🤔✒️Criticism of a blog post titled “Moral freedom and the misanthropic bias in Randian ethics”

Note: The below is adapted from a post posted on the Fallible Ideas list on July 7, 2014. It was a lengthy criticism of this article criticizing Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy. I have made slight edits throughout.

The title of the blog itself, “The Taints of Liberty” is a Hamlet quotation. The title of the essay is written in the style of a university paper. The writing itself is windy. And there’s some unnecessary pictures. All this indicates pretentiousness, which I think indicates bad values.

It also quotes Rand 0 times on an essay discussing Objectivist ethics, which indicates a lack of interest in serious scholarship and genuine truth seeking. So FYI all Rand quotes below are my own quotes and do not appear in the original piece.

Note that I have quoted the text of the author’s essay in its entirety below, excluding only section titles. There is therefore no context omitted by selective quotation. When the author speaks of the “virtue of altruism” and has not provided an explanation of its virtue, or says that “For this reason” people should focus on helping family/friends/etc, but has not explained a reason, the issue is a lack of argument and explanation in the original essay.

From the essay:

In an interview, Ayn Rand was asked: “What is the meaning of life?” She said the question wasn’t answerable in universal terms, and that it would be wrong to tell other people what the meaning or purpose of their lives is.

The meaning of life is a sort of vague useless question. We choose our own values, but some choices are bad. And there’s principles about how to go about pursuing any particular values. And there’s certain values that everyone should pursue. Like, Rand wouldn’t hesitate to say that everyone should take the learning of philosophy very seriously, since it’s necessary for living well. She wouldn’t say that everyone should become a professional philosopher. However, a zero-philosophy life, or even a low philosophy life, is something that would be outside of the range of possibilities she’d consider compatible with living well.

BTW I’d want a direct quote on this alleged Rand statement. Getting Rand’s statements exact is rather important given the misunderstandings of her positions by her detractors (and even her fans). An example of the latter is the hatchet job made of some of her comments in some published works like the Ayn Rand Q&A. All the people I know that actually have a good understanding of Rand’s ideas will typically quote her and carefully analyze what she says. OTOH people with low quality understandings of Rand seem to generally respond to their own vague, flawed gists.

Her answer captures what I think is one of the best things about Rand’s ethics, which is her understanding of freedom; her acceptance of the diversity of people’s decisions, but within a clearly objective moral framework. I will argue that taking seriously the idea of freedom in ethics is not compatible with ‘egoism’ as Rand saw it, and that the Randian

Why not use the name Rand chose for her philosophy, Objectivism, instead of unnecessarily personalizing her ideas?

preoccupation with selfishness is either part of a ‘negative’ ethics that only refutes others and lacks positive proposals of its own,

I’m not sure I’ve heard this claim before so I find it kinda interesting. People alternately claim Objectivist ethics are evil, or too demanding and unrealistic for real men, but to say the ethics lacks positive content is just false. Some examples are — always think and don’t evade, live by the trader principle, don’t compromise on basic principles, never fail to pronounce moral judgment. And Rand’s novels are full of examples of how to be a moral heroic person. Back to the author:

or a mistaken ethics that undervalues human beings as such.

Objectivist ethics doesn’t value humans enough?!

Rand attacked conventional morality for its altruism. But the problem isn’t so much altruism as authoritarianism in ethics.

Authoritarianism in ethics is a problem, but so is altruism. They’re not mutually exclusive problems. A clearer statement of the author’s position at this point would have been “Rand attacked conventional morality for its altruism. Altruism is not a problem at all — it is great. But authoritarianism in ethics causes people to mess up implementing this wonderful thing.”

The one is a general idea that it’s good to help people.

No. See below.

Rand is said to have used the word in a strictly Comtean sense,

“Is said to have”? Did she use this term strictly in this way, or didn’t she?

which means the idea that helping others is the ultimate purpose of man’s life. I don’t see that calling something the ‘purpose’ of life is much different (in its practical implications) from the general idea that it’s good to do that thing. It might alter our conception of why certain actions are good. But in any case, most people today who say they support altruism don’t mean this. They just mean it’s good to help people.

