Showing posts with label Ayn Rand. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ayn Rand. Show all posts

Sunday, December 31, 2023

How would you describe your philosophy?

 


I don’t think anyone has ever asked me the question posed above. When I tell people that I am an economist, some of them ask about my views on economics before regaling me with their opinions. When I tell people that I am a blogger, they usually ask what I blog about before telling me what I should blog about. I don’t claim to be a philosopher, so there has been no reason for anyone to ask me to describe my philosophy.

However, a comment by Ed Younkins in the addendum to the preceding post on this blog prompted me to think about whether it would be possible for me (as a casual reader of philosophy) to prepare a coherent summary of my philosophical beliefs.

Some readers might be interested in the process I used to summarise my views. I asked ChatGPT to ask a series of questions to help me to explore my philosophical beliefs. I responded to her questions by providing copies of extracts from blog posts etc. that I had written, and asked her to summarise my responses. The summary she produced was done competently, but I did some further editing.

I view the outcome as a work in progress. If anyone points to holes in my reasoning, I will endeavour not to be excessively defensive in my responses.

Summary

I am a Neo-Aristotelian classical liberal.

As will be apparent from what follows, I am strongly of the opinion that it is appropriate to consider what kind of thing an individual human is before engaging in philosophical reasoning related to any aspect of human experience. That is why many of my beliefs are grounded in current scientific knowledge (and speculation) about human evolution, neurology, and psychology.

It seems appropriate to begin with philosophy of mind because awareness of our own awareness is the starting point for all consciousness reasoning. I will then proceed to outline views on epistemology, metaphysics, human nature, ethics, and political philosophy.

Philosophy of Mind:

We cannot doubt that we think. When we are thinking, we may be aware of the flow of inner thoughts and feelings and of our experience of the world in which live. Our observations of other animals suggest that they share with us some awareness of their surroundings. That awareness is a product of evolution – it serves a purpose in helping animals to survive and reproduce. Similarly, our awareness of our own awareness is just another step in the evolutionary process – the purpose it serves is to help individual humans to flourish within the cultures in which they live.  (Main influence: Richard Campbell).

Epistemology:

Humans are born with a potential to acquire knowledge that is particularly relevant to human flourishing. However, knowledge acquisition is primarily experiential. Experiences during early childhood have a major impact on brain development. As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified, but brains retain some plasticity throughout life. Brains learn by evaluating feedback from actions taken – they adjust internal models when predictions are incorrect.

Conscious reasoning plays a crucial role in determining what knowledge adult humans acquire. It makes sense to use probabilistic reasoning when considering alternative explanations for observed phenomena.

Practical wisdom (wise and well-informed self-direction) is integral to individual flourishing. As well as being important in its own right, it helps individuals to maintain good physical and psychological health, good relations with other people, and to live in harmony with nature. (Influences: Aristotle, David Eagleman, Michael Huemer).

Metaphysics:

Metaphysical realism: We exist as part of a real world. Beings exist independently of our cognition of them. (Influences: Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Human Nature:

Humans have inherent potentialities that are good. (Main influence: Abraham Maslow).

Ethics:

Our awareness that we need to make something of our lives emerges before we can make conscious choices relating to our individual flourishing. Ethical intuitions relating to traditional virtues – practical wisdom, integrity, courage, temperance, justice – are a product of social evolution and family upbringing.

Ethical intuitions provide only a foundation for ethical reasoning. Although everyone has a natural inclination to engage in activities that contribute to their own flourishing, actualization of their individual potential requires some understanding of that potential, and the application of practical wisdom that is linked to that person’s dispositions and circumstances. Each individual is responsible for developing his or her own character, and adopting the good habits required to flourish more fully. (Influences: Robert Nozick, Aristotle, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen).

Political Philosophy:

Individuals should be free to pursue their own ends provided they do not encroach upon the rights of others. Recognition of individual rights enables individuals to flourish in different ways without interfering unduly with the flourishing of others.

The role of government is protection of individual rights. Performance other roles should be contingent upon consent of the governed. (Influences: Friedrich Hayek, James M Buchanan, Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl).

Notes

The summary presented above focuses on some broad categories of philosophical beliefs. I have left out some categories of beliefs (philosophy of science and methodology of economics) because they are too specific to be covered in this overview. One of the most popular posts on this blog is about aesthetics, but I have not read widely on that topic. Some other important categories (e.g. religion) have been left out because I prefer not to display my ignorance.

Anyone interested in further explanation of my beliefs is welcome to ask me. Many of the relevant topics are covered in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. There are also relevant articles on this blog that have been written since that book was published e.g. a discussion of Richard Campbell’s views on the emergence of consciousness (here), and David Eagleman’s views on neural mapping and plasticity (here).

