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Saturday, March 25, 2017


Well, I have been having my fun cackling at Trump’s incompetence as a negotiator and snickering at the embarrassment of the Congressional Republicans, and that’s all right, ‘cause politics ain’t beanbag, as Mr. Dooley observed.  But I like to preen and posture as a genuine philosopher, so it behooves me to take seriously the intellectual roots of the man who is universally acknowledged to be the deepest thinker on the other side of the aisle, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

I think we all know that Ryan draws his philosophical inspiration from the writings of a prominent Russian-American thinker, Ayn Rand.  Now, I imagine that most of you have spent your time reading the writings of Karl Marx and Immanuel Kant and Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim, and even Georg Friedrich Hegel, but you may have neglected the profundities of Rand, so I thought I would say just a very brief word about her contributions to the great tradition of Western Philosophy.  My aim is to encourage you to delve more deeply into the corpus of her writings, so that you will gain insight into the sources of the power of Paul Ryan’s thought.  It is, after all, unusual to have a serious student of Philosophy serve as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Rand, like all great philosophers, is known for a single core proposition from which she seeks to derive the particulars of her theories.  Descartes gave us cogito, ergo sum, Kant gave us The Categorical Imperative, Hegel gave us thesis, antithesis, synthesis.  What is Rand’s foundational principle, her claim to philosophical fame, as it were?

Here is a brief passage plucked from my copy of the 1961 summation of her thought, For The New Intellectual:
“To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors—the greatest of your philosophers, has stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.
Whatever you choose to consider, be it an object, an attribute or an action, the law of identity remains the same. A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A. Or, if you wish it stated in simpler language: You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.
Are you seeking to know what is wrong with the world? All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.”

And there it is:  A is A.  Who would be so foolish as to deny it?   A is A.  From there it is mere elaboration to derive the Republican health bill, “a task that is more an amusement than a labour,” as Kant says in the Preface to the First Edition of the Critique of Pure Reason.

If we on the left could cease our petty snarking and elevate ourselves to this plane of rationality, think what we might achieve in cooperation with our brothers and sisters on the Right!


s. wallerstein said...

When I was in high school in the early 60's, the left-wing kids like myself read or pretended to read Jean Paul Sartre and the right-wing kids read or pretended to read Ayn Rand. I never read her, but from listening to the right-wing kids I realized that she was not really a serious thinker in the way that Sartre is and that Sartre has a lot more class.

I went to college in 1964, left graduate school in 1970 and hung out in Berkeley, California playing at being poetic and revolutionary until 1977 when I left for South America. During that time I never once heard anyone mention Ayn Rand and I assumed, without ever explicitly remembering her existence, that she had been consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history.

Until about 2005 when I first got broadbend internet, I had little contact with the U.S. besides letters from friends and family, none of whom ever mentioned Ayn Rand. So it was an incredible shock to me to learn that Ayn Rand was still considered by some to be more than a distance memory from the intellectually repressive days of the 1950's and early 1960's. It was like hearing that Lawrence Welk, who even seemed a bit ridiculous to me in 1960, was back.

I really could not believe that a cult to Ayn Rand had grown up among certain sectors in the U.S. There are rightwing neoliberals in Chile but they pay homage to Hayek and to Milton Friedman, whom I sense are a step or two up the generally acknowledged ladder of intellectual respectability from Rand.

I still don't quite understand why Congressman Ryan, who could claim to derive his ideas from Milton Friedman (who did win a Nobel Prize for Economics), says that his ideas come from Ayn Rand.

Chris said...

It really is odd that she bases herself off Aristotle (or so she claims), when 'the virtue of selfishness' is certainly not listed among any of Aristotle's virtue. Friendship however is. Loyalty is. Degrees of comradery are. Etc. Man for Aristotle is after all a social being, it seems as if Rand's entire philosophy is the one that attempts to deny that A is A.

Tom Cathcart said...

Call me crazy, but I've always maintained that A is B.

Chris said...

Tom, you're a Hegelian? ;)

Ed Barreras said...

You can tell Paul Ryan is a serious policy wonk because he does a lot of PowerPoint presentations.

howie b said...

Reminds me vaguely of something a rather bad sophist might teach

Warren Goldfarb said...

Of course no professional philosopher takes Rand seriously, but there was for a long time a bunch of students at MIT who touted "Objectivism". They even had a newsletter, when I was a grad student in the early 70's, in which they'd criticize (of all people) Quine for being insufficiently "objective".

Clearly Rand is very prominent in Ryan's 'thinking' (if you want to grace it with that word). When he railed against the fact that in health insurance the healthy subsidize the ill, i.e., showing hostility to the whole idea of insurance, that's pure Rand: everyone for himself, Galt has to leave society because otherwise he's made to pay for other people.

s. wallerstein said...

The selection of Ayn Rand as a neoliberal guru by supposedly serious politicians such as Ryan is strange, since she doesn't even reach the level of normal pseudo-intellectual pretentiousness.

On the other hand, Ryan and others seem to want to base their thought or lack of thought on an intellectual authority, unlike Trump who is an outright out-of-the- closet anti-intellectual.

It's as if Ryan and other Rand followers are too out of it intellectually to even know where to look for a "respectable" rightwing guru.

Unknown said...

Ron Paul named his son, Rand, in honor of the great philosopher.

F Lengyel said...

Who knew that the seemingly innocuous reflexivity axiom had the power to confer axiom-like status to reactionary assertion? Now that's a transfer principle!

F Lengyel said...

It's not consistent to be hostile to insurance and not object to limited liability. which is a social program for business. The cost of shielding corporation owners from corporate liability is that the cost of business credit goes up a little—but certainly not enough to make limited liability corporations infeasible. On the contrary, most businesses would fold without this vast social insurance program for business. Joseph Heath takes this up.

Virtually every market transaction is underwritten by insurance, on some level (says Heath). If the Randites were coherently hostile toward insurance, they would want to abolish the risk allocation networks that make capitalism possible. But they favor risk pooling arrangements only for business.

Chris said...

David Palmeter,
His name is Randal, and if I remember right he specifically said his Dad did not name him after Ayn Rand:

David Auerbach said...

You put me in mind of the old Douglas Adam's quote:
"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Atlas Shrugged.' One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

TheDudeDiogenes said...

"Pseudo intellectual" is correct, s. wallerstein. Rand is a hideous, vulgarized mix of Aristotle and Nietzsche, that scholars of either philosopher would be alarmed at.

Unknown said...


Too bad. It would have been a good story. Interesting how that story must have gotten around. I've seen it a number of times. Probably it has survived because it's so plausible.

ES said...

This reads like an impressionable teenager bluffing her way through an exam on Fichte.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

David Auerbach, lovely quote! It is the sort of thing I wish I had written.

s. wallerstein said...

This is the first time I've seen a comments thread of such length in this blog with no disagreements, no arguments.

Edmund Wilson said...

I wonder if Ayn Rand (dare I say) might have had a point when she pointed out that 'A is A'. After all, as Russell indicated, it is 'for no very good reason' that there are just three Laws of thought, of which 'A=A' is one (Problems of Philosophy, Chap. VII). For Russell, 'what follows from a true premiss is true' is perhaps an equally important principle compared with the Randian law of identity that 'Whatever is, is'. In this way, Rand differs from Russell in her emphasis on the law of identity above all else, marking herself out as a distinct philosopher.

So perhaps Rand is diverting from philosophical tradition by asserting that the only secure foundation for true knowledge is 'A is A' (rather than any other axiom or law of thought). By choosing the law of identity, Rand, at least symbolically, is marking herself out as a conservative, concerned with how the world 'is' rather than what it 'might be'. There may be some meaning to truisms such as 'Brexit means Brexit', after all.

Also, the principle that 'A is A', although universally acceptable, is not always held as the supreme principle of logic and morality. Perhaps Rand has a point in suggesting, quite controversially, that 'ALL the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders' attempt to evade the fact that 'A is A'' (my emphasis). Quite uniquely, Rand is suggesting that identity surpasses all other logical or moral tick-boxes. Its special place in her theory seems to be unique among philosophers (if I'm not mistaken, which is quite probable given that I had never heard of Ayn Rand before today).

At least this means that Rand's philosophy is distinct from the philosophy of Hegel, Kant and Descartes in its emphasis on identity above all else. At best, Rand's philosophy offers an (albeit controversial) foundation for Republican conservatism.

Utopian Yuri said...

I have discovered a truly remarkable proof that A=/=A, which this comment box is too small to contain. Too bad, because it would have really knocked the Randroids on their tucheses.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

As a neo-Pythagorean, I insist that A = √(C² − B²)

JGR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JGR said...

Read Nicomachean Ethics 9.8 and ask yourself if Aristotle thought friendship and self-love were somehow opposed, or if a rational kind of egoism was not virtuous. I think that you will be surprised by what you find.

John Donohue said...

You are all having your fun, and were I to assume that the piece itself and the comments were just that, a jolly amusement, I wouldn't comment.

On the chance, however, that anyone here wishes to actually engage Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, I'll just post one formulation and see what transpires.

"A is A" is profound. It does not need to proactively generate a philosophical system like spontaneous combustion. It simply lies at the core, and prevents truth-tests from deploying existents that have not been proven to exist.

John Donohue

JGR said...

I can understand If this is an exercise in basking in the warm glow of shared contempt for Paul Ryan. I too have nothing but contempt for Paul Ryan and likewise for Rand Paul. (As for Trump the words to describe my feelings are mostly spelt with four letters.) But I am also quite confident that Ayn Rand would share those sentiments of disdain and disgust were she alive today, and unlike the author of this post and many who have commented upon it, I am actually well enough acquainted with Rand and her work to make such a claim.

I don't think that the author or several of the commentators want to seriously critique Rand. I think that they want tarnish her by association with Ryan, tarnish Ryan by association with a caricature of her, and then wallow in some self-congratulatory disdain.
And hey, these are tough times. I've certainly been binging on Trump-induced outrage more than has been healthy or helpful. So if this is a form of self-soothing, I can sympathize.

The problem is that we diminish ourselves and the quality of our public discourse when we throw out all of our intellectual standards for the cheap thrill of thrashing a straw man.

It's fine if you want to seriously critique Ayn Rand, even if only so as to be justified in subsequently dismissing her works despite their enormous popularity and influence. But if you do, then you owe it to yourself (never mind Rand) to have the same kind of intellectual honesty and integrity that you would expect from any other scholar talking about any other philosopher. That would imply the following as bare minima... (con't)

JGR said...

1. You don't judge the merits of her philosophy strictly or even primarily on the basis of the statements, actions, and policies of political figures who claim to be influenced by her (or whom others claim are influenced by her). One actually has to prove that the politicians in question and their policies actually are authentically influenced by a plausibly non-specious understanding of the philosophy/philosopher. You *certainly* don't try to reconstruct what that philosopher's views were based on what those politicians say or do! The author mentions the profundities of Marx and Hegel. Would he claim to understand or judge their philosophies based on the actions and pronouncements of Stalin and Mao? Of course not. S. Wallerstein claims that Sartre was a more serious thinker than Rand (and classier, he adds). Is that based on Sartre's students and political admirers such as Pol Pot? Again, no.

My point here is not to deny the influence of any of these philosophers, including Rand, on at least some of the leaders who claim to be inspired by them. If (and only if) you can show that that influence is more than the accidental result of the philosopher being misunderstood and misappropriated, then you can attribute some of the credit or blame for the policies which she inspired to her. But that's not an insignificant "if". Obviously the author's "A is A. From there it is mere elaboration to derive the Republican health bill" won't cut it.

2. You don't resort to cheap insults and insinuations. Warren Goldfarb wrote, "Of course no professional philosopher takes Rand seriously...". Sir, you are a distinguished logician, and that is an appeal to authority or an ad hominem, both of which are beneath you. So is trading on reputations rather than arguments; I suspect that what those students at MIT regarded as insufficiently "objective" about Quine's philosophy was, inter alia, his radical holism and the kind of arbitrariness in belief systems and ontologies that can result therefrom (e.g. his infamous comparison of physical objects to the Homeric gods). That, incidentally, is a criticism of Quine which many professional philosophers are party to. And in any case, since when did we judge a thinker based on what undergraduate admirers of her think or say?

3. You take some tiny effort to know what you speak of. "Rand, like all great philosophers, is known for a single core proposition from which she seeks to derive the particulars of her theories." First, I think rather few great philosophers try to *derive* their entire systems from a single core proposition. Rand certainly doesn't. But if that were actually true about them and her, then you couldn't say that she was in poor company.

