Greg Perkins

Nicole Kidman is So Hot

 Posted by on 17 August 2006 at 5:12 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 172006

Weeks of hand wringing over tragic deaths. Weeks of calls for a ceasefire to shield aggressors from the consequences of their aggression and leave them free to regroup and cause more trouble. Oh so much effort expended to evade and even reverse the cause of those deaths, as with for example our ex-President Jimmy Carter saying, “…the concerns I exposed have gotten even worse now with the United States supporting and encouraging Israel in its unjustified attack on Lebanon. … I don’t think that Israel has any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon.”

Who would have expected a cadre of Hollywood elites lead by Nicole Kidman to take out a full-page ad in the LA Times and lay the blame for those deaths squarely at the feet of Hezbollah and friends?

[Nicole Kidman], joined by 84 other high-profile Hollywood stars, directors, studio bosses and media moguls, has taken out a powerfully-worded full page advertisement in today’s Los Angeles Times newspaper.

It specifically targets “terrorist organisations” such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

“We the undersigned are pained and devastated by the civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon caused by terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas,” the ad reads.

“If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die.”

“We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs.”

Wow, as if seeing her in Eyes Wide Shut wasn’t enough…


What Onomatopoeia Sounds Like

 Posted by on 22 June 2006 at 7:44 am  Uncategorized
Jun 222006

It can’t all be wrestling over philosophical issues — one of the other things that keeps me sane is playing sax in the local jazz scene.

I was working around town in a jazz-standards duo, and pianist/composer/producer Kevin Kirk heard me and quickly pulled me into Onomatopoeia, the instrumental band that brings his award-winning music to life. Print reviews described their first CD as, “rhythmically diverse, musically challenging and eminently listenable… a melding of rock, jazz, Latin, and classical, and it has surprises around every corner. This is not casual music.” Thr!ve magazine said their second CD, “showcases some of the best Boise’s jazz scene or any jazz scene has to offer: expert timing, daring, spontaneous scores, saturating instrumentals. Sheer talent aptly describes [this music] and decades of Kirk compositions.” What I know is that audiences seem to love the music, but internalizing 20 or 25 of Onomatopoeia’s mind-bending arrangements for my first concert with them — with no scores and only a few weeks’ evenings to pull it off — was the biggest strain my musical memory has ever faced! (Yes, I loved the challenge, and we earned an enthusiastic standing ovation.)

Those CDs were before my time, but I am on the new one we are about to release: Some Assembly Required. Recording with Onomatopoeia has been eye-opening — I really had no idea how much work goes into a project like this, and sometimes the process made it surprisingly difficult to pull off musical effects that would be automatic and easy on stage. (A lot of it has to do with the serialization of recording everything separately, which can be especially challenging for jazz guys who depend heavily on subtle, reciprocal realtime influences among all the players.) In any event, the mixed tracks have finally been sent off to the mastering engineer and it is about to be printed. Whew!

If you want to hear the kind of fun we have in Onomatopoeia, I put together a little sneak-preview CD “trailer” for family and friends who have been impatiently waiting for the CD they ordered a few months back at our last big concert (the concert program has some more pictures and personnel info).

May 022006

DON’T STEAL THIS ARTICLE On the Libertarian Critique of Intellectual Property*

by Greg Perkins

Marxist scholars don’t have much interest in defending individual rights, private property, and free markets — so their antipathy to intellectual property rights in patent and copyright isn’t surprising. In contrast, there are a significant number of libertarian scholars who proclaim individual rights and free markets to be good and desirable, yet who share an antipathy to intellectual property. That is, they systematically defend material property rights while decrying intellectual property as a confused, destructive, and morally bankrupt idea that should be abolished for the protection of our true individual rights.