References

Philosophy of Mind

Campbell, Richard, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Epistemology

Aristotle, The Complete Works (Kindle Edition), ATN Classics, 2023.

Eagleman, David, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, Canongate Paperback, 2021.

Huemer, Michael, Understanding Knowledge, 2022.

Metaphysics

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Human Nature

Maslow, Abraham, Toward a Psychology of Being (Chapter 14), D Van Nostrand, 1962

Ethics

 Nozick, Robert. Invariances, The Structure of the Objective World, Harvard University Press, 2001.

Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics (Translator: F.H. Peters) Online Library of Liberty, 1893

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Political Philosophy

Hayek, Friedrich. The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.


Monday, December 18, 2023

Why am I thinking about selfishness during the season of goodwill?

 


The reason I am thinking about selfishness has to do with Ayn Rand. It has little to do with her attitude toward Christmas, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the sentiment expressed in the quote above (written by Ayn Rand in the December 1976 entry in The Objectivist Calendar). I had previously wondered whether Rand might have been one of those people who say “Bah Humbug!” at this time of the year.

I have been prompted to think about Rand’s view of selfishness by a discussion that has been taking place on The Savvy Street. Ed Younkins wrote an essay, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison, which has induced Roger Bissell to write a two-part response. Bissell’s responses have been published under the title: Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics. (Part 2 is here.)

Before I discuss those contributions, it is relevant to mention my previous attempts to understand Ayn Rand’s view of selfishness. Before you finish reading the essay you will understand why that is relevant. 

My previous musings

I was brought up to believe that selfishness is a sin. In Australia, it is common for parents tell children not to be selfish, for example, if they attempt to take more than a fair share of a delicacy at mealtimes. What the parents mean is that such opportunistic behavior shows no regard for others. People of goodwill would not do such things.

Perhaps that understanding of the meaning of selfishness was reinforced by Australia’s “fair go” culture. Dictionary definitions of selfishness suggest, however, that it is also common for selfishness to be viewed similarly in Britain and the United States.

I can’t remember when I first became aware that Ayn Rand viewed selfishness as a virtue, and had written a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. During the 1990s, I was certainly aware that most the small number of Australians who were knew of Rand’s existence were of the opinion that she and her followers were ethically challenged and encouraged narcissism. That view was later expounded in a book by Anne Manne, which I commented upon here.

In a post on this blog in 2009 I asked myself: Did Ayn Rand regard selfishness as a virtue? I knew she did, but I pondered the question because the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seem to me to be selfish. I noted that Rand’s view that selfishness is a virtue followed from a narrow definition of selfishness as “concern with one’s own interests”, and speculated that Rand had used that definition to draw attention to her opposition to the view that self-sacrifice is a virtue.

A few months later, I wrote on the topic, How far can Ayn Rand’s ethical egoism be defended? That post was an attempt to summarize some of the views of participants in a Cato symposium on ‘What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought’. One of the aspects I focused on was the question of whether Rand, like Aristotle, viewed virtue – including regard for others - as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest, or as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest. Although the participants in the discussion were all scholars familiar with Rand’s writings, they were unable to agree on that point.

The other aspect I focused on was the question of whether it was defensible for Rand to argue that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Most, but not all, of the participants viewed that argument as indefensible.

Younkins’s contribution

In his essay, Ed Younkins seeks to compare the ideas of Ayn Rand with those of Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs). Younkins’s purpose is mainly descriptive and explanatory, but Roger Bissell has seen his contribution to be critical of Rand.

The summary table published at the end of Younkins’s essay is reproduced below.

Younkins's Summary Table



My focus here is entries relating Normative Morality, the Virtues, and Conflicts of Interest. The discussion in the preceding post on this blog is relevant to “the Good and Value”.

Younkin’s summary table doesn’t mention Rand’s view of selfishness explicitly, but it is lurking in the background in his discussion of morality, the virtues and conflicts of interest.

Bissell’s response

Roger Bissell doesn’t accept that Rand’s primary concern in respect of normative morality was that the agent should always be the beneficiary of his actions. He notes that in the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand states that ego vs altruism is not the fundamental issue in ethics. He claims that “under all the ‘selfishness’ window dressing”, Rand is “actually just another individualistic perfectionist”. Perhaps Bissell is correct, but if so I am left wondering again, as in 2009, what purpose Rand saw in the selfishness window dressing.

With regard to the virtues, Bissell objects to the implication that Rand did not regard them as constitutive of a person’s flourishing. That difference of opinion takes me back to the Cato symposium referred to earlier, where several scholars were unable to agree on that point. My conclusion is that Rand’s views on that matter cannot have been stated clearly and consistently.

