Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ayn Rand

After doing a little reading about Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, I've come to the conclusion that her position on ethics is less convincing that Peter Singer's. And I didn't particularly like Singer's position.

Rand decries moral relativism, and tries to establish the objectivity of her positions by staking out the prerequisites for values. Her values lead her to advocate a libertarian political position.

Non-living matter has no values. Invulnerable, unchangeable robots have no values. From this she concludes that all values are about survival of mortal beings. Rand notes that rationality is vital to the survival of human beings, in the same way that teeth and claws are vital to the survival of lions. So, Rand builds an philosophy that demands constant use of one's rational faculties to better one's life:
The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values, and one's only guide to action. It means one's total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focusin all issues, in all choices, in all of one's waking hours.
The use of force in place of reason is regarded as contrary to human nature, and a regression to subhuman forms of behavior. Rand goes further than this to say that:
[Objectivist ethics] holds that the rational interests of men do not clash - that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
She states that:
The basic political principle of Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man - or group, or society, or government, - has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man.
Like Singer, Rand tries to take you from one step to another, each step sounding somewhat morally agreeable, until you reach a point at which you're somewhat agreeing with her final conclusion. The problems with this are two-fold. First, this technique is not even remotely objective. Second, she doesn't carry it off particularly well because she is more blatantly failing to defeat the is-ought problem along the way.

Rand's first fault is at step one where she connects survival and value. That life is a prerequisite for values does not imply that values must promote survival. Neither is this the case in actual fact. Many people think they ought to die at some point, and many people think there are things worth dying for. I quite suspect that there are many people who think humanity should die out rather than change into cyborgs or some other posthuman form.

While it is true that rationality forms the teeth and claws of humankind, it's not obvious that non-violence is always the best approach to survival. Though violence poses an increasing danger to human survival, it's not obvious to me that it always has been the case.

Finally, the idea that if we were all rational, our interests would not clash is a little far-fetched. We can interpret this with flexibility, but only by weakening the claim to a ridiculous degree.

This leads me to the high degree of ambiguity in the interpretation of her positions.

If a company is polluting my air, has physical force been initiated against me? Can I respond with physical force? Suppose that, due to my family's poor circumstances and due to an unfair labor market imposed by powerful corporations, my health deteriorates. Are the corporations initiating physical force against me? If this is the case, then we may be justified in anything from armed revolution to state regulation and management. Ambiguous.

If you and I rationally conclude we should compromise on our values to avoid retaliation of the other party, does that mean that our rational interests do not clash? If it does, then Rand's statement applies equally well to instrumentalism and moral relativism. Again, this is ambiguous to the point of being useless.

Due to all this ambiguity, I think that the libertarianism that Rand promoted wouldn't follow from her premises even if those premises were true.

There are some attractive elements to Rand's philosophy, but they don't follow from her basic principles. It's hard to criticize Rand's ideals about non-violence and her rejection of mysticism. However, in the end, I found I was disappointed with the lack of clarity and rigor in Rand's system. Her Aristotlean starting point is defunct and obsolete, and I think that if Rand didn't boot out mysticism a priori, her philosophy wouldn't have strayed far from that of Thomas Aquinas.


The best part about reading Rand was that it led me once again to David Hume. Every time I read about Hume, I am more impressed. If for no other reason than the early date at which Hume came to his conclusions, I have decided that Hume is my favorite philosopher. Not that I don't still love A. J. Ayer.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Saddam and the 10-year-old

A 10-year-old child in Texas hung himself while acting out the execution of Saddam Hussein. I guess I'll take this as my cue to weigh in on this issue.

The day of Saddam's execution, someone made a casual comment about the impending event. I don't recall what the comment was, nor who made it. I just remember thinking how perverse it was to be chatting about a killing as if it were the next episode of a sitcom.

I also heard that there were plans to prosecute the guy who recorded the killing on his mobile phone. As if killings done in our name should be done in private.

I'm sure that if Saddam had harmed anyone I loved, I would have wanted him dead. However, he didn't harm anyone I know, and I feel dirtier and less proud since he was executed in my name. I have to wonder what sort of justice it is that brings collateral damage to me and more so to a 10-year-old boy in Texas. Not any kind of justice I recognize. Revenge would be a better name for it.

The premise of the justice system should be that it promotes better social outcomes, and killing people doesn't actually do that. It's not about whether Saddam deserved to be killed, but whether the result of his execution will be beneficial. It's far from obvious that it will be.

Why don't we draw and quarter criminals anymore? Or burn women at the stake? Are the crimes of today lesser than those of the past?

No. We're just more civilized these days. The cruelty of these executions was once thought necessary to distinguish the trauma of the penalty from the trauma of everyday life. The problem is that these so-called "punishments" simply prolong our barbarity by desensitizing us to violence. It was right to put an end to barbaric practices in the past, and it is right to do so again.

