Saturday, June 5, 2010

Murder before personhood? The ethics of abortion

One of the most socially contested issues of the past forty years has been the issue of abortion. Abortion is defined as the medical procedure which separates a fetus from its pregnant mother, almost always resulting in the death of the fetus. This issue has been contested by the two major sides of any political argument, the restrictive conservatives and the permissive liberals. This paper will focus on a specific section of this debate which takes place between the philosopher’s Jane English and Mary Anne Warren. Warren proposes a fairly moderate liberal view which permits early stage abortion on demand but places restrictions on late-stage abortion and attempts to give a rational defense of the immorality of infanticide. English, on the other hand, gives a slightly moderated conservative view which takes the “potential rights” (English, 76) of the fetus into account at every stage of development and places severe limitations on the practice of late stage abortions. Each philosopher gives their own definition of the concept of personhood and aptly explains their arguments. This paper will examine the strengths and weaknesses of each paper and will demonstrate that, while neither argument is entirely acceptable, Warren’s argument is much closer to the logical ideal than English’s.

English’s theory begins by crafting a comprehensive understanding of exactly what constitutes a person. English asserts that personhood encompasses all aspects of humanity including our biological, psychological, emotional, rational and legal definitions. English then applies this concept to the question of whether or not a fetus is a person. The answer that she arrives as it that there is no clearly defined time after which a fetus becomes a person according to her definition, therefore it would be rationally impossible to determine when a fetus would become a person. She arrives at this answer by means of claiming that a fetus has, at various stages of its development, many of these features which are necessary components of personhood, according to her. However, we have to be critical of whether or not many of these features are truly necessary components of personhood. Warren provides her own definition to counter English’s “rationally indecideable” (English, 75) definition of persons by listing 5 criteria that, not only, apply to fully functioning humans but, unlike English’s, do not suffer from speciesist thinking and actually distinguish persons from non-persons. This definition includes: rationality, sentience, self motivation, self identity and the capacity for communication. Although it is possible for some animals to meet some of these criteria I would suggest that the criteria of logic is the single most important criteria since that is the only true feature which distinguishes persons as we understand them from all other animals. In this line of reasoning it is therefore irrelevant that the fetus meets some of the criteria of personhood since it does not meet the most important and necessary one.

English’s belief in the moral status of the fetus does not necessarily rest of the issue of its personhood. English proposes a theory she calls the “coherence of attitudes” (English, 78) which deals with the way our psychology and our emotions, apparently, influence our opinions about the similarities between a fetus and a newborn child. However, this is a fairly moot point since, as far as philosophy is concerned, the influence of people’s emotions or psychological ineptitude cannot possibly be used in place of a rational argument. This assertion, however, is not surprising since English has already made the case that rationality has no place in this discussion and that therefore she has no need to prove rational links between her concepts and her conclusions. English believes that in many cases it is wrong to harm non-persons and she proposes examples such as torturing dogs for no reason. This principle that it is possible to treat animals wrongly allows her to make the case that there are cases in which it is possible to treat a fetus wrongly as it is similarly somewhat like a person. However, if we take Warren’s definition of person to be correct and not English’s then, even if we grant her this point, it is irrelevant since the fetus meets none of Warren’s criteria and is therefore not even person-like. However, English has a response to Warren’s arguments which focuses on a different issue.

English uses the issue of infanticide as a way to further make the case that Warren’s argument is unacceptable and that abortion should be fairly regulated. She believes that if abortion on demand were allowed that it would result in a degradation of the respect of personhood because of the lack of respect for person-like non-persons. This is directly taken from her point on “second hand” (English, 77 rights. This claim is rather ridiculous, as it commits the slippery slope fallacy and it is clear that there is no better evidence against this point then to simply look around us today and see that, despite the fact that abortion on demand has been legal in Canada and in most states for years now, we have not seen the degradation for the respect of persons that English warned us about. Simply because we decide that “person-like non-persons” (English, 75) do not deserve serious moral status does not mean that a degradation of respect for full persons will logically follow.

Warren’s concept of personhood, as well as much of her argument in general, follow an obviously Kantian route of thinking. She has very Kantian criteria for personhood and it logically follows that since a fetus meets none of these criteria, from Warren’s perspective, it deserves none of the protections or rights which are proper to persons. Warren’s response to English’s theory of second hand rights would most likely consist of her claiming that the only case in which the non-person’s status should be considered is in a case where the non-person’s fate may have direct, negative, implications for persons. Such as English’s theory of degradation of respect for persons resulting from disrespecting non-persons, however, we have already shown that to be an illogical prediction. Warren introduces the issue of potential personhood early in her paper. She believes that although a fetus does not ever meet any of her criteria for personhood, the fetus does achieve the potential to become a person. This essentially means that since we can say with high probability that if a fetus survives birth it will become a rational thinking person it must be granted some moral status. However, Warren asserts the claim that the rights of one potential person, indeed the rights of any number of potential persons, can never outweigh even the most trivial rights of a fully fledged person. This means that the fetus’ right to life is always trumped by the mothers right to do with her own body as she wishes.

