Rocket Men

OK, so here’s my annual anti-Atlas Society space travel movie rant. Last year’s mean-spirited (but totally on-target) rant was directed against Will Thomas’s review of “Interstellar.” This year’s “rant” is directed at Ed Hudgins’s equally silly review of “The Martian.”

The truth is, I haven’t seen “The Martian” and I’m not inclined to, since there’s only so much Matt-Damon-in-space I can take, and I got enough of him last year to last me awhile. So I’m not really talking about the movie part of the review, even if it has that trademark Atlas Society feel of Randroid propaganda masquerading as film criticism:

The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!

Formula: (Ayn Rand + Sartre + Marcus Aurelius + Macgyver) / Elon Musk = A Hero for Our Times

robert-mankoff-look-life-is-nasty-brutish-and-short-but-you-knew-that-when-you-becam-new-yorker-cartoon.jpg (473×355)

No, I’m talking about the hey-let’s-travel-to-Mars part of the review. But this time I’m not going to rant. I’m not going to say a damn thing. Just go back and read Hudgins’s case for going to Mars. Then read Ed Regis’s “Let’s Not Move to Mars,” published in The New York Times a few weeks ago, and compare the two.

An excerpt from Regis:

These are only a few of the many serious challenges that must be overcome before anyone can put human beings on Mars and expect them to live for more than five minutes. The notion that we can start colonizing Mars within the next 10 years or so is an overoptimistic, delusory idea that falls just short of being a joke.

I link. You decide.

By the way, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the average educated person regards Objectivism as a cult for immature, fantasy-besotted lunatics, hold Hudgins’s and Thomas’s praise for Elon Musk in mind while you read this. Is the supposedly uncharitable stereotype really that far off?

Postscript: I just realized that the Ed Regis I quoted above is Edward Regis, Jr., author of “What Is Ethical Egoism?” Ethics 91:1 (1980), and editor of Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism (1984).

5 thoughts on “Rocket Men

  1. Reading Regis’ “What Is Ethical Egoism?” has led me to reflect on progress in philosophy. On the one hand, so much of what he argues against there is just obviously bad that it seems impossible not to conclude that Anglo-American philosophy has made progress in the last 35 years because such silly arguments pro and contra such silly conceptions of “egoism” are no longer taken seriously. I’d think it would likewise be apparent to most people today that Regis’ own preferred version of egoism trades on a fallacious argument, conflating multiple senses of ‘ends-in-themselves’ and thereby smuggling in non-egoistic reasons. Once we distinguish between goods and reasons and between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons, it’s hard not to see the fallacy.

    On the other hand, I also find myself perplexed by Regis’ dismissal of Sidgwick’s version of egoism, leading me to suspect that between Sidgwick and Regis there had been a severe decline in the standards of English-language moral philosophy. I’ll blame Moore for this. I also find myself thinking that most of the great philosophers who endorse something at least in the neighborhood of a form of egoism, from Aristotle to Hobbes, would have face-palmed upon reading Regis’ arguments and the arguments he reports and criticizes. I’m not quite willing to endorse Talbot Brewer’s claim that “the history of ethics looks like a story of progress only if its main texts are read in reverse chronological order,” but Regis’ paper certainly reminded me of why someone would find that plausible.


    • I haven’t read Regis in awhile, so I’m going to reserve judgment on the details of his article. I’m also not entirely sure what to say about either of your speculations–progress in Anglo-American philosophy over the last 35 years, or a decline in the standards of English-language moral philosophy between, say, 1900 and 1980. I’m inclined to doubt both speculations.

      On the second speculation: I have serious problems with Moore, Prichard, Ross, Ayer, Hare, Rawls, and even Anscombe, Foot, MacIntyre, and Williams, but I wouldn’t characterize the problems as a matter of a decline in standards. Hare, Rawls, and MacIntyre were/are great philosophers. Few if any contemporary philosophers live up to their standards–including Big Name Philosophers writing in Big Name Places. Moore, Prichard et al just ended up being wrong about a lot of things, at least by my lights, but I wouldn’t say that their standards are lower than what prevails in philosophy today.

      Maybe I’m just not up to date (or have an overly pessimistic view of the field), but I can’t think of any currently-writing philosopher who has Hare’s range, Rawls’s systematicity (or learning), or MacIntyre’s capacity to integrate philosophy with broader issues of culture. Those things aren’t really valued or rewarded today, given the much-vaunted “professionalization” of the field. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that a latter-day Rawls or MacIntyre would stand much of a chance in philosophy today, if they were just starting out. That’s always what hits me when I read Rawls’s or MacIntyre’s early papers. MacIntyre didn’t even have a PhD when he came to the US. Who would hire someone today on the basis of Marxism and Christianity or The Unconscious: A Conceptual Analysis? A research program based on Marx, Christianity, or Freud would be bad enough–but a program based on all three?

