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Does Rand Beg The Question?

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Dentist85
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In an article "Shrugging Off Ayn Rand" by Michael Prescott, it is said that Rand "begs the question" in the development of her ethics.

"Among other things, she equivocates on the key term "life," first using it to mean “that which is required for the organism’s survival,” but later, when human life enters the discussion, using it to mean “the life proper to a rational being.” These two meanings are in no sense equivalent, and the leap from biological survival to rational propriety is in no way justified, leaving the argument fatally undermined. Besides, any talk of “the life proper to a rational being” constitutes question begging, inasmuch as the term “proper” implies a system of moral values – a system for which Rand, at this point in her argument, is still laying the groundwork. To say that morality is founded on what is "proper" is to beg the question, or to argue in a circle.[1] In this essay, as in most of her philosophical writings, Rand reveals herself as something of a dilettante, whose grasp of the points under dispute was too sketchy to allow for the rigorous logical proofs she intended."

I was wondering what everyone thought of this and if there is any refutations out there that I could read. I will also consult my logic and reasoning professor.

P.S.

Being a freshman at the University of Illinois, I am trying to join the Objectivist campus club, which might close this year due to lack of members (in a school of 40,000!).

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Is Rand saying that 'what is proper is the proper life' without first proving the definition of proper?

Mr. Prescott's jeering is entirely floating and devoid of meaning but you, on the other hand, are asking an honest question that deserves an answer.

Just as there are axioms of philosophy, so there are similar principles and concepts to be found upon which all of ethics rests. Ethics studies a code of values to guide man's choices and actions. Before you even "set foot" in ethics, we have several very important topics to clear up: What is a code and why does man need one? What is man and what is his nature? Mr. Prescott ignores the fact that Miss Rand separates these questions from ethics proper (also observe that Dr. Peikoff devoted a separate chapter to this area of knowledge in OPAR, i.e., Chapter 6) and this is, in my opinion, one of her most monumental achievements. It is the key to why the Objectivist ethics is objective.

I would suggest reading The Objectivist Ethics in The Virtue of Selfishness and Chapters 6 and 7 in OPAR to answer this question.

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"Among other things, she equivocates on the key term "life," first using it to mean “that which is required for the organism’s survival,” but later, when human life enters the discussion, using it to mean “the life proper to a rational being.”

This fellow must have read a series of quotes and not Rand proper. Between those two statements, this fellow is omitting the fact that Rand offers a proof that man's sole means of survival is reason, so in order for something to be proper to man's life it must be proper to his life as a rational being. This guy obviously did not actually READ Rand.

Besides, any talk of “the life proper to a rational being” constitutes question begging, inasmuch as the term “proper” implies a system of moral values – a system for which Rand, at this point in her argument, is still laying the groundwork.
The use of the term "proper" only implies that A system of moral values is required for man's survival: an assertion that Rand does not make without having proven it logically follows from previous proofs. Again, this fellow has NOT read Rand.

To say that morality is founded on what is "proper" is to beg the question, or to argue in a circle.[1]

Agreed, that would be a textbook example of begging the question. Unfortunately, this fellow is engaging in a textbook example of the straw man argument, since RAND NEVER SAID ANYTHING OF THE SORT.

And his further classification of Rand as an intellectual lightweight is only further revealing the fact that he has never read her works, becuase she is ANYTHING BUT.

Good luck to you at school, Darrin. I hope you won't have to deal with too many people like that.

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But man is biologically a rational being. Therefore for him to survive biologically *requires* rationality.

In other words, if he chooses not to think, including to think long term, he ain't going to survive for long. How else can he survive except as the kind of being he is (by the standards proper to and required by the kind of being he is)?

There is a reason why Michael Prescott rejects this idea. He's an avowed, raging mystic and apparently has written a number of books on the subject. A few of us debated with him on another forum and if anyone is a dilettante in philosophy it is him. He was literally incapable of sustaining an argument. It all amounted to "argument from authority" - his continually citing other people who had allegedly refuted Ayn Rand. But he couldn't defend a single one of the arguments.

Fred Weiss

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1) His equivocation point on the term life is pointless. It is stated to the class of which man belongs as a whole-living organisms-then when she is focussing only on man, it is restated with his particular attribute specified.

2) That last is obviousy a part Prescott skipped.

3) His squiggling on the term "proper" is pure hyperbole. That is what ethics does, what is proper actions, what are his proper ends. What he is asking for then is a subject that cannot have a definition. And this follows the same pattern as the prior point.

