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by Don Watkins III
This essay was originally published as a series of ten blog entries.
Opponents of Objectivism are many, but few have taken the time to actually engage Rand's arguments. One of those who has is a self-proclaimed former Objectivist, John Ku. In a series of essays, entitled "Objections to Objectivism," Ku seeks to refute the Objectivist ethics. His attempt fails, primarily because he does not understand the Rand's arguments.
Before turning to his particular objections, I want to state the Objectivist position with regards to morality without reference to his views, focusing -- not just on the content of Rand's conclusions -- but the method by which she arrived at them.
"A value," according to Rand, "is that which one acts to gain and/or keep." She argued that life makes values possible, and that -- for man -- the choice to live gives rise to the need for morality, a code of values to guide his choices and actions across the whole of his lifespan. Since life is conditional, it requires action -- a specific course of action -- to sustain it. This goal -- the maintenance of life -- serves as man's ultimate value and the standard of morality, the means by which we evaluate things as good for the moral agent, or bad for him. For man, that means the standard for what is good for him and what is bad for him is: man's life. Or, man's survival qua man.
Man's survival qua man is not something "added on" to survival -- it is the form in which man pursues his survival. Life exists on a continuum of health, both mental and physical. To pursue one's survival means to continuously strive for increased health, increased energy, increased efficacy. Not as an arbitrary duty, but because such is the only way to increase one's chances for survival.
The sustenance of life, then, requires flourishing. A sick, feeble man is less able to assure his future welfare. The same is true for a depressed man, or a man whose thought process is cluttered and irrational, or a fugitive. To the extent they are drawing on limited resources, or wasting resources on pursuits that don't further their life, they are moving towards death. Life imposes certain demands on human beings, and the better able we are to meet those demands, the better our chances for survival -- this is the meaning and justification for man's survival qua man as the standard of morality. To put it simply, there is no other form of survival.
Because values derive from life, and because only particular living organisms exist, ethics is inherently egoistic. Values are survival needs, they are ends required by a particular entity for its survival. An individual on a desert island needs morality just as much as a man living in an industrial society -- his needs are the same, and in the most fundamental sense, his means of fulfilling those needs are the same.
In claiming that ethics is egoistic, what is meant is: to sustain and further one's life, one must pursue and achieve one's own values. Contrary to popular misconception, what is or is not to one's interest is not self-evident -- it must be determined by reference to his survival needs, which, in turn, are determined by the kind of entity he is.
Man is an organism whose fundamental survival need is knowledge, and since man's means of gaining knowledge is reason -- the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses -- reason is among man's top values. Consider that the non-existent can be of no value. To desire the non-existent, the contradictory, the irrational, and to pursue the irrational cannot be in man's interest. To identify his values and pursue them in support of his life, a man must be committed to reality, which means, to reason.
If the proper purpose of a man's life is his own survival, he must know that he is worthy of living and able to sustain his life. Self-esteem, then, is essential to his survival. It is not enough to say that a man should act for his benefit -- he must consider himself worthy of such action. This isn't a given -- it has to be earned. As evidence, consider that self-hatred is not by any means the rarest human condition.
Man does not live by the range of the moment -- he experiences his life as a total. To integrate his actions he needs a sense of purpose. Life is motion, and a sense of purpose is the experience of forward motion. It is the reward for living long range.
These chief values, along with all man's other values, if they are to be able to enable him survive, must be non-contradictory. Contradictions don't exist -- if a man holds contradictory values, by that very fact, it will be impossible for him to achieve them. As he succeeds in satisfying one, he will necessarily frustrate another. Happiness is man's reward for successful living, but happiness is the emotion that proceeds from the achievement of one's values, and since the achievement of one's values demands that one's values be achievable, happiness is possible only to the main who holds a non-contradictory code of values.
Man's values necessitate corresponding virtues -- principles of action that enable him to achieve his values. Human beings are conceptual creatures. To determine the proper course of action, man cannot make his choices in a vacuum -- he must choose in the context of all his needs, goals, and values. This requires that he think in principle and act according to virtue.
Rand identifies and validates seven primary virtues -- rationality, independence, honesty, integrity, justice, productiveness, and pride -- not through a statistical analysis of the various actions men take and the results of those actions, but by identifying the nature of man and the nature of the actions.
For example, honesty is the refusal to fake reality. To validate this principle, Rand observed that the unreal doesn't exist, and therefore can have no value. She observed that lying, a form of dishonesty, makes one a slave to the ignorance of others, thereby putting a man at war with reality, a war that is impossible to win. She observed that reality is interconnected -- one lie or self-deception necessarily leads to others, so that one must be committed to honesty in principle or not at all. She observed that honesty is a subset of rationality -- a commitment to reason, man's means of identifying reality and therefore his basic means of survival.
In the next installment, I will address Ku's argument directly.
In Ku's essay, he begins by attacking Rand's claim that a moral code requires the existence of an ultimate value (life), which is an end in itself. Ku argues that one could establish a moral code based on many ends in themselves, with none serving as an ultimate value. Anticipating the obvious objection, that one needs an ultimate value to resolve conflicts between the various ends in themselves, he writes:
[W]hy should this be the case? Although it is certainly necessary to have some means of resolving conflicts within a system of values, a theory that provides an assessment of the comparative worth of each end in itself relative to the other ends in themselves, along with a rough procedure for quantification seems to suffice in this respect. If I can come to recognize that I prefer n units of x to one unit of y, I thereby have a way of resolving any conflict that might arise between my two values, x and y.
Notice that this doesn't answer the objection: Why does one prefer n units of x to one unit of y? What is one's standard? Even if Ku is arguing that one's preferences are to be accepted as unquestionable absolutes, he is implying that serving one's preferences should be one's ultimate value, determining the worth of lesser ends in themselves.
It's also telling that Ku never offers an example of an end in itself other than life. He merely points out that they could exist and faults Rand for not acknowledging this.
Even if we assume that there are other ends in themselves, two alternatives are possible. Either those ends in themselves are complementary, in which case, there must logically be an ultimate end served by the various lesser ends; or they are contradictory. But a contradictory code of values is an irrational code of values -- a code impossible to achieve and to justify. Unless Ku means to denigrate Rand for not endorsing the idea of a contradictory code of ethics, her claim stands: a moral code demands an ultimate value, an end in itself, to which all lesser values are a means.
Certain he has put Rand's argument to rest, Ku invents a series of other arguments supposedly used to justify the Objectivist ethics, and takes great joy in poking holes in these. In one particularly despicable straw man, he implies that the Objectivist ethics is based solely on the observation that one must be alive in order to have values. This interpretation of Rand's arguments has been explicitly denied in Objectivist literature. And for good reason.
Rand's point wasn't simply that one had to be alive to pursue values, but that the conditional nature of life gives rise to the existence of values and necessitates their pursuit. It's not that one must be alive to pursue things (although that is true), but that one must pursue certain ends in order to remain alive. This establishes the context for moral questions -- if we were alive but had no needs, if life was automatically guaranteed to us with no action necessary on our part, we could still pursue things, but we would have no values -- we would have no reason to pursue things. A value is a value because of its role in sustaining and furthering one's life.
Ku's next objection is that Rand jumps from argument that life is the standard of value, to her conclusion that man's life is the standard of morality.
