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you could do better by reading real philosophy--starting with Aristotle and going forward ...
on April 2, 2016
Smith clearly lays out at least one plausible meta-ethical interpretation of Ayn Rand's "Objectivist" ethics. That is not to say that the theory thus elucidated is plausible. To the contrary; indeed, one of the virtues of this book is that it shows clearly that the theory rests upon completely implausible premises. Perhaps most central is the fundamental confusion made, on p.89, between the evolutionary origin of our values, and the justification of those values themselves. Set aside for the moment the fact that some of our instinctive values--which in various situations, might lead to violence, rape, coercion, etc.--are obviously immoral, even by Objectivist standards. The more basic problem is that Smith writes here as if the sudden transformation of a moral person into an immoral being, who needed to do nothing in particular to stay alive forever, would forthwith cease to value anything, and even to be alive in any meaningful sense. This confusion between agency--the particular mode of some living things which stay alive in part by having evolved the capacity to believe and value various states of affairs--and life itself, is especially astounding for a philosophy which purportedly places such a huge value upon the capacity to be rational--which, however defined, is certainly a subset of agency. Grounding this value in what we share in common with protozoa is an odd move; and yet, perhaps, an inevitable one given Rand's scattered remarks describing her generally confused approach to meta-ethics. Smith is merely following Rand here in confusing (1) our "values" as what we consciously aim at with (2) the evolutionary reasons behind our having those values. Of course, in the same swoop she fails to distinguish (3) the evolution of some particular values or others (as directly adaptive tendencies) from (4) the evolution of our general capacity to value one thing or another, as well as the capacity to evaluate the latter (perhaps in light of yet other values, or in light of our valuation of our valuational dispositions as types, hence subjecting the latter to a universalizability test of the sort hailed by Kant, and despised by Rand). Of course, any philosopher worth their salt would recognize 1 & 2 as among the many distinctions of various kinds of causes made by Aristotle, whom Rand purports to praise at times. But by ignoring such ancient points, Smith's work, again following Rand here, honors a reading of Aristotle more in the breach than in the observance. If you want to make the most sense you can of Rand, Smith's works may help; if you want an ethics that actually makes sense, period, you could do better by reading real philosophy--starting with Aristotle and going forward from there.