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Deriving Ethics from Reality

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I have always been attracted by the idea of an objective morality derivable from the facts of reality. Rand's essay in the "Virtue of Selfishness" on deriving Objectivist ethics from reality was always the most interesting part of the whole philosophy to me. However, I've never felt like she got it quite right.

Let's start from the axiom that language is a tool that is more or less useful to us depending on how much it helps us express reality accurately. Holding any concept that has zero truth value is worse than useless -- it is extremely psychologically damaging. I think most Objectivists have already bought into this point so I won't elaborate on it.

Next, let's examine the nature of reality. In fact, let's start with the word "reality." What does it refer to? Reality is my perceiving (listening to sensory impressions), thinking (processing the results of those impressions), and acting (the result of that processing). All of these are only individual, never collective. However, there is one aspect of reality that is never discussed in any Objectivist writing I've read to date. All these actions (perceiving, thinking, and acting) happen in a singular moment. It is a logical impossibility for me to perceive for 5 seconds. I can perceive right now, and in the next instant I can choose to keep perceiving, and so on until 5 seconds have passed. However, I can't, in my reality, ever do something outside of my reality, and my reality always occupies a specific place in time that is now.

This is not to say I can't accomplish long term goals. However, I will achieve and experience any accomplishment only in the instant it actually happens.

Again, remembering that language is a tool, and keeping in mind that holding false concepts that do not reflect reality is psychologically destructive, let's reverse engineer ethics. I define proper ethics as useful ethics that reflect reality and do not cause psychological self-destruction. All three elements are inherently tied together because they are not actually distinct concepts. They all refer to the same thing in reality. An ethics that is not one of these elements cannot be any, and an ethics that has one element necessarily has them all.

Proper ethics compel right action. If they don't compel right action they are not useful, don't reflect anything in reality, and are psychologically damaging non-concepts. Given this, we can actually determine "true ethics" by focusing on any of those elements, knowing that the others will necessarily follow. Let's start by looking at an example of some very psychologically destructive ethics.

Depressed people are unmotivated and self-hating. They universally hold the belief that they are fundamentally worthless. Looking at the thinking and behavior of depressed people is a wonderful way to see what exactly is psychologically harmful and to be avoided. If you ever have a conversation with a depressed person you will hear a strong desire to avoid reality, responsibility, and action. They will often say things about how inadequate they are, and usually these statements will take the form of "I don't X enough. I should X more." They understand that their current behavior is very unlikely to lead to them doing X. However, when we probe deeper we understand that they are avoiding doing X because they have rigged the game against themselves.

When you ask "How much more X do you need to do to make yourself feel better?" depressed people invariably answer the same way: "It will never be enough. I'll always feel bad about myself no matter how much X I do because I could always have done more."

Let's look at the general form of "I should do X." Ask yourself what this has to do with reality. What does "I should lose weight" mean to a 400 lbs person? "I am too fat now (and therefore inadequate as a human being)." So let's ask ourselves, how does such a universal statement of morality affect a person? I have never seen any effect but inspiring self-hatred and destroying motivation.

Such a statement clearly fails the test of not being psychologically self-destructive. It is also untrue and not useful. It is untrue because it is not time-bound in any way. It is useless because it offers absolutely no guide to action.

Now a non-depressed person might experience "I should lose weight" in a totally different way. A fully functional person will take that statement and think about it until they convert it into momentary action. A full functional person won't leave it as an absolute that only implies inadequacy, but will turn it into a series of more specific goals leading up to the immediate moment. In the immediate moment, we can compare the value behind "I should lose weight" to all our other momentary values and make a rational decision as to our next course of action.

The result of this is that ethics which perfectly reflect reality are perfectly immediate, and ethics which deal with future probabilities are only as useful as the extent to which those probabilities reflect what will become reality. Generally, the further out a moment is in time from where we are now, the less able we are to predict accurately the full range of possibilities of that moment. Ethics with longer time frames tend to be less useful than ones with shorter time frames, and ethics with no time frame (e.g. "I should make more friends") are only useful as a very first step towards formulating increasingly time-constrained statements that attempt to align our values with the range of possible actions in the next moment.

