Tuesday, April 7, 2009

"Think" Debate on Rand's Ethics of Self-Interest-2

The “Think!” debate on Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics, which I wrote about in February, took place as scheduled on March 2, 2009. As I stated then, and reiterate here, Professor Michael Huemer is a rarity—his critique of Rand’s ethical theory is based on a genuinely honest attempt to understand Objectivism. A link to the audio of the debate can be found at Noodlefood, the blog of one of the debate’s co-sponsors, Diana Hseih.

While I have not yet had a chance to listen to the debate, I wanted to post some thoughts based upon a lively discussion at Noodlefood. One can pretty much get the gist of the core argument through the blog post and the comments thread, although I obviously must reserve final analysis until I listen to the whole thing, whenever that may be. Ayn Rand’s view of ethics is complex, presenting a new concept of egoism. My analysis addresses one key aspect based on what is apparently Huemer’s primary objection to Rand’s ethical theory. Hopefully, the points I mean to convey are clear.

My following analysis is based solely upon the secondary sources provided at Noodlefood. All of the following quotes can also be found there. Also, all of my references to egoism specifically mean Rand’s version—rational egoism.

The basic argument Professor Huemer advances against Rand is this:

He knows that Ayn Rand and Objectivists don't think rights-violation is consistent with Objectivism. He made it very clear that he knew this, and so he was not misrepresenting what we think. His point was that we are wrong to think of this as a logical implication of egoism: if self-interest is our standard, then he doesn't see how, logically speaking, our self-interest alone could rule out exploiting/killing other people. That's not a misrepresentation, but a disagreement about whether our view has a particular logical implication.

I’ve thought long and hard about Rand’s ethical system, and it took a long time…many years, in fact…for the right mental connections to be made. But once they did, it seemed obvious why “exploiting/killing” others is not in one’s self-interest. Furthermore, it conversely becomes obvious why altruism is, in fact, the morality that must lead to predatory exploitation. While it is not my intention here to examine altruism, I will simply suggest for you to reverse the logic presented below to see why.

First, Heumer is wrong that self-interest is the standard for the Objectivist ethics. Man’s life and the factual requirements for his survival are. That is, man the individual, qua the individual. Egoism, in Rand’s conception, is a world view that applies to all individual human beings…past, present, and future. While egoism defines each individual’s own long-term happiness as his only proper moral purpose, it is not a self-centered egoism. It is not “my happiness is more important than yours”. Rather, it is “my happiness is of primary importance to me, just as yours is to you.” As Rand has said, egoism is not a license to do whatever one pleases, on the whim of any moment, regardless of the consequences to others (or to oneself, for that matter).

Once one accepts rational egoism as the proper set of principles (or values) to guide one’s life, it logically follows that this same concept must apply whenever one’s focus turns toward others. One necessarily projects one’s own code of values onto others, automatically. One might call this a reverse “golden rule”…Do not demand the sacrifice of the interests of others, as you would not have them demand the sacrifice of yours. Respect for the rights, values, and happiness of others is a natural consequence of one’s conscious, reasoned acceptance of egoism.

This leads to the question, why automatically? This is where Rand’s theory of the nature of the relationship between man’s conscious mind, his sub-conscious mind, and his emotions come in. Man’s sub-conscious mechanism is like a complex computer, which is programmed by his conscious mind. One’s explicit acceptance of a particular set of moral convictions becomes integrated into the sum of his knowledge, resulting in an automatic intellectual and emotional response with regard to relationships with others. The implicit (automatic) “feeling” an egoist operates on in his relationships with others is; since I have a moral right to protect and advance my self-interests, so to do others.

In this regard, it is important to keep in mind the role of the human conscience. One’s conscience is the powerful emotional faculty that stands as the guardian ready to block any actions that contradict one’s accepted moral values. Like all of one’s emotions, one’s conscience is well within the control of one’s rational, conscious faculty. If one adopts a proper code of moral values by reasoned analysis; one’s conscience will, thus, be programmed to give warning of any actual or impending conscious breech of one’s moral integrity. (It is important to note here that I am specifically referring to a moral code that is adopted with full understanding and by rational analysis. Moral values simply absorbed haphazardly will only lead to conflicting and inconsistent emotions and actions.)

A second error Dr. Huemer commits is to refer to extremely rare, dire circumstances in order to validate his claim that someday, somehow, an egoist must violate the rights of others to protect his own interests. Two examples cited are “killing an innocent person for a dollar” and “getting one’s pants wet in order to save a drowning child”. The professor can’t understand how self-interest wouldn’t ultimately lead to an egoist valuing a dollar over the life of a person, or a pair of pants over a child.

To begin with, Rand asserts that ethics cannot be discussed from the perspective of extremely rare events that few people will ever encounter. A moral code is a guide to normative living. What she called “lifeboat situations”…two people in a lifeboat that can only carry one--which person should be sacrificed?…are invalid as a criteria for determining proper ethics. The question of whether a person, in an emergency situation, should give up his own life for another or kill another to save his own tells you nothing about the proper moral principles that should guide normal human relationships. (See chapter 3, “The Ethics of Emergencies” in The Virtue of Selfishness, page 49.)

