Philosophy Weekend: The Shock of the Self

Existential Memes Psychology Technology

It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.

I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)

I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.

Tommaso does not generally agree with Rand's philosophy of extreme individualism, he told me, but had been reading about her since getting into Bioshock and was looking for a comprehensive critique of her philosophical system. He bought my book to see if I had an effective rejoinder to Ayn Rand, and his conclusion after reading the book is that Rand and I are tied, "1-1".

Given his interest in video games, Tommaso took a special interest in the third of three arguments I present in the book to support the idea that individual selfishness is not a basic psychological fact of life. All three of these arguments examine ways in which the "self" is commonly and accurately understood to be something other than an individual solitary person. I described simulation computer games like SimCity in which not only individuals but groupings of various types and sizes -- families, businesses, neighborhoods, political parties -- are represented in behavior models as intentional beings. To make a simulated society work, I argued, it is necessary to realize that ethical actors are not only individual selves. Group "selves" also act with intention, and so an ethical system like Ayn Rand's that only considers individual-level ethics will never be a realistic model for human life.

I call this a functional argument, because I intend to show that no software simulation of society could accurately reproduce normal human behavior without attributing intentional attributes -- selfish or self-oriented behavior patterns -- to groups. If a software model based only on individual selfhood wouldn't function correctly, that indicates that the model is flawed. I presented the example of the battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War in 1863, when General Pickett's divisions walked bravely towards certain disaster and, as a whole, showed no fear. But it's impossible to imagine that many individual soldiers in Pickett's division did not feel extreme fear, even as their column moved steadily and smoothly forward. This behavior can only be modeled as an example of a group mind, behaving according to rules that are not grounded in the sum total of the individual minds within the group. I think this is a compelling argument, but Tommaso has objections:

If I did not mistake your argument, in Chapter Three your inference is this:

The simulation (of a town with 1000 citizens or of the army of the Gettysburg) requires the definition of group-level attributes (that are not the result of the combined individual-level attributes) to work.

Let's take as example the simulation of bending of a steel bar under load. I can do it with a simple model, that is, a differential equation, and get a correct result. But I can also do it with a finite element analysis, and get the same correct result. Of course the calculating cost of the FEA is much higher than the resolution of the DE, and until some years ago it was impossible to resolve the FEA. But this is not a proof (and was not a proof 50 years ago, when FEA was impossible) that the bending of the steel bar is caused by anything else the behavior of the single atoms of the metal.

The fact that a model is "inefficient" does not implies that it is "wrong".

You can use some "group-level" attributes to make the simulation simpler to run and reduce the computing required, and get good results if the premises are good (if the "group-level" attributes describe well the behavior of the group), but this is one more level of abstraction and of simulation. But if you model properly the individual, and compute not just their "individual-level" attributes, but also the interaction between individuals, I think you will get the correct result.

Each soldier in Major General George Pickett's division must have felt fear on July 3, 1863. But his division as a whole showed no fear. Why? Maybe because a good number of soldiers, as individuals, realized that they had no other choice than to fight, or liked more the idea of trying a desperate action rather than falling prisoners of the enemy, and the other soldiers, as individuals, decided that the best they could do was to follow their comrades, or that mutiny was worse than death; maybe Major General George Pickett, as a single individual, was such a charismatic and persuasive man that he was able to turn the selfish egos of each soldier in the same direction.

As you correctly stated, "We egoists and non-egoists may never be able to settle our dispute on purely logical or theoretical grounds". At the moment, I am still searching for a better inference. But since some years I am trying to walk on the path of reason, and your book, as Ayn Rand and Luigi Giussani ones, show me that I am in very good company. Actually, I can not say that I have found a defined position. I find many good things, and some bad things, in both. I think there should be a "middle position".

Even though Tommaso is objecting to my argument, I find his response validating, because it's clear that he understands my own argument perfectly, and the hardest task of a philosophical writer is often not to compel others to agree with him but simply to be understood. So I am not discouraged to hear that this argument has left my Italian correspondent only halfway convinced, and I think his objection can easily provide it's own answer.

Tommaso is correct that I can't prove that the simpler and more elegant explanation for the behavior of virtual citizens in a simulated city or of soldiers in an advancing army is truer than a more complex or tortuous explanation. But who ever said that proof is necessary? As an engineer, Tommaso must know that the simpler and more elegant explanation is probably the better one, just as a differential equation will probably produce better results than finite element analysis.

In my philosophical debate with the Ayn Rand/Objectivist community, which has been going on nearly a year now, I am perfectly happy to rest on "probably". Indeed, it's the best victory I can hope for, because I'm sure that positive certainty doesn't exist in ethical philosophy. What I object to most directly within the Ayn Rand worldview is the Objectivist's smug presumption of certainty. If I can only prove my counter-explanation for human behavior to be possible and reasonable, then I have smashed the screen of Objectivist certainty.

When I look at the screens for the Bioshock video game, I'm reminded of my own world -- our world, the world we share together. What are the rules and principles that enable us to live together? Whatever these rules and principles are, they appear to be broken. I'm not going to waste my time trying to prove my ethical formulations mathematically or logically (as Randians believe they have done). Instead I'm going to use my intuition and common sense and try to find the answers that fit the questions best. It's what any skilled engineer would do.

87 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Shock of the Self"

by John Woods on


I would like first to point out that Ayn Rand did not believe in a dystopian reality or a malevolent universe like the one presented in BioShock as a natural state of being. Her novel Atlas Shrugged presents a dystopian reality to the reader not as a natural state of things, but strictly as a result of the non-thinking collective cannibalising the best individuals in it's own society.

She said that if your political institutions and government uphold individual rights, so that collectivists could not invade your life by force, then you would have the ability to fight through their lies and see the world as it actually is, which is a benevolent universe where values are possible, through striving, integrity and hard work.

Finally, since your article never did point out my own counter-argument to your software example, I will do it here. Ayn Rand warns that when the individual loses his rationality-epistemology (which is what is at the end of your three arguments), then he loses his own individuality, or his own identity and also his ability to properly identify things in reality. He begins relying on other people for definitions of reality. He becomes slowly absorbed into the fog of collectivism. When an entire society does this, this is when their societies collapse into socialism or communism and dictators emerge to control the GROUP, since they obviously cannot control or think for themselves any longer.

When you present the argument of your video game and using "group attributes" to control the subjects in the game and make it turn out right, you are admitting that in a society without a brain (just dumb computer programs), they need an outside brain to control or design their actions. You are illustrating her point exactly.

Why shouldn't a collective group self result in a dictatorship like you describe? If not, who is controlling the game but the designer?

This is why your third argument is a beautiful illustration of Ayn Rand's position of what is at the end of a "group-self" concept, and not your own.

by Levi Asher on

John, this is a good question and I am happy to answer.

Last weekend when I wrote about our ongoing debate over Ayn Rand, I mentioned that you object whenever I use a metaphor. That's exactly what you're doing now. I am clearly using the video game simulation of life only as a metaphor, and so the fact that a video game simulation is controlled by some overseer doesn't mean that I am trying to smuggle in concepts of God or cosmic consciousness. I just don't think it's a valid objection to my argument to object to the use of metaphor as a whole.

I do understand that in your opinion you are uncovering a real flaw in my argument because I am invoking a metaphor that involves a God-like overseer. Well, let's let each reader decide if they think my argument has some significance or validity or not.

by John Woods on

This is the third time it has been said that I object to the use of metaphor. This is not true, what I object to is the fact that you have two clearly laid out positions. Then in between these two positions you have a metaphor pulled from a video game. Then the person whose situation "does not" fit the metaphor claims is it an illustration of their own position. And the person whose situation perfectly illustrates that metaphor is the person who is supposedly discredited.

Example, the video game is a perfect metaphor of what Ayn Rand projects as the natural conclusion of your group self, which is dictatorship.

Yet you are trying to use this example to support your own position which is that we can still remain free "and even rational" even if we buy into your "group self" concept. And you can only reach this conclusion by blanking out or evading the fact that your game has a designer controlling everything via these group attributes which is exactly what free people do and "should" reject if they are rational.

To the previous person who said I do not understand metaphor. I think he is wrong. I do understand metaphor, again I rejected to his usage of metaphor because he compared mankind to continents which were stuck together without any choice being involved. This is not a proper metaphor to man kind because it blanks out free will which is the essence of a man.

In both cases this is not my own objection to the use of a metaphor but rather it is my objection to the way you are trying to use a metaphor to evade key aspects of the argument. Or this is what Ayn Rand used to call the "stolen concept".

I agree with her. So I reiterate my final point which is that upon full examination of your use of metaphor it actually is much more symbolic of Ms Rand's position than your own.

I suggest you find a new metaphor. But more than likely we will have the same problem unless you pull in "other worlds" because if you pull metaphors from anywhere inside "reality" or "this universe" I think you are going to face similar challenges.

Does it sound like I am any more uncertain than when we first began this debate?

by Levi Asher on

John, I still say that, in my lifetime of debating, I've never met anyone before who thinks you can reject the lessons learned from a metaphor by stating an objection to the particulars of the metaphor itself. For instance, a person compares people to continents in a state of tectonic shift. You object to this because people have free will and land masses don't. I find this habit of yours strange. The person who was making the comparison agrees that land masses don't have free will. Still, people freely use metaphors in argument, and do so without worrying too much about whether or not every particular in the metaphor matches the particulars in the corresponding topic the metaphor is being used to illustrate.

So, I really just don't get your attitude towards metaphor. Sorry if I'm missing something -- I also don't know if your dislike of imperfect metaphor is based on Objectivist principles or whether it's just your own style of argument. To me, as a person who enjoys serious philosophical or political debate, a metaphor is just another tool in my toolbox. When I pull out a screwdriver or a hammer, I'm not used to somebody saying "you can't use that here". I don't see why we can't use metaphors wherever they fit, as sloppily or imperfectly as we like, to help express our points. As long as the metaphor serves its purpose of expressing an idea, then it has been a useful tool.

But, I'm concerned that this whole discussion of metaphor doesn't address the main point of my article, which is that the ecosystem of human life -- not a video game, but human life itself -- is an ecosystem in which both solitary individuals and groups act with self-directed intention. Again, let's look at the example of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. 12,000 frightened soldiers moved forward as one advance, and they moved forward (according to every contemporary description) without hesitation or fear. You can try to explain this as some mathematical formula, but what addition or multiplication of 12,000 frightened soldiers will give you a single fearless unit? A neater, more elegant and more obviously correct description of the event is that the soldiers together formed a unit which took on a personality of its own, and that this group unit began moving of its own accord. The individual soldiers allowed themselves for the moment to be subsumed into the group self, to think along with the "hive mind", to become a part of something bigger than themselves.