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Well it sounds like you are saying that you shouldn't put the horse before the cart.

If someone is in some sort of non-functional state, worrying about long term goals is a waist of energy because those goals aren't even possible until some very immediate problems are solved.

I don't see this as at odds with the objectivist ethics as the virtues such as productivity or honesty will have a role in any goal that someone needs to achieve.

For instance if we see somone is homeless, "get a job" is not helpful at all. Clearly there are deeper issues and his mind is incapable of considering that as a realistic probability. Even if he knows having a job will be good for him, it will only cause himself a sense of despair as he is incapable of that.

So he needs to function on a more immediate goal like finding a stable place to be (a good shelter, or a relatives home). Still this doesn't mean that honesty and productivity aren't going to play parts in this. Being a liar and contributing nothing to whatever shelter he found will just send him back on the street.

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If I'm reading your initial post correctly (I reread it twice), you believe that ethics derived from reality are momentary, suggesting that what may be correct and proper one moment, may not be correct and proper a moment later. Honesty, for example, is only appropriate given the moment one is required to act honestly. Honesty isn't useful as a long term (timeless) ethic, because it doesn't allow one to lie when a particular moment calls for it, e.g. to protect life, or to be tactful.

Is this a correct summary of your position?

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Let's start from the axiom that language is a tool that is more or less useful to us depending on how much it helps us express reality accurately.

That's not an accurate characterization of Ayn Rand's views on language. Far from it. For one, Ayn Rand views language as primarily a tool of cognition, not communication. Second, none of this is an axiom.

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"Next, let's examine the nature of reality. In fact, let's start with the word "reality." What does it refer to? Reality is my perceiving (listening to sensory impressions), thinking (processing the results of those impressions), and acting (the result of that processing)"

No. Reality is everything which exists independently of consciousness. Perception and concept formation process is based on reality but doesn't substitute it. Your premise is a notion of primacy of consciousness. Language is a tool of audio-visual designation of concepts.

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This is a timely topic in that a blogger was arguing against property rights. He conceded that thought and purposeful action are part of human nature. However, he insists that keeping and disposing of the results (of one's actions) is not part of human nature. He then went on to obliterate property rights in favor of communal property.

I am asking for your thoughts on the topic for my own edification. (I see property rights as one of the basics in the nature of being human- think, act and use the outcomes in order to live.)

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This is a timely topic in that a blogger was arguing against property rights. He conceded that thought and purposeful action are part of human nature. However, he insists that keeping and disposing of the results (of one's actions) is not part of human nature. He then went on to obliterate property rights in favor of communal property.

There's an interesting aspect of property rights, as proposed by Locke, that one can only claim as much property as one can use without waste; waste being an infringement on other individuals use and appropriation of common resources. In this context, property rights remain legitimate with limitations based on recognizing that all individuals require some ability to acquire property in order to validate private ownership as an individual right. Essentially, an individual right to property presumes additional property remains for other individuals to acquire.

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... In this context, property rights remain legitimate with limitations based on recognizing that all individuals require some ability to acquire property in order to validate private ownership as an individual right. ...

I am saying it this way. That all individuals require some ability to acquire property in order to live. That is what it means to be human- to think, act and use the results to advance one's life. If I lived on a deserted island, I would clearly see the validity of all three and consider my actions right to the degree that I actually sustained and promoted my life. In living on a deserted island, I may waste (more than I'd like of my energy and natural resources) because I am learning how to live better. In society just as on the island, my claim to my life requires me to keep (and use) the results of my work. But in a society, I may be inept (just as I was on the island ) while I am learning to live better. If Locke is saying that waste is a characteristic of illegitimate property, then I don't understand him. The lives of many innovators are marked by waste during their process of creating. Are the raw materials used by them a violation of property rights? Some innovators never create anything of use to others. Some land speculators hold their land for long periods of time before developing it or selling it to developers. How would these people be viewed by Locke? Is their property theirs or not? I may be missing his full treatment on the topic, but if not, I conclude that Locke missed it and I am not interested in it.

