Mar 172006

In this essay, I argue that David Kelley’s views of moral judgment in Truth and Toleration are implicitly grounded in the mind-body dichotomy.

David Kelley on Motives Versus Consequences in Moral Judgment

In the first chapter of Truth and Toleration, David Kelley begins his discussion of moral judgment by explaining that it is “the particular form of evaluation concerned with what is volitional, with the realm of man-made facts.” He then writes:

Since the fundamental choice is whether to think or not, whether to use our capacity for reason, we must judge people by how they make this choice. In judging an action, therefore, we are concerned not only with its consequences, measured by the standard of life, but also with its source in the person’s motives, as measured by the standard of rationality. The question is how to integrate these two factors into a single judgment. Philosophers have long wrestled with this question; they have proposed various theories about the proper weight to assign consequences on the one hand and motives on the other. The Objectivist ethics, unfortunately, has yet to address this question at any depth. But it’s clear that we cannot ignore either factor (T&T 9).

Kelley is right that “philosophers have long wrestled with [the] question” of “how to integrate [motives and consequences] into a single judgment”: it’s standard fare in contemporary moral philosophy. Utilitarians and other consequentialists claim that only the consequences of an action matter. Kantians and other deontologists claim that only the motives of an action matter. Moral philosophers often attempt to strike some balance between these two extremes, despite the great difficulty (if not impossibility) of identifying any rational principle by which determine the “proper weight” in any given case.

Simply by framing his discussion of moral judgment in terms of this standard puzzle, Kelley has already set himself in conflict with the Objectivist metaphysics. How so? By accepting the basic terms of the motives-versus-consequences debate, he’s accepted its underlying split between mind and body. The basic question of that debate, after all, is whether a person should be judged primarily by the action intended by consciousness (i.e. the mental) or the actual results in existence (i.e. the physical). The mental and physical aspects of human action are treated as fundamentally separate and distinct parts, as only related by chance.

Once the problem of moral judgment is framed in terms of a fundamental distinction between motives and consequences, a proper Objectivist solution is no longer possible. To claim that only one element matters, whether motives or consequences, is to outright embrace either the mental or physical side of the mind-body dichotomy. More subtly, any attempt to assign “proper weight” to each side also leaves the dichotomy intact. In that case, the mental and physical aspects of human action are juxtaposed but not integrated. They are still treated as quite separate and distinct elements of human action, only barely related. (It’s like adding oil and water to a jar, rather than just one or the other, but not blending them into a creamy new whole via emulsification.)

Notably, Kelley does not merely raise the “motives versus consequences” dilemma to highlight its basic error. He fully accepts it, using it throughout his discussion of moral judgment. In the passage quoted above, he not only says that moral judgment concerns both motives and consequences, but also assigns each its own standard of judgment: the standard of rationality for motives and the standard of life for consequences (T&T 9). He later discusses “evaluating actions” and “interpreting motives” as two separate kinds of moral judgment (T&T 11-13). In transitioning from one to the other, he mentions that “to judge an action morally, we must consider motive as well as consequence” (T&T 12). Also, in the opening comments of the later chapter on “Error and Evil,” Kelley’s very strange analysis of ideas as possessing the primary property of truth/falsehood and the derivative property of good/evil depends upon his mind-body dichotomy, particularly the gap between motives and consequences and between rationality and life. He writes:

Whether an idea is true or false, and whether it is good or bad, are related issues. But they are distinct, and the issue of truth is primary. The essential characteristic of an idea is its content, the claim that it makes about reality. The first and essential question to ask about any idea, therefore, is whether the claim it makes is true or false. Truth or falsity is a feature that an idea has by virtue of its content. An idea is good or bad, in contrast, in virtue of its relation to some action. As I indicated in “A Question of Sanction,” there are two categories of relevant action. We can evaluate an idea by its effects–the actions it leads people to take–as measured by the standard of human life. And we can evaluate an idea by the mental actions that produced it, as measured by the standard of rationality. In either case, the value significance of the idea is a derivative property, which depends not only on the content of the idea but on the nature of the relevant action. And in either case, as I said, “the concept of evil applies primarily to actions, and to the people who perform them.” It applies only in a derivative way to the ideas themselves (T&T 27).

