Sunday, September 12, 2010

McCaskey, Private Concerns, and Induction in the History of Science

There's been quite a bit of discussion revolving around the issues brought on by Dr. John McCaskey's recent resignation from both the Ayn Rand Institute's (ARI) Board of Directors, and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship.

My goal in this essay is to present my own views on the whole matter, particularly what I think was the import of Dr. McCaskey's critical comments of Mr. Harriman's book The Logical Leap, and to weigh in on the issues revolving induction that this series of events has sparked.

Thoughts on McCaskey's Resignation and Private Matters

I found out from a friend that John McCaskey, Ph.D., resigned from the ARI Board of Directors and the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship on September 3rd. According to his resignation message on his website, he made the decision after Dr. Peikoff sent a letter to the Board which contained his evaluations of Dr. McCaskey’s view of Mr. Harriman’s book, The Logical Leap: Induction in Physics, his own view of Dr. McCaskey, and his ultimatum to the ARI.

Dr. Peikoff's letter, Dr. McCaskey's resignation message, and his Amazon review, are required reading for understanding this post. They can be found here:

Resignation
Amazon Review

As I understand the history from reading his resignation message, Dr. McCaskey exchanged emails with David Harriman on issues regarding his book in progress, The Logical Leap (now published), including what he thought was a consistent problem with it. These emails were always privately discussed, and according to Dr. McCaskey, he never spoke about them to Dr. Peikoff. There was also a 2-1/2 day meeting in July between academics and professors (including Dr. McCaskey, but not the author, Mr. Harriman), where the members discussed issues surrounding the book's content; this was carried out with the understanding that they wouldn't discuss each other's views outside of the group until the speakers had time to "reflect upon, refine, write up and publish [the views]," as the resignation message states it. Between the July meeting and August 30th, someone violated the agreement, seemingly around the same time that Dr. Peikoff learned of Dr. McCaskey's emails to Harriman.

Dr. Peikoff believes that Dr. McCaskey is attacking Harriman's book, and in some way Dr. Peikoff's introduction to the book which praises it as an expression of Objectivist epistemology, and his lecture course "Induction in Physics and Philosophy." But I disagree: Dr. McCaskey says on his site that: "The historical accounts as presented [in The Logical Leap] are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make." Whether Harriman's historical narrative in his book is wrong or Dr. McCaskey's proposed revisions are mistaken wasn't really the point: the point of the emails and of the July meeting was to investigate ways that the book and theory could be improved. So if he thought Harriman erroneously used a scientific-historical narrative to reach a certain philosophical point, he was being helpful in pointing how the history of science might have actually occurred (backed up with scholarly publications), and then modified the philosophical point being made accordingly.

Whatever objections Dr. McCaskey made were tentative, made in an effort to help the author (whom wasn't present at the meeting) by offering criticisms of areas where the theory could be improved--they certainly were not firm, definitive judgments of Harriman's book. It was constructive criticism that may not even fully represent Dr. McCaskey's views, not an "attack." It would have been an attack to say: "Your theory is false, your historical record is bunk, etc." He clearly wasn't saying that. His criticism is an instructive point about being rigorous in one's research, and a suggestion that being objective here could mean reworking the theory, as it may conflict with the facts.

I haven't yet encountered any damning evidence which would justify the harsh treatment given to Dr. McCaskey. From his Amazon review, it appears to me that he was being helpful in general: Harriman's historical record is an important part of the book, as it integrates his theory with what scientists actually did. If that record is flawed (and Dr. McCaskey hasn't definitively said "yes" or "no" on this point), then it will hurt the theory: it will be too narrow to account for different historical records and different developments in the history of science, and will only be a partial theory or hypothesis as a result, if not outright contradicted. He offered the criticism so that Harriman would consider modifying his record (and/or his theory) to better account for what might have been the facts.

Most importantly, we should keep in mind that Dr. Peikoff made his judgment based on partial, out-of-context information about Dr. McCaskey's views. Dr. Peikoff seems to indicate that he hasn't read all of Dr. McCaskey's emails, and he must have heard about the July meeting from second-hand accounts. (Contrary to his description of the meeting as a "forum" in his letter to the Board, the meeting was not public, but private and confidential.) Because of the tentative nature of scholarly debate and discussion, and perhaps especially in email discussions which are often extemporaneously typed up, the views of the participants may change later, or they might offer an objection as a devil's advocate, etc., in other words, there could be a lot of factors involved; I'll note that my reading of Dr. McCaskey's resignation message gives me the impression that the ideas thrown about at the meeting were extemporaneous as well, and sometimes even "partly-baked," as Dr. McCaskey describes it. Given all this, it's my belief that Dr. Peikoff should have at least discussed these issues first-hand with Dr. McCaskey before taking any action, especially the drastic one he took.

