Dragonfly

Critique of Objectivist ethics theory

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Also, you must ignore the right to life. Both of those things are against your own rational self-interest.

That is no proof. The question is: how do you know what your rational self-interest is? Presupposing the answer is no proof. The clearest example is Rand's surreptitious switch from "life qua existence" to "life of man qua man". The first refers only to life as such, survival as a living being, and Rand's argument is that man's ultimate value is his life. But then her argument fails, because someone who lives as a parasite or as a criminal can be very succesful in prolonging his life, and sometimes a quite comfortable life as well. Obviously this is not what Rand wants to prove, so now she suddenly switches from "life qua existence" to "life of man qua man" (read: life according to the Objectivist ideal). But that is just putting the desired answer into the argument which constitutes no proof at all, so the whole argument breaks down. The problem is that many people like Rand's answers so much that they blindly believe her claim that she can prove them, but that is an illusion. You cannot prove an "ought" from an "is".

Perhaps you can't "prove" it, but you sure can get it. Where else would one get an "ought" from? And if there ought not be oughts there ought not be philosophy and morality. (?)

--Brant

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Dragonfly,

If you claim to have the right to life, you must ask "What gives me the right to life?" The answer is that what makes you human gives you the right to life (we can debate exactly what/why that is later). If being human gives you the right to life then you must grant the right to life to all those that share the trait. So you couldn't torture and murder anybody without violating their rights.

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Regarding your last paragraph, what do we have here? To use the Objectivist lingo, have we a stolen concept or context dropping? Parasites, by definition, cannot live except by feeding off a host—a host that is, we can presume, rational!

So what? Does that make the parasite any less rational? You've fallen in the Randian trap of equating "rational" with "according to Objectivist principles" (which makes many Objectivists so insufferable, as they maintain that only they are thinking and acting rationally). However, rationality has nothing to do with what your purpose is, but how you try to realize it. So parasites or murderers can be very rational in planning how to live off other people or how to kill someone. That certainly doesn't mean that we have to approve their choices or methods (I don't). Neither can we prove that the choice of their goals is irrational by relating it to the striving towards to some ultimate goal. If that ultimate goal is to survive, many of them certainly succeed in doing so. You can claim that their goal should be to survive as "man qua man", but then we're back to square one, as we presuppose the answer without proving it.

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Perhaps you can't "prove" it, but you sure can get it. Where else would one get an "ought" from? And if there ought not be oughts there ought not be philosophy and morality. (?)

I'm not saying that "oughts" can't be useful, I'm only refuting the claim that you can prove them scientifically. Where do they come from? I think a lot can be explained by evolutionary psychology, some strategies work better than other ones, and they may evolve in the course of time, fashions come and go. But the result is not unequivocal, different people may arrive at different "oughts", and it's therefore an illusion that we can convince every rational person to adopt our "oughts", merely by some logical argument. For example, there will always be socialists (be it under a different name) and criminals. We can only try to persuade as many people to adopt our viewpoint in this.

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If you claim to have the right to life, you must ask "What gives me the right to life?" The answer is that what makes you human gives you the right to life (we can debate exactly what/why that is later). If being human gives you the right to life then you must grant the right to life to all those that share the trait. So you couldn't torture and murder anybody without violating their rights.

I agree with your sentiments, but not with your argument as a logical proof. Try thinking outside the Randian box. Logically seen, I may very well claim my right to life while denying that right to others, if survival is my ultimate goal. Or I even don't have to claim that right to life, I just take the appropriate actions to ensure my survival. No, that's not your system (and neither is it mine), but disapproval is no proof. That's my whole point: I may agree with many of the "oughts" of Objectivism, but I'm not accepting the pretension that these can be derived in a quasi-scientific way, that is a typical case of rationalization, which always consists of putting the desired answers somewhere into the argument.

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Regarding your last paragraph, what do we have here? To use the Objectivist lingo, have we a stolen concept or context dropping? Parasites, by definition, cannot live except by feeding off a host—a host that is, we can presume, rational!

