Playing God

There’s nothing wrong in that, but not this way

THE link between success and luck is stronger than many people think.

Analysis of this connection provides a useful framework for weighing the issues raised around the country at recent “tea parties,” where orators in high dudgeon bemoaned their “crippling” tax burdens…

Contrary to what many parents tell their children, talent and hard work are neither necessary nor sufficient for economic success…

Although people are often quick to ascribe their own success to skill and hard work, even those qualities entail heavy elements of luck. Debate continues about the degree to which personal traits are attributable to environmental and genetic factors. But whatever the true weights of each, these factors in combination explain nearly everything. People born with good genes and raised in nurturing families can claim little moral credit for their talent and industriousness. They were just lucky. And they are vastly more likely to succeed than people born without talent and raised in unsupportive environments…

There has never been a shortage of talented people willing to work hard for success — even in countries with top rates much higher than 50 percent. And the president’s proposal would not cause such a shortage in 2010.

It would, however, promote more efficient provision of public services, in much the same way that contingent fee contracts often promote more efficient provision of services in the private sector. For example, when lawyers are willing to waive fees unless their client wins, wrongfully injured accident victims often gain legal representation they couldn’t otherwise afford. Similarly, when government levies higher tax rates on the wealthy, we can provide public services that the wealthy and others greatly value but that would otherwise be beyond reach. Under such a tax system, the heavier tax bill becomes payable only if we’re lucky enough to end up among life’s biggest winners.

Financially successful tax protesters seem blissfully unaware of how incredibly fortunate they are…

Robert Frank, here, is trying to be “fair,” just like Rawls, and is correcting God’s innumerable “mistakes.” I wonder if he would also suggest that there be fairness in the distribution of eyes and kidneys? Prepare a registry of all the people in the world and pluck an eye and kidney from X and give it to Y because Y was unlucky enough to be born without them, or lose them in an accident? Luck! I do know that people can be “unlucky” – the most deserving people may not always be rewarded, but that’s no justification for practicing moral cannibalism – egalitarianism. Maybe Frank is writing to inflate the egos of those who believe that hard work is irrelevant and “luck” is all that matters. They can then go and stand up to a Gates or Tendulkar and say – you were lucky! Now hand over the booty!

Egalitarianism is a scourge, and Rawls is one of its most influential purveyors. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick took him on in his Anarchy, State and Utopia. But Ayn Rand didn’t bother. She did this instead-

Ayn Rand believed that philosophical ideas shape a society’s culture and politics. “The battle of philosophers is a battle for man’s mind,” she said. “If you do not understand their theories, you are vulnerable to the worst among them”. Though Rand had little regard for contemporary academic philosophers, she did write several articles about the discipline, commenting on philosophers’ methods as well as on their philosophical ideas.

In 1971, Harvard philosopher John Rawls published his Theory of Justice to great acclaim, and Rand responded in “An Untitled Letter.” Rawls’s book was notable for the baldness with which he stated his egalitarian principle of justice: that people may reap the benefits of their ability and effort only on terms that also benefit the least able. Rand of course denounced the altruist and egalitarian character of the principle, which she saw as a rationalization for envy—”the hatred of the good for being good.”

In her essay, Rand admitted that she had not read and did not intend to read Rawls’s book and declared that she should therefore be understood as commenting only on the positions ascribed to Rawls in Marshall Cohen’s lengthy review in the Sunday New York Times. Critics have attacked Rand for adopting that approach to the work, and it is a dubious technique even when made explicit. At the same time, however, critics of Rand have not acknowledged that she was nonetheless able to describe, precisely and essentially, Rawls’s method of argument. Nor have they acknowledged, though it is now a generation later, how presciently Rand was able to foresee the book’s future—drawing on nothing but a book review and her own profound understanding of the way bad ideas spread:

Kant originated the technique required to sell irrational notions to the men of a skeptical, cynical age who have formally rejected mysticism without grasping the rudiments of rationality. The technique is as follows: if you want to propagate an outrageously evil idea (based on traditionally accepted doctrines), your conclusion must be brazenly clear, but your proof unintelligible. Your proof must be so tangled a mess that it will paralyze a reader’s critical faculty—a mess of evasions, equivocations, obfuscations, circumlocutions, non sequiturs, endless sentences leading nowhere, irrelevant side issues, clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, a meticulously lengthy proving of the obvious, and big chunks of the arbitrary thrown in as self-evident, erudite references to sciences, to pseudo-sciences, to the never-to-be-sciences, to the untraceable and the unprovable—all of it resting on a zero: the absence of definitions. I offer in evidence The Critique of Pure Reason….

