Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Methodological Issues in "Egoism and Rights"

On the subject of the relation between egoism and rights, the work of Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmusssen and Douglas Den Uyl stood out above the rest for pretty much three decades or so. The "Dougs" have spelled out the essence of the correct position in fullest detail, while Mack has offered valuable insights of his own in thinking about the issue, especially from a Randian angle, with his emphasis on the core moral notion that "man is an end in himself."

The basics of the difference between their two approaches is covered in an issue of Reason Papers. The gist is that Mack's approach is dualistic and Kant-inspired, which reflects his more hardcore-academic style, while theirs - following Aristotle and Rand - is integrative. Mack's work on this subject began with his own "Egoism and Rights" (1973, The Personalist) and culminating in a series of increasingly technical academic essays over the years; his most developed viewpoint is represented in "On the Fit Between Egoism and Rights" (1998, Reason Papers). The "Dougs" work culiminates in Liberty and Nature (1991) and Norms of Liberty (2006). Their characteristic style and content is represented well in the Reason Papers symposium in the first link above.

My own, article, "Egoism and Rights," (see link in "About Me" to your right) represents the "state of the art" on the subject in an academic format, stated in brief essentials. There are, also, some methodological concerns to address there.

Some relevant background: As I have had a fiercely independent sense of life from very early on, I have staunchly repudiated any forms of authoritarianism or other varieties of unreason, especially when associated in any way with Ayn Rand. I took Rand's central dictum, "Think for yourself," most seriously, and repudiated social metaphysics wherever I saw it. I saw an authoritarianism in the "ARI" brand of promoting Objectivism, which I saw at the time as being against careful, reasoned, dialogue-respecting activity. I took Rand's unscholarly polemics as representative of her overall style of doing philosophy. I was more ready to buy into the picture fostered by the apostates, the Brandens, and then David Kelley. The toxically effective smear-jobs perpetrated by the combination of the Branden accounts was effective at breeding a cynicism that nearly destroyed me (and, I'm sure, many others) in the end. The essential upshot: "If not even this woman lives up to her ideals, so much for ideals." Thanks a lot, Nathan.

Speaking of Nathan, he's a friend of Chris Matthew Sciabarra, editor of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, in which "Egoism and Rights" appeared in 2006. There were things I know now that I did not know at the time. Three significant things in particular: (1) James Valliant's The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics appeared in 2005, and it's like the veil had at last been lifted: You know what, Ayn Rand was pretty darn swell after all, and Nathan is an unspeakably unjust scumbag who single-handedly fueled a culture-wide ad hominem against Objectivism's founder. That man is persona non grata. (2) Evidence of lying and backstabbing behavior in 2006 by Chris Sciabarra against then-friends Diana Hsieh, Lindsay Perigo, and James Valliant, evidence that - to my knowledge - has gone unanswered and unrebutted to this day. (3) A falling-out, in 2006, between yours truly and JARS's associate editor, Robert Campbell, over a series of increasingly stupid things he was saying on public internet forums, debasing JARS's reputation in the process. (Last I checked a few months back, Campbell was spewing some nonsense about me "prostrating [my]self in front of Leonard Peikoff." This is what JARS has been reduced to. Purely coincidentally, the journal is now running well behind schedule.) All this was in addition to the fiasco over at the closely-aligned Objectivist Center (then re-named the Atlas Society), where TOC/TAS's director, David Kelley, a spineless pragmatist, took no stand on the Branden matter (Branden being a TOC/TAS speaker) in the wake of Valliant's book.

Anyway, before that, I was more friendly toward the JARS model, or what I thought it to be. It's respectful, responsible and scholarly dialogue, and as an added bonus, Rand and I win the argument! Also, the culture at ARI today is just different - it just has a different feel, sense-of-life even - than it was back in the days of Schwartz and his emulators. Less of an insular, sectarian, authoritarian and social-metaphysical vibe given off to the wary fiercely-independent type. (After all, these folks were quite terribly ignorant about Mack and the Dougs. I just fucking hate ignorance.)

Here's another piece of the puzzle: I'm one of the "fortunate" few to meet the following criteria: (1) Familiarity with academic-style philosophy; (2) Familiarity with Ayn Rand's ideas; (3) Familiarity with Leonard Peikoff's lecture courses; (4) Familiarity with Mack and the Dougs' work; (5) Background in economics; (6) Lots of intellectual curiosity. Combined, these put me in select company. A close match (to say the least) for all these criteria is Chris Sciabarra. The guy knows his stuff, whatever else you say about him - even if the stuff is presented in the terrible jargon and style of academia, which it is. Well, what finally got me interested in Peikoff's courses is their inclusion in the massive bibliography to Sciabarra's Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (1995). From Peikoff, I was introduced to the history of philosophy - most wonderfully, to Aristotle - and then to the advanced courses in Objectivism. Those courses center around methodology.