In making their case, these libertarian scholars1 cite a blizzard of puzzles and problems surrounding intellectual property. They see incoherency: how is it that, unlike all other rights, intellectual property rights should abruptly vanish after some set number of years? They see arbitrariness: why single out for reward the mental work behind the practical inventions of industry, but deny it for the mental effort behind the theoretical discoveries of science that make those inventions possible? Besides, they maintain, the line between invention and discovery is inherently vague and artificial. And they see a fundamental contradiction: inalienable rights cannot logically conflict with one another, but they find that intellectual property rights violate material property rights in an automatic and unchosen transfer of partial ownership to inventors and authors. Owners of paper and ink can use their property in certain ways only by permission of copyright holders; owners of metal and tools can use their property in certain ways only by permission of patent holders.

To resolve such issues, these libertarian scholars seek a theory of property that will firmly establish material property rights while excluding intellectual property.2 Stephan Kinsella explains its basis:

Let us take a step back and look afresh at the idea of property rights. Libertarians believe in property rights in tangible goods (resources). Why? What is it about tangible goods that makes them subjects for property rights? Why are tangible goods property?

A little reflection will show that it is these goods’ scarcity — the fact that there can be conflict over these goods by multiple human actors. The very possibility of conflict over a resource renders it scarce, giving rise to the need for ethical rules to govern its use. Thus, the fundamental social and ethical function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources. …

Others [in addition to Hoppe] who recognize the importance of scarcity in defining what property is include Plant, Hume, Palmer, Rothbard, and Tucker.

Nature, then, contains things that are economically scarce. My use of such a thing conflicts with (excludes) your use of it, and vice versa. The function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources, by allocating exclusive ownership of resources to specified individuals (owners).3

Thus Kinsella concludes that “[t]he problem with IP rights is that the ideal objects protected by IP rights are not scarce…” Property rights “are not applicable to things of infinite abundance, because there cannot be conflict over such things.”4 As our first patent examiner, Thomas Jefferson, put it: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”5

Finally, Kinsella points to the ironic twist that “IP laws create an artificial, unjustifiable scarcity” which “itself needs a justification.” On this last, he quotes Arnold Plant:

It is a peculiarity of property rights in patents (and copyrights) that they do not arise out of the scarcity of the objects which become appropriated. They are not a consequence of scarcity. They are the deliberate creation of statute law, and, whereas in general the institution of private property makes for the preservation of scarce goods, tending … to lead us “to make the most of them,” property rights in patents and copyrights make possible the creation of a scarcity of the products appropriated which could not otherwise be maintained.6

Other contemporary libertarian scholars echo the same ideas, and Tom Palmer’s analysis emphasizes the same essential points regarding the basis of property and our right to it:

The key to all of this is scarcity. … Tangible goods are clearly scarce in that there are conflicting uses. It is this scarcity that gives rise to property rights. Intellectual property rights, however, do not rest on a natural scarcity of goods, but on an ‘artificial, self created scarcity.’ That is to say, legislation or legal fiat limits the use of ideal objects in such a way as to create an artificial scarcity that, it is hoped, will generate greater revenues for innovators… But the attempt to generate profit opportunities by legislatively limiting access to certain ideal goods, and therefore to mimic the market processes governing the allocation of tangible goods, contains a fatal contradiction: It violates the rights to tangible goods, the very rights that provide the legal foundations with which markets begin.7

The above stands as the core theory offered in the libertarian case against intellectual property rights. What is particularly striking is that none of the contemporary heavyweights like Palmer and Kinsella grapple with the meaning of individual rights in general, nor their still-deeper basis in ethics, epistemology, and human nature. That is, their chief observation begs the question: is the splendid characteristic of conflict-prevention the central purpose of property rights, or merely a benefit — is it the cause or an effect? To determine this, we need to investigate the source of rights in general. These scholars seem hesitant to do so, but Ayn Rand wasn’t, and her perspective illuminates the central difficulty in their case: they have missed the essence of all rights.

