The Passion of Paul McKeever's Critics: An Open Letter to Grasshopper

April 10, 2009 by  

On February 28, 2008, I released a video titled “Straw Men are Huemerous”. It was a response to a paper written by Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, titled “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ “. Huemer’s essay purports to be a critique of the first essay in Ayn Rand’s book “The Virtue of Selfishness”; an essay, titled “The Objectivist Ethics” (hereinafter “TOE”), that lays out the essentials of her ethical philosophy.

I have insufficient knowledge of Huemer to judge him personally. I commend him for his willingness to take on at least one graduate student whom he knows to be an Objectivist, thereby facilitating the possible entry into academia of more much-needed Objectivist thinkers, writers, and teachers. I commend him for taking Rand’s work seriously enough to write about it, and to debate well-known Objectivists about it: his lessers continue to pretend that her work is not worthy of comment or criticism. However, I do not commend him for his essay, “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’ “. In it, Huemer repeatedly misrepresents the statements or arguments in TOE, and then sets out to knock down the misrepresentations he has authored.

Recently, a friend passed along an e-mail that appeared in a Colorado-based mailing list for Objectivists. It is not, to my knowledge, content that one could access on the web without being a member of the list. The identity of the author has not been disclosed to me. For lack of a name, I will temporarily and affectionately give the author the pen-name Grasshopper.

Grasshopper’s e-mail has a rather defensive tone, which he/she tries to mask with patronization and with statements bordering on the ad hominem. The length of Grasshopper’s critique – fourteen paragraphs; approximately typed 3 pages – makes it fairly obvious that Grasshopper cares a great deal about what I say or write. I would hope that anyone who feels so passionately about what I say or write would challenge my video’s content in a public forum, rather than sniping at it, and at me, from within the closed quarters of an e-mail list of a clique of Objectivists, some of whom I consider friends. However, perhaps by writing to Grasshopper in this public forum (i.e., my blog), as I do below, he/she will be encouraged to identify him/herself and address my various points.


Dear Grasshopper,

I read with some interest your e-mail to other Objectivists in the Colorado area concerning my video, titled “Straw Men are Huemerous“. Your e-mail essentially attempts to make the following two points:

  1. That I failed “to appreciate the proper response”: in other words, that I failed to give a philosophical justification for something Ayn Rand did write in her essay “The Objectivist Ethics” (hereinafter referred to as “TOE”), in response to Huemer’s misrepresentation of what Rand wrote in TOE.
  2. That I failed “to get the point of Huemer’s objection”: in other words, that I am wrong to conclude that Huemer misrepresented Rand’s statements in TOE, and that the real problem is that I simply didn’t comprehend Huemer’s criticism.

I reply as follows.

On Providing Justifications for Rand’s Positions

When providing a critique of something written or (as in this case) recorded on video, it is important to understand its nature and purpose, failing which your criticism may be misplaced or otherwise flawed. With respect, your e-mail is a case in point: you have failed both to understand the nature and purpose of Mike Huemer’s critique, and the nature and purpose of my video response to it.

Mike Huemer was not critiquing Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy, per se. The “eight fatal flaws” of which he wrote were not said to be flaws of Rand’s ethics per se, but flaws of her ethics as described in the argument she set out TOE. That is why, in the video, I said:

Huemer’s essay is a critique of the essay called “The Objectivist Ethics”, by Ayn Rand. And it appears as chapter 1 to “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

The purpose of my video was (a) to demonstrate that, in his essay, Huemer has misrepresented what Rand said in TOE, and (b) to demonstrate that the “8 fatal flaws” of which he writes apply to his misrepresentations of what Ayn Rand wrote in TOE, but not to what she actually wrote in TOE. Hence the title of my video (“Straw Men are Huemerous”) and the appearance of a scarecrow before my discussion of each of Huemer’s “8 fatal flaws”.

Grasshopper, before getting into particular errors on your part, let me begin with a comment that applies to your e-mail generally. In your e-mail, you condemn me for not providing a justification for various claims Ayn Rand actually did make in TOE. For example, in relation to the issue of why (as you write) “values are values only to living organisms”, you write:

What someone needs to say is that this is a point that is induced from observation, after forming the concept of a living being, and then abstracting out one aspect of the difference between living and non-living things.

