Monday, April 03, 2017

A Sincere But Futile Attempt To Engage With Ayn Rand (1)

If I am going to talk about Steve Ditko, I suppose am going to have to try and talk about Ayn Rand. 

I know that this is a bad idea. My left wing friends are already telling me that even thinking about Rand gives her a spurious credibility. My Objectivist friends, of whom I have none, will soon be telling me that this is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect liberals to say, which proves their point...

This is not a response to the whole of Ayn Rand’s, or indeed Steve Ditko’s world view: it couldn’t possibly be. It’s really just an attempt to show how the first few chapters of The Virtue of Selfishness — particularly the essay entitled The Ethics of Emergencies — strike me. Think of it as an atheist reading through St Mark’s Gospel or a Tory reading The Communist Manifesto.

*

“I’m thru getting pushed around — by anyone. From now on I just look out for number one — that means — me!”
        Amazing Fantasy #15


I swear by swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine
        Atlas Shrugged

Rand claims to have devised or discovered a rational system of ethics. Since it is an objective fact that all human beings are alive, their first moral obligation is to stay alive. Since it is an objective fact that all human beings are conscious, their second moral obligation is to be happy. But they should only be concerned with their own life and their own happiness. I have no duty to help anyone else; no-one else has a duty to help me.

“Just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and therefore the man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.”

I grok that, if I don’t believe in conventional morality, or religion, or mysticism, or some great big idea like Communism or the Singularity, then all I have left to believe in is me. And I think I can also see the romantic appeal of the great objectivist man, whether it's Rorschach never compromising, even in the face of Armageddon, or Del-Boy Trotter taking nothing from the government and giving nothing to the government. I owe no man anything and no man owes anything to me. Hurrah!

What I don’t know is how you get logically or rationally from “human beings are alive” to “human beings ought to try to stay alive.” I agree that human beings do on the whole mostly try to stay alive, but I don't know how you get logically or rationally from that to "Human beings should always try to stay alive." And if, by some alchemy, “I am alive” implies “I ought to try to stay alive” I still do not understand why “You are alive” does not equally imply “I ought to try to keep you alive” — why "We are all alive" doesn't imply "We all ought to try to keep each other alive."

Even if me being alive and you being alive were mutually exclusive alternatives — say, if Titanic had just struck an iceberg and there were only one spare seat on the lifeboat — I don’t know why I ought to prefer my life to yours. I don't know why Rand's morality (I ought to preserve my own life at the cost of yours) is more rational than everyone else's morality (I ought to preserve your life at the cost of my own).

I would certainly prefer it if you decided to stop being alive and allowed me to carry on, but I don’t know how I can rationally infer, from the fact that we are both alive, that pushing you out of the lifeboat is the moral thing to do. It’s equally true that I can’t rationally demonstrate that I ought to give my place on the lifeboat to you. Without some premises to work from, I can't rationally or logically demonstrate why I ought to do anything at all. I don't know how to get from any kind of "is" to any kind of "ought".

I understand that David Hume didn't, either.

I might decide to let you have the spare place on the lifeboat for all sorts of reasons — because you have dependent kids and I don’t; or because I want history to remember me as a good guy and not a bad guy; or because it wouldn’t be British to push to the front of a queue. But that's because I have a totally irrational belief that not depriving kids of their father, achieving posthumous honour and displaying good manners are more important that mere longevity. 

I doubt that such a things as rational ethics exists, in the same way that I doubt that such a thing as vegan beef casserole exists. Why should you give the other guy your place on the life boat? Because it is the right thing to do. Why should  we refuse to drop bombs on civilians in wars? Because it is the right thing to do. Why did Valjean admit that he was the escaped convict and Champmathieu was innocent? Because it was the right thing to do. Why should you stop a burglar who runs past you in a TV studio, even if no-one is paying you? Because it is the right thing to do. 

As you are presumably aware, Prof. C.S. Lewis (who Rand, rather pleasingly, abominated) thought that "doing the right thing" meant acting in accordance with the tao. By the tao he simply meant everything which human beings have always thought are the right things to do. He wasn't interested in Chinese philosophy: he just wanted to avoid specifically Christian terms. Christians don't have the monopoly on doing the right thing.

