Atlas Blogged 27ii: Morality & Unreason

October 20, 2010

Part 27ii of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’

Breaking this chapter up for analysis as it’s Rand giving all of her philosophy in one handy little package.

Rand begins to develop a form of virtue ethics based on thinking as a basic virtue. This is identified with endeavouring to find the truth. Its negation is refusing to acknowledge the truth, refusing to identify something as itself. She describes this as the basic moral choice, cashing out as the decision to exist or not – thinking being fundamental to the nature of man. Suspending judgement on the identity of an object is equivalent to refusing to think.

Let’s be fair to Rand here. There are at least two ways of interpreting this: first, that Rand is making the weak claim that refusing to make a truth claim on limited evidence is always morally wrong; secondly, that Rand is making the stronger claim that you should rely on your reason to always produce the correct identity for a given object or situation.

The second interpretation is clearly false, and moves towards a quasi-religious faith in reason itself. The first interpretation could be considered an ethical virtue, stating that the ethical man always aims to provide a truth claim for a given proposition. This is not unreasonable, although Rand fails to accept that there will be cases when equivocation is necessary – for example, predicting the outcome of a coin toss.

Rand claims her ‘morality of reason’ (note: Rand is actually referring to ethics here rather than morality; a common and thus forgivable error) is contained in a single axiom: existence exists, and in the decision to live. She then proceeds to develop a system of virtues and tools by which the ethical life may be led. The virtues are rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.

It’s not clear that any of these virtues necessarily follow from Rand’s axioms; she merely asserts this. ‘Rationality’ is intended to involve the recognition that nothing can take precedence over one’s perception of reality – but simply accepting that existence exists does not entail that the reality one perceives is identical to the one that actually exists.

‘Independence’ is the recognition that sole responsibility for assigning truth values lies with the self – but taking advantage of the knowledge of others after assigning a value to their integrity does not necessarily fall under this heading.

‘Integrity’ is the recognition that you must always act according to the precepts given by your reason and not fail to follow them – but recognising existence does not entail that you should always act according to your own judgements, and nor does the decision to live. One can quite readily abrogate this responsibility to another without contradicting Rand’s axioms.

‘Honesty’ is the recognition that the unreal is unreal and so can have no value; therefore acquiring value by exchanging it for something with no value (i.e. fraud) is to put yourself in hock to someone else’s lack of reason. There is no connection between this virtue and Rand’s axioms; the man who decides to live may choose to do so by defrauding others without contradicting his recognition of reality.

‘Justice’ is the requirement to recognise the virtues of others, to judge their moral character in the same way as you do the identity of objects, and to treat them accordingly – to do otherwise is to reward vice and punish virtue, leading towards death. This may be the case for wider society, but not the case for the individual – the individual may acquire value in this manner.

‘Productiveness’ is the forming of the world around one’s thinking, necessarily in a creative fashion as a consequence of that thinking. But it is not necessary to be creative to maintain one’s existence, even on Rand’s model of the mind – animals achieve it through ‘automatic knowledge’.

‘Pride’ is the mental equivalent of productiveness; one has to form one’s own mind into the values appropriate to match Rand’s morality. Quite clearly, if Rand’s other virtues don’t flow from her axioms, neither does this one.

Rand goes on to claim that the two ‘fundamental emotions’ are joy and suffering, which reflect the values she espouses – actions which further your life bring you joy, and so on. Happiness is only possible to the man who feels joy which contradicts none of his values.

So you can only be happy while doing things that further your life. Look at that claim right there for an indication of how daft a lot of this chapter is. Then go out and get drunk with your friends, and see if the happiness you feel has anything to do with furthering your life or contradicts your values.

Rand rants for a little while about how traders are only moral individuals, before breaking out the old libertarian moral claim, which is that the one fundamental moral principle (not ethical, I should point out; Rand appears to be advocating a peculiar combination of ethics and morality; a strange fusion of Aristotle and Christianity) is that no man may initiate force against another, because it invalidates their mind.

This claim, right here, is how libertarianism changes from being a morality of productivity to a morality to a morality of control – in exactly the way in which Rand claims to despise in the morality of the looters. The looters are unable to compete on the grounds of commerce with Rand’s titans of business, and so use force to obviate competition. The titans are unable to compete with the masses on the grounds of force, and so use commerce to obviate competition. Following either morality without exception involves the subjugation of one part of humanity in the name of the righteous. Both are wrong; a morality that discriminates against any form of competition – either in the fields of force or commerce – discriminates against mankind as a whole, as both capacities are present in some form in every person.

Rand goes on (and on) to detail how she believes this morality came about. This is done in such abstraction, without recourse to actual facts, that it’s entirely irrelevant for this discussion. She sketches a schemata for the system of values she identifies as her opposition, based on a notion of sacrificing value – value, in Randian eyes, being that which sustains life, and is exemplified in money. A moral system which applauds the surrender of value for no return reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate surrender of values which is death. This is an important move, and one which we will return to later.

She then accuses the ‘mystics’; broadly, the religious who espouse a Christian attitude towards charity, giving, and self-worth of seeking to deny that A is A and to wish that the world was other than it is. Again, we come to the odd contradiction that Rand appears to not recognise: she values knowledge, but fails to recognise that the question, ‘What if A were not A? What if the world were other than I have been led to believe?’ is a consequence of not blindly accepting the world at face value, and is the key that unlocks scientific understanding of the world. ‘A’ may be ‘The Sun moves about the Earth’, but unless one is willing to question it, one will never find the truth of the matter.

Rand goes on to detail her philosophical ignorance: “Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.”

Again, this is clear evidence that Rand has never really understood any philosopher beyond Aristotle, and perhaps not even him. This is a pop at Kant and to a certain extent the empiricists preceding him, and it’s a bad one: encountering the world through the conditions of the possibility of perception is NOT encountering the world through one’s senses. The two are very different.

All that being said, the following paragraph has a great deal of merit:

“Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind. Your mind then became a fixed jury who takes orders from a secret underworld, whose verdict distorts the evidence to fit an absolute it dares not touch—and a censored reality is the result, a splintered reality where the bits you chose to see are floating among the chasms of those you didn’t, held together by that embalming fluid of the mind which is an emotion exempted from thought.”

Small concessions to unreason can have a devastating effect on the psyche; they leave one open to having the foundations of one’s mental world kicked away from beneath it. All the more reason, therefore, to not ignore really quite important philosophical ideas in your conviction that you’ve discovered the way in which reality works. Egotism and arrogance are not correlates of reason; you must be always willing to accept the possibility of error.

Rand goes on to detail Aristotle’s theory of causation and of science, ignoring the objections that’ve been lodged over the past few thousand years, not least that it rests upon you already knowing what causes what before you form a theory. This circularity flaw runs through Rand’s work.

The next bit is quite amusing:

“An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.”

Rand fails to recognise that she’s using a transcendental argument here; in essence, claiming that one thing cannot be identified without the presupposition of a given ‘axiom’ is the same (broadly) as saying that space and time are the conditions for the possibility of accessing the world. She’s using the same argument as her most hated philosopher without recognising that it leaves her open to accepting the consequences of his work, too.

She then claims that your senses cannot deceive you. Really. This is just stupid.

Part 27iii can be found here.


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