Saturday, December 6, 2008

10 Favorite Philosophy Books

The Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature blog recently asked readers for their ten most favorite philosophy books. I posted the list below.

1. Moral Tradition and Individuality, John Kekes

2. Moral Wisdom and Good Lives, Kekes

3. The Morality of Pluralism, Kekes

4. The Art of Politics, Kekes

5. The Art of Life, Kekes

6. Enjoyment: The Moral Significance of Styles of Life, Kekes (See a pattern?)

7. The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt

8. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, Ken Wilber

9. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion, Wilber

10. Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism, David Norton

A couple of points. First, while I have been influenced by Ayn Rand (and continue to be) I find that her fiction influenced me more than her nonfiction. The one book of hers that I’d add to the above list is her The Virtue of Selfishness (although as I wrote in my paper Is Self-Interest Enough, I question whether her version of self-interest is complete.) Second, I have read essays or excerpts of certain classics in philosophy but my main interest has been in contemporary writers, particularly in the neo-Aristotelians. This is purely a personal preference; I would certainly not discourage anyone from reading the classics in philosophy.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men: Postmodern villains vs. modern heroes

Two of my favorite movies over the last year are The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men. On the surface these movies are very different. The Dark Knight is set in a fictitious city, Gotham, with a cartoon-based hero. Meanwhile, No Country is set in West Texas in 1980. Dark Knight showcases spectacular special effects and stunts with an implausible plot while No County the feel of an Alfred Hitchcock movie with a deliberate pace and realistic action.

While all of this is true I also believe these two films share two things in common: a postmodern villain and a hero who represents a perplexed moral center. I plan to post more on postmodern relativism but in essence it is the belief that there is no objective truth because our inherent prejudices and conceptual shortcomings prevent us from establishing hard and fast principles. Someone who buys consistently buys into postmodern relativism believes they can do anything they want regardless of consequences. A person who believes this will act as if he is an end in themselves while treating others as means to their ends.

Hence you have someone like the Joker in the Dark Knight who sets up situations in which his victims are mere toys for his entertainment. The Joker wants to show that under the right conditions everyone will devolve to his level and kill each other without second thought. Similarly, Anton Chigurh routinely dispatches anyone who gets in his way and at times uses a coin flip, the ultimate in random decision making, to decide if someone will live or die. (A coin flip is also used in Dark Knight but by Harvey Dent, the hero who does succumb to the Joker’s arguments.)

To be fair, there does appear to be one key difference between the Joker and Chigurh: the Joker doesn’t show much interest in committing crimes in order to obtain money while Chigurh does pursue the $2,000,000 of drug money. If anything, the Joker represents a more “advanced” stage of devolution than Chigurh who still has the ultimate goal of getting the drug money.

Both movies also feature a hero who fights the evil of the villain without fully gasping why his nemesis acts the way he does. They represent the “modern” worldview (i.e., reflecting the Enlightenment) which holds there is objective truth and sound principles including respect for others. As a result they cannot truly grasp what motivates the Joker or Chigurh. Their confusion and dismay is more clearly expressed by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in a couple of conversations where he decries the increasing violence and the deteriorating moral condition of the world. Both films share a similar apprehension over the evolution of villains from the petty criminal who steals or robs for personal gain but still plays within some “rules” to the postmodern villain who merely wants to destroy value for amusement or treats humans as mere nuisances in the way of their goals.

So why do I enjoy these movies given their dark center? Because I think they capture (even if inadvertently) the sign of the times without giving up hope that truth and justice are worth upholding.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Conscious Capitalism

I recommend an interesting site named Flow Idealism for ideas on how businesses can evolve beyond the current model. (More on this below.) This web site was co-founded by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. The title FLOW is described in their About Us section.

The FLOW Vision is based on the principles of economic freedom, voluntary exchange, and individual initiative, combined with social and environmental consciousness, and embodies FLOW Principles, which include commitments to human flourishing, non-violence, and radical tolerance.

The name “FLOW” has two primary roots:

1. An optimal state of human experience in which individuals are fully engaged in creative endeavors, experiencing fulfillment, happiness, and well-being. This state is articulated by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

2. The means by which increases in the free global flow of goods, services, capital, people, and information will accelerate human progress and well-being.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book continues to be one of my favorites. His research found that we achieve a “flow” state when we take on a task that is challenging but not too challenging. It needs to test our talents enough to prevent boredom but not so much that we feel overwhelmed and therefore become anxious.

The Flow Idealism web site also provides a copy of Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, a 16 page free download that explains Mackey’s ideas on how the current business model needs to be updated to reflect the evolution that has occurred in our cultural in the last 200 hundred years.

Although economic theory has evolved since Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, many economists continue using industrial and machine metaphors to explain how the economy works. Now that we are well into the post-industrial Information Age, these metaphors have become outdated and mislead our thinking about business.

The world has become much more complex since those simple machine metaphors were first developed. Unfortunately, current business thinking does not easily grasp systems interdependencies.

[H]appiness is a by-product of pursuing those other goals and I think that analogy applies to business as well. In my business experience, profits are best achieved by not making them the primary goal of the business. Rather, long-term profits are the result of having a deeper business purpose, great products, customer satisfaction, employee happiness, excellent suppliers, community and environmental responsibility – these are the keys to maximizing long-term profits. The paradox of profits is that, like happiness, they are best achieved by not aiming directly for them.

I encourage you to check out Mackey’s ideas.