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Here's a link to where Locke's idea about limiting the acquisition of property comes from:

"One can only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it--building house on it or farming on it--but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste."

http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/locke/section4.rhtml

I'll let you decide whether or not he makes a valid argument, but I'm persuaded that there is merit to it. Of course at the time, there was quite a bit more property available to acquire. These days everything is fairly well spoken for.

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Here's a link to where Locke's idea about limiting the acquisition of property comes from:

"One can only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it--building house on it or farming on it--but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste."

http://www.sparknote.../section4.rhtml

I'll let you decide whether or not he makes a valid argument, but I'm persuaded that there is merit to it. Of course at the time, there was quite a bit more property available to acquire. These days everything is fairly well spoken for.

"... to each according to his need."

Really?

Please tell me you are not suggesting that people can be stripped of their property beyond what they could "resonably" use.

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"... to each according to his need."

I don't find this quote within the link I provided, nor do I believe this is a fair representation of Locke's position. The premise of, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," as proposed by Karl Marx, is antithetical to Locke's view of private property as I understand it. If anything, Locke only seems to limit the legitimacy of an individual acquiring common resources for self preservation, by implying that waste as a result of acquisition, infringes on other individual's rights to self preservation.

Edited by Devil's Advocate
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I think it's fair to say both Locke and Marx were trying to establish a kind of social equilibrium regarding the distribution of natural resources based on the claim of a right to those resources for self preservation. The distinction being that Locke checks the ability to acquire common resources with a duty not to waste common resources, whereas Marx adds a duty to provide for those who lack the ability to acquire common resources. Essentially Locke is content to allow unclaimed apples to rot, and Marx thinks they ought to be delivered to those who can't reach them.

The relevant issue for me is, if one claims a right to self preservation based on the necessity of privatizing finite common resources, I believe one is then obligated to allow others the same right. The implementation of a right to life, in the form of acquiring private property, cannot ethically work to the exclusion or waste of life sustaining property available to others.

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Here's a link to where Locke's idea about limiting the acquisition of property comes from:

"One can only take so much as one can use. Locke applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it--building house on it or farming on it--but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste."

http://www.sparknote.../section4.rhtml

I'll let you decide whether or not he makes a valid argument, but I'm persuaded that there is merit to it. Of course at the time, there was quite a bit more property available to acquire. These days everything is fairly well spoken for.

... still deciding...

Edited by OhReally
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I have always been attracted by the idea of an objective morality derivable from the facts of reality. Rand's essay in the "Virtue of Selfishness" on deriving Objectivist ethics from reality was always the most interesting part of the whole philosophy to me. However, I've never felt like she got it quite right.

This thread should be in the from of a question about Objectivism, not an airing of your own philosophy. I would link to the forum rules here, but I cannot find a link to them. Moderators?

Let's start from the axiom that language is a tool that is more or less useful to us depending on how much it helps us express reality accurately. Holding any concept that has zero truth value is worse than useless -- it is extremely psychologically damaging. I think most Objectivists have already bought into this point so I won't elaborate on it.

You are using axiom to mean "take this as a given so we can get on with more interesting philosophizing". That is not how axiom is used in Objectivism, and frankly I find your usage to be sloppy the ways it appeals to utility and employs the concept of accuracy instead of truth.

Next, let's examine the nature of reality. In fact, let's start with the word "reality." What does it refer to? Reality is my perceiving (listening to sensory impressions), thinking (processing the results of those impressions), and acting (the result of that processing).

Full stop no. Although one's thought and actions are within the universe, to accept them as making up reality is to destroy any possibility of achieving objectivity. Generally, 'reality' is that portion of the universe which is not your own consciousness.

