Audio of Debate on Ayn Rand’s Ethics

 Posted by on 5 March 2009 at 11:50 am  Objectivism
Mar 052009

The audio recording of Monday’s debate between Onkar Ghate and Michael Huemer entitled “Making a Virtue of Selfishness? A Debate about Ayn Rand’s Ethics” is now available on the “Think!” web site. You can download it directly from this link.

I’m pleased to report that the event was the most popular in the three-year history of this “Think!” series of philosophy lectures for the general public. We’ve had a packed room — of 214 seats — with prior events, but we’re never run out of standing room. But that’s what happened on Monday. I can take some credit for that: I’ve gotten very good at promoting these lectures. (It was my seventeenth! Just one more to go!) However, I was working with an excellent topic and speakers — and a debate format always draws a substantially larger crowd than a mere lecture.

As for the debate itself, I was very pleased. It was a substantive discussion, not mere showmanship. As expected, Dr. Ghate presented the Objectivist view of morality very well. Dr. Huemer was an excellent opponent. He was not casual or dismissive of Ayn Rand’s ethics. He presented his views openly, without any kind of pretense or hoopla. While I disagree with his criticisms — particularly with their epistemological foundation — he was an honest, informed, and forthright critic. For that, I’m very grateful, as it’s quite rare in academia.

The Objectivist philosopher known as “Noumenalself” attended the debate. His general analysis is worth repeating:

I think it’s important to give credit to both debaters for an event like this, and that includes giving credit to Huemer. Many of us may disagree with things he said, but he did far better than most other academics who try to analyze and critique Objectivism. Just open most any of the secondary literature on Rand written more than five years ago and you’ll see what I mean. I went up after the debate and extended him my thanks. I think others should do so, as well, perhaps by sending him emails thanking him for his participation.

Huemer did not misrepresent the Objectivist position once in the entire debate, and displayed a genuine understanding of its basic principles. That is rare and commendable. Huemer is in the unique position of being a professional philosopher who takes Objectivism seriously, even though he disagrees with it. … From what I’ve seen so far, we need more critics of Objectivism like Huemer.

Also, regarding Dr. Huemer’s proposed counter-examples to egoism, Noumenalself rightly observed:

It’s easy to say in response to [Huemer's] examples that we think we shouldn’t shoot the fellow because it would violate his rights. He knows that Ayn Rand and Objectivists don’t think rights-violation is consistent with Objectivism. He made it very clear that he knew this, and so he was not misrepresenting what we think. His point was that we are wrong to think of this as a logical implication of egoism: if self-interest is our standard, then he doesn’t see how, logically speaking, our self-interest alone could rule out exploiting/killing other people. That’s not a misrepresentation, but a disagreement about whether our view has a particular logical implication.

And, it’s a hard point to establish that egoism doesn’t have this implication. Huemer’s response (along with many other philosophers) to you would be: why should we care about whether we violate his rights? Why is it in our self-interest not to violate rights, or even to assist someone in an emergency? Huemer is correct that the answer to that question is not obvious. Indeed this was part of Onkar [Ghate's] point: because what’s in our self-interest is not obvious, we need a science of ethics to help us discover it.

The burden of proof is on Objectivists to show whether or why these examples illustrate implications of self-interest. And I also think Huemer is correct that we have to have an answer to his admittedly unlikely hypothetical examples. We need to be able to explain why we think such cases are impossible, when and if they are impossible. That is, we need to explain why it would never be in our interest to kill someone for a dollar. Or, if it ever is in our interest, we need to explain why such killing would be outside the scope of morality (as in emergency situations). Onkar [Ghate] did a good job explaining the fundamental principles we need to provide these explanations: he noted the general value we derive from other people (we value them as creative producers, not as material to be exploited), and the general conditions for the applicability of moral advice (it’s for guidance in non-emergency situations). But he didn’t draw out all of the implications from those two points that are needed to provide the full Objectivist answer here (and given his time limits, he couldn’t).

To give one last point of credit to Huemer: the problem of accounting for how the interests of others fit into our self-interest is probably the hardest problem for the Objectivist ethics. To the extent that he focused his criticisms on this issue, he did an honest job of focusing on a legitimate problem that Objectivist philosophers have to address. I’m not saying it can’t be addressed. I think Ayn Rand has already done all of the important work to do so. But it’s difficult to synthesize everything she said on the matter, so much so that I’ve been grappling with it for years and still don’t quite have it organized in my mind in terms of essentials. If we were wrong about anything, this is where we would be wrong, and thinking honestly about whether Objectivism is true means examining this question carefully.

Noumenalself had some further comments well worth reading in that ObjectivismOnline thread.

I would urge you to consider these points your assessment of the debate, particularly in any comments that you post on it. As before, you are welcome to post critical comments about the arguments presented in the debate in these comments. However, I will not permit personal attacks of any kind. Such comments will be deleted, and if outraged enough, I will ban the commenter without a moment’s hesitation.

In part, that’s because I’m the graduate student organizer and promoter of this series. It would be unseemly for me to willingly host nasty remarks about any participant in the series, let alone about a faculty member in my own department. However, my reasons are more personal: Michael Huemer has been a valuable friend to me in my seven years in the Boulder philosophy department. He has never shown anything but respect for me and for my views. Moreover, he is my dissertation advisor, and I am highly grateful to him for his diligent work and support in that capacity. So if you personally attack him, you are doing him a serious injustice and you are seriously disrespecting me. I will not take kindly to that.

I’m sorry to be so stern in this warning, but I’ve found that some supposed Objectivists seem more determined to indulge their angry feelings than respect me or my property.

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