Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Bertrand Russell Needs Objectivism

Posted by Jerry on October 27, 2006

Bertran Russell was engaged in a debate with Father FC Copleston on BBC sometime in 1948. The topic was about proving the existence of God. Russell declares his position to be “agnostic”–even though, for all practical purposes, he lived as an atheist. Atleast Russell was being logically consistent with his premises, unlike Dawkins who slyly wishes to have his cake and eat it too.

Anyway, Russell manages to hold his ground considerably until they venture into the topic of morality. At this point, I was simply shocked at the mess of an ‘argument’ that Russell was propounding. Throughout the debate, his logical positivist influences are rather evident. But in the excerpt below, he relativism is blatant, and so is his flimsy philosophy of basing morality on feelings:

[Russell is denoted by “R” and Father Copleston is denoted by “C”]

R: You see, I feel that some things are good and that other things are bad. I love the things that are good, that I think are good, and I hate the things that I think are bad. I don’t say that these things are good because they participate in the Divine goodness.

C: Yes, but what’s your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

R: I don’t have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that’s what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn’t been gone into in the same way and I couldn’t give it [to] you.

C: Well, let’s take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you’d have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

R: No, I shouldn’t quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You’re making a mistake.

C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it’s simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler’s emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

C: Granted. But there’s no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who’s in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn’t it because he’s in the minority?

C: Well, do you accept any moral obligation?

R: Well, I should have to answer at considerable length to answer that. Practically speaking — yes. Theoretically speaking I should have to define moral obligation rather carefully.

C: Well, do you think that the word “ought” simply has an emotional connotation?

R: No, I don’t think that, because you see, as I was saying a moment ago, one has to take account of the effects, and I think right conduct is that which would probably produce the greatest possible balance in intrinsic value of all the acts possible in the circumstances, and you’ve got to take account of the probable effects of your action in considering what is right.

C: Well, I brought in moral obligation because I think that one can approach the question of God’s existence in that way. The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It’s my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground of value and of an author of the moral law. I do mean by “author of the moral law” an arbitrary author of the moral law. I think, in fact, that those modern atheists who have argued in a converse way “there is no God; therefore, there are no absolute values and no absolute law,” are quite logical.

R: I don’t like the word “absolute.” I don’t think there is anything absolute whatever. The moral law, for example, is always changing. At one period in the development of the human race, almost everybody thought cannibalism was a duty.

Woah! In contrast to Russell’s meandering philosophizing above, Rand’s moral theories–in fact, the whole of Objectivism–is simply a remarkable achievement. The following are some relevant statements excerpted from Leonard Peikoff’s Fact and Value that very explicitly, logically, coherently, and correctly elucidates the Objectivist approach to moral judgements, i.e., judgements of good and evil. Fundamentally, Objectivism shows that it is not only possible to reach objective moral judgements but also that it is absolutely crucial to one’s own life to do so.

Objectivism holds that value is objective (not intrinsic or subjective); value is based on and derives from the facts of reality (it does not derive from mystic authority or from whim, personal or social). Reality, we holdalong with the decision to remain in it, i.e., to stay alivedictates and demands an entire code of values.

The good, therefore, is a species of the true. The evil is a species of the false. Or: values are a type of facts; they are facts considered in relation to the choice to live.

In the objective approach, since every fact bears on the choice to live, every truth necessarily entails a value-judgment, and every value-judgment necessarily presupposes a truth. As Ayn Rand states the point in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every ‘is‘ implies an ‘ought.'”

Just as one must distinguish between good and bad in relation to the realm of nature, so one must distinguish between good and bad in relation to the realm of man. In Objectivist terms, this means a single fundamental issue: in the human realm, one must distinguish the rational from the irrational.

[Credit to Marcus via SOLO for the link to the entire debate transcript.]

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One Response to “Bertrand Russell Needs Objectivism”

  1. Ergo said

    Well, the poor fella is dead now… so I guess I should change the title of this post to “Bertrand Russell Needed Objectivism”.

    Oh well.. it ain’t that big a deal. so I’ll just leave it… for historical sakes! 🙂

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