Posts Tagged ‘Objectivist ethics’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (https://www.pbs.org/newshour/economy/column-this-is-what-happens-when-you-take-ayn-rand-seriously)

POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

October 1, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

 

In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:

 

            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.

 

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]

 

 

So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.


[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (Postscript) pt. 1

September 24, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP?

 

I recently had three doses of Ayn Rand:  listening to a panel discussion on The Diane Rehm Show, an interview with Jennifer Burns on The Colbert Report, and watching The Fountainhead.  The two discussions raised a very interesting question, which the movie began to address.  These three together prompted me to reexamine my earlier discussions on Ayn Rand and the modern conservative movement in the U.S.

The Diane Rehm Show focused on Rand’s influence on Republican politicians, including Paul Ryan.[1]  The panelists discussed Rand’s philosophy, the various elements of it and whether she would support Paul Ryan today.  Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketplace, recounted Rand’s rejection of Ronald Reagan and her warning people against him, comparing this to the similar views expressed by Ryan.  Asked whether she would support Paul Ryan, Burns replied:

 

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that she would not. We have a lot of evidence, as much evidence as one can have from a deceased historical figure on views of analogist politicians. So one of the last things she ever published was a denunciation of Ronald Regan and it was specifically because Ronald Regan mixed religion and politics.

And because he supported the abolition of abortion so he was pro-life and she wrote a letter to her followers saying, “Reagan is the worst kind of conservative. He’s a dangerous man who’s mixing religion and politics, who doesn’t understand the fundamental importance of the separation of church and state. Don’t vote for him and don’t support him.” So I think she would look at Paul Ryan in much the same way as someone who, while he sounds close to her in economic and fiscal matters, has really missed a lot of her larger messages about the proper role of government.

 

 

Journalist David Weigel, asked about the way conservatives pick and choose the elements they like from Rand, had a slightly different view.  He said:

 

 

There are no avowed atheist Republicans in Congress. I think in the speech Jennifer’s talking about, which she — what Rand referred to as the god-family tradition swamp which is not something that you ever hear a Republican say. The way they square this circle is by saying, government when it intervenes is going to mess up. When it intervenes in charity it’s going to screw that up.

But take government out of the way and churches are going to fill the gap. Churches are going to provide what poor people need, individual relationships are going to pull people out of bad economic straits. That’s how they get around and I like the way that Jennifer’s putting that. I think it’s coherent in a couple of ways. It’s not a coherent adaptation to everything that she says but that’s not uncommon in politics. I mean, a lot of politics is aphorism and taking a quote and using it for your own purposes.

And that’s, you know, when Ryan talks about Rand, it’s not in the greatest detail. He just mentions John Galt’s speech, some passages in the novel about the meaning of money. They’re interesting, but I think, when people refer to “Atlas Shrugged,” they’re referring to a novel that takes quite some time to read, it’s a 1,000 pages long and the way that it gets into politics is just in a couple metaphors and analogies. So I think it’s fair they take some of that and just, you know, staple it to the other things they believe as religious, you know, as religiously influenced conservative politicians.

 

 

That is, of course, the question I asked at first:  is it legitimate to take elements of Rand’s philosophy, and not others?  Is it legitimate to borrow from Rand’s philosophy and Christianity, and claim to be honest to both?

It is not necessary to accept everything a philosopher says to feel indebted to that philosopher, or to reasonably claim to be a student.  Sometimes, there may be some minor part of the philosopher’s thought one chooses to ignore.  There have been many who thought of themselves as Platonists or Neoplatonists, but not all endorsed Plato’s ideas on censoring the arts.  Other times, a philosopher may have large parts of his or her thought that can be detached.  Many thinkers are influenced by Kant’s ethics, without having any interest in his epistemology.  But there are key concepts that are really essential to a philosopher’s thought, such that if one of those concepts is missing the whole thought is changed into something else.  If you decide you really like Aquinas, except for the Aristotleanism in his thought, you aren’t really a Thomist; you’re an Augustinian.  Returning to the question of Rand’s thought, what is truly essential, truly foundational in her thought, such that if it is removed the whole thing becomes something else?  What happens to her thought, if you do try to adopt Objectivism without that key element?

