethics are neither relative nor intrinsic.

    Also, I didn’t say that Objectivism says that X particular action (like a specific job, or lover) is the correct choice for ALL people in ALL circumstances; such decisions cannot be made without a context. You can’t have values in a vacuum. I used that example to show precisely what Objectivism doesn’t say, which is why it’s not a list of hard dogmatic rules like Christianity. Nor is it “do whatever you feel like”, like relativism.

    Maybe I need to back up a bit. I thought I was pretty clear in my previous comment about the understanding I had come to, but apparently not. I really think I understand this, so maybe I’m just not clear on my presentation.

    Picture a scale with moral relativism on one end (and since I’m not too familiar with moral relativism, I’ll say that I’m thinking it means that all moralities are considered equally good and if an individual is following their own or group morality, then their actions are good or bad in the context of their moral system, basically all moral systems are equals and there is no universally applicable good or bad)

    This definition sounds fine to me.

    and then on the other end of the scale I’ll posit a hypothetical authoritarian system with a lot of “thou shalts” that don’t depend on who the person is but merely the circumstances in which they find themselves.

    In other words, any religious morality.

    Now, I’m seeing you and ebon occupying the same part of that scale, which is somewhere in between. There’s a feeling that there are *some* universal truths of morality that the individual may not violate (though you may differ on the specifics) but they are also systems that try to take into account individual variation.

    No. Objectivism *does not* take into account individual variations, not in the sense you mean it. The Objectivist ethics is the same principle: always act consistently with your hierarchy of values. Objectivism identifies three cardinal values. Now, as individuals, there are things we value in the context of *our*lives – but this is not something Objectivism has to make “relative” concessions for. The moral code guiding the pursuit of life and all values is the same for everyone.

    One thing which might be morally right for one individual (ex getting married to a woman) might be completely wrong for another individual (a gay man getting married to a woman), while for both killing another person to steal their car is equally morally wrong for both.

    Yes that’s a fair analogy. However note that your choice of marriage partners is not a case of moral relativism. This is actually a decision that *can only* be made in the context of the individual.

    As an analogy, its not much different from frames of reference when using physics to describe motion. When I’m sitting by the road side and you go by at 40 miles an hour, I see you going by at 40 miles an hour. When I’m sitting the car with you I see you at 0 miles an hour. When either of us see’s light going by, both of us regardless of our speed see it going by at 299,792,458 m/s.

    There are frames of referencing, but what is being referenced?? Reality, which is the same for everyone.

    For me to say objectivism is relative is not me saying objectivism is wrong (I think me saying people do not have a rational nature might be me saying some of its tenets are wrong) it is merely an observation of fact.

    Again, you’re equivocating on your sense of the word relative. We are only talking about moral relativism, which is a self-contradictory position. Objectivist ethics are not relative. Objectivism merely points out that values require a context; the more specific the value, the more specific the context.

    And by the way, I would tend to occupy exactly the same part of the scale as you and ebon. It just seems like the right place to draw the line, somewhere between people being allowed to eat each other (kill each other, steal from each other, injure each other) and forcing everyone to follow the exact same code regardless of their individual variation.

    Objectivism is not on that sliding scale at all. It is neither relative nor dogmatic. The code *is* the same for everyone, which is why it’s objective. You have drawn a false dichotomy between relativism and intrinsicism.

    You called it a code, like algebra, just fill in the variables and it works for everyone. The same is true for ebon’s system and the same is true for moral relativism (as I understand it and stated above). They are codes where you fill in the variables and out comes the answer of good or bad.

    No, because Ebon’s system does not define the terms it uses, nor identify how its components are to be achieved, which is the entire purpose of a moral system. Ebon’s code might as well say “try to be good” – well yes, but what is good? What is bad? For whom? Why?

    I don’t understand what you’re saying here. If a moral code says: “everyone must do this all the time!” you’d call it dogmatic. If it says “do whatever you want” you’d call it relative. If it says “always act consistently with the hierarchy of your values” you also call this relative because you point out specific values require a specific context??

    In ebon’s system I think all the variables would be what makes you happy and then your best guess as to what makes other people happy and then solving for the optimal happiness point.

    What is happiness? Why is good? Why should it be achieved? How does one achieve it? Does the happiness of people conflict? Under what circumstances should the happiness of others concern us? To what degree? Why? Optimal happiness – whose?
    Do you see how impotent UU is with these questions? What you said above presupposes that we know what morality is. But that is exactly what a moral code should define!

    “Your best guess” – this by you is objective?

    In moral relativism you would have to stick in what moral system the individual follows and then evaluate the good or bad based on that system of rules.

    Even this implies that evaluating a system against its own rules is good or bad. Says who? You need an objective reference even to assert this.

    In objectivism you insert the personal values of the individual and then any other individual his/her actions effect.

    With Objectivism you always act consistently with the hierarchy of your values.

    In each case “the formula is objective and unchanging, and applicable for all.”

    No, as explained above. If you read my comments and the article above in full – you’ll see why UU is powerless as an ethical system.

    And unlike an absolute system with a bunch of “thou shalts” they’re all capable of changing with the individual.

    No, the code doesn’t change with the individual.

    Now, I think there are some caveats there. While moral relativism may be objective,

    Moral relativism may be objective??

    some of the codes that would fall under its umbrella clearly have some issues. If I’m stating it generously, some codes appear to have a tenuous connection to reality (christianity thinks an omnipotent omniscient being cares about their sex life, objectivism strikes me as highly utopian, and which one has turtles all the way down?).

    Objectivism is a proper moral code for the well-being of man. If the current state of this world is so far removed from that ideal, it isn’t Objectivism’s fault, but the fault of the altruist and power-hungry collectivists who‘ve appropriated wealth and power for themselves and marginalised any individualist moral code. If you want to call that utopian, fair enough.

    What I read into it is that if the root of one’s values are irrational, ie not subject to reason, then the idea that man’s nature is rational has to be incorrect.

    Like I said in my last reply, rationality is a choice; our most fundamental choice, but a choice all the same. No one is born rational or irrational at “the root”.

    There doesn’t seem to be a reason for some of the preferences people have. I suspect lots of men have had first girlfriends who were blonde, and many of them won’t go on to only have a thing for blondes. I suspect figuring out why is impossible. If its only deterministic events that determine attraction, then it looks like its subject to chaos due to human complexity. If its not deterministic, there’s a random element involved, then there’s definitely no way to figure it out. So randomness and irrationality lie at the heart of each human’s existence.

    This is a false dichotomy. The human mind is far too complex to simplify in this way. In any event, free will is axiomatic.

    If “Acting rationally is a conscious effort” and there wasn’t any conscious effort involved in figuring out one’s personal values, then I’ve identified (since its to be identified, and not an axiom) human nature as irrational. I think part of being rational is recognizing the areas in which we are irrational and then choosing what to do about it.

    How can there be no conscious effort in figuring out your personal values??

    I think that’s fascinating. That our impression of another person can be influenced just by whether we’re holding a warm cup or a cold cup. Now choosing what to do about this…I think I’ll only meet salesmen in cold rooms and only visit my mom when its warm. Solves all my problems

    All I’ll say is: correlation doesn’t equal causality. Free will is axiomatic.

    I can see the stark differences. What I can’t see are how either one are science. You listed what you felt were necessary to making objectivist ethics a science, “its terms are objectively defined, it’s based on reality, and it’s empirically-validated.” That’s not the definition of science. The third thing, empirically validated, might be true of a scientific theory or law, but its not true of science. I mean, do we say that string theorists aren’t doing science because they haven’t been empirically-validated? No. And objectivist ethics to my knowledge have not been empirically validated any more than christian ethics.

    Urm, no. Ethics is a science because it is an empirical study of the natural world. That’s about as broad a definition of science as you can get. The reason many don’t see ethics as a science is because they cannot relate the moral and immoral to facts of reality, as demonstrated by Ebon’s comments. Objectivism however, *does* relate the moral to facts of reality.