To say that something is the right thing to do because it is part of the tao is to admit that I can't say why it is the right thing to do: it just is.  Rand will only convince me that she has come up with a rational basis for ethics if she can teach me how I ought to behave without ever appealing to the tao. And that includes explaining what she means by what that pesky little word ought.

*

All I can tell you is that when it came to the point whether I would take my own neck out of the noose and put another man's into it, I could not do it.
                                 Shaw, "The Devils Disciple"

It is a fact that, in an extreme situation like a shipwreck, some people act unselfishly. They allow someone else to take their place in the lifeboat or swim into dangerous waters to prevent someone else from drowning. And some people act selfishly — save their own lives without a thought for who else perishes. And some people make a dash for the lifeboat but feel guilty about it afterwards: lots of us know what the right thing to do would be, but don't actually do it. How do we decide which group are doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing? If we ought to do unto others as we would like other to do unto us, then the group who allowed others to live did the right thing. ("Do unto others" is the whole basis of the tao.) But if morality is the same as self-interest we have to say that the person who forced his way into the boat did the right thing. Indeed, we have to say that those who sacrificed or risked their own lives acted wickedly. Billy Zane is the hero and Leo DiCapprio is the bad guy.

Rand appears to agree that this would be absurd. She argues:

1: That the question is illegitimate, and the very fact that we are asking it proves the superiority of objectivists to altruists.

2: That the rational way of behaving in a shipwreck is in any case very much like that dictated by the tao: the rational man will rescue his friends, loved-ones, and possibly even strangers.

3: But this doesn’t make any difference because emergencies are special cases where special rules apply.

Turning the argument round and attacking the moral character of the people making it is not necessarily the hallmark of a serious philosophical essay. It smacks of "Weak case: insult opposing lawyer." What bad people these altruists must be to test a new theory by examining edge-cases! Lack of self-esteem, lack of respect for others, nightmare view of existence…

“A lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.”

On no possible view could it be true to say that altruists have no moral principals. Even by Rand’s own arguments, they have lots of moral principals — just the wrong ones. But that aside: how do you get from “altruists point to extreme cases" to “altruists have no moral principals whatsoever.”

I suppose you would have to construct an argument along these lines:

1: Altruists point to extreme cases like fires and shipwrecks to refute the idea that we have no duty to help anyone else.

2: Therefore, extreme cases like fires and shipwrecks must be the only exceptions to the general rule that we have no duty to help anyone else.

3: It is intrinsically unlikely that any individual will ever experience a shipwreck or earthquake.

4: Principals drawn from improbable circumstances have no application to probable ones.

5: Therefore any attempt to infer the correct behavior in probably circumstance from the correct behavior in an improbably one is necessarily false.

6: Therefore people who argue from extreme cases have no basis for their conclusions.

7: Since people who believe in altruism argue from extreme cases, altruists have no basis for their belief in altruism.

8: Since people who believe in altruism have no basis for their belief in altruism, they have no basis for any of their other beliefs either. 

But this doesn’t work at all. Point 1 is not necessarily true. Because I raise one example, it doesn't mean there aren't any others I could have raised. You can believe something for more than one reason. Point 4 begs the question: it might be that the same rules apply in the exceptional case as in the normal one, or it might not. And point 8 is obviously nonsense: it doesn't follow at all that if I have one false belief, all my other beliefs are false as well. 

If we accepted Rand's position, we would have to say that any argument involving a hypothetical or a thought experiment is automatically invalid: that you can only make moral judgement about specific, concrete events. (I believe that some anarchists are reluctant to state general principals for this reason: because there are no general cases, only an infinite number of unique ones.) But extreme and unlikely cases are frequently useful because they help us to visualize a question. Conscientious objectors were always asked “What would you do if a German officer were raping your grandmother?”— not because there was much chance of the German army molesting that particular pacifist’s elderly relative, but because the proposition “I will not join the army because killing is wrong under all possible circumstances” is refuted if you can come up with even one circumstance where it might be right. When asked what he understood courage to mean, Socrates asked “Well, suppose you were a passenger at sea in a terrible storm….?” Would a rational man have replied “But I am not in a terrible storm, so obviously you have to live your life without any understand of courage whatsoever. See where this 'philosophy' stuff gets you!”

