1995 essay: Why I am a former Objectivist and former Libertarian.

Nov. 12, 1995; Why I am a former Objectivist and former Libertarian. 

Mike Huben writes: (begin quote)
One of my eventual projects for my Critiques of Libertarianism web site
is to present something on folks who have left, like yourself. If you
have any material about why people leave, including your own personal
history, I'd be very interested to get ahold of it. What first cracks
the certainty, what conspicuously doesn't work, what was the turnoff,
etc....(end quote)

The problems I first became aware of are not the ones I would use
for argument now. Rand taught (I think correctly) that as a subject in
philosophy, politics derives from and depends on ethics. I first
noticed problems in her political theory, but Rand makes errors at the
very beginning of her ethics. (More on this point at the end of this
essay.) Furthermore, in my personal history, I left Objectivism not
only because of Rand's errors but also because of my own. So, this will
be a selective history, with comments from my current perspective.

I stumbled upon Ayn Rand at the age of 17, in the summer of 1969.
She was far more impressive than any other writer I had encountered in
High School. She served as my introduction to systematic philosophy.

I was a fanatic Randian for about a year. (Made myself obnoxious
to my classmates. Felt very isolated.) Read everything Rand had
published up to that time, including the collected 4 years of THE
OBJECTIVIST NEWSLETTER, most back issues of THE OBJECTIVIST, and her
Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Read the books Rand sold
through her bookservice, including GOD AND PHILOSOPHY by Antony Flew,
and the works of the Austrian economists, Menger, Bohm-Baverk, Mises,
Hayek. Also the essays of Frederic Bastiat, and ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON
by Hazlitt.

In this first year, I became troubled by questions I could find no
answer to in Rand's writings. One political issue of the day was
whether the voting age should be lowered from 21 to 18. Attempting to
reason it out, I concluded that IF the government was a "proper" one,
consisting only of the DEFENSE of rights, no taxes or draft or economic
regulation, then EVERYONE should have the right to vote, including
newborns; but if the government was one that violated rights, then
NOBODY had the moral right to vote. A byproduct of this was that I
realized I had no justification for majority rule. (Rand had no theory
of legitimacy for the authority of government; she took it for granted
that anarchism was impractical, but articulated only limits to
government authority, not any grounds for it.)

In the Fall of 1970 I became a college freshman, and met other
Objectivists for the first time. One introduced me to the Society for
Individual Liberty (SIL), an anarcho-capitalist organization. They
answered my puzzles (and also sold a much larger list of books.)
Individual rights, as Rand presents them, logically imply anarchism. I
was an anarchist by conviction for about six months, and one by
sympathy for much longer. I was not convinced that anarchism was
practical, but continued to believe in Rand's principle that there can
be no conflict between the moral and the practical. Either we would
find a way to make it practical, or we would find an error in the
ethical logic. (I still believe, by the way, that natural rights
theories, taken straight, imply anarchism; I consider this a refutation
of natural rights theories.)

I decided to major in Economics, and for the next few years was a
happy Libertarian. My leading lights were Milton Friedman, Friederic
Hayek, and the "public choice" theorists (e.g. Mancur Olsen, James
Buchanan). During these years I read some anarchist writers, (Spooner,
Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin) and more importantly Henry George
(PROGRESS AND POVERTY, and THE LAND QUESTION) who clearly belonged in
the libertarian tradition but whose books were not sold by libertarian
sources. George (and some of the anarchists) showed me that the usual
arguments for absolute private property in land do not work.

One of my friends at college told me of a Objectivist group he had
belonged to that had dissolved. One guy had seen another's $5 bill
lying on a table, and later raised the question "Why would it NOT have
been to my self-interest to take your $5?" The group had debated
fiercely and found no solution. When I could, (summers, Xmas break,
etc.) I attended meetings at the SIL house, discussing things with
Jarrett Wollstien, Roy Childs, and others. I raised this question with
them, and did not get any fully satisfactory answer. The primary
principle of Rand's ethics is rational self-interest; individual rights
are derivative. How do we make the derivation in a way that will work
in all times and circumstances? How can it be said that it is always,
in all cases, NECESSARILY, in your self-interest to respect other
people's rights? To this day I have not found any good answer; I think
that it is not always, not NECESSARILY, rational to be moral. The
question of "Why be ethical" is basic; there are a number of reasons,
and a society CAN be arranged so that for the vast majority of people,
almost all the time, the reasons are sufficient, and immorality is
suppressed to a tolerable level. But, contrary to Rand, there ARE
conflicts of interest among rational men. Throughout human history
there have been successful swindlers (prophets and priests) and
successful thieves and parasites (Royal families, landlords, slave-
owners and slave-traders.) For most of history, and arguably even
today, the richest and most powerful got that way by force and fraud.