In fact, though, Rand does not try to deduce her substantive claims in ethics or politics from the laws of logic. She derided such deductivist approaches to knowledge as "Rationalistic", in 'honor' of the Continental Rationalists who were among the worst offenders in this regard. [Incidentally, if you want two canonical philosophers who actually thought that they could derive entire systems from axioms of logic, consider Wolff (Christian, not Robert Paul) and Fichte. In the earlier sections of the *Wissenschaftslehre* Fichte even seems to try to do it starting from something like the Law of identity!] Anyway, Rand simply thinks that these are the most fundamental facts and that all specific facts are instances of the laws of identity and non-contradiction, such that it behooves us to always try to remember that things are what they are and not what they aren't. "Who wouldn't do that?!" you ask. Well, at the moment several prominent Republican politicians leap (or lurch) to mind.

JGR said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

(1) Nobody is a Randian hero.
(2) I am a nobody.
(3) Therefore, I am a Randian hero.

This is a very advanced form of logical argumentation that Big Philosophy doesn't want you to know.

JGR said...

Now, if you actually wanted to know what Rand said and thought about the 'axioms' and their relations to the rest of knowledge and values and whether it was substantially different from Continental Rationalists (it was!) I could refer you to my chapter on Rand's metaphysics in the *Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand.* Some probably don't want to know, and that's fine. But in that case, might I recommend a touch of Socratic wisdom and intellectual civility? Wouldn't it be better to restrict yourself to something credible such as: "The Ryan health care bill seemed cruel to me insofar as it failed to adequately recognize and meet what I and many others consider a moral obligation that we have to help those in need. Maybe some of that comes from Ayn Rand, since she defended ethical egoism and criticized altruism and the social welfare state. I don't know why she thought such things, and I don't know what she would make of the AHCA specifically, but I regard the general sentiment (such as I understand it) as shocking, and find it hard to imagine that she could have had good arguments for it."?

Is that not as cathartic or fun? Alas, it is the unappealingly "non-fat" version of an intellectual guilty pleasure. But here is the rub: if you are a philosopher, then you more than anyone should be promoting the "epistemic fitness" of our society. And wouldn't you know it? Here too we face an epidemic of obesity and preventable disease.

So by all means, let's speak our minds and vent our spleens, but let's not lose ourselves in the process. Rationality and intellectual rigor themselves are currently under attack and someone needs to be setting a healthy example.

Andrei S said...

Philosophers mock Rand because even a charitable reading of her argument for the "Primacy of Existence" shows a massive gap (namely, because somehow consciousness of an object means that that object is independent of consciousness). Also, I don't know why you think that you can separate the important role that the PoE plays in speeches by characters in her novels from her ethical system. You say, Anyway, Rand simply thinks that these are the most fundamental facts and that all specific facts are instances of the laws of identity and non-contradiction, such that it behooves us to always try to remember that things are what they are and not what they aren't. Behooves? You mean she thinks we ought to remember what an object is?

Ultimate Philosopher said...

It is important that philosophers of all people should play fair when critiquing other points of view. (Google "dennett rapoport rules" for a good idea of how this is done.) This can be summed up in I have seen, time and time again, critics of Rand flouting this principle, and they have been evasive or impervious to very legitimate counter-considerations.

It's rather low-hanging fruit when you go after a political figure of all people as context for illustrating some point about a philosopher. Is that would a Plato, Aristotle, or Kant would do? Or would they go to the strongest representatives/advocates and strongest arguments - preferably professional philosophers and their arguments - for purposes of rebuttal/criticism. There are such individuals who have been involved at the Ayn Rand Society (googlable), a group of professional philosophers affiliated with the APA, Eastern Division.

What are *those* individuals up to, spending their valuable time and professional skills on?

Here's a concrete instance to mull over if the Rand-bashers have the intellectual integrity to do so:

There is one significant non-Objectivist ("outsider") professional philosopher who devoted lots of one-on-one time with Rand: John Hospers. Just why was he spending so much of his valuable time and skill discussing things with her? What's his perspective on all this? It's googlable. He found what he saw as some shortcomings in her working knowledge of what professional philosophers are up to, in her polemical style, this sort of thing -- and this notwithstanding, it is evident that he considered her a thinker worth taking *very* seriously. For a Plato, an Aristotle, or a Kant, that would be cause for curious inquiry.

As for your cherry-picking tactic of picking out this one quotation from the Galt speech, you *know* that there's a lot more in that speech that elaborates upon his/Rand's worldview; this is only part of it. You know how rhetorically-inflected it all is, but there's lots of substantive argument to be gleaned. You know that there are passages about the nature of virtue and its relation to the full use of one's intellect as the primary driver of human life. You know about the stuff where the freedom to use one's intellect is paramount in social-political affairs. Etc. etc. That all contextualizes this passage. Taken as a whole, what rebuttals, refutations, or rejections are there to be made of the Speech? What would a Hospers have taken away from it that made him so interested in seeking her out? Who else came close to writing about such topics in such an attention-grabbing manner? What kinds of valuable skills might be identified and emulated for whatever one's cause? The questions can be multiplied.

A final question for now: Just what makes you think that a thoughtful, well-versed, advocate of Rand's ideas - think Profs. Gotthelf (or his top student Salmieri) or Tara Smith for example, authors involved in a growing body of *academic professional literature* about Rand's ideas - should take your tactics above seriously as criticism? It really comes off as lazy, smug and pat.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

(Would be nice if we could edit comments after initial posting....)

John Donohue said...

@ Andrei S

"because somehow consciousness of an object means that that object is independent of consciousness)."

Rand's PoE claims that the existence of an object is independent of consciousness. Do you agree?

Ultimate Philosopher said...

I'll just throw in for some extra fun and some homework for the curious:

Leonard Peikoff is Rand's "deputized spokesperson" for Objectivism. This is evidenced from her endorsement of his 1976 course which she endorsed as “the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism, i.e., the only one that I know of my own knowledge to be fully accurate.” Anyone who knows about Rand knows that such an endorsement could not come lightly given all the caricatures and misrepresentations of her ideas out there. What's more, she wrote a "letter of recommendation" (reprinted in the 'Letters of Ayn Rand' book) in 1980 in which she praised Peikoff for his "superlative" understanding of her philosophy and his abilities to communicate it to students.

So Peikoff has this sizable body of lecture courses that long-time students of Objectivism (the likes of Salmieri or Tara Smith for example) have been feasting on. For some decades the courses were available only live or in rather expensive recorded format. Not any more. The courses are being transcribed, made into books (Peikoff had already long ago adapted that 1976 course into his book 'Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand'), and - in audio format - being made *free of charge* at the Ayn Rand Institute website ( to all those up-and-coming whippersnappers who are enthusiastic about Rand's ideas and seeking to learn more. Any serious scholarly examination of Objectivism would take into account this body of work particularly considering Peikoff's "deputized" status. (The first to do so was Sciabarra in his 1995 book 'Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical' which focuses on Rand's radical *methodology*, which is what a bunch of Peikoff courses with "Objectivism" in the title focus primarily on.)

People who are interested should check the courses out; they're pretty fun to listen to as these forms of communication go. What's more, there's really not much in there - the polemical stuff aside IMO - that anyone in their right mind could seriously object to. It's all about things like "the art of context-keeping," stuff related to that.

And another fact that should raise some eyebrows among the truly curious: of the thousands of listeners of these courses over the years, I know of not a single "apostate" who ended up rejecting the core fundamentals of these Peikoff course materials. Now whether there is some cult-like power of indoctrination in these courses that keeps its listeners within their orbit, or whether the courses are really quite excellent containing excellent and valuable advice about cognitive method/practice (I join the unanimous verdict of its listeners in proclaiming the latter), that might very well be a first in the history of ideological movements, would it not? We're talking well into the thousands here, maybe the tens of thousands (and the numbers would certainly grow exponentially now that they're made free to all the whippersnappers and everyone else). And not a *single one* has later come out and said that it's leading listeners down wrong paths, as you'd find in basically every other movement of ideas? This ought to make any comparisons to, e.g., Scientology laughable. Inexpensive/free materials, no "apostates" of note among thousands or tens of thousands. Damn.

At some point that's gotta be newsworthy.


s. wallerstein said...


I still believe as I did in 1964 when I was 18 that Sartre is a more serious and classier thinker than Rand. At that time I had read little Sartre besides the novel Nausea, of which I understood little, but since then I've read more of him. I'm not a philosopher myself, but from talking to them I see that they generally consider Sartre to have been an important, but not great philosopher. Some say that he is a greater writer than philosopher: he did win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1964. I see that his play, Dirty Hands, does come up from time to time in discussions in this blog, unlike Being and Nothingness.

I don't see that professional philosophers have a good opinion of Ayn Rand's thought, by the way.

I have no idea whether Pol Pot read Sartre. There was a time in the late 50's and early 60's when "everyone" read Sartre, which is far from showing that Sartre was an influence on the Cambodian genocide. Sartre was a big influence on the French maoist students in 1968, but they don't seem to have harmed anyone, unless you consider boring others with dogmatic rhetoric to be harm. Unlike the followers of Ms. Rand, they never cut anyone's healthcare benefits or foreclose anyone's mortgage or gave the green light to projects of environmental destruction. In fact, one time the French maoists took the pistol away from a French cop who was threatening them, emptied the bullets and gave the unloaded gun back to him: nice kids after all.

Finally, it all comes down to one point that Professor Wolff wisely emphasizes in his lectures on Ideological Critique: which side are you on? Ayn Rand is not on my side or that of most of the regular participants in this blog. Sartre is. You have to chose sides, either for the capitalists (as Ayn Rand does) or for those exploited or ripped off by the capitalists (as Sartre does). Sartre himself would agree with Professor Wolff that you have to chose sides.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Oh, this is good. Warren Goldfarb above said the following:

"Of course no professional philosopher takes Rand seriously"

This is the Warren Goldfarb of the Harvard University department of Philosophy? That Warren Goldfarb, not some kind of imposter?

How could a philosopher - one at the long-venerated Harvard no less - be *so ignorant* on a topic about which he holds forth an opinion?

And an "of course" added on top of that, to boot? *Of course* the Ayn Rand Society has no professional philosophers? *Of course* there is not even an Ayn Rand Society? Or . . . ?

If it's an imposter or a coincidence, then Harvard philosophy professor Warren Goldfarb can be exonerated of professional malpractice.

Harvard's Hilary Putnam in 'The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and other essays' said of Ayn Rand that he didn't consider her a philosopher. There he was issuing an (erroneous) opinion, harder to dispute, but this is a matter of plain fact here, something a philosopher issuing forth an assertion has no excuse being blatantly and demonstrably wrong about. Are there or are there not professional philosophers who take Rand seriously. Goldfarb says no, "of course" not.

Anonymous said...

For those who doubt the philosophical cogency of the concept of zombies, consider the "contribution" of the Randroids to the present discussion. QED

Ultimate Philosopher said...

s. wallerstein said:

"Finally, it all comes down to one point that Professor Wolff wisely emphasizes in his lectures on Ideological Critique: which side are you on? Ayn Rand is not on my side or that of most of the regular participants in this blog. Sartre is. You have to chose sides, either for the capitalists (as Ayn Rand does) or for those exploited or ripped off by the capitalists (as Sartre does). Sartre himself would agree with Professor Wolff that you have to chose sides."

It certainly says a good deal when a philosophical disagreement (or philosophical whatever) is framed in such oppositional terms. Leftist critics of Rand got the impression in their addled minds that Rand was "for the big guy" and thereby "against the little guy" because, hey, that's what capitalism is all about, class conflict and all that.

It is inconceivable in this addled mindset that Rand wasn't "for" this or that subset of people to the exclusion of others. If they choose to read into her writings a "Nietzsche-style preference to the overman, like her heroes are supposed to be," that's their (mis)interpreation. If they do the more responsible thing and go on the basis of what she actually wrote and what can be reasonably inferred from it, then there's no ground whatsoever for a "for/against some select group of people" reading.

One thing she was *definitely for* was the concept of rationality as the fundamental human virtue (you can google "ayn rand lexicon virtue"), and nowhere have I read her asserting or implying that only some preferred "class" of people were capable of this virtue. If anything, she thought enough of human potential that she thought *a lot* of people could rise up to join the ranks of heroic status.

On top of all this, it's well-documented (google is there for looking it up) that Rand in her novels had villainous rich people and virtuous poor people. That doesn't seem to have made a difference in the way those especially of an addled leftist mindset think about Rand's views.

(Isn't this supposed to be a philosophy blog, where ideas are carefully considered before criticisms of them issued, a la the googlable Dennett/Rapoport Rules?)


Ultimate Philosopher said...

TheDudeDiogenes said...
"Pseudo intellectual" is correct, s. wallerstein. Rand is a hideous, vulgarized mix of Aristotle and Nietzsche, that scholars of either philosopher would be alarmed at.
March 25, 2017 at 7:48 PM

Huh. Allan Gotthelf, James G. Lennox, Fred D. Miller for Aristotle; Lester Hunt for Nietzsche. Members of the Ayn Rand Society, all.

Is contradicting fact usually part of your routine for issuing forth opinions?


Ultimate Philosopher said...

