Friday, April 13, 2012

Examining Ayn Rand's Paper: Part 1

I've come across a pretty interesting letter delivered by Ayn Rand at the University of Wisconsin Symposium. The talk was entitled "Ethics in Our Time," held at Madison, Wisconsin in February 9, 1961.

As we all know, Ayn Rand is the founder of the Objectivist philosophy, which espouses the morality of rational self-interest and free market capitalism. This paper is interesting, in a sense that this details quite succinctly (although the paper itself is miserably long) how Ayn Rand managed to come up with Objectivism in the first place. As a skeptic of this controversial philosopher, I found it imperative to scrutinize this paper, in hopes of digging some dirt or something.

Check this link to read the whole thing without my comments. I'll just proceed to contentious parts. Basically, the paper argues that the world is corrupt because of the wrong moral code, and that an objective and rational moral code must be pursued; Objectivism. The paper criticizes that the world's philosophers weren't able to define an objective and rational moral code, and instead concluded that morality is beyond the reach of logic, and that it is governed by human whims. Ayn Rand begs to differ.

Scrutinizing Rand's philosophy

To challenge the basic premise of any discipline, one must begin at the beginning. In ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why does man need them?

I'll reserve my judgment for later, but... what did Ayn Rand mean by "values"? We'll see later.

“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.

Okay, so Ayn Rand meant "value" as something or someone to be treasured. So far, so good; without a valuer, no one can treat anything as a "value": thus, a sentient being is required for values to technically exist.

I quote from Galt’s speech: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”

Precision is important in philosophy, so I think I'll nitpick a little here. I think it's okay to leave the "existence or nonexistence" part alone, but what I don't quite understand is the part that this principle only applies to living entities. How can John Galt (Ayn Rand) say that the existence of inanimate matter is unconditional? They are un-caused? We can cause an inanimate matter to exist; we humans make toasters. Rain erodes soil, which is carried into the river to settle down and become sedimentary rocks. Inanimate matter is caused. The laws of nature caused inanimate matter to exist.

Furthermore, it is equally fallacious to bluntly assert that a living organism has a choice between life and death. This is because we will all die. It's an inevitable consequence. So technically, a living organism has no choice but to die. But it does have a choice of speeding up its death or slowing it down. This is the precise choice of an organism. But a crucial assumption must be made; that organism must have a brain. The human cell has no brain, but it is an organism. Yet I haven't seen a cell that only divides when it feels like doing it.

Furthermore, I suspect an equivocation in the word "life." On this sentence:

The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not:

Life is used to simply mean "biological existence." However, at the latter part of the paragraph:

Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action.

Life is used as the word "living" or "surviving." The consequences of equivocation in this part is most probably minimal, but it does make things a bit confusing. Then again, I agree with the last two sentences. Life must exist for values to exist. Only a living being can discern good or evil. However, if we are talking about moral good or evil, an assumption must be made; that living being must be intelligent enough to even recognize such a thing; like humans. However if we're talking about carnal good or evil, then animals and even some primitive life forms count.

To make this point fully clear, try to imagine an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or to lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests and no goals.

Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.

I completely agree.

An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.

A more precise term for that standard is the physiology of the organism, but okay. We're good.

No choice is open to an organism in this issue: that which is required for its survival is determined by its nature, by the kind of entity it is. Many variations, many forms of adaptation to its background are possible to an organism, including the possibility of existing for a while in a crippled, disabled or diseased condition, but the fundamental alternative of its existence remains the same: if an organism fails in the basic functions required by its nature—if an amoeba’s protoplasm stops assimilating food, or if a man’s heart stops beating—the organism dies. In a fundamental sense, stillness is the antithesis of life. Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.

Okay, I agree with what this paragraph has to say until the last sentence. Note that the world "value" is used to mean "something to be treasured," and that life is used to mean "biological existence."

The word "action" must be clarified, because not every self-sustaining action is volitional. You don't will to keep your heart beating; it just happens. While you must eat healthy stuff to keep your heart beating which will keep you alive (that is a willed action), it must be clarified that not every self-sustaining action in an organism is willed. An action that is not willed cannot value something. Heartbeat is a self-sustaining action, and it occurs in an organism; but it does not value anything.

An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.

I'm okay with how Ayn Rand defined "ultimate value," although I must ask; what is the moral attribute of something that neither furthers nor threatens an organism's life? My hunch is that it's amoral. I do have a more pressing inquiry though; what makes Ayn Rand say that an organism's life is its standard of value? If value in terms of self-preservation, then she is correct; however, she has not in any way provided any argument to support life as the absolute standard of value.

Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility. It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action. Epistemologically, the concept of “value” is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of “life.” To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.”

First sentence: It's true that you can't have lesser goals without an ultimate goal, but only in an absolute sense. You can compare goals relative to each other. Take the number system. We can't say that 3 is absolutely the least number, since there are numbers that stretch to negative infinity, but 3 is a lesser number relative to 4 and above.

Second sentence: Ayn Rand has not shown any proof that life is the ultimate value, or an end in itself; simply saying that life is a value kept by a constant process of action is not proof.

Third and fourth sentence: Sound. Although I must clarify that while you can't discuss values as separate from life, its inverse does not follow; it's not necessarily true that you can't discuss life as separate from values.

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that 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. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”

This is a major point of dissent on my part, since Ayn Rand claims to have bridged the is-ought gap... without proof. It's true that since living beings function and require sustenance, they should have something to treasure (under aforementioned assumptions); they should have "values." However, Ayn Rand has not in any way provided any concrete proof that life is the ultimate value, let alone a standard of morality. This is being subjective.

"The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do... to live."

Ayn Rand forgot that part. Ayn Rand hasn't bridged the is-ought gap. In fact she did nothing of the sort. The is-ought problem is concerned in determining whether there is a way to bridge facts to morality. Ayn Rand's musings logically led to the above statement; the nature of a living entity determines how it can preserve itself... that's it. Ayn Rand did not solve the is-ought problem.

The paper is pretty lengthy, so I'll come up with another article (as a continuation) as soon as I have free time.

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