Monday, February 28, 2011

Generational Shift

Seeing as part of my Toward Utopia project is concerned with the subject of historical causation from the standpoint of the effects of intellectual movements on the whole of societies (which ends up pushing me toward the sort-of uncomfortable position of making Toward Utopia partly about itself), I cannot help but notice that America is headed quite irresistibly toward a new political paradigm that usually goes under the heading of "libertarianism."

By "libertarianism" I mean a political philosophy more or less espoused by our country's Founding Fathers, characterized by emphases on the dignity of the individual human being, individual rights (including property rights, i.e., capitalism), and governments essentially limited to protecting those rights. (I'll set aside for now the long-running and not-going-away-anytime-soon debate over "anarcho-capitalism" vs. laws being defined and enforced by a state.) In terms of concretes, of advocates of this idea, it has been set forth in varying terms in the writings of such figures as Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, James Buchanan, George Reisman, John Hospers, Richard Epstein, Randy Barnett, Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl, Loren Lomasky, David Schmidtz, and Chris Matthew Sciabarra. Based on the limited evidence, the late David L. Norton apparently gravitated toward this political idea as well.

I'm quite firmly of the belief that if an intellectually-curious reader were to thoroughly take in the works of all the above figures - including and especially the comprehensive philosophical visions provided by Rand and Norton - the reader pretty much can't but help coming away a libertarian.

So why aren't we there already?

To answer that requires some investigation into historical causation with respect to the American intellectual scene. That will set the context for understanding. That intellectual tradition is markedly different from that of Europe, which has shown greater affinity toward statism, socialism, communism, fascism, Marxism, existentialism, subjectivism, nihilism, postmodernism (the "cashing-in" of all that, to use Rand's phrase), and the various sub-postmodernisms and post-postmodernisms that stink up the fucking place with anti-Aristotelian stuff. Given the ruling paradigms going on there, Rawlsianism looks relatively sane, and Europe's intellectuals can at least relate to that, the way they can at least relate to President Obama. But Ayn Rand? It's like she's on another planet. If "Europe's leading intellectual" of today (supposedly, and now that the post-post-post-realist Derrida has left the scene), Slavoj Zizek, is any indication, that assessment seems to hold up.

(The abstract for Zizek's asinine article in JARS is as follows: "SLAVOJ ZIZEK argues that Rand's fascination for male figures displaying absolute, unswayable determination of their Will, seems to offer the best imaginable confirmation of Sylvia Plath's famous line, "every woman adores a Fascist." But the properly subversive dimension of Rand's ideological procedure is not to be underestimated: Rand fits into the line of 'overconformist' authors who undermine the ruling ideological edifice by their very excessive identification with it. Her over-orthodoxy was directed at capitalism itself; for Rand, the truly heretic thing today is to embrace the basic premise of capitalism without its sugar-coating." Oh, brother. Ain't the jargon of post-whatever just so precious? The "cashing in" is on p. 225 of that article. Did the journal's editorship accept this article to illustrate a point, i.e., of just how off-the-rails the currently-fashionable Euro-intelligentsia has gone? That's a sympathetic spin on this farcical event. To be somewhat less damning of the European intellectual scene, I'll mention Habermas, but - and this ties directly into my present analysis, as I will expand upon below - have you noticed how old Habermas is now? Who is he being replaced by in the younger ranks? [One of his students, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, left for the States and has been advancing a hardcore Misesian-Rothbardian view.] Besides, ethics is primarily about eudaemonia, not discourse. ;-) )

Okay, so the American intellectual tradition is just markedly more friendly toward things like libertarianism, eudaemonism, Aristotelianism, realism, etc. What about the current dominant mainstream of the American academic humanities? In political philosophy, it's been dominated for the last four decades by Rawls, but my thesis here is that this paradigm is on the outs. Lemme explain.

In the mid-20th century, the political debate in this country was shaped essentially by the opposition between Americanism (framed in terms of "liberal democracy") and Communism. Marxism was the dominant ideology of the times. The adherents of Marxism were just waiting things out the way certain Christian sects hold out for the Rapture. The collapse of capitalism was going to happen any time now. Mises was a reactionary confined to a teaching post at the business school of the not-at-the-time-prestigious New York University. You can get a picture of just how insane the whole intellectual scene was by reading Rand's letters from the '30s and '40s. Then there was Galbraith - remember him? Is he even mentioned in economics courses any more? Well, he was a big deal in American economics in the '50s and '60s. William F. Buckley was heading up the conservative movement and made sure (much to the detriment of his eventual historical reputation) to set himself apart from Rand. Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, published in '62 after a seeming decades-long drought of pro-capitalist literature as far as the mainstream was concerned, became a leading text for the pragmatic Right.

Basically, the debate, as it was framed then, was far removed from what it is today. Marxism is now a defunct ideology. Yep. It's done. It has run its course. It had considerably less of a foothold in America than it did in Europe - it could hardly ever get a foothold in America, save for its universities. If you're a Marxist in this day and age, you are . . . a reactionary. The same is going to be case, I believe, for Rawlsian liberals. Rawlsian or left-liberalism is on the way out as well.

Rawls's A Theory of Justice was published four decades ago now. My analysis leads me to the conclusion that it, too, is about to run its course and be supplanted by libertarianism, because, well, this is America. America is just too libertarian for statism in its various guises to maintain a foothold. Rawls's liberalism is a statism - a toned-down, less toxic form of statism than Marx-inspired statisms, but a statism nonetheless - and it just won't hold up in this country. The "overlapping consensus" his project aimed for is simply too unstable. The discourse is now dominated too much by consistent adherents of original American liberalism for it to hold up. The advocates of left-liberalism are now turning into dinosaurs, into . . . reactionaries.

Look at the intellectual scene on the American Left today. Just what figures dominate it? Rawls has passed on, and it's been a whole four decades since his most influential work hit the scene. There are more radical Leftists who will cite Chomsky, but if you hadn't noticed, his most influential work was done way back in the '50s, and that work wasn't even in political philosophy. He is also getting up there in years. The radical Left continues to hold onto Chomsky like a security blanket, operating under the Rapture-ready-like delusion that his analysis of the American corporate complex will vindicate a radical-Left vision rather than a consistent libertarian-capitalist one. (I may have more to say about the delusions of the "left libertarians" and "libertarian socialists" in due course. It strikes me as more wishful-thinking, security-blanket stuff. If these so-called libertarians want socialism, they're gonna have to get it within the Nozickian framework outlined in Part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that is, in voluntary hippie communes under a framework of libertarian-capitalist law. That's the best deal Chomsky & Co. are gonna get.)

It's worth pointing out that in the '50s and '60s, the Marxists were laboring (heh) under the delusion that Marxism would be vindicated soon. Little did they expect that in under 50 years, their whole worldview would be defunct. Analogously, the left-liberal community is operating under the delusion that their vision of liberal justice is going to be viable for the foreseeable future. But they have missed one crucial thing: just who in the younger generation is going to replace Rawls and his groupies (as I like to call them; Nagel & Co.) as they pass on? Just who is around to carry on the torch? I ask this, because from what I can tell, Rawlsian liberalism was a halfway-house measure, a kind of stopgap, a soft-landing device, between mid-20th-century American statism in its then-paradigmatic opposition to full-on Communist statism, and a return to original-style American libertarianism.

The Rawls groupies are not getting any younger themselves. Nagel is now in his 70s and his most influential work was done more than 30 years ago. G. A. Cohen has passed on, marking the official end of Marxism. Thomas Scanlon is now in his 70s. Dworkin is well into his 70s and I don't know what influential work he's done since the mid-'80s. Sen is pushing 80. Parfit is pushing 70. So who is left, and - more importantly - just what up-and-comers show any promise of replacing them in their efforts to keep the left-liberal paradigm going?

In answer to that, I have no idea, really. (Does Krugman count?) If you look out onto the blogosphere for any indications, you find that the most mainstream of discussions there occurs on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, and the figures influencing him most are Hayek and Oakeshott, and he's pushing a pragmatic conservative-libertarian-"liberaltarian" line. (He comes from Britain, where Rand's ideas are still quite alien, but Hayek is pretty paradigmatic now as far as "pragmatic liberalism" goes.) Greenwald confines his discussions primarily to civil-liberties issues, where he fits right in with the American mainstream. But what left-liberal intellectual figures alive and not in their 70s or 80s are providing American left-liberals with fuel these days? Is it possible - nay, likely - that the best young intellectuals of the previous and current generation have found libertarianism too appealing to dismiss, and gravitated in that direction? Do today's left-liberals have any idea of the generational shift that has happened and is happening in the American intellectual scene?

