I recently wrote the following:

Rand’s [moral] theory does forbid human sacrifice, but only contingently. Ethical egoists are committed to the view that if raping, dismembering, and murdering some other person were slightly better for you than any alternative action, then you’d be justified, indeed, obligated to rape, dismember, and murder some other person. Randians of course deny that raping, dismembering, and murdering someone could ever serve your interests. It’s possible they’re right about that, though it seems easy to imagine thought experiments where doing so would serve your interests. Still, it doesn’t matter if they’re right that the conditions under which it would be serve your interests never obtain. They’re still committed to the view that you should rape, dismember, and murder others when it serves your interests. For more on this problem, including why Objectivists can’t, on pain of violating the rules of logic, deny the validity of philosophical thought experiments, see Huemer here.

Of course, the Randians weren’t happy, and accused me of misrepresenting her views. See one instance here.

I have no intention of smearing Rand. So, since it wasn’t obvious to some readers before, let me just clarify now:

1. I acknowledge (and acknowledged) that Rand in fact believes human beings have rights and that she believes that ethical egoism forbids us from sacrificing one another in order to promote our own interests.

2. More strongly, I acknowledge (and acknowledged) that Rand thinks it’s pretty much impossible for us to promote our own objective interests by preying upon other people.

3. However, I claim that Rand is mistaken about what ethical egoism implies. Her moral theory has horrific implications, implications which she thankfully does not endorse. As the Huemer link above explains, ethical egoism logically implies the following claim, “If it were in your interest to kill an innocent person, you may do so.” Rand can’t escape that implication. (To see why Rand’s theory implies this, see Huemer’s example here, of a person zapping a homeless man as if he were a piece of trash.)

Rand does not endorse zapping homeless men  But Rand doesn’t get to stipulate what ethical egoism implies. No one, not even an imposing person like Rand, gets to decide what the logical implications of one’s statements are.

Just as hedonistic act utilitarianism implies the statements “We should torture people to satisfy sadists” and “Omelas is a good society,” ethical egoism implies the statement “I may kill innocent people if doing so would serve my interests slightly more than not”.

Ethical egoism, by definition, cannot allow you to value other people as ends in themselves. As soon as you endorse the statement “Others are ends in themselves, not merely means to my own ends, and not merely constitutive of my self-interest,” you reject egoism. Egoism implies that other people can at most only have 1) instrumental or 2) constitutive value to you. Suppose, to be charitable, that Rand is right about what constitutes a person’s self-interest. She might then be able to show that in most cases, the rationale egoist will have reason to respect people’s rights. However, that’s not good enough. As Huemer points out, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which 1) another person has neither instrumental nor constitutive value to an Objectivist egoist, and 2) the Objectivist’s objective self-interest would best be served by killing that person. In this case, egoism implies that the Objectivist *must* (or *may*, in a non-maximizing version of egoism) kill that person. Since that’s false, egoism is false. Huemer’s thought experiment is not incoherent or metaphysically impossible.

At the end of the day, Rand is probably not actually an egoist. She’s probably just a neo-Aristotelian eudaimonist with esoteric views about altruism. One of Rand’s persistent problems is that she uses philosophical words (e.g., analytic, synthetic, a priori, altruism) incorrectly; she defines them improperly.

 

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  • M Lister

    Just as hedonistic act utilitarianism implies the statements “We should
    torture people to satisfy sadists” …
    ethical egoism implies the statement “I may kill innocent people if
    doing so would serve my interests slightly more than not”.

    The claim being made here is somewhat unclear to me, given the difference in the grammar of the claims being compared. The claim about hedonistic act utilitarianism (HAU) is presented categorically, as if it were an established conclusion about the view. The claim about egoism is a hypothetical claim, “I may do X if Y”. Are you meaning the claim about HAU to be shorthand for a hypothetical claim, “We should
    torture people to satisfy sadists if doing so maximized over all utility”? Many proponents of utilitarianism would be willing to bite the bullet on that claim, I think, though of course they would, quite plausibly, think that the number of cases where the conditional was true would be vanishingly rare. (Whether we should bite the bullet depends on our acceptance of HAU, of course, and since I don’t accept it, I won’t defend it here, though I do think it’s a more plausible view than egoism.) As presented here, though, it looks as if you think the categorical claim is something that we should typically do if we are HAUians, but that doesn’t seem plausible.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, translate the grammar into hypotheticals.

      I think the following two sentences are false:
      A. “If a sadist really enjoyed torturing people more than the people disliked the torture, then it would be right for him to torture people.”
      B. “If other people didn’t have instrumental or constitutive value as part of my objective self-interest, it would be permissible to torture them.”

      I think A falsifies HAU and B falsifies Objectivist egoism. Now, plenty of HAUs and egoists are willing to bite those bullets, but, in my experience, most Objectivists are unwilling to accept B, and want desperately to show B is incoherent.

      • M Lister

        Thanks. I agree that egoists and HAUs should, by the logic of their arguments, accept these claims, so if Objectivists don’t, there must be something wrong in their line of reasoning. (I’d also agree that these conclusions give us significant reason to doubt the truth of HAU and egoism, though of course there are deep philosophical debates here.)

  • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

    Meh… I really hate being the “Okay, I’ll defend Ayn Rand” guy around here. So I’ll make this as short as possible.

    First, if your last paragraph is true – or even if you believe it to be – it completely nullifies what comes before.

    Second, Huemer’s argument is easily overcome by “accommodating the intutition,” as he says. The problem with Huemer’s argument is that it creates a straw man from what Huemer thinks an egoist must do to accommodate the intuition. Rather than being stuck calculating the probabilities Huemer insists I must, I need only imagine a series of highly probable reasons why zapping homeless people is a bad idea. Here are a few:

    (a) The safety of the streets is greatly reduced by the widespread use of deadly weapons.
    (b) Homeless people would eventually start defending themselves, compounding point (a) above.
    (c) There would certainly be more than zero instances of “Oops! Sorry, i thought he was homeless!”
    (d) Just because Person A feels justified in zapping homeless people doesn’t mean Person B does, and if you zap my friends, then there is a risk that I might credibly view you as an existential threat to me, even if I myself am not homeless.

    And so on, and so forth.

    • Dr. Jaws

      But it doesn’t “nullify” what comes before, it demonstrates that Rand isn’t actually an ethical egoist. Which would be a surprising and interesting result!

      Your other objection depends on repeated zappings. But the objection isn’t in principle about the wrongness of multiple zappings, it obtains even if you’re the only one who ever zaps a homeless person and do so just one time. So if we stipulate that it were to happen just once, then your worries (a) through (d) don’t obtain, while the wrongness of zapping the guy remains.

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        Regarding your first point, if the statement “Rand is an ethical egoist” is defined to mean “Rand believes something that Rand does not believe,” then the statement is a meaningless contradiction. If Rand herself stated that she is an ethical egoist, and if “ethical egoist” means something other than what Rand said she believed, then her saying so was wrong. That is a problem with her self-identification, not with her actual philosophy.

        On your second point, I believe you’ve changed the rules of the scenario. Now the scenario is, “Suppose we sabotage the very feedback mechanism that guarantees ethical egoism as a viable ethical system. Is it unethical to act in a manner that would be unethical if you still had a functioning feedback mechanism?” My answer is, yes, even the feedback loop is hopelessly broken, it is still unethical to act in a way that a healthy, functioning feedback loop would otherwise steer you away from. The only difference now is that the ethical egoist will be unaware of the fact that his actions were unethical.

