Monday, June 20, 2011

Rand, the Myth, the Legend

The following is a response to an article posted on FaceBook:

Alright, firstly, I'm not an Objectivist, but I feel like I know a good amount about Rand and her philosophy - or at least I feel confident enough to say I know more than the author of the article. That being said, there are plenty of things I disagree with her on both politically and philosophically. I think she was a worthy intellectual, but she said and did a lot of things, particularly later in her life, that I don't agree with to be certain.

All that being said, my biggest problems with the piece revolve around a combination of question-begging and appeals to fear. Many times people try to deflect discussion by rhetorically employing what Rand called "anti-concepts" - where you infuse antagonistic or confusing properties into a given idea or person to make its invocation unpalatable. In that way it's easy to put a wedge between what a person really means and what another person might interpret them to mean. It's not unlike what conservatives have effectively done with terms like "Marxist", "communist", and "socialist." They are not mutually inclusive terms, but there is a conflationary usage of them as such.

Take, for example, a word like "capitalism". There's a contentious and conflationary usage of that word too. When I use the word "capitalism" I mean it in the classical way in which Marx coined it; a system where capital is allowed to be privately owned. When many people today use that word, they usually either mean a system of "profits over all" or more generally "corporatism." It's certainly true that Marx believed capitalism would invite the former (and subsequently the latter), but it's not precisely what is meant, economically, by the term. In any case, what happens is that we end up with somewhat antithetical ideas being rolled up into the same term, and that creates stigma and confusion along with killing honest debate.

Some people now use capitalism to describe an ideal free-market that they strive for, and others use it to describe the corporatist system they see today. They essentially start talking past each other. Supporters of free markets end up defending corporate interests and attacking egalitarian ideology. Supporters of egalitarianism end up defending the state and attacking free-market ideology (Roderick Long writes a good deal on this). I think this is part of what's happening with this article regarding Rand's ideas.

Take the first sentence:

"Some say that maybe it is a bad idea to base a political party's ideology on a belief that altruism, democracy and Christianity are "evil.""

Let's put aside the fact that, in all honesty, the Republican party, however more Randian they are than Democrats, are about as Objectivist as Paul Krugman. She was economically to the "right" by most peoples' conception, no doubt. But being an avant-garde feminist, atheist, pro-abortion, anti-war, anti-war-on-drugs swinger, as well as a habitual kicker-to-the-curb of conservative heroes (Reagan, Goldwater, etc.), there's just as much for most conservatives to not like about her. Contrast that description with the people you might see at a Republican rally and I think that assertion becomes questionable. In fact, my guess is that most Republicans who claim to admire her simply haven't read any of her works, or have only been exposed to snippets of it.

But the last part of the comment is what I really take issue with, and that's where I believe "anti-concepts" come into play for at least one of the terms; leading to misunderstandings, I think, of her subsequent positions.


Simply put, what she meant by altruism is not what most people who condemn her mean by it - and thus they usually fail to understand her point. Altruism was a word she employed as a concept roughly antonymous to psychological egoism - which would be closely associated to her conception of self-interest or "selfishness." When she claimed, as she did, that altruism was "evil" she meant purely, in an ethical sense, selfless acts - acting upon the values of others and not your own. Conversely, by self-interest she meant acting upon your own values. She also had an "Objective" system to help determine those values (which is something I largely reject).

So, in the way she employs these terms, giving your life for your children is not a selfless act in the strict sense - because you are appealing to self-interest in abiding by personal values. Feeding and clothing those in need whom you wish to help is also, in that way, not selfless as you are acting upon your own values. This, along with Objectivist parameters for determining said values (which, again, I personally reject), is how she comes to regard "selfishness" as a virtue in itself (rhetorically speaking, she would have been better off sticking to "self-interest"). By this (her) measure, doing things that conflict with your values, or doing things merely because you are being forced or asked to, is what is truly selfless. To her, this is not virtuous. This is what she believes is the underlying current of "altruism" as the Western World knows it.

This plays largely into why she finds Christianity to be "evil." For one, it, at least in dogma, endorses altruism - as such she sees Christianity as an abrogation of personal values as opposed to an augmentation of it (I think she might have a point scripturally but not as most Christians practice it). It's that abrogation of personal values and the embrace of "accepted" values which leads her to believe Christianity is dangerous. She believed that calls for the embrace of Christian values turned into demands backed by force and violence, which she spurned as an anathema to reason. Not only does that call to violently enforce Christian ideals conflict with the morality of the ideals themselves, ironically, but she felt that, even on the most individual basis, self-proclaimed Christian altruists were not altruists by any means - as many if not most don't share a completely selfless relationship with their actions. Rather they are often motivated, even subconsciously, by self-adulation, pride, righteousness, and ultimately the promise of reward or punishment in the afterlife. It would be easy to understand why people are so confused about Rand's position. She pulls a lot of her ideas and terminology from Greek philosophers. In fact, Aristotle explored the exact same idea (the contradictions of selflessness) in his own deliberations on virtue.