[EDIT: Some research on contemporary left-liberalism turns up a familiar name I've been meaning to follow-up in due course: Martha Nussbaum, who isn't quite yet pushing 70. Oh, great, now I'm going into an obsessive-completist-perfectionist exercise in research into what important figures on the Right and the Left I may be missing. Does Scruton count as a prominent and influential conservative? What about the role in American intellectual life of Irving Kristol, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, George Gilder, George Will, Dinesh D'Souza, Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, or The Wall Street Journal? This is why the book keeps getting delayed. Research to cover bases, integrate cross-currents, sub-currents, undercurrents, etc.]

One thing I do know is that my own intellectual energies have been put into service of essentially Randian ideas, and not Rawlsian ones. I can't think that Toward Utopia is going to help the left-liberal cause any. And I've been spending too much time fortifying my ideas against potential left-liberal-type objections to believe they're going to come back with anything all that strong as an alternative, without presupposing the very ideas they'd be objecting to. (I've discovered this myself when it comes to Rand. If I find Rand's ideas wanting in some fashion or other, I can't escape her implicit and explicit advice to perfect upon whatever shortcomings there are in her writings. You can't refute perfectionism, see.)

Speaking of American intellectual and political movements, I find what passes for conservatism these days to be defunct as well. Unless you count Andrew Sullivan as a conservative, you have - as far as I can see - an intellectual void on the Right. Buckley was the leading animating light of conservatism in the second half of the 20th century, but he passed on and . . . what is he being replaced by? Talk radio isn't exactly reputable intellectually; Limbaugh is passe', Glenn Beck is a big mixed bag who may as well throw up any white flags of surrender to Ayn Rand, and phenomena like Palinism can't with a straight face be called intellectual ones. Thomas Sowell is now in his 80s. Hell, if there was any person that could be called a leading light of conservatism aside from Buckley, it would be Sowell. I think if there were other leading lights out there right now, I'd have noticed mentions on the Daily Dish from time to time. But, nope. It looks like the leading younger minds of today who might identify as conservative, are gravitating more and more toward libertarianism - and even with the religious conservatives, there is a shift away from any theocratic impulses.

Even the financial crisis and Great Recession haven't stifled the increasingly popular anti-statist sentiment. There aren't any Marxists around to urge the overthrow of capitalism as a solution, like there were in the '30s. There aren't influential left-liberals around who are shaping public opinion toward a more European-style social-democratic model.

Long story short, America is ripe for a full-on shift toward libertarianism in politics, and, soon enough, Randism as a dominant mainstream cultural force. Randism is already making some headway in the universities, with no effective opposition. Eudaemonism in ethics has no effective opposition there, so things are ripe for a surge in Norton studies, too. The economics profession is already under the influence of Mises, Hayek, and Friedman. In the area of law, the ideas of Hayek, Barnett, Epstein and David Friedman are increasingly mainstream. Mack, Lomasky, Schmidtz and the general flavor of things going on in the Social Philosophy & Policy journal are already providing effective counterweight to the Rawlsian-dominated Philosophy & Public Affairs crowd.

One thing to mention about the major libertarian figures I've been mentioning are that they, too, are either deceased, up there in age, or getting up there in age. The youngest of the bunch, Schmidtz, is now in his mid-50s. Inevitably this raises the same question: who in the younger generation is going to replace them, and what work will carry on theirs? You can take it from there.

[Continued in my next posting.]

Thursday, February 24, 2011

David L. Norton's Personal Destinies

My current book project was initially conceived as something somewhat less ambitious (although the logic of it eventually led me to what it is now), and that was more or less a comparison between Ayn Rand's normative ethics and the ethics of David L. Norton's masterful Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. I ended up making it my own personal destiny to write an ultimate book with the ideas of these two still at the substantive core, just teasing out the implications.

The very idea of connecting Rand to Norton in a close way seemingly hadn't occurred to anyone before, but you'd think it might have since the parallels are so compelling. They're both ethical individualists. They're both eudaemonists. They both have a compelling normative ethics - so darned compelling that were they widely known, understood, adopted and implemented, utopia would be automatic. So perhaps you can say that the mission of Toward Utopia is to make this normative-ethical vision so obviously compelling, so indisputable, so undeniable that a helluva lot of people ought to get on board right quick so that we fast-track right toward utopia.

Here's the gist of the program: We understand Ayn Rand's normative ethics as, in essence, a self-actualization ethics. The ground of virtue is the need to self-actualize, and we recognize self-actualization to be an inherently desirable thing. Rand and Norton conceive of the fundamental virtue in distinct but complementary ways (which can be integrated): Norton conceives of virtue as integrity to the self to be actualized; Rand conceives of virtue as rationality, or the optimal exercise of the human cognitive faculty, reason being the basic human mode of functioning. Rand's epistemology comes into play here because her entire philosophy is built toward a practical end, which is living our lives to the utmost. This is best achieved through mental unit-economy, which stems from following proper cognitive guidelines; the perfection of our cognitive faculty leads to optimal cognitive efficiency, effectively raising our IQ. (There is a genius, i.e., daemon, in all of us, see.) That fast-tracks us toward self-actualization, and when people cooperatively pool their now-enhanced cognitive resources, things get fast-tracked even more, which frees up yet more cognitive resources to enhance, and so forth. So I'm just playing my part in getting this avalanche started. After that, there is just no room for the cycnicism, pessimism, and defeatism (in addition to all that cognitive inefficiency and irrationality) currently holding us back from achieving a better world.

So this posting is about Personal Destinies. I don't intend it to be a review so much as a brief exposition and commentary in which I can barely hold back my fawning. If I had to name a single favorite philosophy book, it would be this one. There's a good reason why this is. First, my philosophical specialty is ethics, and ethics has a certain centrality in philosophy that the other branches of philosophy don't have. (Epistemology has a centrality of its own. Perhaps the contrast here is this: epistemology is more basic, while ethics is more central.) Second, it's expertly and beautifully crafted. Just brilliant. It also has the "cred" of coming from a leading university press, so there's no reason, no fucking reason, for academics to (continue to) overlook it. Third, it's true - chock full of true.

There's one downside: it is obscure. That is to say, it is written in an obscure style. I say this because some years ago, as I was in college and then in grad school, I tried on two occasions to venture into the book, and barely followed what Norton was saying. Now, when a graduate student in philosophy specializing in ethics reads this book and doesn't get what's going on, that's pretty good evidence that it's obscure. And I still say it's obscure. In fact, while there are parts of the book that I understand - and like a lot - there are still parts of the book quite hard for me to follow even on the basis of two recent readings. I'll get to that in a bit. But first, another tidbit as to how I re-encountered this book, if this is any clue as to the completist-perfectionist nature of the mental process involved.

See, when I first delved into the book way back when in school, I noticed that some chapters were devoted to critics of "recent eudaemonisms," including that of Nietzsche. The idea of Nietzsche as a eudaemonist struck me as odd and/or intriguing, which is why it stuck in the back of my mind for later retrieval. It was then a discussion in early 2010 on the SOLO forum in which Rand commentator Jennifer Burns and Rand-defender James Valliant were participating, where links between Rand and Nietzsche were discussed - I think it was about their respective celebrations of human excellence - and that's when it clicked. I had to go back and scrounge up my Norton book. Then I "got it." The first chapter (the most accessible) had me hooked.

(To even think of drawing the connection between Rand, Nietzsche and Norton requires a context of knowledge that only a few people possess. Hell, how did I even know about Norton to begin with? Only because he was mentioned in the works of Machan, Rasmussen and Den Uyl. And how many people have read them indepth? That demographic is limited to people interested in Rand, in ethics, and in academic-style philosophy. A small group to begin with. So what are the odds Norton's book would have fallen into total obscurity were it not for the works of these Rand-influenced philosophers? [Insert angry rant about Rand and the academy here.])

Now, about the book. I mentioned the first chapter. The first chapter is enough to sell a reader on the basic idea. I knew just from reading the first chapter that there was a book project in the making. The chapter's title is "The Ethical Priority of Self-Actualization." Norton here is doing an ambitious integration of his own here: in a manner hardly at all accomplished in any of the other literature, Norton ties the ancient concept of eudaemonia to the 20th century concept of self-actualization popularized first and foremost by Abraham Maslow. I mean, how was that connection so badly missed outside of Norton's work? To top that, Norton mentions in his first footnote (in the Preface) that he uses the terms "eudaimonism" (his spelling) and "self-actualization ethics" and "perfectionism" interchangeably, and that "formally and inclusively" he he employs the term "normative individualism." It just all comes together!

