Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

All or Nothing: Philosophy with Degrees (Part 1) - A Survey of Errors
by Joseph Rowlands

SOLOC 4, April 2005


Good afternoon. Today I’m going to talk about a widespread pattern of philosophical errors. I refer to this pattern as the “all or nothing” mentality. The basic problem is an inability to see things in terms of degrees. Instead, everything is viewed as all or nothing. It’s either 100 percent, or 0 percent, with nothing in between.

Let me provide a very simple example from the field of politics. If you've seen some of the anarchists who periodically bombard SoloHQ with their hate, you might have heard some of them refer to the United States as a police state. A police state, for those of you who might not have heard the term, means, "A state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic, and political life of the people, especially by means of a secret police force." A police state is really bad. The government does whatever it wants, crushing any opposition through brute force. People are rounded up as dissenters. There is no freedom of speech. Opposing the government is the biggest crime.

The United States is certainly not a police state.

So why the confusion? What's the justification for such an outlandish attack? The argument is that, in principle, the U.S. is no different from a police state. Both initiate force against their citizens in one way or another. And that's it. Since our government taxes you, it's no different from North Korea, the Soviet Union, or any other violent dictatorship. The key to the argument is to say that "in principle" they are the same, and to brush off any differences as unessential "degrees."

I don't know about you, but the degrees certainly matter to me! I'd much rather live in a semi-free nation like the U.S. than to be slaughtered under a brutal dictatorship. So we have a bit of an anomaly here. How could anyone make this kind of gross error in their thinking?

The answer is philosophical. This speech is dedicated to analyzing what exactly are the different kinds of errors involved, some reasons people might accept them, and why they are incompatible with the philosophy of Objectivism. I'll attempt to show how Objectivism provides an alternative to them.

A Survey of Errors: Rationalism

The basic problem, as I've mentioned, is an all or nothing perspective that doesn't recognize that there are degrees. What philosophical reasons can cause this? Well, it turns out that there are plenty. I'll go through several of them so you can get a feel for how prevalent the problem is.

All of the errors I'll be going through have similar characteristics, and some overlap in method or purpose. I will discuss them to provide ample understanding of the kinds of errors made, and not worry too much whether the categories chosen are really exclusive of one another.

The first philosophical position that lends itself to this all or nothing point of view is rationalism. Rationalism is a theory of knowledge that centers on deduction. For a rationalist, the only real knowledge we can be sure of is that which we identify through deductive reasoning. An example of a deductive syllogism is the statement, "All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal."

The strength of this line of reasoning is that, if the premises are true, and the logic is used correctly, the conclusion must be true. And that's why rationalism is so seductive. When your knowledge is based on induction, which is collecting data and making generalizations based on it, you always have the possibility of error. Deduction opens up the possibility of certainty, making it very enticing.

In actuality, deduction isn't quite as nice as all that. It ultimately rests on your initial premises, which you have to learn by induction. The hard-core rationalists will try to pretend their premises are different from inductive knowledge, calling them a priori and pretending the knowledge is not gained from reality, but automatically known. But it's just not the case. They really do have to rely on induction for the premises.

But there's another serious limitation to rationalism, and this is what I want to address in this speech. The result of a logical syllogism is always true or false. It's always all or nothing. Knowledge is always in terms of yes or no, when in real life we constantly deal with degrees. It's fine to know that if you're in total darkness you can't see, or if you're in normal daylight you can see, but we also have to know that the darker it gets, the harder it is to see.

A lot of our knowledge is in the form of degrees. I'll discuss this more later, but at this point it's important to see that rationalism is a form of self-induced blindness to knowledge that's not in the form of true or false. When you start talking about degrees, you move away from the 100 percent certainty illusion of deduction. You have to move into the scary world of weighing facts and using your best judgment.

A Survey of Errors: "In Principle..."

The next issue I want to talk about is the error of "In Principle." As in, "In principle, statement X is true." The example I gave at the beginning of this speech was anarchists saying that 'in principle' the U.S. is no different from a police state, and that any perceived differences were just differences in 'degree.'

The issue here is sort of interesting. We often talk about things in terms of the principle, and then in terms of the degree. For instance, we can say that lying is in principle immoral. But we can also say that lying isn't nearly as bad as murdering someone. So there are two kinds of statements being made. One is an all or nothing statement about the kind of thing something is. The other is a quantitative or comparative statement about how much so it is.

There's nothing wrong with using either of these evaluative methods. It's perfectly legitimate to say that "in principle," stealing a quarter is the same as stealing a thousand dollars. The statement focuses on the similarity between the two actions. Both are forms of theft. Both take property from its rightful owner without permission. Both should be punished. The statement identifies a relationship between the two actions, and identifies characteristics that are the same for both, although the degrees may vary.

The problem is that some people hide behind the phrase "in principle" and go around equating vastly different things. Instead of recognizing the degrees of difference, they blind themselves to those differences and justify their mental sloppiness with the principle. They then claim to be principled! As if their intentional ignorance of reality was morally virtuous!

Notice that the "in principle" argument effectively ignores all degrees. It lumps things into the same category because of similarities, but the abuse is in then pretending that everything in that category is equal.

A Survey of Errors: "Dichotomies"

The next example is the dichotomy. A dichotomy is a powerful tool when used correctly. It's two categories that are mutually exclusive and, together, exhaustive. This means that you can shove everything into one of the two categories, and they'll only end up in one. If you find something not fitting in one, it goes into the other. Simple, easy, and if the dichotomy is sound, it provides valuable information.

