Objective Cognition, Objective Valuation
I’m sorry to be so long in following up on the discussion of Irfan’s paper at ARS 2007. I came down with pneumonia on 12/31 and did not get out of the hospital until 1/9.
I want at least to indicate some of the commentary from Prof. Bloomfield and the response from Khawaja. This leads to the opportunity for further specification of the situation of Rand’s metaethics among its contemporaries. I will propose those further specifications.
In his comment on Irfan Khawaja’s “The Foundations of Ethics: Objectivism and Analytic Philosophy,” Paul Bloomfield remarked that “the standard metaethical options on the table nowadays in analytic philosophy are, in rough terms, realism, expressivism, and error theories” (B 4). I will neglect the latter two. (One expressivist is Allan Gibbard; one errorist is J. L. Mackie. For the error theory of morality today, see Richard Joyce’s “Morality, Schmorality” in Bloomfield’s Morality and Self-Interest.) The varieties of realism are what are of most interest.
Realism in metaethics is “a metaphysical doctrine, typically taken to involve the willingness to make an ontological claim about the existence of moral properties in the world which are, in some important sense, ‘mind independent’” (B 4). “Realists see moral discourse as being truth-apt, where truth is understood as being more than deflationary, perhaps requiring some form of correspondence, where there are truth-makers in the world for our moral claims” (B 5). I should mention that the “moral properties in the world” should not be thought of simple properties in nature. They would have to be properties sufficiently complex and richly textured to be able to explain, justify, and guide revisions in our nuanced moral thinking.
One kind of realist holds that moral properties require “the same ontology that we give to rationality,” including logic and mathematics. This is a form of nonnaturalist realism. I think the sense in which it would be nonnatural is as follows (but see also Tara Smith’s Viable Values, pp. 38–53): There are all kinds of relations that are concrete existents. Such would be relations of perceptually given similarity, relations of parts to wholes, relations of spatial and temporal separation and containment, and relations of cause and effect. But there is one relation that is required for every concept we have, and it is not a concrete relation. That is the membership relation. The ontology of that relation is the ontology right for moral properties, according to this sort of nonnaturalist realism. I should notice that it is reasonable to call this sort of moral realism nonnatural only if one thinks the membership relation requires a category in the real that is sui generis against natural properties.
“Naturalists, on the other hand, think that morality is a natural phenomenon, somehow either reducing to or emerging out of our nature as members of Homo sapiens”(B 5). (See further, Richard Joyce’s The Evolution of Morality, pp. 146–52, 184–90; David Brink’s “Realism, Naturalism, and Moral Semantics,” pp. 154–70, in Social Philosophy & Policy 18(2).) Bloomfield relegates to a footnote a third variety of contemporary moral realism. In this school, “moral properties are secondary qualities like color, or are, in other terms, ‘response dependent’. Whether or not these are really realists theories or some form of subjectivism that is masquerading as realism is part of the debate” (B 4–5).
Bloomfield concludes of Rand: “It would be seemingly impossible to read her as either an expressivist or an error theorist, while she is easily identified as a realist. Moreover, it seems clear that she is a naturalistic realist and not a nonnaturalist, since she sees morality as being fundamentally due to the phenomenon of life” (B 5–6).
Khawaja observes in his brief rejoinder that “realism is fundamentally a thesis about (the ontological status of) the truth conditions of moral propositions. On the Objectivist view, life-conducivity is principally what morality is (and so, moral propositions are) about. So an account of the truth-conditions of moral propositions presupposes an . . . account of the nature, requirements, and essence of human life. . . . Whether this . . . account ends up being realist (and in what sense) is an extremely complex affair . . . not easily ‘mapable’ onto the menu of theories Bloomfield mentions” (K 3). (Concerning Khawaja’s account of “the nature, requirements, and essence of human life,” see pages 100–104, 109–13, of his Objectivity essay [V2N5].) Khawaja concurs with Bloomfield that Rand’s metaethics is not expressivist nor a form of error theory. Whether Rand’s is some sort of moral-realist theory is a question Khawaja defers.
I want to pursue the question right here. Recall that Khawaja had maintained—quite correctly—that 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). The specific rational ground of Rand’s ethics is given in “The Objectivist Ethics” (14–22) and in Atlas Shrugged. That ground is the phenomenon of life with its distinctive character of existence. As Khawaja says, “life-conducivity is principally what morality is (and so, moral propositions are) about” (K 3).
