Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rights: Ayn Rand Got It Wrong

For those who feel nauseated by my articles criticizing the dubious Objectivist philosophy, you have my sincerest apologies. It's just that I feel compelled to expose the blatant fallacies that somehow made their way to Ayn Rand's psyche and constituted a substantial portion of her philosophy. Such fallacies manifest themselves most obviously on Ayn Rand's argument about the concept of human rights. 

“The source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A—and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.” 

This is an excerpt, and the heart of Ayn Rand's argument regarding rights. You can find the entirety of her take here. As soon as my eyes read this paragraph, I knew I got another philosophical critique article in my hands, albeit it might be a little short, given the shortness of the excerpt in question. But it doesn't matter.

Let's now begin inspecting Ayn Rand's argument. Of course, for those who have read my extensive critique of Ayn Rand's philosophical structure, they will know that Ayn Rand's claim that rights (which are moral concepts) are derived from the law of identity (a tautology that has no meaning) is fallacious, just like how fallacious it is to recklessly derive an ought from an is. To know more about how I disproved Rand's "solution" to the is-ought problem, feel free to read this article.

Rights did not come from the observable universe, or from man's nature, or from any fact. It is the consequence of human cognition; the mind alone conceived the notion of rights. Since the assertion that reality is related to rights is invalid, this seems to be the only plausible conclusion. The concept of rights was born with the creation of the Declaration of Independence. The concept of rights was born alongside the early stages of the Constitution and the State. It is the government (specifically the individuals that constitute it) that created the concept of rights. I do not claim to know what was running in the minds of the Founding Fathers when they laid down the foundations of the early government, but as far as logic is concerned, it seems that the only possible sources of the notion of rights, is the sophisticated mental acuity of man, as well as his emotions; the Fathers' compassion for man and the desire for equality not under a monarch or dictator but the law. Yes, Objectivists can hate on the fact that rights, a moral concept, a topic covered by ethics, may be determined by human emotions, but no amount of is-ought fallacies can override that fact. 

Objectivists can hate on the fact that the government is the one that creates and validates rights (as shown by how countries have differing Bill of Rights in terms of number and precision), but no amount of is-ought fallacies can deny this one. In the case of rights, Ayn Rand herself is denying reality. 

Perhaps Objectivists can loosen up a bit, provide a viable case for the brand of ethics--rights by extension--by considering that there are actually two major branches of ethics; descriptive and prescriptive.

A typical philosophy student would know what these two branches mean. Descriptive ethics simply describe how people viewed ethics through out time. This branch of ethics merely chronicle how the human perception of morality evolved through the ages; simply put, descriptive ethics is a study of how people think morality is.

Meanwhile, prescriptive ethics, as the name suggests, is the study of how morality should be. It is the more spontaneous branch of ethics, since it aims to answer the important ethical question; how should people act? Descriptive ethics merely narrate how people act; prescriptive ethics study how people should act. Perhaps this is where Objectivists should invest their energies, to stand a chance at being taken seriously by the academic world. Perhaps Objectivists should stop insisting their flawed causal argument that the universe gave birth to rights, and accept the fact that:

1. In terms of descriptive ethics, their concept of rights is merely how they think of rights.
2. In terms of prescriptive ethics, their concept of rights is merely how they think rights should be. 

The first one would be quite disadvantageous to the Objectivist movement, since their ethical grounds are flawed to begin with. Now, if they can just cut off the "rights are the results of reality" part and argue solely based on how they think rights should be (which means incorporating their moral view in prescriptive ethics), they might have the opportunity of officially being in the fray of the philosophical realm. Maybe, just maybe, they should accept that their morality is at the same level as any morality conceived by man's mind throughout the eons. Maybe, just maybe, instead of arguing that Objectivism is the proper moral code, they should argue that Objectivism is the best moral code. This will make things more logical somehow.

The rest of the paragraph need not much scrutiny.

Ayn Rand's definition of rights is sloppy and vague, not to mention that it is founded on severely fallacious grounds. The following sentences hardly help at all, since they scream "equivocation" all over the place. First, Ayn Rand used "right" to mean "correct," and then proceeded to mean the same word as the "right" we discussed earlier. If Ayn Rand's intention was not to equivocate, why in the dazes did she spout all those stuff about the right (correct) things man does as far as his life is concerned?

Also, I do not quite understand the "nature forbids him the irrational" part. Does this mean man is not allowed to be irrational? Then all of us might be rational, but of course this notion is extremely disputable. Perhaps Ayn Rand meant that being irrational is against nature, and that irrational people will die. Well, so far, I have not come across any statistical research that has established an irrefutable correlation between mortality and stupidity. What did Ayn Rand mean by that?

Oh, and just to add; why can't animals have rights too? There is no logical barrier that separates animals and the concept of rights. After all, rights are the creation of man's mind. Perhaps Objectivists would counter; because they're non-sentient beings. This goes against substantial scientific research findings, but they can choose to assert this idea all the same, and admit that the concept of "rights" is indeed a product of man's mind, not of the observable reality.

To be fair, I can agree with how Ayn Rand views the nature of rights (not their origins). I believe that rights should be aimed at an action, not at the goal or the object. Rights should allow man to pursue goals, not to readily have the goals. I agree that rights should not violate other rights, which means no one can enslave another for his personal goals. More importantly, while the concept of rights came with the concept of the law and state, I believe that the government should not just arbitrarily revoke rights, but seek to protect them through the rule of law. And finally, I can agree that the idea of animal rights is absurd and impractical. To this extent, I can agree with the Objectivists. If only they will heed my advice about the prescriptive ethics thing, I would have supported them... somewhat.

I remember John Galt saying that some philosophies of old brought chaos to this world. Some philosophies brought out the worst in man, threatening to plunge civilization into darkness. Perhaps it is true; just ask the Maoists who starved China until Deng Xiaoping came along. But it is not through logical fallacies that we can override the destructive effects of some philosophies. It is not through falsely bridging the is-ought gap, claiming that reality can give us morality, that we can solve the moral issues of our world. As Isaac Asimov once stated:

"If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them."

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