Life as the Standard of Value, Part 2 - Dialog on Connecting Concepts to Reality

Dialog on the second chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", “Life as the Standard of Value”.

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 about Lecture Two, “Life as the Standard of Value”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. It’s in the form of a dialog.

Adam: Hi.

Bob: Hi. Towards the end of Lecture Two of Understanding Objectivism, Peikoff gives an exercise to try. I thought we’d try it. Here it is:

Now I would like to give you an exercise that we’ll discuss later. The purpose is to hammer home the issue of the relation of definitions to reality by means of a special exercise. There are three things you should be able to do with regard to any concept that you’re working with. You should be able to come up with some kind of definition, and some list of concretes that are examples of it, and some list of the attributes that are not definitional but nevertheless true of the entity. You need a definition of the concept. Take “life,” for instance—“self-sustaining, self-generated action”; some list of concretes, examples—“a carrot, my husband, my cat,” and so on; and third, a knowledge of a whole bunch of attributes of those concretes that are not part of the definition. If it’s living organisms, in order to keep in contact with reality, we have to remember the hundreds and hundreds of things that distinguish living entities from inanimate entities. It is not enough simply to say “self-sustaining and self-generated action”—it has to remind you quickly of a whole bunch of nondefining characteristics that were nevertheless important aspects of the entity—their cellular structure, their chemical structure, their distinctive capacities, and so on and so on. In order to combat the tendency for definitions to float, you have to hammer them into reality, and that requires providing a list of concretes and focusing on those concretes and seeing how many characteristics they have that are not definitional. And that’s what will help keep before you the range of reality of the concretes. You don’t need thousands of concretes; four or five is okay. Ideally, they should be spread across the category. If you were doing “living things,” don’t take five carrots. Take a plant, an animal, a man, a woman, whatever. If you were doing “man,” you wouldn’t take five white American Protestant males from New York City. You want to try to get the range of the category, and therefore, you can hold only four or five, but make them as different as you can within that range. It’s crucial to concretize, but above all, to reduce your concepts to those concretes. This is really an anti-definitional exercise; it’s to show you how much more is involved than the definition, so do not labor about getting a perfect definition with every word in place. Blurt it out—something that will tie you into reality. It’s the access to the concretes that we want here, not the beauty of a dictionary formulation. Once you’ve got a series of concretes, pick out four or five attributes by actually looking at those concretes, attributes that are not part of the definition; and if you oscillate back and forth—try thinking of just the definition, and then suddenly looking at the whole reality, and then back to the definition—if you get that back-and-forth, that’s the only thing I know to oil up the mechanism and reconnect your concept to reality. If you can find any emotions that tie you to the concretes, so much the better. We could do this with any concept; “man” is too easy; “life” we basically did. Take “welfare state,” and do it with that. Now, that is two words, but we’ll pretend it’s one word. Blurt out a definition. Come up with five examples. And then give a list of attributes of “welfare state” that are not part of the definition, and we’ll take that up in lecture eight.

Adam: Ok. So let’s consider a definition for welfare state, some concrete examples of it, and some attributes.

I checked the Ayn Rand Lexicon. I didn’t find a succinct definition. I found a relatively neutral definition in my computer’s dictionary:

wel·fare state | ˈwelfe(ə)r ˌstāt |
a system whereby the government undertakes to protect the health and well-being of its citizens, especially those in financial or social need, by means of grants, pensions, and other benefits. The foundations for the modern welfare state in the US were laid by the New Deal programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
• a country practicing a welfare state system.

I think there’s an important aspect this definition omits, which is the use of force in collecting a large amount of taxes. If a government had a one-off policy that cost very little of paying for the medical care of some tiny group — orphaned kids with cancer, say — I don’t think I’d characterize that as a welfare state. That individual policy would reflect a consistency with the welfare state, but the system as a whole would not be a welfare state.

So an amended definition would be:

a system whereby the government undertakes to protect the health and well-being of its citizens, especially those in financial or social need, by means of grants, pensions, and other benefits funded by large-scale taxation.

Regarding concretes, there’s a bit of ambiguity in the instruction. Does Peikoff want 5 examples of particular welfare states (US, UK, and so on)? Or does he want 5 examples of types of welfare states? Or five examples of programs within welfare states that reflect welfare state policies?

Bob: You could try listing some specific examples of particular welfare states and also saying a bit about them to give a bit more color and detail, and also separately listing some specific examples of welfare state programs.

Adam: Yeah okay I’ll try that. So basically every “developed” country is a welfare state. The United States is a welfare state that currently lacks a general nationwide socialist healthcare system, though we are moving rapidly in that direction. Also, the welfare state stuff in the US varies a lot by state, and a lot of it is funded through the tax code. Canada is another welfare state, except they do have a national socialist health care system. Same with UK. The Nordic countries (collectively that will be a fourth concrete) like Denmark and Sweden were traditionally known for being welfare states with higher taxes and more “generous” spending. And then you have local examples. Like within the United States, certain places like New York City have more expansive local welfare states than other jurisdictions.

Some specific examples of welfare state programs: food stamps, Medicaid, Obamacare, SSDI, unemployment, housing vouchers.

Bob: Ok and what are some attributes of a welfare state not covered in the definition?

Adam: Attributes:

  • They are very inefficient.
  • They are vulnerable to large scale fraud.
  • They disincentivize productivity.
  • They can be characterized by resentment between the people being taxed and the recipients of the welfare.
  • They continue expanding due to ever-escalating and shifting demands with no limiting principle.
  • They drive up the cost of things (see healthcare costs).

Bob: Ok that seems like a decent stab at things. Want to try a different example?

Adam: Sure. Let’s try “art”. Ayn Rand says that “is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Some concrete examples of that would be music, novels, paintings, sculptures, or movies. Some attributes of “art” not captured in the definition:

  • People often find art very emotionally moving or inspiring.
  • Certain art, like paintings from certain artists, can be very high status and expensive.
  • Certain art, like paintings, is often presented in museums.
  • Certain art is often sold at auctions.
  • Art can help us think about things that don’t actually exist or aren’t actually possible (this is interesting given Rand’s definition. There might appear to be a tension here, but I don’t think there is actually one).
  • Art can often be classified into certain genres or styles within the category of art (this definitely applies to music, novels, paintings, and movies).
  • Art involves creativity.
  • Many artists experience the creation of art as a largely intuitive process.
  • Some art, like paintings or sculptures, can be suitable for display in a home or office.

Bob: Ok that seems decent. Try another example?

Adam: Okay let’s do one more. Let’s try “capitalism”. The Ayn Rand Lexicon defines capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” I don’t think we’ve had a fully capitalist society, but 19th century America came pretty close in various ways. There are also various fictional examples, like Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged and the lunar colony in the Aristillus books. And you can say that certain countries are more capitalist than others. Like the United States, even today, is more capitalist than Venezuela, and I think Singapore is more capitalist than Sweden.

And some attributes of a capitalist society not covered by the definition:

  • There is rapid economic progress and growth.
  • There is opportunity for upward mobility in the society.
  • There are often elaborate and sophisticated contractual arrangements.
  • Products are regularly improved upon year to year.
  • Real prices of goods often decline over time due to increases in production and efficiency and improvements in technology.
  • There exists an investor class with a large pool of wealth seeking the highest returns.

Bob: Okay. So I think those are enough examples to see Peikoff’s point about how a definition is only capturing a very limited subset of the attributes of a thing.

Adam: Yeah. It seems like kind of an obvious point but I guess part of rationalism is losing track of the “obvious” things when it comes to staying connected to reality…