Rebirth of Reason


An Answer to Robert Bidinotto on Moral Perfection
by Tom Rowland

Here are some thoughts. I apologize for the length, but wanted to cover lots of basses to make as definitive a statement as I could. I am beginning to see that this is THE ISSUE in which virtually everyone has an interest and that Robert’s answer to my question is part of the fundamental difference between ARI and TOC.

In post #20 and even more strongly in post #123 of the original thread, Robert says that “nobody’s perfect” both with respect to “errors of knowledge” (with which I wholeheartedly agree) and “errors of morality” (with which I have some problems).

So you’ll know my starting point I offer the following basic definitions plus some comments on the concept “morality.”  I will, without blushing or apology, use some definitions of Ayn Rand’s (both quotes are taken from the Lexicon; I’ve put the original source in parentheses):

  • “[Morality, or ethics] is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions – the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life.) [“The Objectivist Ethics,” VOS, 2; pb 13.]

Comment: this, of course, is a meta-ethical definition (i.e. a definition that is broader than the definition of a specific moral code and which comes before [meta] such a formulation). But I note that morality is seen here, as I believe it was always seen by Rand, as a guide, not a detailed set of rules. This idea, that morality is a set of principles rather than an explicit account of which actions and values are permitted, is in sharp contrast with the prescriptions and proscriptions of moral codes based on authority and revelation. Rand’s code is not intrinsic, it is, like all knowledge, contextual.

  • “A rational process is a moral process. You may make an error at any step of it, with nothing to protect you but your own severity, or you may try to cheat, to fake the evidence and evade the effort of the quest – but if devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality, then there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.” [GS, FNI, 157; pb 128.]

Comment: but neither is it subjective. I know, from personal experience of one raised in the Baptist denomination (my father was the son of Missionaries to India), what a freeing experience reading The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged can be. “Wow, no more commandments.”  So one can be tempted to abandon moral concerns entirely. But this brief equation between a moral process and a rational process identifies the basic standard by means of which we can judge the ideas, actions and values of others and ourselves. To be moral is to be focused on the identification of reality over the long term. What that means in practice on a day-to-day basis it is the job of philosophy to spell out. (Lest anyone get me wrong this early, Objectivism is not, never has been, never will be, a rule-giver philosophy; see below).

A useful concretization for me has always been Frisco’s response to the woman who objects to his views on money. “If you can refute a single sentence I uttered, Madame,” he says, “I shall hear it gratefully.”  This one sentence reflects the proper standard of judgment for errors of morality.  While certain of his position, Frisco does not assume omniscience and is open to refutation.  This is a man focused on the identification of reality.

In light of this understanding, I think you are right (#20) to point out that “unavoidable contextual factors” can stand in the way of coming to correct conclusions on any given issue.  That man is fallible is clear.  But while that fact is causally relevant to “errors of knowledge” I don’t see how it says enough, if anything, about “errors of morality.”  If I fail to take into account an important fact or a relevant principle because I am tired, hungry, traumatized, conflicted, unclear about the use of my time, limited in knowledge or understanding – experiencing difficulties of any kind, in short – none of that necessarily calls into question my moral commitment to rationality. Indeed, each of the factors you list is, with more or less difficulty, overcome within the context of one’s commitment to the identification of reality. If one is too hungry or tired to think clearly, one eats or sleeps before continuing. If one experiences emotional trauma – the unexpected death of one’s wife, for example – one puts aside as much as possible any troublesome issues to focus on the trauma. In each of the cases you name, in fact, an habitual moral commitment to rationality – i.e. to reality – is the needed antidote, and, given that commitment one cannot be faulted, morally, for any temporary aberration. (Here I agree with Barbara). It is the long-term pattern that is relevant here.

In fact, your analogy of the sailor tacking to account for shifting winds and currents is a perfect (pardon the expression) example of human moral perfection. For a moral person, the goal is rational identification of reality and the development of the skills – the method of mental functioning – that leads to that goal. Like the helmsman’s skill at tacking, man’s skill at rational functioning has to be learned and practiced daily to overcome the shifting winds and currents of one’s life. But, contrary to your assertion that “obsession about one’s moral perfection” leads to some sort of neurotic self-absorption (if that is, indeed, the meaning of the distinction you are making between ‘moral perfection’ and ‘moral value’ – this is a very unclear passage to me), perfection at tacking and perfection at rational contact with reality is precisely what is needed to pursue any value, whether reaching one’s destination on shore, or reaching one’s destination at any given moment in one’s life.  Thus, to be “obsessed” with one’s moral perfection is to be “obsessed” with one’s own productive purposes.  There is no dichotomy here, between theory and practice. One does not get where one is going by ignoring the compass. Tacking to account for shifting winds and currents isn’t, somehow, “anti-compass”. On the contrary, the need to tack is prescribed precisely by the compass.  So it is with morality for Objectivism.

