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A Question: Why aren't principles "caveat-laden"?

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Kyle
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It’s been a while since I posted here, but a conversation Friday brought to mind a question I’ve had for a while concerning objectivism and, since my classes are over and I’m bored, I thought I’d bring it up here.

My question has to do with the way in which Rand moves from the claim:

(1) I want to live.

to the further claim:

(2) I should never steal from Best Buy.

because I really don’t think her move works.

Now, there are going to be some rather trite replies which I want to deal with right away. Yes, I realize that you won’t live long if you’re always breaking the law. Yes, I realize that if everyone violated the rights of others we would all dies young. These replies, however, aren’t going to work because I’m not claiming that Rand can’t explain why I shouldn’t always steal. I’m claiming that she can’t explain why I can’t sometimes steal when it’s not clear how I’ll be hurt by stealing.

So in order to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s introduce an example:

The Standard Counter Example [sE]:

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a person, Jones, has (and takes) an opportunity to steal a CD from Best Buy under all of the following conditions:

1) He wants the CD;

2) He can’t easily obtain the CD without stealing it;

3) He knows that he won’t be caught (and that there won’t be any legal ramifications of any other sort);

4) He knows no one will find out;

5) He knows he won’t be racked by guilt or worry;

6) Jones will never steal anything again.

We can add more stipulations later on if we need them, but the effect I’m going for here is a situation in which a normal person (by which I mean a person who’s never been exposed to objectivism or any other kind of philosophy) would say that Jones has benefited by stealing the CD. The idea is to create a situation which 1) on its face doesn’t seem to hurt Jones but which 2) would be condemned by objectivism.

Back to the Main Question:

With [sE] introduced, we can state my question a bit more precisely – How, given the assumption that Jones wants to live, can Rand infer:

(3) Jones should not steal the CD from Best Buy.

?

Now, my suspicion is that Rand would try to show (3) by showing that Jones, through his desire to live, is committed to some kind of moral principle like:

(MP1) You should never steal.

For the sake of argument, I’m willing to grant that if Rand can get to (MP1) then she can get to (3). However, I doubt that Rand can make (MP1) fall out of Jones desire to live. It seems much more likely that we’d just get something like:

(MP2) You should never steal unless conditions one through six from [sE] obtain.

And (MP2) allows Jones to steal the CD.

So then, why does wanting to live commit me to (MP1) rather than (MP2)?

-Kyle

(P.S. I've read Rand's Objectivist Ethics (or whatever the title of that essay is) and it’s still not very clear how she gets (MP1) rather than (MP2). So telling me to read her essay really won’t do very much to answer my questions. [Also, Robert Nozick has an interesting essay which shows that the argument isn’t valid (in the formal, logical sense), so it’s not like the essay could help anyways.])

Edited by Kyle
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It’s been a while since I posted here, but a conversation Friday brought to mind a question I’ve had for a while concerning objectivism and, since my classes are over and I’m bored, I thought I’d bring it up here.

My question has to do with the way in which Rand moves from the claim:

(1) I want to live.

to the further claim:

(2) I should never steal from Best Buy.

because I really don’t think her move works.

Where exactly does Ayn Rand make the claim "I should never steal from Best Buy"? You seem to be confused about her position on stealing. Stealing is wrong, on principle, because it is a violation of property rights. There are no categorical imperatives in Objectivism, only principles. There is a good little lecture by Leonard Peikoff called "Why Should One Act on Principle?" at the Ayn Rand Institute website.

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We can add more stipulations later on if we need them, but the effect I’m going for here is a situation in which a normal person (by which I mean a person who’s never been exposed to objectivism or any other kind of philosophy) would say that Jones has benefited by stealing the CD. The idea is to create a situation which 1) on its face doesn’t seem to hurt Jones but which 2) would be condemned by objectivism.

If stealing could be shown to be in someone's self interest, then it wouldn't be condemned by Objectivism. But it can't be shown to be in someone's self interest, without severely rewriting reality. Objectivism is a philosophy which applies to reality ("a philosophy for living on earth"). So the argument here really doesn't hold up. Incidentally, there is no such thing as a "normal person" who has never been exposed to any kind of philosophy-- even if they don't know that's what they've been exposed to (see Ayn Rand's essay "Philosophy: Who Needs It," from the book of the same name).

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You are completely leaving out the fact that it hurts Best Buy, and everyone on up the chain. Be it a small amount or a large one, you have caused many people a loss.

If you think "Oh, they can afford it" you are then falling into the same moronic assumption that modern liberals make about any incorporated business in relation to taxes, penalties, and various other motives to rob them because "oh, they can afford it" or "oh, they're insured".

