So is there such a thing as a rational end? We have covered this issue elsewhere; but since it is so important, it bears repeating. Can human beings pursue rational ends? Or is it, as Hume asserted, psychologically impossible for reason to generate rational ends?
The philosopher Arthur Lovejoy explored the issue in his excellent Reflections on Human Nature, where he comments on Hume’s discovery:
Hume’s fundamental thesis must have shocked some of his contemporaries… For while they had declared that the Reason seldom if ever does in fact control the passions, they had still assumed, in accord with the long dominant tradition, that it should do so, that control was the function for which it was intended… But Hume challenged the great tradition of moral philosophy, and asserted that it is a psychological impossibility for the Reason to influence volition…. Hume does not … mean by this to deny that the understanding has an instrumental use in the determination of conduct. Given a desire for some end, a reasoned knowledge of the relations of cause and effect may show how to satisfy it by adopting the means without which the end cannot be attained. What he is asserting is that “reason,” the knowledge of any kind of truth, is not a passion or desire, is not the same psychological phenomenon as liking or wanting something; and that a thing can become an end only by being desired. The role of reason consists in judging of propositions as true or false, as in “agreement or disagreement” with the matters of fact to which they refer. “Whatever is not susceptible of this agreement or disagreement, is incapable of being true or false, and can never be an object of our reason.” But “our passions, volitions and acts” are “original facts and realities, compleat in themselves… ‘Tis impossible, therefore, that they can be either true or false, and be either contrary or conformable to reason.” And since reason neither is nor can produce a desire, it cannot even tell us what we should desire, it cannot even evaluate desires; or if it professes to do so, it will only the more clearly reveal its irrelevance and impotence. You either have a desire or you do not; unless you have one, you will never act at all; and a desire can be combatted or overcome, not by reason, but only by another desire. [181-183]
Now the importance of this insight into human nature is that it emphasizes the role that motivation plays in human conduct. All human conduct is motivated by non-rational sources—that is, by desires, sentiments, emotions, call them what you will. In Objectivism, there exists a tendency to make light of motives. The issue, for the denizen of Rand, is not what motivates the individual, but why a person should choose one motive rather than another. Objectivism goes so far as to deny that man’s most basic choices can be explained at all. “Why he chooses one or another [motive]… cannot be further explained,” contends Peikoff. “That is what it means to say that man has choice and is not determined. A volitional choice is a fundamental beneath which you cannot get.” [“Philosophy and Psychology in History”]
This extreme view of volition is tantamount to a denial of human nature. For it challenges the view, shared by all those who have a “constrained” vision of the human condition, that most human beings are strongly influenced by innate tendencies and that if you understand the pathology of those innate tendencies, you can make educated guesses as to the likelihood of various types of social conduct and the probability (or impossibility) of various social and political ideals.
I have discussed the issue of innate tendencies in previous posts (such as here). Outside of Ayn Rand and left-wing social science, nearly everyone believes in their existence. In the last half century, behavioral science has further strengthened the case for these tendencies. Indeed, to deny them is to be guilty of a kind of scientific illiteracy, not very different from denying the theory of relativity or the experimental success of quantum mechanics.
Once we have established the reality of innate tendencies, the next step is to investigate what those tendencies are and how they effect the social and political order. That will be the subject of the next half dozen or so “Objectivism and Politics” posts.