Roger Bissell’s support of Rand’s view on conflicts on interest also brings to mind the views expressed in the Cato symposium. I find it difficult to understand why anyone who recognises the importance of property rights would seek to defend the proposition that there can be no conflicts of interest among rational and objective individuals. Nevertheless, Bissell makes a heroic effort:

“To put it yet another way: whatever conflict two rational people might have on the level of individual values is subordinate to and outweighed by the common value they both have in everyone’s doing their own personal best and letting specific outcomes be determined within the framework of voluntary choice and peaceful interaction. They want their specific individual values to be achieved, but not at any cost—while they want their common higher rational values to be upheld, whatever the cost.”   

Perhaps we could imagine two rational and objective individuals with conflicting interests – for example, a farmer and a cowman living on the American prairie in the 19th century – agreeing on rules about property rights at an authentic constitutional convention, of the kind suggested by James Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch. However, it should be noted that the possibility of agreement has less to do with the personal qualities of the participants than with the imagined institutional context in which participants are uncertain about the impact that rules under consideration might have on their interests, and those of their descendants.

The ability of rational and objective individuals to avoid conflict are greatly enhanced by social, political, and legal orders that enable individuals to pursue their own ends without interfering with each other. Friedrich Hayek made the point clearly:

“The understanding that ‘good fences make good neighbors’, that is, that men can use their knowledge in the pursuit of their own ends without colliding with each other only if clear boundaries can be drawn between their respective domains of free action, is the basis on which all known civilization has grown.” (LLL, Vol1, 107)

The metanormative ethics expounded by the Dougs seems to me to be consistent with that view. Recognition of individual rights provides a context in which individuals can flourish in different ways without interfering with the flourishing of others.

Concluding comments

Ed Younkins concluded his essay by noting that although Ayn Rand differs from Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl “on how a number of issues are expressed, they agree on the desirability of a free society and are among the best-known proponents of capitalism from a neo-Aristotelian perspective”.

Roger Bissell concludes his response by suggesting that Younkins’s “descriptions of Rand’s ideas are too often inaccurate and his explanations too often flow from misunderstanding of those ideas”. I don’t know enough about Rand’s philosophy to make an independent judgement of the veracity of Bissell’s claims, but it is clear from contributions to the Cato symposium that I have mentioned several times that Younkins’s views are shared by other scholars who are familiar with Rand’s philosophical efforts.

It seems to me that this difference of opinion over the description of Rand’s ideas should be viewed in the context of ongoing discussions between those who see Objectivism as a closed system and those who see it as an open system. Those who see objectivism as a closed system accept that people should not label themselves as Objectivists unless they agree with all of Rand’s philosophy. Those who view objectivism as open system believe that it can be enhanced by incorporating new ideas that are broadly compatible with Rand’s ideas. (Younkins discusses the different views here).

I have the impression that those who see objectivism as an open system have an interest in minimizing the difference between Individualistic Perfectionism and Rand’s philosophy. As I see it, the Individualistic Perfectionism developed by Rasmussen and Den Uyl has been influenced by Rand, but deserves to be viewed as a coherent body of ideas that differs somewhat from Objectivism.


Addendum

Ed Younkins has provided the following comment.

"It seems to me that the Dougs (Rasmussen and Den Uyl) want to create some distance between Individual Perfectionism (IP) and Objectivism (O). Roger Bissell, on the other hand, appears to be be acting as if IP does not exist as separate from O. He may be viewing the Dougs as open Objectivists (like he appears to be), but who are mistaken in their interpretation of some of what Rand is saying. Younkins, like Winton Bates, is not wedded to either O or IP. Both Younkins and Bates  may be Rand influenced (as are the Dougs), but each of them develops his own unique and particular philosophical worldview or paradigm of freedom and flourishing (as do the Dougs). Of course, each of the 5 individuals mentioned (who are all friends) is promoting his own vision and version of a philosophy of human flourishing in a free society. This is how it should be."





Saturday, December 9, 2023

Did Ayn Rand recognize the capacity to exercise practical wisdom as a basic good?




 This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

My view of basic goods

The chapter identified the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.

The chapter also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is to reason well (and beautifully).

I argued that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.

Rand’s view

Until recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:

“Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”

However, later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in themselves:

“The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value.”

It seems to me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.

Grades of actuality

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)

The Dougs acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of discovering human good.

However, the Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of in terms of grades of actuality:

“IP holds with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained. For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”

One’s inner nature

In 2008 I wrote a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good potentiality is appealing.

Conclusions

In my view it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.

I am unsure whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of values.

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.

I like the idea that all humans have good potentiality.

Postscript

My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:

Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality.  Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities.  The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.

Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur.  Consider this analogy:  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good.  But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis.  Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.

Further Reading

I was prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:

Ed Younkins, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison; and

Roger Bissell, Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics.

Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.

I encourage anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.


Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Where have the supporters of capitalism gone?

 

Cartoon by Peter Nicholson from “The Australian” newspaper: www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au

Some erstwhile supporters of capitalism probably don’t realize that they have gone missing. They still support private ownership of property and businesses, and may claim to see merit in the profit motive. However, they overlook that capitalism also involves “prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.

The quoted words are from the Merriam-Webster definition of capitalism. Use of a definition from an American dictionary seems appropriate because the supporters of capitalism who have gone missing seem to me to be mainly Americans. That is unfortunate because Americans were once the world’s strongest supporters of capitalism.

In Australia, most of the people I hear talking about capitalism seem to use it as a term of disparagement. The people who support capitalism talk about free enterprise and economic freedom.

I have the impression that it is fairly common outside of America for supporters of capitalism to avoid using the word because it is commonly viewed as a term of disparagement. That may stem from the word’s origins. When I was growing up, someone told me that Karl Marx had invented the word. That is not correct. Marx rarely used the word. He preferred to describe capitalism as “the capitalist mode of production”. Nevertheless, even in America the term was apparently considered to be a socialist expression until well into the 20th century.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the strongest supporters of capitalism had no qualms about using the word. Milton Friedman used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism and Freedom. Friedman made it clear that he was writing about “competitive capitalism – the organisation of the bulk of economic activity through private enterprise operating in a free market”. Ayn Rand used the word in the title of a book, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She defined capitalism as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned”.


Where have America’s supporters of capitalism gone? Johan Norberg prompted me to think about that question as I was reading his latest book,
The Capitalist Manifesto: Why the Global Free Market Will Save the World. This book is a follow-up to In Defence of Global Capitalism, which Norberg wrote about 20 years ago. Globalization has now become a dirty word to many erstwhile supporters of capitalism, but Norberg remains a strong defender of global capitalism.


Who opposes the free market?

One of the most interesting contributions of Norberg’s new book is his account of the changing opposition to the ideal of a global free market. Norberg wrote In Defence of Global Capitalism to counter the arguments of left-wing activists who mistakenly believed that free trade, foreign investment, and multinational corporations were making the world’s poor even poorer. George Monbiot, Oxfam, Bono etc. eventually began to see some merit in free trade, but opposition then migrated to economic nationalists on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Norberg suggests that the opponents of globalization share an underlying misconception that it is a zero-sum game – someone’s gain is another one’s loss:

“The worldview is the same, the roles are just reversed – twenty years ago free trade was considered bad because we exploited them, now it is considered bad because they exploit us.”

Norberg seems to assume that most readers will already understand why free trade is a positive-sum game – beneficial to both importers and exporters. He uses colourful illustrations to reinforce the point:

“Free trade allows the farmer to grow a new mobile phone in his wheat field, the textile worker can sew a new motorbike and the author can (if lucky) write a holiday trip to Tuscany.”

The author argues that free enterprise is primarily about “opening the dams of human creativity – to let everyone participate and test their ideas and see if they work”.

The opposition of economic nationalists to free trade is associated with the narrative that during the early years of the 21st century, cheap imports from China caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.  Norberg’s most important contribution seems to me to be in challenging that narrative. He makes the point that the loss of jobs in manufacturing is attributable largely to automation rather than import competition. He suggests that the slow-down in wages growth in the US dates from the mid-1970s, reflecting a necessary correction of cost levels because wages had previous been growing faster than productivity. The Rust Belt apparently lost more jobs in the decades before globalization reached the US, than it has in recent decades. The share of manufacturing jobs in the US declined more rapidly prior to 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), than it has in the decades since then.

 Fear of China

Economic nationalists suggest that the involvement of China in international supply chains has been particularly problematic because of the theft of technology. Norberg points out that China has been by no means unique in that respect. The US itself apparently once had a policy of smuggling inventions and bribing European artisans to reveal their secrets. There is evidence that the Chinese government has a relatively good track record in following WTO rulings relating to disputes about intellectual property and government subsidies.

Norberg acknowledges the potential for Chinese investment in digital and physical infrastructure to pose a security threat because the Chinese government views Chinese companies as its agents. He points out that this does not mean that the US and its allies were wrong to encourage China to open up to the outside world. He suggests that if China had not opened up, it is much more likely that the Chinese people would have generally perceived Westerners as irreconcilable opponents. He fears that use of trade barriers to isolate China could strengthen the most reactionary and nationalist forces in China.    

Leviathan’s helpers

Where have the capitalists gone? Many business owners and executives now seem to spend less time on conventional entrepreneurial activities than on seeking to ingratiate themselves with politicians and bureaucrats who are engaged in active industrial policy.  