Norton, in characteristically beautiful style, illustrates the concept of the "daimon" by analogy to the hollow clay busts of the semi-deity Silenus fashioned by ancient Greek sculptors, which contained inside them a golden figurine to be revealed when the bust is broken open. The golden figurine is akin to our inner daimon, i.e., the inner self. Our ethical task, in short, is to bring this self to outward actuality, so that (citing the passage from the Phaedrus which Norton quotes at the very beginning, before the Preface) the inward and the outward self may be at one. I mean, already you can tell this is an awesome ethical system. This is where the virtue of integrity comes in - you act so as to harmonize the inward and outward self. The parallels to Howard Roark are obvious to anyone in the habit of drawing integrations. Going back to the title of the first chapter: self-actualization has ethical priority. It is the chief and fundamental concern of ethics, from which other ethical considerations follow. Rand again! (How did so many miss this connection, again? HOW????!!!)

Norton is careful to distinguish self-actualization from self-realization. His claim is that the inward self is real whether actualized or not. It exists as potentiality. Moreover, Norton expands upon both Aristotle and Rand by emphasizing more than just the generic human potentiality of rationality; he uses the phrase (among the many wonderful phrase-coinings in this book) "innate distinct potentiality," which is the self. Each individual has his own "unique and irreplaceable potential worth" in virtue of his unique innate nature. Dougs Rasmussen and Den Uyl would later distinguish generic and individuative potentialities, the actualization of both of which are necessary to self-actualization or eudaemonia. The normative enterprise consists, then, in self-knowledge or self-discovery and engaging in the work to progressively actualize that potentiality.

That's the basic idea, upon which the rest of the book builds. Chapters 2-4 critique "recent eudaemonisms," in turn: British Absolute Idealism, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and then the Existentialism of Sartre. I assume these chapters would be of interest to those who are reasonably well-versed in these thinkers, which admittedly I am not (for the moment, only for the moment). I do have a basic idea as to the differences between Existentialism and a Grecophile eudaemonism, namely, as to whether "existence precedes essence." Norton (and Aristotle, and Rand) affirm that we do have an essence or nature from the onset of our existence; this defines our potentialities to be actualized.

Chapter 5, titled "The Metaphysics of Individualism," is perhaps the most difficult chapter in the book; not having specialized in metaphysics, a lot of his discussion here goes over my head. (I should mention here that there's a silver lining to the difficult parts of Norton's book: it affords the opportunity to come back for subsequent readings and get something out of it. How many books can one say that about?) One very intriguing thing Norton does in this chapter is to address the meta-ethical question of goodness and "ought" in relation to natural facts. The gist of Norton's answer here consists in conceiving "ought" as potentiality in relation to actuality (thereby answering Hume, who treats fact in terms of actuality without discussing such concepts as potentiality), and in describing the basic promissory nature of human actions. (I think this latter aspect may correspond to Rand's "initial choice" upon which obligation is grounded, in connection with facts about, essentially, our potentialities.)

Chapter 6, "The Stages of Life," provides Norton's conception of the person as informed by developmental psychology, starting with childhood, then adolescence, and then maturation, and, finally, old age. There are distinctive principles of behavior applying to each stage, while the transition between stages involves what Norton refers to as "world-exchange" by the person. Childhood essentially involves dependency; the stage of adolescence is characterized by creative exploration of potentialities; maturation or adulthood is the "main phase" for which eudaemonistic principles see their application; old age is . . . well, it sounds kinda drab the way Norton describes it. I don't want to think about old age until I approach it.

Chapter 7, "Eudaimonia: The Quality of Moral Life in the Stage of Maturation," describes the condition of "living in truth to oneself," or "being where one wants to be, doing what one wants to do." That sounds like a rare phenomenon in the present-day world, but the whole point is that we all have this daimon in us that can in principle be actualized under the right conditions. Norton refers to eudaemonia as a feeling and a condition; in the first chapter, he describes it as both a feeling and condition attendant upon the satisfaction of right desire, which distinguishes it from many prevailing conceptions of happiness (though in line with the ancient Greek conception of happiness). Eudaemonia is "marked by a distinctive feeling that constitutes its intrinsic reward and therefore bears the same name as the condition itself." My favorite part of this chapter - a fascinating one, at least - is the last part, where Norton discusses the "post-mortem life." To wit:

"...It follows that the individual who is living in truth to himself is ready to die at any time. The sense of this is conveyed in a report by Abraham Maslow of his feelings upon completion of what he identifies only as an 'important' piece of work. 'I had really spent myself. This was the best I could do, and here was not only a good time to die but I was even willing to die . . . It was what David M. Levy called the "completion of the act." It was a good ending, a good close.' What follows the good close is termed by Maslow 'post-mortem life.' He says, 'I could just as easily have died so that my living constitutes a kind of extra, a bonus. It's all gravy. Therefore I might just as well live as if I had already died.' What comes next in Maslow's account sounds a new note. 'One very important aspect of the post-mortem life,' he says, 'is that everything gets doubly precious, gets piercingly important. You get stabbed by things, by flowers and by babies and by beautiful things -- just the very act of living, of walking and breathing and eating and having friends and chatting. Everything seems to look more beautiful rather than less, and one gets the much-intensified sense of miracles.'

"For myself, I cannot imagine a better evocation of the wonder that must have filled Adam in the moment when he first opened his eyes upon the world. . . .

"By the eudaimonic individual death is not feared as the 'period' by which a tragic fate cuts short the unfinished sentence. In the biography of the good life every sentence is a fitting epitaph and is the epitaph until it is succeeded by the next sentence. . . .

"Therefore to the good life death is no stranger, no alien event opposed to life, and death does not 'take us by surprise, as Sartre says, nor 'alienate us wholly in our own life.' Death is life in its consummation, and because consummation is perpetually within the well-lived life, so likewise death is within that life. The conception of death as alien to life is the product of a death-aversion which, by attempting to banish death from the sphere of life, precludes to life its consummation and its worth." (p. 239-240)

(This reminds me of Lester Burnham's final monologue in American Beauty.)

Chapter 8, "Our Knowledge of Other Persons," is also rather technical and difficult; he describes the process of "participatory enactment" in which we recognize in ourselves a world of possibilities only one of which is actualized in our own person, but this set of possibilities enables us to see those within others that are or can be actualized. I think the basic concept here is an explanation of how a self-actualizing individual recognizes and adopts a principle of universalizability, respect for persons, and taking an interest in the self-actualization of others.

This leads into chapter 9, "Social Entailments of Self-Actualization: Love and 'Congeniality of Excellences.'" Norton explains at length the distinction between love ("the aspiration to higher value"), passion, eros, and friendship, and brings up another wonderful phraseology, "diverse and complementary excellences," which is fairly self-explanatory. Chapter 10, "Intrinsic Justice and Division of Labor in Consequent Sociality" applies the social-entailment idea to the concept of justice. Here Norton brings up a principle of justice that I can't exactly describe as capitalistic, since he describes principles of justice in terms of what an individual is entitled to in virtue of his own distinctive excellence; this is presented as an alternative to the theories of justice advanced by Rawls and Nozick. Since I take the Nozickian principle to be the correct one, that has priority over what Norton says. Norton does have interesting things to say about what use a philosopher has for a sports car, though he seems to rule out that a philosopher can't also be interested in possessing sports cars. But it is plausible in the sense that philosophers, especially, aren't inclined toward seeking enrichment via material possessions such as sports cars. That idea is hardly new, and it may need modification (and certainly some kind of resolution with Rand's celebration of money-making).

Minor note: Norton uses the term "egoism" in a fairly standard sense, which is not Rand's, and rejects egoism in the standard sense as being morally inadequate. He does, however, commend the "egoistic" flavor of the ancient eudaemonists for rightly recognizing the priority of self (for which interest in others' self-actualization is an expression).