Methodology was Sciabarra's central focus in writing Russian Radical; he thinks that Hegel and Marx have some useful insights on this subject. (For the kind of anti-dialoguing I instinctively rebelled against, there's John Ridpath's unfairly brutal "review" of the book in the ARI-aligned Intellectual Activist. If the only criterion were the presentation style, then he'd be spot-on. If it's that similarities to thinkers like Marx or Hegel are too preposterous to take seriously, then he needs an argument in the face of Sciabarra's evidence, and he never gives one. That's why I fucking hated the "accepted ARI style" of the time.) It's not surprising that any number of thinkers could all touch upon a similar point, when they've given such matters so much of their intellectual attention. Rand had a systematic approach to thinking, like Hegel did. There's something to be learned from that as we differentiate and integrate concretes like Rand, Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, Kant, Marx, etc. Ignoring the relevant similarities is a pro-ignorance strategy, and I just fucking hate ignorance.

Anyway, my intellectual curiosity led me to the Peikoff courses despite his Branden-and-Kelley-fostered image as an authoritarian cultist. The courses were, in time, a saving grace intellectually, on many levels. What the courses do show is that Rand's methodology is as sound as it needs to be, without ever having needed Hegel or Marx's dialectical methods to amplify or explain thing further. Anyone who knows Rand knows that she came up with a shit-ton of identifications independently of other thinkers; that's just how she rolled. What we don't get from Hegel or Marx is a path to a theory of induction. With Aristotle, of course, the similarities to Rand are much greater; the approach taken by the (neo-Aristotelian) Dougs is very close methodologically to Randian-Peikoffian integration. Plenty of other Rand scholars and Aristotle scholars have noted the deep similarities as well. In the Sciabarrian scheme, it only makes sense to mentally organize the concretes so that Aristotle has a lot higher "similarity-score" to Rand than do Hegel or Marx. Unfortunately, this is not an effect of the style and presentation of Russian Radical.

So, familiarity with the ideas of Mack, the Dougs, Rand, Peikoff and Sciabarra culminated in my article, "Egoism and Rights." This emerged from another, longer, unpublished piece trying to cover a lot more ground in limited space, the subject being ethics and how the concept of integration (e.g., theory-practice, fact-value, individual-social) applies there. Integration as a basic thematic and methodological concern made JARS a very friendly venue. Sciabarra's framing of the integration-theme was "a revolt against dualism." One result of a revolt against dualism is a revolt against Kant-emulating academic style, a product of rationalism, which is one fork of the rationalist-empiricist dichotomy that Peikoff spent most of Understanding Objectivism railing about. "Egoism and Rights" took one such example of academic dualism - in essence, "Rand is either a deontologist or consequentialist; She is an egoist; Egoism is consequentialist; Consequentialism is incompatible with rights; Therefore, egoism is incompatible with rights" - and subjected it to methodologically-informed refutation. Lost in that whole rationalistic deduction from a false alternative was Rand's actual views, which could be had by reading her own actual descriptions and depictions of egoistic behavior.

One methodological issue I want to mention here conerns what might have led me to state certain points the way I did. One thing that does not sit well with me now is how I talk about the rightful beneficiary of action being a derivative or less fundamental issue than the standard of value. The correct view would be to develop those points in unison - as Rand did. It would be correct to say that both the issue of the standard of value and the issue of the beneficiary are distinct conditions which both have to be met for judging a moral action or principle, but that neither condition precedes the other hierarchically. Perhaps a harmless-looking mistake to treat their relation as I did, but I'm a perfectionist, see, and harmless-looking little things can be insidious and damaging long-run. Much as I was on an "integration"-thematic kick at the time, it wasn't so well integrated with other, related methodological subjects - hierarchy, essentializing, reduction, context. Integration isn't done for its own sake, after all, but to aid in sound cognition and practical action.

Also, in the time since I wrote "Egoism and Rights," my concerns have shifted more toward the fundamental area Rand eventually shifted focus to - epistemology. The ethics stuff is a piece of cake by comparison at this point; of greater interest is how the ethics integrates with the whole hierarchical system of thought. (An epistemological-practical thematic unity I picked up on in the process: perfectionism.)

For its purpose, however, "Egoism and Rights" succeeds remarkably, through an essentializing, straightforward style (by academic-journal standards), considerable familiarity with Objectivist method, and a pretty much irrefutable take on Rand's "new concept of egoism." (This was well before I ever even noticed the extreme similarities between Rand's and Norton's eudaemonisms. Eudaemonism, of course, necessitates rights.) Even if it gets hierarchy wrong at a point, the important points still get out there.

More observations about "Egoism and Rights" as or when they occur...

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