Individual rights and private property were the first principles
of my (libertarian) politics. After realizing that my grounds for them
were shaky, I began to look harder at ethics. Ethics, in turn, depends
on metaphysics and epistemology; what is the self, what is your true
self-interest, and how do you know? I took enough courses in
metaphysics and the philosophy of religion to become thoroughly
confused; got snared by religion. Thus I definitively left Objectivism.
Recovered my atheism in the early 1980's, but for awhile I was a
libertarian who practiced Yoga.

One result was that I became vegetarian, and read DIET FOR A
SMALL PLANET by Frances Moore Lappe'. She showed that the normal,
perfectly "pareto-optimal" operation of the free market results in
millions of tons of humanly edible grain being fed to cattle, for a net
loss of food value of about 95%, while millions of people are starving.
The market places value (i.e. prices) on things according to the
effective demand for them, counted against the opportunity costs of
producing one thing rather than another; "effective demand" in turn is
people's desires weighted by their ability to pay. So, the market
counts the desire of affluent people for meat as more important than
the desire of destitute people for grain.

I got my B.A. in Economics and entered graduate school. (Spent
many years, off and on, in graduate study of Economics, ultimately
finishing all but thesis on a Master's degree.) Graduate-level
economics deals with a lot more "messy cases", non-perfect markets,
public goods and externalities, information problems, etc. One messy
case that impressed me was milk. Milk is heavy, so shipping costs are
high. It is perishable, must be processed (pasteurized, bottled) and
sold quickly. It is produced by cows, which cannot be temporarily laid
off; you must feed them or slaughter them. Because of the shipping
costs, milk processors are typically local monopolies. Free-market
negotiations between processors and farmers would be very one-sided;
the processor, by refusing to buy, could drive a farmer out of business
in days. Further, cows are subject to a disease called Brucelosis,
which can be passed to humans (lots of them children) in milk; the
disease in humans is not fatal but nasty and hard to cure, and can
cause permanent damage. Pasteurization is not enough, herds must be
kept free of it, contaminated milk discarded. In the real world, the
government regulates prices and practices, and inspects herds; with all
my background, I could see no better way.

Rand makes the distinction between the subjective, objective, and
intrinsic theories of ethical values; I did not understand this
distinction in the mid-1970's. Like many libertarians, I believed that
rights were intrinsic; "natural rights" existed independently of and
prior to historical human customs and institutions. This was an
essentially religious kind of belief; between my study of graduate
level economics, and my utter confusion about ethics and metaphysics, I
lost this belief around 1977. One messy case that persuaded me was
water. Water law in the western U.S. is very libertarian in its basic
approach; people have rights to take X quantity from a river, may then
sell it etc. But the river often has less in it than people have rights
to; much litigation results. Eastern water law is "riparian", not
market-oriented. Usually there is plenty to go around but the quality
varies significantly. The bottom line is that water flows where, when,
and in the quantities and qualities that it will; laws assigning rights
of use try to cope with an inherently unruly physics. Property rights
to water are impossible to regard as anything but human contrivances.

The objective theory of ethical values says that ethical values
are tools for a purpose. (We might say, for achieving an objective.)
Rand writes, in "Causality Versus Duty" (begin quote): Reality
confronts man with a great many "musts", but all of them are
conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: "You must, if-" and
the "if" stands for man's choice: "-if you want to achieve a certain
goal." (end quote.) Leonard Piekoff writes commentary on this passage
in his book (OBJECTIVISM: THE PHILOSOPHY OF AYN RAND) (p. 244, begin
quote): The field of ethics itself, including all moral virtues and
values, is necessitated by the law of causality. Morality is no more
than a means to an end; it defines the causes we must enact if we are
to attain a certain effect. (end quote.)