It is my hope that, in time, Personal Destinies will be mass-published and easily affordable; did I already mention that I think the world would be a better place if this book (or, say, a popularization of its ideas) were widely read? One thing's for sure: it has been a chief source of inspiration for me philosophically, as an example of how good a book can be.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Imperfection as Insidious: An Example

The most perfectionistic philosopher to date once wrote, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold." That's why anal-retentive perfectionism is so damned important. (Well, duh!) I want to apply this principle to something that caught my eye - and my ire - as I proceeded through the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Ayn Rand, viz:
Nor, again, should the discovery that attributes like color are not intrinsic features of entities be taken to imply their subjectivity; inasmuch as such attributes depend not on consciousness alone but rather on the relationship between consciousness and its objects, they are neither intrinsic nor subjective, but rather objective. (Thus an entity can exist intrinsically even if some of its attributes exist only objectively.)
(2nd to last paragraph under section titled "2.2. Perception")
Now, if Ayn Rand were to read this about her ideas in an entry in an encyclopedia of philosophy of all places, she would jump through the fucking roof. I'll leave it to Rand's best student to explain the essence of the matter:
The term "objective," let me stress here, does not apply to all values, but only to values chosen by man. The automatic values that govern internal bodily functions or the behavior of plants and animals are not the product of a conceptual process. Such values, therefore, are outside the terminology of "objective," "intrinstic," or "subjective." In this regard, automatic values are like sense data. Sense data are neither "objective" nor "nonobjective." They are the base that make possible man's later cognitive development; they thereby make possible all the standards, including "objectivity," which are eventually defined in order to guide human choices.
(Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 243; emphasis mine)
I should mention that this is my first time going through the Stanford Encyclopedia entry with any close attention to detail. (Ah, attention to detail. The hallmark of the pain-in-the-ass perfectionist.) There are a number of oddly-worded glosses on Rand's ideas that raised my eyebrows and caused me to pause as I read along, before coming to this. This one, though, seemed significant enough that I had to stop and give some time to think what was going on here, since it kinda seemed a reasonably accurate take, but maybe not. I had to spend a good hour or so going through through my background context of knowledge about Objectivism, such as how values and concepts are described in analagous ways by Rand and Peikoff using the "Intrinsic-Objective-Subjective" (or "I-O-S-") trichotomy. I remembered Peikoff titling the last section of the chapter in OPAR on The Good, "Values as Objective." I remembered that both Rand and Peikoff spoke of objectivity at least partly in terms of the relation of an aspect of reality to man. I then had to think and re-think how the analogous nature of concepts to values plays out. Such thoughts came to mind as, "Concepts are to percepts as values are to...what?" I was going 'round and 'round trying to square this circle, knowing that something indeed hinged on the volitional character of concept-formation. I had to go back and read the applicable Lexicon entries to re-refresh my memory. That still didn't quite clear it all the way up for me, though those entries made it reasonably clear she was discussing values as they relate to man's distinctive form of awareness. Then I had to go and see Peikoff's section on "Values as Objective" to make double-sure Peikoff hadn't deviated in some way by characterizing all values, even including the automatic values of non-human valuers, as "objective." Then, of course, I encountered the paragraph above from p. 234. And that's when I got just a little pissed about what I had been reading in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry.

As much as one might applaud the efforts of the entry authors to make Rand accessible to students and professors of (basically analytical) philosophy, this shit just doesn't cut it. It's downright amateurish in comparison to what you would get from Ayn Rand's best student. What's more, to invoke that wonderful quote from Aristotle at the beginning of this entry, who knows just how the fuck this subtle misinterpretation of Rand on the nature of the objective can be spun into thousandfold-multiplied errors of interpretation, or how many massively-wasteful false leads this sort of thing generates, or how many failures to see the forest for the trees might ensue. (This last phenomenon is downright pathological when it comes to way too many people's responses to Rand. Just observe the cognitive meltdown that occurs when Rand's use of the term "egoism" plays out in the hands of many a clueless critic, to name just one example. Then someone like yours truly comes along and notes that Howard Roark can be described uncontroversially as an Egoistic Perfectionist, and it all comes together, like a sort of Copernican Revolution, a simple perspective shift without the need for the messy epicycle-adding style of analysis so often involved in "interpreting" Rand's egoism in light of commonsense morality.) I'm going, like, "No wonder Rand got so pissed when others would 'interpret' her and screw up - especially when the interpreters are academic philosophers." See, there's more to the nature of objectivity than just the relational, there's also the volitional - in which case the "I-O-S" trichotomy simply doesn't apply to attributes of entities (or to sensory qualities). (Also, to close a loop above, concepts are to percepts as moral values are to values generally, the relevant criterion for the analogy being the difference between the volitional and the automatic. Ergo, a more perfect title for that section in OPAR would have been, "Moral Values as Objective.")

What's more, I have grave doubts that those who aren't students of Peikoff's work would be in a position to catch this sort of interpretive error. In fact, there's a reason to believe that Peikoff's students would be especially attentive about an error like this.

For those who are basically out of the loop on high-quality, high-level Objectivism interpretation - i.e., for those who haven't taken the time, effort and attention to understand and integrate Peikoff's writings and courses, which means frighteningly close to 100% of the people out there - here's a little anecdote to clue you in just a tiny little bit: Peikoff himself succumbed to that very error in his earlier lecture courses. In his 1970 course on modern philosophy, which ended with two lectures on Objectivism as providing the solution to various problems generated by the modern philosophers, he applied the "I-O-S" trichotomy to sense perception. This theme, however, dropped out of the scene in his later lectures, after he and Rand chewed the issue, identified the error, and corrected it. There's a reason, see, that Rand appointed him his successor: he had actually gone through the process of coming to a full understanding of her ideas and of weeding out the interpretive errors that arose along the way. (Don't fucking tell me there isn't analytical rigor in understanding Objectivism's fine points. It's pretty much necessitated by its own prescribed methods. It's about time its critics in this regard got a clue, and it's about fucking time Peikoff's work was integrated more seamlessly into any and all serious Rand Studies.)

(There's evidence that even so, Peikoff wasn't immune from interpretive error later on, such as the subtly insidious deviation from the Rand-endorsed 1976 "Philosophy of Objectivism" course on the nature of the arbitrary in relation to the true and false. You can have a careful look at the truly official source, the Lexicon entry, if you don't believe me. There, the formulation is that the arbitrary is not to be regarded as true or false. In OPAR we get a bizarre deviation from the correspondence theory of truth, in which the arbitrary is neither true nor false. At least Peikoff provided a disclaimer in his preface to OPAR that it is not "official Objectivist doctrine," since Rand was not around to see its contents and could not be responsible for any errors it might contain. That's only appropriate given that - as he'd be the first to tell you - she's the world-historic genius, he a mere student.)

I suppose it just takes an extra-special effort and mindset to Get Things Right - the failure at which, lamentably, explains the low state of things right now in terms of the Intellectual Community's understanding of Rand, and in terms of philosophy generally. Hell, just think of all the nasty consequences flowing from many importantly-situated folks' failures to Get It about Aristotle over the many centuries, and all the thousandfold-multiplied disasters that have resulted - or, conversely, the flourishing of civilization that has ensued when the rare Aquinas-caliber figure has given him his due.

One thing we do know for sure: Anyone coming to the Stanford Encyclopedia to learn about Ayn Rand is not going to be getting a first-rate presentation of her ideas. And that fucking sucks. (Here's a more promising lead.)

And, so you see, this is why the concept of perfectionism plays such a central role in my current project. In the field of philosophy, most especially, we can't afford screw-ups.

[ADDENDUM: Now, to provide another illustration by way of an exercise: just consider all the thousandfold-multiplied errors swirling around in the academic community since Rawls's Theory of Justice, and not Norton's Personal Destinies, has occupied so much of people's attention. All the false leads, all the failures to see the forest, all the failures to integrate, etc. Thanks a lot, academia.]

[ADDENDUM #2: In the Integration Department, there is also this earlier blog entry, which certainly ties into this one. Big, long sigh is right! And I haven't even gotten past the "concept-formation" section in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry yet....]

[ADDENDUM #3: This reminds me of that scene in The Godfather, where Sonny is beating the crap out of Carlo. He clearly fails to "land" a punch, but the impact sound effect is still there. Kubrick would not have stood for that shit on his own productions. Do 150 goddamn takes if you have to, but GET IT RIGHT. Coppola's imperfectionism becomes more and more manifest after the '70s, of course. He even screwed up the "redux" of Apocalypse Now by weaving in the footage he rightly cut from the original release - again, something Kubrick would never dream of doing to one of his own films. On a lighter note....]

Friday, February 18, 2011

Glenn Greenwald (and Ayn Rand) vs. Evasion

Evasion - i.e., the refusal to think, to see, to know - is, as Ayn Rand pointed out - and which many people (ironically? non-ironically?) evade because of the messenger - the root of all human evils.