In watching The Fountainhead, I could see why someone like Paul Ryan might think he could just pick parts from Rand willy-nilly without the whole thing collapsing.  In a piece of philosophical fiction like that, there is dramatic development rather than systematic development.  Just as the movie-makers chose to ignore the atheistic elements and to only vaguely hint at the rape scene, so too a reader might selectively choose which scenes and lines were personally interesting, while ignoring others.  The character of Howard Roark is very compelling, and in some ways admirable.  He is creative, he is true to himself and his principles and his art, he demands no break or mercy for himself.  He is hard on others but even harder on himself, insisting that he will neither exploit nor be exploited.  He is called “selfish” by others, and does not dispute the word; but his claim that all interactions between people should be free exchanges rather than any sort of compulsion is the opposite of what most of us normally mean by “selfishness.”[2]  The movie is a celebration of the importance and nobility of the individual creative spirit, and an indictment (if not a straw-man slander) of “collectivism” and the forces of conformity.

Philosophical fiction can be very valuable.  It gives the writer the opportunity to present the abstract concepts in a more concrete and lively form.  Engaging the reader or viewer by head and heart together might help some understand concepts that they would misapply if they only had the intellectual side alone, and tried to integrate these concepts into their own affective existence.  On the other hand, philosophical fiction has limits and dangers.  The writer doesn’t necessarily have to present opponents fairly or accurately, and doesn’t have to present possible problems or flaws accurately.  The Hero is opposed by Villains.  The villains can be as despicable, stupid and ineffectual as the writer wants, and the hero’s plans and principles will always work out in the end.  It is easy to get swept up in the dramatic presentation, and to fail to ask the critical questions.  How many people really would say of themselves, as Toohey does, that they deliberately praise and cultivate mediocrity?  I’ve known some who did, but none who had the self-awareness to fully realize just what they were doing, and none who would have had the honesty to admit it to anyone else if they did ever realize it.  An insane tyrant like Stalin might have done so, but a supposedly typical newspaperman in America?  Roark may rape Dominque, but it’s okay because she falls in love with him because of it; this may be likely in a romance novel but in real life, such behavior is beyond abysmal.  But more concerning to the philosopher, in the film or novel ideas are weighted by their dramatic value, not their intellectual priority.  Roark’s claim that he wishes only to interact with others in a free exchange of equals is a clear statement of one of the essentials of Rand’s philosophy; but if I hadn’t first read her philosophical essays, I likely would have missed the full significance of that part.  Roark’s rationality comes through, somewhat, in his devotion to principles and to architecture; but the full ethical significance of it is really overwhelmed by the overarching themes of genius versus mediocrity and individualism versus the herd. The connections between his creativity, his devotion to his art, his willingness to labor in menial obscurity rather than to design products the marketplace demands, his invitation of martyrdom and his insistence on treating everyone as an equal rather than dominating where he can, all these connections are never made explicit.  To understand why Rand thinks the characters make sense and their motivations are believable, it is necessary to read more than her fiction.

To be continued….


[2] Ayn Rand, “The Fountainhead,” (film) Warner Brothers Pictures, 1949

On Integrity in an Extramoral Sense

January 30, 2012

On Integrity in an  Extramoral Sense

 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines.  With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

R. W. Emerson

 

Why do we philosophers care so much about integrity?  Should we?  Or is this a sham value that we are attempting to foist onto the masses?

Usually, people use the word “integrity” to mean something like moral uprightness, honesty, or reliability.  This meaning is based on a more fundamental sense:  to be integrated.  When a person’s actions are consistent with each other, with the principles he or she professes and (usually) the values of society, we say that person “has integrity.”  The person holds together, his or her life is of a piece, and we admire this.  It may be an esthetic admiration before it becomes a moral one.

