Honesty, Importance of Principles, Part 2

Part 2 of a series of posts on the third chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "Honesty, Importance of Principles"

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is the second in a series of posts about Lecture Three, "Honesty, Importance of Principles”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism.

So towards the end of Part 1 we were looking at a certain sort of error in arguing for Objectivism. This is where you inadequately state your context and then just start dragging in random parts of Objectivism ad hoc in order to try to make your argument. Here's Peikoff discussing the point some:

Can you argue that honesty precedes productivity? Should you argue, “You should be honest, and therefore produce, because if you steal from others, that violates honesty”? Is that the structure? If it is, then you can’t count on productivity until you’ve established honesty. If it follows honesty, you can’t use it as part of establishing it. What about another possibility? Maybe productivity doesn’t precede or succeed honesty; maybe it’s on exactly the same level. What then? You have to establish both of them together. How do you do that? What kind of context would lead to it?

To translate Peikoff's point into my own terminology, you need to figure out what your tree (or mindmap) looks like, in terms of your argument's structure. You don't want it to be a big disorganized mess where you're just reaching for stuff as you need it. Peikoff calls the error he's criticizing the anti-hierarchical approach. He goes back to his analogy of the skyscraper.

Peikoff gives another example, where someone argues for honesty on the basis of having nice social relationships with other people. And he says that honesty is about maintaining the relationship between your mind and reality, and the issue of interacting with other people hasn't come up yet. He gives an exaggerated example to illustrate the point:

Now I want to give you a preposterous example of the same error, because I want to hammer it home, so we’ll go from the more plausible to the more preposterous. “You should be honest”—no one would actually think this way, but it’s the same error—“You should be honest because then it will be harder for the IRS to intimidate you when you’re audited, and therefore it will promote stronger fighters for capitalism, whereas if you’re dishonest, you will tend to cheat on your income tax, and that will make you nervous and embolden the government to rob you.” That is a complete collapse of the hierarchical approach. We’re at the beginning of ethics and the relation of the mind to reality, and we’re just taking for granted that capitalism is good, income tax is bad, and—by reference to those—we’re going to establish honesty. Now that speaks for itself.

I think one takeaway from Peikoff on this point is that it's really important to keep your context and what you've established straight. If you're talking to another person, and trying to convince them of some argument, it's important to think about what sort of ideas you can take for granted as common ground, and not bring up examples that will be controversial and lead to a whole big argument aside from the thing you are actually trying to prove. Or if you're trying to do some kind of logical proof (I mean an actual proof using formal logic), it's important to keep in mind what you've established. There was a problem in a logic book I'm looking at that asked me to demonstrate that A was logically equivalent to another expression (specifically, (A&B)v(A&¬B)), and it called equivalency the Law of Expansion. I used other laws that had already been established in order to demonstrate this equivalency. If I had just use the Law of Expansion in order to "prove" itself, though, that would have been inappropriate, because that was the very thing I was trying to prove. And so, in the context of Objectivism, what Peikoff is arguing for is an approach where you pay very careful attention to what you've already established, and logically go step by step in order to build up a whole philosophical system. And that seems reasonable to me as a way to try to keep all the complexity of philosophy organized so that you don't just make a big mess of things. Tangentially, I think that the "web" structure, with some topics being more central and a web extending out in all directions, and some topics coming in no clear order in relation to others, makes more sense that the skyscraper.

Peikoff says that a crucial element missing from the discussion of honesty so far is the necessity of man to live by principles.

Peikoff emphasizes that life having requirements and man needing principles are two separate points. Life is an effect and has certain requirements that need to be met. But that's true of plants and animals as well, who have no need of principles. Why does man need principles? Because he has to act long-range. Why? Because he needs to consider the effect of his actions on his life. He doesn't have instincts that automatically set his course. He has to use his mind in order to figure out whether he's being effective. This need to act in a long-range manner is independent of life as the standard of value. Peikoff explains:

Take a preposterous example—suppose the standard of value were the maximization of bananas. That’s what all of existence is about, to have as many bananas as possible. Then, if there were a species that was an automatic banana maximizer, it wouldn’t have to be long-range; it could follow the whim of the moment in any direction, because it’s built in such a way that that whim will always maximize bananas. But, if man is not an automatic banana maximizer, and that is the thing that counts, then he would have to say before he decides on an action, “Is that going to lead to this, or away? I know I’m capable of destroying my fund of bananas. I know I can add three today, but by doing something that would cause all of them to rot next week. I have to know the results, because I’m not automatically foolproof.” And it’s the same idea: If you have an automatic pilot, then you don’t have to worry; you can just sit back and let it steer itself. But if you have not got an automatic pilot, and you just get in and drive as the whim of the moment strikes you, that is impossible if you actually say that you have a goal. You would have to be long-range, because there’s no other way to get to the goal.

Life is the standard of value in Objectivism, though. And life has certain requirements, requires certain actions, which are not built in. And in order to consider the implications of some course of action for life, we have to think long range, and not moment to moment.

Peikoff continues his argument. Long range action involves acting with the future in mind. We don't know the future through our senses -- we only know the present through those. We only know the future through concepts, and in particular, through concepts that say that every instance of a certain type of action will be helpful or harmful in some way. Peikoff emphasizes that principles aren't a nice extra or nice-to-have, but rather, essential for dealing with the future consequences of one's actions.

Peikoff asks why one shouldn't be a pragmatist who rejects absolutes and says they'll figure it out as they go. He says the issue there is you might find out too late that something is bad.