Glenn Greenwald documents on a daily basis the devolution of the American justice system going on right before our eyes in the wake of the so-called War on Terror. It's nothing short of fucking disgusting what's going on - as are the evasions that enable it.

Is it any coincidence - any coincidence at all - that the American justice system, and the American political system, were perverted in the face of the so-called War on Drugs? In fact, we might as well assume that the perversions enacted by the so-called War on Drugs were a test by our Political Class to see just how far the American People could be hoodwinked into giving up the principles of freedom in order to Keep Us Safe. Hence, the so-called War on Terror.

I say principles of freedom here, because even if you or your neighbor's rightful freedom wasn't infringed by these ridiculous policies, the principle involved was torn asunder. Hell, let's just make it plain: the principles of freedom have gradually been torn asunder since the days of FDR (to "keep us free from fear," or whatnot). Perhaps before that, going back to who-knows-when. As the ever-prescient Rand pointed out, quite incontrovertibly, there was a contradiction from the very start between the nation's founding political principles and the wider moral-intellectual ethos of its people. As she pointed out, America didn't have a well-recognized moral-philosophical base (i.e., reason and egoism, but primarily reason) for its political ideals.

We're seeing the results of this split. It's quite inevitable, really. And we continue to ignore - i.e., to evade - the inevitable consequences of this split, at our own peril.

Back to the matter of principles: one thing that an anti-intellectual ethos does, is to destroy people's ability to think in terms of principles. So if some far-off stranger has his freedoms trampled upon in the most egregious of anti-American ways, an intellectually-stunted populace will sigh in relief that at least their own freedoms aren't being trampled upon - ignoring the principle of fredom involved. (This is even assuming they value freedom any longer, as distinct from, say, Safety.) Well, the departure from principle has led to the de facto state of lawlessness in which our Political Class now operates. That's what happens when a principle is abandoned.

Anyone who is paying attention - i.e., doesn't evade in one fashion or other - realizes that the current state of things, politically and intellectually, would make Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration, and long-serving president of the American Philosophical Society, fucking vomit. Further, if you pay attention and exercise any capacity for independent thinking in principles, you realize that this problem won't - and can't - go away, not without some significant change in the mindset of the American People. Only the ire and rage of the American People against its lawless Political Class could serve as a check against the perversions of its founding principles (i.e., individual rights). Only the evasions of the American People can keep the problem festering, and keep diminishing America's standing in the world.

So, during the times I'm not posting here, a good blog to read is Greenwald's. He is one of the few still remaining who have the courage to call out the corruption of our political system in the most clear and uncompromising terms.

The problem is, at root, an intellectual one. A philosophy like Rand's is the ultimate solution. The ultimate diagnostic approach is philosophical. But at the least Greenwald is highlighting what our political problem is in the starkest terms, even if he hasn't identified the why. (I've added "pragmatism" as a tag to this post, seeing as how pragmatism - a most unfortunate intellectual phenomenon in America - has proved insidious against its founding principles. Also, I've added "integration," since this all ties together. Oh, I've also added "torture," since that integrates with the rest. Long story short: Pragmatism leads to disintegration, which leads to lawless torture.) Greenwald constantly kicks ass; as far as I can remember, he's always putting the apologists for the Status Quo in their place in any debate that arises. The defenders of the Status Quo have a vested interest in people evading what Greenwald says. So far, these slimeballs have been getting away with it well enough to keep conducting a progressive erosion of all law and decency. If you get the People dumbed-down enough through a long-enough train of evasions, they will accept tyranny, plutocracy, endless war, you name it.

Far as I can tell, Greenwald identifies as "left-liberal" politically, which really has little to do with the effectiveness of his blog, which focuses on constitutional rights and their abuse by politicians of both parties. Further, he's not a philosopher, so that limits his intellectual context and range of awareness. He does share with Ayn Rand at least one feature: marginalization by the Establishment. But, more essentially and crucially, he shares with Ayn Rand a basic intellectual attitude: the refusal to evade facts. It's just mind-boggling how rare such an attitude is today.

Now, back to composing....

P.S. Please take a look at my previous posting and let it sink in, if it hasn't yet.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the Singularity

What is the Singularity? The term is associated most with futurist Ray Kurzweil. (See: "Ray Kurzweil: That Singularity Guy.") However, I, of all people, have had the audacity to buy the domain name and point it right to this blog. What kind of possibly delusional stuff is that all about?

In my previous post, regarding utopia, I made the observation that my thesis of utopianism and perfectionism covers more ground by centering on ethics, epistemology, and philosophy rather than politics. Politics is subordinate and derivative. The philosopher as such needs to discover the primary and the fundamental, i.e., to cover the greatest possible ground with each new integration. This process requires a huge amount of intellectual curiosity - the need to identify what items of fundamental importance one can in one's cognitive field of vision - and so, naturally, curiosity leads to encountering information about something called the Singularity, and to the realization that the concept of the Singularity would tie in with my concept of utopia. Not exactly anything mysterious going on here, at least yet, right? So just stick with this and see what "delusional" implications just might occur.

Now, as philosopher, I recognize that philosophy, in covering the most ground, takes hierarchical precedence over technology, which is Kurzweil's domain. I just have a more all-encompassion domain of vision than he does, in virtue of thinking more like a philosopher. He thinks like a technological inventor and futurist, so his knowledge in that domain would vastly exceed mine. But that doesn't affect my point. By virtue of our respective avenues of endeavor and interest, I can only say so much about technology, and he can only so so much about philosophy.

Now, what is technology, basically? It is a product of human conceptual consciousness. In this relation, human conceptual consciousness is the primary, technology is the secondary and derivative. This means human conceptual consciousness is more hierarchically primary than technology. Now, take a wild guess as to which domain of study focuses on the basic principles governing the functioning of human conceptual consciousness: philosophy, or technology?

With me still? Okay. Now, what would be of greater momentous import for human civilization: a technological maturity, or an intellectual and moral maturity? Now, if you were to ask Ray Kurzweil what he thinks intellectual and moral maturity consists in, and if he couldn't expertly tie his response to the ideas of Ayn Rand, David L. Norton and Thomas Hurka within a few seconds, then you're probably asking this question of the wrong "authority." You should be asking a philosopher.

And so, to cut a long story short, that's why a philosopher - the Ultimate Philosopher, in fact - bought the domain name


Monday, February 7, 2011

A Mind-Nugget Re: Utopia

A standard objection to laissez-faire capitalism or to utopian visions more generally is that "It would work only if people were morally better; as it is, people are too destructive in their behaviors." Unfortunately, that seems to be a discussion-ender for many people; the idea of bringing about a society of morally-better people just doesn't strike them as realistic enough to even entertain, or for it to even occur to them. All we know, historically, is a mixed record of human behavior.

My current project is focused, meanwhile, on how to bring about a society of morally-better people. Not only would objections to laissez-faire fall apart if there is a realistic blueprint for human moral perfection in place, but all other sorts of problems and objections, over and above politics, go away. So at the least I have a one-up on a lot of critics or opponents of laissez-faire: true enough, even if you don't need morally perfect or better people for laissez-faire capitalism to be the most desirable socio-economic system, you just cover a lot more ground when you begin to focus on the issue and the question of human moral perfection or betterment, over and above how well markets and property rights "work." (This is exactly an illustration of the nature of hierarchy: a philosopher, in drawing broader and broader integrations, covers more and more all-encompassing ground.)

Here's the next further-encompassing integration: we are all committed, in some fashion or other, whether we all realize it or not, to achieving just the kind of utopia I aim to provide a blueprint for. How is this? Well, we know it is achievable in principle, because of one thing a great many of us already accept: we have free will.

Free will makes possible Nazi Germany - and it makes possible laissez-faire utopia. There's really nothing hard to figure out here. To deny that we can end up with either of these is to deny the causal efficacy of consciousness and its products. (Even those who "deny free will" can't realistically deny that people can be greatly influenced by ideas swirling around in their cultural environment.) Further, as a certain novelist-philosopher put it, our basic and most fundamental virtue - that which (metaphysically) makes the greatest number of others possible, and which (epistemologically) explains the greatest number of others - is the virtue of rationality, which amounts in practice to nothing more than an integral commitment to thinking. (This also explains the last line in a comprehensive philosophical book by said novelist-philosopher's best student.) Not only that, but intellectual and moral virtue can make our lives - individually and socially - a lot better. So there's great incentive and reward involved with being morally better.

