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Veritas

Critique of Ayn Rand’s Ethics

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"What it means for “my life” to be the standard of value is that “my life” is the precondition for values at all."

I don't think that follows. For example, another precondition for 'values at all' is that the strong nuclear force have the value it has. Without it, there would be no atoms, and without atoms, no life as we know it. Yet the strong nuclear force, a precondition of values at all (as much as life is), is not the standard of value, life is. Objectivists have to do far more work than appeal to life as a precondition of value to get to the conclusion that life is the standard of value.

"In other words my life gives rise to the fact that I have to make choices. If my life did not require me to make choices then it would not be the standard for morality at all."

But your life isn't what requires you to make choices; rather, at best the *choice* to live is what requires you to make choices. But then the choice to live, if it's reason-based, cannot be based on life as its standard, since life, as we're using the term here, hasn't entered the picture yet. Does that make sense?

Ok, I thought it would be easier to continue the conversation in here and it will be easy to keep track of. 

Right, it is by being alive that I have a reason to choose to continue to maintain being alive or not. 

I am not sure I am following your connection that if we have a choice “and it is reason based” that the choice cannot be based on life being the standard. It is not life in general it is ‘my” life. What makes possible the ability to make a choice at all is that there is existence. 

So as it is, because existence is real and I am something that exists in a particular way (conscious and volitional) in order to stay that way my life specifically is the standard for what choices I make. If I wasn’t alive or there was no one alive there would be no standard for morality at all. There is no standard for morality for a tree. Only volitional beings have the need for morality.

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"I am not sure I am following your connection that if we have a choice “and it is reason based” that the choice cannot be based on life being the standard. "

I'll try to clarify that remark. You wrote, ""In other words my life gives rise to the fact that I have to make choices." But that's not quite right. It's not the mere fact that I'm alive - my life - that 'gives rise to the fact that I have to make choices', but, if anything, the fact that I choose to remain alive. Now that choice is either based on some rational considerations, or it is not. If it is based on rational considerations, then those considerations cannot include 'life as the standard of value'. For the alternative at this point is, to remain alive or not? And if I've not yet chosen to remain alive - if I'm deliberating about whether to remain alive - then 'life' cannot be the standard to which I'm appealing, but some other rational considerations must be at work here.
 

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1 hour ago, Eric D said:

For the alternative at this point is, to remain alive or not? And if I've not yet chosen to remain alive - if I'm deliberating about whether to remain alive - then 'life' cannot be the standard to which I'm appealing, but some other rational considerations must be at work here.

This is true. You can't decide on life from a set of standards by using life as the standard to select it. We can reaffirm life as a standard, but simply reaffirming that choice does not justify it being a standard.

That's why Rand spoke so much about the requirements of survival, and man's nature, as the way to determine standards of value. If you "opt in", you need a moral code (that is, you need a method to live by your nature as a rational animal). But if you opt out, it doesn't even matter - if you use other standards to determine your choices, there's no reason to call it morality. 

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4 hours ago, Eric D said:

"I am not sure I am following your connection that if we have a choice “and it is reason based” that the choice cannot be based on life being the standard. "

I'll try to clarify that remark. You wrote, ""In other words my life gives rise to the fact that I have to make choices." But that's not quite right. It's not the mere fact that I'm alive - my life - that 'gives rise to the fact that I have to make choices', but, if anything, the fact that I choose to remain alive. Now that choice is either based on some rational considerations, or it is not. If it is based on rational considerations, then those considerations cannot include 'life as the standard of value'. For the alternative at this point is, to remain alive or not? And if I've not yet chosen to remain alive - if I'm deliberating about whether to remain alive - then 'life' cannot be the standard to which I'm appealing, but some other rational considerations must be at work here.
 

The choice to remain alive as a child is not based on anything more than mere desire. How to stay alive is where "rationality" comes in.  "Rationality" is what we use to make sure that our actions are in accordance with "Reality"  for flourishing. Children do not deliberate or make arguments for life. They desire to live because of  values that they in-explicitly choose. 

Also we might be using the term "Standard" differently here. It is not life qua life that is the standard (although, I think we agree with this).

Does it follow that the act of deliberating means that "(my)life" cannot be the standard but some antecedent that is "causing the deliberation?

