Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Part 3: On Moral Judgment


As I've said in the previous parts, Leonard Peikoff and David Kelley differ on a number of issues, especially in the realm of ethics, but also in epistemology in subtler ways (and some which are not so subtle). We'll see several examples of these differences as we discuss their views on moral judgment a bit later. Before delving into these positions, I'd like to offer my own interpretation on moral judgment in the Objectivist view. If my analysis is accurate, it will benefit us greatly in assessing the relative merits of both sides.

My View of Objectivist Moral Judgment

Moral judgment is an aspect of justice, the virtue of identifying and evaluating the characters and actions of the individuals which one deals with by reference to moral principles, and acting according to one's estimates. While we need to judge individuals in numerous different respects and for many (non-moral) reasons, such as intelligence, romance prospects, musical tastes, and career interests, moral judgment allows us to understand the essence of the person, the moral principles which mold his character and direct his actions. In other words, we use our reason to identify the relevant facts about the individual's character and actions, evaluate these facts logically and reach an assessment, and then act on this assessment, thereby granting each person that which he deserves. Like all acts of justice, moral judgment, is a means of promoting our interests in the field of men and women around us.

The Objectivist view of moral judgment recognizes a basic fact about human beings: our minds are in our own private awareness and possession, and are therefore inaccessible to others, in and of themselves. It is only when our mental processes are manifested in some kind of physical action that they become perceivable by others (they are perceived in the form of inferences that can be drawn), and it is only then that the person can be judged, morally and in other respects. To further clarify, morality (and philosophy) is concerned with a person as a conscious being, the aspect of his mind that can be directly controlled by his actions. It is only the evidence (actions) of a person's conscious mind—his observable actions, statements, and conscious convictions—that can be used to judge his moral character.

(The evidence of the human subconscious, as well as the natural facts about the human mind and its abilities in general, are the subject matters of psychology, of course, but not of moral judgment, morality, or philosophy. For Rand's view on the differences between morality and psychology, and the errors that occur in mixing or ignoring their domains, see "The Psychology of Psychologizing," in The Voice of Reason, pp. 23-31. For more information on the facts of the conscious mind in regard to moral judgment, see ibid., pp. 27-29; Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR), p. 280.)

The means by which we must judge the moral characters of others is established by rationality. Rationality, the application of one's reason to the issues of human life, is not something that can be dispensed with. Reasoning, logical analysis, objective evaluation according to one's standards, acting towards goals and values through a rational thought process—such are our tools for navigating the realm of facts and achieving our well-being. The aspect of rationality known as justice acknowledges that the same reasoning applies to the facts regarding people as to inanimate matter and the other forms of life:
Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men just 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... (For the New Intellectual, p. 144)
Forming a judgment essentially means evaluating a concrete by the application of an abstract principle or standard (Lexicon entry: Moral Judgment). In the case of moral judgment, this means evaluating the characters and actions of people as good or bad according to the abstract standard of man's life, the "terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan—in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice." (Rand, "The Objectivist Ethics," The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 26) That which furthers the life of a rational being is the good by the standard of man's life—that which detracts from or negates man's life is the evil. By reference to this standard, we identify and evaluate the characters and actions of people by their effects on man's life, as well as their causes. It is the recognition of these facts that also allows us to evaluate the people we're assessing in relation to moral principles. Thus, on the basis of the evidence we discover, we can determine if the people we deal with are characteristically rational or irrational, productive or parasitical/lazy, honest or dishonest, principled or hypocritical.