Think back to the Pencil theory of economics. It takes hundreds of people to make a single pencil-- the lumberjacks who cut down the trees, the truckers who transport the lumber, the factories and workers who shave it down, the miners who dig the graphite out of the ground, the guys who make the machines to make the pencils, etc. etc. etc. Stealing a single pencil will, despite any argument you can make, hurt them in some fashion.

This applies to any industry. The recording jockeys, the music producer, the band, the guys who shrinkwrap the disc, etc are all worse off because you are a thief.

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Bold Standard

Where exactly does Ayn Rand make the claim "I should never steal from Best Buy"? You seem to be confused about her position on stealing. Stealing is wrong, on principle, because it is a violation of property rights. There are no categorical imperatives in Objectivism, only principles. There is a good little lecture by Leonard Peikoff called "Why Should One Act on Principle?" at the Ayn Rand Institute website.
I think the only problem with this is that it doesn’t bear in any way on what I said.

I never claimed that (3) was a categorical imperative or that Ayn Rand specifically stated it (it was intended to be an example, not a quote [but I can see how it might have been misleading]). And I never questioned why someone should act on principle. I asked why a person would select the principle Rand claims that they would select instead of selecting some other, competing principle.

So unless I’m just not seeing something in your post, you’ve missed the point entirely.

If stealing could be shown to be in someone's self interest, then it wouldn't be condemned by Objectivism. But it can't be shown to be in someone's self interest, without severely rewriting reality. Objectivism is a philosophy which applies to reality ("a philosophy for living on earth"). So the argument here really doesn't hold up.

The idea was to construct a situation in which, prior to any talk of principles, it seems to be in Jones’ self interest to steal. The idea, then, is that since you’re selecting principle which are in your self interest, you should select a principle which allows you to steal.

So if you want to insist that, despite appearances, it’s not in Jones’ self to steal, then you need to give some kind of explanation of why it’s not. And you can’t appeal to principles in doing so because what I’m questioning just is whether the principles you’re appealing to are in fact justified by self interest. If you appeal to them then you’re begging the question.

So, without appealing to any principles, why does it hurt Jones to steal the CD?

Incidentally, there is no such thing as a "normal person" who has never been exposed to any kind of philosophy-- even if they don't know that's what they've been exposed to (see Ayn Rand's essay "Philosophy: Who Needs It," from the book of the same name).
I certainly wouldn’t agree with you or Rand here. You can go through life without philosophy just as easily as you can go through life without science. But this is a tangential issue and to avoid getting side tracked I’ll just reword my criterion.

Bobsponge:

You are completely leaving out the fact that it hurts Best Buy, and everyone on up the chain. Be it a small amount or a large one, you have caused many people a loss.

If you think "Oh, they can afford it" you are then falling into the same moronic assumption that modern liberals make about any incorporated business in relation to taxes, penalties, and various other motives to rob them because "oh, they can afford it" or "oh, they're insured".

Think back to the Pencil theory of economics. It takes hundreds of people to make a single pencil-- the lumberjacks who cut down the trees, the truckers who transport the lumber, the factories and workers who shave it down, the miners who dig the graphite out of the ground, the guys who make the machines to make the pencils, etc. etc. etc. Stealing a single pencil will, despite any argument you can make, hurt them in some fashion.

This applies to any industry. The recording jockeys, the music producer, the band, the guys who shrinkwrap the disc, etc are all worse off because you are a thief.

I’m not forgetting any of this. I just don’t see how it bears on Jones. I readily admit that stealing hurts the people at Best Buy, but my question is how that hurts Jones. If it hurts Jones then that’s all you need to settle the issue. If it doesn’t hurt Jones, then what happens to everyone else is irrelevant.

Edited by Kyle
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It hurts Jones indirectly, because now that Best Buy's thefts are on the rise, they will have to charge more to pay for lost merchandise and increased security, and that will hike the price of everything Jones has to purchase in the future.

-JB

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Yea, but the marginal cost to Jones from higher prices is going to be exceeded by the marginal benefit to him from gaining the CD. In effect, when Jones steals from Best Buy he's stealing from all of the shoppers at Best Buy as well because Best Buy will (out of necessity) pass on their extra costs. And since Jones might be a future customer, the higher prices would be passed on to him as well. But that doesn’t mean that Jones is losing out because even with higher prices Jones is only paying a fraction of what he gets from the CD. He's thus subsidizing what he pays with the money of everyone else.

So Jones still benefits.

-Kyle

Edited by Kyle
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You can find a discussion of the "prudent predator" here

And just so you know, if you haven't read "Philosophy: who needs it"; everybody needs and operates by a philosophy or in other words, by and according to a fundemental view of reality and man's place in it. Everybody has views about what existence is (metaphysics) how man knows things (epist.) what is good or bad (ethics, aesthetics, politics). Now most people don't hold an explicitly stated or understood view of these things but they still have them, they must.