On a different but somewhat related subject, I have concluded after having worked within the corporate world for 35 years that the bureaucracy and pecking order we see in the business (and in other hierarchical organizations like government) represent remnants of the feudal era (and probably earlier). Instead of obeying kings and princes we obey managers. Communication typically flows from the top down while the minions dutifully carry out their marching orders. I’m exagerrating a bit to make a point. I think Mackey’s ideas hold a promise for changing this model to something more individual-friendly.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Happiness Trap Review

I first starting reading “self-help” books way back in college when Maxwell Maltz wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. (I also got to meet Maltz and interview him for my college newspaper. During the talk he gave at my school he called me onto the stage to answer some of the questions from the students!) Anyway over the years I’ve read dozens of books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, Tony Robbins, Dwayne Dyer, Stephen Covey and others. Almost all of these books offered some value to varying degrees. Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my all time favorites. Earlier this year I read The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris which joined Covey’s book as one of my favorite self-help books. While the other books I’ve read were good almost all of them offer variations on one of several themes. Think positively. Repeat affirmations to counter negative thoughts. Bolster your self-esteem. All of them, according to Harris, share the same trap. “To find happiness, we try to avoid or get rid of bad feelings, but the harder we try, the more bad feelings we create.” This trap comes from the shared definition of happiness as feeling good. The Happiness Trap adheres to a different definition of happiness: living a rich and meaningful life.

Living such a life doesn’t automatically mean we’re feeling good all the time. We will still have negative feelings and challenges to overcome. The goal of The Happiness Trap then is to give us strategies to deal with negative feelings without denying them. Harris offers six core principles.

1. Defusion. Painful or unpleasant thoughts are defused by various techniques such as labeling them. When one notices such a thought instead of suppressing or denying it we create some distance by saying “I’m having the thought that …” In doing so we put some distance between the thought and us. In other words, we strive for objectivity.

2. Expansion: consists of making room for unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

3. Connection: being fully aware of your here and now.

4. Distinguishing between your thinking self and observing self. The various techniques in The Happiness Trap get us out of our thinking self and into our observing self.

5. Values: what kind of person are you and want to be? What is significant and meaningful to you? What do you stand for?

6. Committed action. All of this business about being objective and mindfulness must be followed by a commitment to action if we truly want to change.

These principles form the core of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Steven Hays. While Hays and others have published a number of books on ACT they were written for therapists applying ACT to different conditions. The Happiness Trap translates ACT’s principles for laymen interested in applying these principles. As Harris points out ACT also stands for something else:
A – Accepting your thoughts and feelings and being present in the moment,
C – Connect with your values, and
T – Take effective action.
The Happiness Trap holds a lot more insights and techniques than I can do justice to here. Overall I like several aspects of The Happiness Trap and ACT.
  1. They don’t try to suppress or ignore emotions. The recommended methods aim at honoring these emotions while trying to get beyond them.
  2. They emphasize mindfulness and objectivity.
  3. The end goal is to get us to act, not just to idly analyze our feelings.
  4. Values play a key role because ultimately this is what motivates us to action: what is important to us.
As I said at the beginning The Happiness Trap has joined the small group of my favorite books. It offers a realistic guide with a number of helpful activates to get us to move beyond self-limiting thoughts and emotions so we can obtain, express and enjoy our values.
Just recently I received the latest newsletter from the author which had an interesting observation.
[I]f we believe that happiness is the same as feeling good, we are constantly going to be struggling. Expecting to feel good all the time is like expecting a crocodile to be your best friend. You’re soon going to be disappointed. In ACT, we generally stay away from using the term “happiness”, as so many people think it means “feeling good”. Instead, we talk about “vitality”: a sense of being fully alive and embracing each moment of life, regardless of how you are feeling in that moment. If we were to define happiness in ACT terms, we would define it as living a rich, full and meaningful life in which you feel the full range of human emotions; or as the sense of vitality and wellbeing that comes from living by your values (something the ancient Greeks called “eudemonia”).
I like this idea of vitality and eudemonia (also referred to as “flourishing”). In fact, in the late 1980’s I wrote a paper titled Is Self-Interest Enough that was sold as an audio tape through Laissez Faire Books (and received a rave review in their catalog). My paper suggested how the Objectivist ethics could benefit from incorporating the Greek concept of eudemonia.
Edith Hamilton best summarized the eudaemonist approach in her The Greek Way as: “The exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Atlas Society loses a key voice

On March 8, 2008 I wrote a post titled “Kudos for the Ayn Rand Institute” on how the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) is doing a better job getting into the public spotlight than The Atlas Society (TAS). While ARI continues to get op eds published on the current financial crisis and other issues (as shown on their web site) it looks like TAS has just taken another step backward. Robert Bidinotto, editor of their The New Individualist, recently announced on his blog that he has left TAS and no longer edits TNI. Robert has done a terrific job in building the magazine in terms of content, number of pages, appealing, professional design and public visibility. As a result TNI even won the Folio award, a national and prestigious prize, for best editing - beating out 3,000 contestants in the process.

In the interests of full disclosure I should report that Robert and I have been good friends since my freshman year in college. At the time Robert was co-publishing a newsletter advocating Objectivism aimed at the students and professors. Being the true professional that he is Robert did not divulge to me what happened between him and TAS. It ultimately doesn’t matter to me why he left. The bottom line: Robert’s departure just further and drastically reduces what impact TAS has in the market of public opinion.

Where has Robert gone? Check out his new web site: www.

Noodle Food has jumped on the vast stylistic differences between David Kelley and Yaron Brook in two video interviews held by the same organization. Noodle Fooders took Kelley’s lackluster and rambling reply to be proof that bad premises (i.e., his stance on Objectivism and toleration and other issues) have rotted his mind. While I agree Brook comes off much better I have as much issue with what he said as they did with Kelley. (My key disagreement with Brook is with his answer when asked to define capitalism. Instead of saying that it is an economic system in which individuals have rights to private property and to free exchange including starting their own businesses, he launches into telling us what capitalism isn’t. I’m drawing from memory so I don’t recall Brook’s reply verbatim. Anyone disagreeing with me show have a bit of tolerance, OK? Oops, I used a bad word!)