People frequently evade the implications of the morality of altruism and are contradictory about it. It’s hard to be a consistent altruist just like its hard to be a consistent relativist. That doesn’t mean that the implications of the altruist ideas that people accept don’t lead to contradictions and ruined lives.

One thing we need when talking about altruism (when talking about anything, really) is context. Saying it’s “good to help people” outside of any context is a meaningless statement, just like saying “something should be done about X problem.” But when people say something like (for example) “something should be done about the lack of health care for poor people,” they often mean “the state should use force to extract wealth from some citizens to provide for the health care of others.”

The fact that one can make context-free statements of the class “something should be done about X” does not allow one to evade the implications of what people frequently mean, IN CONTEXT, IN REAL LIFE, when they make such statements. So when people say “something should be done” one has to ask BY WHOM, and BY WHAT MEANS, and USING WHAT METHODS. And when someone says “it’s good to help people” one has to ask WHICH PEOPLE, and ACCORDING TO WHAT CRITERIA, and BY WHAT MEANS, and USING WHAT METHODS.

When the President of the United States says that the rich need to pay more in taxes cuz that’s their “fair share”, he’s not just appealing to some vague fuzzy wuzzy notion of it being good to help people. He’s saying that the values of some people — their wealth and ultimately their time and part of their lives — should be sacrificed in order to make others better off. He is saying that there are conflicts of interest among men and the government should adjudicate those conflicts using state force and pick some winners and some losers. That is the morality of altruism in action, and the ideas behind it are popular enough to campaign on and to get someone elected President of the United States. So the author is wrong about what “most people today” think of altruism.

I also like Alan’s point in his post about how the advocates of altruism would like successful capitalist corporations if altruism’s content was just “it’s good to help people.” The advocates of altruism want sacrifice and forced equality because they think sacrifices are good and and equality is an inherent virtue. They’d prefer (as Thatcher famously pointed using hand gestures) that everyone were less well off so long as some people weren’t too much better off than everyone else.

The other, authoritarianism, refers to all the pronouncements that x person should give up y thing to help z other person – for example a parent ordering a child to share his toys.

What the author describes doesn’t cover authoritarianism in ethics. It actually covers a rather small subset of authoritarianism in ethics. Authoritarianism in ethics is about the approach to resolving ethical questions, not specific pronouncements on particular ethical concretes. Another (kinda trivial) example of authoritarianism in ethics distinct from the author’s would be “People should pursue their rational self interest cuz Rand said so.”

This is not, though some people might think it is, the right way to approach or encourage beneficence.

The meaning of this seems to be that if the authoritarianism weren’t there, altruism would be fine and dandy and we could all share and be happy.

Also, awkward sentence structure + unnecessary ten-dollar word (beneficence).

A beneficent act is intended to help someone. But it doesn’t necessarily succeed – it depends on the knowledge of the people involved.

In order to effectively engage in what the author refers to as beneficent acts, you need knowledge of what is good, what sorts of means for pursuing that good are effective, and who is using such methods. Creating this knowledge isn’t an intractable problem. The principles for judging these matters are objective and do not depend on personal knowledge of particular people, and it’s possible to create high quality knowledge about them by doing the necessary research and engaging in criticism. The internet, for example, provides a wide variety of means by which you can investigate potential aims to which to direct charitable endeavors.

As an example, I believe that unlimited progress and knowledge creation is good and think that extending human life indefinitely would serve these values. Thus, if I had a ton of money I might donate a good chunk of it to SENS, despite not having any sort of personal relationship with Aubrey de Grey. I wouldn’t donate any to the local community library or random neighbors’ charitable endeavors and I don’t think there’s any good arguments for doing so. By the way, giving donations to random stuff you happen to live near (“giving back to the community”) as opposed to engaging in charity according to objective principles, is an incredibly common example of conventional/altruist morality in action.

For this reason, people should focus their efforts on helping those who are close to them. Family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, etc.

The author has offered no “reason.” Just a preceding assertion about how personal knowledge of people is a prerequisite to being a good altruist (or something along those lines, it’s a bit vague and hard to tell).

