Challenging What Everybody Knows

 Posted by on 11 March 2009 at 11:01 pm  Activism, Ethics
Mar 112009

How do you quickly explain — or at least motivate further exploration of — subtle ideas that would challenge “what everybody knows”? It’s just hard, a skill to be practiced, which is why I eagerly listened to the (quite excellent) debate between Dr. Ghate (Ayn Rand Institute) and Dr. Huemer (CU Boulder Philosophy Department) over Ayn Rand’s ethics.

One of Huemer’s big points was that egoism logically entails predation. The idea is that there are times when it is in one’s interest to lie, cheat, steal, etc. — so it logically follows that a true egoist selfishly seeks to exploit others when he would so profit. Huemer’s reduction to absurdity on this was that the true egoist would do so even when the overall benefit is tiny and the offense is great, like killing someone for the net benefit of a dollar. If an “egoist” wouldn’t murder for a dollar, then he isn’t actually an egoist and ought to stop peddling the notion that thoroughgoing selfishness is proper.

That one can profit from “prudent predation” is one of those things that Everybody Knows. So what might an Objectivist say to shake a general audience’s confidence in the idea that predation is egoistic? That’s a tall order given our current culture; there’s just too much conceptual territory to cover to truly nail it down in a scant few minutes. So my first-blush approach would be to only try to indicate how Objectivists have a considered view that reveals predation — no matter the form or degree — to be utterly, unequivocally, hideously at odds with genuine egoism. Something like:

Recall my sketch of Rand’s analysis of the nature of “value” and how values are what living organisms must pursue to live — i.e., that there are needs they must satisfy to maintain their existence as living organisms. Different kinds of organisms do this in different ways, of course. Look at, say, the need for food: trees grow roots and turn their leaves to the sun, while squirrels climb and scurry to harvest nuts, and lions use their speed and teeth and claws to chase and catch their prey. But we are a bit different, in that there is no particular method we need to use to satisfy our requirement for food: we may grow it on a farm, harvest it from the sea, raise it on a ranch, hunt for it in the plains, trap it in the forest, create it in the lab, and on and on. So it wouldn’t make sense to say that we eat by virtue of fangs, claws, or roots like we might say of other organisms — rather, we get our food by some method, but that method is determined by our thinking. It’s a long discussion, but the same is true for every need we have and every value we pursue: put simply, our primary or basic means of survival is thinking. We are the rational animal, discovering by reason what is valuable, and determining via reason how to achieve it.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed — and ignoring facts and acting on emotion or whim means courting disaster. So someone really interested in living — our truly selfish ethical egoist — will want to internalize the fact that reason is his fundamental means of survival, his basic tool for living, the essential faculty and activity that he needs to cultivate and use and jealously protect as the lifeline it genuinely is. Reliant on the power of his conceptual awareness, he will see the value of working to understand the nature of concepts and the implications for the nature of knowledge; the laws of logic and absolute requirement for objectivity — because indifference to these things would mean indifference to his lifeline! He will seek to think and act on principle because reason demands it as his only hope for methodologically pursuing life over the span of an entire lifetime in the face of an incredibly complicated world.

Morality is a set of principles guiding your choices and actions in life. And rationality is our fundamental tool for living. So it makes sense that an egoist will understand moral virtues as expressions or applications of rationality to various aspects of living. Indeed, Rand framed each major virtue as the recognition of a fundamental fact. At this point you should be able to glimpse why Objectivists recoil in horror at someone suggesting that even the most “prudent” of predation would be egoistic: seriously considering predation means ignoring or outright rejecting the fundamental facts of human life captured in supremely-prudent moral principles like productiveness, justice, and honesty. Seriously entertaining their violation means rejecting not just particular principles and the facts they describe, but the need to act on principle and rationality as one’s basic means of survival. What a real egoist hears is someone suggesting living by actively repudiating their fundamental means of living! That’s insanity. And it’s certainly not selfish.

This of course invites followup on just what those fundamental facts are, why reason demands thinking and acting on principle, etc. That’s fine, though, as the goal was only to weaken their confidence in what “everybody knows” and spark further investigation.

There are so many angles that could be taken, so many basic ideas to try to sketch — how would you approach this? What are the actual words you would use in such a setting?

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