So, please critique this idea instead of the video game metaphor, because I'd really like to hear what you think of what I'm suggesting here. Or perhaps you object to the fact that General George Pickett or Robert E. Lee was a godlike figure in this example? (Kidding).

by John Woods on


First let me clarify one point, I am not making any references to a cosmic consciousness or a godlike figure. These are your words. What I said, was that following your process of thought on a wide scale would lead to irrationality, collectivism, and ultimately dictatorship, in this world, by real world people like Joseph Stalin.

To my next point, I find your use of a metaphor strange. I build networks for a living, and to me your usage of metaphor does to philosophy and argument, the same thing as if I were to build a network whose purpose was to destroy or negate data. It is a contradiction.

My point is that your metaphor does NOT illustrate your point but it's opposite. Metaphors are supposed to be used to illustrate or clarify a paticular point by pulling in other concretes which would illustrate an underlying theme or principle. I do not have a problem with the idea that in a metaphor not everything is going to match up. But that is a far cry from using a metaphor to wipe out the very essence of thing you're trying to clarify. That creates the opposite of clarity, which is confusion, and confusion destroys cognition, the destruction of cognition is the destruction of the mind, the destruction of the mind, and where the mind is destroyed there can be no rationality.

An island which has no free will, this does not illustrate anything about mankind. in fact, it evades or wipes out the very essence of what it means to be a man. That is far more sinister than to mismatch a metaphor on some secondary unimportant attribute.

A video game with a dictatorial controller, does not illustrate anything about how we can accept your premise and still remain rational, it proves exactly it's opposite which is that if we buy into your concept of a group self it leads to the surrender of all rationality.

Finally to your argument about the military force. These men joined the army of their own free will, because they shared values. They voluntarily cooperated with each other because it gave them their best chance to be victorious in defending those values for each one of those individuals. And apparently they felt so strongly about those values, that they made a decision that it was more preferrable to die than to live without them, and so they took the risk, when they exercised their option to sign up. And finally, if they needed any further motivation, once they did sign up, if they chose to run instead of fight, then more than likely they would be shot on the spot for treason. They did not merge into a group self.

by John Woods on


Allow me to give you a metaphor of the pragmatic approach to philosophy:

If a building were threatened with a collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, or unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better.

by TKG on

"The individual soldiers allowed themselves for the moment to be subsumed into the group self"

Note your description -- "individual soldiers allowed themselves..."

You have broken it down and explained it at the level of the individual.

by Levi Asher on

John, your description of the hazards of metaphor just seems shrill and hysterical to me. You say:

"I do not have a problem with the idea that in a metaphor not everything is going to match up. But that is a far cry from using a metaphor to wipe out the very essence of thing you're trying to clarify. That creates the opposite of clarity, which is confusion, and confusion destroys cognition, the destruction of cognition is the destruction of the mind, the destruction of the mind, and where the mind is destroyed there can be no rationality."

Ack! The mind is destroyed, just because an imprecise expression was used? This just doesn't connect with real life to me. In fact, I'm pretty sure the opposite is true: I once read a book by Daniel Dennett in which he proposed that the evolution of the human ability to imagine -- to mentally conjure experiences that are not happening in reality -- must have been one of the defining evolutionary developments of the human race. Comparably, it would seem likely that the evolution of human ability to use metaphor must have been a defining evolutionary development. It certainly would have increased the ability for human beings to communicate with each other effectively. And metaphors can be effective even when they are imprecise or inappropriate.

Now, back to Gettysburg. John, if that were the case, if each individual Confederate soldier within Pickett's division were marching across the open field thinking freely and fully about their individual values and their individual fates and their individual motivations for being there, I do not believe they could have kept up a perfectly even march. I think the advance would have descended into chaos. Neither of us were there, of course, so neither of us knows what was going through the minds of those Confederate soldiers. I can't prove that your explanation is wrong. We can each try to come up with our own answer to the question. My answer is this: they were not thinking of themselves in any sense as they marched towards the Union lines. They were thinking as a hive mind. I think this is the simplest and most elegant explanation for the observed calm behavior of a military march towards near-certain disaster, and therefore it's the explanation most likely to be correct.

TKG, thanks for pointing that out. Yes, I do certainly admit the existence of the individual self and the individual mind, and I agree that, in many cases, when a person subsumes their personal motivations, decisions and thoughts into that of a larger hive mind, they do so voluntarily and as individuals. Once the subsuming is complete, they are no longer making decisions as individuals, but the decision to "join the hive mind" is a decision that is made at the individual level. (Another very different example of this is a person's decision to get married, and to thus subsume their motivations and future decisions into a hive mind of two).

by TKG on

"If a building were threatened with a collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, or unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better."

Why would a pragmatist say that?

Unless perhaps it is that elusive and rare non-sequitur pragmatist.

by John Woods on


Okay. I agree with you. Your metaphors are both imprecise and inaccurate, and I understand that this is the measure of your definition of the proper usage of a metaphor. So now I guess anyone can just say anything. In fact, by that criteria, the more imprecise and innacurate the metahpor, the better it is. Right? In fact, let's not even define the term metaphor, since it really just means anyone can jumble any words together that they wish and pretend that it is the proper usage of a metaphor?

Finally, for someone who thinks my critique of your usage of a metaphor is shrill and hysterical, I think the same thing about your clinging by a thread to the literal interpretation of the way soldiers marched as some sort admission of a "group self"?

Are you trying to say that it is impossible for individual soldiers to coordinate and cooperate with each other and still retain their individuality? How about a symphony? Are they a member of a group self? Then how do you explain individual instruments? In that case at least they are all having to focus on their own individual tasks which are very different from each other.

by Levi Asher on

John, let me try to approach this a different way, and see if you and I can find some common ground. As I said at the beginning of this blog post, even though I stand against the Ayn Rand/Objectivist belief in the absolute primacy of the individual (which you stand for), I do share a common mission with the Objectivists. We are all examining the same question: why do people so often think in groups?

One big part of Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy, of course, is a critique of "groupthink". She saw groupthink in Soviet Communism, and she also saw it in European socialism and middle-class American conformity. She hated groupthink, of course -- but the fact that she hated it shows that she recognized it.

I am also interested in critiquing groupthink. As a pacifist, I see groupthink as the basis of the human predilection for war. As a writer and an observer of cultural trends, I see groupthink behind the banal productions of conventional society. The big difference between my attitude and Ayn Rand's regarding groupthink is that she was avidly against any type of human interdependency that compromised individual freedom. I am looking for a more balanced answer. I see the damage that groupthink does, but I also want to understand why we are all so drawn to it, what attractions and balms it offers, what makes it so popular. Either way, though, it's the same question we're asking. We're answering it differently, but it's the same question.

Bringing this back to your question, John: yes, absolutely a symphony orchestra is behaving as a group self. The conductor is the (as you would put it) "dictator" in this situation. And this is a perfect illustration of the fact that group identity and group dependency does not have to contradict individual freedom or individual creativity. A musician in a symphony orchestra (or a rock band, etc.) can be harmonizing with their group and producing spontaneous individual expressions at the same time. That's the whole joy and wonder of music, isn't it? Why do we so rarely listen to solo musical performers? It's the group interaction that makes it magical.

by John Woods on


I do not think Ms Rand would have used your term groupthink. There is nothing wrong with one or more persons sharing the same values. What she opposed was the second hander who didn't think at all, and just followed someone else's thinking without thinking on their own in a first handed manner.

The balm it offers the second hander is a moral evasion of taking responsibility for his own life and judging things as good or evil. Of course that is easier. Of course it helps you evade conflict, at least until it costs you your life.

Finally, a symphony has no relationship to signing up in a fixed contract with a military establishment, or living under a dictatorship. Since in the first two, tyranny and force are actually used (i.e. you have no where to escape too). In a symphony your participation is strictly voluntary. Music is not magic, it is intentional, purposeful and requires a great deal of skill and individual effort. I know this since I am a musician, as is nearly every member of my family. Never once have I been absorbed into a group self.

by Bill_Ectric on

Each individual soldier at Gettysburg could have been like the "Tank Man" at Tiananmen Square. They were not subsumed into a group self, they were individuals.

by Bill_Ectric on

I think the problem is, certain people have co-opted Atlas Shrugged to bolster their own views, even if their views don't necessarily all coincide with those of Ayn Rand. Same thing with the Bible.

by John Woods on

Care to elaborate your position Bill?

by Bill_Ectric on

When I read Atlas Shrugged back in the 80s, I didn't get the sense that it contained any sinister right-wing propaganda. To me was was just an exciting and intellectual mystery/romance about government regulations out of control. In a similar way Orwell's 1984 was about government out of control, but I suppose, some would say, in a different direction. Historically, given the endless vexations our rulers have visited upon us, it's no surprise that there are countless books about governments out of control, whether to the left or right. We always need a balance between individual rights and societal laws.

I haven't read anything by Rand except Atlas Shrugged, so maybe it's the essays her detractors can't stand. I don't know, but I do know that there are people who have never thoroughly read the Bible, who nertheless use Christianity to justify politcal and social positions. They use the Old Testament maxim, "an eye for an eye" to justify killing in wars, while turning a blind eye to the cause of the war and how it could have been prevented. To them, Native Americans were pagans and the Arabs are worse than pagans. They believe God in on America's side no matter what.

Not all Christians think that way. Some of them open soup kitchens, send doctors to other countries, and back in the old days, taught slaves how to read, much to the disgust of the slave-owners (who also went to church).

But let's say there is a Christian Democrat farmer whose 15 year old son wants to work for him during summer vacation. The law now says he must be at least 16 to do certain farms chores.
Maybe that kid later reads Atlas Shrugged in college and says, "Just like they done to me and Daddy."

My point is that anyone can take a book, a concept, or even a truth to an extreme that was never intended by the author.

by Levi Asher on

Bill, in my opinion her essays are better than her novels. They are more direct, pithy, sometimes even funny, and she could turn a good phrase. In her novels, her heroes all talk like her anyway, so why not dispense with the overwrought plot situations and wooden characters and enjoy her speaking for herself?

As before, these comments are helping me refine my thoughts and giving me ideas as to how to better clarify my points. I've been on this "group self/meaning of self" kick for a few weekends in a row now, and I'm going to wrap it all up with one more post this coming weekend. I hope this next one will be my clearest of all. Then maybe it'll be a good idea to get back to a more general philosophy focus here, at least for a while until we get back to debating Ayn Rand yet again!

by John Woods on


I have read your reply and I understand your position.

However, I must tell you as someone who has read nearly everything she ever wrote many times over, that Ms. Rand was extreme in the things she believed.

What I mean by this is that if you come up to the question of 1+1=2, can you tell me how many answers you could come up with that would be wrong? And how many answers you can come up with that would be right?

