Objectivist Ethics On Trial

November 16, 2010 at 1:26 am 15 comments

This is going to be another one of those direct response posts. This time I’m responding to Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking. You can read the post this is a response to here.

The opening paragraphs are pretty spot on about how Objectivists view the term selfishness, (as akin to rational self-interest). Of course it’s speckled with one liner jabs at Ayn Rand and her followers, but that’s to be expected. The real criticism of Objectivism doesn’t start until here:

But for these to be the “supreme values” of one’s life seems to be a stretch and to neglect other important aspects of human existence. What about, for instance, love and friendship? I suspect that they don’t make the pantheon of Objectivist ethics because in some form or other they would conflict with rational self-interest. See, when John Galt (the pompous protagonist of Atlas Shrugged, one that clearly had no trouble with self-esteem) says “I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” one suspects that the guy will have some trouble picking up chicks who might be interested in more than a one-night stand, and that other people might agree to have business relations with him, but certainly not to call him a friend.

So I guess Massimo Pigliucci doesn’t want any Objectivists for friends (though he’s stated previously that the whole reason for writing about Objectivism is because he has friends who are Obejctivists, so go figure.) It doesn’t bother me if people dislike me because they disagree with my world view. It also doesn’t bother me if people don’t befriend me because of how I act due to my world view. I’m an honest person. I like being friends with other honest people. Sure that means there are plenty of people who won’t like me because I say things they disagree with. I also prefer people who I can disagree with without them taking it personally. If this means I have fewer friends, but can be honest and have deep meaningful conversations with the friends I do have, then that’s fine by me. No loss for Objectivism there.

On love, I do think that self-esteem is more important than relationships. People should get to know and like themselves before pursuing love. The world is full of people who want to find somebody else to make them feel valuable and give their life meaning. That’s a recipe for codependency. People who already know who they are and what they want falling in love with each other? That’s a beautiful thing. I love my wife, but I would be able to survive if something happened to her, just like she would if something happened to me. I’m with her because I want to be with her, not because I have to be. I don’t think that makes our love less real, I think it makes it more precious because it’s never something that we take for granted. Again, I’m not seeing what the problem here is. What else has he got?

In my experience, the main attraction of Objectivism is the idea that a human being is a moral island of his/her own. I ought to be able to make my own decisions about my own life in absolute freedom, because that is the purest and most noble sense in which I can be truly human. Bullshit, any decent undergraduate student in ethics would quickly be able to respond. It is very hard to see in what sense we “own” ourselves independently of a particular societal (and even biological) background.

Okay, so apparently self-ownership is bullshit and any decent undergraduate student can say why. Well then, let’s hear why:

Is it right to tax Kevin Garnett for his high earnings as a basketball player? In 2008-09 he was the highest paid NBA player, with the Boston Celtics giving him a whopping $24,751,934. I assume that the answer for Objectivists and most Libertarians alike would be that we have no right to take any of this away from Garnett, because the guy earned his money in a (quasi) free capitalist society, so he deserves it. “Deserve” here implies some sense of moral desert, and not just the result of luck. Nobody “deserves” to win the lottery, as glad as they may be to pocket the money if they happen to hold the winning ticket.

At this point it’s not really clear where he’s going with this, I just want to interject that if you play the lottery and win, then I think you do deserve the money. The lottery is just like any other investment (a very bad investment mind you) and if you take the risk, and it pays off, more power to you. But anyways on with his example:

But let us unpack how it is, exactly, that Garnett (I’m not just picking on him, the same could be said for anyone’s salary, in any activity, including my own) deserves that compensation? Because he is an excellent basketball player that brings in money for its franchise, obviously. Right, but he is able to do so for a number of complex reasons, most of them having precious little to do with moral desert. Most obviously, of course, Garnett just got lucky at the genetic lottery: had he had a different combination of genes, he wouldn’t have been able to play professional basketball.

Wait, what? How does genetics in any way invalidate achievement as a personal triumph? Let me be clear about this, my ancestors had genetic mutations and so did yours. Now most genetic mutations end badly with deformations or flaws that result in extinction for that genetic line, but our ancestors played the genetic lottery just like everybody else, and if someone is born lucky enough to have the capacity to do something great with their life, and they make something of them self, then they should feel proud. My genetics don’t excuse me from my errors, and they don’t determine what I will or should be. I get to decide that, and good job for Kevin Garnett. Anyways, on with his argument:

Second, he owes his success also to his teammates, coach, and the remainder of the large number of people that make professional basketball possible. I mean, he didn’t build all that, right?

I wasn’t aware they his team mates and coach weren’t also handsomely compensated for their efforts. Oh, that’s right, they are.

