Wednesday, March 20, 2002

TWO MORE SHORT QUESTIONS: For the list at the bottom of the page. (If it hasn't scrolled off by now...)

First, what is productivity? It's one of the Objectivist virtues; does it mean producing things other people want? That seems way too dependent on other people's value judgments--only popular architects would be productive under that definition. Does it mean producing anything that makes a rational person happy? Could a rational person be happy cutting out little circles of paper all day long? Pouring water over his head in a stream? Taxidermy? Which activities are productive, and why?

Second: An expanded, clarified version of the marriage question (should Objectivists marry?). The original words of the marriage service are "as long as you both shall live." Now, many couples are replacing those words with "as long as you both shall love." Is this an expansion of the meaning of marriage, or a contraction? Should I want to be bound to my spouse even when it's difficult and I want to leave? (Setting aside problems like abuse--what if I just don't feel like I love my spouse anymore?) Chesterton described marriage for life as heroism--not because it was self-sacrificing (although it often requires that), but because it was a way of being true to your best and most romantic self. At the moment you make the marriage promise--at the moment that you want to marry someone for life--you are at the height of your willingness to be strong, to love wholeheartedly. It takes a strong individual to maintain that state of high purpose. If promising to marry for life will help you be true to that moment of exaltation, should you make the promise?
DOES ANYBODY REMEMBER LAUGHTER?: The Fountainhead begins, "Howard Roark laughed." Yet some observers of Objectivism have called it humorless or unable to laugh at itself. An ex-Objectivist reader writes about Rand and humor. Several points, some more Rand-specific than others. She's in bold, I'm not.

"Rand's claim was always that if you acted as she prescribed--if you acted as the kind of 'rational animal' she believed man to be--then all the other things would fall into place, and when you laughed it would be lighthearted-but-inevitably-also-oh-so-very-significant (just like Roark), and when you suffered it would be horrible and searing but 'only go down to a certain point.' I really think the Objectivist strain of trying to cram, as it were, a left-hand universe into a right-hand shoe can be so all-encompassing there's simply little mental or psychic energy left to find things funny. ('How can you laugh! There are industrialists being subjected to the evils of progressive taxation even as we speak!')"

To the extent that some strains of feminism have a humorlessness problem (and not all do), this huge conflict between one's ideals and the entire history of the world is probably responsible. If you don't believe gender roles are natural; believe they're evil; believe they could be changed if only people wanted to (they're not outcroppings of an inevitable tendency to evil in humankind); and yet you can't find any chunk of history without them--well, then the whole world is exhibiting a kind of purposeless and causeless malevolence that's really grim. Or as Ani Difranco put it, "If you're not angry then you're just stupid or you don't care/How else can you react when you know something's so unfair?" There are un-funny aspects in every worldview, of course--but it's worthwhile to point out some of the reasons that Rand found it so difficult to combine laughter and a reverent attitude toward humanity. Partly, perhaps, it's because Objectivism requires hope yet offers little but fantasy to sustain it...?

"The temptation to shrillness (where, for instance, you start regarding as equivalent in evil every kind of behavior that doesn't accord with your own belief system) is easy in this kind of fanaticism, because every moment of your life is spent in open war...

"This is just a fragment of a thought, but another part of why Objectivism is so often difficult to reconcile with laughter may be that it does not really have an account of forgiveness (well, wait--actually I guess this is just another way of saying things I've said elsewhere in this e-mail). People are either all-good or all-bad; if they're all good you can't laugh at them because it would be committing an anarchic act (laughter) on an idol (good); if they're all-bad you can laugh at them, but they're not very funny because evil sucks. For clarification on the forgiveness/humor connection I'd recomment seeing 'The Philadelphia Story.'

"For me, a lot of being an Objectivist was about casting and directing every single aspect of every day of one's life so that it looked like a Rand novel (where, remember, even when people "laugh" it's in a strong, silent, I'm-a-master-of-the-universe type of way, cf. The Fountainhead p. 1). I would imagine that part of why humor is so dangerous when you're living that way is that you're trying to be God on a daily basis--AND you don't accept that any element of absurdity, weakness, etc., could be necessary/essential to the nature of man-qua-rational-animal. Orthodox Obejctivists are only allowed to laugh at weakness, cowardice, and stuff like that (i.e. at things that Rand thinks a human being could live an entire life without ever practicing/submitting to), so of course they have to keep their panties in a bunch.