JGR would be Jason Rheins, Assistant Prof of philosophy at Loyalu U Chicago, contributor to the Blackwell Companion to Rand, and member of the Ayn Rand Society. Good luck trying to make your usual discreditable hash of Rand's ideas with him as your interlocutor, Rand-bashers; you're gonna need it.

(Do I get to judge the entirety of Warren Goldfarb and his work based on his unprofessional comments here? Sounds like the blogger and commenters were doing that with Rand based on her "A is A" passage, so what's fair is fair, right?)


JGR said...

@Andrei S

1. That's not why philosophers mock Rand. 97%+ of philosophers who mock Rand would not even be familiar with the phrase "Primacy of Existence" much less have worked out objections about it. Why do it? Many different reasons, but the simplest might be because they can. I think most philosophers who actively mock Rand know that no one in their circles will hold them to account for it. Which is probably true. And to them I am saying: 'Colleagues, you want to hold yourselves to your own standards, right? If so, then some of this is beneath you and unnecessary, no?'

2. I'd be thrilled if that were the reason many professional philosophers rejected Rand! It would mean a much more active engagement with her ideas. I don't even expect my fellow philosophers to engage with her work, I just would like it if they did not say untenable things about it when they haven't engaged with.

3. Yes, a charitable reading of *that argument* shows a massive gap. Fortunately for Rand a competent (never mind charitable) reading of her discussions of the Primacy of Existence will find no such argument. The Primacy of Existence is basically her three axioms. There's no argument for them—they are axioms—although she would claim that denials of them would be subject to reaffirm through denial (i.e. claims to the contrary are self-refuting). She doesn't "infer" an object is independent of consciousness from the fact that there is consciousness of an object. If someone wanted to claim that there was an 'inference' involved in the integration of the three axioms, I would think they were wrong, but it would at least be the basis of an interesting discussion. And still, it wouldn't be the inference that I think you "uncharitably" impute to her. Anyway, if it's something you want to discuss or argue about off of this thread, I'd be happy to.

4. I can't separate Rand's metaphysics from her ethics any more than I could separate Plato's metaphysics from his ethics, nor Aristotle's from his, nor Kant's from his. I never claimed that I could. What I said was that she did not even try to deduce her ethics or politics from her metaphysics. Here, I'll put it in super simplified, clear terms:
You can't deduce (A & B) from A, but that doesn't mean you don't need A to arrive at (A & B).
And yes, I absolutely mean that Rand thinks that we OUGHT to accept facts for facts. That was not something I tried to conceal or sneak by you. But the fact that A is not non-A is only half the reason that we OUGHT to reject contradictions. The fact that cyanide is poisonous is half the reason why you ought not ingest cyanide, the other half is that you want to live (and not die of poison). Similarly, Rand thinks that reality does not have contradictions, and so if you chose to try to remain in reality (alive) you should accept that fact.

Puzzling Philosopher said...

I'll summarize the JGR handbook piece, which is an extended, completely uncritical exposition of Rand's views in metaphysics:

There are things.
There are facts, such as facts about what the things are like.
Some facts are created by or changeable by human agency, lots are not.
In perception we are confronted with things and if we do it right we can come to know some facts.
It can be useful to know facts rather than ignoring them.

That's all put confusingly in terms of "axioms" of existence and identity, and what argumentation is sketched looks pretty philosophically shallow, but the picture seems quite ordinary.

Anonymous said...

Endless entertainment: in every comment defending Rand, replace "Ayn Rand" with "L. Ron Hubbard" and see if it makes one bit of difference to the supposed point.

JGR said...

@Anonymous (March 28, 2017 at 4:00 PM). I'm pretty sure the sentence "started a pyramid scheme religion about psychic space aliens" gives opposite truth values for Rand and Hubbard, and that alone is a decent reason to not assume they are fungible. Now, if you want to try to discredit her without an argument, then just continue to make unflattering comparisons to Hubbard, or the Republicans, or—F*ck it why not go all in and win the internet with a comparison to Hitler?!
I can't make you or anyone else consider something seriously if what you really want to do is convince yourself that you don't need to. All I can say is, can you honestly claim to really know what you are talking about, and do you care? If you don't care about that sort of thing, I pity you. If you do care but haven't seen fit to be reasonable about certain figures before, ok. it's never too late to start.

F Lengyel said...

Is it Ayn Rand's atheism or sexual voraciousness that continues to captivate conservatives?

HBinswanger said...

Sigh. Let me first establish my bona fides. I was a visiting prof., teaching a grad course on "Knowledge and Reality" at UT Austin when Brian Leiter was there (or had he just left?). I had a grad course from Robert Wolff at Columbia, circa 1970, while earning my Ph.D. there. I taught (admittedly as a part-timer) at Hunter College (C.U.N.Y.) for 7 years. My first course in philosophy, at MIT, was from . . . wait for it . . . Hilary Putnam. My thesis on biological teleology was done under Ernest Nagel.

Oh, yeah, and I'm a life-long Objectivist. In 2014 I published my 400-page magnum opus, "How We Know," and its subtitle is: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.

P.S. Rand (whom I knew well personally) would have loathed Trump. All the leading Objectivist intellectuals do. I voted for Hillary.

JGR said...

I don't think the way to adjudicate questions like this is to count up professional academic philosophers who do or don't take Rand seriously. If you did, you may well find more and more-prominent philosophy professors who dismiss her than ones who take her very seriously (whether pro or con). I don't dispute that, although I would add that probably a much larger group than the former two combined would be those who just don't have much of an opinion about her at all, one way or the other. And things like this are not good predictors of what or whom, in the long run, will or won't be taken seriously. The field was once like this for Nietzsche and a great many other figures now taken seriously. Meanwhile, many continental philosophers have a dismissive attitude about prominent analytic philosophers and vice-versa. It doesn't prove much. As for standing in the field, I'm an untenured nobody. I studied logic out Warren Goldfarb's text book (which is really good, IMHO). He has standing. So, yes, @Ultimatephilosopher, it's strictly false that no professional philosophers take Rand seriously, as I and some others do. But that's not a great argument that she ought or ought not to be taken seriously. W.G. could just as easily reply that JGR is a lousy professional philosopher who also isn't taken seriously. I hope that isn't true, but that wouldn't settle the matter either.

All I can I do is ask him or anyone else to consider whether that is a fair way to argue down a figure or is it just a form of social shaming/intimidation for people who might take the figure seriously? [By the way, while I don't agree on his take about Rand's ethics, referencing a plot point of Atlas Shrugged to connect her ethos to the one that might be behind the AHCA is a reasonable way to argue. I was disappointed only with the 'no professional philosophers' line.]

Now, you might say some figures/views are just so laughable that that's all they merit, and an academic field has a legitimate interest in keeping out the kooks who follow suit. Maybe that's right. Seems not unreasonable with respect to L. Ron Hubbard. Seems like the right call for Creationists in Biology. And if that's what you think about Rand, I'd say this: ask yourself honestly, how well do I actually know her views? If you have 'heard some stuff' is it that what you have heard is bat shit crazy (e.g. go murder people, god lives in a bicycle shop on Neptune), or is it not insane, so much as something you really, really dislike, disagree with, and perhaps even loathe morally/politically (rational egoism and laissez faire capitalism, for instance)? If it's the latter, then you're dismissal might have an ulterior motive. Maybe you hate her, or you might want to hate her, but that doesn't mean you know her. Have you read her non-fiction, and if and when you do, are you judging it/reading it as if it were a piece of analytic philosophy (which it isn't) or continental philosophy (ditto)? In other words, are you using credible intellectual standards, and are those standards applicable as well as in themselves good.

JGR said...

I'll close with an example. @Puzzling Philosopher, can you honestly say that you weren't primarily trying to find reasons and ways to be dismissive when you skimmed the Companion chapter? If your intention was to take it seriously and read it fairly, are you sure that you were equipped to do so?
Without meaning too much offense, I suspect that you were looking to be dismissive, and if not, that you reverted to reading it according to standards and conventions that didn't apply. Let me give some examples:

You call it uncritical, and in one sense that's true. But ask yourself is the purpose of a Companion chapter criticism or exposition (particularly if it is a chapter in a companion covering a figure or a part of her work that is largely unfamiliar to readers)? What are you looking for in this respect? I'd have been happy to discuss controversies over Rand's metaphysics if such a body of literature existed. Maybe it will, it doesn't yet. I presented her views to the best of my understanding. I never endorse her views (although, I admit that I showed some of my sympathies in the section on the topic of the Metaphysical and Man-made). Is that "uncritical"? And if it is, is it "uncritical" in the pejorative sense except by equivocation? It's not an attempt at criticism, but then it strikes me that there are intellectual tasks to be done before one can turn to criticism, e.g. exegesis.

You say it is confusingly stated in terms of axioms. Does that mean anything more than that you were confused by the talk of axioms? I don't assume that the confusion I may feel when I read some new figure is her fault more than it is mine. It might be hers, but I don't know that until I make a good-faith effort to learn her idiolect and think through what she is saying. If you don't, that seems like a weakness in you as a reader.

You say the arguments that are sketched look pretty philosophically shallow. Maybe. I have no idea what you would consider substantial, and whether that would be "serious" philosophy by my standards. Are you saying that there wasn't enough argument for her axioms? I can understand why you might reject her axioms or find them uncompelling, but you can't very well complain that her system doesn't "prove" her axioms.

I'm responding to criticism of my work here, but I'm also putting @Puzzling Philosopher on the spot, sInce I'm suggesting that s/he either didn't really intend to read that chapter in good faith, or did but read it in such a way as to mistake some of what might be her/his own confusions and thwarted expectations (that are the results of unfamiliarity) for deficits in myself or my subject. There's not much I can do about those things other then to put that out there and hope that Puzzling does not take too much umbrage and thinks about it honestly.

A final point: suppose you are a wise and adroit philosophical reader and you think very little of Rand (or whomever) having actually read her with a real effort to understand her. That being so, would writing the initial post be a productive and informative way to contribute to a political discussion about a subject of consequence? Would it manage to show people why Rand was bad news and was behind the worst aspects of the AHCA? Or would it just be some snark? If the latter, then I know Prof. Wolff has better and more interesting things to say that could raise the level of discourse.

s. wallerstein said...

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

JGR said...

"your" dismissal, not "you're" in the 5:52 post.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

s. wallerstein said...
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
March 28, 2017 at 6:19 PM

If you would rather go back to an incestuous leftist circle-jerk without outside interruption or challenge, why not just say it outright.

As for those posting as "Anonymous" with nothing of substance to add, I don't see much point of responding to them. I mean, I could point out for a 2nd time that the Rand/Hubbard comparison couldn't possibly hold up given the facts I mentioned, but Dennet/Rapoport-Rules-style intellectual exchange doesn't seem to be the desire of substance-less "Anonymous." If they had any substance, maybe it would be different.

John Donohue said...

Someone above was amazed that this thread could go so long without a fight, but when the Objectivists showed up, none of the Rand-scoffers threw a substantive punch. So far.

s. wallerstein said...

Ultimate philosopher,

With that phrase, "leftist circle-jerk", you've clearly admitted (which no one from your sect has done until now in this conversation) that you have a rightwing agenda. Thank you for your frankness.

s. wallerstein said...

John Donohue,

You guys are punching, not us. That says a lot about you and the game you're playing. We don't see this blog or life as a boxing ring. Probably, the Ayn Rand crowd do see life as a boxing ring.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

I have little reservation about saying that appeals to the experts or consensus in philosophy of all disciplines, is perhaps entirely discreditable. All that matters in the end is the merits of the arguments. As it is, when someone comes up with factually false claims about whether or not any experts do take X seriously, that's informative about the epistemic standards of those making the claims.

On a related note, a genuine philosopher adhering to Dennett/Rapoport Rules for criticism cultivates credibility if, e.g., they say on the one hand that Rand's writings on metaphysics offer little orginal or profound but that on the other hand Rand's writings on (on or more areas which have received fairly extensive attention and interest among professionals/experts - ethics, politics, method, the nature of concept-formation; aesthetics at least in the case of Hospers and probably many more in the course of time) show some important insight, probably originality, something that could stimulate further study for those with the time and interest.

Attempts to belittle Rand on the basis of an "A is A" passage are entirely unresponsive to the things being said by professional philosophers who have been studying Rand indepth. At least Nozick and Huemer deserve credit for doing serious critique (and indications are that these individuals have taken Rand seriously as a thinker despite their criticisms).

(If, on the other hand, I could find a leftist who played fair wrt Rand, I'd be pleasantly surprised. I don't think it some kind of accident that leftism has been marginalized in mainstream American political discussion from Reagan onward; the lack of attempts at serious dialectical responsibility from the left is palpable and their treatment of Rand is a dramatically poignant example. Maybe if so much as a single soul on the left were to address the "dialectical libertarian" thesis/writings in Sciabarra which reclaims dialectical method for capitalist social theory, they might earn some credibility. Their response to that is the same as that to Mises' magisterial demolition of socialist thought: nothing. That's not dialectical completeness; that's selective ignorance. Note that Otto Bauer was the sole Marxist that Mises had any respect for among the great many he had encountered. Time for some big-league house-cleaning.)