As much as I disagree with the wishful psychologizing behind the attack on Kelley (and by association the critics extend their argument to rest of the TAS staff including Robert), there is one inescapable fact: ARI knocks the snot out of TAS in public exposure – with a consistently strong message.

I must add that The Objective Standard also does a particularly good job of presenting Objectivist analyses of issues. Their articles are well researched, thoughtful and polemical without going over the top. I recognize that TOS is not an “official” ARI outlet but the connection between them is strong. Where is the TAS equivalent?

ARI has numerous op eds, frequent press releases, the essay contests, Q&A videos posted on You Tube, and so on. Where are the TAS equivalents?

You could argue that this just further supports the argument that TAS suffers from bad premises. In a way I agree, but not in terms of their understanding of Objectivism. I believe it comes down to a dismal lack of focus and an understanding of marketing principles. I don’t believe all differences in effectiveness come down to whether or not you “truly” understand Objectivism. There are plenty of other ways to go wrong. Allowing Robert Bidinotto’s departure is one of them.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature review: Introduction

Over the years several authors have written book-length critiques of Ayn Rand’s philosophy: With Charity Toward None by William F. O’Neil, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality: A Critique of Ayn Rand's Epistemology by Scott Ryan, Answer to Ayn Rand: a critique of the philosophy of Objectivism by John Robbins and The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker. After reading these books I felt that the authors either misrepresented Rand’s ideas in order to set up easily refuted straw men or they just offered specious counter-arguments. I also felt that all of these books did not start out neutrally with a “let’s see where our analysis takes us” approach but had a case to prove. These books also drip with disdain for Rand.


Greg Nyquist’s Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature (henceforth referred to as ARCHN) also takes Rand to task and at times harshly criticizes her. To be fair Nyquist admits in the preface that “there is quite a bit of truth in Objectivism.” The following sentence best captures Nyquist’s attitude towards Rand: “Despite my low opinion of Rand’s philosophical expertise, I nevertheless regard Rand as an important and perhaps even a great thinker.” Nonetheless, after a constant litany of Rand’s alleged errors by the end of the book I wondered what was left of Objectivism! While I don’t agree with all of Nyquist’s arguments I also believe some of his criticisms merit serious consideration. If Rand’s admirers approach this book with a truly open mind I think they’re likely to learn some important lessons even if they ultimately don’t change any of their beliefs.


A common theme runs through ARCHN: the lack of empirical data to support many of Rand’s claims.


My goal is to cover the main points of each chapter in installments, to lay out Nyquist’s key points and to indicate where I agree or disagree with him. I’ll probably resort to using bulleted lists to capture Nyquist’s key points. It also will take less time for me to write each installment. I ask anyone who visits this blog to be patient. The pressure of work and other commitments affects how often I can write posts. ;-)


The next post will start with ARCHN’s first chapter on Rand’s theory of human nature.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Are McCain and Obama preaching self-sacrifice?

Before I proceed I encourage visitors to check out Robert Bidinotto's posts on Sarah Palin at I posted something there that I'd like to put here as well.

I know we cringe when we hear Republicans like Giuliani and McCain make negative comments about self-interest. But I think we make the mistake of assuming that they have the same concept in mind as we do. We need to ask whether McCain and the others have ever read Rand and, if they have, do they really understand what she is saying? (The same question can be asked about some of her admirers.) I am just starting to read McCain’s Worth Fighting For to get a better feel. In the opening pages he makes a brief reference to individualism versus egotism without explaining the distinction he is making. Furthermore, if McCain and his colleagues were completely dead set again self-interest why do they appeal to ours? By that I mean their proposed programs and policies are aimed at our needs.

We ultimately will have a choice between McCain who believes we should serve our country in order to protect and improve it versus Obama who wants us to sacrifice ourselves to everyone else, both foreign and domestic. On the surface it appears there is no fundamental difference between the two. McCain asks us to serve our country while Obama wants us to serve others in general. I think buried in this is a key distinction. McCain is not denying that we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness. (At least I haven’t found any quotes to that affect.) I think he believes we need to put the interests of the U.S. first because protecting this framework will ensure our freedom and our ability to pursue our values. I’ll admit that maybe this is wishful thinking and might be too generous but I think his voting record supports what I’m saying.

On the other hand I’m confident that deep down Obama does indeed want to change us … into another more consistent welfare-state with a heavily government regulated market that is more in line with the “enlightened” European-model where we can’t drive our SUVs, have to turn down our thermostats and can’t eat as much. (This is paraphrasing a quote from him.) Kind of intrusive, isn’t it? I think he is ultimately uncomfortable with and ashamed of the self-interest that drives us. It doesn’t take much digging to find the collectivist intellectual influences in Obama’s life that would explain his antipathy to self-interest.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

McCain's V.P. Choice

In response to John McCain’s announcement of his choosing Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as his running mate Robert Bidinotto posted his as-usual excellent analysis. My apathy mixed with antipathy for the candidates on both sides prepared me to expect the worst and to be unimpressed with McCain's choice. However I heartily agree with Bidinotto’s assessment of Palin's demeanor and message. I think this is a clever choice on a number of fronts. It does hamper McCain's early criticisms on Obama's lack of experience but I don't think it's a fatal error. As Bidinotto said, Palin has the most experience actually running a government than any of the other candidates.

Below I have provided some snippets from Robert’s excellent analysis. I particularly agree with his comment on Obama as a self-proclaimed agent of “change.” When I read Obama’s Blueprint for Change there is precious little deviation from the traditional liberal mantra that the government is the cure-all for all ills.

