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Absolutes and Objectivism

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Dark Sheep
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I guess I'm ignorant or I just didn't read Atlas Shrugged very closely but how do you go about proving things like moral absolutes like how slavery is wrong or how murdering the homeless is wrong. I mean I think these things are wrong, but we live in a situation where its easy to say they are wrong.

To quote Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw

"Good and Evil are utterly meaningless terms that very from society to society. A few hundred years from now, when over crowding leaves us crammed shoulder to shoulder in the streets fighting over the last croissant in the patisserie, the denouncement of genocide will remembered as tragically quaint."

Certainly I'd like to believe this isn't true, but without some all powerful being dictating what is evil and what is good, I myself don't see a way to refute it. Why aren't morals subjective to the person and environment? How can you have moral absolutes without believing in a god?

I was just wondering what the Objectivist answer to these questions were. I'm not advocating any of these questions I'm just kind of confused.

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I guess I'm ignorant or I just didn't read Atlas Shrugged very closely but how do you go about proving things like moral absolutes ... How can you have moral absolutes without believing in a god?

The Objectivist ethics begins with understanding the nature of life in general, what its principles are, and then applies those scientific findings specifically to the human context. Those principles, and the nature of man, are themselves absolutes: what is, IS. The causal relationships between them are similarly absolute, ie what relationships are, ARE. After a lot of observation and reasoning one then arrives at Objectivism's ethics, which properly understood is itself a science.

Note that Objectivism rejects the idea of out-of-context moral absolutes. All ethical principles only hold within various contexts. This stems from the broader epistemological point of contextual-absolutism: most absolutes exist as relationships between existents. The contexts involved, however, are also themselves absolutes, and thus "contextual absolutism" is not a self-contradiction. When you get really deep into examining this, you find that there are hierarchies of contexts; that there are contexts within contexts for many levels, in the same way as there are for concepts. The broadest of all is the concept and context of all existence. Morality, then, ultimately comes to the question of what it is one needs to do in order to continue living - ie be in existence - as the specific type of existent one is.

If you want to understand Objectivist ethics fully and its position on moral absolutes, you'll first have to wrap your head around Objectivist epistemology and Objectivism's view of life and man. Have a search on the forum for both topics to begin with, then start to explore the Objectivist literature. For the view of life and the base of ethics, for example, have a look at the article "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness.

like how slavery is wrong or how murdering the homeless is wrong.

Because they are violations of the moral principles that apply universally to all men.

Why aren't morals subjective to the person and environment?

Moral principles exist as principles of action applicable to men in the same way that physical laws are applicable to planets and stars and atoms etc. They have to be discovered by men in the same way as any other laws of existence have to be discovered, and just as the laws of physics are independent of men's thoughts so are moral principles. The context in which moral principles are applicable is independent of the precise nature of any one man and his personal circumstances. The moral principles apply to all men as such, irrespective of things like their beliefs, upbringing, culture, race, geographical environment, and so on.

What can change is the nature of the context - but not as often as you might think. 99.99% of the time the context does not change, and so the moral principles applicable to that context are omnipresent. Only in rare circumstances - genuine lifeboat situations - does that particular context not hold. We don't concern ourselves too much about them, precisely because they're rare and their examination tells us nothing about how to live our lives in the ordinary course of affairs.

JJM

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I guess I'm ignorant or I just didn't read Atlas Shrugged very closely but how do you go about proving things like moral absolutes like how slavery is wrong or how murdering the homeless is wrong. I mean I think these things are wrong, but we live in a situation where its easy to say they are wrong.

To quote Ben "Yahtzee" Crowshaw

"Good and Evil are utterly meaningless terms that very from society to society. A few hundred years from now, when over crowding leaves us crammed shoulder to shoulder in the streets fighting over the last croissant in the patisserie, the denouncement of genocide will remembered as tragically quaint."

Certainly I'd like to believe this isn't true, but without some all powerful being dictating what is evil and what is good, I myself don't see a way to refute it. Why aren't morals subjective to the person and environment? How can you have moral absolutes without believing in a god?

I was just wondering what the Objectivist answer to these questions were. I'm not advocating any of these questions I'm just kind of confused.

The Objectivist ethics holds that "good" and "evil" are concepts which arise out of the relation between external reality and the requirements of man's life. Man is a specific type of entity, with a specific nature. If any particular man chooses to live, then ethics tells him what course will be beneficial or harmful to him. Thus, what is "good" is neither an overriding moral absolute, true regardless of context, nor a social convention. The good does not consist of commandments or categorical imperatives because ethics originates in a choice: an individual's choice to live or die. However, the good is also not a social convention, because once that choice has been made, the specific actions which will further this goal is a matter of objective reality, not whim or social construction.

Such rights violations as murder and genocide are "absolutes" in the sense that the facts which give rise to their moral status (as evil) are facts about man's nature in general, and thus as principles they apply to every man. However, Objectivism does not view morality as an imposition on man from some higher authority, so the principles which condemn murder and genocide are not artificially imposed. Morality arises from the choice to live, and those principles arise from man's nature. Murder and/or genocide are never good strategies for the long-run flourishing of any man.