* *
Rand noted that rights — including property rights — are ultimately based in the needs of man’s life: if a man is to live, he must be able to act to sustain his life. An objective morality defines the broad principles by which men must act to sustain their lives, and a proper government preserves the conditions required for men to do so when living among others. This is why Rand described a right as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”8 More broadly, she explained,

“Rights” are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law… The principle of man’s individual rights represented the extension of morality into the social system — as a limitation on the power of the state, as man’s protection against the brute force of the collective, as the subordination of might to right

There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action — which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.9

The immediate corollaries of the right to life are the rights to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Each flows from an essential aspect of the Objectivist ethics, which is itself rooted in epistemology and the nature of man.10 Consider liberty. Reason is our basic means of survival and so rationality is our primary virtue; in general, we must have the liberty to grasp the nature of the world and act accordingly to live. That is, the right to liberty flows from a recognition of our primary virtue of rationality. And consider happiness. It is our emotional reward for achieving values over time, the emotional experience of living. The right to life entails the right to pursue and achieve values to serve our individual lives — and the concomitant right to the pursuit of our individual happiness. That is, the right to the pursuit of happiness flows from a recognition of the individualistic, egoistic nature of life and morality.

Finally, consider property. While other animals adjust themselves to nature, man adjusts nature to his own needs by creating the values that sustain his life — everything from food and shelter, to transport systems and communication networks, to medical technologies and art. We need to produce, keep, use, and dispose of values to serve our lives, and productiveness is the virtue by which we do so. The right to property flows from a recognition of the cardinal virtue of productiveness. Rand singled out the right to property as having special significance in the implementation of all rights:

The right to life is the source of all rights — and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.11

This brief sketch of the Objectivist view of rights indicates why, contrary to the view of libertarians opposed to intellectual property, the essential basis of property is not scarcity — it is production. Their complaint that intellectual property is an oxymoron because ideas are not scarce in the same way as apples has no merit, for the concepts of property and ownership lie fundamentally in the need for men to produce and enjoy values in support of their lives — not merely in the narrower and subsidiary need to avoid conflict with one another in that enjoyment.

* *
Studying the most challenging puzzles and problems raised by libertarian scholars against intellectual property will help us to better understand the requirements of man’s life as the basis of rights in general, production as the basis of property in particular, and the role of the mind throughout. In each case we will dive below the surface to appreciate the implications of essential facts from ethics, epistemology, and the nature of man to enrich our understanding of intellectual property and reinforce the principles at play.

Consider the issue of recognizing inventions as intellectual property while excluding discoveries. Kinsella discusses how “the distinction between the protectable and the unprotectable is necessarily arbitrary” in his view:

[P]atents can be obtained only for so-called “practical applications” of ideas, but not for more abstract or theoretical ideas… But the distinction between creation and discovery is not clearcut or rigorous. Nor is it clear why such a distinction, even if clear, is ethically relevant in defining property rights… [I]t is arbitrary and unfair to reward more practical inventors and entertainment providers, such as the engineer and songwriter, and to leave more theoretical science and math researchers and philosophers unrewarded. The distinction is inherently vague, arbitrary, and unjust.12

To gain some purchase on this issue it is helpful to distinguish between wealth and other things we value in markets. Carefully drawing this contrast, economist George Reisman describes wealth as specifically material economic goods.13 Goods, as beneficial and life-preserving rather than merely any object; economic goods as against “free goods,” which are benefits that do not need to be created (such as air and sunlight); material economic goods as existing benefits to men’s lives — rather than potential economic goods, or mere proxies (like stocks and money) or means (like labor) or preconditions (like ideas). Labor and ideas are valued as economic goods, not because they are themselves wealth, but because they are the indispensable means to wealth.

The distinction between wealth and its preconditions lets us clarify the ethical significance of inventions: inventors use their understanding of nature (often involving discoveries made by scientists) to solve specific problems in human welfare. Inventors are not recognizing some general fact about reality, but creating a recipe for producing wealth, thereby enabling the production of specific life-serving objects which would not have existed without their mental work. The crucial distinction between discovery and invention lies in their object: facts of nature are what they are and exist waiting to be discovered, while inventions are objects which would not exist without a creator. So intellectual property rights are a recognition of a crucial precondition of the life-serving creation of wealth — and they are not, contrary to this complaint, a general reward for mental effort that is arbitrarily denied for some classes of thought.