To reach an assessment of a person's moral character, we must judge that person's actions and convictions by their causes and effects. When judging a person's actions, one identifies the ideas, value-judgments, and mental process which led to the action (the cause), and the physical results of the action (the effect), and evaluates all of this according to man's life as either good or bad. In the judgment of a person's ideas or value-judgments, one must determine the evidence for the idea's truth or falsehood, the cause-and-effect of the idea—the mental processes that led to it and the physical actions that would result from acting on it (or already have resulted), and then evaluate these elements by reference to the same standard. Rand states the point similarly in regard to actions:
The basic principle that should guide one's judgment in issues of justice is the law of causality: one should never attempt to evade or break the connection between cause and effect – one should never attempt to deprive a man of the consequences of his actions, good or evil. (Rand, Letters of Ayn Rand, p. 558, quoted in Tara Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist, p. 143)
The parallel lesson, that we must morally judge people's ideas and convictions, can be understood by realizing why the philosophy advocates paying attention to the statements and other manifestations of a person's convictions, such as in a written treatise. Statements and convictions are expressions of ideas. Ideas are not isolated phenomena, with little to no relation to other facts and to our lives; rather, they are integral to human life, allowing us to identify and pursue our goals, motivating our actions, and changing our personal understanding of ourselves and our social/political relationships, for better or worse. The very fact that Objectivism counsels using abstract ideas and standards ("man's life," "good," "evil," "rational being," etc.) presupposes this understanding of the role of ideas in human life. It is because of this cause and effect relationship between the mind's ideas and their ramifications (beneficial or harmful) in the outside world that ideas must be judged according to man's life as the moral standard.

(This, I submit, is the reason why Ayn Rand considers German philosopher Immanuel Kant to be the most evil person in human history (see, Rand, "Brief Summary,” The Objectivist, Sept. 1971, 4; Lexicon entry: Kant, Immanuel). Kant was not a violent or overtly manipulative man, in fact he was a model citizen of Germany, but his theories and philosophy were irrational in Rand's view, and had to lead to widespread destruction and death in action.)

This respect for causality is reflected by our assessment of people in relation to our moral principles, as well. In the Objectivist view, moral principles are identifications of the actions needed to sustain the life of a rational being—they are recognitions of facts that, in principle, lead to the achievement of values. Because of this, they are judged as "good," by the standard of man's life. As a consequence, our evaluation of people as being rational, honest, productive must mean, other things being equal, that one can expect to benefit from dealing with him, creating and gaining new values and social relationships (friendship, love); our evaluations of people as being their opposites—irrational, dishonest, parasitical—must mean that one can expect the loss and destruction of one's values, other things being equal.

Identifying the facts pertaining to particular individuals, and evaluating them by reference to abstract standards and moral principles, constitutes the intellectual aspect of moral judgment. Now, we must consider the existential aspect: granting to each man that which he deserves. To "deserve" something is to possess certain qualities or complete certain actions so as to become worthy of some kind of recompense, positive or negative This recompense takes the form of rewards and punishments:
A reward is a value given to man in payment for his virtue or achievement; it is a positive such as praise, friendship, a sum of money, or a special prerogative. A punishment is a disvalue inflicted in payment for vice or fault; it is a negative such as condemnation, the withholding of friendship or even outright ostracism, or the loss of money or prerogative, including (in criminal cases) the loss of freedom or of life itself. (Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 283)
Recognizing the role of causality in the creation of values and the promotion of our lives, we esteem those whom we judge to be virtuous, bestowing on them our moral sanction, business deals, and time (among other things), and we condemn those we judge to be vicious, withdrawing our sanction, separating from them professionally, actively avoiding them (also advising others to stay away from them as a matter of safety, among other things). [I'll discuss moral sanction in much more detail in my upcoming essay on the subject.] This stems from Objectivism's broader theory that we should recognize and adopt the "trader principle," the principle that one should expect and give rewards and punishments as payments, as an exchange for the material and spiritual benefits (or detriments) that one possesses or judges others to possess. A trader is a person who treats others as equals, neither seeking something for nothing, nor granting something for nothing; in turn, a trader exchanges value for value, seeking mutual consent to mutual benefit, whether in issues of matter or spirit. The trader says that "[a] man deserves from others that and only that which he earns." (OPAR, p. 287).

