Objectivist ethics versus objective value

Last week I had a very interesting real-world (not e-mail) conversation with a moderate Randian. I asked him to explain the Objectivist position on objectivity, which I didn’t understand. Objectivists have repeatedly criticized me for what they call my “Platonic” position that truth and the good exist objectively and apart from us, and that in varying degrees we act in harmony with the good and true, or turn away from it. They have also criticized me for saying that Objectivists do not believe in an objective truth and goodness, because, I’ve said, they only believe in the self. They have repeatedly indicated to me that Ayn Rand had a position different from Western philosophy, in which she held that, though there is no objective truth outside the self, objective truth nevertheless exists. I have never understood this, and asked him to explain it.

My moderate Randian interlocutor (hereinafter referred to as MR) answered my question like this. He said that Objectivism posits a “trichotomy,” consisting of (1) the intrinsic world of facts and reality; (2) man’s subjective consciousness or reason; and (3) the act of man’s reason in grasping the intrinsic world. The act of subjective consciousness in grasping the truth of intrinsic is the objective. Thus objective truth exists, not intrinsically and apart from human reason (as the Randians say Plato says), but in the interaction between man’s subjective reason and the intrinsic world.

Then I asked him to apply the same analysis to ethics. He talked about how the good is connected with that which preserves or advances our life. He said more than this, but I forget it.

Then, trying to nail down the problem, I gave him this simple ethical dilemma. Money belonging to another person has come into my hands, the owner has no way of knowing that I have it, what should I do? My answer: I give the money to the owner. Why do I give it? Because it’s right. Because it’s the right thing to do. The rightness of the act resides in the act itself, the rightness of the act is intrinsic, independent of me.

The reason I used this example was that once, long ago, I had a business arrangement with someone in which I ran his one-man advertising business for a couple of months and gave him a certain percentage of the receipts. A couple of weeks after our arrangement had satisfactorily concluded, I unexpectedly received a further check from one of our customers. My partner had no way of knowing that I had received this check; I could keep the whole thing and not give him his percentage. I asked an acquaintance who I happened to be talking with what I should do, and he said I should keep the money and not say anything. I sat there for a few moments thinking about it and it became clear to me that I had to tell my partner about the check and give him his share.

This was not a big deal. I’m not claiming some high level of virtue for myself for having done this. It’s the kind of ethical question that comes up in life all the time. But the incident made an impression on me, because of the way the rightness of giving my partner the percentage of that check that was due him under our agreement became manifest to my mind as a self-evident, unquestionable truth. Many years later, when I read C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man with its discussion of “objective value,” I remembered the incident and it became one of my pieces of evidence for the truth of the idea that there is an objective right and wrong existing apart from ourselves.

So, I asked MR how Objectivists would respond to the same ethical question. He went into all kinds of complexities that I couldn’t follow at all. He said that Randians would see my question as a typically intrinsicist puzzle. I replied that my question was not “intrinsicist,” or any other such fancy notion, but that it involves a basic, ordinary, garden variety human situation. Further, I added, it appeared that Objectivism can’t answer it! I said, “Howard Roark’s dichotomy of ‘selfishness’ versus ‘altruism’ can’t answer my question, because the correct answer is neither ‘selfish’ nor ‘altruistic. ’ It is neither ‘selfish’ nor ‘unselfish’ to return the money. It is simply right.” I also said that our conversation showed how philosophy doesn’t help in a situation like this, because the rightness of the act is directly perceived, it is not the result of a complicated reasoning process.

He replied that the rightness needs to be proved, and I hadn’t proved it, I was just asserting it, on the basis of intuition. I then defended intuition, by referring to noesis, defined by Voegelinian philosopher Ellis Sandoz as “that intuitive aspect of rationality by which we perceive first principles.” The immediate act of grasping that it is right to return the money to its owner is an example of noesis.