Moreover, a failure to distinguish between practical invention and theoretical discovery in intellectual property protection would work directly against the very purpose of individual rights. It would be unjust and contrary to the requirements of man’s life to protect discoveries as intellectual property, by making possible the demand that people ignore facts and act on known falsehoods in lieu of paying for the privilege of living. It would mean people being prohibited from acting in accordance with a fact once it is known — including barring their taking life-sustaining actions and using that knowledge to create new, life-serving objects. In contrast, there is no injustice when inventors or artists peacefully withhold the use of their recipes for manufacturing things that could not otherwise exist. Indeed, injustice would lie in denying creators the right to set their terms for providing the necessary means to life-serving wealth.

* *
This brings us to the central problem cited by libertarians opposed to intellectual property: that intellectual property rights conflict with material property rights. Palmer introduces the issue this way:

Arguments such as Spooner’s and Rand’s encounter a fundamental problem. While they pay homage to the right of self-ownership, they restrict others’ uses of their own bodies in conjunction with resources to which they have full moral and legal rights.14

And I’ll let Kinsella flesh it out with his explanation of the exact nature of the alleged “taking” involved in intellectual property rights:

Let us recall that IP rights give to pattern-creators partial rights of control — ownership — over the tangible property of everyone else. The pattern-creator has partial ownership of others’ property, by virtue of his IP right, because he can prohibit them from performing certain actions with their own property. Author X, for example, can prohibit a third party, Y, from inscribing a certain pattern of words on Y‘s own blank pages with Y‘s own ink.

That is, by merely authoring an original expression of ideas, by merely thinking of and recording some original pattern of information, or by finding a new way to use his own property (recipe), the IP creator instantly, magically becomes a partial owner of others’ property. He has some say over how third parties can use their property. IP rights change the status quo by redistributing property from individuals of one class (tangible-property owners) to individuals of another (authors and inventors). Prima facie, therefore, IP law trespasses against or “takes” the property of tangible property owners, by transferring partial ownership to authors and inventors. It is this invasion and redistribution of property that must be justified in order for IP rights to be valid.15

The first thing to note is the plain fact that people are routinely prevented from using their material property when it would violate any right — so the protection of intellectual property rights would not be unique in so “controlling” other people in their use of their material property. For example, my neighbor’s person and property rights are not violated when he is not allowed to spontaneously whack me in the head with his fully-owned two-by-four. His rights are not violated in preventing him from using his tangible truck to pull up to my house and drive off with my entertainment center. We are all restricted from using our persons and property to violate the rights of others, and such restrictions do not themselves constitute an infringement of rights because nobody has the right to violate rights.

It is bad enough that these libertarian scholars ignore such an obvious point, but the evasion reaches full bloom in Kinsella’s explanation of the alleged “taking” caused by the appearance of intellectual property. The charge is that, as intellectual property comes into existence, liberty is lost in a magical transfer of partial ownership from the owners of material property to an author or inventor, thereby unjustly preventing them from doing something they were otherwise free to do with their own property. But in no sense is any ability, permission, or liberty lost. Recall that intellectual property rights protect the manufacture of creations — objects which did not and would not otherwise exist. Before a novel has been written, absolutely nobody has the power to publish it, so its being authored cannot remove any liberty previously enjoyed by printers. And before some better mousetrap is invented, nobody has the power to produce it — so its being invented cannot deny manufacturers any previously enjoyed freedom.

Indeed, far from losing any power or liberty, the options available to owners of material property only increase with the appearance of intellectual property: they are presented with at least the potential to use their property in the production of new, life-serving objects in collaboration with an inventor or artist.

* *
Finally, we turn to the subtlest issue we will explore: time limits. Libertarians opposed to intellectual property see unprincipled arbitrariness in protecting it for some given number of years; for if intellectual property is legitimate, why wouldn’t we provide unlimited protection as with material property? But they also note that if there were no time limits, then people would become mired in impossible record-keeping, drained by endless royalties, paralyzed in innovation. In the face of both limited and unlimited protection seeming unprincipled and heinously impractical, they reject intellectual property protection altogether — and this is further justified in light of their scarcity-based theory of property.