Kelley’s subsequent argument that the Marxist professor is less evil than the Marxist dictator depends upon these general distinctions — and thus upon the mind-body dichotomy. (Don’t get me wrong: his analysis of those cases is also wrong for many other reasons! That’s another blog post though.) All in all, Kelley clearly filters the Objectivist understanding of moral judgment through the distorting lens of the mind-body dichotomy, courtesy of the division between motives and consequences. As we shall see, the results aren’t pretty — nor remotely Objectivist.

The Objectivist Integration of Mind and Body in Moral Judgment

Ayn Rand’s rejection of the mind-body dichotomy allows her to bypass the traditional debates about motives versus consequences in moral judgment. It’s not that Objectivism has “yet to address this question,” as Kelley claims (T&T 9). Ayn Rand did not somehow overlook or ignore the issue in her lengthy discussions of moral judgment in “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” and “The Cult of Moral Grayness” in The Virtue of Selfishness. Rather, because she consistently rejected all forms of the mind-body dichotomy, the thorny question never arose. Two passages by Ayn Rand on justice illustrate that point.

First, in Galt’s Speech of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes justice thusly:

Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification–that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero–that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions–that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement–that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit–and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence (AS 937).

The thorough integration of mind and body underlying this conception of justice leaves no room for the standard debate about motives and consequences. For Ayn Rand, justice requires the moral evaluation of a person “for what he is” — meaning for all that he has made of himself as a human being in thought and action. It also requires the judger to take action consistent with those evaluations. To fail in that moral virtue by refusing to differentiate between good and evil is to court disaster. So justice — both by the judger and for the judged — presupposes the integration of mind and body, thought and action, and moral and practical. Ayn Rand even explicitly speaks of mind-body integration just two paragraphs earlier, in the discussion of integrity: “man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of two attributes: of matter and consciousness, and that he may permit no breach between body and mind, between action and thought, between his life and his convictions” (AS 937). (She could well have added “between motives and consequences” to that sentence.) So in moral judgment, the standard questions about the “proper weight” to assign to motives and consequences are beside the point. The whole man is to be judged, not just some selected parts thereof.

Second, in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Ayn Rand analyzes justice as follows:

For instance: what fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them. Is his judgment automatically right? No. What causes his judgment to be wrong? The lack of sufficient evidence, or his evasion of the evidence, or his inclusion of considerations other than the facts of the case. How, then, is he to arrive at the right judgment? By basing it exclusively on the factual evidence and by considering all the relevant evidence available. But isn’t this a description of “objectivity”? Yes, “objective judgment” is one of the wider categories to which the concept “justice” belongs. What distinguishes “justice” from other instances of objective judgment? When one evaluates the nature or actions of inanimate objects, the criterion of judgment is determined by the particular purpose for which one evaluates them. But how does one determine a criterion for evaluating the character and actions of men, in view of the fact that men possess the faculty of volition? What science can provide an objective criterion of evaluation in regard to volitional matters? Ethics. Now, do I need a concept to designate the act of judging a man’s character and/or actions exclusively on the basis of all the factual evidence available, and of evaluating it by means of an objective moral criterion? Yes. That concept is “justice” (IOE 51).

Notice what Ayn Rand does not do in the passage: She does not divide human action into wholly separate domains of motives and consequences, assign a different standard of evaluation to each, and then wonder how to properly combine them into a single moral judgment — as David Kelley does. Instead, she is concerned with objective moral judgment by proper moral standards of all that lies within a man’s volitional power of choice. Like Aristotle, Ayn Rand understands human action to be an integrated whole consisting of deeply integrated mental and physical aspects.

So precisely how are mind and body integrated in human action?

Metaphysically, the fact that all human action is goal-directed means that its mental and physical aspect are integrated by complex relations of cause and effect. Our bodily movements are continuously guided by mental processes, i.e. by our thoughts, percepts, values, desires, goals, and choices. An everyday action like driving to the grocery store to buy steak for dinner requires a vast background of mental activity, such as remembering the pleasure of eating perfectly grilled slabs of beef, accepting the consumption of animal flesh as moral, recognizing the car as the most efficient form of transportation, understanding the need to trade with others, projecting the inevitable hunger of later that evening, noticing the red light at the intersection, knowing that steak is a nutritious food, and so much more. Even the super-simple action of depressing the gas pedal cannot be understood except in terms of perception of the upcoming hill, a goal of maintaining speed, and knowledge of the effects of depressing the gas pedal. Since human actions aim at some end, they cannot be understood apart from the complex of mental states which generate and guide them. At root, those particular mental states are the product of the thinking that a person does — or fails to do. So a person’s chosen actions are the causal effects of the sum total of his ideas, and those ideas are the causal effects of the sum total of his thinking.