Within a few years of the book’s publication, commentators will begin to fill libraries with works analyzing, “clarifying” and interpreting its mysteries. Their notions will spread all over the academic map,….

Within a generation, the number of commentaries will have grown to such proportions that the original book will be accepted as a subject of philosophical specialization, requiring a lifetime of study—and any refutation of the book’s theory will be ignored or rejected, if unaccompanied by a full discussion of the theories of all the commentators, a task which no one will be able to undertake.

Which is exactly what has happened with A Theory of Justice.

Anyone who advocates egalitarianism cannot be “good.” You don’t have to commit murder to become “evil.” Promoting wholesale theft and slavery in the name of “justice” and “fairness” is good enough.

Edit: Since Frank’s article draws on Gladwell’s recent book, its interesting to note the “usual suspect” writing something different on it-

Yet, I can’t help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They’ve lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

It leads to resilience, the ability to persevere with an idea even when all the influences in the world say it can’t be done. A common story among entrepreneurs is that people told them they were too stupid to do something, and they set out to prove the jerks wrong.

Brooks does recognize Gladwell’s position as a form of determinism and actually calls it “pleasantly egalitarian” but to give him credit, he does stay away from Frank’s stupid position.

Further, a comment on an Amazon review of the book says- “John Rawls, philosopher and a believer in luck and the ‘accidents of birth’, would be thrilled! ” Its a matter of patterns – different people writing different books with the same outcome in mind. That’s where the similarities lie.

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  • Abhishek  On April 27, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    I have always found Rawls’ philosophy as expressed in his book and subsequent essays fascinating in the way it reflects one of the two primary moral strands of humanity (the other primary strand is, of course, the one to which you and I adhere).

    What can one, for instance, make of influential ‘libertarian’ bloggers like Will Wilkinson (who I have mentioned in many of my posts, such as this one) who believe that Rawls was the best political philosopher of the twentieth century? To be fair to Wilkinson’s views, however, you should also read this piece.

    It is a tad simplistic to dismiss Rawls as evil without going any more into the matter, because, as we all know, those terms don’t mean anything without a moral code (and morality is not objective, it is merely subjectively objective). (Not to say I don’t view Rawls’ philosophy as not evil, simply that I think such terms obscure some of the truths about humanity his work delineates). There is always going to be an egalitarian strand of morality and I am coming around to think that at least a substantial component of this is genetic or pre-determined at birth.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 28, 2009 at 1:15 am

      See this WW post that you linked to-

      A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it? The coercive protection of property is justified because people do better with it than without it. If people do better in a system that defines rights to property a bit less strictly, and coercively guarantees an economic minimum, then that is justified coercion. It’s not really a philosophical question whether it is or not. Justified coercion, like the coercion in the protection of property, isn’t wrongfully liberty-limiting, but it does limit liberty.

      If libertarianism is the view that coercion is never social or emotional, and that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian.

      WW has a problem. He (and if he is a ‘libertarian’ then others of his kind) doesn’t understand that the “right to property” is not to be justified through consequentialism or utilitarianism, but through “natural rights.” I suspect that he does, and in that case he’s not a natural rights libertarian. That’s why Rand hated “libertarianism” and all those who called themselves that – they don’t believe that liberty has anything to do with philosophy, with metaphysics and ethics. That’s why you have to deal with arguments like those of WW. Society, and therefore “social justice” is a stolen concept. That’s why you can’t have a political philosophy that places restrictions on the liberty of an individual in the name of society.

      As for WW’s article on Rawls-

      Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is in my opinion one of the most, if not the most, compelling, creative, and pyrotechnically brilliant pieces of extended reasoning in all of 20th Century philosophy. But it famously begins with an unsupported assumption of John Locke-style individual rights. If you don’t accept the assumption, the argument just doesn’t get going.

      Its not an assumption, but derived from a metaphysical fact. The individual is all there is. And rights belong to an individual – you can only “take” them from him, not “give” them to him.