Politically, this is a brilliant move. Absolutely brilliant. I say that with the caveat of my abiding philosophical disagreements with both McCain and Palin on certain issues. But the overarching issues of this campaign for me are national security and energy policy, and on these, the GOP wins over the Dems, hands down.

If a candidate for president is trying to brand himself as a force for political "change," he shouldn't pick as his running mate an aging liberal fossil who's sat in the Senate for 36 years -- an old-boy-network Washington insider. That completely undercuts his "change" message, communicating instead a desire to pander to the Establishment and a clinging to "business as usual." It informs voters that the "change" message is utterly phony.

By contrast, if you are campaigning as an independent-minded maverick, you'd lose credibility by selecting a standard old-school politician as your running mate. You'd want somebody who underscores your outsider, maverick image and message. And if you select such a person, it communicates to voters: I'm the real deal; I mean what I say; you can trust that my actions will match my words.

Ask yourself, strictly from a branding and marketing standpoint, which candidate now comes across as the authentic and genuine agent of "change" -- McCain or Obama.

Obama is increasingly coming across as an empty suit, an ambitious phony with a dubious background; Biden is just another stock liberal. By contrast, McCain is showing independence and daring; his biography backs it up; and so does his running mate.

I’d say McCain’s choice was courageous. We’ll see if it was a brilliant decision after the election.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


We’re confronted daily with competing demands and claims of people from opposite points of view. Conservatives rail against liberals and vice versa. Creationists fight Darwinists. Pro-life wrestle with pro-choice advocates. How do we decide? There isn’t a foolproof method that ensures everyone will come to the same conclusion. A lot of factors affect our ability to be objective. Since the theme of this blog is about thinking objectively I thought I’d share some ideas on how I try to practice what I preach. In essence I recommend taking the effort to check both sides. (In some cases there are more than two prominent positions.)

  • How do they argue? Do they confront the opposition’s positions head on or do they skirt the issues?
  • Do they fairly represent the arguments of the other side or do they “refute” these arguments by setting up easily-refuted straw men?
  • Do they try to build a cogent argument based on empirical data or do they simply state their final conclusions?

For example, if you’re considering whether global warming is caused by humans or by other causes (assuming there is warming), you could go to a site such as which provides links to global warming advocates and skeptics.

Let’s say you want sort out the creationism-evolution debate. This web page at Cal State Fullerton - - provides links to various sites on both sides of the issue.

On general political issues, check publications such as National Review ( for conservative viewpoints, The New Republic ( for the left and maybe Reason magazine ( for the libertarian perspective. For detailed analysis of policy issues you can go to The Cato Institute [] (libertarian), The Brookings Institution [] (liberal), the American Enterprise Institute [] (conservative), or The Atlas Society [] (Objectivist).

A relatively new site and promising has popped up,, which offers debates on a wide variety of issues: politics, society, health, money and religion.

Another good source of information is The main articles usually refer to other sources on both sides of an issue and provide links to articles in the media and links to related web sites. Be sure to click on the “discussion” tab to see the dialog among the various contributors to the wiki entry. However, you need to be careful with controversial subjects. For instance, an ardent Gore supporter fanatically guards entries on global warming and pounces on any added text that challenges or contradicts the Gore-thodoxy (that global warming is man-made).

As I said at the beginning, checking these sources won’t automatically spoon feed you with answers. What I have found, however, is that people who honestly and fairly look at more than one viewpoint before settling on their own tend to be more reasonable than those who only look at sources with which they already agree. If we are confident in our ability to think critically and objectively we won’t be threatened by exposing ourselves to opinions that might differ from ours. At the very least going through this exercise will better prepare you for counter-arguments.

My main point, which is a theme running through this blog, is that maintaining objectivity isn’t easy! It involves hard work and resisting the temptation to latch onto conclusions. If you work through issues like health care, global warming, abortion, and intelligent design by carefully evaluating the different viewpoints, by comparing the facts each side musters for their case and by looking at how they argue, you stand a better chance of reaching a sound conclusion. Who knows? You might even end up changing your mind? THAT, I believe, is the threat of checking your premises: the possibility of abandoning a position and even disagreeing with friends who share your overall beliefs. Another drawback is that objectivity doesn’t carry the sex appeal of being an ardent advocate of [insert your favorite “ism” here]. It might even sound boring and dispassionate. Yet the overall purpose of being objective is to get you closer to the truth which ultimately can improve the quality of your life. And, if you have done the hard work to sift and digest the facts and arguments you can be justifiably certain of your position. To me that’s the exciting part of trying to be objective!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Noninstrumental Virtues

As readers of this blog know, Ayn Rand derived virtues from reason as our tool for survival. These virtues - productiveness, independence, integrity, honesty, rationality and pride - help us survive. Rand's focus in developing these virtues was on our metaphysical independence. That is, each of us is equipped with the tools needed to survive (at least those of us born with normal faculties). Just as no one can digest our food for us, neither can they (nor should they) think our thoughts.

I don't believe these virtues exhaust the possibilities and think there are additional, supplemental virtues that arise from the fact that many of our values can be obtained only with the participation of others. This participation can be in the form of collaboration, as in working with our professional associates on a joint project, or as competition as in sports. When you look at it, we rarely obtain values with no social interaction. The virtues I want to discuss help us achieve our goals in a social setting.