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You can find a discussion of the "prudent predator" here
I’ve seen a lot of replies to questions similar to my own, and they usually go something like “you shouldn’t steal because you’d be contradicting yourself/one of your principles.”

But this reply isn’t going to work here because I’m asking why you should have those principles in the first place. Again, we have two competing principles:

(MP1) You should never steal.

(MP2) You should never steal unless conditions one through six from [sE] obtain.

And I’m asking why you should favor (MP1) over (MP2).

(along the same lines responses like “Jones will hurt his self esteem if he goes against his principles” aren’t going to work unless you justify those principles).

And just so you know, if you haven't read "Philosophy: who needs it"; everybody needs and operates by a philosophy or in other words, by and according to a fundemental view of reality and man's place in it. Everybody has views about what existence is (metaphysics) how man knows things (epist.) what is good or bad (ethics, aesthetics, politics). Now most people don't hold an explicitly stated or understood view of these things but they still have them, they must.

I’m not denying that you have a position. I’m just denying that it’s philosophy. Like science, philosophy is a method for coming to positions. It’s not the only method, and so just having a position about something people apply philosophy to doesn’t mean you’ve done philosophy.

That said, the method definition of philosophy is controversial. Rand and I most likely disagree because we’re just defining philosophy differently.

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I’m not denying that you have a position. I’m just denying that it’s philosophy. Like science, philosophy is a method for coming to positions. It’s not the only method, and so just having a position about something people apply philosophy to doesn’t mean you’ve done philosophy.

That said, the method definition of philosophy is controversial. Rand and I most likely disagree because we’re just defining philosophy differently.

What, then, would you call what everyone else has that you choose not to call philosophy? It is something, but what?

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And I’m asking why you should favor (MP1) over (MP2).

The answer is epistemological. On the perceptual level, we only see the present, we do not see the exact future presented concretely in front of us. The only way we know the future is through concepts, i.e. in principle. Since you have to act upon what you know, and not what you guess, you have to use MP1.

MP2 is in fact impossible in reality because of the above. I know you're only trying to eliminate extranious factors in order to get to the heart of the issue, but you have eliminated too much. In your six conditions, you have eliminated the fact of our imperfect knowledge, which is where the answer comes from.

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So, without appealing to any principles, why does it hurt Jones to steal the CD?

Are you saying that it isn't necessary to act on principle? Because that's your problem right there. It most definitely is required that one act on principles. It looks like you really need to hear that lecture.

Your call to look at this situation without appealing to any principles is precisely the core of where you have gone wrong.

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And you can’t appeal to principles in doing so because what I’m questioning just is whether the principles you’re appealing to are in fact justified by self interest. If you appeal to them then you’re begging the question.

So, without appealing to any principles, why does it hurt Jones to steal the CD?

That won't work. Ayn Rand's ethical positions were always derived from principles.

What's the alternative to principles?

Divine law. Social edict. Mystical revelations. Categorical imperatives (in Kant's approach to ethics, these are achieved by an appeal to the "universalizability principle," in other words, an action is only moral for a particular man in a particular situation if it would be moral for all men in a similar situation; therefore, they would say it's wrong to steal from Best Buy, because if everybody stole from Best Buy then horrible things would happen to the economy and everyone would suffer, etc). Convention. Superstition. There are lots of contenders, but Objectivism rejects all those.

So we're left with principles. And yes, they must be validated using reason-- and I haven't offered a validation for why stealing is wrong here. But the reason is that I think there are more fundamental concepts that have to be grasped to serve as a foundation for the argument before such a validation would really convince you. For example, what does it mean to act on principles? What are principles? How do you determine whether a given principle is valid and necessary or not? Those things have to be understood before you can understand why a particular principle-- such as the principle of respecting the property rights of others ("not stealing") is necessary. That's why I recommended the Peikoff lecture. (And it's free, by the way, you just have to register your e-mail address with the ARI website to get it).

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We have two competing principles:

(MP1) You should never steal.

(MP2) You should never steal unless conditions one through six from [sE] obtain.

And I’m asking why you should favor (MP1) over (MP2).

Technically, I think Rand's would be an (MP2) type - you should never steal in long-term situations. Emergencies are something of a different matter.

Robert Nozick has an interesting essay...
Indeed, though, if I remember correctly, his argument is a bit different from yours?