    As for “objectivist ethics to my knowledge have not been empirically validated any more than christian ethics” – are you saying that Objectivist ethics (as opposed to ethics in general) isn’t scientific because it hasn’t been validated by the scientific community? If so, I think you misunderstood what I meant.

    Until I’ve seen that man’s nature is rational, then its just as much based on reality as christian ethics are. And its terms are objectively defined is again more fitting to say of a scientific theory than a science.

    How are you differentiating a scientific theory from a science? By this thinking, it would be more proper to refer to ethics as a science (which I did) and Objectivist moral principles as a particular scientific theory – if you want to put it in those terms. However I’m afraid to elaborate more on this in case you become more confused.

    Also, you seem to have a lot of difficulty with the nature of man as rational. What you need to appreciate is that man’s metaphysical nature is a volitional being of body and mind. Man is alive – this is a given. He necessarily makes choices. If he doesn’t, he dies. The most fundamental choice to make is: to think or not to think – to be rational or not. A man who is consistently irrational is self-destructive and cannot achieve happiness. The man who isn’t – is not, and can. Therefore, man’s nature qua man is rational being. Of course, one can choose NOT to be rational, but then one isn’t living like a man – one might just as well be an animal.

    Now, the only way to deny this (since you are having problems with this concept) is to say that it is *not* right for man to be rational – a position that I am certain you are *not* taking, and in fact most people, especially atheists, would not take.

    So I’d be more comfortable if you were trying to say objectivist ethics were scientific (which would mean to me, falsifiable, having explanatory or predictive powers), rather than they *are* science. But even then I’d still disagree and consider it philosophy, not science.

    Even science is based on philosophy. Ethics, which is a science, is based on a preceding philosophy. So Objectivism is consistent with what you said. Scientific theories are based on metaphysical assumptions like “the universe is orderly”, for example. Objectivist ethics are also based on metaphysical assumptions – the nature of man, and objective reality.

    Also, Objectivist ethics *are* falsifiable, and explanatory, and predictive. Objectivist ethics can be proved wrong, if for example you could prove that man should *not* act rationally. They are explanatory in explaining what is good and bad for man, and why. They are predictive, in that they specify principles to be applied over the entire span of a man’s life and prescribe how to make decisions in the situations one might encounter.

    You’ve demonstrated intellectual honesty so far, Barn, which is the most important thing in any discussion. But I think you need to give more thought to the terms and concepts involved here. I strongly recommend you read the article in full and we can discuss specific issues relating to it in more detail here, instead of repeating what the article already covers.

  9. barn Says:

    “You’ve demonstrated intellectual honesty so far, Barn, which is the most important thing in any discussion. But I think you need to give more thought to the terms and concepts involved here. I strongly recommend you read the article in full and we can discuss specific issues relating to it in more detail here, instead of repeating what the article already covers.”

    Thanks. You too :)

    And I’m working through things a bit at a time. Didn’t have any time yesterday.

    But asking that I read further when my objections have presented themselves right at the outset of my reading is a bit like a missionary asking me to read the Book of Mormon when they have yet to convince me that any gods exist. Okay, not quite since they’re expecting the holy spirit to descend upon me and convert me and you’re definitely not expecting that. A reason I can see for reading ahead when I disagree with an initial premise is that I’ll be blown away by the noble goals and decide to look at the first premise less skeptically. But then I would make for a pretty irrational objectivist.

    I did take the time to browse some older articles on your site, but when I did all I got was more questions and disagreements. I think it’d be far easier on you if I continued to work through issues one at a time (and I have been, I’ve largely stuck to the issue in my first post and only questioned whether humans were indeed rational once I felt I had understanding of the first issue) rather than dumping a big pile of them on you. Otherwise I’ll waste your time explaining concepts that may not make a difference because I’m stymied by an earlier premise and I’ll waste my time reading a bunch of stuff I can’t appreciate because the earlier premises haven’t clicked.

  10. evanescent Says:

    Barn, Objectivism is a complete philosophy that is dependent on the precededing chain in the hierarchy.

    Most people have problems with Objectivism because they take one position down the bottom, such as animals having no Rights, or the welfare state being wrong, and attack it – without understanding the principles involved, or noticing they have no philosophical basis for their own opinions.

    Whilst discussing certain issues and the principles and concepts involved is better than nothing, i.e. better than religion or Humanism, it’s best to work forward than backwards.

    My point, Barn, is that Objectivism (like all philosophy) works like this: metaphysics -> epistemology -> ethics -> politics. If you get the metaphysics, you can get the rest. If you really want to understand what Ayn Rand said and meant, the best thing is to read her non-fiction for yourself. I am of course happy to discuss my articles and provide insight, but it’s not practical to explain the entire philosophy on a forum.

    You’re quite right when you point out that haggling over the particulars is pointless when the premises haven’t been agreed upon. For example, there’s no point discussing capitalism vs the welfare state if the socialist believes the ends justify the means. You must attack/understand the underlying premise, i.e. altruism/collectivism/statism. Of course, this depends on morality, which depends on epistemology, which depends on metaphysics… I’m sure you get the point.

  11. barn Says:

    “Barn, Objectivism is a complete philosophy that is dependent on the precededing chain in the hierarchy.
    Most people have problems with Objectivism because they take one position down the bottom, such as animals having no Rights, or the welfare state being wrong, and attack it – without understanding the principles involved, or noticing they have no philosophical basis for their own opinions.”

    That’s roughly how it goes with any critique of another moral system. People like to take their own moral conclusions and place them over another system to gauge whether its right or wrong. I certainly did it when I used Egypt as a specific example, but I saw as we talked past each other that we needed to focus on foundations/first premises. Focusing on whether “human nature is rational” seems to be, if not the first, one of the first premises in the hierarchy and has been what I preferred to focus on in my most recent comments.

    Besides that fundamental issue, we’ve also been engaged in (by my count) two issues that, at least to me, have no bearing in the truth or falsity of objectivism. They appear to me to be errors in the *description* of objectivism, not in objectivism itself. Those issues were 1) whether an ethical system, in this case objectivism, can claim the mantle of being science/scientific 2) my first question which just won’t seem to die but I’m largely content with my understanding of it. We can move on from 2) if you’d like, but since I had already written a response that I hope clarifies what I’m asking I went ahead and included it at the bottom of this comment, and I’d like to discuss 1) a little more since I think we haven’t yet reached a stalemate on it.

    “I am of course happy to discuss my articles and provide insight, but it’s not practical to explain the entire philosophy on a forum.”

    I appreciate your willingness to give explanation. As you point out there are the original works of Ayn Rand to follow up with and many other people probably have articles posted that cover her material in their own voice. I can’t tell how much more exploration is warranted since I haven’t come to agreement yet with the certain initial premises.

    Also if you dislike this public forum I don’t mind conversing in email. Then no one has to see how badly I’m thrashing all your arguments ;P

    “Also, you seem to have a lot of difficulty with the nature of man as rational. What you need to appreciate is that man’s metaphysical nature is a volitional being of body and mind. Man is alive – this is a given. He necessarily makes choices. If he doesn’t, he dies. The most fundamental choice to make is: to think or not to think – to be rational or not. A man who is consistently irrational is self-destructive and cannot achieve happiness. The man who isn’t – is not, and can. Therefore, man’s nature qua man is rational being. Of course, one can choose NOT to be rational, but then one isn’t living like a man – one might just as well be an animal.”

    I have a lot of difficulty with a lot of things, so if you’re calling me stupid I’m not the least bit offended :)

    I don’t mind metaphysical arguments. Metaphysics covers some important concepts (epistemology, ontology), but I wouldn’t give a metaphysical argument priority over scientific data.

