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A Praxeological Foundation for Randian Ethics

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tunk Posted: Sun, Oct 9 2011 9:36 PM

After carefully reading Tara Smith's books (Viable Values and Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics), and Rasmussen's paper A Groundwork for Rights, I'm convinced Ayn Rand provided a solid grounding for libertarian ethics. The problem is that Objectivists usually cloak their meta-ethical arguments in incomprehensible jargon. I believe Rand's argument is best understood in an Aristotelian way: 

1. Living beings engage in goal-directed action, pursuing “values” that they “act to gain and/or keep”, in Rand's words. 
a. Any attempt to deny that living beings act purposefully would itself constitute purposeful action, hence self-refuting. 
b. Action is distinguished from unconscious, involuntary responses to physical stimuli. A person asleep or in a coma does not act. But the proposition is that living being acts, i.e. that one of its distinguishing features is conscious, self-directed (or “self-generated”, as Rand termed it) behaviour -- not that it always acts. 
2. At the bottom of every decision to engage in a particular action is the decision to engage in any action whatsoever: the, as it were, decision to make decisions. In order to act at all, a living being must evaluate that it would be preferable to be an acting, choosing entity than a non-acting, non-choosing entity. 
3. No decision and evaluations can be made without reference to a standard, a parameter to be maximized. Since most ends are merely means to other ends, there must be an end-in-itself, an ultimate standard or, in Rand’s words, “ultimate value” to prevent an infinite regress. Ultimate value gives rise to the phenomenon of choice (i.e. action), by providing a living being with the capacity to reject alternative states of affairs as suboptimal. 
4. The decision to act is the decision that existence (life) is preferable to non-existence (death), because life requires, not just particular actions (getting food, shelter, etc.), but action in itself. 
5. A living being engaged in goal-directed action must therefore accepted life as its ultimate value. At the most fundamental level, it has decided to maximize this parameter by fulfilling its basic requirement: engaging in action. Consequently, at all other levels, no matter the content of the action (decisions about content also constituting action), life remains the ultimate standard throughout, because without it there could be no evaluation of action as preferable to non-action in the first place. 
a. This is also axiomatic. Any attempt to deny that action has life as its ultimate standard qua value would constitute an action affirming life as its ultimate standard qua value: like the action axiom, also self-contradictory and self-refuting. 
b. Unlike other ends, life is an end-in-itself, because it is a means to itself. “Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action”; i.e. it is composed of action (good or bad) that takes the shape of a structural,circular chain. Goal-directed action requires life qua ultimate value. Life qua ultimate value requires goal-direction action, which itself requires life qua ultimate value. Et cetera. (Conscious living beings cannot avoid engaging in action since the decision not to act would itself be an action.) 
 
What is meant by life is merely survival: promoting the optimal conditions for the operation of your essence across your natural lifespan. But survival includes psychological as well as physical health. In order to pursue sustenance, human beings must first be convinced their life is worth sustaining. For example, a person who pursues passions, fruitful relationships, hobbies, and lives a life of self-esteem clearly has better survival prospects than someone who is antisocial and suffers recurring bouts of mania and psychological depression. Human beings must therefore not only eat and have a pulse, but must flourish: live in such a way as to be able to continue to live.
 
 
Flourishing is thus, in keeping with the Aristotelian-scholastic moral tradition in which Randian ethics can be categorized, man’s natural end. One can, of course, fail or err with regards to achieving one’s natural end. (This is why even someone who commits suicide still necessarily has life as his/her ultimate value.) But because all human beings accept the basic “ought” that they should do what is necessary to promote their lives (or else they would not and could not act), they accept the other “oughts” that follow: namely, those principles that promote human flourishing.
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5. A living being engaged in goal-directed action must therefore accepted life as its ultimate value. At the most fundamental level, it has decided to maximize this parameter by fulfilling its basic requirement: engaging in action. Consequently, at all other levels, no matter the content of the action (decisions about content also constituting action), life remains the ultimate standard throughout, because without it there could be no evaluation of action as preferable to non-action in the first place. 
a. This is also axiomatic. Any attempt to deny that action has life as its ultimate standard qua value would constitute an action affirming life as its ultimate standard qua value: like the action axiom, also self-contradictory and self-refuting. 
b. Unlike other ends, life is an end-in-itself, because it is a means to itself. “Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action”; i.e. it is composed of action (good or bad) that takes the shape of a structural,circular chain. Goal-directed action requires life qua ultimate value. Life qua ultimate value requires goal-direction action, which itself requires life qua ultimate value. Et cetera. (Conscious living beings cannot avoid engaging in action since the decision not to act would itself be an action.)

Here's what Patrick O'Neil says about this:

"A decision, a volition, at time t can only be meaningful in relation to life-at-time-t+1 or life-at-time-t+1, t+2 or life-at-time-t+1, t+2, ..., t+n. We can only will concerning life in the future (however proximate that future), for the presence of life at the moment of willing is a given condition for the act of willing, and must therefore be accepted (no act of volition being necessary or possible in regard to it)--it cannot in any case be altered, for it is simultaneous with the act of willing--i.e., it is as much outside the effective operation of our wills as is our being or non-being at any point in time prior to that act of willing."

In other words, life-at-time-t cannot be a value because it has already been acheived and utilized in action (the moment we act, that "now" becomes the past).  Action is necessarily future oriented--it is a logical impossiblity to aim towards end to be acheived before this moment.  So in order to hold life as a value at all, it must be life-at-time-t+n which is some point in the future.  Once this is established, the self-refuting aspect of Rand's thesis dissolves.  I am able to say that life is not the ultimate value because the life utilized to make such a claim isn't the life that could possibly held as an end, it has already passed, and I am speaking only of life in the future. 

 

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Clayton replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 4:12 PM

4. The decision to act is the decision that existence (life) is preferable to non-existence (death), because life requires, not just particular actions (getting food, shelter, etc.), but action in itself.

I see no reason to believe this. A entails B (life entails acting) does not entail B requires valuing A (to act requires valuing life).

Rand is missing the hedonic mediation of action. Our body/brain converts external stimuli into pleasure or pain and it is these to which our acting mind responds. Bastiat says (Economic Harmonies, ch. 2):

The soul (or, not to become involved in spiritual questions, man) is endowed with the faculty of sense perception. Whether sense perception resides in the body or in the soul, the fact remains that as a passive being he experiences sensations that are painful or pleasurable. As an active being he strives to banish the former and multiply the latter. The result, which affects him again as a passive being, can be called satisfaction.

Man acts to alleviate felt uneasiness. Whether such action is helpful or detrimental to life and survival is a function of the adaptedness of our biology to our present circumstances. The monkey that keeps pushing the button to inject himself with cocaine until he ODs is definitely acting and his actions are definitely the cause of his death. The same is true for the human heroin addict who behaves similarly. All action has as its ultimate goal the satisfaction of wants or, stated more negatively, the alleviation of felt uneasiness. Nowhere is the acting being required to value life or being alive.

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Duke replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 4:51 PM

Clayton, Rand doesn't say that man necessarily acts in the pursuit of his own life. If you've read any of her books, you'll see many of the characters ultimately work for the destruction of their own lives.

What she says is that life qua man requires consistent action for the promotion of his life, because life is a process of self-sustaining and self generating action. A man engaging in self-destructive action is taking steps toward death. In any moment he can choose death if he wishes, but if the purpose of morality is to show us how to live our lives, then such actions are wrong.

Note that Rand does not equate life with mere biological sustenance.

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Duke replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 4:55 PM

mikachusetts

Life is a process.

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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 5:12 PM

@mikachusetts

I'm familiar with O'Neil's critique. But he totally misconstrues the argument. The point being made is not that you have to be alive in order to act, which, as Tara Smith notes, is true but trivial. You can't base an ethics on that.

The point is much more subtle. As I said, when you make a choice, you are evaluating one state of affairs as more preferable than another. You can only do this with reference to some kind of standard. E.g. if I choose strawberry ice cream over spinach, my standard might be good-tasting food (as opposed to healthy food). I can choose by virtue of the fact that my standard gives me a criterion of optimization; it allows me to reject certain alternatives as suboptimal.

Every standard is question-begging, and is usually justified by reference to a higher standard. But this means-ends chain cannot regress infinitely. There must be some ultimate standard, by which we can evaluate that acting to gain anything is preferable than not acting to gain anything in the first place. Because life and only life has action as a fundamental requirement (a pretty good way to die would be to shut down and not act, if that were possible), by deciding to act and choosing action over non-action, I maintain you have adopted life as your ultimate standard.

It's important to grasp why only life qualifies. Death (in the sense of non-life) cannot qualify as the ultimate standard of value, because, as Rasmussen noted in reply to O'neil, death is the absence of life and value. Death cannot give rise to action because death requires no action to maintain itself, whereas life does. Consequently, if you decide to inhale noxious fumes or plunge a knife into your chest, your immediate goal is not death qua non-life, but death qua dying, a "positive existential state". Your ultimate standard must necessarily still be life, otherwise you wouldn't be able to act.