Ms. Rand identified objectively what you must do if you want to live as a rational human being on this planet, and her entire proposition is that she could prove it objectively. This is what most of her writings are devoted too. Is this a bold statement? Yes. Does it offend some? Yes. Does this automatically make her wrong? No.

After reading her writings I have come to the same conclusion.

So you should be aware that many of the positions that Ms. Rand took were extreme, and she did intend them that way.

One of the most compelling metaphors that she used that I can remember, was the statement that when other people are constantly asking you to compromise, you can just ask yourself when is it okay or rational to drink a "little bit" of poison?

Her philosophy is abstract and broad, allowing for an unlimited array of personal and individual choices and values, but the her basic philosophy never changes, and on those points she was severely extreme. Make no mistake about it.

She believed in definite principles that should guide ones thoughts and actions.

Whereas, pragmatists do not believe in any principles, because they do not believe in certainty, and this is what Levi finds so offensive and arrogant about Ms. Rand's position of self interest. All while they are blanking out the fact that their belief that there are no principles, is a principle in itself.

Yet he does not disagree with her on many issues but he finds her certainty so offensive that the way he attacks her arguments it to attempt to redefine the term self, so that when she says the words "rational self interest" he tries to make the argument that she is actually talking about a "group self" instead of an "individual self". To me her concepts were quite clear as was her usage of langauge and this is a perversion of anything she meant. You cannot defeat a highly conceptual framework for living by simply trying to take over the surface language while simultaneously inverting the meaning of the underlying concepts. This is a linguistic switch that Levi is trying to pull, and it doesn't work on me.

I do believe that she achieved a wonderful objective work that will stand long after me and Levi both are dead and gone. I also believe that the things she was certain about were objectively true, even if some do not want to accept it.

by Bill_Ectric on

One correction: For my example of the farmer, it wasn't necessary for him to be a "Christian" Democrat. The point was, even though he's a Democrat, he agrees with Ayn Rand about government regulation interfering with the honest working man. But that doesn't mean he's going to vote Republican, because Republicans also have meddling regulations, too, like wanting to outlaw abortion and keep marijuana illegal.

Also, someone one of my friends who read my comments said I was condescending for making the farmer's son talk with improper English. I wasn't trying to be condescending, I've just been watching a lot of Andy Griffith lately.

by Levi Asher on

John -- I appreciate the fact that you, as a fervent Objectivist, are willing to debate with me. What good is it to hold a philosophical position if you never face a serious challenge from someone who disagrees with you? I'm going to keep trying to improve my case and clarify my points until I either convince everybody in the world that I'm right or until I drop dead. (Probably the latter.) But I do hope next weekend's Philosophy Weekend post will bring this to some kind of a temporary resting place, because this argument has me exhausted.

Just one thing I want to correct: it's not true at all that I believe in no principles, or that a Pragmatist believes in no principles. (It is true that I am a Pragmatist, following the great William James, and I'm proud to call myself one.) Rather, it's the case that a Pragmatist has pragmatic principles. The only kind that matter.

Bill, that's hilarious about Andy Griffith ... and I know you grew up in hillbilly country, so I think you get a free pass.

by John Woods on


Thanks for your most recent reply sir.

I have one more question from your humble "yet infuriating" Objectivist, if I may?

Can you please identify for me the Pragmatist principles that you hold?

I would love to see this? In fact, it might be fun to turn the tables here, and see exactly what William James holds as true?

As you say, I'm sure that we will always disagree, but I think it could be a good reversal since it's been a one way street for so long?


by Bill_Ectric on

John, thank you for clarifying the parameters as to how to approach Rand's beliefs. I can see that my examples were somewhat fuzzy compared to her absolute conviction.

I'm not sure we can compare compromise to poison, and even if we can, remember that sometimes doctors treat patients with substances that are poison if taken in large quantities but beneficial in small amounts.

by TKG on

Bill, this quote from Jack Kerouac relates well to what you are saying:

"It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on." -- The New York Journal-American (8 Dec 1960).

And, your friends are making stupid comments.

John, sometimes taking a little bit of poison is necessary (eg chemotherapy), although I understand your point.

by Levi Asher on

Sure thing! Well, I'll start with the principle that I began this whole Philosophy Weekend project to promote: the principle of pacifism. (My original intention was to debate the ethics, meaning and purpose of war and militarism on this blog, but somehow I got sidetracked into a discussion of Ayn Rand, and never fully returned to that topic. There's still time.)

It's not widely known today that William James was a pacifist, but in fact he was, and wrote several outspoken and controversial diatribes against the guerrophilia of Teddy Roosevelt and the war crimes committed by the US military during the Spanish-American War and the American-Phillipine War that followed it.

I'm actually not sure whether or not there's a definite linkage between James's epistemological pragmatism and his admirable political beliefs. He didn't explore that angle much in his published writings, and in fact it may be just coincidence that my favorite philosopher was a pacifist and that I'm a fervent pacifist too. When asked to explain or define pacifism in concrete terms, I typically point not to the writings of William James but rather to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, another highly principled pacifist who has inspired me very much.

To her credit -- this may surprise many people -- Ayn Rand also had a tendency towards pacifism. It might be correct (I'm not sure) to say that her form of pacifism was similar to that of Ron Paul today.

You asked me to state a principle I hold strongly, John, and I think this answers the question. Perhaps it would help for me to define my position in words, but I'll keep it simple: pacifism is the belief that any problem can be peacefully resolved, and that our current culture of rampant war and militarism depends upon human foolishness and irrationality for its continuation. How's that for a principle?

by John Woods on


Ayn Rand indicated that all these are questions of fundamentals, and all related, compromise on one and you most certainly compromise on the others. So there is no way that James's views on politics could not be related to his epistemological views if he believed in a systematic philosophy. In that model, your political views sprout from your epistemological views. To hold one position in one realm and a logically inconsistent position in another is to admit a contradiction in one or both, and thus a falsehood. Also, I do believe you have misread her on the use of force. She is definitely in favor of force where it is considered self-defense, at the individual level, societal level, and national level.

My question on pacifism is whether or not you want to "wait it out" if someone is threatening your life or your livelihood? In that sense you are just allowing someone to "steal time" from your life, and therefore they are quite literally stealing your life from you.

I believe that if someone is violating your rights that your first responsibility is to reason with them to make it clear why this is unacceptable, moving on from that point, if you want to "strive with them" over some point of time by starving yourself or whatever it is that you do, then that is your option since you have free will, or if you want to knock the hell out of them to move them out of your life then that is justified as well, and neither approach is wrong.

I do believe she viewed force as the worst of evils, since it represented the break down of reason, but I do not think she was above using force against those who initiated force in the first place, since her principles were that she had a right to her own life, as an end in itself and nobody had the right to violate it, so that since that it all she expected then it wasn't her that was unwilling to reason but the other side. Again, this is also built on her theory that as human beings we all have the capacity to either create values or consume them, or destroy them. And that men who were busy creating values, and then trading them by voluntary trade could never conflict with other men who were doing the same (trader principle).

It was only when someone wanted to take something, or destroy something that they hadn't earned that you would run into a conflict, and if you explained the reasons to them that you would not allow them to violate your life and they insisted on trying to dominate you, then force to remove them was fully justified. Although you do get the sense from her, that even individual force should not be used but rather force should be initated against the person who intiated the force in the first place by the government who we all surrender the power of force too, and that the usage of that force should be governed by objective law which is voted on by the people, but that NOTHING should ever be allowed (not even democratically passed laws) to violate individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Force is what she thought that the role of government was, she also made it clear on several occasions that the United States has no special obligation to honor the soveriegnty of nations who did not respect the individual rights of their own people. That we could either fight a war against them or not, it was optional.

I also do not think she would fall in line with the likes of Bertrand Russell. He said that he would rather remain pacifist and allow the communists to take over rather than to start a nuclear war, and she emphatically stated that she would rather blow up the whole entire world than surrender it to the communists.

So you may want to restate your views of her now that you know her views on the use of force.

by Levi Asher on

John, I'm fully at peace with Ayn Rand's views on the use of force. I have no problem with a sensible use of self-defense. I sometimes hear this challenge: "if you're a pacifist, does that mean I can punch you and you won't punch back?". I'm like: "try me."

If wars were only fought because some country had a sincere need to defend itself against an enemy, there would be no wars in the world. Please compare that ideal to the evidence of what we actually *do* go to war for, especially when thoughtless mannequins like George W. Bush are granted the responsibility to make military decisions. Actual wars are almost never fought for self-defense. A look back at the actual reasons for the great wars of the last 200 years reveal a lot of stupidity, ethnic hatred, vanity, greed and political expediency -- and very little self-defense. The main reason wars take place, actually, is that people are afraid of being attacked and want to attack first (this defines the current US Republican party position on Iran).

As I said before, Ayn Rand's position on militarism seems similar to Ron Paul's, and that's fine with me. She may not call herself a pacifist, but she's close enough that I'll call her one. And, John, if you agree with her on foreign policy, congratulations, you're now a pacifist too.

by John Woods on


I'm not sure that Ms Rand wouldn't be on board with invading Iran.

They spew a horribly destructive philosophy, they systematically push it through all their educational institutions.

They do not respect the individual rights of their own citizens.

They took our innovations in the oil fields in the 70s and waited until we built everything out and then they nationalized those resources.

They actively export terrorism across the world.

by Levi Asher on

John, I guess you must have been a supporter of the last American "war of self defense" in Iraq, then? The rationale for going to war against Iran is exactly the same. So, if we're going to go for "Mission Accomplished Part II" with President Santorum or President Romney leading the charge, I have a few questions for you:

1. Does it concern you that many innocent people will die? The death toll of the Iraq war was estimated at 600,000, almost all of them civilians, many of them elderly, women and children. Since Iran is bigger and more powerful than Iraq was in 2003, we can only assume that the death toll of an Iranian war would be much worse.

2. What's the end game? Will beating Iran in a war bring a more peaceful Middle East, or a more peaceful world? Can you give me some idea of how you imagine this playing out in a positive way?

3. Who is going to pay for it this time? George W. Bush never arranged for American taxpayers to pay for the Iraq war. Instead, it all went straight into the deficit. If you want a repeat performance, are American taxpayers going to pay for it this time, or will it be more deficit spending? (I find it really strange that American conservatives/Republicans always blame the budget deficit on entitlements, and never mention the trillions of dollars wasted on horrific wars.)

And, the most important question of all:

4. Do you have any idea what the Iranian perspective on this conflict is? Do you know the history behind Iran's hostility to the United States? Do you know that we imposed an exploitative and oil-rich dictatorship on them from 1953 to 1979, that they felt enslaved by the American-supported Shah for all these years, and that they are deeply afraid that the USA is plotting to restore them to a position of slavery? This fear is the source of the US/Iran conflict, but very few Americans seem to know anything about this history. Do you know anything about it?