      • Jason Brennan

        Yeah, what Peter said.

  • Marcus Arvan

    Jason: I think you’re absolutely right about this, as well as your reading of Rand vis-a-vis Kant.

  • Rocinante2112

    “Preying on others” is only contingently immoral in Objectivism but ethical egoism is only contingently moral. All truths are contingent in Objectivism.

    • Log

      So there are no necessary truths according to Objectivism? “A is A” is only contingently true? Meaning, it might have been the case that A is not A?

      • Raymond Raad

        In a sense yes, and in a sense no. If by ‘contingent’, you mean based on fact, then A is A is contingent. It is based on an observation of reality, and a realization that everything in reality has an identity, and that no contradictions exist in reality.

        But if by ‘contingent’ you mean ‘could have been otherwise’, then no. There is only one reality, and reality could not have been otherwise.

        This is why Objectivism rejects the contingent-necessary distinction.

        • murali284

          So, you are saying that it is not logically possible for the world to have been other than the way it is? I can conceive of a world where the watery stuff is made of XYZ instead of H2O. We know that watery stuff is in fact made of H2O, but it could have been otherwise.

          • Raymond Raad

            The fact that I can conceive of a world where the watery stuff is made of something else hardly shows that it’s possible. It’s possible as a thought, but not necessarily as a reality. As far as I can tell, this reality is all that exists. Whether it’s “logically possible” for another reality to exist is sort of an irrelevant question in Objectivism.

            To some extent, the real issue here is what comes first: logic or reality. Sometimes it seems to me that in analytic philosophy, the assumption is that logic comes first. In Objectivism, reality comes first, and the validity of logic is derived from reality.

          • murali284

            It shows that there is nothing inherently contradictory about things being other than how they are now. However, our inability to imagine a shape that is simultaneously a square and a circle shows that there is something inherently contradictory about that idea.
            But hey, logical possibility and necessity is not the only sort of possibility and necessity. There is such a thing as metaphysical possibility and necessity as well as nomological possibility and necessity and even temporal possibility and necessity.
            It is not clear if metaphysical possibility is coextensive with logical possibility. I really should read my Quine to understand his argument better. But I think you would have a tough time arguing that only the actual is metaphysically possible.
            Nomological Possibility should be even narrower than metaphysical possibility. While different laws of nature are metaphysically possible, actual laws of nature are nomologically necessary. This should be more convenient for your thesis, but even then the objectivist position does not work. After all, the laws of nature could be the same but it could have been that George Washington died in the American Revolution.
            Temporal possibility is yet even narrower and takes the actual history of the world as fixed. Even then, there is an open question as to whether a given radioactive nucleus will decay in the next minute. There is nothing necessary about what happens next.
            Objectivist denial of necessary/contingent distinction is just silly

        • Log

          I mean ‘could have been otherwise’.

          You say, “reality could not have been otherwise.” Do you have any argument for this claim?

          • Raymond Raad

            I’m not sure what you’re asking for. On what basis would I be able to provide an argument for any claim if not on the basis of reality?

            as far as I can tell from observation of the world, human action is something that could be otherwise. But other than that, everything is just is.

          • murali284

            But human actions affect the world right? So, for example if it is true that people could act otherwise than they did, then the hijackers of the flight that crashed into the WTC could have stayed home. If they had stayed at home, the twin towers would still be around. If it is possible that the twin towers could still be around, it is not necessary that the twin towers are not around anymore. It is therefore a contingent fact that the twin towers are not around anymore.

          • Raymond Raad

            Murali, I can see where you’re coming from, but that’s not how I see it

            The hijackers of the flight had a choice of whether to stay home or hijack the flight. At that time, it could have gone either way. But they made their choice. Once the twin towers came down, that’s it. It’s now a fact of reality that they came down – as much a fact of reality as that the earth is round. It cannot be otherwise anymore.

            If you’re interest, Rand dealt with this issue of free will and necessity in her essay “The metaphysical and the man made”

  • K.P.

    Didn’t she write admirably about William Edward Hickman in her 20′s. Could we not say that Rand shifted away from purer egoism (or Nietzscheanism) as she aged?

    • M Lister

      Rand shifted away from purer egoism (or Nietzscheanism)

      One problem here is that Nietzscheanism isn’t a form of egoism, certainly not a “pure” sort of egoism. The better understandings of Nietzsche takes him to be a (peculiar) sort of virtue theorist, and while there is some tradition of understanding virtue theory as a type of egoism, this seems to me (and most people today, I think) to be a confusion.

      • K.P.

        That’s why I said “or Nietzsheanism” as opposed to “also known as” or “in the form of”. Maybe Nietzche wasn’t a “pure” egoist like, say, Stirner or Walker, at all and his ideas are merely superficially similar. Rand still seemed to be more influenced by him and his self-affirming ideas (if not egoist, call it what you’d like) in her younger days, I think she even referred to Hickman as a “superman”.

  • Raymond Raad

    Jason, to be clear about your view, do you agree that Huemer’s case is HIGHLY unlikely? The number of stipulations is pretty high – we have to assume a type of disintegrator ray as he described, and that other people don’t mind my killing him, and that this society regularly mistreats homeless people without posing a threat to my rights. I also have to assume that, even though I don’t normally think of buying guns, I will think to buy such a gun, and carry it around, just in case this ridiculous situation were to arise. I think it’s too unlikely a situation to be an example of significant meaning for ethics.

    but I suppose if we grant the hypothetical, yes, ethical egoism might require that I do it. So what?

    It’s true that ethical egoism only allows me to value other people to the extent that they are instrumental to my self interest. I don’t see a problem with that either. It still remains the case that each other person in the world is an end in himself from his own perspective.

    • Jason Brennan

      Yes, it’s unlikely, but I don’t think that matters at all.

      Consider: It’s not only unlikely, but certainly not the case, that the Dark Side of the Force exists. But if you had a theory that implied the Dark Side was good, your theory would be false.

      Ethical egoism is false because it implies false claims. That’s how reductios work.

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        My reading of Huemer’s problem is that he is insisting that the egoist assume that the Dark Side of the Force actually exists for the purposes of the example, and then proves the egoist wrong because they are forced to act in accordance with its existence.

        It might be a fun exercise, but as the others have said, it sheds no light on ethical egoism or moral truth.

        • Jason Brennan

          I realize people keep saying that, but they’re objections don’t make any sense to me. I think Huemer already explained how hypotheticals work, and they’re objections seem incoherent. I don’t feel I have any further argumentative burden here. Randians deny the rules of logic in order to protect Randianism, so there’s no point in arguing with them.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Well, you’re simply declaring that Huemer’s example is airtight, and I don’t think it is. Are you saying you (or Huemer) have no additional argumentative burden to show that the example actually encapsulates the problem effectively? That seems a bit too presumptuous to me.

      • Crypto-Stirner

        That seems like it’s judging an argument by its conclusion. If you don’t like the conclusion that follows from an impeccable chain of logic and indisputable premises, does that imply it’s false? Or just that reality isn’t what you’d like it to be?

        Rand used the immortal robot example once. Mainstream philosophers use sci fi examples daily, it seems. The sci fi in Ayn Rand’s novels is really irrelevant to the moral evaluations of the characters.