Also, this help people-you-happen-to-know approach (whether friends or family or whatever) is bad morality. I’d recommend the author read Rand and post the parts they don’t understand on FI list. See esp Hank Rearden’s donation to his brother Phillip’s “Friends of Global Progress” as an example of the morality the author advocates in action.

Of course it could be the case that the people you happen to know are more worthy objects of help than others. But that would require that the people one knows be determined according to a rigorous application of the proper moral principles — an application of rational egoism. It’s horrible to suggest this “help people you happen to know approach” as some kind of alternative to rational egoism, for in the typical person’s context it just becomes a call to rather conventional altruistic self sacrifice. Really, people should focus on helping themselves way more, and on living with integrity, and on thinking. They should care way less about helping others.

In case anyone is unclear, the Objectivist position is that helping people and charity is fine if it is consistent with one’s moral values (assuming those aren’t evil) and engaged in as an exercise of one’s rational judgment as to the best place to allocate one’s resources. Rand wasn’t anti-helping people or anti charity — she just said it wasn’t a major virtue or moral duty, and that the values involved in being able to create large amounts of wealth and be productive were more important/central to man’s well being than e.g. giving some wealth away. Here’s a relevant quote, from the 1964 Playboy interview:

My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

Back to the author:

Another implication is that it’s hard to help other people. It’s hard both to create resources and to know how to use them in a way that genuinely helps others. A rich man could send his money to Africa, have it fall into the wrong hands and be completely wasted.

So the author seems to be saying that “people should focus their efforts” on helping those who are close to them, including friends, family, neighbors, etc., because whether a “beneficent act” succeeds “depends on the knowledge of the people involved,” and then says that an implication of the author’s premises is that one shouldn’t send money to Africa because it’s hard to do that usefully (presumably because one lacks the required personal knowledge of the people involved.) So, neighbors over Africans.

This is flawed reasoning. You create knowledge about how to help others effectively by the same means you create any other knowledge — guesses and criticism. The fact that some country is a violent tinpot dictatorship where money might fall into the hands of one warring gang or another is a criticism of sending money to that particular country. But it’s not any kind of argument for using a personal relationship/knowledge bias as a criteria for decision-making regarding charity. As I said earlier, creating knowledge about worthy ends for one’s charity isn’t some intractable problem.

Because the success of altruism is so dependent on knowledge, it is wrong to think of any particular act as a moral obligation –

Doing anything successfully requires some knowledge. That things require knowledge is not an argument against applied moral judgments in specific instances. In any specific context, on any well-defined problem, there is a right way and a wrong way to act. The moral issues are objective.

which is a more universal concept that should be reserved for negative obligations. If I tell someone, “You should do x beneficent act,” I am making multiple presumptions about his and the benefactor’s states of knowledge.

There are instances in which it is morally mandatory to say “I think that is wrong” or “I think you should do X instead of Y.” Like, whenever not doing so would be taken as sanction of stuff against one’s own values (see “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society” by Ayn Rand).

If they’re wrong, the action I suppose to be an obligation might not even be praiseworthy. So particular altruistic acts can’t have the character of (universal) moral obligations,

If you are good at philosophy, you might actually be quite good at figuring out what sort of problems another person has, making guesses as to the causes of those problems, and having good ideas about how to help address them. And your guesses as to all these things might be way better than what the person themselves can come up with. So in this sense you might have BETTER knowledge than they have on these issues.

OTOH one should not be a busybody going around telling others how to live one’s life. One problem with doing that is that even if you are right in your approach, people need to understand the PRINCIPLE behind doing some action in order to have any hope of doing it well. And they need to be interested in understanding the principles in order to get the knowledge to understand it, and not be badgered or pressured into it.

If someone just cargo cults someone else that is morally better, without understanding why that person is better or the principles behind the better person’s actions, the worse person will fuck it up. That is a real problem with people listening to “You should do X” uncritically.

any more than reading my favourite book is a moral obligation for everyone.

Reading certain books is morally mandatory for a good life in virtually all cases, since certain books contain hugely important knowledge difficult to get well in other ways. The specific ordering and timing varies some but the basic issue of some stuff being pretty mandatory is objective, and is not at all affected by whether or not a particular book is your favorite (though if your favorite book isn’t an objectively good one you may have bad values.)

