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?)

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