Hypotheticals, egoism, intuition and Heumer

Via this debate on Aristotle The Geek’s blog, I came across this critique of Ayn Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” on Michael Heumer’s website. After reading through the mind-numbing (primarily because of its length) critique and disagreeing with it, I took a look at some other pages on his site and found this critique of egoism. Heumer is a self-described intuitionist (I will have to read more on his precise views on intuitions) and he constructs a hypothetical in which he claims that an egoist would have to murder a person for a very minor benefit. Then he claims that since it is self-evident that murder is wrong egoism cannot be true.

Consider the nature of his hypothetical

I just happen to have in my pocket a hand-held disintegrator ray, though. The gun will quickly disintegrate any person I aim it at. It is believed that victims of disintegration suffer brief but horrible agony while being disintegrated, but after that, no trace of them is left. …then I see this homeless guy ahead, just wandering down the street. …Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. (emphasis mine)

Heumer claims that the fact that the events in such a hypothetical might never come to pass does not mean that we can reject the hypothetical itself (as he claims several Objectivists do). And he is right. There is nothing wrong with using hypotheticals to test theories. In fact, without the use of hypotheticals, I don’t think anyone can arrive at any useful abstract ideas. Though there is nothing wrong in considering the hypothetical, Heumer’s arguement simply does not hold. First, no rational egoist will actually murder a homeless guy on the street to save a couple of seconds (more on this later). Second, even if I grant Heumer – here is another hypothetical! – his claim that an egoist would have to murder the homeless guy in his hypothetical, Heumer’s intuitionism is not enough to reject egoism. Heumer’s intuitions did not arise in a world where the kind of events in his hypothetical ever happen (note the emphasized lines above). Therefore his intuitions are ill equipped to deal with his hypothetical. In fact, this is always true. Any intuition, by its very nature is ill equipped to deal with unusual situations. This is so irrespective of the source of the intuition – whether it be evolution or culture or experience.

Consider another hypothetical. Suppose Heumer actually lived in a society like the one he describes. Moreover, suppose that his ancestors also lived in such societies over the last 20000 years. As Heumer writes (correctly), the person framing the hypothetical gets to stipulate what goes on in the hypothetical. So I can very well stipulate this. What would Heumer’s intuition be if he grew up in such a world? Would it still be that murdering a person to save a couple of seconds is wrong? I don’t think so. Heumer’s hypothetical – far from being a proof that egoism is wrong – is actually a proof that intuitions are of limited use (at best) in judging an idea. Intuitions can tell you that a particular idea needs more or less thought. They cannot tell you whether a particular idea is right or wrong.

Would a (rational) egoist actually commit a murder to save a couple of seconds? Rand’s egoism (which is what Heumer is targeting) requires a person to be always rational. Rationality does not mean that one should weigh all the possible consequences of every conceivable action – presumably by assigning probabilities and utilities and then calculating some sort of expected utility. Rationality means that man must recognize that he cannot do such calculus because the world is an extremely calculated place. Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions. Rationality means that man must not waste his time attempting to do some impossible calculus (calculating all the probabilities is impossible) to save a couple of seconds.

Finally, here is another hypothetical for Heumer (and for all those who like to create absurd hypotheticals to “prove” that egoism is wrong). Suppose that you are walking down a street with a gun in your pocket and see a person sitting on a bench just next to you with a bag beside him. You see a young boy in the window of a house on the other side of the street. The boy shouts and tells you that the person on the bench is actually a terrorist, that the bag beside him contains explosives and he is about to detonate them. What should you do? The challenge: based on your intuitions, tell me what you would do. Would the answer be the same if the location in the hypothetical were
a) a road in a peaceful village in rural America
b) a road in Pakistan on which the Pakistani president is due to travel
c) the road outside your own house with the boy being your neighbour’s son
(Hint: Does morality apply to such situations?)


11 Responses

  1. This is RL’s critique of section 5 of Huemer’s essay including the “hypothetical.” And this (pdf) is a paper Huemer presented at a seminar held by Kelley’s organization sometime in ’01-02.

  2. I had read Heumer’s essay long time back, so I might be wrong, but his position was that the intuition arises out of some basic principles rooted in the mind. Thats an explicit bridge for the is/ought gap.

    When you say “Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions “, the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition, and if he cannot do the complicated expected utility maximization, then he can only arrive at the principles by evaluating the outcomes of his previous actions. But to evaluate he would need some principles to begin with. (on second thought, even to do expected utility maximization, he would need to make some evaluations). how does a human being find the principle to base his actions on ? I would like to know your thoughts.

    thanks -k

  3. Aristotle,
    Thanks for the link. I haven’t browsed through all of R.L’s writings. So I wasn’t aware of this particular response. I seem to have made arguements very similar to R.L’s. Nevertheless, I will continue to write some more posts criticizing Heumer’s critiques in my own words, both to increase my own clarity and because I think it is very important to keep things short.