But this is a distraction, because it turns out that if a group of Randian objectivists really were on a sinking ship they would be just as likely to pull each other out of the water, give up their places in lifeboats, and generally act in accordance with the tao as anybody else.

In the first place, says Rand, this rule that you should look out for yourself and not for others doesn’t apply to friends and lovers. But this isn't really an exception: when you do a good turn for someone you love, you are acting selfishly, because:  

“It is one’s own personal selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.”

Ah, so: objectivists are cynical people, choosing their friends and wives in anticipation of some tangible return — money, social status, career advancement, someone to look after the kids, invitations to the best parties, sex etc? Not a bit of it. What you get out of a loved one is “a profoundly personal, private joy” and “personal, selfish happiness”. So when you help someone else, you are really acting to preserve that “private joy” and “personal happiness”. If a rich man spends a fortune to save his wife’s life, he is not acting altruistically, but selfishly. He wants her to live because he derives happiness from her; he doesn’t want her to die because he would then be less happy than he would be if she were still alive:

"In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice." 

But all this does is re-frame altruistic actions as selfish ones: instead of saying “I will save your life because I don’t want you to die” we have to say “I will save your life because I don’t want to be sad". It might be possible, and it might also be interesting, to re-frame all moral choices in that way. You say "I donate money to feed a starving child because it is the right thing to do": I say "You donate money to feed a starving child because you selfishly dislike the sensations of guilt you experience when imagining the child starving to death." But that hasn't told us anything new about how we ought to behave. Either way, the wife gets the surgery and the child gets a bowl of rice. 

We assume that the man who pays for his wife’s operation honestly loves his wife, and will truly have less happiness and less joy if she dies than if she stays alive. But supposing he does not have those feelings? Supposing he he actually sick to death of the crabby old ratbag, is quite sure he'd be happier as a widower, but stomps up the money because it’s the right thing to do. Do we have to say that he's acted immorally? Or suppose he’s with us on that sinking ship and says “I will save my baby rather than my wife, because I honestly think that the baby is more important to my personal happiness than the woman”? Does his wife get a say? Supposing he says “I will save my mistress rather than my wife” or even “I will save my puppy rather than my baby”? Assuming that his dog really was important to his personal private joy and happiness and the baby wasn't, do we have to say that he acted in rational self-interest and therefore morally?

Or are we allowed to say “Maybe you did love your dog more than your child, but you ought not to have done”?

If we take the first line, then what set out to be rational theory of ethics turns out to mean “be guided by your emotions: do whatever will make you happy”. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, without even the qualification about harming none. This is exactly what Prof. Lewis warned us would happen. There is a certain irony about how much of our rational ethic comes down to emotions like love, joy and happiness. 

But if you take the second line — that the sensible, rational, selfish thing to do is indeed to save the lives of the people who you love but if, and only if, you love the people you ought to love and do not love the people you ought not to love — then Rand hasn’t said anything very new. Ethics is about arranging your values in the correct order — loving the most important things most; the second most important things second most; the least important things least; and the unimportant things not at all. Isn't this exactly what Aristotle told us all those months ago?


[to be continued]





23 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"I suppose you would have to construct an argument along these lines:"

Your sequence of eight points here is remarkably similar to the "We've found a witch! May we burn her?" sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Although the traditional cold war narrative is to present Capitalism and Communism as two competing idealogies, I've never really bought into this - mainly because I reckon all societies are Capitalist to some degree or another. I wonder if this is why Rand is so popular with right-wingers? Because it's Capitalism as ideology?

It's a pretty dumb ideology. Your average right-winger will scoff at the welfare state, but an institution like the NHS not only drives patient costs down for everybody, but has better outcomes than healthcare in the US., and is thus a product of what I'd call 'enlightened' self-interest, as opposed to 'dumb' self-interest (the Rand version). Altruism doesn't enter into it.