You are quite right to imply that, in responding to Huemer, I did not refer to induction per se; I did not provide your epistemological argument to somehow justify what Rand actually did write. Instead, I quoted the epistemological argument Ayn Rand offered in TOE:

To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible.

There was no need for Rand to go further. In TOE, she does write about concept formation but, in asserting that “it is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible” she does not think it necessary to describe how the particular concept of “living” was formed; she does not think it necessary to describe how the particular concept of “value” was formed; she does not think it necessary to make express reference to the word “induction” when making her point about life and value. That is because (a) TOE is not a detailed account of her epistemology, but a statement concerning her ethics, (b) in TOE, Rand had already explained the process and purpose of concept formation, and (c) it was reasonable for her to assume that her audience, being literate and of the age of reason, would require no detailed explanation of why – like a house, a computer, or a cloud – a dead human body does not value things, and cannot hold values: I ain’t, therefore I don’t.

In your e-mail, you condemn me for not responding to a criticism of what Rand did not write by justifying various statements Rand actually did write. Take a moment to consider what a response of the kind you would have preferred implies: that Rand, in her essay, failed to justify her statements; that Huemer was right, and that Rand’s essay does indeed include “fatal flaws”; that Huemer had, with his essay, somehow demonstrated that Rand did not provide justifications for her various claims. Such conclusions are false. Huemer did not demonstrate flaws in what Rand actually wrote in that essay, so a justification of what Rand actually did write was not warranted. More importantly, providing such a justification when Huemer has failed to demonstrate that one is lacking in TOE would unduly elevate Huemer as critic of Objectivism, and would unduly elevate Huemer’s straw-man attack on Objectivism as though it were legitimate.

When Huemer cares (or is careful enough) to write a critique of what Ayn Rand actually did write and mean, I might take the time to justify those of Rand’s various statements that he chooses to debate. In the meantime, it is not only unwarranted, but a mistake, and a disservice to Rand’s philosophy and to Objectivists, to respond to Huemer’s criticism of his own misrepresentations of Rand’s essay, with justifications for the statements she actually did make in TOE.

On Your Particular Criticisms of My Video

The first of Huemer’s “eight fatal flaws” relates to Huemer’s first misrepresentation of Rand. Huemer writes that “Rand’s argument seems to be as follows…” (an aside: if you read Huemer’s essay, you will note that his statements frequently take a Wesley Mouch form: things, to Huemer, merely “seem” to be this way or that):

1. Value is agent-relative: things can only be valuable for particular entities.

Huemer says that argument is flawed in that:

Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

In the video, I state that Huemer has misrepresented Rand’s statement, and – in part – I quote TOE thusly to demonstrate that fact:

To speak of “value” as apart from “life” is worse than a contradiction in terms. “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. – Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 17.

In your e-mail, you write:

When [McKeever] answers Huemer’s first objection, that Rand offers no argument for her claim that values are values only to living organisms, McKeever basically just reasserts that values are values only to living organisms. That’s funny, because the very criticism Huemer is making is that Rand is just asserting this point, not arguing for it. (my emphasis)

Grasshopper, with respect, your argument is a straw man argument about a straw man argument: to make your point, you misrepresent Huemer’s misrepresentation of Rand. Huemer did not characterize Rand’s argument as “values are values only to living organisms” (my emphasis). Rather, Huemer characterized Rand’s argument as “things can only be valuable for particular entities”.

Neither Rand nor Huemer suggest that all entities are organisms, or that all entities are living. Omitting that Rand was writing not of “particular entities” but of “living” ones is why Huemer is indeed straw-manning Rand: Rand’s argument is that only living entities can have values, not that “particular entities can have values whether or not the particular entities are living”.

Had Rand written, as Huemer falsely suggests, only that “things can only be valuable for particular entities”, that statement would have served the purpose merely of saying that value is agent-relative, and her essay would indeed have lacked a justification for the statement. However, she did not write “things can only be valuable for particular entities”, and she did not argue that “value is agent-relative”, per se. Rather, to put it in the same form as “agent-relative”, she argued that value is “living organism relative”. And she justified her ethical statement with an epistemological argument: “It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible.” That is why, in my video, in response to Huemer’s false claim that “Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion”, I quote her “argument for it”: the “argument for it” that she actually made in her essay, not the one you propose in your e-mail (which did not appear in her essay and which, therefore, would not have served the purpose of demonstrating that Huemer had straw-manned Rand).

