Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ayn Rand or Objectivism?

I noticed in the many comments that have been posted to the blog concerning my abortion posts, a commentator posted a quote that contained a statement by Ayn Rand on the issue. The quote is as follows:

"Never mind the vicious nonsense of claiming that an embryo has a 'right to life.' A piece of protoplasm has no rights—and no life in the human sense of the term. One may argue about the later stages of a pregnancy, but the essential issue concerns only the first three months. To equate a potential with an actual, is vicious; to advocate the sacrifice of the latter to the former, is unspeakable."

“A Last Survey,” The Ayn Rand Letter.
The commenter felt that since even Ayn Rand seems a little bit less than certain abortion in the later stages of pregnancy, perhaps I was overstepping my supposed mandate in affirming the right to abortion up until birth.

I do not agree. I cannot say what Rand's arguments concerning late-term abortion were because she does not flesh them out. Rand certainly lays out the essential point that sacrificing a woman's life to a fetus is vicious (a principle which she also affirmed elsewhere in her writing), but that is the extent of her argument. It would be absolutely improper to allow oneself to become paralyzed by a vague aside and quite frankly, that's not how Objectivism works.

Ayn Rand's contribution to the cause of mankind was the development of a rational philosophy for thinking and acting, not a group of texts for her admirers to slavishly follow like it was the revealed gospel of some lord. As a deeply powerful thinker, Ayn Rand offers volumes of astute observations about the world and its nature. That doesn't absolve those of us who admire her ideas to see the world as it is with our own eyes. I hold that Rand's philosophic system is essential in that identification, but even the merits of Objectivism have to be validated by a person using it for it to be a truly useful tool. There is just no getting around the need to think independently and rationally about the questions of life.

So every now and again, I do come across something that Ayn Rand wrote or said that I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with. These points have been minor and trivial at best, which I think is a powerful statement of Rand's unprecedented accuracy as a thinker. Yet there has never been anything substantive that I have been able to show that was wrong with her philosophic system; quite the contrary, I see a sturdy and stout tool for perceiving reality as it is and acting accordingly. And that's why I choose to use it as such a tool in order to answer my own questions about life and respect her for it. I take Ayn Rand and Objectivism but my loyalty to Ayn Rand and Objectivism is not slavish; it is rational, and there is a world of difference between the two.


Anthony said...

After viability, I think the argument in favor of allowing abortions is different, but I still think there is one.

Good reasons for late term abortions are rare, but in those rare cases where they are appropriate, we don't need lawyers and judges getting involved and second guessing a woman's decision.

That's my personal reasoning for strongly supporting the legal right to an abortion at any stage.

Anonymous said...

well, I agree with Rand that women have the right to abort fetuses early on in pregnancy. I don't agree that a fetus in the late stages of pregnancy is only a potential. I think it should have rights, even though it has a temporary physical dependency. If the dependency is not necessary, I think the woman is doing what she wants with two bodies when she kills it. She decides to create a developed human being, so she shouldn't have the right to do whatever she wants with it. You said that parents have the moral obligation to care for their children. So couldn't you argue that if the woman waits and creates a developed human, she has the moral obligation to care for it? If abortion were legal up to a certain point, it would be entirely her decision to take the responsibility. If you didn't define life as starting after birth, couldn't you say that abortion is making the developed fetus sacrifice itself to the woman? Someone told me that I'm obliterating the concept of rights by creating an irresolvable conflict. But if a woman voluntarily creates a human, this wouldn't be the case, would it? I don't agree with the logic that asserts life as complete biological independence. I think a developed brain and inherited and expressed traits are enough for status as an individual. Are siamese twins not individuals?

I would grant complete rights to the mother at any stage if her life was in danger.

Anyway, I'm glad Ayn Rand said that late term abortion could be argued about, because I've met an entirely different response from Objectivists.

Dan G. said...

