I think the idea of “too much of a good thing” being bad is nonsense and it is based on an incorrect understanding of “good”. For Objectivism, for something to be “good,” it must promote the life of the agent. Good, for Objectivism, is not intrinsic, or by divine decree, or some non-natural property.
Furthermore, all things must be taken in their proper context. Exercising is good for you, but exercising until you die is bad for you. So, it must be a case of “too much of a good thing,” right? No, it’s just sloppy thinking and dropping the context that the good arises from. The context here is of a normal person doing a normal amount of exercise. It is not about diseased people, or malformed people, or people whose bodies have been injured. It is also not about someone doing exercise incorrectly, or doing too much of it, or doing only very dangerous exercises. It is about how a general rational person should exercise and the idea that “exercise is good for you” exists as a general principle that must be applied to the life of any individual agent in question.
Moreover, saying exercise is good for you is making very particular claims that must be based in reality. It is making claims like exercise increases your heart rate and that makes your heart stronger and having a strong heart means you will live longer and that makes your life better: thus, exercise is good. If any link in the chain is broken, the claim “exercise is good” becomes no more than a floating abstraction unconnected to reality and devoid of meaning. If one of the premises in the chain is actually wrong, then the claim is invalidated: if, for example, raising your heart rate meant that you would actually die sooner, then exercise would not be good for you.
If you recognize how these general “x is good for you” claims work, as abstract principles, and that they must be seated in context in reality, then it’s clear that the idea of there being “too much of a good thing” is nonsense. It utterly disregards everything that makes the original claim of “x is good for you” true.
I don’t usually talk about myself on my blog, because this blog is about ideas and not its author. I also don’t usually talk about my part time job, because I’m not exactly proud of it. However, something happened yesterday that was so funny I can’t help but to relate it to you, dear reader.
I work in the wireless industry and part of my job is to help customers that have problems with their phones. Well, yesterday a customer came in complaining that her new phone, that she just got, was not as loud as her old phone. I asked to see it, to make sure that the volume was as high as it could go. It was at the max, which was 7. I told her that it was as high as it could go. She looked at me and, being completely serious, told me that her old phone was better, because it went all the way to 10, which was louder than 7.
I felt like I was having a Spinal Tap moment and if I wasn’t so sure she was serious, I would have thought she was playing a joke on me, but unfortunately she wasn’t.
As sad as it was, it’s a great example of an anti-conceptual mindset. Since the number 10 is greater than the number 7, that must indicate that the old phone was louder than the new one. However, those numbers are arbitrary and don’t reference any facts of reality. If they had been set in a standard, like decibels, then it might have been a cogent thing to say. But, because she could not look beyond the numbers themselves to the real underlying phenomena, she couldn’t understand what was really happening.
Just in case you’re wondering, I did look it up and, yes, the new phone had a higher decibel rating and was objectively louder.
Some time ago, I met a young woman by the name the name of Julia. After getting to know her, I was surprised to find that the Fourth of July was her favorite holiday, since I had never heard anyone identify the Fourth as their favorite holiday. It’s not that I’m surprised by the choice of days, the Fourth is a most deserving day for celebration. Indeed, what could be better than a secular celebration of freedom, rationality, and the greatest country in the world? No, it’s not that I thought her choice unworthy; rather, I was surprised that a religious person would identify this secular holiday as her favorite.
The surprise came for me because I knew that Julia is a committed mormon. I would have thought that she would pick a favorite holiday that was more consistent with her religious (altruistic) convictions, like Christmas, Easter, or Good Friday. Realistically the only kind of people that I would have expected to declare the Fourth of July as their favorite holiday would be Objectivists: people who understand the value of our country and what it represents in the course of human development.
Prompted by my confusion about her choice, I decided to employ what is probably my favorite word in the English language: “why.” I questioned her about her choice and was relieved, and gratified, that when I asked her why she liked the Fourth of July so much, she actually paused and gave the question serious consideration. I say gratified because it sickens me when people treat serious and important questions quickly and without thought: as though I should be satisfied by their regurgitated answer that they formed in haste and never questioned. Julia’s pause, however, was more than I expected. While considering the question, I could see in her face that it was causing quite an internal conflict: her face was both enlightened and troubled by her thoughts. Her first response was a rather disappointed “I don’t know,” which is perhaps the worst answer possible to any question. If you don’t know the answer, then your response should be “I don’t know and I’m going to find out.” Thankfully Julia was not satisfied with her answer either and began to reflect again. This time she did discover the answer, although she still does not realize its magnitude.