So what? Does that make the parasite any less rational? You've fallen in the Randian trap of equating "rational" with "according to Objectivist principles" (which makes many Objectivists so insufferable, as they maintain that only they are thinking and acting rationally). However, rationality has nothing to do with what your purpose is, but how you try to realize it. So parasites or murderers can be very rational in planning how to live off other people or how to kill someone. That certainly doesn't mean that we have to approve their choices or methods (I don't). Neither can we prove that the choice of their goals is irrational by relating it to the striving towards to some ultimate goal. If that ultimate goal is to survive, many of them certainly succeed in doing so. You can claim that their goal should be to survive as "man qua man", but then we're back to square one, as we presuppose the answer without proving it.

Dragonfly,

No, I have not fallen to the “trap” of equating rational with “according to Objectivist principles”. That is your tacked on assertion. I object to it on two accounts: A, even if it were a simple case of my putting forth anything “according to Objectivist principles” I hardly see this as a “trap”; that is merely an expression of your enmity to Objectivism, and it does not address my post. B, the word “rational” is not a Randian concoction. It is an actual word in the philosophical lexicon. So is Objectivity. Generally speaking, and out side of the “Randian box as you would prefer, “rationality means containing or possessing reason or characterized by reason. Intelligible. Sensible…" [Dictionary of philosophy, Peter Angeles].

Questions: Is there an objective (little ‘o’) definition for rationality? Does such a state of mind exist? What is your definition? Should man live by this?

-Victor

Edited by Victor Pross
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Perhaps you can't "prove" it, but you sure can get it. Where else would one get an "ought" from? And if there ought not be oughts there ought not be philosophy and morality. (?)

I'm not saying that "oughts" can't be useful, I'm only refuting the claim that you can prove them scientifically. Where do they come from? I think a lot can be explained by evolutionary psychology, some strategies work better than other ones, and they may evolve in the course of time, fashions come and go. But the result is not unequivocal, different people may arrive at different "oughts", and it's therefore an illusion that we can convince every rational person to adopt our "oughts", merely by some logical argument. For example, there will always be socialists (be it under a different name) and criminals. We can only try to persuade as many people to adopt our viewpoint in this.

I agree with your first sentence. I am not prepared now to comment on the rest. But is your philosophy "scientificism?" Pragmatism? (?)

--Brant

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No, I have not fallen to the “trap” of equating rational with “according to Objectivist principles”. That is your tacked on assertion. I object to it on two accounts: A, even if it were a simple case of my putting forth anything “according to Objectivist principles” I hardly see this as a “trap”; that is merely an expression of your enmity to Objectivism, and it does not address my post. B, the word “rational” is not a Randian concoction. It is an actual word in the philosophical lexicon. So is Objectivity. Generally speaking, and out side of the “Randian box as you would prefer, “rationality means containing or possessing reason or characterized by reason. Intelligible. Sensible…" [Dictionary of philosophy, Peter Angeles].

Well, this definition does at least not imply that a parasite or a criminal is not behaving rationally.

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I agree with your first sentence. I am not prepared now to comment on the rest. But is your philosophy "scientificism?" Pragmatism? (?)

I don't know what these philosophies exactly imply. Maybe I would agree with some of it, but I could as well disagree with other points. Therefore I see no use to associate myself with some kind of "ism". In the past I've been accused too often of being all kinds of "ists" to attach much value to such labeling.

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No, I have not fallen to the “trap” of equating rational with “according to Objectivist principles”. That is your tacked on assertion. I object to it on two accounts: A, even if it were a simple case of my putting forth anything “according to Objectivist principles” I hardly see this as a “trap”; that is merely an expression of your enmity to Objectivism, and it does not address my post. B, the word “rational” is not a Randian concoction. It is an actual word in the philosophical lexicon. So is Objectivity. Generally speaking, and out side of the “Randian box as you would prefer, “rationality means containing or possessing reason or characterized by reason. Intelligible. Sensible…" [Dictionary of philosophy, Peter Angeles].

Well, this definition does at least not imply that a parasite or a criminal is not behaving rationally.

