Check Your Premises

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Harry Binswanger's 1977 Letter to Robert Nozick

Harry Binswanger

See PDF version here.

[Author's note: After I mailed the letter to Nozick, some weeks passed without a response from him. So, I phoned him about it. He said he had received the letter, and that he had added it to a pile on his desk of papers that he meant to read. But, he added, it was a big pile and he might never get to my letter. He was quite open to hearing a rebuttal and even encouraged me to publish on the wider topic, which I eventually did (The Monist, January 1992).]

August 25, 1977

Professor Robert Nozick
Department of Philosophy
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass., 02138

Dear Professor Nozick,

I am writing in response to your article, "On the Randian Argument," which appeared some years ago in The Personalist. In the article, you state: "it may be, of course, that I have overlooked some other ways, which would make the argument work. If so, I presume someone else, who claims to possess and understand the demonstration, will supply the missing material." I propose to accept that challenge, based on my own understanding of Objectivism. Thus, this lengthy letter.

Before dealing with substantive topics, I must say something about methodology, for I am convinced that the ultimate issue involved here is methodological. What constitutes a philosophical demonstration? What is philosophic precision? What are the standards of legitimacy for objections and counterexamples? In criticizing Objectivism for the absence of a "knock-down deductive argument" you beg the methodological question. Miss Rand does not agree with the methodology of contemporary analytic philosophy, and she has reasons for her disagreement. It is quite true that Objectivism has not been (and can never be) proved according to the contemporary analytic standards of proof. But what is to blame—her reasoning, or those standards? Evidence that the fault does not lie with Objectivism is provided by the fact that nothing whatever has been proved by these standards. Can you give me any example of any basic philosophical principle for which there is a "knock-down deductive argument"? (And I assume that to be "knock-down" its premises must be immune to counterexamples, among other requirements.) I have never seen any such argument; the methodology, I believe, prohibits it. Science-fictional counterexamples, borderline cases, and the analytic-synthetic dichotomy can buzz-saw through any positive position. Hasn't this sort of overkill been the story of the last 50 years of philosophy? The "rules" are so much in favor of the critic, the refuter, that, since positivism, virtually no new positive positions have been offered (or they have been buried under criticism as soon as they appeared). No doubt you read the recent Sunday New York Times article on Kripke, which made the same point. E.g., Morgenbesser's legendary "Yeah, yeah" is very funny, but in fact it does not weigh against the thesis that a double positive is never a negative, for each of his "yeahs" was, in context, a negative (by virtue of the sarcastic tone of voice).

All this is in no way to argue for the abandonment of precision, rigor, analysis, or logic, but to suggest that there is something basically wrong with current ideas of what those intellectual virtues consist of.

Perhaps the following analogy will be helpful. You may recall the many fairy tales about a man granted three wishes by a genie. Each wish is granted, but always in a form counter to the wisher's intent. He wishes for a chest of gold, and one is created for him, but at the bottom of the sea; or, he is given the gold, but simultaneously everyone else is given as much gold, so that the gold drops in value, leaving him none the richer. As a child, I used to think that the wisher could protect himself by spelling out the terms of his wish in more detail, closing every possible loophole. Now, however, I realize that there is no way to do this. No "ceteris paribus" clause can be iterated into infinity. In Objectivist terms, every statement is made in a context, and objections that ignore this context are invalid and need not be answered. Contextual precision is the only precision there is, and it is unnecessary in most cases even to add "ceteris paribus," or "in the context for which this applies," or the like—these qualifications are implicit in any statement.

Consider, for example, your criticism of the Objectivist argument against parasitism, specifically, what you term the "formal argument":

The formal argument is difficult to make precise, and difficult to fit into a Randian view. It holds that moral rules are applicable to everyone, so that if following certain rules and values can work only if others follow different ones, and can work only because others follow different ones, then the rules and values in question cannot be the correct ones.