Certainly the practical point about the crushing burden of endless royalties and record-keeping is a useful sign that unlimited patent and copyright protection is a bad idea we should reject. But that alone does not constitute the full case against the idea; we also need to look to the nature of man’s life to identify what is wrong with unlimited intellectual property rights. Further, in seeing the trouble there, we can identify what gives rise to the need for time limits in the first place — and we can identify principles to guide us in the delicate challenge of determining just intellectual property durations which are not arbitrary.

Our starting point is the examination of what would be entailed in owners enjoying both material and intellectual property in perpetuity. First, recall that in discussing wealth as material economic goods we carefully distinguished it from its essential means (ideas, labor). In the present point, this distinction appears again in understanding material property rights as a claim on a specific amount of existing wealth, where intellectual property rights are a claim on limitless potential future wealth in the application of an idea.16

Regarding the former, Rand observed that material property “can be left to heirs, but it cannot remain in their effortless possession in perpetuity: the heirs can consume it or must earn its continued possession by their own productive work.”17 Value evaporates if a farmer neglects his land, an apartment owner neglects his building, or the owner of a business neglects its operation. Even a trust-fund baby must manage his investments lest they wither or be lost due to mismanagement — consider the recurring story of lottery winners who quickly find themselves back where they were before winning. People may enjoy a lucky “leg up” in accumulating wealth, but they must be productive to maintain and grow that value, or suffer its disappearance. That is, they must earn its continued possession by their own productive work. Even under such favorable circumstances, the specific basis in ethics of the right to property — the cardinal virtue of productiveness — continues to stand as a broad requirement.

In contrast, intellectual property cannot be so consumed and requires no productive effort on the part of its holder to maintain its value. No work would be demanded of an heir to intellectual property: he may continue to apply the idea to produce wealth, but he could just as well sit back and soak up royalties from others who use the idea to produce wealth. The owner of intellectual property need not earn its continued possession. Seeing the implications of this, Rand commented that if intellectual property were held in perpetuity, “it would lead to the opposite of the very principle on which it is based: it would lead, not to the earned reward of achievement, but to the unearned support of parasitism.”18 That is, a distant heir would effortlessly enjoy a share of the wealth being produced by others who alone are keeping the idea alive, embodying it in new life-serving goods. In the role of mere heir to intellectual property, one could not earn any part of that wealth. This follows from Rand’s point that

Intellectual achievement, in fact, cannot be transferred, just as intelligence, ability, or any other personal virtue cannot be transferred. All that can be transferred is the material results of an achievement, in the form of actually produced wealth. By the very nature of the right on which intellectual property is based — a man’s right to the product of his mind — that right ends with him. He cannot dispose of that which he cannot know or judge: the yet-unproduced, indirect, potential results of his achievement four generations — or four centuries — later.19

Thus by looking further into the meaning and purpose of property, we see how unlimited protection of intellectual property rights would not be analogous to unlimited material rights protection and would in fact be the very opposite in important ways.

Regarding the delicate challenge of determining specific limits for the protection of various classes of intellectual property, the scope of “fair use,” and so on: as with the above issues surrounding intellectual property, legal philosophers must look to politics, ethics, and the nature of man for the appropriate guiding principles to develop just implementations — not interfering with the freedom of creators to profit by their creations while at the same time not enabling parasites to burden the productive.

* *

Lest we be driven by the difficulty of that challenge into entirely abandoning intellectual property protection, we should note that just as unlimited intellectual property protection would encourage destructive parasitism in future heirs, the absence of intellectual property protection would encourage destructive parasitism in present manufacturers.

Abandoning intellectual property protection is saying that the author who invests thirteen years in writing a bestseller has no more right to profit from its sale than anybody else. It is saying the studio that risks $100 million on producing a blockbuster movie has no right to set the terms of its use to enjoy blockbuster profits, even though it retains the sole right to suffer the losses of a flop. The same is true for the labs that invest billions in developing mechanical, electronic, and virtual tools and toys that improve peoples’ lives. It is saying that biotech companies who risk vast fortunes and decades of sweat in striving to create life-saving drugs and population-sustaining crops should simply give away the benefits of their risk, toil, and dedicated genius.