There are further problems with this argument, however, for even if it worked, it would prove only that life qua survival was the ultimate value, not life qua man. This would obviously have extremely implausible implications. Nor is it solved by claiming that being rational and productive is man's means of survival since that squarely places the value of life qua man subordinate to life qua survival, thereby making it justified if not obligatory to abandon reason as soon as it will allow one to live just a little longer. Ayn Rand clearly wanted not longevity but life as a rational and productive being to be the ultimate value. Yet to argue to that conclusion from her premises regarding life and its connection with value would be to commit the fallacy of equivocation. The truth of the premises rely on a meaning of life different from that in her conclusion. This is clearly seen by the fact that such statements as, "It is only for a rational, productive being that things can be good or bad," are ridiculously false. Thus, you can no more conclude from the premises involving life qua survival that life qua man is the ultimate value than you can infer from New York being "The Big Apple" that it is therefore a fruit.
This argument is based on a gross confusion about what's "man's survival qua man" means. As I have already explained, man's survival and man's survival qua man are not two distinct concepts -- "man's survival qua man" is what man's survival means. What Rand was stressing was the fact that man can't survive by any means, but only by the means determined and necessitated by his nature.
This is why it makes no sense to say man must "abandon reason as soon as it will allow one to live just a little longer." Man's survival depends on his use of reason -- there is no dichotomy between reason and longevity.
To take Ku's example: "It is only for a rational, productive being that things can be good or bad," is not the point Rand was making. Rather, she was saying that it is only for a living being that things can be good or bad. Since man lives by reason and productivity, these things are good for him. Man's nature and the requirements of his survival mandate those actions. Man, and other words, must survive qua man.
As I said before, "Life exists on a continuum of health, both mental and physical. To pursue one's survival means to continuously strive for increased health, increased energy, increased efficacy." That is what it means to live man qua man.
Ku ends his first essay by arguing that even if Rand's argument were valid, it would not prove egoism valid. His argument, in effect, reduces to the claim that moral values need not be agent-relative (that is, reducible to whether or not a they are good for an entity), but may be agent-neutral, that is, intrinsic. I will take this point up in the next installment.
Altruism is the morality of self-sacrifice. To sacrifice, according to Rand, is to give up a higher value for a lower value or non-value. Since life requires the achievement of values, not their surrender, altruism -- by the very fact -- is a morality of death.
Ku takes issue with this viewpoint.
The key premise, of course, is the claim that sacrifice is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one, but as one might anticipate from the mention of the distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral value at the end of the last section, this rests on a gross distortion of the ordinary concept of sacrifice. A sacrifice is not "the rejection of the good for the sake of the evil," it is the surrender of some of one's own agent-relative values for the sake of one that is of greater (agent-neutral) value despite its being a lesser agent-relative value for you or perhaps none at all. In other words, sacrifice is the giving up of some of one's own personal interests for the sake of other, greater, impersonal (at least with respect to one's own person) values. (I have benefited from comments made in Michael Huemer's essay, "Why I am not an Objectivist," regarding this point.) Thus, sacrifice is indeed "the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue" but only in the narrow context of one's own agent-relative values.
What this means is plainly obvious -- Ku doesn't in fact dispute that self-sacrifice results in self-destruction. He does not dispute that the surrender of one's own values, "agent-relative values" he calls them, is antithetical to the demands of life. Rather, he merely posits that one is sacrificing oneself to values outside of oneself. He is, in other words, saying that self-destruction is morally proper in cases where one is serving "higher values."
But this merely assumes what it is trying to prove -- namely, that there are higher values than one's own life. As Rand demonstrated, and as Ku failed to disprove, life is the source of all values, and one's own life is the source of all of one's own values. There are, in other words, no values higher than one's own life. There can't be.
The claim that there are higher values than one's own life raises one question Ku does not answer explicitly: Higher values, to whom? Ku's answer, in stating that these higher are agent-neutral, is: no one. This is worse than altruism as Rand defined it because there, at least, one is supposedly sacrificing for others. But Ku is demanding that we sacrifice to nobody -- to disembodied values that by their nature benefit no one.
Notice that Ku does not give an example of these agent-neutral values. He can't -- because they don't exist. Ku is demanding that we sacrifice to nothing.
Now, it is true, as Ku points out later, that demonstrating that altruism is self-destructive does not by itself make the case for egoism. No one has said it has. Rand made that case by proving that life is the source of values. But apart from that, one wonders why it is up to Rand to prove that self-destruction is evil, rather than Ku and his ilk to prove that self-destruction can be good.
But of course they won't, and not simply because they can't. They won't because they do not accept that the alternative to a morality of self-interest is a morality of self-destruction. Either they believe there is some third way, one which is neither selfish nor self-destructive, or they believe that one should be self-destructive only "sometimes" and self-interested only "sometimes."
Unfortunately for Ku, every action bears on one's survival ability -- every action is either pro-life or anti-life. There is no middle way. By the same token, to act self-destructively "sometimes" is to pursue self-destruction. Life must be pursued on principle -- only death can be pursued piecemeal. That's because death doesn't require values. Only life requires values.
The rest of Ku's defense of altruism consists of blurring the fundamental issue of sacrifice vs. selfishness.
For example, Ku offers the Kantian maxim of universalization -- "pleasure is good no matter who it is possessed by; this ought to be maximized" -- as an example of altruism and claims Objectivism has no reason to object to such a principle. But the objections are obvious: Why is pleasure a value? And why should I not hold my interests above those of everyone else? And what if maximizing pleasure demands the sacrifice of my own? And how do I determine what will maximize pleasure for "everyone"? And what if I can increase everyone's pleasure a little bit by sacrificing my own a lot? Or, what if I can increase my own pleasure a lot by sacrificing everyone a little bit?
Ku might say, "This principle only applies when you can increase total pleasure without sacrificing any pleasure." But there is nothing in egoism that would dispute this. If I can increase your pleasure without sacrificing myself, I am by that very fact increasing my own welfare (every action, remember, has either a positive or negative effect on the actor's life). If I can't increase your pleasure without sacrificing myself, then by both standards, I shouldn't.
The point isn't that both principles, Rand's and Kant's, lead to the same conclusions. The point, rather, is that without starting at the most fundamental level, without determining what values are and why man needs them, any answer is possible, which means, no answer is possible.
"Altruism is not about the badness of self-interest but rather the goodness of others'," Ku writes. This is the problem with definitions by non-essentials. By divorcing values from their source in an individual's life, Ku is able to ignore that "goodness" or "badness" cannot be judged apart from the effects of an action on an individual's life. He therefore lumps together self-interested and self-destructive actions under the umbrella of "the good of others." In other words, because nothing in egoism is inherently opposed to "the goodness of others" (whatever that means), his definition of altruism would encompass such diverse units as giving birthday gifts to a friend, and giving up one's career or bank account to help starving kids in Haiti. It lumps together acts of giving with acts of giving up. It lumps together acts that enhance one's life and acts that destroy one's life. It lumps together selfishness and self-sacrifice.