Let us move on to your next condemnation of my video/me.

In his essay, Huemer writes that, according to Rand:

2. Something is valuable to an entity, only if the entity faces alternatives. (my emphasis)

In my video, I state that Rand did not make that statement and that, rather, she wrote the following:

The concept value is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible. – Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, p. 16.

In my video, I assert that what Rand wrote, and what Huemer claims she says, are not the same. In your e-mail, in response, to you write:

Sure, it’s not exactly the same, but the two points are logically consistent. It’s just that Rand’s quote says more. She’s saying, something is value (sic) to an entity only if the entity faces alternatives, AND if the entity acts in the face of an alternative. This is a pretty small error on McKeever’s part, compared to the ones he makes eventually.

With respect, there is no error on my part, but there certainly is on yours. Read Huemer’s statement carefully: “Something is valuable to an entity, only if the entity faces alternatives” (my emphasis). Here is a short list of some of the misrepresentations made by Huemer with that one sentence:

  1. he is falsely suggesting that, according to Rand: if an entity faces alternatives, some thing is a value to it. Not “can be” a value to it or “might be” a value to it, but “is” a value to it. That is why, in my video, I explain – in part – that, according to Rand:

    …it’s possible for some thing to be a value only where there is an alternative. It doesn’t mean it’s always a value in the face of alternatives.

  2. by writing only of an “entity”, he has left out the fact that Rand was speaking only of “living” entities, not also of non-living ones. I will explain, below, why that distinction is important.
  3. Huemer speaks of “alternatives“, whereas Rand writes of “an alternative”. I will explain, below, why that plural versus singular distinction is important

Huemer says that (his own misrepresentation of) Rand’s argument “seems” to be false, and he writes:

If I knew that I was inevitably going to get a million dollars tomorrow – there’s no way I can avoid it – would that mean that the money will have no value? Again, Rand offers no defense of this assertion.

Before reading any further, go back and read page 17 of TOE. In the paragraph that follows the one in which the “faces an alternative” phrase is used, Rand quotes as follows from the John Galt speech:

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. (my emphasis)

That is why, in my video, I explain that Huemer has wrongly identified the “alternative” in his example. The alternative being referred to by Rand is not: whether or not he is going to get a million dollars. Rather, the “alternative” she is referring to is the choice between life and happiness on the one hand, and death and suffering on the other. If Huemer chooses to accept and use the money he (assuming no weird or unusual other facts) has made a decision consistent with the goal of living and pursuing happiness. If he refuses or discards the money, he has made a decision consistent with the goal of dying and pursuing suffering. Now, in your e-mail, you state “McKeever’s objection to Huemer’s point about not having an alternative to get some money is a good response”, yet, in your response to my video as it relates to Huemer’s third misrepresentation, you appear entirely to have missed the point of my response.

Huemer’s third misrepresentation of Rand’s claims reads as follows:

3. No non-living things face any alternatives.

In my video, I state that Rand did not make that statement and that, rather, she wrote the following in TOE:

It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. – Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, p. 16.

Huemer writes:

[Huemer’s own misrepresentation of Rand] seems to be false. Rand claimed that living things face an alternative of existing or not existing but that non-living things do not. (my emphasis)

Despite his misrepresentation, the second sentence I quote immediately above is true. Rand did not say that only living things face alternatives (plural), but she did say that there is “an alternative” (singular) faced only by living things: continuing to live versus ceasing to live; existence, in that sense, versus non-existence, in that sense. That is because, as I explain above, when Rand speaks of “existing” versus “non-existing”, in the context of TOE, she is speaking about “remaining alive” versus “ceasing to be alive”, respectively. In TOE, she goes to great lengths to make it painfully clear that that is the alternative she is speaking about when she uses the words “faced with an alternative”, and that she is not discussing the existence or non-existence of lifeless matter, such as a dead human body. Yet Huemer ignores all of that, and pretends that Rand, in speaking of entities facing an alternative (or “alternatives”), was speaking (a) of both living and non-living entities, and (b) was speaking about alternatives other than just “remaining alive” versus “ceasing to be alive”. Having so misrepresented Rand, he then purports to prove Rand’s statement false:

I can think of five interpretations of [the idea that “living things face an alternative of existing or not existing but that non-living things do not], but all of them make it false:

First, it is not true that non-living things can’t be destroyed. I once saw a house destroyed by flames, for example. (my emphasis)

In my video, I respond – in part – to Huemer’s house example as follows:

It’s not that the house was faced with an alternative. The house is not a living thing, hence it had no alternative to be face with. It just burned, it was a physical reaction. It wasn’t faced with anything at all. There were no values to the house, there wasn’t a course of action open to the house. The house can’t act. So, it wasn’t faced with an alternative at all.