Lastly (and most importantly), moral judgment must be understood for its egoistic basis and ramifications. All moral principles, according to Objectivism, should be accepted because they promote our self-interests. In the case of moral judgment, we identify the moral characters of those we deal with, thereby creating avenues to promote our values, and protecting ourselves from those who would do harm to our values (and our persons). The virtuous are the kind of people we can expect to enhance our lives, such as a brilliant scientist, a gifted composer, an articulate teacher; the vicious are the kind of people we can expect to detract from (or even destroy) our lives, such as a manipulative liar, a violent brute, a ruthless dictator. More importantly, justice, especially moral justice, is the principle that protects and promotes those who think and sustain the human way of existence. Because justice demands that the virtuous, in effect, deal with and uphold the similarly virtuous, it is the moral principle that preserves those who preserve life. (OPAR, p. 278)

(I'll provide a list of references for the Objectivist view of moral judgment at the end of the essay. Please keep in mind that this is my own summary of the virtue of justice, and there is a lot of derivative material on the virtue missing. Among them are: what is a person's "character" and how it is formed; how Objectivism deals with people of morally mixed--"gray"--characters in contrast to morally "white" and "black" individuals; how the virtue of justice applies to individuals we do not know enough information about someone else to judge them objectively; the distinction between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality; how moral judgment demands an unimpeachable, uncorrupted character in the man who pronounces moral judgment; the relation of Aristotle's principle of "final causation" to all of this. I'm discussing what I take to be the essence of moral judgment; other aspects will be considered in later essays, but others may have to wait for another time.)

Does an "Is" Imply an "Ought"?

In the Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand (CLAR), page 20, Kelley criticizes Peikoff's claim that "every fact bears on the choice to live," stating that certain seemingly unimportant facts have no bearing on his, Kelley's, life. Before I discuss this point, I'll quote two relevant paragraphs from Peikoff (which also includes Peikoff's quoted statement):
In the objective approach, since every fact bears on the choice to live, every truth necessarily entails a value-judgment, and every value-judgment necessarily presupposes a truth. As Ayn Rand states the point in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every ‘is’ implies an ‘ought.’” Evaluation, accordingly, is not a compartmentalized function applicable only to some aspects of man’s life or of reality; if one chooses to live and to be objective, a process of evaluation is coextensive with and implicit in every act of cognition.

This applies even to metaphysically given facts (as distinguished from man-made facts). Metaphysically given facts, Miss Rand points out, cannot as such be evaluated. Sunlight, tidal waves, the law of gravity, et al. are not good or bad; they simply are; such facts constitute reality and are thus the basis of all value-judgments. This does not, however, alter the principle that every “is” implies an “ought.” The reason is that every fact of reality which we discover has, directly or indirectly, an implication for man’s self-preservation and thus for his proper course of action. In relation to the goal of staying alive, the fact demands specific kinds of actions and prohibits others; i.e., it entails a definite set of evaluations. (Fact and Value)
With this in mind, it's important to note that Kelley misunderstands the import of that clause he quoted. Kelley believes Peikoff is saying that every fact impacts our choice of whether or not we choose to live, which I agree would be obviously false. But what Peikoff is saying (as the surrounding context makes clear) is that every fact has an implication for our goal of self-preservation, after we've chosen that as our goal. This implication(s) is expressed in the form of evaluations in the objective approach; after that choice has been made, nothing is completely irrelevant to that goal. Even Kelley's examples, of hairs on Plato's beards and the number of grass blades in Peikoff's lawn, are intelligible if we've already evaluated similar facts and judged them to be irrelevant to our survival. Kelley even acknowledges one aspect of this: "The bearing that a given fact may have for our lives is not self-evident; to establish its significance, we must undertake a further process of investigation, including the discovery and integration of other related facts." (CLAR p. 20)

Kelley continues, taking aim at Peikoff's claim that "cognition implies evaluation."