The chapter in The Capitalist Manifesto entitled “Picking Losers” should be of particular interest to Jim Chalmers, Australia’s Treasurer. In his article in The Monthly (Feb 2023) Chalmers wrote:

“As the influential economist Mariana Mazzucato has explored in her work, markets built in partnership through the efforts of business, labour and government are still the best mechanism we have to efficiently and effectively direct resources.”  

Johan Norberg has quite a lot to say about Mariana Mazzucato’s na├»ve views. I will not attempt to provide a summary here because it might spoil the fun for readers. However, I particularly liked this sentence:

 “Governments are bad at picking winners, but losers are good at picking governments.”

That observation seems particularly relevant to Australia at present.

Concluding remarks

In focusing on reasons why support for capitalism has declined, I have failed to mention many of the virtues of capitalism discussed in The Capitalist Manifesto. For example, I was particularly interested in what Johan Norberg had to say about the relationship between capitalism and various aspects of happiness, in his chapter on “the meaning of life”.

I began by noting that many supporters of capitalism are reluctant to use the word because socialists have historically used it as a term of disparagement. I commend Johan Norberg for writing a capitalist manifesto. In doing that he is following in the footsteps of great advocates of economic freedom who had no qualms in talking about the virtues of capitalism.

In this book, Norberg has provided an interesting account of how many erstwhile supporters of capitalism have come to oppose global free markets. The most important contribution of the book, in my view, is the challenge it offers to the narrative that cheap imports from China have caused deindustrialization and wage stagnation in the United States.


Monday, July 24, 2023

Where is the soul of libertarianism?

 


Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have contributed an excellent history of libertarian ideas in their recently published book, The Individualists. The question I pose for myself is related to the subtitle of the book: “Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism”.

The reason Zwolinski and Tomasi refer to individualists rather than to libertarians in the main title is presumably because they believe that a commitment to “individualism is at the core of libertarianism”. They also note that many of the most intellectually active friends of liberty in Britain were known as individualists before the term libertarian caught on.

Synopsis

The authors spend some time discussing who is, or isn’t, a libertarian. They note that “libertarian” has been used in both a strict sense, to refer specifically to those who see liberty as a moral absolute, and in a broad sense, to include classical liberals who view liberty as a strong presumption. The book discusses the views of contemporary classical liberals, such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, as well as those of “strict libertarians”, but doesn’t devote much attention to historical classical liberalism.

Zwolinski and Tomasi identify six markers which form the core of a libertarian world view: private property, skepticism of authority, free markets, spontaneous order, individualism, and negative liberty. They observe that while libertarians don’t necessarily view those principles as absolutes, they typically see them “as a tightly integrated system of thought, with each commitment being supported by, and lending support to, the others”.

After providing a historical overview, the book discusses the history of radical and reactionary libertarian ideas relating to private property, libertarian anarchism, big business and free markets, poverty and spontaneous order, racial justice and individualism, and global justice and noninterventionism. Much of this information was familiar but I was surprised about how much was new to me.

Zwolinski and Tomasi’s final chapter focuses largely on the battle between bleeding heart libertarians, left libertarians and paleolibertarians for control of the libertarian party in the United States. The authors conclude that libertarianism is “intrinsically a diverse ideology”, and that “the struggle between libertarianism’s progressive and conservative tendencies, a struggle for the soul of libertarianism, is likely to go on”.

That may be an appropriate way to end a history of ideas directed to an audience composed largely of people who live in the USA. As a person who doesn’t fit into that category, however, I am concerned that describing differences of opinion as “a struggle for the soul of libertarianism” may generate more heat than light. As I see it, libertarians should be encouraged to acknowledge good ideas whether they are espoused by conservative or progressive libertarians. I would have preferred to see the book end by acknowledging that libertarians are engaged in an ongoing struggle against authoritarianism as people on opposing sides of the culture wars seek to enlist the coercive powers of the state to pursue their interests.

More fundamentally, the struggle the authors describe - about which set of political prescriptions will come to be most closely identified with the ideology – seems to me to be conducted without much reference to the soul, or essence, of libertarianism. The book left me wanting to promote the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi may have good reasons for not exploring that idea more fully in their book, but it seems to me to be an idea that deserves to be given more attention.

The soul of libertarianism

In my view, the passage from Wilhelm von Humboldt quoted at the beginning of this review comes close to capturing the soul of libertarianism. Liberty is the best principle for the coexistence of humans because it offers conditions most favourable to self-directed individual flourishing.

Humboldt’s contributions influenced John Stuart Mill in writing On Liberty. They were also acknowledged by Friedrich Hayek in the conclusion of the chapter of The Constitution of Liberty discussing education and research:

“And we cannot think of better words to conclude than those of Wilhelm von Humboldt which a hundred years ago John Stuart Mill put in front of his essay On Liberty: ‘The grand, the leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity’.”