It may seem paradoxical to say that someone committing suicide has life as their ultimate end/value. But one of the central Austrian insights is that we live in a world of uncertainty and human beings can always err and miscalculate what means are appropriate for their chosen ends. A case of suicide is a dire miscalculation. (That's not to say Randian ethics rules out as immoral any and all cases of suicide. If you rationally evaluate that the future offers you no prospects for flourishing, suicide would, again perhaps paradoxically, be a life-affirming action. Yet since most actual cases of suicide are irrational, involving all sorts of faulty judgements and fallacious reasoning, they would qualify as immoral.)

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Malachi replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 5:17 PM

Very well. Explain willful suicide. The subject acts to destroy his own life. How has he affirmed life as the ultimate standard of value?

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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 5:49 PM

@Malachi

See my post above.

@Clayton

I believe you are confusing action as an economic category with action as an ethical category. As Rothbard writes in Man, Economy, and State:

 

It is important to realize that economics does not propound any laws about the content of man’s ends. [...] The concept of action involves the use of scarce means for satisfying the most urgent wants at some point in the future, and the truths of economic theory involve the formal rela­tions between ends and means, and not their specific contents. A man’s ends may be “egoistic” or “altruistic,” “refined” or “vulgar.” They may emphasize the enjoyment of “material goods” and comforts, or they may stress the ascetic life. Economics is not concerned with their content, and its laws apply regardless of the nature of these ends. [...] Psychology and ethics deal with the content of human ends; they ask, why does the man choose such and such ends, or what ends should men value? Praxeology and economics deal with any given ends and with the formal implications of the fact that men have ends and employ means to attain them.
 
("Funadmentals of Human Action: Appendix A",  p. 72-3, emphasis mine)
 
All that I meant by a "praxeological" foundation for Rand's ethics is that they can be presentated in such a way as to be based on the action axiom, like I did in my post. Rand's analysis, however, deals not with the formal hedonic relation between means and ends but the necessary contents of man's ends. 
 
The following passage from one of Nathaniel Branden's essays in The Virtue of Selfishness may also clarify the difference between economic action and ethical action:

The basic fallacy in the "everyone is selfish" argument consists of an extraordinarily crude equivocation. It is a psychological truism - a tautology - that all purposeful behaviour is motivated. But to equate "motivated behaviour" with "selfish behaviour" is to blank out the distinction between an elementary fact of human psychology and the phenomenon of ethical choice. It is to evade the central problem of ethics, namely: by what is man to be motivated?

("Isn't Everyone Selfish?", p. 70, emphasis original)

Don't misinterpret Branden here. He is not saying the Misesian analysis of action is worthless. One could reply to the above by saying that even Mises himself acknowledged that the action axiom appears insignificant, but it has certain necessary implications which are indispensable. Again, all he is saying is that ethical questions and economic questions are different.

 

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Malachi replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 6:33 PM

I must have missed this paragraph earlier.

>>>>It's important to grasp why only life qualifies. Death (in the sense of non-life) cannot qualify as the ultimate standard of value, because, as Rasmussen noted in reply to O'neil, death is the absence of life and value. Death cannot give rise to action because death requires no action to maintain itself, whereas life does. Consequently, if you decide to inhale noxious fumes or plunge a knife into your chest, your immediate goal is not death qua non-life, but death qua dying, a "positive existential state". Your ultimate standard must necessarily still be life, otherwise you wouldn't be able to act.>>>>

if my ultimate standard is to alleviate a felt uneasiness, and my only escape from this sense of unease is suicide, have I not just affirmed that escape from a life of unease in death is preferable to the process of life? 

As for the rest, your position appears to be internally consistent. I suppose I will have to examine it further.

 

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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 7:03 PM

 

@Malachi
 
There is a difference between a standard and a motivation, as I noted in response to Clayton.
 
As Rand wrote in TVOS: "An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated" ("The Objectivist Ethics", p. 17, emphasis original). If you have a standard qua value, you have some parameter you are trying to maximize. You "should" reject all alternatives that fail to maximize that parameter. E.g. if you want to win a marathon, you should train.
 
When we say man acts to remove a felt uneasiness, we are only making a statement about the formal relation between man's means and ends, as Rothbard noted. I.e. we are saying man does A because he wants to avoid B. That's fine as far as economics goes. But, to repeat myself, by what standard does man evaluate that B is worth avoiding? That's the ethical problem.
 
"if my ultimate standard is to alleviate a felt uneasiness, and my only escape from this sense of unease is suicide, have I not just affirmed that escape from a life of unease in death is preferable to the process of life?"
 
There's two problem with your question. The first is just a nitpick. As you say, man acts to alleviate a felt uneasiness. An act of suicide would not be any different. It would be an act in response to a felt uneasiness (the turmoil of this mortal coil). But the more important point is that the removal of uneasiness is just a necessary truth about means and ends. It is not a standard or end in itself. Instead, what qualifies as "uneasiness" and what might remove it depends on the given valuations and standards of the agent. I believe that man's standard is his natural end.
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Every standard is question-begging, and is usually justified by reference to a higher standard. But this means-ends chain cannot regress infinitely. There must be some ultimate standard, by which we can evaluate that acting to gain anything is preferable than not acting to gain anything in the first place.

It doesn't follow that the thing stopping an infinite regress of ends is an ultimate end and not a biological limit.  Couldn't it be the case that values hold primacy because our brain chemistry makes it that way?

Because life and only life has action as a fundamental requirement...

How is this a true statement?  Language, art and commerce fundamentally require action too. 

 

 

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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 8:06 PM

Couldn't it be the case that values hold primacy because our brain chemistry makes it that way?

I'm afraid I don't understand what this means. Could you explain? What could possibly stop an infinite regress of ends other than a final or ultimate end? Anything else would surely be a category mistake.

Language, art and commerce fundamentally require action too. 

Yes, obviously you're right. I shouldn't have worded it that way. All ends require you to act. But most ends are only justified by reference to higher-order ends. E.g. why does Joe buy a gun? To rob a bank. Why? Because he needs the cash. Why? Because he's a junkie and the street price of heroin has risen. And so on. Life, on the other hand, isn't justified by reference to another end but is self-justifying. It's an end-in-itself or "ultimate end" because it is the ultimate means to all ends, which are themselves means to life. (They are not in all cases the correct means, since man can err.) So, contrary to what I wrote earlier, life is not just an end but an end-in-itself with a fundamental requirement of action, and the only one (since the only alternative, non-life or death, doesn't give rise to action as I already explained).

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Well, what I mean in the first part is that the infinite regression of "but why's" doesn't need to be met with an ultimate answer.  In your example of Joe robbing the bank, we can get to the point where we say "he does it because he wants to."  Your answer to "why does he want to" is something like: "because he holds life as his ultimate end."  My argument is that maybe "because he wants to" is as far as it goes; there is no further justification that can be ascertained by reason because we are the limits of knowledge, but its ok because any given individual's values are presented to him by his mind without need of further justification.  So from one's own perspective, the problem of infinite regression doesn't exist.

This would be a problem for Rand though because it leads to ethical subjectivism.

With the whole life-as-ultimate-end business, I'm still skeptical on how that position is reached.  Again, when you differentiate between life right now (t) and life going forward (t+n), things aren't as clear cut as when you treat life monistically.  Sure, life-at-t doesn't require justification because it already is, but why one should continue to value life-at-t+n?  All of a sudden, life does require another justification.

 

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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 9:54 PM

Ok I see now. You're making the Humean point that rationality only perscribes the means to our ends, but our ends per se are merely the subject of our passions, and are not subject to rational evaluation. I simply disagree. There is a good article by Darryl Wright in Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue that compares Rand's view of reason and ends to Hume's, Moore's, Kant's, and Aristotle's. Basically, Rand's view, and mine, is that it is possible to evaluate our ends. Simply reference an ultimate end.

(Incidentally, there is no stage in the means-ends chain that simply consists of "because I want to". All of my ends are "because I want to". Every goal can be viewed superficially -- insofar as ethics is concerned -- as some kind of caprice, as a desire to remove felt uneasiness. This is just to beg the question. As I noted above, "what qualifies as 'uneasiness' and what might remove it depends on the given valuations and standards of the agent." Why do you want to? This is the difference between economics and ethics.)
 
There's two ways to address your point.
 
First is just with regards to this particular example. Remember that because you choose a means to an end does not mean you chose the correct means. I can want $5 million dollars and believe the best way to get it is to spend all day flapping my arms. Now, the only reason we have a pleasure-pain mechanism is because it is an aid to survival. Ideally, things that are good for us feel good, and things that are bad for us feel bad. Of course, this only held true as a general rule back when we roamed the savannah butt-naked. (And it wasn't totally reliable even back then.) Nowadays, we can isolate pleasurable chemicals, make substances out of them, and abuse them, which is why pleasure-pain is no longer an adequate guide to what promotes our lives.
 
When Joe reacts to the pleasure that heroin gives him, he is making use of a mechanism that aids (or is supposed to aid, anyway) his struggle for survival. He is acting to achieve his ultimate end (though perhaps unaware of it). The crucial point, however, is that he chose a very bad means for achieving his ultimate end!
 
