When “Helping Others” Doesn’t Help: Destructive Charity

What would happen if you gave a long-term homeless man $100,000? If he wasn’t mentally handicapped, would it turn his life around? Would he suddenly be like any normal, productive citizen? Well, someone actually tested this idea in real life, as described in this video from the “Today I Found Out” YouTube channel:

As presented in the video, the mentally sound homeless man, Ted Rodrique, was given $100,000 to do with as he chose. He was even given the benefit of a financial adviser. But within a year, Ted was already broke and homeless again, now with debt he hadn’t had before. In short, Ted was slightly worse off for having been given the $100,000.

So, what was the problem? Why didn’t Ted take proper advantage of this huge opportunity thrown his way? He didn’t take advantage because he didn’t really value the things required to maintain the small fortune given to him. He didn’t value hard work, planning and discipline, but rather, living day-to-day, guided by his whims.

This points to an important truth about human nature: Our personal well-being does not depend on purely material resources, but requires that we develop certain spiritual values–i.e. goals and pursuits in our own minds. These values are not determined by our material circumstances–by how much money we have–but by our choices and the way we think. In order to have a self-sustaining well-being, or happiness, you must choose to be the sort of person who earns wealth and pursues values for yourself. If you don’t choose the proper values that allow you to be self-sustaining, then you are wholly dependent on the work of others for any “prosperity” you have and any goods you consume.

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A Refutation of G.E. Moore’s Critique of Ethical Egoism: A Dialogue

G. E. Moore He thought ethical egoism was self-contradictory.

G. E. Moore

In a post on Reddit, a user called /u/Regtik quoted the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Egoism, which features G.E. Moore’s criticism that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. What follows is my discussion with Regtik. (Another user, called “parolang” also makes an appearance.) My comments explore the status of “good”–including “moral good”–as inherently relational to a living creature, versus the mistaken notion of “intrinsic goods,” as well as the reason that the rational self-interests of individuals generally do not conflict.

I am “Sword_of_Apollo” in this discussion and, as usual, I am arguing from an Objectivist perspective, (which advocates a normative ethics of rational egoism):

Regtik: Ethical Egoism is an internally inconsistent morality.

From the [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]:

“G. E. Moore argued that ethical egoism is self-contradictory. If I am an egoist, I hold that I ought to maximize my good. I deny that others ought to maximize my good (they should maximize their own goods). But to say that x is “my good” is just to say that my possessing x is good. (I cannot possess the goodness.) If my possession of x is good, then I must hold that others ought to maximize my possession of it. I both deny and am committed to affirming that others ought to maximize my good. (Sometimes Moore suggests instead that “my good” be glossed as “x is good and x is mine.” This does not yield the contradiction above, since it does not claim that my possession of x is good. But it yields a different contradiction: if x is good, everyone ought to maximize it wherever it appears; egoists hold that I ought to maximize x only when it appears in me.)”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself. …

Sword_of_Apollo: This is not a sound argument. The actual, rational basis of the concept of “good” involves a relation. Something is good for something else, (a living creature.) Plato and Kant to the contrary notwithstanding, this includes moral goods.

Moral goods are those goods that are freely chosen by humans, (potentially rational animals) that are good for all humans in all–or almost all–circumstances. (This universality means that they are very much abstract goods. Note here that when I say “good for all humans,” I mean that the goal or object of each moral act is always good for the agent acting; not that the actions of each agent are necessarily good for all humans.)

To claim that egoism is self-contradictory as G.E. Moore did is absurd. It’s like saying that the concept of “destructive” is self-contradictory, because something can be destructive to one object, but not to others: A bomb that destroys one building is destructive, because it destroyed that building; but it is also not destructive, because it left many others standing. So the bomb is both destructive and not destructive at the same time. Since we (allegedly) have a contradiction, the concept of “destructive” can only apply to things that destroy everything, and is otherwise nonsensical. That’s absurd. Something that is destructive is destructive to something else, just as something that is good is good for something else.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

This is a good example of why ethical egoism fails. Ethical Egoism fails to reap the full benefits of human cooperation because it holds the stance that cooperation is only useful when it benefits yourself.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Prisoner’s Dilemma is an artificially restricted situation that is not a good model for real life.

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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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Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

One little bit of high-tech wealth brought to you by a lot of human thought.

One little bit of high-tech wealth brought to you by a lot of human thought.

Wealth consists of the life-promoting goods and services that people have access to. Wealth, (beyond fruit) does not grow on trees. Luxury homes do not spring up from the earth by themselves. Seasoned pork roasts do not fall from the sky. Wealth must be created by human activity.

But what kind of human activity generates wealth? Is it desiring? Does simply wanting a new car make it appear? Despite what most Keynesians will tell you, I’m afraid that it will not. (1) People have to act to create wealth. But what kind of action? If you flail your arms about mindlessly, will that create wealth? Obviously not. What is needed is action based on rational thought: That is, taking stock of one’s surroundings and the actual needs of oneself and/or others, then figuring out how to use one’s surroundings to create what is needed for the promotion of such human life, (i.e. wealth.)

