Third Letter to a Young Objectivist: Ethics

[For an explanation of this series, go here.]

Dear Young Will,

I'm sorry; it's been a while. You'll be glad to know that I've been busy and happy. I hope you've been the same.

So, where were we? Oh, last time, I wrote to you about Objectivism's inadequate conception of human sociality. This lack points to the general inadequacy of the Objectivist ethics.

Before I get going here, let me remind you that I don't pretend to be offering you drop-dead arguments. I am simply letting you know how things look from here, on the other side of a decade's education, formal and informal. I know you're a tenacious debater, and I certainly encourage you to bare your teeth and dig in. It feels good. I know. I know. But follow me a little way, and try to see what I'm trying to show, if you have the patience. Anyway, no need to implore you. I know you're intellectually curious. I know you're listening, even when you're pouncing — that it only sinks in, really, when you tumble off target and wonder why.

It's easy to see why Ayn Rand's ethics is attractive . . .

For us, it was a sense of liberation, and an expansion of our ideas of life's possibilities. I'll always be grateful for that. Rand encourages us to be excellent, to apply our powers to their limit, to make our lives adventures, and to make ourselves art. It's thrilling. I remember sitting on the banks of the Mississippi, right about where Emma crossed to ice and buzzing to the idea that I didn't need to apologize for my ambition, or get permission to be AWESOME. Awesomeness was, I discovered, my right and obligation. I simply would not have done what little I have done without this impetus to be better, to push myself harder, to expect more from life. I may never have left Iowa! (Not that there's anything wrong with not leaving Iowa, but I needed to.) In that respect, Ayn Rand's philosophy certainly worked for me (even if it did lead to a few moments of dogmatism, pomposity, and alienation) and I hope never to lose sight of that.

But as a system of philosophical ethics, it does not withstand critical scrutiny. When's the last time you read the “Objectivist Ethics”? Right on the second page of the essay it looks like Rand is in the middle of a fundamentally incoherent combination of assertions. Rand, at one and the same time, wants to say that she has discovered, circa 1960, an adequate code of ethics, and that an adequate code of ethics is objectively necessary for life itself. Can you hear the dissonance? It's quite a wonder we ever got to 1960.

I'm not making it up, Will. The clash is quite stark and striking.

In her peculiar ventriloquistic way Rand quotes John Galt, as if he is not she, but an altogether separate authority on ethical matters to whom she naturally defers when the critical point must be pressed with maximum dramatic force:

Yes, this is an age of moral crisis . . . Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not a return to morality . . . but to discover it.

The correct reaction to this is, “Huh?”

Forthcoming technicalities aside, this is truly the fundamental problem of the Objectivist ethics. I made this point in a different way in the post of human sociality. Rand's ethical theory rests on a several empirical claims that are quite obviously false. If we need ethics, or the Objectivist ethics specifically, in order to survive, then we should not now exist. But let's imagine that Rand is being dramatic, and make the point rather more weakly. If Rand is right, then it should not be possible for people who flout the tenets of the Objectivist ethics to have long, happy lives. But anyone can confirm that it is not only possible, but common. In other words, Rand's claim is that the Objectivist ethics is a necessary condition for a certain kind of life, a life we have a reason to aspire to. But even if we do in fact have a reason to aspire the kind of life Rand envisions, you don't need the Objectivist ethics to get you there. So Rand's theory fails on its own terms.

But let me know go over some more technical problems with Rand's theory.

What Reason Requires

Rand argues that the point of a code of morality, “a code of values accepted by choice,” is to facilitate the individual's life or survival “man qua man.” Here is Rand's main claim:

Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is evil.

Rand then makes the following claim:

Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are thinking and productive work.

Now, in the next paragraph, Rand acknowledges that the antecedent of the previous passage is, strictly speaking false. And thus she sees that the “method of survival proper to a rational being” doesn't actually follow.

Here is what she says:

If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine of sounds and motions they learned from others, never making an effort to understand their own work, it still remains that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think and to discover the motions they are repeating. The survival of the mental parasites depends on blind chance; their unfocused minds are unable to know whom to imitate, whose motions it is safe to follow. They are the men who march into the abyss, trailing after any destroyer who promises them to assume the responsibility they evade: the responsibility of being conscious.

I think this is an exceedingly peculiar passage. In the next paragraph, Rand makes a similar claim about those who would attempt to survive by predation. She then asserts that this amounts to an attempt “to survive by the method of animals.” But no living thing can survive by a method proper to a kind different from its own. So, she concludes, “Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of the moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.”

This is fantastically overstated. Here in Washington, DC there are hundreds of thousands of people who, basically, earn their living through a system of political predation. But many of them live a very long time. Many of them are happy. And there is no reason to believe that the US is going to collapse Atlas Shrugged-style any time soon. These people aren't really risking much by choosing to work for HUD instead of Google. It is just a plain fact about the world that systemic parasitism can be and often is stable.

