Category Archives: philosophy

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?)

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Christianity

I should now explain what I meant by my “Christian” status being complicated. For much of my adolescence and early adulthood, I was rigid in my regard for the Bible as Scripture. I performed mental acrobatics to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, but certain pieces kept eating at me. I decided that the Old Testament was an expression of the same fundamental truths as found in the New, but that there was a disconnect such that I could not understand why the Old was appropriate to its era. Then my brother explained to me that he had given up that fight, and my house of cards collapsed. Questions flooded in and I decided all that I had believed was useless because I could no longer be confident of the foundations (as the New Testament required the Old and both were perfect).

But then I found myself becoming something I did not want to be. I had forfeited my reasons to be moral, so why was I disgusted at the prospect of becoming immoral? I quickly began trying to justify my ethics, and this meant reestablishing my belief in God without the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I described to an online atheist friend that I was stuck; I did not want to be where my questions (the worst of which I am omitting) had landed me, but I could not return to where I was before. My only option was to press forward in hope that the pain would ease further along the way. And I could not express any of this to any Christians except my brother. I had no right to lead others where I was until I knew I was going somewhere good. (I still don’t know that, but I trust people to not read this if they can’t handle it. The anonymity of the Internet is useful, since I can vent to few people personally.) And I didn’t want to tell my brother that he had hurt me by expressing himself.

At this time I had a habit of listening to free LibreVox audio books on my smartphone while lying in bed waiting to grow tired, as an alternative to using the computer which can make me stay up later. That night, after expressing myself to my online friend, I listened to The Princess and the Goblin, and this blog’s title comes from it. The enchanted spider-web is a plot device which leads the two protagonists to safety. It will only lead them forward and never back, and it leads one of them through an area of great peril to save the other from certain death. When I listened to that part of the story, I found it a very apt analogy for my recent experiences and what I hoped would be my future. I speculated that this might be an answer to my pleas for answers, aimed at the God whose I was uncertain of.

Within the next week or so, I found a way to ask a friend of mine whether he was in a similar position without causing him to be. To my selfish delight, he was. Finally, my misery had company!  I also overcame my reluctance to talk to my brother about it, and he didn’t even seem to realize he’d done anything that might be wrong. I was both relieved and offended, but I kept it to myself; it was a much less unpleasant secret than the old one. He believes that morality as universally understood is evidence of a creator and expressed in various religious texts including the Bible. The alternative sources for morality are evolutionary genetics and social convention, and he found them both unsatisfactory. I haven’t yet researched this for myself but it’s my working hypothesis for now.

Soon a Calvinist coworker attended church with me one Sunday, and I slipped up by revealing that I disagreed with Paul’s thing against women leading men in church functions. He pressed the issue on Facebook and I finally gave in, explaining that I didn’t believe the Bible like I used to. It was nice to express that to someone who would disagree, because it helped me understand my new opinions. On the other hand, I discovered some beliefs of his that I found unsettling, and I also found (and my brother later confirmed) that Christians can be surprisingly resilient in the face of reason. I didn’t know I had seemed so dense when I had been on the other side of the argument. But at least this saved me from the guilt of dragging him into the mess I was in.

My brother explained to me that he had come to terms with his unanswered questions, and I began to hope that I might do the same and thereby reconstruct some semblance of theology. At this point I think I’ve mostly managed that. I believe Jesus was basically right. Moses is an enigma; if Jesus knew what he was talking about he seems to have validated Moses, but their teachings seem at odds with each other. Everyone else’s writings are worth considering but sometimes wrong. I try to glean further explanation of what Jesus said from the rest of the Bible, and from literature in general. But whatever doesn’t further this end given my limitations, for the sake of morality I must not consider it Scripture.

Ethics

In my previous post, Caveats and Biases, I described my approach to conversation, relationships, and conflict. This post was supposed to explain why any of this matters – why I do not “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But it turned out as more of a big question-mark, a list of things I’m still trying to figure out.

I’ve really been thinking about this out for a few months now, and I’m not done. I started, naturally, from Christian deontology. I’ve never agreed with Calvinism or proper divine command theory, but I believed that we knew fundamental axioms of ethics from the Bible and our consciences. Conclusions such as murder being wrong while capital punishment would be okay were explained by what I understood to be utilitarianism. That always seemed awkward, considering the generally low opinion of utilitarianism among Christians, but I never looked much into ethical theory until recently. Currently, non-absolutist deontology seems the best fit for my beliefs. I don’t yet understand how an absolutist would justify war and self-defense; wouldn’t he be forced into the Society of Friends by his beliefs? Nor do I understand the logic that allows deontology to be non-absolutist.

I consider the best possible welfare for the most possible people as the self-evident goal of ethics, and I believe each person has a duty to promote it. However, I also believe that the naive pursuit of that goal can undermine itself. If a person is in a catch-22 such that he must either violate his fundamental principles or allow havoc to transpire, he must allow the havoc rather than betray his principles, because by betraying principles he weakens his discipline and causes himself to be unprincipled. (The only way out would be to find a good reason to adopt different principles, but I couldn’t trust myself to judge that in the moment.)  Some ends justify some means under some circumstances; more precisely, principles must be prioritized and the higher must always determine action.

But why does duty matter? Why not shirk it and do what I want? I could never be proud of that; I need to believe that I have done well and done right. Additionally, I do believe in grace, faith, and works as they are explained in the Christian Bible, and I believe in Heaven and a hell which annihilates its inhabitants (because I disagree about how to translate Jesus’ words on the subject). I don’t think of the hell part often, but I suppose it’s a subconscious motivator – to desire to do good rather than to do good begrudgingly. That desire is the faith which, without works, is dead; without faith, works are pointless. More about my theology is forthcoming, within a few seconds in fact.

Caveats and Biases

I think I should explain myself here so I can link to the explanation later.

I believe in utterly honest conversation, admitting biases and mistakes. That’s one of my fundamental principles, and it’s why I’m making this post. And sometimes I violate it.

When I do something wrong, please call me out. (You can tell I’m sane and clear-headed when I’m saying self-obstructing things like this. I do not trust my future self.) I will surely draw out the process of very reluctantly examining myself in light of your accusation. This is both because of my pride and because I find introspection a very tricky process. I probably did do what you accused me of, but I must come to my own conclusion and not lazily rely on you to think for me.

I am stubborn, power-hungry, undisciplined, and self-righteous. Actually I’ll grab any excuse I can find to consider myself better than you, not just righteousness.

I was raised by two Christian, Republican, religious-right parents. For most of my life (or at least the part where I remember thinking about abstract concepts) I have been all three of those things. First I divorced myself from the Republican Party because I disagreed about economic issues. I proceeded to argue with myself about the social side of the platform and I now have unconventional (as in, neither left nor right nor middle) views on abortion and LGBT issues. Somewhere in there I decided religion and politics make a dangerous combination. As for the only remaining label, “Christian,” it’s complicated.

And yet I still think the way I was raised to. I still agree with my native culture on several issues. One of my lifelong quests is to chase my biases, to rehabilitate myself from insufficient examination of ideas. On the flip side, I sometimes appoint myself as an ambassador toward people from other cultures who don’t seem to understand how we think. I seek relationships where each member teaches of himself and is studied by the rest.

But why bother? That’s what I intend to cover in my next post.