All these actions (perceiving, thinking, and acting) happen in a singular moment. It is a logical impossibility for me to perceive for 5 seconds. I can perceive right now, and in the next instant I can choose to keep perceiving, and so on until 5 seconds have passed. However, I can't, in my reality, ever do something outside of my reality, and my reality always occupies a specific place in time that is now.

Direct memory of the past five seconds must have the same epistemological status as a reliable 'given' as current perception or knowledge is impossible in principle. In fact perception itself occurs over a non-zero timespan because nerves have a finite speed of action, so the distinction between 'instant' and 5 seconds is not particularly important. The fact that only the present is existential ... while true I don't know what value you think comes from that.

I define proper ethics as useful ethics that reflect reality and do not cause psychological self-destruction.

This imports a yet undefined standard of psychological health. It is profoundly unsound to put a special science such as psychology (a poorly understood science at that) in the position of a fundamental which ethics must rely upon. That is why Rand settled on man's physical life as an objective standard of value. Even life as "man qua man" as a standard, which refers to more than mere physical survival, does not commit to a particular psychological theory.

Proper ethics compel right action.

Motivate perhaps, but only physical force compels. More sloppiness.

A fully functional person will take that statement and think about it until they convert it into momentary action.

Philosophical principles are derived for the general case of healthy, fully functional persons first and then extended as applicable to other cases. What you are doing here is a form of "lifeboat" philosophizing, a term describing the attempt to derive ethics (or to demonstrate the impossibility of ethics) from an temporary dire situation in which it is not possible live long-term.

There is no general ethical principle that can be derived from the fact that some people systematically fail at translating long term goals into immediate actions.

That is enough critique to get started.

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There's an interesting aspect of property rights, as proposed by Locke, that one can only claim as much property as one can use without waste; waste being an infringement on other individuals use and appropriation of common resources. In this context, property rights remain legitimate with limitations based on recognizing that all individuals require some ability to acquire property in order to validate private ownership as an individual right. Essentially, an individual right to property presumes additional property remains for other individuals to acquire.

A society of subsistence farmers dealing with a finite amount of arable land is a society where property is a zero-sum game, where there is a "conservation of value" principle at work guaranteeing that for every winner there is a loser. Fortunately we do not live in that society.

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@Hairnet: Yes. That is close to what I am saying. However, I would expand on that by saying that long-term goals are difficult to form and achieve because they require a very accurate perception of reality. You will fail in building muscle if you try to start by lifting 300 lbs weights. It's more effective and healthier to start low and work your way up every day. Same way with time-distanced goals.

Achieving a near infinite series of good immediate-term goals will necessarily aggregate into good long-term results without us having to desire and plan on extremely specific long-term outcomes. That is not to say that we can't plan for and achieve long-term objectives, but rather that adaptability to constantly changing conditions is extremely important in effectiveness. There is nothing admirable about setting a lifting schedule that gradually increases in weight and then refusing to alter the timeline after you accidentally tear a ligament.

@ Devil's Advocate: I wouldn't prejudge when a lie might be necessary. Given my legal background and training in viewing all the different ways statements can be interpreted, I am not even sure what a lie means. If I state something in a contract that I know a judge at a later date will interpret differently than another party will at the present date and then promise to perform on that contract, is my promise to perform on how I know the other party will interpret the term at the time of the contract being signed or is my promise to perform on how I know the term will be interpreted in future litigation? Does it matter if the other party doesn't know his current interpretation of one particular term is inconsistent with what a future court's interpretation would likely be, but if the other party expects me to disregard his interpretations and act consistent with my beliefs as to how a judge would interpret any term in a contract in future litigation? Am I morally obligated to open myself up to litigation by performing based on what I know the other party's interpretation at the time of contract when performing under that interpretation would likely lead me to be perceived as in breach by a judge in the future? Again, the issue of what is a "lie" is much more complicated than the idea that "There is an objective reality and whatever words do not reflect that are a lie."