If anyone admires consistency, it is the philosopher.  Most people say they admire the person of integrity, but it is hard to find much evidence.  Most people value social harmony more than personal integrity; those who support the values and goals of the rest of us are “good” even if those values are inconsistent with each other, or if those values espoused conflict with the “good” one’s personal actions.  But to the thinker, consistency of thought is the very defining characteristic.  If you can’t or won’t put thoughts together consistently, you aren’t a thinker.  And while the mathematician can be a consistent thinker but a dissolute fellow, the philosopher deals in ethics.  Ethics is the marriage of rationality and behavior; to be a philosopher is not only to have thoughts, but to have thoughts about life and values.  So the philosopher values integrity in behavior as a manifestation of consistency of thought.  From an amoral love of rational consistency, the philosopher developed this moral evaluation of integrity.

Kierkegaard argues that truth (particularly truth about life) is paradoxical, so it may seem inconsistent.  However, he does offer the first argument in favor of integrity of thought and action.  In the Concluding Unscientific Postscript he has the fictitious author Johannes Climacus argue that “Truth is Subjectivity.”  This is not a claim that truth doesn’t matter, that it’s all opinion and that all that matters is sincerity.  As argued in Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation, “subjectivity” means first of all moral subjectivity:  the striving to find what is true and good and then to live accordingly.[1]  Primarily, it is a plea for integrity.  Again, though, this sort of lack of integrity seems so universal that we must ask whether there is anything wrong with it.  It may even be the human norm.  But Kierkegaard goes further, in the first volume of Either/Or.  There, the esthetic person is the one who lives on whim, and is unable to find one unifying goal or principle for his or her life.  Lacking this, the self dis-integrates:  the person collapses to a mass of conflicting and contradictory psychological forces.  Kierkegaard’s writings use several words to describe this condition, including “despair,” “perdition,” “insanity” and “the demonic.”  Only when the person chooses to live reflectively and to adopt rational, universal values does he or she find integration and fulfillment. [2]

From another direction, the Objectivist says the same thing:  “To introduce into one’s consciousness any idea that cannot be so integrated…. an idea that clashes with the rest of one’s concepts and understanding of reality—-is to sabotage the integrative function of consciousness, to undercut the rest of one’s convictions and to kill one’s capacity to be certain of anything.”  (Nathaniel Branden, “Mental Health versus Mysticism,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).  Or as Rand puts it, “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness).  Happiness is impossible without integrity, since without it one is at war with oneself; and ultimately, to reject reason is to reject the means we humans have to pursue life itself.  To reject integrity is to reject survival.

I think Rand would agree with Kierkegaard that such integrity is in fact rather rare.  Most people simply believe whatever the group around them believes, or what gives them the most comfort and confirms their own prejudices. Many, including most self-appointed leaders (whether the TV preacher, the politician, the campus prophet or the water-cooler maestro) don’t even know the truth; they just say what will have the best results.[3]  The result is that both the individual and the group dis-integrate.  Truth is reality, and while reality is at times paradoxical or obscure, it is what it is.  Contradictory ideas cannot both be true in the same way at the same time; that’s simple logic.  Integrity, in the epistemological and extramoral sense, means that truth matters; and that is to say that reality is real.  Integrity is sanity.

 


[1] W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Sin and Salvation:  from Philosophical Fragments to Two Ages (London:  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010) p. 91

[2] W. Glenn Kirkconnell, Kierkegaard on Ethics and Religion:  from Either/Or to Philosophical Fragments (London:  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) pp. 20-23

[3] See Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2005) for more on this

Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP Today? (pt. 3: The Thugs)

January 24, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Thugs

I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduces mankind—a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.    Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy:  Who Needs It

 

Ayn Rand clearly would not be a Democrat.  She states clearly that such things as Medicare are steps on the slippery slope to socialism, collectivism, and the death camps of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Only physical force can compel a person to give up his or her wealth to support complete strangers.  That is true whether the strangers are some king or Dear Leader in a distant capital, or the poor one one’s doorstep.  “In a fully free society, taxation—-or, to be exact, payment for government services—-would be voluntary.” (“Government Financing in a Free Society,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)  Taxation, with or without representation, is slavery.