But notice that it does not lump them together equally. According to this standard, the man who gives a birthday gift to a friend deserves less moral credit than the man who sacrifices his life for starving children. Just as Rand claimed, altruism enshrines self-sacrifice, self-destruction, self-immolation. But it cannot do so explicitly -- the results are too ugly. Instead, it must group together actions according to a non-essential attribute -- whether the actions are good for others -- so that anyone who claims to oppose altruism will be asked, "You mean you wouldn't give a friend a birthday gift?" Or, "You wouldn't risk your life to save your child's?" Or, "You wouldn't be late for a meeting to rescue a baby from drowning?"
The question egoism raises is not -- should one do good for others? The question is, should one sacrifice one's own interest for others? Rand's answer, egoism's answer, life's answer is -- never. Whether one should do good for others depends on who that other is and what doing good for him consists of. If that person is a value to you, then his interests are encompassed, to a degree, by your own. If that person and you share a common goal, then to that extent, serving his interest is your means of serving your own. But in all cases, the standard is: Your life. Your values. Your interests.
In the introduction to his essay, Ku states that he does not understand the Objectivist epistemology. That much is obvious. No one who did could posit such an imprecise definition of altruism as, "It's about the goodness of others." No, it's not. Altruism is about self-sacrifice, which means, self-destruction, which means, suicide. Egoism is about the pursuit and creation of values and therefore about life.
In this section, and those that follow, Ku attempts to disprove egoism by refuting Rand's claim that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men. His basic argument is summed up in the first paragraph:
Other things being equal, stealing is wrong even when you can get away with it. Stealing when you can get away with it is (sometimes) in your self-interest. Therefore, ethical egoism must be wrong; there is more to morality than doing what is in your self-interest. This, I believe, is the simplest, most intuitive argument against egoism.
And it's also very wrong.
The first premise is actually a stolen premise -- apart from a provable set of moral principles, one cannot prove that that stealing is always wrong. It is an assumption, albeit a more or less correct one. But the only way to know it is correct is to establish that fact by reference to a provable standard of morality, which Ku seemingly rejects.
The more important point is that the second premise is false. What Ku does, here and throughout his essay, is take "self-interest" as a self-evident primary, stripped of the context that determines its meaning. In the Objectivist ethics, egoism is not a primary -- it is a derivative identification that follows only after one identifies the nature of values and the proper means of obtaining them.
As Rand puts it, "The choice of the beneficiary of moral values is merely a preliminary or introductory issue in the field of morality. It is not a substitute for morality nor a criterion of moral value, as altruism has made it. Neither is it a moral primary: it has to be derived from and validated by the fundamental premises of a moral system" (VOS x).
Contrary to Ku, values are not intrinsic or self-evident. Even having defined basic moral principles, something's value status is largely dependent on its context in an individual's life, including his hierarchy of values, the means of obtaining the particular value, and the effects of that value on his life as a whole. For instance, is it in my interests to have sex with Sarah? That depends: Is Sarah a value to me? Or is she a vicious killer? Does she have an STD? Does she want to sleep with me? Am I in a burning building, such that having sex would result in my death? Am I married? Is she married? Will sleeping with her harm my self-esteem? All of these considerations, and many more, come to bear on whether or not a particular thing is in my interest.
Ku brushes this all aside and asserts, merely asserts, that we can know for certain -- without reference to any of these facts and without defining any of the relevant terms -- that stealing can sometimes be to our interest. This, he proclaims, is the keystone of his attack on egoism.
Philosophically, that's irresponsible. Epistemologically, that's indefensible. Morally, it's unforgivable.
The fact is, you cannot determine what is to your interest except by reference to principles. On the Objectivist premise, our interests are defined by our survival qua man, which means, fundamentally, by rationality. One of the tenets of rationality is the need to act on principle. Since our interests are defined long range, we have to account for the myriad consequences of an act, many of which are impossible to foresee with any sort of specificity.
Even if we could determine our interests apart from principles, the time and effort wasted calculating the probability of various possible outcomes of every conceivable action every time we had to act would be -- if not debilitating -- a waste of limited resources that could better be spent in service of a principled pursuit of one's interests.
We need principles, and we need to adhere to them consistently. To violate a principle "sometimes" is to abdicate principles altogether, and thus act for your own destruction. As Tara Smith points out, cheating on a principle is not like taking detour from the path of life, only to return a moment later. It is to do an about-face and head in the opposite direction, towards death.
Even if we can "get away" with violating a principle on a given occasion, any supposed gain that results is not truly a gain. No particular value can be as important as our ongoing ability to create, achieve, protect, defend, and enjoy our values. When we violate our principles, however, that is exactly what we're sacrificing. We stop following the path of life, and start heading down the path of death. To violate one's principles is no more in your interest than is cutting off your head to cure a headache.
Take the simplest example -- two kids, Cindy and Billy, take a test. Cindy studies hard and learns the material. Billy doesn't study, and on the day of the exam, decides to cheat. Both get an "A" on the test. Only for Cindy, however, was that "A" a true gain.
Cindy does not have to worry that the "A" will be taken from her. She is able to take pride in her achievement, knowing she earned the "A". When her teacher and parents congratulate her for her success, she will not feel like a fraud. She will have gained a sense of the efficacy of her own mind, looking forward to tackling new and more difficult problems. When the next test or the next course comes, she will have the requisite knowledge needed to succeed once again. Her conviction that effort is the means to achievement will be reinforced, and her knowledge of what kind of effort is required (i.e., how to study) will be clear. She will be able to apply the knowledge she gained in studying for the test to her life and perhaps her future career. All her energy is directed towards the furtherance of her life. Achieving this particular value has better enabled her to achieve future values.
What about Billy? For one, had he been caught, he would have failed the class and perhaps gotten kicked out of school. But even having "gotten away with it", Billy will know he did not earn his grade and thus will not experience the sense of pride that comes only from achievement. Instead, he will feel like a fraud. He will also be unprepared for the next test. But that's okay, he says to himself, he'll simply cheat again. He thereby puts himself on a course at odds with reality, having to rely on his teacher's ignorance, on her inability to monitor for cheating, on his ability to lie, cheat, and deceive. His focus is no longer on expanding his knowledge and thus his ability to deal with reality. Instead, he is focused on his ability to deceive people, and must expend considerable effort to do so, effort that will not aid his life, but will drain the resources he needs to pursue his values and sustain his life.
Even if he gets away with it during this one class, he will not be able to take another course in the subject. He will not be able to apply what he should have learned but didn't to his life. Furthermore, how will he convince himself to stand by his principles in other aspects of his life? After all, if he got away with it once, why not again?
The best Billy can hope for is to re-establish his principles and refuse to deviate from them in the future. But even if he does this, he has already paid a price well in excess to whatever the unearned "A" was worth. He must start his pursuit of life anew, uncertain of his ability to stay committed to the principles he knows he must embrace. He must reacquire the knowledge he missed during the first test, while struggling to keep up with the new material he has to learn. He must begin the slow process of earning a sense of self-esteem. Is this what Ku thinks self-interest consists of?
Principled action is like earning compound interest on an investment, where every gain makes possible ever-greater future gains. Unprincipled action, on the other hand, is like trying to make a living by playing roulette, where short-term success is a threat because it puts you on a course that must end in long-term failure. In fact, a more apt analogy for unprincipled living would be: playing Russian roulette.