"Rand's points about humor are not entirely untrue: That is, it is true that there are things you shouldn't laugh at (Ted Rall has an almost unfailingly accurate instinct for catching hold of those things and, well, laughing at them); and if there were some pristine part of oneself, unconnected to all one's baseness and littleness, that was never tempted to evil action, well, then one probably wouldn't want to laugh at it."

QUID EST VERITAS?: Perry de Havilland, of Samizdata fame, weighed in on the ethics-'n'-metaphysics questions explored in "Without God, All Is Permissible" below. Excerpts from his comments are in bold; mine in plain text.

Here is my 'off the top of my head' view of the post: Regarding "EXECUTIVE SUMMARY #1: The condensed version of the post "WITHOUT GOD, ALL IS PERMISSIBLE."

If God is truth, then 'morality based on God's law' must be objectively true. If it is not objectively true then God is not truth, which seems wrong pretty much by definition. So then if it is accepted that God's law is objectively true then God's morality must be objectively derivable. Thus I do not have to actually believe in God to derive God's (i.e. objectively true) morality: I just have to accept the concept of objective truth.

It is not 'without God that all is permissible' but rather 'without the search for truth that all is permissible'.

Of course in that statement lies the clue that I am not in fact a Randian Objectivist either (though I do not reject Rand's views entirely and think some of her ethical theories have merit). Rand was correct that reality is objective ('existence exists') but entirely incorrect in thinking we can necessarily understand it. In fact quantum theory demonstrates that by our vary nature we can never directly experience all aspects of reality (see 'Fabric of Reality' by David Deutsch) and thus our understanding of reality must be conjectural.

Our understanding of everything is therefore a series of theories. Some are extremely deep and robust theories (for example I have a theory that my computer will not spontaneously turn into a jellyfish in spite of the fact it contains all the basic raw atomic material required. I contend this is an extremely sound theory). Other theories are more or less liable to explain the nature of reality and moral theories are no different. One can only base one's understanding on *critical preferences* (see Popper/Bartley) or else one falls into the bottomless pit of infinite regress, a problem objectivism is particularly vulnerable to and defends itself (in the Peikoffian variant more than the T.O.C. variant) with simple dogmatism ('Logic has lead me to THIS position and not only is that the end of the matter, if you cannot see this to be objective truth you are not only wrong, you are evil'). Peikoff is essentially an irrational moonbat, a secular Ayatollah.

Of course *most* religious explanations fall into exactly the same trap and this is why the worthy Tom Aquinas has to tie himself up in such complex logical justificationist knots to try to avoid the dreaded 'infinite regress' attack... i.e. William of Occam and his heirs. It cannot be done :-)
Agnostically yours,
Perry de Havilland

You'll get no argument from me about the Peikoff=moonbat thing, dude. But your first paragraph confuses me.

It seems like you're saying that if objective truth exists, it must be possible to know that truth without belief in God, even if God also exists _and is the basis of that truth_ (=that truth is only true, rather than a cultural or individual construct, b/c it is or comes from God). Why? It seems like atheistic methods of truth-finding (philosophy, say) are not the only methods in the truth-finding kit. I can reason my way to an understanding of why a certain kind of God _might_ exist, then look around to see if such Gods have ever been proclaimed in history, then discover that that God says He'll answer prayers, then pray. (Then wait.) That's a very simplified version of a
truth-finding method that incorporates reason as well as "mysticism" or religious experience. Reason provides the framework, but not every aspect of the truth-finding process.

My main question was simply why you suggest that objective truths can all be found _without_belief in God.

That slightly misses what I am saying. I certainly reject the view that 'truth' is a cultural or individual construct as that is tantamount to saying reality itself is subjective (and by that I do not just mean our *perception* of reality): that leads to solipsism and then swiftly and logically on to nihilism.

I think if 'God' is understood as defining universal objective and absolute truth (and to be honest any other definition of 'God' seems ludicrous to me), then if a person who accepts that point chooses to have conversations with 'God' or imagine 'him' as a bloke with a white beard who presides over some sort of celestial bureaucracy of angels and saints, well I really don't have a problem with that any more than I have a problem with the fact some otherwise rational people eat Korean Pickled Fish and actually like it. The way I see it, if God is truth and truth is objective, then all the other stuff is just cultural baggage that Ayn should not have lost so much sleep over abominating.

To summarize:

The God View: God is the source of all morality and God is the definition of objective reality and therefore 'truth'. Morality cannot NOT be objectively true is God is objectively true and God must be objectively true by definition... or he ain't God but just some multidimensional space critter! Although 'God' is by definition objectively true and the source of objective truth, we are not God and therefore our understanding of 'God given morality' can only ever be based upon our intrinsically fallible perceptions of reality.