To provide food, people need to think about how to plant and harvest, how to hunt, how to maintain livestock, how to store crop yields without spoilage, how to keep and prepare meat safely, etc. If no one thinks at all, everyone starves. But is all that’s required to reach today’s level of wealth, minimal, routine, low-level thought? Continue reading

Why Each Person Can Have Only One Ultimate Value

A value is, in Ayn Rand’s words, “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” It is a goal of a set of actions. Most values are pursued for the sake of gaining other values. For example, a new hammer may be pursued in order for someone to build a scaffold. The scaffold is itself pursued in order to allow the construction of a house. The house is pursued in order that the builder may live there and thus have a richer, more comfortable life. The hammer is valuable in order to get the scaffold, the scaffold is valuable in order to get the house, the house is valuable in order to improve one’s quality of life. This progression can be termed a “value chain.”

A value chain cannot go on infinitely. A person must have some ultimate value that serves to justify and motivate the others. A set of value chains that converge on a single ultimate value may be termed a “value tree.”  The ultimate value is an end-in-itself that is never pursued primarily as a means to something else.

An example of a hypothetical value tree. This tree would be possible for someone to attempt, but would be unsustainable. Click to enlarge.

An example of a hypothetical value tree. This tree would be possible for someone to attempt, but would be unsustainable. Click to enlarge.

So the question I will answer is: Can a person be committed to more than one separate value tree, each leading to a separate ultimate value?

Having two different value trees means that two different sets of actions are required to achieve each ultimate value. The actions required to achieve one will continually conflict with the actions required to achieve the other. Thus, a choice will be required to select only one of the two appropriate actions at a given time. As one obvious example, consider a man who has Ultimate Value 1 (UV1) as “freeze apples” and Ultimate Value 2 (UV2) as “bake cakes.” He has just obtained eight hundred dollars. He owns neither a freezer nor an oven. If he wants to pursue UV1, he should buy a freezer. If he wants to pursue UV2, he should buy an oven. How is he to decide where to spend his money? The way one decides with a single ultimate value is by determining which option better promotes that ultimate value in the current situation. But with two distinct ultimate values, there is no way to decide rationally. The man making the choice might as well flip a coin. There is no rational way to decide which ultimate value to pursue at any given time.

Having an ultimate value means that every decision should be weighed by how much it contributes to that ultimate value. It means that the person should plan in advance for how best to achieve as much of the value as possible. It means ruthlessly cutting out any value that is not a part of that particular value tree, because only values that serve the ultimate value are justified. In the case of UV1, this means freezing as many apples as possible while one is alive. For UV2, this means baking as many cakes as possible. But if a man holds these two “ultimate” values, then he cannot plan in advance how to achieve either one to the best of his ability. There are necessarily many situations where he does not act to gain and/or keep each of the purported ultimate values. The very fact that there are two “ultimate” values means that they violate and contradict each other. So, in a very real sense, he does not actually value either of the “ultimate values” as ultimate values.

Therefore, having two ultimate values is, in a strict sense, self-contradictory and impossible.

More realistic examples of attempts to posit more than one ultimate value will be discussed in upcoming articles. One article will deal with one’s own life versus socialization as ultimate values (Link) and another will discuss an example of life vs. flute playing.

I also recommend Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith.

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Related Posts:

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

A Philosophy Professor Discusses Ayn Rand in his Ethics Class

Dr. Gregory Sadler of Marist College recently discussed Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness in his Spring 2013 Ethics class and posted the video to YouTube:

Dr. Sadler is not an Objectivist, but he gives what is, in my view, a good introductory presentation on Rand’s ethics. I encourage anyone interested in the broader study of Rand in academia, to watch this video (at least in part) and leave polite comments on the YouTube video page.

My main critiques of Dr. Sadler’s presentation have already been voiced in the page comments. They are the following:

Overall, this is a very good presentation of Rand’s ethics. Thank you, Dr. Sadler.

Just a few points: Contrary to 52:48, Rand wouldn’t say the choice of friends is arbitrary, but ought to depend on their objective virtues/values. Vicious people harm one’s own life when you’re involved with them; virtuous people typically benefit one’s own life.

Also worth emphasizing: Man *creates* wealth/values (material and spiritual) by acting on proper reasoning. There isn’t a fixed “pie.”

Also, Rand regards virtues as eminently practical. A breach of integrity has very real, self-destructive consequences in the long-term. There is no gap between morally principled action and practical action. (Practical for achieving long-term flourishing.)

Finally, “Ayn” rhymes with “mine.” : )

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Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Atlas Shrugged, Altruism and Egoism

Values Are Relational But Not Subjective

Values Are Relational, But Not Subjective

There are many people in the world who will say that values are subjective. You may or may not be one of them. For many, the reasoning behind this stance is that they see that different people value different things, and they think that if values were objective, then everyone would value the same things. So they conclude that all values are the opposite of objective, which is subjective.

This article will give evidence and argument that this view is mistaken; that this reasoning is based on a confusion about what it means for values to be objective.

First, let’s consider a simple physical situation: Two men are standing on opposite sides of a pole, as shown in Case 1 of the figure below. We are looking down on them, and they are both facing upward. For Person A, the pole is on the right. For Person B, the pole is on the left. Does this mean that the position of the pole is subjective? No. Both men can look objectively at the relationship of the pole to each one. If they specify whose relationship to the pole they are talking about, they can both agree on the fact of the relationship.

Relational and Objective Values Diagram

When Person A observes that the pole is on his right, Person B can observe that Person A is correct: relative to Person A, the pole is objectively on the right. They can also both agree that, relative to Person B, the pole is objectively on the left. The position of the pole is objective, but its physical relationship with Person A is different than with Person B. Continue reading