        Although Rand wouldn’t admit it, a philosophy based on her ethics really is more of a roadmap than an absolute in any conventional sense. The willingness to suspend normal ethics in emergency situations is proof of that. The key to taking the best of Objectivism is to make a logical system out of what Rand said rather than take what Rand said as the final word.

        Life and happiness offer something real that no other moral theory have offered me. Intuitions are simply there – there’s no reason to think that because you have an intuition, it actually reflects anything more than, well, having an intuition. A chain of logic is worthless if it doesn’t give you a reason for accepting its telos or moral premises. I need no convincing for treating life and happiness are valuable, and simply reason from there.

      • Raymond Raad

        Jason, what exactly is the false claim that is implied? Is it the claim that if it were in my interest to kill people, I should kill people? I don’t see how that claim is false.

        • Rocinante2112

          If it’s in society’s interest to rape babies, than the collectivist says you should rape babies. If it maximizes the position of society’s least well off member to rape babies (the baby would probably be the least well off in this case), then the Rawlsian says you should rape babies. If moral intuitions say that you should rape babies, the intuitionist says you should rape babies. Completely change the facts about people and society and any of these scenarios is plausible.

      • Darth Johnson

        Why is the dark side so bad? Yeah, so we can shoot lightning out of out hands, so what? We Sith brought order to the galaxy, without the endless bureaucratic squabbling of the Jedi counsel. Don’t buy into the Jedi propaganda. You have no idea the power of the dark side.

  • eccentric-opinion

    An egoist could respond that while it is true that you should murder if it serves your interests, for virtue-ethical reasons, murdering in situations like Huemer’s Case of the Hurried Objectivist isn’t actually in your self-interest. If the situation were such that murdering would actually be in your self-interest, it would also seem less intuitively wrong.

    • adrianratnapala

      And then we are left with the question of what the virtue-ethics requires. And that is why J.B. says “she’s probably just a neo-Aristotelian eudaimonist [with unusual views about the nature of eudaimonia]“.

      In one sense, that makes Rand’s philosophy trivial and circular, but that’s only in the context of particular thought experiment that seeks to snooker her. Perhaps in more realistic situations, Objectivism provides a non-trivial (but not necessarily correct!) guide to eudaimonia. I think that’s what Ryan Long is getting at when he says the last paragraph of the post nullifies all the others.

      • eccentric-opinion

        It’s important to distinguish between the claim that one should act in one’s own self-interest (i.e. ethical egoism) and claims about what one’s interests are. Different ethical egoists can have different conceptions of interests, but that doesn’t mean that some of them are less egoist than others.

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        Yes, exactly. Thank you. :)

  • Duarte

    Jason, the way you guys do philosophy isn’t valid. The analytic method is simply invalid, an awful way to know stuff about the world, or about ethics.

    Mike’s approach fails in a couple of ways. For one, the thought experiment method is fundamentally acontextual if it’s not constrained in some way, and you guys don’t constrain it. The premise behind the method is that we should be able to generate all sorts of relevant truths or propositions about ethics of the following form:

    In situation X, it is ethical/not ethical to do Y.

    That’s loaded. Objectivists do not grant that at all. That’s not their goal. That’s not how they do ethics. The purpose of the Objectivist approach, and to some extent maybe in some virtue ethics systems, is not to generate acontextual prescriptions and rationalistic rules derived from talented proof-making.

    Second, Mike’s thought experiment, and almost all others, are based on **empty agents**. They don’t assume a human. They assume a species-independent egoism algorithm (or a species-independent algorithm of what analytics *argue* egoism is). It’s basically an Excel spreadsheet. This is another aspect of the acontextualism. You’re not only not situating ethics in the context of an individual human being, you’re situating it in the context of human agents as such.

    Humans aren’t formless or featureless. We have a nature. We are a specific kind of thing, so any ethics at least has to incorporate facts about what kind of thing we are, what we need, what’s good and bad for us, etc.

    If I’m going to be an egoist, and I’m probably not one, I’m going to say I’m not going to murder someone, not for two seconds, not for a million dollars. Because it’s wrong and the very thought horrifies me. We can have theories of rights and basic principles about a human’s right to life. When we adopt these principles, it **changes who are**. This means we’re now a kind of being, who can’t possibly just murder somebody to cash in on one arbitrary increment of one arbitrary value (two seconds) out of our hundreds of values. You can’t just throw a trivial calculation layer on top of a complex, volitional, principle-using being. We’re not content-free.

    That’s partly what I mean, what Rand meant, by contextual/acontextual. Objectivism has no answers to a lot of the questions you guys pose, structurally, because it’s not trying to solve those kinds of problems. Example: Trolley problem. That’s not a recurrent problem that people need to solve. A rare ship captain or fireman might be faced with something like that, but Objectivism isn’t about situations that just start at some arbitrary timepoint completely removed from the context of a person’s life, values, and goals. If you find yourself needing to decide whether to let five people die, or choose to kill one person instead, you’re just in a catastrophe. That’s just bad luck, catastrophic luck. We’ve got nothing for you. (I actually disagree with important aspects of Objectivism, so I’m not sure about the “we”.) To Objectivists, that’s just not what ethics is about, it’s not in the domain, and it’s not very interesting.

    Mike’s logic point bounces off, because it assumes an approach to ethics that Objectivists aren’t interested in.

    This whole rationalistic proof method is invalid. Like Bas’ thing yesterday:

    1. People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks

    2. The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues

    3. Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues

    4. Therefore, political philosophers have a prima facie moral duty to avoid being politically active
    I like Bas’ thesis, but the above method is not a valid way to know stuff. It’s completely binary and acontextual. It wildly oversimplifies everything. If you have a mere trace of stuff in 3, it’s supposed to trigger a thunderclap conclusion. That’s absurd. What does “makes us worth at seeking the truth” mean? It can mean a whole hell of a lot of things, very different things, different problems in different contexts. It’s not going to be a unified kind of thing that has consistent properties that will make 4 true. Proofs like this don’t even consider tradeoffs and other variables at work. For example, maybe being politically involved makes you better in some ways, perhaps different ways than those ways in which it makes you worse (at “seeking truth”). Or, maybe you live in Venezuela, and being politically active is more important to you (because of the costs of passivity) than wringing out the last ounce of bias or sloppiness in your truthseeking on future articles. These proofs assume that reality is a chamber that is completely filled by each statement. It’s easy to see that the conclusions are going to be false in lots of cases.
    It’s just not a valid method. The analytic method needs to be discarded — there’s no reason to assume the methods of our day are good, and they’re not.

    • Jason Brennan

      I don’t accept even your basic presumptions here. They seem silly and false.

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        I thought Duarte put together a really thoughtful comment. Don’t you at least owe us an explanation of which of his presumptions are false?

      • Craig Yirush

        So it’s not only false but also silly to argue that ethical reasoning should bear some relationship to reality? That improbable scenarios are not useful in helping us to think about right and wrong? I agree with many of your criticisms of Rand but find your flippancy and sarcasm (dude, easy peasy) off putting. You also failed to answer Stephen Hicks or Irfan Khawaja in the first post on Biddle (in particular the charge that you altered your post without indicating that you had done so).

        • Jason Brennan

          Hicks is either mistaken or lying about what he said. I wish he hadn’t out himself, because I didn’t intend to attack him directly, just the behavior. But now that he’s outed himself, so be it.

