Rebirth of Reason

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Post 0

Sunday, July 8, 2007 - 12:24pmSanction this postReply

Thanks for posting this update about the Ayn Rand Society. This is terrific news about Irfan! I heard him lecture at IOS in 1994 and he is one of the young bright lights in Objectivism. He's reached this milestone all on his own.


Post 1

Monday, July 9, 2007 - 10:09amSanction this postReply
An interesting point is that next year will be the first time they've met beyond the Eastern Division.  This is a sign of growing interest.  (The Pasadena Hilton is walking distance from home, but I won't tell you in which direction.)

Post 2

Sunday, July 15, 2007 - 11:10amSanction this postReply


I should add that Darryl Wright is the author of the following:


“Diagnosing the Naturalistic Fallacy: Principia Ethica Revisited” in Southern Journal of

Philosophy 32(4):465-482.


“A Platonist's Copernican Revolution: G. E. Moore and Bradley's
Logic” in Journal of Philosophical Research. 23:1-28.

Post 3

Friday, September 28, 2007 - 6:00amSanction this postReply

The American Philosophical Association has now issued the schedule for the Eastern Division Meeting. In the initial announcement above, there was an error in the hotel location. The correct location of the meeting is: The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, which is at 700 Aliceanna Street.


The session of the Ayn Rand Society, with Irfan Khawaja and Professor Bloomfield, will last three hours beginning at 2:45 p.m. The room name is Galena, which is on the fourth floor of the hotel.


To attend the session, you need to register for the APA meeting. The registration area will be on the third floor. The fee is $60 for non-members. You will there be given a name badge and a book containing the schedule for all sessions of the APA meeting.


Listed below are some other sessions that readers of RoR might find of great interest.




6:30–9:30 p.m.

Symposium: Ethics and Aesthetics (Salon III)

Nadeem Hussain (TBA)

Jonathon Gilmore (TBA)

Karen Hanson – Commentator


6:30–9:30 p.m.

Symposium: Hermeneutics and Scientific Theory Choice (Salon VIII)

Joseph Margolis (TBA)

Harold Brown – “Interpretation and Constraint in the Development of Science”

Dimitri Ginev – Commentator



FRIDAY 12/28

9:00–11:00 a.m.

Author Meets Critic: Which Rights Should Be Universal? (Salon IX)

Christopher Knapp – Critic

William J. Talbott – Author


9:00–11:00 a.m.

Society for Skeptical Studies (Dover A)

Brian Ribeiro – “Pyrrhonism and Religion in Sextus and Montaigne”

Otávio Bueno – “Contextualism: A Pyrrhonist Defense”

Blake Roeber – “Does the Theist Have an Epistemological Advantage over the Atheist? Descartes and Plantinga on Theism, Atheism, and Skepticism”


11:15 a.m.–1:15 p.m.

Invited Paper: “Fiction and Emotion” (Salon I)

Tyler Doggett and Andy Egan – Coauthors

Tim Schroeder – Commentator


11:15 a.m.–1:15 p.m.

Author Meets Critics: Speaking My Mind: Expression and Self-Knowledge (Salon IX)

Matthew Boyle – Critic

David Rosenthal – Critic

Dorit Bar-On – Author


11:15 a.m.–12:00 p.m.

History of Early Analytic Philosophy Society and Bertrand Russell Society (Galena)

Christian Beenfeld – “Turing’s Philosophy of Mind”


2:45–5:45 p.m.

Ayn Rand Society (Galena)

See initial post of this RoR thread.




9:00–11:00 a.m.

Author Meets Critics: City and Soul in Plato's Republic (Salon VIII)

Mitchell Miller – Critic

Daniel Devereux – Critic

John Ferrari – Author


9:00–11:00 a.m.

Symposium: The Origins of Concepts (Salon IV)

Dan Weiskopf – “Learning genuinely new primitive concepts—that is, concepts that are not simply combinations of old concepts—has been argued to be impossible. This has often been taken to support the radical nativist position that concepts are not learned by rational psychological processes, but ‘triggered’ by brute-causal processes. I argue that there are several psychological mechanisms that are both empirically well-attested and capable of supporting learning of new primitive concepts. Two such mechanisms . . . . Finally, I defend this framework against the objection that it cannot produce genuinely new conceptual content by sketching a conception of the expressive power of a representational system and showing how the posited mechanisms can extend the range of contents such a system can entertain.”

