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Response to this "Flaw" of Objectivism

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I am reading the book for my ethics college course and we are on a chapter about Egoism. There is a section devoted specifically to Ayn Rand but after giving what in my view is a fair representation of Objectivism, it gives the following argument. How would you respond?

One problem with this argument, as you may have noticed, is that it assumes we have only two choices: Either we accept the ethics of altruism, or we accept Ethical Egoism. The choice is then made to look obvious by depicting the ethics of altruism as an insane doctrine that only an idiot would accept. The ethics of altruism is said to be the view that one;s own interests have no

value and that one must be ready to sacrifice oneself totally any time anybody asks it. If this is the alternative, then any other view, including Ethical Egoism, will look good by comparison.

But that is hardly a fair picture of the choices. What we called the commonsense view stands between the two extremes. It says that one's own interests and the interests of others are both important, and must be balanced against each other. Sometimes, when the balancing is done, it will turn out that one should act in the interests of others; other times, it will turn out that one should take care of oneself. So, even if we should reject the extreme ethics of altruism, it does not follow that we must acept the other extreme of Ethical Egoism. THere is middle ground.

Also immediately before the Rand section it states:

What arguments can be advanced to support this doctrine? Unfortunately, the thoery is asserted more often that it is argued for-many of its supporters apparently think its truth is self-evident, so that arguments are not needed.
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I think this man has little understanding of what he speaks of. To begin with, many Objectivist can and will do things that may seem altruistic to those who do not understand altruism. Many people associate things like community and niceness with altruism. This is not so. Most of the time that people are nice is because they either; have something to gain via politeness, or, just enjoy being nice. The problem is that they gain from niceness, and, if you gain, it is not truly altruistic. To be truly altruistic, you must give and only give, and you must not gain. Hence why the Puritans believed that doing good was impossible.

So, really, when the man who wrote the book poses a theory of moderate altruism, he is more proposing a theory of niceness and amiability. Which is something different. He also lacks understanding of what it means to have a "rational self-interest." Giving to charity can very easily be in a rational-self interest. Helping in a community is within one's rational self-interest. Rational is the key-word in the phrase. This man has obviously been trained to identify self-interest with some sort of Nietzschain ubermenchse monster. Its not in ones rational self-interest to be mean or to be "selfish" in the classical sense. Objectivism is about helping yourself, not screwing the other guy. He doesn't understand that the two extremes are slave or master. Objectivism IS the middle ground!

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I'm not going to make a long post as I don't like responding to these types of threads typically, but what the book presents is a false alternative. Both Rand and Peikoff make numerous examples of a third case not mentioned in the quotes you give: Moral agnosticism. For ethical theories, there are only three alternatives (remember when considering ethics, we consider only that which is volitionally chosen; where there's no choice, morality does not come into play): the principle that you are the proper beneficiary of your actions (egoism or selfishness), the principle that someone else is the proper beneficiary of your actions (altruism), and the principle that there's no proper beneficiary and ethics is an arbitrary construct (moral agnosticism). There is no middle ground in principle between any of these--there are only mixed people whose actions are not consistent in regards to the principles.

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The second assertion is false if it refers to Rand. In fact, Rand did give a well-reasoned argument for rational egoism. If the assertion is meant to apply to egoist philosophers in general, then, while true, it constitutes an evasion of Rand's arguments. Whether or not the author agrees with Rand, he should explicitly state that she is an exception. To do otherwise would be dishonest, considering that he has chosen to devote a section to Objectivism.

Regarding, the first quote, I have a question: does the author attempt to provide a rational argument for the "commonsense view", or does he simply assert it? If the latter, he is applying a double-standard: a view held by sufficiently many people need not be justified, while a more controversial view must be. If he accuses egoists of failing to provide rational justification, he must require the same kind of justification from the critics of egoism. Why should we accept this "middle ground" he speaks of?

I would say that the most glaring problem with the author's treatment of egoism is the double-standard I mentioned above. Why is this "middle ground" desirable? If he regards that as self-evident, then he is essentially taking the most important conclusion of the whole field of ethics as an axiom, and confining himself to its applications. If this is permissible, then it is also permissible for me to take egoism as an axiom, and confine myself to its applications. If the author has actually bothered to attempt a rational justification of his "commonsense" approach (I assumed he hadn't because of the name), then I would need to hear that argument before commenting further.

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First up, it is definitely not representative of the arguments for ranges of moral codes as identified by Miss Rand or other prominent Objectivists. West mentions moral agnosticism, identified by Dr Peikoff. Another that Dr Peikoff mentions, in the "Objective Communication" course (lecture 9 or 10) is that Kant's theory is neither egoistic nor altruistic (nor agnostic for that matter), as it instead exhorts people to sacrifice in favour of the "categorical imperative," IE sacrifice for its own sake and explicitly for the benefit of nobody (as a primary source of motivation, anyway). He also mentions the death-worship of Nirvana-seeking Oriental religions.