Rand's ethics are a consequentialist system, with the value of an
action deriving from it's consequences for the goals of the actor.
Goals are chosen; indeed, if a person's actions are not automatic, must
be chosen. There are many possible goals that might be chosen. The goal
of Utilitarianism, for example, is to maximize the average happiness of
all sentient beings. Classical Epicureanism's goal is maximizing the
long-term happiness of the individual. Aristotle's ethics aimed at a
goal usually translated as "flourishing". The ultimate goal of a system
is it's standard of value. Identifying the ultimate goal precisely is
important for any consequentialist system.

Leonard Piekoff explains the goal of Objectivism in chapter 7 of
his book. (OPAR, Pages 211-214, begin quotes): Goal-directed entities
do not exist in order to pursue values. They pursue values in order to
exist... That, in effect, is what plants and animals (and rational men)
do. It is why they act and what they act for.... Thus we reach the
climax of Ayn Rand's argument. Only the alternative of life vs. death
creates the context for value-oriented action, and it does so only if
the entity's end is to preserve its life. By the very nature of
"value", therefore, any code of values must hold life as the ultimate
value.... The disinctively Objectivist viewpoint here, let me repeat,
is not that life is a precondition of other values- not that one must
remain alive in order to act.... Objectivism says that remaining alive
is the GOAL of values and of all proper action.... Morality... is the
science of human self-preservation. (end quotes.)

But, this is not true. This is the fundamental error at the root
of Rand's ethics. According to modern biology, plants and animals do
not seek, ultimately, to preserve their own lives. They pursue another
goal. From Robert Trivers' excellent textbook SOCIAL EVOLUTION (begin
quotes):

Evolution (descent with modification) happens because of two other
facts: inheritable variation and differences in reproductive success.

In each species some individuals leave many surviving offspring,
some leave few, some leave none. If individuals with some inheritable
variations happen to leave more surviving offspring than others, then
these genetic variations will become more numerous in the population.

(Because herring gulls are a well-studied species, he uses them as
an example.) (Pages 15, 16): "In summary then, natural selection refers
to differential reproductive success in nature, where reproductive
success is the number of surviving offspring produced.... We are now in
a position to return to our original questions. How is it that herring
gulls are organized to do something, and what exactly are they
organized to do? Our answer: Gulls have been subject to natural
selection...for eons, and this selection has continually woven together
those traits that give their possessors high reproductive success in
the environments in which they found themselves. The result of this
selection is individual gulls today who are organized to maximize the
number of their surviving offspring.... This view of herring gull
life... does not rest alone on plausibility and faith in our...logic.
..we can check to see whether variation in gull traits is associated
with variation in reproductive success. We can further check to see
whether traits shared by many individuals are those that usually give
high reproductive success. In the next chapter we shall see that for
gulls there is now a variety of such measures, most of which show
powerful selection acting on breeding traits... I hope we shall also
see, throughout the book, that the hypothesis of organization to
maximize individual reproductive success uniquely explains a whole
world of facts concerning the way living creatures act."

(End of quotes from Robert Trivers.) Another excellent author to
read on this point is Richard Dawkins, THE SELFISH GENE and THE RIVER
OUT OF EDEN.

Closing with a summary of my own core view. There is a built-in
goal of biological life, genetic reproductive success, also called
"inclusive fitness" by biologists. For nonhuman life, this goal could be
described as "promote the health of your family", where "health" is
defined as "survival ability" and "family" is "all who share your genes,
to the degree that they share your genes". Human beings are a special
case in at least two ways. First, our self-awareness and free will give
us the ability to choose our goals; inclusive fitness is only the
"default option", toward which our nature will incline us unless we
consciously choose to pursue something else. Second, humans are more
than carriers of genes; we have original thoughts, we create, receive,
modify, and transmit culture. Therefore, for human beings, "inclusive
fitness" would as legitimately include our cultural kin as our genetic
kin. The goal I advocate adopting, therefore, is "promote the health of
your circle". The boundaries of your circle are your choice, but it
would be entirely natural to include yourself, your genetic kin and
descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (Near kin commonly
receive more concern than distant kin.)