One of the major areas in which theories of abortion are often tested is on the issues of late stage abortion and infanticide. These areas are often used as tests because there is so much intuitive belief based around them and it is often considered important to test new theories against the established intuition. Warren’s position on late stage abortion is, as one would believe, since the fetus never achieves any semblance of true personhood and since its potential rights can never outweigh the mothers rights abortion at any stage of the pregnancy, including third trimester, is morally permissible. Her position on infanticide, however, diverges from her theory. Although she still claims that directly after birth, up until about 3 or 4 months, a baby still does not meet the necessary criteria for personhood she makes the claim that once the baby is born killing it is wrong. This claim is based on her argument that once a child has been born the mothers objectives, often avoiding financial burden or personal stigma, can be avoided without killing the child and that therefore other, more responsible measures, should be taken. She also introduces a strange point that the rights of potential adoptive parents should be considered and that killing a child is tantamount to robbing these potential parents of some future happiness. However, this point seems to be irrelevant since once again we are getting into the potential rights of people who are not currently involved in the decision. As Warren has already stated no number of potential persons, or potential rights, in the case the potential rights of the potential adoptive parents, can ever trump the right of a mother to dispose of her property, the child, in any way she sees fit. English’s position on this issue, as one can imagine, is very different.

On the issue of issue of late stage abortion and infanticide English adopts a much more conservative stance. She makes the argument that as a fetus grows inside its mother it gains more and more features of “personhood”, namely the shape of a human, awareness of its surroundings, and self-motivated movement. She then claims that since a fetus is become more and more “person-like” (English, 75) it requires more and more serious reasons for a mother to abort her child. As the fetus nears the time of birth English removes more and more acceptable cases until, in the third trimester, the only acceptable reason, in her eyes, for a mother to have an abortion is to save her own life. Since this is a very rare occasion, thanks to modern medicine, English claims that this issue does not warrant serious public outcry since it will almost never take place. English also relies on the commonly held belief that it is perfectly acceptable to kill another person in order to protect you own life. This allows her to put forth a moderate, although still very conservative, view on the issue.

Both Warren and English give very well designed theories by which the issue of abortion can be semi-decided. While Warren gives us a moderated permissivist argument which holds that at early stages abortion on-demand is perfectly alright and late stage abortions are still permitted for most reasons, English gives us a slightly moderated conservative position which holds that abortion should never be done lightly and that the potential rights of the fetus must be taken into account for every case. The major issue in this debate is the contest over the definition of “personhood”. For both philosophers this definition is the foundation for their entire argument and without accepting each philosopher’s definition we would not accept, in any way, either of their arguments. Warren defines her concept of personhood in a vaguely Kantian way, focusing on features such as rationality and self-identity, while English chooses to veil her definition in a fog of indecision and “grey areas” (English 74). She refuses to give a strong, confident, well-formed, definition to her concept of personhood and this is consistent with the remainder of her argument which consists of half-arguments, intuition and appeals to emotion. Warren’s concept of personhood is clearly the more rational of the two since English explicitly states that her concept of personhood makes the issue of personhood “rationally indecideable” (English, 75). Since proper philosophy deals with logical arguments which are in line with reality it seems that English is committing philosophical suicide. By claiming that the foundation for her argument is not rationally decideable she is essentially claiming that the issue itself is not rationally decideable. English then attempts to evade this consequence by introducing the concept of “potential rights” (English 76) in order to give her argument a different focus. However, this new concept does little to help her cause as Warren easily de-bunks it with her argument about the irrelevance of potential rights when conflicting with the actual rights of living persons.

The issue of speciesism is something which comes to mind when reading English’s definition of personhood. English proposes that a great many of the qualities which define a person involve physical or genetic characteristics such as having a human shape or having human parents. This essentially means that even a fully functional, rational being which did not look like a human or have human parents would only be a partial-person in her eyes and would therefore deserve less moral status than a human. This is clearly a speciesist argument as it values the members of the human race above any other for no reason other than their inclusion in the species.

On the issue of late stage abortion and infanticide neither party gives a very satisfactory argument. Although Warren’s position is more permissive her reasons for this permission are not acceptable. She claims that as a fetus matures it gains sentience and self motivated action and that therefore it becomes more person-like and deserves a higher moral status. She then makes the claim that abortion on-demand should not be permitted but abortion for any serious reason, including financial or eugenic, is permissible. English makes exactly the same claim, although it is based on different criteria, and concludes that abortion in the late stages should only be allowed in self-defense. The difference in the philosopher’s conclusions is rather arbitrary and based entirely on the political system which they adhere to rather than on their arguments. In any case the fetus, at no point in its development, has acquired the single necessary component for personhood rationality. For this reason the fetus is not a person and deserves no rights. Although this line of reasoning may suggest that infanticide is acceptable since a fetus and a newborn are so alike this is not the case. There is only one real difference between a fetus and a newborn infant; however, this is the only necessary difference in this case, the observation of reality. A fetus has no ability to observe reality and therefore has no ability to develop its rational faculty. However, as soon as a child is born it begins the process of observation and identification. It quickly learns to identify its mother and father and instantly acquires the ability to learn. For this reason a child becomes a person the instant it exits the womb and this means that infanticide is utterly impermissible.