John Donohue said...

Okay, I'll lower my boxing gloves, although the metaphor was mild, and you are totalizing it for some reason. How about "contend" or "debate" or "challenge?" Is that soft enough?

Here's what you said: "This is the first time I've seen a comments thread of such length in this blog with no disagreements, no arguments."

Care to actually argue?

For instance, have you encountered Rand's distinction between Primacy of Consciousness and Primacy of Existence, and if so, on which side do you stand?

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Maybe a brave leftist could earn some minimal amount of credibility if, for instance, they came forward and said something like:

"Yes, global rates of poverty have plummeted in the era of 'neoliberal globalization,' and even globalized measures of income/wealth inequality over that period don't confirm a widening-gap thesis," before going "but still...."

(The era of 'neoliberal globalization' has coincided with perhaps the greatest thing to happen to humankind, the internet. Not all that unlike how early industrial England - that most miserable period of human history as leftists portray it - saw a doubling in England's population and a rise in life expectancy. Now their one remaining bogeyman is climate change a la Naomi Klein - also evidently failing to take into consideration the concurrency of the technological revolution along with the industrial one. 250 or so years of human history seeing a development/progress that is a dramatic departure from the thousands of years that went before. And leftist are all doom-and-gloom, look-at-the-dark-side, like it's second nature to them - with the only relief in their gloomy worldview coming with the magicial future materialization of the Socialist Eschaton. Or a wild extrapolation from a 2-year experiment in Catalonia....)

Dennett/Rapoport Rules, leftists. Google 'em up and habituate 'em.

Anonymous said...

Ryan has gone on record denying that he is a devotee of Rand, claiming, rather, that if pushed he'd identify more with the views of Aquinas. You really can't make this stuff up!

Puzzling Philosopher said...

All that I meant by uncritical was that no critical assessment is attempted.

I did try to read it in good faith, but emerged having found what seemed to be the substantive theses some of the least controversial things one can say in metaphysics, not that anything is universally accepted in philosophy. The originality seems to me to come mainly in things that are frankly of dubious interest or value, like the claims that the concept of existence is somehow also a proposition, that the identity of an object is its properties, that it is incoherent for the object of awareness to be a state of consciousness, that people who believe the weather is controlled by gods must not understand the difference between the facts that are and are not created by choices, or like the running-together of ontological versus causal dependences between "existence" and "consciousness"; and the frequent connections to what fictional characters do never seem to be any more revealing than as, e.g., unnecessary examples of how knowledge can be useful.

I'm not moved by the piece to think that there is a really interesting, original position in metaphysics to be reckoned with here. It would obviously be cool if there is, though! So I hope so, and that you and others will elucidate its interest.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

We haven't even touched the tip of the iceberg that is the theme of Atlas Shrugged, which Rand stated as: "The role of the mind in man's existence."

The critics have shown an astonishingly low level of interest in this theme and all its implications. They don't even have to like Rand to take that theme with utmost seriousness and proceed accordingly. It's what Aristotle (the greatest philosopher of them all) would do.


s. wallerstein said...

John Donohue,

I have no interest in debating you. There's a saying from a Grace Paley novel: "I never argue when there's a genuine disagreement".

I come to this blog to discuss issues which interest me, not to argue. And one of the things that I like about this blog is that there is little or almost no boxing or arm wrestling.

I've read most, although not all, of what you guys have written in this blog. You've convinced me that you represent a coherent line of thought, which may not always receive a fair hearing, but it's not a line of thought which interests me
much. There are only 24 hours in a day and I don't have the time to study Ayn Rand nor do I have the time to study lots of thinkers whom I would prefer, for my own idiosyncratic reasons, to read. Ayn Rand is just not on my reading list, which is already much longer than I can deal with.

You guys come on very strong, and you do tend to saturate readers with more than they can assimilate in the very little spare time that most of us have to read blog comments. So maybe a bit more piano, piano might win you friends and influence people in this neighborhood.

drwerewolf said...

Off topics, but just for the record: It was not Douglas Adams who had the brilliant comment about orcs and Ayn Rand! Real author was John Rogers in a blog post circa 2009 ... 8 years after Douglas Adams died.

I wonder how it feels to start having your funniest thoughts attributed to more famous people. :0

John Donohue said...

@ s. wallerstein

Okay, fair enough.

Any other takers?

F Lengyel said...

Since I've seen the term "libertarian" arise in these comments in connection with Rand, I thought I might bring up some N-player non-cooperative games I came up with while attempting to formalize within non-cooperative game theory a lassiez-faire fantasy. In these N-player games, the optimal outcome for self-regarding agents, for whom cooperation is irrational, coincides with the best possible cooperative outcome. Cooperation within a non-cooperative game is defined as a non-dominant strategy that provides equal (or equitable) payoffs for players, other than that predicted by solution concepts that presume rational self interest, such as the Nash equilibrium.

These attempts to realize the lassiez-faire fantasy in game theory so far have led to implausible--even preposterous--payoff functions. Initially I called the first game "The Invisible Hand of Ayn Rand," but thought better of it, and revised it to Cooperation from self-interest in one shot. Such games can be generalized in various ways. The first makes all of the cooperative payoffs equal, but this condition isn't necessary. Invisible hand games gives two families of games in which cooperation is irrational, but all players receive the same payoff they would have received if they had cooperated, by pursuing self-interested strategies. Cooperation, narrowly defined in terms of payoff functions, tends to be unstable, at least in these games. But perhaps the Rand aficionados have a more robust formalization on offer.

John Donohue said...

@ drwerewolf,

It's not a brilliant comment, unless you are a snarky adolescent with a drippy nose.

John Donohue said...

@ I.M.Flaud,

Our robust formalization is reality.

What it took you two long paragraphs to describe is called "The Prisoner's Dilemma," and it is a fixed game. It not only "begs" the answer "goodness comes from egalitarian sharing" but it coerces it. It is only a constructed pipe dream of egalitarians, having no bearing on anything but the games they play as Psych grad students.

F Lengyel said...

None of the games are the same as the prisoner's dilemma or equivalent up to a positive affine transformation. That assertion is incorrect. The remaining comment is irrelevant. The generalized games allow for non-equal payoffs. So much for reality.

HBinswanger said...

I appreciate that John Donohue is underinformed on game theory--as am I. But I don't consider game theory a valid method of deciding philosophic questions. It may have some use (though I'm skeptical) in some specialized areas, but the moral validity or invalidity of laissez-faire is to be settled by applying morality to what laissez-faire is, and the economic validity or invalidity is to be settled by applying economic theory to what it is. Answers to both are to be found deductively, by applying wider principles. They are not settled by any kind of modeling and role-playing.

You disagree, no doubt. But that's an issue for epistemology, and both analytic philosophers and Objectivists hold that the other side has no real epistemology.

John Donohue said...

@HBinswanger, I am not uninformed about this. Why did you say that? Because of a claim by someone else?

@I.M.Flaud, Prisoner's Dilemma gambits, whatever their name, do indeed allow for non-equal payoffs. However, they are structured to construct that inequalities that result are disproportionate and appear cruel and predatory. In other words, the fix is in: egalitarianism = good.

Even though Mr. Binswanger took a swipe at me (not for the first time), I concur that game theory is unsuitable for examining philosophical questions.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Those Objectivism scholars working in the field of ethics have been placing Rand's conception of egoism within the virtue-ethics tradition. Rand spoke a lot about virtue/character (fundamentally the virtue of rationality) in achieving a good life.

Is there some literature out there that connects virtue ethics with Prisoners Dilemmas?

On what basis does Howard Roark in The Fountainhead decide to "cooperate" or "defect"? On the basis of his self-interest, yes. And what does he find to be in his self-interest?

How does game theory/PD come to bear on the "role of the mind in man's existence," one of the actual chief theoretical concerns of Rand's (distinct from the concerns various critics implicitly imagine or attribute to her as being her chief concerns). In a capsule summary of her philosophy, she speaks of "the concept of man as a heroic being" (Roark being a fictionalized example). How does that fit in with game theory?

(If there's a real connection, I want to know! If game theory helps us to be more heroic and eudaimonic, let's all feast on it.)


Ultimate Philosopher said...

I mean, is "ethical egoism" supposed to suggest the cold calculating homo economics, and it's Rand that's illicitly deviating from that Proper Definition of egoism?

Rand titled a book The Virtue of Selfishness. Does this mean that she regarded selfishness, not rationality, as the primary virtue - that she wouldn't be in any position to define the former in terms of the latter?

That appears to be what the critics have come to think.

It's not how any of the well-versed scholars understand her position, however.

Anonymous said...

One reason that contemporary philosophers generally do not take Ayn Rand seriously is the devastating critique Robert Nozick wrote of her philosophy in his essay "On the Randian Argument." A copy is available here:

I take this article as sufficient evidence that Rand's work on ethics and political philosophy is not worthy of serious study or engagement. Perhaps Nozick misread Rand in some way. But he was, at the time he wrote the piece, a zealous defender of right-wing libertarianism. He was also fond of Rand's philosophical hero, Aristotle. If any contemporary philosopher could be expected to give Rand's work a sympathetic reading, he would.

On another note: from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Rand, it appears that Rand used the word "altruism" differently from the way most contemporary philosophers use it. Most contemporary philosophers use "altruism" to refer to any action directed at another person's well-being and not at one's own. Rand uses the word "altruism" to refer to an ideology of radical self-sacrifice. This difference in usage may lead Randians and non-Randians to talk past each other in some conversations. Giving directions to a stranger on the street, with no hope of benefit for oneself (including a "warm glow") but also at no cost, counts as altruism to most contemporary philosophers but not to Rand.

Rob Hughes said...

I didn't intend my comment to be anonymous--I clicked too fast. I'm 9:53 PM (on Nozick and on "altruism").

John Donohue said...

@Rov Hughes,

Rand is a radical. She went to the radical root of altruism. The word means "to live for others," as coined and explicated by Auguste Comte. On top of the moral edict to voluntarily live for others, Comte advocated making it the law: Building a command and control autocracy on "living for others."

Being general kind and positive towards others is not altruism. It might be called "benevolence."

The most precise reading on this is in the introduction to Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness."

Here is another, that digs into the root of the usage.

John Donohue said...

I meant "Rob" Hughes, sorry [no edit here]

I'll add that yes, the usages of "altruism" being far apart could lead to thinkers talking past each other. If they are smart and fair, however, they will stop to equalize the pressure and talk about essentials thereafter.

HBinswanger said...

Robert Wolff chose a pregnant passage from Atlas Shrugged to hold up to ridicule. Let's see what I can do to show that that passage is actually extremely contentful.

(By the way, identity is the second, not the first axiom of Objectivism.)

In answer to the perennial metaphysical question, "What, if anything, is entailed in the fact of existing, there's practically nothing one can say--because "to say of" is to differentiate--S is P as opposed to non-P. Rand knew this well (see her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology), and her statement on what it is to be, is really on avoiding what she sees as the false view historical thinkers have had of being.

"To exist is to be something..."--as opposed to what? What does that differentiate from? As opposed to two false views: 1. the reifiers of non-existence and 2. the reifiers of abstract universals. Continuing the sentence: ". . . as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes."

1. Among the "reifiers of the zero," as she called the Existentialists and Heidegger, are those who believe the universe came into being or will go out of being (i.e., followers of Western religions), those who accept the existence of the void, those who believe the universe is expanding (into nothingness), and those who pose any variant of the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" That question assumes not only that nonbeing exists, but that it is the default state (state of what?!).

2. The second differentiation is from the reifiers of the abstract--those who think there can be something in reality, outside the mind, that is generalized, nonspecific, "blurry." The poster boy here is Locke's "substratum," a notion Rand was specifically concerned to abjure here. The Lockean substratum, as the metaphysical pincushion in which properties inhere, has no identity of its own. Likewise for Plato's "receptacle" or "space," and likewise for any Realist view of universals--even Locke's, since it is precisely the assertion that nonspecific "universals" exist in rerum natura. The early Wittgenstein's "bare particular" is another candidate for this dubious distinction."

Rand once told me that she chose the wording "an entity made of specific attributes" very carefully to stress that entities *are* their attributes (as opposed to the view that they "have" attributes). This unusual (unique?) view turns out to have many implications, not merely the denial of a "substratum." I'll merely mention here that it changes the view of the essence/accident distinction (making it epistemic not ontological) and cuts the ground out from under Hegel's entire dialectic (since Being cannot be thought of as stripped of all attributes). Actually both aspects of "to be is to be something" come into play against Hegel, Marx, Whitehead, Bergson, James, Dewey, and most Positivists. They all sunder existence and identity.