In your e-mail, your criticism of that part of my response is:

This is a mixed response. At first, it seems [Note: “seems”? Somebody has a case of the Huemers] to beg precisely the very question at issue. Huemer is objecting to the “no non-living things face an alternative” points because he’s disputing the premise needed to establish that only living things have values. You can’t respond to his objection by assuming the very conclusion he’s disputing: that only living things face alternatives.

Later, McKeever’s objection improves, when he says that the problem with the house example is that the house *can’t act*. That is true, and it is the point that best distinguishes the house from living things. But McKeever mishandles this point. It doesn’t show that the house faces an alternative. It does! The house clearly has the alternative of existing or not existing, and Huemer’s example shows this. But McKeever assumes that because it cannot act in the face of an alternative, that therefore it does not face the alternative at all. That doesn’t follow…

With respect, you are dead wrong, in at least three ways. First, you are wrong to state that I responded to Huemer’s objection “by assuming the very conclusion he’s disputing: that only living things face alternatives”. I assumed nothing of the sort. Rather, I explained – as Rand did in her essay – that only that which is living is “faced with an alternative” of continuing to be alive versus ceasing to be alive; more precisely: of continuing to be versus ceasing to be.

Second, you are wrong to assert that a house – a non-living thing – faces an alternative in the sense Rand meant when she, in TOE, wrote “in the face of an alternative”. The only “alternative” that Rand is speaking about, when she writes “in the face of an alternative” is: continuing to live versus ceasing to live; existence in that sense versus non-existence in that sense. That is why I say, in my video:

Rand wasn’t talking about the matter of which non-living or living things are composed going in or out of existence. She was talking about life going in or out of existence.

It is also why a quote Rand, from TOE, thusly:

The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional; the existence of life is not. It depends on a specific course of action…matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. – TOE, p. 16, para. 4

A house does not face “an alternative” as Rand meant it – of continuing to live versus ceasing to live – for the simple and obvious reason that: a house is not a living thing.

Third, you are wrong to state that my assertion that a house does not face an alternative was an assumption based upon the fact that a house cannot act. Rather, in the video, I state explicitly the essential reason why I assert that a house does not face an alternative: “The house is not a living thing, hence it had no alternative to be faced with”.

You will note that every one of your three erroneous statements about my argument are based upon the same error on your part. Specifically, like Huemer, you clearly think that when Ayn Rand spoke of “facing an alternative”, she was referring also to differing outcomes that do not involve the issue of a living thing continuing to live versus ceasing to live. That misunderstanding of Rand’s argument, on your part, is precisely why you make the error of agreeing with Huemer that a house “faces an alternative” of “existing or not existing”.

You are also confusing an “alternative” with an outcome. In the context Rand uses the word “alternative” in TOE, “alternative” implies a living entity because only a living entity can face the only alternative of which Rand was writing: continuing to live versus ceasing to live. Houses are not alive, hence houses do not face “alternatives”, even if burning down versus not burning down are two potential “outcomes”.

In your e-mail, having condemned me for asserting that houses do not face “an alternative” of the kind Rand was referring to, you continue:

All that someone needs to say in response to Huemer is that facing an alternative is not the only necessary condition for value-pursuit: an organism also needs to be able to act in the face of it. McKeever consistently runs these two points together through much of the rest of his presentation, and invites further charges of begging the question.

My goodness. Here, you go from asserting that non-living things like houses face alternatives, to speaking only of organisms. In the process, you entirely miss the essence of Rand’s argument. Rand is not speaking of all things that can act but only of living things that can act, and the only alternative she is speaking of is continuing-to-live versus ceasing-to-live. Living entities do act to remain alive, but it is not the case that an entity necessarily faces alternatives if it is capable of acting: hence Rand’s immortal robot. That is why, erroneously, you condemn me for missing the point and then go on to continue your erroneous line of thought:

Huemer objects that non-living things never depend on their own activities for their existence, by giving the example of a computer that malfunctions and invites us to destroy it. This is a very relevant point because it can be see as an answer to the response above about how *acting* in the face of alternatives is necessary for having value-significance. But McKeever responds by saying “this is like saying, that if there’s this fence, and if you’re walking towards this fence, and it’s in your way, and you decide to knock it down, well the fence somehow is faced with an alternative of being knocked down or not being knocked down, that it had an alternative to move out the way or not move out the way. That’s just silly.” He then goes on to quote AR’s point that acting in the face of an alternative is important.