Adopting this as your ultimate goal gives an ethic that is
consequentialist, objective, and Aristotelian. "Health", defined as
"survival ability", seems to me to imply and include, as derivative
values, most if not all of the other things commonly regarded as
valuable; knowledge, strength, wealth, wisdom, etc.

If you draw the boundaries of your circle at your own skin, you
might thereby follow Objectivism version 1.0; at the other extreme, all
life on Earth is genetically related to some degree. Human beings,
simply because they are all one species, share 99.6% of their genes in
common. There is nothing irrational about such broad concern, though it
is rare.

James Rachels, THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY, page 128ff: "[By
the 'Social Contract' conception,] Morality consists in the set of
rules, governing how people are to treat one another, that rational
people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition
that others follow those rules as well....the key idea is that morally
binding rules are the ones that are necessary for social living....We
agree to follow the moral rules because it is to our own advantage to
live in a society in which the rules are accepted."

In other words, if you want to maintain peaceful and cooperative
relations with your neighbors, don't kill, steal, lie, or break
agreements. As Shakespeare wrote, "It needs no ghost, Milord, come from
the grave, to tell us this."

Because my chosen circle of concern includes my descendants, my
political ideal is sustainable civilization. Reading the history of
life on Earth has impressed me with the rarity and value of "the way we
live now". For three billion years the highest form of life was blue-
green algae. For a million years the human species made fire and stone
tools, and lived by hunting and gathering in small tribes. For ten
thousand years most of us lived by peasant agriculture, which is no fun.
It would be a great tragedy if our civilization crashed and burned a
few hundred years after discovering the scientific method. I would like
to see a civilization based on reason and freedom last for geological
ages.

Rand told the story of the battle in the 20th century between
capitalism and socialism. Many students of Objectivism have valued, not
only their own lives as rational productive traders, but also the
victory in this larger struggle. Marxist socialism is now dying out. The
rising threat to reason and freedom seems to be mysticism and theocracy.
If we want our civilization to be long-lived, we must also face the
challenge of sustainability- stabilizing our population, establishing a
long-lived peace, developing forms of industry that do not poison our
water and air, forms of agriculture that do not create deserts, energy
sources that will supply us for millennia. For our long-term health, we
will also want to develop the ability to alter the orbits of the apollo
asteroids, whose orbits cross the orbit of Earth. Colonizing the solar
system would not be a bad idea, either.

John B. Hodges, (obsolete email address)
A Green Social Contract, for ourselves and our posterity.

Views: 331

Tags: Libertarian, Objectivist, ethics

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Comment by John B Hodges on August 6, 2011 at 11:27pm

Regarding
"free will" I am a compatible-ist; see

http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/determinism-irrelevant 

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 5, 2011 at 8:50pm
In all the cases I can conceive of, this means that the person is either amoral (one cannot really speak about morality when considering retards or gods) or actually immoral. I.e. there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful way to speak about morality at all other than to speak about it as conforming to organismic goals (like health, as one particularly obvious example, and with all the Aristotelian implications you mention), or inclusive fitness, if you prefer. Acting to wantonly destroy life, or to undermine one’s “own” in-group, or to value weakness or ignorance or hate, these all appear to be completely antithetical to happiness, or well-being, or flourishing (eudaimonia), because it seems impossible to reconcile these with having a sustainably-positive self-concept as a living creature. Viruses and such have no need of morals, and they are rightly thought of as amoral, but it is obvious why we sometimes accuse people who behave “badly” of being virus-like. In fact, a sober and honest contemplation of our species reveals that we more often act as a blight on the planet rather than a boon to its other inhabitants, but we can take this under consideration, and I believe we can act more as protectors and shepherds of life than we currently do, and can thus behave “better”. On the purely objective perspective, what happens here on earth or with life anywhere is ultimately amoral – there is no outside reference which can judge us of being good or bad, we just are. This is why we need to rely somewhat on our subjective experiences of ourselves as the ultimate guide to whether we are good and moral or not; “goodness” is ultimately an experience, not an objective fact at large in the universe. But as living beings, and as a special subset of such known as humans, it can be objectively said that we (sustainably) experience goodness only when we are acting in accordance with our subjective imperatives to do good for ourselves and, by extension, others. Self-destructive and other-destructive behavior is eventually experienced negatively, whereas creativity, nurturing, and fostering our lives and the lives of others are felt as profoundly positive and rewarding experiences. There may be elements of objectivity and subjectivity contained in the overall picture of morality, but regardless of these finer philosophical points, one thing is clear – Ayn Rand gives us a very one-dimensional perspective of what morality entails.