(As an aside, but something that needs to be noted: this issue technically isn't about Objectivism. Objectivism does not have a theory of induction; rather, Objectivists who specialize in epistemology figure out ways to apply the philosophy to the area of induction. From the content of the Dr. Peikoff's letter, he seems to be reacting to his judgment that Dr. McCaskey thinks that either the way Harriman and himself applied the philosophy (i.e. his theory) is wrong, or that Objectivism is wrong due to its inadequacies in this area. Either reason appears good enough for Dr. Peikoff to deem a person unqualified for a position on the Ayn Rand Institute's Board. It should grab one's attention that this applies to not only public assertions of such judgments, which I could understand for obvious reasons like public image, but also for private judgments, such as those of Dr. McCaskey's. The implication of this is that any leadership role at the ARI would demand not just a commitment to advancing Objectivism in the culture (and beyond), but to Dr. Peikoff's theories as well.)

Issues Concerning Induction, the History of Science, and The Logical Leap

At the heart of this controversy are the issues raised by Dr. McCaskey in his emails and at the July meeting, a sample of which was presented to the public in his Amazon review. In his words, "[t]he historical accounts as presented [in The Logical Leap] are often inaccurate, and more accurate accounts would be difficult to reconcile with the philosophical point the author is claiming to make." The Amazon review makes it clear that he isn't 100% sure in every case whose interpretation of history's scientists are right, whether Harriman's or the scholars' who have produced works about those scientists. One case where Dr. McCaskey is correct seems clear-cut to me, however: how Galileo determined that all free bodies fall to the Earth at the same rate regardless of their material composition or weight.

On pages 43-44 of The Logical Leap, Harriman presents Galileo's discovery as the result of experiments with dropping balls of the same material but different weight (the first experiment), and balls of the same weight but different material (the second), and thus induced that the rate at which a body falls is independent of its weight or material. He goes on to say, "Imagine that he attempted to drop the lead or oak balls through water instead of air . . . . The result would not have led to any important discovery." (p. 43) Dr. McCaskey points out that Galileo considers the difference between dropping balls through air and through water as the heart of his discovery, rather than water being an uninteresting case. A read through the relevant passages of Galileo's Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences (Day One, 8: 110-116) shows that Dr. McCaskey is correct:
Salviati [the character representing Galileo]: [...]But tell me now whether the density [corpulenza] of the water, or whatever it may be that retards the motion [of bodies falling], bears a definite ratio to the density of air which is less retardative; and if so fix a value for it at your pleasure. (Galileo Galilei, Dialogues Concerning the Two New Sciences. Translated by Henry Crew and Alfonso de Salvio. The Macmillan Company, 1914. Day One, 8: 110-111. p. 66. First two brackets, and the fourth, are mine.)
I shall now take one of those bodies which fall in air but not in water, say a wooden ball, and I shall ask you to assign to it any speed you please for its descent through air. (ibid., 8: 111)
Indeed there appears to be a considerable antagonism between air and water as I have observed in the following experiment. (ibid., 8: 115)
Those passages show Galileo's fictional characters working through issues relating to the resistance of media in relation to falling objects, buoyancy, and how the speed of objects falling is affected by such phenomena, whether the effect is their being slowed down, quickened, or halted. Air and water are the crucial data Galileo discusses, and they are repeatedly brought up in the progression towards his probable conclusion about all falling bodies. It's examples like this that support Dr. McCaskey's point that, "[r]eaders of [The Logical Leap] should be aware that the historical accounts presented here often differ from those given by academic researchers working on the history of science and often by the scientists themselves."