But there's a more fundamental issue. Every action you take affirms your ultimate end, because action per se affirms your ultimate end. (For example, as Rasmussen noted in Norms of Liberty, arguing about your natural end means seeking truth, which is a means of promoting your natural end. In the Mises Review, David Gordon wasn't persuaded.) All ends-means chains culminate in the pursuit of life. For example, in the case of Joe, his actions could be represented as follows:
 
Buy a gun --> Rob a bank --> Get cash --> Get heroin --> Feel good --> Obey demands of pleasure-pain mechanism
 
Life qua ultimate value is the ultimate means (for reasons already given). So all actions, Joe's included, can be reduced to:
 
(I wanna)--> Act --(so by implication I have) --> Life qua ultimate value --(so I'd better*)--> Get life --(so I can)--> Act 
 
*The means the agent chooses to acquire life may not be correct. The chain is circular because life is an end-in-itself.
 
This is what it means to say life is the summum bonum, the goal at which all action aims. Of course, just because your natural end is always affirmed doesn't mean it is always achieved. That's where moral perscriptions and political systems come in.
 
I should also say that the entire contents of a means-end chain are not always clear; they just happened to be in the case of Joe. All we can know a priori is that an agent that acts has rejected the alternative of non-action, which means that the requirements of his natural end is his standard for making choices; his means-end chain stops at life. As a result, all his actions are means to acheiving his natural end, though they may not be the right means. His ultimate end is life; the lesser means depend on the circumstance.
 
With the whole life-as-ultimate-end business, I'm still skeptical on how that position is reached.  Again, when you differentiate between life right now (t) and life going forward (t+n), things aren't as clear cut as when you treat life monastically.  Sure, life-at-t doesn't require justification because it already is, but why one should continue to value life-at-t+n?  All of a sudden, life does require another justification.
 
I thought I already said the argument was not that you have to be alive in order to act. The argument is that you have to have life as your standard, as a goal to be achieved in the future, in order to act.
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tunk replied on Mon, Oct 10 2011 10:06 PM

Almost every post I've made here has been a response to an objection I've already addressed in my initial argument. Before you attempt a critique, please go over my first post carefully and make an effort to grasp it. I didn't personally understand this natural-end stuff until I'd mulled over it for months. I've tried as hard as I can to be clear, but language only goes so far.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 12:48 AM

@tunk: No, I'm not confusing means with ends. It is simply not true that life is the ultimate end. The ultimate end is satisfaction. Unsurprisingly, my biology is hardwired in such a way that my satisfaction almost always overlaps with my survival. The point is that the correlation is not necessary and, hence, point 4 in the OP is not true.

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 1:44 AM

Clayton:

@tunk: No, I'm not confusing means with ends.

tunk:

I believe you are confusing action as an economic category with action as an ethical category.

Clayton:

It is simply not true that life is the ultimate end. The ultimate end is satisfaction.

tunk:

When we say man acts to remove a felt uneasiness, we are only making a statement about the formal relation between man's means and ends, as Rothbard noted. I.e. we are saying man does A because he wants to avoid B. That's fine as far as economics goes. But, to repeat myself, by what standard does man evaluate that B is worth avoiding? That's the ethical problem. [...] [T]he removal of uneasiness is just a necessary truth about means and ends. It is not a standard or end in itself. Instead, what qualifies as "uneasiness" [and satisfaction] and what might remove [the former and bring about the latter] depends on the given valuations and standards of the agent.

Rothbard, Man Economy and State, Chapter 1 Appendix A:

  • Why man chooses various ends: psychology.
  • What men’s ends should be [or must necessarily be]: philosophy of ethics. [...]
  • How to use means to arrive at ends: technology.
  • What man’s ends are and have been, and how man has used means in order to attain them: history.
  • The formal implications of the fact that men use means to attain various chosen ends [i.e. satisfaction]: praxeology.
Satisfaction is not the ultimate end. It isn't even an immediate end. Satisfaction is a particular existential state in which your ends are achieved. It has nothing to do with the content of your ends, which is what I'm concerned with. Saying action aims at satisfaction is saying "the aim of a goal is the goal of the aim". It's tautology.

Clayton:
Unsurprisingly, my biology is hardwired in such a way that my satisfaction almost always overlaps with my survival.

Really? Because something makes you feel good is reason to think it's in your interests? 

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Incidentally, there is no stage in the means-ends chain that simply consists of "because I want to". All of my ends are "because I want to". Every goal can be viewed superficially -- insofar as ethics is concerned -- as some kind of caprice, as a desire to remove felt uneasiness. This is just to beg the question. As I noted above, "what qualifies as 'uneasiness' and what might remove it depends on the given valuations and standards of the agent." Why do you want to? This is the difference between economics and ethics.

I don't disagree with you here, but this just doesn't logically necessitate life as an ultimate standard.  You just keep asserting that its the case.  But lets leave it be for now.

The proof you put forward (I think) is that in acting we are affirming life as a value and that in denying life as a value, we are still acting and thus utilizing and affirming life anyway.  So lets accept this as it is (assuming that I correctly stated your position).  If it is a descriptive statement about ethical reality, then all men have the same meta-normative standard within which they operate and we can judge their ends within this framework as in-line or out-of-line with their ultimate end, the same way as we can judge means as appropriate or inappropriate for given ends.

So maybe it is impossible to not hold life as the ultimate standard, but I'm sure we both agree that individuals can consistently choose to aim at ends which are inappropriate to life as the ultimate standard.  Furthermore, they can do so consciously aware that their actions are unethical within the natural law tradition.  Your response to this (I think) would be that just because he affirms life as an end-in-itself it doesn't mean that he achieves life as an end-in-itself.  But then the question resurfaces: why should he want to achieve life?  Although he is unable to deny life as the ultimate standard, he is still able to defy life as the ultimate standard, which in my opinion breaks ethics back down into a subjective utilitarian discipline.

       

 

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 12:40 PM

mikachusetts:
[T]his just doesn't logically necessitate life as an ultimate standard. You just keep asserting that its the case.

I've restated my case several times. If you really believe this, then, to be blunt, you have simply failed to grasp my position.

I don't want to repeat the entirety of my claim again. I've done so several times, and anyone who's interested in my actual position should go over my intial post very carefully and seriously try to digest what I'm saying. (Reading Rasmussen and Smith would help.)

For the third and final time, my claim is not that you have to be alive in order to act. My claim, in a nutshell, is as follows. Before an agent acts, it must first "decide" whether or not to act. (This choice doesn't have to be explicit, it can merely be implied.) Decisions can only be made in light of a standard: a parameter to be optimized. (Standards are what allow you to choose one state of affairs over another.) The only fundamental, non-question begging and self-justifying standard that recommends action is life. Non-life has no requirements. (I've yet to see this disputed.) As a result, the parameter an acting agent has chosen to optimize is life. To act, you must accept the normative premise that you "ought" to do what sustains your existence (the basic means to which is action). Otherwise, you could not have rejected the alternative of non-action (you would have had no standard by which to do so) and wouldn't have been able to act. Life is the ultimate end because adopting it as an end is the ultimate means. The argument simply cannot be made any clearer than this and I won't try. If you get it, you get it. 

You might object to this and ask, "Isn't action a means to all ends, not just life? What makes life so special?" But choosing what kind of action you want to undertake (skipping through the park, licking a stamp, etc.) is itself an action. The first choice is whether or not to act at all. And language is extremely fuzzy here. Even that basic choice is itself an action, which presupposes that choice, etc., suggesting an infinite regress that could never really exist since we wouldn't be able to act in that case. This is why I say that first crossroads is the basic one, which only life qua ultimate standard can guide you through.

 So maybe it is impossible to not hold life as the ultimate standard, but I'm sure we both agree that individuals can consistently choose to aim at ends which are inappropriate to life as the ultimate standard.  Furthermore, they can do so consciously aware that their actions are unethical within the natural law tradition. [...] But then the question resurfaces: why should he want to achieve life?  Although he is unable to deny life as the ultimate standard, he is still able todefy life as the ultimate standard, which in my opinion breaks ethics back down into a subjective utilitarian discipline.

The argument for ethical principles just goes like this:

  1. If you want to achieve goal F, you "should" do A, B, C, and "shouldn't" do X, Y, Z.
  2. You want to achieve goal F.
  3. Therefore, you "should" do A, B, C, and "shouldn't" do X, Y, Z.

Asking, "Why should I do as life requires" is like asking, "Why should I train for the marathon?" Why run the marathon in that case? Irfan Khawaja, in a helpful review of Viable Values, suggested the following (emphasis mine):

The key to understanding the "choice to live," as I see it, is to think of the binding force of an ultimate value by analogy with the binding force of a logical axiom, on the Aristotelian conception of an axiom (cf.VV, p. 107) [...]

At Metaphysics IV.3, Aristotle enunciates the PNC: "A thing cannot be and not-be at the same, in the same respect." This is an undeniable and foundational truth; its truth is merely re-affirmed in the attempt to doubt or deny it. Note, however, that the Principle is not a categorical injunction to engage in thought. In fact, it says nothing at all about thought, nor is it a prescription of any kind. It merely states a fact about the world—one that becomes a guide for thought when and only when one chooses to think. In choosing to engage in thought, one sees in one's own case that if one is to do so successfully (i.e., at all), onemust obey the Principle without exception. [...]

