Back early from his holiday with lots of new stuff. A mid-week post when I wasn’t looking, a lengthy discussion of ethics, and that’s not even counting a mere 843 words about the Microsoft trial. So let’s get to it, boppers:

Stardate: 20021031.2219
Word Count: 1,932
Title: Casino Notes
Impetus: Vegas vacation.
Thesis: No thesis today. He’s on vacation, OK? Give the guy a break.
Then What? Den Beste played a weird sort of strip tease slot machine, and some blackjack, and something called Pai-Gow Poker, and lost $500 all told. Chinese uses the English words for “flush,” “straight” and “joker” instead of trying to invent local equivalents so as not to pollute its language, like, of course, the French. (Actually Icelanders are even worse this way.) He hates cigar smoke.
Technical Digression: A discussion of slot machine technology.
Evaluation: A lot more interesting than I make it sound.

And now we get serious.

Stardate: 20021102.1331
Word Count: 2,370
Title: Ethical Selfishness
Impetus: Nothing immediate.
Thesis: No ethical system supplies all the right answers. Even his favorite, Rule Utilitarianism, is “much too susceptible to rationalization.” (Den Beste means utilitarians decide on their answer first and then invent its justification. Since there’s no such thing as “utile” — a commensurable unit to measure outcomes — this is tempting to do.) But altruism is clearly wrong, which means selfishness is at least sometimes right.
Engineering Analogy: Robustness, the ability of a system to handle a new challenge or a high load and keep running. Ethical systems are wanting in this regard.
Best Quote: “I categorically state that Joe is permitted to prefer his own daughter to any other child, and that it is not wrong for him to care more about Jill’s happiness than he does about starving children in Somalia.”
Evaluation: Den Beste tries to get beyond moral intuition and fails, because he asks too much. He expects an ethical system to work like a computer program: the input is the problem, the algorithm is “the greatest good for the greatest number,” or whatever, the output is the solution. But the problem, the input, can never be given with enough precision to permit this. An ethics is a heuristic and a good one helps us avoid the grosser errors. “Act to maximize your rational self-interest” is excellent moral advice; I think it is right and thus am not an “ethical cynic” in Den Beste’s sense. In the same way I think Den Beste’s “Principle of Selflessness” is wrong, and everything in his article indicates that he does too. “Rational self-interest” will save you from many serious errors; but it will not decide how relatively important your family, your colleagues, your countrymen, and your fellow humans are, and no other ethical tenets will either.

Aaron Haspel | Posted November 2, 2002 @ 10:29 PM | General

3 Responses to “Den Beste Digeste”

  1. 1 1. Jim

    "An ethics is a heuristic and a good one helps us avoid the grosser errors."

    Aaron, I think you are not a libertarian in any sense strong enough (not just as a heuristic) to merit the term. Are you? If you have a chance, would you please check out my present post, "The Sweet Spot," and correct it where it errs?

  2. 2 2. Sporkadelic

    I assume the post on ethics was what prompted a comment on Den Beste’s blog yesterday (it’s no longer there today) stating that he doesn’t care to receive emails about Objectivism, doesn’t want to respond to such emails, doesn’t want to post on the subject, isn’t impressed by Objectivism, and so on. That’s his prerogative, of course, just as it’s mine to be disappointed that Den Beste is ducking the challenge that rational egoism poses to his own ethical theory. (For the record, I’ve never emailed him myself.)

  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    Spork: I doubt it. Den Beste and I have corresponded, but I’ve never once mentioned Ayn Rand to him. But he gets a lot of mail from real Randroids who view him as a likely convert; the comment you refer to is not the first time he’s mentioned it.

    I also don’t call myself an Objectivist any more, although I agree with a lot of the philosophy; and I certainly don’t beat people over the head with it, least of all Den Beste. However, I do think he’s an ethical egoist and doesn’t know it.

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