Mike Huemer’s 8 Objections to Rand: A Response

A response to Michael Huemer’s “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’”
My comments this week will serve as an introduction to a more in-depth commentary on Michael Huemer’s article “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics.’” Overall I must say that this article does reflect my general impression thusfar about Rand, but there are a lot of places in Huemer’s essay that seem to miss the mark on Rand. I believe he does a very good job of outlining Rand’s argument, point by point. However, my edition of Rand’s ‘The Objectivist Ethics” does not coincide with Huemer’s citations. Huemer has 8 main problems with Rand’s essay, or rather, with her logical premises and conclusions. I find major fault with 6 of his objections. The final two objections, however, are valid and definitely require further analysis and study. At this time however, I will give a brief explanation of why I feel the first six of his eight objections are slightly flawed.
(Please refer to the article in question at http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm )
His first objection is with her first premise: “Value is agent-relative; (in the sense that) things can only be valuable for particular entities.” His objection lies in the fact that he calls this a “bald assertion” of Rand’s, since she offers no argument against those who believe in absolute value. But does she really need to do so? Her concept of value as agent-relative is essential to her argument. There may very well be “absolute” value in the universe, and objects may hold some sort of value intrinsically (a notion I disagree with anyway, but ignoring that…) but that does not even matter in Rand’s system of ethics. If something has some form of absolute value, what value might that thing have for an individual, independent of that person’s valuing of said thing? It might be better to rephrase Rand’s first premise, as presented by Huemer as stating: The value that matters is agent-relative. Also, even if something has absolute value, that value would have to be imparted on it by some supernatural power or authority(God, Nature-personified, or a Lucasinian “Force”), which Rand rejects outright.
His second objection is with the second premise, “Something is valuable to an entity, only if the entity faces alternatives.” Huemer claims that if he was guaranteed, without any chance of it not happing, that he would receive a million dollars tomorrow, the money would still be of value to him. This is true, it would be of value. But the getting it may not be of value to him. The money is valuable because there is the chance of not having it. It is possible to enter into situations where all of said million dollars could be lost. However, to offer a counter example, if someone has an unlimited supply of money, with which they could do anything he or she wanted without possibility of losing any of that money, the money would be of no real value to that person. He continues by stating that what she might mean is that “it makes no sense to say something one cannot get or cannot avoid is ‘good.’” Why is this notion incorrect? If one is taking into account the absolute values as before, then there are some things that cannot be avoided which are good. Also the notion of “avoidablity” in this context is out of place. Alternatives are what is important. I cannot avoid breathing for more than a minute and a half, yet Oxygen is valuable to me because there is an alternative of not having oxygen (underwater, in a vacuum, what have you). I would say that the value of something can be measured proportionately to how much of an alternative is available. To be honest, acquiring oxygen is not one of my main values at this moment. For someone with Asthma, the situation is quite different. Moving on…
His Third objection is with her third premise (a pattern, I sense): “No non-living things face any alternatives.” His objection is five-fold based on Rand’s statement that “living things face an alternative of existing or not existing but non-living things do not.”
His first objection is that non-living things can be destroyed (his example: a house burning down). Rand states that she means that matter can’t be destroyed. He acknowledges this and moves on to say that “it is true that matter of which non-living things are composed cannot be destroyed; but this is equally true of living things.” Rand addresses this too, claiming that it is not the technical version of existing materially that is important, but rather existing as a living being. It is the continuation of life that is important. His third point is that” it is not true that a non-living thing’s continues existence never depends on its activities” (his example: destroying a computer that doesn’t work). But the same fact that matter cannot be destroyed applies here. The computer ceases to exist qua computer, but that is it. The same rebuttal applies to his fourth point, saying that a cloud must absorb more water in order to exist. Clouds are not alive and do not evolve so as to absorb moisture, rather, when moisture collects, the result is a cloud. His fifth response is dealing with free will, that some living things do not have free will, and therefore cannot face alternatives. In this case, Rand (and this coincides with my response to his second objection) is not asserting that free will is what is important. That is what sets humans apart from other living beings. The alternative faced by a plant, for instance, is survival or non-survival. A plant will not survive if it fails to adapt to whatever circumstance it is in (growing underneath concrete and not breaking through or not growing out the side). The point made by Rand is that animals and plants must adapt to their environment to deal with the ever present alternative of life or death, while humans can adapt their environment to their own needs. It is in this adaptation that some humans may be ill-suited for and value things that are detrimental to their survival, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