That’s where the conversation ended. But I would add this: the average person is not a philosopher. If he doesn’t grasp the rightness of returning the money to its owner, whether through an immediate intuition or through a tradition that tells him it’s the right thing to do, then he’s not going to grasp it. The philosophical approach to such basic moral questions, involving all kinds of complicated arguments which only specialists can follow, seems like a destructive distraction.

I sent the above to MR for his comments and corrections, and he replied:

Let me make a few remarks on your summary.

1. Rand described “truth” as “the recognition of reality.” So, by her terms, it obviously cannot exist apart from consciousness.

2. Man’s mind or consciousness is, as such, an intrinsic reality. That a particular mind exists is simply an intrinsic fact. That a human mind is capable of exercising reason is also an intrinsic fact. And in its proper activity, a mind (using perception, conceptualization, and reason) generates the realm of the objective, the grasp of reality by consciousness. Yet the mind is also capable of generating the realm of the subjective: mental products unrelated to the grasp of reality (e.g., hallucinations, evasions).

3. Applying the trichotomy to ethics: Intrinsicists tend to say that the morality of an action is in the action itself. It is moral or immoral simply because of the type of action it is. Subjectivists tend to say the morality of actions is in our feeling about it. It is moral or immoral depending on whether or not it gives us pleasure. Rand asked: Does man need a morality, and if so why? Her answer was: Yes, man does need a morality, because unlike all other living things man is not programmed to do that which will support his life. There he needs to discover the values that will sustain a creature of his nature and he needs to discover the general types of actions (the virtues) that will (overall, in general, in the long run) tend to achieve those values. The code of values and virtues that do tend to support man’s life is therefore the objective human morality.

4. Let me address again the problem of seeing a $20 bill fall from a stranger’s hand. (Interesting example: A few years back I found $500 on the street. Sometime, I will tell you what I personally did.) [LA notes: When I gave my example to MR, I was not thinking in terms of seeing $20 fall form a stranger’s hand, but in terms of my experience described above, but I did not make that clear to him, and he interpreted my example as one of seeing a stranger drop money; however, that difference does not change the basic issue we were discussing.]

A. An Objectivist would first insist that this is not an important ethical issue. In judging a moral philosophy, it is much more important to ask such things as: Which is the nobler life? Pursuing my dream of being an architect or helping lepers in Hawaii?

B. Secondly, an Objectivist would note that a key Objectivist virtue is independence, surviving by one’s own efforts (leveraged through the vehicle of trade). You’ll recall the central slogan of Atlas Shrugged: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” And as I wrote in that essay you published: Society is “living together”: Each man living for himself, but doing it together, leveraging others’ pursuit of life, through trade, in order to benefit to oneself. To benefit by another’s misfortunate loss would contradict the whole principle of such a life.

C. Lastly, I confess, I do feel the force of the objection that I am using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Surely, this is not how people go about deciding such issues as: Should I return the $20 bill to the old lady. Ethical Intuitionism is therefore appealing in its directness. Nevertheless, I think you will find that it is fraught with difficulties, if you pursue its implications.

I would distinguish between psychological apprehension and philosophical justification. A person who has been well brought up, in an Aristotelian sense, will have habits of virtue that allow him to choose the proper action instantly and without thought. And therefore he may, like you, have the sense that the rightness of his action is something he just intuits. In fact, however, I believe that the rightness of the action is to be philosophically justified by arguments such as I offered above.

[end of MR’s reply]

I would only say for the moment that MR’s e-mail does not touch on my experience of the objectively right. I did not pay the money to my business partner because I had been brought up to do it. I did not pay it to him because I thought that not doing so would contradict the principle of society as a “living together.” I paid it to him because I saw the rightness of doing so, and the wrongness of not doing so. A philosophical/ethical system which fails to acknowledge and articulate this experience of objective moral truth, or which dismisses it as mere “intuition,” is inadequate to the reality that it claims to be explaining.

