Rebirth of Reason


Understanding Is and Ought - A Personal View
by Michael Stuart Kelly

My last article on SOLO, To Turn or Not to Turn, A Question of Cheek, provoked a great deal of misunderstanding. Most of it—in my mind—was regarding what I actually said.

There was an "is" phase where people understood perfectly what I was saying and they enjoyed the article. Many nice comments were made. Then there was a "ought" phase where I was attributed a message I did not write and was criticized all over the place, even as regards my style. I watched in wonder.

This ended up being a small demonstration of what my article actually was about—understanding is and ought.

One constant theme running through Ayn Rand’s works is the correct identification of situations. In technical terms, she calls this integration of cognitive concepts. In popular language, she asks the questions "What do I know?" and "How do I know it?" Both questions, respectively, point to two areas of philosophy: metaphysics and epistemology.

Since man needs to act, he needs to evaluate. He uses normative concepts for this. The popular way to understand them is to ask the question, "What should I do?" Normative concepts are guides to choices and actions. They are ethics, the third major area of philosophy. Ayn Rand called ethics the normative science.

To quote Ayn Rand (from "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto):

"While cognitive abstractions identify the facts of reality, normative abstractions evaluate the facts, thus prescribing a choice of values and a course of action. Cognitive abstractions deal with that which is; normative abstractions deal with that which
ought to be (in the realms open to man's choice)."

One point repeated many times in her writings is that ethics rests on metaphysics and epistemology. Using technical jargon, normative concepts are based on cognitive ones. In layman's terms, a fact must be correctly identified before it can be properly judged or evaluated.

All this is well and good, and generally understood by everyone, until we get into the realm of traditional ethics (including Rand’s). Often people skip the part about identifying "What is it?" and "How do I know it?" so they can get to the "What should I do?" part more quickly. A simple out-of-context phrase will trigger a strong reaction. An incorrect identification is made. This is because the cognitive integration was no longer present. But eliminating cognitive concepts is a completely incorrect use of reason.

This is probably the single greatest cause of disagreement in Objectivism that I have observed until now. It is interesting to look at it from a psycho-epistemological angle. To quote from "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art" in The Romantic Manifesto:

"Psycho-epistemology is the study of man's cognitive processes from the aspect of the interaction between the conscious mind and the automatic functions of the subconscious."

One partially automatic function is man’s capacity to integrate concepts. He can choose to let concepts be integrated automatically (and allow them to turn into an intellectual mess), or he can choose to consciously integrate them (which is what philosophy is all about).

The act of integration occurs precisely because the human mind is limited as to what it can hold in focus on a perceptual level at any one moment. Rand demonstrates this in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology with the famous crow experiment, in which the birds could discriminate three "units" of men, but not five. Rand speculated that man’s perceptual capacity might be greater than that of a crow, but probably not much. That is where concepts come in.

Concepts are a type of mental shorthand. They are mental units that represent actual ones. They are created by integration (lumping observed similarities together and eliminating measurements). But they need a physical expression to be useful. Words with definitions are used for this.

Rand is very careful to emphasize that a word and a concept are two different things. The concept is the integrated unit. The word is merely a tag you put on the concept to be able to use it.

Incidentally, this is why many languages exist in the world, but all cover the same concepts. Table means (to quote Rand from ITOE) "an item of furniture, consisting of a flat, level surface and supports, intended to support other, smaller objects." That is the concept. In English, the "mental tag" would be the word table. In Portuguese, it is mesa. They both refer to the same concept.

So far this is well and good, because we are discussing cognitive concepts (i.e., What is it?). When we get to normative concepts (What should I do?), the mental shorthand approach is still needed. Man’s perceptual capacity is still limited. But when it is used incorrectly, i.e., a "mental tag" is put on the wrong thing, all hell breaks loose.

Prejudices and preconceptions are formed in this manner. Racism is a traditional case in point. Instead of identifying what he actually does not approve of—poor moral qualities and general ignorance, for instance—and then using this standard for judging all people, a racist incorrectly identifies that concept with a particular skin color. This leads him to morally judge all people of all colors by an incorrect standard. Sometimes he may get it right. Sometimes a person of a particular color does have poor moral qualities and general ignorance (or vice-versa), but any correct identification is due to chance, not reason. The wrong "mental tag" is used.

When we get to traditional moral principles, this is a bit less evident, but it still can be clearly understood. Since my last article dealt with "turning the other cheek" and this provoked a lot of discussion, it is still on people’s minds. So it is useful as an example.

