Later this week, I plan to post something about depicting Muhammad. The South Park guys are exemplars of reason and virtually heroic defenders of free speech and free thought. But Pamela Geller and her people seem to be mean-spirited types who are desperate for bloodshed. I want to try to figure out what the difference is between the aesthetically valuable depictions of Muhammad by serious satirists and social critics like Parker and Stone, and the trite propaganda of Geller and her friends, and where Charlie Hebdo stands in the whole mess. Yes, I will be posting Bosch Fawstin’s attempt to debate his own drawing. I feel pretty safe from ISIS, since in Texas, the roads are so confusing that they would just drive around haplessly in their creepy terror-van, scaring old people into giving them weird directions, until they finally accidentally blew themselves up, leading to much rejoicing. Nutbag neo-Nazis, on the other hand, are slightly more worrisome, but they’d drive up, see that I fly the flag, and go home puzzled that the lefty guy flies, doesn’t burn, the stars and stripes. (Not sure why the neo-Nazis don’t recognize that ISIS are their anti-Semitic brethren, but, hey, none of these people are known for their ability to get over differences.)
Blackwell Publishing will soon be bringing out a Companion to Ayn Rand. It’s edited by the late Allan Gotthelf, who was a very gifted interpreter of Aristotle at the University of Pittsburgh and other strong universities, and by Gregory Salmieri, a Visiting Fellow at Boston College.
Now I haven’t much cared for the other Blackwell Companion volumes that I’ve read — the structurally similar Cambridge Companion volumes seem to be systematically superior. Nevertheless, this is the first time since Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand, edited by Sciabarra and Gladstein in 1999, that a serious interpretive series has had a Rand volume.
Neither the Amazon nor Blackwell pages have anything but boilerplate information about the content, but I would guess that they have populated its pages with the same people involved in recent Objectivist conference proceedings, some of whom are Randians, some of whom are sympathetic, and some of whom write in such a way as to give the impression that they have had a favor called in by Prof. Gotthelf.
Given that it is edited by true believers (regardless of Gotthelf’s well-earned scholarly reputation), I don’t expect much attending to the details, the places in Rand’s purported system where reason gives out and a gap is covered by sheer rhetoric and puffery. But maybe someone will say something useful — someone had better, since the damned thing’ll run $126.61 and I guess I’ll have to read it. (Hopefully, the market — by which I mean amazon.com — has heard the plea of the consumer and will put out a kindle version.)
Speaking of books that I don’t anticipate enjoying reading, Peter Schwartz’s In Defense of Selfishness will be out in a couple of days. Schwartz was previously most noted for arguing at genuinely tedious length that libertarianism is, by nature, a groundless whim for anarchism that naturally allies itself with terrorists and totalitarianism. As that is a very silly claim, one is not optimistic about his latest effort.
While it’s a little dreary to have to read these things, on the up side, the fact that Rand publication is rapidly increasing in quantity and prestige definitely shows a need for my book — before some meaningful fragment of novice philosophers come to think that Rand was seriously onto something, was marginalized, and constitutes a subaltern voice deserving of their attention.
You can support these and my other studies by becoming a patron at my Patreon page. And you can also help by reposting my blog entries on Facebook and Twitter and by posting comments below. I’m trying to start a conversation and I’m sustained by a Roark-like confidence that the auditors and interlocutors are out there and that we just need to find one another.
In every society, individuals reason about what is best to do and act accordingly. What is the difference between an individualistic society and a collectivist society? In each of them, only individuals reason or choose, but the nature of individuals’ reasons would be drastically different.
In an individualistic society, the fact that some person has a preference would rarely constitute, or even cause, a reason for some other person to perform an action. Further, the fact that an abstract, generic, average other person would, on average or in general or in principle have some preference would never constitute a reason for one to perform an action. As one reasons about what to do, others’ preferences would not usually figure in one’s reasoning, and the hypothetical preferences of average people would never figure in one’s reasoning.