His fourth objection is with her fourth premise (5th step): “Anything an entity acts to game or keep is a value for that entity.” He states that value has two different meanings, but the second meaning implies absolute value, which I’ve already addressed in my first response. The other meaning is self-evident, something I seek to obtain, is something that I value (whether it is actually good or bad for me is a result of my mature, or immature reason) for myself. There is no claim about something being of value objectively, it is simply of value to the individual…incidentally, to all individuals in the case of preserving one’s own life. The later steps 8 and 9, Huemer claims, do no follow because they state that life is valuable, but he leaves out “for any living thing.” And here begins my main problem with Rand. Her argument lends itself to arguing for life being of value for its own sake for an individual, but does not give a proper explanation for why others must respect this, why anyone else would necessarily view someone else’s life as valuable. Obviously they wouldn’t, necessarily, so why should they respect any other person’s rights. I offer up my theory that social contract theory is applicable to Rand. She makes the comment in her essay, “Man’s Rights” that “’Rights’ are a moral concept- the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with morality in a social context…” One question I have asked myself is how Rand might fare in Rawls’ veil of ignorance. It seems that she would say that for the good of everyone and of society, rights would have to be implemented and everyone would agree with that. But this is a point that has to be nurtured a bit more.
His fifth objection is with Premise 6 : That every living thing acts to maintain its life, for its own sake. This goes along with his argument that some living things do not have free will, and it is just as unimportant to understanding this premise as it was for the last one. No living thing acts to ensure its own destruction (excluding those conscious individuals, who, according to Rand, have a malfunctioning reasoning, and cannot properly evaluate what is best for their survival. This would seem to include anyone who does not agree with her philosophy…another disagreement I have with Rand.) Animals without free will, and plants as well, will act to ensure that they survive. Without life, they can do nothing else to promote genetic reproduction, or emission of body heat or whatever else. Life is the ultimate purpose of all living things, is the point Rand is making. Teleology does not enter into this situation in the same way. Since life is the ultimate purpose behind all other goals and values, premise 7 follows, and his sixth objection is also weakened. Genetic Reproductive Success, Happiness, etc. are a result of a organism’s successful continuation of its own life. Genetic reproduction is a necessity for the survival of a species, but is not of value in and of itself to any individual organism. And Rand makes the claim that happiness is an end in itself only in so far as the things that we strive to attain to attain that happiness cause our happiness because they contribute to our survival. Rand states, and Mack echoes in his article, previously discussed, that happiness cannot be strived in and of itself unless there is something that is of value to be obtained. If happiness is the only thing one values, one can never obtain it because there is no means to do so. Valuing the things that grant happiness is to value the things that promote maximum survival.
Now, Huemer’s next two objections are quite intriguing and they do reflect similar concerns I have with Rand’s philosophy. Those and sections 5 and 6 of his General overview are all very valid and I do, for the most part agree with him. I will hold off responding to them, however, until I have read up on them a bit more, since “I agree with him” is not a very engaging discourse.

Published in: on September 27, 2006 at 2:26 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. It seems that oxygen is as valuable to you as it is to combustion. Initially, pain was all that regulated our relationship with the phenomena. But then those who worked in groups got smarter from the selection pressures inherent to group dynamics and figured out a myriad of ways to understand and control our relationship with the phenomena.

    Otherwise, value is a concept. I don’t see why value needs to be an inherent phenomena. It has always seemed to me that value was a colorful word that meant they (the conscious being claiming value) liked the phenomena and used it in a reproducible fashion for some application.

    It is interesting the author commented on Rand’s position to breeding. Her mistake is that she wouldn’t exist if it didn’t happen. So of course it is one of the most valuable things around. She didn’t want to fess up to reality (she was low in value as an individual). Maybe some day soon, malignant narcissists like her can be cloned cyborgs destined to rule the common classes for centuries at a time.

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