Objectivism and the "Problem of Evil"

gmshoward's picture
Submitted by gmshoward on Wed, 2009-07-15 18:51

This seems to be the place to ask the deep philosophical questions, though it doesn't really look open for business anymore. On the chance that I'm wrong about that:

How do Objectivists deal with what theologians call the "problem of evil"? To put it more pointedly, Why didn't the "strike" of AS happen in prehistory, when the first reasoning man made a tool and the first "moocher" tried to wrench it out of his hands? Why have the John Galts of history tolerated such treatment rather than setting the world to rights long before this date?

(If this has already been addressed in a forum thread, feel free to just post a pointer...)

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Keating's choices

Ptgymatic's picture

To be moral one must be intransigently thoughtful. The answer to the Socratic paradox is that the individual must choose to make his knowledge of the evil of his impulse effective by keeping it in mind. He can blank it out by focusing on the limited aspect of his impulse that is attractive to him.

Keeping things in mind, and taking the time and making the effort to do so constantly is the discipline necessary to live morally. It is basically just thinking things through, not grabbing hold of some one or few aspects and ignoring, or neglecting to discover what others there may be. Many a pleasant opportunity would have to be foregone if a person were always to do that.

Peter Keating:

What is there for Keating to love? His talent? His accomplishments? He loves "them" when others are reflecting their "reality" for him, when he is getting awards, or talking about them, or enjoying perks that come with them, but how can he love them the rest of the time? How can he love his "talent" when he is faced with a design project, when he can't find the talent he is supposed to have?

As Rand so beautifully portrays, reality brutally proves that his status is undeserved. The company of approving people is necessary for him to believe in himself. But even that comes at a price...and when that price is demanded of him, where does he turn? He opted out of self-reliance, and neglected to achieve actual ability.

The freedom that is volition is a constant test. The more you fail, the harder it is to pass the next one. A clear mind can't be polluted now and then, and remain clear. The discipline of focus-based morality is absolute. Every failure sets you back. Think of the dedication of various storied saints, who devote their every moment and action to worshipping God. It is that sort of discipline, only it isn't self-sacrificial, of course.

Justice is a man-made commodity. The world does not care. Things go wrong, and disease strikes, and crime pursues you, and society and governments are what they are. One can be highly rational, and still suffer set-backs and misfortune. What one who is highly rational does not ever suffer, however, is the pain of knowing that he harmed himself, and wasted his own best chances to prosper and enjoy life. That is self-loathing.

To paint a little conjectural picture: Imagine Peter Keating were as thoughtful as Howard Roark. As a child, he would have felt emotionally distant from his mother, looked on her as foolish, disagreed with her about many things, endured all her efforts to correct him and persuade him and induce his loyalty to her. He would not have been a social star in school (we know the period of time in which he went to school, so we know what the culture was.) He would have had to give up the praise and petting of his teachers, the admiration and company of his large circle of friends, at least some of the awards and status of being "most likely to succeed" in the eyes of his mother, school, church, and community.

In exchange, he would have felt he really knew what he knew, that he could reliably act on it, that his plans wouldn't mysteriously back-fire on him, or that he would, in the future, regret his choices and decisions. He would feel confidence in his relation to the world, if not to the world of society.

For Keating to have become a Roark, he would have had to choose to trade the full-blooded fame and celebration of success, for the potential to succeed. What he did was go with what was easier and more pleasant. He was "good." He played to the peanut gallery, and enjoyed the rewards. When he found himself seeing through some of the people and practices, he took the tact of hypocrisy, enjoying what they could do for him in public, and enjoying feeling superior to them in private.

Lies and pretenses have huge leeway and infinite variations. Facts and the truth are singular and determinate. You are in the driver's seat when faking and falsifying, the options are great, and one may pile lies upon lies, but reality is in the driver's seat if you are honest, and the path is "straight and narrow."

The mental integrity of a moral individual is achievable by anyone of normal intelligence. Pretense and lies, fraud and theft are within the grasp of even primitive peoples.