          Improbably scenarios are very useful for letting us know whether moral theories are true or false. If a person says, “X is right if and only if Y”, I can test that using any coherent thought experiment. Also, the Huemer scenario isn’t that far fetched. Plenty of people have been in scenarios like that, where they could kill someone with impunity and doing so would serve their Objective self-interest.

          Rand didn’t say, “My form of egoism is a generally useful theory–it provides a good road map for what’s right and wrong in realistic scenarios.” She made a much stronger claim that she’d uncovered a fundamental moral principle, and that this principle was the literal truth of the matter.

          The Randian response to thought experiments is bad and Randians should feel bad for thinking that way.

          • Raymond Raad

            Rand didn’t say, “My form of egoism is a generally useful theory–it provides a good road map for what’s right and wrong in realistic scenarios.”

            Actually this is precisely what Rand said. She only uncovered a ‘fundamental moral principle’ regarding realistic scenarios. She also admitted that in unlikely scenarios, such as emergency lifeboat situations, the road map changes.

          • Jason Brennan

            Great, I’m glad she admitted that, then. In that case, she and I agree that her moral theory is not true.

          • Raymond Raad

            I’m not following. Her theory is intended to apply to realistic scenarios, which is most of human life. It’s true in that context.

            Maybe we’re disagreeing on the meaning of “true”?

          • Crypto Stirner

            A guide to pursuing happiness that applies *most* of the time is the best any such guide can do, given the complexity of human motivations and social situations.

            No one has given me any good reason to pursue anything else.

    • Bugsby

      Let me see if I can help clear up some confusions here…

      I’m definitely an analytic philosopher, and it seems to me that you are misunderstanding the method that analytic philosophers use. So I’ll run through the basics. I’m not doing this to be condescending or anything, but it seems clear that you and Jason are talking past each other at some level, and I’m not sure where the disconnect is. So maybe by making the fundamentals of the analytic method more explicit, we can come to some agreement on where there is disagreement.

      Let’s start by looking at the idea of a general principle. This is the kind of thing that Jason is talking about as a kind of (universally quantified) hypothetical or conditional claim: For all X, whenever X is F, X is G. Or, in other words, “All Fs are Gs.” (It’s clear why those two are synonyms, right?) There are many universally quantified conditionals that are true. Uncontroversially: All cats are mammals. All bachelors are unmarried. All circles are sets of points equidistant from a center point. And so on. These claims are true whenever EVERYTHING that is in the first category is also in the second category. They are false if there is even ONE thing which belongs in the first category but not the second category. So “All cats are mammals” is true just in case every cat is a mammal, and it is false if there is even one cat that is not a mammal. The claim that all cats are mammals is true – it’s a fairly uninteresting truth of biological phylogeny – and so it follows that every particular cat we encounter will be a mammal.

      The counterexample method is a way of disproving universally quantified conditionals, by finding a case where something is an F but not a G. Since universally quantified conditionals make claims about EVERYTHING, then ANY case where something is an F but not a G will prove that this conditional is false. And this will be true even if the case in question is a far-off sci-fi case.

      People who don’t like sci-fi counterexamples will say that these cases don’t matter, because the principle is not meant to hold up in extreme and unrealistic cases. This misses the point. If the principle is not supposed to be true in ALL cases (and, in fact, is not true in all cases) then that just concedes that the universally quantified conditional is false.

      Now the opponent of sci-fi counterexamples might say that what is going on is that the principle was never intended as a universally quantified conditional. Ok, fair enough! In that case, the burden is on the opponent of counter-examples to specify what claim they WERE making, if not a claim of the form “All Fs are Gs.” (The only reason analytic philosophers use counter-examples at all is to try to disprove universally quantified conditionals.)

      Another thing the opponent might want to do is say that they were making a universally quantified conditional claim, but with some provisos in the antecedent of that conditional. In other words, the opponent of counter-example might be saying something like “All Fs that were are likely encounter in day-to-day-life, in the world as it actually is today and not in the distant future (etc. etc.), are Gs.” But if this is what is meant, then there is still room for counterexample. Since the general principle being defended is highly qualified, a smaller range of things could count as counterexamples. But that doesn’t mean that counter-examples are impossible or beside the point. Because if there is an F that we are likely to encounter in day-to-day-life, in the world as it actually is today and not in the distant future (etc. etc.) that is not a G, even the highly qualified general principle will be false.

      This is all to the point because Rand, in claiming that morality is a matter of self-interest, is making a universally quantified conditional claim. “If something promotes my self-interest, then it is morally permissible.” Given that Rand is making a claim of this kind, her claim can be falsified by giving any case where something promotes an agent’s self-interest, but is not morally permissible. This is what Jason and Huemer are trying to do: to show that Rand’s general principle is false.

      I don’t know what the next step is to take in the analysis of the disagreement because I’m not quite sure what you are disagreeing with, Duarte. Do you disagree with any of the points about the logic of general principles and how they might be falsified? (I hope not…). Do you disagree that Rand has committed herself to a universally quantified conditional? Or do you think that Rand has committed herself to such a conditional, but Jason and Huemer have failed to provide a counterexample to it? I’m not a Rand scholar, so I won’t attempt any exegesis here. So help us out, Duarte. Can Rand’s central committments about morality be stated as a universally quantified conditional? If so, what is that conditional? (And be careful and specific here, because no matter what you say, we’re going to start hunting for counter-examples to test the truth of Rand’s claim.) If not, then what is she saying instead? (And keep in mind that adding lots of qualifications to a claim still often results in a universally quantified conditional, even though that conditional will be highly-qualified, as in the example two paragraphs up).

      • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

        This is all to the point because Rand, in claiming that morality is a matter of self-interest, is making a universally quantified conditional claim. “If something promotes my self-interest, then it is morally permissible.” Given that Rand is making a claim of this kind, her claim can be falsified by giving any case where something promotes an agent’s self-interest, but is not morally permissible. This is what Jason and Huemer are trying to do: to show that Rand’s general principle is false.

        What Huemer and Brennan have done is to frame self-interest as a paradox. They could have done all this much more concisely by proposing the following:

        “Suppose we define your self-interest to be that which you would otherwise define it not to be. Then, your ethical rules become a contradiction. QED.”

        This is obviously ridiculous. It’s nothing more than the Liar’s Paradox dressed up in fancy clothing. Yes, any time you define something to be the opposite of what it is, the end result is a contradiction.

        Rand had an aphorism for contradictions, but we don’t really even need it to understand that defining something to be the opposite of what it is is not a valid counter-example. Brennan’s smugness over this as he keeps dodging the point is frustrating.

        • Bugsby

          Perhaps Jason could weigh in here, but I really think you’re misunderstanding what he’s up to in his posts. As I see it, the thread of the debate has gone like this:

          Jason reads Rand as endorsing the universally quantified conditional, “anything that promotes my self-interest is morally permissible.” Then, drawing on Huemer, he offers a few counter-examples to this principle, by coming up with cases where an act promotes the agent’s self-interest, but is not morally permissible, and is, instead, deeply wrong.

          The defenders of Rand jump on this, saying that Rand considered cases like this, and held that in cases like this, it is not permissible to act in one’s self-interest.

          Jason replies: But the universally quantified conditional ENTAILS that in any case where an action is not permissible, it must not promote the agent’s self-interest. The proof of that entailment is pretty simple. So if Rand believed the following two claims – “anything that promotes my self-interest is morally permissible” and “there are cases where an act is morally impermissible even though that act does not promote my self-interest” – then she contradicted herself, because those two claims are contradictory.