I submit that this argument is not difficult to make precise, and does fit logically into Objectivism. Again, what is the standard of precision? If precision requires us to develop a formula that can be applied mechanically, contextlessly, to every imaginable case, then yes, the argument is in that sense imprecise. But to make it rationally and contextually precise, the only change I can see to be needed is the elimination of the term "moral rules" in favor of "fundamental moral principles." Morality is a system of principles applicable to everyone. It identifies the policies of action necessary to man's survival. All men have the same fundamental means of survival. Therefore, if two men are acting on fundamentally different policies, at least one of them must be wrong. The fact that it is the parasite who is wrong is established by the fact that for the parasite code to work at all, there must be men who act by the non-parasite code. Now there are questions that could be raised about the level of abstraction of a fundamental moral principle, and these questions might be interesting and worth working on, but this does not mean that the argument as it stands is either imprecise or dubious. Ultimately, to answer all such questions one would need an entire epistemology, including a theory of propositions and of induction. The idea that all this must be done as prerequisite of grasping that parasitism involves an invalidating double standard is a reductio ad absurdum of the methodology. At best, it is like making Einstein a prerequisite for Newton.

Furthermore, I am puzzled by the part about this not fitting into "the Randian view." What is the difficulty? I can see the difficulty for a Kantian view, since Kant's metaethics is purely formal—i.e. deontological. The avoidance of double standards cannot be the only principle of ethics, because many mutually exclusive principles can be universalized without contradiction—e.g. that everyone should commit suicide. But in the context of a teleological ethics, such as Miss Rand's, actual content is provided prior to raising consistency issues.

Having raised the methodological issue, I would now like to discuss the main points of substance, particularly with regard to Miss Rand's validation of man's life as the standard of morality.

You interpret the first conclusion of her metaethics as: "only living beings have values with a point." But the texts to which you refer do no warrant this interpretation. Rather, the first conclusion is: "It is only the concept of 'Life" that makes the concept of 'Value' possible." The cash-value of this conclusion is that to be a value is to be pro-life. Only by showing something to be beneficial to the self-sustaining actions of an organism can one rationally identify it as a value. "To speak of 'value' as apart from 'life' is worse than a contradiction in terms." (Specifically, it commits what Miss Rand calls "the fallacy of the stolen concept," which consists of using a concept in a manner that deprives it of its connection to reality by denying prior concepts on which it depends.)

Now how does she demonstrate the existence of this connection between value and life? The demonstration is not purely deductive. Hume is right that an exclusively deductive procedure cannot found ethics. But a non-deductive step comes in with the formation of the concept of "value." ("The process of observing the facts of reality and of integrating them into concepts is, in essence, a process of induction." Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 30.)

What observations does the concept of "value" integrate? What distinction, if any, does the concept make? "Is the concept of value . . . an arbitrary human invention, unrelated to, underived from and unsupported by any facts of reality—or is it based on a metaphysical fact of man's existence?" Miss Rand's answer, of course, is that, as a living organism, man's existence is conditional upon self-generated action to satisfy his survival needs. These survival needs provide the basis for distinguishing between what is beneficial or harmful, valuable or disvaluable. The fact that one's life must be sustained by a specific course of action to obtain needed items makes possible the concept of value, and all evaluative concepts. Without implicit or explicit reference to the alternative of life or death, the concept of "value" cannot be formed. Without such reference to life, there is no means of distinguishing between an action's goal ("that which one acts to gain and/or keep") and its mere effects. Goal-directed action itself cannot be conceptualized except by reference to the goal's beneficial relation to the agent's life. This is the point illustrated by means of the example of the immortal, indestructible robot. Say, for instance, the robot is constructed in such a way that it goes around gathering stones and putting them into piles. Is this goal-directed action? No, because how would this result of its action be distinguished from any other result (e.g., leaving footprints when it walks)? (We must abstract, of course, from the goals of the robot's designers.)

You are probably familiar with Hempel's example of the two concomitant effects of the heartbeat: circulating the blood and making heart sounds. On what basis can we say that the former is the heartbeat's goal or function, but not the latter? Partly on the grounds that blood circulation is beneficial to the organism's life, but the heart sounds are not. Michael Simon makes a similar observation in his book, The Matter of Life:

We may explain, by indicating the cause of, heart sounds by pointing out the presence of a beating heart, but we are not in so doing giving any kind of functional account of a beating heart. What is lacking is the stipulation that the effect explained must satisfy some need, some condition the satisfaction of which is necessary for the proper functioning of the organism.