I've gone on too long, but I've covered only the first sentence of the quoted section. This being the Age of Twitter, I'll stop here, and make one more point in a separate post.

HBinswanger said...

Robert Wolff chose a passage from the radio speech of a character in a novel. For her non-fiction presentation on axioms, consider the opening of her chapter on "Axiomatic Concepts" from Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

"Axioms are usually considered to be propositions identifying a fundamental, self-evident truth. But explicit propositions as such are not primaries: they are made of concepts. The base of man's knowledge--of all other concepts, all axioms, propositions and thought--consists of axiomatic concepts.

"An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest.

"The first and primary axiomatic concepts are 'existence,' 'identity' (which is a corollary of 'existence') and 'consciousness.' One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or 'prove') existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries. (An attempt to 'prove' them is self-contradictory: it is an attempt to 'prove' existence by means of non-existence, and consciousness by mean of unconsciousness.)

"Existence, identity and consciousness are concepts in that they require identification in conceptual form. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that they are perceived or experienced directly, but grasped conceptually. They are implicit in every state of awareness, from the first sensation to the first percept to the sum of all concepts. After the first discriminated sensation (or percept), man's subsequent knowledge adds nothing to the basic facts designated by the terms 'existence,' 'identity,' 'consciousness'--these facts are contained in any single state of awareness; but what is added by subsequent knowledge is the epistemological need to identify them consciously and self-consciously. The awareness of this need can be reached only at an advanced stage of conceptual development, when one has acquired a sufficient volume of knowledge--and the identification, the fully conscious grasp, can be achieved only by a process of abstraction.

"It is not the abstraction of an attribute from a group of existents, but of a basic fact from all facts. Existence and identity are not attributes of existents, they are the existents. Consciousness is an attribute of certain living entities, but it is not an attribute of a given state of awareness, it is that state. Epistemologically, the formation of axiomatic concepts is an act of abstraction, a selective focusing on and mental isolation of metaphysical fundamentals; but metaphysically, it is an act of integration--the widest integration possible to man: it unites and embraces the total of his experience."

HBinswanger said...

On Nozick: I wrote a moderately long letter to Nozick, pointing out the errors in his article on Rand. After not hearing from him for several weeks, I phoned him and had a nice conversation with him in which he said he'd like to read it but that it went into a stack on his desk of things he meant to get to someday, but, he said, he probably never would. He even suggested I publish it somewhere.

Well, 4 decades later, two other Objectivist philosophers have put my letter up on their blog, and I strongly urge you to take a look at it before you write off Rand's meta-ethics. Incidentally, since we seem to be into what "names" in philosophy think, Rand's meta-ethics has received favorable comment from Peter Railton and Christine Swanton.

HBinswanger said...

More ammunition: Leiter's old colleague at UT Austin, Tara Smith, has published two books on Rand's ethics, Viable Values and Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. The latter is published by Cambridge University Press.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

@Rob Hughes (March 28, 2017 at 9:53 PM)

Surely you are also aware of the response to Nozick by Den Uyl and Rasmussen posted on that very same website?

Playing fair re Rand's merits should at least be a minimal requirement for people to enter this kind of fray and issue any definitive assessments. Playing fair includes making a decent effort to discover what other responses/literature might come to bear, rather than referencing only this or that *critic* of the position in question.

(It means, in short, a huge departure from the way leftists - to single out a demographic - have habitually attacked Rand and capitalism generally. For example, the leftist Brian Leiter linked to this here blog entry we're commenting on, but he never, and I mean never, posts any links that would paint Rand in a more favorable light. He can't or won't bring himself to do it. Yet he claims to be running a "philosophy" blog (lol), where not all that much actual philosophizing goes on, BTW; the Maverick Philosopher's blog blows Leiter's away in that dept., and Maverick is onto the standard loathsome leftist M.O. as well. I mean, in pursuit of dialectical completeness within reasonable contraints I'd very much like to venture into leftist circles in hopes of learning something in a fair exchange of ideas. My experiences so far have not proved all that promising or encouraging. I mean, hell, just look at the way the leftists have comported themselves in this here comments section. Perhaps if what I see of leftist intellectual culture weren't so loathsome I'd hold out more hope. I'd *really, really* like to pursue dialectical completeness and learn things, but the leftists don't seem interested in doing their part - certainly not when all they manage to see when looking at capitalism is rampant injustice, exploitation, etc., and giving short shrift to all kinds of pointed defenses, unraveling of misconceptions, and less one-sided treatment of the available evidence set. Many of them have turned places like reddit into a garbage dump of one-sided circlejerk echo chamber pseudo-reinforcement, with their oft-abused license to downvote unpopular rebuttals without any accountability and whatnot. I'm saddened to see this default on intellectual seriousness. :( This here blog entry is not just about Rand but also the leftist/anticapitalist context from which it originates, hence my repeated ranting on that topic.)

When playing fair, Dennett/Rapoport-Rules-like, the Rand critics just don't have it nearly as easy as they thought they might. The citing of Nozick's critique but not of the rebuttals has been a standard tactic I've observed countless times over the years. Sooner or later all those young whippersnappers and others feasting on freely accessed Peikoff courses are going to absolutely drown out the false "consensus" about Rand's lack of seriousness, and there's nothing intellectually creditable that the false-consensus-builders will be able to do about it. This here thread is just a teensy little taster of what's to come.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

And what's more, if and when that anti-false-consensus juggernaut reaches fuller force, what these critics or any open-minded folks on the fences will find out without too much difficulty is: Hey, this Rand chick and the phenomenon of her wide and growing following ain't so scary after all! Ah, so *that's* what excited Hospers' acute interest, but of course, how could we have missed that all along? Oh now it makes sense, that whole benevolent universe outlook and heroic sense of life is what's so strongly motivating! Gee whiz, she *does* hold an exceedingly positive and optimistic vision of human potential and all it takes in the end is a commitment to the virtue of thinking! Wow, I never saw it like that before - how the human intellect plays such a huge role in the course of human history, scientific and technological advance, the process of production. Now it makes perfect sense what Galt was talking about with regard to the virtues as a form of spiritual currency vis a vis the non-sacrificing Trader Principle, so *of course* (an actual justified "of course" in this comments thread....) a society of Randists (neo-Aristotelians, duh) aren't going to simply leave the unfortunate starving in the gutter! Of *course* the application and meaning of reason involves the art of context-keeping, establishing the hierarchy of knowledge/concepts in the manner detailed in the Peikoff courses. Of course Hospers the aesthetician saw the virtues of Rand's theory of art in terms of psycho-epistemology and sense of life, with - of course - romanticism being the best form of art (as attested to by what all those thoughtful and learned layfolk, even without the benefit of abstract theory, find most fulfilling, duh). *Of course* what's in those Peikoff courses is a lot of systematically-developed and fortified common sense. Of course a society of Randians (neo-Aristotelians) will be first and foremost a culture of reason, well-disciplined in that art of context-keeping.

Of course, in due time many will compare the situation heretofore re Objectivism to how Rand described the situation of capitalism in the intro to 'Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal': that hidden beneath all those bundles of straw frantically and desperately set on fire in a nightmare lynching is the living body of the ideal. (For shame, they will say.)

Of course the Rand-naysayers will have egg all over their faces and a lot of 'splainin' to do, assuming that they hadn't already long before issued their mea culpas and jumped on the winning bandwagon.

"Those Peikoff courses used to cost - and are easily worth - hundreds of dollars apiece, and they were made available for free? Damn, what a gift. (Of course.) And still yet not a single apostate. (Of course. A being A, and all. There's no way to non-self-defeatingly reject epistemic perfectionism/context-keeping/integration/dialectical completeness/Aristotelian sensibilities. Good job, you've figured it out. Now let's keep on maximally integrating/flourishing.)"



F Lengyel said...

the moral validity or invalidity of laissez-faire is to be settled by applying morality to what laissez-faire is, and the economic validity or invalidity is to be settled by applying economic theory to what it is.

Nowhere am I deducing an ought from an is.

Answers to both are to be found deductively, by applying wider principles. They are not settled by any kind of modeling and role-playing.

This is dubious -- where would economists--and the social sciences generally--be without their models?

Aside from my mathematical bagatelles, which indicate some difficulties attempting to reconcile "rational self interest" with cooperation in commons-like situations, there are serious efforts to analyze social dilemmas. Gintis mentions a folk theorem to the effect that a society of self-regarding agents will eventually collapse. Christina Bicchieri takes up the question of social dilemmas in Bicchieri, C. (2006). The Grammar of Society: The Nature and Dynamics of Social Norms. Cambridge University Press. Bicchieri states that "there is plenty of evidence that most people are conditional cooperators... ."

HBinswanger said...

I. M. Flaud wrote:

"Nowhere am I deducing an ought from an is."

Correct. Rand's validation of man's life as the standard of value is not deductive, but inductive. It's the application of that standard to determining the morally right social system that's deductive.

HBinswanger said...

"where would economists--and the social sciences generally--be without their models?"

In a far, far better place than they have ever been.

HBinswanger said...

Puzzling Philosopher lists as one of the dubious theses of Rand: "it is incoherent for the object of awareness to be a state of consciousness"

This is a supremely important issue. It's Rand's answer to Descartes and all his successors. But you got it importantly wrong. The incoherence comes only when it is posited that all consciousness is self-consciousness. Her statement in Galt's speech is:
"A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. [my emphasis]

The 2nd Meditation makes that exact mistake. It finds no problem in assuming that nothing exists except the contents of my consciousness. But Rand's challenge is: "My consciousness . . . of what?"

Actually Wittgenstein seems to get this when he says, cryptically, that a pure solipsism consistently carried out is indistinguishable from realism.

It's also what's going on in the paradoxes of pure self-reference, such as "This statement is false." There's no statement there. There is nothing asserted, nothing capable of being true or false.

There is no problem with self-consciousness after consciousness of an external existent. Introspection, which Rand champions, is precisely that. My way of putting it is: extrospection precedes introspection.

Rob Hughes said...

@Ultimate Philosopher: I was not aware of Den Uyl & Rasmussen's paper. I am not a regular reader of the blog to which I linked, and this paper (unlike Nozick's) is not well-known. I have not had time to read it carefully, but looking it over persuades me that Rand's work is open to interpretations other than the interpretation Nozick gave it.

Two brief comments on the summary of Rand's argument for "liberty as a primary value" (257-259):

A) The notion of "initiation of physical force" plays a key role in the argument. I presume that Rand, like most libertarians, maintains that it is acceptable to use or to threaten force to defend private property, but that it is unacceptable to use or to threaten force in order to collect a tax whose purpose is to fund programs like public unemployment and disability insurance. To defend this pair of claims, while remaining consistent with her argument for the value of liberty, Rand would need to argue that forcible protection of private property does not constitute "initiation of force," whereas forcible protection of government tax revenue does constitute "initiation of force."

Defending this distinction is a tough row to hoe. If Rand in fact offers a plausible argument for this distinction, I would be interesting in knowing what it is (and I would welcome a reference to a source that spells out the argument clearly and concisely).

B) The authors comment that their summary of Rand's argument contains many gaps, some of which could be filled by reading Rand's work, some of which could not. In their words, "The filling in of other steps could not be gotten from Rand's work alone." (259) If this is true, it may explain why most professional philosophers are not inclined to engage with Rand's work. Though we are sometimes willing to do this sort of gap-filling with well-known historical texts, we generally expect contemporary and recent philosophers to spell out their arguments fully, without leaving obvious gaps. This expectation is particularly strong when the claim being defended is radical.

HBinswanger said...

Rob Hughes wrote:

Rand would need to argue that forcible protection of private property does not constitute "initiation of force," whereas forcible protection of government tax revenue does constitute "initiation of force.

Defending this distinction is a tough row to hoe. If Rand in fact offers a plausible argument for this distinction, I would be interesting in knowing what it is (and I would welcome a reference to a source that spells out the argument clearly and concisely).

Not quite sure what you mean by "the forcible protection of government tax revenue." Do you mean the government being able to continue to extract money by force from the hapless citizens? Even a private business has no right to "protect" its revenue by initiating force.

Perhaps you are seeking her crucial distinction between initiated and retaliatory force. That's all over the literature, starting with a pamphlet she wrote in the late forties, but best known in this statement from Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged:

"So long as men desire to live together, no man may -- initiate -- do you hear me? no man may start -- the use of physical force against others.

"To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. . . .

"It is only as retaliation that force may be used and only against the man who starts its use. No, I do not share his evil or sink to his concept of morality: I merely grant him his choice, destruction, the only destruction he had the right to choose: his own. He uses force to seize a value; I use it only to destroy destruction. A holdup man seeks to gain wealth by killing me; I do not grow richer by killing a holdup man."

Or did you have something else in mind?