He states:
From the flood of information pouring through perception, from the mass of information we encounter in reading, conversation, or experience, we become aware of a great many facts. Many of them are irrelevant to our purposes, and we properly disregard them. Others are of such marginal or dubious relevance that it isn’t worth our while to ascertain their value significance. (ibid.)
His criticism, however, is not in any way devastating; he merely claims that Peikoff is going beyond his limits in making claims about objectivity, cognition, and evaluation such as these:
[...]if one chooses to live and to be objective, a process of evaluation is coextensive with and implicit in every act of cognition. (FV)
The reason is that every fact of reality which we discover has, directly or indirectly, an implication for man’s self-preservation and thus for his proper course of action. In relation to the goal of staying alive, the fact demands specific kinds of actions and prohibits others; i.e., it entails a definite set of evaluations.
Kelley claims that this goes too far. Often, we merely evaluate a given fact epistemologically, in whether it is worth our time and effort to give it any more consideration; rarely is it the case that we need to be cognizant of a fact, as well as evaluate it in terms of our purposes and our own lives. Peikoff claims that, in the objective approach, cognition and evaluation are inextricably linked; Kelley applies this unbreakable link instead to the relation of cognition and cognitive evaluation:
In this attenuated sense, it is true without exception that all cognition involves evaluation; the point follows from the fact that cognition is goal-directed...(21)
(As an aside, I disagree that we're merely dealing with deduction from the premise that "cognition is goal-directed." From that, we'd only get precise examples of goal-directed cognitions as deductive conclusions, not the point that cognition involves evaluation. The argument either needs more premises and information to infer what Kelley wants here, or it needs induction. For some of my views on induction (and deduction), as well as my thoughts on other thinkers in philosophy's history on this subject, please see my other essays on this site.)

First, Peikoff doesn't merely say that cognition "involves" evaluation, he's claiming that the former demands the latter, that this is what objectivity means here. Cognition also involves the brain, but the brain doesn't have the kind of importance here that Peikoff is claiming evaluation to have—Peikoff's making a stronger claim than Kelley is implying in his word choice.

Second, and more important, is that I don't think Kelley has understood how objectivity applies here. His perspective reminds me of how a person from our culture would discuss the issue, if he had the philosophical ideas to express his thoughts. In everyday life, I'm sure that many people live their lives not considering how their thoughts on various topics and issues correspond with their values, especially moral values, or how their thoughts would determine their evaluations. But being objective means more than this, and it is radically different from the cultural influences on our thinking.

In footnote #2 to chapter one, Kelley claims that the quote Peikoff uses from Rand is basically lifted out of its context, and questions his interpretation. (The quote is: "Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every ‘is’ implies an ‘ought’.) But let's take a look at a similar quote from Rand, in one of her matured journal entries on the philosophy behind Galt's speech:
...If you cannot judge, you will not think. The aim of every action, mental or physical, is to achieve a value, to further your life. Why think, if you cannot reach any conclusion, if you cannot appraise the value of any choice? Every thought implies a value judgment. [Sound familiar?] If you cannot value, you cannot think. You may know that giving poison to a man will kill him, but why consider it, if you cannot know whether it is right or wrong to kill him? (Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 660)
It's telling that Kelley doesn't consider his disagreement with Rand here (in the footnote) to be a departure of the philosophy (assuming her statement which Peikoff quoted is in essence the same as the one I just used, which seems to be the case). It's not just a disagreement with her on a non-philosophical issue, or an application of her philosophy to some issue, but a technical point between epistemology and ethics, on the role of objectivity in both fields.

In her essay, "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?" Rand states that, "[the policy of always pronouncing moral judgment means]: (a) that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one's own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly..." (p. 84) Since this is what Rand takes to be the Objectivist kind of moral judgment, we should appreciate how much this differs from Kelley's account.

To understand this difference, we must consider why one should have to know (clearly and verbally) one's own moral evaluation of "every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly." The reason is that no aspect of reality is separated or unconnected to our lives, no matter how insignificant a given fact may seem; we need to know our moral evaluations of such things as a guide to our actions regarding them. Choosing to live demands a lot more from an Objectivist than forming some solidly-constructed concepts, and "[deciding] whether it is worth our while, in light of our purposes, to evaluate a given fact." (CLAR, p. 21) Some facts are worth study beyond those that are relevant to our purposes, because purposes do not singlehandedly determine the worthiness of the attention we should pay to reality. A good Objectivist is someone who recognizes this, who gains knowledge of reality with the express purpose of evaluating its impact on that individual's life, and this necessarily includes a great number of facts across a broad spectrum of fields; this is a person who is constantly expanding his moral knowledge and evaluations, because this is one of the demands of the virtue of rationality.

