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Do Objectivists Believe in Categorical Imperatives?

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I recently found myself tangling with something really difficult that I thought I had the answer to, but didn't.

I always thought that morality was completely contextual (composed of hypothetical imperatives), but then I realized I couldn't justify saying that non-aggression is always in your best interest in all circumstances or else that would be a categorical imperative. I don't know how an Objectivist would justify such a claim without resorting to the Kantian notion that what is objectively bad if everyone does it is implicitly bad if one person does it, thus it must be a categorical imperative to stay away from x action.

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The fact that, if you want to live, it is never in your interest to violate the rights of others is just that: a fact of reality. The identification of this fact is based on man's nature. It is not a "categorical imperative" in the Kantian sense, something completely unfounded that you just accept and go on from there.

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Ethics and morality are the requirements of maintaining a fundamental choice, to live or to die. A person who is not just sitting in one spot waiting for his body to fail is implicitly proclaiming that he/she wants to live. In as much as this is the case, one must follow the requirements of that life, morality/ethics, which are defined by the interests of one's life. If you go around shooting people you are denying that a right to life exists which forfeits your own claim to it. It is in your life's interest to respect the right to life of others and the consequential rights derived from it.

The things in Objectivism that seem as thought they are categorical imperatives are often simply based on a more fundamental level than one might think or are used to in whatever topic is being discussed.

I haven't posted in a long time. How is everyone???

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The fact that, if you want to live, it is never in your interest to violate the rights of others is just that: a fact of reality.

This is false. At best, objectivism't argument for not violating rights is that it increases the risk of your own rights being violated plus some rather murky psychological harms. But due to the assymetry of benefit/risk there are some situations in which violating the rights of others is in your interest. That doesn't mean it is morally right however.

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But due to the assymetry of benefit/risk there are some situations in which violating the rights of others is in your interest.

It is never, in the context of one's entire life, in one's interest to violate the rights of others. Yes, there may be situations where, if one considers only the next hour of one's existence, it might be in your interest to violate the rights of others.

But morality and ethics are the rulers of action in one's life which doesn't go by in one hour spurts but as an entire arc spaning from birth to death.

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The fact that, if you want to live, it is never in your interest to violate the rights of others is just that: a fact of reality.
This is true, pretty much. Objectivism doesn't argue that there is anything mystical to the effect that it's metaphysically impossible to get away with violating another person's rights, a point that does confuse some people. Objectivism does hold that man has a specific nature, which is as a rational, conceptual being, and that a conceptually-based means living by principle, and according to reality. If man were, by nature, an animal that lived by predation, instinctively culling the herds of the weakest, then man would by nature have to be an aggressor. But man's nature is different; so if you want to live qua man and not as an animal, that entails something. Since man does have free will, it is, of course, possible for a man to live in contradiction of his nature.
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At best, objectivism't argument for not violating rights is that it increases the risk of your own rights being violated plus some rather murky psychological harms. But due to the assymetry of benefit/risk there are some situations in which violating the rights of others is in your interest. That doesn't mean it is morally right however.

Vladimir - I have a question for you along these lines.

You have some pretty nifty 78 rpm records in your collection - records that I don't have and would enjoy owning myself.

Let's say I come over to your place and I bring along a few of my records. You pull out a nice big stack of your records and we spend time having fun listening to really neat music. When we are just about to wrap it up, you end up having to leave the room for a few minutes and I am there alone with your records. I suddenly spot amongst your records one that I have really wanted to own for a long time. My odds of finding a copy of my own are slim because that particular record is scarce and it is even rarer for it to turn up in as nice a condition as your copy.

The thought then occurs to me that I could very easily slip that record in with mine. I already have my records packed up and in a few minutes plan to take them to my vehicle so the odds of your seeing it in my stack are next to nill. It also occurs to me that it would most likely take you many, many months to even be aware that the record is missing. You brought out several dozen records and did not take any notes as to which ones. The odds of your noticing that it is missing when you pack the records away is very slim. And your collection is large enough that, next time you are in the mood to hear the record, which could be many days, weeks if not months in the future, when you are not able to find it where you think it is supposed to be, chances are pretty good that you will simply conclude that you misfiled it somewhere else. How likely are you to spend all the time it would take to dig through your entire collection just to look for that one particular record? And, even if you did do just that months from now, how likely are you to remember that the last time you had it out happened to be when I came over? Since we never actually played the record, your odds of remembering it being taken out are pretty slim.

