Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Four Essays on Objective Morality

Thanks to Roderick Fitts, guest blogger at Noodlefood, for bringing the availability of the January 2008 issue of the Social Philosophy and Policy journal to my attention. That particular issue focused on the subject of "Objectivism, Subjectivism, and Relativism in Ethics" and featured numerous esssays of which I have read four that interested me.

Tara Smith's The Importance of the Subject in Objective Value: Distinguishing Objective from Intrinsic Value is a thorough review of the crucial distinction that Ayn Rand makes between the her concept of objectivity, which argues for a relational view of concepts, including moral concepts, and what she calls "intrinsicism," which is in fact what many people assume objectivity to consist of, but is in fact a failed attempt to divorce the subject from the object which ultimately and inevitably collapses into subjectivism.

Darryl F. Wright's Evaluative Concepts and Objective Values: Rand on Moral Objectivity attacks a related aspect of the same question. He discusses in some detail the underlying Objectivist epistemology and defends it from some critics. He then proceeds to show that what exactly moral objectivity involves, including its link to the goal of self-preservation.

Tibor R. Machan's Why Moral Judgements can be Objective attempts demonstrate the Ayn Rand approach succeeds in providing an objective morality, or as he puts it "there seems to be nothing amiss in the Randian idea of objectivity in ethics." While the overall thrust of this essay is reasonable, and it is clear that Machan is sympathetic to Objectivism, I couldn't help noticing an unfortunate lack of commitment to the very ideas that Machan presents. For example, he concludes that
...it is most likely true that objectivity is possible in ethics, provided that knowledge is conceived in an essentially non-Platonist, non-idealist fashion and provided that “objective” is not taken to mean that moral values are intrinsic.
It seems to me that Machan concedes too much to rather unworthy critics with the above statement.

Finally, I thought that Douglas B. Rasmussen's The Importance of Metaphysical Realism For Ethical Knowledge was probably the most interesting essay I read. Rasmussen discusses the views of philopher Hilary Putnam in some detail. Putnam claims that moral objectivity is possible despite denying any underlying metaphysical reality in way similar to Kant. Rasmussen carefully lays out Putnam's sometimes varying positions on the matter and shows conclusively that Putnam's attempt to present an objective morality without an objective reality fails. What was most fascinating about this particular essay is that the political implications of Putnam's views are also discussed. Thus the essay serves as a good illustration of the power of basic philosophy, including metaphysics and epistemology, to influence both ethical and political ideas.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Objective Standard Summer 2008 Issue

This past Friday I received the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard (TOS) in the mail. I finished it last night. All right, actually I had started reading it some time earlier online, since approximately Mid-June a little after Craig Biddle, the editor and publisher, announced the forthcoming issue. At that time I read Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid by Raymond C. Niles. The excellent article describes the origin of the electric utility companies and why the regulations that currently pervade the industry, far from being some kind of natural necessity, were in fact an unfortunately by-product of early attempts to by-pass more local regulations.

Generally I try to wait for the print issue before reading too many articles but I couldn't quite resist glancing at the new book review section. First I read John Lewis's review of Sun-tzu: Art of War. Dr. Lewis regards Sun-tzu as a rational observer of the art of warfare, concerned with enabling generals to understand the facts and act accordingly. It is interesting to me to what extent rationality is present in Chinese thought. Clearly the Chinese must have had some rational ideas in their culture, otherwise they would never have achieved as much as they did during some of their historical periods. And yet, unlike the Muslims, they did not have any contact with the Greeks. I am curious as to what the Chinese equivalents of Aristotle might have been and what their limitations were.

Having read the first review, I couldn't resist reading the other two, starting John P. McCaskey's review of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society, by Laura J. Snyder, a fascinating account of the intellectual conflict between John Stuart Mill and lesser known William Whewell on the nature of scientific induction and the implications for ethics. According to McCaskey, Snyder's book does an excellent job of putting to rest the notion that Mill "was a champion of commonsense realism, inductive science, or individual liberty." Then I proceeded to Larry Salzman's review of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law, by Steven M. Teles. Teles's book is a history of how Conservatives have managed to penetrate the legal profession and institutions after being mostly absent between the 1930s to 1970s. This has had some limited beneficial effects -- after all, free market ideas are a lot more acceptable now than they were between 1930 and 1970. Still, as others have pointed out, since the defense of free markets is not conducted on moral grounds, it seems that the beneficial effect is temporary. Furthermore, the Salzman points out that Teles admittedly did not cover the rise of the Christian-Conservatives along with the economic conservatives, as a result "the darker side of the conservative legal movement gets an unfortunate and undeserved pass."

Finally, when I got the physical issue, I read the remaining two articles Alex Epstein's excellent essay laying to rest of the myths about Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company, and David Harriman's fascinating and enlightening account of the developments that lead to the Proof of the Atomic Theory. Both are highly recommended and ought be read by anyone interested in the history of business and science respectively.

It is difficult to express how much it means to have a subscription to such an excellent Objectivist journal. And now, according to the editor, the journal should be available at your local bookstores -- so what are you waiting for? Go out and get it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Islamist Entanglement: Conclusion

Scott Powell presented his tenth and last lecture in the Islamic Entanglement series (you can still enroll in individual lectures or the whole course -- check it out) last Wednesday. The lecture summarized the previous ten and in light of what was presented suggested what we can expect for the future. Not entirely surprisingly, Scott does not view the future with much optimism. Not much can be expected in the way of improvement from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, and the rest. To varying degrees these countries will either remain Islamist or becomes more so. The kind of actions necessary by the United States to convince the locals that real change is required, namely a truly convincing military victory, are very unlikely to happen in the near future.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Scott for presenting these excellent lectures. I very much appreciate Scott's unique methodology. Rather than simply overwhelming one with events and personalities that one cannot absorb (as many a modern history book tends to do), his unique methodology focuses in on the essentials while not overlooking the necessary details, thus presenting the material in a highly retainable form. I highly recommend his approach to teaching history.