Viability, while tempting, is not the essential characteristic for resolving the question of the starting point of individual rights. Primarily, because viability is highly contextual in that it is dependent upon the state of technology available. For instance, a fetus within weeks of expected delivery might still not be viable due to its hemoglobin composition; gamma globulins instead of beta, to extract oxygen from the mother's blood via the fetus's liver (I think), instead of atmospheric oxygen via the lungs. With viability as the determinant, the availability of the technology to safely immerse fetus in an oxygen rich environment (without causing retinal blindness) becomes the essential characteristic for determining rights, meaning rights are dependent upon prosperity, not upon the nature of the human mind. What’s more, this leads to the following predicament: if a mother delivers pre-term, but cannot afford the technology affording viability, the owner of the technology would be forced to provide the service or be considered responsible of murder/manslaughter, or infracting the fetus’s individual rights. An individual’s rights cannot be dependent upon others.

I believe that the correct starting point is to understand the characteristics of one who can have rights first, then determine whether anyone has these characteristics prior to birth. This same approach can be used to resolve end of life questions (life support etc...) and to demonstrate the absurdity of animal "rights". While I’m still working though this myself, my current position is that only “individual human beings” have rights. Based on my current understanding, becoming a “human being” (as opposed to a clump of cells with a human genome) is similar to viability. But most important… No one, in utero, is an individual.

Anonymous seems to be making the same mistake a lot of christians are, that is that morality is comprised of dictums that MUST be done; that is, that if it is moral to choose to abort a fetus, that it must be done for the individual to be moral. Objectivism is not a list of commandments handed down by Ayn Rand; she is not the standard, but the elucidator of the standard.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

>Objectivism is not a list of commandments handed down by Ayn Rand; she is not the standard, but the elucidator of the standard.

Well said, Dan.

Anonymous said...

"that is, that if it is moral to choose to abort a fetus, that it must be done for the individual to be moral"

No, I disagree with individuality beginning after birth. It isn't moral to sacrifice an individual. it's not moral to sacrifice a woman to an embryo, but if a woman chooses to allow a viable fetus to develop, she's choosing to sacrifice herself. if she doesn't sacrifice herself in the way parents of infants would, she's killing the fetus that has become an individual inside of her.

I don't think Objectivism is a list of commandments. I'm just glad that its creator thinks this subject can be argued.

Dan G. said...

Thanks Nick.

You must demonstrate, via a well reasoned argument, that a fetus is an individual that is, an indivisible biological integral entity (in this context). Merely stating that it is not moral to sacrifice an individual doesn't suffice; that fact is well established. You must demonstrate that the entity in quesiton (the fetus) is an individual human being, which you haven't.

Anonymous said...

Several different criteria could be set for status as an individual. One might say that one must be capable of reason and ability to apply reason to be an individual. You say that one must be biologically indivisible and completely independent. One might say that having a separate, indivisible, developed brain grants individual status.

Do you only consider biological indivisibility in this context? In the case of conjoined twins, if a vital organ is shared there is no complete biological indivisibility. There is individuality because both twins have (in most cases) their own brain with their own thoughts. If one of the twins were only parasitic on the other, would it lose its status? What if the parasitic twin was rational and able to act, and the other mentally retarded?

A fetus dependent on the mother is not capable of reason, but does have an independent, indivisible brain. If that fetus has a developed cerebral cortex, something that is unique to humans, it's an individual with the criterion of an indivisible brain. Its rights would still depend on others, but so would a baby's, a child's, and a disabled person's. A parapalegic with no family, friends, or money would still be an individual. The difference is that a fetus would have been chosen to be developed. If a mother with no money came into a hospital with a child on the brink of death from a car accident, is that child no longer an individual? (i don't think the hospital should have to pay--the parents should be billed in both cases)

softwareNerd said...

I don't read Rand's "one can argue" as saying that she would argue. She is making a point of how giving rights to protoplasm is outrageous.

Simply at a concrete and emotional level, people who would ban really early abortions are mostly in a different moral category that those who would ban them at a point where they see something resembling a human being. I see her "one may argue" as saying she's talking about the protoplasm people in this context; not the other -- far more reasonable -- people.