We use this method of analysis all the time. The most basic is the alternative between true and false. But we also add good and evil, moral and immoral, right and wrong, truth and lie, color vs. black and white, and conscious and unconscious. More often, then, in these cases where we have two different words, we use categories by saying A and not-A. So you're either listening or not listening. You're either tapping your foot or you’re not tapping your foot. You're talking on your cell phone or you're not talking on your cell phone. You get the idea.

The potential mistake here is the same as the "in principle" mistake above. The dichotomies provide a set of categories that lump very different things together, so long as they're all similar in some respect. And once again, because they're similar in kind, even if the degrees are vastly different, they can be erroneously lumped together as equal.

We've been discussing the all or nothing view in terms of epistemology, the branch of philosophy dealing with knowledge. Rationalism was the error of upholding only deductive reasoning as being real knowledge. The "In principle" argument, as well as dichotomies, are examples of equating every element within a category as if they're the same. But let's move the topic now to ethics.

A Survey of Errors: "Intrinsic Values"

Let's start the discussion of ethics with intrinsic values. Objectivism upholds a relational, agent-based value system. That means values are things that are valuable to a specific person, and for a particular reason. A sandwich might be valuable to you because you're hungry and you need nourishment to live. The two parts necessarily go together.The nourishment is not some abstract nourishment, but the nourishment of a particular person.

An intrinsic value, by contrast, is said to be valuable on its own and for no particular purpose. The lack of purpose means that the alleged value is not tied to a specific person. It's not even tied to people in general, since no purpose connects the value to them. Instead, the value is said to just exist on its own. The value is inherent in the object itself.

Now that may sound weird at first, but there are plenty of examples. When someone says "you should help others," they're asserting that other people are a value in and of themselves. Why should you help them? No reason is given except, "it's the right thing to do," which is circular. There may be reasons to help particular people, but that's not what's being presented. So this ethical system upholds other people as an intrinsic value.

And there's nature.  Nature, as in the great outdoors, is often viewed as a value in and of itself. People want to "preserve" nature. Perhaps you think they value the ability to get away from it all, or to see wild animals, or to have fresh air, or any number of other values. Some might. But nature is upheld as a value even if we aren't given the opportunity to enjoy it. Some want rainforests to be left alone and let nature have her own space.

A way to detect an intrinsic value as opposed to a relational, objective value is by trying to compare the two. If we say education is valuable, we can point to how our lives are improved by a better understanding of the world. If we say nature is good, what is it exactly that we're gaining? Often, the answer is nothing. And what happens when our objective values clash with these intrinsic values? The intrinsic values are supposed to win.

This is where it ties into the rest of this speech. An intrinsic value, because it is not valued for a particular purpose, can't really be weighed against our ordinary values. We measure those objective values by how they contribute to our lives. Intrinsic values don't contribute. And yet they're still held to be valuable? In practice, you can't make trade-offs between the two. When the two conflict, one has to win over the other.

That's why intrinsic values lead to the all or nothing point of view. Although they have the appearance of values, given the name intrinsic value, they're really in the form of duties. They demand you act in particular ways, or to avoid acting in particular ways. Since they don't have a purpose, you don't have the moral right to compromise on them. You have to do them all the way. It has to be all or nothing. If you don't help other people, you're being selfish. If you do anything at the expense of nature, you are a greedy industrialist bent on polluting our fragile ecosystem.

Given that you can't compromise on an intrinsic value, it really is all or nothing. There are no degrees possible or wanted. Instead of picking between possible values, which requires a complex weighing of costs and benefits, you can pursue it in a blind fashion of all or nothing, bypassing the difficult questions.

A Survey of Errors: "Rule-based Ethics"

Similar to the intrinsic value issue I just talked about, there are rule-based moralities. Instead of upholding specific values as being good in and of themselves, these ethical systems uphold certain means as being valuable in and of themselves. You have a list of rules you need to follow in order to be good.

An example that contrasts this rule-based morality with Objectivism is the virtue of honesty. For some, honesty is always telling the truth, regardless of situation. Objectivists answer this by positing a scenario where a murderer asks you where your family is hiding. The Objectivist position of honesty does not uphold it as a rule to be followed blindly, but a principle that needs to be examined in a context and for a purpose. But a rule-based morality might declare you immoral for telling the murderer a lie.

So once again we can see an all or nothing aspect. This one demands you follow the rules, and declares any exception as a violation of morality. A typical example lately is that of the anarchists who uphold a non-initiation of force rule. They argue that we cannot go to war because we might "initiate force" against innocent civilians. The argument, if applied consistently, would rule out any defensive wars as well.

It's all or nothing by these rules. Either someone obeys the rules at all times, or they don't. This particular brand of morality is very popular for those who want to create a slave culture. They demand unthinking obedience. Moral rules are easy to follow since they require no thinking about the appropriateness of them. You just obey.

Just like with the intrinsic values, the rules are there without reason or purpose. In fact, the rule-based morality is just another kind of intrinsic value. Particular means are considered the value. They are to be accepted without question and followed consistently. Anything short of full compliance is an act of immorality. How great of an immorality? It's impossible to tell since the rules are accepted as arbitrary. If there was an underlying reason behind the rules, then you could see that at times the rules might not be worth following. But if you accept them blindly as "the right thing to do," then you can't figure out which rules are more important to follow. You can't think in terms of degrees in failing to live up to the rules. Either you followed them correctly, or you didn't. It's all or nothing.

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