The Conjectural Objective (Godless) View: Morality is derived from understanding the true nature of reality. The only rational way to
understand reality is based upon a critical preference for theories which explain more of reality in better and deeper ways than other
theories. As our theories about reality improve, so do our moral theories, which are just theories about the correct ethical guidelines about how to make choices regarding how we interact with reality within the context of free will. Due to our very nature, we cannot directly experience the entire fabric of reality (which is why quantum phenomena seems so counter intuitive to us). Thus to derive
morality we must derive 'WHAT IS THE TRUTH'. As this is always going to be based upon conjectural theories, our moral theories will be imperfect but they are still based upon the attempt to understand 'what is true' rather than some subjective 'what works' concept. In short truth, therefore morality, is objective (but conjectural).

There is actually not much difference between the two views really: the 'God is truth' view just uses a useful short hand method to get

I think these two positions are only equivalent if you take "proving God" to mean "proving metaphysics" or "proving the existence of truth" or some such--which is more akin to what St. Anselm was trying to do with the "ontological proof" than to what I am doing. I'm specifically trying to show the relationship between ethics and a personal God, one who intervenes in human affairs. Hence all the emphasis on love/loyalty as the basis of ethics, and on our need for correction and surprise. (Somebody or other had a great quotation about the difference between philosophy that begins in doubt and philosophy that begins in wonder--the former is corrosive and self-undermining, the latter constructive--but I can't recall it now.)

That's all for now...
INFINITE JESTS: Mark Byron has waded into the infinity debate. I don't have the math-theory to be able to confirm or deny his statements, but they're very intriguing, so if you're interested in the "Rand disproves God" thread you should check them out.

Oh, and in general, everyone who's written about this site rocks. More comments! More criticism! I don't know how often I'll be able to update the site, but I will try to respond (eventually) to every substantive comment I receive., folks.

Sunday, March 17, 2002

IT'S ST. PATRICK'S DAY, and I have spent many hours compiling stuff about Objectivism. It's time to go to Church and feast a bit. It's said that a medieval monk, after working all day on a manuscript, wrote in the margin, Nunc scripsi totum, pro Christo da mihi potum: I have now written everything, for the sake of Christ give me a drink.

So you'll have to wait until tomorrow for the post about humor.
MORE ON ABORTION: Continuing the previous post. Here's excerpts from an exchange between me and a friend who, in general, supports both Objectivism and (limited) legal abortion. Her comments are in bold; mine are in plain text.

"It's true that it's a big problem to say when someone becomes a human being. The first problem one runs into is that a zygote is really not that different from a sperm and an egg separated. Every sperm and every egg is unique, and there are already gene-modifying processes (cross-over) going on in them. To me, it seems that saying 'one is a human being starting with the zygote state' is more of an esthetic claim than anything else. Were you a human being when you consisted of a sperm and an egg? No? Well, but that's what your body looked like at that time. Later on, it looked like a zygote. Do you see my problem with your argument?"

I don't believe a human life begins in two separate bits, as sperm and egg, because I believe there is a physical component to individuality (see below). "That's what your body looked like at that time--a sperm and an egg" is like pointing to my grandparents and saying, "That's what you looked like in 1920." It's a denial of individuality. Sperm and egg are bits of a man or a woman (like a cancer, which also has genetic changes--see below), not a separate life.

OK, you can say, sure. But human life is physical individuality plus individual consciousness. Remind me never to get real drunk around you! But seriously, using consciousness as the dividing line has a lot of problems. One of them is this: Lots of people lose consciousness temporarily. They don't lose human-life-ness and rights to that life, though, right? So maintaining consciousness isn't a condition for rights. Why is attaining it necessary, when we know that you have a good chance of becoming conscious if we wait a couple months? (Why do you have to have been conscious once for rights to kick-start?)

"Most likely, human life (as well as maybe even the process of death) is a continuum. Even with scientific advances, we might not be able to ever determine, 'Okay, this is the minute when one becomes a human being.' What I've come up with lately is the following legal definition: 'There are two points from which on no one should be able to harm fetal cells: when they reach consciousness or at birth, whichever comes first.' We don't know the exact point when a fetus reaches consciousness, but there is a time when we are sure it hasn't yet. (I think it's after a month or so.) If one only leaves it at that, one runs into the problem of the baby born unconscious, i.e., can you kill him/her. This is why I would build in the clause of birth, if consciousness has not been reached."