I think this was a wonderful post, and I greatly enjoy being able to give you my response and to have this discussion with you. I remembered about halfway through that we already had much the same conversation a while back, and imho for good reason. I agree with virtually everything you have argued for here (the notable exception being free will, I implore you to revisit your position on that!), and you give a lot of great examples too, stuff that I don’t know a whole lot about. Thanks for the post, good stuff!
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 5, 2011 at 8:49pm
This is precisely the organicism I have laid out. However, I take huge issue with your position that we have free will and can thus freely choose the limits of our circles/composition of our organisms and the ends which those organisms aim towards. Firstly, we do not have free will or anything like it. Check out the many discussions and groups and individual blogs on A|N on the subject for starters. Most of the people on here with their heads about them (I think you definitely DO have your head about you, just not perhaps on this point) that I have spoken to have concluded the same. This point I would gladly take up with you. Further, while we are entirely caused to be motivated to be who we are, there are many different strategies for living well which are comparably good – and many more which are quite bad in comparison. However, central to any good strategy is the motivation to do good for your organism/in-group. This means taking care of all the things necessary for inclusive fitness, both genetic and memetic/cultural. And central to our inclusive fitness (a beautiful organismic term if ever I heard one, I shall have to remind myself of it continually) is our need for a positive self concept, which is to have sustainably high self-esteem with its foundation in one’s social group(s). To have a selfish, or self-centered, basis for one’s self-esteem is simply unsustainable for our species – we need to think and act as if we are a part of a larger, more inclusive group. Similarly, to base our self-esteem solely on how much of ourselves we give/sacrifice to others is also unsustainable – that sets us up to be taken advantage of and abused, which we have in-born tendencies to experience negatively for our sense of self. And neither strategy (each being on one extreme of the same continuum) is sustainable for any organism either; organisms which are parasitic don’t (I surmise) do as well as those which form symbiotic relationships with other organisms, and those which expend too many resources to attract other organisms to organize with them don’t see an equitable return on their investments. It appears that cooperation is a fine line to walk; one can be too cooperative, or not cooperative enough, but there seems to exist an optimal balance which has better success rates than competing strategies.

“Adopting this (inclusive fitness, interpreted broadly as, as you put it, to "promote the health of your circle") as your ultimate goal gives an ethic that is consequentialist, objective, and Aristotelian. "Health", defined as "survival ability", seems to me to imply and include, as derivative values, most if not all of the other things commonly regarded as valuable; knowledge, strength, wealth, wisdom, etc.”

I wonder what the logical implications for your (really “our” – we seem to be speaking from different ends, but coming to basically the same conclusion) theory are when you say that this is really only the “default option”. I don’t think this point is too terribly important for this discussion though. And you espouse exactly the position I was arguing for previously in arguing against your (other) position that inclusive fitness is or may be only a default option. I think inclusive fitness as we both have described it (me in organismic terms, you in perhaps more evolutionary terms, but they are in no way contradictory as I understand them) is absolutely essential to moral behavior, at least for us as humans. I suppose the obvious counter-example is of a person who is completely self-sustaining, but there are uncountably-many problems with this. Such a person would either have to be omnipotent or nearly so, or missing some aspect of human psychology which allows him to experience meaningful connections with others, and so on, so that either this person is mentally retarded or sociopathic or god-like. In all the cases I can conceive of, this means that the person is either amoral (one cannot really speak about morality when conside
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 5, 2011 at 8:49pm
We would give preferential treatment to people who are closer to us, who share our genes or our memes, over those who "belong to us" less. So this explains both why we have altruistic natures, why we desire to give of ourselves to the larger group(s), and why we have selfish natures, why we desire to keep things for ourselves. When we factor in self-esteem to this organismic picture, we can see why we feel it is important to preserve the self-esteem and positive emotional states in others, and why we are quick to use the destruction of another's self-esteem as a serious weapon employed to exclude others, or to shame them into behaving the way we would want them to. Pride and shame become vital to morality (though this fact is, I think, seriously undervalued), and our competitive/cooperative (organismic) natures complete the picture. If we are to aim towards the "good", and to have a hold on what it means to be moral, we must consider how our actions will be interpreted both by ourselves in private AND how we will be perceived in public. Rand wasn't completely wrong; ultimately these are all reducable to the selfish desire to experience life well. But her claim that we are to be guided by self-interest alone is misguided because we also need to concern ourselves with the welfare of others as an essential part of our own welfare. Morality takes place in a social context, so to internalize morality and make it essentially a purely subjective, relative thing is just to miss the fact that our experience of ourselves is inextricably linked to how others feel about us as well.