Readers who are eager to know more about Humboldt will find an online article by George H Smith published on libertarianism.org to be of interest.

The discussion of egoism in The Individualists is relevant to considering the link between liberty and individual flourishing. Zwolinski and Tomasi note that in the 19th century American libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker, were influenced by Max Stirner, a German theorist, who held that the only standard or right was the ability to transform one’s will into action. That view is in stark contrast to the ethical egoism advocated by Ayn Rand and her followers during the 20th century. Rand denied that might makes right and argued that egoism is compatible with recognition of universal natural rights.

The link between liberty and individual flourishing is recognized today in the writings of some classical liberal and libertarian authors. Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl deserve special mention because they have developed related ideas rigorously in their trilogy of books: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn.

Readers looking for a non-technical introduction to these ideas may find relevant discussion in various places including an article by Ed Younkins on The Savvy Street, and in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  Rasmussen and Den Uyl have provided a summary of their views in Chapter 2 of The Realist Turn. A quote from the conclusion of that chapter will convey the essence of their understanding of the role of liberty in the context of human flourishing.

“In essence, natural rights represent a realization of certain normative requirements that are inherent in the individualized nature of human flourishing within a social context. In particular, when thinking about rights, we are concerned with the conditions that must be secured for the individualized nature of flourishing to function. Although liberty is the key term in this context, we regard it not as the central concept for flourishing generally, but only with regard to setting the social context for flourishing. And although we reject constructivism as a foundational principle, we recognize the role of social constructs within the constraints provided by a framework of natural rights. As such, our theory is not about the whole of political and social life, but about the political/legal structure within which such life should and must be allowed to function if flourishing is our standard.”

Conclusions

My reading of The Individualists by Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi has prompted me to present a view about the soul of libertarianism. Zwolinski and Tomasi end their excellent history of libertarian ideas by suggesting that progressive and conservative factions within libertarianism will continue to struggle over the soul of libertarianism. I put the view that the soul, or essence, of libertarianism stems from the nature of human flourishing. Wilhelm von Humboldt came close to capturing the soul of libertarianism 230 years ago when he suggested: “The highest ideal … of the co-​existence of human beings seems to me to consist in a union in which each strives to develop himself from his own innermost nature, and for his own sake”. The link between liberty and individual flourishing has been recognized by many libertarians and classical liberals, and is rigorously explained in the writings of Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl.

References

Bates, Winton, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, Hamilton Books, 2021.

Den Uyl, Douglas J., and Douglas B Rasmussen, The Perfectionist Turn: From metanorms to metaethics, Edinburgh University Press, 2016.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, Norms of Liberty, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Rasmussen, Douglas B., and Den Uyl, Douglas J, The Realist Turn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Smith, George H., ‘The Culture of Liberty: Wilhelm von Humboldt’, libertarianism.org, 2013.

Younkins, Edward W., ‘Rasmussen and Den Uyl’s Trilogy of Freedom and Flourishing’, The Savvy Street, 2021.




Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Is Vipassana meditation consistent with self-acceptance?



Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation based on practice of equanimity in observation of physical sensations and thoughts. As people who practice Vipassana observe sensations arise and pass away, they experience a lessening of both aversion of unpleasant sensations, and of craving for pleasant sensations.  The Vipassana tradition has been kept alive since the time of the Buddha, and popularized over the last 50 years by S. N. Goenka, who died in 2013. The practice is taught in 10 day residential courses.

People who hold views that are incompatible with the Buddhist principle of anatta, or no self, are not excluded from attending Vipassana courses. I have practiced Vipassana meditation, with varying consistency, for about 25 years, and associate the practice with self-acceptance rather than loss of a sense of self. Moments of self-forgetfulness, accompanying feelings of goodwill towards other beings, could be described as quieting the ego rather than abandoning it. It seems to me that Scott Barry Kaufman may be on the right track in his suggestion that “those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self”. (See Transcend, p 204-5).

However, when Goenkaji was asked why he only spoke of the ego in negative terms, he replied:

“Now it seems to you that there must be an 'I' who feels, but after beginning to practice Vipassana, you will reach the stage where the ego dissolves. Then your question will disappear! For conventional purposes, yes, we cannot run away from using words like 'I' or 'mine' etc. But clinging to them, taking them as real in an ultimate sense will only bring suffering.”  

That raises interesting issues. In this article I will briefly discuss the concept of no-self, illustrate similarity between the practice of Vipassana and a psychologist’s approach to self-acceptance, consider how Vipassana meditation might be viewed from an Aristotelian perspective, and end with some observations about the nature of the inner game involved in acquiring equanimity and practical wisdom.