I think that it's worth noting that I differ from Rand in finding irredeemable qualities in Christianity. I think that sacrifice on behalf of total strangers, for instance, can fit more cleanly into a consistent system of personal values than she seemed to think. On the other hand, I think that Rand's criticisms of Christianity can, quite consistently, be used by Christians on the Right to point out the moral difference between helping those in need, being forced to help those in need, and forcing others to help those in need; the last two of which are arguably not virtuous nor Christian-like respectively.

All of this plays into the third accusation of her contempt for democracy. It needs to first be said that she was attacking, more clearly, unbridled democracy - the general concept of "majority rules." And she was generally attacking it for all the classically liberal reasons that most people on the Left (if they are not completely detached from their political heritage) should be able to identify with. She felt it a lesser evil than other forms of government, but a system that should be extremely over-checked and burdened so that it carries out only its purpose in protecting us from one another. So, she was in favor of democracy but only in the context of negative justice. Probably, more precisely, she would have been labeled a constitutionalist if anything. She admired the American system and infamously proposed that the Bill of Rights be extended with additional amendments to limit government power. But it was precisely the largely Christian populace's preoccupation with moralization and enforcing their "selfless" values which infused her with a great distrust of democracy in general. She felt that people had rights that weren't subject to popular approval, and that part of the polity had been employed, at least since the late 19th century, in undermining some of those rights under the banner of "democracy."

You can see how these basic misconceptions are laden with already-accepted premises that are designed to lead you to the authors conclusion(s) without even knowing what she really thought at all. That's bad enough. And then you see a phrase like:

"while saying people with tons of cash are "producers" who should govern."

That's just disconcerting altogether. It's true that Rand was partial to capitalists and conceptual producers (and with fairly good reason in the context of her beliefs), but saying that she believed that "producers" with tons of cash should govern isn't just laughable - it's dishonest. Firstly her core political predisposition is against force, coercion, dishonesty, etc. As such, she's quite opposed to pretty much anyone "governing" anyone in that they rich or poor. Secondly, the larger part of her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, sets out vilifying MOST "producers" as incompetent if not malicious beneficiaries of government favor! In a conceptual argument between labor at capital, she falls towards capital every time. But in the context of the system we have, or the approximation of it in the case of her novels, she rails as hard as anyone against crony capitalism and corporatism. Most of the antagonists in Atlas Shrugged are greedy businessmen!

There's plenty more to dissect in the rest of the article, but I'll spare you that. It's one thing to be critical of Ayn Rand's ideas. Hell, I don't think much of her stories as far as stories go. But it irks me that those critiquing her have either clearly not read (not to mention understood) almost anything she's put forth or are they are being intentionally misleading in order to lead other people who are ignorant of her and her ideas to pre-packaged conclusions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Callahan Finds His Inner Singer

...Peter Singer, that is.

If there were ever an instructive argument that outlined the foundation of positive rights, Peter Singer has what is probably the best approximation with his "drowning child" hypothetical. Over at Crash Landing, Gene Callahan alludes to this popular question, and contrasts what he feels should be done with what would/should happen under libertarianism to prove the silliness of the latter:

Let's say you are walking along the road on a cold winter night, on your way to an opera you very much want to see. Halfway there, you hear a cry. You look down, and there is a baby lying there, shivering in the cold. Otherwise, the road is deserted.

The baby needs medical care. The problem is that the hospital is in the opposite direction from the opera house. If you take the baby there, you will miss your opera and your ticket will be worthless.

Do you have an obligation to take the baby to the hospital?

There are two problems with this attack on libertarianism (from my point of view) - one is merely a partial issue, while the other I would consider a flagship rebuttal from the Rothbardian viewpoint.

The first issue is that I feel this is either a categorical mistake on the one hand, or begging the question on the other. The scope of the systems or constructs he's trying to compare are intrinsically different. Libertarianism, in the strictly political sense, is concerned with justice and the (property) rights that govern it. Therefore, much like a priest having nothing contextually important important to say regarding high-level theoretical mathematical axioms, so does libertarianism, in itself, have little to say outside of the realm of justice.

Of course, the clear way to refute such a claim is to say that libertarians are begging the question by assuming that being saved isn't a right. This brings me to my second issue. While I'll offer that, in order to claim ANY rights outside of property rights you must dismantle property rights altogether, I would probably do well to simply remind my detractor that he too, although appealing to cultural and moral sympathies, is begging the question. As long as we accept a clear difference between vice and harm, under the rubric of justice - legitimate force, then the line being drawn in categorization is precisely what's in question.

In any case, it's still seemingly true that property rights (the basis for negative liberty) and positive rights cannot, without contradiction, co-exist.

