Philosophy, Rhetoric

Amateur philosophical background: the ethics

In this second philosophical preamble to actually starting talking about The Fountainhead, I’m going to give an overview of the more relevant part of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the ethics. Unlike the epistemology, which has a very ad-hoc vibe to it, it’s hard to dispute that Rand’s system of values was present (in increasing degrees) in her earlier novels, until it came to dominate her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. The length of the novels, and the volume of speechifying, correlates with this. Rand published a distillation of her position in The Virtue of Selfishness in 1961 (predating the epistemology), and it’s this we’ll draw on.

Heads up

Like in the Epistemology, I’m going to flag some things to watch out for as we go through Rand’s argument.

  1. I should do it because it’s natural. It was Hume that pointed out that there is a fundamental distinction between the descriptive – that which is observable in the world – and the normative – what we ought to morally do. Observing these kinds of disjunctions is commonplace: an observer in the antebellum South might see that slavery is all around him, and that it seems God has ordained that some men should be slaves – but clearly this doesn’t make the ethical decision. A more subtle example might be: John is good at getting on well with people, and this makes him a good person. We may strongly disagree with the first state of affairs and agree with the second, but in both cases we need to cross Hume’s divide.
  2. Nietzsche. As before Rand misrepresents effectively all the other philosophers she mentions. She’s … almost like an unreliable narrator in an interesting work of literature. The big one here is Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s brand of virtue ethics essentially argues that the world has become depressed under the weight of Christian self-sacrificing ethics. He posits a (rather implausible, but gripping) history of the world where in the time Homer, there was no distinction between being strong and being good. Christians were originally slaves, and because they had no power, they created an ethics where to suffer and to be oppressed was virtuous. This “slave morality” was poisonous, but also – and this is what takes Nietzsche far beyond Rand – what made men “interesting”. Nietzsche thinks to break free from this we must exercise our “will to power”, using our individual talents to become some sort of genius – an ubermensche. In doing this we can become “overflowing” with virtue, and create giant achievements for the benefit of all (like Beethoven). This sort of Virtue (or eudaimonic) ethics – where we identify qualities we see as virtuous and cultivate them – has had a resurgence in recent years. Nietzsche was a great psychologist, and his descriptions of the tensions between, say, the visceral world and the life of the mind, are still very resonant.
  3. Contraband. Generally, anyone formulating a theory of ethics wants it to broadly agree with the ethics of their time. Any ethical theory that advocates say, slavery is seen as faulty, and with good reason. Because of this, whenever any claims are made to be generating a universal, timeless ethics, great care must be taken not to smuggle the conclusions into the argument. Rand wants her ethics to indicate very specific things (like laissez-faire capitalism!) and we’ll see how she not-so-subtly slides these into her “objective” argument.

“If a man values destruction … like a masochist”

While there is a lot which is wobbly in the epistemology, its dryness makes it far more easy to take it seriously as a philosophical position. Selfishness suffers from a significantly worse prose style, which continually veers into the unintentionally comic. Ayn begins and ends the first, seminal essay (The Objectivist Ethics) by quoting her own fictional character, and repeatedly returns to John Galt as some kind of sage. Rand is self- parodically shrill in her call to arms:

most philosophers have now decided to declare that reason has failed, that ethics is outside the power of reason … must be guided by something other than reason. By what? Faith — instinct — intuition — revelation — feeling — taste — urge — wish — whim. Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim … If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason. If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics — and of all ethical history — that you must challenge.

The claim – that “all ethical history” has been based on subjective standards is plainly nonsense (millennia of theology would tend to point against this), and Rand’s bogey men: Kant, Descartes, Mill – were engaged in trying to ground ethics in something reliable, rather than being the subjectivists she thinks they are. Rand’s obvious, if unacknowledged, inspiration was Nietzsche (she was apparently teased as a teenaged that he had “already stolen all her ideas“), and his amoralism is far closer to Rand’s despised subjectivity.

It’s enough just to survive

Rand wants to begin from something she considers incontrovertible, and so starts from the position that living things exist and can die. So what is the good for plants and “lower animals”? Purely continuing their existence:

An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.

So

imagine an immortal, indestructible robot … Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; It could have no interests and no goals.

Rand follows this with a lovely bit of hubris

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values … The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”

so existence is the only good.

Right, where’s my crossbow?

