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Quantum Mechanic

A Critique Of Objectivist Ethics

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Here is a relatively famous article critiquing Rand's ethical theory:


Has anyone here read it?

When I first starting learning about Oism a few years back, an associate told me to take a look at it. Back then, I wasn't really into philosophy and consequently couldn't understand it very well.

But now that I've gone back a lot of the article seems pretty damning.

The author strictly uses extractions from the essay "The Objectivist Ethics."

Here is his interpretation fo Rand's argument:

1. Rand's Argument:

Rand's argument seems to be as follows. I enclose in parentheses required implicit premises that I have introduced. The right-most column gives page and paragraph citations for where Rand says these things (15,6=page 15, 6th paragraph from the top).(1) Major conclusions are marked by asterisks.

1. Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities. premise 15,6

2. Something is valuable to an entity, only if the entity faces alternatives. premise 15,6

3. No non-living things face any alternatives. premise 15,7

4. Therefore, values exist only for living things. from 1,2,3 16,1; 16,3

5. Anything an entity acts to gain or keep is a value for that entity. premise 15,6

6. Every living thing acts to maintain its life, for its own sake. premise 16,3

(7. There is no other thing that they act to gain or keep for its own sake.) implicit premise

8. Therefore, its own life, and nothing else, is valuable for its own sake, for any living thing. from 5,6,7 17,1; 17,2

9. Therefore, life and nothing else is valuable for its own sake. from 4,8 17,3

(10. Everyone should always do whatever promotes what is valuable for himself.) implicit premise

*11. Therefore, everyone should always do whatever promotes his own life. from 8,10 passim,

17,4; 22,3; 25,2; 25,4(2)

12. A person can live only if he is rational. premise 23,4; 19-23 passim

*13. Therefore, everyone should be 100% rational. from 11,12 23,4; 25,7;


The next section of the article first critiques this argument alone. Here are the strong objections from that section:

Objection (vii):

This is probably the most egregious error. Premise 10 begs the question. Rand claimed to have an argument, a proof even, for ethical egoism. Yet 10 is one of the required premises of that 'proof'--and 10 essentially just is ethical egoism!

Some will dispute that this is really one of her premises. The reason I say it is is that without 10, the subsequent steps 11 and 13 do not follow. All Rand established up to that point, even if we ignore all the above objections, was that there is one and only one thing that is good for you, and that is your life. But obviously it does not follow that you should only serve your life unless we assume that you should only serve what is good for you. So, if 10 is not included as a premise, then Rand simply has a non sequitur.

Obviously, someone who held a non-egoistic theory--an altruist, say--would respond to the news of 8 and 9 (assuming Rand had demonstrated them) by saying: "Ah, so therefore, we should promote all life" or, "I see, so that means I should serve everyone's life. Thank you, Miss Rand; I previously thought I should serve other people's pleasure or desires (or whatever), because I thought that was what was good for them. But now that you've convinced me that life is the sole intrinsic value, I see that it was their life that I should have been serving all along." What argument has Rand given against the altruist, then? None.

Objection (viii):

Either 12 is false, or the inference to 13 rests on equivocation.

Rand explains that reason is our basic tool of survival. If her thesis is that any person who is not 100% rational, all the time, will die, then she certainly needs to provide argument for that. There seem to be lots of counter-examples, many of them pointed out by Rand herself.

If her thesis is something weaker, such as that any person who is not by and large rational will probably die, then 12 is plausible. But 13 does not follow. All that would follow would be, e.g., that one should be by and large rational.

Here is another intersection on 'Man Qua Man'

5. Man qua man and fudge words

Some time after getting to step 9 in her argument (as described in section 1 above), Rand introduces the idea of "the life of man qua man" (hereafter, MQM). She informs the reader that when she says a person should promote his own life, she means life MQM, which means the sort of life proper to a rational being. She tries to use this to explain why, despite the truth of egoism, you still shouldn't live off of the productive work of others by stealing--that's not the sort of life proper to a rational human being.

Let's distinguish, then, between life qua existence (hereafter, LQE) and MQM. LQE means simply one's continued literal survival--i.e., life in the sense of not being dead (what everyone else means by "life"). MQM is something more than that--the kind of life proper to a rational being.

The first problem is that Rand's shift in the argument from LQE to MQM is illegitimate. It is an equivocation: If "life" in the argument means LQE, then Rand cannot switch over to MQM as her standard of value and claim that she gave an argument for it; she only gave an argument for LQE. On the other hand, if we assume "life" means MQM throughout the argument, then the premises preceding step 11 that mention life or living are all false: 3 will be false, because many entities that do not possess life MQM face alternatives. 4 is false similarly. 6 is false, because most living things do not have MQM life. Moreover, it is clear that Rand meant LQE, since she starts off the argument by saying the only fundamental alternative is that of existence or non-existence.

The second problem is that Rand has given no criterion for what counts as 'proper to a rational being.' I consider three possibilities:

(a) Suppose that we try to use something other than life as our criterion for what is rational. In that case, we would have to abandon her claims 8 and 9. Furthermore, she has in fact provided no such criterion.

(;) Suppose we try to use LQE as our criterion. Then MQM collapses into LQE, and it cannot be used in the way Rand wants, to explain why some forms of physical survival are undesirable.