But McKeever is missing the point here. The computer example is designed precisely to show that *activities* of non-living things can bear on whether or not they continue to exist…The computer example is different from the fence example, because it does not involve action. It’s not just sitting there: it’s processing data.

With respect, it is you who is missing the point, and in at least two ways already described above. First, Rand was speaking not of all entities but of living entities. Second, she was speaking not of the destruction of a physical object (e.g., a computer or a human body), but of the cessation of a life, per se (i.e., a human life).

Building on those errors, you continue:

The correct answer to this objection is not to reassert the very point being questioned (that only living things act in the face of an alternative), but to explain how the computer example is not an example of acting in the face of an alternative. It is an example of acting, and it is an example of the computer facing an alternative, but it’s not an example of the action being in any way *related* to that alternative. A computer functions or “malfunctions” only because of its programming input. It has not been given this programming in order to continue existing, and generally its programming has no regular effect on its continued existence. A living thing, by contrast, acts the way it acts because doing so regularly leads to its survival (via natural selection).

Where to begin? Because you take the bizarre position that non-living things, like houses, “face alternatives”, you suggest that the issue-relevant distinction we draw between computers and “living things” (no subcategory specified: plants, bugs, human beings) is: computers do not necessarily act to continue existing, but “living things” always do. It is true that computers do not necessarily act to continue existing. However, it is certainly false that a “living thing acts the way it acts because doing so regularly leads to its survival…”. A human being is a “living thing”, but a human being will often act in ways that will end his life (i.e., the end of his “existence”, as Rand was referring to it), and may also cause their bodies no longer to exist as human bodies (for example, diving into a wood chipper).

Worse, you would have Objectivists respond to Huemer by claiming that a “living thing” (which necessarily includes a human being) “acts the way it acts” because of natural selection, thereby implying that reason has nothing to do with it; that survival is the gift of environmentally-compatible genes; by implication, that a human being’s survival has nothing to do with having made and acted upon the decision to pursue values rationally.

In your e-mail, you continue:

Then McKeever compounds his error by saying that the problem with computers and fences is that “they don’t know that you’re about to destroy them, they don’t have any consciousness at all.” If you require consciousness to face alternatives, then plants don’t face alternatives and nothing is of value to them….

Right there, you are straw-manning me; deliberately dropping my essential argument in order to suggest I failed to make it. Here, without your deliberate truncation, is what I said in the video:

So what Huemer’s leaving out is the fact that fences and computers aren’t capable of acting in the face of some sort of alternative that you might destroy them. They don’t know you’re about to destroy them. They don’t any consciousness at all. They aren’t alive: they’re physical objects. There’s no life being faced with anything, much less an alternative, and there’s certainly no values to it, which is why a computer will just sit there and let you smash it, or a fence will let you knock it down.

And, you will note that, in the video, before I say the above, I have already explained that it is the essential fact that an entity is alive that makes it possible for it to face the alternative of which Rand was writing.

Your comment that “If you require consciousness to face alternatives, then plants don’t face alternatives and nothing is of value to them” falsely implies that I said or implied, in my video, that: consciousness is required to face alternatives. There, too, you have straw-manned me. In my video, I make it abundantly clear that a living thing does not require consciousness in order to act. Specifically, in the video, I state:

Huemer is confusing the existence of an alternative, with choice. A plant is faced with an alternative: living versus dying. And, it is made up in a way that it automatically does…acts…all of its substance acts in the right way to keep it alive as long as possible. But there was an alternative there: death. The fact that the plant was hardwired not to follow that course of action doesn’t mean that there wasn’t an alternative there. Choice is different than an alternative. The existence of choice is only there for a conscious being; a being capable of making choices. So, not everything faced with an alternative has the capability of choosing how to act. Plants don’t choose how to act…so yes, it is the case that all life faces alternatives, even if it does not have the power to make choices…

You continue:

…[McKeever] does give the example of non-conscious plants. But to show how they face an alternative, he simply notes that they can be destroyed. That does show how a non-conscious thing can face an alternative, but without further qualification, it feeds into the problem above about the house and the fence. To show what’s special about plants, you need to mention not just that they can exist or not, but that they can *act* in the face of this alternative.