And, of course, “mental parasites” who live by “imitating and repeating, like trained animals” need not be in the business of predation. What is Rand's argument here? That these folks face the danger of imitating the wrong person, or taking the wrong advice. She does not deny that people can survive this way. But if they do, it is by “blind chance.”

Let's approach this by backing up to the claim that “everything a man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort.” This strikes me as an extremely silly thing to say for someone who wants to defend capitalism and the division of labor. Indeed, among the main reasons to admire capitalism is that we need to discover and produce almost nothing we need. The system, the network of market institutions, practically ensures my survival. I need only find some kind of gainful employment. And if I can learn by imitation or repetition some set of behaviors that is economically lucrative, then it seems that survival will be fairly secure.

The trouble here is that Rand, yes, drops context, namely the social and institutional context in which we are pursuing survival and happiness. There is no set of practices that are uniquely human means of survival. What we need to do, what we need to be like, to survive and flourish, depends on this context. If we are embedded in a negative-sum social-institutional context, then survival requires predation, and thus, if we want to survive, reason demands it. If we are embedded in a vast set of positive-sum market institutions and in a large, stable liberal welfare state, then both imitation and benign predation are quite practical means of survival. In this setting, where effective practices have been selected by their conduciveness to success in existing institutions, surviving by imitating is pretty reliable, not at all blind luck.

There is no doubt that Rand is correct in the limited sense that human survival generally requires the deployment of distinctively human cognitive capacities. And Rand may be right in the sense that a life of discovery, reason, and a certain kind of self-sufficiency and productivity can be distinctively attractive and valuable. (I think she is right about this.) But her claims about what exactly reason demands of us are incredibly under argued. And the argument for the Randian life of reason actively and vigorously applied, as attractive as such a life might be, simply fails to secure the conclusion that no other way of applying human cognitive capacities is really human, or that no other life can so surely succeed in securing survival.

Survival and Reason

As I've stressed before, the Objectivist ethics is severely handicapped by its lack of a credible theory of human nature. I've mentioned before that Objectivism doesn't take human sociality sufficiently seriously. Now let me say that Rand's conception of “reason” has little to be said in its favor, and this a big problem for the Objectivist ethics.

Rand clearly assumes that human beings have a capacity called “reason.” Furthermore, she assumes that reason has a proper function: to secure human survival. Rand is equivocal about the source of normativity in her theory, and this has caused a lot of debate among Objectivists. Sometimes, she argues as if one is obliged to employ reason in accordance with its proper function because it is its proper function. (Objectivists with a taste for Aristotle like this kind.) When she is being more careful, she stresses that if one wants to live, then one must take the necessary means, and that reason, because it is the only human capacity whose natural function is the “non-contradictory identification of reality,” and that because this is a necessary means for survival, reason is therefore our uniquely necessary means for survival.

The difficulty for Objectivism is (1) there is no single cognitive capacity that counts as “reason”, and (2) even if there was, its proper function does not aim primarily at individual survival.

This is a complicated subject, and much could be said. Let me just state, but not argue for, my current beliefs. I think the mind is modular, if not massively so. Which is to say there are many separate and distinct cognitive capacities, modules, circuits, what have you, whose function is to perform a relatively limited set of tasks. Different modules operate according to different principles, and formally similar problems will be tackled differently if they arise in different domains that activate different modules. What we think of as norms of reason, as best exemplified by the principles of formal logic, mathematics, decision theory, probability theory, etc., are not necessarily natural or native to the mind, i.e., not necessarily the principles according to which our various reasoning modules function. What we think of as capital R reason requires a kind of habituated coordination among cognitive capacities, and this is not what these capacities are “designed” for by natural selection. Reason, in this sense, is a cultural achievement that is passed down by imitation and training, and continues to be refined. Reason persists because its application does improve the prospects of human life. However, improving the prospects of human life is not reason's natural function. It has no natural function, because reason in this sense is cultural or conventional, not natural.

But suppose reason is natural, and has a natural function, in the sense that reason is an adaptation that was selected through the process of evolution to perform a certain class of tasks. The natural function of the heart is to pump blood. And the natural function of reason is, what? To reason? Well that's the proximate function. Reasoning serves some further end (the non-contradictory identification of reality?), just as pumping blood serves some further end (moving oxygen, etc., around). If we think it makes any sense at all to say that an organism as a whole has a natural function, then it is to maximize inclusive fitness, i.e., to maximize the representation of its genes in future generations. Survival can be instrumental to inclusive fitness, but it is not necessarily so.

For example, if I am not going to have any more children, and have to choose between saving myself, or saving my brother (who has approximately half my genes), who is more likely than not to have ten more children (each having approximately 1/4 of my genes), then expected inclusive fitness is clearly best served by sacrificing myself for my brother. If reason is supposed to serve the natural function of the organism, inclusive fitness, then it should demand that I sacrifice myself, and not to try to continue to survive.