      Now, from a WW comment on the “Gordon on Rawls” piece-

      In my opinion, deontological property and the Rand/Rothbard characterization of non-coercion make little sense. But limited government, free markets, and peace makes a lot of sense anyway.

      Its interesting to note that everyone except Rand and Rothbard think that both go well together (except Rothbard’s insistence on “anarchy,” a position which I believe Rand misunderstood, whether intentionally or otherwise I can’t say). Now nothing deontological in nature makes sense anyway. All “commandments” have to be justified, whether from God or from the noumenal world. That’s why both Rand and Rothbard grounded their property rights in “natural rights”. And that’s where the NAP comes from too. I don’t know why he thinks these don’t make any sense, but everything else does.

      # “It is a tad simplistic to dismiss Rawls as evil..”
      I don’t believe its simplistic at all. I don’t know if you have read this, something I referred to in the debate with the fellow who commented on the “coffee shop” post on your blog, and this.

      I think you know one of the reasons why Rand called her philosophy Objectivism was because she said values are objective in nature, that you can objectively derive a theory of ethics from the nature of man’s existence. Some of it is similar to the first formulation of the Kantian “categorical imperative” in the sense that the justification comes from noting the consequences of an action on a universal scale; unlike Kant, her ethics isn’t context-less and doesn’t sing paeans to duty. This doesn’t make it consequentialist, or utilitarian, but grounded in reality.

      I don’t subscribe to that view, not completely, but since I do subscribe to her position on metaphysics and epistemology, I then automatically subscribe to her ethics. This is my view, at least till now, and I think I can call it “subjectively objective.” The problem with this view is – what about Hitler? Was he “objectively” good, or “objectively” evil? Or was he evil just because I don’t subscribe to his view? In that case, some people can believe that he was a saint, and I can’t tell them “you are (objectively) wrong,” only “(as far as I am concerned) you are wrong.” Though I know how my moral compass is set, this makes me uncomfortable. I have to think about it before I can write more on the subject of a “universal morality.” I think though that I am contradicting myself somewhere.

      # “There is always going to be an egalitarian strand of morality and I am coming around to think that at least a substantial component of this is genetic…”
      Meaning some part of morality is somehow genetically encoded? No tabula rasa? I wouldn’t ditch my view till I see real scientific proof of that. If that does happen, philosophy will receive a rude awakening. It hasn’t recovered from the Kantian shock-and-awe. It will die, from this.

  • Abhishek  On April 28, 2009 at 3:17 am

    “I suspect that he does, and in that case he’s not a natural rights libertarian.”

    He does, and he is indeed not a natural rights libertarian.

    “Its not an assumption, but derived from a metaphysical fact.”

    Not quite true, for the metaphysical fact is a ‘fact’ only once you grant certain axioms which cannot be proven and are hence merely subjectively objective. In fact, they depend, like morality, on what one’s terminal values are, and as I said, I think there are genetic aspects to this.

    “I think you know one of the reasons why Rand called her philosophy Objectivism was because she said values are objective in nature, that you can objectively derive a theory of ethics from the nature of man’s existence.”

    And that was one of Rand’s fundamental mistakes. They are objective only once you set what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls ‘terminal values’.

    “Though I know how my moral compass is set, this makes me uncomfortable.”

    I think I know the discomfort you talk about, as it is something I have experienced and subsequently thought a fair bit about. I have been planning to write an exhaustive series of posts on this issue for quite some time now, and if I get around to doing it, we can resume the discussion there.

    “Meaning some part of morality is somehow genetically encoded? No tabula rasa?”
    Exactly, that’s what I think. And so in a sense some people are born ‘partially libertarian’ or ‘partially egalitarian’. I think there is a lot of evidence towards this from our existing knowledge and I expect to see much more definite ones in our lifetimes. I, however, do not share your view that philosophy will die from this in any way.

  • Abhishek  On April 28, 2009 at 3:31 am

    This post by some guy does get some things right, though it is too concise and the topic deserves a fuller explanation, which as I said, I intend to attempt. For a more thorough explanation of why Rand’s views (on rationality and the derivability of absolute values and ethics purely from the nature of man’s existence and logic) are wrong, you should check out some of Richard Chappell’s posts though I don’t know how to quickly point to some relevant posts.