@Nicky: Rand's most beautiful and inspiring characters were great thinkers and actors but did not waste time on internal dialogue. Words are not useful when they are merely mental echoes of sounds bouncing around in our heads in imaginary dialogues. How many times have you planned out a conversation with someone in detail only to have your plans blown out of the water when that person reacts differently than you assumed?

Words are useful for causing a stimulus that will induce particular responses in others. If language is primarily a tool of individual cognition, then why does the effectiveness of language require shared understandings? An individual's brain cells are chemically fused together -- they have much more efficient ways of internal communication than language.

Finally, I'm not sure how you define axiom if you don't think that's an axiom. It seems to me to be at the foundation of an abstract position.

@Leonid: Designation of concepts to whom? I don't need to designate concepts to myself. In terms of reality, let's break that term down a little more. I think we would agree that everything outside of ourselves is stimulus for us that we have to understand and adapt to in order to be competent. That's the important distinction to me.

@OhReally: I'm not sure I see the use in retaining any physical manifestations of my work. Improved health and improved relationships with other people are all I really want and need. People are more than happy to offer me what I need when I need it because I provide significant value to them. I don't need money or any other asset aside from my human capital for that.

@Grames: I've already discussed my understanding of axiom above as an assumption that an abstract argument relies upon. If Objectivism has a specialized definition, I wasn't aware of it. Could you please quote and cite any specialized definition for me?

On the issue of reality, what you're saying is true but I think it misses my point. What I am discussing is the usefulness of living on the razor's edge of the intersection between myself and the outside world. Everything outside of me is stimulus for me to choose how to react to. How that stimulus filters into my brain is my reality. I can't perceive "objective" reality in the sense that you mean it. You have set it up as something fundamentally distinct from my subjective experience. In order to separate these two things you must rely on the false concept that humans are fundamentally flawed and imperfect. In order for "objective reality" to have meaning to me, I have to accept that my perception is inherently inferior to something greater outside me. I don't understand why I would do that.

On the issue of memory: this depends on how you define memory. I would bet most people define memory as an internal verbal narrative. I would define my memory of my past as what is implied by my current actions, not as defined by something as highly inaccurate as an internal verbal narrative. My real memory is integrated into my understanding, instincts, and skills. It does not rely on imprecise language. When I construct a narrative about what happened 5 seconds it is likely to be more accurate than when I construct one about what happened 5 days ago. Not constructing a narrative at all is the most useful. You don't need to think verbally in order to solve a math or physics problem. You just do it successfully based on skills that have become instinctual once you have trained yourself correctly. Charlotte Joko Beck has a great piece about how all functional thinking is immediate and how non-functional thinking (useless worry about unlikely hypothetical problems) is what we need to clear away. Rand's heroes are extremely functional grounded thinkers.

On psychology: you criticize me for not defining a specific psychological standard as a basis for ethics by saying pure physical health is superior. Then you shift from pure physical health (which is clearly not what Rand based her ethics on) to "man qua man," which you say is superior to pure physical health because it does not rely on a specific, defined psychological standard -- the very thing you criticized my standard for. I think psychological health is as axiomatic (in the self-apparent sense) as one can get, and I think it is really what "man qua man" means. If we are depressed, we are unhappy. If we are manic and/or psychotic, others will not tolerate our behaviors and will use physical force to attempt to compel us to change them. Behavior patterns which make myself and others unhappy are ones I am interested in avoiding. I am interested in maintaining and furthering mutually beneficial relationships. I'm not sure I see a better place to start ethics than those fundamental motivations which I think everyone shares at some level.

Physical force does not compel. This is a huge error made by most people who call themselves Objectivists and a complete misreading of Rand's work. Even if she said those exact words, this is inconsistent with the behaviors of her novel's heroes. Physical force can stimulate certain responses in certain people, but it requires the consent of an individual to make a choice to act based on that stimulus. Galt's ethics did not permit him to choose behaviors inconsistent with them despite torture and the imminent possibility of death. A person's internal moral code always trumps any stimulus, including physical force, when it comes to causing that person to take certain actions.