    One of my favorite, for its simplicity and elegance, metaphysical arguments is to imagine a perfect being exists. Then “such a being could not be perfect unless its essence included existence. Therefore a perfect being must exist.” It’s lovely and simple and largely useless to the theists who want to use it because it has no connection to reality.

    And that’s largely how this human nature is rational argument looks to me, except that where I can’t provide real world evidence for a perfect being not existing, I can provide real world evidence showing limits to human rationality. The warm/cold room experiment was my first example.

    Your response to that experiment: “correlation doesn’t equal causality. Free will is axiomatic. ”

    So does that mean that whether a person was perceived more positively or more negatively changed the temperature of the cup? The temperature of the cup was predetermined, only the response of the participants varied. Every individual had the ability to like or dislike a person (and to eliminate variance in the subject being judged, I should point out that they were all evaluating the same description+picture of the person, so that’s not a source of flawed methodology in the experiment) of their own accord regardless of the cup, but the cup made a difference. Generally when someone counter-argues that “correlation doesn’t equal causality” its up to them to provide another mechanism by which the result could have occurred.

    And do you really think someone’s free will in this situation was compromised if the relationship is indeed causal? I don’t. But if you do think that experimental data invalidates the axiom of free will, do you find it kind of disturbing how quickly you dismissed the real world data and leapt to the defense of your axiom? If the axiom is valid then you’ll find a way to show that *valid* data is not in conflict with it, not by ignoring the data.

    I’ve got an explanation for why this experiment does not violate free will, but since we both accept the existence of free will I’d rather just focus on how this experiment demonstrates the existence of a mode of “thinking” that can work to complement and/or hinder our rational faculties. I’ll elaborate on that mode of thinking in a bit, but I’d like to first discuss another biological limit of rational human thought.

    Magic Number 7 (or 3, or 4, or whatever).

    http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Miller/

    To sum up that text, they did experiments involving discernment of 1st order stimuli (sound tones, spatial tests, etc) and found a limit ~3 “bits” of info at a time. When you begin adding more complexity the “bits” of info you can handle increases asymptotically (for example, 1st order might be 2 bits, 2nd order might be 4 bits, 3rd order might be 5 bits, 4th order might be 5.5 bits), but that added capacity comes at the expense of reduced accuracy. Working memory has similar limitations.

    But the objectivist knows that rationality is difficult, right, since we see evidence of people acting irrationally all the time? But as you say, we choose whether or not to be rational. So an individual with knowledge of their limitations can choose to follow a process that can produce a correct, rational answer despite the limits of human cognition. They could sit down, maybe make a spreadsheet, list up all the variables for whatever they’re attempting to rationally chose (their values, their career path, what they want in a spouse, etc), and fill everything in (that they are aware of, since of course humans are not omniscient they can’t help if they misjudge future housing prices, or whether their choice of values will actually make them happy).

    But there’s a flaw with being purely rational. A) when our rational mind is distracted by one task our emotional brain gains free reign over concurrent tasks, B) the shorthand provided by our emotional brain is useful and sometimes superior to rational thought.

    Let’s look at A.

    http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ap/ob/2002/00000087/00000002/art02977

    The fruit vs cake experiment. Participants in the study were given some numbers to memorize and unlimited time to do so. They were divided into two groups, a 2-digit group and a 7-digit group. Once they had memorized the number and were heading to another room to deliver it, they were stopped by someone wishing to thank for their participation and offering them either fruit or cake. The people in the 7-digit group were significantly more likely to choose cake than the people in the 2-digit group.

    So picture our objectivist who has his spread sheet out to help him figure out the most rational answer to a difficult question. If his brain is heavily taxed, he’ll be less capable of using his rational faculties and respond with his more emotional faculties when his wife comes up and asks if he wants an apple or a cookie.

    This is merely another limit on our ability to use pure reason. It doesn’t mean we *can’t* use pure reason in our lives, but once again demonstrates the difficulty in doing so.

    Now let’s get to the studies that don’t simply make clear the difficulties in using pure reason throughout our daily lives, but support my contention B, we use an alternate faculty in our decision making processes.

    Antoine Bechara’s had a patient who was a pretty normal guy. The guy worked as an accountant in upper management. He was intelligent and could plan ahead (evidence, savings). He was diagnosed with a tumor in his orbito frontal cortex which was removed. Everything about the operation looked successful. No language or movement impairments and he scored 97th percentile on intelligence tests. Everything seemed normal and so he returned to home and to work.

    But everything wasn’t normal. He was unable to make minor decisions because he would get stuck rationalizing his decisions and going through a stream of pros and cons before he could make a decision. Imagine getting stuck in a cereal aisle like that. And then imagine going back the next week and doing the selecting process all over again (cuz, you know, something could have changed).

    He was sent to a neurologist who noted the “flatness” of his personality. So they hooked him up to machines that would measure his physical response to emotionally charged imagery and discovered he could no longer process emotion.

    This paper

    http://phi673uw.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/naqvietal.pdf

    gives an overview of what neuroscience understands on the role of emotion in decision making (its co-written by Bechara, but I didn’t check that its references actually contained the case study I wrote about above. If you need that particular case study, either of us can try and locate it, but the paper I’ve linked more than adequately covers the theories and additional data for the behavior of the man I described).

    Our experiences over time are integrated/averaged over time into an emotional response that can anticipate and deal with the same situation in the future. Our emotions provide a short hand than can replace all that rationalization. In the cereal aisle, you can just pick the cereal that gives your brain a nice fuzzy feeling instead of hashing out all the variables. Where does reason come in here? Probably in the ad hoc justification of the choice.

    So the data I’ve presented so far has established that our brains have a limited amount of cognitive capacity in the rational centers of our brain, but is aided by the background calculations in the emotional part of our brain. I’d like to look at a study now that shows how reason doesn’t always result in the “best” choice.

    http://personal.stevens.edu/~ysakamot/175/paper/wilson-lisle.pdf

    This study asked students to choose a poster. They were contacted several weeks later and the group who reasoned their way to a decision were more likely to dislike the poster they had chosen than the group who didn’t have to provide any justification.

    So there’s some of the real world data that seems to conflict with the metaphysical argument for human nature being rational. I imagine I could fix the metaphysical argument, but my “fix” requires redefining the word “rational” in a way that includes the emotional response when using the emotional response results in the most rational/best outcome. That actually doesn’t work, does it? Because then I when I write “man’s nature is rational” I would actually have “man’s nature is rational/emotional depending on which results in a more rational outcome.”

    Okay, I’m going to wrap up now by inserting the responses I wrote to the descriptions of objectivism that I find problematic, but you have made and for all I know are held as common knowledge amongst objectivists.

    Objectivist ethics as a science claim.

    “Also, Objectivist ethics *are* falsifiable, and explanatory, and predictive. Objectivist ethics can be proved wrong, if for example you could prove that man should *not* act rationally. They are explanatory in explaining what is good and bad for man, and why. They are predictive, in that they specify principles to be applied over the entire span of a man’s life and prescribe how to make decisions in the situations one might encounter.”

    You say its predictive, so here’s how you would falsify it if it were really a theory. Make a prediction, then test that prediction. You’re going to have to narrow what it predicts to something test-able so we can actually falsify it. You didn’t actually make any predictions when you said it objectivist ethics “specify principles” and “prescribe how to make decisions.”

    Falsifying it by saying you just need an example of when man should *not* act rationally might be how you falsify a philosophical or metaphysical claim, but not how you would falsify a scientific claim. As for the explanatory power you claim for objectivism, since scientific claims are not made in terms of “good” or “bad”, its still strictly philosophical and not scientific.

    “Even science is based on philosophy. Ethics, which is a science, is based on a preceding philosophy.”

    Science is based on empiricism, not rationalism. Ethics is based on rationalism. They’re both based on philosophies, but they’re based on different philosophies.