          So I’ll ask again: What are you denying here? Are you denying that those claims contradict? (If so, you’re wrong, and I can post the proof for you). Or are you denying that Rand accepted both of those claims? I think that you want to be saying that Rand didn’t actually accept one of those two claims; she instead believed something more subtle, with more qualifications, etc. Fair enough. And I am keen to learn, not being a Rand scholar myself. So which of those two claims would it be inaccurate to attribute to Rand?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            What I’m objecting to is this part:

            Jason reads Rand as endorsing the universally quantified conditional, “anything that promotes my self-interest is morally permissible.” Then, drawing on Huemer, he offers a few counter-examples to this principle, by coming up with cases where an act promotes the agent’s self-interest, but is not morally permissible, and is, instead, deeply wrong.

            Rand may have said (in so many words) that anything that promotes her self-interest is morally permissible. What she did NOT say is, “Anything that Huemer and Brennan imagine promotes my self-interest is morally permissible.”

            I have repeatedly pointed out Huemer’s bizarre discussion of probabilities that follows. Here, read it:

            (2) Accommodate the intuition: That is, the egoist could argue that for some reason, it was really not in my interests to destroy the homeless person. You never know when a person, presently homeless, might become useful, after all. Some day in the future, for example, he might get a job, and then he might possibly work for my company, or be a client, or otherwise contribute to the economy of my society. Or he might someday be able to be an organ donor, if not for my destroying his body.

            Or, to take another tack, this particular homeless person might happen to have friends who might come after me to get me back.

            What enables egoists to make replies like this is that it is almost impossible to assess the probabilities of all these possibilities in any definitive manner.

            Notice that the whole question of whether a society in which people “zap” homeless people is in anyone’s rational self-interest is disqualified from discussion.

            This is no mere subtlety. What Huemer is claiming is that all objections to his example are misunderstandings of “the way hypothetical counter-examples work.”

            So I get to stipulate, by fiat, that, in the hypothetical situation, I do not receive reprisals for my action, et cetera. The only thing that I do not get to stipulate is the verdict on the example, i.e., would the action thus described be right or wrong. That is where the reader or listener is supposed to exercise his own judgement. If the hypothetical action I describe seems to you to be morally right, then my argument has failed. If it seems to you to be morally wrong, however, then it shows that you are not truly an ethical egoist.

            In short, his counter-example reduces to: “Assume human life has no value to you beyond what I stipulate it has. If you reach a conclusion that is consistent with the fact that human life has no value in my closed system, then I get to tell you that your moral reasoning is flawed!”

            Brennan takes this a step further and declares that the egoists’ answer is contrary to what he calls “moral truth.”

            All of this becomes ridiculous if we simply state aloud what’s actually going on: Huemer’s example begins by stipulating that homeless people have no value and then condemns any egoist who plays along.

            It’s a clever trick, but it’s NOT a valid counter-example. Not because “Objectivists don’t get it,” but because Huemer disallows them from reaching the moral conclusion he subsequently condemns them for not reaching.

            It’s not valid.

          • Bugsby

            Ok, I feel like we are making some progress in finding where the disagreement is.

            But could you be a little clearer about your first claim? You said:

            [quote]Rand may have said (in so many words) that anything that promotes her self-interest is morally permissible. What she did NOT say is, “Anything that Huemer and Brennan imagine promotes my self-interest is morally permissible.”[/quote]

            Are you saying that Huemer and Brennan have not actually given cases where the actions in question is both immoral and promotes the self-interest of the agent? Or are you saying that these are cases where the action is immoral even though it promotes the self-interest of the agent, but Rand’s principle isn’t supposed to apply to these cases, for whatever reason?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Huemer’s example is not a valid ethical scenario, for the following reasons:

            1 – First, Huemer assumes the consequent (killing is unethical), but never openly states that he is doing so.

            2 – Second, he creates a situation in which the only viable way to remain consistent with egoism is to reach a decision that would otherwise be completely inconsistent with egoism. That’s clever, but it’s more like a paradox than a proof-by-counter-example. For instance, I might choose to disprove the law of gravity by imagining a world in which gravity does not exist, and then point out that what comes up will not come down in such a world. This is also true, but it does not invalidate the law of gravity… But it’s clever, so full marks there.

            3 – Huemer then concludes that egoism is wrong specifically because the egoist is forced to kill the homeless man under assumptions of sadism and no long-run self-interests. But under these same assumptions, killing the homeless person is never unethical. Note that utilitarians would be forced into the same conclusion by the same example. The only ones off the hook are deontologists who can appeal to the only being more powerful than Huemer in this bizarro world: God.

            So, if Huemer’s example is valid, then it “disproves” all ethics other than religious deontology, or perhaps make-it-up-as-you-go deontology. Notice how Huemer never shows how his preferred ethics resolve the ethical tension his example causes. Would Huemer or Brennan like to take a crack at it?

          • Bugsby

            Ok, great. I think we’re finally getting to a point of clarity here.

            As to your three points:

            1- He absolutely should have stated explicitly that he is assuming that it is wrong to torture the homeless person, or wrong to kill. Most people regard these claims as so obviously true that he didn’t bother to state them. If you (or someone else) does not think that these claims are true, then the rest of Huemer’s argument will not be convincing for you.

            (skipping 2 for a second)

            3 – Utilitarians are NOT forced to the same conclusion by the same cases. The egoist position is that MY OWN self-interest is all that matters for me. The utilitarian position, on the other hand, is that EVERYONE’S self-interest matters for me. So if there is a case where I can do something that will increase my well-being, while harming the well-being of millions of others, the egoist will say that I ought to do that thing, since it is my own well-being that matters, whereas the utilitarian says that I ought not do that thing, since it is everyone’s well-being that matters.

            Of course, since I care about other people, I would be devastated if something I did harmed others, and so there would be no cases for me where I could make myself happier by harming others. But sadists who lack sympathy are not in the same situation. So egoism implies that sadists will have most reason to torture others, and utilitarianism implies that sadists will have most reason not to torture others. Most people think that utilitarianism makes the better prediction here. But if you think that real sadists legitimately ought to harm others since that is what they really care about, then you won’t find Huemer’s cases convincing (this goes back to Point 1).

            Also, it is a mistake to confuse deontology with divine command theory. Contemporary deontologists never invoke DIVINE LAW or anything like that. Most contemporary deontologists within the philosophical community are actually atheists. They say that there are some act-types that one simply ought not perform, regardless of consequences, because performing those act-types does not respect the inherent dignity of persons. Killing is wrong for a deontologist not because God has forbidden it, but because killing does not respect the other person’s right to life.

            As for the second point… Could you be clearer about what you mean by “a decision that would otherwise be completely inconsistent with egoism?” I still don’t really understand the point you’re driving at here.

            There are some situations where it is not the best thing for the egoist to torture (perhaps most situations are like this). But there will be other situations where it is best for the egoist to torture (as when the egoist in question is a sadist, and can avoid being punished for his actions). By pointing out that there are some situations that fall into both camps, Huemer is not trying to show that egoism is itself contradictory or that any kind of paradox results. He’s simply trying to show that egoism implies that there will be some cases where torture is permissible, if we are dealing with the right kind of person in the right kind of circumstances. But, plausibly (and here’s the base assumption that Huemer is making), it is NEVER permissible to torture someone else, even if you are a sadist and can get away with it. That is, the paradox only results if you are ALSO committed to Humer’s base assumption.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            1- He absolutely should have stated explicitly that he is assuming that it is wrong to torture the homeless person, or wrong to kill. Most people regard these claims as so obviously true that he didn’t bother to state them. If you (or someone else) does not think that these claims are true, then the rest of Huemer’s argument will not be convincing for you.