I never questioned why someone should act on principle. I asked why a person would select the principle Rand claims that they would select instead of selecting some other, competing principle.
So you're asking for the reason why a principle of taking other people's goods is not in one's self interest?
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To put it another way, there is nothing "intrinsic" in the act of stealing which makes it harmful to Jones. One must appeal to principles to understand that, in fact (in reality), stealing is harmful for Jones. And some of the unavoidable consequences of stealing which you've wiped out in your hypothetical are just a few of the things which make stealing harmful.. not all the most fundamental ones. But still issues that a thief in real life would be forced to deal with. [edit: I meant this to be a postscript to my last post]

Edited by Bold Standard
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What was said about the problem being actions based on principles is exactly the problem

I think the answer to why Johney would not benefit from stealing is that he has one of two damaging choices if he wishes to steals:

1) Do not act by principle, but by random action

2) Act by contradictory principles and lie to yourself to hide the contradictions

Man is using one set of principles to judge what is right and what is wrong in actions taken by himself in regard to others and in judging actions taken by other regarding himself.

If he is not using one set of principles, then he is constantly lying to himself.

An example of that would be if he says that anyone who steals from him is a rotten thief and scum of the earth, but when he is stealing he is making up excuses for himself for why it is ok.

Why does he have to make excuses to himself about it? Because no man is capable of surviving while truly believing that they are bad or evil. If one recognizes that what one is doing is bad then one lacks the motivation to do it, and if one thinks of themselves as bad, then one starts self-destructing.

To apply it to the CD example, Johney has several options:

1) Hold that "stealing is bad": by that he will recognize his right to property, and will be equipped with confidence that he is justified in fighting for keeping his property.

2) Hold that "stealing is bad, unless you steal from the rich (or whatever)": By that he has decided never to become rich, because apparently he declared it as a bad thing, and because then he will have no moral confidence to defend his property from thieves if he becomes rich. And... becoming rich is definitely something that contradicts his desires, otherwise he wouldn't have a desire for a CD (or other goods).

This does not apply only to the "rich" case. Any other excuse that would come instead of it will necessarily lead to the need to lie to oneself. And that causes psychological and emotional damage.

3) Hold that the only morality he accepts is "The strong survives", in other words, if I am more clever and able than you, I will steal your property. If you are more clever than me, you steal mine. Like with animals in the wild. Now, while it is true that as long as there are other people who do not share his view will protect him (by having a police to arrest thieves, murderers, rapists etc), he will be able to live according to that principle and survive, but this view of life WILL harm him at some point: when he has no more people to protect him from his own ideas. A person who holds principle #3 is a thief by profession. He will eventually get caught, or, if he will be consistent with applying this idea, get whacked by his thieve-friends.

Edited by ifatart
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1) He wants the CD;

OK

2) He can’t easily obtain the CD without stealing it;

So at this point he has identified a limit to his productive capabilities.

3) He knows that he won’t be caught (and that there won’t be any legal ramifications of any other sort);

He can't know this, in reality. He is gambling his freedom against a CD. Striking out reality from your example doesn't prove your point.

4) He knows no one will find out;

See (3) above.

5) He knows he won’t be racked by guilt or worry;

Now you are really rewriting reality. We established at (2) that he is incompetent to achieve the desired value productively - how is he not going to feel inadequate? Even if he rationalizes his actions ("BestBuy can afford it", "musicians are all millionaires and don't need the money") the fact that he could not achieve that value honestly will not just go away. He knows it and that is enough - he can evade this reality, but that won't help him live (I'm assuming that you are not arguing for evasion and that you understand why it is bad for one's life).

6) Jones will never steal anything again.

If your principle were correct (that it can be in one's self interest to steal), why wouldn't he? The fact that you even put this in your list of anti-reality hypotheticals shows that you, at some level, know that stealing isn't practical.

mrocktor

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6) Jones will never steal anything again.

If your principle were correct (that it can be in one's self interest to steal), why wouldn't he? The fact that you even put this in your list of anti-reality hypotheticals shows that you, at some level, know that stealing isn't practical.

Indeed, the inclusion of this point is anti-principle in its very nature. Acting on principle means that you always act in a particular fashion. So, adopting MP2 (it's in your self-interest to steal when you won't get caught) as a principle means that you will always, conscientiously steal when you think you won't get caught.

This is why you should listen to Dr. Peikoff's lecture: a proper principle is one that applies in all situations, not situations-with-caveats-that-you-can't-possibly-predict. If you act on the principle of MP1, you don't have to sit down and try to analyze every single potential theft opportunity for its risk/return ratio. You just avoid the entire category by saying, "it is always ultimately of value to me if I produce the requirements of my own survival." You save time, effort, and a hell of a lot of confusion, and you know you're acting in a way that will ultimately lead to your success. Sounds like a good plan to me. There's actually a popular saying about this for honesty: You should always tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember what you said.

If you act on MP2, however, you will drive yourself crazy trying to predict the unpredictable, and eventually you will screw up . . . or, worse, you will become a career criminal, unable to make an honest living because you're in too deep to back out.

Another way to describe this is that the idea isn't to get away with living or being happy, it's to live and be happy, without having to shrink away from any aspect of reality whatsoever. Even something as minor as how you got a CD or a piece of gum.