John and Levi, I'm thinking that perhaps selfishness is a virtue, and what we call altruism, is really doing something for ourselves. For example, we don't want a bunch of sick hobos living in the park, so we provide health care and homeless shelters. Plus, it somehow makes feel good to help others. In AA, they say that if you can't forgive others, you will struggle with guilt for things you have done. So when you forgive others, it unburdens you. So in a way, you're doing it for yourself.

The thing that makes society work is, for example, if Businessman A is getting rich by cutting down trees, and Businessman B thinks the loss of trees is detrimental, he can petition the courts to make Businessman A stop cutting down trees. What makes it go off-kilter is when Businessman A bribes off the court. The danger is that the court, or lawmakers, might think, "I'll be selfish and take this bribe, because selfishness is a virtue," but that would be faulty thinking because "there is no honor among thieves" so they would only be undermining their future.

On the matter of war, I totally agree with Levi. Whether for selfish reasons or for the sake of others, we need to see through the facades that lead to war. I can't believe it is simply impossible to have world peace. Like Tom Joad said, "There's something going on." We would have been better off letting Iran and Iraq have their oil fields in 1975. They still would have sold us oil - it's how they make most of their money. Sure, oil prices would have gone up. My father-in-law says, "But without enough fuel, thousands of Americans in tenements would have frozen to death." My reply to that is, "Which would have cost more - to heat people's tenements until we were able to develope alternate forms of energy, or fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as erecting all those buildings and public works projects?"

However Reagan solved the gasoline problem had to be shady.

I meant to add this: My father-in-law's response was, "Well, it's easy for you to say that in retrospect, but back in the 70s, we didn't know." To which I say, just like Levi has said, "Sure, maybe we didn't know then, but we should LEARN from it. Don't we always hear the saying, 'learn from history so it won't happen again'?"

by John Woods on


A close friend for the past 20 years was a native of Iran, so I've heard all the stories from an insiders perspective, both when he lived there, and also now since he has family still living there. Further I am very well aware of the historical period that you discussed. I think that was also a travesty on our part.

I agree that the Shah was bad and did not respect individual rights, however because one regime is bad does not automatically give a pass to the present one which is equally as bad. The people of Iran were very hopeful about their future when the shah was ousted, but those dreams were quickly crushed.

Ultimately the people of Iran are responsible for whatever form of government is allowed to come to power in their territory and whatever their governments do, as are we here in the United States.

So our concern is not the people of Iran, but the people of the United States. Like I said, Ms. Rand indicated that war with countries who do not respect individual rights is optional because essentially they have been taken over by a group of thugs, who are constantly violating their own citizens rights anyway.

I would not favor an invasion of Iran but not on the grounds you state, the reason for me would be that we are not in a position to be taking on any more expensive wars at the moment. I do not hold a principle of pacificism, I think force should be used when it is proper to do so.

To give an individualized version of this same concept. Imagine you observed a man, beating his wife consistently and she was suffering immensely with no freedom, no values, only fear and dread and pain. Imagine she had gotten to the place where emotionally and psychologically she was numb to it, and rather than enjoying her life she was in a place where she was just trying to escape death, but she couldn't. Now imagine that you knew that he would be getting her pregnant in the coming months and their children would be raised in the same torturous hell on earth. Ms. Rand's position is that this man has no right to stand behind his wife and children and claim "respect my individual rights" as he doesn't respect that of others. So that if someone were to come up to him and beat the living hell out of him, and they managed to do it without any accidental damage to the wife or children, then obviously that is the best case scenario. But suppose that this man's young children (boys) grew up and followed in their dad's footsteps and so now instead of 1 abuser you have 3-4 of them. At some point they threaten the freedom and liberty of others around them. Hopefully you wouldn't have to ever take out the whole family, but if you did have to in order to shut down the abusers from getting to more innocent people. Then so be it.

Finally, the last question which comes back to Ms. Rand's rational self interest principle. Is do you HAVE to do this? Do you have to confront this man? The answer is NO. Not unless he threatens your own self interest. But if you did confront him, who could blame you? No one. Would it be benevoloent? Yes.

So I do not think that Iran has any right to claim national sovereignty, and their abuses are perpetual. So we could take them out or not. But we shouldn't if it compromises our own existence.

Again three principles.

1.) Rational self interest
2.) Beneficience - giving to people out of your abundance and free will.
3.) Altruism - sacrificing yourself to others.

She held that Rational self interest was the highest value, beneficence was a virtue but not the highest one, and altruism was pure evil.

I would say that neither altruism nor pure evil exist.

by John Woods on


In some ways I agree with you. Unfortunately it is not that simple. Altruism is a concept which was formulated and pushed out via religious organizations in primal collectivists societies, until it was secularly institutionalized in our governmental organizations and now it is pushed out into the culture via force (which is the only thing the government is supposed to be controlling).

It is essentially a standard which is impossible to abide by if you wish live on this planet. But the church and state (in some countries) have found ways to make people feel very guilty every single day of their lives for not living up to that standard. Using the doctrines of original sin (which is irrational and outside man's realm of choice - morality) and then pushing altruism as the code that is proper to man (which is also irrational and outside of man's ability to implement fully without killing himself).

This means that if he accepts this doctrine as his moral code, he is forever pushing himself to the brink of non-existence and feeling good about it, and viciously alternating or retreating back into self interest and feeling guilty about it. Hopefully when he practices self interest at that point it is purely rational, unfortunately it is typically not but he just reverses the sacrifices and begins sacrificing others to himself. Sort of like a binge dieter after he's been starving for 3 months. It is enough to destroy any human consciousness. So on the concept of pure altruism I agree that it doesn't typically gain full existence (except in cases of suicide bombers and the like), but evil certainly does exists and it is mainly philosophical or the doctrine which pushes altruism as the standard which men should live by.

Ayn Rand was right that you should be busy constantly creating values, and then you should use those values to trade with other men on a voluntary basis, and you should sacrifice yourself (altruism) to no one, nor permit anyone to do the same to you (altruism in reverse), but follow your own highest values. In a system like this, relationships require no victims.

The problem is that there are alot of people who do not want to spend their time creating values, so they have nothing to trade with except their needs, and they suppose that their needs gives them a mortgage on the production of others, and the cycle of altruism continues.

The worst of all of these combination is when the government which holds the monopoly on the use of force, injects itself into the private lives of these citizens and forces some people to sacrifice themselves to others. Which was the point of nearly all of Ms. Rand's writings.

by TKG on

Altruism as pure evil?

That sounds like a rather extreme comment meant to be sensationalist rather than meaningful.

by John Woods on


I meant it exactly the way you took it with all that it implies. Draw your own conclusion.

by TKG on

Is the mark of an objectivist to talk in riddles?

An interesting bit of history is that Pola Negri had been retired from films for 20 years when Walt Disney convinced her to play a role in the 1964 film, The Moon-Spinners, starring Hayley Mills.

John - I agree with you about the concept of altruism. I was going to try to explain what I meant, but you did a better job than I would have. I was going to say altruism is one of those words people use to ascribe a motivation that may or may not exist. It seems that I agree with you on selfishness and with Levi on pacifism. My pacifism is selfish because I don't want my world turned upside down. I do feel bad about the suffering of others, and sure, in a hypothetical situation, I would give my life to bring about world peace, but that's a fantasy, it can't really happen. I'm not saying world peace is a fantasy, only that one person's death could make it happen. My death wouldn't help anybody.

My thoughts on the non-existence of "evil" can be found in this previous LitKicks comment.

TKG -Thanks for your previous comments to my ramblings. Much appreciated!

by John Woods on


I have been persuaded that the philosophical strength of any argument usually rests on definitions.

I will give you a few of my definitions so you can understand my context.

1.) (Existence-Metaphysics) Identity - means that for anything to exist in reality, it must be something in particular, to be something in particular it must have an identity.
2.) (Consciousness-Epistemology) Identification - the purpose of the mind is identify the identity of a thing in reality.
3.) Truth (correspondence theory) is the recognition of the facts of reality.

With these basic definitions we come to the concept of right and wrong.

1.) Right -> This means that if something in reality is true, and you believe it to be true then you are right.
2.) Right -> This means that if something in reality is false, and you believe it to be false then you are also right.
3.) Wrong -> This means that if something in reality is true, and you believe it to be false then you are wrong.
4.) Wrong -> This means that if something in reality is false, and you believe it to be true then you are wrong.

Now let's come to good and evil. I say that man's purpose is to live as an end in himself. Since a consciousness would never be able to judge good and evil but that he were alive, the standard of value in a man's life IS his life. The reason that it is the "standard" of value, is because if he isn't alive, then no other values are possible. So it is the irredicible primary.

Which brings me to my final conclusion that to you, the good is anything which promotes your life and your long range values honestly. The evil, is anything which destroys your life and your values.

Although I respect your view, under my defintion which I use to interpret reality, evil is not the lack of empathy but that which actively destroys your life or your values.

It is in this sense of the word, that I mean that evil definitely exists, and that the purest form of it, is altruism because it openly calls for sacrifice in some form, which is either the destruction of your life or values in some way. And then just in case you had any lingering doubts about it, to put the final nail in the coffin it labels those evil actions which destroy your life as virtues.

by Levi Asher on

John, this statement is definitely a bit fishy, logically:

"Since a consciousness would never be able to judge good and evil but that he were alive, the standard of value in a man's life IS his life. The reason that it is the "standard" of value, is because if he isn't alive, then no other values are possible. So it is the irredicible primary."

The fact that A depends on B doesn't mean the primary purpose of B is A. Aristotle wouldn't endorse that use of logic, not by a longshot.

For instance, if my car doesn't have a battery under the hood, it can't start. But the purpose of my car isn't to keep its battery charged. Its purpose is to drive me places.

In case you object to a metaphor involving a car and a driver, I'll give you a different one. A singer can't perform her concert unless her microphone is plugged in. But the purpose of a singer isn't to keep her microphone plugged in. It's to make beautiful music.

The logic in this essential part of your argument just isn't valid, and this is exactly the point where the big Rand argument on ethics falls apart. We each depend on our own solitary lives for our continued existence, but that doesn't mean our only purposes are to tend to our solitary lives.

by John Woods on


Oh if over turning this system were only that easy.

Her arguments or logic do not fall apart here. Sorry.

This is a tricky argument to grasp. And yet I see why you are confused since I was too. Here's the best way I can explain.

In objectivist ethics, it runs on principles to guide actions. So you need statements which can apply to any and every man at all times, and in all situations.