But there are other forms of slavery.  In fact, any government based on irrational principles must resort to violence; and chief among the irrationalists are the mystics. The mystic does not make laws based on rationality; “Faith is the commitment of one’s consciousness to beliefs for which one has no sensory evidence or rational proof.”  (Nathaniel Branden, “Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.)  The same Republican party, and generally the same individuals who denounce the “economic enslavement” that is the forced payment of taxes to support Medicare, also support paying taxes to fund Bible classes in public schools.[1]  If anything is a violation of Ayn Rand’s rationality, it would be requiring her to fund a course in a public school that teaches as historical fact that Jesus rose from the dead—not as a matter of faith, but a matter of fact as well-proven as the fact that George Washington did not rise.  If anything is a violation of the Objectivist’s rationality, it is forcing that person to pay taxes to support a school system that treats the religious doctrine of Creationism as a scientific fact, just as well documented as the theory of evolution which is endorsed not only by 99% of all professing scientists but even by the leaders of most Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church (the largest religious organization on the planet and in the U.S.).  The only way the radical agendas of the Christian Coalition, or the state school boards of Texas and Kansas and similar institutions can be carried out is through the barrel of a gun.

The mystic is a person who abandons reason, and therefore is left rudderless to navigate reality:  “A mystic is a man who treats his feelings as tools of cognition.  Faith is the equation of feeling with knowledge.”  (“Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice”)  Every Republican presidential candidate who is considered “mainstream” has publicly done this.  Republican strategists deny the science of global climate change by saying, for example, “I think that every American, if they really thought about it, would have a gut feeling that some of the numbers that these scientists are putting out are not right.”[2]  Not “evidence,” not “rational belief,” just “a gut feeling.”  And based on that gut feeling, we have a tax code that subsidizes oil production and use while even minimal steps to curb global climate change (like painting roofs and highways white) are ridiculed.  Evolution, which is pretty much a foundational concept in biology, is dismissed.  Presidential contenders openly discuss outlawing homosexuality, while contending that it violates the rights of energy producing corporations to limit fracking, even if it causes earthquakes in Ohio or combustible drinking water in Pennsylvania—-because God hates homosexuality but supports commercial property rights.*

But in a contest between mystics and socialists, Republicans and Democrats, which is worse by Objectivist standards?  Given Rand’s deep-seated  hatred of socialism (which she identifies with Stalinism and the murder of millions of her people), I suspect she might fear the Democrats more.  She does, after all, say that government is the greatest potential danger to the rights of an individual—a thought often on the lips of many Republican politicians (lips, but perhaps not minds).  But before we decide, consider this paragraph from “The Objectivist Ethics”:

The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and the validation of their ethics.  The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as “the standard of the good is that which is good for society…

So the mystics and the socialists are in fact morally equivalent.  Both are irrational, both subordinate the needs of the individual to some “greater good” which is determined by the irrational impulses of the leadership and their desire for glory, and both depend on a combination of force legitimized with propaganda.  If you accept the argument that the Democrats are socialists (something they would deny since they advocate what can be called a mixed economy at most), you have to accept the other side of Rand’s argument:  that the mystics are in fact no different, except that one subordinates the rational individual to the good of society and the other subjugates the rational individual to the will of an unknowable God, as interpreted by theocrats and divines.  Both lead, inevitably, to the rule of the thug.