Louise H said...

Excellent analysis. My main problem with the half of 'Atlas Shrugged' that I managed to read was the way Rand used conventional moral pointers to indicate who the good guys were. The Objectivists were all nice people who cared about good outcomes for others while the liberals and socialists were lazy, stupid, greedy, selfish and caused other people real harm. As well as being a highly manipulative way to write a novel it did suggest that Objectivism was being presented as leading eventually to conventional morally good outcomes rather than constituting any sort of moral good on its own terms.

Gavin Burrows said...

It probably makes more sense to try and glean the subjective appeal of Randism than point out it’s shortcomings as a ‘philosophy’. I mean, otherwise we’ll be here all week. But subjectivities differ and that highlights something. Because I’m not sure how typical a Randian Ditko was. Empirically speaking.

Even though Thatcher wasn’t really a Randian, I suspect that whole milieu really reduces to her phrase “there’s no such thing as society”. It pre-supposes other people are obstacles; life is about you trying to walk purposely towards your objectives but irrelevant bystanders constantly stray into your way like the fools don’t recognise how important you are. So Randism becomes, and I mean this entirely seriously, the next thing along the shelf to Satanism. The combination of shock value with pseudo-intellectual justifications for egoism appeal mostly to the adolescent mind. (Please read the boxed quote here.)

Ditko differs from all of that in that, very rarely for a Randian, he actually had a John Galt-like project he wanted to bring about. And that focus on the objective, not on the annoying other people, is an almost straightforward reversal of Objectivism as you generally find it.

I suppose the upshot of what I’m saying is that the idea the world divides into a minority of movers and shakers and a majority of extras, that works differently if you actually are something of a genius at work compared to an adolescent who doesn’t think it’s fair they be stopped playing computer games to help with the household chores. I wonder if we get the cart before a horse and Randism wasn’t an inner conviction which drove Ditko into conflict with Marvel comics so much as a means he hit on to deal with them.

Incidentally, have you heard the John Rogers quote here?

Aonghus Fallon said...

Re 'There's no such thing as society'.

I think you might have hit the nail on the head, Gavin. Andrew points out how - despite being a doctrine that idealises selfishness, Randism often seems to entail people acting in ways that are the opposite of selfishness. But this is always in relation to friends, family etc. What she seems particularly hostile to (the little I've read of her) is the notion that one has a broader, more abstract obligation to the society one inhabits and to its other citizens, those citizens we don't know on a personal level. I'm guessing her experiences in Russia soured her attitude towards communism and randism was the result.

Andrew Stevens said...

It probably makes more sense to try and glean the subjective appeal of Randism than point out it’s shortcomings as a ‘philosophy’. I mean, otherwise we’ll be here all week.

Gavin, of course Mr. Rilstone can't do that. He's read C.S. Lewis's essay on Bulverism.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Ironic, as Lewis employs Bulverism to dismiss Fredianism in an earlier work, his allegory 'The Pilgrim's Regress'. The hero is captured by a giant who can render anything he looks at transparent. The hero and his fellow prisoners are forced to chant a variety of slogans daily, one being 'Argument is the rationalisation of desire'. Eventually a lady knight (Reason) orchestrates the giant's downfall by pointing out that that he - the giant - must have reached this conclusion via argument, and that this tenet thus invalidates itself, and by extension, all the giant's other teachings as well - she doesn't disprove the message, she just discredits the messenger.

Mike Taylor said...

Aonghas, I don't see that at all. Reason's point is that the Giant's claim that argument is invalid rests on argument -- so the claim undercuts its own foundation. That is not attacking the messenger, it's attacking the chain of proof.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Sure, but this doesn't address whether the giant was right or wrong. He may have reached his conclusion by flawed means (that is Reason's assumption) but that doesn't mean he's wrong* - argument really may be the rationalisation of desire. Reason's job is to prove otherwise.

* anymore than it proves him right!

Mike Taylor said...

