Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Objectivist Ethics II

Previously on "The Objectivist Ethics": "an organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil."

Righto. So, surviving? Good! And here we have the first common mischaracterization of evolutionary theory we so commonly see in pop culture: that of brutal, unending competition, for survival is a goal that can afford no compromises. Which, I suppose, makes for a fine moral philosophy. The only thing that could really threaten it--and I'm going way outside the box here, so bear with me--would be the repeating failure of certain cells to reproduce perfectly, leading to an utterly unavoidable ceasing of all life functions that nobody could escape, under any circumstances, ever.

So unless the highest moral state of man is that of an invalid sucking oxygen through a mask in a state of shrieking terror as his brain function becomes ever more tenuous, there has to be more to value than the life of the individual.

Moving on, Rand pays homage to Bentham's twin sovereigns, pleasure and pain. She tells us that such sensations begin the process of developing consciousness:

Consciousness--for those living organisms which possess it--is the basic means of survival. [...] The simpler organisms, such as plants, can survive by means of their automatic physical functions. The higher organisms, such as animals and man, cannot: their needs are more complex and the range of their actions is wider. The physical functions of their bodies can perform automatically only the task of using fuel, but cannot obtain that fuel. To obtain it, the higher organisms need the faculty of consciousness. A plant can obtain its food from the soil in which it grows. An animal has to hunt for it. Man has to produce it.

But Man, it turns out, is a tricky biscuit. Because it turns out that bipedal primates can, in fact, get by quite well by hunting, assuming by "hunting" we mean "gathering and scavenging." We did so for a good long time. In fact, "hunting" itself wasn't something we were particularly good at until speech enabled us to enlarge our social circles and transmit knowledge more effectively, alongside such wonderful developments as traps, throwing weapons, and the porting of the popular "wolf" into a more consumer-friendly format. By going oddly Platonic in her tripartite "plant/animal/Man" hierarchy, Rand seems to hope we don't raise our hands and ask exactly what this Man thing is.

Homo sapiens clearly isn't sufficient, and it's unclear where exactly "producing" picks up from previous fuel-acquisition technologies. Man, the productive being, might begin with subsistence farming, or he might begin with Adam Smith's pin factory. But any sub-masculine homo sapiens is certainly capable of grabbing what he finds in his environment, even if he did not produce it. Why wouldn't he, if it helped fuel his survival? Rand and I, surprisingly, have different answers, which shall be covered in the next post, in which Rand tries to sneak a heaping pile of deontology into her theory without her audience noticing the glaring contradiction it creates.

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