    Just to clarify (and I think you know this), my own particular moral code does indeed closely match Rand’s (though probably it matches Nozick’s even more closely). I just think that both of them made some errors (Rand more than Nozick) in their attempt to build the foundations.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 28, 2009 at 11:46 pm

      Abstract math is not my cup of tea, nothing over high school math is. So I will let the first one go though its my view that you don’t approach philosophy the way you approach math or physics – the former tackles whys, the latter hows. Before I do that, however, I have to say that I don’t agree with this-

      It’s the same with morality. First, you have to set down some basic axioms, and this process will inevitably involve subjective human judgment.

      Since morality refers to rules governing human behavior and life, there are some axioms that don’t involve subjective human judgment. Like the fact that man (as of now) cannot survive without food, or air, or water. And that none of them drop down from the sky. And these axioms can be used to construct a theory on ethics.

      As for Chappell, from the few posts I have read I can say that he’s a utilitarian with positive-liberty leanings. Some of his critiques of libertarianism-
      * supporting taxation
      * against self-ownership
      * justifying “institutional rights”
      His arguments – there are a whole lot of linkages and cross linkages – don’t convince me, especially his theory that property belongs to everyone, even “future generations.” I find such arguments irritating. Further, from the few posts that I have read, I don’t think he understands Rand at all.

      Well, let me see what his views on objective values and ethics are.

    • K. M.  On April 29, 2009 at 12:57 am

      This is what I wrote on the post you linked to:

      There is a big difference between axioms in math and axioms in philosophy. An axiom in math is the starting point that defines the basic structure of some hypothetical system. Therefore it can neither be proved nor be disproved.
      Philosophy deals with the real world. An axiom in philosophy is a principle that is implicit in every thought. It cannot be proved, true, but it does not need to be proved. By it’s very nature, it is impossible to conceive of it not being true. “I am conscious” is an axiom. Are you claiming this inevitably involves subjective human judgement? Suppose that is true. But to make a judgement (subjective or not) I have to be conscious. See?

      • Aristotle The Geek  On April 29, 2009 at 1:11 am

        You are mixing up concepts here. The fellow Abhishek linked to was referring to axioms related to morality, and I am trying to defend (and thus trying to fully convince myself) regarding the objective nature of moral values. You are referring to metaphysical axioms.

        • K. M.  On April 29, 2009 at 1:39 am

          What are axioms related to morality?
          Like the fact that man (as of now) cannot survive without food, or air, or water. And that none of them drop down from the sky.
          That is an observable – and therefore provable – fact, not an axiom. Axioms only exist in metaphysics because there is nothing more fundamental that can be used as a proof.

          • Aristotle The Geek  On April 29, 2009 at 2:05 am

            For me, an axiom is a self-evident truth, a fact. That man cannot survive without air is self-evident – it is a fact.

            Axioms related to morality? That fellow was using it in the mathematical sense – its a hypothesis. I do it sometimes, not that way, but as a given – for example, one way is simply starting with individual rights as a given, without deriving it from zero every time you write a post.

            • Abhishek  On April 29, 2009 at 2:15 am

              Aristotle, the way these terms are commonly used (at least in math), axioms are not self-evident facts but assumptions. Of course you try to choose the assumptions ‘correctly’, so as to construct a system that serves your purpose in some manner.

              e.g. That you can draw a unique line parallel to a given one and passing through a given point is an axiom; it leads to Euclidean geometry. Changing this axiom leads to other kinds of geometries.

              • Aristotle The Geek  On April 29, 2009 at 2:41 am

                The dictionary tells me that an axiom is “an accepted statement or proposition regarded as self-evidently true.” And that’s how I have always used it.

                In mathematics, it may be an assumption. I called it a hypothesis.

  • Abhishek  On April 29, 2009 at 12:50 am

    Since morality refers to rules governing human behavior and life, there are some axioms that don’t involve subjective human judgment. Like the fact that man (as of now) cannot survive without food, or air, or water..

    But you see, if one were to accept the hypothesis that a set of objective values can be derived solely from man’s basic necessities, then man wouldn’t have survived for so many thousands of years without adhering to those values. This fact alone should hint to you that it is possible to survive without adhering to those particular set of values. And once you grant that, it is clear that to objectively derive an ethical code, you will have to go beyond basic necessities. And here’s where the variation within people come in. And ultimately if one has to go any further, one has to set terminal values, which are not necessarily unique. That’s where Rand is lacking.

