Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Rand Did Not Solve the Is-Ought Problem

Ayn Rand is quoted:

AR) In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, (AR

The claim isn't that reality has no bearing on what values one should choose or how one should choose them. The claim is that reality does not constitute a completely objective determination of those values. The claim is that ethics is not reducible to biology in the same way that biology is reducible to chemistry. My own approach to the justification of values is summarized at

AR) the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity *is*, determines what it *ought* to do. (AR

This is an instantiation (or at best a denial) of the naturalistic fallacy, not a solution to it. Yes, it's a fact that a certain category of goal-directed behaviors -- notably reproduction and self-preservation, or more generally, maximizing inclusive fitness for the relevant replicator-- tend to get selected for, and lead to phenomena that are far more interesting than any other kinds of behaviors that could be considered goal-directed. But nothing about that fact deterministically creates any truly normative truths for such behavers. Rather, it creates instrumental truths -- e.g. IF I am to increase my genes' inclusive fitness, THEN I need to take the following actions. For any purportedly fundamental goal, it can always be asked why that ought to be a fundamental goal. There of course is some explanatory insight in the answer "because any other goal decreases the inclusive fitness -- and perhaps even is incompatible with the existence of -- the goal-seeker". However, that insight hardly constitutes the universal normative leap from "is" to "ought" that is the holy grail of ethics. Rand's purported solution is refuted -- not confirmed -- by every suicide. The fact that there are more breeders and non-suiciders than there are non-breeders and suiciders is something that biologists can readily explain as the result of an interesting chain of mindless accidents and inexorable consequences. Such mindlessness and inexorableness no more yields normative truths than does the geometric inevitability of the paths of impacting billiard balls.

Rand's purported solution to the Is-Ought problem can be seen to be radically contingent on our universe's harsh laws of thermodynamics. If in our universe there were agents -- like Christianity's legendary Yahweh -- that were not constrained by thermodynamics to have inherited the usual suite of goals common to all living things, then Rand's allegedly objective value system would just be struck dumb, offering no compelling guidance to such an agent. I'm not impressed by an alleged solution to the Is-Ought problem that doesn't also solve the Yes, I'm very sympathetic to the values that the primate Rand endorses, because as her fellow primate I'm pushed by the same evolutionary winds into accepting those values too. If Rand had been an intelligent eusocial insect instead of an intelligent primate, her methodology would have led her to endorse the opposite of her individualist values. She could I suppose claim that a deeper constant value is just being contextualized differently in the two cases. But again, the essence of the Naturalist Fallacy is to take everything that Is and put a Certified Ought sticker on it. That she does so consistently doesn't make it any less fallacious. (And that it's fallacious doesn't justify putting an Ought Not sticker on, either.)


Al said...

I don't know, man. What am I missing? Your refutation is that Rand's morality for humans on earth doesn't apply to gods and bugs? Or creatures in some imaginary place?

Brian Holtz said...

Humanity is becoming more godlike every year. I question how objective/universal her ethics can be if technology and science can undermine her premises in just a few decades. If Randians are as humble about the scope of Rand's alleged accomplishment as you suggest, then that's news to me.

T. F. Stern said...

I would say that humanity is not becoming more godlike every year as Brian suggested. A more accurate statement would be that we hope to one day become more like God; but that is not a group type of statement, rather it can only be measured one individual at a time.

I have difficulty with the premise of these kinds of discussion, mostly due to my perception of man's true nature, that we are in fact sons and daughters of God. That we are intended to grow and become more like God is then a moot point; that we shirk our obligation to do so is our shame.

Al said...

Humility is an important concept to me. I understand it as meaning: listening carefully to understand what someone is really saying and then comparing it to what The Universe is saying (as I understand it). What The Universe is saying is Natural Law - it tells you what you can get away with. A careful examination of history and economics will tell you that you can get away with dumping the consequences of your actions on your friends and neighbors for a while, but eventually being an A-hole will come back and bite you in the ass.

There are few humans who want to leave a legacy of ass bites to the ones they love.

Morality is a matter of persuasion more than biology (though loving your family, friends and physical and intellectual offspring seems to be a biological imperitive for humans), and the importance of what I've brought up is the core of what we need to be convincing our neighbors of.

Ooh! Need to work on that grammar.