Secondly, Nyronus is correct to note that the self-others continuum is bogus. This is also expressly mentioned by Miss Rand and Dr Peikoff, so again the excerpt is not representative of Objectivist thought. See OPAR Ch7, especially p229-241. A key quote (p239):

You may and should help another man, or befriend him, or love him, if in the full context you—your values, your judgment, your life—are upheld thereby and protected. The principle of your action must be selfish.

The final excerpt is blatantly NOT applicable to Objectivism. Maybe it holds of other theories, but if anyone tries to say it holds of Objectivism then just say that this other is asserting that books like AS, OPAR, VOS, CUI, and so on, do not exist.

--

How else would I respond? Here's what I'd do (depending on how much space there is to make an argument in): first I'd note that morality exists, and is a vital necessity for man here in this world, because man has the faculty of volition and is constantly faced with choices to make, but as he is born tabula rasa he has no innate knowledge of which option he should follow and so needs to adopt a code to help him decide. Morality is that code.

Dr Peikoff noted in ObComms that at this level there is a single simple question whose answer is subject to the Law of the Excluded Middle. Is at any time, anywhere, anyhow, a man required to make sacrifices (as properly understood)? Yes, or no? By reference to the sliding scale, the author of the book you're working from is trying to avoid dealing with the blunt yes or no part of that question. There is no "balance" at that level, no sliding scale. Questions of how much a man should sacrifice are secondaries that presume a yes to the main question.

In OPAR (p206), he noted that this question was the third of three, and depended on the answers to the other two. The questions are: What is the ultimate value? How should it be achieved? Who or what (if anyone or anything) should benefit from action?

The only way properly to answer that main question, the third of the three, is to answer the first two first, starting with the standard of value. The whole excerpt you quote expressly depends on value through and through, but makes no mention whatever of what the standard of value is. The author speaks of doing a balance - but does not say how! The standard of value is the only method for making any balances. Further, the issue of virtue - the second question - includes answers that identify the fact that in questions of principle there is no such thing as balance. That is why the fundamental question of whether man is or is not ever a sacrificial animal is a simple yes or no question, whose answer just does not refer to a continuum.

From there, I'd go into what the standard is, what the foundation of virtue is, and validate oneself as the proper beneficiary of all one's actions. That then provides the three answers to the three fundamental questions of morality. An undergraduate paper wouldn't have room to go much further, but I would include reference to the virtue of justice and show what the proper basis and nature of one's proper interaction with others is.

JJM

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One problem with this argument, as you may have noticed, is that it assumes we have only two choices: Either we accept the ethics of altruism, or we accept Ethical Egoism.

Rand critiqued ethical utilitarianism and ethical deontology as well. Combine those two with moral agnosticism (brought up by West), categorical imperative, and death-worship (both brought up by John McVey), and it becomes pretty obvious that Rand assumed much more than just egoism and altruism.

What we called the commonsense view stands between the two extremes. It says that one's own interests and the interests of others are both important, and must be balanced against each other. Sometimes, when the balancing is done, it will turn out that one should act in the interests of others; other times, it will turn out that one should take care of oneself. So, even if we should reject the extreme ethics of altruism, it does not follow that we must acept the other extreme of Ethical Egoism. THere is middle ground.

Rand on middle grounds:

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist.... In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube . . .

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it’s picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.

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I want to post the conclusion in the chapter on Egoism because it made me laugh. I see now that the author is being either incredibly ignorant or incredibly dishonest in lumping in Rand with the rest of this chapter as a package-deal.

Ethical Egoism is a moral theory of the same type [an example of racism]. It advocates each of us divide the world into two categories of people - ourselves and all the rest - and that we regard the interests of those in the first group as more important than the interests of those in the second group. But each of us can ask, What is the difference between me and everyone else that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? DO I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? DO I have needs or abilities that are different from the needs or abilities of others? In short, what makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine, in the same way that racism is arbitrary. Both doctrines violate the Principle of Equal Treatment. And this, in addition to explaining why Ethical Egoism is unacceptable, also sheds light on the question of why we should care about others.

I'm a racist.

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What is the difference between me and everyone else that justifies placing myself in this special category? Am I more intelligent? DO I enjoy my life more? Are my accomplishments greater? DO I have needs or abilities that are different from the needs or abilities of others? In short, what makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine, in the same way that racism is arbitrary. Both doctrines violate the Principle of Equal Treatment. And this, in addition to explaining why Ethical Egoism is unacceptable, also sheds light on the question of why we should care about others.

So this person sees no difference between Bill Gates and, for instance, a third world thug? He misses the entire point.

I need no justification other than the fact of my own existance.

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I want to post the conclusion in the chapter on Egoism because it made me laugh. I see now that the author is being either incredibly ignorant or incredibly dishonest in lumping in Rand with the rest of this chapter as a package-deal.

I'm a racist.