            Hold on a minute. Let me quote Huemer directly.

            Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. Assume further that I dislike homeless people and don’t like to see them on the street. So I do not feel bad about seeing the homeless guy disintegrated. In fact, it amuses me. Nor will my conscience bother me, because I am an ethical egoist, and so I believe that my action was morally virtuous. Therefore, after destroying the homeless guy, I should feel proud, not guilty.

            Huemer makes it clear that, for the purposes of this example, killing is neither considered wrong by the agent nor by broader society. Why, then, does he still assume that killing is wrong? He cannot have it both ways if he is to maintain a valid counter-example.

            Next you say:

            Of course, since I care about other people, I would be devastated if something I did harmed others, and so there would be no cases for me where I could make myself happier by harming others.

            Wrong again. Check Huemer’s scenario (same quote, above). The agent is a sadist who is amused by killing homeless people. If you allow the agent to feel empathy for the homeless person, you are changing Huemer’s scenario. In the scenario as articulated by Huemer, not only does killing the homeless person increase the agent’s utility, it also increases society’s utility. Further, Huemer stipulates that the homeless person’s suffering will be minimal. The only way a utilitarian in this scenario could possibly conclude that killing the homeless person is wrong is if society would enjoy greater utility if someone else zapped or otherwise harmed the homeless person.

            Finally, with regard to a decision that would otherwise be inconsistent with egoism: see my first reply to Brennan, above. (Link: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/egoism-and-rights/#comment-1501538856 )

            For reasons (a), (b), (c), and (d) – among others – my self-interest is not served by zapping homeless people.

          • Bugsby

            “Huemer makes it clear that, for the purposes of this example, killing is neither considered wrong by the agent nor by broader society. Why, then, does he still assume that killing is wrong? He cannot have it both ways if he is to maintain a valid counter-example.”

            He can have it both ways. This assumes that what is ACTUALLY right and wrong is a product of what is “considered wrong by the agent [or] by broader society.” But Huemer is an not a subjectivist or a relativist. He is a moral realist. He thinks that moral facts exist independently of any beliefs or attitudes of people within society. For comparison: Imagine a society full of people who think the earth is flat, and a person who lives in this society who thinks the earth is flat, and goes on acting as though the earth is flat. If I say of this person that they are wrong about the shape of the earth, I haven’t contradicted myself. I can “have it both ways” in saying that the earth isn’t flat, even though everyone believes it is. I’m only contradicting myself if I am also committed to thinking that the shape of the earth depends on what people in society think the shape of the earth is. But of course, the shape of the earth doesn’t depend on what people think the shape of the earth is. Similarly, for Huemer, what is morally right and wrong does not depend on what people think are right and wrong. He can “have it both ways” by saying that things are right or wrong independently of people’s thoughts, and thus a society in which homeless people are wantonly killed is a society where everyone just has mistaken moral beliefs.

            Of course, this means that moral realism is another of Huemer’s starting assumptions. (Is this a good assumption? Personally, I think not, but I’m just trying to make Huemer’s commitments clear. His 2005 book, Ethical Intuitionism, is a prolonged defense of moral realism. If you are interested in this debate, I’d actually recommend that book as a clear and cogent argument for the realist position).

            As to your second point: fair enough. I was talking about why I myself would never disintegrate a homeless person, but let’s talk for now strictly in terms of the scenario that Huemer lays out. I think you are misreading Huemer again. Huemer does NOT say that the homeless person’s suffering will be minimal. Says Huemer, “It is believed that victims of disintegration suffer brief BUT HORRIBLE agony while being disintegrated” (my emphasis). So if I experience a slight bit of pleasure at the convenience of disintegrating the homeless person, that is more than outweighed by the horrible agony that the disintegrated person suffers, however briefly. Now if the pleasure I took in the disintegration were large enough, or if enough people felt some pleasure at the act that the total pleasure would outweigh the total suffering, then utilitarianism would generate the result that it is morally required to kill the homeless person. This is a standard objection to utilitarianism, often pushed by (non-theistic) deontologists.

            As for your final point: You’re right, it’s always difficult to calculate the outcomes of any given action. And for any given action, there might be reasons why something that seems to be in your best interests in the short term is not in your best interests in the long term. But if we are dealing with universally quantified conditionals, then if it is both true that (1) it is ALWAYS permissible to do what is in your best interest, and (2) that killing, torturing, random-homeless-person-disintegrating, etc. are ALWAYS impermissible, then it follows that (3) EVERY act of killing, torturing, random-homeless-person-disintegrating, etc. will be contrary to your self-interest.

            Huemer is trying to provide a counter-example to (3). This would show that either (2) is false or (1) is false. Since Huemer believes (2) is true (this is one of his starting assumptions about which he ought to have been clearer), then (1) is false. You think that Huemer has not provided a counter-example to (3). Fair enough. But do you think that no counter-example to (3) could be given? That is, do you believe that EVERY act of killing (etc etc), in any scenario whatsoever, will be contrary to your self-interest?

            (And on an unrelated topic, how do I make those little quote-indent things? [quote][/quote] obviously isn’t the way… Thanks!)

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Great comment.

            For quotes, use

            but do not include spaces between the carrots and the text. and then to end the quotation. You can also use B for bold and I for italics. :)

            Re: suffering – you got me there. I did indeed misread Huemer’s example. I still think the utilitarian calculus is “up-for-grabs,” though. It’s not a sure-thing that utilitarianism will lead to a different outcome than egoism here. I think we both agree on that. I suppose the fact that utilitarianism produces a “maybe” while egoism [would seem to] produce[s] a “definitely” implies a slight preference for utilitarianism, assuming that the concept of “moral truth” holds. But this is a much, much weaker position than either Huemer or Brennan have made. To me, that’s important.

            Re: having it both ways – Look at it this way. If a man believed in a flat Earth, I could use modern physics to disprove his theory. Or, I could pose a counter-example to his views, in which I assume his view of the world is true, and then show that it leads to something plainly false. What I can’t do is create a counter-example in which I assume that the flat-Earth scenario is false, force the man to choose between flat-Earth and modern physics, and then say that the reason he is wrong is because he chose flat-Earth.

            This is what I believe Huemer’s example accomplishes. Real-world egoism does not produce murder among sane egoists. Quite the opposite. All Huemer’s “counter-example” accomplishes is the creation of a plainly false scenario in which the only way an egoist can say, “I am an egoist” is to kill a homeless man. Like I say, this is clever, but it is not a disproof of egoism.

            In fact, the whole counter-example hinges on the (highly controversial) idea of a moral truth. One need not concoct a bizarre homeless-zapping scenario in order to understand that egoists are not typically adherents to the “moral truth” idea. So this is a further reason why Huemer’s example fails.

            You think that Huemer has not provided a counter-example to (3). Fair enough. But do you think that no counter-example to (3) could be given? That is, do you believe that EVERY act of killing (etc etc), in any scenario whatsoever, will be contrary to your self-interest?

