July 26, 2007

Thou Shalt Not Nuke Flies

My best friend, Johndavid, sent me a link to this article on Capitalism Magazine earlier this week. (This has been in the hopper for a while as I've been trying to keep this post from rambling too much! Thank yous accepted in the form of cash.) He pointed out the editor's note that the bottom which reads:

* Editor's Note: William's is wrong here -- see Ayn Rand's essay on the Objectivist Ethics: "Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every 'is' implies an 'ought.'"

The lines that sum up William's mistake best are these:

The statement "Scientists shouldn't split the atom" is a normative statement. Why? There are no facts whatsoever to which we can appeal to settle any disagreement. One person's opinion on the matter is just as good as another's.

From a certain perspective, this statement would seem quite common sensical and true. There are so many things in life that really depend on your particular situation in life.

Let's assume that you're sitting around your apartment and a large fly comes in through a window to annoy you while you are watching your favorite television show. Should you split an atom?

Fact: In the time it would take you to launch your nuclear weapon at the fly, you'd probably miss Flavor of Love.

Fact: Detonating an atomic bomb in your apartment would cause you to lose your security deposit.

Fact: Flies are quickly and effectively slain by sprays and fly swatters.

If I spent a little more time, I am confident I could make a list of similar facts the sum of which objectively establish that you really shouldn't split atoms to kill flies.

If, however, you find yourself running a town and you need a cheap, safe, reliable source of energy, splitting atoms might be a very good way to get it.

So, it depends. In some cases it's good to split atoms and in some cases it's not. You certainly wouldn't want to do it willy-nilly. So, this is why people think normative statements are a matter of opinion.

But this perspective is really limited and that's where Williams goes wrong. He has blanked out on the particulars of a given situation and assumed that no overarching statements about atom splitting can be made. Not so. I just said that whether or not one should split atoms depends on one's context. That is an overarching, normative statement about atom splitting, granted it's not the simple yes/no statement that Williams seems to want, but we're not intrinsicists, are we?

Our conclusion refers to facts of reality; it isn't merely a matter of opinion, but it does rely on everyone agreeing that destroying your apartment to kill a fly would run counter to your long-term goals even if you manage to somehow salvage your television to watch Flavor of Love.

If we treat ethics the way Williams does we quickly imagine all sorts of silly situations where we might feign righteous indignation over some particular decision.

Miscegenation should be outlawed!

We should exterminate the Jews!

Hugh Jackman should be forced to submit to me as my love slave!

I should kill a fly with an A-Bomb so that I can get back to watching Flavor of Love on VH1!

How dare they judge me! My opinion is as good as theirs!

With perhaps the exception of Hugh Jackman's freedom, I am quite certain that there are facts to which I can appeal to prove that those statements are quite wrong regardless of anyone's opinion.

Although the rightness or wrongness of a decision may depend on your particular situation, your particular situation is an objective fact unto itself.

Walter Williams and others shouldn't shun normative ethics, they should embrace it because normative ethics requires that moral values be tied to the way human beings live and exist as human beings. What they should shun are simplistic, intrinsic statements of morality such as "thou shalt not kill" or "thou shalt not steal." Obviously, we can imagine cases where it may be very, very good to kill or steal.

Intrinsicists try to put all life in a box. They seem to think that the life of pygmies in a jungle should be governed the same way as life in a war zone which should be run by the same principles as a human living in the year 3025. I have no idea what sort of challenges confront a person living in 3025, but I feel confident in saying that if I lived in Darfur right now, my list of priorities would be a lot shorter and have a lot less nuance than the one I have today in New York City.

Objectivism as a philosophy doesn't attempt to lay out rules about specific actions that you have to follow to live a sin-free life. If it did, Objectivism would have less intellectual significance than your daily horoscope when it comes to telling you how to live your life. No, Objectivism is a powerful system of ideas that deals with the proper conduct of one's life throughout the span of one's life in any context that one may encounter or even imagine encountering.

As a rational philosophy grounded in reality it looks to values to guide your decision making. Values which are established by the reality that people may live or die. That may be happy or sad. We don't need a list of do's and don't's. The successful life is led by carefully considering reality (what is) and how one can achieve what one needs to live a happy, healthy, successful life (what one ought).

Posted by Flibbertigibbet at July 26, 2007 04:09 PM | TrackBack
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