Saturday, October 21, 2006

Then Athena Said - Chapter 1

I've started a close reading of Kathleen Touchstone's new book Then Athena Said: Unilateral Transfers and the Transformation of Objectivist Ethics.

Chapter one is called "The Basis for Objectivist Ethics" (although the chapter header on the top of each page says "The Basics for Objectivist Ethics").

This chapter is all of seven pages. Touchstone leaps into a discussion of Objectivist ethics and gives brief discussions of probability theory, drug addiction and mortality tables along the way.

Touchstone says that there are two approaches which have been attributed to Rand in attempting to understand the basis for her ethics: the "general species approach" and the "long-run probability approach."

By way of necessary background (which Touchstone doesn't give) Randian ethics have a problem when it comes to what might be called rational parasitism. If life is the standard of value and life requires reason and productivity, what about a person who lives as a parasite on others? People who survive by looting, fraud or mooching off others appear to contradict the premises of Rand's ethics.

Touchstone explains that the general species approach employs the concept of "man qua man." This approach looks to human nature as determinative and "universalizes" ethical requirements. Human beings can't survive unless they use reason and are productive. So to the extent that an individual succeeds as a parasite, he is acting contrary to the requirements of human nature. His behavior is immoral even if it acts to extend his life.

On the other hand, there is the "long-run probability approach." If a person attempts to live as a parasite, the odds of him succeeding are minimal. People who lie ultimately get caught; people who commit crimes ultimately wind up in jail.

Incidentally, I don't think the secondary literature indicates that there are two approaches. Generally speaking, those who try to "get around" the rational parasite problem by universalizing man's ethical requirements concede that Rand didn't take this approach. Touchstone references Eric Mack's essay from the 1986 collection The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, but I don't think Mack sees this is a valid interpretation of Rand. Mack rejects this approach in a more recent article in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. [JARS, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 39-40.]

Fortunately, I've read a fair amount in Objectivist ethics so I was able to more or less understand this chapter. But Touchstone so quickly leaps into secondary questions without explaining why it all matters for Rand's ethics.

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