Tuesday, October 5, 2010

I Don't Own This Post: Thoughts on The Objectivist Ethics

First, as the essay I'll be looking at has been collected in The Virtue of Selfishness, I feel obliged to summarize the intro to that book, lest we end up getting Dworkined on a basic misunderstanding of vocabulary. (I'm pretty sure the use of Dworkin as a verb is my invention. I'm a communist, though: you looters can have it.) In the American English of Rand's day, as well as ours, selfishness is generally contrasted with altruism. The trouble is that altruism being accepted as a good necessarily presupposes that its opposite, selfishness, must be bad. And there is much to be admired about being interested in, skilled with, and dependent upon one's 'self,' whatever that may mean. Self-sufficiency, for example, is generally considered a valorous attribute. Self-awareness even more so. Self-interest, well, that gets us locked up in political lingo, as it's essentially a meaningless concept employed to summarize unrelated ideas.

But, getting back to Rand, selfishness probably ought not to have the exclusively negative connotation that it does. However, the fact remains that it does, and insisting that it be treated otherwise won't promote new ideas so much as require us to rework ever more vocabulary. Which might be useful, over a great deal of time, but it's not really in a philosopher's area of expertise at that point.

I once stumbled upon the website of a man who claimed to have found a way to divide by zero. It's a bold claim, perhaps, but an asterisk is warranted. Because, as many math-oriented people pointed out, the rule against dividing by zero is not a law of nature we found in a pristine state. It's an agreed-upon rule that's part of a larger mathematical structure. We could have designed a system in which dividing by zero is possible, but we did not. So one can certainly divide by zero, as long as they're willing to acknowledge that sundry other mathematical laws will not function in the new system. You'd be starting from scratch.

I leave the parallels to you. Moving on!

What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions--the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics is: why does man need a code of values?

The Socratics, to whom Rand and I will soon turn, were very fond of this kind of philosophizing, and they had different answers. They were, at least, sensible enough to note that such values existed, and seemed to have existed for as long as there have been human beings, even when there were no philosophers around to tell people about it. The idea of not having values is an empty signifier, like not being on a boat. That something exists, and it is difficult to imagine an alternative to its existence, does not make the question of why less important, of course, but it does set an interesting tone for our reading. The writer does not seem entirely in control of her symbols.

Rand then asks whether a judgment of what is Good and what is Bad is a subjective whim, a "desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause, or on actual fact. Rand actually uses not merely fact but "metaphysical fact," although she is kind enough to explain in parentheses that she is using metaphysical to mean "that which pertains to reality, to the nature of things, to existence." Which is not, strictly speaking what metaphysical means, and may in fact be its opposite--exactly what relationship do abstract entities immune to empirical testing have to "reality" or "existence" this week? I had a doctor's appointment and couldn't make the last meeting.

Anyway, Rand claims that for most of human history, morality has been decided to be in the "whim" school, primarily expressed through the (literally) arbitrary will of gods, although a few have tried to break out of it into something scientific. Aristotle went with descriptive ethics, neatly avoiding the question of "why?" that so plagues the prescriptive, and others ("neo-mystics" simply reskinned religious dogma as agreed-upon social rules, substituting the "good of society" for the "will of God." Taking a brief aside from my usual concise, ruthlessly on-topic approach, I feel I should note that either of these seem like fine places to start for ethics, assuming the thing that "wills" exists. I'm not sure about God, and though certain people doubt the existence of society, the empirical evidence for society's existence is pretty daunting. Who the fuck is writing all these blogs, anyway?

Credit where credit is due, it is true that individual people exist, and society is just a made-up concept that makes it easier to refer to large groups of them in speech of writing. (We will ignore, for the moment, the possibility that the individual person is also such a made-up concept.) Because we lack the hive-mind technology of the Borg, or even the knowledge base technology of the Cylons, society can be referred to, lauded, or railed against, but it cannot act. And because it is difficult to coordinate the efforts of every individual in a large system to a common end, especially when some of them are dicks, the moral dictates of the will of God/good of society must be enforced by individuals who symbolically take on the identity of society itself and pursue actions that would be prohibited to them as individuals. Through this conception of "society," we have made men into gods.

This is not a minor point. The fact that the snarling beast of chaos can only be kept in check by the also-snarling beast of an army or police force is a serious fucking problem, and deserves to be taken seriously. A police class necessarily legitimizes coercion. The Western approach has generally been to set up so many checks on power that it's a pain in the ass for any of our public servants to step too far out of line, but it's not a perfect system, and the question remains: Who watches the watchers of the watchers of the watchmen? And who watches them?

Having established the shakiness of the persistent "whim" school of values, Rand suggests an alternative: existence. "The concept 'value' [...] presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative." As living organisms, our existence is a pattern of information whose continued function is not guaranteed to us, but must be painstakingly maintained. Because we need to exist and face nonexistence for "value" to exist, reasons Rand, then Good must necessarily be what furthers our existence, and Bad what hinders it.

Things get tricky here, because Rand is unknowingly treading on the territory of a field which did not exist in her time, that of evolutionary psychology. Like it or not, "The Objectivist Ethics" is an apologetics for evo psych. Which doesn't make her claim about morality being necessarily related to existence wrong, but does severely problematize her earlier concept of "whims," because it turns out we've identified those subjective whims, and they're the result of natural selection, i.e. technically random, but the very opposite of chance. We do care enough to discover the cause of these former-whims, and we are learning more daily about said causes. The fact that such subjective ephemera were nearly universal among our species, and that agreement on said principles was largely effective in getting people to pretend not to murder each other or sexually abuse their children, was enough reason to keep them around, despite our inability to locate their origins. (Oh, and hey, C.S. Lewis actually tries to deduce the existence of God from the ubiquity of said rules. Rand, if you're reading, check out that old post. I'm sure you'll get along.)

And now that you mention it, who wouldn't like to see C.S. Lewis fight Ayn Rand?