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A note to whomever renamed the thread: I can certainly see a need to rename the thread (“A Question” is a bit vague after all), but “why act on principle?” is a bit misleading. Could you rename it “why aren’t principles caveat-laden”? That might do away with some confusion.

Thanks,

-Kyle

Everyone:

A bunch of people have responded to me and if I try to address your posts individually my post will be really long and contain lots of repetition. In order to avoid that, I’ve tried to write a post which addresses all of the concerns that have been brought to my attention. If I’ve overlooked something you brought up, flag it and I’ll come back in my next post and address it directly.

A Restatement of What I’m Asking:

There still seems to be a bit of confusion about what I’m asking. In particular, there seem to be two big misconceptions:

First, there are a lot of people who seem to think that I’m asking why Jones should act on principle generally. This is incorrect. I readily admit that once Jones has a principle, he should act on it. What I’m asking, then, is how he becomes committed to that principle in the first place.

Second, some people seem to think that I’m unwilling to use principles to explain why Jones shouldn’t do something. Again, this is incorrect. Once we’ve accepted a principle, the principle is a perfectly good reason for Jones to act/not act. The only reason I’m unwilling to allow principles to act as explanations here is that I don’t think the principles have been justified yet (more on this in a second). Using the principles to justify the principles is question-begging.

So then, in order to clarify, I’ll restate my question like this:

My Question: Why aren’t principles caveat laden?

By this I mean, why aren’t principles like “don’t steal” filled with qualifications like “unless you’ll get away with it” or “unless you’re sure you’ll profit”? Why does objectivism promote principles which look like (MP1) instead of principles which look like (MP2)?

And this restatement, hopefully, makes clear why neither of the misconceptions above allows for a straightforward answer to my question. The first misconception is misleading because I’m not suggesting that Jones should act on any principle – only that he should act on caveat laden ones. The second misconception won’t work because in order to use caveat free principles to explain why caveat laden principles are bad, you have to assume ahead of time that principles shouldn’t be caveat laden.

On to Responses:

The claim that stealing is (always?) harmful:

This was probably the most common response. If it’s successful, then I agree that you’ll have explained why there are no caveats in the principles which forbid stealing. However, if you’re going to take this line then you have to maintain that there are no circumstances in which stealing is ever profitable. If you don’t maintain this – that is, if we find a situation where stealing is profitable – then we’ll be able to pick out the features of that situation, f1 through fn, which make stealing profitable and we’ll add a caveat to the principle which forbids stealing “unless features f1 through fn obtain.”

If you take this line, then, our argument will basically go like this: I’ll try to think of a situation in which it seems profitable for Jones to steal (don’t worry, I won’t keep going forever) and you’ll respond with something like “it’s not actually profitable because X will happen to Jones and X outweighs the benefits of stealing.” If you aren’t able to find some bad result of stealing in a situation then we’ve added a caveat to the principle which forbids stealing.

Moreover, there are going to be restrictions on the harms you’re able to provide:

Non-Circularity: Your harm can’t introduce circularity into your argument. Most importantly here, this means that you can’t say “it’s not profitable for Jones to steal because Jones would have to violate his principles.” Since it’s the principles which are in dispute, this assumes what it seeks to prove. In order to satisfy non-circularity, the harms of stealing you provide can’t rely on an appeal to principles.

Uniqueness: Your harm needs to be unique to immoral actions. That is, if you say that “stealing is unprofitable because X will happen” and, at the same time, you don’t want to hold that some other action, A, is immoral, then X can’t be the kind of thing which results from A. Otherwise we’ll get the result that A is immoral.

So for example, on the other threads you guys have linked to, people have maintained that stealing hurts you because it makes you reliant on those you’re stealing from for your sustenance. This, on its face, fails to satisfy uniqueness because lots of other actions – for example being a computer programmer for a living - will make someone reliant on other people. So unless you want to maintain that being a computer programmer is sometimes immoral, you can’t offer up this as a reason for condemning theft.

In fact, and this is something of a tangent, I think people often times fail to appreciate the problems objectivism has with uniqueness. There are lots of actions which are irrational but which are still morally permissible – for example, if a slave runs away he’s putting his life in danger – and objectivism seems to entail that these actions are immoral. I don’t want to go off onto this here, but it’s a problem that objectivists will eventually have to address.

Harms that people offered:

The Epistemological Uncertainty Harms: (ian and mrocktor)

The answer is epistemological. On the perceptual level, we only see the present, we do not see the exact future presented concretely in front of us. The only way we know the future is through concepts, i.e. in principle. Since you have to act upon what you know, and not what you guess, you have to use MP1.

MP2 is in fact impossible in reality because of the above. I know you're only trying to eliminate extranious factors in order to get to the heart of the issue, but you have eliminated too much. In your six conditions, you have eliminated the fact of our imperfect knowledge, which is where the answer comes from.