The evil in normal people is the mental closets they don't trouble themselves to clean, where the wrongs they have done are hidden, so as to avoid feeling guilt; the confusions they've glimpsed about fundamental issues are stuffed, so they don't have to face challenges to their life-style; and where betrayed truths about their own desires and hopes are mummified, to allow them to stay their course on the low road.

Such mental closets are not black holes, and life and reality keep opening the door: chances to fulfill a long-suppressed dream come to be; contradictions between one's professed values and the foreseeable consequences of his actions become plain; the consequences of past wrongs manifest themselves; etc. These are imposed choice-points, where one re-affirms the denial and evasions of the past, or chooses to face facts, with all their consequences. The weight of guilt and loss and regret and self-blame that facing facts entails deters the person who was willing to deny and avoid in the first place.

That closet has a basket hanging on the outside, where moment-by-moment evasions are themselves hidden from view. Most people make use of that basket many times a day. They know it is there, they know they are using it, they know there is a closet behind it, and what it represents. They choose many times a day to live with it. Each such choice is evil.

Like the constant replacement of the body's cells, our daily living solidifies our personalities, and deepens our commitment either to facing and living by facts, or to the schemes and pretenses, with their denial and evasions, that are the pattern of a mixed-bag life.

Living a mixed-bag life, morally, is a losing proposition. Overall, things get worse and worse. One becomes trapped by their own lies and pretenses, becomes weaker and more shallow in their abilities and knowledge, loses access to principles to guide their choices, ending up half-sunk in quick-sand, with a self-made straight-jacket on. Their situation may become dire, their actions must then be drastic, and tragedies, and headlines result.

Man qua man is true to his sapient nature. But men must live qua man, must be true to his sapient nature, by choice. He is able to do so when his reflection, or introspection, develops to the point that he can command his own attention. (Technically, he also must realize the abstract nature of his concepts and propositions, which implies that man lives as the "Three Men and an Elephant" do, and must make his way all the way around a subject before he understands what it is. This actually comes much earlier.) Sustaining his attention to recognize all the aspects of a situation makes him factual in his grasp of things, and, accordingly, appropriate in his take on them, and his actions regarding them. Sustaining his attention so as to be fully informed also means constraining his options to the objectively defensible. Effectiveness, which comes with factuality, is accompanied by restrictions on one's options. The only available means to a just end might be unallowable, for example, if all considerations are kept in mind. Or they might just be costly, embarrassing, or inconvenient, like taking a taxi and retrieving your car later, when you've drunk more than you should. So much easier to assume the risk (and--evasion--impose it on everyone else on the road.)

Even one small evasion breaks the principle of objectivity. It implicitly modifies it to allow certain exceptions. But principles have no exceptions, so any modification is actually a complete break. And unless you hold objectivity as your standard on principle, that is, in all cases, when do you hold, and when dispense with it?

If you recognize evil in its smallest, common manifestations, you will have no trouble understanding dramatic instances of it.


More evil

gmshoward's picture

Thanks again, everybody, for your responses. I think you answered my question better than I asked it. Having thought about your answers, I think I can refine my question a bit.

I understand, of course, that without a theos there's no need for a theodicy as such. My question would perhaps be better phrased: Why are there second-handers? Why would the universe to which they are so poorly suited suffer them to survive? But I think y'all have answered this, too: "Rational Man vs. Moocher" is a false dichotomy. We're all at least a little rational, or rational in some areas of thought. There's a continuum that runs between the two extremes and most people are somewhere in the middle of that continuum. To the extent that one reasons, one thrives, and (potentially) makes a little breathing room which may unfortunately be sacrificed to (irrational == anti-life == evil) behavior. Does that sound about right?

Mindy's Socratic look at evil was especially helpful to me. To answer her (or Socrates'?) questions, I'd say that error (that is, wrong or "anti-life" behavior resulting from ignorance) can't properly be called evil. Real, intentional evil can only come out of self-loathing. This squares well with Objectivism as I understand it.

On the other hand, it pushes the question back a level: Whence this self-loathing? Why doesn't Peter Keating love his life as Howard Roark does? Bad luck? Bad genes? I feel like I'm missing something here...