If you look at what this principle means in cognitive terms, it literally means offering your other cheek to a person who strikes you. There is no evaluation at this point. You do not decide whether you should do this or should not do it. You merely see that this act exists. We are at the "What is it?" stage.

If you go cognitively in the direction of abstracting this act to apply to other actions, you arrive at my cognitive definition, which is, "not retaliating in kind against aggression."

When you look at Rand’s literature, you see many examples of her heroes doing precisely that—not retaliating in kind against aggression. Roark did not appeal his court case, for example, or sue Stoddard. Francisco D’Anconia did not strike Hank Rearden back—and that was literally on the cheek.

Why they do this is another story. One thing is clear, however. They chose to act in that manner.

Here we come to the normative part. Do you retaliate in kind, or not, when someone attacks you? What should you do? Since Rand’s heroes often do not retaliate, I searched for an answer. I came up a method to make this choice. I put it into a strategy/tactic perspective.

Notice that I set the normative standard in this perspective as preserving a value. Then I correctly noted that Rand’s heroes often chose this course of action as a momentary tactic because they had values they were holding onto.

"Ruse" was mentioned as a possible motive, but I think it goes way beyond that. I don’t think Rand’s heroes engaged in deception anyway. They had values they wished to preserve—and Rand makes those values pretty clear. They chose the path of not retaliating as one of the alternatives among many as the best for a particular instance. That is precisely what a tactic is.

On the Christian level, the cognitive definition of turning the other cheek ("What is it?") is identical in this case—it literally means offering your other cheek to a person who strikes you on one.

The normative concept, however, is completely different. The Christian answer to "What should I do?" is to evaluate another person as more important than yourself, respecting and granting his wishes, even when those wishes are harmful to you. This clearly is altruism.

It is so obvious that Rand’s heroes are not altruistic that it is almost embarrassing to have to write it. The only similarity that the acts of Rand’s heroes have in common with the Christian version of "not retaliating in kind against aggression" is on the cognitive level. The act is identical (cognitive). The values are opposite (normative).

Joe Rowlands wrote an article on SOLO about finding common ground in order to talk about Objectivism with religious people. I really like the term, common ground. It is especially useful here. Cognitive similarities are common ground. That makes them extremely useful in pointing out the opposing normative concepts—the different ethical principles behind identical acts and choices. Then it is easy to show when it is good to do such act in one case and evil to do it in another. It helps to illuminate abstract principles by using concrete terms that a religious person is familiar with.

I personally think it is a wonderful persuasion technique when used properly.

Now, back to the effects of skipping the cognitive level when an evaluation is made. Shorthand "mental tags" are extremely useful for moral principles. But the danger in their constant use is that they make the mind turn off on a cognitive level. They provide an immediate emotional reaction—usually moral denunciation, but sometimes, moral praise. The "What is it?" has become so integrated into the "What should I do?" that it is no longer asked or even thought about.

But remember that a word is not a concept. It is a mental tag. It stands for a concept.

Here is what I have observed with many Objectivists. When a phrase becomes automated on a normative level and constantly used that way—i.e., when words like "turn the other cheek" are given the meaning of actively implementing altruism and constantly used in this manner—over time, I see people start to deny the cognitive truth of the phrase's meaning when Rand is mentioned.

They will say, "Roark actually did not decide against retaliation in kind by not appealing, what he really was doing was ..."

Or that, "Francisco D’Anconia actually did not decide against retaliation in kind by not slapping back, what he really was doing was ..."

Or even that Galt actually did not offer aid to his torturers to fix the broken torture device, what he really was doing was ...

But the simple fact is, they did choose those things. They chose them on a cognitive level. Such rationalizations as those I just mentioned are made possible only because cognitive meaning has lost all meaning to many people when Rand’s heroes are mentioned. But to deny the existence of the cognitive level is to evade reality.

Psycho-epistemologically, this is a case where integration broke down and a word or phrase (mental tag) substituted the concept.

Christians use this technique all the time. They say that the Bible has to be "interpreted." From what I have observed, Objectivists have been doing this for years, too, except they prefer outright denial of facts.

The reason I wrote my previous article was to shed some light on this.

Now, as to the barrage of acrimony and insults recently directed at me, in this instance I choose to practice what I preach. I will not retaliate in kind.

I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to figure out why.
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