That's all it fundamentally comes down to: the virtue of thinking.

[ADDENDUM: "She was thinking all the time." -Harry Binswanger, in 100 Voices and/or "Centenary Reminiscences" - in reference, concretely, to Rand's manner of arriving at her concept of "value." She just spent all her time thinking about it - with no other thinker she could really refer to, save perhaps for Aristotle - before she found a fundamental explanatory answer. A real philosopher should be at least as fascinated by her process of thinking and arriving at answers, as by the answers themselves. It's really of secondary importance here whether the conclusions and arguments she used are true and sound. Given where she started and what she had to work with, it's really quite amazing what she managed to integrate in the time she had. It's exactly why Peikoff, Binswanger, Gotthelf and other trained philosophers in her midst compared her to Aristotle. It's not some fawning fucking cult-like devotion, but a natural response to the fact that she out-thought everyone she came in contact with, including being able to prove convincingly everything that seemed "weird" to outsiders or the uninitiated. (Up to and including the reasons she broke with that slimy bastard Branden.) It's just mind-boggling how so few people have picked up on this. What failure of thinking brings this about? Having only Aristotle and perhaps Nietzsche as chief formative influences, and philosophizing mid-20th-century, how formidable a system of thought could others come up with? Rand just fuckin' blows the others away, that's all there is to it; the rest is just a matter of explaining that point to anyone with a curious and functioning mind. And that's why her opposition is so often so disgusting. (But it can be corrected.)]

Comprachicos or Reagan?

I don't know to express how disgusting I find the likes of Brain Leiter, a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, and a leading Comprachico. It's these sorts of Comprachicos that fill the public mind with all kinds of intellectual poison. His latest rant is in regard to the centenary of President Reagan's birth. From the rant:

The "Reagan revolution" was, like the 1979 Iranian one, a revolution "from the right," a new phenomenon in the modern era. Reagan's represented the triumph of certain ideas, largely hatched (sad to say) at the University of Chicago, though these ideas (those of Friedman and Lucas and Hayek) triumphed not because of the arguments supporting them (decidedly a mixed bag), but because they justified policies that immediately enriched the richest and most powerful groups in American capitalism, who needed no arguments to see their merit. (The fact that, since that time, the "ideas" of Ayn Rand--the proverbial bean-brain by comparison to the other ideologues of the right like Friedman and Hayek--have come to the fore in the Republican Party is one of the legacies of Reagan's destruction of the public culture.)

Now, I think we have two competing hypotheses here:

(1) The "destruction of the public culture" in America is due to the likes of Ronald Reagan.

(2) The "destruction of the public culture" in America is due to the failure of the philosophical profession - namely, the failure to instigate and foster the right kind of educational environment for the people.

We sure as shit aren't going to get an improvement in the educational environment with the likes of Comprachico Leiter dictating the basic terms of discussion in our highest institutions of learning. Thank goodness Comprachico Leiter - rightly well-reviled in his own profession - doesn't dictate the basic terms of discussion. Few professional philosophers are that off-the-tracks.

Still, what more fundamentally affects and determines the course of the public culture: its philosophical profession, or its politicians? What has more fundamental causal efficacy in these areas? In Comprachico Leiter's case, we have in fact a somewhat-weird lack of a grasp of the importance of his own profession. (You'd more likely expect someone to over-emphasize the importance of their own profession.) This is itself an obvious failing on his part as a philosopher, and it can only corrupt the content of whatever it his he's filling his victims' minds with.

For anyone who follows Glenn Greenwald's blog on a regular basis, it's obvious that intellectual ideas play hardly any role in the formation of politics and policy today. The political culture now is so anti-intellectual, so cynical, so short-sighted, so pragmatistic, and so cutthroat, that the idea that anything in politics these days is the product of Rand, Friedman, Hayek or "right-wing ideology" (or other ideology) is flatly ridiculous. The only thing we might agree on is that today's political culture is owned more or less by corporations doing what it is that corporations do. (It wasn't Friedmanite or Hayekian, much less Randian, ideology that led to a greater respect for the free market over the last 30 years; simple reality and practicality and the failures of socialism led to pragmatic politicians and policy-makers having to adapt.) The public culture is also very anti-intellectual, cynical, etc. - which only further raises the question how ideologies of any kind could shape the culture today. If anything, what the current state of things demonstrates is the failure of the intellectual class to put forth any ideology at all that might shape things (much less for the better).

Not many people these days want to listen to the intellectuals - certainly not if the intellectuals are detached from the concerns and interests of the regular folk. Rand made the case that the ideas of philosophers are the fundamental determining factor in a culture, and I think the general thesis is true, but it's in applying that thesis that you can have disagreements. If, say, Kant is the fount of bad philosophical ideas and Kant is the leading philosopher of the modern era, that will certainly have effects - but what if the effects are not of people embracing Kantian ideas, but rather giving up on the philosophers who peddle them? For many folks, Kant certainly isn't going to override Jesus Christ (or, heck, Glenn Beck, or, heck, Barack Obama) in their hierarchy of values.

If people look to the philosophers and see either bad ideas or ideas they just don't connect with, how should we expect the public culture to be other than what it is now? Further, when educators look to the philosophers of our time and/or the past, what kind of wisdom might they glean and impart to students? What if, because of the things the philosophers say, the educators are more likely to become Comprachicos?

The causation involved here - and Ayn Rand's significance to all this - is not easy stuff to figure out. Hell, Comprachico Leiter is no dummy, and while I don't know what all is going on in that brain of his that leads him to be so viciously and irrationally hostile to Rand, capitalism, etc. - it is by no means obvious how philosophical ideas impact (or fail to impact) a culture.

(It shouldn't even require saying - but I'll say it here - that things besides philosophical ideas shape the course of cultures in a more short-run sense. Short-run, President Reagan has impacted things in ways that Rand has not and could not. But in fundamental, long-term terms, philosophy has the widest and furthest-reaching impact, just by the nature of the hierarchy of ideas. Perhaps my favorite example-illustration of this is the [rather undeniable?] role Aristotelianism had in bringing about the Renaissance as well as the scientific revolution.)

In this regard one can't really single out Comprachico Leiter for a failure of understanding; the nature of the role of philosophical ideas in shaping culture doesn't seem to have been picked up on by all that many philosophers besides Rand. (Hegel, apparently, had things to say here, though couched in much weird and inaccessible verbiage.) To "see" this kind of fundamental-level, long-term causation just takes a certain kind of context, interest, focus, time to think/integrate, etc., which very few people possess. It is, nonetheless, a subject that philosophers by their nature should be most interested in. At least someone like Rand has the mind, the vision, and the guts to speak about these issues in compelling terms; by contrast, you don't really get that vibe with Comrpachico Leiter, now do you.

So anyway, we've got lots of Fail here on all sorts of mutually-reinforcing and self-fulfilling levels. The long-term solution, of course, would be an educational program in the ways of critical thinking and human flourishing, but to get that program in place would be to, among other things, inform people of the crucial importance of philosophy (or lack thereof) to the course of daily life and of history. And whom, exactly, might we look to for clues as to such: a bitter, anti-capitalist Comprachico, or the author of "Philosophy: Who Needs It"?

[ADDENDUM: The economics profession, as it happens, is quite "centrist" and pragmatic - which is why the economics profession is much more friendly to capitalism than the Humanities are. Now, apply this to the subject of historical and cultural causation: due to the nature of the intellectual hierarchy, what affects society in more fundamental terms, the economics profession or the Humanities? How on earth does the prominence of Mises, Hayek and Friedman in today's economics scene even begin to counter the effects of the attitude toward capitalism in the mainstream of the Humanities - much less when we begin to look at the prevailing ideas in the culture at large (e.g., Christianity)?]

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ayn Rand: A Mini-Guide

(For both scholars and laypersons.)

Ayn Rand's philosophy, which she called Objectivism, has received widely varied reception, from "It's the key to solving our crises of civilization" all the way to "It's a pseudo-philosophy not worth taking seriously." (Disclosure: My own view is much, much closer to the former than the latter, with some reservations and qualifications.) This guide is meant to convey what a serious scholar (or "student of Objectivism") might come away with after a careful study of Rand's ideas. I will go over Rand's views on philosophy, branch by branch, and indicate what strengths (and, in some instances, weaknesses) a student of philosophy can expect to find therein.