This harm fails to satisfy the uniqueness requirement. There are lots of risky business ventures in which I lack perfect knowledge – many of them are riskier than stealing a CD. So if imperfect knowledge is enough make stealing immoral, then it’s enough to make entrepreneurial risk taking immoral.

The Contradictory Principles Harm:

What was said about the problem being actions based on principles is exactly the problem

I think the answer to why Johney (Jones?) would not benefit from stealing is that he has one of two damaging choices if he wishes to steals:

1) Do not act by principle, but by random action

2) Act by contradictory principles and lie to yourself to hide the contradictions

Man is using one set of principles to judge what is right and what is wrong in actions taken by himself in regard to others and in judging actions taken by other regarding himself.

If he is not using one set of principles, then he is constantly lying to himself.

An example of that would be if he says that anyone who steals from him is a rotten thief and scum of the earth, but when he is stealing he is making up excuses for himself for why it is ok.

Why does he have to make excuses to himself about it? Because no man is capable of surviving while truly believing that they are bad or evil. If one recognizes that what one is doing is bad then one lacks the motivation to do it, and if one thinks of themselves as bad, then one starts self-destructing.

This, under one reading, fails to satisfy non-circularity because it’s appealing to principles in order to justify them and, under another reading, straw-mans the potential caveats. It straw mans the potential caveats by assuming that Jones can’t act under a principle like:

(MP3) Don’t steal unless your name is Jones and you would profit by stealing.

Here (MP3) allows Jones to condemn other thieves. They aren’t Jones and so they’re violating the relevant principle. He’s applying the same principle in both cases.

The self-esteem harm: (mrocktor)

2) He can’t easily obtain the CD without stealing it;

So at this point he has identified a limit to his productive capabilities.

Now you are really rewriting reality. We established at (2) that he is incompetent to achieve the desired value productively - how is he not going to feel inadequate? Even if he rationalizes his actions ("BestBuy can afford it", "musicians are all millionaires and don't need the money") the fact that he could not achieve that value honestly will not just go away. He knows it and that is enough - he can evade this reality, but that won't help him live (I'm assuming that you are not arguing for evasion and that you understand why it is bad for one's life).

2 points here. First, let’s eliminate the “couldn’t easily get the CD otherwise” because I agree that, on some readings, this can imply something which would hurt Jones. Let’s replace it with something like “it’s easy for Jones to steal the CD (he just puts it in his pocket – this Best Buy has lax security) and he can save the hour of work he would have to do to pay for it (he can still do that work and use the money to buy a second CD, thereby gaining 2 CDs).

Second, if we change the conditions thus, then this response no longer satisfies uniqueness. Now Jones could get the CD by working but its just easier for him not to. It’s as if I randomly gave (as a gift) Jones 15 dollars and Jones used that money to buy the CD. I can’t imagine that (barring circularity) Jones would take a larger hit to his self esteem if he steals the CD than if he takes the 15 dollars I give him. Since taking 15 dollars from me isn’t wrong and since stealing has no unique harms relative to the gift, this isn’t going to work.

Other Points:

What, then, would you call what everyone else has that you choose not to call philosophy? It is something, but what?
They’re just beliefs. They don’t need to be classified as anything. They don’t deserve to be classified as anything.

Bold Standard:

So we're left with principles. And yes, they must be validated using reason-- and I haven't offered a validation for why stealing is wrong here. But the reason is that I think there are more fundamental concepts that have to be grasped to serve as a foundation for the argument before such a validation would really convince you. For example, what does it mean to act on principles? What are principles? How do you determine whether a given principle is valid and necessary or not? Those things have to be understood before you can understand why a particular principle-- such as the principle of respecting the property rights of others ("not stealing") is necessary. That's why I recommended the Peikoff lecture. (And it's free, by the way, you just have to register your e-mail address with the ARI website to get it).

I’ll take a look at the Piekoff lecture, but it’s not really clear why you can’t just give me harms.

Hunterrose:

Technically, I think Rand's would be an (MP2) type - you should never steal in long-term situations. Emergencies are something of a different matter.
This makes sense to me. But how do you put a cap on where you add caveats?

Indeed, though, if I remember correctly, his argument is a bit different from yours?

It is. I was just using Nozick to head off someone telling me to read the essay.

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I’ll take a look at the Piekoff lecture, but it’s not really clear why you can’t just give me harms.

This is because specific harms are always situation-dependant; you could make a case against breathing by focussing on potential harms because you MIGHT catch a cold. This is a risk because there are no guarantees in reality. The thing about acting on principle, especially for Objectivists, is that we reject any gains through unprincipled means, whether imagined or reai, and we don't act on the basis of bad things that might happen, but on wishing to achieve good things consistently.

