The Discipline of Causation
Below is a sample from my course, “The Prophet of Causation,” which I am offering by subscription through a separate Substack newsletter:
This is an extra note I posted on the subject of virtue, as a follow-up on the seventh lecture of the course. (All previous lectures are available on audio and video to subscribers.) I’m sending this out to this list as a promo to convince some of you to convert to a paid subscription for the last three lectures in the course. (Lecture 8 is Tuesday night.) To subscribe, and for a description of how it works, go here.
This course has covered a lot of ground, far more than I had in mind when I began. But that was part of its purpose: to give me the opportunity to develop some of the implications of this new perspective on Ayn Rand’s philosophy and draw it out in more detail.
To give just a few highlights of what we have covered: The relationship between Ayn Rand’s view of causation and Aristotle’s; the widespread “film-frame” view of causation and the crucial error of the “theater of the mind” model of consciousness; how this “representationalist” view of consciousness carries over from a wrong view of perception to a widely accepted wrong view of conceptual knowledge; the key idea Ayn Rand took (implicitly) from Charles Darwin, how her view of “human nature” differs from that of “evolutionary psychology,” and why the evolutionary psychologists actually don’t take evolution seriously enough.
And more: Ayn Rand’s full answer to the “is-ought gap,” and how the three standard theories of ethics can be summed up as: “I was only following orders,” “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs,” and “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.”
One participant recently sent me this note: “Just wanted to pass along that I am really enjoying the Prophet of Causation series and am learning a ton. In fact, so much good stuff is packed into each session that I find myself continuing to process the material as the Q&As are happening and for hours or days afterwards.” This is exactly what I was hoping we would be able to do with this series.
Below is an extra note spelling out some thoughts about the nature of moral virtue that came out of the discussion at the end of Lecture 7.
What Is Virtue?
I mentioned in the last class that I thought there was much more to say about virtue. But I was afraid if I tried to add a little bit more to that discussion, I would end up adding a lot more and go way over time.
Thinking about it afterward, I sketched out the main extra idea that emerged from our discussion and from my ruminating on the topic.
This relates to a longstanding philosophical question about what, exactly, virtue consists of. I don’t mean the actual content of morality—e.g., is it good or bad to be independent?—but rather the question of what kind of thing virtue is. Is it an action, a disposition, a mental state, a habit?
First, an overview of our context in discussing this.
In the last class, I discussed the “virtue ethics” theories that resist answering this question because they want to take virtue as a primary, as the foundation for everything else. But of course, it isn’t a primary. Virtue is the kind of action that achieves the good, so you have to know what the good is before you can know the right kind of action.
But is virtue just an action that achieves the right result? We saw with the “consequentialist” theory the problem with this, that an action that accidentally reaches a beneficial result does not deserve credit, whereas someone who engages in a valiant effort to do the right thing but falls short for some random or unforeseeable reason does deserve moral credit.
So virtue must also involve the motivation to do what is right. But we saw with the “deontological” theories that an exclusive focus on internal motivation, regardless of actual outcomes, can produce monstrous results.
The answer, which we discussed two weeks ago, is that for an action to be moral, you don’t need just good intentions, or just the right actions, or just the results. You need the connection between all three. You need the teleological relationship in which you project the results, you choose to pursue them—that’s the intention—and then you figure out the actions that will causally lead to the results, within the context of your knowledge. In Ayn Rand’s words, what you need is “the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.” It’s the whole process together.
So virtue is a part or an aspect of that process—but what part of the process? Now we can return to the question we began with. Is virtue an action, a disposition, a mental state, a habit?
One place to start is that a virtue is not just one good action, no matter how good it is in its intentions and consequences. A virtue is a pattern of good action. In a teleological view, it would be a pattern of actions aligned with our fundamental goals.
So if virtue is a pattern of action, is it a habit? That raises some interesting questions, because we think of virtue as something chosen, but habits can be involuntary. I have never quit smoking, for the reason that I never started. But I am told that breaking this habit can be very difficult. Even a virtuous person can struggle with this “vice.”
And again, in answer to the outlook of “all I need to know I learned in kindergarten,” there are some people who have a set of good habits but acquired them more by conformity than by active choice.
So what’s the answer to that paradox?
The beginning of the answer is Ayn Rand’s formulation that each of the virtues is a “recognition of the fact that.” “Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists.” “Honesty is the recognition of the fact that the unreal is unreal and can have no value.” “Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it.” And so on.
So virtue is in some fundamental sense intellectual. It is not a mere habit of action, but a more active and deliberate intellectual engagement with reality.
Now let’s bring in a second formulation from the article “Causality Versus Duty.” This is one we looked at in the last class, but I want to bring it back again in this very specific context.