You are wrong for at least two reasons. First, you straw-man me, again: I don’t “simply note that they can be destroyed”. Read the quotation, from my video, above, concerning plants: in my video, I am speaking of life versus death, not of the destruction of matter, per se.

Second, the fact that a plant can “*act*” is implied by the essential point that you – like Huemer – are missing: the fact that a plant is alive. All living things act, but not all things that act are living. Computers might “act” in some sense, but they are not alive and it is because they are not alive that they do not face the alternative of which Rand was writing. Life, not action, is what gives rise to values for an entity. Accordingly, you are wrong to assert that “To show what’s special about plants, you need to mention not just that they can exist or not, but that they can *act* in the face of this alternative” if, by “alternative”, you include something other than the life versus death alternative. And Grasshopper, like Huemer, you most certainly do use “alternative” to refer to something other than the life versus death alternative. Accordingly, your proposed argument is a non-essential one that would imply the existence of values in situations where none exist. That’s not an argument any Objectivist would make and it is not one that defends Rand’s arguments in TOE.

You continue:

McKeever disputes Huemer’s point that positive action is never required to maintain the existence of nonliving things.

That is false. First, you misrepresent Huemer: Huemer’s actual assertion was that positive action is required to maintain the existence of non-living things, such as clouds. Second, you misrepresent the nature of my response to that assertion. The essence of my response to Huemer, in this regard, was not what you implied it was: that clouds cannot be destroyed because the molecules of which they are composed do not cease to exist. Rather, in the video, my reply was:

Again, Huemer is talking about matter rather than life. In the case of a cloud, the cloud is made up of little atoms, and those atoms will not cease to exist. They might reconstruct, they might form drinking water, they might form a snowflake, et cetera. But they will never cease to exist. Matter never ceases to exist, no matter what you do to it. But a cloud is not alive, and it can’t ‘lose its life’. It’s not faced with an alternative between living and dying. A human life is.

In other words, Huemer having criticized Rand as though she were talking about the existence of matter (when she was not doing so), I pointed out that Rand was not talking about the existence of matter, such that his example of the cloud proves nothing about the validity of Rand’s argument. I pointed out that Huemer was straw-manning Rand.

Condemning my response, you propose:

The correct response to this counterexample is to say that while it’s true that a cloud, to continue existing, must “absorb water,” that this is not really an action that the *cloud* performs. Clouds don’t perform any actions, and neither do piles or heaps or puddles. They’re just deposits of material that accumulate through the confluence of external forces. Living things, by contrast, have an internal store of energy, that can be released in a triggered way.

With all due respect, that is not “the correct response”. A motorized toy car can “have an internal store of energy, that can be released in a triggered way”. In fact, my child has a car that deforms when it smashes into things, but – with battery power – straightens itself out, restoring its physical integrity. Nonetheless, that toy car is not alive, and it does not face the alternative of which Rand was writing: continuing to live versus ceasing to live. Life, not action per se; life, not “an internal store of energy” per se; life, not mere physical integrity, is what Rand was writing about, and both you and Huemer miss that point repeatedly. Your proposed response to Huemer, accordingly, fails.

You continue:

Later, [McKeever] goes on to dispute Huemer’s characterization of Rand as claiming that “anything an entity acts to gain or keep is a value for that entity.” McKeever says she doesn’t say this, and quotes a passage in which she claims that only what further an entity’s life is good. But clearly, very early on in “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand *defines* a value as that which one acts to gain and/or keep.

The fact that that is one of the sentences in TOE does not mean that the sentence, standing alone, provides one with all of the information one needs to understand the sentence. By plucking that one sentence out of TOE, dropping all of the context from which it is taken, and then criticizing the so-plucked sentence, Huemer straw-manned Rand. The appropriate response is the one I provided: to give sufficient context, by quoting TOE, to demonstrate (a) what Rand actually meant by that sentence, and (b) that Huemer was indeed attacking a straw-man. That you defend him, and condemn my response to his attempt, betrays a disloyalty, on your part, to the facts of reality.

