Revelation #2: “the Emperor’s New Clothes” fallacy

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Tue, 2006-06-27 20:45

A few months ago I attended the first small meeting of the Oxford Objectivist Society. They were showing a video of the Leonard Peikoff ford forum lecture:
“Why Should One Act on Principle?” (1988). I have never heard a talk from Peikoff before in my life. I was keener on meeting the members of the society than hearing the talk actually.

I got there after the video had already started, but even then it seemed pretty monotonous and nothing much new. However, near the end he made a point that really struck me as being quite self-evident, but also profound. (It is always the self-evident things that startle me the most).

He said, that evil (i.e. the negation of value) cannot exist without good (i.e. the creation of value). That sounded almost biblical. But when you strip away the emotive titles, it is also quite evidently true. For example, art works that merely mimic things of value, but have no value themselves. I ‘m thinking along the lines of condoms on beds or someone screaming into a microphone etc…. It is only by virtue of the artists that have produced works of considerable value that people that call themselves "artists", "muscians" or "singers" and their work "art" get any value attached to what they do at all. They remind their audience of something good that has gone before, without actually being good. It's all in the anticipation, at a subconcious level, that people accept it without realizing. This however, only lasts as long as it takes for the entire profession to become bankrupt of value.

Unfortunately, this usually takes a very long time as the “free-riders” are never the absolute majority. They can't be. It would be impossible for them to do so and still exist without there actually being value to exploit. It is the reason that some doctors, scientists, architects, politicians…anyone with pretence of expected value…but in fact a “mimic of value” gets any attention at all. It’s what Germans call, “Schein statt Sein” which translates as “Appearance-of-being instead of actually-being”. Better yet, I would label this particular pretence of ascribing value to what has only has the appearance of value, as “the Emperor’s New Clothes” fallacy.


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Basking in the sunlight of others

Marcus's picture

Thanks for the comments Joe. Yes that is exactly it - "the spine" - is still there as Rand mentions, but the value stripped. The T-shirt example you gave is spot-on as well.

However to take this argument even a step further I would like to point out the overlap with the behaviour of animals.

You are probably aware of the prisoners dilemma of co-operate or defect. Think of it in terms of defecting from taking responsibility for yourself or co-operating towards your own self-interest.

Animals often exploit the possibility of a "defect" mode whereby they get a high "pay-out". For example the cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of another bird. This only works as long as another bird builds the nest. But because it works and "pays-out" for the cuckoo, the cuckoo can survive by this strategy. (They didn't think it up consciously, but exploited it through behavioural adaptation). Animals can also defect within a species (e.g. rules of fighting for mates) or between species (e.g. I get nectar and you get the pollen). The thing that biologists always observe though is that the behaviour is only ever stable if only a minority "defect" at any given time. If all defect, then the behaviour is self-defeated. (Evil cannot exist without good.)

Exactly the same is true for humans. Humans however, have very subtle and clever methods of both hiding defection and detecting defection. It is a survival arms race like with animals in the wild - but done with intellect and reason.

Many people make very lucrative careers "basking in the sunlight of others". But here is the kicker, they don't do it all the time, but only when they feel certain they can get away with it. In other words, when the “pay-out” out-weighs the costs.

Avoiding detection not only keeps the whole "behaviour" from becoming unstable, but it also increases the pay-out to them. It is in their self-less interest.

This is all very Machiavellian, but doesn't it ring true for many people who we observe supporting Nanny-State? Taking the moral high-ground or simply ignoring one, just lets them hide their defection more easily. They try to make the co-operators see a benefit in their defection. Getting tacit approval for it by the victims - allows a deception to go without realisation (almost!). Step up Ayn Rand, exposing the defectors!

"They remind their audience

JoeM's picture

"They remind their audience of something good that has gone before, without actually being good. It's all in the anticipation, at a subconcious level, that people accept it without realizing."

Very good point. I touch on this in my piece on the gestalt theory of music, and it also reminds me of a scene from ATLAS where Dagny hears the Halley Concerto butchered on the radio, and Rand describes the experience as one of butchered expectation:

"The great burst of sound was the opening chords of Halley's Fourth Concerto. It rose in tortured triumph, speaking its denial of pain, its hymn to a distant vision. Then the notes broke. It was as if a handful of mud and pebbles had been flung at the music, and what followed was the sound of the rolling and the dripping...Yet is was still the remnant of Halley's melody that gave it form; it was the melody that supported it like a spinal cord."

Rand was prophetic here, anticipating decades earlier sampling and "the art of the remix." Not only in music, though; you see big business in t-shirt parodies of famous products like cereals and everyday household products, usually with a drug reference. (Usually worn by college students rebelling against corporate America, and usually with a cynical edge.)

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