That is because it is a dictionary of philosophy, not a treatise on ethics. The conclusion that “men ought not to act like parasites” would come from an ethical principle, it is true, and that requires a long chain of reasoning calling for a treatise on the subject. But I am still interested to know what guides you life in the ethical department and what guides you to come to sound conclusions on anything in the epistemological department. Would it have something to do with the “scientific method”, of reason and rationality?

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That is because it is a dictionary of philosophy, not a treatise on ethics. The conclusion that “men ought not to act like parasites” would come from an ethical principle, it is true, and that requires a long chain of reasoning calling for a treatise on the subject. But I am still interested to know what guides you life in the ethical department and what guides you to come to sound conclusions on anything in the epistemological department. Would it have something to do with the “scientific method”, of reason and rationality?

In the ethical department? Just my gut feeling, which I could rationalize of course as well as anyone else, only I'm not inclined to do so. The scientific method seems to work quite well, so I like to use it in the epistemological department, in that sense I'm a pragmatist (not implying that I belong to the philosophical school with the same name, I just know too little about that).

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To me, I think it's pretty simple.

Man can CHOOSE what he values including his ultimate value, and this can even change with time and according to certain situations etc.

Rand's ethic's are not derived as she would have you believe. There is no firm footing in asserting the "ought" in Objectivism or anything else for that matter.

As I see it, it's fine to say that IF you value A, then you ought to do B. But there's no teeth in the "You ought to value "A" argument.

Bob

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Dragonfly, in #32 you remarked:

"I'm not saying that 'oughts' can't be useful, I'm only refuting the claim that you can prove them scientifically." Nor quasi-scientifically, you add later.

Here are some assertions of Rand and two nineteenth-century philosophers about the nature of life. These are statements about all organisms, from a single-cell organism to a human being.

Rand

"Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action."

"An organism's life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly."

"The automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life."

"The definition of organism (in general terms) would be: 'An entity possessing the capacities of internally generated action, of growth through metabolism, and of reproduction'."

Nietzsche

"The essential thing in the vital process is precisely the tremendous shaping force which creates forms from within and which utilizes, exploits the 'external circumstances'."

Guyau

"Existence and life imply nutrition, consequently appropriation, transformation for itself of the forces of nature. Life is a kind of gravitation upon itself. But a being always needs to accumulate a surplus of force to ensure the amount necessary to maintain life. Thrift is a very law of nature. What will become of this surplus force? . . . . Life has two sides. By the one, nutrition and assimilation; by the other, production and fecundity."

Each of these three philosophers developed a theory of value in general, and human chosen values in particular, around those various general features of living activity. All three knowingly relied on the science of biology in their own age. All were trying to be sensitive to that science in their theories of value and of what one should or should not do.

Both Rand and Guyau described their theories as the first true ethical theories based only on scientific facts. The casting of certain values as norms based on biology and psychology need not be nothing but a scientific casting in order to be a wholly rational casting. Which features of the biologically given and the psychologically given are stressed by a value theorist needs to be watched and remembered by the consumer. But there is no reason to presume that rationality in consumption or in any other venture is a willy-nilly norm that can only be rationalized rather than rationally inferred from facts.

Stephen

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As I see it, it's fine to say that IF you value A, then you ought to do B. But there's no teeth in the "You ought to value "A" argument.

I disagree. For example, if you are a human being then you ought to value water (unless you don't want to live at all). Given existence and the desire to live, one can not choose or not choose to value water. Rand's reasoning is just an extension of this biologically/life based logic.

Rand was simply asserting that WHAT we are (as human beings) determines, in part, what kinds of abstract values we ought to hold. Rand (and many others) would say that it is contrary to the actual nature of a human being to value being enslaved...

RCR

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Man can CHOOSE what he values including his ultimate value, and this can even change with time and according to certain situations etc.

Bob,

I have a problem with this when we get to certain fundamental things like nutrition. Man can usually choose his values (not always), but when he does choose, it is always within parameters if he is to attain a result (such as survive). The whole point of deriving the "ought" from the "is" (as I understand it) is to include that qualification "if." There is always some condition being met with obtaining/holding a value.