No. The act of deliberating simply points to me having some sense of volition. What I would deliberate (later in life) explicitly is how I am going to live and what value I will choose to do so. 

 

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20 hours ago, Veritas said:

Ok, I thought it would be easier to continue the conversation in here and it will be easy to keep track of. 

Right, it is by being alive that I have a reason to choose to continue to maintain being alive or not. 

I am not sure I am following your connection that if we have a choice “and it is reason based” that the choice cannot be based on life being the standard. It is not life in general it is ‘my” life. What makes possible the ability to make a choice at all is that there is existence. 

So as it is, because existence is real and I am something that exists in a particular way (conscious and volitional) in order to stay that way my life specifically is the standard for what choices I make. If I wasn’t alive or there was no one alive there would be no standard for morality at all. There is no standard for morality for a tree. Only volitional beings have the need for morality.

Veritas: You didn't attribute the quotation in your OP. 

There's an erroneous conflation here. What begins ambivalently i.e. "..."my life" to be the standard of morality ..."-  will end up in moral relativism and subjectivism. (e.g. Everybody's life is their OWN standard of value - not so...?)

By the very defintion of standard, one cannot act as "the moral standard" unto oneself. Here is a common, far-reaching misconception of the precept: "Objectivist ethics upholds man's life as the standard of value-- and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man." VoS

A "standard" is an objective "gauge" and benchmark (or reference)  - by which - to assess values, objectively. Rand carefully explained.

And "man's life" - is an abstraction for all man, his nature and his existence. Man and his life is indeed, irrefutably, the precondition of and for the concept "value" and any values or disvalues, whatsoever.

If one takes "my life" to be the standard of value, one devolves eventually to holding a subjective 'standard' (no standard at all). One needs be careful to not mistake this, "man's life" for an individual, concrete, 'man's life'. The latter is one's own supreme value - but the first is the standard of value. 

Nowhere is it as crucial in Objectivism to get right, with clarity, as this moral code of rational selfishness, imo. 

(Rand wrote it another way, useful to this debate: "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics--the standard by which one judges what  is good and evil-- is "man's life", or: that which is required for man's survival qua man").  

Edited by whYNOT

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13 hours ago, Veritas said:

Does it follow that the act of deliberating means that "(my)life" cannot be the standard but some antecedent that is "causing the deliberation?

Yes, because using a standard requires deliberation. It doesn't even make sense to have a standard to cause deliberation if you need deliberation to use standards. Just because a moth takes actions to live doesn't mean it's operating by the standard of (moth) life.

13 hours ago, Veritas said:

It is not life qua life that is the standard (although, I think we agree with this).

Man qua man, not you qua man.

Edited by Eiuol

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3 hours ago, whYNOT said:

f one takes "my life" to be the standard of value, one devolves eventually to holding a subjective 'standard' (no standard at all). One needs be careful to not mistake this, "man's life" for an individual, concrete, 'man's life'. The latter is one's own supreme value - but the first is the standard of value. 

Nowhere is it as crucial in Objectivism to get right, with clarity, as this moral code of rational selfishness, imo. 

I definitely agree with this. My life shouldn’t be taken as “my life” in a subjective way as if it something other than “the life” that I am living. I see how in talking with people that this gets taken incorrectly. 

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3 hours ago, whYNOT said:

Veritas: You didn't attribute the quotation in your OP. 

Oh sorry, this original quote was from a Facebook conversation that I started having with someone that is a bit critical of Ayn Rand view of ethics. I asked him to come over here to make the conversation easier and flow better. 

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Could someone here who knows Rand's ethics well put Rand's argument for the claim that life is the standard of value in a succinct and clear form (ideally with the premises and conclusions clearly tagged)? I think it will help the discussion immeasurably if we can nail the argument down first, since then we can at least agree about precisely what premises and precisely what logical moves are at issue. Thanks in advance! (As I told Veritas in another forum, I considered myself an Objectivist some time ago, and had read almost all of Rand's works and had listened to numerous lectures by Peikoff, but I long since abandoned Objectivism and went on to study philosophy at university (I'm still working on it at university!), so my memory is more than a bit rusty. Also, since I was exposed to Rand's work before I had any philosophical training, I never attempted e.g. to make her arguments more explicit so they're more amenable to careful analysis. So I mentioned to Veritas that I had some general objections to Rand's ethics, but I'd like to make sure that they apply to the arguments as Objectivists understand them before proceeding.)