First, Rand summed up her philosophy as follows: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Now, to see how this bears on subject matter in philosophy:


Rand's views here are not much advanced beyond the ancient Greek - namely, and especially, Aristotelian - conception of the world as existing independent of us and ordered according to "natural law." Her axioms of existence, identity and consciousness are fundamental-level identifications implicit within all other statements, and are denied upon pain of contradiction. Her neo-Aristotelian metaphysics might best be identified as a standard statement of "classical realism" - the view of the world essentially contained in "common sense": we come to the world without any power to alter or construct it; it is absolute and unyielding; it exhibits causal regularity to which we have to conform to achieve any kind of cognitive or practical success.

Rand's views on the subject of God are "hard-line" and philosophically controversial. The arguments offered by Rand and others on this are unlikely to convince believers or theologians. They amount in effect to the claim that the universe - which is considered synonymous with "existence" or the totality of all that exists - could not come into or go out of existence, and that traditional talk of God leads to a negation of a rational understanding of the world. In an interview on the Donahue show, Rand made a comment that "There is no such thing as a disorderly universe," the implication being that there is no need to posit God to explain the order in the world. While the universe being orderly of necessity falls out of Rand's classical-realist metaphysics, and its being orderly needn't require an order-er or creator or designer, it's far from clear how this rules out God's existence by Rand's hard-line reasoning.

Rand did not get into the subject of God beyond some basic metaphysical claims; she did not talk about the Problem of Evil, for instance. Neither did she talk about God, much, period: it wasn't a subject of interest to her in itself, apart from the historical-cultural phenomenon of belief in such a deity or higher power. There do appear to be two distinct strands offered, however: the usual "there's no compelling proof" one shared by a whole host of non-believers, on the one hand, and the hard-line metaphysical one in which God's existence implies a contradiction or rejection of the axioms, on the other.

Rand rejects the "materialist" label, where that means being committed to the view that all reality is ultimately material; she associated such a label with "vulgar materialism" which denies an irreducible reality and causal efficacy to conscious processes. It is hard to escape this label, however, if materialism amounts only to the view that existence exists independently of consciousness, per classical or "common sense" realism. Rand is of the view that existence existing independent of consciousness implies that there can't be a God, which is presumably defined such that it is a conscious entity that exists ontologically prior to the world. This seems to miss the claim of theologians that God is at once existing and conscious (just like us), without any claim that God's consciousness is somehow prior to existence. It is unclear from her or her designated spokespersons' extant written arguments how the axioms can be invoked to handle challenges like this one.

In sum, I don't think there's much to be gotten out of Objectivist metaphysics than some pretty standard classical-realist claims and some strange-looking arguments against God's existence and against other things which Rand and others claim violates the axioms. We can already appeal to Aristotelian or other arguments in favor of classical realism and get much the same idea about the world and our relation to it.


To understand Rand's epistemological project, it helps first to get clear on how she conceived that project. Her aim was fundamentally a practical one and a methodological one. The practical aim was to provide a basic guide for ordering our thought processes in a way that makes us most efficacious in living. The methodological aim is the spelling-out of the practical one: defining the methods by which we best order our cognitive processes.

Rand regarded her theory of concepts as her most significant philosophic achievement. She aimed to provide not just a solution to the traditional "problem of universals," but also to provide a fundamental accounting of how we think about anything and everything, from the most abstract to the most particular, to the most theoretical to the most mundane. Our knowledge is held in the form of concepts, and concepts are integrations of percepts (the perceptually-given). If we can provide a systematic accounting for how thought, properly done, is carried out, then we've done all the epistemological work Rand is concerned about.

Rand spent some 20 years, prior to laying out her theory of concepts in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, testing her ideas about the roots of our concepts. Her theory in essence is that human cognition involves measurement (of particulars) and measurement-omission (in forming concepts, i.e., by integrating percepts into mental units). All abstractions are ultimately tied to the perceptual, either in simpler and direct terms (via lower-order concepts, e.g., concepts of color), or in more complex and indirect terms (involving higher-order concepts, e.g., "love" and "justice"). The higher-order abstractions require definition in terms of the lower-order ones.

Chains of reasoning, if they are to be considered sound, depend ultimately on reducibility to particulars. This requires keeping our concepts well-organized within a hierarchy, which establishes the context for any concepts we employ. We should be able to relate, i.e., to integrate any item of knowledge to all other items of knowledge within the hierarchy. Concepts well-formed and well-organized serve a crucial practical need, namely, mental unit-economy and, in turn, mental and practical efficacy. Concepts and definitions are condensations of vast bodies of observation, with the particular measurements as they apply to concrete data omitted from these condensations. Rand treats of "borderline cases" (as, say, between "chair" and "sofa") by stressing the need for a mind to organize its contents by the most efficacious means available; that may or may not require forming new concepts to handle "borderline" cases. The basic determinant for forming a concept or definition of anything is to identify the fundamental similarities among concretes, i.e., the similarities which (existentially or metaphysically) make the greatest number of similarities possible, and which (epistemologically) explains the greatest number of other similarities (These considerations should be guided by Rand's "Razor", which states that concepts should be neither expanded nor reduced beyond necessity.)

The basic cognitive method Rand endorsed and applied here is one of keeping all one's mental contents very well-organized and at least fairly readily reducible to the perceptual. Doing all this is not just a mental exercise but, rather, serves a crucial life need. Her chief aim was to make consciousness as efficacious as possible in dealing with everyday problems. In that regard, Rand did not particularly concern herself with a number of "background" issues in epistemology that have concerned a great deal of other philosophers. If they approach Rand with an eye to these "background" issues, they might not find much to sink their teeth into. An Objectivist, meanwhile, will maintain that any discussion of any issues, "background" or otherwise, requires the use of well-formed and well-applied concepts, and that the relevance of these background issues must be explained in terms of relevance and use for daily life; otherwise, it is idle speculation.

So, to take, for instance, the "problem of necessity" addressed by Hume and Kant, it needs to be explained how this is an issue that should be of concern to us. There is a "pragmatic" attitude involved here: if we already have a well-ordered system of concepts that aids us in our daily lives, then it becomes some other kind of concern (a "theoretical" one) whether the concepts we have reflects an inherent necessity in nature. Even if we don't have a "satisfactory grounding of necessity," i.e., one satisfying to all but skeptics, we still have to get on with the task of living. At the same time, any discussion of the "problem of necessity" should presuppose that we're employing our concepts in such a discussion in well-grounded (i.e., perceptually-grounded) ways.

If all knowledge is grounded in the perceptual, according to Rand, then the label "empiricist" might seem to fit. To be sure, Rand, despite her advocacy of reason, did not identify with the "rationalist" tradition; in fact, she saw in rationalism a tendency to treat ideas or concepts in a way that detaches them from their proper grounding in the perceptual - and thereby to sever philosophy from the needs of life. However, to lump her in with Hume using the "empiricist" label is to ignore the basic difference between them: the task of the cognitive faculty (which Rand called "reason") in Rand's philosophy is to integrate sense data into a non-contradictory whole, even if "only" for practical purposes; Hume, as abstract theorist, was more interested in the "problem of necessity," while he's often seen (fairly or not) as a leading advocate against the idea that we can rationally or objectively integrate percepts. In any event, Rand's perception-based theory of knowledge is more in the spirit of Aristotle than of Hume.


Rand is perhaps most famous for her advocacy of ethical egoism, or as she referred to it, a rational selfishness or morality of self-interest. Evident from a careful reading of her arguments, though, is that she is not an advocate of these things as typically or widely understood.

Her basic point about ethics - "a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions - the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life" - is that it is a guide to living well, or living happily. In her understanding of things, that makes any good code of ethics egoistic by definition: living well or happily just means to be living self-interestedly. Insofar as Rand's "ethical egoism" is damned or rejected by moral theorists, they also damn or reject the ancient conception of ethics as, likewise, being concerned with the task of living well or happily. Objectivist ethics is hardly anything more or other than an updating of Aristotelian eudaemonist ethics.

Rand offers a neo-Aristotelian argument on the foundations of the concept of "value" or "goodness"; she locates value-significance in living phenomena, and a narrower sub-division - the moral - is concerned with the achievement of what is of value through the exercise of choice. She shares with Aristotle the basic conviction that living well as humans means living rationally and intelligently - that rational and intelligent living is our best (perhaps only) guarantee to achieving a stable and enduring happy livelihood. The basic form of right living for both Aristotle and Rand is virtue, the integral commitment to living as reason requires. For Rand, the basic virtue, which explains all the other virtues, is the virtue of rationality. Rationality is the locus of the interaction between her epistemology and her ethics, or between thought and practice. Humans are distinguished by their mode of functioning - most fundamentally, the exercise of reason. If we perfect the use of our cognitive faculties, that is our best and only means to perfecting our lives as a whole.