      The two writers I’ve found most insightful on egoism were Jim Sterba and Richard Kraut. They’re both highly critical of egoism, and I’m inclined to say that neither of them really characterizes egoism accurately by my lights. Neither of them focused on egoism as a purely meta-ethical thesis, either. But I think they both got at the real problem for egoism–indeterminacy. There’s no point in discussing egoism unless you first have in hand a theory of interests, or well-being (along with the virtues). If you have the right account of interests, egoism can handle just about anything, albeit in an ad hoc way. Just take any objection to egoism, re-define what counts as an “interest,” and you can probably answer the objection. But of course, that is ad hoc. What’s missing all around (by egoists and their critics) is a non-ad-hoc account of interests.

      If you abstract from any substantive account of interests, and discuss egoism in a purely meta-ethical way (whether to attack or defend it) it becomes impossible to know what a given author is talking about. Just look at the opening moves of almost any article on egoism, and you’ll see the same moves made over and over. “Egoism” is defined in terms of the egoist’s “interests.” So an egoist is someone who pursues her interests. We then take for granted that we know what an “interest” is, and we’re off to the races: we know what an egoist would do on any occasion. Unfortunately, given this set-up, what seems like an obvious inference about egoism to one person will seem like a total non-sequitur to another. “If S is pursuing her interests in context C, then qua egoist she will want to….” There’s no way to finish that sentence without presupposing a substantive account of what counts as an interest. But you can read hundreds of articles on egoism that fail to make that obvious point explicit. The reason is itself obvious: no one has offered the relevant kind of account. And the format of a short journal article is practically designed to conceal the real issue from view. You can’t lay out a substantive account of human interests in a 5,000 word journal article. Since journal articles are the stock in trade of the profession, it’s unsurprising that no one has.

      What I liked about Sterba and Kraut is that they cut to the chase. Suppose, they said, that something like the Objectivist account of interests is right (or an Objectivist account supplemented by some broadly neo-Aristotelian account). If so, you’d still face a series of problems. The problems are all variations on the same theme: no matter how benign an account of interests you adopt, you need a way of handling ordinary cases of conflict, especially conflict over resources. Even if, verbally, you’re committed to saying that genuine interests don’t conflict, you need some way of applying that thesis to cases of actual conflict, e.g., between, say, haves and have-nots, or producers and those-in-need. Egoists claim that egoism precludes predation, but on a commonsense understanding, predation sometimes seems to serve the interests of have-nots taking the surplus of the haves, or the needy making coercive claims on producers. Suppose those aren’t “conflicts of interests.” Then what are they? What in general does an egoist say about such cases?

      Sterba’s and Kraut’s point was that the problem arises most acutely for egoist libertarians who combine egoism with a very austere account of rights (a “non-initiation of force” conception): why is it in your interest to adopt that? Sterba’s point was that if you insist on egoism, you have to relax the account of rights. Kraut’s point was that unless you enrich your account of well-being or relax your account of rights, your “Aristotelianism” will collapse into a deontic sort of Stoicism (or Kantianism). In a general way, I think both criticisms are well-taken. My strategy has always been to combine a “benign egoism” with an account of rights that is less austere than what most libertarians or Objectivists endorse, but that is still stringent enough to count as a conception of rights. But most of the work for that project lies in the future.

      The Sterba book I mostly have in mind is Justice for Here and Now, and the Kraut paper I have in mind is “Aristotelianism and Libertarianism,” Critical Review 11:3 (Summer 1997). Kraut’s paper isn’t exactly on egoism, but it’s close enough.


  2. I suspect the truth is that things look better or worse depending on what you’re looking at and the aspects of them that you compare. Hence why some things can seem so much better while others seem so much worse. What struck me in reading Regis was how the objections to egoism that he considers are either obviously fallacious or directed at views that hardly anyone has ever seriously held. By contrast, the defense of rational egoism already in David Brink’s Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (1989) is just in a completely different league. It also seems to me to side-step most of the considerations you mention here; Brink would be the first to admit that a full defense of rational egoism will have to appeal to a substantive conception of the good, but there is much to be said in favor of rational egoism even apart from any particular such conception (and Brink says it, particularly in chapter 3 of that book). So too, while Mark Lebar wouldn’t describe his eudaimonism as egoism, it would count as a form of rational egoism in Brink’s terms, and Lebar produces some extremely sophisticated and interesting arguments in the early section of The Value of Living Well to show that practical rationality properly understood must be eudaimonist in structure. After reading these arguments, Moore’s objections are pretty embarrassing; I mean, I myself feel bad for the guy and worry about what it says for our philosophical tradition that arguments like that were taken so seriously for so long.

