The Fundamental Problem With Objectivism

I count some Objectivists as friends, and have always thought that those who condemn them are at the very least too quick to do so. We have common attachments: to small government, individual freedom, secularism, science, etc.

Objectivists insist that we start with fundamentals, that you can’t begin to hope to solve political puzzles and conflicts unless you get your deeper conceptual issues straightened out. This is often true. However, I think there is a deeper conceptual issue that Objectivists get wrong, and that this matters.

Objectivists take Bishop Butler’s admonition “everything is what it is, and not some other thing” and run with it, fast and hard. Fans and observers will know that their favorite way of expressing this point is with the phrase “A is A,” which is shorthand for Butler’s point. This is said to be Aristotle’s “Law of Identity.”

Objectivists have lots of company in the following confusion though; perhaps almost every philosopher in history shares in it [hat tip Ruth Millikan]. And that is: identity and classification are the same thing. They aren’t. I am self-identical. My left toe is self-identical. The temporal slice that is me today is self-identical. The silly mereological fusion of my left toe and the Eiffel Tower is self-identical. The class of all mammals is self-identical. The silly class given by enumeration that contains all mammals and the Eiffel Tower is self-identical. We are up to our eyeballs in the self-identical.

But the principle that says that everything is what it is, does not tell you how to classify things. We do not classify things by determining that they are identical. Otherwise classification would be way easier than it actually is. Rather, we classify things that are non-identical but relevantly similar. Brussel sprouts resemble carrots; the similarity is close enough in relevant respects that we regard them as both members of the same class: vegetables. But they are different in many respects too, just not in enough important ones.

Now I’m not saying that establishing identity is always easy, or tautological. If it were, there would be no such thing as the genre “murder mystery.” (Think about this long and hard). But most of the things Objectivists characterize as matters of identification are really matters of classification, where no identities are hidden, but what a good classification looks like may remain to be seen. These thoughts were triggered, by the way, by the last post on gay marriage. Consider the marriage conservative:

“Everything is what it is, and not some other thing. Marriage is the civil union of a man and a woman. Therefore, same-sex marriage is a logical contradiction. A is A.”

OK, we could do that. Or we could not do that. See how that works?

Consider one sort of hard libertarian:

“Taxation is theft. Theft is slavery. Slavery is immoral. Therefore taxation is immoral. Everything is what it is and not some other thing. A is A.”

These kinds of arguments dissolve like tissue paper origami swans in water as soon as it becomes clear that the correct formulation of the first step is “taxation resembles slavery in certain respects, and slavery is immoral.” This is exactly right. And the progressive can reply, “and there are respects in which taxation is also very different from slavery,” which is also true (for example, the government cannot sell you outright to anyone, the chattel dimension is missing, government is not a private party, what the taxes will be is decided by democratic procedures, etc. etc.). So what comes next? A discussion. How much do the similarities to the bad thing pervade the case? How do the dissimilarities reveal other similarities to good things? A lot? A little? Not at all? Etc. There is simply no honest shortcut around asking and trying to answer these questions. This applies even-handedly: the progressive who responds to “taxation is slavery” with “don’t be ridiculous” may not be laughing quite so hard if it turns out that there are disturbingly many relevant similarities. But, to repeat, there is no shortcut that will enable us to avoid examining the similarities and differences, finding out what they are, and then assessing them in light of our concerns.

There is a lot of anti-post-modern (!) rhetoric shared by Objectivists with both conservatives and old school progressives about relativism, anti-realism, social constructivism. And it is true that how we classify brussel sprouts and carrots doesn’t determine what they are like. Who in their right mind would’ve ever thought otherwise? But here’s a surprising fact. You know what is a social construction? Society is. And how we classify conduct has an awful lot to do with how we treat it, which in turn has an awful lot to do with what kind of conduct occurs.

Is hitting on your employees out of lust relevantly similar to refusing to hire someone because they are African-American? In some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. In the end we decided that the similarities are relevant, and strong enough, that without changing the laws on the books, we’ve decided that the law that prohibits the latter also already prohibits the former. Changes in how we see which things are similar, which similarities are relevant, when the topics are charged with moral significance, are precisely how moral change happens.

If one fails to grasp the difference between classifying by similarity and identification, then one will repeatedly find oneself confronted with opponents who seem for all the world to be committing the most glaringly elementary errors in logic. If you saw this over and over again, you would find it well-nigh irresistible to think that your opponent was an idiot. Unless of course the evidence suggests the hypothesis that no one could be that stupid. Which will leave only self-deception, or malice and dishonesty as hypotheses.

And then we get books with titles like “Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism” or “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans” (not that these books were written by an Objectivist, but there seems to be an elective affinity there).

All this is unwarranted, because classification is not identification. After all, everything is what it is, and not some other thing!


5 comments on “The Fundamental Problem With Objectivism

  1. poseidonian says:

    Um, specifically, the whole book?

  2. poseidonian says:

    I’m not sure I can make my point any more clear than I already have. It is an empirical hypothesis meant to explain the empirical data: people calling themselves “Objectivists,” asserting empirical claims with (sometimes) remarkable overconfidence, and then interpreting disagreement as self-deception, malice, stupidity, etc. We already know that these disputatious claims are often accompanied by the phrase “A is A” which, if one was not an English speaker, one might speculate means in one’s own tongue something like “how can you possibly deny it?” I suggest that this is due to believing that the assertion is a necessary truth because it is thought to be an identity statement, allied with the thought that a peculiar certainty attaches to necessary truths because their denial is impossible. The idea that one’s empirical beliefs are obvious and undeniable is fueled by calling what I call “finding out stuff” “identifying” and then appending “A is A” which one calls “the law of identity” to statements about the stuff (purportedly) found out.

    But this sort of habit of mind has been a fertile source of sophistry since the dawn of time. See Descartes on why a vacuum is impossible for an example.

    As a positive proposal, it is also the suggestion that there are scads of ways of classifying things for various purposes, because the guide to classification is relevant similarity and there are scads of similarities, and depending upon the task at hand, a variety of relevancies, and that one not import the confidence one has that the most elementary necessary truths are true into the degree of confidence one has about highly debatable, complicated empirical matters, let alone policy proposals.

    But basically that’s all up there in the post already.

  3. Joel Posner says:

    Really clever point you make, most enlightening. Thanks.

  4. Josh says:

    Excellent summary. Objectivism has always struck me as casuistry. I’ve often argued with Objectivist friends about the need to discuss the relevant similarities and differences, as you said, but they think they have logic on their side. Now I have a simple way to point out–logically–why they are wrong when they say, e.g., taxing A to give to B makes A a slave (i.e., taxation “is” slavery). Thank you

    Also, excellent joke about “identity.” Very clever.

  5. From some Objectivists, it seems that the thinking goes something like this: if one is observant enough, and clever enough, then certain classifications about certain observables could be made no other way than what they have been made. The thinking goes that there is a one-to-one correspondence between observable attributes — LESS THE SPECIFIC MEASUREMENTS such as specific color — and the category that must NECESSARILY FOLLOW. In other words, for every collection of elements there is one and only one set than can be defined for those elements. Mathematically this is wrong, and so it is semantically as well. In this respect however, the Objectivist following this line of thought will conclude that categorization *IS* identity.

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