In a collectivist society, the fact that others have preferences would constitute or cause the bulk of one’s reasons to act, and the fact that an abstract, generic, or average other person would, on average or in general or in principle have some preference would regularly constitute or cause a reason for one to perform an action.
In capitalism marked by the profit motive, individuals seek to maximize their holdings of wealth by engaging in profitable production. But what is profitable is that which interests other people — and what is profitable at market prices is that which interests generic or average consumers. To seek profit is to submit to a collective. Moreover, profit is only of use because other people can be coaxed to produce what one desires when one offers money; money is nothing but power over others. It’s true that it isn’t the same kind of power as violence, but it is power over others nonetheless.
How on earth has this form of submission been confused with individualism? Capitalism eschews overt, external control, in favor of manipulating the motives of individuals, so that the seeker of profit fails to recognize that he is a seeker of approval. Capitalism is the most insidious form of collectivism yet achieved, because the voice of the collective — the desire for profit — appears to the individual as his own voice. Capitalism is a form of slavery without masters, or enslavement to an abstraction: the consumer or the market.
(This plays itself out in The Fountainhead. Gail Wynand doesn’t recognize that “his” business decisions are in fact made for him by the masses whom he serves; Ellsworth Toohey’s “One Small Voice” is so softly seductive that each person who hears it feels as though he hears only himself. Howard Roark is struggling against capitalism; Ellsworth Toohey personifies capitalism.)
It’s true that capitalism — a social system in which the means of production are privately owned and controlled — is vastly productive and creative, and socialism — a social system in which the means of production are publicly owned — cannot succeed. Without capitalism, vast swathes of humanity would die and the remnants would trudge on in medieval misery. True enough. What that shows is only that individualism is inadequate. A compromise with collectivism is necessary; the market must go on. We can’t have prosperity and individualism at the same time. But if we’re going to compromise with collectivism, we ought to at least come to the bargaining table without having already given everything away. There has to be some way to, socially, preserve a zone of individualism against the sway of the collective.
What is wrong with Rand’s view? Surely it is true that the world is independent of our awareness of it, that it can be understood by empirical science, that human beings survive by production rather than by scavenging and that we aren’t born with innate knowledge about how to produce, and that we ought to be protected from violence.
However, at every level, there is more information contained in our thinking than was ever contained in our experience. Our beliefs are not all about perceptible objects and they do not all require concepts formed by abstraction from perceptual similarities and differences.
We are able to find ourselves in a world of objects that obey causal law because we expect to. We are adapted to interpret the sensible world as a world of objects at a distance from us. Consider, not Google glass, but a possible future Google lens. This imaginary piece of technology would be opaque and would rest on the surface of the eye, like any other contact lens. Its outside would be a series of tiny, high-resolution cameras, taking in light from the surrounding world. Its inside would be a tiny display screen, producing an image drawn both from the cameras on the outside and from whatever highlighting, emphasis, or other display the device was programmed to show. For instance, a wearer might have his lens plugged into some sort of facial recognition database, so that the name and other information about anyone whose face he sees would be visually displayed in a text box near the person’s face. Or a wearer might program his device to highlight or brighten objects of a certain color.
Now, given that the device is opaque, the wearer never literally sees the objects beyond himself. What he sees is just the lens itself. The lens itself is a thin concave surface; the parts of its surface are all equidistant from the user. Yet the user would experience objects as at a distance from his eye. Further, the pattern of flickers on the screen would have no constancy whatsoever; a patch of red at one moment would be a different patch of red from a patch of red a moment later, but the wearer would experience that patch of red as an object continuing across time. Were a baby fitted with such lenses at birth, the baby would literally never see any object beyond a tiny distance past the surface of his eyes, but he would still see the splotches of color as enduring objects at a distance. (The same principle would apply were the baby covered by some sort of tactile sensor suit, so that he never felt objects beyond the suit but felt the suit pressing him in accordance with information that it detected from his immediate environment.)