Sara Rachel Chant – Commentator


11:15 a.m.–1:15 p.m.

Molinari Society (Falkland)

Charles Johnson – “A Place for Positive Law: A Contribution to Anarchist Legal Theory”

John Hasnas – Commentator

Roderick Long – “Inside and Outside Spooner’s Natural Law Jurisprudence”

Geoffrey Plauché – Commentator


2:45–5:55 p.m.

Symposium: The War on Terror and the Ethics of Exceptionalism (Salon II)

Jeff McMahan, David Luban, Michael Gross, Jonathan Marks


3:45–4:45 p.m.

Colloquium: Thinking Race (Salon VII)

Chad Kautzer – “Locke’s Protestant State of Nature: Colonialism and the Problem of Jurisdiction”

“It has been argued that Locke’s interest in British colonialism trumped his philosophical integrity insofar as he mischaracterized Amerindian life as a state of nature in the Two Treatises to justify subjugation and dispossession. Rather than a case of political misuse, however, Locke’s most famous description of the state of nature is best understood precisely as a juridical description of the colonial condition—part of a Protestant natural law alternative to jurisdictional claims based on first occupation, racial inferiority, or papal donation. In it, Locke provides us with two mechanisms for establishing nonconsensual jurisdiction, which successfully circumvent the philosophical problems encountered by his neo-Thomist and Protestant predecessors, while also undermining the absolutism of Grotius, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Filmer. This reading, I argue, is consistent with recent scholarship, has greater historical and textual support than previous interpretations, and counters many, if not all, critiques of Locke’s so-called abstract individualism.”

Idil Boran – Commentator



SUNDAY (12/30)

9:00–11:00 a.m.

Colloquium: Normative Dispositions (Dover A)

Edward Kleist – “Rationality and Other Values: A Study in First- and Second-Person Moral Necessitation”

Heath White – Commentator

Bradford Cokelet – “Dispositions and the Value of Virtue”

Julia Driver – Commentator

Post 4

Friday, September 28, 2007 - 6:19amSanction this postReply
“Learning genuinely new primitive concepts—that is, concepts that are not simply combinations of old concepts—has been argued to be impossible.
for the sake of understanding, please explain just what a 'primitive concept' be - as in giving an example or few - so one might have an idea what may constitute a 'new' one?

Post 5

Friday, September 28, 2007 - 7:17amSanction this postReply

I'm not sure, Robert, but the abstract of the paper is enticing. The papers are not widely available in advance, only the abstracts. If someone here attends the session, perhaps this thread will be used to inform us further.

Post 6

Friday, September 28, 2007 - 8:18pmSanction this postReply
My brother lives in L.A. and I visit there periodically, so I'm thinking of attending the March session in Pasadena.

Post 7

Sunday, September 30, 2007 - 8:14amSanction this postReply

At the Eastern Division Meeting, the paper by Harold Brown is sure to be worthwhile. Professor Brown is the author of these books:


Observation and Objectivity (1987)


Rationality (1988)


Conceptual Systems (2007)


He has discussed David Kelley’s theory of direct realism in perception in a 1992 paper “Direct Realism, Indirect Realism, and Epistemology” which appeared in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52(2):341–63.


Here is the ABSTRACT of his paper “Interpretation and Constraint in the Development of Science” to be delivered Thursday evening:


I explore the interaction between theory-based interpretations of scientific evidence and constraints on theories provided by that evidence. While it is often claimed that evidence is theory-dependent, several different claims are grouped under this thesis. I distinguish five such claims and reject two of these—that we perceive only what we expect to perceive, and that theory-dependence generates vicious circularity in empirical tests of theories.


The remaining forms of theory-dependence recognize that while evidence involves interpretation, it also involves factors that are independent of our beliefs. In particular, while accepted theory indicates the kinds of evidence that are worth pursuing, theory does not dictate what we will find when we actually look. Moreover, while evidence must be couched in the language of a theory in order to be relevant to the evaluation of that theory, this form of theory-dependence does not predetermine if the evaluation will be positive or negative.