Haltingly, and uncertainly, Julia began to explain that with holidays like Christmas, Easter, etc., you are obligated to get gifts for people you don’t really care about and you are forced to be around people you do not really want to be around. In effect she was telling me that she did not like duty and sacrifice, that these things pained her, although she did not then make the full identification. Suddenly her staccato answer stopped and her eyes lit up: she told me that the reason why she liked the Fourth so much was because you were not obligated to get gifts for people that you did not like and you only had to spend time with the people you love and want to be with. In effect, she told me that self-interest was the proper modus operandi and that she was only happy when she was acting in her own rational self-interest, which was why she hated the other holidays.
Since I knew that a direct (blunt) mode of questioning might make her defensive, I instead took a tactful approach and tried to stimulate her mind to make the connections that I thought should be self-evident. So, I said: “I agree that living your life for others is no way to live. To be happy, you have to live for yourself”. She agreed and it was evident from her face that my answer had struck a chord with her; an ephemeral flash of comprehension lit up her eyes.
Now, this is perhaps one of the most poignant cases of the dire necessity of philosophy in life and the consequences of its absence or perversion. Through something as simple as holidays, Julia was starting to recognize the evil of Altruism and the goodness of Egoism. Her religion, accepted at an age before she had gained control of her rational and cognitive faculties, had crippled her mind. Yet, it could not prevent her body’s automated defense mechanism, her emotions, from acting to tell her that something was wrong. Julia’s emotional response to the threat to her life, as a person if not even literally to her physical existence, caused her to being to question. Unfortunately, having accepted the premises of Altruism, she could not identify what was causing her to feel that way. Emotions are not enough for us to live by and they are not always to be trusted; they can be corrupted, so we need something that is more reliable and, if used correctly, infallible.
Yet, unfortunately for Julia, her religious convictions had crippled her rationality by corrupting her most fundamental premises. Left in this position, where one knows that something is not as it should be because he feels that something is wrong which he thinks should be right, is a deadly position for many. Instead of questioning the premises causing the contradiction, many people would instead began to question themselves. Since they “know” that it is wrong to act in their own self-interest, and yet they only feel happy when they do, they began to regard themselves as evil. However, the trap is easy to break out of once you realize that the only things binding you are your own mistaken beliefs. Instead of starting with the premise that acting self-sacrificially is right, ask yourself why it is right. If you can’t answer the question of why it is right, then you’re certainly not justified in believing that it is right. Floating abstractions are worse than ignorance, because ignorance is at least honest.
It is in the realm of Ethics that philosophy has most abdicated its role as the protector of humanity, so it is hard to condemn Julia for failing to question Altruism when philosophy itself has historically failed to question this most controversial of premises. Through most of the history of philosophy, it was taken as a given that man had to act self-sacrificially: it was only the beneficiary that was contested. The simple fact that man could live for himself seemed to escape the notice of these purveyors of sacrifice.
Holidays, however, are supposed to be celebrations and celebrations are supposed to be life-affirming: no one would celebrate the fact that he had a debilitating disease, whereas we do celebrate the good things in life like graduations, weddings, new jobs, etc. How, then, can most of what we call holidays cause Julia, and many others, to feel a sense of bitterness and sadness? It’s through the perversion of morality via Altruism and the destruction of legitimate concepts such as “holiday.” By turning words that should be employed to praise the nobility of the human spirit into words that are reserved for otherworldly father figures, Altruism has taken reverence for life and tried to substitute its antithesis. Why do we hate buying gifts for people whom we don’t really like and don’t want to be around? Clearly this is against our self-interest. If I do not like someone, I am not going to want to give him a gift because I either don’t value him or I value him less than the value of the gift, but our “duty to sacrifice” our self-interest under Altruism demands that we ignore this analysis and give the gift anyway. Yet this only causes ill feelings all around as everyone senses that acting contrary to their self-interest is wrong, while at the same time they feel that they are trapped and have no choice but to act self-sacrificially anyway.
