Misunderstandings are common

It is common for people to misunderstand written material, including material that is apparently written in plain English. Consider, for example, this paragraph from Ayn Rand’s essay “The Argument from Intimidation”:

The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”

And then look at the mess Adam Lockett made of interpreting it:

Having a conscience is about making moral judgements about your thoughts and behaviour. You may sometimes feel bad as a result of judging that your behaviour or ideas suck, but the key idea behind conscience is the judgement not the emotion. You have moral self doubt if you don’t have confidence in your ability to make moral judgements. So not having moral self doubt is not the same as lacking a conscience. Rand was strongly in favour of judging your own conduct and the conduct of others:

The precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

In other words, Rand was in favour of a person having a conscience and standing by his ideas unless they are refuted by argument. Rand was also in favour of selfishness in the sense of having regard for your own interests. Adopting a standard that opposes acting in your own self interest means that you sometimes have to act in a way that is immoral by your own standards. And if you can’t consistently act morally by your own standards, then you will have moral self doubt to some extent. So seeing self interest as legitimate and good will help you avoid moral self doubt and have a strong conscience.

Suppose that you avoid moral self doubt and you engage in an argument. It is possible that your initial position will be refuted and you will adopt a new idea. But since your ideas have improved that’s not a loss in any relevant sense. Looking on it as a loss is a bad idea and will lead you to stick to ideas you ought to discard. If you engage in an argument and your position isn’t refuted that’s okay too. You can still learn something about what kinds of mistakes people make and about how to explain your own position. So a selfish person who engages in an argument without moral self doubt wins regardless of whether his position survives the argument.

A person who tries to win using an argument from intimidation loses an opportunity to engage with a different set of ideas than his own. The loss and the fact that the intimidator sees it as a victory are both kinda sad.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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