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Toxic social media vs. philosophy, Exhibit A

In addition to following a couple philosophy blogs regularly, I also follow the /r/badphilosophy subreddit (reddit lingo for forum), mainly for the humor value.  I'll get to the badphilosophy subreddit in a moment, but in the last few days there was a link there discussing a link on the /r/philosophy subreddit which discusses and in turn links to a blog post on the meaning of the term "selfishness," mainly in connection with Ayn Rand's usage of the term.

On reddit, the default settings sort comments by "top," as in most net upvotes, and do not display comments that receive 5 or more net downvotes.  The process of upvoting or downvoting is anonymous (and therefore unaccountable) and effortless.  (Surely you can see where I'm going with this?)  So in theory, someone can put in a lot of thought and effort into writing up a comment only to have it "buried" by downvotes, or conversely, someone can make a lazy comment that is popular with the anonymous upvoters and thereby see it elevated to the top of the displayed comments section.

In the instance covered here, the user linking his own blog post, Sword_of_Apollo (an Objectivist), received for his efforts many downvoted comments.

(Digression: It's not exactly germane to the topic of this posting to get into Rand's unconventional but not necessarily incorrect usage of the terms "selfishness" and "altruism" here; the main point is to contrast social media formats with actual philosophical ones uncorrupted by social media toxicity.  But here's my take: Rand's book The Virtue of Selfishness is subtitled A New Concept of Egoism, so what she's proposing is a reconceptualizing of how egoism or self-interest is treated in ethical philosophy.  Usually theorists dismiss egoism on the grounds that it supposedly fails to offer commonsense ethical advice or gives the wrong reasons for doing what morality demands.  Rand, meanwhile, holds that the purpose of morality or ethics is the achievement of happiness; further, happiness is the reward of virtue, the primary virtue being rationality, rationality being the specific mode by which human beings function and flourish.  (I spell this theme out in this blog post.)  To try to make a long story short for purposes of this post, Rand is advancing the case that the agent or author of moral action is properly the beneficiary of that action, specifically in terms of that agent's hierarchy of values.  Rand defines "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep"; values or those things that are important, what one cares about.  At the same time Rand holds that there is a rational standard of value that guides one toward successful or better or happier living, and that for man, that standard is defined in terms of the specific human capacity for reason, which means that the good life for man is rational or thoughtful or intelligent living.  This means exercising one's best judgment about one's hierarchy of values, including one's relations with others.  But to exercise one's best judgment requires one act on one's own independent judgment, which - metaethically speaking - is to recognize the objective nature of values, that is, as requiring a specific mental process, as opposed to the intrinsic and subjective conceptions of value which each in their own way subvert objectivity.  The intrinsic conception takes values as a given directly from reality without the need for such a mental process, while the subjective conception takes value as irreducibly the product of the agent's will without a connection to a rationally establish-able standard of value.  And what altruism does, in Rand's view, is to subvert the connection between the agent's own mental processes and therefore hierarchy of value and the ends or values the agent is to serve.  More pointedly, the agent must be prepared to sacrifice what his own independent judgment would dictate -- or alternatively, since the agent's independent judgment is effectively rendered irrelevant to the standard of value guiding his actions, the agent can properly be sacrificed by others, by force.  This is how various forms of statism get their moral impetus: the agent is to (be made to) serve a standard and hierarchy of values not his own, on the grounds of a "greater good" to be achieved thereby.  Observe how various arguments from the left appeal to values like compassion in political terms - how the individual's life is implicitly the state's to dispose of - and how possession of a superior moral compass leads to state-directed (enforced) charity.  As for how an objective principle of fellow-human-aiding might be formulated, here's the principle Rand states in "This is John Galt Speaking": "Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle. Suffering as such is not a value; only man’s fight against suffering, is. If you choose to help a man who suffers, do it only on the ground of his virtues, of his right to recover, of his rational record, or of the fact that he suffers unjustly; then your action is still a trade, and his virtue is the payment for your help. But to help a man who has no virtues, to help him on the ground of his suffering as such, to accept his faults, his need, as a claim—is to accept the mortgage of a zero on your values.")

Now, here's a comment that has gotten over 100 upvotes:

Cowistani 111 points 
I read Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness.”
A pile of pseudo-intellectual masturbatory piffle.
You want to redefine words in common usage. Fine. But be prepared for immediate and aggressive pushback.
Language doesn’t work the way you want it to. Language works how the people who use it want it to. So the common usage of “selfish” is what 99% of the population will think when you use that word.
And to be honest, they’re not going to give two dukes about your definition because it isn’t their definition. This is a huge issue with philosophy like this: to make the points you want to make, you want to use common usage words to take advantage of the baggage associated with those words while redefining them to be something positive and helpful for your ideology.
It’s dishonest. There’s words or concepts you can use for the idea you want to get across. Use them. Don’t call the users of language wrong because they use a word differently than you do.

What's being asserted here is that Rand's "pseudo-intellectual masturbatory piffle" rests on a redefinition of terms, and that one can glean this from reading The Virtue of Selfishness (TVOS).

Now, the main theoretical essay in TVOS is "The Objectivist Ethics," a paper delivered at an academic symposium (perhaps in part at the urging of her friend and correspondent at the time, Prof. John Hospers), which (to but it bluntly) doesn't rely in the least on any definition of "selfish." It does rely on definitions of terms like "value," "goal," "goal-directed action," "standard of value," "virtue," and "happiness," and any other related terms.