    “I think you’re equivocating on the word “relative”. If you want to say that taste in music or beauty is relative in a casual sense, fine – but if we’re talking about moral relativism, this isn’t the same thing. Objectivist ethics are neither relative nor intrinsic.”

    I feel like I’m using the word in its widely understood sense/proper sense. If that is the casual sense, then what would be the formal sense?

    And “reality” is not a frame of reference, at least not when we’re talking about human morality. You established with your critique of ebon’s UU that morality does not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of humans. As reality is not a human, it has no morals. Would it have made any sense if I had been saying height between humans in Denmark is relative, and you had said my comparison wasn’t valid because my frame of reference should be Denmark?

    “Again, you’re equivocating on your sense of the word relative. We are only talking about moral relativism, which is a self-contradictory position. Objectivist ethics are not relative. Objectivism merely points out that values require a context; the more specific the value, the more specific the context.”

    I’m being consistent on my use of the world relative. I only moved the frame of reference around. In objectivism and moral relativity, I can place the frame of reference at the level of individual humans. In moral relativity only, I can place the frame of reference in between ethical systems.

    You’ve bolded part of the text, so obviously you think it answers the point. But if I do a replacement,

    Moral relativism merely points out that good/bad require a context; the more specific the good/bad, the more specific the context.

    With that replacement, does the resulting statement tell me whether moral relativism is relative or not? No. Only knowing my frame of reference and whether sitting in a different frame of reference under the same circumstances results in a difference tells me whether relativism exists or not in an ethical system.

    You mention a false dichotomy between intrinsic and relative…you mean if values are intrinsic then I can’t say morality is relative between individuals? I’m pretty sure mass, hardness, etc are intrinsic properties of materials and I can say things like relative to X, Y has more mass.

  12. barn Says:

    Revision of thought:
    “Ethics is rationalism”, might be inacurate? But if we’re dropping that topic then I’ll keep the rest of my musings on this to myself.

  13. evanescent Says:

    Ethics is egoistic, but it requires reason to identify this. Reason is the basis for epistemology, just as rational self-interest is the basis for morality.

  14. evanescent Says:

    Barn said:

    but I wouldn’t give a metaphysical argument priority over scientific data.

    Then your philosophical position is flawed. Metaphysics is the starting point of all philosophy. Even science is based upon metaphysical assumptions, like I said above. One of these metaphysical assumptions is that the universe exhibits order and is non-contradictory, which is another way of saying the Objectivist metaphysical axiom: existence exists, A is A.

    To give some scientific data “priority” over a metaphysical axiom is not only irrational, it is meaningless.

    I can provide real world evidence showing limits to human rationality

    This, and your subsequent paragraphs regarding the cup experiment are neither here nor there. You keep insisting that I meant man is naturally i.e. automatically rational, which is very different to saying that man’s proper nature is a rational being. If you want an analogy, consider that it is “proper” for birds to fly – that does not mean that all birds can fly, i.e. they might have damaged wings or never learn how to.

    but since we both accept the existence of free will I’d rather just focus on how this experiment demonstrates the existence of a mode of “thinking” that can work to complement and/or hinder our rational faculties.

    There is no question that external and internal factors can influence our rational process. But if you honestly believe that your judgement of someone being affected by holding a hot or cold mug is part of a rational decision then you must have a low opinion of the human race. There are many elements involved in judging another person’s character – and I needn’t have to explain that this can hardly be done properly and rationally at first glance, or depending on your mood, or depending on something that might be affecting your mood, or depending on the weather outside that’s affecting your mood that’s affecting your decision making process.

    All of these behavioural experiments do not invalidate the fact that it is proper for man to exercise his rational faculty in order to live as he should. The degree to which a person allows irrelevant, irrational, or emotional factors to cloud his judgement is the degree to which he is or isn’t thinking rationally. This is not “part” of the rational process, it is an evasion of it.

    But the objectivist knows that rationality is difficult

    Not necessarily – only that it requires effort.

    So an individual with knowledge of their limitations can choose to follow a process that can produce a correct, rational answer despite the limits of human cognition

    What “limits” are you referring to? If you mean the self-evident fact that man is not omniscient, this is true, albeit irrelevant. Omniscience is an invalid epistemological position. This doesn’t invalidate human cognition.

    Now your subsequent paragraphs are rather disturbing because you appear to venture away from science:

    But there’s a flaw with being purely rational. A) when our rational mind is distracted by one task our emotional brain gains free reign over concurrent tasks

    I’m not sure what model of the mind you’re using here, but it is false. You are implying that our minds are compartmentalised with an emotional brain fully capable of performing tasks independently of the rational brain. Even when I was just an atheist I never believed anything so preposterous. You won’t find scientific support for this, at best some alternative theory of mind which is more New Agey than scientific. It also doesn’t make sense: if I’m driving a car and talking at the same time, which of these tasks is my “rational brain” directing? Which task are my emotions controlling?

    B) the shorthand provided by our emotional brain is useful and sometimes superior to rational thought.

    Useful for what? Superior in what way? What you’re appealing to is some kind of “gut” feeling or intuition, as if we can divine knowledge without the use of thought – but this is magical thinking at best and superstitious at worst. What you’re claiming is that a gut, thoughtless, emotional whim trumps rational and logical thought – a claim that I would expect from a theist or New Age “true believer”, not a science-following atheist.

    Try to take some hallucinogenic and stand on a cliff edge and switch off your mind and hear your emotions telling you that you can fly , and see if emotion trumps reason.

    I suspect what you really mean is that sometimes on the spare of the moment one might make a snap decision that turns out to be correct, when given time to think about it one might over-think the situation and arrive at a wrong conclusion. Even if this is true, which is sometimes appears to be, this can be explained purely as a) luck, b) a correct extremely quick rational choice in the first place c) an incorrect conclusion given time.

    As regards your fruit vs cake experiment, all you are demonstrating is that people’s decision making process can be clouded in certain circumstances and deviate from the norm – also note that the resultant decisions that are purportedly based on emotion have no bearing on the truth or falsity of a situation. For example, forget fruit and cake. Imagine if, instead, the question was whether 2+2-4 or 2+2=5. Do you believe for one second that the “emotional decision” in either event has any bearing on REALITY? In other words, is not 2+2=4? So what does trying to demonstrate that the human decision making process can be distracted and clouded by internal and external factors prove about the reality? Nothing. The fact remains, if man is to arrive as truthful conclusions he must observe reality and follow a process of reason. If he does so, he will discover that 2+2=4.

    This is merely another limit on our ability to use pure reason. It doesn’t mean we *can’t* use pure reason in our lives, but once again demonstrates the difficulty in doing so.

    Even if, for the sake of arguing over particulars, I agreed with this – you should further conclude that, difficult or not, applying reason is the ONLY way to arrive at truth. Do you NOT agree?? Or, like the theists, do you believe that some emotion, whim, wish, feeling, inner light, or spiritual guidance – somehow impart knowledge to us?

    Regarding the man with brain difficulties in his emotion centres etc, you then said:

    Our experiences over time are integrated/averaged over time into an emotional response that can anticipate and deal with the same situation in the future. Our emotions provide a short hand than can replace all that rationalization. In the cereal aisle, you can just pick the cereal that gives your brain a nice fuzzy feeling instead of hashing out all the variables. Where does reason come in here? Probably in the ad hoc justification of the choice.

    Objectivism does not deny that emotions can cloud judgement, or that we can make decisions based on emotion. Nor does it deny the role of emotions in decision-making. In fact, it is precisely because emotions are so important to the human mind that we must identify their proper place!

    Objectivism agrees that our minds can train our emotional responses over time. Emotions are the instantaneous sensations of (broadly speaking) success of failure, pleasure or pain etc etc. If our minds are “well trained” the instantaneous response is usually *appropriate*. There’s no problem here.

