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Monday, February 14, 2005 - 7:11pmSanction this postReply
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Hi All,

 

Brandon's Passion Piece has inspired a hot debate about Objectivist view of moral perfection.

 

I find I have a lot of empathy with Shayne's comments, in the sense that I see perfecting an ethical way to live is no more difficult than perfecting a complex skill: focus, take little steps, get into the process, and your on your way.

 

I do have a small taste of disgust for evasion...and I don't see the point of perfecting anything if it cannot be done. (There are many, many artists that say that they never get what they want in a painting, if I experienced art that way I would never paint.)

 

I have a great deal of respect for most the people here, and I keep thinking the phrasology and semantics are clashing more than the conceptual points. So I would like to hear, if you don’t mind not too much about “the affair”, about how you live integrating your passion, thought, and practical life and how that fits with Objectivist morality.

 

Cheers,

 

Michael


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Monday, February 14, 2005 - 9:57pmSanction this postReply
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Hi Michael,

 

Glad you opened this thread. I too found it interesting, but was loath to tangent from Barbara’s wonderful essay.

 

The problem with Shayne is that he didn’t propose a position. He just accused Robert of being an intrinsicist dichotomy-peddler and attempted some obvious and unnecessary point-scoring.

 

Robert suggested that irrationality or evasion sometimes occurs when a person is under emotional or physical stress; where there are limitations in knowledge and application; when context and proportion is dropped; etc. We’ve all, if we’re honest, experienced this to some degree. Shayne, trying to be the smart guy, claimed that if your capacity to act rationally was removed, then there’s some kind of moral Get Out Of Jail Free card; it’s not counted against your “perfection record”; you’re an erroneous intrinscist if you think otherwise, nya, nya, nya.

 

Yet none of the examples Robert provided actually removed a person’s rational capacity. They just make it very, very difficult. Apart from some serious mental injury or condition, I can’t think of a situation where the capacity to act rationally would be negated. So if someone evades or acts irrationally under extreme emotional stress, we still judge them as evading or acting irrationally, but we take the context of their extreme emotional stress into account. And if we have any sense of justice, we judge them less harshly.

 

I think “moral perfection” is somewhat of a floating abstraction. Perfection is conventionally understood to mean “flawless” or “100% true.” Show me an Objectivist who claims he has been 100% rational all his life, never evaded, never acted irrationally, never been unnecessarily malevolent or obnoxious (that rules you out, Shayne), and I think I can show you a liar.

 

I think perfection is possible within some delimited instances of human life (such as the perfect score on a test), but to apply it to the wider context of the way someone lives their life; their morality? I don’t think it can be done given the vulnerable nature of our bodies and the fallible nature of our minds.

 

But … Shayne seems to think he has the key to a reality-based perfection, so, by all means, let’s hear it.



(Edited by Glenn Lamont on 2/14, 10:19pm)


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 5:48amSanction this postReply
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I would like to add another view of perfection. Here's the etymology of the word:

perfect (adj.)
c.1225 (implied in perfectiun), from O.Fr. parfit (11c.), from L. perfectus "completed," pp. of perficere "accomplish, finish, complete," from per- "completely" + facere "to perform" (see factitious). Often used in Eng. as an intensive (perfect stranger, etc.). The verb meaning "to bring to full development" is recorded from 1398. Perfectionist is 1657, originally theological, "one who believes moral perfection may be attained in earthly existence;" sense of "one only satisfied with the highest standards" is from 1934.

This would suggest that perfection IS obtainable. If one is imperfect, it would mean that one is "incomplete." Depending on your value system, it would mean to seek out that which would complete you. In Christianity, God completes you ("sin"= separation, "religion" equals relinking). In analytic psychology, it means integration of ego to self, and in Objectivism, it means something similar.

But does that mean that there is only one monolithic area of perfection in our lives? We could be complete in some areas, but incomplete in others. Is it possible to be one hundred percent complete? I doubt it. But since this thread concerns "moral perfection," we can use the law of identity to focus on that particular perfection. But morality is so broad and encompasses so many areas, which could be problematic. "Jack of all trades, master of none." To hold Ayn Rand to a standard of "completeness" in all areas would be to claim she was omnipotent, which is what Barbara was trying to debunk.

Then of course, there is the the question of the role of other people in completing a person, which is another topic...