4) It is also hyperbole in the sense also that no code is thus begged by the statement. It simply does not imply a system of ethics already. Any morality could make such a statement. Kant could have used that statement.

Lastly, when I read these puss ridden shi*****, I always keep this in mind: what large areas did this guy gloss over or skip entirely that allows him to think he can think this? Because I haven't found one of these things yet that doesn't lead me to the unavoidable conclusion that they didn't even really read what they are criticizing

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Here is the question simplified:

Is Rand saying that 'what is proper is the proper life' without first proving the definition of proper?

I agree with Inspector's assessment - Prescott's grabbing a few out-of-context phrases from Rand's writings. constructiing an "argument", and showing how easily he can refute the "dilettante"'s argument. Note especially that the argument he's refuting (his straw man) is not Rand's argument. It's something that he's cooked up. If you try to refute his argument, you could end up trying to show that "his straw man still lives". But since he made it up out of thin air, only pasting bits and pieces of Rand's argument to make it appear like it's hers, he can kill it willy-nilly; so there's no way to defeat this argument. Attempting to do so is a kind of trap. But go ahead and struggle with it for a while - you won't loose a leg or anything.

The key is to obtain a first-handedly clear understanding of Rand's argument.

Do you know about "reduction" - the practice of reducing your concepts to their referents in reality ?

I think Bowzer's got you pointed in the right direction.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I have to go with Inspector on this one. Often, a "circular argument" claim is used to attempt to discredit someone making an argument when the claimant has not actually read or understood enough of the argument. This appears to be the case here.

I do, however, have a related question of my own. This is asked in all honesty, so anyone responding, please take it as an honest inquiry. I am trying to think through the origin of choosing Objectivism as proper ethics. This question came up during a discussion with my Ethics professor:

If life is the standard of value, then what reason can be given for following an ethical system of selfishness/self interest? If you give the reason that it supports life, the next logical question would be, "Why should I desire life?" My personal response to this has been: I am not telling you that you should desire life. My ethics come in after that decision- Once you decide you want to live, then I will tell you that you should be selfish.

So, my real question is about the validity of my claim: Can you tell someone a reason for living? Can you ultimately justify the Objectivist system of ethics without appealing to life as the final reason? I think not, but I would be interested to hear some other thoughts on the matter.

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If life is the standard of value, then what reason can be given for following an ethical system of selfishness/self interest? If you give the reason that it supports life, the next logical question would be, "Why should I desire life?"

The question you ask contains its own answer. To desire is to value, and the only source of value is life. "It is only the concept of 'Life' that makes the concept of 'Value' possible." [Atlas Shrugged, p. 931.] So you have already accepted your own life as your ultimate value since it is implicit in your use of "desire." Man's life is the only standard of value; the alternative is death.

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Stephen: “The question you ask contains its own answer. To desire is to value, and the only source of value is life.”

This is in answer to Sesklo’s question: “Why should I desire life?” But if desire is equated with value, and if life is the ultimate value, then Stephen is saying we should value life because, well, life is a value. So the argument merely begs the question.

The context of this question is Rand’s attempt to integrate fact/value, the “is” and the “ought”. She presents the decision to choose life as a pre-moral choice, and Sesklo follows this line of reasoning when he says: “My ethics come in after that decision- Once you decide you want to live, then I will tell you that you should be selfish.”

Sesklo rightly points out that if the choice to live is a pre-moral one, such a choice cannot be equated with choosing life as a standard of value. One chooses to live; then one chooses life as the standard. In doing so, he has preserved the is/ought gap, but he has failed to bridge the gap in not giving a pre-moral answer to the question: Why choose to live?

Stephen, on the other hand, has conflated these two issues in claiming that the desire to live is equivalent to a moral choice, and in doing so he also confirms Prescott’s point about the equivocation between life as a matter of survival and life as a value.

And if the choice to live is presented as a matter of choosing a value, the choice is no longer a pre-moral one, since choosing a value requires a moral judgement. In that case, the decision for life is wholly normative, and the is/ought gap has not been bridged.

Eddie

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... then Stephen is saying ...

Just for the record, no one should ever take any lack of acknowledgment or response on my part to anything that "Eddie" ever writes, as meaning agreement. If anyone wants to spend the next few weeks writing several dozen posts attempting to clear up "Eddie's" endless convoluted distortions of Objectivism, then be my guest. Several people have been there and have done that, and have given up in utter frustration. It is a waste of time and effort, and I am not a glutton for self-punishment.

