September 18, 2007

I'll Have the Cult Cult Cult Cult with Cult Cult Sandwich and a bit of Cult Cult Cult Cult on the Side

Well, the altruists over on Colin McGinn's website have finally reached the point where they are referring to Objectivism as a cult or being cult-like.

This is fairly typical of these sorts of debates, so I can't claim surprise.

I posted two new challenging comments and then headed over to Diana's site where I found out that Mr. McGinn deleted two of Diana's comments without warrant. She reprinted her comments in the comments section of her site.

I'm particularly tickled that she challenged him on an issue that I almost brought up but didn't because I didn't have a handy citation, which is his proposed definition of the term "altruism." Instead, I implied the challenge in my remark about James Rachels's work on the matter. I'd like to highlight Diana's comment on this point:

Colin said: "As philosophers use the term, altruism requires only that one gives some weight to the interests of others, as opposed to oneself; its opposite is egoism, which takes account only of one's own interests in decision-making."

That's a sloppy characterization of egoism and altruism. The question is not whether the egoist can take account of the interests of others: he obviously can and should, if and to the extent that the welfare of others matters to his own welfare. The key point is that the egoist regards his own welfare as the ultimate justification for his actions. The altruist, in contrast, regards the welfare of others as the ultimate moral justification of his actions.

Moreover, altruism is understood to require the sacrifice of oneself. That's why the widow is morally superior to the rich men in the story of the Widow's Mite: she sacrificed more, even though she gave less. That's also why the surgeon who performs life-saving surgery is not regarded as an altruist (or moral praiseworthy) if he's paid for his life-saving work as he deserves.

As for what philosophers think, in the _Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy_, altruism is defined as "disinterested concern for the welfare of another, as an end in itself." In other words, altruism (like egoism) is about ultimate justification in ethics, not whether the interests of others are considered in decision-making.

I don't know if I'm quite through following the discussion over on his blog, but I do find his conduct to be unjust and dishonest. (Dishonest in that he implies that Diana's remarks are "irresponsible." Equating intellectuals with dictionaries with children with handguns is a new one to me.) I don't think I'll follow the debate much further.

Posted by Flibbertigibbet at September 18, 2007 04:27 PM | TrackBack

Unfortunately, Objectivism does fit the dictionary definition of the word cult. To wit, {}:


• noun 1 a system of religious worship directed towards a particular figure or object. 2 a small religious group regarded as strange or as imposing excessive control over members. 3 something popular or fashionable among a particular section of society.

— DERIVATIVES cultish adjective cultist noun.

— ORIGIN Latin cultus ‘worship’.

Of course, *I* don't regard Objectivism as a cult. But then again, I use such ideas as "retreat from social mainstream", and "obscure or hidden internal social rules" to identify those things I call cults. My reasoning for this is that we already have a term to cover (basically) unreasoning devotion to a moral authority: religion. The main thing that distinguishes a cult, for me, from "mere" religion is that it is an extremely short-lived (in social terms), self-limiting group. Religions are, of course, self-limiting, indeed self-destructive, but only in the longer term. Examples of groups that are indisputably cults are the Jim Jones group and that one whose name I can't remember but they believed their mother-ship was behind that comet, the group in SoCal. And I think the same criterion holds in the more poetic usage, like as when we apply the term cult to such groups as follow niche movies, e.g. Rocky Horror Picture Show and Serenity (and, until TNG was produced, Star Trek). The groups are necessarily self-limiting due, in part, to such things as adoption of exclusionary behavior (c.f. RHPS celebrations involving acting out parts of the movie, cross-dressing, etc.) and jargon. Unreasoning devotion to moral authority, or, in the case of "movie cults", "passionate" celebration of unpopular aspects of the films, to my mind, is correlated, but not necessarily, or at least not directly, causal.

Anyway, that's *my* take on cult. And Objectivism doesn't fit it.

But by Oxford's definition of the term, Objectivism does / Objectivists do indeed fit. We do worship reason systematically. We are a relatively small group, and in practice we are religious, a la Roark's meaning, and Objectivism is regarded as strange and *regarded* as imposing (via the scholastic elite at ARI) excessive control over members.

So when, by implication, you faulted Mr. McGinn (his adherents?) for using the term improperly, I think you were in error. I presume that they mean by cult what is meant in the mainstream, particularly among mainstream Christians. (Is he Christian? His site is currently down as I write this comment.) And by his formulation, Objectivism is a cult.

(I think this is worth pointing out because, although his formulation is incorrect, I think it is incidental to, and derivative of, his other egregious errors.)

(As an aside, I suspect that this will become rather an issue, though, in the near term, socially. Since religious moral authority can't meet us on logical grounds, the way that they'll keep the sheep away will be to claim that we are a dangerous cult (redundant) and shouldn't even be given the time of day.)

Posted by: Rachel at September 18, 2007 05:45 PM

I don't think I agree.