But you claim, on what evidence I’m not sure, that the core virtue of rationality consists, not of commitment to the identification of reality, but rather “of always (?!) maintaining a rational ‘focus’”.  Without having a defining sentence, I’m not sure what it is you’re referring to here.  Nevertheless you present us with an exhausting list of questions which, while important to answer in any given context, fail to take into account that morality can’t, doesn’t and shouldn’t answer them (answering them, now that would be Catholic), but context very often does – and that quite easily. Let’s say that both my career and my wife are extremely important to me - isn’t it the context of my life that will determine which I will focus on at any given time?  If my wife has plans for her day and is reasonably healthy, I can focus on my career.  If she becomes deathly ill, I drop my writing for whatever time it takes to care for her, focusing on her. Note the difference between the specific – and morally irrelevant – thing I do in the given context and the rational – and morally relevant – process I go through to weigh my values. Can I make a mistake in my evaluation? Of course. But that is irrelevant to a moral evaluation.  As an example, I wrote a “dear John” letter to my high school sweetheart, believing that I had to make a choice between the pursuits of my career and marrying her. I was wrong. I didn’t fully understand that there wasn’t a conflict.  But, given what I knew, my mistake was an error of knowledge – an error of judgment – not an error of morality. (And, in any case the mistake has been corrected; my high school sweetheart is now my wife).

Further, what would you consider a “perfect” moral answer to the questions you point to? Wouldn’t such an answer amount to intrincicism?

Can one make a mistake about the amount of time one gives to A and how much to B?  Of course, but one can recognize the mistake only in hindsight, I believe, as when your wife tells you that you’re neglecting her.. And my suggestion is that you tack to starboard when she does. ;-)

Robert, I believe you when you say you are not a subjectivist and a relativist, but I am having a great deal of difficulty with this dichotomy you’re positing between “following the compass” and “getting somewhere.”  Do you really mean, as you seem to be saying at the end of post #20, that one can pursue one’s productive purposes without the moral compass of a rational contact with reality?  Or that if one pursues one’s productive purposes rational contact with reality will take care of itself? For myself, I believe that both of these positions are false.

Moving on to post #123 (article above), your basic claim, I think, is that in all your 55 years of living – including 38 of them in close proximity to Objectivists – you’ve “never met a morally perfect person.”

My first response is that given your exhausting list of questions of focus you listed above and the difficulties you  appear to see getting in the way of answering them, it’s no wonder!!  But that’s too facile, isn’t it?  So let’s get down to cases.

I suppose that the first question that needs to be answered is: in all of my 62 years,  43 in close proximity to Objectivists, including a few of the leading names, have I ever met a morally perfect person?  My answer is yes, I think I have, but I’ll refrain from listing them. Like you, I want to remain focused on the philosophy involved.

You begin the article with what at first blush appears to be a laundry list of “irrationality.”  But it isn’t, it’s really only one item: “all forms and degrees of evasion.”  And you then give a list of what that includes, ending with “rationalizing,” followed by still another list of what “rationalizing” “entails” (I don’t think you mean entails literally here, but wanted to avoid using the word “includes” again).  So we have a single irrationality, which is exemplified by the unit members you name.  What do they have in common?  Evasion, which is, at least in my book, the contrary of rational contact with reality, which I talked about above.

But wait a minute, aren’t you setting out here a kind of “negative moral compass” – a kind of moral southern exposure – by means of which you decide what not to do, and in terms of which you make moral judgments of other people?  Clearly, saying that you’ve never met a “morally perfect” person is a moral judgment.  In fact, it comes very close to including me.  Has no one of the people you’ve met objected?  Or are they all perfectly willing to accept your verdict? (In all Christian humility, may I say!)

(In Peikoff’s defense, in this respect, his “excommunications” are never wholesale, as this is, they are aimed at individuals and argued for, with more or less public exposure, however much you may think they were “rationalizations.”)

But what if they do object?  Oh, well, they are just rationalizing.  Isn’t that what you’re saying in this paragraph?  Doesn’t what you say here lead to the assumption that anyone who claims moral perfection by Objectivist standards has to end up rationalizing?  Aren’t you saying that you’re the arbiter here (not Peikoff) – that you  see reality more clearly than he does … Well, I guess I’m beginning to flame a bit here, so I’ll calm down … Wait a minute…

Back to cases.  Let me give you an example to chew on.

Suppose you know someone – a close friend – who smokes. You point out to them that  it’s expensive, it’s filthy, and it stands a good chance of killing them. You think it’s stupid to continue. He cannot but agree. But he’s not ready to quit.  If you’ve read Don Watkins’ article “On Smoking” at http://.angermanagement.com (I haven’t read Barbara’s so I can’t comment) you know that he points out that one has to be ready to quit, that willpower is counterproductive, and that once one has made the decision, quitting is easy, if not effortless.

Since your friend is fully aware of the facts, knows that he’s addicted to Nicotine, is he rationalizing, given that he’s not ready?  Is he evading reality?  Is he being a hedonist?  I don’t think so, any more than I think Ragnar was being an irrational masochist just because he disagreed with John about the value of putting himself in such danger. Rational people – people committed to knowing the truth and acting on it – can, after all, disagree about the relative value of something, and this is an example.