    I admit that I’m probably more partisan than you are, in that I have never read anything by Pritchard or Ross that struck me as insightful or plausible, and think that Anscombe/Foot/MacIntyre/Williams represent a tremendous jump forward in thinking about ethics. I think one of the surest signs of this is that contemporary Kantians and consequentialists look increasingly less like Pritchard or Moore and have in many respects internalized the critiques from “virtue ethics”; it’s hard to think, for example, that Pritchard wouldn’t have grumbled about Korsgaard’s recent attempts to ground moral obligation in the self-constitutive function of rational agency — hardly an account of moral obligations as “absolutely underivative or immediate.” So too, it’s no longer simply taken for granted that there is a thing called the “naturalistic fallacy” that is a serious problem for all forms of naturalism, the notion that ethical claims are simply expressions of preference exists now only in an extremely sophisticated form that has conceded a great deal of terrain to its cognitivist critics, the idea that the only alternative to consequentialism is some form of “deontology” is generally understood to be untenable, and so on. In these respects, I can only see ethics since Anscombe and Foot as vastly superior to what came between them and Moore. And while I still think that much of what preceded Moore was also better, I’m still inclined to side broadly with MacIntyre in his assessment of the main trends in modern moral philosophy.

    Your points about professionalization are, of course, difficult to oppose. I’m not sure what to think about the various causes of this and whether there are any remedies for it. But while I agree with you about that, I think my agreement is consistent with seeing much of the work that is being done today in ethics as intellectually superior to much of what was being done between Moore and the developments instigated by Anscombe, Foot, Williams, MacIntyre, and, in a different but no less important way, I think, Rawls.

    One part of Regis’ argument that I do think is quite good is that the alleged inability of egoism to resolve conflicts of interest doesn’t show that it is false. He draws an apt analogy to an argument to the effect that atheism is false because it might not prohibit adultery.

    I haven’t read the Kraut you cite, but his later comments on egoism strike me as more or less the same kind of question-begging that the theist opposed to adultery indulges in. I found Mark Lebar’s discussion of Kraut’s What is Good and Why interesting on that score:

    Ok, enough procrastination for today.


    • I agree with you about Moore and about Kraut’s What Is Good and Why. I also agree that the Anscombe/Foot/MacIntyre/Williams turn in ethics was a turn for the better. But though I reject the explicit theses defended in them, I think there’s a sense in which The Right and the Good and A Theory of Justice are, as single works, superior to any single work by Anscombe, Foot, MacIntyre, or Williams. Both Ross and Rawls (Rawls especially) did something that Anscombe, Foot, MacIntyre, and Williams never did: they worked out positive doctrines in the sort of detail that’s appropriate to a treatise-length work.

      Though my own views are closer to A, F, M, and W, none of the four has a treatise of that sort to their name. The closest MacIntyre comes is Dependent Rational Animals, and the closest Foot came was Natural Goodness. They’re both great books (DRA is a personal favorite of mine and influenced me very powerfully), but they’re both very slim and leave a lot undiscussed. I agree with a lot that Anscombe said, but much of her theorizing is like Ayn Rand’s– more vigor there than rigor, even when she’s right. (And sometimes, like Rand, I find Anscombe offensively wrongheaded as well, and almost breathtakingly disrespectful of the reader.) The work of A, F, M, and W is valuable mostly as criticism of problematic trends in moral philosophy, not as positive doctrine. What impresses me about people like Ross, Hare, and Rawls is the tenacity and thoroughness with which they worked out all the details of their positive doctrines, even if those doctrines are wrong.

      That said, though I’m not an intuitionist, I think Ross captures something very right about the phenomenology of moral life–the virtuous agent does (sometimes) see the world as though intuitionism were true. (Though she’s hardly a Rossian, Iris Murdoch does a good job of capturing this in her novels.) And there are certain fixed moral intuitions that almost everyone seems to hold in one form or another. Intuitionism may be wrong about their epistemic status, but happens to be right about their de facto recurrence in moral thought. So while this is a terrible confession to make in public, I actually get more out of reading Ross than I do David Brink. I should probably be wearing a scarlet “W” now, for “Weirdo.”


      • Yes, if you get more out of Ross than Brink, that’s weird (but I think pretty highly of and owe a lot to Brink’s work, so I may not be the best judge). Still, I’m happy to concede your point about the extent to which Ross, Rawls, and others worked out their views, and I get quite a lot out of reading much of Rawls despite being at best dissatisfied with everything he says. I think Rawls deserves respect simply for the effect that he had on ethics and political philosophy through his writing and teaching, but I also find him worth disagreeing with, and disagreeing with him has helped me develop my own thinking. But what I find so off-putting about much English ethics between Moore and Foot is that, however impressive the theoretical edifice they build, they just take certain ideas for granted that seem to me not only eminently questionable, but pretty decidedly false. Rawls is different in that respect. So I don’t think of him as in the same category, even though he’s also decidedly not a Foot/Anscombe/MacIntyre/Williams type.


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