- end of initial entry -

Alan M. writes:

I appreciate that you discussed this with your Objectivist/Randian friend and tried your best to get him to explain in simple terms how he would deal with the situation you gave him.

Two thoughts:

1. I have never understood how Objectivists can claim that they arrive at the “good” as “that which preserves or advances our life” through objective means. That life exists is an objective fact. That there are things which can preserve or advance human life is an objective fact. Aren’t they making the classic error of extracting an “ought” from and “is” and then bluster that it is “objective” because it is “obvious.” The Darwinian view that all is evolving stands in contradiction that anything has a right to live.

2. A central problem with secular/atheistic thinking is that they make an error in using the word “reason.” They ascribe to it a power which it does not have—namely the power of the intellect to “recognize” truth. Our psychology today (literally, study of the psyche, or soul) in its dash toward material explanations for everything has lost the truth of the intellect as that aspect of ourselves which carries the image of the divine and has the (potential) power to recognize the objective moral truth. That “experience” of rightness is just that recognition. The intellect in all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, has been clouded and limits our ability to see that truth.

There are objective truths that can be known through our senses and there are objective truths that can be known in our hearts (i.e., in the traditional Christian sense of that deepest center of ourselves) and both depend on the intellect ultimately. Note that even ascertaining the truth of sensory knowledge depends on the intellect apprehending the truth that the universe is a rational creation of a rational God and can be apprehended truthfully through our senses.

Reason is like the side rails on a ladder which depend on facts as steps to create a coherent argument that can be ascended to a conclusion. It can do no more than indicate which facts can “work” or “cohere” as part of an argument. Some facts are easy for everyone to see and agree on—sensory knowledge. Some facts, like the rightness of sharing the newfound proceeds with your partner, depend on clarity of the soul in order for the intellect to function. Some facts, like the Trinity, require revelation through a relationship with God. These higher facts cannot be reasoned to inductively by “climbing” upon lower level facts but require first “knowing” them to be true and then rational arguments can be used to test them by deduction and testing.

A one sided view of the human person as emerging up from matter can never understand this. The integral teaching of traditional Christianity that we are a union of matter and spirit with spirit being uppermost and open to the influence of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit does teach us about the intellect and its role in recognizing objective truths.

In closing, just like the story about Inuit having dozens of names for different types of snow while I have only a few, traditional Christianity recognizes and names aspects of our psyche that are totally missed by the materialists. The life of the Inuit depend on them knowing those different types of snow. Similarly, the life of our civilization depends on us knowing the different aspects of our souls such as the intellect. The life of our civilization depends on each us of being able to see the “rightness” of the choice you made when faced with similar situations.

Norbert K. writes:

Many thanks for your very inspiring website!

I read this slogan from “Atlas Shrugged”: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Then the question occured to me : How do Randians rise kids, if they do it at all? It is just plain impossible to raise children without living for the sake of them. This implies not a complete self-sacrifice, but a certain amount of very heavy ”investment” in order to raise kids.

By the way: the simple fact that man is born as a helpless child defeats every individualistic definition of man on the most basic, empirical level.

(Sorry, my English is not good enough to discuss these questions with nuance.)

LA replies:

That’s why all the blood relatives of Rand’s heroes are portrayed as either irrelevant non-humans whom the hero must escape in his teens and never see again (Roark’s birth family, Galt’s birth family), or as monstrous villains and the embodiment of evil (Dagny’s brother, Rearden’s mother and brother). That’s why there are no families and no children to speak of in Galt’s Gulch. Any Randian community must die out in a generation.

A reader writes:

In response to Norbert K. and his question about children and Randians? I think they would respond that they are raising a child because they value him. And since they value the child there is nothing intrinsically evil about living ones life (to a certain degree) for that child. That being said, I am myself the son of an Objectivist father who raised me (until the age of ten) with those principles. On the whole I would say it was not a very pleasant experience. HIs behavior (in retrospect) could be downright cold and Machiavellian.