From the Amazon review, the philosophical point that Dr. McCaskey may disagree with Harriman on is how concepts develop into inductive propositional generalizations. I'll quote Dr. McCaskey himself for the comparison of the two views:
Generally, scholars who try to recreate the development of scientific concepts in the minds of great scientists are struck by how successful these scientists are in making propositional generalizations while still forming--and often themselves never fully forming--the concepts that constitute the generalizations. The narrative these scholars present (using Harriman's metaphor, not theirs) is not that a fully formed concept comes into the mind of the scientist who then uses it as a green light to an inductive propositional generalization, but that a partly formed concept serves as a flickering greenish light to a partial generalization, which acts as a less flickering, somewhat greener light to a better concept, which in turn improves the generalization, which then improves the concept, and so on, until well-defined concepts and associated propositional generalizations emerge fully formed together (at which point, the subjectivist says, 'See, it's all just a matter of definitions.') Most scholars find the process of scientific progress less linear than Harriman indicates and much more iterative and spiral.
So, the difference is that Harriman presents in the book a linear approach to inductive generalization-formation—using a conceptual framework and reasoning (and experiment when applicable), one forms a concept, which acts as a "green light" to form the inductive generalization—whereas Dr. McCaskey highlights the fact that scholars in the history of science would say that the process by which scientists learn concepts is more of a iterative process. This view of new knowledge as iterative brought up in my mind a number of technical issues regarding how our reasoning impacts our concepts, and vice versa, such as whether or not this is related to the Objectivist idea of "reduction." It was because of my research that I learned about the Objectivist idea of a "spiral theory of knowledge."

The spiral theory of knowledge is a technical aspect of Ayn Rand's philosophy, Objectivism. In the Objectivist view, all of one's knowledge should be tied together into an integrated sum, with the higher, more abstract knowledge resting on the lower-level knowledge, and with one's perceptual knowledge as the base. The spiral theory is the idea that gaining new knowledge is a process of rising from the perceptual level to higher abstractions to form concepts, and them moving back down to the perceptual level to validate, apply, and refine those concepts.

(For anyone still not sure what this "spiral theory" is all about, see this lengthy, but very informative post on examples of the spiral theory from Montessori teacher Dr. Deborah Knapp.)

Ayn Rand used this "spiral" method to clarify a number of concepts in her philosophy: her simple definition of "concept" which she later develops and defines as resulting from a process of abstraction she named "measurement-omission"; her non-sophisticated concept of "egoism" which lead to her technical theory of "rational egoism/selfishness"; her general definition of "government" which produced the only justified sort of government, one which respected individual rights; and her concept of value (as being the object of one's actions) resulting in Rand's technical conclusion regarding the nature of life and the objectivity of value.

In Dr. Peikoff's lecture course "Objectivism Through Induction," he frequently makes the claim that understanding Objectivism requires reaching non-philosophical concepts and inductions about a variety of issues in life before one can truly induce the principles of Objectivism themselves. This means that one reaches a non-philosophical account of "egoism," for instance, and after gaining more knowledge, one can then spiral back to this non-philosophical knowledge, integrate it with more of your knowledge, and thus reach the Objectivist understanding of egoism inductively. When all of your knowledge is integrated, new knowledge has implications for your old knowledge, and it redounds on it and strengthens it, leading to a new integration.

Even David Harriman implicitly refers to this "spiral theory":
I began this section by emphasizing that philosophy is the foundation of the specialized sciences, and yet now I have emphasized that some crucial philosophic knowledge is induced from the history of those sciences. Both points are true and consistent with one another. One must have the essentials of a this-worldly, rational approach in order to discover specialized knowledge; then, once a significant amount of such knowledge has been discovered, one can reflect on the process and come to a more explicit understanding of method. (p. 239)
As the "spiral theory" has so many applications in learning about Objectivism, why wasn't this idea discussed in The Logical Leap? My point in bringing all this up is because these are technical, scholarly questions about induction that should have been raised and answered, not brushed aside.

There are other issues as well:

How does induction relate to the spiral theory of knowledge, and how does the spiral theory relate to the case of concepts formed by a method of induction?

What is the relationship between induction, mistaken concepts, and the principle in The Logical Leap that "induction is self-corrective"?

What is the difference between forming a predicate concept (burns, rolls, is red, is hot) and forming a universal proposition? Is a theory of propositions needed to validate a theory of induction?

Does Aristotle's distinction of a nominal ("in name only") definition and that of a causal definition have any bearing on this issue? What is its relation to how Rand would define, analyze, and then causally redefine a concept?

