So an Objectivist reader, Michael M, took issue and decided to challenge some of my assumptions; and I decided to respond, and challenge some of his assumptions, and so on. Each comment got longer and longer as the pile of threads on the ground kept getting bigger and more tangled.
So I've decided, now that the conversation has moved way beyond educational theory, to pull the conversation over here to a new post and comment thread. That way, we won't be cluttering up the previous post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.
We'll instead be cluttering up this post with article-length, intricately-reasoned comments.
So this post is intended to continue the conversation that was started in the Mushrooms post. So if it seems like it's starting a little abruptly, go read the Mushrooms post and all its comments first; and if you're still interested, you can wade through what follows.
Michael M, in your latest comment you said:
However, you chose to use Objectivism to bludgeon your opponent even though your grasp of the philosophy is scant at best. There is no excuse for such behavior.I'm presuming from the context that you're referring to statements like this one from my original post:
But there are some problems with [VanDamme's preceding argument]. I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've heard plenty of atheists make this claim, but I've yet to hear even a definition of "dignity of the individual" that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it. And while the Objectivists certainly claim that Reason supports their views, there are all kinds of collectivist atheists (such as Marxists, and Fascists in the Mussolini mold) who make the countering claim that Reason supports their collectivist ends, which are very different from those desired by the Objectivists.And you're saying that it's rather unfair for me to make these claims, when my grasp of the objectivist philosophy--especially its take on Reason and morality--is "scant at best." This is a fair accusation, and I'd like to offer a bit of explanation.
In judging the worth of any system of morality, it's important to consider (among other things) the question, "Why should I submit myself to this system? What are the consequences if I ignore this system, or intentionally defy it?"
Now, my understanding of the Objectivist take on Reason-based morality is certainly limited, but there are a few points that are quite clear to everyone who has even the most passing acquaintance with it. Objectivism thought concludes that the only legitimate basis for adult human interaction is one of mutual consent. This principle, if expressed society-wide, would manifest itself economically in free market and strong property rights; and would manifest itself politically in a very limited government, concerning itself with law enforcement, contract enforcement, defense of the homeland, and not a whole lot else. Schemes that use government power in the service of general wealth redistribution are absolutely rejected. Objectivist thought further concludes that the individual has intrinsic worth that is not tied to the needs of any collective. As a consequence of this, no person is expected to live his life for the benefit of others; all coerced collectivism is rejected. People may come together for mutual benefit; but all people have the right to be disassociated from any organization. As regards religion, you yourself have explained where objectivist thought stands:
In a reason/mysticism dichotomy, Marxism and Christianity are not opposites. They are on the same side. Marxism demands faith in a collective that cannot be measured. Christianity demands faith in a supernatural being that cannot be defined. Therefore, neither is able to place the use of physical force under objective control, because truth to each is subjective. In the hands of either, governments inevitably embrace tyranny.Additionally, "altruism" is considered a dirty word in Objectivist circles. My copy of The Fountainhead has brief notes at the end about Objectivist principles, and states (beginning with a Rand quote):
"Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus, Objectivism rejects any form of altruism--the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.Everything I've written above is apparent to any first-time reader of The Fountainhead.
Now let's explore the question, "what happens if I ignore this moral system?" I'll do so by giving a couple of examples.
First, there are my parents. They've been Christians their whole lives, and they have successfully passed on their faith to their three sons. My parents also happen to be happy, fulfilled people, still in love with each other after 40+ years; and I and my brothers are very happy to have them as examples in our lives. Now, as Christians, they are guilty of the unreason of mysticism--which, if I understand correctly from the context of your writing, manifests itself as an unshakable belief in something which was not revealed to them through Reason, but which nevertheless motivates their actions. And yet, so far as this son can observe, they are completely content with the lives they live.
Now, what would they gain by rejecting their religious faith and embracing Objectivist thought? If they're already living happy, fulfilled, well-lived lives that are an inspiration to those around them, I'm not sure what they'd gain by switching that would make it worth their while. Even if Objectivists are right about everything and my parents' faith is being placed in an illusion, there are still several tangible things that would be strained or destroyed if they made the switch--including the friendships of many of the people they know, and the relationships with many, many close and beloved family members. And it's not like Objectivism has a version of Hell into which they'll be cast unless they make that switch. I can't see anything truly worthwhile that they'd gain, that would make up for what they'd lose, if they rejected their Mysticism and embraced pure Reason.