But clearly there are many destructive ways to survive. I could eat my friendly neighbour and live off the thousands of calories within. Rand doesn’t want these ways to qualify – she hates “moochers”:

men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating

and “thugs”

men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce

So Rand puts forth the idea that being rational is the key to survival:

Consciousness—for those living organisms which possess it—is the basic means of survival. For man, the basic means of survival is reason.

indeed,

He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought. He needs a process of thought to discover how to plant and grow his food or how to make weapons for hunting. His percepts might lead him to a cave, if one is available … No percepts and no “instincts” will tell him how to light a fire, how to weave cloth, how to forge tools … how to produce an electric light bulb or an electronic tube or a cyclotron … Yet his life depends on such knowledge

It’s important to note that Rand thinks that this is completely optional, and we have to work at this constantly to qualify:

it is a machine without a spark plug, a machine of which his own will has to be the spark plug, the self-starter and the driver; he has to discover how to use it and he has to keep it in constant action.

Dubious metaphor aside, this talk of will, as the tirade against self-sacrifice, is straight out of Nietzsche. But in an almost identical way to the ambiguity of the faculty required to distinguish essential properties in the epistemology, Rand has to insist that fact of rationality being the essence to survival comes straight out of nature itself:

That which his survival requires is set by his nature and is not open to his choice.

In itself it is very debatable whether Man’s rationality has been key to his survival. Human beings existed for 200,000 years – without even caves in most places (it’s a bit of a myth that early humans lived in caves, rather they used them as sacred sites and left relics and artwork there) before any of the things that Ayn describes, and certainly without nuclear weapons or dramatically increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. The history of civilization (~10,000 years) is dramatically shorter than that of humans themselves, so if survival is the only yardstick we have a long way to go to prove rationality’s superiority. After all, dinosaurs were probably very stupid, and reigned on earth for 135 million years – 13,000 times longer than there has been any recorded human history.

Well, that was easy

So, Rand seems to believe that survival is the only thing, and being reasonable is the only way to get there. But remember those thugs. Rand wants us not just to live, but to live in a certain way.

In three helpfully short sentences she passes from one to the other:

(a) The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. (b) Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. (c) Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.

(my annotations). One can only speculate that Rand passes over this so quickly because she is aware of how weak the connection between (a) and (b) and between (b) and (c) are. Let’s look at the sleight of hand in slow motion:

  1. (a) Survival is the judge of good and evil
  2. (b) Survival, in the way property to a rational being is good
  3. (c) Thinking and productive work are the good.

Ayn’s smuggling is very plain here. It’s clear that actually survival is not important if it is not in the right way. That right is a the value she has smuggled in – and its contents (thinking and productive work) are pulled clean out of the air.

Objection

Rand thinks that the life of the follower, moocher, thug etc are not surviving in the right way. One argument Ayn has for this is that it just doesn’t work:

If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating… it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think … The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance

If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force … or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims…Such looters are parasites incapable of survival

Rand is very strong on this

Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.

These practical arguments are very weak. Stalin and Pinochet lived long lives, and North Korea has been ruled by a dynasty of vile dictators since the 50s. What about Jordan Belfort, the “Wolf of Wall street”, who was caught, spent some months in prison, paid back a fraction of what he made, and now makes $30,000 a time for speaking engagements?

Theoretically there is nothing inherently impossible about deciding to become a thug or a parasite as a means of existence. The utter profusion of parasites in the natural world should be a clue to this. As for the argument from chance – who’s to say using your own intelligence is a better gamble than following someone really smart? Wouldn’t that be the smart move for a dumb guy?

Live right

This is obviously deeply unsatisfactory, and Rand knows it. So she shifts her position to make survival as a rational being the good:

Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man. It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival.“Man’s survival qua man” means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being

In fact, she rather admits that you can survive while not being rational, but you’ve lowered yourself

He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature … But he cannot succeed, as a subhuman, in achieving anything but the subhuman

As the essay wears on, she forgets her reasoning, and becomes even stronger on this

In psychological terms, the issue of man’s survival does not confront his consciousness as an issue of “life or death,” but as an issue of “happiness or suffering.” Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.

There is an attempt to hedge with the “in psychological terms” and the equation of suffering with death, but ultimately she is talking about a new standard here.

If everyone would just be reasonable, like me, then the world would be perfect!

Rand ultimately comes to formulate a sort of Virtue ethics, where instead of flourishing, rationality is seen as the ultimate good. Doing bad things is supposed to corrode your soul in some way – but in Rand’s version, it would mean you have acted irrationally, which is worst of all.

The problem with this is she has failed to ground it in anything at all. She doesn’t want virtue to come from the outside world (human nature or teleology) or from the structure of the human mind (that would be automatic and require no effort). Rather there must be a single right answer, inherent in the world, and the measure of your goodness is how close you reason your way to that answer. These correct answers are of course the values Rand developed in her troubled time in revolutionary Russia, and which run through her work like a stick of rock. Objectivism is really the ethics of nostalgia – reaching back to that universal right answer.

Finally, Rand is wrong about a monolithic cadre of philosophers being against opposed to this kind of naturalistic virtue ethics – teleologists like Alisdair MacIntyre have created similar systems, but explicitly built value in as part of the definition of virtues.

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