Rationality is, in part, objectivity: it is recognizing the facts of reality and integrating them with what you already know, and this includes moral values and judgments. Kelley seems to criticize this take on objectivity, saying that, "objectivity requires that we be prepared to identify the factual basis of all our values, not that we engage in a fevered search for the possible value implications of every fact we encounter." Whatever his opinion of Peikoff's view on this, by suggesting that only some facts are worth our cognitive attention and moral evaluation, he's actually stating that one's cognitive discoveries need not be morally assessed. In this case, I agree with Peikoff that Kelley has abandoned the concept of "objectivity" here, as he, "[rejects Rand's] view of logic, which demands that one integrate every idea with perceptual data and with all one’s other ideas, including one’s code of moral values." (FV)

Kelley on Moral Judgment

Motives and Consequences, Rationality and Life

Kelley spends the rest of his first chapter discussing moral judgment from the Objectivist view, or rather, his take on this view. The problem I have with it is his set-up and deceitful language. Basically, he compares moral judgment to our judgments of non-moral actions and things, claims that Objectivism has no developed account of how to combine a person's motives and consequences into a single judgment (of how to morally judge others), and then proceeds to give his account of moral judgment, as if the philosophy doesn't have one already.

The question Kelley wants to address is how to integrate the consequences of an action with the motives for the action into a single moral judgment of the actor. Philosophers have been battling over this issue for centuries, and Kelley believes that the philosophy has little to add to the dispute. Well, in a sense, he's right: since Objectivism doesn't separate the two factors of an action, motives and consequences, it isn't left in bewilderment as to how to integrate them again.

Objectivism regards humans as indivisible entities of mind and body, consciousness and matter. Related to this, the most important attribute for judging these aspects of a given individual--like his motives and his actions' consequences--is the individual's character. A person's character is the result of that persons' actions and chosen moral values, and is expressed by the principles he lives by. A person's character, then, is his basic nature, the typical way the person uses his mind and lives his life. (Tara Smith, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, p. 141) It is a person's character that determines the kind of actions he takes (and usually would even consider taking), their likely consequences, and the type of thinking he will engage in, and this includes the motives he will adopt. The best way to understand a person's motives and to understand what shaped the consequences of his actions is to understand a person's character.

As a consequence, the philosophy has nothing to offer for philosophers trying to determine whether motives or consequences are important in determining moral judgment, and if they are, to what extent. To fill in this supposed lacuna in the philosophy, Kelley has taken the task of addressing the debate in its terms. He starts by claiming that reaching a moral judgment of an action involves judging the consequences of the action as well as judging the motives. These factors are measured by different standards in Kelley's view: consequences are judged by the standard of life, and motives are judged by the standard of rationality. He criticizes the two camps, those who favor consequences in isolation as morally worthy of judgment and those who uphold the person's motives as decisive of the moral verdict to be given to the action. Afterward, he attempts to integrate motives and consequences by focusing on the standards of rationality and life, and gives an example of their interrelation. He then presents four types of moral judgment, and concludes with a criticism of Peikoff's position. It has the structure and feel of an academic philosophy paper, but lacks an accurate and detailed presentation of Objectivism's actual position on this issue.

For starters, let's analyze his claim that the elements of a human, chosen action have two different standards of judgment, one of life for consequences, and one of rationality for motives. The easiest criticism to make is that nowhere in the Objectivist corpus is human action split into two aspects, motives and consequences, with different standards applied to each—this is Kelley's "open system" at work. The genuine Objectivist position is that a person's motives are identified for what they are and evaluated according to the standard of man's life, just as consequences of moral actions are, and then the motive and the person are treated as they deserve in response to our evaluation. Kelley eventually states this point as well (on page 23), but he has to use some confusing logic to reach it. He says:
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. (CLAR 23)
What's confusing is this whole approach—positing two different, but somehow related, standards, and then struggling to relate them in a way that effectively makes one of them subordinate and seemingly unnecessary. (The standard of rationality, based on Kelley's reasoning above, only has meaning in relation to the standard of life, and so seems to be pointless.)