The very basic "ought from is" statement would be "man ought to choose to act in accordance with his nature under normal circumstances if he wishes to fully realize his inherent potential." The "is" is man's inherent potential and it is derived from his nature (Rand often calls this "the given") and the "ought" was specified. There is even an "ought" derived from an "is" in that statement. "Man ought to learn what his real nature is if he wishes to choose correctly to act in accordance with it."

Michael

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Each of these three philosophers developed a theory of value in general, and human chosen values in particular, around those various general features of living activity. All three knowingly relied on the science of biology in their own age. All were trying to be sensitive to that science in their theories of value and of what one should or should not do.

That may be true, but that doesn't validate the argument. I have no problem with the Rand statements you quote, that is not the bad part of her argument. It is the switch she makes - and has to make - from such objective facts (not that she had those facts always right, but that's another discussion) to her personal philosophy, claiming that it follows logically from those facts. Take for example the parasite, in no way his philosophy is in disagreement with the abovementioned statements. There is no doubt that it is a succesful strategy for survival. To reject it, she has to introduce a subjective criterion, which you may accept or reject (in general both happen), but the correctness of which you cannot prove. Of course once you accept that criterion, you may deduce logically and scientifically the consequences, but the gap remains, and that is my whole point.

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The food examples are a red herring and an equivocation. When we talk about "is" versus "ought" it is always in the context of ethics, and not about "you ought to eat" or "you ought to breathe" if you want to survive - these are no ethical matters. The "ought" we are talking about is the moral "ought", which we shouldn't confuse with the "ought" of simply satisfying physiological needs.

The very basic "ought from is" statement would be "man ought to choose to act in accordance with his nature under normal circumstances if he wishes to fully realize his inherent potential."

This is so vague that it is meaningless as an ethical principle. What is man's "nature"? Murder, aggression, rape, parasitism are all part of man's nature, but somehow these are not popular among Objectivists (not that I blame them for that). And what is his "inherent potential"? Hitler and Stalin were also quite good in fulfilling their inherent potential, so that can hardly be a satisfying criterion. So it's time for the magic switch from "man qua existence" to "man qua man", but that is a subjective choice, which cannot be derived just from man's nature.

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The food examples are a red herring and an equivocation. When we talk about "is" versus "ought" it is always in the context of ethics, and not about "you ought to eat" or "you ought to breathe" if you want to survive - these are no ethical matters. The "ought" we are talking about is the moral "ought", which we shouldn't confuse with the "ought" of simply satisfying physiological needs.
The very basic "ought from is" statement would be "man ought to choose to act in accordance with his nature under normal circumstances if he wishes to fully realize his inherent potential."

This is so vague that it is meaningless as an ethical principle. What is man's "nature"? Murder, aggression, rape, parasitism are all part of man's nature, but somehow these are not popular among Objectivists (not that I blame them for that). And what is his "inherent potential"? Hitler and Stalin were also quite good in fulfilling their inherent potential, so that can hardly be a satisfying criterion. So it's time for the magic switch from "man qua existence" to "man qua man", but that is a subjective choice, which cannot be derived just from man's nature.

In examining "man's nature" it might be helpful to refer to the definition of man as "the rational animal." If he is "rational" one can make a chain of reasoning with that ending up, in one case, with productive work, which is not parasitism or tyranny. One doesn't end up as a destructive psychotic, generally speaking, if one is engaging in such work so there seems to be a natural congruence with that and psychological well being because one is honoring "man's nature"--his proper nature re thriving--in respect to oneself. Etc.

--Brant

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In examining "man's nature" it might be helpful to refer to the definition of man as "the rational animal." If he is "rational" one can make a chain of reasoning with that ending up, in one case, with productive work, which is not parasitism or tyranny.

I disagree. Why can't a parasite be rational? As I said in an earlier post, rationality does not refer to what your goal is, but to how you try to realize that goal. If his goal is comfortable survival as a parasite he may very well succeed in reaching that goal, and there is nothing irrational in that. That is one of the bad points of Rand's legacy: to designate every behavior she didn't approve of as irrational. It can also lead to underestimating your opponents, as they may be much more rational in the usual sense than you might think on the basis of their so-called "irrationality". In Atlas Shrugged the bad guys may all crumble when they are confronted with their own irrationality, in real life things are rather different, evil isn't as impotent as Rand may suggest.

