Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective, Part 2

Second post in a series on the sixth chapter in Leonard Peikoff's book "Understanding Objectivism", "Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective"

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 Six, "Objectivism Versus the Intrinsic and Subjective", in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff continues giving some everyday examples of intrinsicism:

You hear this kind of thing all the time. Bigness is bad. Extremism is bad. There’s no question of what kind, what effects, what causes, what context, nothing—it just has an attribute in it that it’s bad. And how do you know? “Anybody knows.” Violence is bad. What’s violence? Is it self-defense, is it the police arresting a criminal? Whatever it is, it’s bad, and everybody knows it. It’s the idea that goodness or badness is like a little nugget that resides inside actions or states, apart from human purposes, apart from the causes of their actions, apart from the effects.

Peikoff says John Stuart Mill was the "most eloquent philosopher" who subscribed to this view. He thought pleasure was inherently good and so more pleasure = more good, and asking "Good for whom?" was wrong. Plato was first philosopher who had view that goodness was some separate entity out there in the world that acts on us and causes value judgments.

Peikoff has three points about intrinsicism in value judgments (summing up/explicitly stating principles of preceding discussion):

  1. Intrinsicists regard human purposes as irrelevant to value judgments. You don't say "Good for what?" to intrinsicists. Contrast with Objectivism, where "value is of value to whom and for what; value implies a goal-directed action, an ultimate goal that becomes the standard of value." Intrinsicists think that if you have purposes/beneficiaries in value questions you become subjectivism, and intrinsicists are trying to be objective.
  2. Context is irrelevant for intrinsicists - stuff like killing is just wrong regardless of self-defense in the intrinsicist view. Peikoff says some would-be Objectivists take this approach. E.g. they think taking money from their parents for college is wrong cuz it's not independent but dependent, and they are judging that out of context. Or they think they have to vocally disagree with their boss' bad politics cuz otherwise they are sanctioning evil.
  3. Options are bad in the intrinsicist view - Intrinsicists think that to the extent you allow options or choice in, you're opening the way to subjectivism. Everything should be dictated by reality, so if you bring your preferences into it, you're messing up the direct grasping of reality. As an example of Objectivists committing this error, Peikoff brings up the case of Objectivists who think every Objectivist has to specialize in philosophy.

Peikoff gives an account of how an intrinsicist becomes a subjectivist that I think is good:

So we have value judgments without explanation, without purpose, context, or choice—because they’re just self-evident. This is a very widely held view of ethics, and the effect on people who take this view, in the short run or the long run, is that they come to think that value judgments are utterly arbitrary (which of course they are by this view, because there’s no explanation), they think value judgments are detached from life (which of course they are on this view, because they have no effects that are relevant, no purposes that they serve), they think that value judgments are just dogmatic absolutes that half the time you follow and half the time you resent, they think you have to repress your own desires in order to follow value judgments because there is no room for choice, options. So what typically happens with this type of intrinsicist is that he starts off as a fervent moralist, and partway through he just gets sick of the whole thing, and he ends up as a subjectivist, and he says, “To hell with all that stuff, live it up. Take anything you want; it’s good for you; that’s all you need if it leads to what you feel you want at the moment.” So he sinks to the idea that everything is a choice.

This sounds like a very plausible account of something that happens in the minds of many people.

Peikoff discusses an example of someone who swims up to a desert island (presumably they are in dire straits and not just out for a leisurely swim) that some guy claims is his property, and the guy basically tells the swimmer to keep off and die. Someone asked Peikoff if the swimmer should just die. (I recall reading about a similar example being posed to libertarians, maybe at a Libertarian Party meeting or something, so I think this sort of issue comes up with them). Peikoff says the following:

Of course, my answer to that is, that’s the theory of intrinsic rights, so that somewhere in the island, if you dig it up, you’d find oil, and beneath that is the right to it. But that’s ridiculous. Rights depend upon a whole context of organized society; they are the conditions alone in which men can coexist, where every man has the chance to live. But if you have a situation like this where it’s his rights or your life, it’s finished as the end of rights; the context is gone, and you kill him before he kills you. And yet, here was a person trying to be faithful to the idea of rights, but as a complete dogma.

