A Dialogue on Metaethics, Moral Realism and Platonism from an Objectivist Perspective

Plato points upward in Raphael's fresco, "The School of Athens." Plato was a Platonic "moral realist." He believed that a "Form of The Good" resided in extra-mental reality.

Plato in The School of Athens

What is the basis for an objective morality in under 1000 words? Where does mainstream Moral Realism go wrong? What error did Plato make that has negatively affected philosophers’ ethical assumptions even into the 21st Century? What is the meaning of modern, moral “error theory?”

If you are interested in any of these questions, I think you’ll want to see the answers given in the dialogue contained in this post.

First, a bit of context: I posted this article on the philosophy section of reddit: Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”. The first comment below is responding to and quoting that posted article. I respond to that comment, and another poster responds to me, starting the dialogue. I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this dialogue:

LaoTzusGymShoes:

Some of these facts may be apparent, animals certainly seem to prefer warm, comfy shelter and food to the cold, and starvation, but others seem to be fairly dramatic assertions, that would be much more convincing with argumentation.

For instance

“The basic problem with all variants of utilitarianism, including Harris’s, is that there is no reason to act for the well-being of other conscious creatures, apart from how doing so redounds on one’s own well-being.”

This is a bold assertion. I don’t see this as being obvious in the slightest. Indeed, I’d say there’s no reason to only value my own well-being, when I have every reason to believe that I’m the same sort of being as other humans*. If my well-being is important, then why shouldn’t their’s be as well?

*also, don’t animals deserve moral consideration, at least to some degree? I mean, you don’t have to be vegan or whatever, but kicking a puppy doesn’t really seem morally neutral.

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Dr. Burzynski and Hank Rearden: Real Life Mimicks Atlas Shrugged…Again

atlasshruggedIn the novel, Atlas Shrugged, the great steel tycoon, Henry “Hank” Rearden and his assistants create a metal alloy that’s stronger, lighter and cheaper to produce than steel. For this great achievement, the government subjects Rearden to every form of business obstruction it can muster. This includes a propaganda campaign, new laws and attempts to badger Rearden into selling the rights to the metal to a government institution.

In the real world, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his team developed a cancer treatment that’s more effective (for some cancers), safer to administer and that produces much milder side-effects than radiation and traditional chemotherapy. For this great achievement, Dr. Burzynski was subjected to a harrowing, multi-year ordeal of interference by the FDA and state government.

This incredible, real-world progression of events is meticulously and compellingly documented in the 2010 film, “Burzynski,” currently available on Netflix streaming.

While the documentary is a searing indictment of the FDA, it is less compelling in its attempt to implicate the competitive drive of big pharmaceutical companies as the motive power behind the persecution of Burzynski. The evidence for this connection is relatively scanty. But it is certainly possible that there is some influence there, and it is definitely true that the FDA’s persecution of Burzynski served to insulate “big pharma” from competition. This would be another real-world parallel to Atlas Shrugged. There the politically connected steel baron, Orren Boyle, is involved in the government persecution of Hank Rearden, in order to eliminate his more able, productive and efficient competition.

But the lesson to draw from “Burzynski” is not that the pharmaceutical industry needs to be more heavily regulated, or that the FDA needs more “oversight.” The lesson is that the FDA needs to be abolished. Companies of all kinds will always want to remove obstacles and competition from their paths, but without the FDA regulatory machinery, they would have no way to do this by legalized force. They would only be able to overcome competition through superior efficiency and customer service. (Any coercive methods would be criminal.)

Moreover, the regulatory institutions of the state give politicians and bureaucrats the power to violate the decisions of individuals and private companies in the name of “the public interest.” This distorts economic decision-making, cripples market efficiency, and leads to pressure group warfare as described by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:

‘So long as a concept such as “the public interest” (or the “social” or “national” or “international” interest) is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation—lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.

‘If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment—and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy would bring them into existence.

‘Since there is no rational justification for the sacrifice of some men to others, there is no objective criterion by which such a sacrifice can be guided in practice. All “public interest” legislation (and any distribution of money taken by force from some men for the unearned benefit of others) comes down ultimately to the grant of an undefined, undefinable, non-objective, arbitrary power to some government officials.

‘The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity, cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle.’