As to the two situations cited above, it must be remembered that Rand’s ethics rest on rationality. To determine what is actually in one’s self-interest…no easy task…one must first determine by conscious choice one’s own hierarchy of values. Then, he must act accordingly. Ethics presupposes values. Rational self-interest presupposes a consciously chosen hierarchy of personal values, with the most important values sitting at the top. What does one value more…a dollar or one’s life, a pair of pants or the life of one’s child? Those personal priorities must rationally lead to the same choices in relation to others, if one holds consistently to one’s principles. More-over, killing another for money is anti-egoistic in the extreme. It is the ultimate act of selflessness…i.e., dependence upon others. True egoism implies self-esteem and pride, both of which would necessarily have to be missing from the character of anyone who would sacrifice others to obtain his sustenance. An egoist is by proper definition a self-sustaining individual who lives by his own mind and his own effort. (For a good demonstration of how the exploitation of others results not from egoism but from selflessness, see the villains in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.)

In my discussion of the preamble statement of Professor Huemer, I wrote, “he…cannot conceive of moral selfishness, or of a virtuous egoist”. The corrupting nature of altruism runs deep. It is the primary roadblock to understanding Ayn Rand’s “new concept of egoism”. I know. I grappled with that corruption for years. Conventional ethical precepts hold sacrifice as the only moral absolute. This leads to a false choice…to sacrifice oneself to others (altruism), or to sacrifice others to oneself (the conventional definition of selfishness, which is really the flip side of the same altruistic coin). One must fully reject the ethics of sacrifice to clear one’s mind of the ethical fog engendered by today’s two-sided coin of altruism and conventionally defined selfishness. Rand rejects sacrifice as un-natural and inimical to man’s well-being and survival. The choice is neither to sacrifice oneself to others, nor to sacrifice others to oneself.

The concept of mutually beneficial, non-sacrificial relationships based upon self-interest is morally incomprehensible, if altruistic self-sacrifice is held up as the standard of the good. But that relationship is the logical end result of rational egoism. Rand called it “the trader principle”. The trader principle is an exchange between two parties in which each receives from the other a net gain in value, and it applies in both the material and the spiritual realms.

Quoting from Noodlefood,

[Professor Huemer] doesn't see how, logically speaking, our self-interest alone could rule out exploiting/killing other people.

And, it's a hard point to establish that egoism doesn't have this implication. Huemer's response (along with many other philosophers) to [Objectivists] would be: why should we care about whether we violate his rights? Why is it in our self-interest not to violate rights, or even to assist someone in an emergency? Huemer is correct that the answer to that question is not obvious. Indeed this was part of Onkar [Ghate's] point: because what's in our self-interest is not obvious, we need a science of ethics to help us discover it. (Emphasis added.)

To me it is now obvious why egoism and exploitation are mutually exclusive. It has been mentioned in the discussion that “reciprocity” (or what I called the “reverse golden rule”) is not enough to account “for how the interests of others fit into our self-interest [which] is probably the hardest problem for the Objectivist ethics”. The answer lies in what Dr. Ghate said about needing a comprehensive, scientific code of ethics. The problem is that being moral by conventional standards consists of putting other’s interests above one’s own. Performing a “good deed” means a donation of time or money, helping a stranger, being a “Good Samaritan”, etc. One wouldn’t cite personal, self-enhancing achievements as examples of good deeds, by today’s standards. Self-interest is considered either outside of the scope of morality, or outright immoral, thus leaving no moral guidance on how to live one’s own life. This, I believe, is the source of Dr. Huemer’s inability to grasp the Objectivist position that rights-violating actions clash with self-interest. He perhaps cannot fully grasp the possibility of a code of ethics derived not from some subjective source (society, personal whim, or God), but from an objective source--science.

Rand ended the separation of morality and science with her historic ethical discoveries. To accept and practice the Objectivist ethics means to accept the personal pursuit of happiness as the moral…which means, to accept that principle relative to all others as consistent with ones own basic code of values…which means, “the interests of others fit[s] into our self-interest” in the broadest sense. To see the morality in others is to see their personal value achievements, not their conventionally defined “good deeds” or sacrifices, and to never seek from others the unearned in matter or in spirit (This should not be construed as a rejection of voluntary charity, but that is another aspect of ethics).

Rand has given us something to guide us in the pursuit of our own self-interest. It is not a commandment to be accepted and followed on faith, but a scientifically validated code based on the objective facts of reality. And this is the crux of the matter. Rand’s ethical system must be studied and understood, not accepted at face value. Otherwise, one can easily come to the same confusion as Professor Huemer in not being able to separate self-interest from exploitation.

As a guide to action, egoism ties respect for the rights of others inextricably to our own self-interest. Our moral convictions define the very nature of our souls. To betray our moral convictions is then by definition a betrayal of our self-interest. Egoism makes the exploitation of others a violation of our self-interest, precisely because our moral convictions are our most selfish possession.

It is this that Huemer and other honest detractors fail to grasp. And yes, it is a major challenge to convey the concept of moral selfishness as an absolute. But that is exactly what is required to clear away today’s moral jungle wrought by altruism.

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