Boydstun Comment on Khawaja’s Paper for ARS 2007
The title of Irfan Khawaja’s paper is “The Foundations of Ethics: Objectivism and Analytic Philosophy” (hereafter FE). This paper has areas of contact with his doctoral dissertation Foundationalism and the Foundations of Ethics.
Readers here know that Ayn Rand set out an account of the foundations of ethics in Atlas Shrugged (1957 [hb], 991–95, 1012–18, 1021, 1029–31, 1036–38, 1052–54, 1056–59, 1069), in “The Objectivist Ethics”(1961), in “For the New Intellectual” (1961), in “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” (1965), in “What Is Capitalism?” (1965, 20–23 in CUI [pb]), and in “Causality versus Duty” (1974). In his paper, Khawaja first gives an overview of approaches to the foundations of ethics in modern, analytic philosophy. He then turns to Rand’s account.
Khawaja is very much interested in foundationalism in epistemology and the interconnections of foundationalism there with foundationalism in ethics (cf. OPAR 207–13, 242–43). This is natural, and concern with these interconnections is occasionally touched in discussions of foundationalism in ethics.
Robert Audi writes in his Introduction for The Architecture of Reason (OUP 2001):
Philosophers have written a great deal on theoretical reason; it is roughly the topic of epistemology. There is also a large philosophical literature on practical reason, though it is small by comparison with the more voluminous works in epistemology, and it is often focused on practical reason in relation to morality rather than . . . in its full generality as concerning reasons for action and desire. There is only a much more limited literature on rationality conceived as encompassing both the theoretical and the practical domains. (4–5)
Foundationalism with respect to theoretical reason is commonly termed epistemic foundationalism. Theoretical reason consists of the most general processes yielding justified beliefs and justified beliefs that are true. The latter are commonly termed knowledge.
Rand defined knowledge as “a mental grasp of a fact(s) of reality, reached either by perceptual observation or by a process of reason based on perceptual observation.” This is a variant (1, 2) of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief, and it is an example of epistemic foundationalism (FE 21–23).
Epistemic foundationalism “is a solution to the canonical regress problem first articulated in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics I.3 and is a rival, in contemporary terminology, of skepticism, infinitism, coherentism, and contextualism” (FE 4). Aristotle remarks that “some think that because one must understand the primitives there is no understanding at all [= skepticism]; others that there is [understanding], but that there are demonstrations of everything [= infinitism]” (Post An 72b5–6). Aristotle argues that both these positions are false. The skeptic is right to maintain that we cannot understand items of putative knowledge that derive from prior understood items if the understood priors just go on and on without an ending (set of) prior(s). Rather, if there are derivative items of knowledge, there must be priors that have no further priors. These are the primitives, the base. The skeptic will insist that these primitives will not be understandable because they are indemonstrable. Aristotle rejoins that not all understanding is demonstrative, inferential understanding. Rand’s epistemological primitives are perceptual observations that are occasions of noninferential understanding.
One foundationalist approach in modern, analytic ethics is to take justified moral beliefs to be straight applications of epistemic foundationalism. It is proposed that there are justified noninferential moral beliefs and that other justified moral beliefs derive from these moral primitives. The noninferential moral beliefs are usually called intuitions, and these are taken to “give us direct access to moral facts, states of affairs, and propositions” (FE 5). This is the ethical theory of intuitionism. (See preceding post and here.)
Khawaja maintains that ethical intuitionism is at bottom dogmatic ethical assertion. One can do better than to stop the regress of justified ethical beliefs at some collection of fundamental ethical beliefs on which all others depend (9–12). In Khawaja’s view, one can go on to rationally justify one’s most fundamental ethical beliefs themselves, by comprehension of certain nonethical facts. This comprehension is by the usual powers of perception and thought (23) and requires no special cognitive power of intuition giving us “direct access to moral facts” (5).
Rand poses a “first question” for ethics, and, beyond her epistemology and general metaphysics, her answer to that question is her foundation for ethics (19). Recall how Rand opens the exposition of her theory in “The Objectivist Ethics.”
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge, or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why? (OE 13)
Rand’s ethics is a foundationalist one, but not of the intuitionist stripe (FE 17–27). As in any foundationalist ethics, the following are excluded in Rand’s theory: Skepticism about the idea that reason is able to define ethics and guide action is excluded by counterexample (OE 15–22). Contextualist ethics (defeasibility throughout) is excluded by the absolutism of the context of life (and death) for value (OE 15–16). Coherentist ethics is excluded by Rand’s general conception of truth as the recognition of reality (the correspondence theory of truth, not the coherence theory) and by the specificity of values required by specific life forms (OE 16). Infinitism in ethical justification is excluded by identification of an end in itself “that makes the existence of values possible” (OE 17).
There are foundationalist approaches to rational ethics in modern, analytic philosophy that are not intuitionist. Unlike intuitionism these are not straight applications of epistemic foundationalism. One form would be coherentism with respect to epistemology, yet foundationalism for ethics by pruning and reforming a starter set of our least dubious moral beliefs in accordance with various canons of rationality. Khawaja and Rand reject that approach for reasons not too difficult to surmise (FE 7–9, 14–17).