Another reason why I believe we can add to the list of virtues stems from the concept of being human. Although our defining characteristic is our faculty of reason, there are other aspects of our nature which can affect how we gain and/or keep values. We have a physical body, a psychological nature, a social side, etc., each with its own needs and capacities. Being rational means we ought to recognize these aspects of our overall nature, work to understand these aspects and, where appropriate, satisfy them. The values we gain may fill the needs of several parts of our self. Competitive and team sports, for instance, can strengthen muscle tone, improve mental clarity (through better circulation) and stamina, and test our mental resolve while also involving our social nature.

For this discussion I'll be working with Edmund Pincoffs's Quandaries and Virtues: Against Reductivism in Ethics in which he proposes a list of virtues touching on these issues. The list is too long to include here so I shall limit my discussion to the more important ones. Pincoffs classifies virtues into two broad classes: instrumental and non-instrumental. Instrumental virtues directly help us gain and/or keep values. Non-instrumental virtues, therefore, are concerned with how or how well we pursue our values. They assume instrumental virtues exist and address how we execute them. Most of them apply to our actions in dealing with others.

The overall structure of his virtues is as follows. I have selected several sample virtues for each category.




  • MELIORATING (Mediating, Temperamental, Formal)
  • MORAL (Mandatory, Non-mandatory)
  • AESTHETIC (Noble, Charming)

Pincoffs subdivides instrumental virtues into agent and group. The virtues under agent correlate loosely to Rand's although some of them obviously are more specific than hers: persistence, courage, alertness, prudence, energy, resourcefulness and determination. Group instrumental virtues apply to projects in which we need the cooperation of others and include cooperativeness, "practical wisdom, and the virtues of leaders and followers” (upon which Pincoffs does not elaborate).

Pincoffs breaks the non-instrumental virtues into three classes: meliorating, aesthetic and moral. I include them here not because I agree entirely with his choices of virtues in each class, but I do think Pincoffs's general approach addresses aspects of our nature that contribute to our self-realization.

Meliorating virtues helps us live with others by making our common life with them more tolerable. Indeed, the word meliorate means "to make better". Mediating virtues, one of the three subdivisions, helps settle differences of opinions between people. Tolerance, reasonableness and tactfulness help us in negotiating and persuading others to recognize and respect our point of view. Civility, politeness and decency, several of the formal virtues, set the basis for public behavior. They recognize the "moral space" (as they would say in California) and the respect each of us is entitled to because of our metaphysical independence. We all benefit by agreeing to some common ground rules for treating each other. Each of us should be treated as innocent unless proven guilty of being unworthy of civil treatment. Temperamental virtues, like gentleness, humorousness and cheerfulness, reflect our emotional make-up and our style of presenting ourselves.

According to Pincoffs, being noble and charming, categories of aesthetic virtues, "are appreciated for what they are, for the vision of themselves; we are grateful for their presence; they are exemplars of what humans can be‑ their absence is regretted because it impoverishes life." Noble virtues include dignity, magnanimity and nobility; gracefulness, wittiness and liveliness represent several examples of being charming.

Mandatory moral virtues include honesty, sincerity, truthfulness and loyalty. Non-mandatory moral virtues include benevolence, sensitivity and forgiveness. Note that in labeling this category as moral, Pincoffs uses the conventional sense of moral as having regard for others.

I saved this category for the last because these virtues have generated considerable discussion among Objectivists with the primary focus on how to justify them as being in our rational self‑interest. Some critics of egoism question how can people motivated out of self‑gain practice these virtues. If our aim is to obtain values for our own purposes, why should we be honest, sincere and truthful with others? Why shouldn't we just do what we can get away with?

A number of answers have been offered by Objectivists, including Peikoff in his "Understanding Objectivism" course. Instead of revisiting them here, I want to offer some additional comments. First, if we are metaphysically independent. We would be inconsistent to demand others to respect our independence while we trample on theirs. Second, we seek to obtain our values through work and by exchanging value for value, not by fraud. In general, our life should be better if we treat others with mutual respect.

Many of the non-instrumental virtues appear to reflect a social metaphysical (to use Rand’s term) concern with how others perceive us. Although it is certainly possible to practice these virtues for this reason, it is also possible to do so because they help create the kind of life we want. These virtues express our personal vision of how a worthy life should be lived. These virtues also affect how well we relate to others, which is important given that most of our values are obtained by interacting with others. Furthermore, we should be happy with how we relate to the world, both the physical and social sides. Lastly, if we value our relationships with friends and family, we would also value how they perceive us.

Although non-instrumental virtues may not directly help us achieve our goals, they certainly can make it easier. We should not conclude that when these virtues are unnecessary. They can reduce the strife and stress we have with others, without sacrificing our principles. People tend to be more cooperative, helpful and respectful if we treat them with respect, if we are reasonable in our dealings and if it is a pleasure to work with us. If we create unnecessary conflict, we could waste energy trying to overcome their resistance. In essence these virtues reflect the answer to two questions we need to ask: what kind of life do I want to live, and as I move through life what kind of wake do I want to I leave behind? How we apply the non-instrumental virtues adds flavor to our life. And I should add, there is one big potential benefit of acting this way which should not be dismissed: goodwill.

To illustrate their importance I liken non-instrumental virtues to the aerodynamics and suspension of a car. We can get from point A to B in a car having the aerodynamics of a brick, the chassis of a stagecoach and an engine. We will enjoy the journey more and will burn less gas if we drive a sleek vehicle that slices through the air and filters out the bumps. We arrive at our destination refreshed. The first car also gets to its destination but it is accompanied with the howl of air being ripped by a blunt body, the scream of the engine trying to overcome the drag and the pounding of the suspension.

Some have defended virtues such as benevolence by trying to show they have survival value. I believe this is a mistake. Being non-instrumental, these virtues don't necessarily guarantee our survival (unless we really go out of our way to antagonize people!). These virtues shape the kind of life we lead. They don't determine whether or not we will live.