Thus the information that we live in a world of objects that are at various locations in space and endure across time is not information that we acquire from the senses, since we would still have the information if we were never aware of objects that were actually at a distance or that actually endured across time. A similar point applies to the discovery that objects that resemble one another in static ways also resemble one another in dynamic ways: objects that appear similarly also behave similarly in other ways. (The argument concerning causality is much more complicated and I might write about it some other time.)
In order to experience the sort of ordered, comprehensible world that we do in fact experience, we are not simply mental blanks exposed to a world that announces its order to us and makes us comprehend it. A handful of concepts, and information about the objects that fall under those concepts, is innate in us. These concepts partly constitute human nature. (I learned this from Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Frege.)
Moreover, what accounts for the fact that we do have beliefs about a world beyond ourselves is partly our ability to select objects for contemplation, by selective attention and ostension. But ostension requires that ostended objects be objective, not private dreams or hallucinations. What makes it the case that I am ostending one object rather than another is a complicated causal system in which my ostension interacts with another person’s observations of my behavior and the ostended object, forming a triangle that could not exist except within an objective world of publicly available objects. Thus, from the fact that one is thinking, one can deduce that there is an objective world about which one thinks. (I learned this from Descartes, Kant, and Donald Davidson.)
Further, there simply is no experience of a special kind of power over attention — certainly no experience of the alleged fact that whether one pays attention is not determined by prior factors. Indeed, how could there be an experience of the non-existence of determining causal factors? The concepts of free will and moral responsibility serve a pair of vital functions. First, we have a concept of free will to allow us to determine who is responsible for what actions and so deserves reward, punishment, praise, blame, and so forth for the action. We say that a person performed an action freely in this sense when the action was the result of his own values, experiences, deliberations, preferences, and so forth, without the presence of certain factors that divorce a person from his actions. The foremost of these factors is violence. (I learned this from Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Harry Frankfurt.)
Second, we have a concept of free will to describe the fact that, when deliberating, one does not yet know what one’s decision will be, so one cannot yet seek to explain or predict one’s decisions, but must instead attend to reasons to perform one action rather than another. The existence of a deliberative or practical point of view is an occasion for the use of reason, but it is also an expression of the weakness or limitation of human reason. Practical reason is necessary because theoretical reason is inadequate for the understanding and prediction of one’s own behaviors. (I learned this from Kant, Sartre, Hayek, Foucault, and Hilary Bok.)
(Incidentally: the fact that one cannot predict one’s own behaviors implies that one cannot predict one’s society’s behaviors, or how it would respond to various events, so overall social planning is impossible: socialism cannot succeed in delivering prosperity. I learned this from von Mises and Hayek.)
We have no perceptual awareness of normative properties; one cannot literally perceive the goodness or badness of anything. Nor is the information in normative claims reducible to the information in non-normative claims. One can talk about how pleasant or painful, or life-preserving or life-destroying, something is forever without ever saying anything about whether it is good or bad.
How do I know? Assume otherwise: assume that a claim of the form “x is good” contains only information about x’s (allegedly) perceptible qualities, such as being pleasant, conducive to pleasure, life-preserving, and so forth. In that case, one could replace “x is good” with “x is pleasant” or “x is life-preserving” or something of the sort. However, one cannot. For it is always intelligible to ask whether this particular pleasure is worth pursuing or whether this particular life is worth preserving in this particular way, but it is never intelligible to ask whether one ought to do the thing that would be most good to do. From the deliberative point of view, information about the good is always dispositive, but no other information can guide a decision unless it is evidence about what is good. (I learned this from Plato, Moore, Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, and Jonathan Dancy.)
Since every conceivable experience will be found in space and time and will involve objects obeying causal laws, and every conceivable experience is had by a conscious, free being deliberating about courses of action in pursuit of the good, we can be absolutely certain that the world, insofar as we will or can experience it, will be a world in which enduring spatio-temporal objects obey causal laws and action is possible. Scepticism about science or morality is false and reason is able to discover what is real and what ought to be done. (I learned this from Kant.)