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Thank you very much for all of your helpful comments. Contrary to the criticism, I found Eddie's comment to be quite lucid and pertinent. Eddie points to the real issue that my question addressed: the premoral status of the choice to live.

I have read the essay that Feldblum kindly pointed me to, and it went quite a ways in answering this problem. It also seems to support the idea that the choice to live is a pre-moral consideration. This does, however, create more questions for me. The pre-moral period in which one can decide whether to live, as I understand it, seems a similar device to the pre-societal "state of nature" in politics in that it may not actually exist, but is more of an expression of the initial epistemological step that must be made before one decides the appropriate political system (or in this case, the appropriate ethical code).

What I mean is this: if there is an actual "pre-moral" state, it comes before we can even speak fluently. It is a helpful to think about this state when thinking about the reasons for the ethical choice, but we are not actually in a pre-moral state when we are old enough to articulately decide whether to live.

So here is a related question: Can suicide be morally condemned? My thoughts on this are that morality does apply to this question- that it does not fall into the category of the pre-moral. Epistemically, yes, the decision to live seems to be pre-moral, but I am not sure that it follows that in practice, ethics has nothing to say about suicide. If one comes to the point of suicide, there must have been some original choice to live, and the adoption, at least in some part, of life supporting principles, because it is impossible to remain alive without some effort to remain so.

Could it be that the decision to die can be made based on a judgment of values? It seems that if all values were stripped away, value acheivement made impossible and ones life were directed to the service of evil- let us use a Nazi concentration camp as a rough example of this- then suicide could not be condemned according even to an ethics of self-interest. While it could not be condemned, it seems that it could also not be approved in this situation, because either choice is the negation of value.

Another example puts value back into the picture: an American highschool kid wants to commit suicide because he is depressed and does not think that happiness is possible. (Let us say he has just taken a class on the works of Kafka.) Surely there is some line of reasoning that could be presented to this person, culminating in a moral condemnation of his suicide. One could present the values that life can offer, and explain how death is the negation of value. Could this not be followed by something to the effect of: "Life is the standard of value you hold, and by that standard, death is not a value and the pursuit of death is not a virtue, so pursuing suicide is wrong," as a moral condemnation of suicide in this case? With this, I woud be appealing to a standard of life already adopted by the agent, so the agent is not in a pre-moral state.

Sorry for the lengthiness, but I would be interested in your further thoughts on this matter. Thank you!

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Sesklo: “The pre-moral period…seems a similar device to the pre-societal "state of nature" in politics in that it may not actually exist, but is more of an expression of the initial epistemological step that must be made before one decides the appropriate political system (or in this case, the appropriate ethical code).”

That’s a very interesting idea, Sesklo. It would certainly explain the fact that the vast majority of people most likely regard themselves as moral agents, despite not having consciously chosen life as their ultimate value. And as you say it would be a valuable cognitive device for testing ethical claims.

But I’m not sure whether that would be consistent with the Objectivist ethics, in that the “fact” part of the fact/value integration becomes a hypothetical rather than a real fact of reality that is discoverable by empirical means.

Sesklo: “So here is a related question: Can suicide be morally condemned?”

If the pre-moral period is regarded as a really existing state, it would seem that not only is suicide acceptable, but anything goes, since those who do not choose life as their goal still exist in a pre-moral state, and moral guidelines don’t apply to them.

But we normally condemn suicide, or at least certain forms of self-inflicted death, those resulting from despair. In these cases, the would-be suicide hates his own life to the extent that he is prepared to lose it. The antidote is usually to offer the hope that life can be better.

In that case, the distinction would be between one type of life and another, rather than between existence and non-existence. If so, the decision to live or die takes place on the moral plane, not prior to it.

You’ve obviously put a good deal of your own thought into this subject, more than I can justify in this brief reply -- I’m afraid I’m working to a deadline for the next couple of weeks. Keep up the good work.

Eddie

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... It also seems to support the idea that the choice to live is a pre-moral consideration.... What I mean is this: if there is an actual "pre-moral" state, it comes before we can even speak fluently.

I think your terminology is confusing you and making this simple issue unnecessarily complex. As Ayn Rand has pointed out, it is from the nature of values that the standard of "man's life" is derived. You cannot ask "Why should my life be my highest value?", because you have already accepted that in your use of the concept "value." Miss Rand once likened this issue to why you cannot really ask the question "Why should I be rational?" The answer, along the same lines as the "life" issue, is that you have already accepted reason by accepting the question "why," since "why" is a concept which itself is dependent on rationality.