Second, and on the complete opposite end of the scale, consider Robert Mugabe--the dictator of Zimbabwe. This man has, through nearly thirty years of (admittedly irrational, racist, redistributionist) misrule, turned what was once the thriving breadbasket nation of southern Africa into a nightmare of a place. Now, I'm perfectly willing to agree with any Objectivist on the folly of the policies this man implemented that brought his country to its current state. However, suppose he decided suddenly to embrace Objectivist ethics, and:
- disbanded most of the police,
- gave the displaced (white) farmers their land back,
- announced that he was accepting the true results of the recent election and stepping down,
- thus kicking out the entire administration serving under him?
Third, and somewhere in the middle: consider all those politicians who stay in power by hoovering up all the taxpayer money they can, to bestow goodies on their constituents. Now, you could argue--and I would entirely agree--that this is highly irrational as a matter of economic policy (and as a matter of the liberty of the people). However, so long as the people are willing to vote themselves other people's money, the politician has an interest in redistributing other people's wealth in such a way as to keep himself in power.
Now, suppose a senator has a change of heart, and decides "this is irrational." What then? Well, the people of that state still have to pay taxes to support all the other senators' grandiose Monuments to Me, but they aren't getting any of the goodies because of their senator's adherence to principle. Such a senator loses influence within the Senate (because of their refusal to play the mutual back-scratch game), loses influence among the Lobbyists (because of their refusal to provide favors), and often influence among the voters (partly because voters often want the pork, and partly because the campaign contributions dry up when the lobbyists go away). So if the senator values his career--and I suspect that most find it a very comfortable and satisfying career--he will generally find it against his tangible interests to embrace the Objectivist system of morality.
So, "What happens if I ignore this moral system?" Depending on the circumstance, I may even wind up better off than I would otherwise have. There are just too many cases of people benefiting (or at least not suffering) by embracing mysticism, and there are just too many cases of people personally benefiting by embracing redistributionist policies. We're back to Job's dilemma, only in this case there's no Divine Justice to make everything work out in the end. This is what I meant when I said,
I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual.Emphasis added. A universal system of morality is, by definition, one with no exceptions; no one escapes the consequences of violating the system. As my above argument shows, this does not describe Objectivist ethics.
And this has some very serious real-world consequences.
Consider the nature of political power: it is, largely, a collective affair. That is, political power comes from a large number of people working toward a common goal. If one person storms the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" he merely gets arrested or shot by the police. But if a million people storm the streets with a bunch of guns while yelling, "Revolution!" then the government has a big problem on its hands.
This very fact creates strong incentives in any society--especially, but not exclusively, democratic ones--to put together collective movements. The cry, "Our lives could be much better if we could just join together and act as one!" is very seductive, precisely because there's a certain amount of truth to it. If you happen to belong to a downtrodden class of people (or a class of people that thinks it's downtrodden, or a class of people that thinks it's a class), often times it is possible to form a faction that gets more respect in the political sphere than the individuals would if they didn't combine their efforts. Now, this results in a political landscape where everyone's trying to steal from everyone else, which certainly counts as irrational in my book. But....
But imagine that you're one of the noble few who refuses to play this game. What then? Well, you wind up being the stuckee that gets to pay for everyone else's class consciousness. The principled Objectivist who rejects the pork, who rejects being part of a faction (with the collective discipline that being part of such a faction entails), winds up tangibly worse off than everyone
else. Now, the Objectivist could argue that his actions are in fact still rational, that they at least are not contributing to the degradation of freedom and prosperity that the redistributionist factionalism is committing--and I'd agree with that. But note that this is an altruistic argument, at least the way the term is widely understood: the Objectivist would be intentionally choosing to pursue a course of action in the name of the greater good, at tangible cost to his own wealth and political power.
Now consider what politics would look like, if Objectivist principles were dominant. There would be no factions out there demanding they be given a chunk of other people's wealth, or that industry be regulated to their specs; there would be no politicians trying to confiscate tax money to send back to the voters; and businesses would rise and fall based entirely on how well they navigated shifting market conditions. Now, how do we get from our faction-ridden, redistributionist, increasingly regulated system to this Objectivist Nirvana?