“Ethics, in turn, depends on metaphysics and epistemology; what is the self, what is your true self-interest, and how do you know?”

I believe I spoke to the metaphysical point – we are not in isolation of others, but we are at our best when we are a part of a larger group, when we are strong both as individuals and when we are valued for the strength we give to the greater whole. The epistemological questions are also fun though, but that’s a separate discussion entirely.

Excellent points about economics - meat, milk, water, etc. Fascinating really. You surely came to discard Objectivism by a different route than I, but no less a level-headed one. And I agree that the notion of intrinsic rights is a foolish one.

“The objective theory of ethical values says that ethical values are tools for a purpose.” And, “the formula of realistic necessity is: "You must, if-" and the "if" stands for man's choice: "-if you want to achieve a certain goal." And “The field of ethics itself, including all moral virtues and values, is necessitated by the law of causality. Morality is no more than a means to an end; it defines the causes we must enact if we are to attain a certain effect.”

As I have so far described it, morality is consequentialist and (at least on one interpretation of these thorny philosophical points) objective: our values serve either as ends themselves (we value a delicious bowl of ice cream, just as we value the positive experiences of life in general), or as means to ends (we value eating our vegetables because they keep us healthy). If you want to live a life full of positive, rewarding experiences, you must occasionally have desert. If you want to live longer so that you can continue to enjoy life’s experiences, you must eat your vegetables. Also, it is objectively true that we experience morality subjectively. There are many weird philosophical points that arise around trying to give morality a template, if you will, but they don’t seem too important for our discussion of Rand here.

“The goal I advocate adopting, therefore, is "promote the health of your circle". The boundaries of your circle are your choice, but it would be entirely natural to include yourself, your genetic kin and descendants, your cultural kin and descendants. (Near kin commonly receive more concern than distant kin.)”

This is precisely the organicism I have laid out. However, I
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 5, 2011 at 8:47pm

What the hell happened to my whole post? I will try to post it in bits, I guess.

 

I am a Humean in the sense that I agree with him that "Reason is and ought to be the slave of the Passions". Reason tells us how to best achieve our ends by showing us the means to those ends, and (perhaps more importantly) it can even help us order our desires so that they are in a more harmonious state. But by themselves they cannot tell us what we should adopt as ends. There is no absolute, purely objective end which is inherently good - if we are not motivated to experience life in certain ways, and to experience ourselves (to Rand's point) positively, then there is no reason why we should lead "good" lives; it actually becomes meaningless to say our lives are good if they are not subjectively experienced as such. This is why we have passions to begin with - they are what motivates us towards or away from all things. Being rational does not mean, I think, adopting purely rational ends. I think this is impossible, so if this is what you meant by saying that our experience of our moral sense does not always have to be rational, then in that case yes, I do agree with you. Rationality just means the ability to choose the right means to our ends, and to have ordered ends so that we do not sacrifice greater passions for lesser ones. The question for me becomes, what are the ends which are most basic to our sense of ourselves as good, moral people? While many of the mundane, base, physical/external etc. needs are basic requirements for leading a good (and even moral) life, the basic ingredient for moral action which is most often missed or a cause of much confusion is the need to have a positive self concept. This is most easily translated as having high self-esteem. And central to our ability to feel good about ourselves is the social aspect of our characters. We need to see ourselves as belonging to a larger social group, we need to feel appreciated and valued by others as a part of our being able to feel valuable as individuals. This is where Rand completely misses the point. Her emphasis is entirely on the fact that all experiences take place within the individual, and mistakenly concludes that all ethics is egoistic in nature. This is certainly because the issue is too easily simplified as "moral" action being either selfish or altruistic. I needn't tell you that Rand rails against altruism as the source of all evil, but this is simply because she fails to see any middle ground. After much thinking on this subject, I have come to believe that this middle ground is best expressed as "organicism". We are not singular creatures - even our own identities are mixed up and melded with others who hold significance in our lives. In fact, we most identify ourselves with which larger groups we belong to - atheists, socialists, conservatives, libertarians, Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. We are concerned with how we are experienced by others because we see ourselves as intimately bound up with them - to many different degrees, however. Sometimes our in-group is very large; we want to experience ourselves not just as good atheists or whatnot but as good people in general. I think this is why we might have reservations about stealing from Christians, for example. We wouldn't want to be thought of by others as theifs, and we certainly wouldn't want to think of ourselves as being capable of sinking to the lows of the kinds of people we dissociate ourselves with, nor would we want to give Christians the impression that all atheists are theives or that atheists are scoundrels, etc. Well, that's the general picture. However, as a counterpoint to this desire for cooperative behavior as people in general, we also have competitive desires, desires which are not to include others but to exclude them from our in-group (organism). We would give preferential treatment to people who are closer to us, who share our genes or our memes, over those who "belon