So here is a related question: Can suicide be morally condemned?

Any freely chosen act of choice is open to moral judgment. There are cases where the quality of living is so degraded or so painful that a man cannot live as a man, and suicide can be a proper moral choice. But to end one's life indiscriminantly would be an immoral choice.

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But I’m not sure whether that would be consistent with the Objectivist ethics, in that the “fact” part of the fact/value integration becomes a hypothetical rather than a real fact of reality that is discoverable by empirical means.

Eddie, could you expand on this statement? I am not sure that I fully grasp the implications of the premoral period being hypothetical on its fact/value integration. Are you saying that if the premoral period is hypothetical rather than actual, then choices proceeding from this would not be made on the basis of empirical investigation?

I understand that you are working towards a deadline, so don't feel that you need to answer this right away- it can wait. Thanks!

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Sesklo, trees, carrots, amobeas and dogs have values but they do not have the capacity of choice. How then does the concept of value apply to these "things"? If you see the answer to this question it might help you understand Ayn Rands analysis of the nature and relationship of "life" and "values".

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Harald, I'm not really sure of what you mean. Are you asserting that all biological entities have a value structure, or that they are of value? If the former, I would say that perhaps such a structure could be thought of in terms of those entities having a telos, but I don't really see how that helps us, since they really can not be said to hold values as a human does. If the latter, then we must say that they do not necessarily have value, since value is not intrinsic, but in terms of what a human values.

I already understand that, according to Rand, life is the proper standard of value, but I'm not sure that this give me the answer to my question of what is meant by the premoral state and whether this is a hypothetical thought experiement or an actual state.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Sesklo: “Eddie, could you expand on this statement? I am not sure that I fully grasp the implications of the premoral period being hypothetical on its fact/value integration. Are you saying that if the premoral period is hypothetical rather than actual, then choices proceeding from this would not be made on the basis of empirical investigation?”

My apologies for being tardy in replying. I’ve been hard at work at the capitalist coal-face.

In answer to your question, I was a being a bit literal in assuming that if there were no actual pre-moral state, all supposed facts would have to be regarded as values, in which case there could be no unvarnished “facts of reality” for investigation. But of course empirical considerations can be brought to bear on hypotheticals, otherwise there wouldn’t be much value in entertaining hypotheticals.

I was probably conflating Rand’s choice to live – which is a matter of psychology – with her philosophical reasons for life as the ultimate value. But the two should be kept separate, as your question reveals.

The important point is whether regarding the pre-moral as a hypothetical would make any difference to the validity of arguments in favour of regarding life as the ultimate value. As far as I can see, it would make no difference. In the case of suicide, the question is one of the quality of life, rather than existence versus non-existence.

I also doubt that a choice between existence and non-existence is really meaningful, since non-existence has no cognitive content. A meaningful choice involves knowing something about the alternatives, but what can be said about one's non-existence?

There’s an indirect confirmation of this difficulty in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy: to be or not to be? Hamlet speculates about the state of death as sleep and possible dreaming, before realising that he doesn’t know what’s on the “other side” of death. So his thoughts about non-existence are more speculation than fact.

In that case, it’s not obvious that the alternative of existence versus non-existence can be used as the basis for a rational ethics.

Eddie

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  • 2 weeks later...
Harald, I'm not really sure of what you mean. Are you asserting that all biological entities have a value structure, or that they are of value?
(Sorry, Sesklo, about the late reply. just saw your answer now).

What I am trying to say is that all life -- from the simplest amobea, to plants, to insects, to animals, to rational animals -- exists because they pursue values. Values is that which give rise to the phenomena of life as such. A living entity which does not pursue values is a contradiction in terms. A metaphysical contradiction. The existence of Life is genetically dependent on Values.

You seem to have a much more narrow picture of what values are than does Ayn Rand (with whom I agree with on this - I think the identification of the link between life and values is just breathtaking as it solves so many questions in ethics). You seem to say that values are only that which is chosen. But do not, for instance, plants have values (water, sun light)? Dogs (food, drink and games)?

If the former, I would say that perhaps such a structure could be thought of in terms of those entities having a telos, but I don't really see how that helps us, since they really can not be said to hold values as a human does.

But I think it does help us because it shows us that life qua phenomena is dependent on values and the achievement of those values. Where there are no values there is no life, and vice versa. Life and Values cannot be separated in reality and therefore cannot be sewered in philosophy or ethics. The plain descriptive fact of reality is that Life is genetically dependent on values. The one cannot exist without the other.

