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Well, okay, not quite.

It’s Sunday, it’s hot, I have to go out for a bit this afternoon, and I’m still not exactly cheerful.

But I do want to get back to Unger for a while, and I will.

Let me just say what I promised to say–although I will note that since I am, here, trying to explain what somebody else has said (Ayn Rand, in this case), I’m not sure how I’m supposed to achieve rigor except in the reporting of it.

So here it goes:

Rand says that the fundamental axiom of any moral system must be that “existence exists.”

An axiom is an idea that cannot itself be proven, but that also cannot be abandoned–it is impossible even to try to refute it without using it. 

And that is certainly true of “existence exists.”  My guess is that it’s impossible even to imagine a case in which existence does not exist, because you have to exist to imagine it.

If you see what I mean.

The axiom “existence exists” is usually called the “law of identiy.”

The second axiom that is fundamental to all moral (or other) systems is what’s called the “law of noncontradiction”–that a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time. 

Something can’t be all black and all white at the same time.  Something can’t have a round head and a square head at the same time.  Something can’t be all hard and all soft at the same time. 

And, most importantly, something cannot be both entirely alive and entirely dead at the same time.

Living things, because they are living, are faced continually with a single question:  life or death?  Survive or perish?

Each living thing answers that question by pursuing the strategies inherent in its nature.

For human beings, the only available strategy is the use of the mind.  The mind is the survival mechanism nature has given human beings.

But human beings, unlike any other animals (as far as we know) is capable of refusing to employ this strategy, of undercutting it, of denying it altogether.

But to the extent that we do that, we opt for death–and the law of noncontradiction being what it is, even when we think we are opting for the death of somebody else, we are actually opting also for our own. 

This is not the same thing as saying that either we or anybody else is actually going to die right this second because of the choices we make.

Rather, when a con man cons a victim, he creates a situation where that victim is manipulated into at least crippling his ability to survive by entering into a world of lies.

But the con man is also crippling his own ability to survive.  In order to go on getting what he wants (or needs) he must make sure that the victim does not ever realize that his reality has been faked.  That means he must now work constantly and in perpetual knowledge that the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. 

The only way to do that is to create an ever widening miasma of lies, until the con man lives as much in that unreality as any of his victims do. 

And since the choice of unreality is–in the long run–the choice of death over life, the con man increases the strength of that choice not only for his victim and for himself, but for the world at large. 

With the burglar, we’re also dealing with a denial of reality.

Wealth does not simply spring into existence on its own.  It has to be created and earned. 

A burglar behaves as if that were not true.  Wealth “just is,” and all he has to do is pick it up.

To accept reality here, you would have to say “wealth has to be earned, and if I haven’t earned it then I have no right to it.”

I feel like I’m doing this badly here, but I do think it makes more than a little sense, and that it is clear.

It’s not just a question of Rand “not liking” force or fraud.

It’s that force and fraud always involve refusals to accept reality as real. 

In both cases, the criminal is assuming that wealth “just is” and is lying around for the taking.  Both refuse to accept that wealth must be creaed and earned to exist at all. 

And, in fact, both are counting on somebody else accepting that existence exists and that it is what it is.

If somebody else hadn’t done that, no wealth would exist for them to rob.

I’m really, really, really not doing a great job here.

Written by janeh

July 18th, 2010 at 7:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Contradictions'

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  1. No, you’re not doing it badly. It’s a good summary of Rand. The problem is that it’s not one of Rand’s strong points.
    First off, everything does not hinge on two axioms, but on two axioms and one choice—life. Well, yes—suicides don’t take much part in group discussion. But this is Ayn Rand. We’re talking about MY decision, not that of my family, clan or nation, and in this life. The moral code is supposed to help ME live. When someone rudely lives in a manner of which Rand does not approve, she describes it—survival in slavery, for instance—as not being man’s life qua man. As tap-dancing goes, that’s pretty much an entire musical chorus. Is Big Sam a rutabaga?