...

Racism... has nothing to do with Egoism...

Racism is a quasi-mystic belief in the superiority of one particular code of genes...

It...

It makes no sense...

No sense.....

God damn false analogy-red herring spewing...

*sigh*

How exactly does Ethical Egoism NOT produce an answer? A man with no legs had different needs than a man with a mental retardation. A psychopathic behaves differently than a schizophrenic. An artist uses different tools than an author. An architect is different than the crane operator. All of these people are DIFFERENT. They must be treated as such. Equal Treatment falls apart because not everyone is equal. Someone with food allergies can't live off of my diet. Who better to treat your own desires and needs but yourself? This guy once again equates selfishness with fuck-youism as opposed to I-ism. These are two completely different things. He also fails, once again, to demonstrate the arbitrariness of Ethical Egoism, outside of a false analogy and a rather poor red herring. Idiot book...

So far, the only flaw he demonstrates is that he does not like Ayn Rand, and that, hardly, is a grounds for dismissing a philosophical system.

Edited by Nyronus
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In my post above, I didn't consider Kant to be in a separate category than the three I listed. In the Objectivism Through Induction series (lecture 3-4, the egoism one), Peikoff places Kant in the 'altruism' camp, naming him as the most consistent one in fact. Kant states that an action is moral only when one has absolutely no interest in it whatever. The text I've read on duty ethics would lead me to believe that he is an altruist in principle as well. I'll have to check out the Objective Communication lectures to see what Peikoff says, as I'm getting two different messages.

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In my post above, I didn't consider Kant to be in a separate category than the three I listed. In the Objectivism Through Induction series (lecture 3-4, the egoism one), Peikoff places Kant in the 'altruism' camp, naming him as the most consistent one in fact. Kant states that an action is moral only when one has absolutely no interest in it whatever. The text I've read on duty ethics would lead me to believe that he is an altruist in principle as well. I'll have to check out the Objective Communication lectures to see what Peikoff says, as I'm getting two different messages.

In my understanding, the categorical imperative is more a method for implementing and evaluating ethical actions (in the case of Kant, it would be altruism) than it is an explanation of what a value is to be derived from. Its possible for subjectivist egoism to advocate a categorical imperative as well, although I don't specifically know of anyone who does. It probably wouldn't work in the case of moral agnosticism. So, although Kant might be in the altruist camp, the categorical imperative is to some degree separate from that.

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I think this man has little understanding of what he speaks of. To begin with, many Objectivist can and will do things that may seem altruistic to those who do not understand altruism. Many people associate things like community and niceness with altruism. This is not so. Most of the time that people are nice is because they either; have something to gain via politeness, or, just enjoy being nice. The problem is that they gain from niceness, and, if you gain, it is not truly altruistic. To be truly altruistic, you must give and only give, and you must not gain. Hence why the Puritans believed that doing good was impossible.

In that case, it seems like altruism simply doesn't exist. The kind of altruism you describe is slavery. I mean literal slavery, not any figurative slavery you may think of. Maybe being held against your will while your organs are removed to be implanted in someone else could also be altruism. Which is completely nonsensical.

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In that case, it seems like altruism simply doesn't exist.

Being forced at the point of a gun to pay taxes which is in turned used to pay unemployment benefits to bums and social security to irresponsible old people is altruism in the way Rand meant.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Ethical Egoism is a moral theory of the same type [an example of racism]. It advocates each of us divide the world into two categories of people - ourselves and all the rest {Incorrect, there are three divides: me, other rational people, and everyone else.}- and that we regard the interests of those in the first group as more important than the interests of those in the second group. {I regard my own interests above those of others because I'm the only one that will, only I am responsible for me.} But each of us can ask, What is the difference between me and everyone else that justifies placing myself in this special category? {I am the only one directly responsible for my own continued existence. I have to consider my own needs above the needs of others.} Am I more intelligent? {I sure in the hell hope so.} DO I enjoy my life more? {Again, I hope so. There are some miserable bastards out there.} Are my accomplishments greater? {I hope they will be. There are a lot of lazy cusses out there.} DO I have needs or abilities that are different from the needs or abilities of others? {Needs, no. Everyone has the same need: to continue to live. My abilities are greater than some, and less than others.} In short, what makes me so special? Failing an answer, it turns out that Ethical Egoism is an arbitrary doctrine, in the same way that racism is arbitrary. {Ethical Egoism is not arbitrary, it is a systematic rational approach to ethics. Racism is arbitrary.} Both doctrines violate the Principle of Equal Treatment. {This principle states that like things should be treated alike. All rational people are alike, and should be treated as such. All irrational people are alike, and should be treated as such. There is no violation. What he wants the principle to say is that everyone is equal.} And this, in addition to explaining why Ethical Egoism is unacceptable, also sheds light on the question of why we should care about others. {There is a huge difference between "caring about others" and sacrificing for others.}

Emphasized comments mine.

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