Stewart W. writes:

According to MR, “Rand asked: Does man need a morality, and if so why? Her answer was: Yes, man does need a morality, because unlike all other living things man is not programmed to do that which will support his life.”

Aren’t Randians also Darwinian materialists? If so, how do you possibly explain a statement like that? Did we accidentally lose that programming, and if so, how did we survive long enough to develop our morality? It’s the same conundrum you’ve observed many times with materialists, but on top of all of that, the Randians come along and twist logic into a pretzel to layer an objective morality onto a meaningless universe.

At least the honest materialists claim that there is no objective reality or morality at all. The Randian position makes my head hurt.

LA replies:

I don’t know that Rand and Objectivists endorse Darwinism. Also, I don’t see how they can be materialists, since they believe that man’s mind is purposive, while true materialists deny the existence of any purposive consciousness.

Leonard D. writes:

You wrote: “true materialists deny the existence of any purposive consciousness”. I must protest. You may feel we are incoherent, or whatever, and so be it. But I think most materialists (including myself) experience their own consciousness, and its sense of purpose, directly. In addition we have scientifical theories of mind, all of which consider it purposeful.

Somewhat more on topic: I find puzzling any statement that humans do not have programming. Of course we do! I find it difficult to believe that Objectivists deny that humans have a nature. Indeed, one good question for any Objectivist who would deny such a thing is: why do we value our own lives?

LA replies:

As soon as I posted that comment, I knew I needed to modify it, but hadn’t gotten around to it when your comment arrived.

I should have said:

“Materialists hold beliefs which are incompatible with the existence of purposive consciousness, though they deny this incompatibility and absurdly claim that a mindless, directionless, naturalistic process somehow gave birth to purposive consciousness.”

I would add that E.O. Wilson has written that science has no idea of how human consciousness evolved. Also, in his book, Why Evolution is True, scientist Jerry Coyne doesn’t even pretend to offer an explanation for the evolution of the human consciousness.

On the other point you raise, I’m not aware that I or anyone at VFR has denied that human beings have programming.

December 15

Leonard replies:

You wrote:

“Materialists hold beliefs which are incompatible with the existence of purposive consciousness, though they deny this incompatibility and absurdly claim that a mindless, directionless, naturalistic process somehow gave birth to purposive consciousness.”

Fair enough.

“I’m not aware that I or anyone at VFR has denied that human beings have programming.”

I was referring to this statement by MR: “unlike all other living things man is not programmed to do that which will support his life.” Certainly I would never accuse you or most VFR readers of denying human nature! (Perhaps the bedrock upon which conservatism rests is the idea that human beings have an inborn human nature, that is, that we are “programmed.”)

It is a small step from recognizing our programming to the idea that our programming tends to “support our lives,” but it is quite small, and in any case mere introspection with a pinch of reasoning should do here. I.e.: when we have not eaten in a while, we are programmed to get hungry. Similarly we have thirst programming, sex programming, cold and heat aversion programming, etc. I don’t think an Objectivist would doubt any of that, but neither am I completely sure. In addition to those more obvious things, we also have moral programming: moral sentiments, at least. In particular we have have altruistic sentiments. These, the Objectivist presumably struggles to overcome, to live his life only for himself.

Certainly human beings can muddle along fairly well without Objectivism—they did for all of history until 1943 or 1957 or whatever, and most still do! So what is wrong with a barbarian “code of values and virtues”? I admit that I prefer living in an advanced capitalist society. But it seems to me that Objectivists are smuggling in a preference here that they cannot justify. Why should I prefer our society? What is wrong with a life that is nasty, brutish, and short?

