Kant and Rand – Ethics


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Kant resisted the thought that happiness might not be one’s aim when direction of one’s purposes by will is slackened. Rand rightly held that human beings do not automatically desire happiness. More fundamentally, humans do not automatically desire to live; their directive will extends that widely. Kant would hold that were that indeed the case, then Rand’s standard of morality would be profoundly inadequate.

In all of nature, according to Kant, it is only in man’s supersensible, noumenal nature that there is a purpose that is not conditioned on other purposes. Only in man’s existence as a moral agent, where moral legislation is not conditioned by any of the purposes in empirical nature, do we find a purpose not dependent on other purposes. That is unlike every purpose in empirical nature (KU 435–36; 1793, 8:279–80). Life could not be a final end, for it is conditional. It would not do as a standard for morality. Furthermore, if life is subject to continual choice by humans for its continuance, then human life is all the more conditioned and all the less suitable as a standard for morality. Requirements of morality conditioned by the clause “if you want to live,” would fail to have the objective necessity of themselves that Kant thought required of distinctly moral principles (G 4:414). (For more on Kant’s conception of life, see Ginsborg 2001, 246–54; Zammito 2007, 54–56, 67n13; Huneman 2007a, 86–92; Richards 2002, 229–37.)

That conception of moral necessity was wrongly tuned (cf. Rand 1974). The conditionality of life and the circumstance that human life is open to choice has the structure of necessity right for morality. The absoluteness of life or death is the absoluteness of moral necessity. That one freely chooses life, originates life, in thought and action respecting its requirements and opportunities—this is one’s moral glory.



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In July 2006 I had written:

"Rand thought that the justification for the virtue of honesty was only that it is in one's rational self-interest to be honest. That is false and psychologically inauthentic. When I tell someone the truth, it is not typically only because it is in my rational self-interest to do so. It is first and foremost because lying to someone is prima facie a rotten way to treat a person. Moreover, my concern for another's self-interest (e.g., not filling their mind with falsehoods) is not firstly a matter of being concerned for my rational self-interest, but of being concerned for theirs."

I've come across a striking parallel in Michael Tomasello's A Natural History of Human Thinking:

"And so, while there is still some way to go to get to truth as an 'objective' feature of human utterances (see chapter 4), if we want to explain the origins of humans' commitment to characterize the world accurately independent of any selfish purpose, then being committed to informing others of things honestly, for their not our benefit, is the starting point. The notion of truth thus entered the human psyche not with the advent of individual intentionality and its focus on accuracy in information acquisition but, rather, with the advent of joint intentionality and its focus on communicating cooperatively with others." (51–52)

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10 hours ago, Guyau said:

That is false and psychologically inauthentic.

  Can you explain this assertion? The reason you are concerned for others is not a refutation of her idea - it's just an alternative idea. How did you decide her idea factually incorrect while yours is correct? What do you mean by "psychologically inauthentic"? What is dishonest about her idea?

10 hours ago, Guyau said:

When I tell someone the truth, it is not typically only because it is in my rational self-interest to do so. It is first and foremost because lying to someone is prima facie a rotten way to treat a person.

One's own rational self interest is just one of a chain of important ideas, I think you have isolated rational self-interest from all the other ideas that connect to that idea. The idea that other people are valuable comes from rational self-interest. I'm sure Rand would agree that being dishonest is a rotten way to treat a good person. But only because it is in your own rational self-interest to be honest with good people.

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Joseph, the discussion for me and for Rand is in the arena of truth-telling to presumed innocent persons. So we are in a square disagreement. My 2006 statement was from introspection and from observing my Objectivist friends twist themselves into pretzels rationalizing how their fundamental reason for truth-telling in that arena is from consideration of their own self-interest alone. That last word is important. Without it one is not upholding a morality based purely on self-interest, which is what Rand, correctly, and many others mean by "ethical egoism." Not everyone is equally skilled at catching their own mental operations. I do maintain still that for every normal person if they do not see that their most immediate and deepest motive for truth-telling to the presumed innocent is concern for that person's self-interest, in having some respect for that person (all in a general way for persons who are strangers). There is assertion about all normal people's psychology from Rand when she wrote "There is no honest revolt against reason; it is an attempt to put feelings above reality" and "Don't say the rewards are in another world. I am not interested in any but this world. Neither are you." I assented to those contentions about people 50+ years ago when I first read them, and I still do. And I go on now and think of each person "How are they dealing with their absolute mortality, with the fact that just as there was infinite time in the past (time tied to existents) while they did not exist, so their present existence will end. Point blank for all of us. No ifs, buts, or maybes. Further, at some level we all know it. It's a terror in the psyche. Against that terror, they will not only go to church twice a week or put the words God or Lord in every sentence they speak. They will kill to stave off that terror. Any of this ring true to you? It seems to fit everything I see of people. Even as laypersons, we know some things about people's psyches. We have to in order to get anywhere.