Since I very much would like to have that record, I decide to do a benefit/risk analysis. The benefit is obvious. But what about the risk? Well, if you discover I stole your record, you probably would probably decide that I am no longer your friend and would want to have nothing to do with me. Ok, so what? Well, I happen to enjoy knowing someone who shares my interest in 78 rpm records and Ayn Rand and other things. So the risk is that I would lose the benefits I get from having you as my friend. How great of a risk is it that I will get caught and therefore lose those benefits? Very low. My only chance of getting caught would be if you stopped me from taking my stack of records out to my vehicle and insisted on looking through them. I know the odds of your doing so are close to zero - and, in the unlikely event that you did, I could always say that your record must have somehow accidentally become mixed up with mine. And, just in case that does happen, I also add to my stack a small number of your less desirable records that I told you I disliked just to make such a story look more credible. And, in case you are ever at my house and, in the unlikely event you happen to spot that particular record among the thousands that I own, I could always say that I won it in an auction. There are no unique markings or flaws on the record that you would be able to refer to to distinguish it from another in the same condition.

I conclude that it would be a perfect crime. It would be a long time - if ever - before you realize the record was missing. Chances are good you will forget you owned it or conclude that you must have broken it or something. The window of time for me to get caught is only a matter of mere minutes and the odds of it happening are very slim and can very easily be explained away if it did happen. I will go home with a cool vintage record - meanwhile you will be looking back on how much fun we had that day listening to records thinking "that Dismuke is a pretty neat fellow, I really enjoyed him coming over." I get the benefits of having the record AND all the benefits I get from knowing you and having you as a friend remain fully intact.

Here are my questions for you: Is it in my self-interest to take that record? If not, why? If it is in my self-interest, then by what rational reason shouldn't I take the record? You can't even say I might be sad if I watched you suffer - you will probably never even be aware that the theft occurred in the first place. I get to have the record AND your friendship AND the comforting knowledge that you aren't even aware that something happened. So is there any reason I shouldn't take it - or do you perhaps see certain "rather murky psychological harms" that might happen to me as a result?

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I'm sorry. I still don't feel like my question was adequately answered. I have seriously studied Objectivism for about 5 years now, and I am having issues again with what appears to be a categorical imperative (do not violate rights-no matter what the circumstance). That is the definition of a categorical imperative, something that ought be done in all circumstances. I do believe that people are and ought be rational egoists, but I don't see how you can make such a sweeping claim that there is no circumstance under which it is beneficial to violate rights. I know you said in the context of your entire life, but expound on that. Why would it be literally impossible to benefit from a rights violation.

Let's say we have a vendor is indifferent about whether I steal from him. And the law has a $.50 fine for stealing a candy bar, and the candy bar costs a dollar. Would it be against my self interest to steal? No, even if I am caught the social and legal penalties aren't significant enough to deter me. And psychologically, I would argue that I would be stupid and irrational not to steal the candy bar, and that would bother me psychologically to not steal it.

Chris

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Let's say we have a vendor is indifferent about whether I steal from him.

Is this a flaw in the set-up though? This is saying that the candy bar is not a value to him (value = $0.00) but this contradicts the fact that the candy bar has a price (value = $1.00). It can't be both. Either the candy bar is worth something to him in free exchange, or it isn't. To make the example consistent you would either have to change the price to $0.00 or say that he cares about you stealing it to the tune of $1.00.

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psychologically, I would argue that I would be stupid and irrational not to steal the candy bar, and that would bother me psychologically to not steal it.

So you will not loose your self-esteem. True enough. If a thief sees stealing as a virtue, he will in fact gain more self esteem when he steals. But! (big but here) the result of his bad philosophy is also (1) Inability to gain certain values that are gain-able for moral people, and (2) A philosophy that disarms him to defend himself in face of those who might steal from him, and (3) A philosophy that causes him to lead a risky life.

Since man thinks in principles, he cannot think "stealing this candy bar is good today, but stealing a car tomorrow is bad". Instead he thinks "Stealing as long as I don't get caught is good" and also "objects that were produced by someone are just like bannanas growing from a tree in a jungle: both do not belong to anyone (in the "spiritual sense" of belonging)". There is always a principle behind these specific ideas, and a principle is something that leads a man not only in this one certain case of a candy bar, but in all of his life. And when a principle is not compatible with preserving man's life, it will hit the man who holds it in some way.

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Could you provide references for this?

"The brute stifles at the root the process on which his own survival depends" OPAR p. 315

"The irrational man is inevitably tortured. Success of his kind ... is a threat, attainment brings anxiety, desire is guilt, self-esteem is self-loathing...." OPAR p.337

There may be more support in OPAR but this will likely do for now, it can be hard to find specific topics in OPAR because they are often discussed in multiple sections and subheadingless paragraphs.