You already, then, disagree with current abortion law. From your position, like mine, current law is truly hideous--probably the biggest blotch on our nation. It makes no reference to consciousness whatsoever, and allows for the killing of critters who give exactly as much signs of consciousness as infants. It not only destroys lives, it encourages people to deny the truth about what it means to be an individual--which it seems like an Objectivist would view as the basis of all correct lawmaking.
IS ABORTION PRO-LIFE?: This site thinks so.

To approach abortion from an Objectivist perspective, it's helpful to remember that Rand based her definition of "man" on the potential for rationality, rather than the actual attainment of rationality. (Cf. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology--I'll try to get page number soon, but it's in the bit about the Rational Spider from Mars.) It's obvious why she would want to do this. If you attain "man" status (or rights) only when you're actually being rational, the door is open for chaos. The sleeping woman, the screaming toddler, the comatose drunk, and the irrational postmodernist would all forfeit their rights, including their right to life. So an actual human is a being with a potential for rationality.

So a fetus does not need to be rational in order to have the right to life. As far as I can tell, this means that the essential question is, When does an individual human life begin? For example, when did your life begin?

The only dividing line that makes sense to me is at conception. (There are weird issues raised in twinning and cloning, which I discuss here, but in order to understand these unusual cases we look at the usual case. Life ordinarily begins at conception.) Other proposed lines, like birth, or the commencement of brain waves, don't really work: Why is location (outside the birth canal vs. inside) a condition for rights? As for brain waves, I'll quote Maggie Gallagher's Enemies of Eros, which puts the matter succinctly: "Continuity of human identity is also the reason why using brain waves as the criteria for personhood falls short. We accept the cessation of brain waves as evidence of death in adult human beings only because we conclude (after repeated observations) that once the brain stops waving it never starts up again. If brains generally shut down and started up again, then the stopping of the brain would no longer signal death. ...The absence of brain waves in an unborn child (unlike a grown person) is not irreversible."

Why doesn't Leonard Peikoff agree? "We must not confuse potentiality with actuality. An embryo is a potential human being. It can, granted the woman’s choice, develop into an infant. But what it actually is during the first trimester is a mass of relatively undifferentiated cells that exist as a part of a woman’s body. If we consider what it is rather than what it might become, we must acknowledge that the embryo under three months is something far more primitive than a frog or a fish. To compare it to an infant is ludicrous."

Uh, to quote the title of one of Peikoff's other essays, "A Picture Is Not an Argument." I don't care what a first-trimester fetus looks like. (Although newer, more-powerful technology has allowed us to learn just how early the fetus begins to resemble a baby, that isn't really relevant.) The question is when individual identity begins. If there is a physical component to identity--if it's not some emanation of your consciousness--then presumably it begins when you are a physically distinct being. Having different DNA, or being of a different sex from your mother, are fairly good ways to tell that a physically distinct being has begun. The question isn't whether I could do math in the womb, or what I looked like; the question is when I began. When I was an infant I looked like an infant; when I was a neonate (newborn) I looked all red and wrinkly; when I was in my third trimester in the womb I looked like a funny little child in a sac; before that I looked kind of like a tadpole; before that I looked like a blastocyst, because I was one. The fact that I have not always been as beautiful as I am now (heh) is irrelevant.

Peikoff: "That which lives within the body of another can claim no right against its host. Rights belong only to individuals, not to collectives or to parts of an individual. ('Independent' does not mean self-supporting — a child who depends on its parents for food, shelter, and clothing, has rights because it is an actual, separate human being.)"

Any philosophy that can't differentiate between a fetus and a cancer (because both are growths within another human body; cancers even have DNA different from the surrounding tissue) has left behind all concern with individual identity. Did I begin as a cancer? Was I a part of my mother, like a foot or a hand? Or was I in the first stages of the slow development toward adulthood? If I was a part of my mother, why did I have different DNA of the kind that individual humans have (rather than the kind cancers have)? If fetuses are parts of their mothers, how is it that almost half of all fetuses are male, whereas their mothers are, well, not? A fetus is an actual, separate being, even though he or she can only survive (given current technology) within the womb of another person.

Peikoff: "Being a parent is a profound responsibility — financial, psychological, moral — across decades. Raising a child demands time, effort, thought and money. It’s a full-time job for the first three years, consuming thousands of hours after that — as caretaker, supervisor, educator and mentor. To a woman who does not want it, this is a death sentence."