I don't think I fully agree with Peikoff here. I do think rights are contextual. But I think you can analyze the situation in more detail. If rights are contextual, then the rights you have depend on the context (that's a bit of a truism, I guess!). So like, in a more advanced society, you can have all sorts of advanced and sophisticated rights in things, including in way more land than you can use, in intangible stuff like intellectual property, in financial instruments. And part of the context there is that we want to encourage people to engage in long-range planning and investment in such a society. And part of the context there is that we have the means of recording the property rights (for plots of land, say) in a reliable, long term way. And part of the context there is that an advanced society has enough wealth in it to make things like large scale investment in and holding of stuff like land or whatever possible for people (or possible for people besides the king and his special friends). So the rights in such a society are part of a very sophisticated and advanced social machinery. And so if you take that advanced and sophisticated social machinery and import it to a desert island, it's not going to be well-attuned to the problem situation there and is going to cause more problems than it's going to solve. You're taking a sophisticated tool that was developed for a larger agricultural or industrial society and importing it to a situation that's more like 1 or 2 hunter-gatherers.

I do think there are such things as property rights in a desert island situation. But my guess is that they'd be simpler. Like, you could have your personal property, any stuff you've made for getting food or getting off the island, and that sort of thing. But I'm unclear about the value or purpose of a property right in the whole island such that you can exclude other people from even landing on it. I guess that someone might be afraid of running out of food depending on the circumstances (although that wasn't specified as an issue in the hypothetical). But supposing that weren't an issue and there was enough say coconuts and fish or whatever to let both of you survive; then it'd actually be good to have another person on the island (to have division of labor and trade with, if nothing else) and I'm not sure why we'd have a rights regime that would let people prefer murdering innocent swimmers to the division of labor outcome.

Peikoff says that religion is the most common institutionalized form of intrinsic view. God reveals truth and gives commandments. Peikoff says the real historical author of intrinsic religious view is Plato. Thanks to this view, people think that talking about absolutes means talking dogmatically about stuff in a religious kind of way.

Peikoff says that the view that something external is supposed to act on us and illuminate us with the revealed truth has become secularized.

...but as God began to fade from the picture, what replaced him as the external entity intrinsic in reality that gives the revelations? The Führer, the government, the bureau-crats, the president, the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies, the Harvard professor, and so on. Intrinsicism breeds authoritarianism, because something outside of you has to act on you to give you truth. Your role is passive, it’s simply to be illuminated, and in practice that means you have to wait until somebody else fills you up, sets off that fire. In the past, it was the priest, and now it’s the government. But it’s the same basic philosophy. You can also see it in regard to computers. How many people say, “The computer said this, so it has to be true; it was on that screen”? I don’t have to refute that. You know GIGO, “garbage in, garbage out.”

I think "scientists" and "experts" and the "press" are also thinks that serve a lot of the "acting on passive people in order to tell them what to think" sort of role (and those groups have lots of connections to government, so I don't think this is contradicting Peikoff).

Peikoff says that some Objectivists overestimate the degree to which stuff is self-evident, and this makes them intrinsicist. That sounds plausible but I don't like his specific framing of this point:

Another example would be the overuse of the self-evident—how many times have you heard somebody think Objectivism, or half of it, or one-quarter of it, is literally self-evident; therefore, anybody who disagrees is necessarily dishonest. Why? Because if only he looked at reality, he’d know; it takes dishonesty not to grasp it; everybody other than Ayn Rand was simply dishonest, and her contribution was only that she was honest.

If someone thinks Objectivism is literally self-evident, that is mistaken. Peikoff goes on to correctly make the point that in Objectivism the only stuff that is self-evident is on the perceptual level. But I think that there is an issue with people being "blind" to seeing certain points due to honesty issues. An Objectivist calling that an issue of the self-evident would be mistaken, but they still might have perceived some sort of real issue or problem related to honesty. And I think that Peikoff underrates the importance of Ayn Rand's honesty as a key characteristic, so his discussion here is not something I particularly like. (I liked Elliot Temple's discussion of Ayn Rand's honesty in this blog post of his).

Peikoff gives a category of intrinsicist error he calls "improper self-criticism in the face of error". He says the basic idea is when you beat yourself up for an error because your knowledge was limited and you followed a definite method. He gives three examples of this where it's inappropriate to beat yourself up:

  • Making the right call in a poker hand but getting unlucky.
  • Choosing to drive on a safe-looking road instead of a dangerous-looking road and then getting hit by a meteor on the safe-looking road.
  • Realizing that the point you're writing about at the end of a writing process should have come first.

The first two examples are clear to me as illustrations of Peikoff's point but point number three is a bit more borderline. Regarding that point, he says:

... in actual fact, I could not have known to the best of my ability that that particular point should come first until I tried actually organizing it one way, and then I realized logically it required a different structure.

That seems untrue to me. You can get a sense of how stuff should be organized before you write it if you use a detailed enough outline.

To be continued...