Preface: The following essay was written in 1998, for the IOS discussion list. More recently I have had an exchange of views on an Objectivist site called "Noodlefood" where they (1) claimed that I had totally misunderstood Rand's argument (2) refused to present her argument, saying only that the choice of whether to live or die was **FUNDAMENTAL**, and that I should go back and do my homework. I have added a postscript at the bottom, in reply to these folks.

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August 31, 1998. Choosing an ultimate goal; the epistemological argument.
In an earlier post (Aug. 16)

[Posted here at http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/ought-where-i-part-ways-...  ]

I presented my understanding of Rand's metaethics, making the points that:


(1) All "oughts" are hypothetical, of the form "if you want X, then you ought to do Y". In other words, you would be expected to do Y because Y is a necessary/efficient means of achieving X. In one sense, it is a claim about cause-and-effect relationships in the world. In another, it is a form of advice; a prediction of what rational behavior would be in those circumstances.


(2) A consequentialist system has an ultimate goal and a set of recommended means to that goal. Different philosophers have proposed different ultimate goals. Rand, Epicurus, J.S. Mill, and Aristotle all propose consequentialist systems, seeking Self-preservation, Individual long-run happiness, Aggregate total happiness, and "flourishing", respectively.  


(3) An objective system is a consequentialist system that has an ultimate goal that is objectively measurable. It then becomes an objective question, testable by scientific methods, whether the recommended means will in fact lead to the goal, whether another set of means might be more effective, etc... If the ultimate goal is subjective, e.g. achieving a particular mental state, (Ananda, Kohlinar, Happiness) then the system may still be consequentialist, but it must be built and tested anew by each person, testing their own subjective response to different ways of life.


(4) There are many possible objective systems of ethics, one for each coherent strategy toward each possible objectively measurable goal.

  
The discussion on the list since then has been over whether ALL "oughts" are hypothetical, or was there ONE that was not, specifically that we OUGHT to pursue life as our ultimate goal; I believe the conclusion has been that it was in fact Rand's position that ALL were hypothetical, that the ultimate goal IS a matter of choice, the only remaining question being whether the choice of immediate suicide would be described as "pre-moral" or "immoral". 


I contend that, if all "oughts" are hypothetical, then ethics is engineering. It is NOT a science, in that it is not discovering a unique "correct" ethical system that exists in nature independently of human choice. It is not the case that there is only one "correct" ethical system, in the same way that it is not the case that there is only one "correct" automobile. Likewise ethics is not art, in that it is not simply an expression of our emotions and ideals. Engineering has elements of both science and art, but it is distinct from each. (As I understand it, this is what is meant by the distinction between "intrinsic", "objective", and "subjective" ethics.)


In THE VOICE OF REASON, "Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?", page 18, Rand writes: "Who decides what is the right way to make an automobile, to cure an illness, or to live one's life? Any man who cares to acquire the appropriate knowledge and to judge, at and for his own risk and sake. What is his criterion of judgement? Reason. What is his ultimate frame of reference? Reality. If he errs or evades, who penalizes him? Reality."


In my Aug. 16 post, I concluded:"Objectivism has an argument, known as the epistemological argument, for narrowing the choice to a single option: pursue self-preservation. By this argument, Rand claimed to have solved the "is-ought" problem pointed out by Hume. I believe this argument is flawed. While it is possible to make "arguments of persuasion" favoring one goal or another, and I have my favorite that I will advocate, neither biology nor logic compels any one particular choice for your ultimate goal. But that is a topic for another essay."


So, In this post I will take up the epistemological argument.
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THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
David Hume observed that in the writing of moralists of his time, the writer would talk for awhile about what is, or is not, and later shift to speaking about ought, or ought not. He noted that, in logical deduction, if you have a set of premises, none of which contain the word "ought", valid logical manipulations will fail to give you any conclusion containing the word "ought". He asked the writers of his time to explain how the transition was made. He did not say he had proved it impossible to do, merely that he failed to see any way to do it, and asked those who did it to kindly explain.

 
Rand claimed to do it by an analysis, an "unpacking", of the concept of "value"; her conclusion was summarized by Peikoff as follows: OPAR Page 212-213: "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."


In support of this, Rand offers the following:(1) Only living things exhibit goal-directed action. (2) With the exception of human beings (due to the fact that human consciousness is volitional), all the goal-directed action we observe has as its ultimate goal the preservation of the acting organism's life. (3) If we try to imagine an immortal, indestructible being, (one that could not pursue self-preservation), we find it impossible to imagine them pursuing values of any kind. This being would have no needs or interests, hence would have no motivation to act, hence could not act, hence could not pursue values.