The Duhem-Quine thesis, which holds that we can always protect a favored thesis against empirical challenges, must also be handled with care. Those who invoke this thesis acknowledge that empirical challenges to our beliefs occur, but attempts to protect a favored thesis may yield new consequences that generate new empirical challenges. Scientists also endeavor to expand the variety of empirical evidence and thus the constraints on theories. As a result, whether a particular thesis can be reasonably protected must be assessed in individual cases.


These reflections lead to a discussion of the role of instrumentation in gathering evidence. As science has developed, we have come to recognize that much of the natural world cannot be detected by our senses. We attempt to understand these “non-observables” by constructing theories, and we test those theories by constructing instruments that should allow us to interact with the items of interest (if they actually exist). The development of these instruments and the interpretation of their outputs are deeply dependent on theories, but this does not prevent these outputs from challenging those very theories and from making us aware of aspects of nature that we had not previously imagined. Thus while theory-guided instrumentation expands the range of interpretive factors that are open to question when we get a negative outcome, it also expands our ability to acquire evidence and thereby increase the range of constraints on our theories.


The paper ends with a discussion of the interaction between interpretation and constraint in two issues that Kuhn distinguished in his later writings: making reasonable choice between competing theories in an historical context and assessing whether a particular theory accurately describes its subject matter.


A pertinent case for study: Grains of the Comet

Post 8

Sunday, September 30, 2007 - 9:44amSanction this postReply
that we perceive only what we expect to perceive
Perception is automatic, a higher structured entificated sensating found in all higher animals - there is no 'expectation' - that is within the conceptual realm...

Post 9

Monday, October 1, 2007 - 8:44amSanction this postReply
Subject: Beating Down Skeptics and Cleaning Out Rodent Turds

Stephen, thanks for posting this abstract of the Harold Brown talk at the APA. He's obviously dealing with philosophy of science skepticism (of the Kantian-Kuhnian variety) which in effect is claiming that even the gathering and offering of evidence can't be objective because it is biased by preconceptions.

But I had a bittersweet reaction reading this, as I parsed the language.

It was train-wreck interesting to see the new twists on skepticism that have occurred in philosophy of science since I last studied in that field. But, despite an abstract appreciation for the attempt to rescue science one more time from the modern sophists [and gratitude for the people like Harold Brown and John Searle who patiently do so] , it made me so glad I had not chosen an academic path in philosophy -- spending a career fighting off gnats and abuses of language such as "theory-based interpretations" and "theory dependence".

I got a taste of this in the undergrad and grad school courses in philosophy I took. It's like mucking out the mouse cages. Dirty job, but someone's got to do it. And, like the sophists in Ancient Greece, the mice keep coming up with ingenious new ways and places to pee and defecate.

I can't bear to take the time to do this in detail and I'm sure Dr. Brown will do a more thorough job, but here's a hint: The term "theory dependence" is a package deal, combining several separate issues in a floating and ambiguous abstraction. One part of it can be reduced to the idea that the scientist has a previous context of knowledge when he chooses what experiment is worth pursuing. But the fact that one has previous conclusions and does not choose invalid or inappropriate experiments does not mean that the selection process is non-objective.

That would be like arguing -- as Rand did re Kant, that because you have a specific form and method of cognition (and in this case background -- a whole host of prior applicable knowledge and professional experience) this invalidates cognition.

In other words theory dependence is really fact and solid knowledge dependence, for someone who is doing science properly. Can there be a paradigm shift or an error? In general, men are capable of error. But to assert this is an arbitrary claim in a particular case unless one has specific evidence in that case.

Peikoff has explained all this in his courses (and, if I recall, in OPAR).

The Duhem-Quine thesis, the idea that "evidence involves interpretation" and that this makes it open to question, the central anti-science ideas that Thomas Kuhn presented in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" [and, yes, I have read it very carefully] -- these are all different twists on Kant's idea that we can't know with certainty and that our very tools of certainty melt like Dali's watches in our hands.

And, like Kant's ideas, applying them to science is equally dumb.

(Edited by Philip Coates on 10/01, 8:56am)

Post 10

Monday, October 1, 2007 - 9:56amSanction this postReply
Question - are these mice shitting because they don't know any better, or because they hate being wrong - are they being intellectually honest in genuinely seeking truth, or merely regurgetating out of spite?