© Suppose we try to use MQM as our criterion. Then we have a circular criterion, because Rand hasn't told us what "MQM" means, except that it means the sort of life proper to a rational being.

Rand makes a number of claims about what is or isn't rational, but they are simply arbitrary declarations in the absence of a criterion of the rational, and an explanation of how that criterion follows from her initial argument discussed in section 1. In many cases, her claims about what is 'rational' are intuitively plausible, but in no case do they follow from that argument.

The upshot is that Rand can and does use "man qua man" and "rational" as fudge words: words that can be interpreted to mean whatever it is convenient for them to mean at a particular time. Words that can be used to insulate her thesis from testing and to enable her to claim that her theory supports, or doesn't support, anything; since there is no precise and unambiguous definition of these terms.

I'll stop posting excerpts here. The article is a LOT longer and I invite any of you to read more than just what I posted.

Overall it seems to be a decent critique. Aside from some of the more common attacks on ethical egoism in general (claiming that EE allows individuals to murder and torture and whatnot), there seems to be some good arguments. Honestly I'm not confident enough in my knowledge of Objectivism to take on some of these arguments.

What are your thoughts?

Edited by Quantum Mechanic

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The list of "premises" sets up a strawman that is used to "refute" ethical egoism.

That, and they're ignoring the metaphysical and epistemological basis for these ideas, so the whole deal is a floating abstraction; easy to "refute". Ideas from subjectivist epistemologies are smuggled in, whole categories of reasoning are left out (the whole idea of volition is completely bypassed), really, it's just a mess.

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Okay, I've glanced through some of the objections to the premises (up to premise 10). I don't see anything too profound there. Michael Huemer, the author of this critique, seems to not really get Objectivism very well. The kinds of things he's looking for in the Objectivist Ethics (detailed justification and proofs of every point) he simply won't find. The essay was based on a public lecture and it is complete and convincing for that context. For a more detailed discussion of the basis of ethics Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand is helpful and for a scholarly analysis and justification of the Objectivist ethics I recommend Tara Smith's Viable Values. Prof. Smith addresses in some detail a number of Huemer's objections. For example, she devotes a whole chapter to demolishing the idea of intrinsic value (what Huemer calls "absolutist").

One might also add that as concerns Huemer's objection against Rand's use of goals with respect to living things, Harry Binswanger wrote an excellent book The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts that shows in some detail why Huemer is wrong when he writes that "living things do not aim at anything." Also, Dr. Binswanger is harldly alone in his views which are common in the field of biology. They were held, for example, by the late Ernst Mayer.

If you really feel confused by these arguments then you have a bit of work ahead of you. But rest assured the effort will be well worth it -- all his claims have been answered long ago.

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He makes a gross mistake when he lists "6. Every living thing acts to maintain its life, for its own sake." as one of Ayn Rand's premises. If this were the case, then ethics would be unnecessary. You could not act but in a way which maintained your life. You wouldn't have volition, and you wouldn't need a standard of value to guide your actions.

The rejection of this false premise refutes his claim that premise #10 begs the question.

If a person has a choice in a matter of two courses of action to take, and if one course of action results in a gain of value (the enhancement of the person's life) while the other results in a loss of value (the destruction of the person's life), then the person should also choose the course of action which results in a gain of value.

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Oh, my.

Huemer's recitation of "The Objectivist Ethics" is laughable.

First, Huemer's version of the argument contains his own "implicit premises" (e.g., 7 & 10) that he turns around and attacks. These are premises that do not appear, by his own admission, in Ayn Rand's essay. How convenient! (Of course, it doesn't help that he gets the non-implicit premises wrong too.)

Simply put, he gets it all wrong from start to finish: from his general overview through his detailed comments. I briefly considered posting a point-by-point refutation (which wouldn't be difficult; just time consuming), but I think this tact is better.

The more productive approach is to begin by assuming prima facie that everything he wrote is wrong. On that understanding, if you have a specific question on some point or other of his, feel free to post it for dissection. However, I honestly think the best method is to rehearse your understanding of Ayn Rand's argument rather than begin with Huemer's woolly-headed mess.

So, what's really going on here? What explains this sort of hachet job?

You see, Huemer's got it completely backwards. He's trying to squeeze a predominantly inductive, reality-oriented argument into the academic model of analytic deductive reasoning (despite sprinkling in a few ridiculous counter-examples to bolster his positions). He's not looking at reality. He's looking at statements. But, he can't cohere the statements he's looking at from his reconstructed rendition of "The Objectivist Ethics," with the statements he has running around in his head from his readings in contemporary ethics. "Well," says Huemers in effect, "too bad for reality."

Finally, I think it's instructive to note (and probably the only valid reason to even spend any time at all with this perverse monstrosity) that Huemer has been a speaker at a TOC conference. How nice. Apparently the "virtue" of tolerationism is limitless. It makes allowances for anarchists (Smith), Ayn Rand bashers (Branden) and explicit anti-Objectivists (Huemer). So, what do you have left when a speaker at an "Objectivist" conference is an anti-Objectivist? Whatever it is, it's not Objectivism.

Edited by Gabriel_S

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