Objectivist MetaEthics: Two

By Jimmy Wales

Date: Fri, 30 Sep 1994 07:19:28 -0400

From: Jimmy -Jimbo- Wales jwales@indiana.edu

To: ASP-Disc lsanger@magnus.acs.ohio-state.edu

Subject: Re: why self-interest

I would once again like to thank Bryan Caplan for his thoughtful questions

First, Bryan asks for more details about my claim that when we begin to study ethics, we ought to start with what philosophers Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen call 'transcendental questions.' [Den Uyl and Rasmussen, "Life, Teleology, and Eudaimonia in the Ethics of Ayn Rand," in _The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand_, p. 63.] Recall that I claim that we ought to begin our study of ethics with questions like: what makes values possible? what are the facts of reality that give rise to this subject? why does man need a code of values

does man need values at all -- and why? what are values

Bryan thinks that this sounds like an odd way to proceed, and wonders if I would advocate the same method in other areas, such as physics. My answer is yes. "If one wishes to understand the definition and distinctive nature of a particular science, the question to answer is: _What are the facts of reality that give rise to that science?_ For example, the basic fact of reality that gives rise to the science of biology is that certain entities in nature are _alive_. Thus, biology is the science that studies the attributes and characteristics which certain entities possess by virtue of being alive." [Branden, _The Psychology of Self-Esteem, p. 3] This is a specific application of a more general epistemological principles commonly known as "Rand's Question." You may recall from my recent essay here on propositions, or from your own background knowledge of Rand's epistemology, that on Rand's view, a concept "is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted." [Rand, _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, p. 13] Rand disagrees with the view that the meaning of a concept is only the definitional or some other subset of the attributes of the units subsumed under the concept. Rather,"the meaning of a concept consists of the units -- the existents -- which it integrates, including all the characteristics of these units." (Peikoff, "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy," in _Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology_, p. 98] For any particular concept, if there is some dispute or concern over the meaning or status of the concept, Rand suggests that we "look for its referents." By this she means that we ought to ask ourselves: "What fact or facts of reality gave rise to this concept? What distinguishes it from all other concepts?" (Rand, ITOE, p. 51) Notice that this is a tool for clarification, not a precondition for any thought whatsoever. Rand's Question should be applied whenever we need to specify more precisely to what in existence we are referring when we use some concept

With this background, we are ready to consider Bryan's questions more specifically

> Frankly, this would be a rather odd statement: it would appear to > assume that (1) Claims about physics are only true if I "need" them; Not at all. Claims about physics are true if they are meaningful. In order to determine if some claim is true, we must investigate carefully what the claim actually means. The word 'need' in my presentation shouldn't mislead you. In this context, an unneeded concept would be either some invalid concept or some concept which doesn't carve reality at the joints. ("Caloric" comes to mind.) > (2) That physical concepts can be reduced to something else, rather> than being irreducible facts; There is a sense in which all concepts can be "reduced to something else." The something else _is_ the (possibly 'irreducible') facts which the concepts integrates

> (3)That there is a great mystery about the meaning of terms that > seem completely pellucid

But isn't there some disagreement here about ethics? If so, then it is surely worth our while to spend some time clarifying for ourselves exactly what it is in reality that we are referring to by various moral concepts. What is a value? What is a virtue? What facts do these concepts mean? Person A claims "E = MC ^ 2." I want to verify the claim. I should first make sure I understand what it means. I should then look for the referents

> And I think that Jimbo's statement is at least as odd for the field> of morality. For consider his first question. What does whether or> not you "need" a moral code have to do with what is moral

I think it has everything to do with it. Keep in mind that Rand's Question is not simply limited to asking a _single_ question, but rather to a thoroughgoing approach to subjecting all of our ideas to the ultimate test of correspondence to reality. Your answer to the question "why do I need a moral code?" may have implications for your actual moral theory. (It may be interesting to note that the young G. E. Moore asked himself this very sort of question. He answered it far differently from Rand, of course.) > Similarly, take the second question. Why shouldn't the answer be: > "The fact that there are moral facts." Plain and simple. Why > should there be any further answer

Suppose I asked you "what are the facts of reality that give rise to the science of biology?" and "to what in reality do biological concepts refer?" If you answered "the fact that there are biological facts" I think I'd be justified in saying that you hadn't really answered my question. I'd be asking you to tell me what essential features of reality make it cognitively necessary to have a science of biology. (And this kind of question isn't moot in many sciences! Consider psychology, which as a science was once and is still sometimes questioned by those who would eliminate the science in favor of study of brain chemicals, and what have you. Or the "science" of phrenology, which perished when it was shown that its claims about reality were false, and its concepts invalid.) > What I am picking up here is that, much as he would deny it, Jimbo> implicitly denies the full objectivity of morality. His whole strategy> seems to be to reduce it to some other field, (namely, what is in> our self-interest) and thereby get rid of it

I do not deny the full objectivity of morality. You'll have to help me see what you mean, on that one. And I hope that I've explained my epistemological approach well enough to show that I don't want to reduce ethics to some other field, but to identify the essential facts that make it necessary for us to _not_ reduce ethics to another field

My approach doesn't amount to question begging in ethics, any moreso than it does in psychology or physics or any other field. When I used to teach financial management, I would ask my students (following the strategy of one of the best textbooks) to answer for themselves the question: why should anyone study financial management? What are the facts that give rise to this field of study? Why do businesses hire financial managers

In the process of answering these questions (a process that I encouraged by bringing it up repeatedly during the semester as a unifying theme) the students came to a keener appreciation not only for why they had to take the class, but for the motivations behind some of the most basic _principles_ of financial management

Similarly for ethics. Or, quoting from memory the young G. E. Moore, "why shouldn't everyone just do as they please?" Well, why not?




this website copyright scars publications and design. All rights reserved. No material may be reprinted without express permission from the author.

this page was downloaded to your computer