Morally, the mental and physical aspects of human action are integrated by the deep causal connection between thought and life, i.e. by the fact that human survival requires the volitional exercise of reason. In “The Objectivist Ethics” and elsewhere, Ayn Rand stresses that “man cannot survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts,” that “he cannot provide for his simplest physical needs without a process of thought,” that man’s “basic means of survival is reason” (VOS 22-3). In fact, the connection between reason and life is so deep that she repeatedly connected our basic volitional choice to think or not with our existential choice of life or death. So in Galt’s Speech, she observes: “You are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival–so that for you, who are a human being, the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think.’ (GS 930). Similarly, in “The Objectivist Ethics,” she writes: “Metaphysically, the choice ‘to be conscious or not’ is the choice of life or death” (VOS 22). The fact that human life requires thought means that the choice to think is the embrace of life whereas the refusal to think is the embrace of death. Or, as Ayn Rand wrote: “To the extent to which a man is rational, life is the premise directing his actions. To the extent to which he is irrational, the premise directing his actions is death” (AS 936).

According to Objectivism, valid principles of moral judgment must reflect the integration of mind and body inherent in human action. They must be well-grounded in the deep causal connections between a person’s choices, thoughts, actions, and life. Leonard Peikoff does just that in Fact and Value:

Now let us consider what is involved in judging a man’s actions morally. Two crucial, related aspects must be borne in mind: existence and consciousness, or effect and cause. Existentially, an action of man (as of sunlight) is good or bad according to its effects: its effects, positive or negative, on man’s life. Thus creating a skyscraper is good, murdering the architect is bad — both by the standard of life. But human action is not merely physical motion; it is a product of a man’s ideas and value-judgments, true or false, which themselves derive from a certain kind of mental cause; ultimately, from thought or from evasion. Human action is an expression of a volitional consciousness. This is why human action (as against sunlight) is morally evaluated. The skyscraper’s creator, one infers in pattern, functioned on the basis of proper value-judgments and true ideas, including a complex specialized knowledge; so he must have expended mental effort, focus, work; so one praises him morally and admires him. But the murderer (assuming there are no extenuating circumstances) acted on ideas and value-judgments that defy reality; so he must have evaded and practiced whim-worship; so one condemns him morally and despises him (F&V).

In contrast, David Kelley claims that moral judgment concerns two distinct realms: the mental realm of motives, judged by the standard of rationality, and the physical realm of consequences, judged by the standard of life. That’s simply not consistent with the Objectivist approach. Does this criticism mean that questions about motives versus consequences never arise in moral judgment? No. Sometimes a person’s motives for acting may conflict with the ultimate consequences of that action. Whether for good or for ill, a person’s plans may be confounded by the misjudgment a critical fact or the intervention of some unforeseeable outside force. Such mixed cases are often difficult to judge rightly. However, they are variant, unusual cases — and ought to be treated as such. The norm of human action is motives integrated with consequences, thought with action, mind with body. So the distinction between motives and consequences is not a fundamental divide in moral judgment, nor a proper starting point — contrary to David Kelley’s analysis.

David Kelley on the Dual Standards of Life and Rationality

As we’ve seen, David Kelley does not merely distinguish between the mental and physical aspects of human action in Truth and Toleration. He also carves out separate domains of motives and consequences, each with its own standard of judgment. After so injecting the virtue of justice with this mind-body dichotomy, Kelley must resort to strange philosophic gymnastics to then relate these two domains of human action back to one another. Given the already-contradicted fact of mind-body integration, his strategy is as sensible as declaring entities to be mysterious combinations of existence, identity, and causality, and then attempting to somehow relate those parts. Still, let us consider the details.

Unsurprisingly, Kelley attempts to connect motives and consequences by appealing to rationality as a means to the end of human life. He writes:

If we divorce the inner choice from the outer action, then we divorce the standard of rationality from the standard of life. But rationality is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If reason did not help us pursue and maintain our lives — if it made no difference whether we thought well, or poorly, or not at all — then rationality would not be a virtue nor a standard of judgment. In moral judgment, as in any other type of evaluation, life is the fundamental and all-encompassing standard (T&T 10).