In this debate over abortion and its implications it is clear that Warren presents a more acceptable view. With this in mind it is important to note that neither philosopher’s view is entirely acceptable, both being far too steeped in Kantian metaphysics and ethics to be considered logical. Warren falls prey to this thinking in her arguments on late stage abortion and infanticide when she claims that the parents have a moral duty to the potential personhood of the fetus and the desires of potential adoptive parents. English falls prey to this thinking throughout her entire paper. From her inception, where she decrees that logic has no place in deciding the fetus’ personhood, to her conclusions in which she concludes that the mother owes a moral duty to the fetus regardless of its moral status. In both cases Warren and English allow irrationality and altruism to infect their arguments and therefore lose a great deal of credibility. Abortion is a serious case in the study of ethics with monumental impacts on the political and social atmosphere of our world. For this reason it is important for us to forbid any irrational arguments or arbitrary conclusions to influence our beliefs. Both parties in this debate commit logical fallacies or base their arguments on irrational premises; however, Warren’s position is most certainly closer to the logical conclusion of the abortion debate. In essence this logical conclusion is as follows: that a fetus is not a person and deserves no moral status or protection, since that is only granted to persons, that a newborn child is a person and therefore deserves all of the protections which are granted to any adult, and that a mother is a person who’s rights to dispose of her body and her property outweigh any number of screaming activists who claim that their emotions and intuitions give them an arbitrary claim on the rights and freedoms of the mother. Only when this conclusion, or a close variation of it, is accepted by the general public will the abortion issue ever be laid to rest.

Works Cited
Jane English, “Abortion and the concept of a person” in J. Kornegay ed., PHL 406: course reader (Toronto, Ryerson Bookstore, 2010) pp. 74-80
M. Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion” in J. Kornegay, ed., PHL 406: Course Reader (Toronto: Ryerson Bookstore, 2010), pp. 63-73.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Objectivist Mirror Issue #2

The Objectivist Mirror Issue # 2
We propose a better way.

First of all we would like to apologize for the delay in the writing of this second issue of the Objectivist Mirror. This semester has been rather busy, and it is only now that we find ourselves with the time to really sit down and get this done right. Secondly we would like to note two changes to the format of this newsletter that will be effective immediately. The first is that the formerly four page physical newsletter will be discontinued. This newsletter will be shortened into single-issue discussions and only distributed online. We will now be welcoming questions or issue suggestions from readers. If you have any questions about what we have written, or if you have suggestions about a topic you would like covered, simply comment on the blog, the Facebook article, or contact either of us in person or by e-mail. Thank you very much.

We last left off with a look at altruism and the need that compels one to engage in acts of philanthropy, the “moral duty” that people feel that they owe the other. Why is it moral to act in accordance with a practice that demands all of your intellectual, mental, physical and sometimes literal capital with no return on your investment – whether that be your time or your money? Why is it your “duty” to engage in such an act? Is it because it is a virtuous deed that will ultimately make your life better, and that by enriching the crops of others’ fields, you will set the stage for them to bestow their bounty upon you? By giving them a leg up the latter, they, by virtue of you helping them, are obligated to pull you up by your outstretched hand? This issue shall delve deeper into the issue of altruistic behaviour and further elaborate upon its uses in real life - how people have come to incorporate these views of duty and morality into their personal “philosophies” and how the ideal of self sacrifice has made its way into the realm of not just inter-personal politics, but also transnational and global politics.

What is a virtue? If asked on the street, your fellow citizen might be inclined to answer: “an act of doing good”. This is only half right, as the subject of the sentence is missing. For whom is this good? The answer is for yourself. A virtue is an upholding of moral excellence. In essence, it is doing what is right while avoiding what is wrong. This is a very straightforward and basic concept; good things are right and are beneficial, the gaining of such adds to one’s happiness while bad things are wrong and detract from it. It is in this simplicity, however, where the concept of virtue is cast into the gray zone of the average mind and is subjected to the existence of a self-righteous buzzword. Many people toss around the words “moral, virtuous, good” in order to perpetuate the notion of their own validity, as if the use of these words will make the causes they advocate legitimate. The fact is that these words are exactly just that, tools used for communicating ideas. Without a subject to put them in context, they become merely hot air passed over vocals cords, rhetorical devices used to sway and indoctrinate whomever allows themselves to be influenced without ever asking “why?” or “how come?”

A virtue is a “good”, but a stronger definition of it is in relation to its value. Virtue is simply the action one takes to gain and retain a set of values, values being what one aims to obtain in the first place. It is these values that guide one in their actions. What is it then that man should value and hold as his number one absolute, that which is the irreducible ideal, the driving force in his life? His mind and his ability to reason. Holding such a value as prime is the means to happiness, and in doing all the “good” things necessary to perpetuate your values you are achieving the status of “virtuous”.

The problem with people’s perception of what is good, bad or virtuous can be linked with that which they consider “duty”. This wrongly interpreted ideal has caused a switching of the role of the individual from “self” to “non-self”. Whatever is not in your best interest is what is good for you. People donate money to charity, time to homeless shelters and energy to their fellow brother, all because it is for the “good”. As mentioned before, philanthropy is only acceptable under the premise that you are doing it for your own benefit, that you are destroying that which you see as wrong by your own volition and with your own two hands, not because the Christian Children’s Fund has guilted you into feeling sorry for something that is ultimately none of your concern or fault, therefore subjecting you to the role of philanthropic keeper of your third worldly brother, a role that you can never fulfill and which will drain you until you lie buried in the ground; at which point, a new keeper will be made to take up the role for his billions of brothers. The sense of happiness you receive for righting something you value as wrong is justice, and is deserved because you have preserved your values. Your deed was accomplished not for man, but for you. If done for any other reason, it is only done out of a self-righteous need to lord something over someone, to hold the esteem of an action as a means for exploiting man as a means, demanding a reciprocal action in place, and tricking another person into having him fulfill another’s need for control, power and dominance.