Because we have some normative concepts innately, and having concepts requires having judgments that those concepts make possible or partly constitute, we have innate normative judgments. These judgments must be true, on the whole. However, we are hardly infallible. Normative knowledge is the result of the progressive criticism and correction of normative judgments. We must make our more abstract normative principles, and our more concrete normative judgments, logically coherent with one another, and we must make our principles logically coherent with one another. We do that by conversation, thought experiment, efforts to sympathetically understand judgments that we don’t accept, and so forth. Moral knowledge is possible, though difficult. (I learned this from Plato, Aristotle, Donald Davidson, and John Rawls. I’m reasonably confident about it, as it was my dissertation thesis.)
Human beings are unique among living things because we possess intellectual abilities, and the development and expression of those abilities is the highest good for a human being. The use of the intellect need serve no further purpose; notably, it need not serve the purpose of self-preservation. The intellect is developed and expressed in practices, conventionalized but open forms of activity that are governed by standards, made possible by those standards, and hence must be engaged in by entire practical communities — in the absence of a community to set standards, there can be no standards. Thus, the development of reason within a social context is an end in itself and constitutes human fulfillment or realization. Science, philosophy, athletics, and the arts are among the practices. (I learned this from Aristotle, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Saul Kripke, and Alasdair MacIntyre.) Entrepreneurship, management, and engineering can also be among the practices and can be worth pursuing in and of themselves. (I learned this from Marx and von Mises — also, of course, from Ayn Rand.)
Human excellence is a quality of the individual, but it is a quality that the individual can have only in a certain kind of social context. A good society is one in which individuals are able to engage in practices and to be comfortable and healthy as the kind of animals that we are. Such a society must be one of extensive and equal liberty, including liberty in production and trade. It must also be a society in which individual welfare is a public concern. A society in which some are not able to engage in practices because their time is spent entirely in future-directed self-preservation is a society some of whose members do not live fully human lives. There must thus be public provision for animal needs — food, clothing, shelter, and health care — for those unable to fulfill those needs through labor and trade, either because of physical inability or economic circumstances. Further, there must be public provision for the distinctly human need for education, since the uneducated will find it virtually impossible to engage in practices or even very remunerative work. (I learned this from Aristotle, Rousseau, and John Rawls.) These expenses and other state functions should be paid for with the proceeds of a progressive consumption tax, not a tax on productive labor or prudent investment. (The US income tax should be eliminated.) The informational signals within the market depend on consumers’ making their offers on the basis of rough financial equality, and greater consumption does not yield commensurately great returns in personal satisfaction, so progressive consumption taxation makes the market more efficient and does not penalize any behavior worth engaging in. Moreover, by simply allowing the progressive consumption tax to turn negative below a certain level of expense, the entire welfare function can be folded into the tax code, yielding a minimum of paternalism and bureaucracy and allowing “the market to take care of it” as much as is humanly possible. (I’ve learned this from contemporary writers on taxation.)
Okay, Objectivists. What do you think? How can we start this conversation?
Let me very briefly summarize Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and then offer a comparable description of the philosophical convictions that I have now.
Rand says that in metaphysics, she accepts “objective reality”, in epistemology, “reason”, in ethics, “egoism”, and in politics, “laissez-faire capitalism”. What does that mean?
For Rand, one finds oneself in a world of discrete entities that perceptually appear to be similar to, and different from, one another. We form mental units, known as concepts, to allow us to think about groups of objects within certain degrees of similarity to one another and difference from other objects. This is advantageous because objects that fall under the same concepts also exhibit similar behaviors: the world exhibits comprehensible causal order. Further, some objects — or more complicated clusters of objects, their behaviors, their contexts, and so forth — are pleasant to encounter while others are painful. The distinction between the pleasant and the painful is the basis for a conceptual distinction between the good and the bad.
Every piece of information that we possess is information about objects of the senses. But every such piece of information is also held only insofar as one has concepts, and every concept is drawn, however indirectly, from patterns of perceptible similarity and difference between objects. Thus everything that we believe could, in principle, be expressed in terms of the most elementary concepts drawn directly from perceptual experience.
That is what Rand means when she says that reality is objective and that reason is our only means of knowing about reality.