Still, this discussion seems too calculating, as though the only reason we should treat people well is for what we can gain from them or for their survival value. Empathy is part of the reason why I believe it's appropriate to be concerned with how we interact with people. If I want to be psychologically visible, to be perceived as a unique person, I do no want to be treated as a mere object, even by strangers. Most people I have met feel this way. Even causal encounters with waitresses, store clerks and people on the street leave a wake in each other's life. Some of the most emotionally distressing confrontations occur between customers and those providing service. In general, if people are reasonable, they deserve to be treated fairly as fellow metaphysically independent rational beings with the psychological need to be visible and recognized as having worth.

I know some Objectivists may object to this view because they believe most people are raving altruists. My experience in the nearly six several decades (!) of living and working has lead me to conclude many people want essentially the same thing I do: a fulfilled life consisting of a rewarding career, a harmonious home life and fun recreations. They deserve the same respect that I desire.

To illustrate the importance non-instrumental virtues can play in life, let's consider two Objectivists possessing vastly different styles. One exhibits the virtues we just discussed; the other is rational and applies the agent instrumental virtues but is cold, humorless (except to laugh at the irrationality of others), unsympathetic, and dispenses harsh moral condemnations at the slightest provocation. In the long run (and even in the short run) who will be happier?

The life of the judgmental Objectivist is one string of constant disagreements and diatribes. Many of these start with his denunciations of the alleged irrationality or immorality of those around him. Consequently, he gets the reputation for being uncooperative, even a "kook". People avoid working with him; some might even actively oppose him, thereby preventing him from achieving some goals. Or, he gravitates toward occupations requiring minimal contact with people.

The other person acknowledges most people have never heard of Ayn Rand. He knows most people have accepted their beliefs through cultural osmosis and that many have never been trained how to think critically (something many Objectivists haven’t learned either). From this he knows most people will advocate ideas he disagrees with. Yet, he knows that judging people is not simply a matter of judging their expressed beliefs. He does not shun moral judgment nor is he motivated to seek the favor of others at any cost. He knows people ought to he treated as innocent unless their actions suggest they are guilty of malicious intent or conscious irrationality. Moreover, he knows he has but one life to live and he should make the most of it.

As a result, his projects tend to go smoothly. Disagreements usually don't escalate into thermonuclear verbal war. He enjoys friendships with his work associates, neighbors and relatives. He skis or plays tennis with some of them. He may disagree with their stated beliefs, but as long as they act reasonably, he keeps his moral saber sheathed. Since most people want to be treated with respect, he knows that abusing them will not convince them of the correctness of his ideas.

At root he recognizes everyone is metaphysically independent and responsible for their own life and happiness. He respects this and gages his attempts to share his perspective with them. Even when he disagrees with someone on philosophy, he does not automatically write that person off.

As I have said, non-instrumental virtues can be important elements in a good life. They can help smooth the way for us and save us energy and emotional wear and tear. More importantly, they comprise the facets of a mosaic that is the ultimate work of art - our life.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Responding to Terrorism: what is appropriate?

Daniel Barnes posted an entry on Leonard Peikoff's appearance on the Bill O'Reilly show shortly after 9/11. The post is titled The Madness of King Leonard. An interesting discussion ensued. I weighed in with the following.

I think Peikoff's main point is sound: that we have the right to defend ourselves. However, I disagree with his conclusion that we are therefore justified in bombing an entire country into oblivion, including the many people who have no voice in what their government does or condones. Peikoff and other Objectivists including Rand herself seem to believe that people who are born in countries like Iran deserve what they get because they don’t emigrate to another, freer country. While I agree with the need for decisive, forceful action I don’t think we can objectively defend blanket destruction. While I acknowledge that we used the atomic bomb in Japan to break the will of the Japanese government I doubt if the same approach would work in Iraq, primarily because we’ll dealing with pockets of resistance, not a central government that is fighting us.

I would hope our police never adopt Peikoff’s policy. If they did I’d never want to be a hostage in a bank robbery!

Fortunately our military tried to minimize civilian casualties while targeting appropriate key facilities. Our mistake was in not committing enough troops to flesh out and crush the insurgents. I also read somewhere that the local leaders who could help us initially laid low because they were afraid of being left high and dry by the U.S., thus exposing themselves to terrorists in their midst. Within the last year these leaders started to help our troops ferret out the opposition.

Peikoff’s position reveals a simplistic either-or approach that typifies some Objectivist “thinking”. They take a fundamentally sound premise then apply it without acknowledging context or conditions that would modify one’s conclusion or actions.

Peikoff indeed was borderline apoplectic which certainly doesn’t improve his chances of getting his message heard. Once again this is a symptom of someone who feels that the certainty of their position can speak for itself and needs no “spin,” concern with presentation or with consequences.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Nyquist's Comments on Anthony Flew's "Conversion"

I recommend reading Greg Nyquist's latest post titled, Objectivism and Religion Part 13, Deism on Anthony Flew's book, There is A God. Here is a key quote.

Whether this argument advances the case for theism, even of the minimal, deist sort, is open to question. But even if it doesn't advance the cause of theism, it does manage to provide a strong case against any version of militant atheism. Confronted with arguments such as this one, I cannot see how any Objectivist can continue to regard belief in God as patently irrational. Indeed, if you compare the claims of atheism with those of rational theism, it's not easy to determine which view is more rational. The rational theist argues that, because it's grossly implausible to assume that a coded chemistry could have emerged spontaneously from inorganic matter (see this article for greater explication of the point), it is not unreasonable to assume that life has its origin in some sort of intelligence or understanding that is beyond human comprehension. The atheist, on the other hand, argues that life emerges out of matter spontaneously, by "chance," as it were—that in other words, we all evolved from rocks. Is this really the more plausible view?
I posted this in reponse.