Such a mindset of inherent moral duty, and either the reluctance of others to repel it or the lack of insight to perceive it, has led these self righteous ideals, not only from person to person in their quest for control, but further into the realm of politics to perpetuate the pollution of the pool of reason, turning the world from a potential oasis into a churning cesspool. The question still lies, however, as to why people see the goals of others as their duty, and how such ways evolved from and into the political forays of today.

The definition of politics, as a branch of philosophy, is the social institutionalization of ethical theory. Essentially this means that a political system is merely a group of people with similar moral views making those views into laws in order to govern there interactions. Therefore the basis for a rational, reality based political system, must be a rational, reality based ethical theory. We believe that the ethics of Objectivism fit these criteria perfectly. The ethics of Objectivism holds that there is only one moral obligation between free people, the obligation to respect individual rights. It is of vital importance to note here the difference between what are known as “positive rights” and “negative rights”. The difference between these two forms of rights evolves out of the Kantian theory of positive and negative moral duties.

Deontologist Immanuel Kant proposed a moral imperative which stated that one must always treat others with respect and never as merely a means to ones own ends. On the surface this may seem like a fairly sensible rule but when Kant went into detail about the nature of “treating others with respect” it became apparent that his rule lost any connection to rational morality. Kant believed that our duty to treat others with respect lead to what he called positive duties. Positive duties are essentially moral duties to perform certain actions for the benefit of others. Kant’s justification for these duties is important, as it is their product, positive rights, which we wish to refute. Kant believed that all humans are intrinsically valuable and that therefore it is our duty to do whatever is in our power to preserve the lives and wellbeing of others as long as we avoid any serious detriment to ourselves. However, Kant did not provide, nor does there even exist, any logical connection between the statement that human beings are inherently valuable and the statement that we are responsible for the continuation of their lives and wellbeing. Kant ignores the issue of personal responsibility for ones wellbeing and thereby evades his own contradiction, however, we will not ignore personal responsibility and we will not evade Kant’s contradictions.

This belief in the existence of positive moral duties depends necessarily on the existence of positive moral rights. If you have a moral duty to give some of your money or time to help poor people, then we must logically conclude that poor people have a moral right to demand some of your time and money. This principle can be, and is, applied to many other issues including health care, education, infrastructure etc. Now, since we have defined political systems as merely the institutionalization of ethics, we can logically come to the conclusion that a belief in positive moral rights will inevitably lead to the creation of positive legal rights. The evidence of this claim is all around us as we constantly hear people clamouring that they have a right to an education, a right to roads, a right to health care. However, just as the belief in positive duties necessarily leads to the creation of positive rights, the existence of positive legal rights requires, by definition, the creation of positive legal duties. The proof of this can be seen in the need for the government in Canada to create “essential services” laws. Those professions who provide the services that people believe they have a right to are one by one being declared “essential” and the workers are legally prohibited from striking. Preventing striking, however, only practically solves the problem; if one was to imagine a scenario in which all the practitioners of a certain “essential service” chose, not to go on strike, but to quit… what would the government be forced to do?

While the people of the nation all scream that they have a right to health care, and the doctors refuse to go to work, how is the government to fulfill the peoples “right” to health care? The obvious answer is to infringe upon the rights of the doctors and force them to work. The existence of positive legal or moral rights contains an inherent contradiction. The belief that you have a right to a service presumes an answer to the question “provided by whom?” Although, the recipients of these “rights” are very careful to avoid realizing the answer to this question, because it is of course, provided by slaves. That is what all workers who provide these “essential services” become. Simply because they choose not to try to run away or simply because they choose to continue working does not mean that they are free. Their salaries are dictated by government edicts, not market forces, their right to strike is obliterated, and hypothetically, their right to choose their own profession, or leave their current one, could be ignored.

The issue of positive rights creates a conflict between the positive rights of some and the negative rights of others. Negative rights are the traditional form of moral and legal rights also known as “hands off” rights. These essentially are rights not to have certain things done to you and can be found in the constitutions of most civilized countries. Examples of negative rights include freedom of speech, movement, association, religion etc. These rights do not entitle you to the product on anyone else’s labour they merely protect your autonomy from those who would make you into a slave.

We choose to end this issue with questions for our readers. How could we ever have allowed a political system which condones robbery and slavery by the state and spits on the constitution to be erected? And much more importantly, how can we allow this system to continue to rule our lives?

MacDonald and Holtam

Monday, April 19, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Free will: an examination of libertarianism and determinism

Since the early days of modern philosophy one of the most interesting and controversial questions to be debated by philosophers is the question of free will. Does man have free will? Are there degrees of free will? If man does not have free will, what controls his actions? All of these are questions which have been heatedly debated over more than 100 years. The two main philosophies which have evolved out of this debate are determinism and metaphysical libertarianism. It is important to distinguish this form of libertarianism from modern political libertarianism since they have little to do with one another. The main stance of determinism is that man does not have free will and that something, whether it be natural causal laws or the will of a divine being, predetermines our actions. Clearly the opposing side, libertarianism, argues that man indeed does have free will and that neither a God or any natural or causal laws predetermine our actions in any way. One very famous proponent of libertarianism was a philosopher writing in the year 1957 named C. A. Campbell. Campbell most famously criticizes the argument of a psychologist named B. F. Skinner who was a proponent of determinism. Campbell argues against Skinner’s principles of positive and negative reinforcement through his belief in the importance of subjective introspection. Campbell argues, very intuitively, that “it is a brute fact of consciousness that we all must make choices” (Hoffmann) and that this fact alone, which is not inter subjectively verifiable, proves the existence of free will. It is clear that this is an elegantly simple and concise criticism of Skinner’s theory of determinism. However, his train of thought which arrives at his conclusion of the “brute fact of consciousness” must be examined further in order to gain a more complete understanding.