I think the two main objectivist justifications for the blanket prohibition on rights violation are not really at issue here, but their application is.

I am mainly worried that there is slippage at the edges of the justifications. There seems to be a risk/benefit disparity in holding that the initation of force always has great practical detriments to the initiator due to its degradation of society. There also seems to be a lot of risk in holding that psychological harms will always exist. Neither Rand nor OPAR provide any psychological evidence for their conclusions, it is based entirely on the opinions of lay-persons. Too, the psychological harms (even if all true) seem to stem from the violation of societal norms, not from the violation of rights. IE, if you had a society in which what we could call "rights" were routinely violated yet this society did not consider this a moral wrong, you would likely have none of the psychological harms.

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and I am having issues again with what appears to be a categorical imperative (do not violate rights-no matter what the circumstance). That is the definition of a categorical imperative, something that ought be done in all circumstances.
But if you were lost in the north woods, in a life-threatening fashion, and came upon a stranger's shack with provisions that would allow you to survive plus a no-trespassing sign, then you would be irrational to sacrifice your life for this categorical imperative. There is nothing in Objectivism that says that in this context, you simply have to die.
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But if you were lost in the north woods, in a life-threatening fashion, and came upon a stranger's shack with provisions that would allow you to survive plus a no-trespassing sign, then you would be irrational to sacrifice your life for this categorical imperative. There is nothing in Objectivism that says that in this context, you simply have to die.

Yeah, that one doesn't even qualify as "something that ought be done in all circumstances."

How about "Don't evade reality." That one might fit better. (but that one still has "...if you want to live" attached to the front of it, so not so much)

But I think you've mis-identified the definition of a categorical imperative.

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But I think you've mis-identified the definition of a categorical imperative.
That could well be -- I don't really get the concept, I just know that it's one of those impenetrable Kant ideas. The standard quote seems to be the highly transparent exhortation "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law", which I believe is a long way of saying "Do whatever you want", or, simply "Whatever".
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Vladimir: I think you are missing the essential of Objectivism's view of emotions as well as of ethics.

Emotions are not primaries. They are the automatic reaction of your subconscious to what you experience. To say that a thug lives in terror is not a weak and lame attempt to claim that committing murder causes psychological damage. It is to say that a thug must necessarily experience things that cause terror. They are necessary because they are the effects caused by the actions of a murderer. Unfortunatley, I don't have time to go through this step by step, but hopefully I've at least pointed the way.

Similarly, Objectivist ethics is not in any way founded on the so-called "good" of society. Objectivism actually holds that the branches of philosophy are strictly hierarchical. Ethics is more fundamental. Politics depends on ethics, not the other way around. Rand argued that one should not sacrifice oneself to others, nor sacrifice others to oneself. This is because it's good for *you* and nothing to do with the notion of a society, which doesn't enter the discussion until the principles of ethics are firmly established. Again, I don't have the time to go all the way through this.

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But if you were lost in the north woods, in a life-threatening fashion, and came upon a stranger's shack with provisions that would allow you to survive plus a no-trespassing sign, then you would be irrational to sacrifice your life for this categorical imperative. There is nothing in Objectivism that says that in this context, you simply have to die.

?Really. ?You think this would be allowed That's not so far from a welfare justification... ?Violating rights because you might die.

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?Really. ?You think this would be allowed That's not so far from a welfare justification... ?Violating rights because you might die.

While it might be ok to take immediately to save you life, the proper response would be to make restitution. Welfare can't advocate that at all.

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I'm sorry. I still don't feel like my question was adequately answered. I have seriously studied Objectivism for about 5 years now, and I am having issues again with what appears to be a categorical imperative (do not violate rights-no matter what the circumstance). That is the definition of a categorical imperative, something that ought be done in all circumstances. I do believe that people are and ought be rational egoists, but I don't see how you can make such a sweeping claim that there is no circumstance under which it is beneficial to violate rights. I know you said in the context of your entire life, but expound on that. Why would it be literally impossible to benefit from a rights violation.

Well first off, you're mixing categories. Rights are political concept. Rational egoism is a moral concept. Think the right heirarchy, and this will be easier to understand.

Second, the Objectivist ethics is not based upon a cost-benefit analysis. What is in your self interest or moral is NOT defined as that in which the benefits outweigh the costs.