In order to fix the seeming paradox of holidays we have to remind ourselves that if we want to be happy we must identify what this means and work to achieve it. We must question our premises and challenge our most basic assumptions — “why”must become our credo. We must reclaim the words that the altruists have stolen and perverted. We have to overcome the privation left to us by the betrayal of our philosophic forefathers and seek guidance from ourselves.
Ethics should not be a set of negative commands: instead of telling you what not to do, ethics should help you live your life. Ethics, properly, is a system of general principles that try to help you lead a good life. It is the role of Ethics to identify the good life. It is the role of Ethics to identify the actions and habits that will help you achieve a good life. It is the role of Ethics to help us lead good human lives.
If living a good life is not your goal, if you instead stick to mystical decadence, then death shall be your reward. If you truly believe that living a good human life is not good for humans, think about what this means for you: you desire not to be human, which is a desire for death. It is by living a moral life that we become happy and it is by being virtuous that we live a moral life. Without ethics, we are without guidance in the most important thing in the world: our very lives.
In order to live a moral life we must learn that egoism is the path to happiness: our lives are our responsibility and if we want to be happy we must concern ourselves with our own interests. What right could I possibly have to the life of another person? We must be self-reliant and never ask another to sacrifice for us and never sacrifice ourselves for another.
In order to live a moral life we must learn the true nature of happiness. Is happiness merely feeling joyful? If it were, then we could live our lives well by staying in a drug-induced delirium all day, yet clearly this would not be a good life. So happiness must be more than merely feelings of joy. Happiness comes from living a good human life: from pride in our accomplishments and from pride in living well. Pride was once called the crown of the virtues and happiness requires us to pick up this shattered crown and restore it to its glory.
In order to live a moral life, we must throw off the chains of Altruism. We must either act to further our life or act to diminish it: there are no other choices. If we want to live and be happy, we must recognize Altruism as the virulent form of death-wish it is. Self-sacrifice is clearly anti-life; it asks us to renounce our judgment and our life. Duty demands that we purposefully act against our lives; it asks us to willing and jovially give up our lives. Do you now see the monstrosity of Altruism, lauded as the supposed salvation of man? Sure, it can save us: from life.
There are so many ways that we can take our lives back from the black pit of death: the most important is to merely recognize the nature of the struggle and what’s at stake. After this, all we need to do is recognize changes we can make in our lives, such as with holidays.
Reclaiming holiday would require no more than for all of us to sever them from their religious basis and celebrate them for their value to our lives and there is, indeed, a great benefit in proper celebration. Instead of sacrificing ourselves at the holidays, let us instead celebrate them with the people we love and really do want to see. Instead of getting gifts for everyone, let us just get them for those closest to us who hold the most value for us. Let us turn holidays back into celebrations of life.
As is universally true, even the hardest issue can be made easy by breaking it down into its fundamental components and analyzing these for what they really are, our minds are capable of coming to the truth of any issue with time and knowledge. The issue of holidays has led us to understand the conflict of Altruism and Egoism; we have come to universal truth from a particular situation. This is yet another example of the dire necessity of philosophy and its usefulness in life. Let us hope that Julia, and everyone else like her, can figure out these complicated issues for themselves and they can start to be truly happy in life. Reclaimed, holidays will no longer be a source of suffering. Instead, they will be a source of joy and an affirmation of life: a celebration of ourselves.
After looking over Qwertz’s original essay again, and in light of the clarifying comments I’ve received on my last post on this subject, I believe I owe Qwertz an apology. When I originally read his post, I took him to be taking a much stronger, and indeed different, position that it seems he is actually taking.
In light of this, let me revisit some of the philosophical problems in the post in a different way.