So man needs moral principles. But how do we determine which moral principles he needs? Recall that we don't establish the morality of an action by calculating its probable effects in any particular case. As conceptual beings, our interests cannot be determined that way. We must consider our nature and the nature of the act, and then define the principle that will thereafter govern our actions towards life-affirming ends.
Let us consider, then, the question of theft. That concept is dependent on the concept of property, which is a derivative of the right to life, which in turn is based on the recognition that rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. Since rights are moral principles they are properly egoistic -- their purpose is to enable men to pursue their interests selfishly. I have a right to property, therefore, because such is necessary for my survival as a human being. And since my right to property is a derivative of the fact that I'm a human being, all men must have this same right.
What, then, is theft? It is the act of taking without permission that which belongs to another man. It is therefore a rejection of property rights -- it is a statement made in action that man has no right to keep what he earns. To engage in such an act while proclaiming one's own right to property is to indulge in a vicious contradiction. It is thus irrational and thus necessarily immoral.
What, then, are the effects of maintaining such a contradiction in reality? There are two kinds of effects -- existential and psychological.
Existentially, the thief always runs the risk of getting caught. It is easy to mouth the words, "He should only steal when he is certain he will not be caught," but it is difficult to identify an actual circumstance where that is possible. Even under the most non-threatening circumstances -- say, a twenty dollar bill left on a co-workers desk when no one is around in a room where the employee knows there are no cameras -- there is always the possibility he is being set up as a test of his honesty.
An act of theft is also necessarily psychologically damaging to the thief because it demands that he purposely engage in an act of evasion (a many more thereafter) -- he must evade the contradiction his action implies, thus subverting his mind and the virtue on which his survival depends -- rationality.
This is not circular. I'm not claiming that he knows stealing is wrong and therefore feels guilty about stealing and therefore stealing is wrong. I'm claiming, instead, that since the act requires the thief to engage in a contradiction, it is necessarily cognitively destructive and therefore anathema to his survival. A thief knows he did not earn the money he spends. A liar knows he is a fraud and did not earn the love, admiration, respect, etc. of those around him. A hypocrite knows he lacks integrity, and thus is not worthy of pride, self-esteem, and therefore any other value he may desire. In every case, it is the irrational nature of the action that damns the action as always immoral.
Contrary to Ku, "I should steal only when I'm certain I can get away with it," is not a principle. It represents the abdication of principles, not just morally, but epistemologically.
A man who tried to act on this "principle" is giving his mind a standing order that amounts to, "I must evaluate every instance of stealing to determine whether or not I can get away with it." But that is precisely the opposite of acting on principle. It demands that a man analyze each and every situation he encounters, asking himself whether he should or should not steal, based on a calculation (by what means?) of the odds of getting caught. That is exactly what man cannot do -- that sort of analysis is outside the power of his mind. And even if he could eventually come to a determination of whether or not he could get away with such a crime, he would have expended a significant level of time and energy -- time, energy, and thought that could have been better utilized in the service of his life.
Notice also that one does not lose anything by not stealing. It's not as if my interests are harmed every time I walk past something without stealing his wallet. I am no worse off when I don't steal. In fact, it is only when I attempt to steal that my welfare is endangered.
Notice further that an act of theft, like every act, cannot be isolated. A single act of theft, even if never detected, can wipe out all my other virtuous. I have to lie to cover up my act. By condemning theft, I sacrifice my integrity. By worrying about getting caught, my productivity is likely to suffer. I've committed an injustice. And for what? What is it I actually gain? Even a substantial monetary reward cannot make up for the effects that follow from getting caught -- I could lose my job, go to jail, perhaps lose my family. This list goes on.
As should be clear, it is never in one's interest to violate moral principles: the risks are too great, and the consequences always destructive.
Given that it is never in one's interest to violate moral principles, it remains to be seen that the interests of rational men never conflict, which is a cornerstone of Rand's moral theory. To claim that an egoist must forego sacrifice, either of himself or of others, we must know that his interests are in harmony with the interests of other principled egoists.
Ku denies this fact. Before turning to his argument, however, allow me define some relevant terms, indicate how they relate, and then explain how Rand concluded that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men.
According to Objectivism, values are that which one acts to gain and/or keep. Values arise because of the conditional nature of life -- they are things we must obtain in order to survive. Human values are those things that promote human survival given man's nature, in particular, his nature as a conceptual being who survives by the use of reason. Human beings don't know automatically what values will sustain their life, nor do they act automatically in service of their life -- man is volitional. Morality is a code of values accepted by choice. The purpose of morality is to provide man with the guidance he needs to identify, pursue, and achieve his values, i.e., those things that will sustain, enhance, and further his life.
Morality, therefore, concerns itself only with that which an entity can act to gain or keep. Values are objects of action. It follows that moral prescriptions cannot be applied to the accidental. That which is outside the realm of action is neither a value nor a disvalue, even though it still has effects on an organism's life. These effects can be described as beneficial or harmful. So, for example, a flood is not a disvalue and cannot be morally evaluated (although how one prepares for and reacts to it can be and must be). By the same token, stumbling upon a winning lottery ticket is not a value and cannot be morally evaluated (although how one should spend the money can be and must be).
In fact, no object is by itself valuable -- its value depends on the role it plays in an individual's life, which in turn depends on what an individual does to gain the object, and how he uses the object once gained.
Since the concept "interests" logically depends on the prior concept "value" and since the concept "value" depends on the possibility of action, one's interests cannot be sundered from the ability to act. It is not in my interest, therefore, to stumble upon a lottery ticket, even though doing so could potentially be beneficial. It is not against my interests to be caught in a flood, even though doing so could potentially be harmful to my life.
So, for instance, if a man found himself in a burning building through no fault of his own, he would not say, "Being in this building is against my interests." Instead he would say, "Remaining in this building is not to my interest." It is the possibility of action and the relationship between the actions possible to him and the goal of sustaining his life that determine a man's interests. In the same way, if an asteroid the size of California was headed directly towards the earth, and there was no way to divert it, no life-sustaining action would be possible and thus the question of interests would not arise. Where no choice is possible, no interests are definable. There would be no reason to try to define them.
To identify man's interests, then, is to identify the actions that will, in a given context, protect or further his life. That context is made up of facts, which may be harmful or beneficial, but which are not themselves open to man's choice.
When Rand says that the interests of rational men do not conflict, then, she is saying that the actions that will enhance my life will not hamper your ability to take the actions that will enhance your life, and the actions that will enhance your life will not hamper my ability to take the actions that will enhance my life. My pursuit of my interests will not stifle your pursuit of yours. My gain is not your loss. Sacrifice, in other words, is not a requirement of human survival. Writes Rand:
There are no conflicts of interests among rational men. . . A man's 'interests' depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values -- and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind. . . A rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly [i.e., by trading] by his own effort. . . He never seeks or desires the unearned. . . The mere fact that two men desire the same job does not constitute proof that either of them is entitled to it or deserves it, and that his interests are damaged if he does not obtain it. (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 50-6)
Notice that Rand is stressing the intimate connection between interests, goals, and values, and thus interests and action. Her point is that a rational man's desires, since they depend on his values, pertain only to those things he can obtain through his own action. And, further, that they pertain only to those things he can achieve through rightful action (i.e., action that is in his self-interest, as I have previously defined). His interests, therefore, consist of those actions he can take in service of his life.