    If the purpose of the code is survival, and the behavior dictated by the code is contra-survival, you have a major contradiction. But it does happen. First off, we survive by our intelligence. Yes, we do—as a general rule. Certainly we’re better off using our big brains than flapping our non-existent wings. But it’s a rule with exceptions. Who among us has not driven a nail with a monkey wrench or pounded on a wood screw with a hammer? Just so, most of us have survived as automata or as foraging primates now and then. Many men have survived in unfree states. Some have gotten past these conditions, though “where there’s life, there’s hope” doesn’t seem to be a Randian saying. Others had descendants who did better—but Rand has nothing to say to DNA, and not much to say to family.

    But I’m wandering from the two examples. The confidence man MAY be tangled up in his own lies—but MUST he? He can go to another town. He can gull an elderly person and outlive his victim. Or he can take good notes. Hypotheticals are dangerous. An intellectual CAN be so taken up in his reading and research as to neglect his survival. But this doesn’t mean Rand is opposed to being an intellectual. Confidence men arrested by the authorities don’t seem more delusional than the population at large. One would assume the ones not arrested to be at least equally skilled. Try politicians as a sub-class of confidence men. Make up a list of presidents you feel to have been out of touch with reality. Make up a list of presidents who continually lied through their teeth to get votes or money. Do all our presidential con men show up on the list of delusional ones? I didn’t think so.

    Neither does the bandit deny reality when he’s rustling cattle. In two hours and change, I’ll be eating steak at the local Outback. I’m not denying herbivorism, any more than the steer was denying photosynthesis when he ate grass. We are both placing ourselves higher up the food chain. The hoodlum who carjacks my Accent or the hacker who empties out my bank account are not saying production of wealth is unnecessary. They’re just harvesting my wealth the way I might harvest a bee’s honey or a tree’s fruit. Hear the wisdom of Mouse: “Of course I took from Above. That’s what Above is for.” (I do miss BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.) No, of course not everyone can do it. We can’t all be soldiers, policemen or blacksmiths, either. Yes, of course it’s wasteful. But waste is a slippery concept. I can find you people who think it’s wasteful to chop down a tree to print a novel or a work of philosophy, and at least some of the time they’re right.

    As for the “law of noncontradiction” meaning that in choosing death for another I have chosen death for myself–that’s beyond silly. It would only be true if my death and someone else’s were the same thing instead of the same TYPE of thing. Rand surely knew better. Think of all the tens of millions of people who died during her lifetime.

    The problem with the confidence man, the thief and the slave-holder is not that they have “denied reality” in the Randian sense, but that they have treated men as things, and asserted their own primacy over other men. As a Methodist I say that men are NOT things, but created in the image of God, and that we are all equal in His sight. Ayn Rand’s ancestors believed the same. Rand wanted the conclusion without the belief, and resorted to badly-strained logic in her efforts.

    A pity. I really wish she had succeeded in this instance. But her reasoning just won’t support her conclusion.

    A long answer, but an important topic.


    18 Jul 10 at 10:15 am

  2. I think Robert skims over one very important point, there, the one about DNA. Looked at from an external perspective, the purpose of humans, or any DNA-carrying organism, is the creation of more DNA. Posterity. Someone who survives in slavery to reproduce is technically more successful from an evolutionary standpoint than the slaveholder who dies childless.

    Of course, living life as a human being has many more elements than simple reproduction, but ignoring it totally gives a false basis for any moral code. Rand seems to limit her definition of “survival” to the lifetime of the experiencer. I could be wrong there, I’m not conversant enough with Rand to really plunge in to the discussion fully.

    I’m also wondering about the “burglar” example. How is a burglar different in moral quality from a politician or government that taxes? Don’t they both deny the reality of where wealth comes from, and as Robert says “harvest” what others produce? At least presently, and at times in the past, they act as if wealth will spring forth again, even if they harvest the producing entities to death.

    Maybe I’m just grumpy today. I didn’t get much sleep last night.


    18 Jul 10 at 1:10 pm

  3. I’ve been busy getting a new computer up with Win7 instead of WinXP. It takes sone time to get used to the changes.

    I agree with Robert and Lymaree that the burglar example isn’t convinving. A society has to acknowledge that wealth has to come from someplace but its not clear that applies to an individual.

    And societies such as the Vikings worked hard to steal the wealth of other societies.

    I’m not sure this makes sense but I also didn’t get much sleep last night.


    18 Jul 10 at 5:08 pm

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