Greg, I’m glad someone has finally raised the issue of Flew’s “defection” and broached the subject of intelligent design. It’s something I want to write about on my blog one of these days. (Actually, I did post something a while ago comparing Michael Behe’s The Edge of Evolution to Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful.) I’ve read several books by Dembski, Behe and others. I don’t find them to be whim-worshipping mystics who refuse to face the facts. If anything it’s the supposed defenders of reason (Dawkins, Carroll and others) who resort to sarcasm, sneering and ad hominem arguments to defend their position and to deride the opposition. Dembski makes an interesting case for his position in The Design Inference while Behe is famous for his coining “irreducible complexity.” Yes, their agenda is to build a case a designer (i.e., God). Flew claims he followed where the evidence lead him.

Dembski and others also claims that Darwinists have not addressed how the incredible complexity of life all the way down to the cellular level can be explained by chemicals bumping into one another.

I believe they make good points even if you ultimately might not accept their solution hook line and sinker. I also believe we need to face the facts without prejudice. If the facts seem to indicate the possibility of some kind of intelligence so be it. It still is a big jump from saying there are signs of intelligence in the structure of life or in the conditions that exist in the universe that make life possible to the traditional religious concept of God as an omniscient, omnipotent designer and creator of everything. At the very least Dembski and crew have pointed out chinks in the Darwinian armor that should be acknowledged and addressed instead of using faulty arguments to spackle the holes in their arguments.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Endless Forms Most Beautiful meets The Edge of Evolution

In 1996 Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box was published, setting off a debate that rages even today. Behe, a biochemist, argued for Intelligent Design (ID) based on a concept he introduced: irreducible complexity. Because this is a key cog in Behe’s argument I’ll provide his definition. “By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning. An irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.)”

To explain this concept he used the simple mousetrap as an example. A typical mousetrap is made of 4 or 5 parts that have to be assembled in a particular arrangement in the proper sequence for it to work. If the pieces aren’t assembled correctly or if a piece is missing the trap doesn’t work.

Behe shows that in the biochemical world there are many examples of irreducibly complex structures and processes. The blood clotting mechanism and vision are examples of irreducibly complex processes which Behe devotes some time to explaining. However, he spends a good portion of the book on the cilium, the whip like tail that bacteria use for propulsion. Behe shows that the cilium is made like a motor complete with gears, bearings, mounts, etc. He claims that chemicals bumping into one another could not assemble this “machine”. It had to be designed, according to Behe.

Darwin’s Black Box created a cottage industry of books for and against intelligent design. Just recently I read one from each side of the debate: Sean Carroll’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful and Behe’s sequel The Edge of Evolution. Carroll’s book relies on recent developments in genetics to explain the diversity of living organisms while Behe extends, expands, defends and refines his earlier work. In The Edge of Evolution Behe revisits the flagellum to report that recent findings reveal even more complexities than were known in 1996. Behe explains the finely tuned, automated repair mechanism that transports materials from the main organism out to the end of the flagellum. Behe also spends a lot of pages discussing how the malaria

Endless Forms provides interesting and enlightening insights from the latest developments and discoveries in genetics. While Carroll’s book nicely captures how variations can occur within a species he doesn’t really address how the original forms, such as something “simple” like the cilium, emerged out of its original chemicals. Carroll’s book explains how we can change the color of the paint on a Boeing 777 but doesn’t explain how the plane itself came to be. His book is on a different level than Behe’s, a level that Behe readily admits in Endless Forms where Darwinism can work.

Like other ID critiques that I have read, Carroll’s arguments do not address Behe’s points head on. Towards the end of his book in a few paragraphs Carroll dismisses Behe’s case as “empty” without elaborating. After making this unsupported declaration he moves on to quote various creationists who impugn the motives of Darwinists. Well, as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. In addition, Carroll fails to distinguish that not all advocates of ID are creationists. The reverse might be true: all creationists are advocates of ID but arguing for ID doesn’t automatically make someone a creationist. In my case, I’ve been an atheist for decades. However, I feel the Darwinians have not come up with good counter-arguments. In many cases the Darwinists would rather use ad hominem than objective thinking.

On the other hand I believe ID advocates erroneously jump from pointing out possible evidence of intelligence built into life to the conclusion that there is a God in form of the Christian model. There could be other reasons for the incredibly organized complexity of life, from a principle of non-conscious organization inherent in the universe to a Buddhist-like spirit from which everything emmanates. In either case I believe we should pay attention to the evidence ID proponents offer even if we don’t buy the entire package they’re selling.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ideology as a template or sieve

Living in New England with a largely liberal population I see certain patterns of choice over and over. Volvos sitting in the driveway. TV tuned to PBS. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth sitting prominently on the coffee table. Organically grown groceries from Bread and Circus. And so on. And, if you happen to disagree on a hallowed position, like being skeptical of global warming being caused by humans driving their Volvos, you are automatically labeled as a Bush lackey.

To be fair, I’m sure there are areas elsewhere in the country where your advocacy of a liberal position will be met with an equally knee jerk pigeonholing. It shows me that unthinking acceptance of belief systems make life easier. It serves as a template that the user slaps onto reality to squeeze out the “truth” while trimming off the annoying counter-facts.

It also brings me back to a recurring theme, particularly for Objectivists: that being objective is hard work. It requires not sweeping away facts that contradict our previously accepted premises and conclusions but facing them head on. Does this mean we can never be certain and always withhold judgment? No. I am just saying that we should not be too quick to discount inconvenient facts. Maybe these pesky facts are signals trying to tell us to dig a little deeper.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Smarter than Rand? You didn't hear it from me!

