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.