There are other questions to ask, but I merely wanted to indicate how I would approach Dr. McCaskey's criticisms and how I am approaching Harriman's book: with critical thinking about the claims made by all sides, and my own understanding of the issues I think we would need to solve in order to reach a fully valid theory of inductive reasoning. Tackling these issues is the means to working out such a theory, and in my view, Dr. McCaskey was helping Mr. Harriman to make the book a stronger product than it was. It is a real shame that such an attempt at providing help seems to have been construed as an attack and a denunciation in Dr. Peikoff's view.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Induction of Egoism

[Previous post in the series: "Reduction of the Principle of Egoism"]
The purpose of this essay is to show that one should adhere to the principle of egoism: a person is the proper beneficiary of his own actions, he should be selfish, pursue his own interests, etc. All acts of self-preservation are proper, and all acts of self-sacrifice are improper. I'll also present some of Dr. Peikoff’s views about how to properly induce principles when we can't explicitly rely on Objectivism.

In the reduction of egoism, we concluded that in order to reach egoism and the issue of beneficiaries of action, there were three other issues we had to confront. In order to know who benefits from values, we have to know who the valuer is, how the values are achieved, and what the standard of value is. The induction, accordingly, takes four steps:

(1) You choose values.
(2) You achieve values.
(3) Life and the enjoyment of life is the standard of value.
(4) Therefore, you should be the beneficiary of values: an egoist.

The point of the induction is to show that egoism is the logical outgrowth of answering the prior questions: who chooses values, who achieves them, and by what standard? The question of who should benefit is the implication of these, and a consideration of two other moral theories should clarify this point.

Consider Christianity: (1) Who chooses values? God, of course: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away...” (Job 1:21, King James Version.) The story of Job is an excellent indication that God chooses the values in this religion: God destroys all of Job's values as a bet to Satan of Job's unconditional piety, laying waste to his livestock, servants, house, and even family. Job's response is to basically note that he came into the world “naked,” i.e., with nothing, and he is content to die with nothing: God gave Job everything he had, and it is His right to take it all away. (2) Who achieves values? God does: in the story of Noah's ark, God grows weary of the sinfulness of humanity and wants the world cleansed, so He wipes out humanity along with all living things, save for Noah's family and two of every animal, those whom He considers “pure.” (3) What is the standard of value? Love of God, devotion to God's Will: what accords with God's Will is of value and the good, and what detracts from it is sinful and evil. Satan is the epitome of evil in Christianity because he is the leading angel who opposed God. Considering this, then (4) who is to benefit? Not God directly, but His Plan is to benefit, and His ultimate plan is to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, to eternally reward the righteous and punish the wicked on Judgment Day.

(The main purpose of Jesus' life on earth, of the Bible, and of all Christianity, is to spread the Gospel, i.e., the “Good Word,” which is the tale of the time when people will truly worship and serve the Lord and are rewarded in this life and in heaven, and the wicked are punished. The essence of Christianity is then a prayer that Jesus taught: “Let Your kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”)

Now, imagine believing all of this, and then claiming that the beneficiary of all this isn't God or His Plan, but you, values are for your selfish enjoyment. Such an answer is ridiculous: you're practically a zombie in the entire presentation. God creates and chooses values, He sets the standard, it's all designed for Him to benefit, and now you want to claim that values are for you? Your wanting to benefit would be a complete non-sequitur—this is the chief error and sin of Lucifer—Satan—the sin of pride, of wanting the greatness and perfection that only God possessed. (Incidentally, I hope one can see from all this why Christians are adamantly opposed to selfishness, egoism, and those who represent such positions—strictly speaking, an egoist would be very similar to Satan in his perspective on values, that values are for him.)

Another example: Socialism/Communism/Collectivism. (1) Who creates values? The group, mankind, the proletariat or the race, etc. (2) Who achieves values? The group does: the individual merely steals from the group and exploits them, like the bourgeois capitalists of Karl Marx's philosophy. (3) What's the standard of value? The fulfillment of the group's wishes. (4) Who's to benefit: It's evident that the “public good” is to benefit, the group is the beneficiary. It would be unfathomable to hold (1), (2) and (3), and yet say that you should be the beneficiary of values, when the whole argument implies that anyone focused on themselves is the enemy of the group.

The same logic applies to egoism: If I create values by my choice, if I'm the one who achieves them, and if the standard is somehow based on me, then I'm the one who should benefit from them; if values are my choice and my achievement and defined by my need, then who else could be the beneficiary of my actions, other than myself? Just think of the injustice and absurdity of saying “You choose, achieve and define values, and Vicky gets them, she benefits.” So it's the same, basic pattern.