MR (the moderate Randian) replies:

1. I find it difficult to grasp a lot of what Alan M is saying. We seem not to share enough of a philosophical context even to disagree. However I do dispute that “even ascertaining the truth of sensory knowledge depends on the intellect apprehending the truth that the universe is a rational creation of a rational God and can be apprehended truthfully through our senses.” I would say that what the senses provide is not knowledge and is neither true nor false. What the senses provide and cannot help but provide is an objective awareness of reality, on the basis of which one can create knowledge. One can certainly draw false conclusions from perceptions, but the perceptions themselves cannot be false or deceptive. The CEO of the Atlas Society wrote a book on this subject, The Evidence of the Senses, which grew out of his Princeton Ph.D. thesis.

2. The “is-ought” problem is a Humean canard. One might as well declare there to be an “is-was” problem. “A is B. B is C. However many “is” statements you pile up, you’ll never get an “X was Y” statement.” The answer is that when one states a fact, it sometimes happens that certain aspects of the fact are embodied in the form of the verb. Those aspects can be unpacked from the verb and put in the predicate, leaving an “is” statement. That is true when the statement identifies a past fact; it is true when the statement identifies a moral fact.

3. In the case of morality, Rand begins by asking: Does man need the concepts of “value,” “virtue,” “ought”? And, if so, why? By tracing those concepts to their roots, one grasps what they refer to and one can then transform statements of moral fact into “is” statements.

4. Rand personally refused to endorse the theory of evolution. She said that she simply had not studied it sufficiently to judge it. Obviously, it formed no part of her philosophy.

5. The most prominent Objectivist theorist of mind believes that the mind is a substance (in the Aristotelian sense: a thing, an entity). This mind is, by all evidence, generated by the brain, but in humans it clearly possesses a form of energy that allows it to initiate action in the brain and thus in the person. That is the source of our free will or volition.

6. Objectivists do not deny the existence of human nature. Indeed, they say that man’s nature is the standard of human action (not the purpose; the standard).

7. I wrote that “unlike all other living things, man is not programmed to do that which will support his life.” Leonard D disputes that, saying we are programmed to experience our needs when they are unmet. That is true (sooner or later). But we are not programmed to perform the actions that will satisfy our needs. If you put me out in the woods in December, I will feel cold and I will experience a pain that implicitly signals “something’s wrong.” My body will spontaneously begin to shiver, and blood will move to the more critical organs. But apart from my cultural knowledge, I the human person do not know how to create the warmth required to satisy my needs.

8. Incidentally, the above example, perfectly illustrates the Objectivist view of morality. My body is signalling that my needs are not being met, and it is striving to sustain my life. I need a code of values to guide my volitional actions to the same end. That code of values is morality. The actions that are likely to achieve those values are virtues.

9. When I described the puzzle about finding money as typically intrinsicist, I had in mind the distinction I made between psychological apprehension and philosophical justification. We are so habituated to doing what is right and wrong in the small actions of our everyday lives that it seems silly to invoke philosophical arguments to prove their rightness or wrongness of them. But the alternative—ethical intuitionism or moral sense theory—seems to me to create more problems than it solves. What sort of property is rightness? How does one experience it—in the form of an emotion? Is it dependent on context (E.g., Is it OK to lie to the Nazi murder squad, or ought you to give a misleading answer that is literally true)? A contemporary philosopher at the University of Colorado (Boulder), Michael Huemer, is doing much to revive ethical intutitionism. But his is not a moral sense theory that claims to perceive rightness in concrete actions. It is a capacity to grasp broad moral truths such as C.S. Lewis claimed were embodied in the universal Tao. (He is also both a friend of Objectivists and a trenchant critic of Objectivism. Google his: “Why I Am Not an Objectivist.”)

10. The statement in Galt’s Gulch about not living for another man was a statement meant to govern the relationships in a society, in a polis, not the relationships in a household, in an oikos. Ayn Rand wrote: “When you bring children into the world, you give up your own sovereignty and become a means to an end; the end, the primary concern, are the children.” “The Age of Mediocrity,” The Objectivist Forum, June 1981.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 14, 2010 09:36 AM | Send

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