"Mini me, you complete me..."

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 6:05amSanction this postReply
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Michael, important question. In my own life I have made grievous mistakes, in the romantic arena. Some were errors, some were willful evasion of reality. Self correction,
acceptance of the consequences, and genuine effort to repair the damage were necessary. I do judge others as I judge myself, and have equally high expectations that other people be self correcting.

John

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 7:07amSanction this postReply
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Excellent, Glenn. Dead on.


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 7:34amSanction this postReply
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Michael, a fine question. I'm glad that you have moved the question from the particular to the general. Here are my thoughts...and you can apply what I say here to the discussion still raging over at "The Passion of Barbara Branden" thread.

Starting at the beginning, the first question I would ask is this:

Why the concern about and focus upon "moral perfection"?

In asking that question I am NOT seeking some sort of moral blank check; I am NOT saying moral principles aren't vitally important; I am NOT saying that adhering to moral principles is metaphysically impossible; I am NOT endorsing subjectivism or relativism. No doubt some of my critics would love to interpret me as meaning such things. But I emphatically do not. I reject ALL of those positions, and, additionally, regard them as totally contrary to Objectivism.

Rather, I am simply asking a question about one's primary FOCUS in life. Should one's focus primarily be internally directed -- on: "Am I doing the right thing?" -- or should it be externally directed: "What in the world do I want, and how can I get it?" Put another way: Should your focus be virtue-centered, or value-centered?

Those caught up in the former worldview very much need to read -- about three times, without pause -- Rand's seminal article, "Causality Vs. Duty," which I believe is anthologized in Philosophy: Who Needs It. That essay had a profound impact on my thinking way back when I was a twenty-something Objectivist. I am absolutely on Rand's side on this issue.

Somebody -- I think Shayne -- asked in another thread if I had penned any treatise on my view of ethics. I said no, because I've written so many things that I forgot: in fact, I have. Not a book-length treatise, but certainly an extended essay. It's titled, "The Value-Seeking Personality," and it's available for purchase as an audio recording (click the link to learn more). It's is my own personal elaboration and extension of "Causality Vs. Duty," and I've gotten more enthusiastic feedback for that essay/lecture than for anything else I've ever prepared for an Objectivist audience.

I invite critics from other threads to listen to that lecture, then try to square it with their various imaginative interpretations and conjectures about my alleged intrinsicism, Catholic hangovers, "conventional" ethics, etc. (They won't bother -- but it would be amusing if they tried.)

In the context of the extremely NON-intrinsicist, NON-duty-bound, NON-"Catholic" ethical perspective put forth in that essay, here's how I would apply it to romantic relationships:

1. You owe it to yourself and to your romantic partner(s) to make clear your attitudes about all relevant matters, such as sexual exclusivity, before getting seriously involved, and certainly before getting married.

2. If sexual exclusivity is understood to be a premise of your relationship, you have then voluntarily assumed a moral obligation to keep that commitment. You do NOT have the moral entitlement to renege on "the deal" and conduct surreptitious extramarital affairs: that would constitute a fraud on your partner -- gaining the values of their continued involvement with you under false pretenses.

3. If you are in what both partners understand to be a monogamous relationship, but despite your best intentions, you find yourself falling in love with someone else, that is NOT a moral failing on your part. However, you DO have a moral responsibility to your partner (a) to decide whether you wish to remain in your relationship, and if not, a moral responsibility (b) to tell your partner what has happened, and why, before you leave or decide if/how to proceed. (I dub this "The Lovin' Spoonful Principle," after those seminal moral philosophers of the same name, said principle being derived from their song, "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?") There is nothing necessarily immoral about leaving a relationship or marriage, or in staying in one that's less than ideal. But if your relationship is premised on monogamy, you will have to make up your mind.

4. Knowing that your partner is likely to be emotionally shocked, hurt and confused by this unexpected turn of events, and terribly fearful of the loss of the relationship, then -- if you truly love that person and thus care about her future well-being and best interests -- you have a moral responsibility NOT to use that time of vulnerability and confusion to "change the deal" (the terms of your original understanding) by manipulating her acquiescence to some extramarital arrangement that she would never condone in a normal frame of mind. Under such circumstances, that would constitute emotional manipulation and extortion.