At the risk of repeating myself, let me stress that our interests do not inhere in the objects we value -- our interests derive from our ability to act in the pursuit of the objects that we value, i.e., that will sustain and enhance our life when we have achieved them. In other words, it is my interest to do certain things in order to gain certain things.
To take Rand's example, suppose two men apply for the same job. First, since neither man has the job to begin with, neither is made worse off when the other receives it. In that regard, Joe's success does not come at Jane's expense. But this doesn't go far enough.
The fact is, the job itself is not inherently in Joe's interest. That depends in part, as I've already indicated, on his means of obtaining it. We cannot sever values from virtues, and interests from action.
Value is contextual. It is in Joe's interest to have a job, but whether it is in his interests to have a particular job depends, not just on what he will do with the job once he gets it, but on how he obtains the job in the first place. Since he can only obtain it by convincing the person responsible for filling the position that he (Joe) is the best person for the job, his doing so is a precondition for claiming that the job is in his interests. Something he does not have and cannot have cannot be to his interests. And something he could have only have at the expense of his principles cannot be to his interests.
Just as it makes no sense to claim it is contrary to a boy's interests that he cannot fly by flapping his arms, so it makes no sense to claim that it is contrary to Joe's interests not to have a job he hasn't earned (since the job is not his by right, earn in this context means: convince his prospective employer to hire him). To earn the job is the precondition for having the job and therefore the precondition for it being to his interests.
Ku, in attempting to refute Rand's claim, that the interests of rational men do not conflict, proceeds by severing the connection between interests and action.
There are no conflicts of interests among rational men, according to Rand, because interests depend on desires, desires are only rational when its object is (fully) deserved, and no two people can be (equally) deserving of the same object. On an alternate reading, interests do not conflict among rational men because a desire for some object is only an interest if it is deserved, and again, the premise regarding the exclusivity of desert. Every single step of either argument is wrong. There is no inconceivability in two people being equally deserving of a job yet because of budget considerations only one being able to be hired. Thus, desert does not appear to be exclusive. But then, both people can have interests in the same object while it is incompatible for them both to have that object. Conflicts of interests are thereby generated.
Ku's basic error here is to attempt to drop the context of what "deserves" means. Since no one has the right to a particular job, to deserve a particular job means not only that one is qualified for it, but that one is actually given the job.
In other words, to determine whether or not someone deserves something we must ask, "What is the standard for whether or not someone deserves it?" When we're speaking of a job, the standard is "The requirements for obtaining the job." One of those requirements, obviously, is that the employer give you job -- that is a necessary condition for obtaining it.
Of course, obtaining the job is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for deserving a job. If you lie on your application and thereafter obtain the job, you do not deserve it because you did not meet the requirements for obtaining it -- you pretended to meet those requirements.
Only by detaching the concept "deserves" from the facts that give it meaning can one claim that a man who was not given a job deserved it. But this is exactly what Ku does.
Later, Ku writes:
The more significant objection, though, is Rand's conflation of the notions of desires and desert with that of interests. The sort of interests that are relevant to moral philosophy is that which deals with objective benefits and harms not conscious preferences or concerns. Claims about what is in my interests are to be sharply distinguished from such claims as that I am interested in philosophy. Of course, they are not completely unrelated, but the main point is that something can be in my interests, i.e. I would be better off with it, even if I am not consciously concerned about it or desire it. If I am temporarily depressed and suicidal and do not desire to continue living, the fact remains that it is in my best interests to do so. Or if I desire to drink a glass of water only because I am, through no fault of my own, ignorant that it is poisoned, it is still not in my interests to do so. Hence, they do not depend on goals and desires in the way Rand supposes.
I've already dealt with Ku's basic argument, that one's interests can be sundered from the possibility of action, but I want to pause on another error at work here: the failure to distinguish between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality.
When we form our principles, we do so from what might be called a God's Eye perspective. We ask, what are man's survival needs? What is good for him by his nature and what is bad for him by his nature? By asking those questions we can determine, for example, that suicide and poison destroy man's life, while obtaining a job and being productive furthers man's life.
But in applying those principles to our own actions, in determining and pursuing our particular interests, we cannot take such a perspective. We are not omniscient and morality cannot demand that we try to be. An error of knowledge is not a breach of morality. So, for example, if I am about to take a sip of water, while I might know that drinking poison is destructive, if I have no reason to believe the water I'm about to drink is poisoned. In drinking it, I have obviously harmed myself, but I have not acted immorally.
From the God's Eye perspective, my action was self-destructive, but from a human perspective, it was the correct action to take, given the knowledge available to me. The point here is that, since my interests are determined by my values, and values cannot be sundered from the means of achieving them, and the only means of achieving them is acting on my own rational judgment, what action is in my interest in a particular case cannot be defined from a God's Eye perspective (i.e., from an omniscient, infallible perspective).
What would be immoral would be to realize I've ingested poison and then to say, "But maybe I didn't drink enough to kill me -- I'll go for a walk." Perhaps from a God's Eye perspective that is the best decision -- if I go to the hospital when there is no need to, I waste time and money unnecessarily. But such would be irrational -- given the knowledge that is available to me, that is the wrong choice to make.
Life requires that we follow a life-promoting path, that we act on our best rational judgment concerning what will further our life and what will not. Since we are not omniscient, that judgment does not guarantee that we will survive -- it merely gives us the best chance. To get that best chance, our commitment must be to walking the path of rationality, to identify to the best of our ability which actions our principles demand of us in a particular case -- not to taking any random path on the premise that since we aren't infallible, reason is impotent and no choice is better than any other.
To make this point fully clear, if you are playing blackjack, it is in your interest to stay if you have twenty, even if the next card in the deck is an ace. Why? Because you don't know the next card is an ace. To win at blackjack requires, more than anything, that you act rationally. Sure, if you hit on twenty, you might get lucky and get an ace, but that doesn't make hitting on twenty a good choice, anymore than drinking poison and staying at home was a good choice just because in hindsight you know that you hadn't ingested enough to kill you.
In this sense, life is like blackjack -- you can't think in terms of any one hand, or even any one session. What matters is how much money you come away with at the end of the year. And the only way to come away with money is play right (to make good decisions based on principles) -- not to try to beat the odds.
Interestingly enough, Ku concedes this point later on in his discussion of the prisoner's dilemma.
Suppose that you and I are questioned separately about some joint crime. We each have two choices, either to confess or to keep silent. If we both confess, each of us gets 10 years in prison. If we both keep silent, we'll each get 2 years in prison. If one confesses and the other keeps silent, the one who confesses will go free while the one who keeps silent will get 12 years.
The point is that it is in each of our self-interests to confess no matter what the other does yet it is in our collective interest to keep silent [my emphasis].
Here Ku admits that our self-interest depends making good decisions based on the knowledge at our disposal, not a God's Eye perspective that accounts for facts outside our grasp. If I know that you have not confessed, then, from the God's Eye perspective, it is not in my interest to confess. But since I am not God, my best course of action -- the action to my self-interest -- is determined by the best course of action to take given the knowledge available to me.
The point is, we form principles from a God's Eye perspective, but we make our choices from a human perspective, based on the knowledge that is available to us at a given time. That is the standard by which our actions are morally evaluated.