Even leaving aside the possibility of adoption, this statement is grim. Unwanted childrearing is not a death sentence; having your legs and arms pulled off, or being taken from an environment where you can survive and placed in one where you cannot, is a death sentence.

The Abortion Is Pro-Life site includes a FAQ. Here are samples, with my responses:
"A fetus does not have a right to be in the womb of any woman, but is there by her permission. This permission may be revoked by the woman at any time, because her womb is part of her body. Permissions are not rights. There is no such thing as the right to live inside the body of another, i.e. there is no right to enslave."

If I remove my toddler from an environment where she can survive, and abandon her in a snowstorm where she must die, I have committed an immoral act. That is still true even if I am the only person who can care for her and I don't want to care for her. In abortion, even when there's no rending of limb from limb, a child is removed from the only environment (her mother's womb) where she can survive. Unwanted pregnancy is often a tragedy--the mother's interests really do conflict with the child's. That disruption of one of the strongest bonds of love is heartbreaking. But I can't abandon a child to death because my life would be disrupted if I cared for her.

"The principle here is that any alleged 'right' that by nature entails the violation of the rights of another is not a right. There is no such thing as 'trading one's rights for the rights of others.' Proper rights, i.e., rights that are objectively defined, are non-contradictory."

Well, it would be very nice if this were true. But I think I've explained above why I believe that a mother's right to control her body does conflict with her child's right to life.
DISPROOF OF A DISPROOF OF GOD: Rand and Leonard Peikoff have presented a quasi-mathematical argument against the existence of God. A friend summarized it as: "Everything that exists in reality is finite. Imagine if that were not true. Then there would be a thing (call it God) that is infinite in some attribute. But infinity contradicts all laws of reality (e.g. if N is a finite number, N-N=0, whereas infinity minus infinity is not 0). It is an important law that 0=0 and 1=1 and 1 does not equal 0. However, if N is infinity, N= N+1 = N+2=N+3. This implies that 0=1=2=3... etc. This is absurd. Therefore, God cannot exist in reality."

My response: I think Peikoff's argument may be misconstruing what people mean when they say God is infinite. It doesn't mean that God is diffuse, definitionless, "all things" (that would be pantheism), everything-plus-one, etc. It means that God is uncreated, deathless, and absolute. E.g. God is the standard of goodness, by being absolutely good. (For much more on this, see the previous three posts.) If you have a moral system, you believe that there is some way of envisioning and talking about this standard; Christian/Jewish/Parmenidean (eek!) types simply believe that the standard in fact exists rather than simply being a linguistic construct or a description of a relation (like the law of gravity). So I'm unconvinced that discussing mathematical infinity actually affects the case for/against an absolutely good, uncreated, deathless being.

A variant on the argument, from another friend: "God is of infinite measure in all things he possesses. By definition, every being has to be made of something if that being is part of the universe. I am not implying it has to be something visible to man, but just whatever 'stuff.' If God is not limited in size, he encompasses everything. Given that he has no boundaries whatsoever, there can't be 'holes' inside of him. What I mean is that if we say that evil is the absence of God, there have to be places in the universe where God is not. But those places would represent holes in his being, which are impossible if he has no boundaries."

My response: I'm not totally sure I understand this argument, but I'll take a crack at it. 1) God isn't within the universe; at least for Christians, the universe refers to the creation, not the Creator. God is not made of stuff. (We have an extraordinarily hard time with this, and keep trying to visualize it, and keep coming up with God as an old bearded man or a bag of cotton balls or a giant amoeba or some such; but you can't actually visualize God. I think using the language of "absolute" rather than infinite, as I did above, might clarify this.)

2) Evil occurs when someone rejects some portion of the potential good that he might have. Insofar as someone still exists, still has life, a soul, a body, or whatever, he still has some good; but not as much as he would have had if he had not rejected the gifts God offered. There's no "hole in the universe," let alone a hole in God (who is not like a substance diffused throughout the universe); there's not as much goodness as there should be. (By the way, I don't know if this is a necessary Christian position. It's my take on Augustine.) But I don't feel like I've fully answered this; I think it's still framed within a mindset where "God is infinite" means "God is extended throughout all matter" rather than "God is uncreated, deathless, and absolute."

A historical question: Did the idea of God as infinite precede the development of the idea of mathematical infinity? Which "infinity" came first, and which was a metaphor piggybacking on its older brother? I have no idea; but I do believe it's important to keep the theological and mathematical terms distinct...
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY #1: The condensed version of the post "WITHOUT GOD, ALL IS PERMISSIBLE."