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In examining "man's nature" it might be helpful to refer to the definition of man as "the rational animal." If he is "rational" one can make a chain of reasoning with that ending up, in one case, with productive work, which is not parasitism or tyranny.

I disagree. Why can't a parasite be rational? As I said in an earlier post, rationality does not refer to what your goal is, but to how you try to realize that goal. If his goal is comfortable survival as a parasite he may very well succeed in reaching that goal, and there is nothing irrational in that. That is one of the bad points of Rand's legacy: to designate every behavior she didn't approve of as irrational. It can also lead to underestimating your opponents, as they may be much more rational in the usual sense than you might think on the basis of their so-called "irrationality". In Atlas Shrugged the bad guys may all crumble when they are confronted with their own irrationality, in real life things are rather different, evil isn't as impotent as Rand may suggest.

Not agreeing or disagreeing with you here, but it is interesting to note that "The impotence of evil" is absolutely central to Ayn Rand's work in philosophy and fiction. It is her "Big Idea."

--Brant

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The food examples are a red herring and an equivocation. When we talk about "is" versus "ought" it is always in the context of ethics, and not about "you ought to eat" or "you ought to breathe" if you want to survive - these are no ethical matters. The "ought" we are talking about is the moral "ought", which we shouldn't confuse with the "ought" of simply satisfying physiological needs.
The very basic "ought from is" statement would be "man ought to choose to act in accordance with his nature under normal circumstances if he wishes to fully realize his inherent potential."

This is so vague that it is meaningless as an ethical principle. What is man's "nature"? Murder, aggression, rape, parasitism are all part of man's nature, but somehow these are not popular among Objectivists (not that I blame them for that). And what is his "inherent potential"? Hitler and Stalin were also quite good in fulfilling their inherent potential, so that can hardly be a satisfying criterion. So it's time for the magic switch from "man qua existence" to "man qua man", but that is a subjective choice, which cannot be derived just from man's nature.

Dragonfly,

Woah theah!

We do agree that "moral" means value+volition? If not, what do you mean by "moral"? Also, apparently you missed my comment about discovering the nature of man since you asked what it was. (As you know, I believe the traditional Objectivist view to be oversimplified, but true in the areas it covers.)

But here is something where we need to agree to even be able to discuss anything: what our terms mean. For example, either we agree that concepts exist or not. A concept always refers to more than one, at least in the manner I use the term. And if you don't like the word "concept" for that, at least we can agree that there are mental categories that always refer to more than one of the same kind, and that I use the term "concept" to designate such a mental unit.

When something as complex as "human being" is categorized, there will be a norm and exceptions. For example, a human being is a biped. This part falls under the "animal" part of "rational animal" (the genus), so being a biped is part of the concept of what a human being is. Are there human beings without two legs? Sure. Are they the norm? Nope. The concept still holds despite exceptions. For that matter, there can be no exceptions without a norm.

When we discuss man's nature, we are talking about the norm as a species, not the individual exceptions. Of course a psychotic will kill people by acting according to his individual nature as a freak, but not according to the nature of what a human being normally is. When I say "man's nature," I am referring to what a human being normally is. And exceptions are just that: exceptions. They should be treated as such even on a definition level.

If that norm changes over time, say for instance, most human beings end up growing another leg or two, the concept will incorporate that change. This is how I understand the basic contextual nature of knowledge in Objectivism.

Michael

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When we discuss man's nature, we are talking about the norm as a species, not the individual exceptions. Of course a psychotic will kill people by acting according to his individual nature as a freak, but not according to the nature of what a human being normally is. When I say "man's nature," I am referring to what a human being normally is. And exceptions are just that: exceptions. They should be treated as such even on a definition level.

Individual exceptions? You think war, murder, rape, aggression, stealing, fraud, parasitism are exceptions? I think you have a heavily biased view, while you live in a prosperous western country, probably in a good neighborhood, where such things may seem to be exceptions (but even there they may be not as rare as you might think). You probably don't realize how privileged you are in fact. There are many places on earth were you'd get quite a different impression, and neither is the historical record very sunny to put it mildly. There is ample evidence that man's nature is that of a nasty, bloodthirsty brute, and that our western civilization of recent years only partly can hide that under a thin veneer of civilization. Where did you buy those rose-colored glasses?