Post 11

Tuesday, October 2, 2007 - 12:17amSanction this postReply
Robert, it's hard to get a mouse to answer that kind of questions when they are mid-potty. Their answers are kind of ... mousy. :-)

Post 12

Friday, November 16, 2007 - 5:56amSanction this postReply

New accomplishment of Paul Bloomfield, who will be commenting on Irfan’s paper at ARS in December:


Morality and Self-Interest

Paul Bloomfield, editor



From Oxford University Press:


Bloomfield provides an introduction to the topic and its place in philosophical history in his introduction. The volume will then be divided into three sections. The first will lay out the two sides of the debate; the second will cover views on morality as external to the self and thus not in our self-interest; and the third will focus on morality as intrinsic to the self and thus in our self-interest.”


The Papers


The Trouble with Justice

Christopher Morris, University of Maryland


Nietzsche on Selfishness, Justice, and the Duties of Higher Men

Mathias Risse, Harvard University


Morality, Schmorality

Richard Joyce, Australia National University


Because It’s Right

David Schmitz, University of Arizona


The Value of Inviolability

Thomas Nagel, New York University


Potential Congruence

Samuel Scheffler, Berkeley College


Too Much Morality

Stephen Finlay, University of Southern California


Scotus and the Possibility of Moral Motivation

Terence Irwin, Cornell University


Butler on Virtue, Self Interest, and Human Nature

Ralph Wedgwood, Oxford University


Virtue Ethics and the Charge of Egoism

Julia Annas, University of Arizona


Morality, Self, and Others

W.D. Falk, formerly UNC Chapel Hill


Why It's Bad to be Bad

Paul Bloomfield, University of Connecticut


Classical and Sour Forms of Virtue

Joel Kupperman, University of Connecticut


Shame and Guilt: Self Interest and Morality

Michael Stocker, Syracuse University

(Edited by Stephen Boydstun on 11/16, 6:03am)

Post 13

Monday, November 19, 2007 - 9:47amSanction this postReply
Assuming that "Schmitz" the publisher mentions as a contributor is the same as "Schmidtz" elsewhere, some facts to note are that he nas presented to the ARS/APA and invited Kelley to address his classes at Arizona.

Post 14

Thursday, December 6, 2007 - 6:37amSanction this postReply

I will comment soon on Irfan Khawaja’s paper “The Foundations of Ethics: Objectivism and Analytic Philosophy” which will be the topic of the meeting of the Ayn Rand Society on December 28. Here are two books that are good preparation for the issues in Irfan’s paper.



Morality without Foundations

A Defense of Ethical Contextualism

Mark Timmons (Oxford 1998)


From the back cover: 

Morality without Foundations investigates fundamental metaethical questions about the meaning, truth, and justification of moral thought and discourse. Mark Timmons maintains that all versions of descriptivism in ethics, particularly certain accounts of moral realism, fail. He argues instead that a correct metaethical theory should embrace some version of non-descriptivism. Timmons defends what he calls "assertoric non-descriptivism" which, unlike traditional non-descriptivist views, holds that moral sentences are typically used to make genuine assertions. In defending this view, he exploits contextual semantics, providing him with the semantic flexibility to develop an irrealist account of moral discourse.

Timmons goes on to support a contextualist moral epistemology, completing his overall version of contextualism in ethics. Like his foundationalist rivals, Timmons recognizes that there are moral beliefs that are epistemically basic in providing a basis for the justification of non-basic moral beliefs. Yet, he agrees with the coherentist in maintaining that there are no intrinsically justified beliefs that can serve as a single foundation for a system of moral knowledge. Timmons ultimately finds that regresses of justification of moral belief end with contextually basic beliefs --moral beliefs which, in the relevant context, are responsibly held, but in other contexts might not be suitable as regress stoppers.


