Response to comments on “Responses to ‘Objectivism…'”

What new insight have you gained on the degree to which Rand relies on empirical results for support of her theories? Is there something general you can say about her empiricism and her theory, or the combination of the two?

Well this is one interesting thing about Rand, and one thing that Michael Huemer brings up in his essay, “Why I am Not an Objectivist”. Rand states that she does not believe in a priori knowledge at all. Even things like math and logic, she states are derived from experience. Huemer’s objection is that even if we need objects in the world to hold the place of numbers (1 banana plus 2 bananas equals 3 bananas), once we have that abstract concept of 1+2=3, it is no longer dependent on the bananas. The same would apply to logicical principles. the difference here seems to be a difference in intepreting a priori knowledge. Either way, this shows that Rand is very committed to empiricism as the primary source of knowledge, and that it is only our reason that allows us to interpret it and place it in context with our own lives. This goes back to my comments before that Rand is essentially an existentialist. Here’s the existentialist viewpoint in a nutshell: existence precedes essence. This may be interpreted in many ways. The way in which it is meant for the existentialist viewpoint is in opposition to Plato’s theory of the forms. In that theory, Plato states that the forms exist outside of our perception, and prior to what we perceive. Existentialism throws that out. Meaning is placed upon those things that we experience , and how we experience them. There is no “essence” of a table, prior to a table existing, and even after, that essence is only so due to a certain perception of the table. Maybe someone else may simply view it as a seat, or a drawing board, or a pile of firewood. The essence is placed upon the table by the agent. Similarly, Rand rejects any sort of a platonic notion of the forms. Our knowledge of the essence of things is derived from our experience of them and then our use of our reason to place them in the context of our own agent-relative experience. This is what makes her view of rights so interesting. She isn’t saying that there is some otherworldly basis for rights, some metaphysical respect of humanity we should all have to ground her rights. Rather, she is basing her theory on rights solely on the empirical experience of the individual. The individual affirms the need for his rights and the need to respect others rights because of his own experience, nothing else. At least this is Rand’s goal overall. I feel she misses the mark in creating such a grandiose version of human rights, but I also feel that hers is the most plausible.

The issue of education being compulsion is an interesting one. When there is an objective standard of well-being, it seems like we can, with confidence, recommend some courses of action for everyone. I suppose it is clear that her account of freedom interferes with this, in cases. But there are limits– we should not be free to create any political rules we want, etc. Can you describe these limits with precision? (By the way, it is interesting to see Hegel blamed for compulsary education and not, say, Plato. Plato is being given a break, I guess.)

I think what is most important is to note that rand’s “objective standard” is simply standard that an individual needs to survive. And I would disagree that there is any course of action we can prescribe for everyone, or at least force everyone to abide by. For instance, Rand might say that to be a race car driver is always a bad idea. It endangers your life for nothing more than a thrill, something a rational person wouldn’t do. She would not, however, ever prevent someone from being a race car driver. There really isn’t any conflict with her view of freedom. One is free to do anything one wants in Rand’s system. No one can force you to do anything, or prevent you from doing anything you want. Now, this is not to be confused with any act of condoning irrational action. A Randian would likely say to the race car driver that he (the driver) is irrational and dumb, and that his actions are contrary to those that a rational person would take. Other than moral condemnation, Randians are powerless in preventing irrational action, since it is only the government who has a monopoly on physical force, and even then the government can only use that force to protect against those individuals who would use force themselves.

Returning to the objective standard of well-being, I don’t think that Rand would say that such a standard exists outside of the statement that one must employ reason correctly in one’s life. This is where I see Rand in the same light as I see Virtue Ethicists. Virtue Ethicists as I understand them, do not endorse any specific course of action. The way in which one acts virtuously is by using one’s practical rationality to deduce what is in line with one’s norms and beliefs. It doesn’t say what those beliefs should be necessarily, but it might say that lying is mostly wrong, or generosity is a good course of action. Likewise with Rand; she would say that one must use one’s reason to deduce what is most fitting for his or her survival and existence as man qua man, and could only make suggestions as to what that course of action is.

And noting the fact that Plato isn’t chided for education; it is probably because she is attacking the idea of compulsion in general, which is, in her view of philosophy, primarily attributed to Hegel. She probably holds just as much contempt for Plato, nonetheless, for his theory of the forms.

Finally, can you list a few reasons why Rand might object to being classified as a social contract theorist at heart?

One reason she might object to being called a social contract theorist is because the main focus of social contract theory is not the individual, but society. She holds utter contempt for any theory that seems to place any notion above the individual, be it Society, God, or any other idealism. So at first viewing, it would seem that social contract theory is diametrically opposed to Rand’s philosophy. I would, however, have to disagree with this conclusion. Social contract theory, at its heart, is not a society-centered theory. The focus is on individuals coming together out of self-interest because they realize that in a world in which war of all against all exists, they must relinquish certain freedoms that they may have some security. The freedom that these individuals give up is the freedom to use physical force against another. That freedom is then transferred to the exclusive use of the government (a republic in Locke’s view, a wise king in Hobbes’ view). Ultimately, what is different is what is chosen to be the means by which a government wields force.

The problem that Rand would definitely have with being a social contract theorist is in what it would imply about her method. She would object to such a label, because she would feel it is not necessary. She would say that her reasons for justifying our treatment of others are implicit in her philosophy, in fact she does say this. It is what her entire philosophy is about: addressing all questions without outside justification. To imply that she is also a social contract theorist, would be to say that her philosophy is incomplete. She would have no part of this. But, assuming that she did accept this fact that her philosophy of ethics concerning others is incomplete (hard to even imagine her ceding this point), I see no true reason why she would object to being called a social contract theorist.

Published in: on November 14, 2006 at 4:53 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Insightful and well articulated. We need more though. haha

  2. I think you are ignoring a key problem of “social contract theory” as it has been used throughout history. It’s commonly used to justify taxes, and just about anything else the government does, even when it initiates force against individuals who, as it were, “never signed no steenking contract.” That is, it is held as a claim against nonconsenting third parties, and is thus not a valid application for individualism. Rand’s definition of freedom was strictly defined as “freedom from force and fraud,” thus, you aren’t “giving up freedom” by setting a government up, as long as it only engages in retaliatory force.

  3. I would say that Rand meant that the “freedom from force and fraud” could not have been for everybody equally. She promoted profiting which is taking price value that someone else worked for. It is a tax that is not agreed to because profits are taken by not divulging the cost of production. I do not believe people will price their goods in a manner that allows the consumer to know the profits they will make. This is because the consumer would gain some control and prices would stabilize with less profits. After all, if I told you it cost $1 and you would pay me $1000, and I did nothing but invest that $1, the result would not be me getting $1000.

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