In fact, by accepting the standard framework of motives versus consequences, Kelley has already “divorce[d] the inner choice from the outer action” (T&T 10). Once that is done, he cannot then properly integrate them as Objectivism demands. So what does he do instead? Kelley clarifies his approach in the next paragraph by contrasting two examples of wrongdoing:

There is an obvious moral difference between the person who evades his goal of losing weight and indulges a desire for a second helping of dessert, and a totalitarian dictator who evades the sanctity of human life and murders millions of his subjects. Both people evaded; they both did something wrong, worthy of blame. But there is an enormous difference in degree. The dieter’s mental action was a minor lapse, easily repaired; the dictator’s was immense and irreparable. We measure the degree of irrationality by considering the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences that were evaded. If we consider the mental act of choice in isolation, we will tend to view evasion as intrinsically wrong, apart from its consequences, and will thus view all acts of evasion as morally equivalent (T&T 10).

The most glaring oddity in this passage is Kelley’s claim that “we measure the degree of irrationality by considering the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences that were evaded” (T&T 10). Since when?!? Apparently, irrationality is no longer to be understood in principled terms as the willful indifference to or rejection of the facts of reality (VOS 27-8), as the pursuit of desires contrary to facts (VOS 31), and as the attempt to defy reality by rejecting reason (AS 959). According to Kelley, that broad perspective is dangerous: it encourages us to think of evasion as “intrinsically wrong, apart from its consequences” (T&T 10). Instead, the irrationality of any given mental process is to be judged on the basis of the harms likely to result from it, as in the comparison of the dieter to the dictator. Kelley interprets “the fundamental and all-encompassing standard” of life in the most concrete-bound terms, so that it only concerns “the foreseeable consequences” of actions (T&T 10). Ayn Rand’s broad integrations — like the inevitable peril to human life of rejecting reality and reason in favor of fancy and whim — are discarded. And so Kelley reduces the scope of irrationality from evasion of any fact whatsoever to just evasion of the likely outcomes of action.

What does all that mean in practice? It means that if John’s wife threatens divorce if she catches him in bed with yet another hooker, John can be morally condemned as irrational for soliciting the in-home services of “Bunny” only to the extent that he evades the risks of detection and the pain of divorce. He cannot be condemned for ignoring his past promises of fidelity, blaming his actions upon his “bad” genes, and deceiving himself about his hostility toward his wife — even though those evasions also made the call to “Bunny” possible. Also, if “Bunny” insists that John use a condom, then his wrong isn’t quite so bad, since he need not evade the great risk that he will transmit some nasty STD to his wife.

Similarly, if a Marxist professor evades the facts about the respective histories of capitalism and socialism, he’s not to be condemned as irrational — so long as he has some tissue-paper rationalizations blaming the poverty and repression of socialist countries upon capitalist enemies or poor leadership. Those rationalizations, after all, mean that he’s just evading some historical facts, not “the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences” of implementing socialism.

If you’re now tempted to protest that David Kelley can’t really mean that because it’s just too absurd, let me recommend Ayn Rand’s advice on “Philosophical Detection”:

You must attach clear, specific meanings to words, i.e., be able to identify their referents in reality. This is a precondition, without which neither critical judgment nor thinking of any kind is possible. All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations. You must not take a catch phrase–or any abstract statement–as if it were approximate. Take it literally. Don’t translate it, don’t glamorize it, don’t make the mistake of thinking, as many people do: “Oh, nobody could possibly mean this!” and then proceed to endow it with some whitewashed meaning of your own. Take it straight, for what it does say and mean.

Instead of dismissing the catch phrase, accept it–for a few brief moments. Tell yourself, in effect: “If I were to accept it as true, what would follow?” This is the best way of unmasking any philosophical fraud. The old saying of plain con men holds true for intellectual ones: “You can’t cheat an honest man.” Intellectual honesty consists in taking ideas seriously. To take ideas seriously means that you intend to live by, to practice, any idea you accept as true. Philosophy provides man with a comprehensive view of life. In order to evaluate it properly, ask yourself what a given theory, if accepted, would do to a human life, starting with your own (PWNI 16).

If Kelley did not really mean that “we measure the degree of irrationality by considering the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences that were evaded,” then he ought not have written, published it, and re-published it (T&T 10). Since he did, we are entitled to take him at his word, to read him straight, as I have done. The fact that the implications are unpalatable, implausible, and contrary to Objectivism is his problem, not ours.

