Friday, September 3, 2010

Reduction of the Principle of Egoism

[Previous post in the series: "A second proof that 'Reason is Man's Means of Survival'"

Reduction is a method in Objectivism that takes an advanced or high-level idea or concept, and traces it back to whatever facts would give rise to the concept in our minds. It takes a concept, and basically asks, “what would one have to know in order to reach this? If there's any steps to reach it, what are the steps and how do we reach those?” Reduction traces a concept back down to the concepts one would need to reach the higher-level one, and so on until one reaches perceptual data, the beginning of any process of knowledge. This is the method by which we can understand the hierarchy involved in learning an idea, and we'll use it to figure out which concepts we'll need for the induction of the “Principle of Egoism.”

To begin the reduction, a definition will be helpful, as we can then analyze key terms within it. One dictionary definition of egoism is: “each person should hold his own welfare, his own well-being, his own good, his own personal interest, etc. as the supreme end of his actions.” This doesn't tell us who creates values or values things, the process needed to gain values, or even a standard to determine what is a value. All it says is: however it's achieved, go and achieve the good for yourself, you are the beneficiary. Importantly, it points out that egoism involves the issue of an “ultimate” or “supreme end,” not the only end or goal of any action.

The most important concept to understand here is “welfare” or “well-being” or “the good.” To understand this, we'd need some kind of common denominator of values which tells us what our ultimate end is, our standard of value. You would need to picture countless examples of value-pursuit: buying a cake, planning next year's business strategy, climbing a wall, fencing, negotiating a potential surgery, etc. How should these and similar actions be united so as to lead to an ultimate end, and what is abstracted from them all which then becomes the standard of value?

So far then, we know that the issue of egoism revolves around the beneficiary's “well-being” or “welfare,” and this idea of welfare has something to do with a standard of value which itself results from a set of values. Defining or understanding any of these isn't self-evident, or immediately available to perception, so we need to continue with the reduction. The highest stage of the reduction is that a set or array of values leads to the discovery of some kind of standard for determining values, and that allows us to define “well-being,” “the good,” “welfare.”

The next step down in the reduction from welfare to a standard of value to a set of values is: a single value. Here, we'll assume Rand's simple definition of "value": the object of an action, that which one acts to gain or keep. Outside of Objectivism, how did we reach the idea of value? By observation and abstraction, and then generalization from what has been observed. You would need to see all sorts of things gaining or keeping objects through some kind of action.

A very clarifying contrast to use for reaching this idea of value is that between activity over passivity, motion over rest. Particularly, one would have to notice that wishing, yearning, dreaming of doing something won't achieve anything (wishing to read that good book, hang out with friends at a bar, meet a new prospective girlfriend, etc.). So, you need to observe yourself and others acting to gain things, with different amounts of knowledge, skills, different ages, races, etc. and they either gain objects or try to destroy them (such as someone trying to destroy the health of someone else).

Now to recap the reduction once again: self-interest or welfare as supreme (egoism) → standard of value → a set of values → a single value.

We've now reached the perceptual stage, and the end of the reduction: Before you experience pursuing something, acting towards a goal, you experience choosing an action, the selection of a goal. In other words, you choose something, that becomes your end or goal, and you express the choice by acting towards that end. This comes before the idea of acting to gain and keep things. You evaluated and selected things by choice and you know that this conscious activity is happening in some terms before you ever get to the idea of acting to gain and keep things. The main reason for this is that without starting with that idea of “I choose X” you won't have any sense of yourself as a “valuer,” as a person who values something. The method of contrast is important here: let's say that you played basketball with other kids just because your dad wanted you to, not because you really want to, and not because you've given it any thought either way—the person in such a state of mind would never reach the stage of egoism, of supreme ends, of ethics, of a standard of value, or even of a value. This is worlds apart from the kind of person whose mindset is: “I can play basketball or not, or practice or not, I can choose one or the other, and I choose this, this is what I want.”

This contrast has relevance to ethics as a whole: the field of ethics presupposes an abstract understanding of values (or the capacity to reach such an understanding), not basic automatic stimuli of pleasure and pain and automatic reactions. It presupposes conscious, voluntary desires to engage in something or to be motivated by something, not passive reactions to stimuli, or just doing whatever everyone else is doing with no thought about it or a desire to engage in it. So, if you never reached the idea that your values come from your choice, you'd never reach the high-level abstraction of “the beneficiary” of this complicated concept of “well-being,” or that this beneficiary will be consciously determined by you, by what you choose. You would need this knowledge of conscious choice at the very beginning: “I choose, therefore I act, therefore I seek to gain all these things which have something uniting them, which is well-being, and now I wonder: should I get this for someone else or for myself?"

The last question is: how do we reach the idea of “I choose"? The best way (but not the only way) to understand your conscious choosing is when your selection clashes with other people. So this stage of the reduction contrasts your choice with what other people are saying or telling you to do on authority or other alternatives present. If you don't contrast your choice with others, you might reach the idea of “I pursue goals,” but you won't reach the field of ethics. Having choices is important, but without that contrast with others, you'll never find a way to stress that it's your choice, that you want this thing as opposed to everyone else who doesn't. There's a self-assertion involved in valuing something (example: “I want this X”), and that aspect has to get the person's attention, or they'll never understand egoism or accept egoism, and those observant of history or our present culture know that they don't. (Egoism and selfishness are more or less typically ridiculed in the culture at large than understood, let alone accepted.) They don't choose their values; consequently, even when they have “values,” since they missed the step of noticing that it's their choice to make things values for them, there's no basis on which they could decide to become egoists. This noting of choice or self-assertion is indispensable to getting to egoism, and even to values. For egoism to even answer the question of whom should benefit from values, you'd have to first have the idea of value, and that means having the idea of valuing, and that means having the idea of choosing.

Now, I can bring it all together: the reduction of egoism led to the idea of welfare, or self-interest. The reduction of self-interest led to the idea of a standard of value which could be used to define self-interest, welfare, well-being, etc. The reduction of a standard of value led to the idea of a set of values which were integrated so as to serve as a standard. The reduction of a set of values led to the idea of a value, the object of an action and basis for the set. And the reduction of value leads to three things: value implies (1) a valuer (I choose), (2) it implies a standard of value in some terms, and (3) it implies an action that achieves it, which in philosophy is called a “virtue.” Another way of putting it is that value asks, “of value: To whom?” (The chooser.) “For what?” (The standard.) “And how—by what means?” (The action/virtue.) These elements are necessary to get to the concept of value.

The concept of value leads us to the perceptual data and thus to the end of the reduction. Values (at least in this reduction) are things evaluated and chosen by us and pursued according to some sort of standard, things like berries, a hot shower, a good night's rest, warm clothes, and so on; in many cases, they are physical objects, directly perceived with no further need to analyze any abstract ideas.

(Of course, there are exceptions, like the value of “freedom,” or “dignity,” but the point of this reduction is to reach some easily grasped values that we're aware of through our senses, not provide an explanation for all values, physical and abstract alike.)

How this leads to the induction of egoism, is the topic of a future paper.

[Next paper in the series: "Induction of Egoism"]

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