One can escape the PNC-- if one is willing to pay the price. The PNC binds all thought; one way to evade it, then, is simply to stop thinking. [...] It doesn't apply to a non-thinker. On the other hand, its non-application to the non-thinker is hardly a threat to its logical or epistemic authority. A non-thinker can't raise an objection (or even have one), and thus cannot constitute a problem for the PNC. [...]

The analogy to moral obligation applies as follows. As a matter of non-prescriptive fact, life can only be kept in existence by a constant process of self-sustaining action. Moreover, life is unique in this respect: it's the underlying generator of practical requirements that explains why there are practical requirements at all, themselves requiring self-sustaining action. So life is the ultimate value. Life's conditional character, however, is not by itself a prescription. It's simply a fact about the world. The fact by itself generates no categorical duty to keep one's own life (or anyone else's life) in existence, or indeed, to value or do anything at all. Life's conditional character becomes a guide for action when and only when one chooses to value and live, i.e., chooses to engage in goal-directed action [...].

 In choosing to live, one is conditionally bound by the requirements of life. [...] [I]f I will life as an end, I must will the means to it; if I refuse to will the means, I must give up the end.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 1:01 PM

Satisfaction is not the ultimate end. It isn't even an immediate end. Satisfaction is a particular existential state in which your ends are achieved.

You really need to read the first three chapters of Economic Harmonies. Satisfaction is a state of affairs that will never be achieved while you are alive and acting. In fact, dissatisfaction is a necessary criterion for action. If you were not dissatisfied with the present state of affairs, you would not act.

I will quote Bastiat (ch. 3) at length,

Having spoken of our wants and the means we possess to satisfy them, I have a word to say about our satisfactions. They are the result of the whole mechanism. According to the degree of physical, moral, and intellectual satisfactions enjoyed by humanity, we know whether the machine is functioning well or badly. Hence, the word consommation (taken over in French by the economists to mean consumption) would have profound meaning, if, keeping its etymological sense, it were used as a synonym of end, achievement. Unfortunately, in common usage and even in the scientific language, it suggests to the mind a coarse and material connotation, accurate undoubtedly for physical wants, but not for wants of a higher order. The raising of wheat, the spinning of wool are concluded by an act of consumption. Can the word consumption be also applied to the works of the artist, the songs of the poet, the deliberations of the jurist, the sermons of the priest? Here again we encounter the difficulties of the basic error that led Adam Smith to confine political economy to material values; and the reader will pardon me if I often use the word satisfaction to apply to all our wants and to all our desires, since I think it better corresponds to the wider scope that I feel justified in giving to political economy.

Economists have often been reproached for concerning themselves exclusively with the interests of the consumer. "You forget the producer," people say. But satisfaction being the goal, the end of all efforts, and, as it were, the final consummation of economic phenomena, is it not evident that it is the touchstone of all progress? A man's well-being is not measured by his efforts, but by his satisfactions. This observation also holds true for men taken collectively. This again is one of those truths accepted by everybody when it is applied to the individual, but disputed endlessly when applied to society as a whole. The expression so much attacked means only this: The value of every economic activity is determined, not by the labor it entails, but by the positive effect it produces, which in turn results in increasing or decreasing the general welfare.
 

It has nothing to do with the content of your ends, which is what I'm concerned with. Saying action aims at satisfaction is saying "the aim of a goal is the goal of the aim". It's tautology.

Satisfaction of wants or the alleviation of felt uneasiness is the end which lies beyond all ends. It is not a state of being which can be attained by a living human being. All particular ends which we might identify (say, being warm) are, in the most abstract view, really just means to the attainment of the only end which we have: satisfaction of wants and alleviation of felt uneasiness. This and only this is the ultimate end. It is not a normative matter but a matter of praxeological fact.

Really? Because something makes you feel good is reason to think it's in your interests?

Yes, really. This is almost never false. It is true so much of the time that we hardly pay any attention to it. It's like the running fan in the background that you can't even hear once you've acclimated to it.

You are motivated to sleep by the reward of feeling rested. You are motivated to eat by the reward of feeling nourished. You are motivated to drink water by the reward of feeling quenched. And so on. Your entire day from moment to moment is dominated by an uncountable number of good feelings and subconscious rewards by which your animal brain pokes and prods you to leave the sedentary state and attend to your corporeal needs, whether or not your are even aware of their existence and urgency. Felt uneasiness is the negative side of the equation - it is the pains and aches with which your brain afflicts your conscious mind for the same purpose, to drive you out of the sedentary state and attend to your needs.

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 1:20 PM

Clayton:
All particular ends which we might identify (say, being warm) are, in the most abstract view, really just means to the attainment of the only end which we have: satisfaction of wants and alleviation of felt uneasiness. This and only this is the ultimate end.

This is starting to get quite funny, actually. Why do you feel any uneasiness? Why do you follow your drive to remove it? What allows you to act to remove it to begin with? Only life gives rise to wants and the need to satisfy them. (It might just be that by "life" and "satisfaction of wants" we are referring to approximately the same phenomenon.)

Satisfaction of wants or the alleviation of felt uneasiness is the end which lies beyond all ends. [...] It is not a normative matter but a matter of praxeological fact.

That's what I've been saying. Satisfaction/uneasiness, i.e. the state of your quest to achieve your ends, is a strict praxeological matter. The content of your ends, and whether there have any necessary contents, is a normative matter. Man acts to make himself or the world better off than they would be had he not acted. This is a formal, praxeological, positive description about action. I am concerned, on the other hand, with the specific, normative contents of action.  We are discussing different things.

This is almost never false. It is true so much of the time that we hardly pay any attention to it.

I disagree. The whole of Rand's ethics is to show this is in fact often false. There are simple biological stimuli that are beyond our control and reward basic life-sustaining behaviour. But many conscious actions feel good that are objectively not in your interests. Your social climate might impart feelings of guilt upon you if you don't constantly sacrifice yourself, if you don't do as others command, if you don't lend all your money to your friend, if you don't give up that career in order to stay with your girlfriend. Self-destructive practises of altruism might feel good. Hedonism as well. Lying on a resume might feel good, but in the long run is likely to turn out bad for you. Or living a life of debauchery , drugs, and crime. Living is more than simply breathing and having a pulse. Every action you take has a long-run consequence on your life, and many times, when those consequences are far removed we ignore them. That doesn't make them any less real.

I'm not saying no good actions feel good. I'm saying your emotions and sensations are not a consistently reliable to all and every actions. This seems to me to be obvious. A disciplined egoism requires that you give up short-term gratifications in order to pursue your rational self-interest. 

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 1:36 PM

I am concerned, on the other hand, with the specific, normativecontents of action.  We are discussing different things.

No, you're trying to divorce ends from means and you cannot.

The problem is that - by assigning an incorrect ultimate end (life) - you are bound to come to ridiculous prescriptions for the choices of intermediate ends (or means-ends). If we say, for example, "the ultimate end of man is to fly", then we might say that "vigorously flapping your arms for 30 minutes each morning is a good and healthy activity which all moral people will engage in." The correct identification of the ultimate end is crucial to determining the contents of normative ethics.

As for "life" being the ontological precondition for acting, I am not disputing this. But life, in this sense, is merely a description of a physical system, that is, the vibration of atoms within my cells that permit the messages from the cells' DNA to be communicated to the respective parts and keep the whole system alive and functioning. This is a question for the physical sciences and biology, not for praxeology.

Praxeology is the study of what humans do (and, with certain qualifications, why). While "being alive" is a physical precondition for acting, apprehension of this ontological fact within the mind of the acting individual is not. I do not need to understand the first thing about my biology or the physics of atoms and polymers in order to act. I act based solely on the indivisible consciousness which is presented to me at every waking moment. How that consciousness works, what's under the hood, whether I have an incorporeal soul, these are all questions that might be interesting to study but are irrelevant to the question of action. However it works, it works, and I must act to avoid uneasiness and seek satisfaction of my wants.

Hence, I do not need to value being alive because I could not value being alive if I have no idea what it even means to be alive (i.e. the physical preconditions of living, such as not eating poisonous mushrooms). I can and must act even if I do not know what makes me alive, therefore, I can act without valuing life. I can mistakenly eat poisonous mushrooms in the effort to satisfy my hunger. Such an action is not immoral. Even if I knew the mushroom was poisonous and I ate it out of "high time preference" (Rothbard, EoL), I would still not be engaging in immoral behavior.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 1:46 PM

I disagree. The whole of Rand's ethics is to show this is in fact often false. There are simple biological stimuli that are beyond our control and reward basic life-sustaining behaviour. But many conscious actions feel good that are objectively not in your interests.

I don't deny this. But, as a matter of praxeology, we have to explain why people do what they do. However, I think that to say that making incorrect choices for one's own interests is immoral is to confuse the question of social order (morality, ethics, law) with the question of calculation (how to achieve a given end). The two are clearly separate.