    You are wrong when you say that emotions create a shorthand that *replaces* the rationalisation. Even your paragraph above agrees with Objectivism that emotions can be trained. So there had to be a rational process in the first place. For example, if I showed you a 1995 Ericsson phone or a 2011 iPhone 4 and asked you to pick, you’d almost instantly grab the iPhone. But a caveman wouldn’t receive some innate emotional leaning towards the iPhone – he wouldn’t have a clue! Similarly, unless one had tasted several cereals and could conceptualise the essence of each, an immediate emotional bias toward one or the other would be impossible. (There are countless examples to further demonstrate this.)

    Regarding the poster experiment:

    They were contacted several weeks later and the group who reasoned their way to a decision were more likely to dislike the poster they had chosen than the group who didn’t have to provide any justification.

    I’m really not sure what all these quasi-scientific studies are supposed to prove. Haven’t you noticed that all the examples you’ve provided so far measure some arbitrary emotional response in that same person? You’re fighting the wrong argument because what we were discussing is whether man must choose to be rational or not to live properly.

    Here’s a scientific test for you: take a rock to the edge of a cliff, and ask 10 sober people, 10 happy people, 10 angry people, 10 drunk people, 10 blind people, 10 sleep-walking people, and 10 dead people what happens to the rock when you push it off the cliff. Try it again a few weeks later. Here is my prediction for this experiment:

    The rock will, in 100% of cases, fall to the ground – regardless of what any of the people asked predicted would happen. Why? Because, as we both agree – reality is as it is, and the best way to make decisions about reality is not god, or mood, or whim, or guess, or emotion – but reason. You agree with this – so what are you arguing against?

    Now you got onto my claim that ethics is a science:

    You say its predictive, so here’s how you would falsify it if it were really a theory. Make a prediction, then test that prediction. You’re going to have to narrow what it predicts to something test-able so we can actually falsify it. You didn’t actually make any predictions when you said it objectivist ethics “specify principles” and “prescribe how to make decisions.”

    Ok, this is actually incredibly easy: I predict that, due to the nature of man and reality, is it bad for a man wishing to pursue health to drink poison.

    And I predict that, given the nature of man and reality, it is good for man to not initiate force against another man.

    Here are just two examples of Objectivist ethics making predictions. Since we already have overwhelming evidence of what happens when both these conditions are met, we can forgo the actual tests if you wish? However, if you can get someone to drink poison and his health improves, or if you can get someone to shoot another person in the head and demonstrate how this is “good” – I would be interested in your results.

    Falsifying it by saying you just need an example of when man should *not* act rationally might be how you falsify a philosophical or metaphysical claim, but not how you would falsify a scientific claim.

    No, you show a scientific claim to be falsifiable by demonstrating how, in principle, it would be proven wrong. Proper ethics is falsifiable, in theory, because if the ethical theory is wrong it will be wrong demonstrably so. So, Objectivist ethics says that man must pursue his values to maintain his life and well-being. This COULD be proven wrong if it could be demonstrated that by throwing away his values and pursuing death, man’s health and wellbeing was somehow improved! Since this does not happen, Objectivist ethics is vindicated – rationally and empirically.
    An ethics system is NOT scientific when it makes supernatural claims that have no reference to reality and can’t be empirically validated, for example: god wants you to worship him because Jesus died for you.

    As for the explanatory power you claim for objectivism, since scientific claims are not made in terms of “good” or “bad”, its still strictly philosophical and not scientific.

    You’re moving the goalposts now. You wanted me to support the claim that ethics is a science because it is a natural explanation of the physical world, which can be empirically validated, is falsifiable, and provides explanations and predictions. A proper ethical system does this, as I have shown.

    Science is based on empiricism, not rationalism. Ethics is based on rationalism. They’re both based on philosophies, but they’re based on different philosophies.

    I’m not sure if you’re referring to rationalism in the strong philosophical sense, which you probably are – in which Objectivism is not based on this. In either event, there can be only one philosophy, because a philosophy is broadly speaking, a way of viewing the world. There is only one reality, therefore only one correct way of viewing it – therefore all truths and facts pertain to that reality (Since you reject relativism, I assume you agree). All subsets and fields of study are divisions of that one reality. Biology is not based on a different reality than maths, nor is physics based on a different reality than sociology.

    Now, as I said above – science does have metaphysical assumptions – the question of whether those assumptions are correct is the role of philosophy. You say that science’s foundation is empiricism – I would agree, however empiricism is not a sound philosophical position, but that matter is not relevant to this discussion.

    I said you were equivocating on the word “relative”, to which you said:

    I feel like I’m using the word in its widely understood sense/proper sense. If that is the casual sense, then what would be the formal sense?

    Because we were discussing whether morality could be objectively determined or not. In this context, relative means moral relativism, a position that we both refute yet you seemed confused over why. What I was pointing out is that you were using examples of contextual preference (like hair colour or beauty etc) and saying they are relative in the casual sense which means that morality can’t be objective, in the philosophical sense. But since I thoroughly explained the concept of values and context, I don’t need to elaborate again here.

    And “reality” is not a frame of reference, at least not when we’re talking about human morality.

    Really? Are you sure you want to make this claim? Because this is exactly the nihilism of humanists and atheists that I referred to in the article. If reality is NOT a reference for morality – what is??
    <blockquote.You established with your critique of ebon’s UU that morality does not exist in a vacuum, but in the context of humans.
    Ok…

    As reality is not a human, it has no morals.

    Urm…this is what we call a non sequitor…

    I never said reality has morals. What made you think that?

    Reality, and human nature, provide the context for establishing principles that guide human decisions, in other words: morality: If rational beings didn’t exist there’d be no need for morality. But if NOTHING existed there’d be no need for anything anyway. (‘Nothing’ existing of course makes no sense.)

    Reality is the necessary reference for all truths. Are you denying this? Since you agree that objective morality is possible, what other standard of reference do you propose other than reality? You must have one surely?

    You want an objective moral code that guides man in his life, based on the reality of his nature and the reality of his surroundings – without reference to that nature or surroundings??

    Moral relativism merely points out that good/bad require a context; the more specific the good/bad, the more specific the context.

    No, you are changing your story after the facts, and forgetting the groundwork established so far: moral relativism says that there is NO objective standard for good or bad. Objectivism says there most definitely IS an objective standard for good and bad, and that standard is the life of a rational being. That which benefits it is good, that which ails it is bad. If you think you can change two words and think you’ve spotted a contradiction in my position I am sorry to say you are still struggling with basic concepts I laid out at the start.

    You mention a false dichotomy between intrinsic and relative…you mean if values are intrinsic then I can’t say morality is relative between individuals? I’m pretty sure mass, hardness, etc are intrinsic properties of materials and I can say things like relative to X, Y has more mass.

    No, that is not what intrisicism means in philosophical terms. But I am not inclined to elaborate on this as I explained it above and it would only further complicate the discussion.

    In this post I have demonstrated that:

    1. Regardless of how humans might be emotionally affected in certain conditions, whether by trivial or notable factors (which in fact Objectivism agrees with and thereby recommends that we control our emotions not the other way around), reason is the only proper way to arrive at truths about the real world.

    2. Facts exist independently of human wish or emotion.

    3. Ethics should be considered a science, because in broad terms a proper ethical system functions indistinguishably from science. (e.g. Objectivist morality).

    4. Since there is only one reality, there is only one frame of reference for ALL truths. Since ethics is a question of moral truths, these truths must ultimately relate to reality.

    To bring this discussion back to some semblance of order, I’ll list the following you must do Barn in order to *not* agree with Objectivism so far:

    1. Claim that man can obtain knowledge about the world and form truthful conclusions through some process OTHER than reason. (e.g. that the Holy Spirit talks to us.)

    2. Claim that human wishes or emotions can actually affect the nature of reality (e.g. like praying for blindness to be cured.)