Yes, thanks

gmshoward's picture

You guys definitely gave me good stuff to chew on. I have some clarifying questions that I'll try to post when I'm not on my employer's nickel.

gmshoward, Did we answer your

gmshoward, Did we answer your question? If not try to rephrase it because as I said it was a bit confusing exactly what you were referring to.

Range of Knowledge

As to the second part of your question I think Mindy made a great stab at it below. I would just add that there is a range-of-knowledge issue here as well. Pre-industrial revolution man did not have the evidence in place to make all the integrations through inductive reasoning that it takes to come up with Objectivism. From OPAR (Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand) Peikoff points out that from Plato to the present a specific version of the mind-body dichotomy -- "that the practical arts have long been discovered and that the process of keeping men alive consists primarily of physical labor, the labor of slaves or peasants repeating by rote the age-old motions of their ancestors, then the pursuit of rational knowledge does indeed appear to be non-practical." This was false even before the industrial revolution, but after it all plausibility was blown away and demonstrated to be false. Reason and the pursuit of knowledge "is a practical attribute".

Bad assumption:

iGod's picture

"To Mr. iGod: You are mistaken if you think Objectivism is about John Galts."

No, you are mistaken to think that that's what i believe. My answer was provided within the context of the question is all.

Sticking out tongue

The Socratic take on the problem of evil

Ptgymatic's picture

is much more relevant: If a man knows an action is evil, he sees it as evil, feels that it is evil, then how could he perform it? If, on the other hand, he doesn't appreciate that it is truly evil, how can we blame him for performing it?

Separate point: To Mr. iGod: You are mistaken if you think Objectivism is about John Galts. It is about all men. To focus on exceptionally intelligent, well-educated, and creative people misses the point: The point is that all men can live intelligently, can become educated, and can live through their productive, creative efforts. This, common mistake is the moral baby-blunder of Objectivist ethics.


Edit: This mistake is a baby-blunder in thinking about the ethics of Objectivism.


iGod's picture

Why didn't the "strike" of AS happen in prehistory, when the first reasoning man made a tool and the first "moocher" tried to wrench it out of his hands?

Your question inadvertently presupposes that homo habilis' conceptual faculty was as developed as that of Ayn Rand, and that he had the personal integrity, fortitude, and physical strength necessary to fight off the mob of ape-like men who demanded use of his tool; if, hominids were actual moochers; which, unto itself is a gross presupposition.

I would assert that perhaps throughout history there have been talented and "gifted" individuals who have shrugged, and refused to be food for leeches. As for the vision of a "mass movement" of the type depicted in Atlas Shrugged, that would take a voice such as Ayn Rand.

I would suggest also, that in a way--though not explicitly--what you are suggesting did happen when the colonists declared independence from King George's tyranny; however, as Ayn Rand suggests, because the constitution was not coupled with a solid philosophical base of rational egoism, it has deteriorated into the glob of shit that it is today.

Why have the John Galts of history tolerated such treatment rather than setting the world to rights long before this date?

I don't think we ever have. This is a story that goes back over two million years; where, men in all their ape/hominid forms have been under the rulership of the collective or some alpha ape of some flavor or the other. Our strides as a species have been steady, and in the right direction all along. Be patient. We're getting there; however, I commend you on wanting to hurry it along.


I think you are asking about two different issues so lets try to unwind the confusion.

The first issue is about what theologians call the "problem of evil". This is a problem only for theologians who believe in a supposedly omnipotent and supremely good supernatural being. The problem they have is that there is evil in this world. But what is evil? Mystics say the good is measured by the moral ideal, God, that "requires no cause, no action, no effort, no achievement." If God is good then how can he permit dissent? (More discussion in Onkar Ghate's essay "Creators and the Masses in The Fountainhead" in Essays on Ayn Rand's Fountainhead )

For Objectivists evil has a specific rational meaning as does the good For man, since he is a rational animal "All that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; all that which destroys it is the evil." (Rand, Galt's Speech)

As to why when the first looter stole from the first producer why they didn't go on strike I'll have to leave you in suspense I'm going to see Lee Sandstead speak in a few hours and have to fight DC traffic!

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