The thug is one who uses force instead of rationality to deal with others.  Essentially, this is criminal, as in Rand’s repeated catch-phrase “the looters and the thugs.”  You can’t loot effectively without thuggery; even if you manage to obtain your loot through trickery rather than force, you won’t be able to hold onto it when others come to reclaim what was stolen.  But thuggery can be carried out under the guise of government too, whenever the government resorts to force or threat to trample on the rights of individuals.  And this is so whether it is a socialist regime trampling on individual property rights, or a mystical regime trampling on the rights of rational individuals to live according to their own reason.  Rand would say there really is no difference between the looter, the socialist, the thug and the mystic.  All agree that society and ethics are based on irrational whim; it is only a “question of whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s.”  As soon as you abandon rationality as the basis for human interaction, the only alternative is brute force.  Socialism government and theocracy alike are, in the end, only thuggery legitimized by calling it “government.”

I’m not sure what Rand would have made of the spectacle of teenage girls, pregnant women and grandmothers being pepper-sprayed while protesting noisily but nonviolently.  She might have seen the OWS movement as a bunch of moochers, as their critics have described them.  However, listening to them speak for themselves, I find the argument unconvincing.  I’m sure there were plenty of moochers in the group, but the same can be said of a Tea Party rally—-after all, Rand considered Medicare to be an archetypal example of mooching and socialist folly, so anyone who protested “Obamacare” to defend “Medicare” would strike the Objectivist as just another socialist.  But plenty of people protested, and still protest the looters, those who got away with fraud and criminality for personal gain.  And from the Objectivist standpoint, even those who demanded bailouts not because they were crooks, but merely because they ran their banking and investment firms incompetently were immoral.  They did not take responsibility for their own failures.  If the world economy was ready to collapse because a bunch of 1%ers were reckless and foolish, how is that my fault?  Then why did I pay to save them?  The bailout was explained as necessary to save everyone from an economic depression.  If I set a fire in my backyard and burn down my neighbors’ houses, I will be liable for the cost of repairing the damage I have done.  I certainly won’t be allowed to profit from playing with fire.  Why, the OWS movement asks, should the billionaire and multi-millionaire executives of financial institutions be rewarded for playing with fire, instead of being compelled to clean up the mess their own incompetence and/or criminality created?

I’m not saying that Rand would agree with this.  For my purposes, I don’t even have to be right.  My point is this:  there are rational arguments in favor of the OWS as well as against it.  This is an argument that should be settled rationally.  It was not settled before the Occupy movement began; in fact it wasn’t even addressed.  If anything, the looters who profited by causing the financial firestorm were investing a small part of their profits into making sure the problem remained buried, by hiring lobbyists and paying politicians and buying advertising anonymously through Super PACs to make sure people debated everything else except why the economic arsonists were not being held responsible.    Rather than engage the OWS movement and argue rationally, clubs and toxic gases were used to silence them.  Seems to me, and to a lot of people, like the Republicans who called for and cheered this force were evolving (pun intended):  from mystics, to looters, and finally to thugs.

What difference does any of this make?  Who cares what Rand would say about the Republican Party today?  For an answer, I must resort to Rand herself:

If man’s thinking is to be valid, this process must be guided by logic, “the art of noncontradictory identification” —- and any new concept man forms must be integrated without contradiction into the hierarchical structure of his knowledge.  To introduce into one’s consciousness any idea that cannot be so integrated, an idea not derived from reality, not validated by a process of reason, not subject to rational examination or judgment—and worse:  an idea that clashes with the rest of one’s concepts and understanding of reality—-is to sabotage the integrative function of consciousness, to undercut the rest of one’s convictions and to kill one’s capacity to be certain of anything. (“Mental Health versus Mysticism,” italics author’s)

When some conservative blogger or commentator or radio pundit parrots Ayn Rand’s phrases such as “moochers and leeches,” it may seem no more harmful or significant than a parrot who endlessly repeats, “Bird’s can’t talk; I’m an elephant.”  But in fact, this mass of self-contradictory premises can only be maintained by a self-induced psychosis.  It is insane and the insanity will only grow.  And it is this insanity that lies behind not only the violence against the OWS movement, but also the endorsement of secessionist militias by Republican politicians in Oklahoma, and the threat of armed violence by Tea Party politicians in Nevada and elsewhere.*  No individual or group can be this schizoid and defend the freedom of anyone.  Either be Christian, or follow the atheist Ayn Rand:  don’t try to schlep her along on your trip.  You will always have a voice in the back seat shouting at you that you’re going the wrong way—-or perhaps, you’ll find her driving and shouting at you believers to shut up and stop your nonsense right now!