Another foundationalist approach that is not intuitionist is described by Khawaja. “One inspiration for this view is Aristotle’s discussion of practical truth and the practical syllogism at Nicomachean Ethics VI. The idea is that there is a sui generis brand of ‘practical truth’ which differs from theoretical truth and thus involves a different conception of justification than operates in nonpractical (i.e., epistemic) contexts. Further, since the conclusion of a practical syllogism is an action rather than a belief, practical justification concerns itself with a different justification than operates in nonpractical contexts” (FE 6–7).
Khawaja does not directly assess this Aristotle-inspired approach. Among the problems that might be raised for such an approach, raised from a Randian perspective, I notice three: (i) Theoretical knowledge for we moderns is not so narrow as it was for Aristotle. For us it includes knowledge of contingent matters, of things that could be otherwise; it is not only of things that could not be otherwise. (ii) The Randian should stand ground with Socrates against Aristotle’s exaggerations of the difference between taking good actions and making a good life. (iii) The Randian foundation of theoretical knowledge—and of all knowledge—is perceptual observation. The Randian should stand pretty much with the ecological psychologists (and near the American Pragmatists) concerning perception; they should argue that there is no perceptual observation without some norms of action at work. Theoretical knowledge is based in action-oriented perception.
Rand’s ethical theory is foundationalist in two ways. Firstly, as with any knowledge, ethical knowledge is epistemically foundationalist. Justified true beliefs can be traced “to the perceptual level via the concepts that constitute those beliefs” (FE 33). Secondly, Rand’s ethics is foundationalist in that it has a specific rational ground in the answer that Rand gives to her “first question” for ethics (FE 33). That answer is given in “The Objectivist Ethics” (14–22) and in Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s first question is: “Why does man need a code of values?” Again: “Does man need values at all—and why?” I want to comment on this “first question,” which Khawaja champions. Then I want to make one criticism of Khawaja’s representation of the foundationalist ethics that lies in Rand’s answer to her “first question.”
In his final book Invariances (HUP 2001), Robert Nozick observes that “ethics does not exist in order for behavior to be justified,” and if not for that function, then “why does it exist? What is ethics for? What is the function of ethics?” (238). Putting Nozick’s “first question” in a form parallel Rand’s, it comes to: “Do ethical norms have functions for humans—and what are they?”
Where Rand would have value, Nozick would have norm. Where Rand would have need, Nozick would have function.
Is Rand’s “first question” more basic than Nozick’s? Vice versa? It seems that we have here two different formulations of what should be the “first question” for ethical theory, not just the same question in two ways of putting it. They invite and receive rather different answers. The two answers are not miles apart, for both questions concern human life. Still, the answers are different. Rand’s answer to her question is well-known here. Nozick arrives at the following answer to his question:
The function of ethics, of ethical norms and ethical beliefs, is to coordinate our actions with those of others to mutual benefit in a way that goes beyond the coordination achieved through evolutionarily installed desires and patterns of behavior (including self-sacrificing behavior toward biological relatives). This coordination that ethics achieves is more extensive and better adapted to new and changing circumstances and opportunities. (2001, 240)
That Rand’s “first question” is the right “first question,” as against Nozick’s, is a new field for analysis. I expect both “first questions” (and their answers) would be enriched by a comparative study.
Lastly, I would like to draw attention to an essential component of Rand’s foundationalist ethics that Khawaja does not mention in his paper. Khawaja rightly portrays Rand’s epistemic foundationalism as enveloping her ethical foundationalism (FE 23, 26–27, 33–35). He rightly points to perception as the bases for all knowledge, including moral knowledge, according to Rand’s epistemology. Perception provides the bases for all abstract concepts and for beliefs (FE 21–27). He mentions that in her epistemology, Rand offers an analysis of the measurement-form of evaluative concepts, which are needed for thought about ethical action (FE 27, 36; IOE 32–37). To this portrait of Rand’s foundationalist ethics, there is a further component that I would add.
In a 1966 essay “Art and Sense of Life,” Rand writes:
There are many special or ‘cross-filed’ chains of abstractions (of interconnected concepts) in man’s mind. Cognitive abstractions are the fundamental chain, on which all the others depend. Such chains are mental integrations, serving a special purpose and formed according to a special criterion.
Cognitive abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is essential? (epistemologically essential to distinguish one class of existents from all others). Normative abstractions are formed by the criterion of: what is good? (36 in RM [pb])
In her 1965 “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” she had written that for
evaluating the facts of reality, choosing his goals and guiding his actions accordingly, . . . man needs another chain of concepts, derived from and dependent on the first [i.e., on the cognitive abstractions], yet separate and, in a sense, more complex: a chain of normative abstractions.
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). (RM 18)
Also in 1965, in “Art and Moral Treason,” Rand had written:
The process of a child’s development consists of acquiring knowledge, which requires the development of his capacity to grasp and deal with an ever-widening range of abstractions. This involves the growth of two interrelated but different chains of abstractions, two hierarchical structures of concepts, which should be integrated, but seldom are: the cognitive and the normative. The first deals with knowledge of the facts of reality—the second, with the evaluation of these facts. The first forms the epistemological foundation of science—the second, of morality and art. (RM 145)
Stepping back to 1961, to “The Objectivist Ethics,” we find Rand writing:
Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of ‘value’? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of ‘good or evil’ in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain. Just as sensations are the first step of the development of a human consciousness in the realm of cognition, so they are its first step in the realm of evaluation. (17)
The fact of the pleasure and pain mechanisms of the human body is essential to valuation on Rand’s understanding of the human being. Pleasure and pain are mechanisms necessary for human survival, and the experience of them is epistemologically foundational for moral concepts.