We are ourselves entities, albeit unusual ones: we are conscious, deliberating entities. We experience a kind of power over our own concentration and attention and we are aware that we have alternative courses of attention. Attention is necessary for the formation and application of concepts.
As living entities, our own existence is conditional on life-preserving action. Since what is pleasant is typically conducive to self-preservation, and what is painful is routinely destructive or hazardous from the point of view of self-preservation, in pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, we are in fact preserving our lives. However, life-preserving action for human beings requires the formation and application of concepts, which requires attention, which is voluntary. Other animals are adapted to survive in their environments with little creative thought, but human beings are not. The ability to form and apply concepts is chiefly of use for the discovery of causal patterns in objects around us, which is itself chiefly of use for the employment of those objects for self-preservation. This is known as productive labor and it is the central task of a human life.
That is Rand’s egoism.
Since productive labor is the central task of human life, individuals ought to protect their laboring capacity, and the results of their labor, from others who seek to preserve their lives without labor. Moreover, individuals ought to form organizations to carry out this protective function in a calm and systematic fashion. Thus, governments are appropriate, so long as they do nothing but protect individuals’ lives, liberty, and property.
That is laissez-faire capitalism.
All Objectivists are welcome to correct any misapprehensions in the above description. (The fact that it is superficial and incomplete, though, is not a reasonable complaint.)
Please see the next post for the alternative that I accept now, and thank you for reading.
When I was fifteen, I was in a bookstore, and I decided on a lark that I should learn about politics. So I picked up Machiavelli, and The Communist Manifesto, and something by this “Ane” Rand person that looked like the exact opposite, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. I liked that one best. I followed it up with The Fountainhead and its tale of individualism and integrity. I then read Rand’s entire body of work, started reading Austrian economists, and decided to be a philosopher so that I could help save the world from mysticism and collectivism. I joined Objectivist mailing lists, went to Objectivist conferences, wrote for Objectivist periodicals, and spoke about Objectivism to anyone who would listen and not a few who would not.
But Ayn Rand grew disappointing. Her individualism is inspiring. She understood that philosophy matters, and in her writing she tried to present a sweeping and ambitious philosophical system. But I slowly saw that the details were missing. When you fiddle with the details, you’re accused of missing the forest for the trees, but Rand was trying to plant a forest without planting any trees. It doesn’t work and you end up with a clearcut wasteland, both ugly and useless.
So I drifted from Rand in graduate school and settled on philosophical methods and claims associated with figures Rand abominated — Plato, Descartes, Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Hayek — along with figures that she respected — Aristotle and John Locke. I stopped thinking of philosophy as a battleground of ideas and started thinking of it as a conversation, a collaboration toward the truth. Later I seriously studied Rousseau and John Rawls and had to acknowledge that my libertarian convictions had been wrong.
But now Ayn Rand seems to matter more than ever before. Atlas Shrugged has been cited on the floor of the Senate, the extremely influential Rep. Paul Ryan got his start into politics because of Rand, and there are more Objectivists in academia and think-tanks — many with heavy corporate funding — than ever before.
And so far, not one single solitary person has given these Objectivists any reason to change their minds. Opponents of Objectivism virtually never understand Rand’s philosophy; they can’t diagnose what’s actually wrong with it and their failures just reinforce Objectivists’ sense of being both right and righteous. Professional philosophers don’t usually want to spend their time refuting marginal figures, but this figure has got to be refuted before she stops being marginal.
So I decided to write a book, From Rand to Reason: Why a Radical for Capitalism Became a Mild-Mannered Liberal. It’s a “why” book, not a “how” book — it’s not a memoir, it’s a sustained critical engagement and argument against Ayn Rand’s philosophy, touching also on economics, history, and psychology where Rand made claims in those fields. In it, I am offering the most sympathetic, plausible interpretation of Ayn Rand’s writings that I can generate, treating her just as I do every other philosopher whom I study, so that when I offer criticism, it will be correct. Beating up straw men isn’t very interesting. You can only win if you’re playing, and if you’re cheating, you’re not playing.