It fits behavior I saw yesterday. I had entered the coin-op laundry, and right off, having lain my laundry on a counter, the only other customer there yells across the room to me in a threatening way "You moved my laundry. It was you, no one else is here. You did it. You know you did it. I've got your license tag number. I know the owners of this place. You are on camera here. You are a creep! I've got your license number. You are a creep! You are crazy! You are a creep!" When I would walk across the room to get the coins or to go out to the car, he would walk past me in the opposite direction, he would walk very close passing me hollering his accusations and name-calling. (He never threatened directly like one case in Chicago, which was for a different reason, where the belligerent came right out and put it: "I'm going to fuck you up!") He was certainly spinning me up, and it was clear he was trying to start a fight and get me to throw the first punch. (I'd estimate he might be 40. I am 74.) When I went out to my car to eat lunch and read my book, he had joined a couple of confederates, and the hazing continued. They did not touch or damage the car. What was really going on? This part is conjecture, but it clearly had nothing to do with his lie that I (or anyone) had disturbed his laundry. Why so much hollering about the license tag? Even took a picture of it, allegedly, and the men congregated at the back of the car. What is on the tail of that car? Well, to the right of the plate, there's that yellow-on-blue sticker, an equality sign, that all gay and lesbian people and many others recognize as meaning very likely someone in that family is gay. That could be part of the man's real source of rage and behavior. But I'd put my money on an emblem mounted to the left of the plate. It's a fish outline that first looks like a symbol for a Jesus follower, but on closer inspection is seen to have the word "Evolve" on the body of the fish, and the fish has a small hand with a wrench in it. My bet is that THAT was the trigger. If so, then likely it was a man whose Christian sect takes evolution to be a denial of the existence of God and who stay in their protective bubble mutually reinforcing their religious psychosis. "You're insane!" (Projection). "You're a creep!" Anything to shield him from the truth that all chants, and devotions, and mystical ceremony and raging and soothing sermons do not change the fact they know at some level and that terrifies them: they are going to disappear, full-stop.*

Beyond my introspection on honesty with presumed innocents, there is now research in developmental psychology reported in the book I quoted that lines up with my take, which on this point is contra Rand. If you get a lot of interest in this topic and get the time, I say dive into that book or one of his later ones, also in the intellectual vicinity. It would be nice of course if I could tell a great deal of the research reported in that book. But I have hundreds of books, all waiting for their little input or notice in my scholarly compositions, project nested on top of preceding project, every day me trying to complete this week's, then return to complete the one last season, the preceding year, and so forth.* So, I don't really have time to set out the book in greater detail, beyond the pertinent quotation I gave.

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Nathaniel Branden always used the example that you would not tell a thief where the jewels are, you would tell him instead that you have no jewels.

This is technically dishonest, but both NB and Rand said doing it this way was a virtue since the person was not approaching in good faith, thus he did not deserve honesty as a response. You were preserving something of value to you from a person coming at you with a dishonest intent.

Or how about telling the truth? Hell, Dagny shot a guard to death for telling the truth. And his truth was that he could not choose even with a gun aimed at him.


So this honesty thing is more complex than a simple on-off button as a rule we all have to blindly follow.


I think being honest with yourself is where Rand's prescription is good since you use it to identify reality. As to communicating and interacting with others, I'm squarely within the view of treating others as they treat you. But even then, I'm flexible since humans never act right. :) 

I like saying we all live in waves, not in straight lines. Sometimes we lapse momentarily out of exhaustion, other times out of distraction, and even other times out of boneheadedness and temptation. :) 

The trick is to be a cybernetic system like a plane on autopilot that gets blown off course. The autopilot automatically starts adjusting the plane and eventually puts it back on course.

That's one I figured out on my own.


My real beef with Rand's positions (in addition to scope, which I have written about often) is that she often did not accept a person's inner life as part of reality. Near the end when Frank was suffering from dementia, she kept on him to think better in an effort to reverse the disease. And she would get hurt with his irritation. That's an extreme example, but your own observation of the terror people feel at the prospect of their own deaths is within the same idea.

The inner mental life of a person is is a fact, not an object that can have parts erased with better thinking or more rational thinking.


To wit, I have had a lot of cognitive dissonance over the years about a face devoid of pain and fear and guilt. (Recognize that? :) ) God knows I have tried to eradicate those emotions from my mind, but I never succeeded. Now that I have learned a little about neuroscience, I see why.

I get Rand's notion that we should not value those mental states, those emotions, like we value reason and happiness. But eradicating them is impossible. Take fear alone. You would have to amputate the amygdala to get rid of fear. And then the person would not last long as a living being due to the inability to avoid dangerous things.

In my own experience, I agree with Rand that feelings are not replacements for reason in dealing with reality. But I no longer think it is either-or. It's both.

Without certain feelings, reason does not work well with reality. I'm reminded of reading about people who have had lobotomies where their emotions were severed for the most part from the rational parts of their brains. In one case (and I'm going on memory from years ago so I might not be fully accurate, although I am sure the gist is), a lobotomized subject was content to sit on a train track with a train coming straight at him as he spent time on something that interested him (the emotion of interest had not been severed). When asked if he knew he would go splat if the train ran him over, he said yes, but that was not enough for him to get off the track. He found more value in continuing what he was interested in.

This is a long topic. But inner mental life is a part of reality. And what happens when we avoid reality? When we blank it out? Well, one thing doesn't happen. Reality doesn't change.



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