Both Qwertz and I would agree, I think, with the proposition that the terms “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse” are all relational concepts (much like friend, brother, mother, etc.). Further, I don’t think we disagree about the point that in a relational concept, the essence of the concept is not be found in the people in the relationship, but in the relationship itself. For example, friendship is not to be found in a person, but is how that person acts and behaves to their friend: the “friendship” itself is the relation of two people to each other. Further, I think we both agree that the specific relationship that is dealt with here is the marital relationship. None of these points are contentious.
The point of contention is in how do we define these words. I agree with Qwertz that: “The simple definition of ‘husband’ is ‘a married man’.” The problem is that I think he goes wrong when he says: “But the concept actually subsumes all the fundamental properties shared by its units.” I think that in the case of relational concepts, the entire concept rests only on the relationship itself, and not in the units. Let’s take an example, a bad marriage is not one where the partners in the relationship are immoral, but one where the relationship itself is not working. This is because the marriage is not just the same as the partners, the marriage (the relationship) is almost like a third thing to the partners. Having two virtuous people in a marriage does not mean that it will be a good marriage: they may still not be right for each other. This brings us to the issue of: is being a good X part of the concept of X? I say no. In order to even say “good X,” one must first understand what it is to be an X. Only once it is understood what it is to be an X, can someone then say “…and this is what it would be to be a good X.” This point is critical because Qwertz is asking whether things like dominance and submission need to be part of the concept of marriage. Clearly not. I can imagine a married couple where the man is not masculine and the wife is not feminine and perhaps they don’t even love each other–but they’re still married. He’s actually asking whether or not certain things should be part of the concept of a good marriage, or a proper marriage (and these are legitimate questions).
The concepts we are dealing with here need to be defined by their essentials and only their essentials. What is essential about being a bachelor is that he is an unmarried man. What is essential about being a mother is that she has given rise to offspring. What is essential to being an X in a relational concept is that X exists in a specific relationship. To concretize it back to our case: the relationship itself we call “marriage” and men in these relationship are “husbands” and women in these relationships are “wives.” To ask the further questions about “good marriages” et cetera are a different, and later, question.
Traditionally, of course, being a husband entailed having a wife, but only because marriage was defined as a “union before god of a man and a woman.” If we go back only slightly further, marriage was an arrangement between two men to exchange property (specifically a woman). Remember, it was not very long ago that women were property and to rape a woman was an offense against her father, who owned her, and not against her herself, since she had no legal or moral standing (we still see this in Islamic cultures). The thing is that the definition is evolving: it is certainly not before any gods for we Objectivists. I think more interesting questions about marriage involve what the nature of marriage is: is it a union of two people before the state? Just their declaration of their love? A promise to act as a single unit henceforth? A contract that is dependent only on the parties to it? There are some really interesting and challenging questions about marriage. However, I do not find the definitions of husband and wife to be among these, which is not to say that one cannot be interested in them. If one is having a problem with the words, like Qwertz is, then he is doing the right thing by probing into the subject.
I think part of the problem fueling this is that the “official Objectivist position” on homosexuality is that it is immoral or, if not immoral, then at least a tragic mistake brought about by psychological errors and/or problems. I certainly don’t have the space or inclination to take on this whole issue here, but I will be posting a revised version of a speech I gave to the Ohio Objectivist Society last year that details my position. I’m changing some of my arguments based on refinements to the ideas I’ve had since I wrote it last year. Nevertheless, it is foolish to say that because you think the penis has metaphysical primacy, that homosexuality is immoral (if you don’t understand this, go and find all of Rand’s references to these issues and piece her argument together, otherwise I’ll explain in my forthcoming post).
Finally, I want to address Shea (Cogito) and his hysterics yesterday.
Shea: really? Calm down, people make mistakes. First of all, I told Qwertz that I published this on the day I did it (see the picture).
Then, the next day, you come along and tell him the same thing directly underneath my comment. Did you think he wouldn’t see my comment, but would see yours? And then your melodramatic blog post: “I posted a comment on Jason’s post, but since he moderates his comments and may not approve mine I wanted to post it here for posterity.” I was at work and couldn’t approve your comment the very moment you wrote it. I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience. The way commenting works on Erosophia is that comments from a author need to be approved the first time, but not subsequent times. As long as you use the same e-mail address to post your comments, you only have to be moderated once. This prevents spam on the blog, but without making commenters fill out annoying captchas. Perhaps instead of over-reacting next time, you could just leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail (Jason@JasonStotts.com) and just say “hey, I think you may have misunderstood Qwertz’s position.”