By your account, I believe you would conclude that your friend was evading and therefore irrational and therefore immoral, but that’s OK because one must be tolerant because we mustn’t “saddle anyone with moral perfectionism.”  I, on the other hand, see honest disagreement between two people committed to knowing the truth and therefore moral and that’s OK, even if I  think one is wrong.  Now, isn’t that the theme of Galt’s fight to save Reardon and Dagny before the world is destroyed?

And this brings us, finally (I know some of you are gasping for air), to my final points.  There is no escaping morality just as there is no escaping reality.  The dramatization of this in Atlas Shrugged is the tunnel “accident.” 

Now, Rand has been called on the carpet at least once to my knowledge (in a review, I can’t recall which one, so if anyone knows…) for the “harshness” of this scene.  In it Rand ties evasions (errors of morality, even in your book) with evil results (I assume, also in your book).

From “Are you kidding? Sure I have” to the end of your post,  instead of a clear argument, backed by clear examples, you over-generalize and begin throwing around  unsubstantiated accusations at your collectivized target (the “morality obsessed moral perfectionist”) – a target that seemingly includes anyone who believes that it’s important to be moral and to make one’s judgments of oneself and others based on one’s code of values.

It is evidently your belief that if anyone explains the reasons for a judgment with which you disagree, their explanation must be a rationalization.  Some of these rationalizations (which ones we are not told) “soar to awesome rhetorical heights, buttressed by plenty of arcane (?) philosophical language and familiar Objectivist code words…convincing themselves (no one else?) of things (what?)  that ordinary non-intellectuals, exercising nothing but common sense, know to be utterly stupid and morally appalling.”  Know? By common sense?  Well, OK, what is this thing called common sense?  How does it operate? What makes these things (whatever they are) stupid (whatever that is)? What are these Objectivist code words? Are you claiming that they don’t refer to anything, or that they shouldn’t be used?

Objectivism “saddles people with…the pressure of moral perfectionism?”   Cases, Robert, cases. You say that “the message…is that any failure of consistency, to any degree, on any issue, in any circumstance, no matter how trivial, is tantamount to the complete betrayal of their soul and their self-esteem…and forever.”  Cases, Robert, cases.

There is a lot you have to show to establish that claim. Just at a superficial glance, you have to show first, that anybody has actually made this claim, and then that the matters involved really were trivial, that the word “any failure of consistency” has real connections to anything that has happened.  It seems to me, as I said above, that you are the one that is claiming “any” and that Peikoff (if that is your target) is much more specific in his condemnations. And, much more cognizant of degrees than you give him credit for (read “Fact and Value” again and look for his discussion of degrees of honesty.”)

But this takes the cake, Robert, and forces your hand: “The assumption is that there are no degrees of irrationality or evasion; that to kid oneself on some minor issue is equivalent to tossing Jews into gas ovens." Where does any Objectivist write this?  What is the “minor issue” you have in mind? Cases, Robert, cases.

Your anger betrays you, Robert.  Because you are hurling all the epitaphs you claim are being hurled, at the people you claim are guilty (!) of hurling epitaphs.  It’s a hurling contest (hearty laugh track).  And you know what is messing up the floor. 

You claim that the rarest sentence you’ve ever heard is “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”  Cases, Robert, cases.  Does someone owe you or some one you know an apology?  Are all apologies supposed to be public so we can be sure that “prominent Objectivists” are not guilty on this score?  After all, we have no idea how many times Peikoff has apologized to his  wives.

Guilt – loudly expressed and in public – is obviously what you want them to feel. So the upshot of all this is that you, yourself are a “moral perfectionist,” at least when it comes to the people you think are guilty.  You want your moral standards to be the accepted ones and think that THEY should accept YOUR version of morality.

Not bloody likely, Robert.  Your idea of morality is far too hard and demanding for Objectivists.  After all, you’re sitting over there counting every single justification as a rationalization.  What’s up with that?

My position? Morality is vitally important.  One should judge oneself and others by the standard of the moral code one accepts. One should keep in mind the difference between mistakes in knowledge (marked by the tendency of such mistakes to be identified in hindsight) with mistakes in morality (marked by the tendency of such mistakes to be rationalized at the moment of making them).  No one is responsible for the moral rectitude of any one but themselves. But one is responsible for judging others by the standards he accepts.  And – this is a big one – it all depends on the moral code you accept.

Look, Robert, I can’t help it if anyone out there misreads Objectivist ethics as another set of rules because they grew up in a strictly rule-based moral atmosphere and have difficulty seeing the difference between “original sin” and “a moral code for living on earth.”  I can’t help it if every time someone makes a moral judgment against someone you like, you see a nun rapping knuckles. That isn’t what’s happening over at ARI, and, as I’ve pointed out, it does appear to be happening here in your post.

But I’ve decided not to accept any original sin.  So count me out.

Thanks for listening.

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