Definition 1 doesn't apply because we don't 'worship' reason in the sense that the definition requires. We don't attribute special or mystical powers to it, for example. I have yet to meet an Objectivist who has an altar to reason, or who goes to Reason Services, or any of the other kinds of behaviors typically understood by the term 'worship'. Objectivists value reason highly, and try to live by it. But equating that with worship is a stretch at best.

Definition 2 doesn't apply because Objectivism does not in fact impose excessive controls on Objectivists. That some people might erroneously believe otherwise doesn't make it true.

Definition 3 might apply, but note that it's in a rather different category from the other two. Definition 3 applies to anything that a lot of people value, and that's hardly problematic.

FWIW, my working distinction between a cult and a religion is that a cult is something you join, whereas a religion is something you're born into. In other words, a religion is just a cult that has survived to the point where the majority of its members were raised into its beliefs.

Posted by: Kyle Haight at September 18, 2007 06:53 PM

I have my doubts that those casting the word "cult" about give it so much thought. It's pretty clear to me that when they say "cult" they really mean any passionate opposition to their ideas. It is obviously meant as an insult and in light of the weakness of their arguments it belies their desperation.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 18, 2007 08:50 PM

In case my comment gets deleted from the McGinn site, I recently commented:

Mr. McGill said:

Against my better judgment, I'm going to state the point one last time. Suppose person A performs action x as a result of which person B benefits, but A DOES NOT BENEFIT FROM X, EITHER THEN OR AT ANY FUTURE TIME. Then, according to ethical egoism, x is IMMORAL. That is plainly absurd. It would imply that repaying a debt is unethical if the debtor receives no future benefit from repaying his (legitimate) debt. The ethical thing to do would be to renege on the debt if no disadvantage would thereby accrue to the debtor and some advantage results ( e.g. he keeps the money he owes).

First, why is that absurd? What standard are you using to make that judgment? I suspect that you're appealing to the interests of others to say that, which is the very question-begging that we egoists have been complaining about. Getting more to the heart of the issue, what do you think the purpose of morality is?

We egoists have been arguing that the purpose of morality is to help us live our lives happily as human beings and it is from that standard that guides a person to make decisions with his own interests (ultimate happiness) in mind.

Second, I didn't use all caps, but I think I pretty clearly qualified what a benefit means to the egoist. Others have stated the same thing in different ways, but this keeps being disregarded in the recurring obsession with rape, murder, and ponds full of dead babies.

What horrible imaginations you all have!

PhilAnon, I actually do have a first-hand familiarity with Rachels's discussion on this topic and remain unpersuaded. I did mention this above. Assuming that we're ignorant of your position is uncharitable. Referring to passionate, concerted opposition to your arguments as as cult is not polite nor is it accurate.

Drake, I'll try to address your example as briefly as I can, but others have provided answers to your conundrum and sources have been cited that present the arguments in greater detail -- and clarity, I am sure!

To start: where are the baby's parents while this drowning is happening? It sounds like Al isn't so alone after all -- unless imaginary demons are tormenting imaginary Al by pushing imaginary babies up from the underworld and into his pond in which case I definitely recommend leaving demonic babies to their own devices -- which takes us back to Diana's comments about fostering a good society -- even if it is one that leaves him completely alone, also assuming he has a rational reason for that -- being of personal benefit.

The egoist is not limited to concrete benefits of dollars and cents or the detriments of personal, physical injury. In his quest to live life to its (rationally grounded -- see previous qualifications about "benefit") fullest he is also interested in abstract values like justice, rationality, productivity, honesty and other virtues (You'll recognize that Diana pointed this out as well) which he would want to promote.

We have the "loves life" characteristic of your hermit. One has to wonder how a person who claims to love life could stand by while another goes through ultimate suffering and death. Which is more important to Al: life or remaining dry?

I do not mean that the egoist is secretly an altruist -- being concerned for the interests of others -- by valuing life. I mean that as a rational egoist with a mind capable of sublime abstractions such as ours, he will relate to other living things on a general level in such a way that would make the suffering of animals or other people abhorrent to him. He will see the world as a place suitable for his life and a place where he is capable of achieving his highest values; this is a world in which he is surrounded by callousness and suffering and he will want to do what he can to ensure that it doesn't become that way. (This makes his self-imposed exile rather strange to my way of thinking, but it would be a digression in the extreme to consider that point now.)

Allowing a baby to drown would be destructive through grotesque neglect. This would be run counter to his value of productivity. Lying to people who may ask him about his whereabouts while the baby was drowning would be dishonest. Hiding from those people so he doesn't have to lie would be cowardly and would betray the guilt he feels about his actions. His integrity would be in tatters and he would have to bear the torment of a man who hasn't the strength of his convictions, who betrays what he claims to hold dear.

Assuming Al can somehow avoid all of the various compromises to his values from the greatest to the very smallest, from the concrete to the abstract, then it would be ok for him to allow the baby to drown. The problem is that no such situation could ever possibly arise. We might as well posit that the baby was about to be crushed under an avalanche of round squares.

Posted by: Flibbert at September 18, 2007 09:32 PM
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