I am a fan of the blog WoPSR run by “Qwertz.” He generally has good analysis and frequently deals with interesting legal issues. Unfortunately, this time, he strayed too far afield and right into my bailiwick.
In his essay “Rand’s Razor v. Gay Marriage” Qwertz takes the position that for a married homosexual to use the word “husband” or “wife” is inappropriate. Why? Because: “I have always found myself a bit nonplussed [d. surprised and confused] whenever I hear someone mention his husband, or her wife. [...] This mental response of ‘there’s something not quite right about that usage’ is subtle, but consistent, which makes me think it is not inconsequential and deserves investigation. There are two possibilities: either I subconsciously do not accept a man in a same-sex marriage as a proper unit of the concept ‘husband’; or such a person is not properly a unit of the concept.” Thus, his reason to think that it is inappropriate for a gay man to use the word “husband” to refer to his spouse is because it makes him feel uncomfortable.
I think he is right that there are two possibilities for this: 1. that he does not accept same-sex marriage or 2. that same-sex marriages should not use “husband” or “wife.” I’m certainly going with 1 here, but just to be fair, let’s look to the concepts of husband and wife and see if there is something about them that prevents their use in same-sex marriages.
Husband and wife are what is considered a “relational concept,” much like friend, brother, daughter, etc. In a relational concept, the essence of the concept is not be found in the people in the relationship, but in the relationship itself. For example, friendship is not to be found in a person, but is how that person acts and behaves to their friend: the “friendship” itself is the relation of two people to each other.
So, we know that “husband” and “wife” are relational concepts, but to what do they relate? Well, clearly they denote a marital relation: that is, that one is in a relationship that we call marriage. To say that a woman is “a wife” is to say that she is married; to say that she is “my wife” is to use the possessive, to say that she is married to me. The concept wife just denotes that a woman is in a marital relationship: but it does not specify with whom. In order to specify with whom, one must add additional information to the concept. This is very important because the concept that Qwertz is using is “wife+heterosexual+married to a man.” He’s attempting to load a concept with information that does not belong in it. Let me draw an analogy with “bachelor,” which everyone who has ever had a philosophy class knows, is “an unmarried man.” Bachelor is a negative relational concept, it denotes that a man is not in a marital relationship. Now, imagine if we “Qwertz” the concept and make Bachelor “male+heterosexual+not married to a heterosexual female.” He’s filling the concepts with information that is unnecessary.
All of this is ironic, as Qwertz asserts that he’s using Rand’s Razor (a coinage by Rand that is a reference to William of Ockham) to mean that: “concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity.” (ITOE 72). It’s ironic because his addition of unnecessary information would require that we create a whole host of concepts, like his “gay husbands.”
Thus, I think it’s safe to say that his option 2 falls flat: there is nothing in the nature of the concepts “husband” and “wife” that would prevent them from being applied to a same-sex marriage. This, by process of elimination, leaves us with option 1: Qwertz does not accept same-sex marriage as legitimate. Frankly, that’s a personal problem and, Qwertz, you need to just get over it. Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable does not mean that you should attack same-sex marriage: that is the modus operandi of the christians.
How about this: let’s just all accept that some people are gay and they deserve to be happy. They deserve to have relationships, to be in love, and to have their love recognized by others and the state. There is no danger in this to heterosexual marriage or children or the nature of society. The only danger it has is to our unchallenged beliefs that we will be forced to confront–and that’s the real fear isn’t it? That we’ll all have to look inside ourselves and actually think about homosexuality.
In one of the most epistemologically interesting videos I’ve ever seen, Temple Grandin talks about what it is like to think as an autistic person. From the description:
Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.
The implications for epistemology that different minds can think differently is astounding! In fact, it could completely change the way that epistemology is done today. Instead of assuming that one human nature means that there is one right way to think, it might mean that there are multiple valid ways to think. This means that we may have to have an epistemology that is capable of accommodating these different thinking styles. For example, “pattern thinkers” have a distinct advantage for mathematics and music. As an abstract cognitive thinker, I find music and art impossible, but Philosophy very easy. Epistemology should be able to integrate all of these different ways of thinking and be able to give a cogent account of them.