"There is no general ethical principle that can be derived from the fact that some people systematically fail at translating long term goals into immediate actions." You may not have derived a general ethical principle from it. I, on the other hand, have undertaken to understand fully a major pattern of dysfunctional human behavior with a large amount of predictive power to it. The fact that some (many) people systematically fail at translating long-term goals into immediate actions has many deadly serious and usually ignored ramifications. In my experience with most people who identify as Objectivists, they would prefer for these people to "get out of the way." However, wealth to me is highly functional mutually beneficial relationships, not a bar of gold. I don't want people to disappear so I can have all the gold bars in the world to myself. Rather, I want to help correct dysfunctional thinking in myself and others in order to create stronger, more mutually beneficial relationships with more people.

In my alternate ending to Atlas Shrugged, my hero would take charge when they asked him/her to and issue a series of decreasingly ridiculous and increasingly plausible bad orders that no one would ever follow, starting with something like "Go commit mass suicide." Then, "Go hook yourself up to automated torture machines you can't escape and turn them on." Eventually, people would get frustrated with him and start telling him to issue "serious" orders. So he'd ask them to define a serious order and then issue the worst order possible consistent with that definition. Every time his orders were disobeyed this would bring into sharper relief people's internal moral compasses. They would acquire highly functional ethics and independence in spite of themselves.

By the end of the book, instead of having a handful of very creative people in Galt's Gulch who were really bad at getting along with [other?] very psychologically damaged people and enjoyed hoarding gold coins and infinite electricity generators, you'd have a very large society of self-respecting, competent creators who would naturally want to engage in mutually beneficial relationships because they'd realize it's the only rational thing to do.

@Grames (second post): Agreed. Actions guided by rational thought are the only truly valuable assets, and they can't be hoarded or monopolized by any one person.

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Also, a good place to refer to Rand's writings to understand my point better is her article in the VOS about context-dropping: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/context-dropping.html

Compare that article to what Charlotte Joko Beck says about "functional vs. non-functional thinking" in Everyday Zen (sorry I don't have the exact cite -- it is towards the beginning of the book). It shows how the same fundamentally true idea will pop up in totally separate philosophical traditions. The language takes a slightly different form (Rand's in terms of Western philosophy, Beck's in terms of Eastern philosophy), but I read their underlying points as the same. This goes to my broader argument that it is not only possible but necessary to aim for effectively communicating Objectivist concepts in ways that are relevant to non-Objectivists.

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@ Devil's Advocate: I wouldn't prejudge when a lie might be necessary. Given my legal background and training in viewing all the different ways statements can be interpreted, I am not even sure what a lie means. If I state something in a contract that I know a judge at a later date will interpret differently than another party will at the present date and then promise to perform on that contract, is my promise to perform on how I know the other party will interpret the term at the time of the contract being signed or is my promise to perform on how I know the term will be interpreted in future litigation? Does it matter if the other party doesn't know his current interpretation of one particular term is inconsistent with what a future court's interpretation would likely be, but if the other party expects me to disregard his interpretations and act consistent with my beliefs as to how a judge would interpret any term in a contract in future litigation? Am I morally obligated to open myself up to litigation by performing based on what I know the other party's interpretation at the time of contract when performing under that interpretation would likely lead me to be perceived as in breach by a judge in the future? Again, the issue of what is a "lie" is much more complicated than the idea that "There is an objective reality and whatever words do not reflect that are a lie."

You're a paralegal, aren't you? ;)

There is an objective reality and whatever words reflect that are true. Obviously there's more to respond to, but as your reappearance has rung so many doorbells, I'll give others a chance to chime in first...

"If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic." ~ Tweedledee

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Not a paralegal. Columbia Law alum and practicing attorney.

If I say X knowing that it will induce Y actions, Y is what is important to me. Truth and lie are less important concepts to me than the responses that the stimuli will produce. Of course, everyone knows the story of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf." Saying things that are perceived as untrue tends to get you ignored when you say things.