The Good in the Right

A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value

Robert Audi (Princeton 2004)




1.  Early Twentieth-Century Intuitionism

         Henry Sidgwick: Three Kinds of Ethical Intuitionism
         G. E. Moore as a Philosophical Intuitionist

         H. A. Prichard and the Reassertion of Dogmatic Intuitionism
         C. D. Broad and the Concept of Fittingness
         W. D. Ross and the Theory of Prima Facie Duty
         Intuitions, Intuitionism, and Reflection

2.  Rossian Intuitionism as a Contemporary Ethical Theory
         The Rossian Appeal to Self-Evidence
         Two Types of Self-Evidence
         Resources and Varieties of Moderate Intuitionism
         Disagreement, Incommensurability, and the Charge of Dogmatism
         Intuitive Moral Judgment and Rational Action

3.  Kantian Intuitionism 
         The Possibility of Systematizing Rossian Principles
         A Kantian Integration of Intuitionist Principles
         Kantian Intuitionism as a Development of Kantian Ethics
         Between the Middle Axioms and Moral Decision: Multiple Grounds of Obligation

4.  Rightness and Goodness
         Intrinsic Value and the Grounding of Reasons for Action
         Intrinsic Value and Prima Facie Duty
         The Autonomy of Ethics
         Deontological Constraints and Agent-Relative Reasons
         The Unity Problem for Intuitionist Ethics

5.  Intuitionism in Normative Ethics

        Five Methods in Normative Ethical Reflection

        The Need for Middle Theorems

        Some Dimensions of Beneficence
        Toward a Comprehensive Intuitionist Ethics

(Edited by Stephen Boydstun on 12/06, 6:46am)

Sanction: 5, No Sanction: 0
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Post 15

Saturday, December 15, 2007 - 6:29amSanction this postReply

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.

Post 16

Saturday, December 15, 2007 - 11:49amSanction this postReply
Thanks, Stephen - this only buttresses my contention that the proper role of the artist is indeed that of being a 'spiritual visualizer', and further, that in the hierarchial structure of philosophy, positing politics and aesthetics as mutual siblings under ethics, while correct, is actually a slight misnomering - tho not yet in practice, tho otherwise in importance, philosophically speaking, since the unit of a human is that of the individual, not the group [whether tribe or aggregate], then understanding the nature and application of aesthetics is of greater importance than politics, since it deals with the individual, the personal, and politics is concerned with the individual in conjunction with fellow individuals, again properly as individuals - that is, in aggregates, not as tribals....
(Edited by robert malcom on 12/15, 11:51am)

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Post 17

Wednesday, December 26, 2007 - 6:30amSanction this postReply

Concerning Nozick 2001


Recall how Rand begins the 1961 presentation of her ethics. She first defines code of ethics. She defines it as a species of a code of values for guidance in one’s choices and actions. Specifically, it is a code of values pertaining to the choices and actions that determine the course of one’s life.


She then asks whether man needs a code of values, including a code of ethical values—and why. By this question, she does not want to prejudge which particular code is correct. She aims for the question to make sense for a broad range of candidate codes (FE 28). Rand presupposes, however, a particular concept of ethics as such, which she articulated in her definition of code of ethics at the outset. With that definition comes a particular relation of ethical values to other kinds of values. Ethical values naturally grade into the other values (those not determining the course of one’s life), and ethical values are naturally more weighty than other values. So goes the value-terrain with Rand’s definition.


The ethics section of Nozick 2001 (pp. 236–301) is titled “The Genealogy of Ethics.” He begins much like Rand by asking: What, if any, is the function of ethics? Like Rand, he soon turns to biology and the human case in it. (On function see Nozick’s The Nature of Rationality [1993], 117–19, and Functions [2002], edited by Ariew, Cummins, and Perlman.) Unlike Rand, he does not offer at the outset of this inquiry a definition of ethics. This is an explicit strategy.


Ethical norms are norms. How the ethical ones are distinguished from other norms, such as enforced laws or etiquette, is left initially open; more detailed content of ethics can be deferred until after we understand why ethics exists. The search for the function of ethics begins with a concept of ethics that is open in another way too. It is neutral between various ethics, neutral between the ethics of Kant and Schopenhauer, for example. Without attachment to a more particular system of ethics, one can adequately tell whether an ethics is present in a society, and Nozick claims that “any suitably general and suitably neutral identification of an ethics will find that some ethics or other is present in every society” (239).


It seems plausible that ethics is ubiquitous across societies because it performs a function that humans in association everywhere have found extremely important, even necessary. Perhaps ethical capacity of some sort was biologically instilled in order to aid in this function; perhaps ethics is so important a cultural tool that every society (or at least every society that has survived for some time) has found its way to culturally instill it. In either case, the presence of ethics is associated with this function. What, then, is this important function of ethics? (239)


I showed Nozick’s answer in my comment on Irfan’s paper, but repeat it here:

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 instilled 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. (240)


Nozick reviews the biological findings of interlocking behaviors of organisms. These include both behaviors in which the cooperating individual organism bears significant net costs and behaviors which are in the interests of the individual organism while also interlocking with the behavior of others to mutual benefit. These behavior patterns are instilled by the processes of evolution (240–43).