Your social climate might impart feelings of guilt upon you if you don't constantly sacrifice yourself, if you don't do as others command, if you don't lend all your money to your friend, if you don't give up that career in order to stay with your girlfriend. Self-destructive practises of altruism might feel good. Hedonism as well. Lying on a resume might feel good, but in the long run is likely to turn out bad for you. Or living a life of debauchery , drugs, and crime. Living is more than simply breathing and having a pulse. Every action you take has a long-run consequence on your life, and many times, when those consequences are far removed we ignore them. That doesn't make them any less real.

I'm not saying no good actions feel good. I'm saying your emotions and sensations are not a consistently reliable to all and every actions. This seems to me to be obvious. A disciplined egoism requires that you give up short-term gratifications in order to pursue your rational self-interest.

Let me re-quote Bastiat: "[consumption] suggests to the mind a coarse and material connotation, accurate undoubtedly for physical wants, but not for wants of a higher order. The raising of wheat, the spinning of wool are concluded by an act of consumption. Can the word consumption be also applied to the works of the artist, the songs of the poet, the deliberations of the jurist, the sermons of the priest? ... pardon me if I often use the word satisfaction to apply to all our wants and to all our desires, since I think it better corresponds to the wider scope that I feel justified in giving to political economy."

There are no wants or desires which fall outside of the scope of alleviation of felt uneasiness and satisfaction of wants. This is how the external (and internal) world is presented to us by our conscious minds whenever we are awake and in our senses. We all act, at all times, in response to our own psychic stimuli (excepting the insane, drugged, etc.) Even the desire to act rationally (according to the principles of logic, cause-and-effect, objective facts, etc.) is a response to subjective psychic stimuli. We are always acting to achieve satisfaction, even if that satisfaction is the result of low time-preference, deferred consumption, careful calculation and based on objective facts, logic and cause-and-effect.

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Bert replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 2:15 PM

I'd never think a Rand thread would get this in depth, and I can't take it seriously when the poster has Ralph Wiggum as his default pic (I hear the voice when I begin to read).

I had always been impressed by the fact that there are a surprising number of individuals who never use their minds if they can avoid it, and an equal number who do use their minds, but in an amazingly stupid way. - Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols
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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 2:34 PM

Holy mother of God.

Clayton:
[L]ife, in this sense, is merely a description of a physical system, that is, the vibration of atoms within my cells that permit the messages from the cells' DNA to be communicated to the respective parts and keep the whole system alive and functioning. This is a question for the physical sciences and biology, not for praxeology. [...] While "being alive" is a physical precondition for acting, apprehension of this ontological fact within the mind of the acting individual is not.
 
tunk:
The point being made is not that you have to be alive in order to act, which, as Tara Smith notes, is true but trivial. You can't base an ethics on that.
I thought I already said the argument was not that you have to be alive in order to act. The argument is that you have to have life as your standard, as a goal to be achieved in the future, in order to act.
For the third and final time, my claim is not that you have to be alive in order to act.
 
Clayton:
There are no wants or desires which fall outside of the scope of alleviation of felt uneasiness and satisfaction of wants. [...] Even the desire to act rationally (according to the principles of logic, cause-and-effect, objective facts, etc.) is a response to subjective psychic stimuli. We are always acting to achieve satisfaction [...].
 
tunk:
Satisfaction/uneasiness, i.e. the state of your quest to achieve your ends, [the relation betwen your means and ends], is a strict praxeological matter. The content of your ends, and whether there have any necessary contents, is a normative matter. Man acts to make himself or the world better off than they would be had he not acted. This is a formal, praxeological, positive description about action. I am concerned, on the other hand, with the specific, normative contents of action.  We are discussing different things.
 
Clayton:
No, you're trying to divorce ends from means and you cannot.
 
tunk:
I believe you are confusing action as an economic category with action as an ethical category.
 
Clayton:
Praxeology is the study of what humans do (and, with certain qualifications, why).
 
Rothbard:
It is important to realize that economics does not propound any laws about the content of man’s ends. [...] The concept of action involves the use of scarce means for satisfying the most urgent wants at some point in the future, and the truths of economic theory involve the formal rela­tions between ends and means, and not their specific contents. [...] Economics is not concerned with their content, and its laws apply regardless of the nature of these ends.
 
Clayton:
I think that to say that making incorrect choices for one's own interests is immoral is to confuse the question of social order (morality, ethics, law) with the question of calculation (how to achieve a given end). The two are clearly separate.
 
Of course they are separate! That's why I'm trying to deal with the former and not the latter. All you are doing is saying that man does what he does in order to get what he wants. I'm discussing what he should want!
 
tunk:
All that I meant by a "praxeological" foundation for Rand's ethics is that they can be presentated in such a way as to be based on the action axiom, like I did in my post. Rand's analysis, however, deals not with the formal hedonic relation between means and ends but thenecessary contents of man's ends.
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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 2:46 PM

Perhaps a syllogistic approach will help.

You claimed that life is the ultimate value, that is, in order to act you must value life. I assert that this claim is false. We're clearly going in circles at this point.

This is your argument as I understand it:

- To act you must be alive (I agree)

- To be alive, you must value life (I don't agree)

- Therefore, to act you must value life

Please critique, clarify, etc.

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 3:17 PM

I thought I already took a syllogistic approach in my opening post. I also elaborated in my responses to Clayton.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 3:23 PM

@tunk: My claim is that point 4 in the OP syllogism is false, therefore, there is no reason to believe your conclusion in the OP. The purpose of this syllogism is to probe the truth/falsity of point 4 in more depth.

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 3:37 PM

Ok. Premise 4:

tunk:
4. The decision to act is the decision that existence (life) is preferable to non-existence (death), because life requires, not just particular actions (getting food, shelter, etc.), but action in itself. 

What do I mean by this? It's a quite simple proposition once you grasp it.

As I said above, "If you have a standard [...], you have some parameter you are trying to maximize. You "should" reject all alternatives that fail to maximize that parameter. E.g. if you want to win a marathon, you should train. [...] Decisions can only be made in light of a standard [...] [they] are what allow you to choose one state of affairs over another". Without a standard you can make no evaluations and no choices.

If your goal is "life" -- i.e. the promotion of optimal conditions for the operation of your essence across your natural life span -- then there are certain things you "ought" to do. Faced with the alternative between being obese or doing regular exercise, for example, you "ought" to do the latter. Faced with the alternative between spending an afternoon bonking yourself on the head with a hammer or doing your math homework, you "ought" to do the latter. (For self-evident reasons, I hope.) But before all of these alternatives, you are faced with one basic alternative: acting or not acting, choosing or not choosing. Life says you "ought" to do the former. An agent with life as an ultimate value "ought" to act and choose. Consequently, an agent that acts and chooses has life as their ultimate value.

Does the latter necessarily follow the former? Yes, once you realize that there is no other standard that precedes choice and action and gives rise to them in the way life does. "Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action". As I wrote above:

tunk:
You might object to this and ask, "Isn't action a means to all ends, not just life? What makes life so special?" But choosing what kind of action you want to undertake (skipping through the park, licking a stamp, etc.) is itself an action. The first choice is whether or not to act at all. And language is extremely fuzzy here. Even that basic choice is itself an action, which presupposes that choice, etc., suggesting an infinite regress that could never really exist since we wouldn't be able to act in that case. This is why I say that first crossroads is the basic one, which only life qua ultimate standard can guide you through.

tunk:
It's important to grasp why only life qualifies. Death (in the sense of non-life) cannot qualify as the ultimate standard of value, because, as Rasmussen noted in reply to O'neil, death is the absence of life and value. Death cannot give rise to action because death requires no action to maintain itself, whereas life does. Consequently, if you decide to inhale noxious fumes or plunge a knife into your chest, your immediate goal is not death qua non-life, but death qua dying, a "positive existential state". Your ultimate standard must necessarily still be life, otherwise you wouldn't be able to act.

tunk:
Unlike other ends, life is an end-in-itself, because it is a means to itself. [...] [Life] is composed of action (good or bad) that takes the shape of a structural, circular chain. Goal-directed action requires life qua ultimate value. Life qua ultimate value requires goal-direction action, which itself requires life qua ultimate value. Et cetera. (Conscious living beings cannot avoid engaging in action since the decision not to act would itself be an action.) 

Life is the ultimate end because adopting it as an end is the ultimate means.

Perhaps my constant quoting of myself puts some off. But, for some reason, it seems to me nobody puts it better. And if you want something done right...

Anyway, I hope this is lucid, so people can start discussing my actual argument as opposed to strawmen.

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 4:18 PM

"If you have a standard [...], you have some parameter you are trying to maximize. You "should" reject all alternatives that fail to maximize that parameter.

I can agree to this (I think that's point 3 in the OP).

But before all of these alternatives, you are faced with one basic alternative: acting or not acting, choosing or not choosing.

I believe Mises explicitly rejects this idea in HA - we have no choice in the matter of whether to choose. We are simply born into the world and we must choose, we must act, and that's that. In any case, I would dispute this claim.

Life says you "ought" to do the former. An agent with life as an ultimate value "ought" to act and choose. Consequently, an agent that acts and chooses has life as their ultimate value.

I think you're abusing normative language here. We don't say that "in order to be a negatively charged particle, the electron ought to move away from other electrons. To do otherwise, would be to choose not to be an electron." We don't speak this way because it (wrongly) implies that the electron has a choice in the matter. As I said above, humans do not have the choice between choosing and not choosing. By virtue of existing, you are choosing at all instants. Even if you simply lie down on the ground from this moment until you perish you are choosing not to get up.