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@Grames: I've already discussed my understanding of axiom above as an assumption that an abstract argument relies upon. If Objectivism has a specialized definition, I wasn't aware of it. Could you please quote and cite any specialized definition for me?

This is an important item to be unaware of, so I infer from this that your study of Rand and Objectivism is not near completed. I hope you continue your readings and study.

Ayn Rand contested the justification of traditional fundamental philosophical issues and even the justification of methods of justification. In order to sort out an issue she usually had to re-conceptualize the elements involved, and had to come up with a method of forming valid, justified concepts. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE) is the key work to study in order to understand Rand. The Ayn Rand Lexicon is useful as a compilation of her definitions and arguments on many topics.

An axiom is a proposition in which the subject and predicate are axiomatic concepts. Axiomatic concepts are:

An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest.

The first and primary axiomatic concepts are “existence,” “identity” (which is a corollary of “existence”) and “consciousness.” One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or “prove”) existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries. (An attempt to “prove” them is self-contradictory: it is an attempt to “prove” existence by means of non-existence, and consciousness by means of unconsciousness.)

This then leaves axioms as:

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.

On the issue of reality, what you're saying is true but I think it misses my point. What I am discussing is the usefulness of living on the razor's edge of the intersection between myself and the outside world. Everything outside of me is stimulus for me to choose how to react to. How that stimulus filters into my brain is my reality. I can't perceive "objective" reality in the sense that you mean it. You have set it up as something fundamentally distinct from my subjective experience. In order to separate these two things you must rely on the false concept that humans are fundamentally flawed and imperfect. In order for "objective reality" to have meaning to me, I have to accept that my perception is inherently inferior to something greater outside me. I don't understand why I would do that.

Because it is a truth that human knowledge is fundamentally finite and fallible. This is not that same as saying flawed, because being finite is a necessity imposed by the law of identity while being fallible is self evident and sometimes an unavoidable consequence of the finiteness of human understanding. Omniscience and infallibility are varieties of infinity and so we know they contradict the law of identity.

On the issue of memory: this depends on how you define memory. I would bet most people define memory as an internal verbal narrative. I would define my memory of my past as what is implied by my current actions, not as defined by something as highly inaccurate as an internal verbal narrative. My real memory is integrated into my understanding, instincts, and skills. It does not rely on imprecise language. When I construct a narrative about what happened 5 seconds it is likely to be more accurate than when I construct one about what happened 5 days ago. Not constructing a narrative at all is the most useful. You don't need to think verbally in order to solve a math or physics problem. You just do it successfully based on skills that have become instinctual once you have trained yourself correctly. Charlotte Joko Beck has a great piece about how all functional thinking is immediate and how non-functional thinking (useless worry about unlikely hypothetical problems) is what we need to clear away. Rand's heroes are extremely functional grounded thinkers.

I have solved plenty of math and physics problems in the course of earning my degree and practicing electrical engineering. I would not characterize such problem solving as instinctual or even non-verbal but as learning a specialized language to precisely capture the elements of the problem conceptually. Visualizing shapes and their rotations or transformations is the only aspect of that work which is purely non-verbal.

On psychology: you criticize me for not defining a specific psychological standard as a basis for ethics by saying pure physical health is superior.

No, you misunderstand, but you can't help but misunderstand at this point as you are unfamiliar with Rand's epistemology. The argument to be made is that some concepts are logically prior to other concepts because they unavoidably embedded in the derivation and justification of later concepts. It is therefore an error, a kind of logical fallacy, to attempt to move logically from the more advanced concept to the more fundamental.

Physical force does not compel. This is a huge error made by most people who call themselves Objectivists and a complete misreading of Rand's work. Even if she said those exact words, this is inconsistent with the behaviors of her novel's heroes. Physical force can stimulate certain responses in certain people, but it requires the consent of an individual to make a choice to act based on that stimulus. Galt's ethics did not permit him to choose behaviors inconsistent with them despite torture and the imminent possibility of death. A person's internal moral code always trumps any stimulus, including physical force, when it comes to causing that person to take certain actions.