So when Ayn Rand brings this broad idenitification of the genetic relationship between life and values into ethics, she is pointing out that Human Life qua phenomena relies on values in the same way existentially as all life does. This is why she says Life is the Standard of Value in ethics. She doesn't mean that it ought to be the standard of value, she says that it _is_ whether or not we choose to accept this fact or not.

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  • 4 weeks later...

Re: Life, Value and Choice

This topic ("Beg the Question") and two other closely related topics ("Indestructible Robot" and "Cooties") have been dormant for more than three weeks, but the central issue -- life as the standard of value -- is crucial to the entire Objectivist ethics and politics. It has occurred to me, therefore, that it might be worthwhile to summarize the key issues and answers, as I see them. There are three major issues, in particular, that warrant thorough "chewing":

(a) What is the nature of Ayn Rand's argument validating "man's life *qua* man" as the only objective standard of value for man?

(B) How does her argument establish anything beyond mere physical survival as an objective standard of value?

(c ) What is the relation between an individual's *choice* to pursue life or not, and the objective validity of the standard?

Here are what I understand to be the key points in answer to these questions:

1. All living things exist within a life-death spectrum. To maintain and advance their positions in that spectrum, they must act in specific ways according to their nature. Inaction leads, by default, toward death, eventually reaching it irreversibly if the inaction persists long enough. The "spectrum" is essentially an identification of one's efficacy for living, one's *capacity* to act in the future, as well as the present result of having exercised that capacity (or not) in the past.

2. There is no objective basis for forming a concept of "value" except in terms of pursuing life, i.e., a living entity seeking to maintain and advance its position in the life-death spectrum. Ayn Rand's validation is essentially an "argument from concept formation."

3. This is the only objective basis for "value" because "value" (in any serious theory of values) presupposes a valuer and a reason for valuing, i.e., "to *whom* and for *what* ... an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative." [VOS Chap. 1] The pursuit of life is the most fundamental "for what" that is possible, and it is an end in itself. By the rules of epistemologically proper concept formation (the principles identifying how man's cognitive faculty must operate to gain knowledge of reality) -- principles such as measurement omission, the rule of fundamentality, "Rand's Razor," and the rule against committing the fallacy of the stolen concept -- the pursuit of life is the only valid basis for "value." Conceptually, "pursuit of life" subsumes both maintaining one's present position in the life-death spectrum and advancing one's position, if possible -- i.e, *strengthening* one's life as well as maintaining it.

4. For man, *any* pursuit of life, on whatever scale or level, requires, at minimum, thinking and productive work, over the span of a lifetime. This must be guided by a comprehensive life-furthering *code* of values because man has no automatic knowledge of the actions required by his nature for living.

5. The *standard* of the pro-life code encompasses man's full potential and is independent of any particular individual's choice to follow that code fully or not. It is not because an individual chooses to pursue his life (or not) that the standard is what it is. Conceptually, the standard needs to encompass those who do choose to pursue life to the fullest degree possible to them, as well as those who choose to pursue life to some lesser degree. All human life-seekers need the same basic standard, the same basic code of values; some will simply be unable or unmotivated to follow the code's highest prescriptions unless and until they work at it and advance their positions in the life-death spectrum.

6. Anyone who chooses to renounce life entirely, taking no life-sustaining action at all, is irrelevant to the existence of the others and *their* need for a code of values. There will be no conflict in principle with a death seeker, since a death seeker has no *need* to act at all; only life-seeking can be a basis for the concept of "need." (An "indestructible robot," if one existed, would have no objective basis for any "needs," either.) If a death seeker attacks others, they can rightfully grant him his stated wish to die, if that becomes necessary to end the threat or to retaliate justly for harm already done to others.

7. There is no necessary conflict between life *seekers*, either, if they adhere to the cardinal values of reason, purpose and self-esteem. Human existence need not be a "lifeboat" writ large, in which some can benefit only at the expense of others (although mysticism and altruism inexorably reduce man to just such a state). Man can *create* new wealth where none existed before, and trading with others can be *mutually* beneficial and cooperative, spectacularly so, if the trading partners adhere to a rational code of values.

There are numerous excerpts in the literature of Objectivism that I can cite, principally from VOS, GS and OPAR, to support these points. I can discuss these references further in future postings if there is interest.

_______________

In defense of Reason and Reality, Life and Value, Freedom and Rights, Spirit and Happiness, through epistemology and individualism -- RReLV_FRiSH.

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