In ethics you face choices, if you are going to be guided by principles you need some mechanism to keep you on course. You need a standard. It needs to be a fixed concept by which you judge every particular. It is the thing by which you determine good for you or evil for you.

My paragraph you cited was never meant to identify the final purpose of a human being, but only the unmovable standard by which he guides his life on a day by day and minute by minute basis. It was meant to identify the "standard of value" not the "final purpose".

The final purpose of a man's life are his values which he holds.

To state the argument short and sweet.

The standard of value in man's life (mankind) is life. His purpose in life is his "own" life.

The first sentence identifies the standard for men and it is speaking across all of humanity with one sweeping statement. The second sentence stops and looks you directly in the eyes and is talking to your purpose (final cause).

by John Woods on


Now do you remember that I spoke to you about your usage of metaphors that don't fit? Remember the phrase "stolen concept"?

Do you mind that now that you have a correct statement of my interpretation of reality, that I may take both of your metaphors and steal them and return them back to their rightful owner?

In the case of the car. It's "standard of value" is that it actually runs. If the battery is removed and the car won't run then the car is worthless to take you anywhere.

In the case of the singer, her "standard of value" is that you actually get to hear her voice, if her microphone is broken and you cannot hear her, then no purpose she has to move you emotionally or any other way with her voice matters.

by Levi Asher on

John, I don't find your use of logic convincing at all here. Let's review.

You wrote: "I say that man's purpose is to live as an end in himself. Since a consciousness would never be able to judge good and evil but that he were alive, the standard of value in a man's life IS his life. The reason that it is the "standard" of value, is because if he isn't alive, then no other values are possible. So it is the irredicible primary."

I wrote: "The fact that A depends on B doesn't mean the primary purpose of B is A."

You wrote: "My paragraph you cited was never meant to identify the final purpose of a human being, but only the unmovable standard by which he guides his life on a day by day and minute by minute basis. It was meant to identify the "standard of value" not the "final purpose"."

But my objection stands just as well to your second statement as to your first. My individual solitary life is not the unmovable standard by which I guide my life on a day by day and minute by minute basis. I thought you were trying to use logic to back up your words, and I pointed out that the logic you were using doesn't follow any accepted rule of logic, Aristotlean or otherwise. I don't understand your answer to my objection. I feel like you're just talking circles around me.

by TKG on

As I've read these discussions back and forth between you two and some linked prose of known established philosophers I've learned that much of what goes for philosophical treatise is incoherent and even at times gibberish.

Still, to the extent that I can follow I will address this:

"My individual solitary life is not the unmovable standard by which I guide my life on a day by day and minute by minute basis"

I disagree. It cannot be anything but that. It's de facto.

I think that may possibly be what John is trying to say in the convoluted prose that apparently is required by law for writing about philosophy.

by Levi Asher on

TKG, I know it's the conventional wisdom that "It cannot be anything but that. It's de facto." But, as so often happens, the conventional wisdom has never been examined, and on close examination appears not to be valid or meaningful at all.

My individual solitary life is certainly not the unmovable standard by which I guide my life on a day by day and minute by minute basis. The well-being of the universe is the standard by which I guide my life, and the well-being of my neighbors, friends and family, including myself. I don't care about my well-being more than I care about the well-being of several members of my family, for instance.

Some may object that my concern for others is actually selfish, because I only care about others because it makes me happy. I think this objection is highly overrated, and has only a weak claim to truth or validity. The statement doesn't mean much at all, once you examine it closely. It's a tautology, a self-evident statement, with no bearing on how we actually exist in the world. Those who enjoy paradoxes can puzzle over its meaning all their lives, if they wish to, just as they can spend their lives puzzling over Zeno's paradox. But Zeno's paradox (which "proves" that motion is impossible) doesn't stop you from actually moving. And Ayn Rand's paradox (which "proves" that your concern for others is really only concern for yourself) doesn't stop you from actually caring for others.

TKG, or anyone else, I'd love to hear you explain why you are so sure that the only standard that guides my life is my own individual self-interest, even when I flatly state to you that it's not. Please tell me where I'm wrong about what I know I'm feeling.

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

Please, please, please note that I did NOT say that "the only standard that guides [your] life is [your] own individual self-interest".

You did not use that term "self interest" and I did not respond to or address self interest in any way, nor could I possibly address whether or not your self interest guides your life.

You used the term "individual solitary life" and that is what I addressed.

I fully will accept and believe that your individual solitary life is not focused on self interest and puts others first.

That's what we all should try to do and strive for. Remember Gayle Sayers, the great football player, he wrote a book called I Am Third. This idea is a basic tenet of Christianity and probably other beliefs or philosophies.

I don't understand why you thought I was implying anything about acting in self interest.

I was addressing "individual solitary life" which is ultimately all any of us have here in this world.

by Levi Asher on

TKG, I don't see the big difference between the one statement that says "my individual solitary life is the standard that guides all my decisions" (which you emphatically agree with) and the other statement about self-interest (which you emphatically disagree with). I'm sure you must see some major difference there, but I think this difference exists only in your private vocabulary. Your objection to one statement and agreement with the other seems to be a case of splitting hairs. I'm not interested in fine-tuning the language we use to talk about ethics. I thought we were here to discuss a big moral question: is Ayn Rand (and John Woods) right or wrong that all human behavior is guided by individual selfishness, or not?

I say that Ayn Rand and John Woods are wrong, and I thought that's what we were discussing. I can't figure out at this point where you stand on the question -- I thought you were saying you agreed with the Ayn Rand/John Woods position, but now it seems you don't. Can you clarify?

by John Woods on


I was out the with the family yesterday or I would have responded sooner. I am going to skip backwards to our last exchanges, and address your replies to me directly.

But a quick clarification here, your latest response says that your objection stands up to my second argument just as much as it does my first. This is clearly not the case.

First, you said:

"The fact that A depends on B doesn't mean the primary purpose of B is A. Aristotle wouldn't endorse that use of logic, not by a longshot."

My point was that I never said anything about purpose (final cause), I was referring to a "standard of value" or the standard by which you measure all things.

The two concepts are completely distinct form each other, unless you are trying to say that a standard and a final purpose are the same thing? This means that my logic was not in error, but your analysis was, since you essentially smashed two terms together and called them the same thing. (Purpose and Standard).

Next, in the following reply:

You retreat back into a subjective position, by explaining: "My individual solitary life is not the unmovable standard by which I guide my life on a day by day and minute by minute basis."

If I recall your subjective introspection is where we left this argument at our last finishing point as well.

So I would like you to acknowledge, that from your first rebuttal to your second one, you moved from saying my logic was incorrect, back to your subjective introspection of yourself and the way you believe you are experiencing the world around you.

Fair statement?

by John Woods on


Now I am going to see if we can't wrap this debate up.

All through these debates for months now, you have never denied the existence of an individual self, instead you have advocated for the recognition of a (non-entity) called a group self, and you have tried to drive this argument home largely based on linguistic analysis and mismatched metaphors, subjective introspection, which in my mind are not valid standards of knowledge.

So to state both of our positions clearly:

1.) My theory is that we have our own individual self interacting with the world around us and that we do not need any further explanation. (and the existence of an individual self is not denied by you either).

2.) Your theory is that we have our own individual self interacting with the world around us, and in addition to this we have a "group self" that either pops into being/existence at times or it is always there, and experiences the world a different and less selfish way.

Our basic mottos:

1.) I state that we are conscious beings who are conscious of many things.

2.) You state that we are a being which "is" multiple streams of consciousness.

Yet every particular concrete example or metaphor you can raise, I can explain them all on an individual basis.

I have a theory which rests on something neither of us disagree exists. You have theory which rests on something only one of us agree exists. I can explain all the phenomena you have raised with my theory.

At this point I would like to invoke Ockahm's razor.

Ockham’s razor, also spelled Occam’s razor, also called law of economy, or law of parsimony, principle stated by William of Ockham (1285–1347/49), a scholastic, that Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate; “Plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle gives precedence to simplicity; of two competing theories, the simplest explanation of an entity is to be preferred.

The principle is also expressed “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

by John Woods on


One last statement, which is that I do agree with TKG and his statement that our individual solitary lives is all that we have in this world.

I want to clarify this for you one more time. Objective, which in this sense means that you are good or bad on the basis of some standards or values. Some people believe that people are bad just because they exist (original sin), the other extreme is that people believe that people are good just because they exist (narcissism). My position is that you judge whether you are good or not, by some standard. By some code of values, and the virtues you practice to reach them each day. (objective)

One thing I think you are massively confusing here, is the concept of values which is the meaning of an objective philosophy.

We are each individuals, we each posses values. There are some values which we love so dearly, that they rise above even our own lives, because to live without those values present in our own lives would be worse than death. Or to put another way, we would rather protect our values (like our freedoms and our families) because if we never surrendered them, the day we died we would have lived our lives with those values present in our lives and never have gone another day without them. But these values are rare and it does not change the fact that they are "your values".

These values cannot be "realistically" claimed with such meaningless statements as:

"The well-being of the universe is the standard by which I guide my life."

Do you know that the US Census recorded in 2005 that 153,781 people die in the world on a daily basis. Which part of your group self told you about that today, but for the fact that you would read it on a website or hear it on CNN? This alone makes me doubt that you have any other claim to a "group self" than just meaningless words.

My point is that in the end you are an individual, and as an individual you hold "a code of values". Those values are deeply personal to you, and you act accordingly. You can set your own code of values as broad and wide as you want so that the important things around you go out of focus and you cannot focus on anything, and that is still "your choice", "your values", "your self interest". Other people in a group may even join with you in a cause where they share those same values. Others will join because they they have no conscious convictions or philosophy guiding their lives and your words seem to be persuasive. But none of this is any evidence of a group self.

by Levi Asher on

John, with regard to this:

"So I would like you to acknowledge, that from your first rebuttal to your second one, you moved from saying my logic was incorrect, back to your subjective introspection of yourself and the way you believe you are experiencing the world around you."

No, I definitely don't acknowledge this! Your logic IS incorrect. I'm referring to your logic when you attempt to state as a proven and certain truth that the only purpose or standard of value (it doesn't matter which one) is your individual solitary life. I've been saying all along that you do not have a convincing proof of this statement. As I wrote in "Why Ayn Rand is Wrong", Ayn Rand has also never proved this statement. The only proof you (and Ayn Rand) have attempted is that, since you can't be conscious without an individual solitary life, therefore your "purpose" or your "value standard" (it doesn't matter which one) must be your individual solitary life. As I have pointed out, there is no logic to this at all. It doesn't help if you replace the term "purpose" with "value standard". There has been no proof presented that A leads to B here, and I've demonstrated with examples that the fact that A is dependent on B does not imply that the purpose or value standard of A must be B.

