Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leonard's Shitlist

For fans of Objectivist Kremlinology everywhere, a bunch of little-known ARI enthusiasts have set up a new site, Ostensibly and hilariously described "a tool to help each person decide independently", in practice it is simply The Official Leonard Peikoff Shitlist where the ancient enemies such as David Kelley, Libertarianism, and The Brandens can be ritually vilified, and all-new Enemies of Objectivism can be thrillingly unmasked by a some Junior Woodchucks waving a copy of "Fact And Value."

The latest Enemy of Objectivism is, like most Enemies of Objectivism, a former close associate and orthodox ARIan Diana Hsieh. In fact, the site seems to be really all about this latest schism; the entries on standard villains like the Brandens are meagre and have a pro-forma feel. Hsieh's an odd figure. She was first a Kelleyan Objectivist, then in a dramatic conversion flipped to the Ayn Rand Institute, issuing the required endless blistering denunciations of her former friends and colleagues in the process. Her orthodox enthusiasm later led her to a similarly overwrought denunciation of her former friend and colleague, Ayn Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra. Now the wheel has turned, and it is she who is getting the anathema treatment. As usual, the intellectual content of the charges is close to nil; Hsieh's offending discussions are often breathtakingly inane, like whether it's ethical to eat severely retarded children should the situation require it (FYI, she thinks it is. The correct answer is, of course, let me know when this is actually a pressing problem mankind faces, then we'll discuss it.). The real issue is not anything discernibly to do with philosophy, but instead the fact that she disagreed with, and even worse said Bad Things (such as accusing him of being "horribly ignorant" and "armchair philosophising") about the aging emperor of the ARI.

Of course, almost everyone bar the slavish have immediately twigged that this is simply a shallow, limply conceived hit site. Hsieh has responded at length here, naturally failing to observe the irony that she has been the source of plenty of similar excommunications in the past. But the notable series of schisms over the past few years I would speculate is really just a sign of palace politics, of frantic jockeying for position as Peikoff's frail health and grip on the organisation - and reality - continues to deteriorate. After all, there is some money to be had, some future roles to be played, and some prestige to be garnered, even if it is only within the hermetic world of the Objectivist subculture. And judging by her track record, Hsieh has never needed a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Hat tip: Neil Parille

Friday, January 27, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 18

Psychopaths, vmPFC damage, and whim-worship. One of the central doctrines of Objectivism is the necessity of a "rational," "reason-based" morality. Human beings must follow their "rational" or "enlightened" self-interest. Emotions should not be used in moral judgments. That would amount to "whim-worship." According to Rand, people can and should follow "reason" at all times. To behave otherwise, to follow one's emotions instead of "reason," was tantamount to acting "like a zombie," without knowledge of the facts of reality. As Rand put it, "It means that a man acts in a state of temporary insanity."

Rand's view is in stark contrast with that of David Hume, who, in 1739, wrote that "reason is, and ought to only be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." We can only image vituperation with which Rand would have responded to Hume's statement. However, it is important to note that Hume is not merely asserting that reason ought to be the slave of the passions; he is also insisting that reason is the slave of the passions, and that it can't be otherwise. In the last twenty years, experimental psychology has been forced to admit that Hume's position comes much closer to the truth than Rand's. Psychologists have found that, although people can and often do reason about morality, they don't engage in reasoning in order to discover truth, but rather use reason to support their emotional intuitions. Moral reasonings serve strategic purposes such as managing one's reputation, building alliances, recruiting bystanders to support one's side in the conflicts and scuffles endemic to social life. [Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 46] Human beings act like "intuitive politicians striving to maintain appealing moral identities in front of multiple constituencies." [ibid, 75]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 17

Emotions as a form of Cognition. From Rand's writings, it is not always clear what role the emotions are supposed to play in her system. On the one hand, she asserts that emotions play no cognitive role. Indeed, given Rand's frequent condemnation of "whim worship," it's hard not to conclude that she distrusted emotions. She seems to have conceded, however, that, in the right circumstances, emotions can be a "means of enjoying life":

A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Disorganizing Brains: New Book on Objectivism