Now, I'll present a sketch of an induction of egoism, using myself as an example.

One's role as a valuer is the subject of the first induction: (1) All the things that I treasure and value are things that I chose, as opposed to things that I merely accepted. As I grew up, I had my favorite activity (drawing), a favorite color (red), my favorite music (A Tribe Called Quest), show (Dragon Ball Z), person (Richard Huynh), and book (Catcher in the Rye, and then later Catch-22). I valued reading, writing, explaining things, learning, and various sports, and a whole host of other things. And now I value Objectivism, understanding induction, philosophy, certain anime programs, and peace. I wasn't just passively accepting of these things or simply letting them come into my life without pursuing them; rather, I deeply cared about them and thought they were very important to me.

In the “Objectivism Through Induction” lecture course, Peikoff tells us what a young Ayn Rand would have said in response to certain questions, and I'd like to do so, too. So, let's say I was stopped here as a kid, and was asked, “what do you think the essence of egoism is?” I would say: “I choose my favorite things, I decide what I like and what I love.” That sounds like subjective values, and I had that kind of mindset until Objectivism taught me the real origin of values and why we choose them. That values perhaps start out subjectively makes sense, since the reality of values is experienced first, it comes from within your soul, and it's very personal. The discovery of the objective criteria for values (e.g. that life makes value possible) comes later on; you discover that the nature of value is dictated by facts, not merely by your wanting something, but the knowledge of the wanting and desire comes first.

Now, the role of the person as an achiever: (2) All my values require action by me of some kind. This later leads to the identification (and definition) of value as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” I chose all sorts of things to sketch and color, I practiced different drawing techniques and attended art classes that I picked out; I bought red clothes and played with toys that had red apparel; I bought albums made by A Tribe Called Quest and listened to them; I read more about philosophy, induction, and Objectivism, and I share my interests with Gaem and make efforts to show interest in her life. All of these and more lead to this induction. Every time I chose a value, I had to act in some way to gain it and keep it. (The present induction is not discussing automatic values, like the assimilation of nutrients that goes on inside our bodies, as we're dealing with conscious, chosen values, the realm of ethical behavior.) Now, if you stopped a younger me at this point, and asked me what I thought egoism is, I would have a better answer: “I choose and go after all of my values.”

Now, we can approach the third stage: The common denominator of values, its underpinning. How can I reach this? I see all sorts of things that I want, and the things that other people want: how do I distinguish valuable things from things we mistakenly try to gain? It's helpful to note that I can't just observe whatever someone or myself pursues and say that it's selfishly good—I can't forget the question of whether their choice or value is rational or irrational (like the values of a heroine addict). Since I'm trying to reach the conclusion that egoism is good, I can't just pick values at random, genuinely good and genuinely destructive alike, and then decide what is good or proper—that will only lead to confusion. Before I can know that egoism is good, I need to know in some terms what "the good" is.

A lengthy aside: So here we need some rule which governs all normative induction (any induction which goes “you should do X”)--we can't simply observe things without evaluation. When I carried out the induction regarding values and choice, or about the actions I needed to take to achieve them, I didn't need any normative information; the first induction was merely a generalization that I choose all of my values, and the second induction was the generalization that all of my values require action to gain or achieve them. They were both about what is the case, plain descriptions of reality, but this third induction is different. We have to already know how to judge what is good in some sense in order to reach normative conclusions or principles. In determining what we already know about the “good,” we're not assuming egoism or Objectivism here, but something else: the assumption that, by the time we reach the field of ethics, we already know a great deal of virtues and values, and many vices and disvalues—just not technical issues, like the issue of egoism.

So it's assumed that you would know the elements of ethics, that people choose and pursue values, the difference between good and bad. You would know that courage is what a person uses to fight to keep their values (e.g. a princess) while under hostile opposition, even if the person is afraid. And you would know that being honest with a person shows him respect, while dishonesty is disrespectful. You can't set foot within ethics until you know that there's a difference between virtuous and vicious, between good and bad, proper and improper: you can't induce moral principles in a moral vacuum. We haven't produced a theory of how virtues like courage and values are all good, or the standard of value, or presented a defense, but it's assumed that we know some information pertaining to what things are right, and what are wrong. So we already need to know in some terms the difference of food and poison, of a thief and of someone stopping him, of a torturer and a rescuer, of someone listening to you play the violin and of something destroying your violin, of traveling as rest from working and of traveling as an escape from the authorities. We need to start with elementary things, and we form our principles on what we know or believe is proper behavior. Years later, we use our more advanced knowledge to spiral back and validate these beliefs, but we take them for granted in the beginning. Once we discover that something is wrong, we go back to the original beliefs and change it, which is the corrective aspect of induction, but this doesn't alter the fact that without moral distinctions at the beginning of this induction, you'll never figure out what is proper or improper.