    I suppose Chappell wasn’t the best link I could have provided. I will see if I can find something better.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 29, 2009 at 1:46 am

      # “if one were to accept the hypothesis that a set of objective values can be derived solely from man’s basic necessities, then man wouldn’t have survived for so many thousands of years without adhering to those values.”
      Not necessary. Morality is about what is “right.” Doesn’t mean that immoral people will die because they are immoral. In any case, Rand said that man has to think in order to survive (she differentiates between – I can’t remember the exact phrases – survival and flourishing), and that he has certain rights that are his by the very fact of his existence – right to life, and right to property (derived from the right to life). And that has happened, by default, throughout history – private property has existed, people have been allowed to keep a major part of their income, religion, societal norms etc have prevented people from justifying acts of theft and murder and so on.

      Further, her ethics is extremely “limited” in nature. Its about the individual regardless of where he is situated – whether on an island, or in society. These don’t rely on terminal values. There’s just the choice between life and death.

      About Chappell, his approach is too “academic” and convoluted.

      • Abhishek  On April 29, 2009 at 1:55 am

        “In any case, Rand said that man has to think in order to survive (she differentiates between – I can’t remember the exact phrases – survival and flourishing), and that he has certain rights that are his by the very fact of his existence – right to life, and right to property (derived from the right to life).”

        Playing devil’s advocate here, but the definition of ‘flourishing’ *does* involve terminal values and judgements. It so happens that *I* subscribe to a libertarian morality because the terminal values *I* hold logically lead to that (or at least I think they do, since the actual computations involved are rather complex and to an extent I have to rely on intuition and experience). What you are saying will not convince someone who has different terminal values. Hence the subjectiveness. And in particular Rand’s ethics is *not* a choice between life and death.

        Regarding your historical point, surely you are not serious. The leap from what has happened through most of history to what a libertarian morality demands is pretty large.

        • Aristotle The Geek  On April 29, 2009 at 2:29 am

          #“Playing devil’s advocate here, but the definition of ‘flourishing’ *does* involve terminal values and judgements.”
          I will have to re-read her essay on ethics, but I am aware of one thing. She always talks about survival of man qua man – if you want to live like a human being, then follow my ethics. That’s why I made a reference to Kant’s CI. She does consider the effect of “immorality” on life. But unlike Kant, she doesn’t issue blanket, context-less, statements of the “all lying is immoral” kind. So, you could say that her values are objective for the life of humans as humans, but not of humans as animals.

          # “Rand’s ethics is *not* a choice between life and death.”
          I agree, conditionally. The condition is that you are *not* on a desert island. If you were, you cannot indulge in what David King aptly calls “suicide morality.” That’s how some men have survived over the years – as parasites. There, the choice is between life and death.

          # “Regarding your historical point, surely you are not serious.”
          I was not suggesting that the world was following a libertarian morality, only that, barring certain well known exceptions, it “allowed” man to “survive” by grabbing some, but not all rights.

    • K. M.  On April 29, 2009 at 1:51 am

      Yes, it is possible to survive without consistently adhering to any set of values. It is also possible to grow a crop while praying to the rain gods for rain. I don’t see how the possibility of some inconsistency not causing too much damage is relevant.
      Also, what are terminal values? I haven’t encountered the term before.

        • K. M.  On April 30, 2009 at 12:12 am

          I didn’t read the posts in full (they are quite long and the use of probability and the type system put me off, although I am a programmer).

          But, I suppose what you mean by terminal values is similar to what Rand calls ultimate end. My position is more or less similar to the one in this post

          From the linked post:
          It is also important to understand that the ultimate goal of ethics is not a part of ethical system in the same way as other parts of the system. The ultimate goal of an ethical system is the standard by which the rest of the system is judged and cannot itself be subject to judgment within the ethical system of which it is the ultimate goal as it cannot be the standard by which it is itself judged. Thus, a Utilitarian cannot morally judged the principle of Utility as it forms the basis for his ethical system. This does not mean that ultimate ends cannot be judged, but rather only that they cannot be judged within the framework of their own systems. However, they can be judged epistemologically, metaphysically, logically, etc.
          (emphasis mine)

          • Aristotle The Geek  On April 30, 2009 at 12:54 am

            I think you have read it, but the relevant para from the EY post on terminal values-

            In particularly, I’ve noticed people get confused when – in abstract philosophical discussions rather than everyday life – they consider the distinction between means and ends; more formally, between “instrumental values” and “terminal values”.