I do not know if the above would be sufficient to prove her contention that the concept of "value" necessarily carries in it the implied ultimate goal of self-preservation, but certainly they would strongly support it. In reply, I note:(1) A certain class of machines can exhibit goal-directed action. (2) According to orthodox modern biology, nonhuman living things tend to act in a way that maximizes their "inclusive fitness", i.e. that tends to preserve their genes. The survival of the individual organism is a subsidiary means to this end, not an ultimate end in itself. (3) I don't have any difficulty imagining an indestructible being that exhibits goal-directed action. The concepts of "need" and "interest" are themselves genetically dependent on the concept of "goal". (4) Human beings exhibit goal-directed action aimed at other goals besides self-preservation.


Concepts are formed by abstraction from concretes, from observations of entities in the world; if we observe many entities pursuing ultimate goals OTHER THAN self-preservation, the concept of "value" cannot be said to NECESSARILY include the implied goal of self-preservation.


Elaborating on the above:
(1) A certain class of machines can exhibit goal-directed action.


First, what is "goal directed action"?


Ayn Rand writes: (VOS, p.16-17) "On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex- from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man- are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organisms life.*" She has a footnote: "When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term 'goal-directed' is not to be taken to mean 'purposive' (a concept applicable only to the actions of consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term...[to mean] the automatic functions of living organisms are such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life."


So, "goal directed action" need not be conscious or "purposive". 


Can machines exhibit goal directed action? There is a class of machines called "servomechanisms"; I did a High School Science Fair project on them many years ago. To exhibit goal-directed action, an entity needs (1) a source of energy (2) a way to convert energy to motion (3) controls on the motion (4) sensors (5) a patterned connection (a "program") between the sensors and the motor controls. 
Some very simple machines would fit this definition. For example, in the early days of steam engines, someone invented a "governor", which by means of weighted spinning levers could sense the speed of the engine and open a valve to bleed off excess steam pressure when the engine ran too fast. The governor acted automatically to limit the speed of the engine.


Existing robots and computers are very sophisticated servomechanisms. They act to achieve the goals we give them. What better proof could we possibly have, that these machines pursue goals, than the knowledge that we built the goals into them ourselves? Do they ORIGINATE goals? No. That is a different issue; see below.


(2) According to orthodox modern biology, nonhuman living things tend to act in a way that maximizes their "inclusive fitness", i.e. that tends to preserve their genes, carried by themselves and their kin. The survival of the individual organism is a subsidiary means to this end, not an ultimate end in itself.


Remember that living things devote a lot of time, effort, resources, and risk-taking action toward finding a mate, and toward gestating, bearing, feeding, protecting, and training offspring. Remember the salmon swimming upstream to breed, a fatal trip, when it might have stayed in the ocean, eating and avoiding danger. For a clear presentation of "inclusive fitness" and the evidence for it, I recommend the textbook SOCIAL EVOLUTION by Robert Trivers. Also the books of Richard Dawkins, particularly THE SELFISH GENE and THE RIVER OUT OF EDEN. Richard Alexander has a book, THE BIOLOGY OF MORAL SYSTEMS, that among other things argues that the "natural" lifespan of a species is set by natural selection at whatever length will maximize reproductive success. Energy and nutrients can be allocated toward maintenance or toward seeking reproduction, the best allocation (for reproductive success) depends on circumstances, particularly the death rate from predation and all other "unnatural' causes. Species that over evolutionary timescales suffer high predation live short, vigorous "natural" lifespans, elephants and tortoises (which suffered very little from predation, at least until humans came along) live long, sedate "natural" lifespans.


(3) I don't have any difficulty imagining an indestructible being that exhibits goal-directed action. The concepts of "need" and "interest" are themselves genetically dependent on the concept of "goal".
OPAR P. 209: "The alternative of existence or nonexistence is the precondition of all values. If an entity were not confronted by this alternative, it could not pursue values, not of any kind." Consider an immortal robot, "an entity which moves and acts, but which ...cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed." 


     Fine, let's consider it. We design a robot on all-terrain treads, powered by panels of photovoltaic cells, with a built-in program to seek water, sunlight, and air, and the machinery to use these to synthesize alcohol. When its alcohol storage tank is full, it moves to a given location where it delivers its load into a funnel. Then it returns to the task of filling its tank again. It moves and acts to achieve a goal; indestructibility is irrelevant.


Nor does the goal have to be self-preservation; not in this case, nor in the case of mortals. You can seek to leave a particular legacy; your legacy is the last goal at which you can succeed or fail. The robot, for example, could be a cruise missile. (Ever see the film "Dark Star"?) Mortals are often concerned with their legacies; "Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens." (Heinlein.) 


Riddle: Could Superman pursue values? Answer: Yes, but only because there is Kryptonite; he is not truly invulnerable. If there were no Kryptonite, he "could not pursue values, not of any kind."