This makes sense to me. But how do you put a cap on where you add caveats?

Hunterrose is referring to emergency situations, which are rare and unusual situations where your reason (i.e. your tool of survival) is not equipped to enable you to survive. These are sometimes called "lifeboat" situations because they are usually addressed by someone asking "what if you're lost at sea with another guy in a lifeboat that will only carry one?" In these situations, pretty much anything goes because there's no rational way to decide between one alternative and another. Personally, I find these to be extremely artificial. In my experience, there's always a Third Alternative that renders the lifeboat hypothetical ridiculous. They really don't have anything to do with the matter at hand.

It's important to remember that a principle is a broad abstraction subsuming many concretes. A statement such as Jones can steal this CD if he won't get caught is not an abstraction: you can't get any more concrete than one guy, one cd, one store, one situation. The principle Jones would actually be acting on, whether he liked it or not, is that human beings can live by sponging off other human beings. The opposing principle, upheld by Objectivism, is that human beings can only survive by producing the sustainence that their nature requires. The latter applies in all situations where there are humans, from one to a billion, the former applies only if there happen to be other, productive and stupid human beings around . . . it doesn't work unless someone chooses to live by the opposing principle. In choosing to steal, you are depending on the fact that somewhere, other people have chosen to produce, the opposite of theft. A producer doesn't depend upon the existence of a thief for his livelihood.

A principle is an integrated whole that does not permit the merger of two opposites. This is why principles are not caveat-laden.

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The Epistemological Uncertainty Harms: (ian and mrocktor)

This harm fails to satisfy the uniqueness requirement. There are lots of risky business ventures in which I lack perfect knowledge – many of them are riskier than stealing a CD. So if imperfect knowledge is enough make stealing immoral, then it’s enough to make entrepreneurial risk taking immoral.

It's not that imperfect knowledge makes stealing immoral (it doesn't), it's that it makes principles like MP2 impossible to reach. How would you arrive at "You should not steal, unless you can get away with it," when a human being can never know beforehand whether they will get away with it? You must derive principles from reality, and to derive MP2, you would need instances of omniscient human beings to derive it from.

Edited by ian
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JMeganSnow:

This is because specific harms are always situation-dependant; you could make a case against breathing by focussing on potential harms because you MIGHT catch a cold. This is a risk because there are no guarantees in reality. The thing about acting on principle, especially for Objectivists, is that we reject any gains through unprincipled means, whether imagined or reai, and we don't act on the basis of bad things that might happen, but on wishing to achieve good things consistently.
How does this not provide a prima fascia case for my claim that stealing might be profitable on occasion? If you can’t give me some reason that stealing will always be unprofitable, then the reasonable solution seems to be that you would look at a specific situation to find out whether stealing makes sense in it. It’s unreasonable to come to a general rule of thumb governing action (like don’t steal) unless you have some justification for claiming that the rule will always make sense. And this seems to be just what you’re claiming you don’t have.

Hunterrose is referring to emergency situations, which are rare and unusual situations where your reason (i.e. your tool of survival) is not equipped to enable you to survive. These are sometimes called "lifeboat" situations because they are usually addressed by someone asking "what if you're lost at sea with another guy in a lifeboat that will only carry one?" In these situations, pretty much anything goes because there's no rational way to decide between one alternative and another. Personally, I find these to be extremely artificial. In my experience, there's always a Third Alternative that renders the lifeboat hypothetical ridiculous. They really don't have anything to do with the matter at hand.

Hunterrose wrote:

Technically, I think Rand's would be an (MP2) type - you should never steal in long-term situations. Emergencies are something of a different matter.

And (MP2) says nothing about emergencies. So the natural interpretation of what he wrote seems to be that Rand’s principles would be caveat laden – talk of emergencies on this reading would just be another example of caveats which Hunterrose would ascribe to Rand’s principles.

But it’s not a big deal – we can just ask hunterrose what he meant. Even if you’re somehow correct about what he’s saying, it’s not like lifeboat situations would have to exhaust the list of caveats.

It's important to remember that a principle is a broad abstraction subsuming many concretes. A statement such as Jones can steal this CD if he won't get caught is not an abstraction: you can't get any more concrete than one guy, one cd, one store, one situation.
(MP3) encompasses just as many concretes as (MP1) – it governs every situation in which you might consider stealing something. Yes, it makes reference to Jones, but that doesn’t make it about any specific concrete. The principle you’re trying to saddle me with – something like “Jones can steal this CD” may refer to concrete situations but it’s not a principle I ever advocated.

The principle Jones would actually be acting on, whether he liked it or not, is that human beings can live by sponging off other human beings. The opposing principle, upheld by Objectivism, is that human beings can only survive by producing the sustainence that their nature requires.