    3. Claim that ethics is not a science, because truths about what is proper for man and how reality works cannot be empirically traced back to the real world. (E.g. that man has original sin passed on from Adam by virtue of being an imperfect being)

    4. Claim that there is more than one reality, or more than one way of way of making sense of reality – and with this latter claim demonstrate how multiple mutually-exclusive worldviews can co-exist without contradiction. And, if moral truths do not reduce to reality, provide another basis upon which truths can reduce to (e.g. God, the spirit world, etc).

    As you can no doubt see, all attempts to refute Objectivism on these grounds only leave mystical and supernatural alternatives. As an atheist yourself, I’m sure you’re already aware of how vacuous religious philosophy is. This is another reason why I wrote the article, because atheists and humanists should be *agreeing* with Objectivism, because it fills in all the gaps and provides the objective foundation you need. If you want reason, it is on your side!

  15. Michael Says:

    I have some challenges regarding Objectivism:

    In this link rand says that without property rights, no other rights are possible.

    I strongly disagree with this claim. I support property rights, as they are an effective way to address tragedies of the commons, but I would say if there was one fundamental right, it would be to liberty, which does not require property rights. Free speech and the right to your life (and to defend yourself) and the right to a fair trial also do not depend upon property rights.

    Rand also says from that link: When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. A pure system of capitalism has never yet existed, not even in America; various degrees of government control had been undercutting and distorting it from the start.

    Indeed, it is not possible to have a pure system of capitalism as she describes. One cannot fully separate state and economics because you need a state to enforce property rights. Which is one reason why the field of economics was known as political economy before it succumbed to physics envy.

    Rand further says: No society can be of value to man’s life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.

    I would tend to agree, but I know of no such society. In many societies, the price is paying taxes or dues or membership fees, which is not nearly the same as surrendering the right to one’s life.

    Rand: It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.

    I would disagree here. It is only scarcity that makes value possible (the same condition you need to have a field of economics, incidentally). As a thought experiment, consider the Garden of Eden where everything was plentiful — including life. Did anything have any value? Do they need a property rights system? No, because Adam and Eve could have anything they wanted. The concept of ownership is useless. Only when they were kicked out of Eden and faced an environment of scarcity rather than abundance do they need the concepts of property rights and values.

    Certainly, immortality plays into this situation, as immortality comprises an infinite amount of time — abundance, whereas the human condition involves a scarce amount of time. But the important condition is not immortality or indestructibility, but scarcity.

  16. Michael Says:

    Rand (via John Galt): There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms.

    This is strange claim. An alternative that was truly fundamental would apply to all classes of entities, not a single class. Also, the universe is full of different alternatives, dichotomies, and dualities: light vs. dark, hot vs. cold, matter vs. vacuum, order vs. chaos, individualism vs. collectivism, production vs. consumption, creation vs. destruction, harmony vs. dissonance, analog vs. digital, variety vs. uniformity, peace vs. conflict.

    She provides no argument to back her claim that the alternative she cites the only truly fundamental alternative.

    Rand: The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.

    You’re going to have to explain this one to me and the reasoning behind it. To me, a standard is something one compares something to, and the two things have to be similar. For example, in baseball, comparing a leadoff hitter against the standard of Rickey Henderson. Value and life are two very different things, and I find life to be very difficult to compare anything to.

    Rand: The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights.

    I would argue against this claim, saying that an additional purpose of government is to supply public goods — that is, goods that are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable, such as national defense. Such goods tend not to be supplied by the free market due to the free rider problem.

    Rand: This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.

    I do, of course, agree with gains from trade and division of labor. However, that she values cooperation seems to contradict what she said earlier about life being an end to itself.

    I appreciate your feedback

  17. evanescent Says:

    Michael said:

    I have some challenges regarding Objectivism: In this link http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ari_ayn_rand_the_objectivist_ethics rand says that without property rights, no other rights are possible.

    Yes, property is how human beings practically realise their Right to life.

    I strongly disagree with this claim. I support property rights

    In what sense do you support property rights? And in what sense can you only partially support a Right? Or, in what way do Rights over property not fully apply to the owners? Please define the word Right here, and justify it.

    This is Rand’s explanation: “man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.”

    … as they are an effective way to address tragedies of the commons,

    I’m not sure how property rights would positively or negatively address this “dilemma”. If there are limited resources to be used, the question is merely: who has the right to use and dispose of said resource? Either individuals do, no one does, or the government does. The latter is not justifiable, and if a resource will expire anyway, how does property rights address this? Moreover, if a resource that belongs to someone will expire, I fail to see how that is a “dilemma” requiring your care or “addressing”.

    but I would say if there was one fundamental right, it would be to liberty, which does not require property rights.

    The right to liberty is *not* a fundamental right. The right to liberty is instrumental in the furtherance of something more fundamental: your life. Liberty cannot be an end in itself, because it doesn’t address the issues: freedom from what or whom? What will I do if I am free? Why do I need to be free? And these questions are answered by identifying the fundamental Right: the Right to life.

    Free speech and the right to your life (and to defend yourself) and the right to a fair trial also do not depend upon property rights.

    Free speech – by what means? Using whose equipment? On whose territory? Defend yourself – with what? Using what tools? Who owns these tools? A fair trial – in whose court? On what charge? Criminal behaviour? Committed against whom? Violating whose property?

    Rand also says from that link: “When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. A pure system of capitalism has never yet existed, not even in America; various degrees of government control had been undercutting and distorting it from the start.”

    Indeed, it is not possible to have a pure system of capitalism as she describes. One cannot fully separate state and economics because you need a state to enforce property rights.

    This is a misunderstanding on your part. Rights are not enforced, they are defended. The protection of individual rights is the only proper role of government – this is a political issue – which is why government must use force against those who initiate its use, and function as an objective arbiter in the case of legal disputes.

    This is the difference between political power and economic power, between a fist and a coin. In order to function properly, government must have a monopoly on the use of force. This is the only justification for force. Government has no other moral obligations to perform, which includes amongst other things: the economy.

    Your statement above is a non-sequitor.

    Which is one reason why the field of economics was known as political economy before it succumbed to physics envy

    Physics envy is not confined to economics. In any event, numerous economists and intellectuals have exposed why socialised markets and central planning are thoroughly impractical and devastate markets. Most of them are not Objectivists and disagree with Ayn Rand, all the same they can see the facts clearly enough. Here is one such example: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Politically-Incorrect-Guide-Socialism-Guides/dp/1596986492/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1298024101&sr=8-1

    Rand further says: “No society can be of value to man’s life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.”

    I would tend to agree, but I know of no such society. In many societies, the price is paying taxes or dues or membership fees, which is not nearly the same as surrendering the right to one’s life.

    Various Rights are not isolated and delimited – there is only one fundamental Right, the Right to life. All other Rights are corollaries of this. To have a Right to life but no right to property is a contradiction in terms. The right to think, but not act is a contradiction. The right to act, but not think is a contradiction. The right to Life, but not to free speech, or the right to “not suffer” but no Right to life, is a contradiction.

    When any of your true Rights are violated, even slightly – the question is being made that you do not properly have that Right – which means fundamentally that you cannot truly own your own life. This is an example of a moral principle being applied fully and consistently – something that is very rare in ethical discussions today. But that’s not Ayn Rand’s fault.

    Rand: It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.
    I would disagree here. It is only scarcity that makes value possible (the same condition you need to have a field of economics, incidentally).

    This is not true. Mass-murdering psychopaths are scarce – does that make them valuable? To whom? Anti-matter particles are scarce – does that make them valuable? To whom? Do you value them? If I generate a text string of 1 million random characters it will most likely be unique in the universe – does that make it valuable?

    Since you deny that life makes value possible – would you assert that gold, silver, diamonds, love, metal, are valuable if humans didn’t exist? With no life form in existence, who would value gold or platinum?