            • Abhishek  On April 30, 2009 at 11:36 am

              I would also like to emphasize this section from the second link:

              For a human this is a much huger blob of a computation that looks like, “Did everyone survive? How many people are happy? Are people in control of their own lives? …” Humans have complex emotions, have many values – the thousand shards of desire, the godshatter of natural selection. I would say, by the way, that the huge blob of a computation is not just my present terminal values (which I don’t really have – I am not a consistent expected utility maximizers); the huge blob of a computation includes the specification of those moral arguments, those justifications, that would sway me if I heard them. So that I can regard my present values, as an approximation to the ideal morality that I would have if I heard all the arguments, to whatever extent such an extrapolation is coherent.

              No one can write down their big computation; it is not just too large, it is also unknown to its user. No more could you print out a listing of the neurons in your brain. You never mention your big computation – you only use it, every hour of every day.

              Now why might one identify this enormous abstract computation, with what-is-right?

              If you identify rightness with this huge computational property, then moral judgments are subjunctively objective (like math), subjectively objective (like probability), and capable of being true (like counterfactuals).

              I really should write a post on this topic someday specifically addressing libertarianism. Eliezer’s post, while superb, are way too long and have far too many linkages.

    • Abhishek  On April 30, 2009 at 11:56 am

      And though I have been quoting EY quite a bit, I should, to be fair, add this further explanation:

      EY thinks that because of what he calls the “psychological unity of humankind,” (see this post) the terminal values of any two normal minds would match if they both had access to complete information and infinite computing power. This is what he is hinting at when he says that ‘rightness’ is both subjunctively and subjectively objective.

      I disagree. I think that even the “ideal morality that I would have if I heard all the arguments, to whatever extent such an extrapolation is coherent” will have variations (just as, for instance, the sexual orientation of humans vary). And while this variation is technically continuous, I believe it has two primary strands (just as the two primary strands of sexual orientation are straight and gay). In particular, terminal values — and hence ethical systems — will not get objectively derived/pinned down even if we restrict to psychologically normal people and consider their ideal morality. This is what I was hinting at when I wrote the comment above about some part of morality being genetically encoded.

      • Aristotle The Geek  On April 30, 2009 at 9:49 pm

        What does “subjunctively objective” mean? This doesn’t help.

        • Abhishek  On April 30, 2009 at 10:52 pm

          Basically, subjunctively objective refers to abstract things that are true regardless of what your brain tells you. For instance, a true mathematical theorem does not start existing from the moment it was proved, it was always “there” independent of anyone’s brain. Even though the actual computation will take place in someone’s brain, it’s validity is universal (once you specify the model) even if that brain (or even all brains) suddenly start malfunctioning.

          Actually, from EY’s post, I think what he is really calling subjunctively objective is what mathematicians call a “mathematical truth”, which (surprisingly) is not the same as “mathematical provability” (Godel’s theorem). This is however not a very important point in this setting, and I am anyway not sure if EY is aware of this difference.

          • Aristotle The Geek  On May 1, 2009 at 1:15 am

            I read that post, and his mind-numbing “simple truth” essay and none of them clarified things in any significant way.

            Well, what I can say is “subjunctively objective” is another way of saying “objective” – discoveries, of physical objects or phenomena, or abstract “laws” or “truths”, are always objective – they exist independent of your knowledge of them, and “subjectively objective” is another way of saying subjective – if X’s existence depends on what I believe, its existence is subjective in nature. So when I say morality is subjective in nature – that being my present position (regardless of the system of morality that I follow) – that’s exactly what I am saying.

            I don’t think the probability analogy fits morality. In any case, I think the “rules” governing the calculation of probability are objective, its the probability “values” which are subjective (they depend on the information available). If X loads a revolver with exactly one bullet, and hands it over to A and B for a duel, X knows which chamber is loaded, while as far as A and B are concerned, the probability of death at the first shot is 1/6.

            As for morality being genetically encoded, while I think the physical structure of the brain could have an effect on it, I don’t think we are born with any innate sense of morality or some such thing. Its partly ourself, and partly our environment which makes us who we are.