I also can’t order people to do these things, as this, again, is an arrogant presumption about their knowledge and the best use of their time.

The issue isn’t the presumption about their knowledge and best use of their time. You could have strong ideas about how people should spend their time, in general, and be a liberal in the good sense. This sentence seems to indicate that fear common amongst some leftists of something like “but if we say that morality is objective won’t we have to force everyone to do the things we say are good???”

Force doesn’t help create knowledge, though. You can’t force minds. You have to persuade people about how to spend their time. This works internally too — people can’t even force themselves to do stuff reliably when they’re conflicted about it being good (see yo-yo dieting) so how’s it gonna work between two different minds?? And if you can’t persuade people that they should do X with their time, why are you so sure you’re right? (this works internally too — if you’re so conflicted about doing X, why are you so sure you’re right?)

It is also parochial. It assumes that the value of certain knowledge can only be obtained in a particular place that I happen to know about.

The best ways or places to get some knowledge is an objective issue. But you can’t force people to read The Fountainhead and make them get anything out of it.

Lots of parents make this mistake when they decide all kids should learn to play an instrument or learn a language, and so pressure their children into doing these things. Or others who think that all students should have part time jobs, or that all citizens should serve in the army.

Parents make their kids do a bunch of stuff without argument or criticism or recognizing that their kids’ goals might be different than theirs. That’s messed up. However, the kids might actually make bad decisions about how to use their time and life. The thing is that being forced to play violin (or being forced to do anything) doesn’t fucking help fix that.

The kids need to be taught good methods for figuring things out and problem solving. The kids need philosophical guidance by their parents, who should be helping their kids according to the kids’ own lights, but sharing criticism and advice when it is wanted (which should be pretty often if the parent is actually TCS, because the kid will know the parent is a valuable source of crit and ideas, and isn’t just trying to manipulate the kid).

If the parent does this, then even if the kid starts off doing stuff that’s kind of low value, they’ll figure this out and change their mind on their own. And of course it’s possible that what the kid is doing is actually worthwhile as an endeavor and the parent was wrong and will have their perspective BROADENED in helping the kid figure out how to do it effectively (like e.g. how to play games well).

Parochial ethics that favour some kinds of knowledge over others, and make presumptions about what knowledge others possess, is the proper target for criticism.

Parochialism in general should be criticized. But I think knowledge about certain things is more important than knowledge about other kinds of things due to stuff like reach. Saying so is not an endorsement of using force to try and get people to agree, though.

I am guessing this (the idea that some knowledge is more important than others, and that if that’s true you can force people to try and get that knowledge) is the author’s worry due to the preceding discussion of common situations in which parents coerce children — like, parent thinks some stuff is really important, uses force to make kid do it. The problems in that kind of situation aren’t with the idea that some knowledge is more important than others though. The problems are an anti-critical approach to what knowledge is important and a belief that force is the way to handle disagreements.

Rand has an important point to make about moral freedom, but its importance isn’t limited to the question of egoism vs altruism and shouldn’t be framed as such.

In fact, the claim that everything a person does must be in his rational self-interest, which implies that he must be the beneficiary of all of his actions,

The Objectivist ethics does not imply that every action must benefit a person in a direct “narrow” sense. The Objectivist ethics includes within rational self interest things which serve the individual’s OWN VALUES even if they do not directly benefit the individual in a narrow sense (or if they benefit the individual directly but have some additional value-serving benefit).

at some points threatens the very coherence of Rand’s ethics.

Rand is dead and her ethics are what they are. Either Rand’s ethics is incoherent or it isn’t. The author should say what they mean.

In the Virtue of Selfishness she gives a counterintuitive example of a selfish action: a man’s decision to save the life of a woman he loves. The man is the beneficiary of this action, Rand argues, because life is not worth living to the man without that woman.

I myself am not fond of this example due to the premise about the guy finding life not worth living without the woman. I do not think that the values implied in such a premise (in terms of believing in standard romance memes very strongly) are compatible with a proper understanding of the morality of self interest and with a rational approach to life.