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In Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World she leads up to her conclusion with:

I cannot summarize for you the essence and the base of my morality any better than I did it in Atlas Shrugged. So, rather than attempt to paraphrase it, I will read to you the passages from Atlas Shrugged which pertain to the nature, the base and the proof of my morality.

In an edited section of The Journals of Ayn Rand
Part 3 - Transition Between Novels
8 - The Moral Basis of Individ
ualism

For her proof of man's life as the standard of moral value, see John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged and "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness.

The 'proof' portion of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged is cited in the Faith and Force link.

Here is a link to The Objectivist Ethics.

The written form can be found in her books Philosophy: Who Needs It? and The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.

Edited by dream_weaver

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Hi dream_weaver, thanks for the links, but I'm looking for a more succinct and clear presentation of the arguments. ideally, the premises and conclusion will be laid out and clearly tagged so we can evaluate each one and the logical connections between them. In 'The Virtue of Selfishness', the first chapter presents the argument in a few pages, so putting it in a more succinct and clear form should be fairly easy for those of you who are familiar with it (and who are certainly much more familiar with it than I currently am!).

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It's not so much that I find it unclear and the like, but that the precise reasoning isn't clearly laid out. Part of the hard work of doing serious philosophy, as I understand it, involves laying bare the reasoning in passages like the ones to which you linked. Everything superfluous is cut, the premises are clearly stated, the logical connections between them clearly identified, and thus we can see exactly how the conclusion is supported. This way, we can discover whether first, we agree with the interpretation of the passage, and second, whether we agree with the reasoning. Again, it saves a ton of time, and leads to much more productive discussions, which is why I always attempt to begin by clarifying the argument or claims at issue. If you want to say that this is unnecessary because the argument is already sufficiently perspicuous in the passages to which you linked, then it should be quite easy to put it into the more succinct and clear form that I'm requesting it be put in. 

Edited by Eric D

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That's no problem, I'll take clarity over concision, as long as (1) the premises are clearly stated, and (2) the logical connections between the premises, and between the premises and the conclusion, are clearly stated. We already know what the conclusion is, viz. (C) Hence, life is the standard of value. What I'm asking is for someone to fill in the rest, as clearly as possible.

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The main point is, I'm not defending these arguments; rather, those of you who are Objectivists are defending them. I'm critiquing them, as I understand them - or misunderstand them. My aim is first, to get clear about precisely what the argument is, and then, second, to see if my criticisms are on or off the mark. If you're defending the argument, then the onus is on you to state it clearly, it's not on me to try to exhume the argument you're defending from a variety of texts in which it isn't (as far as I can see) clearly and precisely explicated. For example, I've done a ton of work on Kant's ethics. So, when I read Kant, I fill in all sorts of details that the casual reader of Kant won't be able to fill in. Hence, what's clear to me won't be clear to them, and if I'm defending Kant, the onus is on me to clarify the argument. That's all I'm asking, and it doesn't strike me as an unreasonable request at all, especially in a forum devoted to philosophy, one of the main tasks of which is stating arguments clearly.  

Edited by Eric D

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I'm asking someone to provide both the premises and the reasoning that links them to the conclusion, 'hence, life is the standard of value'. But, importantly, I'm not asking for the 'basic premises' of Objectivism itself; I'm just asking for the premises that constitute the argument for the conclusion, 'hence, life is the standard of value'. (So the link you just supplied doesn't give me what I'm asking for.)

Here's a really simple example. William Lane Craig is a philosopher of religion who defends the conclusion that God exists in a variety of ways. So his conclusion is, 'Hence, God exists.' One of the ways he defends his conclusion is by way of his Leibnizian cosmological argument. That argument goes like this:

1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence. (from 1, 3)
5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (from 2, 4)

Now, to be clear - I'm not defending this argument! I'm just giving an example of what I'm looking for.  Again, this is the sort of thing that we do in philosophy all the time, so it's not at all an unreasonable request. Once we have an argument in something like this form, we can discuss it profitably, without wasting time over misinterpretations and different interpretations and the like.

 

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You've read the relevant literature, so I'm not sure what you're asking. If it is just a way to frame the discussion, so we can make sure we have precise quotes or passages, then you should construct the argument yourself from your reading of Rand. You have the knowledge and background to do it yourself.