Inferred Qualities May Be Objective But Not Absolute

Franklin Mason asked a good question in response to my last post on objectivity:
Why can't one hold that knowledge of evil - something itself perfectly objective - is always an inference from those other qualities? Why oppose "inferred quality" with "objective quality"?
In order to answer this, I think we need to be more precise. An inferred quality is inferred using some sort of procedure. For example, the quality of a square of a number is inferred by multiplying the number with itself. However, there may be an infinite number of procedures of inference (e.g., raising X to the power Y, adding 5 to X, associating X apples with Y dollars, etc.), and no procedure is fundamentally privileged.

Now, given a specification for a procedure, I think we can show that the inferred quantity or quality is objective. Indeed, computers actually do this. However, the choice of procedure is not absolute.

If you infer from an act that the act was good, and I infer that the act was evil, we are simply using different procedures. That procedure may be rule-based or some very complex function of brain chemistry. Both procedures could be shown to give objective answers to specific questions. However, we have no "meta-procedure" to show that one procedure is fundamentally privileged over the other. We cannot say that my rule-based morality is better than your gut morality because we have no privileged meta-procedure.

For example, if I say that formal morality beats intuition, and you say the opposite, how can we show that one answer is objectively better than the other? Wouldn't that require a meta-meta-procedure of inference which is equally arbitrary?

For another example, I think one could conceivably be sufficiently precise in describing a particular Christian morality that any act can be objectively categorized as good or evil within that moral system. However, why should we choose that Christian morality in the first place? Why not Muslim morality? Clearly, we will need some meta-procedure that prefers Christian morality over Muslim morality. However, any meta-procedure that privileges Christian morality is not privileged unless we assume a meta-meta-procedure. But the meta-meta-procedure isn't privileged, and so on, ad infinitum.

In conclusion, a procedure for inference can be objectively executable, but it cannot be absolutely selectable. This is why morality, being inferred rather than intrinsic, cannot be absolute.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Another Test for Objectivity [Preliminary]

In my last post, I defined subjectivity:
An attribute of a thing is subjective when it cannot be determined that the attribute is a feature of the thing itself rather than a consequence of our mental faculties.
I then proposed a test for objectivity that requires a high-precision external comparator. I still think that test is an excellent one, but there is a simpler one.

How do I know if an attribute of a thing that I detect is really in that thing, or whether it is being subjectively painted on by my faculties? If I smell a flower, how do I know that the scent is an attribute of the flower and not just my subjective impressions of the other attributes of the flower (e.g., it's shape, mass, color, sweetness, etc.)?

[The following is inspired from a gigantic thread over at Thinking Christian.]

Suppose that I have two baskets, one containing pungent cheese, the other containing flowers. Both are covered in cloth.

If our sense of smell were merely a subjective reaction to the other attributes of cheese and flowers, then we ought not be able to sniff out the contents of each basket without knowing the other attributes of the basket contents.

Of course, we can predict which basket is which just from the scent of each basket. I can effectively hide all the other attributes of a thing but scent, and still identify the hidden object.

By this method, we find that color is objective, too. Instead of baskets, let's use boxes with frosted glass on top. Thanks to the glass, you can isolate the color from the other attributes of the object. If you know that we are dealing with a yellow moon and a green clover, you can predict which is in which box by the color seen through the frosted glass. You can test that your sense of color predicts the owner of the attribute.

However, the equivalent procedure for aesthetics is quite different. We don't sense a beautiful painting without seeing the painting first. Rather, we see the painting, and then we know whether it is beautiful to us.

The same is true for morality. Can we "smell a rat" even when an evil act is cloaked from us? Nope. We only feel moral distaste when the other attributes of the moral act are revealed to us. Only when the con man's ploy is exposed in detail do we react with disgust. But, if morality were like scent, shouldn't we sense the disgust in the surrounding "ether," then predict that a morally disgusting act was taking place?

Now, imagine what our sense of smell would be like if it behaved the same way as our morality. We would be unable to predict the contents of the baskets by smell. We would only know the smell of the contents when they were otherwise revealed (visually, by touch, by verbal description, etc).

Indeed, there's a fun parallel with classifications of moral acts and classifications of odors. Suppose again that sense of smell is like sense of morality. If instead of revealing the contents of the basket, our colleague simply tells us that the basket contains a fresh-picked flower of some unspecified species, we would immediately smell a floral aroma. Just by having been provided information about the contents of the basket! Even if our colleague has a dead rat in the basket, we would still smell a floral scent. Would we then insist that smell was objectively in the cheese and the flower (as opposed to our reaction to their other properties)? I don't think we would.

We never get to test our sense of morality by sensing moral disgust, then predicting what the act was that made us feel that way. It's always the other way around. Morality is always a reaction, subsequent to all the other facts of the case. It's not the case that we sense evil, then predict the crime. It only happens in reverse order.

To summarize:
I propose that an attribute be objective when there is symmetry between (i) my detecting a thing and predicting the corresponding attribute, and (ii) my detecting the attribute and predicting the thing that owns that attribute.
This requires that we be able to isolate the test attribute of a thing from the other attributes of that thing.