Ku goes on to write:
Furthermore, interests are distinct from what is deserved. Hitler may not have deserved to live but surely it was in his interests to continue to do so. Or, if by sheer luck, I find a winning lottery ticket on the ground, surely it benefits me even though I did nothing to deserve it. And if someone comes along and steals all the money I won from it, my interests would be damaged despite the fact that I never earned it to begin with. It does not even seem plausible to suppose that it is irrational to desire it -- as if a truly rational person upon coming across it would be absolutely indifferent to it because it was unearned, not even seeking to cash it so he can go buy more philosophy books -- or supposing that he did cash it, that he would not care if some burglar was stealing it from him.
Ku makes two errors here. The first, in bringing up the Hitler example, is to ignore Rand's point that the interests of rational men do not conflict. The relevant point with regards to Hitler is that it wasn't in his interest to be Hitler. One does not watch a man leap from a bridge only to note that it wasn't in his interest to skip breakfast.
The second error is to once again conflate (potential) benefits with interests. Many things benefit you which you did not aim for, but your interests are defined by that which is directed towards the goal of furthering your life. It was not your goal to happen upon a winning lottery ticket and therefore that ticket is not a value in any relevant sense. You cannot sever values from virtues any more than you can sever virtues from values. Morality is about how to live. Once you find the winning lotto ticket, for instance, the question arises of what to do with the money you've won. But, by itself, finding the lottery ticket is not in your interest.
To make this point fully clear, imagine that two men are walking down the street. One man glances down and sees a piece of paper but keeps walking. The next man sees the piece of paper, picks it up, and realizes it is a winning lottery ticket. The point is obvious: the act of finding a winning lottery ticket by accident is neither to your interest nor contrary to your interest -- it depends on what you do once you find it. The first man is no worse of than he was before he passed the winning ticket, and the second man is no better off until he turns in the ticket for the cash reward. Even then, whether or not his interests are served by finding the ticket depends on what he does with the money. If he uses the money to buy heroin, or to make a donation to Libertarian Party, the money is not in his interest.
Ku would be correct in saying that he did not earn or deserve the winning lottery ticket -- those concepts don't apply because it wasn't an object of action. Finding the ticket, therefore, is not to his interest. But having found a winning lottery ticket, using it to obtain money can be to his interest (depending on how he uses the money). Furthermore, if he turns in the ticket and receives the money, he does deserve the money -- having the winning lottery ticket is what "deserves" means in this context.
In the sections that follow, Ku will continue his attempt to refute Rand's principle that there are no conflicts of interest among rational egoists. It will be important to keep in mind that Ku's understanding of egoism, and of the meaning of "interests", is not congruent with Rand's, and not consonant with reality.
In this section, "Ayn Rand as Confused Utilitarian", Ku considers Rand's argument against the existence of conflicts of interest from the perspective of utilitarianism. In other words, Rand would claim, as Ku puts it, that "acting against the interests of others is not in one's rational self-interest."
Before we turn to Ku's criticism of this claim, we first need to be clear about what this claim means. As stated, it is true but imprecise. According to Objectivism, since the interests of rational men do not conflict, to act against another person's self-interest means to sacrifice his interests. Since sacrifice, whether of oneself or of others, is contrary to man's interests, acting against the interests of others in this sense is not in one's own self-interest.
To make the point clear, if Mary and Jane are both pursuing the same job, it is in each woman's interest to demonstrate to the potential employer that she is the best candidate. The effort Mary takes to prove that she is the best candidate does not conflict with Jane's effort to prove she is the best candidate. Mary's pursuit of the job does not conflict with Jane's pursuit of the job.
The only sense in which Mary could act against Jane's interest would be, for example, to lie to the employer either about her abilities or about Jane's. Or, if Mary poked holes in Jane's tires before Jane left for her job interview. In other words, the only way for Mary's pursuit of the job to conflict with Jane's would be for Mary to violate rational principles. But as we've already seen, violating rational principles is never to an individual's interest.
Rand's claim therefore stands -- it is not in your interest to act against the interest of others.
Furthermore, the entire premise -- that Mary and Jane are each competing for a job in a free market -- is based on the recognition that their interests are best served by such a circumstance. As Rand puts it:
Both men should know that if they desire a job, their goal is made possible only by the existence of a business concern able to provide employment -- that that business concern requires the availability of more than one applicant for any job -- that if only one applicant existed, he would not obtain the job, because the business concern would have to close its doors -- and that their competition for the job is to their interest, even though one of them will lose in that particular encounter. (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 56).
A crude summary of this argument is that the state of affairs that necessitates one of them losing is in the collective interest (i.e., their interest, the aggregate of all self-interests) of the job applicants. Any particular job applicant is a part of that collective whose interests it is in to have that state of affairs. Therefore, the state of affairs in question and whatever results from it is in each and every applicant's self-interest. A parallel argument of this form that would condemn stealing might contend that having property rights is in the collective interest of society; you are a member of that collective who benefits from such an institution; therefore, acting against such an institution is never in your self-interest.
Needless to say, this argument is invalid; self-interest cannot be inferred merely from collective interest.
What Ku appears to be saying is that just because it is in my interest to live in a society where people compete for jobs, sometimes "winning" and sometimes "losing", it does not follow that it is in my interest to lose a particular competition. But that raises an obvious question: what is the alternative?
There are two alternatives that spring to mind: either I live under a system where I do not have to compete for a job (where I am guaranteed a job), or I violate my rational principles in order to obtain a job. It is obvious why Ku did not venture to name these alternatives: plainly, because the first is impossible and the second is self-destructive.
What Ku is attempting to do is, once again, take "self-interest" as a self-evident primary, rather than a contextual matter determined by principles. He is saying that if we prove X aids human life, then one's failure to secure X at any given time, under any given set of circumstances, is proof that one's interests have been harmed. It isn't.
The fact that man needs a job does not prove that every job is to his interest, and it does not prove that failing to secure a job he pursues is contrary to his interests; for the same reason that the fact that man must eat does not imply that he should eat everything, nor that his failure to secure a meal in any given instance is contrary to his interests.
For example, it is in my interest to eat, but if I do not have any money, it is not in my interest to rob a McDonald's. If the only alternatives to buying a meal that are open to me at a given moment is not to eat or to rob, then it is in my interest to skip a meal. If I am starving and don't have time to earn money or seek another food source, I may have to turn to private charity or even dumpster diving, but the fact remains that sacrificing the interests of others would still constitute a self-sacrifice on my part. The same holds true in competing for a job.
The problem with Ku's argument -- actually, his entire approach to this issue -- is his failure to keep context and to concretize his abstractions. It is very easy to say, "If you don't get a job, your interests have been harmed." It is much more difficult to demonstrate an alternative course where the sacrifice of others would benefit your interests. Actually it's impossible because sacrifice can never be to your interests.
In this article, "Ayn Rand as Confused Kantian," Ku attempts to argue that Rand's defense of the principle that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men is a form of Kantian altruism. No, seriously.
Having come on the heels of his claim that Rand was actually a confused utilitarian, and coming just before his claim that she was actually a confused Humean, which comes just before his claim she was a confused virtue ethicist, one already gets the impression that Ku, rather than Rand, is confused.