What about my first post isn't quite enough? I distilled it in a simple way, enough so at least that I pointed you towards the parts of the reasoning that matters most. If you're looking for an absolutely precise argument, of the sort Leibniz would do, you're not going to find that in Rand. She wasn't a continental philosopher per se (and yes, I know continental philosopher is a pretty imprecise term), but she wrote like continental philosophers. She's more precise than someone like Nietzsche, but not precise on the level of Heidegger.

It seems like you're asking about textual analysis of Rand, rather than the truth of certain ethical facts. It's fine to analyze the text if you want to understand the thinker. It's just a different goal. As I said though, you've read the relevant literature, so I don't see what that exercise of reproducing the argument matters.

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"It seems like you're asking about textual analysis of Rand, rather than the truth of certain ethical facts. It's fine to analyze the text if you want to understand the thinker. It's just a different goal."

No, they're intimately related goals. You can't judge whether a thinker has gotten things right unless you first determine what that thinker thinks, and more importantly, if we're doing philosophy, why she thinks it.

I just want a precise explication of the argument. Again, we do this sort of thing in philosophy all the time, so it doesn't seem to me to be an unreasonable request in a philosophy forum. As I said, a huge part of doing philosophy, as opposed to merely reading about philosophy and so on, is reconstructing the arguments of philosophers in precise ways. However, this doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, so perhaps I'll present a criticism/question and go from there (though I strongly suspect that responses to my criticism will make my point about the desirability of an argument of the sort I'm requesting for me).

Okay, so Rand writes, in her build-up to the claim that life is the standard of value, the following (in 'The Objectivist Ethics'):

"It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil."

The second sentence is true enough: only living entities can value things. The first sentence is confused, if we read it in the most natural way, for we could imagine having the concept 'value' without having the concept 'life'. (EDIT: This is one of the problems I'm talking about in the thread above. How are we to read this sentence? What sort of possibility is she talking about? This leads to a general criticism of Rand - she's a very sloppy writer, as philosophers go, so it's very difficult to reconstruct her arguments.) After all, we make discoveries all the time about what concepts our everyday concepts presuppose. But that aside, let's grant the general point: the concept of value presupposes the concept of life. So here's my question: what work does this do in the argument for the conclusion that life is the standard of value? At most, as far as I can tell, it shows that life is a necessary condition of value (or, that being alive is a necessary condition of valuing). But there are a host of additional necessary conditions of valuing, and none of them are the standard of value. So precisely what work does this bit of Rand's argument do to help establish the conclusion that life is the standard of value?

Edited by Eric D

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"I don't understand how the concept of "value" is to be understood without first having the concept of "life"?"

Right, that's one interpretation of the sentence, "It is only the concept of 'life' that makes the concept of 'value' possible". And I think it's the most natural one. But note, it's not what the sentence explicitly says; you have to read into it a bit to squeeze your take (and mine) out of it.

That aside, what work does that claim do in Rand's argument for the conclusion that life is the standard of value? Grant that you have to understand the concept of life to understand the concept of value (this seems false to me, as I said above, since we discover what concepts our everyday concepts presuppose all the time - that is, we don't have to understand every concept that a concept we use presupposes to use that concept). At best you get a necessary condition - understanding the concept 'value' - of understanding the concept 'life'. Okay. But precisely how does that advance the argument towards the conclusion that life is the standard of value? After all, understanding the concept 'value' presupposes understanding a host of other concepts as well (e.g. belief, intention, action, individual, thought, etc.), but none of them are the standard of value. So it's not clear why identifying this necessary condition does any work in the argument.

Edited by Eric D

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Do you think that we have to know all the concepts that a particular concept presupposes to use that concept effectively? Or would you concede that it's possible to use a concept and not be aware of at least some of the concepts it presupposes?

EDIT: For example, according to Rand, the concept 'concept' presupposes the concept of 'measurement omission'. But would you say that you can't use the concept 'concept' unless you have the concept of measurement omission? That strikes me as implausible. After all, no one before Rand made the connection between the concepts 'concept' and 'measurement omission'. 

Edited by Eric D

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Then consider framing the inquiry this way. How would you form the concept of "value" without having the concept of "life"?

(That is, without having the concept of "life" explicitly or implicitly?)

Edited by dream_weaver

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