Monday, September 19, 2005

Atlas Shrugged

Last July I responded to a little essay by a Randian attacking original sin:

I see that another Randian has now commented on two remarks I made in the course of my response.

Don Watkins originally said:


On the Objectivist view, morality is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions in order to enable him to secure his own life. Because life is conditional, because it requires a specific course of action in order to be maintained, man needs to know what is good for him and what is bad for him. Morality provides man with this knowledge. Morality is thus a tool of selfishness – it defines for man the principles of human survival. To adhere to a moral code, in this view, is not a self-sacrificial duty, but a selfish necessity.


To which I replied:


Where does morality come from in the first place? And why is survival such a good thing?


This has provoked the following comments by a guy named Travis Benning:


Triablogue - “And why is survival suc[h] a good thing?”

If one values life, then it is a ‘good thing.’ I can’t believe this is still a question, but here we go…

Some people just do not grasp the concept that Reason is Man’s basic means of survival. Reason is our conceptual faculty; because Man functions on the conceptual level, not the perceptual level like animals. It is the faculty by which we integrate and organize all the data that we take in from our senses; because reality exists outside of our senses, wishes, whims, and prayers. It exists, not in some metaphysically wrinkled zoned, but here, now, capable of being experienced with the senses.

To claim otherwise is to deny the Law of Identity, that A is A, and to relegate one’s mind into a useless blob of gray matter between one’s ears.


i) Since Benning has a knack for missing the obvious, I’ll have to spell it out for him. The purpose of the question was not to question the value of survival from my own point of view. Rather, I was responding to a claim by Don Watkins. What, from his Randian standpoint, is the value of survival?

ii) Benning’s reply is scarcely coherent. He says that “Reason is Man’s basic means of survival…because Man functions on the conceptual level, not the perceptual level like animals.”

How this contrast is intended to prove his point is far from evident. After all, animals survive quite nicely at a merely perceptual rather than conceptual level. For example, cockroaches get along in the world quite handily without the benefit of a reasonable soul or higher cortical functions. So why does Benning assume that reason confers a survival advantage?

BTW, is there some reason that Benning capitalizes “Reason” as though it were a German noun or the name of a Deity?

iii) In fact, it might just as well be argued that reason is a threat to human survival. Lower animals lack the intelligence to design weapons of mass destruction.

iv) Finally, Benning misses the more fundamental point. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that reason is man’s basic survival tool.

If I had asked how it is that man is able to survive, reference to reason might be a relevant answer. But remember, I didn’t pose a how-question, but a why-question. And what I posed was not factual question, but an ethical question: why is survival a good thing?

To cite the law of identity or claim that reason confers a survival advantage on the human species goes absolutely no distance towards answering the question I asked of the Randian.

Moving along:


Triablogue - “Where does morality come from in the first place?”

From our Reasoning mind perhaps? From the facts of reality that dictate what Man must do in order to survive, thrive, and be happy perhaps? That is, of course, if one thinks that life is something worth having and keeping. If one does not value life, then why would one wish to continue having it? As a sense of duty as Kant would profess? I think not. As a sacrificial gift to be given to others that demand it of you on behalf of the ‘greater good’? I think not. As a commandment, not to be decided by oneself or questioned ever out of a sense of fear by some ‘other’ that is all things except something with identity? Again, the answer is no.

Steve, when I hear of people that think believe as you do, I get concerned. You use the internet, an achievement of great technological and political value. Both of those realms require Reason. We all know that Reason applied to any field of any kind produces value; when applied towards the goal of one’s rational self-interest and Man’s happiness. Attempt to eat, to survive, without any use of Reason. Stop thinking and see if that fills your belly. You know it will not, but why then in the realm of morality is Reason given a back seat and told to shut up when having to compete with Tea leaf reading and Revealed Truth?

Why in this area is it pushed aside as a necessary evil, a pawn to be used only to propagate one’s views? The mind is impotent you say? Then stop using the products of the mind to spread your words. Stop using the internet to damn the internet, stop using the microphone at the pulpit to damn Man’s mind, stop using technology to damn technology; the product of the rational mind. The sheer idiocy of such actions astounds me. And to claim that it is not the mind that creates these objects and tools that aid human life and increase Man’s happiness here on Earth; that it is from some ‘other’ existence that we cannot identify, is just plain retardation.

Steve, I challenge you to read, understand, and refute on a purely logical and rational level any part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: Objectivism. Provide proof of your refutation(s), and not delve into the deep-end of emotionalism or subjectivism but stay within the confines of this reality on this planet.


i) Does morality issue from the mind? Remember, again, that my question was directed at a Randian. How does he justify morality, given his outlook?

ii) Is secular ethics even feasible? A number of atheistic philosophers like Kai Nielsen and J. L. Mackie have admitted that secularism cannot ground moral absolutes.

iii) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that mere reason, apart from God, is the source of morality, reasonable men have proposed divergent value systems, so how does reason alone privilege one value system over another?

iv) In what sense is survival a dictate of reason? I assume that Benning is a Darwinian, so he must believe that various species, including subspecies of early man, have become extinct.

v) To speak of happiness as an ethical end begs the question of whether happiness is a good.

vi) Moreover, it sidesteps the question of whether any and every form of happiness is a good. What if persecuting Randians makes me happy?

vii) Benning then tumbles down a rabbit trail about how I allegedly say that reason is impotent. But he doesn’t quote me to that effect.

I’m all for reason when reason is put to the purpose for which it was made. But I also acknowledge that fallen reason can be applied to evil ends.

viii) His objection seems to be to the concept of revealed truth and some “other” existence.

But, of course, many men of the highest intellectual attainments have been religious to one degree or another, viz. Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine, Bach, Berkeley, Cantor, Dante, Edwards, Eliot, Euler, Gödel, Handel, Kepler, Leibniz, Milton, Newton, Owen, Pascal, Plantinga, Plotinus, Racine, &c.

ix) Why should I “stay within the confines of this reality on this planet”? This is odd advice coming from a guy who cites the law of identity. Is the law of identity an empirical object? Is its jurisdiction limited to terra firma?

And what, for that matter, of reason itself? Is reason an empirical object? Can you perceive the faculty of reason the way you perceive a sound or scent or color?

Both reason and logic are excellent candidates for subsisting in a “metaphysically wrinkled zone.”

x) As to his challenge, the burden is not on me to make Benning’s argument for him. If he thinks that Rand is the greatest thing since the electric light-bulb, then let him deploy his own Randian arguments. I can’t very well refute an argument he never made. For a man who exalts the primacy of reason, Benning is a sorry illustration of his own thesis.


  1. Just remember Steve-O: A is A. Say it over and over. A is A.

    Such profundity!

  2. "A is A' is not half as profound as "A cannot be 'not A'".

    If the Objectivist applies this maxim consistently, he'll run screaming from Objectivism inside a day.

  3. I note that yet another champion of capital-R Reason, and not coincidentally, another Randian, cannot answer or even recognize a question, instead preferring to spout a great deal of pretentious pseudointellectual gobbledygook.

  4. It is plausible to argue that there is a connection between survival and morality, but once you get to that point it is still hard to justify the rest of Objectivist morality.

    What, for example, is the Objectivist case against me moving to Sweden and mooching off the welfare state? Why should I even respect the rights of others? What's particularly selfish about that?

  5. I'd add that if you peruse his reviews, you'll see that Steve Jackson has an encyclopedic knowledge of Objectivism, so he knows as well as anyone the limits of the system.

  6. This guy seems to know even more than I do --