Campbell argues against Skinner very well on the subject of free will. But, in order to understand Campbell’s argument we must understand what his idea of free will is. Campbell does make allowances for Hume’s ideas of degree’s of free will, however, Campbell believes that there is only one type of free will which is relevant to this situation. Campbell’s definition of free will is

“A man is said to exercise free will, in a morally significant sense, only when his chosen act is one in which he is the sole author and only if he could have chosen to do otherwise” (Campbell, P. 359).

Campbell also states that common sense sometimes makes allowances for actions which have been partially caused by something over which the agent had no control such as heredity. However, he believes that in many cases where heredity may have had an influence over an agents actions it is still possible for people to go against their nature (Campbell, P. 360).

Campbell writes that one can say they are free in the normal sense when there is no external obstacle which prevents the translating of any action from thought into reality (Campbell, P. 360). This means that even in cases where one’s character or one’s upbringing, or one’s genes would make translating the action from thought into reality difficult they are still free. Until it becomes impossible to translate the action from thought to reality an agent can be said to have free will. Campbell focuses only on the areas of volition in which it is necessary for free will to operate to “save morality” (Campbell, P. 359) he believes that all other areas of volition are merely normative examples of free will and do not deal with the main issue of moral responsibility

Campbell writes that in order to exercise free will in the moral sense one must be the sole author of the action in question. Campbell believes that the answer to the question of “where can we find such an action” (Campbell, P. 361) lies in one of the most universal of human mental processes, moral effort. Regardless of your age, gender, race, or physical or temporal location in human history, it can be stated with a high degree of certainty that everyone has experienced the action of exerting moral effort. Whether it was trying to decide whether to steal candy from a store as a child, or whether it was trying to decide whether to join the army during WWII every person throughout human history has had to exert moral effort in determining their actions. Campbell believes that it is this exertion which gives us the proof for free will. Campbell makes a very compelling point when he writes that we can say with a fair degree of certainty that an act of moral effort is one in which the agent is the sole author. When confronted with the argument that an agent’s character can play a factor in determining the decision, thus making the agent only a partial author, Campbell responds by stating that in most cases exertions of moral effort take place when an agent decides whether or not to act against their character. This means that it would be impossible for an agent’s character to be partial author of an action which goes against itself (Campbell, P. 363). This logically shows that in decisions of moral effort it is clear that the agent is the sole author of the action.

The second main component of Campbell’s formula for free will is that there must have been no external factors which prevented the actions translation from thought into reality. This essentially means that is must have been possible for the agent to have acted otherwise than they did. It cannot be denied that there are cases of moral effort in which there are external forces which prevent an agent from acting as his will dictates, such as a man being robbed at gunpoint. Under normal circumstances no agent would willingly give up money, identification, and personal property simply because they were asked to. However, when presented with a life of death alternative, it becomes much more likely that an agent will act against their character. However, it also cannot be denied that there are situations in which this does not take place. Anyone you ask can testify to being in situations in which they had to exert moral effort to live up to their character, or as Campbell puts it, their “duty” (Campbell, P. 362). In many cases you will find people who will say that they failed in this exertion and were not able to live up to their character. For instance, a normally kind and peaceful man finds his wife sleeping with another man and becomes enraged and kills both of them. The man’s character would dictate that he forgive his wife for her disloyalty. However, this particular man fails in the exertion of moral effort and cannot live up to his duty. This is not a logically unsound scenario, and in fact, has most likely occurred hundreds of thousands of times throughout history. The possibility of an agent of act against their character shows conclusively that in matters of moral effort, when there are no external obstacles obstructing the agent’s decision, it is possible for an agent to do other than his character would dictate. This scenario gives a fairly convincing argument for the existence of free will. If an agent’s exertion of moral effort is, as is shown, an action of which they are the sole author and if that agent could have acted other than he did, as shown by going against one’s character, then it is clear that the action in question constitutes what Campbell defines as a free action.

Campbell’s argument for the existence of free will is not only compelling because it presents a clear and logical argument which offers great intuitive support for the libertarian position he defends, but also because he is able to strongly discredit the arguments of those who would attempt to criticize his argument and argue against the existence of free will. Campbell makes the convincing argument that

“those who criticize libertarianism and free will proponents do so by variants of two main arguments, the argument from predictability, and the argument from the alleged meaninglessness of an act supposed to be the self’s act and yet not an expression of the self’s character” (Campbell, P. 363).

He then details his criticism and objection to each argument in turn. The argument by predictability is one in which the critic of free will believes that he can predict with a high degree of probability the actions of those whose character he knows well. You believe that you can predict fairly certainly that your friend who loves basketball would not pass up chances to a pair of courtside Raptors tickets. The critic of free will believes this is because the actions of your friend are dictated by his character. That his love of basketball leave him no choice but to accept the tickets. The critic says that the libertarian must concede that since agents have free will, that anything is possible, and that we should not be surprised if our friend refuses the tickets for no reason. Campbell’s response to this argument against free will is both simple, and elegant. In cases such as this, where there is no struggle between what our character dictates and what we strongly desire the free will Campbell is advocating, that is the free will associated with moral responsibility, has no business (Campbell, P. 364). This argument from predictability is simply irrelevant to the type of free will being discussed here. It is not the job of libertarian philosophers to prove that all choices made by every agent are totally free of constraints. They merely strive to prove that some decisions made by some agents are free, and that it is therefore possible for agents to be held morally responsible for their actions.