You continue:

It’s true that [as Huemer argues in his essay] “value” gets used in two senses: in a generic and “brand name” sense, where the latter refers to life-sustaining values, but McKeever seems to miss this point (even though it is much discussed in Objectivist circles)

With any due respect: you’re lying. I address that point specifically in the video, thusly:

[Huemer’s] Objection number 4 relates to what Huemer identifies as Rand’s fifth premise. Quote:

Anything an entity acts to gain or keep is a value for that entity” – Michael Huemer

Well, that’s not what Rand said, so that characterization is flawed. Let’s look at page 17, paragraph four:

An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil. – TOE, p. 17, para. 4

Rand isn’t saying that ‘if you go out there and try to gain it, it’s obviously good’: that would dispense with ethics. She isn’t a whim worshipper. She isn’t saying ‘you go out there and if you gained it, if you tried to gain it, well then it’s a value to you’: that’s so antithetical to what her ethics are all about it’s not even a starter.

Huemer says that value can be used in two senses. He says that somebody can value something, or something can be a value. And, with respect to this distinction, he says that:

If Rand meant value in the second sense, then [Huemer’s fifth misrepresentation of a Rand premise] was false. It is perfectly possible, as Rand herself explains later on, for someone to value what is actually bad for them. – Mike Huemer

Notice that Huemer is switching. He said that there are two ways in which the word value is used: that someone can value something or that something can be a value. He says that ‘well, even Rand admits that someone can value something that isn’t good for them’: that’s the word value used in the first sense, not the word value used in the second sense. So, his critique that ‘if Rand mean’s value in the second sense then she’s flawed because even she admits that somebody can value something that’s not good for them’: he’s just mixed the two senses in which the word value is used. Therefore, he’s trying to identify an inconsistency in Rand that isn’t even there.

Rand clearly did say that people will regard something as a value when it isn’t. In that sense, you could say she said ‘well, he values it even though it is not a value’.

I not only didn’t miss the point about the two senses in which the word value is used, I explained how Huemer’s attack on Rand was based on his own confusion of those two senses.

In respect of your statement that “McKeever seems to miss this point (even though it is much discussed in Objectivist circles)”: you are not only lying, but are implying that (a) I do not discuss Objectivism with other Objectivists, (b) that I do not understand what is discussed in “Objectivist circles”, or (c) that I do not belong in Objectivist circles. All three are false, and I would encourage you to reflect upon both your own misunderstandings of Objectivist ethics (as identified in this, my blog post), and upon the lack of independence that your implied cliquiness betrays on your part.

So that others reading this blog post will understand the nature of your e-mail, and what was its intended purpose, I will quote your last paragraph in full:

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Generally, McKeever often fails to get the point of Huemer’s objection, and/or fails to appreciate the proper response. All too often, he just quotes text from Rand’s essay to answer Huemer, but often the text he quotes is precisely the text in question. Overall, this gives the impression that he is flippantly dismissing objections without taking care to understand their full significance, and his failure to give the right answers suggests a lack of understanding with Objectivism. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if he weren’t putting up videos of himself on Youtube, portraying himself as some kind of authority on Ayn Rand.

I have only one response: it is probably best, for your own sake, that you did not go on.


4 Responses to “The Passion of Paul McKeever's Critics: An Open Letter to Grasshopper”

  1. Tjitze on April 11th, 2009 5:04 am

    Great re-rebuttal Paul! ^_^

  2. Per-Olof Samuelsson on April 14th, 2009 4:12 pm

    Well, just for the record: I liked “Strawmen are Huemerous”.

  3. C. August on April 17th, 2009 2:39 pm

    I haven’t watched your Strawman video yet, so these comments are based only on this post. (YouTube is blocked where I work)

    I listened to the debate between Ghate and Huemer when it was posted, and was frustrated that the format didn’t allow Ghate more time to address the many issues with Huemer’s arguments. In briefly scanning Huemer’s liked article, “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics'” it looks like it mostly follows what Huemer said in the debate.

    With that in mind, I really appreciated reading your responses to Huemer because it covered many of the significant problems with his arguments from the debate. So, thank you for this detailed post, and I look forward to watching the video.

  4. Paul McKeever on April 17th, 2009 7:44 pm

    My pleasure C.A.

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