It is a familiar picture that the range of animal behaviors possible with conditioning mechanisms is wider than with merely reflex mechanisms. Wider still are animal behaviors with operant conditioning mechanisms. (For finer detail, see pages 198–202 of “Volitional Synapses” in Objectivity V2N4.) This widening of behavioral range applies to self-beneficial behavior as well as to coordination behavior. Intelligent, conscious control widens these ranges further. The higher powers “have been selected for because of the benefits they bring” (243). With the power of intelligent, conscious control, the animal (including the paragon of animals) becomes greatly able “to coordinate behaviors to mutual benefit with nonpresent nonrelatives, and to generate new kinds of coordinated cooperative behavior for new situations that differ from long-standing ancestral ones” (243).


Nozick takes guiding one’s behavior by ethical norms to be part of those higher powers, “and it too brings benefits in extending the realm of cooperative activity beyond what is reached by fixed instilled patterns of behavior” (243). Ethics is a distinctive way of coordinating behavior so as to achieve mutually beneficial action (243–53). “Ethics exists because at least sometimes it is possible to coordinate actions to mutual benefit” (244).


At this stage of the Nozick account, I worry about the seamless move from biological success of survival and reproduction to success of utility, individual and joint. I worry also, as usual, that the theorist of ethics—Darwin, Spencer, Lanessan, Nietzsche, Guyau, Bergson, Dewey, J. Huxley, Rand, or Nozick—is focusing on those aspects of biology that he will then draw, too conveniently, into his particular ethics grounded in the nature of life. Which focus (or foci) is best warranted in the statement of biological facts pertinent to ethics?


I leave that question for the future and return to Nozick’s account of ethics. Ethical norms are internalized norms. They can continue to effect coordination to mutual benefit in the absence of social sanctions.

An ethics is the most weighty principles or values concerning interpersonal relations . . . that mandate behavior that may be opposed to one’s desires of the moment, where these principles or values are not backed solely (or predominantly) by the consideration that other people will punish you if you deviate.
. . . 
It does not follow from the definition that ethical considerations must be more weighty than any other kind of consideration. Some principles or values that are not about interpersonal behavior might turn out to be more weighty than ethical ones in certain situations. (248)

Human beings have the ability not only to follow norms, but to perform evaluations. Nozick sees humans as having “four general mechanisms for regulating behavior: pleasures and pains; desires, wants, and preferences; evaluations; and norms” (274). We can evaluate things in the world and shape our desires upon which we act. “The initial importance of evaluations . . . is in guiding our own conduct through the greater control they give us over our existing desires” (276). “Evaluations enable us to manage, oversee, and guide our desires because of the widespread network of considerations that they are responsive to. Evaluations do not stand in isolation individually, they form a system . . .” (275). When we have begun to have general standards of evaluations, norms themselves can become subjects of evaluation. “Once ethics of some sort exists, once our normative boxes and operators are in place and prepared to receive content, and once our evaluative capacities are functioning, ethics can get extended beyond its originating function” (278).

Ethical obligations to oneself—such as coordination of one’s present actions with one’s future and past actions—would be among the propagations of ethics that go beyond its originating function of serving cooperation for mutual benefit. The disposition to care for oneself and one’s kin was instilled by evolutionary and developmental biology. Ethical caring for these, and for others, is a further reach of awareness.

Post 18

Wednesday, December 26, 2007 - 10:21amSanction this postReply
To carry further, ethics involves individuation - and as Rand pointed out, civilization is the process whereby man is freed from man, meaning the individuation from the tribal, then the development of ethics must incur with selfness, since individuation imperiates that, as well as recognising that a group of individuals is an aggregate, thus necessitating ethics as a self-centered applicable to aggregates.... and thus, the tribal viewing falls by the wayside in terms of human flourishing....

Post 19

Monday, January 7, 2008 - 9:57amSanction this postReply
So: did anybody go to the conference?  I'd like to hear how it went.

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