Third, he has been lucky at what I shall call the “cultural lottery” as well: had he been born in a different time or place (say, medieval Europe, for instance) all his skills would not have earned him much other than forced labor as a serf, the common destiny of most people of the time.

Yes, just like with all life, evolution and ‘fitness’ are relative to the environment. Were Kevin Garnett born into the life of a medieval serf, his life would suck comparatively to what it is now. How is that in any way a refutation of Objectivism? Last time I checked Objectivists were not pro-monarchy, also we’re in favor of a free society where people can spend money on entertainment (much like the world that Kevin Garnett has found success in.) Now if one accepts as a premise that Kevin Garnett should not be rewarded as he is for what he does, then yes that is a blow against Objectivsm. However, Massimo Pigliucci is attempting to prove that Kevin Garnett does not deserve what he gets, so unless it’s suddenly okay to use one’s conclusion as their premise, I’m still not see it.

But, you might say, he has worked hard at honing his skills, day after day and year after year. While some moral philosophers (John Rawls, for instance) would say that even that is the result of natural propensities and societal environments for which it is hard to claim ownership, I won’t go that far. My point is that Objectivists drastically overestimate the independence of individuals from society, as well as the ability of the individual to overcome or take ownership of his/her natural abilities.

A point he has completely failed to demonstrate. Oh well, so much for the decent undergraduate.

This is why Objectivists make a big deal out of the philosophically exceedingly murky concept of free will: for rational self-interest to be ethical in any sense (as opposed to simply instrumental to getting what one wants), I have to assume that everyone completely owns responsibility for both his failure and his successes. But that is simply and obviously not the case, regardless of what one thinks of the concept of free will itself.

Yes, it’s obviously the case that we’re not responsible for our own failure and successes. Oh wait, no it isn’t. If you want an example of people not being responsible for their own plight, examples are easy to find. Serfs were subjugated by kings. Slavery is a big one. Compulsive military service, the Holocaust, mercantilism. The issue is that those examples were all sanctioned or perpetrated by governments, so mentioning them is really only going to help the Objectivist argument. He could make claims about natural disasters, but no ideology can fix natural disasters, so it’s a moot point. Really, why choose a professional athlete, someone who obviously had talent, and has worked hard to culminate it as an example of how we aren’t really in charge of our own destinies? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.

It gets even more basic than that: for Rand, the ultimate value is survival, and human beings are the only animals that can make conscious decisions about it. While I certainly agree with the latter statement, and I don’t deny that survival is the sine qua non of everything else in life, it’s just too darn simple. Yes, we want and need to survive, but even that is simply not possible for highly social animals without a substantial contribution from the rest of society — without which, in the immortal words of Hobbes, life would have “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, [there would be] continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man [would be], solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Leviathan, 1651, ch. 12).

So it’s too simple? And that’s why it can’t be right? There’s this thing called Occam’s razor… Also here’s a nice little cartoon for jokes:

It is hard to imagine how Objectivist ethics would lead to the kind of polity that most of us take for granted these days: a place where our rights and wants are balanced with other people’s, where we have obligations to our fellow human beings and they have obligations toward us, where we enjoy not only arts and letters, but also friendship and love.

I know this is supposed to be a lead in to his next blog post, but here’s an idea: emergence. It’s the same force behind evolution, and it works wonders for morality, society and everything else because it’s its own feedback mechanism. Here’s a wonderful video on the notion:

Really, I only responded to this post in length because I was asked to personally. I really expected something more. This is probably one of the weaker attacks on Objectivism that I’ve seen. No clue why people think it’s any good.


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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. andrewclunn  |  November 16, 2010 at 8:25 pm

    There is a discussion occurring regarding this on the SGU forum. You can find it here:


  • 2. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 7:47 am

    What do you think an “Objectivist” society would actually look like in reality?

    I am legitimately curious.

    • 3. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 2:22 pm

      I think you should take a listen to this podcast:


      It’s two mothers talking about Ayn Rand and raising children. I think they give a pretty clear picture of what Objectivism looks like in practice for normal people.

      • 4. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm

        No: I mean an entire Objectivist society, not just one lunatic who is benefiting from government roads, government-funded communication infrastructure (i.e. ARPANET), government-subsidized herd immunity to contagious diseases, etc.

        Since Objectivists are supposed to be 1000x more industrious and virtuous than everyone else I have to sort of wonder why they haven’t split off and formed their own super-dee-duper awesome anarcho-utopia.

      • 5. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:13 pm

        See you say you’re legitimately curious, but that post kind of spells out that you’re not really coming into this with any goal other than to start a debate / fight.

