Monthly Archives: July 2014

On Objectivism

After browsing a whole lot of blogs talking about real (i.e. political/philosophical) issues, I found a favorite: Revolution is Free. The author, Erika, wrote an interesting post on Altruism from an Objectivist perspective. I posted a thought experiment as a comment to that post, and include it at the bottom of this post.

I did read about Objectivism some time ago, on Wikipedia and some libertarian sites. I decided I couldn’t agree with it, mostly because of its conclusions about altruism. This was while I remained a Christian; after my deconversion, I reconstructed my ethics and found myself with a model very similar to Objectivism – due mostly, I’m sure, to subconscious plagiarism rather than the objectivity of morality.

Objectivism is the brain child of Ayn Rand, and… Well, here’s her explanation from Atlas Shrugged:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

This is almost what I believe, but I think it’s incomplete. I really ought to read Rand’s books, but for now I’ll give a snapshot of my thoughts.

Reason as the only absolute? Yep, I agree there. Our mental faculties fail us regularly, but that’s why we discuss these things.

Productive achievement as the noblest activity? Absolutely, but probably for different reasons than Rand would cite.

Happiness as the moral purpose? Umm, what? What is happiness and why is it so important? This question is what the entire foundation of my own personal philosophy grew out of.

Just before leaving Christianity, I believed in reason as the only absolute. I sought the truth that I might be set free. It turns out that freedom ain’t so great once you have it. My mental stability, self-respect, sense of identity, and overall happiness all plummeted. I still valued morality but had just destroyed my reason for being moral, and found my resolve weakening. I decided I would have been better off without this freedom.

Observing that I valued happiness over truth, the only reasonable response seemed to be to promote happiness over reason. I swore to myself that I would not be responsible for anyone else’s similar experience. But why was happiness so important, and what caused it?

Ultimately I decided that my very amateur understanding of evolutionary psychology was the best available material for constructing a new foundation for my ethics. We are made happy by things which have historically promoted survival. We exist because our ancestors did such things. Survival is our mission, and our instincts, including happiness, are a crude mission brief.

This results in three principles:

  1. Each person is obligated to promote the general interest, or “greater good,” or, most specifically, the survival of the human species;
  2. Every person’s base value is equal; and
  3. Each person is (usually) most familiar with his own interest, and therefore holds more responsibility for himself than for anyone else.

“Base value” means the value afforded to someone for being human and thereby promoting the survival of the human species. Attributes like youth, or leadership and hunting skills (in a primeval society) make some people more valuable than others.

Too much emphasis on instincts to the exclusion of reason causes destructive behavior like war. Too much emphasis on reason to the exclusion of instincts causes other destructive behavior like eugenics. My conclusion: The primacy of reason must be held in tension with an aversion to cognitive dissonance.

By this I mean that I believe the Nazis, for example, had instincts against their atrocities. A combination of hatred (instincts) and misguided (pseudo-)science motivated them toward horrible acts. Although primal instincts were part of the problem, I can easily imagine this happening solely on reason. We must listen to our “hearts” when they warn us that what we’re doing is wrong.

Such cognitive dissonance is a pretty reliable sign that neither we nor society will be happy about our actions. On the other hand, the ability to override one’s instincts is a very important skill. Despite the horror of war, we do need soldiers who can kill other soldiers. Unfortunately this cognitive dissonance then turns into PTSD.

Anyway, here’s the thought experiment:

You find yourself on an island. Also on the island is a critically injured man. You can treat him enough that he will heal and be able to fend for himself, but doing so will delay your return home. Should you help him, and why or why not?

In case conscience (psychological self-interest) plays a part, imagine it as two scenarios:
1) Your travel delay would be significant but not quite enough that it would justify his death in your mind;
2) Your travel delay would be huge enough that you could rationalize the man’s death and not feel guilty. (What kind of delay are you thinking here?)


Political Diplomacy

The phrase “political diplomacy” should be redundant, but politics in the large, as it were, is characterized by misunderstanding, polarization, and demonization – especially on the Internet. I’m interested in what we can do to have more civil conversations, regardless of disagreement. I think this would result in more changed minds, but perhaps this is the problem: no one wants to risk changing their minds.

The immediate context for this post lies in the comments for this article. The author, Tom Levenson, told me:

Not trying to achieve readership from the “scorned” as you put it. Trying to galvanize action against them. I’m never going to persuade Mr. Esk and his ilk that they’re clueless bigots who need to rethink their position; I can work to marginalize them politically and culturally, which is what this kind of post is aiming to do.

The phrases “Mr. Esk and his ilk” and “marginalize them politically and culturally” are the operative parts here, and I think they represent a disconnect in how Mr. Levenson is considering politics. But he’s not alone; this seems to be the unspoken prevailing idea on the matter.

Who are Mr. Esk’s ilk? I assume they are those who agree with him, which seems to be much of Oklahoma. Keeping that in mind, to marginalize someone politically and culturally means to diminish their influence by causing less people to pay attention to them.

Who are paying attention to Mr. Esk? Obviously his ilk are, but Mr. Levenson is not concerned with them. Perhaps some people in Oklahoma are not aware of Mr. Esk’s statements, or aren’t alarmed by them. The only others would be those who already condemn Mr. Esk’s statements (mostly in private, because left and right have annoying taboos against calling out their own).

Then it would seem that Mr. Levenson wants to be listened to by people from Oklahoma. This seems like a well-advised start, then (emphasis mine):

Today’s case-in-point comes from the grea batshit insane state of Oklahoma, where we meet this fine primate:

Surely people in Oklahoma will be more likely to listen to Mr. Levenson after he lumps all of Oklahoma in with Mr. Esk. If someone in Oklahoma is not offended, they probably already agreed with Mr. Levenson that their state is crazy and dislike Mr. Esk.

But I’m skeptical of Mr. Levenson’s apparent belief that Mr. Esk’s ilk are impenetrable to reason. I was once a fundie (likely Mr. Levenson’s biggest gripe against Oklahoma), and I had some pretty crazy ideas. I associated with several secularists online, and slowly began to think for myself. I now recognize the patience they exercised by engaging me.

I also recognize the abrasive secular personalities who helped perpetuate the negative image of secularists which I had been given (not entirely intentionally) by my religious leaders. Mr. Levenson, and most other politically involved people, perpetuate similar stereotypes – likely because they also hold such stereotypes of other groups.

These images discourage us from listening, because they replace understanding of people. Instead of getting to know someone, we just refer to our images in order to engage them. But someone who doesn’t listen has no place expecting to be listened to. And indeed, Mr. Levenson seems to acknowledge this; I just don’t understand whom he thinks he’s talking to.