I see. You are right -- all Reason does is show that the Giant's reason for espousing his position in wrong; she doesn't show that the position itself is wrong. (I suppose because the takes it as the null hypothesis that argument is valid, and that the burden of proof is on those who wish to dispute it.)

I don't see what any of this has to do with Bulverism, though.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Well, Bulver’s maxim runs thus –

‘Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’

I’m guessing that Lewis is in favour of the latter over the former? Also, by extension, that the first sentence is a definition of bulverism. In which case, I reckon Reason is culpable. She doesn’t prove the giant wrong. She merely explains his error to him.

(sorry if I sound a bit brusque)

Aonghus Fallon said...

Sorry - that should read 'I'm guessing Lewis is in favour of the former over the latter.

Gavin Burrows said...

Bulverism = “I can come up with a plausible-sounding explanation of why you may be attracted to these ideas, therefore they must be wrong”. But only if you include those final five words. Asking what might motivate someone to take up a set of ideas is not in itself an invalid thing. And it can at times be the more interesting question.
 
A more obvious example of this than Randism might be conspiracy theories. You can knock down the little factoids ‘truthers’ come up with, but they will just dismiss them as suddenly irrelevant after all and move on to another one. They don’t really care about the third tower and the melting point of steel and all that crap, so there’s no reason we should. They hold to that stuff because they have become emotionally invested in it, so the real question to ask is how that came about.

Andrew Stevens said...

If their conspiracy theories were correct, that would be very interesting. Since they are not, is it really interesting why they went wrong? I suppose I would care if I was a psychologist treating one as a patient. I would be curious, for example, if this was just interpretation gone wrong or if they actually could not perceive reality accurately. Since I am not in that position, I'm not terribly concerned about it. As for the links above on Randianism, I am inclined to quote the great philosopher Dibber when he said, "Well, that sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mr. Glitz."

As Lewis pointed out, that sort of thing is all good fun and anyone can play. We could say, if we like, that socialism is how a comfortably middle class adolescent reacts to being thrown out of his parents' basement and forced to fend for himself. We could point to Marx and Lenin who both grew up in comfortably middle class liberal households and radicalized very young right after their respective fathers died. But all of this really says nothing about socialism. That argument requires the hard work of sifting through empirical evidence.

As for Reason and the giant, Reason's question never got asked, did it? I think you're assuming that the giant would respond that all reasoning is invalid. But I've never actually met anyone who would give that answer. In reality, all such systems assume that at least some reasoning is valid.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Lewis's little satirical essay is about refuting arguments with irrelevant facts about the arguer, surely:

"The internal angle of a triangle add up to 180 degrees"

"Oh, you only say that because you are a man."

But that's not the whole story. Consider the big set piece chapter on "Naturalism" in Miracles -- the one he fell out with Ms Anscombe over and had to rewrite:

"We always assume in discussions about morality, as in all other discussions, that the other man’s views are worthless if they can be fully accounted for by some non-moral and non-rational cause. When two men differ about good and evil we soon hear this principle being brought into play. ‘He believes in the sanctity of property because he’s a millionaire’—‘He believes in Pacifism because he’s a coward’—‘He approves of corporal punishment because he’s a sadist.’ Such taunts may often be untrue: but the mere fact that they are made by the one side, and hotly rebutted by the other, shows clearly what principle is being used. Neither side doubts that if they were true they would be decisive."

He invokes the principal (unhelpfully, I happen to think) in the essay on Pacifism. Morality is a matter of taking facts (war is horrible) and moral axioms (we should avoid doing horrible things) and seeing if they logically to lead to a particular conclusion (we should never go war). He didn't think they did (for various reasons, including "what if the results of not going to war were even more horrible that the war itself".) He said that he didn't remotely think that all pacifists were cowards ("I doubt that there is a single person in this room less physically courageous than myself"). But he thought that it was relevant that, since, on the whole, staying at home and having nasty leading articles written about you in the Daily Express was less awful than going to war and getting shot, it would be understandable if some people made mistakes in their working which resulted in them thinking that pacifism was right. (And conversely, since war was so horrible, people wouldn't be convinced that it was sometimes a necessity if the arguments weren't really inescapable.)