Every code of ethics (if it's to make sense) must have some overarching principle that organizes the different rules/precepts and arbitrates between them when they conflict. That principle can be something immediately perceivable (ex.: I'll do whatever gives me the best chance of survival). If it isn't something immediately perceivable, though (like reason, or honor, or truth), the meaning of the
principle has to be determined. That's not super easy.

Either my language, and therefore my culture, determines the meaning of my standard for me, or I determine it myself. If the former, why should I believe that my culture has the best foothold on reality? (If the limits of language are set by biological requirements--every language has a word for "poisonous," etc.--why should I believe that moral truth is determined by what helps humans survive?)

If I determine the meaning of my principle (if that's even possible, which I doubt), how do I prevent myself from twisting reality--making Reason or Honor just another word for my own desires?

The only way an overarching principle like reason or honor (I'm using these b/c they seem like common examples) can actually correct for the errors in culture or in myself is if that principle can somehow surprise and affect both me and my culture. There must
be some means by which we learn that we're wrong. I don't see how anything other than a Person can do this.

(The next step, finding that Person, is certainly also difficult; but at least you know what you're looking for. And I think there are some guideposts.)

So the basic sketch is: An attempt to follow a code of ethics collapses into loyalty to the principle that determines the code. Loyalty to the principle collapses into loyalty to whatever guarantees the meaning of the principle--culture, self, or some Person Who can act in the world and thereby affect culture and self.
SO WHAT'S WRONG WITH HAPPINESS AND SURVIVAL? Why can't I just say, OK, my definition of reason, or justice, or whatever, is based on loyalty to myself? (The first of two executive summaries of that long post below.)

Go ahead; that position is coherent. You don't a Person as standard of value in three cases (all of which still involve loyalty):

1a) You're loyal to yourself, which means your ethical system is based on your own survival. Reality can smack you upside the head by showing you that an action you expected to lengthen life actually shortened your neighbor's life, or a poison you expected to kill him actually led him to discover some great medicine, etc. So there is a mechanism for correcting you when you stray from this ethical principle.

1b) You're loyal to yourself, which means your ethical system is based on your own perceived happiness. This is tougher--it requires all the same judgments of prudence as 1a), plus throwing in wacky questions like, "Do I always know when I'm happy?", "What if sadism, or vicious gossip, or mystical prayer makes me happy?", and, "Should I prefer intense joy mixed with pain, or steady happiness with no pain and no peaks?" But even in this weirder system, reality can smack you upside the head when it proves that something you expected to make you happy or unhappy really had the opposite effect. (Ex. "I expected cocaine would make me happy, and it did for a little bit, but now it's the next morning and I feel like a junked sofa.")

2) You're loyal to some other human (Lisa). You base your ethical system on doing what Lisa says. (If you base it on doing what's objectively _best_ for Lisa, you're back to requiring some outside and Personal standard of "best.") Lisa can definitely surprise you. (And if you indulge her every will, she's likely to surprise you in some unpleasant ways!)

1a, 1b, and 2 are all coherent ethical systems, but I think they leave out too much--everything from Harriet Tubman's heroism to the plot of "Vertigo."
WITHOUT GOD, ALL IS PERMISSIBLE. It seems to me that there are only a limited number of possible bases for ethics. This is my account of which bases require belief in a personal God and which do not.

First, let's define ethics as a code of conduct. OK, but what holds that code together? When certain values within the code conflict, which trumps? What overarching principle gave rise to the particular rules of that code? This post won't address the particular rules, but rather the overarching principles that give rise to the rules.

There are three main possibilities: 1) I follow these rules because of loyalty to myself.

2) I follow these rules because of loyalty to someone else.

3) I follow these rules because of loyalty to some abstract principle, e.g. honor, rationality, etc.

Loyalty to self can be divided into two subcategories: I act so as to maximize my survival, or I act so as to maximize my happiness. I can figure out what this loyalty requires, since I can look around to see which actions help other people survive, and I can use observation and introspection to form educated guesses about what would please me.

Loyalty to someone else (we'll call her Lisa) must mean, in this context, doing what she thinks is in her interest. If you do what you think is in her interest, you need some principle to justify that.

So the third possibility is the intriguing one. It's the place Rand tries to scurry off to when she switches from justifying her ethics because they promote happiness or survival to justifying her ethics because they promote "rational happiness" or "flourishing." (That's the tenuous connection that this post has to Objectivism, by the way... blink and you'll miss it!)