In this case, the “public interest” coincides with the short-range “protection” of the major pharmaceutical companies, since their “partnership” with the FDA represents the “established system” of “ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs.”

If the US were to institute a system of government that only protects the individual rights of citizens from the coercion and fraud of others, its people would be much better off than with the FDA.

—–

Related Posts:

America Before The Entitlement State

19th-Century Capitalism Didn’t Create Poverty, But Reduced It

How to Show That Taxation is Robbery

QuickPoint 2: Altruism Supports Coercion…

What Caused the Financial Crisis: It Wasn’t Capitalism or Deregulation

Dr. Burzynski and Hank Rearden: Real Life Mimicks Atlas Shrugged…Again

atlasshruggedIn the novel, Atlas Shrugged, the great steel tycoon, Henry “Hank” Rearden and his assistants create a metal alloy that’s stronger, lighter and cheaper to produce than steel. For this great achievement, the government subjects Rearden to every form of business obstruction it can muster. This includes a propaganda campaign, new laws and attempts to badger Rearden into selling the rights to the metal to a government institution.

In the real world, Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and his team developed a cancer treatment that’s more effective (for some cancers), safer to administer and that produces much milder side-effects than radiation and traditional chemotherapy. For this great achievement, Dr. Burzynski was subjected to a harrowing, multi-year ordeal of interference by the FDA and state government.

This incredible, real-world progression of events is meticulously and compellingly documented in the 2010 film, “Burzynski,” currently available on Netflix streaming.

While the documentary is a searing indictment of the FDA, it is less compelling in its attempt to implicate the competitive drive of big pharmaceutical companies as the motive power behind the persecution of Burzynski. The evidence for this connection is relatively scanty. But it is certainly possible that there is some influence there, and it is definitely true that the FDA’s persecution of Burzynski served to insulate “big pharma” from competition. This would be another real-world parallel to Atlas Shrugged. There the politically connected steel baron, Orren Boyle, is involved in the government persecution of Hank Rearden, in order to eliminate his more able, productive and efficient competition.

But the lesson to draw from “Burzynski” is not that the pharmaceutical industry needs to be more heavily regulated, or that the FDA needs more “oversight.” The lesson is that the FDA needs to be abolished. Companies of all kinds will always want to remove obstacles and competition from their paths, but without the FDA regulatory machinery, they would have no way to do this by legalized force. They would only be able to overcome competition through superior efficiency and customer service. (Any coercive methods would be criminal.)

Moreover, the regulatory institutions of the state give politicians and bureaucrats the power to violate the decisions of individuals and private companies in the name of “the public interest.” This distorts economic decision-making, cripples market efficiency, and leads to pressure group warfare as described by Ayn Rand in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:

‘So long as a concept such as “the public interest” (or the “social” or “national” or “international” interest) is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation—lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.

‘If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment—and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy would bring them into existence.

‘Since there is no rational justification for the sacrifice of some men to others, there is no objective criterion by which such a sacrifice can be guided in practice. All “public interest” legislation (and any distribution of money taken by force from some men for the unearned benefit of others) comes down ultimately to the grant of an undefined, undefinable, non-objective, arbitrary power to some government officials.

‘The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity, cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle.’

In this case, the “public interest” coincides with the short-range “protection” of the major pharmaceutical companies, since their “partnership” with the FDA represents the “established system” of “ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs.”

If the US were to institute a system of government that only protects the individual rights of citizens from the coercion and fraud of others, its people would be much better off than with the FDA.

—–

Related Posts:

America Before The Entitlement State

19th-Century Capitalism Didn’t Create Poverty, But Reduced It

How to Show That Taxation is Robbery

QuickPoint 2: Altruism Supports Coercion…

What Caused the Financial Crisis: It Wasn’t Capitalism or Deregulation

Ayn Rand on Politicians, Ideas and Compromise

Quote

“Commentators often exhort some politician to place the interests of the country above his own (or his party’s) and to compromise with his opponents–and such exhortations are not addressed to petty grafters, but to reputable men. What does this mean? If the politician is convinced that his ideas are right, it is the country that he would betray by compromising. If he is convinced that his opponents’ ideas are wrong, it is the country that he would be harming. If he is not certain of either, then he should check his views for his own sake, not merely the country’s–because the truth or falsehood of his ideas should be of the utmost personal interest to him.”