So, to reach the kind of common denominator needed for the induction, we need to start with common-sense examples of what we think is good. This doesn't mean that one can start with anything one wants and call it “common-sense.” All of these common-sense values were known to civilizations for centuries and were known even to children, way before Objectivism ever existed, and it was more than enough information for thinkers to know what is proper and improper to some extent. These examples are: food, as against starvation; strength, as against weakness; being awake and alert as opposed to being asleep and in danger; knowledge as opposed to ignorance; praise as opposed to being ridiculed; some understanding of the golden rule as a way to treat others (“I wouldn't want to be treated like that by others, so I shouldn't treat them that way.”); entertainment as opposed to boredom.

It's a mistake to claim that you would need Objectivism to value these things: you don't need Objectivism to value food, clothing, or even friends, which is an abstract value. To give the final, definitive standard, you'd need to reach the conclusion that life is the standard of value (e.g. food is a value because of its impact on life), but you can't reach that principle without first having a large amount of preliminary values, and you can't judge these values in the beginning with such an abstract principle. So the stage we have here isn't complete ignorance or an arbitrary list of values, but neither is it Ayn Rand's philosophic identification of values. To make it through this induction, or any induction, or to understand Objectivism, you have to make peace with the fact that you have to start off with common-sense examples and observations, partial understandings and the fact that you might reach errors and mistakes. If you follow the inductive method, you'll eventually end up with a complete understanding and with all your errors corrected, and that's something you can either live with or you can't. Induction will thus seem like a waste to a polemicist, as he's doing this not to gain knowledge, but to argue; he'll get into trouble when he carries out inductions and it turns out that he's wrong about something.

Back to the issue at hand: What would constitute a list of common-sense values (once we know what a value is), sufficient for defining well-being? And what could we do with this list to get to the idea of a standard of value and thus of well-being?

I gave some examples of such values above, but here's another list: Art, food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, fame, a job, friends, health, transportation, sex. Art—it affects me by showing what I like, and it gives me joy and inspires me. Food—without it, I'll starve and die. Shelter—without it, I'm not protected from the environment. Clothing—it keeps me warm or cool, and it allows me to express myself. Entertainment—without it, life would be boring and joyless. Fame—without it, I might not make a lot of money and I won't be able to enjoy whatever money can buy. A job—I produce to stay alive and gain money, it gives me purpose and meaning, and I use money to enjoy my life. Friends—they wipe out loneliness, boredom, and they enhance my other values, like clothes (or playing a video game cooperatively). Health—without it, I might die, and I wouldn't be able to enjoy many things in life, like traveling the world. Transportation—without it, I would never be able to enjoy the wonders of the earth or do any exploration, or perhaps I would never get a chance to visit my family or enjoy a new start in a new location. Sex—without it, I have far less of a chance of having kids, or if I don't want that, I won't be able to experience certain pleasures and miss out on the entertainment and other benefits of that activity.

What's the common denominator in all of this, in somewhat loose terms? A full, rich, happy life, as the Greeks would call it. Life plus the enjoyment of life, life and happiness. That standard is sketchy, but it will serve the purpose of the induction. Some of the values don't directly support life, but enhance the quality of life, make it more enjoyable, like how friends can make problems in life more bearable, etc. It can't just be “happiness,” as that would be plain hedonism. If you say, just do whatever makes you feel happy, then you've closed the door to philosophy, as you're saying that we don't need any ethical guidance and that we can just rely on our emotions and whatever evaluations we've already made. So to bring the three inductions together:

I choose and achieve objects according to the standard of: that which fosters life and the enjoyment of life. Well-being means: that which fosters life and the enjoyment of life. Values are: the things I choose and achieve which foster life and the enjoyment of life. The definition of egoism used in the reduction was: each person should hold his own well-being as the supreme end of his actions. Now to reword it: each person should hold life and the enjoyment of life, which he himself has to choose and achieve, as the supreme end of his actions. This last sentence is what egoism means: you should be the beneficiary of your own actions, your values should ultimately improve life and its enjoyment. Now that we understand that, the last question is: is this legitimate?