  4. Krishnamurthy,
    You are right. Heumer describes intuitions as

    My moral theory is known as “ethical intuitionism”. “Intuition”, in Western philosophy, refers to the kind of direct awareness that reason provides us – i.e., foundational, a priori knowledge. It does not refer to a kind of supernatural sixth sense, it does not have anything to do with “women’s intuition”, it does not refer to an inarticulate sense of something caused by one’s experience with similar situations. It is a technical term in epistemology.

    Therefore I suppose he holds that intuitions arise through evolution. He also cites some examples of self-evident ethical principles. I will address those in a future post.

    “the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition…”
    I will have to think some more about your question to come up with a complete answer. At the moment, I will just say that I believe that axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (which might be termed intuitions) and observations and experiences in the real world are sufficient to arrive at the required principles.

  5. ok.. I will look forward to your complete answer. -k

  6. I think rather than critiquing Huemer’s critique (not that you shouldn’t), you could clarify the objectivity of Randian ethics, its derivation and explain the exact sense of the word (for example, objective reality is an extremely clear concept).

    The fact is, except her fiction, and a few of her essays across her various non-fiction books, I haven’t read much of Rand. Taking “rational selfishness” or “ethical egoism” as a given, much of her writing makes sense. As I said, it appeals to my sense of life. But if someone asked me how I derive it, I couldn’t explain except saying that it is the essence of man’s nature, and that politically, it necessitates negative liberty. I searched for what Rand said about a position similar to mine, and this is what I came up with-

    Do not confuse [amoralism] with psychological subjectivism. A psychological subjectivist is unable fully to identify his values or to prove their objective validity, but he may be profoundly consistent and loyal to them in practice (though with terrible psycho-epistemological difficulty). The amoralist does not hold subjective values; he does not hold any values.

    The question is – “why” egoism? And why non-parasitical (non-Nietzschean) egoism? That, I think is the essence of Huemer’s argument if you leave his “hypothetical” examples alone. Think about it.

  7. Aristotle,
    I only intend to use Heumer’s critique in an attempt to fill the gaps that makes his critique possible. Except ITOE, I have read all of Rand’s published collections of essays and I think I should be able to fill the gaps.
    “Why egoism” is I think relatively straightforward. I will write about it in my next post. “Why non-parasitical egoism” is much more difficult and I don’t think any real “proof” of it is possible. I think it necessarily involves some psychological assumptions which will have to be proved first. But with modern psychology focussing on how altruism is part of our genes and how even chimpanzees have a sense of fairness based on egalitarianism, I don’t see much hope that those assumptions will be researched, let alone proved, any time soon. Nevertheless I will try to write about what I think these assumptions are and why I think they are valid.

  8. Perhaps you have covered this point elsewhere.

    Quoting your excerpt from Heumer:

    > “…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
    One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another.” [Bold added for emphasis.]

    Perhaps I have missed something in the larger context. However, Heumer’s statement, as is, is a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s ethics, that is, her principles applicable to all men, everywhere, at all times. In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand discusses philosophical values as applicable to man — which is an abstraction. She is not saying these values apply to some individuals and not to others. They apply to all men.

    Strictly personal values, rather than philosophical values, might be said to be “relative” to (that is, chosen by) particular individuals. One man might prefer blue, another red, and still another green. These are not the subject of philosophy but of psychology.

    If Heumer doesn’t make the distinction between philosophical values, which are (contextually) absolute for all men, and personal values, which can arise from the unique experiences of each individual, then Heumer is attacking a straw man.

    The distinction between particular and universal — between a unit and an abstraction which subsumes that and other units — is made clear in Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

    Objectivism cannot be understood without studying ITOE, which presents Ayn Rand’s most revolutionary advance, her theory of concepts. That advance permeates her whole philosophy, just as the theories of concepts do in other primary philosophies. See (or listen to):
    – “The Four Giants of Philosophy,” Andrew Bernstein, a look at the way in which a theory of concepts affects the rest of a philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand).
    – “Two False Theories of Concepts,” Gary Hull.

  9. I think you intended to comment on “Why should values be agent relative?”. So I have reproduced your comment and replied to it there.

  10. Krishnamurthy,
    I have just written a detailed answer here

  11. I had several tabs open on Ayn Rand while reading
    this and when I went to one it seemed pertinent,
    interesting. Take it for what it’s worth.


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