I agree that we should wrap this conversation up (which is not to say that I haven't enjoyed it, but I'm not sure if any readers are still enjoying it, ha ha ...). But I'd love to hear you either deliver your logical proof that my individual solitary life must be my value standard, or admit that there is no logical proof.

The fact that you can't logically prove it doesn't mean that you can't go on believing it, if you want. But there is a big difference between a proven truth and a voluntary belief. Your belief that a person's individual solitary life must be their value standard is a voluntary belief, not a proven truth.

by John Woods on


It is self evident to anyone who is a human being that we at the very least have an individual self and that we have values.

It is not self evident that anyone has a group self.

I find it interesting that you went back to essentially calling a standard and a purpose the same thing by evading the massive differences between them and pretending that you can use the concept interchangeably.

And you dodged the rest of my points including a few well known philosophical principles Ockham's Razor, The Burden of Proof.

I also want to point out that in the realm of existence, the individual self is not being contested by anyone. Your group self is, so before we move forward to discuss the "nature" of either of them it would be helpful is you could provide some sort of logical proof that what you are proposing even exists.

If you cannot do this, then it is lunacy to pretend you are being rational.

by Levi Asher on

I'm a big fan of Ochkam's Razor too -- in fact, I invoked it implicitly in the original blog post on this page, when I said that engineers will always choose the simplest solution to a problem. So, yes, I will grant that the belief in the exclusive primacy of the solitary individual self has a minimalist simplicity to it that calls to mind Ockham's Razor. But, a simple answer must be a complete answer, and I have pointed out ways in which the exclusive primacy of the solitary individual self cannot explain actual human behavior. I gave the example of the suicidal military advance at the battle of Gettsyburg. The best explanation for the behavior of these soldiers, as far as I can tell, is found in group psychology, not individual psychology. Ockham's Razor doesn't let you pick a solution that isn't sufficient to solve its problem, and Ayn Rand's depiction of human life as solely motivated by individual self-interest just doesn't get the job done.

In other words, the best evidence for a concept of a group self is found in the observance of human behavior. This is not a logical proof, and I have never claimed it to be. I believe that we are all sometimes motivated, not by one group self (as you have sometimes characterized) but by an always-changing, evolving set of group selves. I have never said that I can prove this to be true. I can prove it to be possible, probable and feasible, but I can't prove it to be true.

You and Ayn Rand, on the other hand, have always hinted at some ability to prove that your ethical principles are true. So I am pointing out that, while you may have a very sound theory of human behavior and ethics, you have no logical proof. I don't have one for my theory either, but I have never claimed to have one. You have claimed to have one.

by John Woods on


The claim was that her theory of ethics were the only "rational" ethics. History is littered with irrational collectivist philosophies. It is not the only ethics. People do irrational things all the time that's the nature of free will.

You know, things like building an entire system of philosophy on a concept which doesn't exist or that you cannot prove exists. To systematize it or to follow it is irrational.

by Levi Asher on

"History is littered with irrational collectivist philosophies." It sure is. Christianity. Constitutional government. Family.

But why do some people wish to pretend that we aren't a deeply collectivist people?

by John Woods on


Families are collectivist by nature because the young are not fully rational yet. And usually because when they grow up the children are inculcated with their parents values, and so their is a rational basis for these close relationships.

Constitutional governments which respect individual rights are standard bearers for individualism not collectivism.

I agree with you about Christianity that it is collectivist. Not sure I agree with that is a good thing though.

All of history has been a slow and steady march away from collectivism and towards individualism.

by John Woods on


I read back through these responses, and realized that you asked me a question which I failed to respond to and so I will do that now:


"If a building were threatened with a collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, or unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better."

Why would a pragmatist say that?

Unless perhaps it is that elusive and rare non-sequitur pragmatist.


To answer this question it is important to distinguish between a pragmatist philosophy (inferior) and a principled philosophy (superior).

I do believe that my metaphor I gave above does drive at the very essence of what it means to be a pragmatist. This is also the problem in our politics in this country right now. At the extreme left you do have a group of people who are holding to a principled philosophy, and at the extreme right you also have a group of people who are holding to a principled philosophy. What would be great is if we just went ahead and let these two groups try their philosophies in full and see who was telling the truth, but this is not the nature of politics.

Pragmatists admittely must be willing to hold contradictions (Levi and I have already covered this in a previous debate), and also they make decisions based on the "cash value" of those decisions at any given moment.

To give another example, which I think gives a perfect example of the state of our economy in the United States.

Suppose that you were raised with the principle that in the realm of personal finance that you would never go into debt for anything but that you would always save a certain percentage of your income, and pay cash for everything. So long as you followed this principle you would never be in debt, and slowly over time your own savings would begin paying you interest while it was being put to other productive uses. Now suppose that after 30 years you had emassed a huge fortune following this and other sound principles. Now your children are being raised up, and they decide to depart from these principles because see something that they want and all they have is a credit card, which has a huge limit because it was co-signed by daddy. Now let's say that they go on a huge spending spree month after month.

Now there is no doubt that the credit card will "work", but it is not "working" because their pragmatist philosophy is objectively correct, but only because the prior generation followed a principled philosophy which allowed them the creditworthiness to be granted these special priviledges.

Pragmatists depart from principled philosophy in order to "cash in on the middle". But here is the problem, even with that one. If one philosophy says, never go into debt, and always save a percentage of your income. And the opposite philosophy says, always go into debt, and never save a percentage of your income. And the pragmatist makes a "compromise" in the middle. Who loses? Who wins? The person with the correct principles? Or the person with the wrong principles? Clearly it is the person with the wrong principles, because now his incorrect principles have just gotten married to the right ones. Which means he gains access to resources he would not have otherwise had (since he was bankrupt to begin with).

Now for the huge question, in case you are thinking that the pragmatist is reasonable by living somewhere in the middle. What happens after 10 generations of pragmatists? Since the correct principles are being constantly lowered? Pretty soon he ends up all the way (or at least not very far away from) the wrong principles.

This is why my metaphor for pragmatism holds. That was the answer I owed you. Sorry it took so long.

by Levi Asher on

It has been a pleasure talking and arguing with all of you. Even though there have been many different opinions flying around here, we have all maintained a high level of discourse, have avoided personal insults, and have kept the focus on logical analysis. I'd like to know if any other discussion forum on the Internet can do the same while talking about Ayn Rand, politics, money and religion!

John, I don't know if TKG will respond to your response, but I'll just say that you are obviously presenting a caricature of a pragmatist here. You are describing how a very stupid pragmatist might act.

And, to this comment: "Constitutional governments which respect individual rights are standard bearers for individualism not collectivism" -- I'll just remind you of our country's motto. "E Pluribus Unum". Out of many, one.

And with that said, John or TKG or Bill or anyone else, I'll offer you the last word in this debate. I'll try my hardest NOT to respond if one of you posts again. But I hope you'll all speak up in future arguments here too.

by John Woods on


I'd like to point out one more thing about Pragmatists so that I am perfectly clear, and this will be my own last word as well.

I have no problem with pragmatism in the political process. Because if our country were split 50/50 with each holding to a principled philosophy we might not get anything done. It is not the "compromise" which I take issue with, I think this is an unfortunately reality of the democratic process.

The thing I take issue with is that pragmatism, rather than acknowledge the compromise as an undesired state of affairs but a necessary evil. They embrace and celebrate compromise as the standard itself.

Pragmatism should NEVER be it's own philosophy. It should be what spits out of the sausage maker at the end of a heated battle between two powerful and principled philosophies, hopefully with the correct principled philosophy gaining an edge at each succession and the final goal to be to reach or divert the course back towards the correct principled philosophy.

by TKG on

Hi John,

I still don't really understand what you are getting at. I think our disconnect is that you are talking about pragmatism as some sort of philosophical construct, when I am taking it at what I understand of it at face value.

I think a pragmatist acts to accomplish goals and solve problems with what resources are available in a necessary time frame.

As such the pragmatist must be analytical and objective to determine the the extent of the problem that needs to be solved, the time limit for solving it before it becomes non-fixable and the available resources to use.

The pragmatist simply gets done what is needed to be done in the best manner possible.

In your scenario I don;t understand why the pragmatist would not address the actual issue which is the building's foundation. The emotional state of tenants in the building was not addressed.

I'd think the pragmatist would determine the immediate danger -- ie is the building going to collapse in the next hours or days, or is the danger longer term. Then the pragmatist would address the problem with that information. If the danger was imminent, the pragmatist would call for evacuation of the building. If it was longer term, then a plan would be developed to either repair the building or tear it down and at the same time work out the relocation time frame for people involved -- or maybe be able to fix it without the tenants having to leave etc...

Pragmatists accomplish things that need to be done in the best way possible under given circumstances in the real world with what is realistically available.

That's how I see it.

by TKG on

OK Levi, let's break it down to the basics:

"[is] all human behavior is guided by individual selfishness, or not?"

It is not. People put others needs before theirs all the time. Even the most selfish person in the world will at times put someone else' desires or needs before theirs.

If we want to go deeper and make a case that no matter what, ultimately everything one does is for oneself, that's another matter and one that can never be answered.

It's a fair argument. Karma or sowing what one reaps could argue that selfless acts are really simply going to come back to you, so its really only selfish ultimately.

This is convoluted and theoretical, but OK. If someone wants to think that way, fine. But it doesn't change the fact that people on a day to day, down to earth, real life basis put the desires or needs of others first. And, it is done consciously out of concern and love for others.

by John Woods on


I am speaking about an entire school of philosophy called Pragmatism which was largely advanced by William James and John Dewey. If you are talking about a pragmatist you maybe referring to a watered down version of it that some people tend to practice, but the fountainhead of that movement came from the two gentlemen that I identified above, and Levi actively studies William James, so there can be no confusion that he is very familiar with the ideas and the philosophical context of which I am speaking about. I also have a hinting suspicion that you could give me any metaphor or example of pragmatism you wish and if we take it straight up at face value, I will show you that some version of what I am saying is at work.

But I digress, what I would like to do is to show you an example.

I asked Levi to demonstrate any principles that a pragmatist from the William James school of philosophy might hold, since we had spent so much time analyzing Ayn Rand. Maybe it would be good to turn the tables?

Let's start with a principle as something which is so fundamental that in a given domain (such as ethics) it is practiced everywhere and always and in every particular situation without contradiction.

Levi said that he practiced pragmatist principles (which I hold is a contradiction in terms since the nature of pragmatism is to abandon certainty, which is to abandon principles, and to live with contradictions, etc.).

When I inquired further, he mentioned the principle of pacifism. Pacifism means that war and violence are unjustifiable under any circumstances.

Then in his subsequent response, he mentions a story where someone pressed him on that point and asked if they could punch him in the face, and his response was, "why don't you go ahead and try it?".