A well-versed Objectivist, on the other hand, knows that the standard of rationality is the same as the standard of life: reality, and the commitment to stay in it. It is reality that determines the rationality of an action or a goal, because it is the metaphysically given, mind-independent facts of reality that determine the means to the goal's accomplishment, and the consequences for any such achievement. In other words, we assess the rationality of human action and goals by its relationship to the laws of identity and cause and effect:
Reality sets the standard of rationality. Facts about the world we inhabit—facts that are quite independent of human wishes or purposes—render certain ends unattainable, render certain ends incompatible with other ends, and render certain ends destructive of ends that are necessary for a person's ability to pursue any ends. (Viable Values, p. 49)
Similarly, the choice to live determines the rationality of goals and actions insofar as rationality is in service to human life: a person who is completely unfazed by the prospects of life or death and has no concern for either outcome thus has no reason to be rational or irrational, to pay attention to the facts in the world or respect causality (or even to distort or reverse cause and effect, in the case of irrationality).

(For more information on the relationship of reason, rationality, and reality, see Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Rationality, Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Reason, and Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Responsibility/Obligation; Rand, "Causality Versus Duty," pp. 128-136; Peikoff, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 244, 248; Tara Smith, Viable Values, pp. 48-51.)

In the same respect, it is reality that determines what needs to be achieved to sustain human life, the consequences for failing to satisfy such needs, and the need to form and live by concepts and principles. Reality, and the choice to live, are the deepest reasons why man's life is the standard of moral value and morality. Just like the relationship between the choice to live and rationality, a person indifferent to his own life or death has no reason to act or follow any moral code or to assign any standards for determining values.

Rather than the standard of rationality being subordinated to the standard of life, the true point is that the standard of rationality constitutes the standard of life, as Diana Hsieh reasoned in "David Kelley's Mind-Body Dichotomy in Moral Judgment". This point isn't missed by knowledgeable Objectivists: it's partly the reason why the moral standard of man's life has both human life (as expressed by egoism, the policy of selfishly pursuing human life) and rationality as its basic elements: "Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. " (Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Morality.)

Kelley ends the sub-section "Moral Judgment" with two examples of evasion, with an alleged enormous difference of degree. He contrasts the evasion of a dieter cheating with some dessert, with the mass-murdering evasions of a totalitarian dictator. In response to this, he says that we, "measure the degree of irrationality by considering the scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences that were evaded." (p. 23) Actually, the Objectivist approach is to identify what irrationality and evasion are, relate it to fundamental facts about human nature and reality, and then relate any practical (not merely "foreseeable") consequences to those facts—in other words, we exercise the mental processes of reduction and integration (elaborated upon in OPAR, chapter 4, "Objectivity").

Evasion is the willful suspension of one's reason, thought, and judgment—it is the volitional refusal to use's one reason to gain knowledge or guide one's actions or achieve one's values. Irrationality is the commitment to evading, to defying reason and thus to rejecting a means of human survival, a policy of not recognizing reality for what it is and thus inviting disaster and destruction. The latter is the logical consequence of the former, and both of them lead to and are expressed by what Rand calls "whim-worship," the seeking of desires and acting without reference to the cause of the desire, its rationality, or whether it can even be achieved. Regardless of the degree of irrationality, then, it is still fundamentally opposed to rationality and reality; the consequences of such a stance have to be the destruction of one's values, the inability to deal with reality, and death. It is these facts (and the philosophy's positive evaluation of rationality) which constitute Objectivism's censure of irrationality and evasion, and its designation of the latter as the source of the former and the very source of evil itself. Applying this to the relevant cases: it is true that the dieter's action was a minor lapse, but it's still something that he needs to recognize for what it was and correct it, committing himself to rationality and rejecting any indulgences in evasion; and the dictator is well beyond any moral reform, not only due to his use of force (in that respect alone, his soldiers may be more guilty than he is), but more significantly it is due to the countless and massive evasions and outright irrationality which rules his life.

But the moral judgment of these two cases and the evaluation of their respective degrees of irrationality can't be understood by merely considering the "scope and value significance of the foreseeable consequences that were evaded." On this consequentialist approach, a consideration of a few cases of evasion and irrationality would be sufficient for a rule of thumb of, say, "reject evasion," or "stay rational," but it wouldn't be the principled approach that characterizes Objectivism—it wouldn't identify the causes of the consequences or relate them to the principles of human survival. We would be left are merely pragmatic estimations or suggestions of actions without adherence to principles: this, I believe, characterizes Kelley's approach and basic methodology, and is another instance where he differs substantially from Objectivism.