The No-self idea

In their book, Classical Indian Philosophy, Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri note that the Buddha sought to differentiate his view from those who say that we are identical to our bodies and from those who say we have souls that lack connection to anything else. They write:

“To express his own view, the Buddha offered similes: a person is not like the thread running through a necklace of pearls, but like the flowing of a river or the flickering of a candle flame.”

The river metaphor captures the idea that to grasp on to feelings, perceptions, or mental fabrications of the self is as futile as it would be for a person to try to avoid being swept down a swiftly flowing river by grasping on to grasses etc. growing on the banks.

I am attracted to a different river metaphor which reconciles my observation that impermanence is pervasive with my inability to doubt my own existence, and perception of my “self” as having continuity (at least while I remain alive). I have written previously about Richard Campbell’s suggestion, in his book The Metaphysics of Emergence, that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”. It makes sense to understand consciousness as a flow, and to perceive ourselves as complex processing systems.

Self-acceptance

In explaining Vipassana meditation, Goenkaji emphasized that attempts to escape from misery by diverting the mind to another object did not provide lasting benefits. He explained:

“The object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own body.”

It seems to me that the Vipassana approach of observing thoughts and sensations with equanimity has much in common with the approach to self-acceptance recommended by the psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

“At the most fundamental level, I accept myself. I accept the reality of my thoughts, even when I cannot endorse them and would not choose to act on them; I do not deny or disown them. I can accept my feelings and emotions without necessarily liking, approving of, or being controlled by them; I do not deny or disown them.” (p 163)

An Aristotelian perspective

It is clear from the passage quoted at the beginning of this article that Aristotle thought it inconceivable that a person could doubt his or her own existence.

However, Vipassana’s emphasis on equanimity as a desirable frame of mind has much in common with Aristotle’s view of temperance as a virtue. An equanimous person could be expected to be temperate in emotional expression – to be able to avoid excessive anger, fear etc. The techniques involved are also similar in respect of the emphasis placed on practice of the relevant frame of mind and associated behaviors.

As I see it, one possible difference between an equanimous person and a temperate person is that the latter would be less inclined to accept that there should be no craving. In accordance with Aristotle’s teaching, a temperate person could exercise his practical wisdom to crave the things he ought, to the extent he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.

Nevertheless, I have not found the practice of Vipassana meditation to be an obstacle to exercising practical wisdom to pursue personal goals enthusiastically. When I meditate conscientiously early in the morning that tends to promote clarity of thinking which serves me well later in the day.

The inner game

How is it that a person who lacks peace of mind (equanimity) can learn to observe troubling sensations and thoughts with equanimity? How can it be possible to adopt a frame of mind which requires the exercise of a quality that you perceive yourself to lack? It seems to me that the people who do such things must be drawing on inner resources that they didn’t fully realize that they had.

Tim Gallwey, the inner game guru, has helped many people to draw upon resources that they didn’t realize they had. Gallwey is recognized as a pioneer of sports psychology, and is the author of books applying inner game concepts to a range of activities including tennis, golf, work, and stress management. The aim of the inner game is to improve the internal dialogue that people carry around with them. For example, if an individual’s internal dialogue is infected by self-doubt, they can improve their performance in sport by observing what happens when they trust their unconscious minds to coordinate their muscles.

The general pattern of the inner game is to recognize that performance is being adversely affected by mental interference associated with false beliefs about one’s self – the lack of a desired quality – and then to observe what happens when that quality is expressed. People improve their performance as they discover qualities, or inner resources, that they didn’t know they had.  (Readers who want to know more about Tim Gallwey’s inner game approach may be interested to listen to a podcast I have prepared.)

The point that needs to be emphasized is that if we assert that we are inherently lacking in desired qualities (wisdom, temperance, integrity, courage, self-trust etc.) we are fooling ourselves. We all have potential to demonstrate qualities that we perceive to be lacking by asking ourselves what we would be thinking or doing if we believed that we possessed those qualities to a greater extent than at present.

So, I ask myself: If I was a wiser person, what would I be thinking right now? I am thinking that it would be wise to end this now and leave readers to contemplate their answers to that question. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Should we expect our heroes to be perfect?

 


When I am asked who my heroes are, I have often said that I don’t have any these days. If asked why, my response has been that my heroes all turned out to have feet of clay.


I began to reconsider that view while reading Kay Nolte Smith’s novel, Elegy for a Soprano. The main character in the book, Dinah Mitchell, finds out that she was an adopted child and learns that her natural mother is her idol, Vardis Wolf, a famous opera star. Vardis’ magnificently successful career is attributable to her natural talent, support of her friends and admirers, and her own dedication to developing her skills. She views her singing career as having the utmost importance. However, Dinah eventually learns that Vardis has a dark secret. When her singing career was just beginning, Vardis did something which showed complete disregard for the value of the life of another human.