Third, you're confusing a principle with a commandment. A principle is a conceptual articulation, a grouping of concretes under one overriding categorization. This has to then be unpacked and evaluated within the context of the situation to which you plan on applying it.

Rationality means the acceptance of reason as a principle of human survival and as an absolute. [OPAR p. 221]

Is this an imperative. Hardly. What it means to be rational leads to very different actions in very different situations.

From the wiki on categorical imperative:

Kant thought that human beings occupy a special place in creation. He also believed that morality can be summed up in one ultimate principle, from which all duties and obligations are derived. Kant defined an imperative as any proposition that declares a certain kind of action (or inaction) to be necessary. A hypothetical imperative would compel action under a particular circumstance: If I wish to satisfy my thirst, then I must drink this lemonade. A categorical imperative would denote an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, and is both required and justified as an end in itself.

"Wear yellow pants on Teusday." That is an imperative. It prescribes the same action regarless of context.

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"The brute stifles at the root the process on which his own survival depends" OPAR p. 315

"The irrational man is inevitably tortured. Success of his kind ... is a threat, attainment brings anxiety, desire is guilt, self-esteem is self-loathing...." OPAR p.337

That's it???

I'm not even sure how your first quote is relevant to the request since it is a part of a phrase taken out of context, in a paragraph beginning "There is another derivative virtue to consider.." Hmm Peikoff keeps his essential arguments hidden in the discussions on derivative aspects of topics. I might think that he'd covered it better under the discussion of primaries which ought to come before this, eh.

To get to the 2nd quote you skip over the Chapters on "The Good", and "Virtue", and take this one out of the subsequent chapter on "Happiness". (which by definition ought to deal with some psychological factors, one might think). Are you suggesting that nowhere in the first 2 chapters does Peikoff give a basic reasons against intiation of physical force, considering that is where he develops the arguments.

I always marvel at your selection of passages.

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While it might be ok to take immediately to save you life, the proper response would be to make restitution. Welfare can't advocate that at all.

Still... It seems a slippery slope. ?How do you justify taking that which is not yours, without justifying others doing so as well.

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Still... It seems a slippery slope. ?How do you justify taking that which is not yours, without justifying others doing so as well.

I did not justify it. In a political context, it is a violation of rights, and a rational person who does it should be prepared to pay the consequences or make restitution. That is a very different context, than nimbles' senario where he is specifically trying to "get away" with it, and just weighing the risk of getting caught.

There are all sorts of variations on the context of this situation. Is the cabin abandoned or long out of use? Is the food possibly the owners last bit upon which his own survival depends? What other options do you have for survival, and how long do you have? All of these might change the course of action.

I think David was simply trying to come up with one senario where nimble's "categorical imperative" theory breaks down.

Evaluation of contexts are full of potential "slippery slopes". Living by principle isn't as easy as living by commandment.

Edited by KendallJ
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My friend and I were talking about this the other day, and I gave him this example: Say you had a pill that made anything you do in the next 30 minutes not stick in your long term memory (like a blackout from too much alcohol). In that case, if you could get away with killing someone you hated, would that be morally justified?

The person you hated is no longer in in the picture, which benefits you. You do not get any trouble with the law, and you do not get any type of psychological damage.

Does anyone see any problems with this?

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I really don't think anyone understands what is going on. I am ASKING a question, not trying to undermine Objectivism. I am not proposing any new theories, or making any critiques. I am merely asking for you to justify the stance that it is always against your self-interest to violate rights.

Whoever replied that the scenario is unrealistic because the vendor implicitly values it because there is a price on it, you are completely missing the point. Sure he may value it, but he is indifferent to me stealing it, because he won't try to fight me for a dollar. All major corporations are like this, they will not apprehend thieves for fear of lawsuits if you take the guy down and injure him.

Secondly, a categorical imperative is something you ought do in all circumstances. Imperative=ought, Categorical=all categories of circumstances.

Thirdly, self-interest IS benefits outweigh the cost. If not, please define self-interest, because as far as I am aware, that is the common usage of the term. If you are right that benefits outweighing the costs is not self-interest then you have single-handedly destroyed the theory of capitalism.

Now, if someone would answer my initial question as to why it is never, ever in my interest to violate rights, please do so.

(In my personal opinion, I think that violating rights is okay when the costs outweigh the benefits long run, and it is up to the government and society to structure itself in a way as to adequately provide ample deterrence to rights violations so that it will never be in someones self interest to violate rights. And if the gov't fails that, like in my example by having the penalty be less than the cost of the item, then the moral obligation lies with the government not the individual).

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