    *Who* are valuable things a value to? Why?

    As a thought experiment, consider the Garden of Eden where everything was plentiful — including life. Did anything have any value?

    Did Adam and Eve need to eat? If so, was food a value to them? Did they value each other?

    Do they need a property rights system? No, because Adam and Eve could have anything they wanted. The concept of ownership is useless.

    Property Rights only exist in social settings. With no other people to potentially violate property, the concept of Rights is irrelevant.

    Only when they were kicked out of Eden and faced an environment of scarcity rather than abundance do they need the concepts of property rights and values.

    So if Adam and Eve are starving, which is of more value to them – the rarest diamond in the whole of the earth – or a chunk of meat or a bunch of bananas? If they are being wind-swept or caught in a snow storm, what is more valuable – the largest repository of platinum, or a mud hut?

    This is where trying to fault Ayn Rand without understanding the concepts involved is an exercise in futility, and serves only to highlight philosophical naivety.

    A value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. Things in themselves have NO value, regardless of abundance of scarcity. They acquire value to living beings in the context of that being’s life.

    Rand: “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.”

    Certainly, immortality plays into this situation, as immortality comprises an infinite amount of time — abundance, whereas the human condition involves a scarce amount of time. But the important condition is not immortality or indestructibility, but scarcity.

    This sentence only partially makes sense to me. The part I do understand is false. If you still want to maintain this, please define the word “value”. As Rand explains, values are not primary concepts – they presuppose that something is a value to someone. In other words, values are not subjective – i.e. whimsical or arbitrary, nor are they intrinsic, i.e. a painting or a slab of gold are not innately valuable – but they are objective – they have definite value to living beings in the context of those beings’ lives.

    And from your second post:

    Rand (via John Galt): There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms.

    This is strange claim.

    Really? Please identify what the third (or more) missing option is for me between existence and non-existence? What is more fundamental than that? In other words, whilst *every* other alternative to me presupposes my existence – what even more fundamental alternative do I face that is based on something even more basic than existence? I would be most intrigued to hear your suggestion.

    An alternative that was truly fundamental would apply to all classes of entities, not a single class.

    This is not true; this ignores the self-evident fact that all entities have their own nature. Existence vs non-existence only applies to the class “living beings” because only living beings can die. Only living beings pursue the furtherance of their own life through self-directed action.

    She provides no argument to back her claim that the alternative she cites the only truly fundamental alternative.

    Because there is only one fundamental alternative. I can ask you to provide an alternative to existence or non-existence, but you wouldn’t be able to. Or I could point out the epistemological chain of the concepts involved: every conceivable alternative a living being could face, to eat or not eat, to run or fight, to laugh or cry, to love or hate, to struggle or surrender, are themselves dependent on the antecedent concept of life. In other words, that being is alive and therefore faces alternatives – but the most fundamental alternative of all, the starting point, before any other alternatives can exist is: existence or non-existence. Alternatives without existence is a contradiction in terms, it’s like deciding whether your dead great grandmother prefers tea or coffee.

    Rand: The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.

    You’re going to have to explain this one to me and the reasoning behind it.

    In the context of this discussion I’m content to defend my article and my understanding of Objectivism. If you’re honestly interested in understanding Objectivism I’d recommend reading any number of Rand’s non-fiction works. I cannot explain the entire philosophy to you on a forum. 1. It’s not practical or desirable 2. It wouldn’t benefit you; do what I did – read Rand yourself and make up your mind.

    To me, a standard is something one compares something to, and the two things have to be similar. For example, in baseball, comparing a leadoff hitter against the standard of Rickey Henderson. Value and life are two very different things, and I find life to be very difficult to compare anything to.

    No, life is the standard *against which* all things are compared. In ethics, man’s life is the standard because ethics is a question of what is good or bad for man – the good being that which furthers it and the bad being that which ails it. This depends on what is man’s nature and what does his mind and body require (which I covered in the article above.)

    Rand: “The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights.”

    I would argue against this claim, saying that an additional purpose of government is to supply public goods — that is, goods that are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable, such as national defense. Such goods tend not to be supplied by the free market due to the free rider problem.

    National defence is not public “goods” – national defence is a vital part of a government’s proper role. Why would you think that “protecting man’s rights” *wouldn’t* come under the category of national defence??

    In Rand’s words: “The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.”

    Rand: “This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.”
    I do, of course, agree with gains from trade and division of labor. However, that she values cooperation seems to contradict what she said earlier about life being an end to itself.

    Then you misunderstood, most likely because you are taking isolated quotes and trying to deconstruct them in a vacuum, without reference to her antecedent principles or understanding the concepts involved.

    Cooperation and society can be immense values to human beings. But values cannot be forced upon another; that is a contradiction in terms. A man who needs screws to build his table doesn’t value “cooperating” with the butcher who only has meat to sell. Men *choose* who they cooperate with based on what they need. So cooperation as a concept is very beneficial to man, assuming man freely engages with other men to mutual advantage. However, cooperation is not parasitism or cannibalism – two things which *deny* that life is an end in itself. These two anti-human evils pretend that man’s life is not an end in itself, but merely a means to someone else’s end – usually a “greater good” or a god, or a tribal leader, or the tribe itself, or a welfare state.

    It is precisely because every man’s life is an end in itself that men freely choose to cooperate with each other, neither one sacrificing himself to others or others to himself.

  18. Michael Says:

    appreciate the feedback greatly. Before I delve into objectivism I just would like to ask more questions (related to that article) if you don’t mind:

    Rand: The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours.

    I know nobody who lives like this, do you? Downtime during waking hours is pretty useful. One can get a lot of subconscious thinking done and have inspiration strike when they are performing mundane tasks and lets their relaxed mind wander.

    Rand: Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

    I disagree with this claim. Many people like to experience things that create what most would call negative emotions, such as fear or sadness. Think about horror or action movies and so-called tear-jerkers. By Rand’s judgment, people would avoid such things instead of seeking them out.

    Rand: But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror.

    I know quite a few folks in the BDSM community that would strongly disagree with this unsubstantiated claim.

    Rand: And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.

    So, if one could assassinate Hitler or Stalin or Mao and prevent their massacres — but at the cost of one’s own life — this selfless ambition would not be recognized as virtuous pride in Rand’s book. “Self-immolation” also seems to be a condemnation of Buddhism.

    Rand: 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

    So altruim and cooperation are bad. This is another claim that she makes without backing. This also sounds like egoism, a philosophy that I find unconvincing and unsatisfying.

    Indeed, there is an evolutionary derivation of altruism that Matt Ridley writes about in his book, Origins of Virtue. The gist of it is that evolution works on more than just individuals. It works whenever natural selection comes into play and thus can operate on social norms and languages. Societies that value cooperation and altruism do better and outcompete societies that do not.

    Rand: Man’s life is a continuous whole: for good or evil, every day, year and decade of his life holds the sum of all the days behind him.

    What of people with anterograde amnesia, like depicted in the film Memento, who are unable to form new memories? Do they no longer qualify as people? Are they animals?

    Rand: If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals… 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.

    Or whose parents you have. I know of a lot of people who blindly imitate and repeat those they admire, who use more than chance to select whom to imitate. Indeed, I know of a several very intelligent scholars who blindly follow very closely in the footsteps of thinkers that they admire.

    Rand: But an animal has no choice in the knowledge and the skills that it acquires; it can only repeat them generation after generation.

    Rand: An animal’s life consists of a series of separate cycles, repeated over and over again, such as the cycle of breeding its young, or of storing food for the winter; an animal’s consciousness cannot integrate its entire lifespan; it can carry just so far, then the animal has to begin the cycle all over again, with no connection to the past.

    What basis does this have in science? She doesn’t cite any studies. Does she include chimpanzees and dolphins and other animals that scientists have been able to teach basic language skills to?