I think there is an important moral point in the example nonetheless, which is that if someone professes love and admiration for another, and then refuses to act consistently with those statements, one is guilty of a lack of integrity, which is an evil (for it involves not taking ideas seriously and evading their consequences, and thus is hostile to both key Objectivist and Popperian values. The following passage by Rand is from “The Ethics of Emergencies” in The Virtue of Selfishness, 46:

The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not “selflessness” or “sacrifice,” but integrity. Integrity is loyalty to one’s convictions and values; it is the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing, upholding and translating them into practical reality. If a man professes to love a woman, yet his actions are indifferent, inimical or damaging to her, it is his lack of integrity that makes him immoral.

I think there’s a Popperian connection to the above Rand stuff. Like, integrity to one’s values is taking one’s ideas seriously. It is only by taking an idea seriously — by abiding by the logical consequences of an idea — that one can come up with and run the sort of critical “tests” one needs to in order to figure out whether an idea has any problems. A lack of integrity in one’s personal values resembles coming up with a bunch of ad hoc changes to a scientific theory, in that it’s changing the game midstream in order to try and dodge criticisms and evade consequences/evade having to change or rethink one’s premises. BTW a great piece on the theme of integrity to professed ideals is Rand’s play “Ideal.” Basic premise is that some people write fan letters to a famous beautiful actress saying how inspiring she is and how they’d e.g. drop everything in their lives if they had the opportunity to meet her and spend time with her. And she actually enters their lives and they quickly betray the ideals professed in their letters.

Back to author:

Another example given is of someone risking his life to try and escape from prison.

As Alan points out in his post, risk does not mean certain death.

Realistically, neither of these cases would involve the agent saying life is not worth living – that it has no value – without the thing the agent is trying to save. If this were the case, the first man would commit suicide if the woman died before he could save her – as would the second, if he found no way to escape from prison and gave up trying. Yet no rational person would kill himself under these circumstances.

This is a strong assertion about what all rational people should do stuck into this paragraph without argument.

Hence life is still worth living; it’s just that one can decide sometimes that a certain thing is worth more than continuing to live. If values are objective, it follows that my values don’t have to refer to the sphere of my own life (otherwise it’s not clear in what sense values are objective at all), and therefore I don’t have to be the beneficiary of all of my actions.

This just seems to be more misunderstanding of what the morality of self interest means.

I also have preferences about what happens after my own death, and it’s right that I do.

Having preferences about stuff that happens after your own life doesn’t contradict self interest. Is this saying it does?

Altruistic acts are thought to be especially praiseworthy when they have that same characteristic, looking beyond the needs of the moment – as when we help others without expecting reciprocation, perhaps without the satisfaction of seeing the result, and perhaps in lieu of fulfilling some more immediate wish. We praise these actions more than ‘selfish’ ones because they require a degree of moral sophistication that selfish actions don’t require.

This “we” the author speaks of does not include Justin Mallone or Ayn Rand or Alan Forrester or Elliot Temple or the people at ARI or lots of other folks. The author knows this, but proceeds to state the (well known) conventional position without substantively engaging with dissenters by carefully quoting and criticizing our position. The author doesn’t even bother to state the dissenting position in terms the dissenters might remotely agree with.

Why? What is the point?

Of course there is also the idea that if an action is sacrificial, that necessarily makes it more praiseworthy. My guess is that sometimes these actions aren’t so much sacrificial as altruistic in the above-mentioned sense, and sometimes, as a sentimental ideal, sacrifice leads people to make bad decisions.
Disregarding the latter cases, it’s right that these actions receive more praise than most selfish actions. The point of morality is to help us make better decisions than the ones we initially want to make, and this very often involves acting against prima facie self interest.

Notice that the author has introduced a new term, “prima facie self interest”, without defining what she means by it. I think it just means the author’s (very common) misunderstanding of self interest. As in, poorly thought out, range-of-the-moment, short-term self interest. As in, not at all what Ayn Rand advocated. Therefore, the mention of this misconception in this essay is a confusing non-sequitur.