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 5, 2011 at 8:43pm
Good post. All the way back from '95, huh? I especially liked it because I had a very similar experience myself. I'm a lot younger than you though, so this was all more recent. I'm 34 now, but when I was in high school I knew nothing about philosophy. I'm gonna have to go back to the beginning here. I was raised Jewish, but was an atheist by at least age 12. I still went to Jewish school though, and though I have always been a philosopher at heart, the only philosophy I was ever exposed to was Judaism. Ah, if only one person in my life possessed real wisdom... but alas, I had to figure it all out on my own. In high school I finally came across The Fountainhead, and I was immediately thrilled to read someone who seemed to understand reason and logic, and it obviously opened up a new world for me. My life would have been much different were it not for Ayn Rand, I can say that much. Still though, I didn't really understand that I was doing philosophy or what it was. I read Atlas Shrugged in my early 20's during my Army days, and it was at that point that, like you, I became obsessed. I began to gobble up everything I could find on her and Objectivism. And, like you, I was immediately bothered by something telling me that it wasn't sitting well with me. After a while, I realized that her politics were awful and that her egoism was wholly unsatisfactory. I started writing a lot of my reactions to the philosophies she espoused, but it's been about a decade, or nearly so, so I don't recall at the moment the specific arguments which had originally led to my rejection of Objectivism, but I do know that we came to the same conclusions through different arguments. I'll fish them out one day maybe and share them with you. After leaving the military and going to college for, yup, philosophy, I finally had a grasp of what the whole philosophy thing was about, and at that point I realized that there was a much bigger world of philosophy out there of which Ayn Rand was really a very small part. I then had a much bigger context to put her ideas in, and in comparison with much of what I had learned, her Objectivism became almost quaint. Now allow me to respond to specific passages of yours.



"I... continued to believe in Rand's principle that there can be no conflict between the moral and the practical. Either we would find a way to make it practical, or we would find an error in the ethical logic."



This goes to the question of whether the means justify the ends. I think they do - if we have chosen the right ends, then the means to get there are the right ones. The only question is, what are the appropriate ends? Ethics does, imho, turn into a matter of pure practicality, once you realize what our ends are as humans. I will come back to this.



I very much enjoyed your $5 bill example. I never thought of that! It makes perfect sense - there doesn't seem to be any way to reconcile acting out of respect for another, even for those closest to you, like your own children or spouse, if you are under an ethical imperative to think of yourself as the be-all and end-all of all your own actions. And it is strikingly antithetical to one's own intuitions and moral compass to prioritize oneself above all others in every single possible situation. What becomes of human dignity and nobility if we are purely selfish, self-centered, and coldly calculating? Anyway, to continue:



"How can it be said that it is always, in all cases, NECESSARILY, in your self-interest to respect other people's rights? To this day I have not found any good answer; I think that it is not always, not NECESSARILY, rational to be moral."



While I agree with you that pure self-interest isn't entirely compatible with morality, I disagree that it is not always rational to be moral. This will take some explaining, and here I will return to which are our proper human ends and whether the means to them are automatically justified. I am a Humean in the sense that I agree with him th

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