So how does Kelley paint himself into this bizarre corner? In retrospect, the proximate cause can be found in the way Kelley attempts to connect motives to consequences in moral judgment through the fact that reason is a means to life. In a passage already quoted above, after noting that “rationality is a means to an end, not an end in itself,” Kelley writes, “If reason did not help us pursue and maintain our lives — if it made no difference whether we thought well, or poorly, or not at all — then rationality would not be a virtue nor a standard of judgment” (T&T 10). Upon this basis, he concludes that “life is the fundamental and all-encompassing standard” of all evaluation (T&T 10).

Kelley’s description of reason as a “help” to life is an illuminating abuse of language. Consider the meaning of the word “help.” If A helps B, then A contributes something to an already-existing B. So if John helps Mary with her homework, that means that he offers her some assistance, not that he does it for her. In short, necessary conditions are not kinds of help. (The sarcastic exception — as in “Oh, I guess it would help toast the bread if I actually plugged in the toaster” — proves the rule.) So eyes are not a “help” to seeing: they make seeing possible. And reason is not a “help” to human life: it makes human life possible. Reason does not merely contribute some extra goodies to human life. Reason is not just one of many alternate means to human life. Rather, reason is the most fundamental and absolute requirement of human life. Kelley’s tepid choice of words suggests a failure to grasp the true relationship between reason and life — and his overall argument confirms that.

If reason were just some means to the end of life like bananas, trucks, and antibiotics, Kelley’s argument subordinating the standards of reason to the standard of life would be perfectly sensible. After all, a banana farmer ought not destroy his health in order to maximize banana production, since that would constitute using a means (i.e. bananas) to destroy the end (i.e. life). He can pursue his life by other means. So if banana farming is killing him, perhaps he ought to become a mango farmer, a truck driver, or an interior decorator instead. Since he can support his life by any one of a vast range of honest, productive professions, the standards of any profession must be subordinate to the standards of life.

In contrast, the relationship between reason and life is quite unlike the relationship between bananas and life. Life accepts no substitutes for reason. Reason is not merely one faculty among many capable of providing the knowledge required for human life. Humans cannot live on the perceptual/emotional level, as other animals do. Without reason, we cannot know or pursue the values required for life. In short, reason is not merely a means to human life, it is the essential necessary means to human life. Consequently, the standards of reason actually constitute the standards of life. The logical processes of reduction and integration, for example, are not Duties Imposed By Pure Reason, but rather the basic methods of establishing proper cognitive contact with the world in which we choose to live. By telling us how to stay in contact with existence, the standards of reason tell us how to stay in existence. To instead claim, as Kelley does, that the standards of reason must be subordinated to the standards of life is to deny that the exercise of reason is an absolute requirement of human life. It is to lower reason to the status of bananas.

In failing to grasp the deep connection between reason and life, Kelley rejects the wide scope of the Objectivist virtue of rationality. He cannot understand that human life absolutely requires what Ayn Rand described as rationality:

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality. It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought–as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits (VOS 28).

That is the virtue required by human life. As should be obvious, it involves much more than just the proper consideration of “the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences” (T&T 10).

David Kelley’s Rationalistic Misunderstanding of Objectivism

David Kelley is hardly ignorant of the Objectivist principle that reason is man’s basic means of survival. I’m quite certain that he’s rattled off the right catch-phrases on other occasions. Yet this discussion of moral judgment from Truth and Toleration shows that he does not genuinely understand its meaning and implications. At best, he understands the principle in a highly rationalistic way, as a floating abstraction detached from reality. Worse, he’s injected it into the framework of traditional philosophy, with all of its erroneous presumptions of a split between mind and body. (That’s one reason why students not terribly familiar with Objectivism often find Truth and Toleration so comfortable: his basic philosophic framework is more familiar to them, since so much is borrowed from contemporary academic philosophy.)

As expected, David Kelley’s rationalistic misunderstandings of Objectivism in Truth and Toleration are not limited to his discussions of moral judgment. The same basic pattern is found in his mangled discussions of both moral principles and objectivity. However, those are topics for another day.

P.S. Many thanks to Lin Zinser, Don Watkins, David Rehm, and Paul Hsieh for their helpful comments on a draft!

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