Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Why Rand's Moral System Cannot Ensure Happiness

Much is made in Randian circles about Kant's view of happiness.
Randites like to quote from one or two of his statements
on the topic, especially the one stating that only if a man is unhappy
and wishes to end his life, then duty extols that he should therefore,
to the contrary of his desires, preserve his life in order for his
actions to have moral worth.

"In short, [a man] is unable, on any principle, to
determine with certainty what would make him truly happy;
because to do so he would need to be omniscient. We cannot
therefore act on any definite principles to secure happiness,
but only on empirical counsels, e.g. of regimen, frugality,
courtesy, reserve, etc., which experience teaches do, on the
average, most promote well-being."
(Fundamentals of a Metaphysics of Morals)

It is not the case that the Randites are claiming that the
man is unable to predict the future. Perhaps it is only his
depression that makes him see only future torment
for himself, whereas reality may provide him with the exact
opposite. But that's not the point, which is, the Randite idea
that morality for Kant is only possible in a state of severe
depression. And that the more depressed or unhappy
one becomes, the higher a state of morality one has achieved
until living has become almost psychologically unbearable.
Allegedly, a veritable sainthood is ultimately achieved through
this method. Thus Rand recommends happiness as the manner
through which such evil Kantianism is eradicated from western
culture. Objectivism sainthood is ultimately to be achieved
through being the winner of the brass ring of happiness as we ride
life's merry-go-round.

But Kant is saying in the above quote that happiness,
while not impossible to achieve, requires knowing the outcome
of all courses we take through life, and all the choices we make.
He cannot determine with any certainty that rationality,
productivity, and pride will eventually lead to happiness, although
they may lead to success in other ways. Randian moral theory
requires omniscience, while at the same time stating that man
is neither omniscient nor infallible.

Although one could therefore say that Rand's moral system is
self-contradictory, its salvation lies in simply removing the label
of "morality." It is, as I have said many times in the past, a system
of prudent or sage advice, such as one can find in the self-help
section of any bookstore, but passing itself off as philosophy
rather than psychology, or let's say, as precious gold rather
than cheap brass.

Or perhaps we could use a tactic often employed with the
three axioms, and state that while they are only axioms in the
loose, not geometric, sense, Rand's moral system is only
philosophy in the loose sense of the word. So one could pull
off the shelf any quasi-systematic "guide to better living"
and call that someone's philosophy of life too.

That is not to say that Kant's commentary against happiness
is directed toward anything like Rand's theory. In fact,
he is only opposed to using happiness as a moral standard,
whereas Rand considered happiness an ultimate goal or
value to be achieved, and not a standard of morality.
So Kant is not interested in using un-happiness as a
moral standard either, because neither exists as
opposites but only as a matter of degree.

Here is a quote to this effect: "...and besides, feelings, which
naturally differ infinitely in degree, cannot furnish a uniform
standard of good and evil, nor has anyone a right to form
judgments for others by his own feelings." Surely Rand
would have agreed with this statement, even coming from
Kant's own quill? He is referring to moral feelings in this
quote, not to happiness, but obviously Kant is stating that
feelings are not a form of cognition, going against those
contemporaries who argue that "moral feelings" can be used
as a sound basis for moral judgments.

As for Kant's concern with happiness, the following
quote is more useful than the one most often quoted
by Randites: "Thus a good will appears to constitute the
indispensable condition even of being worthy of happiness."
Why? Because, as he explains, even happiness, along
with other acquisitions, inspire pride - one of the seven
deadly sins, symptomatic of narcissism, and not the natural
human pride which may itself lead to narcissism.

I would add that egoism, which is a natural, healthy concern
for one's own well-being which is every human's birthright, has
its potential negative aspect if not for the possession of a good
will, a will that is good in and of itself and for no reason or
purpose beyond itself. Or let's take life as the ultimate standard
of value, i.e., life qua man, qua rational being, along with the
totality of all that this idea encompasses. But that basically
only boils down to the system of virtues and values which,
by itself, has its own negative aspect. That is, unless one can
develop one's capacity for good will.

But isn't there a kind of good will in Randian thought? Didn't
she at times refer to benevolence? Yes, but she never
systematized a theory of benevolence. She only employed it
for certain essays on morality, as in the Ethics of Emergencies.
It did not form any part of her morals proper.

Leonard Peikoff, on the other hand, is Rand's systematizer
(See his "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand"). Did he
perhaps take this term in a systematic fashion? No. Peikoff
defined in terms of friendship, and at other times treated it
metaphysically ("benevolent universe premise"). But in fact, this
states nothing about human benevolence. Therefore there
is no intellectual method or formula in Rand's moral theory
to prevent her set of virtues from turning into a set of
vices, as there is with Kant's moral system.


FatherTime said...

Your statement "... Rand considered happiness an ultimate goal or value to be achieved, and not a standard of morality." seems incorrect based on Rand's own definition of happiness "Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values."
Since you alone are the only one who can set your values you alone are responsible for your happiness. As for omniscience, I don't believe maximum or infinite happiness is the intended meaning of Rands writings. Only that following other people's prerogatives will not fulfill your happiness if happiness is defined as she explains.

John Thomas said...

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