Of course, even if reason's proper natural function was the maximization of inclusive fitness, there is no reason we should accept that as normative. What if I don't want to maximize my inclusive fitness? (And I don't.) Then I should use reason for something else.

As it happens, I think that reason, the coordination of various cognitive capacities to operate in accordance with principles of logic, probability, game and decision theory, etc., is not natural in the relevant sense, and so the question of the normativity of natural functions (call it “natural law” if you like) doesn't arise. But then the need to justify reason becomes more salient.

If reason is like ballet, and requires the refined training of natural capacities that are designed for other purposes, then it becomes an interesting question why we should employ reason, and under what circumstances. It also become obvious that we don't necessarily HAVE to use reason in this sense. Our natural cognitive capacities used according to their natural functions were sufficient for human survival for most of the history of our species. (However, it may be plausible to think that reason and modern institutions co-evolved, in which case flourishing in our institutional context will require the development and application of reason.)

This line of thinking also suggests that, because reason is not natural, the over-application of reason may have adverse psychological consequences. If so, then we need to learn when to let it go. “I need to know the reasons why you love me. Exactly what kind of value do I add to your life? How do you justify your devotion to me?”, for example, are things that are often better left unsaid, and unthought. Rand seems to think that if we don't volitionally turn on the high beams of reason, then we will simply be in the dark, living like monkeys or dogs or something. But, no. We revert to our default human cognitive capacities, which are automatic, very clever, very fast, and probably better in an pinch, although they are prone to “errors” according to the normative standards of reason. Interestingly, my take on reason does entail that the individual development of reason, and the application of reason, is not instinctive, and thus will require a certain kind of effort, although it is also reasonable to think that the effort required will diminish as it becomes a habit.

Furthermore, it seems to me that my conception of reason is in some ways more compatible with some of Rand's statements than her own. For example, I can make better sense of the claim that we need to “discover” a rational morality. As the institutional context of human life has changed, and has become increasingly artificial, our default cognitive capacities have become increasingly insufficient to promote our flourishing, for we now find ourselves in an environment to which they are not adapted. We have not hitherto sufficiently recognized the co-dependence of modern institutions and the cultural evolution of reason. In order to best flourish within modern institutions, and to better bend them to our conception of a good life, we must more consciously devote ourselves to the norms of reason and their refinement and application in human life.

I'm not sure that I buy this, but I think it makes better sense than what Rand provides us. I think my own view is that one of the virtues of modern institutions, especially market institutions, is that they create a structure of incentives in which the refinement and application of reason can really pay off. (You're having a hard time with the idea of reason as cultural/conventional, aren't you?) And everyone, even those who aren't so devoted to the cultivation and use of reason, are wildly rewarded. But those who aren't so devoted to reason aren't therefore parasites living subhuman lives.

Now, there is the distinct possibility that people who rely less on reason and more on default human cognitive processes are going to have a hard time seeing just how much they benefit from the reasoners. This is one of the most valuable abiding lessons of Atlas Shrugged. But the implication isn't that everyone is obliged to become Galtian reasoners. The implication is that there need to be cultural and institutional safeguards that protect reason, invention, and discovery. If there is a social analogue to the idea of an evolutionary stable strategy, let's call it a socially stable strategy, a society in which a minority of the population is devoted fairly seriously to the norms of reason while the rest are less devoted can be a socially stable strategy. The implication for ethical theory is that within the context of modern institutions, there are a plurality of lives that may be conducive to life and flourishing. The kind of life envisioned in the Objectivist ethics may be attractive in some ways, and may help contribute to a good society by helping to promote the refinement and application of reason, but it is not rationally mandatory for those wishing to live flourishing human lives.

(Further suggestive-but-incomplete Nozickian digression . . . Capitalism and reason developed together, but this isn't obvious. Proponents of reason missed this, and indeed thought reason had been sufficiently refined to transcend capitalism and rationally plan a good society. This turned out to be a disaster. But this is a new sense in which capitalism contained the seeds of its own opposition, and in which anti-capitalism was unwittingly (and ironically) anti-reason. The next step in the development of reason is its self-consciousness about its limits, and its contribution to a dynamic unplanned order. Hayekian Hegel!)

I've written enough, Will. There is a lot more I could say, but let me just try to make explicit a few things that are implicit in what I've just said. You need to find a better picture of human nature. I suggest evolutionary psychology and anthropology. This will change how you think about reason. And pay attention to the way Rand tends to drop context about the principles for living a good life. The kind of institutions we find ourselves living within matters a lot for the kinds of values and virtues that will make our lives go well. Think harder about the way the viability of moral principles depends on the expectations and beliefs of the people who constitute your context for action.

I hope you take something away from this. I look forward to hearing your argument why reason is natural, and why we are bound to its strictest norms all the time in every domain of life simply in virtue of not choosing to kill ourselves each morning. I believe that if you try in earnest to make this argument succeed, you'll increasingly feel the weight of my objections.

Truly yours,