I think this is the crux of our disagreement. Because you believe we have some kind of primordial "pre-choice", you imagine that we can "choose life". But I reject this view. We do not choose life. We are alive and choice (action) is thrust upon our conscious mind whether we want it or not as a consequence of being alive.

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 5:21 PM

I was actually waiting for somebody to make that point. It means I'm finally being understood. (Though not refuted quite yet.)

First of all, we are concerned only with conscious, living beings here, entities that can engage in goal-directed action. As Rand writes in TOE, "Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence." A non-living being -- e.g. atoms, rocks, plants -- does not have to do anything in order to maintain its existence; living being does.

Incidentally, Michael Huemer responded to this claim in his critique of TOE: "it is not true that positive action is never required to preserve a non-living thing's existence. A cloud, for instance, must absorb more water in order to continue to exist." Of course, this is complete casuistry. What identifies an action as goal directed is "self-generation", "value-significance", and "goal-causation", all of which come from life. Harry Binswanger explains this in The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts.

Now, I actually reject, along with you, the belief of some Objectivists that there is such a thing as a "premoral choice to live" that precedes all rationality and on which no judgements can be passed, so that ultimately we really can't make any moral evaluations about sucide bombers. But I also reject the thesis that this means that there is "no choice in the matter of whether to choose" life -- at least in the sense in which you use it, as if it rips away the foundations for ethics. On the contrary, every choice is a choice of life. To say that decision-making can't be avoided is just to confirm what I've been saying from the start, which is that life qua flourishing is man's natural end.

Rasmussen discusses this in a very useful paper:

Rasmussen, 312:
According to this Aristotelian view, one’s life as a flourishing rational animal is one’s ultimate good or end. This ultimate good or end is, as Long puts it, “not a matter of choice [but] is implicit in every desire or choice . . . . The end is, as it were, forced upon us, and the task of practical reason is simply to identify it” (34). What Long means by this is that all human beings have an inherent potentiality for their mature state—for their flourishing or self-perfection or good —and though this potentiality is only achieved by and through their choice, their having this potentiality for this mature state is not itself a matter of choice. It is thus within this context, within a particular account of human nature, that human choice is understood. [...] So, though human beings are certainly free not to actualize their inherent potentiality for maturation, they are also not free to change the fact that they have this potentiality in virtue of the type or kind of living thing they are. They are not free, in other words, to change what they are.6

316:
...[W]hat does it mean to say that the end or value of life is implicit in any choice a person makes? If it means that one cannot choose or value anything—even not living—without valuing that which makes such choosing or valuation possible, then what is being contended is that all choosing or valuing involves choosing or valuing that which makes choosing or valuing possible, and this is the end or value of life. Thus, as Nathaniel Branden (1962, 26) once put it, “not to hold man’s life as one’s standard for moral judgment is to be guilty of a logical contradiction.”
 
If you could somehow choose not to make choices, you wouldn't be living being. Because you are a living being that pursues life, you can make choices. This is the meaning of that rather opaque phrase in A Groundwork For Rights: "Living being acts to live. It is [...] both the terms of the relation as well as the relation itself. This is what it means to be an end in itself." Rasmussen also cites against Tibor Machan a devastating reductio ad absurdum from Douglas Den Uyl of exactly the position you reject, which may be instructive here:
 
327:
Let us grant, for the sake of the argument, the doctrine of premoral choice. Let us grant also that life is the ultimate value. Given then an initial choice to live and life as the ultimate value, all choices beyond the first one will be measured in terms of being either choices to live or choices about the means to live. Choices that do not respect the ultimate end of life are choices not to live. But if all this is so, then the “official position” has no ethics whatsoever; because if all of the foregoing assumptions hold, then all choices are choices between life and “death.” And if that is so, then all choices are in the same state as the first choice. Thus, either all choices are premoral—they all must make an initial commitment to life first, and so on ad infinitum—or there is no such thing as a premoral choice that originates morality. The latter alternative is compatible with and implied by the neo-Aristotelian alternative to the “official doctrine.”.

 

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Clayton replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 5:52 PM

@tunk: It seems to me that Long, yourself et. al. are equivocating on the word "life." That word is heavily overloaded and can refer to many different kinds of things. It can refer to the biological definition of life (which is itself disputed, for example, some biologists believe that bacteria are alive but viruses are not, etc.), there is quality-of-life, there is "life in the abstract", i.e. plant-animal-human life in a Zen Buddhist sense, there is having a life (doing things, going places, meeting people) and so on. Too many kinds of life.

Can you break down in other words what you mean by "life"? I don't mean to be obtuse nor am I trying to "wear you down".

Are you claiming that it is objectively immoral to make choices which mitigate against my own life, for example, smoking cigarettes? Is it not possible for me to weigh my value for the length/quality of my life with the pleasure I receive right now from smoking cigarettes?

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tunk replied on Tue, Oct 11 2011 6:38 PM

Ok. As I said at the start:

tunk:
What is meant by life is merely survival: promoting the optimal conditions for the operation of your essence across your natural lifespan. But survival includes psychological as well as physical health. In order to pursue sustenance, human beings must first be convinced their life is worth sustaining. For example, a person who pursues passions, fruitful relationships, hobbies, and lives a life of self-esteem clearly has better survival prospects than someone who is antisocial and suffers recurring bouts of mania and psychological depression. Human beings must therefore not only eat and have a pulse, but must flourish: live in such a way as to be able to continue to live. Flourishing is thus, in keeping with the Aristotelian-scholastic moral tradition in which Randian ethics can be categorized, man’s natural end

The derivation of "flourishing" from "life" and the moral implications is where Smith's books are really useful. It is not an equivocation to maintain that the two are the same goal. Flourishing doesn't refer to a mere subjective feeling, since Rand maintains feelings are not a guide to rational self-interest. (That an action makes you feel good is a necessary but not sufficient condition for its being in your rational self-interest.) Objective flourishing means surviving in the most optimal way.

Some people reject this argument on the basis of the distinction between needs and wants, or the quantity and quality of life, maintaining survival only requires the former. But these are false distinctions, or at least not clear-cut ones. The quantity of your life depends on the quality, and vice versa. And the sheer number of things that qualify as "needs" exponentially increase with the progress of civilization. (Demanding the unnecessary is the definition of human progress.)

The first requirement of flourishing is rationality, "the master virtue", from which all others derive. You must make an honest effort to identify the facts of reality and make honest and valid judgements and inferences about them. Since every decision you make has some potential ramification, large or small, minute or drastic, on your existence, it becomes clear that for the most part it is not a good idea to live by making quick ad hoc calculations on the spur of the moment. The instant you err or overlook important information could mean death. Instead, it's a good idea to formulate some principles in advance, incorporating the widest possible knowledge, and adhere to them without waverance so as to minimize the risk involved in decision-making. (Of course, the application of your principles depends on the context.) These for Rand are Rationality, Honesty, Independence, Integrity, Justice, Productiveness, and Pride.

I remember that Huemer objects to all this on the grounds that Rand has to show, for her argument to be valid, that as soon as you do something immoral you die. This is, of course, false. You could, at any moment, point to "live bad guys", immoral people who happen to have a pulse. Yet mere appearances tell you nothing about whether their long-run survival is assured. As Smith puts it, this is like being a doctor, seeing a patient walk into your clinic, and concluding, "You're fine; after all, you're alive!" Just because you can get away with cheating on a principle in a particular instance does not make cheating a valid norm, in the same way that the fact you might survive if you jaywalk with a blindfold doesn't make blindfolded jaywalking a good street-crossing policy. And indeed, "bad guys", if they survive and flourish for long periods, can only do so to their extent that they practise Randian virtues more times than not.

So, someone who "cheats" is pitting themselves against their fellow man, undermining the kind of society that makes it possible for them to pursue their values. They have to commit more wrongs to cover up the first wrongs, increasing the chance of being caught. It is only possible to cheat insofar as there remains anyone off of whom you may be a parasite, which decreases in likelihood the more you cheat. And of course, people who lie, kill, rape, steal, etc. usually foster severe inner psychological proglems. Whereas all of this can be avoided by treating your fellow man with dignity and who represents a potential value to you in trade. This is why egoism isn't predatory, but in fact demands a lot of discipline from you.

Tl;dr: with regards to smoking, you will most likely not drop dead as soon as you take one puff. But the more you do it...

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Clayton replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 1:42 AM

OK, I think we're getting closer to understanding where exactly we differ...

The derivation of "flourishing" from "life" and the moral implications is where Smith's books are really useful. It is not an equivocation to maintain that the two are the same goal.

I'm with you all the way up to this point (and including your prior self-quote).

