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When many objectivists (including myself) try to explain the objectivist ethics to others, we often say something like "humans cannot survive as animals do; we do not have instincts, claws, fangs, etc. If we are to survive we must use our distinctive faculty--reason." We then go on to explain the virtue of reason and all the other good stuff. However, is the claim that we do not have instincts true? Are we just being a little "loose" with our words? We certainly don't have instincts in the same way that animals do, but do we have any?

asked Nov 12 '11 at 22:29

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ericmaughan43 ♦

edited Nov 13 '11 at 09:30

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Andrew Dalton ♦

An important idea in the Objectivist epistemology (and ethics) is that humans do not have any innate or automatic knowledge; that is, we have no awareness of the world apart from our sensory apparatus and logical inferences therefrom. A corollary of this fact is that humans do not have any innate abstractions or theories; for example, we are not born altruists or religious believers.

The modern definition of "instinct" in biology is focused upon behavior. Humans certainly have some automatic actions, such as the withdrawal reflex, the mammalian diving reflex, and basic automatic functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestion. In this limited sense, one could say that there are human instincts.

However, it is crucial to observe that 1) these behaviors are not innate knowledge, but rather automatic actions having probabilistic survival value based upon our evolutionary history, and 2) these automatic behaviors are grossly insufficient for human survival. Contrast this last point with the case of other animals, whose automatic behaviors, combined with their perceptual-level knowledge, are sufficient for their survival.

The colloquial use of "instinct" often carelessly conflates automatic behavior with alleged automatic knowledge. The latter, in fact, probably cannot exist in any species, given the nature of genetics. (Lamarckism is mostly false.)

answered Nov 13 '11 at 10:08

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Andrew Dalton ♦

edited Nov 16 '11 at 10:59

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Asked: Nov 12 '11 at 22:29

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Last updated: Nov 16 '11 at 10:59