Or as the mystics would say:  “Elijah then came near to all the people, and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” ‘  1 Kings 18:21.


[1] as in, for example, Ft. Myers FL in the 1990’s; see http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week146/cover.html

* Oh, and have you read what the Bible says about private property?  For example, if you buy someone’s land, you have to give it back after fifty years; no permanent property transfer is allowed.  You can’t even plant crops on your own land unless the central government/Temple allows it.  Lev. 25:3-13

Kant: the intersection between Rand and Sartre (short preliminary sketch)

January 9, 2012

When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. ….I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.

J.P. Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism”

 

There is therefore but one categorical imperative, namely, this: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. ….Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.

I. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

So every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others….

A. Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

 

So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only.

Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals

 

How remarkable that Sartre and Rand, despite their different politics, metaphysics, epistemology, and on and on, both end up reverting to Kant when it comes time to describe what, exactly, is the good that one should do.  Sartre says that by making a choice, I am in effect saying that this choice should be made by every human being; so when I choose monogamy or not, or choose a Christian trade union over a Communist one, I am choosing as every human ought to choose.  My actions are therefore of utmost seriousness; whenever I choose, I am to choose as if my principles were to become a universal law.

Rand justifies ethics on the personal satisfaction of the individual, which Kant would roundly reject.  Rand despises the existentialists, who (she claims) base their life-view on impulse rather than rationality.  But when it comes time to describe the content of Objectivist ethics, she falls back on the “second formulation” of the Categorical Imperative:  treat rational beings as ends in themselves, never as mere means to another end.  Neither a victim nor a victimizer be.

I’d like to follow up on this sometime.  How many other philosophers start out from how many different starting points, only to end up with some version of the Categorical Imperative?  And why should this be?  I suspect the common element is individual freedom, though this would need to be examined in detail.

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today? (pt. 2: The Looters)

January 4, 2012

Would Ayn Rand join the GOP Today?

            The short answer:  No.

The longer answer:  No, no, a thousand times, no!

The still longer and fuller answer:  that will take awhile.

The Looters

“If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing.  Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.”  Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness.

Rand is celebrated today for her denunciations of the “moochers and the leeches,” the poor who demand to be supported by the rich.  Less often repeated are her denunciations of “the looters and the thugs,” those who steal not through the welfare state but through criminality, or crooked laws, defrauding those who work to become rich off the labors of others.  Of course, Rand is no Marxist; she celebrates the entrepreneur and capitalist who take risks with their own talents or their own resources, and bear the costs of their own failures.  These are the responsible, productive individuals.  They deserve whatever their intelligence and industry brings them.  They choose not to be victims of others, and not to victimize others either.  Rand says that either is a denial of one’s true humanity, which is to say one’s rational nature.  To victimize others is not to survive as man qua man, since it is to live not as a human being but as a parasite.  To be human is to be rational and productive.  These are the traits that lead to survival of the human individual and species.  The looter, like a tapeworm, survives only because there is a productive being it can sap life from; as long as it kills its host slowly enough, it can live.  But the looters are ultimately destroying humanity.  One tick may not kill a dog, but a dog with enough ticks will bleed to death; and when the last dog is gone the ticks will die too.