This is the essence of pragmatism, and of abandoning principles. What is wrong with this method? Because the pragmatist does find out, let us say, when he swallows arsenic, he definitely finds out that this was anti-life (if he swallows enough of it). But when did he find out? After he died; it’s too late; he finds out after the fact by perceptual means; he is necessarily blind by this method, because the only means of vision is a general principle that tells you in advance of acting what the consequences are going to be, and principle is exactly what he throws out when he says, “Let’s test it in each specific case by its consequences.” So acting on principle is simply man’s method of acting consistently to achieve his goal.

So principles are concepts that give you guidance about how to act in a variety of cases so that you can achieve your goals and live a good life and avoid disaster. (I think they're a specific type of moral knowledge?) And so if you abandon them, you'll wind up dealing with various disasters.

Peikoff summarizes:

To summarize, we have two roots of the concept of “principle”: (1) metaphysically, cause and effect—life has definite conditions that must be enacted; (2) epistemologically, man is the conceptual being; he can’t know these conditions except in the form of principles.

Peikoff notes that we still haven't established honesty yet. We haven't given content to the principles we need to live by. We've only established that we need to find and live by such principles. Peikoff says that we've established that, if honesty were a principle, it's invalid to ask out of context "Why not lie", because it's self-destructive to contradict principles mandated by life as the standard. You always have to look to what a course of action has to do with your whole life, not look at it out of context. Violating a principle might not do major harm in a particular case, but it harms you seriously because you lose the necessary guidance of principles. The purpose of ethics is to discover the principles you're supposed to live by. The person who wants to violate principles in some particular case is rejecting ethics.

So somebody who comes in in the middle of a discussion of honesty and says, “Oh, why can’t I violate it in this particular case and do what I feel like just because I feel like it?”—that person is denying the very nature of ethical action, which is principled action—those rules of behavior that will tell us how our actions will redound to our long-range benefit. This is an essential part of the discussion of any virtue—honesty, productivity, even rationality.

Peikoff says that what's next is the virtue of rationality. Honesty is an application of rationality. Peikoff says that rationality is both a concrete (when listed as a specific virtue) and a giant abstraction at the same time.

Peikoff says that the other subsidiary virtues of rationality aren't before or after each other in reality. They're all simultaneous. But we have to learn them one at a time.

Peikoff gives an argument for/description of honesty and then talks about how to actually understand it. I thought this was important and true, in terms of the method described (emphasis added):

What do you need to do now with it to make [the argument for honesty] convincing? You have to concretize. You have to take some actual examples and see how the argument applies. And here’s where a good dose of empiricism is very important. If you’re interested in honesty, you have to kind of make it a hobby; you have to collect concretes from real life. You have to give yourself a standing order: “Wherever an example in real life comes up—in my reading, in newspapers, in my friend, in my boss—I’m going to analyze it from the point of view of my abstract argument, to see clearly why my general argument for honesty applies in this particular case.” You don’t have to do it forever—otherwise you’ll spend your whole life doing it—but you have to do it for a couple of weeks, or a couple of hours—at least five or six examples.

Peikoff says that it's hard to come up with a real, self-contained example where the only bad thing someone does involves dishonesty, because all the virtues are interconnected in real life. He says that it's important to integrate your knowledge, understand the interconnections between ideas, and make things clear enough so that you could see how e.g. being dishonest would destroy the whole system.

In the question and answer session following the lecture, someone asks why you can't adopt the following principle:

“I accept the absolute need for principles and long-range thinking; but, since not all dishonest acts are very harmful, I will adopt the principle that I will act honestly when and only when I judge that it will benefit me”?

Peikoff says that ethics is supposed to help us act in order to benefit ourselves. It tells us the standard (life) and when stuff like honesty will be harmful to our life. So e.g. ethics says that you don't have to apply the principle of honesty in the context of having to tell a robber where your money is. Principles are contextual. Peikoff then asks how you would judge whether something will benefit you. I thought this point was interesting. Peikoff says suppose he gives you an apple and an orange, and asks you to choose the greater value. How do you judge that? Cost? Size? The questioner has an example where they suppose a used-car salesman could make enough money to retire for life by one fraudulent deal (that's a pretty absurd-sounding hypothetical btw -- used car salesmen typically don't engage in huge transactions AFAIK). And Peikoff says it's not self-evident that a bunch of money is worth more than the harm a lie does.

I’m simply saying that it is not self-evident that a trillion dollars is worth more than the harm that a lie does. Would five hundred thousand dollars be worth more than a mutilation to get it? Are there no other factors to take into account? What about a man’s inner life, his mental processes, the types of other actions that this choice will commit him to, his emotional life, and so on. I’m not going to go into all that at the moment. I’m saying simply that no choice of that kind can possibly be decided by “what I judge.”

My thoughts: even a ton of money isn't a value out of context. People think it might be, intuitively, but that's because they're being very focused on the present moment and not thinking about the future consequences. The whole purpose of principles is to allow us to think about the future, long-range consequences of our actions. If we drop those, then yeah, just going for the big pile of money and damn the consequences can seem to make sense. People have an intuitive mental association between having a bunch of money and being able to do what they want in life. But as we know from people like Bernie Madoff, just trying to get whatever money you can by whatever means you can is actually a bad life strategy. And principles are what allows you to sort through the mess and figure out what are legitimate means of getting money and what are bad means.

How are you going to judge? By what means are you going to judge? You have only two ways of judging: You’re either going to judge by the feeling of the moment, “I want the retirement in Florida, to hell with everything,” and that is avowedly a nonprincipled approach; or, you’re going to judge how? By a principle that says, “This is how man must act, and this is how he must compare and evaluate choices.”

Good point. If you're trying to figure out what to do in some situation, you can either refer to some general rule/principle (like "do the honest thing") or do whatever the hell you feel like. But if your "principle" is "figure out what's helpful to me", that's basically "figure out what to do", and what's that pointing to? Either it's an infinite regress or it winds up pointing to your feelings/whim. So it's just a way to smuggle in some whim. So it's no principle at all.