After that brief sketch, readers might wonder why the novel induced me to reconsider my original view about heroes. You might expect me to say that no-one should be surprised if their idols turn out to have dark secrets. Heroes inevitably disappoint us!

So, what was it about the novel that has induced me to reconsider my view? Kay Nolte Smith managed to convey the complexity of Vardis’ character well enough for me to still admire her achievements, while feeling horrified by some aspects of her behavior. The author showed great skill in providing plausible explanations of the attitudes and behaviors of each of all the main characters in the novel.

The novel contains some discussion of whether people have a basic need to have heroes. It points to a difference between hero worship – viewing the hero as a sacred idol – and viewing a hero as a role model in respect of some aspect of your life. At that point the author quotes the passage from Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life which is reproduced at the top of this article.

It makes sense to me to look for opportunities to learn how others manage to achieve superior performance in various fields, and to recognize outstanding accomplishments. That has been my view for as long as I remember.

So, where do I end up? I now see no problem is referring to people who have superior performance or outstanding accomplishment as my heroes, provided I attach an appropriate qualification. They are entrepreneurial heroes, academic heroes, sporting heroes, artistic heroes, and so forth. I will not be surprised if I learn that most of my heroes are far from perfect in many aspects of their lives, and that some may even have dark secrets.

It is possible to recognize heroic achievements without engaging in idolatry.

Addendum

Some readers may be interested in how I came to read Elegy for a Soprano. A few months ago I stumbled across an article by Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan, an American Economist, entitled ‘Ayn Rand and Me’ on his blog An Oeconomist. The article is critical of Ayn Rand but, unlike most Rand critics, the author seems to me to be seeking to offer a balanced appraisal. The article ends thus:

“By the way, I want to mention a book by another author, The Watcher (1981) by Kay Nolte Smith. Smith was at one time amongst those personally associated with Rand, but (like many) eventually left. The Watcher is a novel that successfully fused much of what virtue is to be found in Randian fiction with a deep sense of empathy. And its heroes don't simply march relentlessly towards triumph, but reach back to save people who ought not to be lost.”

That led me to read The Watcher. I was impressed, and decided to find out more about Kay Nolte Smith. A reviewer of her works suggested that Elegy for a Soprano was a better novel than The Watcher, and I am inclined to agree.

One reviewer has suggested that Elegy for a Soprano is inhabited by the ghost of Ayn Rand, as well as that of Maria Callas. With regard to Rand, I think it is worth noting that while Vardis Wolf could be described as a Nietzschean egoist, Ayn Rand sought to distance her views from those of Nietzsche in her later writings. For example, she wrote:

“Nietzschean egoists … are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit.”  


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is there virtue in serving a purpose we do not know for reasons we do not question?

When I recently re-read John Galt’s speech (in “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand) I was reminded of Rand’s view that the mystics of spirit, who believe that the good is God i.e. beyond man’s power to conceive, and the mystics of muscle, who believe that the good is Society, a super-being embodied in no-one in particular and everyone in general except yourself, have similar moral codes. Galt says: “No matter how loudly they posture in their roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter – the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit –the destruction of his mind”.

In the next paragraph Galt explains: “Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of muscle, is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgement and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know for reasons he is not to question” (p. 1027).

A few pages earlier Galt said: “Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is ... the act of blanking out, the wilful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think ... . It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgement ...” (p 1017).

When I read this stuff 20 years ago it was like being at the sidelines at a football match cheering for my side to win. I thought that people who unquestioningly adhered to customs or the teachings of religious or secular authorities were behaving like zombies. It seemed obvious to me that individuals should be using their minds to decide for themselves how they should live.

So, what has changed? Not much, except that, having read a lot more of the writings of Friedrich Hayek since then, I now also see merit in the view that “submission to rules and conventions we largely do not understand ... is indispensible for the working of a free society”. Hayek argued that in our efforts to improve our institutions “we must take for granted much that we do not understand”: “We must always work inside a framework of both values and institutions which is not of our own making. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

Is it possible to reconcile the view that it is good for people to decide for themselves how they should live their lives with the view that there is merit in observing rules that serve purposes beyond our understanding? I think Hayek was right to emphasise that it is unwise to reject customary rules just because we do not understand their purpose. Many customs deserve respect because they evolved through an evolutionary process in which groups that adhered to superior rules were most successful. Hayek recognized that for this cultural evolution to occur some people had to break with custom in order to introduce new practices advantageous to themselves, which then proved beneficial to the groups in which those practices prevailed. He noted that one of the benefits of freedom was to enable this cultural evolution to occur: “The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the most effective ones” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

However, I think Rand was right to emphasise that the purpose served by rules protecting lives, liberty and property are capable of being understood. As John Galt explains: “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men” ... “I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice” (p 1022).