Let's say we have a principle; we'll call it "rational flourishing." What does it mean? How do we know when we're following it and when we're not? That depends on where our words get their meaning from. Possibly our biology + our culture give our language meaning--we know that building beautiful skyscrapers, or refusing to be a second-hander, promotes rational flourishing because of the meaning our culture ascribes to the words "rational flourishing," and that meaning may be constrained by our biology. (For example, it's likely that every language has a word for stripeyness, since stripes sometimes indicate poisonous substances. There may well be similar constraints on the language we use to describe ethics.)

If my culture gives meaning to my ethical principles, then how can I ever judge my culture to be wrong? Why should I follow certain ethical commands simply because my culture has determined them to be good, or because they promote the propagation of my genes?

You can't be loyal to an abstraction, because it's just words. There's no pointable-at standard to which those words refer. There is only one way that I can know what "rational flourishing" is if it is not whatever my culture says it is: There is an actual, existing standard of RF. It can act in the world--it can get a hold of me, correct me when I misunderstand what it requires, surprise me, and smack me upside the head when I try to shape the meaning of "rational flourishing" to fit my own whims/desires/false beliefs. (It can do this directly, by communicating with me, or indirectly by shaping my language and culture.) This actual existing standard can really only be a person. (Socrates, in a few of the Platonic dialogues, runs into a ton of trouble because he can't explain how the Forms would connect to our actual world--how they could shape our language, and thus how we could figure out what they were.) You can try to follow an image of a person instead. I think Rand intuited that ethical commitments require personal loyalty; that's why she expended so much effort in creating heroes. People who wanted to know what "rational flourishing" meant could look at Galt or Roark and shape their lives accordingly. Unfortunately, the image is way too easy to manipulate--"In my position, Galt would have done exactly what I want to do!" And, of course, there's the question of how Rand could know what RF required, how she could be sure she was getting it right as she constructed her hero-icons.

God, then, is objective truth/goodness as a Person. An absolute that can act in the world. (And, if we are expected to follow Him, He must have shaped our language somehow, so that we could know Him.) Quid est veritas? Est vir qui adest. (What is Truth? It is this man here. Your Biblical anagram for the day.)

So if there is an objective truth about ethics, we should look around for Him, and see if He's been a deadbeat dad or if he's actually left some signs of His passing. For example, a random desert religion that just so happens to include the teaching of a personal God who made us and is the standard of goodness, truth and justice. (Although Judaism obviously didn't use the kind of neo- or ex-Platonic language I'm using here.)

You can apply the same analysis to "reason." What is reason? If it is not solely the tool by which we survive or feel good--if it has some other content as well--then what is that content? In deciding that one philosophy is more rational than another, are we appealing to the English language, or the traditional understanding that gives the word "reason" its meaning? Or are we appealing to an outside standard that is greater than language, culture and tradition? If the latter, how can we find this outside standard?

Obviously, I think reason is efficacious--I'm using it now (I hope). But I'm trying to figure out what's necessary if reason is to lead to ethics. I believe a personal God, Truth as a Person, is necessary for reason to lead to an ethics that goes beyond my survival, my happiness, or the survival or happiness of Lisa.

There are two shorter summaries of this post above, which come at the issues from slightly different directions. I hope the clarification is worth the repetition...
BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE PRUDENT PREDATOR: The "Prudent Predator Problem" is a basic question that comes up again and again in criticisms of Objectivism. Here's the setup: Rand derives her ethics from self-interest rightly understood. (I'll get into what "self-interest" actually means--survival? happiness? some combination of the two?--later.) From self-interest, she derives a list of moral rules that look strangely familiar: Don't steal, don't murder, don't lie, and so on. The PPP typically addresses only the issue of theft.

In most cases, stealing stuff is against my rational self-interest: I really want that copy of Atlas Shrugged, but if I steal it, the alarm will go off, I'll get caught, and my utils (happiness points) will plummet. I'll go to jail, where both my happiness and my survival will be in doubt. So in general, stealing stuff sucks.

But sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the bookseller leaves the Rand shelf completely unwatched; sometimes I'm smart enough to figure out nifty ways of stealing so that no one can find me. At that point, if the thing I'm stealing would genuinely benefit me, why should I not steal it?

Objectivist responses typically fall into a few main categories: 1) There's no such thing as the perfect crime. You could get caught no matter how careful you are. But that argument is an argument against all risk-taking. Don't get on that plane--it could be hijacked! Don't get a drink with that intriguing architect--he might roofie you! In order to make the no-perfect-crime argument so strong that it would actually prohibit all (or even almost all) theft, you need a belief in a magical universe where certain acts are always punished. Doesn't happen. Sometimes the thieves flourish like the green bay tree.