Well, at some point (among other things) the factions have to be disbanded. But think about what that entails: the people who make up these factions give up a great deal of their own political power when their faction gets disbanded. It improves the lot in life of everyone else, but it can cost a lot to the people who constituted it. There are a lot of livelihoods tied to the ethanol subsidy, after all; if all that government money went away, a lot of jobs that were paid for with that money would go away too. So while everyone may in theory want these factions to go away, everyone wants to start with the other factions. No one wants to be the one to go first. That would take a whole lot of altruism on the part of a whole lot of people.
But if it's tough being the only people in society who don't have a faction to represent one's interests and bring home the goodies (as you're having to pay for everyone else), it's awfully nice being the only people in society who do have a faction to represent one's interests. A society where everyone else operates on the market system (thus resulting in a prosperous economy), where you get their wealth distributed to you? I suspect the last few redistributionist factions to be disbanded would fight like the dickens. It's good to be the last ethnic militia in a war-torn country to have to give up one's guns....
In short, it's really, really hard to see how we get from the system we have now to an Objectivist ideal. There are just way too many incentives for people to behave "irrationally"; the Objectivist may claim that things will work out better in the long run, and they may well be right; but that's cold comfort to the corn farmer whose livelihood depends on the ethanol subsidy. It would take an awful lot of altruism for him to oppose that.
I don't think it's any surprise how few truly libertarian societies there have been through human history. No wonder the Objectivist society in Atlas Shrugged could only come to power after the previous order had completely collapsed; it's hard to imagine any other way such a society could form. There are just too many malign incentives out there.
But suppose we actually managed to get there. We now have a society run along Objectivist lines. Well, how do we manage to keep it an Objectivist society? Consider the fact that political power comes from numbers, acting in concert; sooner or later, some group of people will figure out that they can improve their wealth and power in this society by grouping together as a faction and demanding some kind of redistribution or other favorable treatment.
And to the extent that one faction succeeded in getting special treatment, it would be much, much harder to prevent the next one, and the next. I suspect that an Objectivist society would be a meta-stable system, like a pencil balanced on its point; it lasts so long as everyone buys in. The moment enough people in power can be flattered or intimidated sufficiently to allow one form of redistribution or regulation, it's Katie Bar The Door as everyone else will find it to be in their own financial interest to get in on the rush before they're left as the chumps paying for everyone else's goodies.
So where am I going with all this? A quick review:
1. Objectivism holds that Reason is a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent, system of morality. This is Objectivism 101.
2. Objectivism holds this system of morality advocates a society based on mutual consent, free-market captialism, and individual self-esteem and worth. This system of morality rejects all forms of altruism. This is also Objectivism 101.
3. However, if one wishes to bring an Objectivist society into existence, altruism on the part of its inhabitants is absolutely necessary. My argument on this point--which relies on nothing more than my own personal reflections on the nature of political power, my own reading of the news, and statements 1 and 2--I just described in great detail.
(And although I don't make the argument above--collective action on the part of Objectivists to keep it Objectivist may be necessary, too.)
4. And if someone rejects the morality of the Objectivist, that person does not necessarily suffer thereby. In fact, as the example of my parents illustrates, they can live quite well, in peace with themselves and their neighbors. My argument on this point relies on nothing more than my own personal observations of the news, and of the people in my life, and on statements 1 and 2.
After considering all this, I came to a conclusion that somewhere in statements 1 and 2 there is a contradiction. After all, if you have to have widespread altruism to create a society that rejects altruism in all forms, that looks to me like a contradiction. Where exactly is the contradiction? I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect it lies in one of two places: either a Reason-based society does not reject collectivism as thoroughly as Objectivism thinks, or (my own personal belief, which I've outlined above) Reason is not a sufficient basis for a universal, consistent system of morality.
I have a bit of a confession to make. After I came across the contradiction in statement 3 above, I rather gave up trying to look too much further into the writings of Objectivism. I suppose it's possible that I've missed some important reasoning on the part of an Objectivist philosopher that squares this circle; but at some point, when you're evaluating a philosophy that appears to have contradictions, you eventually give up, decide that what you're looking for is probably not there, and move on.
Michael M, I'm sure--after reading your eloquent description of why and how you left your younger faith--you can appreciate this last point.