I’m going to be getting her book soon and I’m planning an essay on this subject for sometime in the near future, after I learn more about it. Until then, take a look at her video from TED.
Last May, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by a religious fanatic in a church. The fanatic’s name was Scott Roeder and he defended his actions by saying that he was justified in the killing because Dr. Tiller was an abortion doctor who was “murdering unborn children” who could not defend themselves.
A jury, however, has reasonably concluded that Roeder’s actions were nothing less than premeditated murder. (Fox News)
This case deeply saddens me and I think that there are some very important lessons that one can learn from it.
The first is that the irrationality of faith is antagonistic to reason and civilized society as well as being a deadly danger. Faith can justify anything; literally anything. A person can have faith that they see their god and he tells him to kill a child or start a war. There can be no check on this if you admit faith as a valid method of thinking and acquiring knowledge: if you admit faith as a principle, the murderer is simply the more consistent adherent of his faith since he actually follows it. However, as Nietzsche says: “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”
A somewhat different issue is that language can influence your thoughts. To refer to the mass of cells growing inside a woman as a “fetus” (correct) as opposed to an “unborn child” (incorrect) is an epistemological error. A child is a developing human that has reached the stage where it can survive as a discrete entity. That is, a child is something that can live by itself and does not have to be fed through an umbilical cord. It would be more correct to call it an “unborn baby,” but here too the critical distinction about the ability to live as an independent existent comes into play. It’d be better to think of it as “still developing into a” baby. However, until it has independent existence, it has absolutely no moral status. This is because it is a potential human and not an actual human until it is born and gains independent existence.
Religious dogma has perverted thinking here because it needs it’s god to give the developing baby a soul in order for it to fit into their framework of understanding. This “ensoulment,” to use the catholic term, is nothing but a fiction that is necessitated by their insistence upon the Platonic eternal soul that comes from their god. There is no evidence of a soul, it is an article of faith. However, on the religious viewpoint, once a being has a soul, it is a human. That’s just nonsense. However, for a religious person it means that a fetus is a person and has full moral consideration, since it is ensouled. I think the only logical conclusion is to deny abortions to religious people and let anyone else have free access to them.
The point, though, is that failure to have clear thinking can have deadly consequences and in this case a good man was gunned down senselessly by a religious fanatic whose mind was perverted by his faith.
From time to time I will be putting up material that was originally written for my forthcoming book, but which was cut for various reasons. This section was cut after a restructuring rendered it unnecessary. However, I rather like it and couldn’t bear to see it go to waste. ~Jason
The World as it Isn’t by Jason Stotts
Today, Ethics seems to be suffering under the weight of a particularly malignant strain of myopia that has prevented them from seeing the forest from the trees. Indeed, we might even go so far as to say to claim that instead of seeing a forest, or even the trees themselves, today’s ethicist have found magical wonderlands in small fragments of bark littered among the dirt on ground. This is because Ethics today is constructed upon the basis of the world as it isn’t: a world that exists nowhere but in debaters’ points and imaginations. There are three primary strategies that these ethicists employ to create their worlds: specific hypothetical constructs, alternate realities, and emergency situations. Each of these has its own particular problems and after we have investigated each individually, we shall also see that there is a larger issue at work here.
The first common practice is to riddle an ethical inquiry with hypothetical constructs designed to create a highly selected context that will help a philosopher prove a point. Some examples of these are a magic pebble that can cure any illness, a group of people imprisoned from birth in a cave forced to watch a puppet show, a demon bent on deception, or a trolley run out of control. All of these philosophers use their different hypothetical constructs to help them prove different points, but their purpose is to create a highly specialized context that may or may not be at all similar to reality. The problem is that there is no necessary connection between these constructs and the way the world really is: in fact, they are created precisely because the point cannot be proven using that which exists, so these philosophers are forced to evoke that which does not.