–Ayn Rand, “Selfishness Without a Self,” Philosophy: Who Needs It

The Social Metaphysics of Communism: MiG Pilot

MiG_PilotThe book, MiG Pilot, is the true story of a Soviet pilot who defected to the United States in 1976. As a MiG-25 pilot, Lieutenant Viktor Belenko was among the most elite officers of the Soviet military. Like all Soviet military men of the period, he was thoroughly indoctrinated in Communist ideals and fed misinformation about the West his whole life. Yet through many years of observation and logical thinking, he came to see that there was something deeply wrong with the USSR. The rampant drunkenness, dishonesty and economic stagnation he witnessed eventually drove him to fly his MiG-25 to Japan, seeking asylum in the United States–the very heart of the “Dark Forces” he had been taught to fear.

The following incident is from Lt. Belenko’s time as a MiG-25 pilot stationed at Chuguyevka in Southern Siberia. Belenko’s thoughts at the time are represented in {green braces.} Again, I stress that this book is nonfiction; as in, this actually happened:
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A Refutation of the Argument from Design

The following is my short refutation of the Argument for God, from Design:

The Argument from Design purports to show that God exists by showing that only he could have designed the universe (or some part of the universe.) So, what does “design” mean? The relevant definition here would be: “conceived in a mind [God’s mind] and intentionally implemented in reality.” So the concept of “design” requires the existence of a mind (conceptual faculty) to conceive the idea for the object(s). Further, in order to do anything, the mind must have an intention or purpose. A “purpose” is a goal of a conceptual consciousness; the value for which it acts. Take careful note of the meanings of these concepts in reality and their relationships to each other; it is these concepts on which the Argument from Design rests.

The refutation of the Argument from Design is to observe what is actually required to infer design in an object and to show that this cannot be done with “God.” To infer design from an object: a) You must already know of some type of purposeful entity (based on other evidence) whose goals could potentially be served by the object. b1) Further, you must be able to observe some sort of purposeful function for the object as a whole (the object is a means to a goal beyond itself, whether practical or artistic.) OR: b2) You must be able to find evidence of a method of purposeful manufacture that is already known as such by other evidence. c) In order to observe that (b1) or (b2) is true, you must be able to contrast the purposeful nature of the construction of the object in question with something else that was not manufactured and has not been altered for a purpose.

The argument from design is capable of producing evidence of human-like aliens from observations of human-like alien artifacts, since human goals could potentially be fulfilled by such artifacts. But because of (a), the argument from design can’t apply to an immortal and radically different creature, whose alleged goals we cannot fathom. We have no basis for thinking that living beings have any purpose beyond themselves. They grow, metabolize, reproduce, and die in an endless cycle. The forms evolve over time, but to no clear goal beyond their own continuance and survival. Of what possible value could a succession of mortal humans be to an ultra-powerful, immortal, unchanging being? There’s no basis even for speculation, because there’s no basis even to consider it possible for an immortal, unchanging being to have values. (This supposition is arbitrary.)

The only known reference we have for purposes, and the relationship of designer to designed object, is humans and their creations. Indeed, the very concepts of “purpose”, “goal” and “value” only have meaning in reference to temporal, living entities that face an alternative between life and death. Goals and values are what living entities pursue in order to keep themselves alive, growing, flourishing, as opposed to deteriorating, suffering, dying. The concept of “purpose” is the same as “goal,” except that “purpose” involves the conceptual consciousness of a living being that is intent on the goal.

Thus, to say that an immortal and unchanging being has a “purpose” is literally meaningless; it defies the actual basis of the concept. Therefore a “design” by such an entity is meaningless and impossible to hypothesize.

In other words, whenever anyone talks about “God’s design” or “God’s purposes,” they are literally not making sense. The only way such phrases can be made comprehensible at all is by anthropomorphizing this alleged God into a mortal, very powerful human.

(For more on the nature of concepts and values, I refer the reader to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Exp. 2nd Ed. and The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, and to Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith)

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Related Posts:

Link Highlight: Introduction to Objectivism Playlist

The Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

The Quran Promotes Violence Against Non-Muslims

The Axioms of Objectivism

Proceeding from Axioms in Objectivism — YouTube Edition