I think Rand is saying she can understand those who want to ban late term abortions, not that she agrees with them.

Michael Smith said...

A human being is a biologically independent entity that possesses a volitional consciousness and the faculty of reason -- reason being the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the data provided by the senses. Man is thus a being that can choose to focus its consciousness and engage its faculty of reason -- that is his distinguishing characteristic and what makes him a human being.

Is a newborn infant capable of volitional consciousness and engaging its faculty of reason? Yes. Granted, the initial range of an infant’s consciousness is very limited -- its initial choices, that is, its initial volition, is limited to choices such as whether to open its eyes and observe the world or close its eyes and scream -- whether to swallow the food put in its mouth or spit it out, etc. And granted, it is not born knowing how to use its faculty of reason -- it must learn to use this faculty, beginning with reason‘s most basic function: the perception of reality. This learning process is so basic in the beginning that it includes such rudimentary things as learning to focus its eyes so its perception can be accurate.

Whether or not the infant actually begins to exercise its (at first, highly limited) power of volitional consciousness and engage its (at first, quite rudimentary) rational faculty immediately after birth or whether it is hours or days later isn’t the point -- the point is that these capabilities emerge at birth.

Can a fetus do any of this? Obviously not. It is an utterly passive, utterly unconscious, biologically-parasitic entity. In the womb, it is not capable of volitional consciousness and cannot engage a rational faculty even to the extent of beginning to learn its most basic functions. Whether or not it could under completely different circumstances -- such as being “artificially born” by being removed from the womb and placed in an incubator -- is not relevant. Prior to birth, it lacks these capabilities.

(And yes, I am aware that a fetus may react to stimuli while still in the womb; but such a reaction is not the equivalent of volitional consciousness in the human sense.)

Thus the moment of birth is the moment that a human mind -- a volitional consciousness possessing the faculty of reason, even if it doesn’t yet possess the knowledge of how to use that faculty -- comes into existence.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think of the infant's small decisions as being rational, but I agree with you. I don't agree that a fetus cannot do this, because a fetus does have consciousness if it can do similar things; close its eyes if it tires of light, kick at a loud sound(possibly in protest, as an equivalent of a cry), move in the womb to a more comfortable position) You're not basing your statement of its unconsciousness on any real evidence. it's conscious of a different environment than infants would be, but it's conscious nonetheless.

I don't know if Ayn Rand *would* argue or what she would argue, but I agree that she would think that a person that would, would be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Also, if you grant consciousness to an infant and therefore individuality, wouldn't you have to grant any animal that can make these decisions consciousness? A puppy can bark, close its eyes, and decide to eat. Why would a difference in complexity of consciousness between the fetus and infant matter, if an infant has near the equivalent consciousness as an animal? I think the posession of a developed, human brain defines individuality. If someone said that an infant has a small degree of consciousness, but is different from an animal because it will learn and become human, it's only a potential rational being. This is why I say a developed human brain is human and individual, regardless of state of consciousness. There is no conflict with potentiality.

Anonymous said...

*it's only potentially more rational than an animal

Richard said...

Even when those neural structures of the fetus are ready to start absorbing information about the world, its mind is still undeveloped and, essentially, blank. At best, the fetus is more an animal than a full human being. If you doubt this, see "The Miracle Worker" (1962 version). Below, I call attention to two key parts.

We can observe how Helen Keller's (9 yr old?) mind was less comprehending than that of a 1 yr old dog. You can see it, brilliantly portrayed by Patty Duke in the famous Breakfast Scene. Yes, she has learned many things and, yes, there IS a power struggle, but those are consequences of that lack of comprehension. They do not alter that fundamental point the scene demonstrates: she is only human in body. You can see that her behavior is based only on what little she learned through smell, taste & touch. Sure, she is physically human, but she is not much more.