Physical force:

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.

Physical force is what caused Galt to be imprisoned and tortured at all. Galt cannot be said to have consented to imprisonment and torture by refusing to cooperate with his captors. A mind cannot be forced, but a body certainly can be.

In my alternate ending to Atlas Shrugged, my hero would take charge when they asked him/her to and issue a series of decreasingly ridiculous and increasingly plausible bad orders that no one would ever follow, starting with something like "Go commit mass suicide." Then, "Go hook yourself up to automated torture machines you can't escape and turn them on." Eventually, people would get frustrated with him and start telling him to issue "serious" orders. So he'd ask them to define a serious order and then issue the worst order possible consistent with that definition. Every time his orders were disobeyed this would bring into sharper relief people's internal moral compasses. They would acquire highly functional ethics and independence in spite of themselves.

By the end of the book, instead of having a handful of very creative people in Galt's Gulch who were really bad at getting along with [other?] very psychologically damaged people and enjoyed hoarding gold coins and infinite electricity generators, you'd have a very large society of self-respecting, competent creators who would naturally want to engage in mutually beneficial relationships because they'd realize it's the only rational thing to do.

But rationality itself was under attack, so people couldn't be self-respecting without the arguments to defend the integrity of their minds. Epistemology is logically prior to ethics and so therefore also of psychology, which in turn depends on ethics.

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A society of subsistence farmers dealing with a finite amount of arable land is a society where property is a zero-sum game, where there is a "conservation of value" principle at work guaranteeing that for every winner there is a loser. Fortunately we do not live in that society.

Our society is a mixed bag of subsistence farmers and innovators, but the surface area our society lives on remains finite. Locke's principle speaks more to the acquisition of unclaimed frontier as property, however there are ethical parallels to the acquisition of intellectual property as well. Creating waste as a means of promoting a scarcity of resources, for the purpose of artificially driving the value of those resources higher, is essentially the same as claiming too much land. The implementation of a right to life doesn't imply a right to all life, or to have it all because one was the first to discover it.

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@Grames: I particularly like the last sentence of Rand's definition of an axiom that you cited. I have read virtually everything published in book form of Rand's and ITOE is one of my favorite essay compilations. However, it has been some time since I last read it.

I am going to table this debate for a while and hone in on that definition as well as probably reread all of ITOE. My gut tells me there is a core truth in my argument that can contribute towards Objectivist thinking, but I need to refine what that is exactly.

To me it is self-evident that people act to fulfill their needs to the best their level of competency allows. In psychology we recognize higher and lower functioning individuals, and I see those designations as inherently tied to philosophical maturity.

My main point is that as Objectivists it is in our self-interest to focus more on gradations of functionality and philosophical development as well as on how best to assist others and ourselves in climbing the neverending ladder of personal growth.

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I don't think anyone ever argued that we need to create long term goals that can't be adjusted according to circumstance.

Objectivist ethics stress principles, which help achieve any decent goal, however the goals themselves do need to be changed according to a change in context.

If you get sick for instance, you may need to stop a low carb diet. However I don't think anyone ever argued that you shouldn't. However gettin sick doesn't really make it any more advantageous to lie to people or to compromise your values for other people's approval.

I am failing to see where there is any controversy here in your over all point.

For instance I want to be a RN. I am a student and have a job. I really don't think about being an RN much though since that is pretty far off. Instead I worry about managing my time studying and working along with other errands during my days and weeks. However these decisions are still integrated with my goal of becoming a nurse, and my even longer term goal of having a family one day.

What does affect my decision making however is my principles, which apply in the short term as much as a the long term. I can't go arround lying to people or ignoring people's flaws or not working hard. Everything fall to pieces pretty quickly no matter what my goals are.

I don't see how my method of thinking contradicts Objectivism or your suggestions here.

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