It is true that the sudden abandonment of intellectual property rights would be a boon for manufacturers and customers, instigating a burst of wealth-creation as they deployed formerly protected ideas more freely. But this would be short-lived and stagnation would soon follow as those who might have risked, invested, toiled, and dedicated their genius to the next opportunity simply shrug. Creators would stand aside and not bother, or they would spend their minds on developing those (much more limited) things which aren’t easily copied and imitated. Having killed the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs, countless life-serving creations would come more slowly or not at all. Why risk a billion dollars and half a lifetime attempting to develop a cure for cancer if others can profit by that achievement any way they see fit? Then decline would follow stagnation as shifting conditions in populations and resource availability bring new challenges that will go unmet.20

But again, disastrous practical results alone are not a full justification; they are only a (very strong) hint that there is a deeper explanation we must appreciate, an important fact we need to respect. In this case, the numbingly unjust and destructive results are ultimately caused by the denial of the crucial role of ideas in wealth-creation. Rand summarized it this way:

Every type of productive work involves a combination of mental and physical effort: of thought and of physical action to translate that thought into a material form. The proportion of these two elements varies in different types of work. At the lowest end of the scale, the mental effort required to perform unskilled manual labor is minimal. At the other end, what the patent and copyright laws acknowledge is the paramount role of mental effort in the production of material values; these laws protect the mind’s contribution in its purest form: the origination of an idea.21

* *
Looking below the surface to understand the role of reason in man’s life and its connection to property rights is essential to grasping the importance of intellectual property — and to achieving its proper implementation. But this is precisely what has gone missing in the accounts of libertarians against intellectual property. In a telling aside, Kinsella writes:

Even Rand once elevated patents over mere property rights in tangible goods, in her bizarre notion that “patents are the heart and core of property rights.”22 Can we really believe that there were no property rights respected before the 1800s, when patent rights became systematized?23

Consider: people employed reason before Aristotle systematized logic; they used geometry before Euclid organized the field; they lobbed rocks with catapults before Newton formulated the scientific principles by which missiles fly. There are countless cases where an implicit or partial understanding of a deep truth developed before some thinker explained and systematized it. Rand often commented that it was the advent of the Industrial Revolution that made it possible to fully appreciate the central role of reason in man’s life: it was there all along, but hard to see in such stark relief until that point in history. The crucial role of reason in production was not fully recognized until then, and so the essential role of the mind — of ideas — in wealth-creation was not yet fully grasped, either.

As the Industrial Revolution unfolded and it became easier to publish information and mass-produce objects for wide distribution, people began to grasp more fully the fundamental role of ideas in wealth-creation. They began attempting to protect the interests of the creators of ideas — in fits and starts, justified by troubled appeals to utilitarianism in the US24 and mystical appeals to extension of personality in Europe.25 But problematic justifications and inconsistent implementations do not invalidate the reality of intellectual property.

Now as we enjoy the rise of the information age, the critical role of reason in the life of man is more prominent than ever, and facing the implications squarely is paramount. So it can be no accident that in addressing a reader’s query about intellectual property, Rand opened her essay with an integrative statement reflecting this fundamental fact and inviting us to appreciate its fuller meaning. “Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.”26