For this reason, the rationally selfish person chooses to live by trade, not by looting.  Trade is the honest and open exchange of goods, services, talents and knowledge.  It strengthens the human race, and in doing so it strengthens every individual who participates in it.  As Rand puts it, the purpose of ethics is one’s own life and happiness; but the standard of ethics is human life.  What does not preserve and promote human life—-not just my life, but man qua man—-is not ethical.  So the moral person lives by trade and not by looting because this is what preserves human life, the life and continued existence of humanity.  That is the standard of what is ethical.  My own purpose may be my own preservation, but the measure of whether the means I would choose are proper is human life.  Rand thus starts from an egoistic purpose, it seems, but ends up sounding very much like Kant:  “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—-and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”  (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Press, 1964:  p. 30).

Rand would approve of the one-percenter who earned his or her wealth and now resists giving it away to support the lazy leech.  The rich one has every right to give his or her wealth away voluntarily, but must resist being forced; not to resist is to betray one’s own human nature.  But “the principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.  It is the principle of justice…..  A trader … does not switch to others the burden of his failures….” (pp. 34-35).  From the savings and loans crisis of the Reagan era (which cost 3.2% of our GDP) to ENRON to the TARP bailout (which is estimated to have cost us 1% of our GDP) and the other bailouts, it is clear that business in the USA is not being carried out under Rand’s principles of trade.  It is being carried out by the looters, under laws made by the looters and for the looters.  And whenever some regulation is proposed to prevent these CEOs and CFOs from gambling with other people’s money and keeping the winnings while sharing the losses, the lobbyists and the SuperPACs come out and make sure nothing comes of it.  Today, virtually every major banking institution suckles from the taxpayer’s teat.  By threatening to crash the entire world global economic system, rich banks and rich bankers have set themselves up with a sweet deal.  Today, the big banks borrow from the Fed at no interest, and then loan that money back to the government at interest.  The taxpayer’s money, that was supposed to allow banks to start lending again so the taxpayer could start borrowing and entrepreneurs could start investing and inventing and producing, is instead being recycled to pay huge bonuses to bankers.  It’s not the 1%, but the 0.1% that are pulling this scam.  Cut them off, and we go into a Second Great Depression.  Regulate them, says the GOP, and we’ll be squelching the “productive” class.  But when the GOP and FOX whines about the leeches draining the poor productive class, who are they defending?  Not the traders.  The SuperPAC money from the banking industry is raised from the looters, to pay for laws to protect the looters.  The fact is that at this point, the banking industry is funded and supported by the taxpayer.  They are both looters and leeches.   And the GOP has made itself the party that defends the anti-competitive monopoly in its efforts to squelch the small entrepreneur who tries to start a small business, the multinational corporation that dumps its wastes in drinking water and expects someone else to pay to clean it up, and the big manufacturer that accepts shipments from small businesses and then refuses to pay them for months at a time so it can use small businessmen as its own no-interest bank.  In short, the GOP is the party of the looters.  (The Dems take their share of money from looters, too, but they haven’t made defending the looters part of their stated party platform.)

From the Regan-Bush bailout of the S&Ls to the Bush bailout of the banks, the GOP has chosen to be the party of deregulation, not in the name of free markets but in the cause of crony capitalism and kleptocracy.  When the financial industry has been deregulated and allowed to take greater risks, the profits were raked in by the top executives while the risks were assumed by the taxpayers.  When polluters are deregulated, the profits go to the 0.1% while the costs in health and cleanup go to taxpayers.  Even Ron Paul has said that libertarian principles do not mean polluters can use their neighbors as mere means to their own ends.

Rand wrote that we should have real capitalism.  She would have defended Bush’s decision to let Lehman Brothers go under; the executives and the stockholders who hired them should go bankrupt for their own follies.  But this also nearly destroyed the nation’s economy, so the decision was made not to allow any more major financial institutions to fail.*  Fine:  I’m not looking forward to a Second Great Depression either.  But would Rand really demand that we allow a few reckless, foolish looters to destroy the wealth of millions of rational, productive individuals?


* Instead FOX News defended paying the executives big bonuses, with taxpayer dollars, because it is necessary to attract “top talent.”  Talent for what?