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What can change is the nature of the context - but not as often as you might think. 99.99% of the time the context does not change, and so the moral principles applicable to that context are omnipresent. Only in rare circumstances - genuine lifeboat situations - does that particular context not hold. We don't concern ourselves too much about them, precisely because they're rare and their examination tells us nothing about how to live our lives in the ordinary course of affairs.

JJM

Would you mind giving an explanation of why lifeboat situations are an exception? I've reached my own conclusions on the topic, but would like to understand exactly what you mean before I present them.

Edited by Alexandros
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I guess I'm ignorant or I just didn't read Atlas Shrugged very closely but how do you go about proving things like moral absolutes like how slavery is wrong or how murdering the homeless is wrong. I mean I think these things are wrong, but we live in a situation where its easy to say they are wrong.

"Good and Evil are utterly meaningless terms that very from society to society. A few hundred years from now, when over crowding leaves us crammed shoulder to shoulder in the streets fighting over the last croissant in the patisserie, the denouncement of genocide will remembered as tragically quaint."

I will explain why Ethics is not subjective with the help of an analogy, but I'll make sure to not abuse that analogy, and it is not to be regarded as evidence that Objectivist Ethics is right, just a way for me to explain why logic and reality are properly the basis for Ethics (that which is moral). So, again, I'm not trying to prove Objectivist Ethics, just that Ethics is properly not subjective:

Human nature is metaphysically given, as are the laws of physics, and logic. (they are "absolutes") Objectivism arrives at Ethics (the craft of how humans should properly sustain their lives) from the metaphysically given nature of reality (including the nature of men), using logic. Just as the craft of keeping planes flying is derived from the nature of air, metal, and reality in general, using the same exact logic.

Keeping an airplane in the air is not a subjective craft, just because some God didn't provide us with an instruction booklet. We looked around, and figured out reality, and, using logic, came up with a series of principles, which, when applied without errors, allow planes to always stay in the air. The same exact way, we should be able to live according to reality, by formulating principles which, if applied without error, allow us to live without having to enslave others and murder the homeless.

Such principles exist, they have been described by Ayn Rand in her Ethics and Politics, and saying that they are subjective, because 200 years from now, when overcrowding occurs, people will be fighting for bread on the streets, is like saying that the principles of plane-building are subjective, because 200 years from now when gravity will disappear, all our planes will float out into space and be crushed...so building a plane that doesn't fly, but is strong enough to withstand the outward pressure in space, is just as good a principle for Boeing to follow as the ones they follow now.

In reality, gravity will not disappear in 200 years, to make encasing planes in solid steel necessary, and a Laissez Faire society will not overcrowd to make genocide necessary.

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Would you mind giving an explanation of why lifeboat situations are an exception? I've reached my own conclusions on the topic, but would like to understand exactly what you mean before I present them.

Regular ethics applies in the context of the normal world where it is reasonable to plan for the long-term and apply the mind to the creation of one's needs by taking resources from nature, acting in the manner appropriate for a human being. In such a situation the regular morality is the means of successfully living.

A lifeboat situation is one where, thanks to some unforeseeable catastrophic event about which one could objectively identify that those suffering for it are innocent of some form of irrationality, adherence to regular morality and regular expectation of observing the rights of others is objectively identifiable as a dire threat to one's continued life because of extreme limitation of time in which to act. Most of the time this will revolve around the virtue of productivity, the use of force, and the right to property. In a lifeboat situation one cannot practice the virtue of productivity when one innocently finds oneself in a state where there are no available resources to produce with. What one could use to survive does exist, but getting them would require the use of force against another's property. For instance, if one is the survivor of a plane-crash or shipwreck washed up on some island (the literal life-boat scenario), on the edge of death by dehyrdation, it is absurd to be expected to refrain from helping oneself to water from a cistern clearly owned by someone else who lives on the island. In such a situation, a third party observing the owner of the cistern being utterly indifferent to the survivor's plight and demanding the surviver to FTHO would likely be right in thinking very ill of that owner.

A non-genuine "lifeboat" situation would be where someone gets into a life-or-death jam because of something they should have done or should not have done - ie the suffering party is not innocent in what lead to that situation. For instance, someone who neglects to save up for the proverbial rainy day and who then finds himself short of cash to buy food or warm clothing with isn't justified in stealing, in which case a victim of the theft is quite right to tell the moron to FTHO backed up by retaliatory force and for a third party to stand by that victim's side in menacing that moron. If that means the moron starves or dies from hypothermia, so be it.

Finally, note that being in a lifeboat situation is NOT a licence to play deuces-wild. Moral principles DO still apply, but just not the regular ones appropriate for ordinary living. For instance, if one innocently finds oneself or or a loved-one in dire need of an organ transplant (if such a situation is even properly identifiable as lifeboat) that doesn't justify hunting down a compatible donor and knifing him. There are also the principles of how to get out of a lifeboat situation and back to normality. However, I am no specialist in the field, and my point was to note that these situations do exist from time to time and that the non-applicability of regular ethics to them was exemplar of the concept of contextual absolutism. Anyone interested in the details should ask a specialist who has examined it in depth (if there are any such specialists?)