Now it's bedtime for me.

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Dragonfly,

Come on. Let's do some elementary mathematics. If the majority of mankind were murderers by nature, there would be no mankind. If the majority of mankind did not produce goods, merely stole them, by nature, there would be no goods.

I agree that there is a violent strain in the animal part of man's nature and it needs to be taken into account. I also agree that it is in all men to a small degree when compared to other characteristics. That is the norm, even in underdeveloped tribal societies. Mankind would not have survived otherwise.

Since when have you ever adhered to oversimplification? That doesn't sound at all like you.

This doesn't either:

You think...

I think you have a heavily biased view...

You probably don't realize...

Where did you buy those rose-colored glasses?

That's a hell of a lot of speculation about what goes on in my head, and of course it is all wrong. Do you know something I don't about me?

:)

Michael

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When we discuss man's nature, we are talking about the norm as a species, not the individual exceptions. Of course a psychotic will kill people by acting according to his individual nature as a freak, but not according to the nature of what a human being normally is. When I say "man's nature," I am referring to what a human being normally is. And exceptions are just that: exceptions. They should be treated as such even on a definition level.

Individual exceptions? You think war, murder, rape, aggression, stealing, fraud, parasitism are exceptions? I think you have a heavily biased view, while you live in a prosperous western country, probably in a good neighborhood, where such things may seem to be exceptions (but even there they may be not as rare as you might think). You probably don't realize how privileged you are in fact. There are many places on earth were you'd get quite a different impression, and neither is the historical record very sunny to put it mildly. There is ample evidence that man's nature is that of a nasty, bloodthirsty brute, and that our western civilization of recent years only partly can hide that under a thin veneer of civilization. Where did you buy those rose-colored glasses?

Now it's bedtime for me.

Hey, I'm a nice guy! :(

--Brant

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This is so vague that it is meaningless as an ethical principle. What is man's "nature"? Murder, aggression, rape, parasitism are all part of man's nature, but somehow these are not popular among Objectivists (not that I blame them for that). And what is his "inherent potential"? Hitler and Stalin were also quite good in fulfilling their inherent potential, so that can hardly be a satisfying criterion. So it's time for the magic switch from "man qua existence" to "man qua man", but that is a subjective choice, which cannot be derived just from man's nature.

When something as complex as "human being" is categorized, there will be a norm and exceptions. For example, a human being is a biped. This part falls under the "animal" part of "rational animal" (the genus), so being a biped is part of the concept of what a human being is. Are there human beings without two legs? Sure. Are they the norm? Nope. The concept still holds despite exceptions. For that matter, there can be no exceptions without a norm.

When we discuss man's nature, we are talking about the norm as a species, not the individual exceptions. Of course a psychotic will kill people by acting according to his individual nature as a freak, but not according to the nature of what a human being normally is. When I say "man's nature," I am referring to what a human being normally is. And exceptions are just that: exceptions. They should be treated as such even on a definition level.

If that norm changes over time, say for instance, most human beings end up growing another leg or two, the concept will incorporate that change. This is how I understand the basic contextual nature of knowledge in Objectivism.

Human nature isn't determined by statistics. We are what we are. Entire societies can live against human nature. I firmly believe that most of the human race has been living against human nature and that we are still struggling to discover our nature and live in accordance with it.

Each and every one of us has the capacity for murder, aggression, and parasitism, and half of us have the capacity for rape. Whether or not practicing these activities is good for us is left for us to discover. In our more advanced societies, most of us have discovered that these activities are not in our self-interest. We're horrified when we look at less advanced societies, like Arab tribes where raiding neighbors is a way of life and lying is a matter of social etiquette, because they still haven't figured it out. Some philosophers have made the mistake of believing that human nature is infinitely malleable, and that we can do whatever we choose to do and get away with it. It isn't. There are laws of nature in effect as inexorable as the laws of chemistry and physics. It remains for us to discover them and respect them.

Judith

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