            No, and neither does almost anyone. Nearly every human being that has ever lived has preferred killing to being killed. Sane and rational egoists believe that leaving people alone to pursue their own self-interest creates a tendency in society to cooperate, which is in everyone’s self-interest. This was Rand’s position as well. Neither Rand nor any egoist I know of ever suggested that we kill homeless people for frivolous reasons. It’s possible to create imaginary scenarios in which people are forced to do so in order to retain their egoism, but these are not legitimate disproofs of the concept of egoism.

            I have shown how Huemer’s intuition can be accommodated. I have shown how Huemer’s counter-example is inapplicable. I have shown how his reasoning is fallacious.

            I’m not making an argument for egoism, I’m making an argument against Huemer/Brennan’s poorly conceived counter-example. I *think* you and I agree on the broad strokes here. Am I right?

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Great comment.

            For quotes, use

            but do not include spaces between the carrots and the text. and then to end the quotation. You can also use B for bold and I for italics. :)

            Re: suffering – you got me there. I did indeed misread Huemer’s example. I still think the utilitarian calculus is “up-for-grabs,” though. It’s not a sure-thing that utilitarianism will lead to a different outcome than egoism here. I think we both agree on that. I suppose the fact that utilitarianism produces a “maybe” while egoism [would seem to] produce[s] a “definitely” implies a slight preference for utilitarianism, assuming that the concept of “moral truth” holds. But this is a much, much weaker position than either Huemer or Brennan have made. To me, that’s important.

            Re: having it both ways – Look at it this way. If a man believed in a flat Earth, I could use modern physics to disprove his theory. Or, I could pose a counter-example to his views, in which I assume his view of the world is true, and then show that it leads to something plainly false. What I can’t do is create a counter-example in which I assume that the flat-Earth scenario is false, force the man to choose between flat-Earth and modern physics, and then say that the reason he is wrong is because he chose flat-Earth.

            This is what I believe Huemer’s example accomplishes. Real-world egoism does not produce murder among sane egoists. Quite the opposite. All Huemer’s “counter-example” accomplishes is the creation of a plainly false scenario in which the only way an egoist can say, “I am an egoist” is to kill a homeless man. Like I say, this is clever, but it is not a disproof of egoism.

            In fact, the whole counter-example hinges on the (highly controversial) idea of a moral truth. One need not concoct a bizarre homeless-zapping scenario in order to understand that egoists are not typically adherents to the “moral truth” idea. So this is a further reason why Huemer’s example fails.

            You think that Huemer has not provided a counter-example to (3). Fair enough. But do you think that no counter-example to (3) could be given? That is, do you believe that EVERY act of killing (etc etc), in any scenario whatsoever, will be contrary to your self-interest?

            No, and neither does almost anyone. Nearly every human being that has ever lived has preferred killing to being killed. Sane and rational egoists believe that leaving people alone to pursue their own self-interest creates a tendency in society to cooperate, which is in everyone’s self-interest. This was Rand’s position as well. Neither Rand nor any egoist I know of ever suggested that we kill homeless people for frivolous reasons. It’s possible to create imaginary scenarios in which people are forced to do so in order to retain their egoism, but these are not legitimate disproofs of the concept of egoism.

            I have shown how Huemer’s intuition can be accommodated. I have shown how Huemer’s counter-example is inapplicable. I have shown how his reasoning is fallacious.

            I’m not making an argument for egoism, I’m making an argument against Huemer/Brennan’s poorly conceived counter-example. I *think* you and I agree on the broad strokes here. Am I right?

  • Duarte

    To elaborate, when you do your thought experiments you seem to want to destroy an agent’s identity. I can only be me. We can’t do thought experiments with content-free, empty agents. Well you can if you want, but it’s not going to be ethics about humans. It might seem circular to acknowledge that a person has values and identity, and those values and identity will shape their choices in a situation, but it’s not circular if we bring in that this is a very basic fact about humans, and it would make no sense to do ethics as though people had no values, no hierarchy of values, no lifetime of guilt, etc. If I wasn’t an Excel spreadsheet before your thought experiment, why would I be an Excel spreadsheet in it?
    Ethics doesn’t have to be about arbitrary, concocted, situations. It’s probably better that it not be done that way, for lots of reasons, like the way human lives are structured, the way character works, etc. And a thought experiment that says we’re in a wildly different, arbitrary, almost inhuman culture just highlights the invalidity of the method. How exactly are we supposed to morph on a dime and transport ourselves into a murder-the-homeless-for-fun culture? What do you guys think is happening there? Are rebooting ourselves and pretending to be somebody else? Are we supposed to think “Hmmm… let me imagine myself in a culture where murdering the homeless is cool, and therefore I don’t have much friction cost in murdering homeless people…” Do you really think people can meaningfully do that? Do you think it’s even theoretically possible for a person to simulate themselves, a version of themselves, where they’ve got no hangups about murdering certain people. Is there anything useful, anything that would count as knowledge, from such a method? It doesn’t seem like it does anything for us. I think a lot of what modern philosophers do might just be stuff that’s pleasurable for a lot of intellectual personalities, creating intricate puzzles, playing chess, etc.

    • Geeves

      We do thought experiments to test the applicability of concepts. For example, I imagine a scenario in which John believes p, and he’s justified in believing p, but p is false. I then ask myself if John knows p, and my intuition suggests that he does not. This tells me that p being true is a necessary condition for John knowing p. Our intuition, although fallible, can sometimes tell us when a concept applies and when it does not.

      We do the same thing in ethics. We imagine scenarios and see what our intuition tells us about which ethical concepts apply to those cases and which do not. Like I said, intuition is fallible, but if we determinately grasp a concept, our intuition can track the truth about the application conditions of that concept.

      Without testing ethical propositions against hypothetical scenarios, what method do you use to determine what is true and false with respect to ethics?

      • Michael Philip

        ridiculous “hypothetical moral scenarios” don’t help with ethical understanding. They are more in line with the mind games that the Joker plays in The Dark Knight. They fail to give true insight on how you ought to make decisions in everyday life. They do however give us a glimpse into human psychology

        • Geeves

          I’ll ask again, without testing ethical propositions against hypothetical scenarios, what method do you use to determine what is true and false with respect to ethics?

        • Jason Brennan

          Well, except thought experiments involving robots that can’t be destroyed, or genius architects, or young women fleeing Soviet Russia, or men who invent metal alloys or physically impossible static electricity generators. Those thought experiments are fine, because they’re Rand’s.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            They’re fine because Rand wrote novels. She went out of her way to tell people that she was a writer first and a philosopher only insofar as her philosophy served her goals as a writer. Isn’t that relevant to you?

          • Jason Brennan

            I don’t see how it’s possibly relevant, no.

            When I read Atlas Shrugged, I have no problem whatsoever making moral judgments of people, even though it’s sci fi. That’s because we can and do easily judge what’s right and wrong even in scenarios that involve different laws of physics. Randians deny this only because they have to in order to save their theory from easy and decisive refutation.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            This seems to suggest that there is no difference to you between (a) the events of a storybook and (b) a formal philosophical hypothetical.

            It’s an interesting point of view, although I couldn’t disagree more.

          • http://www.jasonfbrennan.com/ Jason Brennan

            I don’t see why it’s interesting. A thought experiment and a fictional story are both hypotheticals. They just specify the relevant facts in different ways and to varying degrees.