In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awarenessof the principle which the anti-concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it. In a rational ethics, it is causality—not “duty”—that serves as the guiding principle in considering, evaluating, and choosing one’s actions, particularly those necessary to achieve a long-range goal.
I added italics to highlight the words that are most relevant to this discussion of virtue. Virtue, this suggests, is a habit, but not just a habit of action. It is a mental habit, a “constant, automatized awareness” of causal relationships. Combine that with the other formulation from Galt’s speech, and what we get is that virtue is a recognition or awareness of a certain basic fact about human life, but an awareness that has become habitual and therefore “constant” and “automatized.”
Let’s take this idea of a habit of awareness and subject it to a kind of reality test. What could we think of as a concrete, real-life example? What springs to my mind is learning how to drive a car. It involves training yourself to frequently check your rear view mirror, or your car’s blind spots, or to always be changing your focus back and forth from the distance to closer up. The wider term for this is “situational awareness,” a habit of knowing what is around you and where things are.
So in this view, virtue is very much like situational awareness as a general condition for life as a whole. It is a habit of paying constant attention to what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and the conditions of the world around you.
But in what sense can this be a “habit”? Isn’t awareness also a choice? Again, let’s look for concrete examples. Virtue has to be practiced, and “practice” has two senses. There is the way we talk about “practice” in the phrase “theory versus practice”—that is, virtue has to be put into action rather than just thought about. But there is also “practice” in the sense that an athlete or a musician practices. To perform an action well and do it reliably, you have act on it repeatedly, so that one’s performance improves and becomes easier. (This is very concrete to me, as I am currently practicing a piece with six flats.)
But practice constantly needs to be renewed. If you have diligently practiced a piece of music, for example, it will be possible for you to play it well without an extraordinary effort—but it can still fall apart if you don’t maintain your focus. And of course the state of practice or preparedness itself needs to be maintained by choice. As anyone who has ever been an athlete or musician can attest, it is always possible to let your practice schedule slip, resulting in a decline in your performance.
So when we talk about an automatized awareness, it might be more accurate to call it a semi-automatic awareness. There are aspects of it that can be automatized, but other aspects that require a constant process of choice.
Let’s take a brief example. Productiveness is a virtue, and as one small way of practicing that virtue, you might develop the habit of keeping a list of tasks to be done and consulting that list first thing every morning. And that really can be automatic, in the sense that you will find yourself flipping to that first without even thinking about it. But there are aspects that are not fully automatic. There is always the temptation to not want to engage with your work one morning—and after all, you do need to recognize when you are overworked and need a day off to rest. It’s also very easy to consult your list and immediately get distracted by something that happened on Twitter and end up not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Conversely, you can be too passive in following your list and doing the thing that’s next in line without stopping to realize that something else is actually more urgent or important. And behind all this is the constant mental focus required to compile the list and revise it to make sure it is consistent with your goals.
So that gives us an idea of how we can have something that is both chosen and habitual. The habit makes it easier to do the right thing, but you still need to maintain your focus to carry it through. And you need to keep on choosing to do the right thing if you want to maintain your state of preparedness.
This also indicates to us what the point is of virtue as a concept—and not just virtue in general, but a listing of specific virtues. Notice that many of the virtues overlap with each other—honesty is very similar to rationality, and integrity is very similar to honesty. And there are many minor virtues. Ayn Rand names seven major virtues, but in talking about integrity, she mentions in passing the virtues of courage and confidence. And her main book on ethics is called The Virtue of Selfishness, which gives us another virtue. Objectivists have proposed various other virtues, like persistence or gratitude or benevolence, and we should expect that you can find many such minor virtues, each outlining some specific facet of the teleology of human life.
The purpose for naming these virtues, whether the big wide broad ones or the minor ones, is precisely the fact that we need to practice a habit of awareness, and the first step toward doing that is to name the issue. Once it is named, that specific aspect of human life can be brought into focused awareness and we can then work to deliberately acquire the necessary habits.
A teleological view of morality based on human life means that there is one large, overarching goal we are trying to reach: to meet the conditions of human survival, and to do so to the fullest of our ability. But we are complex beings with big brains that are capable of doing many things, so the teleological relationship between our actions and their goals are complex and long term. This is why we need virtue in the general sense—as a habit of doing the right thing—as wells as specifically identified virtues.
We need to be able to mentally separate and identify all the different aspects of life and the actions they require, and we need to make sure that our actions correspond with these requirements repeatedly and consistently over the course of many years. This requires a combination of the right mindset, automatized mental habits, and the continual exercise of volition, which together produce a long-term pattern of action—and that is what virtue is.
I mentioned throughout this class that Ayn Rand talked about the “disciple of causation,” an intriguing formulation that implies a discipline of causation, in the same sense as an athlete or musician engages in a discipline of training. Virtue is that discipline of causation.