        If you want a debate, I’ve linked to the Skpetic’s Guide forum (where one is going on) in my post.

        If you disagree with something in my post specifically, then let’s hear it.

        If you want a fight though, then go somewhere else because it’s really not worth my time.

  • 6. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    “See you say you’re legitimately curious”

    Yes, legitimately (perhaps morbidly) curious as to why you don’t think Aynrandia wouldn’t quickly turn into a third world dump


    • 7. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:42 pm

      Obviously because I haven’t played enough BioShock. But really, there are so many assumed premises in your question. How about you state why you think Objectivism would lead to a “third world dump” and then I could respond? If you’re asking for the mechanism that will drive people not to just become roving bands of post-apocalyptic street gangs, well I guess the answer lies both in emergence and minarchism. but really, go check out SGU forums discussion that I linked to above. That’s already gone into depth on tons of issues.

      • 8. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:52 pm

        “But really, there are so many assumed premises in your question.”

        There are lots of assumed premises in Objectivism.

        Honestly I’m a cognitive science and Ayn Rand’s ideas about how the mind works make me horse laugh and poop myself a bit

        “How about you state why you think Objectivism would lead to a ‘third world dump'”


        “well I guess the answer lies both in emergence and minarchism”

        Actual historical examples of this happening include:

      • 9. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:59 pm

        Everything you’re bringing up here has already been addressed in the SGU forum topic I keep trying to point you to (it’s linked to in my first comment above).

        I have to go take care of something, so I won’t see anything posted here for a few hours. I’ll plan on a post where I explain Objectivist ethics and morality in more detail. Also that podcast I pointed you to is worth a listen.

        Then one thing I will agree with you on is that Ayn Rand was very wrong about the mind, but as neuroscience was barely worth mentioning when she created Objectivism, this is like faulting Aristotle for getting the nature of celestial bodies so wrong. Any Objectivist who claims that every word Ayn Rand spoke is infallible is an idiot, and they’re subscribing to a religion not a philosophy.

      • 10. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 11:40 pm

        “Everything you’re bringing up here has already been addressed in the SGU forum topic I keep trying to point you to”

        I’m not going to read 19 pages of neckbeard blather. Name one instance where “minarchism” has actually worked, sustainably, in an industrial setting. How hard can it be?

        “Then one thing I will agree with you on is that Ayn Rand was very wrong about the mind, but as neuroscience was barely worth mentioning when she created Objectivism”

        No it was certainly worth mentioning by then. Higher-level psychological research available at the time could have also rebutted lulzy claims like:

        “Rand consequently rejected the Kantian dichotomy between ‘things as we perceive them’ and ‘things as they are in themselves’.”

        “Any Objectivist who claims that every word Ayn Rand spoke is infallible is an idiot, and they’re subscribing to a religion not a philosophy.”

        The foundations of her philosophy are evidently rotten.

        So why do you persist in clinging to it?

  • 11. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:35 pm

    Here’s something specific I disagree with in your post:

    “I know this is supposed to be a lead in to his next blog post, but here’s an idea: emergence. It’s the same force behind evolution, and it works wonders for morality, society and everything else because it’s its own feedback mechanism.”

    You ignored the fact that evolution tends to get hung up on:


    • 12. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:46 pm

      Evolution was good enough to make humanity. And why is this a bigger issue than government corruption? Also, why wouldn’t this also apply to government, in that rather than politicians focusing on doing a better job to get reelected, eventually the system would favor those who focused more and more time towards simply getting elected? All things are subject to selective pressure, no exceptions. The issue of local optima will exist regardless of the system.

      • 13. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:50 pm

        “Evolution was good enough to make humanity.”

        Which means what

        “And why is this a bigger issue than government corruption?”

        Not all governments are as corrupt, maladapted, and shitty as the one in the US

        “All things are subject to selective pressure, no exceptions. The issue of local optima will exist regardless of the system.”

        Maybe so but as far as history has shown us, government is better than anarchy

      • 14. andrewclunn  |  November 19, 2010 at 10:53 pm

        Are you under the impression that Objectivism is anarchistic in nature? It’s minarchistic. Objectivists do in fact believe in government, we do however advocate for very firm restrictions on what the role of government should be. It seems you’ve been presented with a straw man of what Objectivism is at some point. Would it be helpful to you if I made a post explaining Objectivist ethics in detail?

      • 15. kristoff  |  November 19, 2010 at 11:30 pm

        “Objectivists do in fact believe in government”

        Some do.

        “we do however advocate for very firm restrictions on what the role of government should be.”

        Does it include building roads and vaccinating against smallpox?

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