Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

Bad Philosophy Is Inconsistent
by Joseph Rowlands

Imagine you're discussing Objectivist ethics with a friend.  You bring up the fact that altruism, the ethics of self-sacrifice, is the current dominant ethical system.  Your friend is unconvinced though.  He insists he's never met an altruist.  Sure, people might say you're supposed to help other people all the time, but none of them practice it consistently.  He can point to the most altruistic person you two know and show that he's constantly acting for himself and not others.

The counter-argument being made is that nobody practices it consistently.  It seems plausible at first.  If they aren't really practicing what they're preaching, there's nothing really wrong with believing it, is there?  Doesn't their common sense override their mistakes?  And since they're inconsistent with it, we can't really predict how they'll behave, making it a poor tool of analysis.  Doesn't the inconsistency prove they don't really believe it?

The first thing to note is that these bad philosophies cannot be practiced consistently.  You can't be a dedicated altruist and live very long.  You can't be a committed rationalist, believing deduction is the only means of knowledge, because you'd have no knowledge about the real world.  You can't be a dedicated empiricist, believing that theory and abstractions are useless, because facts without integration would appear random and chaotic.  You can't be a consistent determinist, believing that choice is an illusion, or you'd sit passively while death slowly took you.  The big point here is that inconsistency is not optional.  It's a necessary by-product of an impracticable philosophy.

So they don't practice it consistently.  Is there anything else we can learn from the fact that they hold bad philosophical premises?  There are a few things.  The first is that their explicit philosophy is usually going to be their guide whenever they consciously try to work something out.  An altruist making a major life decision will think about what is right and wrong based on that altruistic premise.  It's only during a tough decision that a person focuses on his method of choosing.  It's only at that point that his conscious convictions will dominate and his implicit philosophy (common sense) will be pushed to the background.  In other words, that bad philosophy will be most dominant when it can do the most damage.

How does it affect some of the other philosophical beliefs?  Rationalism and empiricism are both epistemological.  They both deal with what we consider proper knowledge.  When are we most likely to consider our standards of knowledge?  One example is when we try to prove something.  A rationalist will want a strong logical deduction in order to be satisfied.  An empiricists will want to "see it to believe it."  These views will be brought into conscious consideration when someone has a strong desire to be sure about something.  Again, it's when the philosophical premises are deemed most important that they have the biggest effects.

Determinism also has an interesting affect.  In day-to-day decisions, it can't be taken seriously.  When is there a need to pay attention to that particular philosophical premise?  One case is the need for moral responsibility or judgment.  Moral issues are dependent on man's ability to choose his actions, and determinism negates that.  So it is a convenient excuse for any morally dubious actions.  That moral excuse works not only to brush off your own moral failings, but to excuse the actions of other people.  Justice can be tough to practice, and this lets you off the hook.

I've so far focused on how a bad philosophical belief is likely to be practiced.  There is another major side-effect though.  It's the unseen effect of a bad philosophical premise.  The belief in a false idea precludes you from understanding and adopting a correct idea.  You are blinded from the truth, and that can't help but affect your life.

Let's take the case of altruism.  By accepting it as a moral ideal, you end up rejecting or ignoring your own rational self-interest.  It's not that you'll act against it consistently, but that you won't properly identify it.  That's why a dichotomy between helping others (altruism) and stomping on others to get whatever you want (the conventional view of selfishness) is possible.  It's why people can say things like "as long as it makes him happy" as if anything a person wants to do is also good for him.  The focus on altruism blinds people to a rational ethics in their day-to-day lives, leaving them without an explicit standard to judge their actions by.

We can review other philosophical premises in the same light.  Rationalism doesn't really blind a person to the empirical data or facts.  A rationalist can't function without these.  What it does is  blind them to a cognitive standard they can use to evaluate the empirical data.  If deduction is all they focus on, they won't have a good idea of the rules of induction.  That also limits their ability to form new principles based on empirical data, or to view specific events in all of their context.  It's not that they won't do these things, but they'll be hindered in the process by not having an explicit theory of how to do it.

Similarly, empiricism doesn't mean you won't have theories or think in abstractions.  It just blinds you to a rational method of doing either of these.  Dismissing the validity of abstract theory only prevents you from practicing it in a consistent, rational manner.  You may ignore the principles of logic, for instance, because they're "just theory."  But in the end that can only limit your potential.

And finally, determinism doesn't mean that you won't make choices.  It means that you'll have a ready excuse not to.  Determinism favors passivity or reaction to purposeful action.  Why go through the effort of doing something difficult if choice is an illusion?  Sit around and be lazy.  You have no choice anyway.

So bad philosophy has a number of effects, even though it isn't practiced consistently.  We don't expect it to be practiced consistently.  But we've seen that when it really matters, your philosophical views become important and bad philosophy will impact your life.  We've also shown that the more frequent problems come from the unseen effects of a bad philosophical view.  What you miss is as important as what you mistakenly believe.

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