This brings us to the beneficiary question: who is to get to benefit from this process? Whose life and enjoyment of life should be the paramount concern of the person who acts? Should the life involved be of the person who chooses and achieves things and does so by the standard of promoting life and the enjoyment of life, or should someone else's life and enjoyment be promoted? Here, we need a contrast: what do we need to differentiate egoism from here, in order to validate it?

The genus method would be very helpful here: the larger issue is the beneficiary of human action. Well, are humans the only ones who benefit from actions? Obviously not. Humans, animals, even plants act to gain values for a beneficiary. That's different from the mechanical actions of inanimate objects, like a rock, which has no beneficiary for its action of rolling. The next difference is between that of volitional and non-volitional living beings, as the non-volitional ones are excluded from the field of ethics. Now, among volitional beings, people, there aren't just egoists or altruists (who hold that someone else should be the ultimate beneficiary of your actions): the majority of people are eclectic, unprincipled. The benefit of the genus method is that we can now separate principled men from unprincipled men, and say that an ordinary person isn't an egoist or altruist but is eclectic, and does some egoist things and some altruist things. We're trying to validate something that is principled. So the genus method brought us from living things to volitional things to principled down to principled egoists versus principled altruists versus eclectics, and since we only want principled people, the ultimate contrast is that between principled egoists versus principled altruists. So in order to validate egoism, we need to contrast those whose principle is to aim at yourself as the ultimate beneficiary, versus those whose aim is something else as the ultimate beneficiary of action.

In general, there's three broad classes of altruism to consider, three things to which men have devoted their actions towards: God or some deity (religion), the group or class or race or society (communism, collectivism), or nature (environmentalists-ecologists). So, we need to induce from direct observations of men gaining values with themselves as the ultimate beneficiary as opposed to those who gain values with something else as the beneficiary—in other words, we want to observe egoism in action in contrast to altruism.

I'll start with egoism, and the point is to observe someone who chooses and creates values, achieves values, and has life and the enjoyment of life as the standard with him or herself as the beneficiary of the actions. As I did earlier, I'll use myself as an example, but the idea is to be able to observe a lot of instances of egoistic behavior, performed by multiple people in multiple contexts. It would be impossible to carry out every observation needed to validate this principle, so I'll only use myself as a sketch.

Food, clothing, and shelter are easy examples of values I would need as an egoist—without them, my well-being would be gone and my life would be in trouble. These values have myself as the ultimate beneficiary of my actions, not my friends, family, Objectivists, or anyone who reads my blog. Slightly harder cases would be playing with friends or drawing or reading a book, because I would need to understand abstract values as opposed to physical values like subsistence and coziness, and show how these abstract values are good for my mind, and thus good for my life, and that I'm the beneficiary of even these values. Even harder cases would be “love,” or “self-esteem,” as it isn't physically obvious what values are being achieved in those cases and they are more abstract than the values I've already named, I would have to think about the ways that I earn love or self-esteem through my actions and my interest in things, and then I'd have to make the connection to how these values are in accordance with my life's promotion and its enjoyment.

Such a procedure helps us understand how values that are usually thought to be altruistic, like love, can actually be selfish, and the reason why people don't think of it that way is because they don't understand “egoism,” and thus cannot determine how such values play into an egoist's life. Most people think that if you help someone and love someone, that's altruism. An egoist is not someone who does nothing for others, just as an altruist is not someone who never does anything for himself. Even the coiner of the term “altruism,” Auguste Comte, ate, slept, performed jobs, wrote and published essays, etc.--he did self-subsistent things too, but he would have said it was to accomplish the obligations he owes to others or something along those lines. By the same logic, Christians do self-subsistent things too but ultimately, it's to promote God's Plan, just as the communist proletariat do seemingly selfish things to ultimately benefit their own class as against the capitalists. The issue is really about the ultimate beneficiary and not the direct beneficiary.

Now, I can provide the best definition of egoism we've reached thus far: the pursuit in action, by your own creative effort, of objects chosen by you as necessary to your own life and happiness. This is what we have to validate, and this why we needed to work through the dictionary definition of egoism; it's hard to understand your well-being as the “end of action,” but easier to understand that it's your life and happiness' promotion as being the goal of objects, values chosen and pursued by you. There had to be some amount of content to egoism in order to validate it, and I've more or less provided the content: egoism consists of values, of choosing values, achieving values, determining the standard and the goal of values, and then it becomes a simple task to induce it.