(For a brief discussion of the Objectivist approach versus the consequentialist approach, read the comment thread here at Noodlefood, starting at comment #15.)

Types of Moral Judgment?

Kelley presents his (admitted) sketch of the types of moral judgments that an objective person would need to take. He claims that these types are "evaluating an action, interpreting its motive, inferring a character trait, and judging that someone is good or bad as a person." (p. 23) But these aren't "types" of moral judgments, merely different aspects of the same issue: reaching a judgment of the person in question. "Types" suggest something that can stand alone, that has significant features in common with other particular things, but a person's actions, convictions, motives, and character traits are all aspects in relation to reaching a verdict on his moral stature.

His discussion of evaluating actions though, the first type of moral judgment, has an important epistemological point that he makes and that should draw our attention. Quoting himself from "A Question of Sanction," he states:
When we formulate moral principles, we abstract from differences of degree; we omit measurements, as Ayn Rand explained. But when we apply the principles in forming moral judgments about particulars, we must reintroduce the relevant measurements.
This is mistaken. Formulating moral principles doesn't merely involve abstracting from differences in measurement—it is also crucially involves integration, or "measurement-inclusion," as Harry Binswanger once called it. Generally, we integrate our knowledge of the units of the concept, as this is the essence of measurement-omission or abstraction, and this allows us to apply this knowledge to any new concrete of the same kind. It is in reference to this integration that distinctions can be made, and they are considered a secondary matter.

For instance, if one had judged several individuals to be good by the Objectivist standard, then adherence to one's moral principles would demand that one grant them one's moral sanction. Depending on the values at stake and interests of the individuals involved, this sanction may also include occasional discussions, gifts, becoming friends, a romantic relationship, or a business partnership, among other benefits. All are responses to differences of degree, but must conform to the relevant principles in order to actually be in the person's interests.

This can't be done if we "reintroduce the measurements." Doing so ruins the conceptual relations and connections made in the integration, as we're now dealing with different particulars with different measurements. It makes following principles impossible, and principles themselves superfluous. Kelley says that we must "specify these measurements to know the degree of wrong done by a thief. It is worse to embezzle a person's life savings than to steal an apple from his tree." (p. 24) We can't know which is worse without first understanding the relation between the instances presented and the relevant principles. I said earlier that Kelley's approach would lead to rules of thumb, and he gives us an example of this in his principle that "[i]t is wrong to take someone's property without his consent." (p. 24) The mere application of the moral issue involved, and the reintroduction of measurements, is apparently sufficient to determine how wrong a given act of thievery is—no need to go through the processes of reduction and integration, in other words, no need for a proof of one's conclusions.

(Please see Bennett Karp's "Reintroducing the Measurements: An Old Fallacy with a New Name" for a complete analysis of the problems with "reintroducing the measurements.")

Next, Kelley discusses "interpreting motives." On this rare occasion, I agree with Kelley: the majority of our understandings of people's motives are hypotheses, they are contextual conclusions based on the evidence available, including the given person's known character and actions. But some of our estimates of people's motives become certainties, cases such as intensive personal knowledge of the individual being investigated, and clear-cut cases of devotion towards—or complete rejection of—moral principles. Catching someone in an outright lie, discovering a friend's hypocrisy, finding out about a person's parasitical behaviors, they are all instances of proofs of violations of moral principles. In some cases, it can be difficult to know a person's motives, or to accurately identify the consequences of an action, but the eventual decision regarding them rests on our evaluations of the easier cases—of motives integrated with and corresponding to consequences—along with the relevant facts of the case. In such difficult cases, until one can reach a certain moral judgment, one gives the person's motives, and the person, the moral benefit of the doubt.