Flourishing doesn't refer to a mere subjective feeling,

This is where we part ways. Flourishing/life can only be an ultimate end if it is a subjective state of affairs. The reason this is the case is because we cannot (presently) bridge the gap between praxeology (what men do) and psychology (why they do it) and because the study of human action is plagued with the observer effect (observing someone changes their behavior) among other problems. We are learning more and more every day about the objective criteria for our own happiness through neurobiology, evolutionary psychology and other scientific disciplines. But we are still light-years away from a really comprehensive, objective understanding of the human mind. You are right that it is tautological to say that "the ultimate end is satisfaction of wants" since an end is a goal which is, by definition, something which is striven for in order to increase one's satisfaction with his or her state of affairs. But it's the best we have at this point. Mises says pretty much this in the opening of HA but I can't seem to find the cite right now.

since Rand maintains feelings are not a guide to rational self-interest. (That an action makes you feel good is a necessary but not sufficient condition for its being in your rational self-interest.) Objective flourishing means surviving in the most optimal way.

But who decides most optimal except yourself? Optimal flourishing is itself subjectively ascertained.

Some people reject this argument on the basis of the distinction between needs and wants, or the quantity and quality of life, maintaining survival only requires the former. But these are false distinctions, or at least not clear-cut ones. The quantity of your life depends on the quality, and vice versa. And the sheer number of things that qualify as "needs" exponentially increase with the progress of civilization. (Demanding the unnecessary is the definition of human progress.)

I think all of this mitigates against the idea that flourishing is in any way objective.

The first requirement of flourishing is rationality, "the master virtue", from which all others derive. You must make an honest effort to identify the facts of reality and make honest and valid judgements and inferences about them. Since every decision you make has some potential ramification, large or small, minute or drastic, on your existence, it becomes clear that for the most part it is not a good idea to live by making quick ad hoc calculations on the spur of the moment.

In Misesian terminology, this would be "calculation" not rationality. Rationality (the use of logic/reason) is a refined or honed sort of calculation. Calculation per se does not require long, tedious deductions. It is the nature-given capacity of the human mind to make "quick-and-dirty" assessments, however inaccurate they may be, of the best course of action to achieving one's own satisfaction (by which I mean something like a subjective sense in which you use the word "flourishing").

It should be made clear that the pursuit of "satisfaction" in Misesian terminology does not imply some kind of blind satiation of instict-driven lust or hunger. Satisfaction is what the acting individual expects to increase as a result of whatever effect he attempts to bring about by his actions. For example, the hunter-gatherer who decides to forgo getting high on some natural intoxicant in order to gather food for winter is acting on the basis of calculation. From our position of superior historical and technological knowledge, we can see that the hunter-gatherer could make many objectively better choices from the point-of-view of his own flourishing/satisfaction but his failure to do so is not for a lack of the utilization of his capacity for reason (calculation) but, rather, results from the circumstances of inferior knowledge and social advantages (division-of-labor) in which he finds himself.

The instant you err or overlook important information could mean death. Instead, it's a good idea to formulate some principles in advance, incorporating the widest possible knowledge, and adhere to them without waverance so as to minimize the risk involved in decision-making. (Of course, the application of your principles depends on the context.) These for Rand are Rationality, Honesty, Independence, Integrity, Justice, Productiveness, and Pride.

Have you read Human Action or at least the first few chapters of it? I recommend the first several chapters of Economic Harmonies by Bastiat, as well. Bastiat is a much more conversational writer and he covers much of the same ground as Mises, though Mises is more technically accurate wherever they disagree.

I remember that Huemer objects to all this on the grounds that Rand has to show, for her argument to be valid, that as soon as you do something immoral you die. This is, of course, false. You could, at any moment, point to "live bad guys", immoral people who happen to have a pulse. Yet mere appearances tell you nothing about whether their long-run survival is assured. As Smith puts it, this is like being a doctor, seeing a patient walk into your clinic, and concluding, "You're fine; after all, you're alive!" Just because you can get away with cheating on a principle in a particular instance does not make cheating a valid norm, in the same way that the fact you might survive if you jaywalk with a blindfold doesn't make blindfolded jaywalking a good street-crossing policy. And indeed, "bad guys", if they survive and flourish for long periods, can only do so to their extent that they practise Randian virtues more times than not.

That's all fine, but I still maintain that the fact that I can weigh my own life (quantity and quality) against other considerations means that my life cannot possibly be an ultimate value/end. An ultimate value/end must be something which - no matter what I do - I cannot help but valuing/striving for. The very fact that I can weigh other considerations against my own life and objective flourishing means that these cannot be my ultimate end.

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Autolykos replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 9:04 AM

One issue I have with Tunk's exposition is that, in acting, people don't necessarily choose life in general. At the very least, they choose only their own lives. Nothing necessitates them extending that into a general principle.

In other words, people are free to be hypocrites.

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tunk replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 11:45 AM

It seems to me at this point the only divide between us is misunderstandings. The life-as-the-ultimate-value argument usually, in fact, cannot be presented without people severely misconstruing it. (Especially on a board full of ethical skeptics.) C'est la vie.

Clayton:
Flourishing/life can only be an ultimate end if it is a subjective state of affairs. [...] But who decides most optimal except yourself? Optimal flourishing is itself subjectively ascertained.


Yes, obviously, only the individual can flourish and can know that he flourishes. I don't dispute that. But that's not the point.

(One of Rand's central claims, as  a side note, is indeed that value an isn't "intrinsic" phenomenon, it isn't a property of objects to be found "out there"; instead, it is agent-relative: something only has "value" if someone places a value on it. This premise isn't crucial, however. It could be that there is intrinsic value. It makes no difference either way since life qua ultimate value is agent-relative as far as the meta-ethics for egoism is concerned.)

When I said "subjective feeling", I was only attempting to guard against the misinterpretation that "flourishing" simply means feeling good. Feeling good is a necessary but not sufficient condition for flourishing, since lots of destructive practises can make you feel good, at least in the short term. The point is to feel good as a result of doing the right things.

Who evaluates whether you are doing the right things? When I say "objective" flourishing, I mean objective dependent on the context of the individual. That's to say, if I was provided with every relevant bit of information about you, who you are, where you are going, your ambitions, your failures, your past, present, and future, your loves, your hates, your virtues, your vices, etc., I would be able at any given time to inform you whether your actions will contribute to your long-term survival. This is life's function as an objective standard. Of course, human beings are not omniscient. In reality, the individual must adopt whatever ends he and only he judges are necessary for his flourishing (I don't mean that people always are independent, but that they should be, since the burden of living can fall only on you; not that you can never accept aid from others, but that you must judge first whether that aid is proper to accept), and he could very well err. An honest mistake made in light of a serious attempt to do the right thing is not immoral, by Rand's standards. A deliberate evasion of that duty, however, would be.

But this does not erode flourishing's objective status. Life is still a standard; it still distinguishes things you should do from things you shouldn't. The only qualification is that what fits into these categories is more often than not left for you to discover. In practise, life's objectivity is relative, but relativity is not the negation of objectivity.

It is the nature-given capacity of the human mind to make "quick-and-dirty" assessments, however inaccurate they may be, of the best course of action to achieving one's own satisfaction (by which I mean something like a subjective sense in which you use the word "flourishing").


No, no, no. Rationality qua moral virtue is an entirely different thing from rationality qua praxeological category. The latter is reason as a means to anything, whatever the acting agent has in mind. The former is reason as a means to life. Smith's exposition lays it out clearly:

Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, 53-5:
Reason [qua moral virtue] is the capacity that enables human beings to discover the nature of the world - of entities, properties, conditions, relationships, processes, events, emotions, ideas - of everything that exists. [...] Although the identifications and integrations that reasoning consists of can grow quite sophisticated, reasoning is not rocket science. It is essentially a matter of grounding one's thinking in reality, of reaching conclusions by observing and respecting relevant facts. Which facts are relevant will depend on a person's purpose as well as on [sensible] inferences from past experience. Such experience provides the basis for sound conclusions about things' nature and likely behaviour in the future. [...] Julia Annas [...] writes, "when a life is given direction by reason, it is lived in a wat that respects reality - it is concerned with the way things really are [...]". [...]
The essential nature of rationality [qua moral virtue] is seen most vividly by contrasting it with alternative modes of using one's mind: forming beliefs or making decisions on the basis of emotions [...] or on desires or faith or authority or consensus or tradition or prejudice or astrology or intuition.


If you make a "quick and dirty assessment" for practical purposes, you are not necessarily doing anything immoral. Take Greg Nyquist for example, who tries to argue otherwise:

Rand and Empirical Responsibility:
“The action of biological drives, body states, and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality,” suggested the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (1994, 200), whose research provides compelling evidence for the role of emotion in the reasoning process (165–222). The cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are much less tentative than Damasio on this issue. “The idea of a pure reason that can function in the moral domain independent of emotion is empirically untenable,” they insist (1999, 439).
The most surprising evidence to emerge from these new sciences of human nature challenges Rand’s contention that reason “is man’s only means of grasping reality and of acquiring knowledge” ([1971] 1975, 84). [...] By studying how people actually
think, cognitive scientists have found that thinking based on formal logic is, for most practical purposes, not terribly useful. The cognitive scientist Paul E. Johnson, after extensive analysis of how experts in medicine, engineering, and other skilled professions think when solving problems related to their specialties, made the following observation:

I’m continually struck by the fact that the experts in our studies very seldom engage in formal logical thinking. Most of what they do is plausible-inferential thinking based on the recognition of similarities. That kind of thinking calls for a
great deal of experience, as we say, a large data base. [...] So the medical specialist, for instance, doesn’t do hypothetical-deductive, step-by-step diagnosis, the way he was taught in medical school. Instead, by means of his
wealth of experience he recognizes some symptom or syndrome, he quickly gets an idea, he suspects a possibility, and he starts right in looking for data that will confirm or disconfirm his guess. (Hunt 1982, 139–40)

Whatever this shows about Rand's rather intemperate writing style, none of it disproves anything relevant to her ethics. (I don't ever recall Rand ever maintaining that human beings don't have emotions, or that emotions have nothing to do with how people often engage in decision-making, or that our emotions should be suppressed. She, and I, only said emotions are not reliable guides to what's in your self-interest.)