I received a comment recently from someone who claimed I'm just like a bunch of other Rand critics who think they're smarter than Rand. I chose to reject the comment because the person who sent it really didn't get into specifics and I felt that the accusation was unfounded. Perhaps I was too hasty.

I certainly am not claiming to be smarter than Rand nor do I claim to have answers to questions that are posed here. It's not an issue of intelligence. It's an issue of intellectual honesty and objectivity. I'm encouraging people to think critically about the philosophy they're advocating. For years I accepted what I read because it sounded true and was in line with general conclusions I had come to on my own or was predisposed to accepting. I'm sure there are lots of you out there in the same boat. That's fine.

My reading of various philosophers who are generally influenced by Aristotle (and some who aren't) plus my own research and life experience spurred me to take a harder look at Objectivism. Right now I have more questions than answers. If I were so smart, as the commenter claims, I'd have all of the answers!

Introductory Thoughts (continued)

Just realized that I missed one key component: epistemology.

Rand held that our senses can be trusted to accurately perceive reality and that we can form concepts tied to reality. Truth describes the relationship of our knowledge to reality. While I agree in broad terms with this there are still some thorny questions.

Here is one. Given that the emotional mechanism of our brain, the limbic system, predates the development of the neo-cortex, considered the seat of rational thinking, how do we ensure that our emotions do not adversely affect our objectivity?

I know Rand named her philosophy on the idea that the universe exists independently of our hopes, fears and wishes. I think the term “objectivism” should also apply to our frame of mind: that it behooves us to strive to be objective when coming to conclusions. As Daniel Goleman explains in Emotional Intelligence, our rational faculty developed only recently compared to the emotional centers of our brain with their roots stretching back to the beginning of our evolutionary development. Reason, the newcomer, tries to bridle an ancient, powerful emotional mechanism. “There was an emotional brain long before there was a rational one.” Most of the time, reason and emotion can successfully work together. Occasionally, however, our emotions can “hijack’ our nervous system.

The prime culprit in these hijackings is the amygdala, a center in the limbic system. The amygdala occupies a unique position: it receives the same sensory signals as the neocortex but does so before the neocortex. In addition, the amygdala constantly scans incoming data for threats. If it senses a threat, “the amygdala reacts instantaneously, like a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.” The amygdala leaps into action before the neocortex can analyze and assess the situation, making it difficult to corral the emotions.

Unfortunately, some people have amygdalas wired with a hair trigger. Furthermore, traumatic events can indelibly imprint the amygdala so deeply that years later it can be triggered by sensory input bearing just a passing resemblance to the original event. These people have to contend with this imprinting for the rest of their lives.

The basic conclusion is that being objective is much tougher and involves more work than we might realize.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Introductory Thoughts

As the title of this blog indicates I intend to take a critical look at Objectivism from a friendly point of view. I’m not a Rand basher; I believe Rand offered some important ideas. The core concepts are:

  1. that an objective reality exists (metaphysics),
  2. that we have the right to live our own lives and pursue values for our benefit (egoism),
  3. and that the free market operating within the framework of a limited government that protects our rights is needed to give us the freedom and opportunity to pursue our happiness (politics and economics).

Over time I plan to raise questions and offer suggested answers for some of them. I’ll admit up front that there are some subjects for which I definitely don’t have answers, such as resolving quantum mechanics with Objectivism. I’m hoping someone out there might have some input.

I believe Rand and many of her fans make the same mistake of other “isms.” They latch onto a kernel (or kernels) of truth then claim these kernels represent the whole truth. Ken Wilber, one of my favorite writers, likes to say that no one is so brilliant that they’re 100% wrong. I like to reverse it and say no one is so brilliant that they’re 100% right. In Rand’s case I think she didn’t have the patience or temperament to think through the nuances, implications and potential weaknesses of her positions. I like to describe my position as Objective-BUT-ism, meaning I agree with a certain premise or conclusion BUT with a caveat or a modification.

In essence, I feel reality is much more complicated than Rand acknowledged and therefore her philosophy needs to be more nuanced. The final result of addressing these nuances might end up with conclusions that Rand and her followers would not label “Objectivism.” So be it. I prefer to take the approach Anthony Flew recommends: follow where the evidence leads. It’s more important to me if a given conclusion is true than if it is deemed “Objectivist.” (This also gets us into the debate whether Objectivism is an open or a closed philosophy. Obviously, I’m in the “open” camp.)

Below are some brief examples which I hope to explore as this blog develops.


  • How does quantum mechanics and relativity theory square with Rand’s positions?
  • Intelligent design. Is ID merely the ranting of whim worshipping mystics or do they ask questions worth investigating?
  • How does Objectivism deal with the Big Bang theory?


  • Do ALL acts have to serve one’s self-interest?
  • Are there appropriate acts which don’t necessarily threaten your survival that benefit someone else?
  • How does an ethic of self-interest help us decide between two choices, neither one of which threatens our survival? What criteria do we use? (This was the subject of my paper Is Self-Interest Enough?)
  • Exactly how does parenthood further my survival?


  • Do we observe the rights of others strictly because it’s in our self-interest? Can there be another legitimate reason?
  • Do rights come with responsibilities?
  • Should the government NEVER help people? What about those who simply do not have the means to support themselves thanks to the lottery of birth such as those born with severe defects?
  • Speaking of birth, are ALL abortions OK? Even late in the third trimester? What about partial birth abortions?
  • Is altruism the only or even the primary reason why politics in the U.S. is constantly drifting to the Left?

This gives a taste of the kind of issues this blog will discuss. I don’t claim to have answers to all (or even most) of the questions. My goal is to spark thought and discussion.