  • Abhishek  On May 1, 2009 at 2:37 am

    “I read that post, and his mind-numbing “simple truth” essay and none of them clarified things in any significant way.”
    Ah well… I am not sure I can explain things any better in this comment but subjectively objective *is* different from merely subjective, and subjunctively objective — while basically the same as objective — is at least not identical to universalizable. But let that pass. We will return to it when (if) I take my shot at an explanation of morality and rationality in the narrower context of libertarianism.

    To divert slightly, I am not entirely sure I get your position. You say “So when I say morality is subjective in nature – that being my present position (regardless of the system of morality that I follow) – that’s exactly what I am saying” but earlier you wrote “I am trying to defend (and thus trying to fully convince myself) regarding the objective nature of moral values.” Is there a contradiction between the two positions or are you just saying (as I am) that moral values are subjective but they get objectively determined once you fix further conditions?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 1, 2009 at 4:55 am

      As I said, this is my present view-

      An objective morality can exist within the context of your choice of moral code, but not without – there can be no code that is applicable to all humans at all times irrespective of whether they accept it or not. K.M. wrote a post last month saying that an absolute (universal and objective) moral standard does exist and he said the same thing in the debate I refer to. It would seem that both positions are diametrically opposite to each other, but it is not the case if you consider the context for his position to be man’s life. Someone can devise a moral code that pays no attention to man’s nature or the problems surrounding the sustenance of life. It may or may not work. People may or may not accept it. But it would still be a moral code. As I said, a complete discussion can be found here.

      What I am trying to do, with “I am trying to defend…” is attempt a reconciliation between my ethical subjectivism (or moral subjectivism) and ethical naturalism of the Randian variety. While I say that I am a subjectivist when it comes to ethics, I do not really believe that all ethical systems deserve the same respect. Other systems can exist, but they are systems that I can pass judgment on. I only recognize them as systems, not as “moral” systems.

      The fact remains that any “good” ethical system needs to consider reality when it comes to ethics. The question that remains is given A, what is the B which follows from A, or whether B really follows from a given A. That’s the problem. Here’s where objectivity of values helps. This paper might be a good start.

  • Abhishek  On May 1, 2009 at 7:23 am

    Ok, that explains your position well and it indeed differs from my position, as I have explained above. As for your last point, you don’t need objectivity of values in the Randian sense for that, the kind of objectivity that is derived from terminal values, and extrapolation in the EY sense serves as well, and better reflects reality in my opinion. As for reconciling your ethical subjectivism with Randian ethical objectivism, it really becomes a matter of semantics; once you equate her definition of flourishing with your assumptions about what is means to overcome the problems surrounding the sustenance of life in a ‘good’ manner. Once you do that, the reconciliation is evident.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On May 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm

      The solution isn’t that simple.

      Most normal people can easily identify what is “good,” what is “right,” what is a “virtue” etc (as long as they don’t consciously get that information from the ethical system they follow which tends to influence their thought process), but they can’t agree on why that is “good” or “right” or “virtuous.” I think EY has written about it somewhere, but let that pass. The “why” then becomes very important.

      Subjectivism (or relativism – I confused relativism and nihilism once) says morality is the product of your mind. You could follow a “good” moral system because it appeals to your, say, sense of life, but you couldn’t defend it because it’s subjective in nature. That’s the problem with Hitler. Objectivism, on the other hand, can be a very misleading term in ethics. Is “good,” “right” etc a property of things? The “intrinsic school” Rand refers to says yes. So here the values are objective in nature. But is this a satisfactory position? Further, Huemer attacks the Randian derivation of ethics here. He specifically refers to “man qua man” because this is where her argument seems to turn subjective. It then seems that what attributes people think “man” has determines their morality. I think his is an extremely strong attack on “objectivity” [Edit: of the Randian variety. See his support for moral objectivism here] (he thinks that our knowledge of morality is a priori in nature. He calls it intuitionism, but it has got nothing to do with “mystics”). I wrote about the “good” w.r.t Blanshard and Rand here and I didn’t find a satisfactory solution then either. I only expressed my preference for objectivity.

      The crux is, even though we may agree on the ends, we don’t on the means. That’s especially true of Randian ethics. What’s probably needed is a transvaluation, like she attempted on Nietzsche.

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