Nevertheless, let's take a look at his argument:
Anyone who has taken so much as an intro to ethics class should recognize by now that this is the basis of Kant's deontology. According to his first formulation of the categorical imperative, one ought always "act only according to that maxim whereby one can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The maxim, "I shall steal in order to gain more property," however, cannot be universalized without running into a practical contradiction since if everyone were to steal, one would not be able to gain more property. Thus, an action such as stealing involves willing oneself to do some action while at the same time willing that others not do so. Yet, from a reflective standpoint, there is no morally relevant difference between oneself and others so this is inconsistent. If we were to put this explanation in terms of rights we might expect it to sound something like this:
Since the only rational base of individualism as an ethical principle is the requirements of man's survival qua man, one man cannot claim the moral right to violate the rights of another. If he denies inviolate rights to other men, he cannot claim such rights for himself; he has rejected the base of rights. No one can claim the moral right to a contradiction. (Virtue of Selfishness, p. 135)
Lo and behold! This is exactly the line of reasoning Ayn Rand endorses! Again let me stress that she is not arguing that violating the rights of others will in fact, have a significant impact on the extent to which others violate one's own rights. This is implausible. She is not appealing to consequences -- or if she is, then they are hypothetical rather than actual. But for precisely this reason, she is no longer an egoist. The egoist is a consequentialist seeking to maximize his self-interest. Given that whether or not others are likely to steal from him is not significantly affected by whether he steals from others when he can get away with it, it is in his interests to do so. Appealing to universalizability and rights will do no good since rights are a moral concept and so, for him, no one can have a right that it is not in his self-interest to respect. And why should he care what would be in his self-interest in a world where everyone acted as he did? Maybe if he actually lived in such a world he would have a reason not to steal, but he can observe reality and note that this is not so. Of course, some of his actions effect how others treat him in return so you may end up with some pretense of decency, but surely this is not the case in such instances that he can get away with it.
Rather than reiterate the proof that violating one's principles is never in one's interests, I want to pause on Rand's methodology versus that of Kant's.
Rand is not arguing for any sort of universalization principle, wherein we make our choices according to what we would will everyone to do. She is, instead, grounding moral principles and thus rights in the nature of man. Since an egoist is a man, he thus has rights -- and so, therefore, does every other man.
To put it in syllogistic form:
Premise: Man has rights
Premise: I am a man
Conclusion: Therefore I have rights
Ku's complaint is that Rand did not also endorse the syllogism:
Premise: Man has rights
Premise: You are a man
Conclusion: Therefore you have no rights
Ku's argument, in other words, is that Rand does not maintain a contradiction! Of course, that's not really his argument. Rather, this is an example of Ku taking egoism as a primary. In his view, an egoist does not say, "Man should be egoistic, I'm a man, therefore I should be egoistic." According to Ku, an egoist says, "I'm me, therefore I should be egoistic." He is then left wondering how an egoist could endorse rights.
"But," Ku would say, "you've merely proven that other men have rights -- not that it is my interest to respect their rights." This, however, is a distinction with no significance.
To prove that rights derive from the same principles as egoism is to prove that an egoist must respect rights. Man's fundamental requirement is rationality -- to engage in a contradiction, in thought or in action, cannot be justified in reason. To say, "I am a man and therefore have rights which you must respect," is to say, "You are a man and therefore have rights which I must respect." An egoist's only alternative is to reject rights altogether, which is obviously not in his interest.
Notice that Ku is still demanding Rand endorse a universalized principle: "Man should violate rights when he can get away with it." But this amounts to the claim that, "Man should violate rights when he can get away with it, you are a man, therefore you should violate (my) rights when you can get away with it." Ku is arguing, in other words, that an egoist should endorse the violation of his own rights!
Rand's point isn't that I should not violate the rights of others because then they will violate my rights. Instead, she is arguing that an egoist who violates the rights of others cannot even claim to have rights which must be respected. And since having one's rights respected is a survival requirement, no rational egoist would ever cede his rights. Rand was not, in other words, basing her argument on the Kantian principle of universalization, but on the law of identity.
Continuing with Ku:
As Eric Mack points out in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, Rand uses this type of argument quite often in more subtle forms. Her entire defense of rights seem to rest on such general statements as "everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort." (Virtue of Selfishness, p. 23) The only reading that will make such a statement true is to take "man" as meaning man the collective or man the species. Since, much of this criticism is taken directly from Mack's essay, I may as well allow him to speak for himself:
By focusing on man in general when considering the aptness of some mode of behavior for survival, Rand in effect is asking whether the general practice of this mode of behavior would be beneficial to the members of a community of such practitioners. . . If some mode of behavior works for some individuals only if other individuals shun that way of acting, e.g., if, like predation, it is parasitic upon nonpredatory production, then its general adoption would not enhance survival prospects. Hence, it is judged to be bad in any individual who practices it. Ironically, in this argument Rand implicitly adopts the Kantian stand that for an action to be morally right it must be of a sort in which any rational being can engage. A given individual is not to wonder whether his predation might be advantageous because, in fact, others are engaged in nonpredatory production. (The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, p. 141)
This entire argument is built on a profound methodological error. Contra Mack, Rand emphatically does not argue that, for instance, parasitism isn't good because the human race could not survive if everyone practiced it. Rather, she argues, in effect, that because a man alone on an island cannot survive by parasitism, his nature is such that it demands he produce the goods he needs to survive, and that this is therefore true whether he lives alone or among other men.
In other words, Rand's egoism is egoistic through and through. In the most fundamental sense, it takes no account of other men. Man's survival requirements are no different on a desert island than they are in an industrial society: On a desert island, he cannot depend on other men; in society, he must not try to.
But, it might be argued, isn't it possible for a man in society to survive as a parasite? In the widest sense, it is not. To exist as a parasite, to depend on other men for one's survival, is to put one at the mercy of the choices of other men. Notice that concern for children is based on the recognition that if their parents are irrational, the children will be unable to survive -- but this is precisely what Mack and, by extension, Ku, would have us believe is the proper state for an egoist. They wish to argue that one's life can be furthered by purposeful helplessness.
Recall that to life exists on a continuum, and to pursue one's survival means to act to continually increase one's health -- one's ability to deal with life's demands. Dependence in any form and to any degree reduces one's ability to deal with life's demands, and therefore is not in one's interests. The fact the human race could not survive if everyone attempted to live as a dependent is not the proof that an individual should not attempt to live as a dependent -- but it is a vivid illustration of why he should not make such an attempt.
In the present section, "Ayn Rand as Confused Humean," Ku addresses an argument he admits Objectivism doesn't actually endorse.
Thus, under Hume's morality, acting morally is in our self-interest because we gain the pleasure of feeling pride and acting immorally is against our self-interest because we would disapprove of ourselves. Even though this seems far from any of the standard Objectivist accounts of morality, I have found through discussions with many of them that when those standard solutions are found wanting, a sufficiently large proportion of them resort to some account resembling Hume's to warrant addressing this argument... So, it is not uncommon to hear Objectivists argue that there is a great pleasure in achieving some value by earning it through productive means that cannot be achieved by gaining the same object through parasitic means, presumably because there is an innate psychological mechanism approving of the former and disapproving of the latter.
This, of course, does not represent the Objectivist view. According to Objectivism, the pain/pleasure mechanism initially gives rise to our awareness of values, but for human beings, valuing is a conceptual phenomenon. We must choose our values.