To summarize the argument: to be a value is to be something one goal-directedly acts to gain and/or keep. Action towards a goal (as opposed to action merely having an effect) implies that the agent has something at stake—something to gain or lose—in the outcome of the action. The fundamental, all-inclusive thing at stake in goal-directed action is the agent's life. In Miss Rand's words:

"Value" is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept "value" is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.

I quote from Galt's speech: "There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistences—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms . . . . It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death."

Therefore, to be a value is to be something that a living organism acts to gain and/or keep in response to its survival needs. In short, to be a value is to be pro-life.

You ask why the robot couldn't read Atlas Shrugged, become convinced by the arguments, and act for Objectivist values. The first answer is: because one of those arguments it would be convinced by is the preceding one to the effect that it can't have values! The more directly relevant answer is that whatever motions the robot started performing would not be goal-directed, not be towards values, since ex hypothesi, the outcome of those motions makes no difference to it. Remember that the robot does not experience pleasure or pain, for that would violate the conditions of the example (and pleasure and pain are themselves life-based, according to Objectivism). So although the robot's behavior might change after being exposed to this new "input" (why, I don't know), the change would have no value significance. Its actions have effects, but it does not act for the sake of those effects. Those effects are neither valuable nor disvaluable to it. For the robot, there is no "for what?" Only the alternatives of life vs. death generates values.

Now all of the preceding development, contrary to an implication of your article, is on the pre-moral level. Morality begins with choice. A moral value is a value accepted by choice. The Objectivist ethics does not rest on a premise to the effect that "the prolonging and maintaining of life is itself a (moral) value." According to Objectivism, nothing is morally valuable in and of itself, independent of one's choice, not even one's life. The choice to live is pre-moral, and one cannot say one ought to choose to live. To hold otherwise would be to endorse a Platonic or Kantian doctrine of intrinsic value, which Miss Rand rejects. I will cite two texts in support of this interpretation:

(1) "No, you do not have to life; it is your basic act of choice." (Galt's speech)

(2) "The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any touch of Kantianism, can best be illustrated by the following story. In answer to a man who was telling her that she's got to do something or other, a wise old Negro woman said: 'Mister, there's nothing I've got to do except die.' "Life or death is man's only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. "Reality confronts man with a great man 'musts,' but all of the are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: 'You must, if—' and the 'if' stands for man's choice: '—if you want to achieve a certain goal.' You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think if you want to work." ("Causality vs. Duty," The Objectivist, July, 1970)

There is no categorical imperative in the Objectivist ethics. All the imperatives are hypothetical, based ultimately on the choice to live. The point of the earlier development on the nature of values, however, is that of all choices, the choice to live or not is the fundamental. This is the choice that grounds morality because it involves the basic alternative at the root of the whole phenomenon of value: life or death. The basic choice cannot be, for example, the choice to serve others or not, to worship God or not, or to preserve the natural environment or not. For none of these alternatives are fundamental in a value context. They can be evaluated only from the standpoint of having already made the choice to live, function, pursue goals. The choice to live is logically prior to the choice to do this or that with one's life.

A frequently raised objection here is "Choosing to live, in the sense of doing enough to prevent one's actual death, is not the same as choosing to do nothing but live, or to live fully. Having chosen to remain alive, I am free then to choose to use my spare time to pursue value X which is not pro-life. The fact that I must be alive in order to achieve X is not equivalent to saying that every action must be judged only by its relationship to one's life." There are two points to be made in replying to this objection.

(1) How could one identify action towards X as goal-directed action toward a value, apart from X's beneficial or harmful relation to one's life? Aside from such relation to life, X can no more be called a value than can the effects of the robot's motions. Of course, one may want to achieve X, but this desire is an emotion, and accordingly is the product of an automatized value-judgment (according to the Objectivist understanding of emotions). Hence, to base the claim that X is a value on the fact that X is desired, is circular ("X is a value because I have automatized the judgment that X is a value.") The only means of demonstrating something to be a value is to relate it back to one's needs, the basis of which is the alternative of life or death.