Campbell’s argument, although not directly opposed to Skinner’s two principles of positive and negative reinforcement, seem to point out a major flaw in Skinner’s determinist position. Skinner believes that all of human behaviour can be causally explained through the application of positive and negative reinforcement. However, Skinner fails to recognize the fact that certain people have different definitions of what constitutes positive reinforcement. Although Skinner would say that looking into someone’s personal background he could make inferences about what they would deem positive and negative and would therefore be able to apply his principles this causes a serious problem for Skinner. Skinner’s application of the principles of positive and negative reinforcement are simply a very complex, scientific form of the argument from predictability. No matter how often Skinner’s principles are correct he can still not make the statement that applying positive and negative reinforcement will guarantee with perfect certainty that an agent will act in a specific way. Simply by definition Skinner’s principles fail to do this. Positive and negative reinforcement only state that they will make an action more or less likely. This is an extremely important problem since it means that Skinner can only make predictions about behaviour and cannot actually know for certain what anyone exposed to a certain stimulus will do. Skinner is simply attempting to turn the argument from predictability into something it is not; a scientifically infallible formula. He has not succeeded. Skinner’s principles are still simply a form of the argument from predictability and, as Campbell has already stated, this form of argument is simply irrelevant to the argument at hand.

Campbell’s argument against the argument from predictability makes Skinner’s application of positive and negative reinforcement a useless gesture. Campbell does not even attempt to argue that positive and negative reinforcement do not do what they say they will, because he doesn’t have to. It is clear that simply because positive and negative reinforcement may influence our actions, even to a very high degree of probability, they do not dictate our actions. Simply because you have been starved for days and are presented with the stimulus of food does not mean for certain that you will eat. You may suspect the food is poisoned, or you may not wish to shame yourself in front of your captors. At this point Skinner would most likely make the argument that the idea of being poisoned or being shamed are negative reinforcements that an agent is trying to avoid. However, this creates another problem for him. If an agent is subject to the negative reinforcement of starvation as well as the negative reinforcement of shame or the possibility of death and is then presented with a positive reinforcement in the form of food the agent must make a choice. There is no scientific method which can show us that positive and negative reinforcement are quantitative and measureable or that we can know at what level of negative reinforcement an agent would perform action a rather than action b. This is because positive and negative reinforcement are merely influences upon our behaviour. No matter how great the influence the final battle between which stimulus to respond to and which to ignore comes down to the will of the agent. The final action of whether or not to eat the food after being starved for days if you suspect it has been poisoned comes down to a choice. And it is this choice which shows to us very clearly that agents are free to act against the influence of positive and negative reinforcement.

C. A. Campbell writes from a strongly incompatiblist position in which he states that determinism and libertarianism cannot co-exist; that if determinism is true then free will must not exist and vice versa. Whether or not this is true cannot be explicitly proven from his argument. However, his argument does provide very strong, explicit support to discount the determinist position. Regardless of the truth of incompatiblism it can be logically concluded that if determinism is false free will must exist. This is essentially what Campbell sets out to prove. His argument against determinism is strong and compelling and is set down in a manner which makes it simple for anyone to understand. He believes that the very existence of choice clearly proves the existence of free will. In order to prove precisely that man does indeed have free will Campbell sets out both his own foundation and the foundation of those who would criticize him. He sets out his definition of free will and his belief in what makes an action free. He then examines several criticisms of libertarianism, specifically the argument from predictability and the argument from the alleged meaninglessness of an act supposed to be the self’s act and yet not an expression of the self’s character. Although he does not explicitly mention Skinner or his work his response to the argument from predictability gives us a very clear picture of how Skinner’s work actually relates to the debate over free will. Campbell states that although our actions may be influenced, influence alone does not impede the existence of free will. Campbell’s work clearly discounts Skinner’s opinion about free will and is a very clear and elegant criticism of his ideas. Anyone involved in this debate may choose whether to side with Skinner or with Campbell; but that choice alone will only make one side more right.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Objectivist Mirror Issue # 1

The Objectivist Mirror

We Propose A Better Way

Colin MacDonald & Robbie Holtam

If you are reading this paper then you may already know what the content will be explaining. If you do not then you are about to take your first steps towards the renaissance of your mind. The objectivist mirror is a paper in which we will use the only true “philosophy for living on earth” to investigate and explain the issues which plague our society. However, in order to properly examine these issues first you will need a brief understanding of the philosophy which we will be using.

Objectivism is a philosophy which was originally created by Russian-American author Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand proposed a philosophy that ignored the supernatural and did not deal with abstract, unrealistic concepts, but which dealt only with the proper way for humans to live in reality. Her philosophy is based on two fundamentals. These foundations for her philosophy are so obviously true as to be indisputable: the Law of Identity, and the Absolute of Reason.

