A critique of Universal Utilitarianism
Posted by evanescent on 3 February, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
This entry was posted on 3 February, 2011 at 10:00 pm and is filed under Atheism, Ayn Rand, Capitalism, Economics, Ethics, Human Rights, Humanism, Life, Morality, Objectivism, Philosophy, Politics, Socialism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.