          • Jason Brennan

            I guess one of my comments didn’t show. But here’s my view: A storybook and a thought experiment both present hypotheticals, just with vary degrees of specificity and detail.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            But one group of researchers thinks it might be time to retire the trolley. In an upcoming paper that will be published in Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Christopher Bauman of the University of California, Irvine, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and others argue that the dilemma is too silly and unrealistic to be applicable to real-life moral problems. Therefore, they contend, it doesn’t tell us as much about the human condition as we might hope.

            In a survey of undergraduates, Bauman and McGraw found that 63 percent laughed “at least a little bit” in the fat-man scenario and 33 percent did so in the track-switching scenario. And that’s an issue, because “humor may alter the decision-making processes people normally use to evaluate moral situations,” they note. “A large body of research shows how positivity is less motivating than negativity.”

            It would appear this kind of thing is reaching the end of its shelf life.

            Source:
            http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/what-if-one-of-the-most-popular-experiments-in-psychology-is-worthless/374931/

          • Jason Brennan

            Just because one thought experiment is crummy doesn’t mean they all are. Same with apples and ice creams, too.

            But, at any rate, it doesn’t matter. Huemer’s only unrealistic element was a ray gun. He could have modified it. The important point is that it’s easy to imagine realistic scenarios, scenarios that likely have obtained for many actual people, in which a person can serve what even an Objectivist would have to admit is that person’s interests by harming an innocent person. Egoism commits them to saying that people may (or even must, on a maximizing conception of egoism) hurt innocent people. So, egoism is false.

          • http://www.stationarywaves.com/ Ryan Long

            Huemer’s only unrealistic element was a ray gun.

            Is this a joke? Directly from your Huemer link:

            Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. Assume further that I dislike homeless people and don’t like to see them on the street. So I do not feel bad about seeing the homeless guy disintegrated. In fact, it amuses me. Nor will my conscience bother me, because I am an ethical egoist, and so I believe that my action was morally virtuous. Therefore, after destroying the homeless guy, I should feel proud, not guilty.

            I’ve bolded the portions that are obviously unrealistic. This “thought experiment” is ham-fisted and preposterous. As I stated above, it is akin to saying, “Suppose your system of ethics is a contradiction by definition. Then, your system of ethics is a contradiction. HA HA! GOTCHA!

            What surprises me is that you genuinely think it’s a valid counter-example. How could you possibly?

          • Crypto Stirner

            “Egoism commits them to saying that people may (or even must, on a maximizing conception of egoism) hurt innocent people. So, egoism is false.”

            Why is that false, because you don’t like it? I don’t like the conclusion that there is no God and we’re alone in the universe. But it’s true.

      • Michael Philip

        Let me clarify a bit more: the Trolley Problem gives you no insight on what moral course you should take when you actually are confronted with emergencies. Likewise, I think that if you do indulge in this mind game, your answer does not provide actual insight into whether you are more of a consequentialist or a principles-person (it provides no more insight than a quiz that assumes you can only be a Democrat or Republican). But, I believe that insofar as people subjected to the test are under the false impression that they have but two options in such a scenario, their answers do give insight into human psychology. I think that especially applies when the test results of psychopaths are measured against that of the general population

        • http://undertheoculartree.com/ Michael Ezra

          Michael,

          You state:

          the Trolley Problem gives you no insight on what moral course you should take when you actually are confronted with emergencies

          .

          I dispute this argument. You simply state it without backing it up. The trolley problem can be very useful in warfare. Should one send a soldier on what is a suicide mission as there is no realistic possibility of coming back? This could be compared to “the fat man” and insights gained from thinking about whether or not the fat man should be pushed can be utilised in such a more realistic scenario.

      • Michael Philip

        and we know from experimental studies of intuition that intuition is not rational, and is often based on biases and on invalid heuristics.

  • Guy

    [If it adds to the discussion, from Peikoff's OPAR:]

    Force is the antithesis not only of the primary virtue, but of every virtue. The brute attacks in his victims every aspect of the moral life, while at the same time rejecting each in regard to his own life. In unleashing a process of force, he acts to nullify his victims’ independence–while himself becoming a second-hander, whose concern is the conquest not of nature, but of men. He seeks to prevent men from remaining loyal to rational principles–and he seeks it not on the grounds of a principle, but, as is true in every case of evil, without grounds; he seeks it through evasion and whim-worship. He orders his victims, when he feels like it, to accept and pass on to others any lie he commands. He throws out the concept of “desert”; his method of dealing with men is to extract the unearned for the sake of benefiting the undeserving, whether himself or others. As to the virtue of moral ambitiousness, I quote Ayn Rand: “[M]orality ends where a gun begins.”

    There is another derivative virtue to consider. Since “force and mind are opposites,” the brute stifles at the root the process on which his own survival depends, the process of men acting to create material wealth. At the same time the rule of force, once accepted by a society, breeds its own adepts. It replaces the creators with the kind of men who believe that what counts in life is not brainpower, but firepower. “Then the race goes,” in Ayn Rand’s words, “not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.

    Such a denouement illustrates the fact that there is no dichotomy between value and virtue. Since virtue is man’s means of achieving value, whatever destroys virtues ncessarily destroys values as well. In judging any instance of the present evil, therefore–as in judging dishonesty or any act of evil–there is no trade-off to consider. No good is achievable under any circumstances or for anyone by means of the initiation of force.

    • Other Guy

      The trouble with what you posted is that it’s just too hard to seep through the flowery nonsense and find the actual argument. It sounds more like a chapter from some religious text rather than philosophy. Perhaps you could paraphrase and write down what you think the argument is for the conclusion (“No good is achievable under any circumstance or for anyone by means of the initiation of force”). It helps if you number the premises.

      Also, all the talk of “brutes” reminds me of Elliot Rodger’s writing.

      • First guy

        If it’s too hard then perhaps you should go back to Reddit, dipshit.

        • Second Guy

          Or perhaps you should start reading real philosophy and not amateur nonsense like Rand and Molyneux.

  • Jeb Smith

    It’s funny that Randians should get upset at this post, because the style of arguing is Randian. She would take a position, “essentialize” it, then draw the conclusion that she thinks a consistent follower would draw. So a religious person whose kind to other people becomes a “zero worshipper” or “death worshipper” (or something like that).

  • jtkennedy

    Yes, David Friedman was also pointing all this out on humanities.philosphy.objectivism back in the 90s, and Randians have been making the exact same mistaken argument ever since. Not sure if DDF got the argument from Owl (Huemer) who was also active on that group.

  • Craig J. Bolton

    What I always found of interest re Rand and the Randians is that they have only an absolutist understanding of “rights.” According to every Randian I have ever talked to once you breach the rights of another person you sacrifice all your own rights.

    This is, of course, absurd under any legal understanding of “rights.” Under that conception there are specific penalties for breaking specific rights of specific other persons under specific conditions. There is no Right of Man Qua Man because there is no Man Qua Man.

    • Raymond Raad

      This very well may be what some “Randians” argue, but I don’t think it follows from Rand’s actual work. To Rand, everything comes in degrees. It’s only natural to apply that to rights as well.

      Sometimes supposed “Randians” do more harm than good to Objectivism.

  • Michael Caution

    Since all of this discussion hinges on Rand’s concept of “selfishness” or “self-interest” I think it would be helpful to see some engagement there. Obviously from these posts Brennan and Rand are using conflicting contexts when it comes to what is in one’s self-interest.
    In defining the nature of man Rand sets up a specific context that bounds what is a benefit to man, what is a rational value, and the actions necessary to achieve it. Where does Brennan come down on this?

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