In the contemporary professional literature, eudaemonism generally is discussed in David L. Norton's Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976), while Rand's eudaemonism more specifically is discussed in Tara Smith's Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge, 2006). Rand's ethics - again, best understood as a version of neo-Aristotelian eudaemonism - is the part of her philosophy which has seen the most coverage and ground gained in the philosophy profession. (Her epistemology, by contrast, has received hardly any treatment, negative or positive.) The egoism she espoused is best understood in connection with the basic summary statement near the beginning of this posting: the idea that achievement of happiness is the moral purpose of one's life, and that we should strive to be "heroic" or great in our lives. Arguably this fits right in with an Aristotelian version of eudaemonism.

The strength of Rand's ethics depends on the strength of eudaemonist ethics as such; eudaemonism has become a force to be reckoned with in contemporary moral theories, and as such moral theorists ignore it and Rand at their peril.

Rand's meta-ethics - her grounding of the concept of "value" in the concept of "life" - has been much the subject of analysis and criticism, and much of that discussion centers on whether Rand (or any other thinker) successfully derives an "ought" from an "is." Rand contours her claims about living things so as not to commit herself to defunct teleological doctrines, but her claims can still be challenged on grounds of whether the functions of living systems are ordered for "the preservation of the organism's own life" (as distinct from or perhaps inclusive of reproduction), or on whether we can get a clear picture of functional organization that gives us the kind of ethical views we usually find plausible. Again, her views here are closely related to Aristotle's, and are also echoed in such neo-Aristotelians as Philippa Foot (Natural Goodness, Oxford, 2001). Her views in these areas seem to be well-reflected in the mainstream literature and the tradition, and as such are more or less right in the thick of things as contemporary meta-ethics is concerned.

Political Philosophy

Rand's politics in essence is an extension of her ethics: she is an individualist, and in an individualist ethos the basic function of government is to secure the conditions - rights - under which people can pursue their happiness through the exercise of their own minds. Her views have predecessors in Locke, Jefferson and Spencer, but her explanation of the relation between ethics and politics is rather original if not right on target. Her basic identification here is that force and mind are opposites. If eudaemonia is necessarily rationally-directed activity, then we require the freedom to exercise our own minds and judgments to achieve it. Further, the propriety of pursuing happiness grounds the right to pursue happiness. Rights - the basic concept in social and political philosophy - are principles "defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context." Rights define freedoms rather than specific objects to which we might lay claim. (Property rights, as an extension of moral personhood, specify freedoms as to the disposition of goods, not rights to goods themselves.)

Rand's substantive conclusions about rights are closely echoed in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), and both Rand and Nozick stand opposed to the contemporary "liberal" mainstream, well-represented by John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971). For Rawlsians and other liberals, much hinges on whether a Randian or Nozickian conception of justice reliably serves, in practice, the legitimate interests of "the less well-off." In fact, Rand's theory, especially, would merit universal assent only if it could be addressed to the rational self-interest of all members of society; this is a natural consequence of Rand's universalization of egoistic norms (as opposed to the caricature of pretty much all versions of egoism as exception-making on behalf of a talented few). This might "force" Rand and/or Nozick to resort to "empirical" or social-scientific claims on behalf of their laissez-faire capitalist conception of rights and justice.

There are, however, at least two considerations a Randian can raise in addition to acknowledging whatever is the case social-scientifically: (1) Even if there are good arguments showing that people should adopt certain measures aimed at improving the condition or life-prospects of the "less well-off," it doesn't follow that this should be done via the State, an apparatus of coercion; and (2) There is more to the story than simply justice in a political sense: Rand would share with a number of critics of Rawls (or of contemporary mainstream liberalism) the view that a flourishing society would require a conception of virtue for people to adopt; for Rand, especially, a society the members of which are educated in the ways of virtue would be one where politics is hardly needed at all (except for the most minimal rights-protecting functions), for such a society would likely be very full of people who are already flourishing. (A big question, then, is how we could educate a large segment of society in the ways of virtue, i.e., what sort of program of education we ought and are able to adopt and apply effectively. In any event, this process of education would require time.)


Rand's aesthetics have been little-explored, including by the current author. Here some basics will have to do: Rand saw art as a means of depicting life "as it might be and ought to be." Art serves a fundamental spiritual need in man, and its products affect the audience on a sense-of-life level, sense of life being "a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence." Aesthetics, then, would be concerned with the relation between consciously and rationally-adopted values on the one hand, and the immediate, emotional, and subconscious reaction to works of art or beauty on the other. Further, the spiritual needs of man are as integral to Rand's worldview as they are to any religious one; they are located here in the natural world rather than in relation to a supernatural one.


In connection with both epistemology and "sense of life," Rand and other Objectivists have spoken of the subject of psycho-epistemology, or "the study of man’s cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious." This is an intriguing line of study, for it informs us on how people habitually approach their mental content. Psycho-epistemology is chiefly concerned with method, from the standpoint of how our rationally and consciously-directed processes interact with the immediately and automatically given, such as emotions, subconsciously-given intuition, or even habituated (and therefore automatized) thought processes themselves. Automatization is a big concept here and arguably requires some development; among other things, it ties into how we understand the subconscious as being a repository of automatized content and method. A study of psychology also comes to bear on understanding what is automatized in our thought processes, and how. Rand's aim as epistemologist was to make our consciously-directed thought processes so well-formed and habituated that they work in harmony with the subconscious; ideally, sound thought processes would come more or less automatically after habituation - though always, of course, subject to volitional assessment.

Rand's "style" of doing philosophy as it pertains to polemics directed against other thinkers, leaves something to be desired. Many of her claims reduce other thinkers such as Kant to caricatures, and her approach is one of "good guys vs. villains" instead of one of acknowledging other philosophers as providing incomplete, perhaps confused, perhaps even bad, but nonetheless thoughtful and honestly-reasoned perspectives on the Big Issues. This is one aspect of Rand's approach that can be fairly called a blind spot - indeed, one that is often incomplete, confused, bad, etc., even if thoughtful or reasoned in some way or other. She should not be looked to for information on the history of philosophy, just as few commentators should be looked to for information on Rand's ideas herself; the best thing to do in both cases is to study the relevant literature. (It is fair to say, though, that she had a correct basic grasp of the importance of philosophy as it affects the course of history.) It is fair enough to say that Rand's basic sympathies were with Aristotle, while legitimate differences with Plato, Kant and others would arise from that basic sympathy.

Rand's foremost student, Leonard Peikoff, received her full endorsement in a general letter of recommendation (reproduced in Letters of Ayn Rand, Dutton, 1995), and his lecture courses on Objectivism (e.g. Understanding Objectivism, 1983-4) provide valuable insights into Objectivism especially in terms of methodology as distinct from content. The basic content of her philosophy is set forth in complete form in his Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Dutton, 1991), which is based on a 1976 course which she endorsed. His later courses presuppose a familiarity with the content, and seek instead to provide a guide to everyday thinking processes (philosophically or non), stressing the central methodological concepts of integration, hierarchy, and context. While the courses are almost prohibitively expensive, and Peikoff adopts at times Rand's tendencies in polemics, a full scholarly study of Objectivism should take these courses into account. The aim with the courses, as with Rand's own writings, is the integration of theory and practice, of philosophy and life.


Rand is certainly worth taking seriously as a thinker, despite misgivings I and others have over certain things. I would not expect scholars to find a whole lot that is both new and compelling about her metaphysics. Her epistemology, if correctly understood in its aims, provides a lot of useful material in terms of thinking methods and practical application to the task of day-to-day living. A very small number of thinkers have even yet approached her epistemological writings in these terms. Her ethics stands or falls with the strength of eudaemonism, which is a very promising mainstream alternative to deontology and consequentialism. Her meta-ethics, dealing with concepts of goodness and value, should at the very least stimulate thoughts in these areas, and may help lead to fully-worked-out treatments by scholars of the concept of goodness in naturalistic or perceptually-based terms. Her politics stresses the fundamental importance of freedom of the individual and the tie between ethics and politics. In sum, her epistemology, ethics and political philosophy are areas of strength in her thinking, and where further scholarly study or detailed working-out is warranted.