It sounds (well, is) grossly irresponsible to read TVOS and especially the main essay and come away with the conclusion that it is "pseudo-intellectual masturbatory piffle."

If Rand's writings really did reach such a low level, it is hard to explain Rand's relation to and extensive correspondence with Prof. Hospers, a well-respected philosopher and author of several textbooks (including especially in aesthetics, a branch of philosophy which receives too little coverage, and where Hospers - the president of the American Society For Aesthetics in the early '80s - had an affinity for Rand). (Hospers also became the first Libertarian Party candidate for president, and his essay summarizing his political philosophy, "What Libertarianism Is," clearly echoes Rand and especially her article, "Man's Rights," in several places.) (Hospers describes his history with Rand in a two-part article which merits some comment when time permits...)

If Rand's writings really were "pseudo-intellectual masturbatory piffle," it's hard to explain the series of articles discussing Rand that appeared in the philosophy journal The Personalist (edited at the time by Hospers), notably Robert Nozick's (not exactly a lightweight) "On the Randian Argument" and Den Uyl and Rasmussen's response, "Nozick on the Randian Argument." (Typical of usually-scummy Rand-bashers is to tout the Nozick essay as an example of a "real philosopher debunking Rand," while pretending that the Den Uyl-Rasmussen response, which in essence faults Nozick's critique for failing to appreciate the neo-Aristotelian character of Rand's argument, doesn't exist.)

The articles in The Personalist did have to go through a peer-review process, which is more than can be said for social-media comments, the only "peer review" being the upvote/downvote format.

But it's not like academic-level discussions of Rand ended back in the '70s with articles in The Personalist.  How about stuff from this past decade?  Surely that wouldn't escape the notice of social media?  Based on discussions of Rand in venues like reddit, you'd never know whether such discussions occurred at all.

For starters, the authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published an entry (2010, rev. 2016) on Rand.  It includes about as many references/leads as needed for a curious scholar to follow, including the 2006 book published by Cambridge University Press, Tara Smith's Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.  In all the time this book has been in publication, I've never seen a Rand-basher (on reddit or elsewhere) acknowledge the existence of this book.  But it's actual philosophy, not mere social-media output.

For back-and-forth between Objectivists and non-Objectivists in a serious and genuinely philosophical format, one can consult the Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies Series, including a volume on Rand's "pseudo-intellectual masturbatory piffle" titled Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue: Studies in Ayn Rand’s Normative Theory (2011).  No upvoting/downvoting with the essays here, just plain old philosophical inquiry by professionals based on the quality and merits of the arguments presented.

Then there is the Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand, published in 2016.  (Wiley-Blackwell isn't exactly an obscure publisher of academic materials; moreover, I read their Companions to Plato, Aristotle, and Kant and found them worthwhile.)

Awareness of this literature is next to non-existent on social media, where Rand is bashed constantly.  What does this say about the value of social media?

(This isn't even to mention Leonard Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism (UO), which was in audio format only and priced in the hundreds of dollars for close to three decades, but which has been in book form for seven years now.  UO gets into the nitty-gritty of Objectivist method - the how of arriving at its content as distinct from the what of the content - and the most detailed non-Peikoff scholarship on Rand's method in the context of the history of philosophy points to its neo-Aristotelian character.  Rand's high estimate of Peikoff as teacher of her ideas - she wasn't keen on giving out endorsements lightly - combined with Objectivists' uniform insistence on the importance of this material to grasping the philosophy properly, might have pushed the Rand-bashers in a more intellectually responsible/honest direction when it came to material called Understanding Objectivism of all things, but that hasn't happened.  [And as UO makes rather abundantly clear, even long-time Objectivists have had issues with coming to grips with its method, which contextualizes the whole way of thinking about the philosophy itself.  Besides, it's not like Aristotelian method is appreciated by non-specialists, of which there are unfortunately way too many.])

(This isn't even to mention what Rand's relatively little coverage in academic circles does or doesn't imply.  What it doesn't imply is that most academic philosophers are even familiar enough with Rand to properly dismiss or ignore it.  The key issue here is familiarity.  Hospers was familiar enough with Rand to take her seriously....)

This brings me to one hotspot of philosophy-related internet toxicity, the /r/badphilosophy subreddit.  The sub is actually correctly advertised as "not a place for learns," and yet the point of the subreddit is to highlight examples of how not to do philosophy, which is in principle quite instructive in its own right.  There are other "badX" subreddits (history and economics, for instance) which serve such a purpose.  And the subreddit - true to its nihilistic adverstising - isn't exactly consistent when it comes to banning informative discussions.  And throughout the years Rand has been among its targets, signaling to any viewers that Rand is a toxic specimen for serious philosophers to avoid.  And so we get comments like this one, with more than 20 upvotes:

Elder_Cryptidthe reals = my feels 21 points 
I can't tell which I'm more insulted by; the notion that anything Ayn Rand did could be qualified as revolutionary or the notion that anything Ayn Rand did could be qualified as philosophy.
The intent of this comment is belied by the evidence presented above.  It itself is the very example of bad philosophy the subreddit is supposed to poke fun at - indeed, the very irony which the subreddit engages in to the point where, in many cases, satire cannot be distinguished from genuine content.  (Incidentally, one of the comments links to this twitter account, which in keeping with the format there supplies low-effort content to many thousands of low-effort users.  Philosophy books or journal articles, online or otherwise, may not stimulate the pleasure-centers the way toxic social media does, but they're more intellectually edifying.)  So much for social media as an arbiter of truth-value.


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