    There was a study in Bristol where the researcher fed chickens blue and yellow corn where the blue kernels were injected with a chemical that made them sick, and the chickens taught their young to avoid them, even after the blue ones were made safe again

    I appreciate your response

  19. evanescent Says:

    Appreciate the feedback greatly. Before I delve into objectivism I just would like to ask more questions (related to that article) if you don’t mind:

    >”Rand: The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours.”
    I know nobody who lives like this, do you? Downtime during waking hours is pretty useful. One can get a lot of subconscious thinking done and have inspiration strike when they are performing mundane tasks and lets their relaxed mind wander.

    Well, for a start – I don’t see how this directly relates to the article. It seems that rather than discuss the article and why UU fails and Objectivism succeeds, you’re more interested in discussing isolated quotations of Ayn Rand.

    What you said is not opposed to what Ayn Rand said. What I believe she means is that as long as you’re conscious you should not stop thinking, and in doing so, do so logically – with full commitment to your thinking process and the facts of reality. This most definitely does not exclude relaxation or “downtime” nor does it mean walking around like an android. I suggest you broaden your research of Objectivism.

    Rand: “Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.”

    I disagree with this claim. Many people like to experience things that create what most would call negative emotions, such as fear or sadness. Think about horror or action movies and so-called tear-jerkers. By Rand’s judgment, people would avoid such things instead of seeking them out.

    Who said that fear or sadness were negative emotions? That isn’t an Objectivist position. Fear can be positively useful, and sadness a very appropriate response.

    Also, you’re “disagreement” misses the point, because you haven’t understood the concept involved. Rand here defines emotions. You, in your disagreement, don’t. You haven’t offered another definition of emotions – you simply said that people seek various emotional stimuli as entertainment, which is fully consistent with Objectivism’s view of art. I will not elaborate on this here because it’s off-topic and you can do the background reading yourself, e.g. “The Romantic Manifesto” or another of Rand’s essays on art and entertainment.

    To the many questions you’ve yet to answer, let me put another: define emotion and identify its place in man’s mind and its proper role in man’s decision-making process.

    Rand: “But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror.”

    I know quite a few folks in the BDSM community that would strongly disagree with this unsubstantiated claim.

    I have absolutely no intention of going through every single one of Rand’s quotes, taken as an isolated passage, and defending it against your misunderstandings. You need to do this thinking for yourself.

    Rand: “And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.”

    So, if one could assassinate Hitler or Stalin or Mao and prevent their massacres — but at the cost of one’s own life — this selfless ambition would not be recognized as virtuous pride in Rand’s book.

    What makes you think such an act would be selfless? There are many selfish reasons one might lay down one’s life. You need to read my article in full to get a better understanding of this. I also suggest more research into the Objectivist ethics. The book “The Virtue of Selfishness” is a good one. If you want my feedback, here it is: your conclusion is erroneous.

    “Self-immolation” also seems to be a condemnation of Buddhism.

    Buddhism, like all mystical nonsense, is rejected by Objectivism.

    Rand: “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.”
    So altruim and cooperation are bad. This is another claim that she makes without backing. This also sounds like egoism, a philosophy that I find unconvincing and unsatisfying.

    As it happens, I’m not here to convince you or satisfy you of things you clearly have not researched or comprehended. Your false conclusions are not something I have to defend Objectivism against.

    Indeed, there is an evolutionary derivation of altruism that Matt Ridley writes about in his book, Origins of Virtue. The gist of it is that evolution works on more than just individuals. It works whenever natural selection comes into play and thus can operate on social norms and languages. Societies that value cooperation and altruism do better and outcompete societies that do not.

    I’m well versed in evolutionary biology and none of it contradicts the moral principle that man should not view himself as a sacrifice animal for others, or others are sacrificial animals for himself.

    Rand: “Man’s life is a continuous whole: for good or evil, every day, year and decade of his life holds the sum of all the days behind him.”
    What of people with anterograde amnesia, like depicted in the film Memento, who are unable to form new memories? Do they no longer qualify as people? Are they animals?

    Answer my questions above in full and defend them wholly and consistently on your own philosophical foundation before starting new questions regarding mine.

    Rand: “If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals… 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.”
    Or whose parents you have. I know of a lot of people who blindly imitate and repeat those they admire, who use more than chance to select whom to imitate. Indeed, I know of a several very intelligent scholars who blindly follow very closely in the footsteps of thinkers that they admire.

    I also know a great many wannabe criticisers of Ayn Rand who have not done their research, display gross ignorance of Objectivism and philosophy in general, and attempt naive “nit-picking” from a position of nihilism.

    Rand: “But an animal has no choice in the knowledge and the skills that it acquires; it can only repeat them generation after generation.”

    Rand: “An animal’s life consists of a series of separate cycles, repeated over and over again, such as the cycle of breeding its young, or of storing food for the winter; an animal’s consciousness cannot integrate its entire lifespan; it can carry just so far, then the animal has to begin the cycle all over again, with no connection to the past.”

    What basis does this have in science? She doesn’t cite any studies. Does she include chimpanzees and dolphins and other animals that scientists have been able to teach basic language skills to?

    There was a study in Bristol where the researcher fed chickens blue and yellow corn where the blue kernels were injected with a chemical that made them sick, and the chickens taught their young to avoid them, even after the blue ones were made safe again.

    I appreciate your response

    No, you will have to do much better than this. I have no intention of being an “apologist” for your flawed conclusions derived from very lazy and ignorant nit-picking of certain quoted passages you don’t like.
    You presented objections and questions in your first two posts. I thoroughly answered them and exposed the contradictions in your own statements. I also countered with various questions designed to highlight the flaws in your philosophical positions and why your “objections” were baseless. You have not replied to my replies, nor defended your own assertions from the criticisms I made. Instead you came back with an another assortment of unrelated questions.

    I’ll say it again: if you want to discuss the article or parts of Objectivism that relate to the article, feel free. But so far you’ve demonstrated ignorance and laziness, not at all in keeping with the “good faith” of an honest discussion. I await your response to my reply above and expect a thorough comprehensive reply to every question I asked of you, just like I did initially for you.

    If you want to continue, the ball is in your court…

  20. Moataz Says:

    Evansecent

    you said that you are well versed in evolutionary biology. what is your stance on “reciprocal altruism”? Do you think its designed to obliterate tit for tat (trader principle)?

  21. evanescent Says:

    Moataz, let us be clear here – evolution can clearly select for behaviour that produces life-affirming action in an organism; in fact, this is what evolution does do to a very high degree in every organism. In conscious beings you might call this selfishness. Evolution can also select for behaviour for temporary or perhaps even permananent disadvantages in an organism for anticipated long-term gains (even if those gains are only realised on a genetic level). You might call this behaviour altruism in a conscious being.

    Now when discussing ethics, selfishness and altruism are higher level concepts that require an epistemic chain of reasoning; a consciousness able to think conceptually.

    It is in these terms that a philosophical analysis of these concepts cannot be compared to evolution. Evolution selects for many traits; it is the job of philosophy to identify man’s nature (his mind as well as his body) and his place in the universe, and draw up principles to guide his actions. Genes do not select for “selfishness” in this sense any more than they select for “altruism” or “love” or “football fans”; it is a mistake to conflate the two; concepts cannot be passed by evolution.

    It is often theists who assert that atheists must subscribe to Social Darwinism since they treat evolution as gospel. Atheists of course (rightly) reject this. Atheists often say something along the lines of “just because evolution is generally survival of the fittest, doesn’t mean that it’s moral for man to live that way.” If atheists assert this when cannabilistic selfishness is the charge, they must equally do so when sacrificial altruism is offered as ‘proper’.

    The key point here is that regardless of the fact of evolution, man is a volitional being capable of rationality – and that necessitates a certain code of conduct.

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