The author takes a paragraph of windy writing to say “People think altruism is better because it’s long-range and more sophisticated. I assert that self sacrifice is a minor unimportant case in altruism. I assert that altruism is in fact better than self interest.”

It’s not easy to know the best way to achieve specific goals, and in this sense it’s not easy to be a ‘rational egoist’ ñ but this confuses contingent, practical matters with general moral truths. And as for prima facie self-interest, I don’t need morality to tell me to follow it any more than I need morality to tell me to eat when I’m hungry.

This bit about “I don’t need morality to tell me to follow prima facie self interest” is sneering at the morality of self interest in the same way Hitchens does in this video, where he says “I don’t think there’s any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings. I don’t know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement” to some laughs:

The conception of selfishness sneered is a strawman misconception.

Incidentally, you DO NEED morality when hungry to tell you HOW TO GO ABOUT SOLVING YOUR FOOD PROBLEM when hungry. There is moral knowledge involved in that. For instance, morality rules out murdering people to eat them, and stealing money to buy food (or stealing food directly).

It’s easy to be selfish.

No. From The Fountainhead:

“Katie … for six years … I thought of how I’d ask your forgiveness some day. And now I have the chance, but I won’t ask it. It seems … it seems beside the point. I know it’s horrible to say that, but that’s how it seems to me. It was the worst thing I ever did in my life—but not because I hurt you. I did hurt you, Katie, and maybe more than you know yourself. But that’s not my worst guilt…. Katie, I wanted to marry you. It was the only thing I ever really wanted. And that’s the sin that can’t be forgiven—that I hadn’t done what I wanted. It feels so dirty and pointless and monstrous, as one feels about insanity, because there’s no sense to it, no dignity, nothing but pain—and wasted pain…. Katie, why do they always teach us that it’s easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It’s the hardest thing in the world—to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want. As I wanted to marry you. Not as I want to sleep with some woman or get drunk or get my name in the papers. Those things—they’re not even desires—they’re things people do to escape from desires—because it’s such a big responsibility, really to want something.”
“Peter, what you’re saying is very ugly and selfish.”

Back to the essay author:

On the other hand, it’s not always easy to empathize with others, to be kind in the face of conflict, to maintain an altruistic concern beyond desires of the immediate moment.

If it’s worthwhile to be these things it shouldn’t be hard if one has the right moral values. Is it worthwhile, though? Author is kinda saying being Roark is easy (FALSE) and being Jesus is hard (uh ok sure?) without really putting forth any original args/crits about which it’s better to be.

And it is still less easy when the other person is a stranger.

Why?

But I think we have to maintain these standards in some way, if we are to take seriously the inherent value of people.

Taking seriously the value of humans means rejecting the morality which makes them animals on sacrificial alters, which is what the altruist morality does.

The author’s essay title involves “misanthropic bias” but the first time the term “misanthropic” comes up is at the very end of the essay, when the author asserts:

A moral code that doesn’t explain the virtue of altruism
is incomplete, and a moral code that goes out of its way to attack it is misanthropic.

BTW, the virtue of altruism is what? No answer was given in the essay, it was just presumed (with the author talking a bit about how to do altruism RIGHT).

According to the ordinary dictionary definitions of “misanthropic” and “bias”, the above says Rand — who was motivated in her writing by a profound sense of the possibilities open to humankind with the right philosophical methods and ideas, who constructed a philosophy for man to “live on earth”, who described the sense of life in the Fountainhead as one of “man worship” — was biased against humankind in her ethics. I think this is a vicious smear.

Note that showing ways in which Rand, Popper, or Mises did not take their ideas fully seriously could be a tremendously worthwhile and interesting endeavor (I’ve engaged on discussions to this effect with regards to Popper and Rand) but it would not proceed from the premise that they were “biased against” something they were fundamentally for, and some of the greatest advocates of.

Big picture the essay says: “Altruism is fine cuz it just means helping people. Especially if it involves giving back to the community and those in one’s personal circle. Lots of people think altruism is more sophisticated/advanced than selfishness, and I agree. Altruism = virtue. Rand’s ethics are anti-man.” 0 AR quotes (compare this to my reply). No interesting args. Ho hum.

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