I'm not maintaining that every action you take should be the result of some deep, long, learned meditation. As Smith put it, reason is not rocket science. A wise generalization based on experience would obey the requirement of rationality qua moral virtue, which is merely that you orient yourself to the facts of reality. The only immorality, fundamentally, is evasion of reality. If you think you might be sick and you make an educated guess that you are probably not and have no reason to think you are enormously, catastrophically wrong, you are practising rationality qua virtue. (Though I'd see a doctor just to be sure.) If, however, you do have such a reason, and you willfully ignore it, you are not practising rationality qua virtue. That's all.

For egoism, principles are means to the end of life. (For praxeology, on the other hand, the end could be anything and necessitates no morality.) When I said that "it's a good idea to formulate some principles in advance, incorporating the widest possible knowledge", I meant that life cannot be achieved by making quick guesses as to what it would require. Because life is such a large, complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, comprising a wide range of experience -- every action you take has some impact on your life, one of the reasons it is so basic as a value -- its "means" are not frivolous schemes but virtues and traits of character to be seriously pondered and cultivated and perfected throughout the whole of one's existence.

From our position of superior historical and technological knowledge, we can see that the hunter-gatherer could make many objectively better choices from the point-of-view of his own flourishing/satisfaction but his failure to do so is not for a lack of the utilization of his capacity for reason (calculation) but, rather, results from the circumstances of inferior knowledge and social advantages (division-of-labor) in which he finds himself.


Again, this doesn't challenge anything I've said. Yes, rationality is not an end in itself, but only a means to ends. It guides you along the path to achieving your goals, whatever they may be. Rationality, for both praxeology and ethics, is wanting A and not wanting B, and so doing C and giving up D. All ethics does is fill in the blanks.

Have you read Human Action or at least the first few chapters of it? I recommend the first several chapters of Economic Harmonies by Bastiat, as well.


I've only read MES. Why? Everything I know about praxeology suggests to me ethical egoism is not incompatible with it.

I still maintain that the fact that I can weigh my own life (quantity and quality) against other considerations means that my life cannot possibly be an ultimate value/end. An ultimate value/end must be something which - no matter what I do - I cannot help but valuing/striving for. The very fact that I can weigh other considerations against my own life and objective flourishing means that these cannot be my ultimate end.


...No.

This is the most common point against natural law. If there is such a thing as a moral code to be discovered by reason, then everyone would have discovered it and everyone would be practising it. Since people, in point of fact, disagree on the contents of natural law or whether it exists, we can conclude it does not exist. But this completely misses the point. The purpose of a natural ethic is not to establish some kind of moral safety net below which you cannot fall, that human beings never morally err. The point of a natural ethic is to establish what is moral error and what isn't.

Note that life is not a "goal" like any other. If I "strive for" a business deal or a wedding ring, the demand is satisfiable in the sense that it is possible to say that I could reach a final state of having "achieved" it. This is why "satisfaction" is a possible label for the relation between particular means and ends. (Of course, as praxeologists, we know that that an instance of satisfaction is immediately supplanted by disatisfaction, so aggregate satisfaction stays the same. As you said, dissatisfaction is a preliminary of action.)

Life is different. It is not a state but a process. You are acting to optimize it every time you act, since action is optimization of the standard of life at the most basic level. That does not mean you are optimizing it at all other levels. Your "life bar" at levels 29, 42, or 3 could be 80%, 50%, 20%, etc., at any given moment. But that doesn't change the fact that it could feasibly be at 100% (at least, ideally, in the same way the economy could ideally be in equilibrium), and that if it was you would be better suited to achieving your goals. The role of the ethicist is simply to give you some prudential advice by which you could, in fact, better achieve your goals.

If you value (act to gain and/or keep) a ham sandwich at a deli, you are also valuing what makes your valuation possible. Not just the lettuce, the meat, the buns, but the capital and labour required for the sandwich and the extensive division of labour economy from which these arose. (That's where your money went, after all.) You may not necessarily be conscious of this, but it is an objective fact regardless. If it was made aware to you that you were in dire prospects of losing the conditions under which the ham sandwich you so highly value could be assembled and purchased, you would undoubtedly rush to defend your values. (unless you decided it wasn't worth it.)

I think the idea of an ultimate end scares people because it's as if I'm shoving moral obligations down your throat, when I am not. Morality is practical advice for economical achievement of what we know from praxeology to be the end of individual action: making yourself better off. If you don't like that, then don't act. Whoops, you can't.

Autolykos:
One issue I have with Tunk's exposition is that, in acting, people don't necessarily choose life in general. At the very least, they choose only their own lives.

Why is this a problem?

A Groundwork for Rights, 73:
If life is the ultimate value or end, what determines when it is acheived? The only possible answer is the form of living being which the particularliving thing is, and it is the actuation of this form that constitutes a living thing's acting t o live. To be a living thing and not be a particular sort of living thing is impossible, and thus, we cannot speak of life as an ultimate end or value without also understanding that it is always life as the sort of living thing the particular living entity is. In other words, it is the nature of the living entity, the kind of thing it is, that determines whether the life of the entity is achieved. Acting in accord with one's nature is acting to live.

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Clayton replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 12:08 PM

I think the idea of an ultimate end scares people because it's as if I'm shoving moral obligations down your throat, when I am not. Morality is practical advice for economic achievement of the end of action, making yourself better off.

True. There is a very destructive meme of moral nihilism that has suffused the developed world. Any suggestion that there is a definite right and wrong is met with shock and revile. That said, I think we really do disagree on the foundations for ascertaining right and wrong mainly because I see morality as primarily a social problem not an individual problem. I don't think there is any "right" or "wrong" for Crusoe alone on his island... I'm pretty sure from what you've written that you would disagree with me on this (but you are in agreement with Rothbard/Hoppe/etc. on this point). It is my view that morality only enters the picture once Friday is on the island along with Crusoe and interpersonal conflict becomes possible.

In my view, morality is not merely the art of choosing right ends but the art of choosing ends in a way that is harmonious with others, that is, choosing your ends in such a way that your own well-being is maximized even after taking into account the responses of others to your actions. For example, the thief may choose to steal a Sony PSP and he may take it home and enjoy it for a few days until the store's investigators locate his home. Now he's got a problem bigger than the enjoyment he was deriving from his free Sony PSP. On net, it's probably a loss for him from the point-of-view of his own well-being (but only he can ascertain this for himself).

This is all uncontroversial and I'm sure you agree with the example but where (I think) we differ is over whether moral/immoral behavior is possible for Crusoe alone on his island. To help you understand why I hold my view, ask yourself why does morality matter? Why does it matter whether what I do is right or wrong?

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Autolykos replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 12:21 PM

tunk:
Autolykos:
One issue I have with Tunk's exposition is that, in acting, people don't necessarily choose life in general. At the very least, they choose only their own lives.

Why is this a problem?

A Groundwork for Rights, 73:
If life is the ultimate value or end, what determines when it is acheived? The only possible answer is the form of living being which the particularliving thing is, and it is the actuation of this form that constitutes a living thing's acting t o live. To be a living thing and not be a particular sort of living thing is impossible, and thus, we cannot speak of life as an ultimate end or value without also understanding that it is always life as the sort of living thing the particular living entity is. In other words, it is the nature of the living entity, the kind of thing it is, that determines whether the life of the entity is achieved. Acting in accord with one's nature is acting to live.

I think it's a problem because it means that one can choose his life over the lives of others. As repugnant as it may be to say, serial murderers like Jeffrey Dahmer murdered others to relieve some uneasiness they felt otherwise. In so doing, they saw themselves as undoubtedly serving their own lives. But they certainly weren't serving life in general, as their actions lead to the deaths of others.

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Clayton replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 12:23 PM

+1 Autolykos

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tunk replied on Wed, Oct 12 2011 12:25 PM

Clayton:
It is my view that morality only enters the picture once Friday is on the island along with Crusoe and interpersonal conflict becomes possible.

Oh well this is just a terminological difference.

Rothbard/Hoppe/et. al use "ethics" to mean the interpersonal restrictions that ought to govern human action, and "morality" for what individual action ought to be. I'm used to using both "ethics" and "morality" in the way Rand did (perhaps irresponsibly), as interchangeable terms for the latter, and "politics" for the former. (E.g. the non-aggression principle prohibits murder and not lying.)

Why does it matter whether what I do is right or wrong?

...because your life depends on it.

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