Objectivist Ethics On Trial
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).
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.
Entry filed under: Good.