This is a perfect example of a pragmatist living with the pretense of principles, and then cashing in on the middle, which negates the idea that it was ever a principle in the first place.

This is the natural logical conclusion of their first principles and yet this is NOT my problem with pragmatists. My problem with pragmatists, is that even after they have compromised, they take this compromised position and elevate the compromise itself to the level of a principled philosophy.

TKG, on your last comment back to Levi. I still think you are losing sight of your original argument you made to Levi, which is that our own solitary self and our values are the "only thing" we have access to in this world. Even when you love someone, that is still "your" valuing of that other person. Nobody has the ability to jump outside of himself. So my point is that it ultimately resolves back to your own self and your own code of values, and therefore the actions are still in your self interest, even if you happen to value the other person more than your own life. Levi's point is opposite. Which is that you do not require a code of values that has anything to do with you, because you do have the ability to jump outside yourself via this "group self" concept he is trying to assert. Levi is trying to argue at a metaphysical level (not an ethical level) that a group self actually exists and this is the true state of our being. Do you agree with this concept?

by TKG on

I know little about philosophical pragmatism and when reading something to understand it, I can not understand what the writer is trying to say.

So, let's start small with simple fundamentals of tangible statments that can be answered yes or no.

You wrote:

"the nature of pragmatism is to abandon certainty"

From what I might possibly know or understand of James Pragmatism, I don't necessarily get this out of it.

So let's ask Levi, a simple yes or no.

Is "the nature of pragmatism is to abandon certainty"?

by Levi Asher on

Well, that's not the main way I would characterize Pragmatism, but if forced to choose a yes or a no I'll go with yes. Pragmatism is a philosophy that tries to de-emphasize notions like certainty. A more positive definition would be to equate Pragmatism (the school of philosophy promoted by William James) with pragmatism (small-p). TKG, almost everything you wrote in your comment above about "pragmatism" also holds true for "Pragmatism". The opposite of "pragmatism" is "dogmatism" -- I think this gives a good clue as to the philosophy's intent.

William James was a writer who enjoyed making bold and provocative statements (this is something he shared in common with Ayn Rand). Among Pragmatism's bold statements is the statement that belief is a function of willfulness. James illustrated this with many examples that seem to ring true, which is why he's so highly regarded among philosophers today. I personally believe very strongly in the validity of James's outlook, and as far as I know, Pragmatism is the last word in epistemology. Nobody has ever managed to refute William James's basic theory of truth, as far as I've ever heard.

I've invoked Jamesian concepts often here, as in this argument when I point out to John Woods that his belief in Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy is, despite his attempt to put it over as a necessary belief, actually a voluntary belief. James wrote of the difference between a "live option" and a "dead option". A live option is a belief that a person can reasonably and logically believe in if that person wishes to. A dead option is a belief that is so contrary to logic or evidence that a person cannot reasonably believe in it. According to James, we each choose the live options that we wish to believe in, and this is how human belief works. John Woods believes in the live option of Objectivist ethics because it appeals to him. I reject Objectivist ethics because it doesn't appeal to me, and I believe in the live option of group-oriented psychology because it does appeal to me.

by John Woods on

And there you go!

Since he rejects certainty. He also rejects the concepts of right and wrong, and instead labels anyone with certainty as a dogmatist. If he rejects right and wrong, (based on my earlier definitions) then he will necessarily have to reject true and false, and his philosophy if you move backwards up through his ethics, and into his epistemology, wipes out his metaphysics completely, because it wipes out the law of identity and it claims that A is a NON A. Instead of Aristotle's proposition that A is A.

Need an example? Let's move forward back through his philosophy logically. Our individual self is NOT our individual self, but an individual self PLUS a group self, (A is NON A) which I have no proof for, but that doesn't matter since identity is unimportant, and so is right and wrong, and so is certainty, and so nobody can ever be sure of anything, including Ayn Rand, and that is why I get to believe whatever "appeals to me" and that is why my whole philosophy is completely subjective.

But what if what they are saying is objectively the truth? Shouldn't they be dogmatic about it?

Does mixing a little uncertainty, confusion, or even lies in there with it, because it will make it appeal to Levi a little more?

The point is that he can believe whatever he wants, but that doesn't make it objectively true or rational.

by Levi Asher on

Well, John, again, you are presenting a caricature of a stupid and intellectually reckless Pragmatist. Similarly, somebody can present a caricature of an brutally selfish and uncaring Objectivist. There's not much wisdom to be gained with either caricature.

And John, where do you get "he rejects the concepts of right and wrong"? A Pragmatist will reject dogmatic concepts of right and wrong, which sounds like a great idea to me. Do you believe one must be dogmatic to be ethical? I don't.

by John Woods on

No I believe that epistemology should use logic to tie back to reality and then you can achieve the identification of true and false and right and wrong and you can be certain.

Not the opposite which is that you just get to create your own reality because it "appeals to you".

I mean you can but then don't pretend you are being rational.

This is a philosophy which holds a primacy of consciousness which means that you create reality with your mind and it is inverted.

The primacy of existence means we start with reality first with the metaphysically given and we work our way down from there.

by TKG on

It can't reject all certainty. That'd be self contradictory.

Are you saying it rejects a priori certainty? It accepts knowledge previously gained, I'd assume.

by John Woods on

Well he has softened his tone a little.

In previous email exchanges, I asked Levi if he believed in certainty and he said no, and then I asked him if he was certain about that and he said no. Then I showed him that he was caught in an infinite regress.

Are you certain about that?
Are you certain about that?
And how about that?

At that point he admitted to me, that he acknowledged that in order to be a pragmatist you had to be willing to HOLD contradictions.

And that is my point.

Levi is perfectly willing to hold contradictions, in fact I'm pretty certain that this is a basic tenent of pragmatism.

by Levi Asher on

What does "reject all certainty" mean? Not much, as far as I can tell. As the name implies, Pragmatism is a practical philosophy. Most pragmatists tend to avoid metaphysical puzzles and hard absolutes. It's a way of life as well as a philosophy.

by John Woods on

That is an evasion of the fact that your philosophy cannot apply to reality with precision. Thus the lack of certainty, and the arrogance that if you cannot achieve certainty with a pragmatist philosophy then neither can anyone else.

This is an admission that you believe that thinking has no basis to deal with real world problems. What you believe is in just jumping out there and trying things, or to put actions in front of thought in order to "see what works".

In Objectivism we do not recognize a distinction between the theoretical and the practical, I realize this is a common dichotomy with many of the major philosophiers.

However, in Objectivism the only reason for the theory of knowledge is to have practical knowledge to apply to real world problems, and since knowledge in Objectivism is induced from reality via the law of identity and the law of non contradiction, we have no qualms about the fact that our philosophy (after the cognition process) will set right back down into reality with total precision. That is the reason for certainty.

by Bill_Ectric on

John, thank you for the definitions. As you probably understand, I was referring to "evil" as "diminishing empathy" in a particular context - that of applying evil to people. I was amused when I looked up "evil" on Wikipedia and they had a picture of Hitler. Not that there's anything amusing about Hitler, but when I was a kid, my parents, who lived through WWII, used Hitler as a benchmark to measure how bad a person was. Of all the people who were sure to go to hell, it was Hitler, then Joseph Mengele, then the person who kidnapped Charles Lindbergh baby, etc. Maybe it's a sign of how jaded I've become, but when I saw that picture of Hitler as Wikipedia's illustration of "evil" it seemed quaint or old fashioned. But, I'm straying from the subject. Do you think Mengele or Hitler were sticking to their principles, selfishly putting themselves first, so therefore they were not evil?

by John Woods on


I do not think that Mengele or Hitler were selfishly putting themselves first.

Allow me to give you an economic example, and then we can push up into politics. In a pure capitalistic society without government intervention, you would have only one power in that society. That is the power to produce. Then you would exchange values for values. But you would have to conduct yourself rationally. For example, if you were to try to charge too much for your services, your clients would seek alternatives and find them, because they are free to do so. If you did not charge enough for your services, you would go broke.

Honest success in capitalism requires Ayn Rand's ethics, which is that you neither sacrifice yourself to others, NOR sacrifice others to yourself. That is following your long range rational self interest.

Now, in terms of Hitler. He was pursuing his own selfish interest, but I'd hardly call it rational since he was definitely sacrificing others to himself. He was not trading value for values. He was essentially performing a massive money grab through force. This is the opposite of Ayn Rand's ethics.

by TKG on

Hey Levi, you have definitely made an impression.

I happened across this Didn't You Know Ayn Rand is Right at some random web site.

Don't ask me anything about it, I didn't read it.

But it struck me that they wouldn't use such a title if it weren't for your "Why Ayn Rand is Wrong."

by Frank Dixon on

John, you are essentially correct in your assessment of Levi's "group-mind" theory. Individuals who have not been made existentially aware of their personal duty to seek philosophical understanding of reality are left to the opinions of others. Problems arise, however, when we ask whether it is possible for ordinary working folks to obtain that enlightened view. Conventionally it's argued that they do not have enough time on their hands to devote to the hard studies that would be required. More importantly, at least in America, the people have in fact been educated to accept the opinions of others, as opposed to thinking things through for themselves. In addition, and existentially, the brain, a physical thing, inertially finds this "method" more satisfying than having to expend the energy required by bootstrap thinking. And finally, as you point out in the case of Pickett's charge up Cemetery Ridge, even when thought of a rudimentary sort is undertaken, going it alone becomes a more powerful fear than the fear of continuing lock-step with the group.

BTW, Leo Tolstoy addressed questions of the Pickett's Charge sort in Part Two of "War and Peace." He wondered why the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of roughly 500,000 soldiers, "decided" to follow Napoleon to Moscow. He appears to have decided that the "reason" was undecipherable. In true Tolstoy fashion he thus opined that a middle-eastern God must have had his hand in. Levi's "group-mind" was thus replaced by a supernatural being who was able to control individual minds. And after all, that seems to be what Levi is suggesting (sans the supernatural), that a mind that cannot be traced to individual responsibility is sometimes in control.

The Italian race car mechanic also had it right. We can simplify by saying that "the group decided" when in fact the decisions were made by individuals who all appeared to be thinking alike. And, of course, that's the problem. They were not "thinking alike;" they were reacting alike . . . and often to other individuals whose knowledge of reality -- read Ayn Rand -- was no better than their own.

If Ms. Rand had stopped with her recognition of the egoistic nature of the human mind, and not gone on to tell us what we should think, she may sooner or later have laid the groundwork for a revolution in the way we are educated. That would have been a superhuman achievement. Unfortunately, she chose, by illustration in a romantic adventure, to demonstrate the qualities of a particular economic system, laying aside the far more important psychological and epistemological lessons she might have taught.