Let's take the "drowning child" problem for instance. The libertarian response is that, although in other spheres of human interaction we have every right to deride or disassociate with such a person who would let the child drown, we have no inherent "right"to either force him to save the child or to punish him for not doing so. Clearly we'd look upon such a person as immoral, amoral, or more generally just a "bad" person. After all, the point of the example is to bring emotion and moral sentiment to bear upon what might otherwise be a weak case for the establishment of arbitrary positive obligations. Nevertheless, of all the spheres within which an individual might persue his animus towards such a person, the libertarian keeps the blade of justice sheathed.

It does, indeed, sound quite grim.

But let's take a look at what we can draw from the opposite conclusion. Let's say that we all have a positive right to be saved. Well, we can go ahead and throw self-ownership and property rights in general out the window at that point - as clearly if there are stipulations and conditions to such rights, then they are not truly rights at all in any real sense, but rather individual privileges bestowed upon us by some exogenous authority.

If the prospect of single-handedly dispensing of any coherent sense of property rights with the introduction of positive rights doesn't give you pause, then extrapolate the drowning child analogy into its intended application through the polity. Analogies like these lead us to believe, in principle, that violations of property rights are justified in order to help those in need. Let's put aside the obvious consistency issues laid out and move into the practical. Where is the line?

If need is the genesis of rights and positive rights (as "rights" imply) are socially binding then when do we stop being guilty of injustice? It seems like such a principle would call us to give as long as one needs. But the world isn't a pond with a single drowning child. The world is a pond with hundreds of millions of "drowning children" and we are billions of passersby. As I type this, thousands upon thousands of people are dying from starvation and disease. I could be using this time, marginally, to save them. Am I guilty of injustice? Should I be punished? Should I be locked away in a cage?

And this is where things stop making sense.....

Faced with the insurmountable task of saving these countless children, and conceding my obligations nonetheless, how much of my wealth and assets must go to help said children? What of my time, my labor? This is precisely the problem with the "drowning child" argument - it has no constraining values. And, in fact, it would seem any such constraining values (in the realm of justice) would prove quickly inconsistent with this utilitarian sense of positive obligation.

While being hypocritical of one's beliefs certainly does not prove one's beliefs to be wrong, I can't help but observe the action (or inaction) of the proponents of positive rights as a social litmus test for the weakness of such a principle. Little to none live 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, in absolute poverty for the sake of their fellow man, yet they would compel the rest of the populace to live by their piecemeal attempts to legislate those very ideals. The world entailed by such a principle is apparently one which they feel is unfit for living in.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Everything - the Unknown Ideal

In mulling over some recent commentary in the blogosphere it's never been so apparent to me that such a large source of contention or disagreement is illusory - or at least that we're often not arguing over what we believe we're arguing over when we engage others.

Take the word "theft" for instance; what does it mean? What does it imply? How is it used? How is it properly used? People like Gene Callahan contend that when libertarians say that taxation is "theft" it's justified only via some form of circular argument in which we have to already assume the premise that it is theft. In other words, he believe that if what taxation takes is rightfully owned by others, then it's not theft - and certainly not wrong in the criminal sense. He also points to what he sees as a somewhat lacking consideration of how we use the terms "force" and "violence" when we allow for those things as a matter of justice.

This brings up an interesting point - one that I'm agreeing with more and more over time - but one that certainly doesn't overturn the libertarian argument. When libertarians use "theft," "force," and "violence" they mean something very specific - the wrongful violation of one's property rights. So more specifically we should talk in terms of property rights if we'd like to make the conversation(s) less confusing or contestable.

That being said, I think it's perfectly OK for libertarians to use such terms (particularly "theft" and "aggression" among others) because I believe that, properly understood, these terms approximate the meanings libertarians give them even in much of their everyday usage. In other words, if you break the terms down into their more literal implications, it turns out the libertarian usage is the common use - with a few exceptions (taxation being one of them). The implication of theft is a violation of property rights. A violation of property rights presupposes property rights. To talk of theft, in any capacity, is to refer to a system of property rights. Therefore, in order to justifiably, and forcibly, take something from someone you must establish that you already own it somehow.

Now, some like Callahan might contend that you could have such a view about taxation - that government really does own the quite literal property rights to the product of your labor and trade. But, without getting into the philosophical framework of property itself, I'd contend that most people don't see it that way. I think that people wholeheartedly believe in positive obligations of all sorts, but I think very few of them view the first X hours of your labor as actual property of government per se - rather they feel you have a positive obligation to sacrifice some of your property to the greater good.

Again, I think the conversation might be even further confused in the conflated usage of terms like "rights" to begin with, but I think it's interesting that so many of our deepest quarrels seem to be over semantics in some real way. I think that's my queue to start diving into philosophers that focus on linguistics. I'm thinking Wittgenstein isn't a bad start...