5. If, after giving your partner some reasonable time to absorb the new situation, you still hanker for an "open marriage" or some such arrangement, you need to keep several things in mind. Understand that you are asking your partner to settle for something he may regard as far less satisfactory than he originally sought, yet to remain with you anyway rather than seek more complete fulfillment elsewhere. Knowing your partner's nature and needs, ask yourself if you are asking too much -- if you are really asking him or her to commit an act of self-sacrifice for your benefit. One way to determine this is to imagine that the roles were reversed: Ask yourself if YOU would accept such an arrangement, or would instead regard it as a request for your own self-sacrifice.

If you would TRULY be "okay" with it, and if you TRULY believe your partner would, too, then -- after a decent interval of time for your partner to process the situation -- you might go ahead and ask for a new arrangement. If "no" on either count, however...well, then "The Lovin' Spoonful Principle" applies. Make up your mind and choose which relationship you want.

6. If you regard any of the preceding "rules" to be an improper imposition on your freedom or desires, I would say two things: First, you have been lying to yourself about "loving" your partner, since you clearly don't care about his or her best interests. Second, your moral philosophy is not Objectivism, but self-indulgent subjectivism.

If anyone wishes to label these considerations "intrinsicism," "conventionalism," "Catholicism," etc., be my guest. I call it "self-responsibility."

Finally, on a personal note, let no one smugly suggest that I am pontificating about situations and circumstances of which I have no personal knowledge or experience, and am thus in no position to pass informed judgments. Those who know me well, know better. And they also know that I practiced exactly what I am preaching.


(Edited by Robert Bidinotto on 2/15, 8:11am)


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 7:57amSanction this postReply
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Robert, my hat is off to you.  You have presented the exact reasons why my disgust over affairs in general is so poignant, and why to me, there is no way to rationalize such a situation as moral.

I am neither Catholic, nor conventional, nor any of the other labels that have been hurled toward persons like myself who hold such a point of view.

The bottom line for me:  You are either married to the person you love, and honor that person in the appropriate fashion, or you get out.  It's very black and white.  "Open" marriages and the like are an oxymoron. 



(Edited to honor Robert's request to refrain from hijacking, and to remove all referral to L'Affair.)  ;)

(Edited by Jennifer Iannolo on 2/15, 8:04am)


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 8:46amSanction this postReply
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Great post, Robert.  Thank you for taking the time to detail your views on this subject.  Your six points are an excellent application of reason as a guide to behavior.

Jason


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 8:54amSanction this postReply
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The preoccupation with "moral perfection" rather than "achieving values" seems to place undue emphasis on the "how," rather than on the "what" and the "why" of moral action -- on moral means, rather than moral ends.

Elsewhere I used the metaphor of sailing to suggest the course of one's life -- with a compass serving as a metaphor for the role of philosophy. One doesn't successfully sail to any destination by constantly staring at the ship's compass, analyzing and discussing it, taking it apart to see if it is functioning properly, agonizing about whether it is a "perfect" or "the best" guide, believing that before using it one must first study and understand all the principles of magnetism, etc.

Is that in fact what we do? No. Once we are satisfied that we have a functional compass, we set it aside while we sail, looking over at it occasionally as a reference point, to make sure that we're still on track. But our main business is moving the boat ahead toward a destination, and we should be spending 98% of our time focusing outwardly on that objective...not staring inside the cabin at our reference guide and wondering if it is "perfect," or whether we are using "perfectly" the information it provides.

Does anyone else find this metaphor apt to the discussion of moral perfectionism?


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 8:56amSanction this postReply
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Hey, thanks, Jason. You may regard the six points as lessons of reason drawn (often painfully) from experience.

;^)

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:04amSanction this postReply
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Thank you, too, Jennifer, for your kind comments here and on other threads. We seem to see eye to eye on this stuff.


Post 11

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:11amSanction this postReply
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The problem with Shayne is that he didn’t propose a position. He just accused Robert of being an intrinsicist dichotomy-peddler and attempted some obvious and unnecessary point-scoring.
Your cynical interpretation goes hand in hand with your bogus views on morality. And your expectation that I explain things to your personal satisfaction, without first having any idea what level of ignorance you are at, fits with your irrational child-like behavior in the other thread.
But … Shayne seems to think he has the key to a reality-based perfection, so, by all means, let’s hear it.
For a cocky ignoramus such as yourself? Not gonna happen. For one thing you don't deserve it. For another, I have every reason to believe that your sloppy methods make it impossible for you to grasp anything but trivialities.