I think "The idea of the independent man who owes no-one anything and wants nothing from anybody would appeal to a man like Ditko" is a good and interesting line of inquiry and in no-one Bulveristic. Bulverism kicks in when you say things like "Rand argued that you have a duty to save other passengers who happen to be on the same boat as you, but not to fund the life boat service or the coast guard, but that's because she had a bad experience with a pedalo when she was a kid."

Aonghus Fallon said...

Generally, I think somebody often has a personal reason for taking a position on a particular issue - if not everybody. So if this was the principal means of discrediting an argument (that your opponent was emotionally invested in his point of view) no argument would ever be valid.

That said, when somebody takes a stance and cannot provide any proof, then the allegation that they are taking that position for purely personal reasons gains far more weight. A racist will give half a dozen reasons why he doesn't like a particular ethnic group, none of which really stand up to protracted scrutiny, which inevitably leaves you suspecting he has personal reason for being a racist.

I think 'Argument is the Rationalisation of Desire' is a stance that is more or less impossible to disprove because any attempts to do so will only give it greater credence - ie, 'You're only arguing with me in order to rationalise your own prejudices.' One might as well say, 'You're only arguing with me because you secretly know I'm actually right!'

Andrew Stevens said...

If someone said (and really meant) "All argument is rationalisation of desire" (i.e. that all human reasoning is ineffectual and cannot come to truth), this would indeed be impossible to disprove. The person saying such a thing has removed himself from all rational discourse.

I think "The idea of the independent man who owes no-one anything and wants nothing from anybody would appeal to a man like Ditko" is a good and interesting line of inquiry and in no-one Bulveristic.

Well, sure, but this is because you actually are interested in Ditko's psychology. But it has no bearing whatsoever on whether Rand's philosophy is true or not.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew… Andrew S, that is, I think what you are now saying is that “psychology is of no interest to me, and bears no relation to my day job.” Which is, you know, fine. But then we should remember that Andrew’s… you know, the other Andrew’s… post was only really interested in Rand insofar as Rand interested Ditko. Following along, my point was not than Randianism is ridiculous. (I mean, I am pretty much sure that it is, that just wasn’t my point.) My point was that the attraction to Rand for Ditko might vary from the norm.

Aonghus, yes exactly. I can, if I stop to think about it, come up with explanations for what led me to the political views or aesthetic tastes that I have. But they’re really just route maps. They don’t mean, in and of themselves, that those views and tastes are wrong.

Andrew Rilstone said...

It's more complicated than that. If a school teacher gives ten good reasons why there should be a spanking stick in the cupboard, and a millionaire gives ten good reasons that communism doesn't work, saying "Oh, but you love it.." or "Oh, but you just want to keep your hands on your dosh" isn't really a refutation. Either the arguments are good, or the arguments are bad. If "good" than the speaker's bias doesn't make them less good. If "bad" then you need to show up the badness of the argument -- not point out a psychological reason why the speaker might have been tempted to overlook the flaw in the argument. (Lewis had give 5 good reasons and 1 rather fallacious reason why pacifism didn't work before he said 'Are you quite sure you aren't overlooking the flaws in your argument because, if pacifism is true, it would save you the bother of getting shot?') And if someone said "We should keep corporal punishment because it's fun" or "We should all be pacifists because I'd really hate it in the army" we wouldn't even regard that as an argument worth refuting.

I think this may have clarified Anscomb's quarrel with Lewis in my head. He was arguing that if you take a purely mechanistic view of consciousness (I am thinking what I was always going to be thinking, since the big bang, because of complex physical processes going on in my brain, which don't know or care about Easter Eggs or Spider-Man) then nothing you think can be true or false, anymore than the throw of a dice can be true or false. Anscomb thought something was "true" if its conclusions logically followed from its premises. Lewis thought, in effect, that there had to be someone there to "truth" it. (It's not that far from Descartes, really. I can't be deluded when I think that I exist, because there would be no "I" to be experiencing the delusion)....

Andrew Rilstone said...