On Rand’s view, existence “exists as an objective absolute (which means: independently of the consciousness, the wishes, or the feelings of any perceiver)” (FNI 22). The facts of life-conducivity grounding correct morality are objective in the elementary sense just mentioned. In this coarse grain, Rand’s moral theory is a realist one, for it makes “an ontological claim about the moral properties in the world which are, in some important sense, ‘mind independent’” (B 4).
Rand’s general epistemology envelopes her epistemology of moral concepts. She rejected the idea that the classes that concepts are of are some sort of “special existents unrelated to man’s consciousness—to be perceived by man directly,” though not by sensory means (ITOE 53). The membership relation, which is required for any and all of our concepts, is not a relation unrelated to man’s consciousness. In this sense, Rand’s theory of concepts—including moral concepts—is not realist as that label is traditionally used in theory of universals.
On the other hand, in Rand’s epistemology, the membership relation of proper concepts is sensitive to the differences, the similarities, the degrees of similarity, the dimensions, and the causal dependencies that obtain in existence independently of our consciousness of them. In Rand’s theory, concepts are to be regarded as objective, “as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man—as products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality” (ITOE 54).
By Rand’s epistemology, moral concepts and propositions would be objective. The facts of life-conducivity can be conceptually comprehended, and these concepts will be related to man’s consciousness, but squarely standing on the facts. The facts of life-conducivity are mind-independent. (Even the facts of mental conditions, such as cognitive dissonance or self-disrespect, are mind-independent in this reflective, step-back sense of mind-independence.) For Rand all consciousness, including conceptual consciousness, is a natural biological phenomenon. So Rand’s general metaphysics and epistemology lays a background amenable to placing her moral realism into the Bloomfield division: naturalistic realism.
At the same time, quite harmoniously, I should say that Rand’s general metaphysics and epistemology does not of itself land Rand’s moral realism also in what Bloomfield termed nonnaturalist realism. The membership relations of all moral concepts and all concepts relating to life-conducivity are relations in the natural world, even though they are always mind-dependent in an epistemologically objective way. Because the ontology of the membership relation is natural (though manmade), because the membership relation is a denizen of the natural world, there is no reason from the epistemology of moral concepts to think that moral properties (facts of life-conducivity) are nonnatural.
Life-conducivity is a function not only of the character of a thing or circumstance, but a function of the constitution of the organism confronting the thing or circumstance. The facts of life-conducivity are always relations to an organism. Rand’s ethical theory is one in which moral properties are always in relation to individual human beings. This in no way detracts from the objectivity of conceptual comprehension of moral properties, of the facts of life-conducivity.
The morally good, on Rand’s view, is “an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value. . . . The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man” (CUI 21–22). Recall the third variety of contemporary moral realism mentioned by Bloomfield. In this school, “moral properties are secondary qualities like color, or are in other terms, ‘response dependent’” (B 4). Rand’s moral objectivism has some affinity with this sort of moral realism. There is no affinity to the idea that moral properties are secondary qualities, but there is affinity with the general idea that moral properties are “response dependent.” At the vegetative levels of the life one’s body, what is life-conducive is a function of how one’s body would respond. Likewise at the appetitive levels of the life of one’s body and at the intelligent level of one’s life, the life-conducive is a (complex) function of how one would respond. This sort of response dependence is perfectly consistent with naturalist moral realism and with objectivity in moral values.
Readers here know that, on Rand’s understanding, human beings are not simply rational animals. Humans, in Rand’s view, are profoundly disjunctive in nature: they are either rational animals or they are suicidal animals (AS 1013–15). Humans have the ability to choose the latter not only directly, but indirectly and by degrees by rejecting thought and rationality and by rejecting intelligent embrace of biological and psychological needs. (There is neither implication nor insinuation in this view that there are never circumstances in which deliberate suicide would not be the rational, self-respectful, moral choice.)
Does the fact that by their conceptual power humans are able to ratify and enhance, to reform, or to cast away so many of their moral values mean that Rand’s metaethics is, in a sense, a nonnatural variety of moral realism? “A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality” (AS 1013). Moral life is continually thoughtful life, and “thinking is not an automatic function” (OE 20). “In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort” (OE 20). Moreover, “man’s actions and survival require the guidance of conceptual values derived from conceptual knowledge. But conceptual knowledge cannot be acquired automatically. . . . The process of integrating percepts into concepts—the process of abstraction and of concept-formation—is not automatic” (OE 20).
I think it would be misleading to say that on account of the human volition required to sustain human life and on account of the (constrained) ability of humans to remake themselves, their world, and their values, Rand’s moral realism is a nonnatural one. It would be misleading even to say that Rand’s is manmade realism, in contrast to natural realism. At bottom human volition, like the human power of conceptualization, is a play of wondrous biological nature.