Post 12

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:19amSanction this postReply
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Hey Glenn, don't bother sinking to nibble at Shayne's bait. Nothing there but personal insults and ad hominems.

Shayne, let's try to keep this civil, and if you have problems with the substance of points raised by me or others, you simply skewer us with devastating logic, rather than insults or buzzwords (Christian, conventional, intrinsicist, et al.), okay?

Do any of my specific points strike you as wrong-headed? If so, why?


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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:30amSanction this postReply
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For another, I have every reason to believe that your sloppy methods make it impossible for you to grasp anything but trivialities.


So in other words, anyone who doesn't agree with you from the outset is obviously too ignorant (too immoral/too subjectivist/too intrinsicist/too materialistic/too impure/too poopy-headed) to understand any argument you might make.

The ol' argument from intimidation. Your opponents can't see the Emperor's clothes, and hence they are inferior. Cute.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:37amSanction this postReply
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In order to appreciate and learn from Rand's fiction, it is necessary that we overlook or accept certain paradoxes.  She was, after all, writing in a romantic style in which circumstances and characters were constructed in order to showcase heroic attributes.  In cutting away the unnecessary material to reveal the heroic form underneath, many situations and circumstances that arise in reality were simply bypassed.  For example, in Atlas Shrugged, no one has children.

This in no way detracts from the power or message of her works.  In fact, it amplifies them.  But it does so at a risk.  The risk is that in the context of Objectivism, her fictionalized world becomes reality for those who wish it to be so.  That, coupled with the fact that Objectivism can lead to a sort of "fundamentalist" approach, leads many true believers into a trap.  It's a seductive trap in that while Objectivism can clear the path for the best within us, it can also sanction the worst.

Shouldn't the primary objective of any Objectivist be to reconcile Objectivism to reality?  I believe that it should be. After all, in the world of Objectivism, doesn't reality trump all?  I believe that Rand did not dish up a finished product, that there is a lot of work to be done. 

I recently read an interesting book, "The Compleat Gentleman," by Brad Miner.  Issues surrounding Objectivism came to mind when he summarized the contrasts between the Epicureans and the Stoics.  I don't have time to transcribe the page and a half at the moment, but I concluded that Rand would have fallen on the side of the Stoics, at least as described in the book:

"The Stoics were certain of what common sense tells us about reality:  that there are things and people in the world that we are more or less capable of accurately perceiving.  Thus, Stoicism remains an antidote to the fantasies of contemporary academicians who claim that there is no objective meaning in any test or act or man."

I believe that the joys of pursuing the Epicurean impulse can only result in happiness, can only yield good, when done so behind the aegis of a Stoic interface with reality.  It is hierarchical.  Absent that Stoic grounding, what is left is the "Peter Pan Syndrome," magical thinking, "I can fly," and an obstinate refusal to grow up and rise above instant and infantile gratifications.  Immorality, in my opinion, often arises when an adult gets those two potentially competing impulses out of sequence.



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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:44amSanction this postReply
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You have presented the exact reasons why my disgust over affairs in general is so poignant, and why to me, there is no way to rationalize such a situation as moral.... The bottom line for me: You are either married to the person you love, and honor that person in the appropriate fashion, or you get out. It's very black and white. "Open" marriages and the like are an oxymoron.


I don't think that this conclusion is the one necessitated by the principles Robert outlines. What he is saying, if I am interpreting his post correctly, is that “open marriages” are perfectly moral—if and only if all the participants in such a relationship understand its nature before entering into it. Any immorality involved in an extramarital affair is a result of someone attempting to change the terms of the marriage agreement ex post facto.

Of course, you may be speaking from the perspective that a marriage is, by definition, a contract which necessarily includes exclusivity as one of its terms—and hence that a contract not specifying exclusivity is not a marriage. If you define marriage in that sense, then I can accept what you say above as correct.