Even if you had given an adequate response to (MP3) – and you haven’t even come close – it wouldn’t follow that Jones is actually following this principle. You still need to give justification here.

The latter applies in all situations where there are humans, from one to a billion, the former applies only if there happen to be other, productive and stupid human beings around . . . it doesn't work unless someone chooses to live by the opposing principle. In choosing to steal, you are depending on the fact that somewhere, other people have chosen to produce, the opposite of theft. A producer doesn't depend upon the existence of a thief for his livelihood.
This doesn’t satisfy uniqueness. So what if Jones incurs dependency on the actions of others by stealing? He would do the same thing if he became a computer programmer. The fact that we live in a society with a deeply ingrained division of labor means that most of us lack the requisite skills to survive without the efforts and products of those around us. You incur dependency in almost any trade you move into in an industrial society.

And even if this did satisfy uniqueness, it wouldn’t constitute a real harm. So what if Jones needs everyone else to keep producing. As someone pointed out earlier, objectivism is a philosophy for the real world and in the real world there’s really no chance that the non-criminal part of society will quit producing. You’re going to keep producing even if someone steals from you – you know you are, I know you are, and Jones knows that you are. The idea that you somehow have Jones at your whim because he relies on you is little more than petty fantasy.

It’s like when class projects get assigned in high school. There’s always some kid who slacks off but, at least in the AP classes, there’s no chance that he’ll get a bad grade because the other kids aren’t willing to hurts their grades to get back at him. So the other kids just fantasize that one day they’ll just stop working and really screw him over. But they know they won’t because they have to hurt themselves just as badly as they hurt him in order to get back at him. (this, by the way, is why I always hated class projects. I guess if your teacher is cool there are ways around this, but mine never were)

A principle is an integrated whole that does not permit the merger of two opposites. This is why principles are not caveat-laden.

You haven’t shown why the proposed caveats are incompatible with the rest of the principle.

ian:

It's not that imperfect knowledge makes stealing immoral (it doesn't), it's that it makes principles like MP2 impossible to reach. How would you arrive at "You should not steal, unless you can get away with it," when a human being can never know beforehand whether they will get away with it? You must derive principles from reality, and to derive MP2, you would need instances of omniscient human beings to derive it from.

Let’s reword the principle to “unless it seems to you like you’ll almost certainly get away with it.” That does away with the perfect knowledge requirement.

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Let’s reword the principle to “unless it seems to you like you’ll almost certainly get away with it.” That does away with the perfect knowledge requirement.

But surely everyone who commits a crime thinks that (with the exception of psychos)? And yet the prisons are full. So the principle must be "don't steal."

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(MP3) encompasses just as many concretes as (MP1) – it governs every situation in which you might consider stealing something. Yes, it makes reference to Jones, but that doesn’t make it about any specific concrete.

(MP3) Is not a principle at all, but a contradiction. Why does Jones, in principle deserve different consideration vis a vis rights than other human beings? I.E. Why is it right for him to do what it is wrong for others to do?

A principle must be free of such contractions. Do you even know what a principle is?

You very badly need to listen to that lecture here and stop wasting our time...

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Bold Standard:

I’ll take a look at the Piekoff lecture, but it’s not really clear why you can’t just give me harms.

Because Objectivism is not Pragmatism. The goal of ethics is not to identify possible adverse consequences that might arise from some taking some specific actions, in order to figure out how to take those actions in a way that minimizes risk. The primary goal of ethics (as I understand it) is to define the principles which are proper for man to follow in order to obtain happiness on Earth. I believe that the most fundamental reason that stealing is wrong is not because of the risk of getting caught, damage to self-esteem, or harming others, although I think those are all legitimate adverse consequences to consider. But I think the most fundamental reason not to steal is that respecting property rights is something a person should do on principle. Property rights are universal-- but in particular situations you may have the choice to recognize them or not. The benefits gained from respecting them in all situations-- including the material benefits, the benefits to your self esteem, and to your reputation, are more important (in my judgment) than the harms that may or may not accrue from not respecting them in some situations.

Hunterrose:

I was just using Nozick to head off someone telling me to read the essay.

Based on my experiences with these authors, I think Ayn Rand has more credibility than Nozick does. In which essay does he "show" The Objectivist Ethics to be logically invalid?

But "The Objectivist Ethics" isn't the only essay in Virtue of Selfishness which is relevant to this thread. I'd say "Man's Rights" is maybe the most direct relation to your question in that book. I think going to the primary source is more efficient than trying to discern the Objectivist position through secondary sources like these forums or from Libertarian criticisms of Ayn Rand. Reading her own words, I tend to find she didn't make the same mistakes that her critics or even her own defenders on Objectivist forums sometimes ascribe to her. [edit: Although, forums can be a great place for leads to which materials are most relevant.]

Edited by Bold Standard
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