(2) The objection is wrong on its own terms. There is no "spare time" in regard to life. Life's requirements are such that every alternative has survival significance. Whatever the X is, it in fact either aids one's life or opposes it. For even if X is not directly self-destructive, time spent pursuing X constitutes a drain on one's energy and resources. If the cost of pursuing X exceeds the benefits to one's life resulting from achieving X, the pursuit is destructive to one's life. In this context, the key statement by Miss Rand is: "(life) depends upon a specific course of action." With respect to one's life, whatever behavior is not for it, is against it.

This is not contravened by the fact that 10 minutes [spent] in an anti-life pursuit need not kill you (although it might). If the pursuit is in principle anti-life, morality condemns it. The analogy with medicine is helpful here. For X to be unhealthy, it is not necessary that X result in immediate death, but only that it weaken the organism, increase its risk of death, etc. Analogously, for X to be evil, it is necessary only that X be opposed to the optimal conditions for survival.

To summarize: the fundamental choice is to live—in which case one must follow a specific course of action—or not to live—in which case no action, no values, and no morality are possible.

You next raise the question: "suppose that we have gotten, somehow, to the conclusion that for each individual, his life and the prolongation of it is a value for him. How do we get from here to: III. For each man, the preservation of his life, qua man, as a person, is a value for him."

But this is not the Objectivist theory. Nowhere does Miss Rand speak about the "prolongation" of life. Nor is it correct to say that one's life is a value to him. One's life is one's ultimate value. In the strictest sense, there are no non-life-based values. Your formulation "democratizes" values, making it appear that the choice to live is on a par with any other choice. But the whole thrust of the Objectivist ethics is to insist that this is not the case. Perhaps the question you are raising is this: Granted that one's life is one's ultimate value, why is man's life qua man the standard of value? The answer to that question is given in "The Objectivist Ethics":

The Objectivist ethics holds man's life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man. The difference between "standard" and "purpose" in this context is as follows: a "standard" is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man's choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose.

A standard is simply a principle that performs a certain epistemological function. It is not that one first recognizes that his life is a value to him, then that living qua man is a value to him. Rather, one choose to live, and then seeks a conceptual method of identifying what serves his life or hinders it. If men were clairvoyant about the future consequences of their actions, so that they could mystically foresee what the entire course of their lives would be in every choice they confronted, there would be in that case no need for a standard of value. It would be sufficient to say: take whatever action will be most beneficial to your life. But this is not the nature of human cognition. Since we are not clairvoyant, there is a need for a system of principles based on a standard of value. The standard must be abstract because only abstractions give men the ability to project intelligently into the future. Thus, the standard for achieving my life is man's life. Likewise, the standard for judging my health is man's health: the requirements of the survival of a human being. If there were no science of the medical requirements of man qua man, there would be very little that could be said about the requirements of my health. I am able to identify the healthy for me by applying the general requirements of human health to my particular circumstances. I am able to identify the good for me by applying the general requirements of human life to my particular circumstances. The only reason why one should choose goals by the standard of man's life qua man is that this is the means of determining and achieving one's own well-being as an individual.

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.

Since I have already written a longer letter than I had intended, it is perhaps best to end here, even though I have not discussed the social-political topics you deal with in the latter part of your article. On the validation of individual rights, I recommend to your attention not only the discussion in "Man's Rights," but also that in "What Is Capitalism?" (the first chapter of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), especially page 17 of the of the paperback edition. As I see it, the two crucial premises in the validation are that (1) reason is man's basic means of survival, and (2) "Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man's mind." (ibid., p. 17)

My minimum purpose in writing has been to reinforce your conclusion that "Miss Rand is an interesting thinker, worthy of attention." I'm sure that it must be obvious that I think she is a great deal more than that, and that I am in agreement with her philosophy (although the material herein represents only my own understanding of Objectivism).

In case you decide to respond to this letter, as I hope you will, you can write to me at Hunter (where I am an Adjunct Assistant Professor), or, preferably, to my home address: 301 East 62nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

Sincerely,

Harry Binswanger

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