JJM

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A lifeboat situation is one where, thanks to some unforeseeable catastrophic event about which one could objectively identify that those suffering for it are innocent of some form of irrationality, adherence to regular morality and regular expectation of observing the rights of others is objectively identifiable as a dire threat to one's continued life because of extreme limitation of time in which to act.

John, I'm going to disagree with your definition of a lifeboat scenario or "emergency" here because there's no such thing as an *unforeseeable* catastrophic event, and one of the ways in which we stay alive is by foreseeing and preparing for disasters. That's why lifeboats exist *in the first place*. Due to limited resources, though, just being able to foresee the possibility of a disaster does not mean one can prepare for it in any constructive way. If you did prepare, though, you might be able to prevent a potential emergency from becoming an actual one.

Instead, an emergency of this kind is a situation with *a single option*, due to a rapidly evolving situation. (Hence why, in "The Ethics of Emergencies", Ayn Rand notes that emergencies are specifically short in duration.) It's an emergency when you're on a sinking ship in Northern waters and your *only* option to survive is to get on a lifeboat. (Now, if you were smart and brought along a survival suit with a radio transponder, this might NOT be your only option and thus while the situation is urgent, it's not an *emergency*.) Yes, it is important to consider how someone arrived in that single-option state before you go around saying that they can morally do whatever they want.

Being broke in a city is not an emergency because you still have *options*. You can ask for charity. Heck, it takes weeks to starve to death and all of that time can be put to use. The organ donation thing could only conceivably be an emergency due to the byzantine regulations that surround the whole organ donation process. (The fact that you need a huge infrastructure of doctors, storage facilities, sterile equipment, etc. means that you'd be in circumstances where you have a lot of resources around for there even to be a question of a successful transplant. If you're stranded in the woods with a bum liver, killing a potential recipient is going to accomplish precisely bugger all.)

People like to complain that they have no options because they consider this to give them a moral blank check. But blindness to your options is no excuse. The best people are the ones who can find options where no one believed any existed.

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there's no such thing as an *unforeseeable* catastrophic event, and one of the ways in which we stay alive is by foreseeing and preparing for disasters. That's why lifeboats exist *in the first place*. ... limited resources... If you did prepare, though, you might be able to prevent a potential emergency from becoming an actual one.

Okay, I can accept that. That also puts it into the realms of what is reasonable to prepare for (and also what is reasonable to proceed with at all), itself a contextual consideration.

What you wrote is also much clearer, especially the better recognotion of the time element - thank you.

JJM

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  • 2 years later...
Thus, what is "good" is neither an overriding moral absolute, true regardless of context, nor a social convention. The good does not consist of commandments or categorical imperatives because ethics originates in a choice: an individual's choice to live or die. However, the good is also not a social convention, because once that choice has been made, the specific actions which will further this goal is a matter of objective reality, not whim or social construction.

I understand this point about moral absolutes, but I'm still confused on the concept of moral objectivity. I can see the point everyone made about murder being no good because it destroys life, but what about more controversial topics like the acceptance of homosexuality and abortion, (which aren't necessarily pro-life vs. death)? Is there a certain stance that is absolutely right (objective), or is it always dependent on situation/context (subjective)?

Edited by Michele Degges
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I understand this point about moral absolutes, but I'm still confused on the concept of moral objectivity. I can see the point everyone made about murder being no good because it destroys life, but what about more controversial topics like the acceptance of homosexuality and abortion, (which aren't necessarily pro-life vs. death)? Is there a certain stance that is absolutely right (objective), or is it always dependent on situation/context (subjective)?

Everything is dependent on context. The act of killing someone is murder or justifiable homicide depending on context, for instance.

Subjective doesn't mean dependent on context. It means dependent on the subject (meaning that if you and me are in the same exact situation, I consider it moral for me to do something, because I'm me, but immoral for you to do it, because you're not me).

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There are, in essence, three schools of thought on the nature of the good: the intrinsic, the subjective, and the objective. The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context and consequences, regardless of any benefit or injury they may cause to the actors and subjects involved. It is a theory that divorces the concept of "good" from beneficiaries, and the concept of "value" from valuer and purpose—claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself.

The subjectivist theory holds that the good bears no relation to the facts of reality, that it is the product of a man's consciousness, created by his feelings, desires, "intuitions," or whims, and that it is merely an "arbitrary postulate" or an "emotional commitment."

The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man's consciousness; the subjectivist theory holds that the good resides in man's consciousness, independent of reality.

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of "things in themselves" nor of man's emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man's consciousness according to a rational standard of value. (Rational, in this context, means: derived from the facts of reality and validated by a process of reason.) The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man—and that it must be discovered, not invented, by man. Fundamental to an objective theory of values is the question: Of value to whom and for what? An objective theory does not permit context-dropping or "concept-stealing"; it does not permit the separation of "value" from "purpose," of the good from beneficiaries, and of man's actions from reason.

Since Ayn Rand rules out the plausibility of a theory of the good that is not contextual, but she does use the term 'absolute' (in Atlas Shrugged and elsewhere), the sense of the word is that of 'absolute certainty'. See the entry for absolutes in the Lexicon.

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