And discussion of the definition of marriage has nothing to do with moral perfection, so I won't go into that on this thread. :-P

Post 16

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 9:56amSanction this postReply
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Hey Glenn, don't bother sinking to nibble at Shayne's bait. Nothing there but personal insults and ad hominems.
It's not bait. Quite the opposite. It's exactly as it appears: an invitation to go away. Again, your cynicism distorts your ability to discern motive.
Do any of my specific points strike you as wrong-headed? If so, why?
Perhaps I didn't understand the above. Didn't you just imply that there's nothing that I have to offer but insults and ad hominems?
Shayne, let's try to keep this civil, and if you have problems with the substance of points raised by me or others, you simply skewer us with devastating logic, rather than insults or buzzwords (Christian, conventional, intrinsicist, et al.), okay?
By my account, Glenn was the one who was trying to drag this conversation down to the level of insults. At the time, it was only Glenn who I figured was in on it. But if you want to connect your previous civility with his base behavior, fine. But I am not going to get intellectual with such baseness.


Post 17

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 10:05amSanction this postReply
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So in other words, anyone who doesn't agree with you from the outset is obviously too ignorant (too immoral/too subjectivist/too intrinsicist/too materialistic/too impure/too poopy-headed) to understand any argument you might make.
You and Glenn are precisely the sort of dishonest characters I do not engage civily, and your dishonesty is all but advertised by statements such as this. On the face of it I find it incredible that you could make such a stupid statement - I mean it is patently obvious that I did *not* dismiss Glenn merely because he disagreed. But then, those who indulge irrationality have so short-circuited their minds that they appear shockingly stupid.


Post 18

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 10:21amSanction this postReply
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An Objectivist I know once said that Objectivism is irony appreciation training. And it is oh so ironic that it is precisely those who believe that small evasions are inevitable that have both grossly mischaracterized my motives (falsely assuming that I am indulging in some evasion instead of taking the more obvious interpretation), and have been so easily emotionally jarred into indulging their own evasions (see all of Glenn's responses to me, and Nature's above. They don't like my approach - fine, but that's not a reason for them to abandon their rational faculty).

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you don't believe in your own ability not to evade, you're going to.


Post 19

Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - 10:44amSanction this postReply
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Nature writes:

What [Bidinotto] is saying, if I am interpreting his post correctly, is that “open marriages” are perfectly moral — if and only if all the participants in such a relationship understand its nature before entering into it.


I won't generalize about whether an "open marriage" (if we mean an arrangement of multiple and simultaneous sexual relationships) is or isn't moral -- if by "moral" we mean "in harmony with man's rational nature and needs." From what I understand of human psychology, I think the proposition is highly dubious; and I agree with Jennifer that, taken literally, "open marriage" is an oxymoron. But I'm willing to entertain the possibility that limited polygamous relationships may be possible and not in some fundamental way damage the well-being and self-interests of the participants. I'm skeptical, but I just don't know.

So instead of "'open marriages' are perfectly moral," I'd say, "...may be perfectly moral..."

The broadest, most inclusive definition of "marriage" I can come up with amounts to something like:

"an intimate personal union among a very small number of adults, almost always a couple, formalized and usually celebrated publicly by a ceremonial and/or legal procedure known as a wedding."

How's that? Note that my definition doesn't exclude the possibility of limited polygamy, gay marriages or non-religious weddings. It doesn't even necessitate a public ceremony, a legal procedure or ongoing sexual activity -- though without any or most of those things I fail to see how "marriage" would differ from just having roommates. If "marriage" is to mean anything, I think a formalized and ceremonial element has to be there; so does some limit on the number of participants; and (for Objectivists) a romantic/sexual component as well.

In the interests of full disclosure, my own private notion of "marriage" incorporates a single partner, of the opposite sex, sexual exclusivity and a wedding ceremony. But you'll note that I don't incorporate my Conventional, Puritanical, Intrinsicist, Muscle-Mystic, Non-A criteria on anyone else in this definition. So, those who have accused me of such in order to dismiss my conclusions about That Unmentionable Topic on That Other Thread are now obliged to come up with better reasons for rejecting them.

There IS a linkage here to "moral perfection," and it's this: The sheer variations possible in relationships mock any efforts to define a "perfect" or "ideal" romantic arrangement. Remember, when we say "perfect" we must ask: "Perfect -- for whom, and for what?" There's no such thing as intrinsic perfection. I've often remarked to men that there is no "perfect" or "ideal" woman: there is only the possibility of someone who is "perfect FOR ME"...and even here, I'd use the term "perfect" descriptively, not definitively.


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