Now, we must contrast this to altruism. It's very important that we drop all qualifications for altruism (e.g. selfless service for two years, for the poor, only on Christmas, etc.); we need altruism as a rule or principle, and not altruism as a set of exceptions or in eclectic situations. If we're going to commit ourselves to induction, then we should use induction for altruism as well as for egoism. There's no double standard here: if we're going for universal egoism, then we should contrast it to universal altruism, and that means using the same examples for both. It's unfair for you to have to induce universal egoism, and then for your opponent to restrict or limit his altruism (like using only examples that show his theory in a good light), and never even properly induce it. We should use the same examples and look at the contrast, and the ones you use to provide support for your theory will refute his theory. The resulting contrast will become a triple assault on the opposition's side, no matter the variant: “It's better to give than to receive”; “love involves sacrifice,” etc.

Since all the instances of value are chosen by you, are achieved by your action as necessary for your life and enjoyment, then the rejection of egoism is an assault on and an affront to your choice, your achievement, and your life and enjoyment of it. It's an all-out destruction: if you already know the connection between your knowledge and choices, then you know that your mind is what makes choices and achieves values—therefore, an assault on your values and choices is an assault on your thinking and thus your mind. Altruism—the rejection of egoism—is an assault on your mind, your effort, your creative action. In effect, this is what altruism says: “You shouldn't get the result of your actions or keep it, or really even enjoy it—ultimately, your life isn't about promoting your life or even enjoying it.” Your choice made it possible for things to be values, your actions brought them into existence or made it possible for you to enjoy them, your life and enjoyment made it necessary to choose an act, and this is inherent in the pattern of creating values and pursuing them. Who could proclaim to have a stake here except for yourself? You won't see these things without making the contrast of the same examples between two opposing theories.

So then how would altruism affect my values?

 Let's take food: I choose certain foods as values, like eggs, chicken, grapes, cookies, etc. and altruism is against that selfish mindset. Altruism would mean something like a communist/dictatorial government forcing me to eat soy beans that they ration out to everyone, on that grounds that it's for the “public good” and to accomplish something that's “bigger than me”: it's a negation of my choice. How about achieving the values, since it takes action by me to gain them: would I be entitled to them? Absolutely not: altruism would say that I must give up what I've worked for to someone who hasn't achieved those values. So, altruism is a negation of my achievement. And what of my life and its enjoyment? Well, someone else may need my food more desperately than I do, and altruism would demand that I take food as if it were medicine, just enough to stay alive so that I continue to serve others. So it's a rejection of my life and its enjoyment, the notion that I'm entitled to live my life in a way which I find satisfying and enjoyable.

Altruism cannot give me values as a reward for following its edicts, as that becomes selfish and egoistic: that's a flaw within the Christian notion that you do good things on earth and are rewarded with heaven in the next life; philosopher Immanuel Kant's altruism, in which the moral man is motivated to do things “from duty,” i.e., because it's his duty, with neither himself nor anyone else intentionally benefiting, is more consistent in this regard.  Egoism means keeping my values because my life and its enjoyment are promoted; altruism means that I would have to give up my values in the name of nothing I value (else it might become an egoistic motivation), and it tells me to do this not because I gain from doing so, but because of some authority, such as the Kantian “categorical imperative,” or someone's intuition, or a commandment.

What about the example of friends? I choose them, and I love and esteem them by my choice. Altruism says: love all equally. I had to take actions to achieve these values, I had to do things to earn the benefits of friendship and their love. Altruism says that love is causeless and unconditional, that I must love my enemies, that I must love my neighbor as myself. I am friends with certain people because they enhance my life and its enjoyment. Altruism says to bless those who hate and persecute me, to feed my enemy when he is hungry, and give him a drink when he is thirsty, and to turn the other cheek. Altruism says value something and then throw it away, give it to someone else. It wouldn't be a value to anyone if I didn't value it, and then I'm supposed to abandon it.

In this connection, I could reach the conclusion that: Egoism is the affirmation of the conditions for value and thus the affirmation of value as such; altruism is a negation of the conditions of value while simultaneously demanding that you pursue values anyway.

A person should be an egoist because choosing and achieving his values promotes the standard of value, the standard of proper behavior: life, and the enjoyment of life.

[Next post in the series: "Reduction of Justice"]

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"]