  
To pursue goals, an entity needs an energy source, a way to convert energy to motion, controls on the motion, sensors, and a patterned connection between the sensors and the motion-controls. (A program.) It does not need to be destructible. An invulnerable living thing could pursue genetic reproductive success just as well- even better- than a mortal one. An indestructible robot can pursue its programmed goals just fine. If 'value' is the goal of an action, values can be pursued by nonliving machines, by invulnerable organisms, by anything that can pursue goals.

 
To exhibit goal-directed action, an entity does not need to have needs or interests. In fact, the "stolen concept" argument works the other way here. A "need" is a necessary condition, and an "interest" is a favorable condition, FOR achieving a goal. You do not have needs or interests unless you PREVIOUSLY have some goal you are acting to achieve. Goals CREATE needs and interests, not vice versa. To have a "motivation" is simply to have a goal.


(4) Human beings exhibit goal-directed action aimed at other goals besides self-preservation.


     The thing we observe pursuing self-preservation for no other end beyond self-preservation is the DNA; does it follow that we conscious, self-aware, intelligent human beings must therefore obey our genes and pursue reproduction? Observably, we can and do talk ourselves into lots of things that are against instinct. There is a built-in goal that we can discover; BUT it remains a matter of choice whether or not we then follow it. The built-in goal is optional. Objectively. Alternative goals are possible. Objectively.


I conclude that Rand failed to prove her contention. Perhaps I have completely misunderstood her argument; could someone please address this?

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Whether we shall live is not a choice that we face; we are already living. Whether we shall die is not a choice that we face; all the evidence we have indicates that we shall. The choice we face is not whether we shall live or die, but what we shall try to do while we are living. There are a million possibilities, and none of them are obligatory.

 

======================

Postscript. As I said in the Preface, I have had an exchange of views on an Objectivist site called "Noodlefood" where they (1) claimed that I had totally misunderstood Rand's argument (2) refused to present her argument, saying only that the choice of whether to live or die was **FUNDAMENTAL**, and that I should go back and do my homework.

 

It doesn't really matter whether I understand her argument or not; it doesn't even matter what her argument WAS. We know, clearly enough, what her CONCLUSION was, and her conclusion is empirically false. THEREFORE her argument is flawed. As I recall, when I studied logic, this was a rule of inference called "Modus Tollens", even Aristotle probably had a name for it. Premise 1: If A, then B. Premise 2: It is not true that B. Conclusion: It is not true that A. 

 

So: Premise 1: If (Rand's argument is correct) then (Rand's conclusion is correct).

Premise 2: It is not true that (Rand's conclusion is correct).

Therefore: It is not true that (Rand's argument is correct). 

 

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 distinctively 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.)

 

I have re-read OPAR chapters 6 and 7, and found nothing in them that I did not find earlier. I also checked the index, and read with some interest the pages on "sex", 343-348, which make no mention of reproduction or children.

 
OPAR pages 189-193, "Living Organisms as Goal-directed and Conditional", is the (logically) earliest place I find the point that we are disputing. "If a fundamental difference is one which has enormous, pervasive manifestations, then the most fundamental difference among the entities we perceive is that between the animate and the inanimate." "Living action IS goal-directed action; it consists in an entities taking in raw material from the environment, then... using the material for the sake of growth to maturity, self-maintenanace, and self-repair." (Again, I notice, no mention of reproduction.) "Living organisms initiate a consistent kind of action, which leads (within the limits of the possible) to a consistent outcome. This is the sense in which their action is 'goal-directed'." Peikoff quotes Rand (VOS, p.16-17) "On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, .... are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organisms life.*" She has a footnote: "When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term 'goal-directed' is not to be taken to mean 'purposive' .... I use the term...[to mean] the automatic functions of living organisms are such that they RESULT in the preservation of an organism's life."

 

The only place I have found so far, where Peikoff mentions reproduction, is on OPAR pages 230-231: "The alternative with which reality confronts a living organism is its OWN life or death. The goal is SELF-preservation. Leaving aside reproduction, to which every organism owes its existence, this is the goal of all automatic biological processes and actions." 


Well, Gee... if every organism owes its existence to reproduction, and existence or non-existence is the fundamental alternative faced by living organisms, could it possibly be that reproduction deserves a little more philosophical consideration than that? 


