Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Confession of a Former Objectivist, part two

In the wake of my experience with Objectivism, I came to mistrust all claims to certainty. This was reinforced by my continuing study of philosophy, through which I gained a growing understanding of the richness and ambiguity of human experience and the elusiveness of knowledge.

Through many years of disorientation and bafflement, I gradually came to be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. By recasting myself as an environmental philosopher, using the intellectual resources of the philosophical tradition to grapple with complex issues of knowledge and value in environmental ethics and policy, I was slowly able to open up a practical domain in which I could make some (tentative) assertions and hold some (tentative) convictions.

I should give a sense of what I mean by "gradually": I was already a year or so into my graduate studies before I solidified my self-identification as an environmental philosopher, and it was several years of teaching and writing after I received my doctorate before I really began to gain some confidence asserting much of anything.

It is telling that, early on, my assertions were mostly negative. I developed a critique of environmental ethics as it had been practiced (and as it is still widely practiced), and was only able to gesture at what the alternative might be: a way of (somehow!) approaching environmental issues without claiming foundational knowledge of what Nature is and what Nature wants, or some other metaphysical or ontological variation on that theme.

What's really telling, though, is the pattern I began to identify in many of the arguments offered by environmental ethicists. These are the foundational principles we should adopt, they argued (sometimes openly), because these are the only foundational principles that fully support and justify the values we hold and the political agenda we pursue as environmentalists.

This kind of argument also takes a negative form, seen in attack after attack on anthropocentric (human-centered) ethics: We must reject human centered ethics, they argue again and again, because it supports and justifies attitudes and policies that seem to run counter to the values we hold and the political agenda we pursue as environmentalists. Anthropocentrism has become a kind of ideological litmus test among environmental ethicists.

As I argued in my dissertation and later in my book, this kind of argument is precisely backward, and more than a little deceptive. While environmental ethicists often pretend to be grounding non-anthropocentric ethical principles in some (scientific, ontological, metaphysical, perceptual, or spiritual) certainty about the world, what they are doing is rigging their science, ontology, metaphysics, perception, or spirituality to fit a practical vision and a political agenda the validity of which is always assumed from the beginning.

Where had I seen this pattern before?

Ayn Rand lived through the Russian revolution, and came to despise everything the Bolsheviks stood for. The United States stood out in stark contrast to all of that. She came to valorize the United States, and she embraced idealized versions of Capitalism and Rugged Individualism as her guiding lights. Her early novels, We The Living, Anthem, and even to some extent The Fountainhead are expressions of what can only be described as her passion for (a kind of) freedom and independence, a celebration of (a version of) human dignity.

(This was heady stuff to a confused seventeen-year-old, and at its best Rand's work can even be kind of bracing for grown-ups, too.)

By the end of The Fountainhead, however, through the whole of Atlas Shrugged, and on into her volumes of turgid non-fiction, Rand had begun to style herself as a philosopher. Her goal was to find the foundation, the ultimate justification for the vision of life to which she had given voice.

The problem is that - can you guess? - she reasoned backward, rigging together a loose system of naive realism and rational egoism that seemed to lead to the conclusion she wanted, but which could be held together only in the mind of someone driven by an ideological agenda or a blind passion - or both. Look too closely, ask too many reasonable questions about knowledge, or perception, or value, or economics, or politics, or for that matter the actual course of real human relationships, and the whole rickety edifice comes tumbling down.

When I turned my attention to environmental philosophy, I guess I was primed to spot backward reasoning and all manner of foundation-rigging wherever it happened to be. I got into the habit of pointing out that sort of tomfoolery when I spotted it, and I've never lost the habit. Much of what I've written in the subsequent 15 years or so is a testament to that.

I wrote a paper about Rand for an advanced ethics course I took during my last semester in college. At the time, I thought of the paper as a final farewell: with this paper, I thought at the time, I will finally put Objectivism behind me. I've never tried to publish that paper, but maybe now I'll dig it out and post extended excerpts as part three (and maybe parts four and five) of this series. Stay tuned.

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