When we achieve our values, other things being equal, we experience pleasure. When we do not achieve our values, other things being equal, we feel pain. Since we choose our values, it is possible for man to set his emotional barometer against his life, such that he finds enjoyment in that which destroys his life, and pain in that which furthers his life.
Happiness, in the Objectivist view, is the emotion that proceeds from the achievement of a code of fundamental values. Since it is impossible to achieve a contradictory code of values, anyone who holds such a code of values will be unable to achieve happiness. Since it is impossible to achieve a non-contradictory code of values by anti-life means, anyone who attempts such a feat will be unable to achieve happiness.
In this way, it is true that achieving a value through parasitic means will not result in the same pleasure as achieving that same value through productive, or rational, means.
But this, of course, is not the Objectivist argument for acting on principle. That argument has already been supplied. To violate one's principles has destructive consequences, not merely in the mind, but in reality. It causes you to do an about-face -- to stop walking forward along the path of life, and to start walking toward death.
If one outruns a murderer, for example, one is certainly better off than had one been caught, but it does not follow that it is in one's interests to look for murderers to outrun. On the contrary, one has to expend significant resources to run away from a murderer, resources that could have better been spent in the service of one's life. In the same way, one might "get away" with violating one's principles on a given occasion, but that doesn't imply that one should have violated one's principles, nor that one should do so in the future.
In other words, while we do pay a psychological toll for violating life-enhancing principles, we pay that toll because the violation of those principles hampers our ongoing ability to pursue our values.
What, then, is the relationship between pleasure, happiness, life, and morality? The purpose of morality is guide an individual in the sustenance of his life. Happiness is the emotional state that proceeds from the achievement of a non-contradictory code of values. It is the widest, most fundamental form of pleasure -- the indication of successful living. It is the reward for successful living.
In this section, "Ayn Rand as Confused Virtue Ethicist," Ku takes various Rand quotes out of context and implies that Rand's egoism was based on a psychological conception of the self, and not the total of one's interests.
The point here is that Rand didn't recognize a dichotomy between them. Egoism requires an ego -- it demands independence in thought and action, because such is required for man's survival.
One wonders how Ku could have missed this point. Rand was very clear in claiming that independence was not good in itself, and that "being good" wasn't the aim or the focus of an egoist. In "Causality versus Duty" Rand explicitly rejected this viewpoint, arguing that the egoist is value centered -- his aim in not on the cultivation of certain character traits, but the pursuit of certain values, with his virtues as the means by which he obtains these values.
In any case, there is nothing much of substance with which to argue in this essay.
In this, "Ayn Rand as Rule Egoist," the final installment of Ku's attempt to refute the Objectivist ethics, Ku attempts a direct assault on man's need for principles. Most of his arguments have already been dealt with, but I will take this opportunity to put his confusions to rest once and for all.
If the reasons we should primarily evaluate principles and rules are the conceptual needs of man's consciousness, then we should expect the specificity of such principles also to be dictated by our conceptual needs and follow closely the actual line of reasoning and intentions formed during the deliberation prior to an act. But if this is the case, then it is unlikely that rule egoism will fare any better in accounting for the basic intuitions of morality than act egoism did. Since all but the most simple-minded humans are able to grasp complexities beyond atomistic imperatives such as "Do not steal," and "Do not lie," the rule embodied by an act of stealing would not be "Always steal" but rather more of the form, "Do not steal unless you are reasonably certain you can get away with it," thus placing us in no better a position as we were in before.
Ku once again asserts that stealing is in one's interest if one does not get caught, and thereby concludes that "Don't steal unless you are reasonably certain you can get away with it," is a principle of self-interest.
What Ku fails (or refuses) to grasp is that it is not in one's interest to steal even if one happens to get away with it. Getting caught is merely one destructive consequence that follows from stealing. More important is the consequence of embracing a contradiction, of expending one's limited resources -- not in the pursuit of values -- but in an effort to escape the consequences of one's actions. That is, to escape reality.
Principles are derived from considerations of the nature of the action. This methodology can never yield the conclusion that stealing is proper "when one can get away with it." On the contrary, it leads to the recognition that you are entitled to the values you create, and I am entitled to the values I create, and if we deal with each other, it must be by trading value for value.
But, says Ku:
any attempt to bar the inclusion of conditional clauses into the understanding of a rule would not only fail to coincide with the justification for switching to rules but would also completely undermine the plausibility of the resulting morality. If a kidnapper asks where one's child is, it seems unquestionably permissible to lie to him. The Objectivist answer is that one may lie if it is necessary to protect one's values from criminals. (See Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 275) But then, there is no way to exclude a condition such as "unless you can get away with it" without also excluding this exception for lying through the structure of a rule itself. And as we have seen by now, appealing to the consequences of such a rule is not very promising either.
Ku, in other words, is arguing here that since Objectivism claims principles are contextually absolute, "not getting caught" is merely a context in which theft is proper. There are a number of confusions here, the first of which is "not getting caught" is not a context -- it is a consequence. The nature of the act of stealing is no different when one gets caught than in cases where one does not get caught. The nature of the act of lying to protect a value, however, is precisely the opposite of the nature of the act of lying to gain a value.
The second point is that "not getting caught" is not determinable before the fact. Even if it were a context, it would be one we could not determine prior to the action, making it cognitively useless. The real problem with "Do not steal unless you are reasonably certain you can get away with it," is not that it is the wrong principle. The problem is that it it's not a principle. The question of principles arises precisely because we cannot make these sorts of determinations. We cannot see the probable long range effects of any particular action without the conceptual guidance principles provide.
Ku is correct on one point: principles are not commandments. One does not walk around with a set of rules such as "Do not lie" and "Do not steal." Principles are broad abstractions -- applying them to reality takes mental effort. But not the kind of effort Ku demands of us -- the effort of anti-conceptual calculations -- but conceptual effort. It demands identifying the essential nature of the particular situations and concretes we encounter so that we know which of our principles are applicable and how they apply. It demands that we constantly seek new knowledge, new integrations, new implications, applications, and suppositions.
That is what it means to live rationally: to be reality centered.
But Ku thinks an egoist should be other centered. He believes our minds should be consumed by what others think and what others know. The question for him isn't -- is stealing in one's interest? The question for him is -- can one elude capture? This, a morality built on the consciousness of other men, is what Ku claims represents egoism. Rand, he says, is confused because she doesn't call this sort of dependence egoism. Rand is confused because she believes an egoist should be reality centered. Rand is confused because she does not believe sacrifice is a requirement of human survival.
It should be clear by now that the exact opposite is true. It is Ku who is confused, and it is Rand's argument for principled egoism that stands unscathed.
Don Watkins III originally published this material on his blog, Anger Management, and subsequently agreed to having the combined essay reproduced here. The inclusion of this material on the ORC site should not be taken as an endorsement of any other ORC material by him, or as an endorsement of his work by the ORC.
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The philosophy of Ayn Rand, a twentieth-century novelist and philosopher, is known as Objectivism. The Objectivism Reference Center provides resources about Rand, her ideas, her works, and places where those are discussed and debated. Visit the Site Information page for details on site policies. Suggestions for additional materials or additional links are welcomed.
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