If all goes well, we will soon be graced with yet another tome on Objectivism: namely, Understanding Objectivism: A Guide to Learning Ayn Rand's Philosophy. This is yet another rehash of lectures: to be specific, a lecture series of the same name delivered by Leonard Peikoff in 1983 and sanitized for publication by no less an authority than the eminent Michael S. Berliner. Back in the halcyon days of Objectivism, just after Rand had passed from the scene and before things began to fall apart with the publication of Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand, this lecture series was regarded as kind of holy grail among the Objectivist faithful. It was Peikoff's first major effort without the presence of Rand, who, during the seventies, had served as kind of philosophical training wheels to the future heir to her estate, and had kept a close eye on him during his most important lectures. There were some among the Objectivist cognoscenti who considered this lecture series Peikoff's very best effort. It undoubtedly is strong stuff, reputed to be among the highest-octane Objectivism one is likely to ever run across. Indeed, it's so strong that (to paraphrase Schopenhauer) it may in fact be capable of thoroughly and permanently disorganizing the brains of at least some who have listened to it. Consider, as evidence, the effect these lectures had on the mind of the self-proclaimed "Ultimate Philosopher." In terms of brains thoroughly and permanently disorganized by Rand, Peikoff, and Objectivism, it doesn't get any better (and hopefully not any worse) than what we find in the Ultimate Philosopher's review of Peikoff's "Understanding Objectivism":

One of the basic functions of Peikoff's later (post-1970s) lecture courses is to teach people methods of thinking (i.e., the how as distinguished from the what) about Objectivism as well as about any other subject. The essential core of Objectivist method - a responsible (context-appropriate) approach to checking premises - makes Objectivism itself essentially impervious to refutation. Like induction itself, you couldn't even attempt to refute it without implicitly accept and affirming it. Induction is the essence of rational, reality-oriented thought; Rand identified basic principles of inductive reasoning - the most notable achievement being her theory of concepts - and those basic principles are the very basic principles of Objectivism itself. Objectivism is the method of induction applied to the fundamental issues of man and his relationship to existence.

(I'll also note that Rand had the most perfectionistic thought processes for a philosopher since Aristotle. Same basic idea: check premises responsibly, spiral progression of knowledge, respecting the hierarchy of knowledge, etc. As perfectionism is essentially related to virtue in ethics, so it is in epistemology; Rand's definition of intellectual virtue is her way of establishing a Virtue Epistemology. [Hell, is there any other kind of sound epistemology?] The academic mainstream is, like, totally in the dark on this stuff - and why is that?)...

Cognitive clarity and efficiency are central aspects of successful functioning in life.... Familiarity with this course also makes for a good head start as our culture moves in the Randian direction in the coming years....

In the Utopia I envision for humanity's not-too-distant future, familiarity with Peikoff's courses or something of comparable caliber would be an essential qualification for university professors - hell, all university professors, and not just those in the Humanities. There's really no excuse for educators and intellectuals not to be familiar with this stuff.... Their minds might well be blown at just how insidiously, damagingly rationalistic (or emotionalistic, or otherwise dysfunctional) their thought processes were all along. Then they, too, will thank Rand for showing them the way.

The future enlightenment of humanity depends on it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ayn Rand Quote of the Day

"The hallmark of such mentalities is the advocacy of some grand scale public goal, without regard to context, costs, or means. Out of context, such a goal can usually be shown to be desirable; it has to be public, because the costs are not to be earned, but to be expropriated; and a dense patch of venomous fog has to shroud the issue of means - because the means are to be human lives.

'Medicare' is an example of such a project. 'Isn't it desirable that the aged should have medical care in times of illness?' its advocates clamor. Considered out of context, the answer would be: yes, it is desirable. Who would have a reason to say no? And it is at this point that the mental processes of a collectivized brain are cut off; the rest is fog. Only the desire remains in his sight - it's for the good, isn't it? - it's not for myself, it's for others, it's for the public, for a helpless, ailing public...The fog hides such facts as the enslavement, and therefore, the destruction of medical science, the regimentation and disintegration of all medical practice, and the sacrifice of the professional integrity, the freedom, the careers, the lives of the very men who are to provide that 'desirable' goal - the doctors." - Collectivised Ethics, 1963