The result? She failed.

by Frank Dixon on

On this subject, checkout the article on honeybees in the March 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. Read to the end to see where the controversy emerges.

by Frank Dixon on

An apt example of pragmatism that illustrates Ms. Rand's own pragmatic retreat....

She said she opted for capitalism because, compared to socialism, capitalism serves best to protect our freedom. That is, she sees capitalism as a good system for pragmatic reasons.

At a more existential level, and yet, as a still pragmatic reason, I suggest that she chose laissez faire capitalism as a knee-jerk escape from the presumed pains of her life in the U.S.S.R. Conversely, if she had been reared in a true laissez faire capitalist state, and had witnessed the pains that (some say) were bound to accrue to that system, she might pragmatically choose regulated capitalism, or, God Forbid!!, even socialism as a relief from her "certain kind of pain" to borrow a phrase from James).

Her understanding of freedom as the highest of our ethical ideals lies at the heart of her error. Freedom is not something we choose as an ethical alternative. Freedom is an existential reality. We all have, and can never be deprived of, our freedom. We exercise our freedom in seeking the good for ourselves. We exercise our freedom when we, perhaps, recognize that we can best obtain happiness when we work in harmony with others. So, freedom is not an end in itself. It is the power we use in determining the ends we regard as most satisfying. All the characters in Atlas Shrugged -- not merely the heroes -- demonstrated their freedom. That some of them were stupid -- I have in mind that creep who demanded a steam engine to go through the tunnel -- illustrates the necessity for working together, delegating to those who actually know what to do, the power to do it. That's freedom being used productively. But that rule would apply equally to a nationalized railroad as to Taggart Transcontinental.

Ah, what to do? What to do?

by Levi Asher on

Frank, thanks for your input. I am a little troubled to hear you say that John is correct in his dismissal of my argument, but then it's a fair debate and I know I need to do a better job of framing what I'm trying to say. I will only ask you to please give me another chance in a future Philosophy Weekend blog post, in which I hope to reboot my argument based on the feedback I've gotten here. I am definitely learning valuable things from these discussions.

Thanks for the reference to Tolstoy -- I'll have to reread that part of the book. Good catch.

You paraphrase me as saying that "a mind that cannot be traced to individual responsibility is sometimes in control". That's pretty close, though I wouldn't choose the word "responsibility" for this sentence. Whenever we choose individually to go along with a group, we retain individual moral responsibility for this choice. I would rather say that "a mind that cannot be traced to individual motivation is sometimes in control".

I tried to find this article about honeybees, but it doesn't appear to be online. Can you either send a link or tell us what it says?

by TKG on

I assume he means this article:

The Secret Life of Bees (secrets of decision-making in a swarm).

by John Woods on


Is this system supposed to email me? I keep having to come back manually to check when people post.

Why do I get the captcha sometimes and not others?

I'll respond here tomorrow.

I enjoyed Frank's posts and want to ask still more probing questions. I think some of the statements do not match my readings of her positions but I'd love to go deeper.

by Levi Asher on

John, I guess I ought to install some email comment functionality on this site. I haven't gotten around to it yet (this messy joint needs a lot of fixing-up) but I'll take your hint and move it up the priority list.

About the captcha, I actually don't know why you get it sometimes and not others, but it must be retaining your past session information for some period of time, and requiring it only if that period of time has lapsed.

Please do post your further questions regarding Frank's posts. Also, I'm very eager to put up a new post on this topic. I've reviewed again the past comments and I can see where I may have overstepped my logic in some cases. Fortunately for me, I'm confident that my core argument still stands, though (like this website) it needs a little fixing-up. I'm planning on posting about this next weekend (I've got a book review to go up this weekend, so it will have to wait) and I really hope I can get your feedback when the post goes up.

TKG and Frank, thanks for mentioning and finding that article about the group mental activity of honey bees -- fascinating and definitely relevant!

by Sydney on

I've just finished reading your book (it really should be called a paper) titled why Ayn Rand is Wrong and Why It Matters. Thank you for your effort; I've come to believe that there is something tragically wrong with her philosophy though truly, I don't believe you've even remotely covered the problems with it. Lack of empathy is a good start though.

I'm 55 years old now and first read her books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, when I was 19. They had a profound influence on my life and I wish I could say it was for the good. In fact, in retrospect, I believe they did me quite a lot of harm. Teenagers are so impressionable and I took every word as gospel. I've reread those books many times over the years and what strikes me is how differently they come across at different ages. Now they just make me sad. I think, while she was obviously extremely intelligent, she was also a profoundly unhappy woman, full of rage and a misogynist as well.

As a child, I thought her husband's line, "But I don't think of you", in answer to the woman's cocktail party question was so impressive. Now, I can only see it as a cruel, judgmental and genuinely horrible thing to say to another human being. Kindness and graciousness are not overrated.

I also see her male characters as completely one dimensional and don't even get me started on her female portrayals. All of her characters are archetypical at best and ridiculous at worst. Either way, they bear no resemblance to normal human beings. I know a few very successful self-made men and they are for the most part, admirable people who wouldn't dream of treating any person that way.

Here is a poem by e.e.cummings; it depicts better than I can explain where following Ayn's philosophy will get you:

no time ago
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus)my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed (as

close as i'm to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

by Sydney on

Just a few more thoughts:

If Ayn Rand sat on a psychiatrist's couch today, she would probably be labeled bipolar with borderline personality disorder and strong sociopathic tendencies. If she was the personification of any of her literary characters, Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead would be the closest.

People are fundamentally insecure and often desperately seek the approval of someone who is critical; this woman preyed on that. What she was after was power.

She states that the world was perishing from an orgy of selflessness; well now the world is perishing from an orgy of selfishness. This world has been brought to the edge of destruction by the selfishness and short-sightedness of individuals with no thought beyond the gratification of their wants and certainly no thought to future generations.

The current state of the American economy is a direct result of the actions of advocates of her philosophy. It's a convenient excuse for incredibly bad behavior.

Just sayin'

by Sydney on

I've just finished 'Ayn Rand Nation - The Struggle For America's Soul'. This book is a must-read for anyone who has ever felt a chill up their spine about the actual adaption of her doctrine. I think it's one of the most important books of the decade.

by John Woods on


I promised I would write you back and so here goes. My belief is that Ms. Rand did produce a logically consisent view of the world, and that she has not failed. That her philosophy has been spreading through our culture and is doing so at an increasingly rapid rate which only continues to accelerate with each passing year. There is no telling what her philosophy and novels will do in the next 100 years. So don't give up so quickly on her.

Also, I take issue with the statement that she sees capitalism as a good system for pragmatic reasons or that she had some sort of knee jerk reaction from her pains in the USSR. I do not think her primary interest was in the relief/avoidance of any sort of pain, I do think that she held that many people would suffer pain at the adoption of her philosophy, in particular, those people who had built their lives on foundations which "depended" on the self sacrifice of others instead of their own efforts, she thought that suffering in that case would be necessary and right, as well as the best thing for everyone involved. It would be painful, but her system was fair because it would never rob those people of the freedom to rebuild their lives on an honest foundation, that would always be open to them. If you are out of shape, getting back into the gym is always painful. She was not concerned with this, and I think rightfully so. Her conclusions in economics were drawn strictly as a result of her premises in the prior branches of philosophy.

I want you to understand that she held certain views in metaphysics which translated into "necessary" conclusions in epistemology, which translated to "neccessary" conclusions in ethics, which translated into "necessary" conclusions in politics, economics, and aesthetics.

She held that the positions she held in each branch on philosophy was the "objectively correct" position, and to change her position in any of these fundamental branches of philosophy would introduce a contradiction in all the other branches.

Let me give you an example. If she would have adopted socialism in economics all you have to do is travel back up the philosophical chain to see where the attempt to resolve the contradiction would lead you in other realms. For example, if you believe in socialism, then you do not believe in property rights, if you do not believe in property rights then no man has a reason to use his freedom to pursue his own self interest because he can never secure any interests anyways, if he has no right to pursue his own self interest, then he has no incentive to think or plan, if he does not think then he is not using his mind, if he doesn't use his mind, then he is abandoning his metaphysical tool of survival in this world. Therefore he is living as an animal and not a human being. A system like this will ultimately collapse, because it is a lie (contradiction), because we are not just animals, we are conceptual beings with free will and our epistemology, ethics, politics, and economics need to recognize that objective truth.

Finally, freedom is the highest of our ethical ideals. She correctly identified this as well. The reason? Because it is the ethical corallary or recognition of the metaphysical nature of man, which is that his mind remains free. To have a mind which is free by nature, and then to enslave the body introduces a horrible contradiction. Men must be left free, even if they do not always use that freedom correctly. To cut off freedom because some people may use it incorrectly (like the man in the steam engine you mention) is to risk cutting off the freedom of people who have the "correct ideas", and doom everyone to a very dark future (possibly another dark ages). Besides that, even if you told someone you only have the freedom to do what is right, then you have to answer who would "determine" what is right? Then you are back to a dictatorship either by a strongman or a collective. That is not freedom. Freedom is our highest ethical value because it is a recognition of the metaphysical nature of man, his free will. So what to do about people who may abuse this freedom? Our founding fathers had it right. You leave them alone, unless you have proof that they have harmed someone else, then you bring them up on charges and prove it objectively.

by John Woods on


If Levi's paper did not get at the heart of Ayn Rand's philosophy, then your comments/arguments are what? A success? By what standard? You did not take on one of her arguments. You just resorted to name calling.

I don't see that you've done anything except prescribe what a psychologist "would" say about Ms. Rand, 30 years removed, with no first hand knowledge of her. I presume you are not a pyschologist are you? So I don't think you have any credibility here.

Also, I do think it is typical that when someone reads Ms. Rand's philosophy they are highly empowered when they are in their youth and full of life. But if for whatever reason they are unsuccessful in applying the concepts, it is natural to blame anyone else for their own failures.

I am opening to listening to precisely what you mean, but so far you've done nothing except for call her names. At least Levi is attempting to take on her arguments (unsuccessfully) but at least he is making an honest attempt.

by John Woods on


If you have a chill up your spine about the adaption of her docrine (honesty and self-sufficiency), then I sincerely question who is it that you are dependent upon?

The only thing that would send a chill up your spine would be if it somehow threatened you directly.

Fear and anxiety is an emotional response that happens when you consciously or unconsciously identify the potential loss of a value that you either have or are trying to keep.

If her philosophy makes you feel threatened, then I suggest you check your premises and what you have your life built on, or what you are expecting "by right" from others in the future.

If this liberal book you mention stokes those fears then I would say that your fears are probably justified becuase your values are being threatened by these ideas.

What I disagree with is your evaluation that this is a bad thing. I think it is a good thing that is long overdue.

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