2) You'll feel really bad about it. This is based on a dubious psychological theory (doing the right thing always feels good, and doing the wrong thing always feels bad), but more importantly, it misses the point, and it's not very Objectivist (sez me). Misses the point: Even if I'd always feel guilty after doing something wrong, we're still trying to determine whether prudent theft is wrong. The only way the guilt claim could ever be relevant to this argument would be if we could show that people who steal always feel guilty, therefore theft is wrong. Clearly this is false. Not Objectivist: I don't think Rand would accept an account of ethics that bases itself in guilt (tricked out as "psychic cost" to make it sound less Freudian/Christian).

3) If you do wrong things, you build up habits which ultimately make you unproductive and hideous--steal a Rand novel one day, and years later you'll be a twisted combination of Darth Vader and Ellsworth Toohey. (OK, so I exaggerate a bit...) This objection suffers from the same problem as the previous one: We're trying to figure out whether prudent theft is wrong. Unless everyone/most people who steal when the benefits of the theft outweigh the risks turn into second-handers and jerks, this argument doesn't go anywhere. Even if prudent predators do turn lousy once they steal enough, all this would suggest is that they weren't prudent enough--they should have stopped stealing after the first time.

This argument also runs into trouble because it places such enormous weight on perfect Objectivist integrity. It's fairly obvious that no one outside Rand's novels perfectly fulfills the Objectivist ethics. All Objectivists (like all people) break the rules pretty regularly--say, once a month, minimum. This doesn't turn them into Toohey clones.

Objectivists may respond, "Yes, but I regret these lapses--I don't think I was right. That's the PP's mistake." To which the PP replies, "First of all, you just don't regret all of them. You probably can't even remember most of them. Some of them you would do again if you got the chance. Some of them you don't yet realize were infractions--just as I'm not yet convinced that my Atlas-theft was an infraction. Second, and more importantly, I believe that my thieving ways are right because they benefited me. For you to prove that they don't benefit me, you need to show me that rule-infractions in the service of Objectivist principles are corrupting." The obvious example here is lying to Nazis--ordinarily, you can make the case that honesty is in your self-interest, but in some cases lies clearly uphold self-interest. Why can't theft sometimes do the same?

2a) You will feel bad if you treat other people as if they were things. That's the argument made here (scroll down to where the words "Prudent Predator" appear), and it's a more-persuasive variant of the psychic-cost argument. However, there's no evidence that treating someone as a means to my ends under certain limited circumstances would scar my psyche. Moreover, there's no reason, on an Objectivist model (=actions are justified if they are rational; rationality is the faculty that promotes survival and long-term happiness), that it's wrong to treat someone as a means to my end, as long as I make a token acknowledgment of his humanity. (If I actually believed a person was a thing, that would be falsifying reality, a big Objectivist no-no.)

3) If you steal, society will fall apart. Maximal productivity requires that people trust one another, and that people have incentives to produce--for example, they must have a reasonable chance of profiting from their labors. By stealing, the PP chips away at the trust and work-incentives a society needs. But this objection only comes into play when prudent theft is widespread. The PP needs to weigh the benefits to himself (copy of Atlas Shrugged; let's say he wants to introduce his niece to Objectivism, thinks Galt's story will thrill her more than his own dry recitations of Objectivist principles, but can't yet afford the book) against the costs (if lots of people are doing this, shopkeepers will spend more time watching the goods and less time in other, more productive tasks). However, I see no reason why this calculation should never favor theft. A society can sustain some minimal level of theft (like lying, or gossip, or cruelty) without falling apart and without leading to declines in general trust or productivity.

4) People just have rights, end of story. That's what Nathaniel Branden says here. But this is confused. From certain basic principles, Rand derived a theory of rights (rights serve man's life, meaning sometimes his survival, sometimes his happiness, and sometimes something she called "rational" flourishing--but again, those distinctions aren't important here). But this theory of rights isn't--or shouldn't be--a naming of metaphysical truths. I don't walk around in a numinous cloud of rights. "Rights" is a description of a relationship that you should have with me because it serves your survival/happiness/rational flourishing. Both Branden and Rand try to sneak metaphysical, inviolable, first-principle-y "rights" in under the "rational flourishing" heading, but I don't see why that's justified. Rand justifies reason because it promotes our survival and our happiness; she can't then smuggle non-survival-promoting and non-happiness-promoting elements into reason just because it makes her sound more like an Enlightenment Lockean type.

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