F Lengyel said...

But I don't consider game theory a valid method of deciding philosophic questions.

A non sequitur because game theory was used as a tool of economic analysis, as it often is.

Even though Mr. Binswanger took a swipe at me (not for the first time), I concur that game theory is unsuitable for examining philosophical questions.

There are famous counterexamples in analytic philosophy. In Convention, David Lewis writes, "My theory of convention had its source in the theory of games of pure coordination--a neglected branch of the general theory of games of von Neumann and Morgenstern, very different in method and content from their successful and better known theory of games of pure conflict."
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a reliable account.

HBinswanger said...

Rob Hughes: Though Rasmussen's and Den Uyl's piece is pretty good, Rasmussen, at least, disagrees with one aspect of Rand's metaethics (the view that it is entirely hypothetical vs. categorical). This perhaps is perhaps responsible for their finding "gaps" in her reasoning (the gaps being the things necessary to support their interpretation of her metaethics.)

At a meeting of The Ayn Rand Society of the APA some years back, Rasmussen and Allan Gotthelf debated this topic, and it is reprinted in The Ayn Rand Society Philosophic Studies volume I (Pittsburgh U. Press). A very interesting back-and-forth.

Also, did you check out my letter to Nozick? link

Ultimate Philosopher said...


Now we're getting somewhere! :)
Rob Hughes said...

"A) The notion of "initiation of physical force" plays a key role in the argument. I presume that Rand, like most libertarians, maintains that it is acceptable to use or to threaten force to defend private property, but that it is unacceptable to use or to threaten force in order to collect a tax whose purpose is to fund programs like public unemployment and disability insurance. To defend this pair of claims, while remaining consistent with her argument for the value of liberty, Rand would need to argue that forcible protection of private property does not constitute "initiation of force," whereas forcible protection of government tax revenue does constitute "initiation of force."

"Defending this distinction is a tough row to hoe. If Rand in fact offers a plausible argument for this distinction, I would be interesting in knowing what it is (and I would welcome a reference to a source that spells out the argument clearly and concisely)."

Looking at how political philosophers have tended to argue about the distinction, it would appear to be a tough row to hoe. I've thought this myself for a very long time. Now I think it might just stem from a number of confusions that wouldn't beset Rand or probably any number of other laissez-faire-capitalists ('right-libertarians' in the academic jargon although Rand eschewed the "libertarian" label for "radical for capitalism" which is much harder to misconstrue).

Some considerations:

The proposed alternatives about how to construe intrusions upon liberty or freedom - that a defense against theft of private property can be treated as interchangeable with a government taking of private property - runs contrary to (non-academic, real-world) understanding and evolved common-law legal practice. In other words, what's proposed is a radical departure from this evolved practice and understanding. Thousands of years of history of private property as a reasonably well-understood institution demarcating people's respective spheres of action -- and this tradition of understanding is to be up-ended because of some purported trouble with being able to figure out what is really a violation of liberty and what isn't. But this trouble or perplexity seems to be confined to (a) academics and (b) people seeking a reason to undermine capitalism (or laissez-faire at the least) because of its supposed morally offensive characteristics and being resentful that such a morally dubious system is being defended in the name of freedom. Meanwhile the evolved common law had no such difficulty making it rather clear-cut what constituted an invasion and what constituted a defense.

And I think what's mostly at work here is the (b) part, an interest in rejiggering the ordinary understanding of liberty or freedom to conform to a sense of *justice* or of *rights*, and that tends to lead dialectically to the next stage of argument among political philosophers: whether we get a better understanding by treating rights or justice as primary and deriving an understanding of freedom (or initiation of force) from that. Some of them would bite the bullet and say that the requirements of rights or justice demand that freedom be treated as something that can be abridged at times. Many 'libertarians' go the route of saying rights are primary and the usual slate of "self-ownership plus Lockean-type acquisition procedures" (as that is all codified in common law) will tell us what we mean by freedom.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

part 2

It's not clear that Rand is at all receptive to this style of resolving such disputes. Here's a significant clue as to why I think she wouldn't be: she is so big on the "role of the mind in man's existence" - with the mind being the exclusive possession of the individual, of course - that this mind or intellect can only rightly be viewed as the primary source of value-added in anything we identify as material property goods. Without the mental/intellectual contribution we have land and labor as it existed for 90% or more of human history prior to agriculture. The demarcation becomes even more dramatic when we consider human history prior to the industrial revolution. We hear a lot from "reformers" about how landed property might be distributed equally, as if land were a major consideration in value-added. But whatever initial "distribution" we hypothetically started with, the inequalities resulting from differences in intellectual talents would result in a "distribution" of property titles probably not all that unlike what we see in modern industrial societies (which can't be characterized as "pure capitalism" but the private-property market element is predominant and plays such a central role in the development of industry. And the "man's mind" part explains not just all the value-added from innovation that occurs in industry, but also the technological-advance part.

In this way of understanding these matters, with "man's mind" as the primary in understanding this course of progress, and in light of the intellectual-cultural-political preconditions for all this (modern forms of government instituted from the "Lockean" and American templates, an Enlightenment-inspired culture, that sort of thing), we have a reasonably direct line from "man's mind" which by its nature requires *freedom* to function and produce its greatest fruits, and all those economic and technological consequences. Indeed, Rand's defense of capitalism isn't ahistorical but consciously built inductively upon historical experience, namely that of the industrial revolution. Her mind-centric conception of morality (the standard of moral value being "man's life qua man" with reason/mind/intellect as the form of human life-functioning) comes into unity with the *practical*, i.e., the widespread mutually-beneficial enhancement of human lives.

Back more directly to your question about how we distinguish initiatory from defensive force, common law considerations aside - where Rand is looking for a timeless philosophical justification for thinking in such a way - I have some doubt that Rand would bring up rights first and define (initiatory or defensive) force in terms of rights. She speaks of rights as "a sanction of man's freedom of action in a social context," with the right to life - the right to take actions necessary for the preservation, support and advancement of one's life qua human - as primary. This involves a right of production of the necessaries and amenities of life using one's mind as the primary source of productive value-added. This gives rise to rights of property as necessary external-material implementation of one's life-promoting productive activities.

Do other political philosophers frame rights in such terms? Locke is a precursor in defending rights in terms of the putatively widely-recognized moral propriety of self-preservation and pursuit of happiness. But did he frame it all in terms of the role of the *mind* in all that? Not only is the (specific nature of the human) mind the root of what philosophers traditionally identify as free action; it's the source of productive value-added.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

part 3

There might also be a mode of analysis here in which maybe even the question of whether to define rights in terms of freedom/force or the other way around is at root misconceived. It is clear that there is a major conceptually-intimate relation between rights and freedom/force, and the question quite naturally arises of what the relation of conceptual dependency is here. At the *moral* level, at the level of freedom of the will (or as Kantians frame it, autonomy), there's *something* that sets it apart conceptually from freedom understood in a *political* sense, that is, from external force or coercion or compulsion by *other human beings* (and not the force or compulsion of the laws of nature, contra an "elbow room" of autonomous choosing). And what I think might be going on here in Rand's argument is that rights and *political* freedom are conceptually co-extensive, referring in a way to the very same thing, and putatively without a vicious kind of circularity of dependence going on. But these rights or political freedoms *are* conceptually dependent upon freedom in the moral sense I've been describing (the freedom conceptually coextensive with the nature of the activities of mind/reason/intellect). In short, the point of political freedom or rights is the preservation of this moral freedom against intrusion by other people or obstacles thrown up by other people.

This has gone on rather long already but perhaps I've given some good leads on how this subject is framed. I haven't gotten into the objections from those advocates of a kind of "liberty" of people to "take actions necessary for the preservation and promotion of their life and well-being" that involves the "freedom" to appropriate/seize goods produced by others if one has proven unwilling or incapable of producing those goods oneself and therefore finds oneself in a situation in which that is the only option left. (James Sterba is one notable advocate of a version of this argument.) Based on the foregoing points about the nature of productive activity (with the *right to engage in self-sustaining, intellect-generated productive activity* being central), I think there's enough to suggest that this is a misconceiving of the whole issue/problem. I think Rand's whole frame of reference results in the following kind of prescription: Let humans be free to exercise their minds to produce value-added, even better if there is a backdrop culture of reason that nurtures optimal reasoning habits (an attitude of rigorous adherence to context-keeping for example), and these problems - the basic problem of human survival and advancement that modern techniques have arisen to address - will resolve themselves in an optimal way. The cultural backdrop Rand advocates for also involves a widespread recognition of virtue as spiritual currency - a sound basis for social mutual aid societies for example that don't require the machinations of the *state* of all institutions in order to be effective.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

part 4
There's also a challenge to the Sterba-like conception of "liberty"/"justice" that makes that conception especially troubling IMO: he bites the bullet and advocates that the inhabitants of the rich nations must give up all their "surplus resources" (produced somehow) to the poor ones in accordance with the latters' basic needs. A lot of political theorists say that there is a basic universal human right to be in possession of such resources. (I guess there's no principled objection to including among these "surplus resources" the leisure time of the comparably well-off.) Not only does this "solution to poverty" not incorporate what's most necessary long-term for poverty-alleviation - intellectual, cultural, technological, economic/capital development - but it's proposed to us as a "reasonable" burden to have to undergo. What I find troubling about this is what conception of "reasonableness" must be involved here: what are its limits? Do we tend to accept such a conception outside of the utopian-style theoretical constructions of academic-types? What justifies it? Sure, it's great to have an appropriately-constrained sense of fellow-human-regard, especially one based on mutual advanced like Rand's anti-sacrifice Trader Principle in which virtue can serve as a means of spiritual exchange, but is a human being's life others' to dispose of?

We have enough to chew on for now before getting around to your point B) about the supposed gaps in Rand's argument. I do think that a lot of what I've said already about the role of the mind in human life (in productive creation etc.) suggests that it's the very "gap"-filler we would be looking for. It's not like Rand had this stuff hidden somewhere in her prose, too obscure for trained academics to pick up on. Den Uyl and Rasmussen point out that Nozick apparently failed to adequately pick up on the neo-Aristotelian context of Rand's argument, with its chief emphasis on the nature and role of reason in all value-added-producing human activity.

(It would not be until some time well into the '70s and '80s that the academic mainstream began to take serious notice of the way neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, of which Rand's is a distinctive strain, provides an alternative conceptual framing of ethical issues vs. the other major traditions/schools. Was Rand ahead of her time, just framing the issues in ways radical and distinct enough that *perhaps even the virtue-ethical tradition itself*, much less the other schools, has some catching-up to do? What happens if we pursue such a hypothesis.... sayyyy, wherever do we hear academic-types vigorously touting in explicit terms to students and readers the *virtue of context-keeping* in cognitive/epistemic habits, and any number of theoretical and illustrative implications of this? Is there some catching up to be done here by people not named Ayn Rand or Leonard Peikoff? Were Aristotle around then surely - given his epistemic perfectionism, his boundless curiosity for data - he would have noticed and picked up on any such explicity-developed theme wherever he might find them, if he hadn't developed such already himself....)


Ultimate Philosopher said...

HBinswanger said...
At a meeting of The Ayn Rand Society of the APA some years back, Rasmussen and Allan Gotthelf debated this topic, and it is reprinted in The Ayn Rand Society Philosophic Studies volume I (Pittsburgh U. Press). A very interesting back-and-forth.
March 29, 2017 at 8:50 PM

I had to double-check my volume because I don't remember seeing Rasmussen's piece there. Only Gotthelf's essay is reprinted there and he mentions that Rasmussen's papers on the subject were already reprinted elsewhere. But he does quote/cite plenty from Rasmussen in his essay.

Rob Hughes said...

@HBinswanger: I did look at your letter (though like the Rasmussen and Den Uyi piece I have had not had time to read carefully). It also persuades me that Rand is open to an interpretation other than the interpretation Nozick gave it.

Regarding taxes, Rand needs a response to the following set of claims: There are no "natural" property rights. Property rights are established by law; they are whatever the law says they are. Since there is no legal right to one's pre-tax income, the view that income taxes extracts money from people is based on an elementary misunderstanding. People only have a legitimate property right to their post-tax income. Income taxes are legally owed to the government, and willful withholding of tax money is wrong for the same reason theft is wrong; morally speaking, it is theft from the public. The enforcement of tax law and the enforcement of private property right are morally of a piece; the first is legitimate if and only if the second is.

The view that tax is really part of the property system, and that people have no moral right to their pre-tax income, has been ably defended by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel in The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice. Of course I couldn't expect Rand to respond to Murphy and Nagel's 2002 book, but I would expect this of her current followers. I would also expect Rand to be familiar with, and to respond to, some of the reasons for skepticism about natural property rights.

John Donohue said...

@I. M. Flaud

Okay, I concede that game theory might have been used to defend/structure/support one or many branches of analytical philosophy.