Now, for those who do not know the full movie, observe the final scene. Helen has not yet grasped the meaning of the signs Annie Sullivan (played by Anne Bancroft) spent weeks trying to teach her. The father is giving up. However, as a baby, before Helen lost her sight and hearing due to a fever, she had just begun to say "Wa wa". It proved to be the link to *human* thinking that Annie had sought. Obviously, the scene is stylized, but it is built on the records from Annie Sullivan's notes. Observe the change in Helen when she suddenly grasps that things have names (via symbols on her palm). To be human, literally, Helen's mind *required* concepts for her to develop a true human character. The actual human, because of the human mind’s brilliant conceptual faculty, is so more worthy of worship than any fetus. Unfortunately, few people in today’s culture understand that.

So, it is only the mother's choice to give birth to that *potential human* that gives it the chance to become a true human being, a Man (in the non-gender sense).

On being born, a baby is *deemed* to be human for socio-political reasons based on the principle of *Individual* Rights available to individual human entities (twinned or not). Such Rights do not and cannot apply before the moment of birth. At most, abortion is the termination of a semi-human animal dependent on the mother. Legal jurisdiction does not somehow disregard and pass through the woman to the fetus. No other human has any political or moral right or justification to intervene if she should seek an abortion.

That said, the mother knows she has a potential human being, and can judge that potential as being a possible value.. However, if that value is, in her judgment, dramatically outweighed by other values in her brilliant, actualized life, then her having an abortion is the proper *moral* thing for her to do. The closer to birth, the more horrendous her decision becomes, but it still is her's and her's alone to make.

When and if she has a child she *wants*, that child is a product of her mind's choice and not a product of her mind's 18 yr enslavement by some other person or group’s uterus-worshiping, protoplasm-worshiping, DNA-worshiping &/or god-worshiping dictate.

A woman is a Man; she cannot and must not be ignored as if she was merely a walking vessel for God’s, Society's or the Law's uterus.

I would be interested in an Objective indication of any error I may have made in the above.

Anonymous said...

Softwarenerd wrote: "I think Rand is saying she can understand those who want to ban late term abortions, not that she agrees with them."

This was really all I had in mind when I posted the quote. I suggested that Provenzo could have shown some "sympathy" (relative sympathy, at least) with that view. I didn't say that he had to agree with the view. (Personally, I have no opinion, I think it's a gray area.)

I think it would have been a good way to illustrate the principle underlying abortion rights: the distinction between a clump of cells attached to the mother, and an independent organism.

No one has to agree with Ayn Rand on everything. But why allow the anti-abortionists to use the plight of eight-month-old fetuses as an excuse for advocating the banning of abortion on two-month-old ones? You know what they say about illustrating principles: emphasize the easy, uncontroversial cases first. Sarah Palin's fetus was only four months old.

Dan G. said...

Anon said, "emphasize the easy, uncontroversial cases first."


Michael Smith said...

Anonymous, the mere fact that a fetus reacts to stimuli does not prove that it is exercising a volitional consciousness. A plant reacts to stimuli -- but it does not possess a consciousness like a human's.

I’m not aware of any evidence to support the notion that while it is still inside that sensory deprivation chamber called the womb, the fetus nonetheless possesses and exercises a volitional consciousness just like a newborn infant. Nor am I aware of any evidence that a fetus is capable of exercising a rational faculty like the newborn does as it attempts to learn the use of reason’s most basic function: the perception of reality.

Consciousness is implicitly the consciousness of existents, of entities, of things. I see no way such a thing is possible in the womb. Indeed, experiments have shown that sensory deprivation is quite inimical to consciousness and leads to its disintegration, not its emergence and development.

Lauren said...

there are two anons in this post. The first anonymous to respond was me. I didn't post the original quote that Provenzo responded to. my name is Lauren, so I'll use that name from now on.

what evidence do you have that there is no volition in fetal movement? It's not a sensory void chamber. What evidence is there that all movement is simply reflexive?

Also, how is the perception of reality of a dog different than that of an infant? If it's not, it's only potentially rational, and therefore only a potential individual.

Gideon said...

As it happens, Ayn Rand explicitly denied rights to the unborn. See here.

chuckbutler said...

