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Gregory S. Nyquist and Daniel Barnes claim that Rand, in the first part of her essay "the Objectivist ethics" starts off as a pragmatic survivalist, since she talks about life and death being man's only fundamental alternative.

They claim that later on in the essay she equivocates the "crude standard" of life as man's ultimate value and ethical standard, to that which is required for man's survival qua man, which they claim is done to avoid the obvious problems like the prudent predator objections inherent in her first standard.

They also feel this equivocation leads to circular reasoning because when survival qua man is clarified with the phrase "that which is proper to the life of a rational being", this is supposed to be part of an argument explaining how rational values are justified and generated.

So they claim this means there is a circular fallacy whereby when you ask an Objectivist how are rational values discovered, they answer "by determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being". Which is supposed to be circular because when you reverse it, it goes, what is proper to a rational being? Rational values.

Nyquist goes on to say "all that stuff about life and death being man's only fundamental alternative was just window dressing! It has nothing to do with her conclusion, which is merely a vague standard that has no relation to anything and which, precisely because of its indeterminate nature, is no standard at all. Rand has failed to achieve her stated goal of delivering a rational ethics".

How is this resolved or explained?

asked Jul 05 '14 at 12:45

KineticPhilosophy's gravatar image

KineticPhilosophy
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edited Jul 05 '14 at 12:48


The essence of the alleged "equivocation" is the following:

...there is a circular fallacy whereby when you ask an Objectivist how are rational values discovered, they answer "by determining what is proper (i.e., moral) to a rational being".

Here is Ayn Rand's actual formulation in her original words in TOE:

The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics -- the standard by which one judges what is good or evil -- is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man.

Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.

This is followed by several paragraphs describing the consequences for man's life of unthinking and unproductive non-work. Parasitism and/or death are the only alternatives to thinking and producing, and parasitism is only a short-range, illusory alternative to death when thinking and producing (and trading) are stifled or evaded.

Ayn Rand continues:

The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics -- the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life [qua man] -- are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.

Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work -- pride is the result.

Many readers may become extremely confused about Ayn Rand's usage of the term "proper" in her expression, "proper to the life of a rational being." The questioner parenthetically remarks that "proper" allegedly means "moral," as in morally proper or morally right. But Ayn Rand's actual intended meaning is different (as I understand it). "Proper" in her usage should be understood to mean "consistent with the nature of (man)," i.e., "required for man's survival qua man," to use Ayn Rand's exact words; required by man's nature (if he wants to sustain and strengthen his life).

Many readers may also be confused by Ayn Rand's switch from an apparent focus on merely physical survival to "survival qua man." What is her justification for including "qua man" as an apparently additional condition for man's life, above and beyond "bare subsistence" or "merely physical existence" or "survival at any price"? Readers may wonder: what is the logical necessity or mandate compelling man to seek life qua man rather than some lesser degree of "aliveness"? After all, a living entity that is close to death isn't quite dead yet; it's still "alive" (minimally).

To understand the Objectivist view, try asking which is "better" for man's life: being sick or being well? Being sick certainly moves a person closer to death, but one can be quite sick without being literally dead yet. How does Ayn Rand's argument justify or necessitate the pursuit of wellness, if all that matters is minimal subsistence, hanging onto a minimal state of life "by a thread"? In my understanding, living means not only preserving one's existing level of living in the near term, but also strengthening one's capacity for further living action in the future. One will have far greater capacity to deal with life's issues in the longer term if one is well rather than sick -- if one engages in thinking and productive work, with earned confidence in one's capacity for living and one's worthiness to live (i.e., with self-esteem). A life of wellness rather than sickness will be "better," by the standard of life, because one will be more fully alive, more fully able to deal with life's issues. (Remember that all living requires action, and being alive means having the capacity to perform living action as well as actually performing it.)

Note that there can never be a moral principle for man stating that man logically must seek a full life over a subsistence life (nor can there be an objective moral principle stating that man must strive to be moral; non-objective moral codes hold moral living to be an intrinsic duty having no objective basis in reality). But the Objectivist standard of value can objectively identify (and does identify) that Objectivist values can strengthen man's capacity for living if he chooses to adhere to them -- and that rationality demands a code of values that is valid for all humans simultaneously, who potentially interact with each other through rational persuasion and trade. Man doesn't have to seek life qua man if he doesn't want to, but he will be vastly more efficacious in his life if he does. For man, a so-called subhuman "life" is a life of chronic misery, suffering, and heightened probability of literal death. Depending on how fully man rejects the three cardinal values, he may even jeopardize his continued physical existence in the short run, such as by starving to death, having a fatal accident, being met by force if he tries to force others, or by not taking proper care of his physical health and well-being, etc. (Note the expression "proper care" here; it means the care required to preserve and strengthen one's capacity for living action).

Readers may also wonder how man could have "survived" for so many thousands of years without Objectivist values. My understanding of Objectivism and human history is that all too often man didn't survive -- and for those who did, it was by the grace of partial adherence to thinking and productive work, and/or by mooching or looting from those who did. The Renaissance and Enlightenment, with their greatly heightened emphasis on reason, brought about a dramatic increase in human life expectancy and population growth. Just as an individual can survive for awhile in sickness rather than health, so can entire societies -- but not indefinitely without the benefit of at least a few thinkers and productive workers somewhere (as Ayn Rand dramatically concretizes in Atlas Shrugged with her principle of "the sanction of the victim.")

answered Jul 06 '14 at 15:13

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦
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Asked: Jul 05 '14 at 12:45

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Last updated: Jul 06 '14 at 15:13