But it's more complicated than that. Anscomb uses the devastating philosophical device of pretending that she couldn't understand what Lewis was saying. Even if your consciousness is mechanistically produced by your brain, she said, I don't understand why that means you don't trust the things your brain tells you. After all, this book is mechanistically produced by a printing press, and you don't think that that makes the pages meaningless. You think they are true if their conclusions logically follow from their premises."

Which makes me go "waaaah...but that's Lewis's exact point." The book is produced by the printing press (our thoughts are produced by our brains) but before there was a printing press or any paper there was a clever philosophy lecturer who worked out what it was going to say. We read the book because we believe in C.S Lewis or Andrew Rilstone or G.E.M Anscombe not because we believe in printing presses.

If a computer printer went wrong and started printing out random gibberish, and somewhere on the page we found "pAris xx is the Capital of France" or "if A then not Not A" would we say "interesting, the printer said something which were true?" or just "by coincidence, some of the random semblances of letters happen to mean something"?

Maybe the guy saying "The Christians fathers were universally of the opinion that Christians cannot be soldiers, World War II did nothing to stop Hitler and so I am not going because I would hate it" is like the machine spouting out random letters?

But that's very different from saying "Your theory that workers will only get a decent wage when there is fully unionized free collective bargaining is false because you made a lot of money from your last record and have been seen in expensive restaurants" (and argument that I have literally seen on the internet in the last 24 hours.) Which is different again from saying "You are wrong about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays because you are French."

I guess I am taking what I perceive to be Anscombe's line, rather than Lewis's: the first question to ask about libertarianism or objectivism is "is it coherent? are these arguments coherent?" not "what in this writer's biography made it attractive to her."

Aonghus Fallon said...

Rand cited 'Rational Self Interest' as a defining principle, with your survival being paramount. She also argued that by serving your own interests, you served society's. She then qualified this (ie, you benefit on some level from having a loved one, siblings etc, and are thus willing to make sacrifices on their behalf) - but I think most people would see plenty of contradictions. To cite one example: you and I are marooned on a desert island. We have enough food for two weeks, but know a ship won't be passing for another three. I don't know you from Adam. Rational self-interest dictates that I kill you to ensure my own survival - something clearly incompatible with the notion that my interests and the greater good are one and the same.

*the 'greater good' in this instance being comprised of a mere two people. Still…

As for Bulverism. In fairness, Lewis's definition is pretty broad - ie, 'assume your opponent to be wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet.' He does cite questioning your opponent's motives as one tactic, but surely it isn't the only one?

By extension, he then says (by implication, the correct response) - 'Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.'

I guess - re my own example - 'Argument is the rationalisation of desire' revolves around the paradox that Reason cannot prove the giant wrong (the tenet is unprovable - although this doesn't mean it is true) anymore than the giant can prove himself right. Thus she is forced to resort to Bulverism by default - ie, by arguing he must have reached this conclusion by following a false line of logic.

Re Annscombe. 'Even if your consciousness is mechanistically produced by your brain', she said, 'I don't understand why that means you don't trust the things your brain tells you. After all, this book is mechanistically produced by a printing press, and you don't think that that makes the pages meaningless. You think they are true if their conclusions logically follow from their premises.'

I'm not sure if Anscombe's analogy precludes your brain doing other things aside from making you self-aware. For example (to extend the analogy) your brain is both author, type-setter and printer, and its publications manifest themselves as 'thoughts'.

Mike Taylor said...

Rand cited 'Rational Self Interest' as a defining principle, with your survival being paramount. She also argued that by serving your own interests, you served society's.

I've not read Rand, and I don't plan to. But could someone who has please clarify this point:

Does Rand think self-interest is inherently a moral good, and that by the way it has the side-effect of benefitting society? Or does she think that self-interest has the side-effect of benefitting society, and is therefore a moral good? If the former, she is morally wrong, whereas if the former then she is only practically wrong.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Her definition of rational self-interest also included traits that we would consider moral - ie, integrity (?), honesty etc. So somebody who is rational and self-interested would recognise that certain ethical values are good, because they further his/her own happiness (altruism is a definite no-no).