Beyond stating basic principles, I think it's impossible to create some kind of "rule" that would cover every situation that might arise in this context. One would have to know the specifics of a situation in order to reach an objective conclusion about the moral issues surrounding the woman's decision.

Because of that, I think the mother's choice to terminate her pregnancy must be absolute; it's inappropriate to specify some point in fetal development where that right would be nullified. That may mean that some women will make irrational or immoral choices, but it does not follow that we should therefore deny the rights of those who would act responsibly.

Ayn Rand's comments (correctly) recognize that such decisions become even more difficult as the fetus approaches and achieves viability. Once the fetus matures to the point where it could exist independently (including outside of the womb with the support of modern technology), termination is certainly not an option that should be considered except under the most unusual circumstances. I suspect that such cases are exceedingly rare.

FWIW, I don't think that "brain development" or "ability to reason" are good measures of individuality. I'm not a doctor, but I doubt there's much difference in brain development or ability to reason between the day before you're born and the day after. What is different is that you are no longer biologically dependent on a host organism (even if you remain dependent on technology). That is the distinction that counts.

So I support a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy up until the point where she is no longer pregnant--meaning her body is no longer carrying the fetus. Once the fetus is separated from her, it assumes the status of an individual, including individual rights.

I understand that this view is very difficult for many to accept, particularly those who are religious. What I would say to them is: I don't like abortion either. I'd prefer to see as few abortions as possible. But I'm not willing to sacrifice an already-in-the-world individual's rights to the unborn. What I'd rather do is help people learn to make better, more responsible choices about procreation, and to offer them an objective system of ethics to guide them when they find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to consider terminating a pregnancy.

I don't think there's any conflict between Objectivism and Miss Rand's comments. I think her comments recognize the variety and complexity of these kinds of situations, and the need to assess them ("one may argue") on a case-by-case basis.

Richard said...

Chuck Butler has extended my argument, w/o relying on it, and through his own understanding.

He is... right.

lauren said...

I don't agree with any of these arguments for late-term abortion.
I think that the best argument would be that the fetus must be biologically independent, because it respects human life, in most cases, regardless of state of development after birth.

If only humans that were rational were given rights or everyone believed that only rational humans were human, several people could be threatened. Whoever might be in power could decide to kill whomever they please by claiming they're not rational. Any human at the wrong stage of development or health would be threatened. Helen Keller could have been killed as an uncontrollable, irrational animal. Any infant could be killed. Someone in a coma would be only be a potential human until they recovered. Someone that was under anesthesia wouldn't be capable of reason for a short amount of time, and could lose their rights. Any human that isn't rational at one point could only be potentially rational at another.

Also, a chimp or gorilla that can grasp concepts and communicate would be more human than a human fetus or infant. I think this would be absurd. The respect for physical human life is not DNA or fetus worship.(maybe it is for embryos) It's respect for human life. A fetus and near-infant is equipped with a remarkably powerful brain that is completely different than that of any animal, and also has greater plasticity and ability to learn than that of any adult.

If the kind of understanding of concepts a chimp shows would not be sufficient to be considered human philosopically, what would? Which people wouldn't deserve to live? Who would decide this?

If someone with the understanding of a chimp wants to live, they have every right to pursue their own values (even if they're just eating, fishing for termites, sex, and social grooming) and live their lives, whether they live rationally or not.

I'm not assuming that anyone that has responded to this post would deny anyone outside of the womb rights. I just think that demanding rationality for personhood could lead to the denial of rights of people who deserve to live for their own sake.

Michael Smith said...


The statement that man is a rational animal does not mean that man is an animal that always reasons. It means the man is an animal that possesses the faculty of reason and thus has the capacity to be rational. Thus a sleeping man, a man in a coma and a man of highly limited intelligence are still men, because they still have that capacity, even if their current circumstances prevent them from exercising it.

As for chimps that can communicate -- all I can say is that when you can show me a chimp that is capable of grasping the concept of individual rights -- and is thus capable of respecting the rights of others -- then I'll consider granting it rights.