After this, he discusses his ideas on inferring a character trait, and finally judging the person. Like his sections on evaluating actions and interpreting motives, the examples he gives in these two sections present difficulties to the person giving his moral judgment, cases that can only be addressed by reference to what Objectivism actually has to say on moral judgment, on which Kelley is silent. In presenting these four sections, these "types" of moral judgment, Kelley claims that objectivity requires asking a number of questions relating to moral judgment: We must ask whether the actions are good or bad with life as our standard. What other motives can explain a given persons' rational or irrational behavior? Is this person's character that of an honest man? When is it valid to generalize about a person's essence, his character? How do we judge a person as a whole? Since Kelley has declared that Objectivism technically has no developed answer to these kind of questions, he's left on his own, and by his own statement, he doesn't provide an answer, either. By splitting them up into types of judgment, he doesn't integrate motives and consequences of actions, motives and consequences into character traits, and character traits into the whole person. And by ignoring what the philosophy actually has to say, he of course has to depart from it, in very fundamental and derivative ways.


The topic of moral judgment is very complicated, and takes years of study to understand at any great depth. This applies to Objectivism's view as any other. But once you do understand it, confronting the issues raised by Kelley and Peikoff becomes a relatively easier task than learning the philosophy's actual position, and practically impossible without such an understanding. Or at least this was my experience as a budding student of Objectivism, as I attempted to wade into the issues of the split mere months after discovering the philosophy through Atlas Shrugged. Hopefully, my essay has helped somewhat in that needed understanding.

Reference Works

Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Character.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Evasion.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Irrationality.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Justice.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Kant, Immanuel.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Morality.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Moral Judgment.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Psychologizing.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Rationality.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Reason.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Responsibility/Obligation.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Standard of Value.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Trader Principle.
Ayn Rand Lexicon entry: Whims/Whim-worship.

Berliner, Michael S., ed. Letters of Ayn Rand. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Harriman, David, ed. Journals of Ayn Rand. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Hsieh, Diana. "David Kelley's Mind-Body Dichotomy in Moral Judgment." http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2006/03/david-kelleys-mind-body-dichotomy-in.html Accessed March 23, 2010.
Hsieh, Diana. "David Kelley Versus Ayn Rand on Kant." http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2006/02/david-kelley-versus-ayn-rand-on-kant.html Accessed March 25, 2010.

Karp, Bennett. "Reintroducing the Measurements: An Old Fallacy with a New Name." http://www.lyceum.dk/karp.html Accessed April 03, 2010.

Kelley, David. 'A Question of Sanction." March 1989. http://www.objectivistliving.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=722 Accessed March 27, 2010.
Kelley, David, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand: Truth and Toleration in Objectivism. 2000 (1990)

Peikoff, Leonard. "Fact & Value." http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_fv Accessed March 20, 2010.
Peikoff, Leonard, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, New York: Meridian, 1993 (1991).

Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual. New York: Signet, 1963.
Rand, Ayn. Philosophy: Who Needs It. New York: Signet, 1984.
Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. New York: Signet, 1964.
Rand, Ayn. The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought. Edited by Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian, 1990.

Smith, Tara. Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist. Cambridge UP, 2006.
Smith, Tara. Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.


  1. Very good, insightful discussion of a difficult topic! Not sure if you have heard it but Peikoff's lecture entitled "Judging, Feeling and not being moralistic" has an extensive discussion of moral judgment, including the issue of degrees of evil. It can be found here : http://www.aynrandbookstore2.com/prodinfo.asp?number=LP41M

    I thought I would point out some spelling/grammar errors:
    7th paragraph "That which furthers the life of a rational being is the good by the standard of man's life—is that which detracts from or negates man's life is the evil." The "is" after the "—" seems superfluous.
    7th paragraph "It is the recognition of these facts that also allow us to evaluate the people we're assessing in relation to moral principles." Shouldn't that be "allows" rather than "allow" since it goes with "the recognition"?
    13th paragraph: "consistutes" -- correct spelling.
    7th paragraph:

  2. Thanks for the recommendations, Gideon.

    And I've made the necessary corrections. I need to slow down more when I do my line-edits; I always miss two or three errors in my essays.

  3. I don't know who 林守全 is, or why he feels it's necessary to post pornographic websites on *every* post I make here, but he's certainly not welcome to post on my blog.

    I'll moderate my comments from here on out.