To what end? AKA: so what?

Since the world view of a game is constructed ad hoc by the game designer, it can support any pre-conceived conclusion. For instance, as I’ve pointed out, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is a zero-sum artificial world in which the fix is in to prove that egalitarianism is best, and capitalism/individualism is evil because given the chance (freedom) individuals will aggressively violate and damage/betray each other for gain.

So, when engaging game theory to answer philosophical questions,
1)How do you set up a “game” that is nothing but natural reality? Good luck.
2)What is the underlying premise – the ethical and political belief system – it champions?

Game theory is not useful in settling usefulphilosophical questions.

John Donohue said...

I'm sure Mr. Binswanger will respond to Rob Hughes post addressed to him about humans only having a right to what government deems decent/marginal/expeditious, and that only law gives rights.

I'll just saying I'm reading the Declaration of Independence while throwing the tea in the harbour.

F Lengyel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Hughes said...

@Ultimate Philosopher: Thank you for your very detailed and thoughtful reply.

Skepticism about natural property rights has a long history, which predates capitalism. Both Hobbes and Rousseau reject the idea of natural property rights. They had very different reasons for doing so. None of these reasons had anything to do with challenging a meritocratic distribution of wealth. (Rousseau advocated a limited form of egalitarianism, but he thought very plausibly that the distribution of wealth in France and in other European countries at the time had little to do with merit.)

Locke's theory of natural property rights is influential. There are serious problems in applying it to the real world. A small example of the difficulty: it is common knowledge in the United States today that many Native Americans, prior to the arrival of Europeans, applied their labor to land in ways that improved the land. If it is possible to have a natural property right to land, on Locke's theory, these Native Americans did. It is also common knowledge that many areas of land in the United States were acquired from Native Americans by wrongful force or by fraud. If one possesses land that was at one point stolen from Native Americans, and one is not a member of the tribe from which this land was stolen, then one does not have a Lockean natural property right to this land. Perhaps one has a morally legitimate property right to the land, but this entitlement could only derive from the legitimacy of our legal practices, not from law-independent natural rights.

Another difficulty: fiat currency is a creation of law. Why aren't rights to fiat currency therefore whatever the law says they are?

Some deeper, more philosophical problems with Locke's theory of natural property are raised by contemporary left-libertarians such as Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Michael Otsuka.

@John Donahue: I would never suggest that all rights come from law! I merely suggest that all property rights derive from law (or perhaps from authoritative custom, in societies that lack law). That is a different and much more modest claim.

John Donohue said...

@Rob Hughes please note, it’s “Donohue.”

>>> @John Donahue: I would never suggest that all rights come from law! I merely suggest that all property rights derive from law (or perhaps from authoritative custom, in societies that lack law). That is a different and much more modest claim. <<<

Well, what rights do not come from law? Self-ownership of one’s body? What else?

Law exists to protect natural rights, not to create them.

Under freedom, when I interact voluntarily with another human being, and each of us gains more of the property we want from each other, I am now in possession, physical possession, of my new property. For a government to “obtain” it in order to do whatever, it must initiate force against me and take it away.

There. That is the practical reality of “initiation of force” by government upon citizens.

I have zero respect for any political philosophy that claims there is a difference between a citizen possessing his life/body/freedom and possessing his possessions.

Humans have absolute right to any property not gained by force. Not to mention, as I just said, they have physical possession of it. This is not a modest claim; it is loud, proud and brilliant. There goes the tea overboard again.

P.S Please do not say my property rights are void because government “provided” me with services, like an Interstate Highway System, et. al. They are not. It’s an ancient convention that government has the monopoly on providing them, based on the gigantic advantages of possessing a monopoly on force, and deployment of threat of force against anyone who would supply the services by free exchange.

This is natural law: I own my life and property, and I pay my way to sustain it.

Rob Hughes said...

@John Donahue: How did you and your trading partners initially come to own privately the physical resources you claim to own? For example, if you claim private ownership of a house made of wood, how did the wood come to be someone's private property? And how did the land you claim to own come to be someone's private property?

The obvious answer to these questions, that land or wood belongs to the first person to claim it, has obvious problems. Locke's answer to these questions is more subtle and more plausible, but it also has problems, some of which I indicate above.

Rob Hughes said...

@John Donohue: Apologies for the misspellings.

Smoove D said...

I grew up a Randroid, and I still have a bit of fondness left in my heart. Co-founder of the Reed College Objectivist society, yadda yadda, did my time with the whole corpus. I honestly do not want to go back and hash out the obvious and glaring flaws.
Luckily, one of my former colleagues at Boulder, a pretty hardcore Libertarian, Michael Huemer, did the grunt work. I think he probably got most of it. Politics aside - And I still lean a bit that way - the philsophical position, if it can even be called that, is simply indefensible. It's just sloppy and lazy, and substitutes invective for argument.
Look, far better to reconstruvt something like the political theory from new foundations, than to try to salvege that heap of rubbish. Try Nozick, for example, or even Huemer.
For those of you with enough of a masochistic streak, here's Huemer's quite good piece.

John Donohue said...

@Rob Hughes,

If tracking the legitimacy of ownership back to the metaphysically-given state, in which the germinal raw materials and the land are owned by no one, is the worst problem, then it leaves significant room for exalting the chain of exchange from there forward. Locke’s walnut example, in other words. Mind added to unused raw materials.

It is notable that many objectors to property rights jump to “the raw materials.” The wood in the house is not the wealth. The brains, ingenuity, planning, financing, labor (duly contracted and paid) and the will of the visionary who conceived and produced the house, is the wealth. To consider this not the absolute property of the owner by right … well there is not enough tea in China to express my objection.

HBinswanger said...

@Rob Hughes. Rand holds that individual rights are prior to and constitute the standard for evaluating acts of government. This is the traditional Lockean and Jeffersonian view.

Her defense of rights, however, is not from "nature" or God, but from "the conditions required by man's nature for his proper survival." Rights, she holds, are "a moral principle"--specifically, they are extensions of the morality of rational egoism to the question of how society is to be organized. Since each man's proper survival requires that he be free to act on his own judgment, he has an indefeasible moral claim to be free from others' initiation of physical force--force being the only thing another man (or group of men) can do that stops him from acting on his own judgment.

Freedom, in her view, is the absence of physical force (vs. "positive freedom").

"A right is a moral principle defining and sanction a man's freedom of action in a social context."

See "Man's Rights" and "The Nature of Government". The links are to gratis reprints of these important essays on the Ayn Rand Institute website.

HBinswanger said...

@Smoove D. I debated Huemer at a recent Ayn Rand Society meeting, and the exchange is being reprinted in volume III of Ayn Rand Society Philosophic Studies (Univ. of Pittsburgh), which is due out imminently. Or so my editors say.

Needless to say (but I'm saying it), her philosophic position is extraordinarily rich, thoroughly logical, and . . . true. My 2014 book, How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation is nearly 400 pages of small type that starts with the axioms, moves on to perception, then concept-formation, then higher-level concepts, then propositions, then logic, then proof and certainty, then principles, then free will (which for Rand is the choice between rationality and irrationality), then a summary overview. Not exactly lazy.

Rob Hughes said...

@John Donohue: Do I have an absolute property right to a house I build with my own labor, my own ingenuity, and stolen wood?

Smoove D said...

If you say so, Binswanger. I did my time in the trenches, I'm just not willing to go back and waste another second.

I left political theory and ethics for the pure ground of symbolic systems, logic, and formal semantics. One thing I am surprised that no one has mocked here: the assertion that "A=A", maybe I'm just being petty and snarky, but look, great work, groundbreaking work, in formal logic was being done in Rand's lifetime. And I think it says something that Rand was comlletely unread in any of it.
For, of course "A=A" is not even a WFF of almost any formal system. Identity is a relation that holds between individuals, represented by lowercase letters. Her string doesn't say what she says it says. In some nonstandard system it might assert that two properties are the same, or that two propositions are the same. Or two sentences.
Okay, trite nasty, snarky. But for such a self professed champion of logic, you'd think she might have bothered to read the work of modern logicians. Perhaps they were simply mystics of mind or mystics of muscle.
The Piekoff attakmon the analytic / synthetic dichotomy seems similaryly ill informed. As far as I can tell, almost all of Rand's assertions are intended as analytic. I certainly see no empirical data offered up as evidence. Charitably, she's some sort of scientific essentialist, who thinks she has found some a posteriori necessities. I am nearly certain this could not be Piekoff's view, though. From what I can tell, he comes out of a solidly empiricist and quinean tradition, and the only necessary truths he will countenance are analytic ones. So if there aren't any of those, it's just (bad and unmotivated) science.

John Donohue said...

Rob Hughes said...
@John Donohue: Do I have an absolute property right to a house I build with my own labor, my own ingenuity, and stolen wood?

No. But isn't that a small thing? Government exists to rectify theft.

I brought up the word "possess" not to imply that possession in itself protects a right to property, let alone "conveys" a right, but that once a person creates wealth through free exchange or adding effort to something he already owns, it "just so happens" that he, in fact, possesses it. He's got it in his basement.

So, any attempt by others, including government, to claim he does not own it in full, absolutely, must be accompanied by an overt or threatened act of force against the property owner.

The concept that government, or "the people" own all property, and (might) allow citizens to keep some of it rather than have it all subject to redistribution, is the World Turned Upside Down.

John Donohue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Donohue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Smoove D said...

No, it's a rare and powerful pokemon ;)

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Anonymous Smoove D said...
I grew up a Randroid, and I still have a bit of fondness left in my heart. Co-founder of the Reed College Objectivist society, yadda yadda, did my time with the whole corpus. I honestly do not want to go back and hash out the obvious and glaring flaws.
Luckily, one of my former colleagues at Boulder, a pretty hardcore Libertarian, Michael Huemer, did the grunt work.[...]
For those of you with enough of a masochistic streak, here's Huemer's quite good piece.
March 29, 2017 at 11:35 PM

Huemer mischaracterizes Rand's egoism. It follows a common pattern of mischaracterizations of her as some sort of homo-economicus pragmatic consequentialist calculator; in fact her conception of egoism is in the virtue-ethics not consequentialist tradition. I rebut a characterization of Randian egoism similar to Huemer's, and present what I think is a faithful recapitulation of Rand's argument from egoism to rights, here:


Smoove D said...

My name is (Dr.) Devon Belcher, I am an associate prof at Oglethorpe University, and I do not (in this case) hide behind a pseudonym. That's largely because I have a great deal of respect for the integrity of my colleagues here, and in particular, the Objectivists.
I post anonymously where the younger crowd of lefties lurk.
That's partially by way of saying that you misjudge me if you think I am merely some lefty activist. No accusations.
That's my story and I'm sticking with it.
(I post as "Smoove D" because that's what most of my coleagues and students jokingly call me by).

Ultimate Philosopher said...

(1) While the 2006 journal article piece which I link in my previous comment presents IMO a faithful recap of Rand's argument, I provide a more honed (10 years on and all that) version of such an argument upthread in a multi-part reply beginning here:

(2) I haven't the faintest how my copy-pasting of Smoove D's post ended up putting "Anonymous" before his handle; maybe it was incomplete cleaning-up of a comment-window I had open (since I was replying the other day to/about some 'Anonymous').

Smoove D said...

And look, I have some sympathy for the virtue-ethics egoist position. Actually a lot more than sympathy.

But you just can't get there from here. "Here" being Rand's supposed first principles, and "there" being the ethical theory. You just cannot recover anything like an ethics from that. I am not going to bet-hedge or weasel, and say "in my opnion, there is no route from those premises to. . .". There simply is no route. It's thinner than Kant's argument against rubbing one out.

Smoove D said...

no worries, UP, that wasn't directed at you or anyone in particular.

willard said...

I will point at this:

(A) Since the world view of a game is constructed ad hoc by the game designer, it can support any pre-conceived conclusion.

I will also point at this:

(B) Game theory is not useful in settling useful philosophical questions.

Applying B to A should be enough.


If not, there's this interesting tidbit:

> I am one of those with a Google Alert for Ayn Rand [...]

Compare and contrast with above.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Smoove D said...
"But you just can't get there from here. "Here" being Rand's supposed first principles, and "there" being the ethical theory. You just cannot recover anything like an ethics from that. I am not going to bet-hedge or weasel, and say "in my opnion, there is no route from those premises to. . .". There simply is no route. It's thinner than Kant's argument against rubbing one out."