There are other philosophers who have a different approach to construct the world as it isn’t, those who do not postulate constructs in this world, but postulate other worlds which bear some relation to ours. These philosophers are not content just to postulate some small difference in order to prove their point; their points are so at odds with reality that they must construct a divergent “parallel reality” that has laws and rules that suit the point they are trying to prove. Many times this arises when a philosopher wants to explore the possibilities of choices going otherwise than they did or situations developing differently than they, in fact, did. The focus of their otherworld is the point that they need in order to prove: the only problem with this is that the very point that they are trying to make becomes the most radically divergent from reality.
The third way that philosophers try to construct the world as it isn’t often uses some devices from the previous two argumentative strategies, but is fundamentally different because it focuses exclusively on using emergency situations as its justificatory framework. Ayn Rand first identified this emphasis in her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies” . The use of emergency situations as the exclusive justificatory framework for an ethical system betrays a fundamental flaw in that system: the system is appropriate only to conditions and situations in which human life is impossible. Further, these same situations are exceedingly rare and not likely to be experienced by many people. It is not just that these philosophers utilize a single construct, like a runaway trolley from above, but rather their entire foundation for their ethic is emergency situations. This issue is as much metaphysical as it is ethical, but the simple fact is that most people do not live in a constant state of crisis. Moreover, such a state would be inimical to human life and by its very nature unpredictable. This unpredictability would render Ethics a useless field: how could one identify principles if the situation was not able to be known and could change without warning? Indeed, it is a bit of irony that anyone would attempt to construct an ethical system in a world of emergency as such a basis makes the field useless.
Before we move on, let us pause to note that our condemnation should not be extended to the use of parables in ethics or of the extraction of moral truths from fiction. The difference is that these two avenues are not used to justify the moral principle, but rather to show how it operates: to concretize it. It is certainly not inappropriate to read a story and extract a moral lesson from it, as long as we realize that the story is not justification for the principle. As long as we remember this, and independently judge all such extracted principles, there is much we can learn from fiction.
The causes of the construction of the world as it isn’t are manifold, but they all boil down to this: the ethics being advocated is inappropriate to human life in reality and therefore, if they want to attempt a justification, then they must attempt to “step outside” of reality and justify their ethics on the basis of something else. Some philosophers end up needing to create the world as it isn’t because they presuppose the ends they wish to prove. This presupposition can have disastrous consequences as one can be blinded by the need to justify one’s ends and reach for tenuous connections. Once this kind of philosopher comes up against a wall in justifying his system in reality, he is forced to leave reality to find the “justification” he needs.
Other philosophers end up creating the world as it isn’t because their epistemology bars them from the world as it is. If one supposes that he is locked behind a veil of ideas or forever barred from reality by faulty faculties, then he, of course, will find himself stuck creating the world as it isn’t. But, the fault still lies with him as this poor epistemic assumption is the only thing holding him back from access to the real world. Indeed, many philosophers recognize the absurdity of their own position when they advocate this, such as David Hume when he reminded people to leave aside their skepticism when they left the drawing room.
The last major cause is that group of philosophers who advocate what Ayn Rand called the “Primacy of Consciousness”. This is the position that one’s mind has causal efficacy in the world and thus one’s thoughts can transform reality. While this may be appropriate for a child’s play, when advocated by a philosopher it is ridiculous. Yet, people advocate this as well. The philosopher George Berkeley, for example, thought that objects disappeared if they weren’t being looked at. Thus, in order to make sure the world didn’t disappear when he closed his eyes, he had to postulate an all-seeing god. Yet, one would think that he would have learned about object permanence much before he was old enough to read and certainly well before he wrote his treatise. Indeed, the entire idea of the primacy of consciousness seems predicated upon the irrational wish for an inhuman power.
As should be obvious, an ethics predicated upon justification from the world as it isn’t is not applicable to the world as it is. It is, in fact, a perversion of Ethics into a field unrelated to human life. Consequently, this kind of ethics has the peculiar distinction of being a self-destructive ethics. I attribute the utter indifference of our current culture towards ethics to this emphasis. If you are shown only ethical theories based on situations that you know will never apply to your life, then you will, of course, lose interest in the entire field.