As for the repeated claim (from a different Lauren?) that a fetus is volitionally conscious and can engage its rational faculty in the same way an infant can -- you cannot support the claim that something exists (in this case, a fetal consciousness) merely be demanding proof that it doesn't exist. That's known as demanding proof of a negative, which is impossible. Absent any supporting evidence for your claim, I consider it an arbitrary assertion. For a discussion of arbitrary claims, see here: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/arbitrary.html

lauren said...

yep, definitely the same Lauren. I was only making the clarification because I didn't know what the person wrote to Nicholas Provenzo and didn't write their one post in this thread.

" you cannot support the claim that something exists (in this case, a fetal consciousness) merely be demanding proof that it doesn't exist. That's known as demanding proof of a negative, which is impossible"

Yes, and that is exactly why you cannot make the claim that something doesn't exist because you haven't seen evidence that it does. Reason is a great and fundamental tool, but in order to make scientific statements one must use empiricism and consider all possible variables. Such variables are not available by applying logic alone. A fetus has a developed neocortex that does have the capacity of volition, whether its movements are voluntary or not. I don't think that a baby one day older or two weeks older than a fetus suddenly develops its capacity for volition. Premature babies make voluntary movements and would have a brain less or similarly developed as the fetus. If you are considering a fetus with only a rudimentary nervous system or brain stem, you could much more confidently say the fetus only moves reflexively because it doesn't have the brain to do otherwise. You can't just make the argument that stimuli and response can mean nothing other than reflex, and the analogy of a plant responding to stimuli without any sort of brain is not comparable. An experiment that could test neocortical brain activity when making a spontaneous movement could perhaps give evidence that the infant decided to move. I have also read medical literature that indicates that some of fetal movement is voluntary. http://books.google.com/books?id=ioyvuitdXHcC&pg=PA358&lpg=PA358&dq=voluntary+fetal+movement+jogging&source=web&ots=L94sotx5x2&sig=5CF77tLVooKDcbnX6lQM9bwpJkc&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA453,M1

Based on your original definition of rational capabilities, a chimp would be rational. I would be much more comfortable accepting your orginal standard (for humans) that an infant is rational because of its decisions to open its eyes, cry, spit out food, etc., than the standard that requires the understanding of concepts. Several retarded people might not understand the concepts of individual rights, in the same way that a chimp would not. An infant posesses a brain that is capable of reason, as did Helen Keller. Someone else in this thread said that they would not consider her human because of her irrationality. This would imply that anyone in a temporary state of irrationality (and only potentially rational again) could be denied human rights. A person in a coma will only potentially recover, and dependent on the resources of others until they do. If that person has no money or insurance and no charity to support him, does he have the right to stay alive?

Michael M said...

Random points not seen scanning the comments:

1) On the Rand quote re the first trimester, my memory is telling me that when she made it it was not generally thought to be possible to safely abort beyond that point. Had it been, she might have had more or something different to say on the rest of that subject.

2) There are no contradictions in reality. There are no conflicting rights. So long as the mother and fetus are one contiguous human unit, you may not ascribe to that unit two sets of rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, just as you may not ascribe two sets to conjoined twins.

3) A quick review: Political rights are not innate. In the absence of an organized society with an independent third party institution to objectify and defend them human beings do not have any political rights at all. They do not exist outside of that context. Outside of that context, there are only moral rights (and wrongs), and on all such questions each individual would be autonomous. When forming a moral government, its sole task must be to preserve for each individual the same autonomy within the society that would exist without it.

Objectified rights are necessitated by the fact that without them, the exercise of autonomy by one could nullify the autonomy of another because humans are volitional and therefore fallible. Consequently, rights are designed solely to protect fallible humans from each other in a social context. Rights are only of use as terms of that social contract. To be a party of that contract, one needs to be immanently capable of interfering with another's autonomy, and immanently capable of reciprocating by upholding the terms of the contract.

No man needs to enter into such a relationship with a fetus tethered within a womb. No man may enter into such a relationship with a fetus that could conflict with the contract he already has with the woman in and to whom the fetus is tethered.