The Law of Identity, originally proposed by Aristotle, holds that things are what they are, that reality exists, and that you cannot change reality simply through willpower. You may now be thinking to yourself that this idea cannot possibly be indisputable since the concept of existence has been questioned many times before. However, if you examine any dispute over the existence of existence you will always find the same answer. The most famous example of this debate is Descartes’ Meditations. In this book Descartes attempts to prove the law of identity by assuming that nothing he can doubt is truly existent. He arrives at the conclusion that he cannot possibly doubt his own existence, since in order to doubt his existence; there must be a being to do the doubting. In this way Descartes proves, for us, Aristotle’s law of identity.

The second foundation of Objectivism is the absolute of reason, which holds that as human beings our most important attribute - the one to which we owe our progress, our civilizations, and our very survival - is our cognitive function, our ability to reason. As human beings very little is given to us freely. We are given digestive organs, but not food to digest. We are given hands to manipulate the environment, but not the knowledge of how to use them. Likewise, we are given a brain capable of logic, but the process must be learned; it is a matter of choice. If you would question the importance of logic, and many of you will, consider this experiment. Go into any wilderness, be it a forest, desert or jungle, away from all civilization, with no companion and no supplies, and completely abandon reason. Refuse to think rationally in any way; assume that food will magically fall from the sky, assume that shelter will build itself and assume that someone else will do the work of surviving for you… and see how long you last.

Although philosophy will be the main topic of this paper, philosophy is practically useless if taken simply as an abstract discussion of concepts. Without being able to apply philosophy to real life, it would be worthless. For that reason we will examine a major societal issue which, although it may not be explicit, has deeply affected all of us. The issue in question is the general acceptance of a primitive philosophy throughout our society - the practice of altruism. It has become a standard of morality. Altruism here is defined in its most correct form, as a doctrine through which service to others is seen as the highest moral achievement. This is a principle which refuses to acknowledge productive achievement, which refuses to acknowledge individual happiness, but instead proposes that self immolation and self sacrifice are the only true path to proper living.

Take a step back from your daily routine and examine why you are unhappy with life. Is it because a select few have the majority of the wealth? Is it because you are being too selfish and are not looking out for other people? Is it because you posses more Apple products than the children of Africa? Do you feel guilt and anger at such injustices? If you do, you must take this instant to look inside and examine the roots of these feelings. Ask why you allow yourself to be tortured by thoughts such as these. You may not like the answers you come to but if you truly consider them, with rationality as your only guide and logical, deductive arguments as your only absolute, you will find that you can solve the problem of the gray nagging feeling inside you which demands the impossible… something for nothing.

Like a seed planted in a field of abundance, the thought of altruism is put in place from birth. A child in its early years hungers for knowledge about the world. It absorbs any information it can come across in its quest for definite answers. For this reason it is up to the parent to teach the child how to reason objectively, without the irrational bias which is created by our culture. The parent has an obligation to take care of the new mind. It is in their best interests, as a successful child will undoubtedly provide strong security for the parent’s uncertain future. However, since most childrearing requires a considerable amount of energy and intelligence, and since many parents were never taught the proper way to raise a child (they themselves probably being the product of lethargic and reluctant parents), the guardians will stumble through a terrifying ordeal of trying, and ultimately failing, to prepare the child for its departure into the real world. This failure will eventually result in the dominance of a school of thought which has been systematically destroying civilized society for thousands of years; altruism.

Without the knowledge to judge situations objectively and hold itself and its interests as the sole concern of its actions, the child will begin to grow in an environment of give and take, of what’s yours is mine what’s mine is yours, of which nothing you earn can be deserved because you are taking it away from those who need it more than you. This sentiment is placed in the minds of the young in order to make them compliant to the ones who have figured out how to manipulate the weak. They do this using the simplest form of manipulation; the turning of one against one’s self. From the starting gate, the child will already be unfit for the environment it was thrust into, and, without the ability to adapt quickly, will fall prey to the parasites who have adapted and evolved in such a way that they can subsist upon the good intension of others.

You may be wondering what kind of “parasites” can do this, why they would perpetrate such an evil against man if man is equal and in nature good. The fact is that humans are not equal, and that altruism is only a tool used by the ones who know how to buck the system in such a way that they can trick the people around them into giving them what they desire most – something for nothing. As you are most likely on your way to work, school, or the downtown shopping complex, an example will belligerently scream in your face. These people plead with you, appealing to your apparent sense of right and wrong, to help aid the endangered pandas of Indo-China or pestilence ridden children a world away. You feel it is right to help these causes, that it is a noble thing to do and that you have made the world a better place by donating. You walk away feeling like a martyr, with a weight lifted from your heart and from your wallet. These organizations have succeeded in gaining from you everything while giving you nothing; they have successfully peddled you altruism. You walk away only with a false sense of righteousness, based on a false ideal. The money you donated does not wholly go to the charity. It is irrational to think so. The charity is a company, just like a franchise or a bank, which must pay its employees somehow and most importantly of all, must turn a profit after all such expenses. Furthermore, these street-altruism-peddlers only represent the charity in question. Another middleman for your money to go through means another division of its value. Even less is now going to the orphans of the natural disaster in a place you've never heard of, but all that matters is that you've done your part, right?

