August 21, 1998. Defining five terms. Rand used the term "objective" differently than most philosophers.

Some definitions, from Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

OBJECTIVE: ... in the realm of sensible experience, independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers; having reality independent of the mind.... perceptible to persons other than the affected individual... OBJECTIVISM: an ethical theory that moral good is objectively real or that moral precepts are objectively valid.

SUBJECTIVE: ... belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind;... conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states... arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes.. SUBJECTIVISM: a doctrine that the supreme good is the realization of a subjective experience or feeling... a doctrine that individual feeling is the ultimate criterion of the good and the right.

ABSOLUTE: characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free of constitutional or other restraints... having no restriction, exception, or qualification... being self-sufficient and free of external references or relationships...

RELATIVE: a thing having a relation or connection with or necessary dependence on another thing... not absolute or independent... RELATIVISM: (a) a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing... (b) a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.

Notice that the two meanings of "relativism" differ in important ways. The scientific method of seeking knowledge admits that its conclusions are relative to, dependent on, the (objective) evidence gathered so far, and may be changed by new evidence. In ethics, "relativism" commonly refers to a particular view, "cultural relativism", that ethics are a matter of (subjective) majority opinion. These are two different uses of the word, which must be kept distinct.

"Objective" and "absolute" are not the same, "subjective" and "relative" are not the same. Objective things can be relative, subjective opinions can be held absolutely. (The fifth term I want to define is INTRINSIC; see below.)

Notice also that "objectivism", as defined by the dictionary i.e. by mainstream usage, has two alternative meanings- that moral good is objectively real OR that moral precepts are objectively valid. The point of this essay is that Rand did NOT lump these two together. 
Where mainstream philosophers made a twofold distinction between "objective" and "subjective" ethics, Rand made a threefold distinction between "intrinsic", "objective", and "subjective". She said that the good is objective, but she meant something different by it. 

The primary text where she speaks of this is in the essay "What is Capitalism?", reprinted in CAPITALISM: THE UNKNOWN IDEAL, pages 21-25. (All quotes below are from that text.) Her presentation there must be read keeping in mind that she believed she had solved the "is-ought" problem pointed out by Hume. Particular phrases and sentences can be quoted to support an "intrinsicist" view; I don't think she made the distinction entirely clear. I shall be quoting selectively also.

The intrinsic theory holds that the good is inherent in certain things or actions as such, regardless of their context or consequences... it is a theory that divorces the concept of 'good' from  beneficiaries, and the concept of 'value' from valuer and purpose- claiming that the good is good in, by, and of itself.

The intrinsic theory holds that the good resides in some sort of reality, independent of man's consciousness...

The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of 'things in themselves' nor of man's emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man's consciousness... The objective theory holds that the good is an aspect of reality in relation to man... Fundamental... is the question: Of value to whom and for what? An objective theory does not permit... the separation of 'value' from 'purpose'....

Since values are to be discovered by man's mind, men must be free to ... judge them, and to choose, be it material goods or ideas... Since values are established contextually, every man must judge for himself, in the context of his own knowledge, goals, and interests.

END QUOTES from that source.

 One more, from PHILOSOPHY: WHO NEEDS IT, "From the Horse's Mouth": "Material objects as such have neither value nor disvalue; they acquire value-significance only in regard to a living being- particularly, in regard to serving or hindering man's goals."

So: Looking again at the definitions from the dictionary, when a mainstream philosopher says (or hears a claim) that "moral good is objectively real", they understand it to be a claim that the good is "in the realm of sensible experience, independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers; having reality independent of the mind...." In other words, what they meant by "objective", Rand would call "intrinsic". What she meant by "objective", they had no ready word for. This difference in terminology can be dramatic, and can lead to serious misunderstanding. 

For example, the Australian philosopher John L. Mackie wrote a book, ETHICS: INVENTING RIGHT AND WRONG. His first sentence is "There are no objective values." Most Objectivists would quit reading at that point, but if you read the first half of the book, you find that what he is arguing is that there are no intrinsic values, in Rand's terminology. If you read the second half of the book, you find that he is an Aristotelean. 

Mainstream terminology sets up a false dichotomy; Rand carved out a third alternative. Mainstream philosophers would say that an "objective" good would necessarily be ABSOLUTE, by the definition given above: "having no restriction, exception, or qualification... being self-sufficient and free of external references or relationships..."; Rand would say that things have value because people value them, that everything "good" is good TO somebody FOR something, and that "goodness" is RELATIVE to an individuals' goals. Further, because she says that every individual must choose their own goals, by mainstream terminology, her theory of the good would be SUBJECTIVE: "belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind... conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states... arising out of or identified by means of one's perception of one's own states and processes..."

By the SECOND of the two dictionary definitions of "objectivism", that "moral precepts are objectively valid", then Rand's ethical system would be objective by mainstream terminology. Rand's system, as I understand it, consists entirely, repeat, entirely, of hypothetical oughts: "If you want X, then you ought to do Y." Further, since the goal of her system is objectively measurable, her system is a set of claims about causal relationships that are objectively true or false.

It is for this reason that I explain what I understand to be Rand's view by saying that "Ethics is engineering. It is NOT a science, in that it is not discovering a unique "correct" ethical system that exists in nature independently of human choice. Likewise ethics is not art, in that it is not simply an expression of our emotions and ideals. Engineering has elements of both science and art, but it is distinct from each." I believe this way of explaining it makes the distinction she intended, between intrinsic, objective, and subjective, without the confusions caused by nonstandard terminology.

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Comment by John B Hodges on March 13, 2011 at 9:18pm

Postscript to my last comment; if you are a glutton for punishment, see also

Comment by John B Hodges on March 13, 2011 at 9:14pm

Wanderer, I agree with your comment, that Rand's nonstandard terminology does cause confusion, and I think she went ahead with it because she thought she had solved the Is-Ought problem pointed out by Hume. She thought she had identified an ultimate value, self-preservation, that was logically the only possible ultimate value for all living things. I think she was in error there; see my essay

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on March 13, 2011 at 7:47pm
This was a very good post, but I'm not convinced. Just because Rand redefined objective to mean more like what she wanted it to mean doesn't mean that it worked. I agree with her that ethics lies somewhere perhaps in-between completely objective and completely subjective, but the definitions of objective and subjective ethics (as used by mainstream philosophers) answers a single particular question: does value reside ultimately outside or inside a subjective experiencer of values? To say that it lies within (and to be a subjectivist) and then to say that there are still a lot of things we can say about ethics objectively is no contradiction. This is, anyways, what I believe and where Rand and I agree at least potentially. To begin with, one can say objectively that value lies ultimately within a subjective experiencer of values. Instead of redefining terms, perhaps the better alternative would be to come up with a different terminology that reflects the different natures of the questions being asked. This I think begins with getting clear on what the questions are. The first question has already been posed: Does value ultimately lie outside a valuer as an objective thing that exists whether or not the valuer exists, or is value dependent on and internal to a valuer? If we agree that the answer is the latter, the next question becomes: Is value simply an expression of our subjective emotions and ideals, or are there objective criteria which apply to all cases of experienced value? When it comes to defining the answers given by coining terms for each of them, I think it is important not to conflate separate questions into a single question. If Rand had made these distinction, I think her reasoning would have been more thorough. Without them, her reasoning goes only halfway and I think ends up causing more confusion than it clears up.



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