You'd have to provide some details on this; I'm eager to learn. I'll mention that among academic works in ethics I'm probably most impressed by Gewirth's Self-Fulfillment (not that I am at a point where I would buy into all his arguments therein but he does do a thorough survey of the literature up to that point (1998). I'll also probably always have a warm regard for Norton's Personal Destinies from the mid-'70s. But it's with Aristotle and Rand where I find the most explicit commitment to the centrality of what I term intellectual perfection to the ethical life, although I suspect Aquinas does so in his own fashion as well (within a rather different metaphysical context, etc.). I've still got some texts on my ethics reading list that have drawn my attention, such as Irwin's recent epic-length Development of Ethics and Parfit's On What Matters. I also need to finish up LeBar's recent Value of Living Well and Den Uyl and Rasmussen's The Perfectionist Turn. Part of a whole perfective research/intake/learning program that seems to keep growing without end.... Also just recently added Bloomfield's The Virtues of Happiness to my collection. Gotta read through Schmidtz's Rational Choice and Moral Agency eventually as well. Maybe after all that I'll be more ready for S.L. Hurley's Natural Reasons? (I love wisdom but it's the having of wisdom that I seek.
Damn, I still have Williams' Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy to get to as well, sigh.)

Smoove D said...

No. Sorry, UP, but I did my time. I might be able to add a few points to Huemer's takedown, but look, it is not worth it. Apologies, I guess, but I don't think any man should have to go back into the cave after having battled once, and for years, and on both sides. My time is taken up with other issues.

I bet you could read Parfit and cut off the ethical / political claims, and it would still be among the most profound things written in a century.

John Donohue said...


You pointed at something I said, [(A) Since the world view of a game is constructed ad hoc by the game designer, it can support any pre-conceived conclusion.] and recommended comparing it to another formulation, [(B) Game theory is not useful in settling useful philosophical questions.] but that's where I lost it.

What are you saying?

willard said...

> What are you saying?

That your conclusion about game theory could very well be an ad hoc construction to support a pre-conceived conclusion, John Donohue. I could also have pointed out that it was a True Scotsman. I went for the greenfieldism instead.

Just about anything can lead to interesting philosophical questions, including this very thread. Take for instance Goldbarb's and Flaud's example of insurance. Better yet, consider Paul Ryan's own conception of insurance:

> [Teh Paul] is also upset that car insurance makes people who don't get into wrecks help pay for people who do get into wrecks? This is literally the definition of insurance.

In the case of insuramce, Paul Ryan is clearly saying that A should be not A.

It might be hard to reconcile this with Ayn's basic principle.

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Smoove D said...
No. Sorry, UP, but I did my time. I might be able to add a few points to Huemer's takedown, but look, it is not worth it.
March 30, 2017 at 2:22 AM

Sounds like you're okay with deferring to Huemer if someone is looking for leads or details from what little you've mentioned. I'm aware of Huemer's meta-ethical orientation, a Moore-ish intuitionism that eschews the so-called "naturalist fallacy." I take it that he would think that Foot's Natural Goodness themes are likewise susceptible to the supposed fallacy. That work has a good deal of respect in the pro-philosopher milieu, although I have a difficult time trying to discern any major differences in basic stricture between Foot's view and Rand's....

(Also on my reading list to get to hopefully before long: Kraut's What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being.)

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Typo correction: I have a difficult time trying to discern any major differences in basic STRUCTURE between Foot's view and Rand's....

(Seriously we can't edit our comments?)

John Donohue said...

@ Willard,

>>> That your conclusion about game theory could very well be an ad hoc construction to support a pre-conceived conclusion, John Donohue. I could also have pointed out that it was a True Scotsman. I went for the greenfieldism instead. <<<

OkayThen. Can you direct me to an important example in Game Theory of a game that is not slanted or out-and-out rigged by the creator to advantage a POV?

When I was commenting above, I stated that the Objectivist’s game theory is reality.

Meanwhile, I had to look up “greenfieldism.” Yep, that’s a perfect metaphor for the Platonist Float. Not attached to reality. So what is the purpose?

John Donohue said...

@ willard,

I someone insists that a thing should not be itself, Miss Rand would say "You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.""

HBinswanger said...

"although I have a difficult time trying to discern any major differences in basic stricture between Foot's view and Rand's...."

Yes, she's quite good. Had her for an undergrad course at MIT. Wrote a paper for her on the Ost meta-ethics. So I'm a kind of Forrest Gump of meta-ethics: wrote papers pushing Rand's meta-ethics on Putnam, Foot, and Wolff. Doubt I had any effect.

willard said...

> Can you direct me to an important example in Game Theory of a game that is not slanted or out-and-out rigged by the creator to advantage a POV?

Sure, John Donohue:

That should lead you to the Stanford Entry on Game Theory, the Stanford and the IEP entries on Game Theory in Ethics, and some random papers.

That should be enough to make you realize that game theory is not about giving you specific answers, but about setting a rough ballpark for a minimal conception of rationality.


> So what is the purpose?

As I already said, I used this form to show how your conclusion about game theory could very well be an ad hoc construction to support a pre-conceived conclusion. Empty pontifications like "the Objectivist’s game theory is reality" also allows you to connect any dot any way you like. Just like the original greenfieldism, which was "I point to the increase in autism and I point to internet use. That's all.":

So thank you for your sealioning. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask. Oh, and of course I did not forget that you simply dodged the insurance bullet.

It's just a flesh wound, no doubt.


Since I'm here, readers may be interested to know that our esteemed Randbot has already used the One Single Proof regarding AGW:

Let's hope that since 2013 he has finally found the warming.

John Donohue said...

Your insurance thing was so pathetic it was beneath my dignity to respond. Your answer in this last post stinks of a cave under the bridge.

I don't regret my respectful first response to you. I wanted clarification of your post. However, there's too much respectful dialog in this thread for your presence to reach the level of notice. Henceforth.

willard said...

> Your insurance thing was so pathetic it was beneath my dignity to respond.

Beautiful, John Donohue. So let's perfectize it:

(A) Insurance is defined by "a form of risk management primarily used to hedge against the risk of a contingent, uncertain loss":

Let's repeat teh Paul's claim:

(B) Insurance cannot work if healthy people have to pay more to subsidize the sick.

Try to make A and B compatible.

Best of luck.


Since Joseph Heath's name has been mentioned earlier:

> It is precisely because of the utility gains that can be achieved through risk-pooling that we pay for health care through insurance schemes.

Since this kind of risk-pooling extends to financial markets (i.e. most of their products are in fact insurances under one form or another), we can safely conclude that objectivism is just a pipe dream for online Freedom Fighters.


Finally, I will point that our esteemed Randbot hasn't studied with Joseph Heath. That is all.

Smoove D said...

I'd still be a bit curious to hear the critiques of Huemer. Or my own modest points.
Huemer has done a lot of inglorious scut work here; he has (fairly sympathetically) reconstructed Rand's arguments, and numbered premises, pointed out the relevant inferences, and so on. I didn't always agree with Huemer, in fact disagreed more often than not, but think he has done some paradigmatical philosophy here.
It should be simple to show where he's wrong, instead of vague allusions to consequentialism.

Roderick T. Long said...

Ryan may claim to like Rand, but Rand wouldn't have liked Ryan:

John Donohue said...

@ Smoove D, okay, I'll take a shot, but step by step please.

>>> But you just can't get there from here. "Here" being Rand's supposed first principles, and "there" being the ethical theory. <<<

Are you saying anything different than the formulation "You can't derive an ought from an is."

Ultimate Philosopher said...

Smoove D said...
I'd still be a bit curious to hear the critiques of Huemer. Or my own modest points.
Huemer has done a lot of inglorious scut work here; he has (fairly sympathetically) reconstructed Rand's arguments, and numbered premises, pointed out the relevant inferences, and so on. I didn't always agree with Huemer, in fact disagreed more often than not, but think he has done some paradigmatical philosophy here.
It should be simple to show where he's wrong, instead of vague allusions to consequentialism.
March 30, 2017 at 5:02 PM

The structure of a standard consequentialist-type moral theory is markedly different from that of a virtue-ethics-type one I should think. The latter is focused on such questions as what kind of person one should want to be, what kind of life one should want to lead.

Rand speaks of the primary virtue of rationality. Now, a more clever-sounding critic could ask how that does anything, since you still need a standard by which to judge whether someone is exercising their rationality well. If the standard is some consequentialist one, then rationality would be directed toward meeting that consequentialist standard - as something instrumental rather than, say, constitutive of the telos as an Aristotelian-style conception of virtue would have it. I alluded to the homo-economicus pragmatic consequentialist calculator model which critics of "egoism" seem to rely on to show why "egoism" has perennially been "rejected by mainstream moral theorists." This homo-economicus model needn't specify what the utility-preferences of this actor are, how those preferences are even formed; they can be taken as a given and that it's a "self-interested" adherence to these uncontextualized preferences that motivates the "egoist."

In that framing of things, the "Objectivist in a hurry" of Huemer's hypothetical doesn't raise any red flags about the structure of the "egoist"'s moral thinking: the homeless person presents an obstacle to this "egoist" getting what s/he wants in the most efficient manner possible. So we don't get anything about, e.g., the points I raised in my journal article about the context-drop of affirming the moral sanctity of one's own interest-pursuits but negating in practical terms that of others'. If it's that solipsistic style of practical reasoning, where "egoism" means "it's only *my* interests that have moral significance to me," then that creates a bizarre juxtaposition between "egoism" so construed and anything that you find in Rand's body of work that's depicted as morally heroic or admirable. Rand of course instead says that someone committed to the virtue of rationality isn't going to engage in such "counterfeit individualism" (the title of an article by her then-associate Branden addressing this very thing), to affirm both that this particularly entity X (myself) has such and such morally-relevant properties which give this entity a moral standing and purpose, but to deny this about another entity Y (other humans similar to myself) with the same morally-relevant properties.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

(part 2)
Astute observers will note that this sounds like Rand is incorporating a "Kantian" style of universalizability reasoning and recognizing human agents as being "ends in themselves." Rand's formulation of the theme however occurs within the structure of a duly-conditioned teleological normative theory bearing remarkable similarities to those of the Aristotelian tradition; what's more, if this is bears notable parallels to what Kant was arguing (but probably in a fashion quite independently of Kantian influence [she despised Kant] and original to her), one would think that academic commentators could grant some amount credit to Rand for this given Kant's eminent standing in moral theory in that milieu. (I think it's worth noticing that especially under recent reconstructions by Korsgaard especially ["creating the kingdom of ends," etc.] but some others, that Kantian ethics so reconstrued still does have an academic following whereas finding self-styled Kantians in the non-ethics branches of philosophy in Anglo-American analytic philosophy these days is a tough undertaking; no similar problem occurs with finding self-identifying Aristotelians.)

In any case it doesn't appear at all that Huemer is appreciative of the basically Aristotelian context in which Rand forms her conception of egoism which incorporates principles of interpersonal behavior that advise one to be responsive to virtuous behavior in others and to respect those others on the basis of their having the capacity for free or autonomous reason-directed behavior just as one has oneself. That alone will play a considerable role in contextualizing the preferences formed by the *Randian* egoist.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

(part 3)

(One note about Korsgaaard: in one of her articles comparing Aristotle and Kant, she sees parallels in Aristotle's idea of acting to kalon - for the sake of the noble or fine or beautiful - and Kant's idea of acting for the sake of duty or from duty. Korsgaard here is suggesting something like: both Aristotle and Kant are in agreement that there is some preference-independent standard of what's morally desirable and praiseworthy and this to kalon/duty comparison seems to locate this standard in both thinkers. I find this rather problematic in that I think that these two thinkers were both getting at two quite different things despite the preference-independent-standard commonality. Within an Aristotelian virtue-ethical context in which "the kind of life to lead" is a fundamental criterion, it makes plenty of sense to think about how the great-souled man or woman would habitually be acting to kalon - and indeed I think you can find parallels in this to the way a Randian hero behaves in life, without making it a matter of a quite impersonal *duty*. And there are quite arguably strong parallels between Rand and Nietzsche on this to kalon matter given their documented common commitment to a "heroic sense of life" - one that had drawn Rand so closely to Nietzsche in her earlier years before graduating on to Aristotle. The noble soul having reverence for itself has parallels in Aristotelian self-love where the self there is a refined/to kalon one and not just any "self" with an uncontextualized preference-set. And of course Rand shares with Aristotle a constitutive conception of virtuous rationality given what it is to flourish as a human with rational potentials. And we haven't even started on Rand's prescriptions for cognitive method by which to perfect these potentials - hierarchy, context-keeping integration, and all that - the stuff that Rand's critics seem to know very little about but which was of primary theoretical importance to her.)

Now maybe what you and Huemer have in mind is directed more toward the *meta-*ethical picture (going from life to value to ethics, similar to Foot in Natural Goodness) on which Rand bases all these by-and-large normative-ethical considerations. At the very least we can debunk the notion of Rand as some kind of normative-ethical consequentalist; we have plenty of examples and leads from her body of work for doing so.


Mark Hunter said...

Harry Binswanger claims that his philosophy ultimately entails open borders and unrestricted immigration. All the technical jargon and logical detail dissolve into opening the gates to a foreign invasion. If all this is consistent then nothing could better illustrate the utter uselessness of philosophy.