If one is going to talk about the actions of living organisms, one might first learn what has been seen by those who observe living organisms professionally. The science of animal behavior is known as ethology. David Attenborough has a book, THE TRIALS OF LIFE, in which he attempts to give the general reader a view of the raw data (NOT of the theories developed from it)... In the Introduction he writes "My concern here is to describe the happenings, rather than the psychological and evolutionary mechanisms that produce them." After some 300 pages describing what many different animals spend their time doing, at the end of the last chapter, he writes: "Anyone who spends any time watching animals has to conclude that the overriding purpose of of an individual's existence is to pass on some part of itself to the next generation. Most do so directly. A few... do so indirectly by assisting a breeding individual whose genes they share. Inasmuch as the legacy that human beings bequeath to the next generation is not only genetic but, to a unique degree, cultural, that is true of us too. To achieve this end, animals, including ourselves, endure all kinds of hardships and overcome all kinds of difficulties. Predators are foiled, food is gathered, rivals are fought, mates selected and the complexities of copulation negotiated until at last the next generation is brought into existence. Then it is their turn to carry the genes through yet another cycle of the never-ending trials of life."


For pleasure, I've been reading about science generally for decades; on evolutionary biology, I've read everything Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins have ever written, and books by other authors as well. I'm about as well-read as any layman can be... the operation of natural selection has become familiar and "obvious" to me, much as the operation of the market became "obvious" to me after reading economists for ten years. (B.A., 1974.) I've read many articles in economics about how the market works in particular cases, and these examples have helped me grasp the basic principles much more clearly, shall we say, "viscerally". Also with biology; I've read articles in NATURAL HISTORY magazine for 25 years, many examples of how evolution works, how it has given particular results in particular cases. 


It is obvious to me, that natural selection does not and will not produce organisms that seek to maximize their individual longevity. It will produce organisms that seek to maximize their reproductive success, maximize the number of their surviving offspring. The "family values" types will outbreed the "survivalists", and so after a hundred generations the vast majority of the population will be "family values" types. 

 

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.


So, it is obvious to me, that just as a matter of brute fact, Rand and Peikoff are wrong about "life". That's not what organisms do, empirically.

 

Some closing quotes, from Rand and/or Peikoff:

 

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."

 
 The "demands" of reality, however, are not commandments, duties, or "categorical imperatives". Reality does not issue orders, such as "You must live" or "You must think" or "You must be selfish." The objective approach involves a relationship between existence and consciousness; the latter has to make a contribution here, in the form of a specific choice. ... 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.


 "the crucial difference between the metaphysically given and any object, institution, procedure, or rule of conduct made by man. It is the metaphysically given that must be accepted: it cannot be changed. It is the man-made that must never be accepted uncritically: it must be judged, then accepted or rejected and changed when necessary... Nothing made by man had to be: it was made by choice."


"In reality and in the Objectivist ethics... there is only choice and the full, clear recognition of... the law of causality. The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate... can be illustrated by... "Mister, there's nothing I've GOT to do except die."


Aristotelean Final Causation, i.e. "the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it." ... "The disciple of causation faces life without inexplicable claims, unchosen burdens,... His metaphysical attitude... can best be summed up... 'Take what you want and pay for it.' "


"Who decides what is the right way to make an automobile, to cure an illness, or to live one's life? Any man who cares to acquire the appropriate knowledge and to judge, at and for his own risk and sake. What is his criterion of judgement? Reason. What is his ultimate frame of reference? Reality. If he errs or evades, who penalizes him? Reality."

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(JBH) So, as I said before:

Whether we shall live is not a choice that we face; we are already living. Whether we shall die is not a choice that we face; all the evidence we have indicates that we shall. The choice we face is not whether we shall live or die, but what we shall try to do while we are living. There are a million possibilities, and none of them are obligatory.

 

 

 

 

 

Views: 80

Tags: Epistemological, Ethics, Metaethics, Objectivism

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Comment by John B Hodges on March 15, 2011 at 3:52pm
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 15, 2011 at 11:48am

Well I did finally plow my way through this. I still want to read the other links you have sent me, but I'll respond to this now while its fresh. I am in complete agreement with you that Ayn Rand did not succeed when it came to arguing that the basis for all value is self-preservation, you made that point excellently. This leaves me with three things.

 

1. Happiness: How are you on the argument that individual happiness is the basis for all value?

 

2. Life: How are you on the argument that it is the propagation of life itself which is the basis for all value?

 

3. I haven't bought your conclusion that there is nothing that we OUGHT to do given what is. You spend the bulk of your argument tearing down the one given by Rand, but practically none building up your own theory of ethics. This is a point I'm planning on coming back around to once I've read everything else you've sent me, but this simple statement that we have no obligations in life seems to be what your ethical theory boils down to. Perhpas I am wrong, but you say that there is no "unique "correct" ethical system that exists in nature independently of human choice. It is not the case that there is only one "correct" ethical system". You also however say that ethics "is not simply an expression of our emotions and ideals". You seem to want to walk a fine line, and this is all well and good, only I am trying to pin you down precisely so that I can determine what you think the essence of value is or what is the difference between right and wrong. Well, more later.

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