In a similar vein, take the example of the boy and the beggar. A boy and his friend walked by the same pan-handler on their way to and from school. They both gave the man a quarter each day, each way, and he smiled affectionately, "thanks bud". The boy felt a shining sense of goodness and honour, that his action had helped his new friend out, but his friend felt different, hearing from his mother than these "hobos" sometimes use this money to buy rubbing alcohol in order to get a cheap drunken buzz. He did not know what this meant, but it has been instilled that this was a bad thing. He becomes wary, but still he feels that helping one in need is good. The boy, on the other hand, needed more of a fix of philanthropy, and gets a brilliant idea into his head; the more he gives the peddler, the more "goodness" the boy will receive! Before school, he ran up to his room and raided his piggy-bank, taking the one hundred dollar bill he got for his birthday. On their way to school, the boy tells his friend his plan to bestow a great blessing upon the man. The friend reluctantly humours the boy, but is struck with a binding sense of mistrust and derision at the motives behind such an act. What does it really gain the boy? He loses everything while this man gains it all for nothing. As the boy gave the panhandler the money, the friend could only look on with distended apprehension as the man hooted and hollered how grateful he was for the generosity, a look of feral greed in his eyes. The boy felt great, but the friend felt terrible; he had just witnessed the greatest evil in our world at work, the plague of altruism. There was no trim, changed man waiting on the store front stoop with his newly acquired life owed wholly to the boy, waiting to repay him for the pure moral goodness of his deeds. In fact, the boys never saw the man again after that day. The man's scam had worked and he achieved his fix. In all likelihood, it was his last fix.

Maintaining a worldview such as the one of altruism will only set one up for disappointment because the one’s begging for alms will never stop, and all funds given (whether mental or physical) will have the same effects as if they were thrown down a hole. This is not to say that the ideal of good will among others is a waste of one’s life. It must be understood, however, that the ideal of altruism as we know it is impossible to achieve. To give away all of your being, your essence, your soul to someone else at no gain to yourself is illogical. At very least, you will gain a sense of happiness in your deeds. As long as you consciously realize that you are donating your time and money to those in need because it makes you happy and not simply because society tells you that you need to donate, it is morally acceptable to live this way, because you will be looking after your number one virtue: your happiness.

If we are to correct the savage mistake our societies have been making all these years there are two fundamental beliefs which we must first accept. The first is one of the foundations of Objectivism, the supremacy of reason. This fundamental argument is the basis for all other knowledge, and therefore, is the first premise you must accept if you are to undo the damage altruism has wrought on your mind. The second premise, which will ultimately destroy altruism, is the moral standard of rational self-interest. To use rational self-interest as a standard for morality is the only logically correct way to apply morality in an objective and consistent way. Morality, in its true and proper form, can be defined as whatever is proper for the rightful life of a rational human being. This essentially means that anything which can be morally justified as providing some benefit to your life, without infringing upon the rights of any other person, is a morally justified action. If we are ever to throw off the shackles of our altruistic slave drivers and achieve true happiness it is these principles that we must accept and this way of living which we must embrace.

If you would like to contact us for feedback or questions or for any reason at all please email us at thank you all for taking the time to read this and we will be back in January with the second issue of The Objectivist Mirror.

MacDonald & Holtam

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Introduction to Objectivism

This blog will be a direct duplicate of the physical copy of The Objectivist Mirror. This is being done to allow those without direct access to either of the distribution sites to still have a chance to read it.

The Objectivist Mirror is a newsletter which is written, edited and distributed by myself and my colleague Robbie Holtam. The purpose of this paper is to use the philosophy of Objectivism to analyze and solve the major issues which are affecting our society today. What follows is an introduction to Objectivism which will be found in the first issue when it is released in November. This is not a comprehensive description, but merely a cursory glance to allow us to speak freely about the philosophy and apply it to different issues...

If you are reading this paper then you may already know what the content will be explaining. If you do not then you are about to take your first steps into the renaissance of your mind. The objectivist mirror is a paper in which we will use the only true “philosophy for living on earth” to investigate and explain the issues which plague our society. In order to properly examine these issues first you will need a brief understanding of the philosophy which we will be using.

Objectivism is a philosophy which was originally created by Russian-American author Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand proposed a philosophy which did not deal with the supernatural, which did not deal with abstract, unrealistic concepts, but which dealt only with the proper way for humans to live in reality. Her philosophy is based on two fundamentals. These foundations for her philosophy are so obviously true as to be indisputable. They are: the law of identity, and the absolute of reason.

The law of identity, originally proposed by Aristotle, holds that things are what they are, that reality exists, and that you cannot change reality simply through willpower. You may now be thinking to yourself that this cannot possibly be indisputable since the concept of existence has been questioned before. However, if you examine any dispute over the existence of existence you will always find the same answer. The most famous example of this debate is Descartes’ Meditations. In this book Descartes attempts to prove the law of identity by assuming that nothing he can doubt is truly existent. He arrives at the conclusion that he cannot possibly doubt his own existence, since in order to doubt his existence; there must be a being to do the doubting. In this way Descartes proves, for us, Aristotle’s law of identity.

The second foundation of Objectivism is the absolute of reason; which holds that as human beings our most important attribute, the one to which we owe our progress, our civilizations, and our very survival, is our cognitive function; our ability to reason. As human beings very little is given to us freely. We are given digestive organs, but not food to digest. We are given hands to manipulate the environment, but not the knowledge of how to use them. Likewise, we are given a brain capable of logic, but the process must be learned; it is a matter of choice. If you would question the importance of logic, and many of you will, consider this experiment: go into any wilderness, be it forest, desert or jungle, away from all civilization, with no companion and no supplies, and completely abandon reason. Refuse to think rationally in any way; assume that food will magically fall from the sky, assume that shelter will build itself, assume that someone else will do the work of surviving for you… and see how long you last.