Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)
In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)
Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.
Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies.
In philosophy, the simplifying principle of individual rights led to the creation of the United States as the freest country to date, for non-blacks. And the application of this principle to blacks ended slavery. No one today seems to think that the idea, “slavery is always wrong” is simplistic and impractical.
When simplifying reality with theories is done properly, the person using the theories understands their context of application: Einstein’s relativity is not to be applied (without modification) to the very small. Newton’s mechanics are still valid and useful in a context where things are not too small, too fast, or too far relative to each other, and where one doesn’t require very high precision of prediction over long time scales.
So it is with the principles in the theory that is the Objectivist ethics: The principles are not supposed to be contextless commandments or edicts. For example, the Objectivist virtue of honesty does not say “Don’t ever lie. Period.” It says that faking reality to oneself (self-deception) is always wrong, and that one should not attempt to gain positive values from others by deception. (The reasoning for this latter is that all genuine values are ultimately facts, and that attempting to fake the facts–in your own mind or others’–does not alter the facts. Getting something from someone that may seem “good” (for yourself or others you value) by lying, always comes at the price of maintaining falsehoods in your mind alongside truths. You are devoting mental energy that could be used for achieving genuine values to maintaining falsehoods in your own mind and those of others. Any single failure to remember a lie, or any action by victims of your deception that allows them to learn the truth, could easily lead to the collapse of any of your “benefits” gained by lies, together with a loss of trust and, if the lies involved obtaining material benefits, lawsuits and prosecution for fraud. To the extent that you lie in this manner, the truth about reality is your enemy, and your well-being is not in your control.)
But in a context where someone is threatening you or other people with violence or other force, there is no moral problem with lying to them. To take a classic sort of example, if a gun-wielding kidnapper comes to your door and demands you tell him where your children are or he’ll kill you, you can morally lie to him about where they are.
This example is not simply an ad hoc dispensation of a principle for the sake of common-sense practicality. Rather, it has deep theoretical reasons in the nature of the Objectivist ethics. The virtue of honesty, as a principle of moral conduct in dealing with others, is derived within a context of attempting to gain values (as explained above) in the absence of physical force. When someone initiates (or threatens) force against you, they are already trying to fake reality by substituting the man-made fact of their threat to harm you for some metaphysical facts, such as those that give rise to your right to properly raise your child, (in the kidnapper’s case) or your right to the money you have earned (in the case of robbery). In lying to them, you are merely protecting yourself or others from their threats, and your lie has none of the detrimental consequences incurred in the case of freely pursued dishonesty. (That is, none beyond the harmful consequences of the threat of force, itself.) You are not maintaining falsehoods to hold on to benefits, and rational people will understand that a lie to a physical aggressor does not indicate a dishonest character.
So, to reiterate: Rational principles are the human means of dealing with reality, and properly understood in context, they are very powerful. Complexity does not preclude principles, and contrary to many skeptics, an Objectivist does not arbitrarily limit the subjects and levels of abstraction on which principles can apply. Principles of fundamental human nature and fundamental behavior (normative morality) can be rationally discovered in a way similar to principles of physics. (Though principles of human behavior (including morality) must take into account the reality of human choice, and be expressible in the form of “if, then” conditionals.)
In regard to Concern Number 2, (“dogma” and/or “arm-chair speculation”) I’d like to point out that Ayn Rand advocated against taking anything on faith, including her ideas.
“[A]n error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”
–Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged and For the New Intellectual
Objectivism is not a religion, nor a set of beliefs intended to be taken on faith as a dogma. Any Objectivist, properly so-called, agrees with Rand on the basis of his own, independent observation and thought.
In regard to the idea that all philosophy is useless arm-chair speculation, I would say that it is true that there have been many philosophies that have held little regard for empirical facts, preferring to “logically” derive “castles in the sky” from axioms. Many philosophers today spend their energy and spin their wheels on useless theories, because they uncritically accept the errors of previous philosophers in 1) defining the questions the theories are supposed to answer, and 2) defining the meanings of the terms they use in attempts to solve the problems. (As an example, it is generally accepted among analytic philosophers that “objective” means “mind independent.” This is not its meaning in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.) But Ayn Rand actually derived Objectivism by generalizing from observation of reality, in much the way Darwin derived the theory of evolution by natural selection. (Objectivism has axioms, but their function is not to be starting points for the deduction of the rest of the philosophy.) Rand even explained how the concepts we use must be based on experience to be meaningful, making her fully empiricist, in the sense of thinking all knowledge ultimately derives from experience. (But, no, her theory of meaning is not David Hume’s “break apart compound ideas and see what singular memories of sense impressions the simple ideas correspond to.”)
Critics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy sometimes claim that scientific studies refute the tenets of Objectivism. I have always found that the people making the claim either misunderstand what Objectivism says on the topic, misinterpret/over-generalize the results of the study, or both. They will, for example, take the results of a psychological study on cognitive biases, and claim that it shows that human beings are inherently irrational, in contradiction to Objectivism. In jumping to this conclusion, such people typically ignore three major problems: First, the abstracts and summaries of studies like this tend to report the statistical majority of results, while not directly mentioning the individuals in the minority (“outliers”) who didn’t give the same result. If something is a fundamental and universal attribute of healthy human beings, then there will be no “outliers,” unless such individuals have bona fide handicaps/illnesses clearly separating them from healthy cases. So if there are any cases, in any study, where individuals do not succumb to a bias, then the bias is not universal to human beings.
Second, psychological studies frequently use a very limited and selective sample. A study that involves 30 American college-student volunteers in 2010, can’t necessarily be used to support a pronouncement about universal human nature. The study omits massive amounts of information from different cultures, including the whole history of humanity long before the college students were born. Would a sample of 12th-Century samurai, or 18th-Century lawyers, succumb to the same biases? Considering how much culture tends to affect people’s thinking, it’s reasonable to doubt it. This is one of the reasons science can’t replace philosophy: it is impractical to do scientific studies involving the whole range of human activities, so one needs to base many of one’s ideas on general observations of the world, and reason philosophically from that.
Third, the idea that the fact that many people operate with cognitive biases contradicts Objectivism, actually betrays a misunderstanding of what Objectivism says. Objectivism does not define rationality as the absence of cognitive biases. Rather, it defines rationality as basing one’s beliefs and actions on reasoning from observation to the best of one’s ability. This does not preclude unknown errors, including unknown biases, which are errors in one’s method of thinking. (Irrationality is the willful suspension of proper reasoning, within one’s knowledge and abilities.) One of Ayn Rand’s major points was that every individual human being, unlike the other animals, has to learn to use his consciousness properly.
Further, Objectivism doesn’t even require the majority of individuals to be rational to “work.” Objectivism says that people should be rational, if they want to survive and prosper. If the vast majority of people choose to be irrational, and this leads to chaos and destruction, that is certainly no refutation of Objectivism.
So, to sum up, Objectivism is not a religion, a set of dogmatic beliefs, nor a floating deduction from “obvious” axioms. It is a rational philosophy derived from observation of the world and careful reasoning. It provides the “big picture” that allows people to interpret the results of detailed scientific studies in accordance with the rest of the world’s facts. That is, it provides the informational context necessary to judge how–and how broadly–a given study’s results should be applied.
[Note: This is a slightly edited reproduction of one section on my page introducing Objectivism. I very much recommend reading the rest of that page if you haven’t already had years of study in Objectivist philosophy. Here’s the link: Introduction to Objectivism.]
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