Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

All or Nothing: Philosophy with Degrees (Part 2) - General Reasons
by Joseph Rowlands

SOLOC 4, April 2005
General Reasons for All or Nothing: Easy!

This gives a wide range of philosophical ideas that have this all or nothing effect. I think we should discuss some of the reasons why these ideas might become dominant, and why the all or nothing view is so seductive. And it is seductive. In the Objectivist movement, it has been repeatedly noted that rationalism and intrinsicism are far too common. Are there reasons for it? Well, there are plenty of possible reasons that I'll go through. I do this not to try to explain any particular person's motivations, but to help explore the all or nothing phenomena by looking at one kind of incentives it provides.

The first and obvious reason is that an all or nothing approach is way easier to use than a more elaborate and accurate approach. Just think of rule-based morality. You never have to question whether it's the right thing to do or not. You don't have to understand the context or situation to see if it really is a good idea. You don't have to think! You just memorize and go. Now that's easy!

Related to this is the actual study of philosophy. Having a deep and thorough understanding of the complexities of a philosophy can take a lot of time. In the meantime, you have available to you all of the conclusions right there for the taking. You've followed the arguments and are convinced that they're correct, even if you don't know enough to reproduce them easily or correctly. So we would expect that new students of Objectivism would be tempted to use the ethics in a rule-based fashion while they learn to think in a more detailed way.

This tendency in ethics is already existent in today's culture. Moral rules are handed down by church or tradition, and you're a good person if you follow them. Values are commonly held as intrinsic. Morality is seen more as a tool of control then as a tool of living, with various people vying for the position of controller. Given this cultural context, it shouldn't be surprising that people first accept Objectivism as a better set of rules without fully grasping the difference between a rule and a principle.

The ease of dealing with moral rules helps in another area as well. The process of moral judgment is made far easier when you have a little checklist to go through. In the real world, moral judgment can be incredibly complex, and you have to know all kinds of details about a particular person's context before you can judge with any kind of certainty. How much easier it is to write people off as immoral, evading, whim-worshippers.

General Reasons for All or Nothing: Certainty!

Another interesting aspect of the all or nothing view is that it lends itself to certainty. Well, it lends itself to a feeling of certainty, anyway. As I discussed in the rationalism section, it provides easy answers that are 100 percent sure. This is true of the other areas as well. You can be sure that "in principle" a statement is true or false. You can be sure that someone violated a moral rule, or followed it correctly.  Everything is so crystal clear when it's all or nothing. There's no murky middle ground!

This can be a decisive factor in an environment of debates, like most Objectivist forums. If you provide plenty of empirical data for a conclusion, people can still attack and not be convinced by the data you collected. After all, you may have faked it somehow! But a logical argument is a real winner. Your opponent can't fight back against it. They may still evade, but you'll be the winner!

Well, something like that. But you can see how deductive arguments would be seen as something special in that kind of environment. A 100 percent certain argument seems way better than an inductive argument. You get the added bonus of being supported by the laws of logic. And inductive argument seems to have too many weak links. You might nit-pick over facts, but logic is an entirely different thing. And since battles are won and lost by the use of logic, it can give rationalistic tendencies a bit too much help. 

It should also be noted that Objectivism is a radical philosophy that departs from the mainstream culture significantly. It can be a little daunting for people to go against everyone they know and respect and disagree with them on very basic issues. With that much pressure, you have a stronger need for certainty than you might normally have. If you're going to stand up for yourself, you want to be able to have very solid arguments to back you up against the weight of the world. Deductive arguments seem to be the sturdiest.

General Reasons for All or Nothing: Communication!

The next general reason supporting the all or nothing position is communication. It's often easier to communicate in terms of absolutes than in terms of degrees. You can say it's bright outside or you can say it's dark outside, but if it's somewhere in between, that gets a little tougher to describe. Degrees of difference can be a tough thing to describe in words. Unless you have an accurate method of measuring the degrees, some information is going to be too tough to get across.

How about in ethics? How easy is it to explain your method of selecting actions, the relationship between virtue and value, what is justice, or any number of other issues? It's far easier to say that something is good or evil, or moral and immoral. Having to provide an entire moral framework so people can understand where you're coming from can take a long time. It's easier to have short-hand rules you can point to. Be honest. Be productive. Be rational. That's simple to convey, isn't it?

And what about context? Normally you have to explain the context in pretty good detail to see the validity of a statement. But when your values or knowledge is context free, suddenly it's not an issue anymore. That's a lot less you need to communicate.

I've talked about various kinds of philosophical errors that lead to the all or nothing point of view, and I've talked about reasons why they might be adopted or encouraged. Let me address what I consider the main deficiency in this all or nothing point of view.

Example: Harmony of Interests

Letís start with an example. Ayn Rand claimed that there are no conflicts of interest between rational men. Let's just rephrase this slightly to say that there is a harmony of interests among rational men. And we'll add that there is a fundamental disharmony of interests among irrational men. Now think of these statements from the point of view of an all or nothing person. There's no problem as long as everyone you deal with is perfectly rational.

But most people aren't perfectly rational in this day and age. What does that mean from the all or nothing point of view? It means that there's no harmony of interests anymore. In the all or nothing point of view, there are clear boundaries. If you cross those boundaries, you switch to the "nothing" side of all or nothing. In this case, if you're not dealing with fully rational men, the harmony of interests breaks down.

And this highlights the major problem with the all or nothing point of view. It can't see that fundamentally this statement about conflicts of interests is a relationship. The more irrational the people are, the more conflicts there will be. If you're dealing with someone who's very rational, but not perfectly so, the harmony of interests doesn't break down entirely. It breaks down in proportion to the irrationality. The basic relationship is that conflicts of interests are proportional to the irrationality of the people.

The all or nothing view, whether caused by rationalism, intrinsicism, or just mental sloppiness, cannot see this relationship, or maybe just doesn't care. The mental shorthand is to just draw the line and say if you're rational, great! There's a harmony of interests. But if you're not, then there goes the harmony.

This is the defining characteristic of the all or nothing approach. It's not concerned with degrees, and can't deal with them. It draws very clear boundaries, and you have easy, definitive uses. It doesn't matter how close you are to the boundaries, the results are the same.

The all or nothing perspective ignores the fundamental reasons behind the premises. It doesn't care that conflicts arise from irrationality. It only remembers it as a rule, to be taken as absolute, and not to be understood or analyzed further. You apply the rule, and you get your result.

In rationalism, the premises are the weak point. You can't argue or defend them, or you move away from the 100 percent certainty. You can only assume their validity. So you don't try to understand the premises. You don't examine them further. You treat them as an absolute.  What happens if an example doesn't perfectly fit the criteria of the initial premises? The whole chain of logic is invalidated. So if you assume there is no conflict of interests between rational men, and you find out that the person you're discussing is not rational, the whole logical chain collapses. You can't say "close enough." If your premises aren't exact, it destroys the 100 percent certainty.

Same goes for intrinsic values. If you have to question the value, you end up in deep trouble since the intrinsic values serve no real purpose. You have to take it as an absolute. If the value is compromised at all, it has to be considered a complete breach because you can't really measure the cost. There is no real cost.

The pattern is hopefully clear. The all or nothing approach lends itself to arbitrary boundaries and rules. It is unable to recognize various degrees, let alone deal with them. When the criteria is not exactly met, you're left helpless to deal with it. You have to lump it in with the "nothing" group. It expects blind following of the given premises, and destroys the ability to understand in more detail.

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