Notes [*] After stumbling across yet another libertarian slamming the idea of intellectual property (one who was specifically taking Rand to task for her defense of IP in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), Axiomatic Magazine editor Don Watkins invited me to investigate the phenomenon. The following is the result of immersing myself in the strongest arguments I could find against the legitimacy of IP. [1] In this article I will rely on two noted contemporary scholars to speak for libertarians opposed to intellectual property: Tom G. Palmer and N. Stephan Kinsella. Each has produced an extensive survey covering the subject, drawing on the thoughts of a long line of historic libertarian thinkers. [2] Tom G. Palmer, “Are Patents and Copyrights Morally Justified?: The Philosophy of Property Rights and Ideal Objects,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 13, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 817-865, available online at, 855. [3]Stephan Kinsella, “Against Intellectual Property,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 15, no.2 (Spring 2001):1-53, available online at, 19-20. [4] Kinsella, 22. [5] Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, Monticello, August 13, 1813, letter, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 13, ed. A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Bergh (Washington, D.C.: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), pp. 326-38. [6] Kinsella, 23, from Arnold Plant, “The Economic Theory Concerning Patents for Inventions,” Selected Economic Essays and Addresses (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 36. [7] Palmer, 864. [8] Ayn Rand, “Man’s Rights,” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1986), 321. Essay available online at [9] Rand, “Man’s Rights,” 320-321. [10] Much in these two paragraphs is paraphrased from Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Plume, 1993), 354. [11] Rand, “Man’s Rights,” 322. [12] Kinsella, 15. [13] George Reisman, “Wealth and Goods,” Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Jameson Books, 1996), viewable online at, 39-41. [14] Palmer, 827. [15] Kinsella, 25. [16] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 132. [17] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 131. [18] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 131. [19] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 132. [20] Reisman, “Diminishing Returns and the Need for Economic Progress,” 70-71. [21] Rand, “Copyrights and Patents,” 130. [22] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 133. [23] Kinsella, 18. [24] The Constitution of the United States of America, available online at, Article I Section 8. [25] Palmer, 835, 843, 862. [26] Rand, “Patents and Copyrights,” 130.

[updates: corrected broken links, removed distracting 'reader exercise' and moved intro/publication-credits to footnote.]

Mr. and Mrs. Smith Stalking Atlas

 Posted by on 27 April 2006 at 5:00 pm  Uncategorized
Apr 272006

Looks like Atlas Shrugged is just about to hit the big screen… for the umpteenth time. I have to say, though, that this really is looking closer than ever before: today’s morning news breathlessly reported that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are eyeing the leads and that worldwide distribution rights were picked up by Lionsgate.

Variety reports that the couple are rumoured to be considering starring as lead characters Dagny Taggart and John Galt.

‘Atlas Shrugged’ tells the story of the economic collapse of the US in the future when American industrialists go on strike and retreat to a hideaway in the mountains.

The book espouses Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which the author described as: “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Both Pitt and Jolie are fans of Rand’s work.

There are of course snarky reports of the news as well, but at least this one contains some interesting information after the sneering:

Frat boys and self-centered individualists of the world rejoice — Lionsgate is moving forward on a big screen adaptation of Ayn Rand’s heaviest book. …

Written in 1957, “Atlas Shrugged” is considered Rand’s masterpiece by people who believe that the Russian-born author had a masterpiece (in fairness, most frat boys usually stop after Rand’s kiddie lit effort “The Fountainhead”).

The weighty tome focuses on railroad executive Dagny Taggart, who feels crushed by society’s evil shift toward collectivism or something silly like that. …

James V. Hart (“Contact”) has written a two-part script for “Atlas,” but it’s likely that it will be tightened to a single opus.

A good adaptation is hard enough in the first place, much less an adaptation of a book this large, integrated, and philosophically/culturally challenging. And as writers, producers, directors, and actors all vie to bring their own sparkle and vision to the work, there is the tendency to dilute and corrupt even great treatments. Sigh. What are the odds that Hollywood will actually do a decent, respectful job of it? Or at least not do a horrid, slanderous job?

Given these factors, I’m not expecting great results, though I would love a pleasant surprise!

Masterful Metaethics

 Posted by on 20 April 2006 at 5:52 am  Uncategorized
Apr 202006

I am reading Dr. Tara Smith’s new book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, and along the way I thought I would share little glimpses of what it is like for the benefit (i.e., torture) of those who don’t yet own it. Today’s posting is brought to you by the chapters 1 and 2.

1. Introduction

Smith opens with a brief survey of contemporary scholarly work that, as she puts it, has danced around the edges of egoism. Now, being the sort that often suffers from having the attention-span of a parakeet, I quickly began to wonder if I was going to be grinding through an entire book focused on comparing and contrasting near misses and close calls. But it soon became clear that the purpose was motivation for scholars in the ethical neighborhood to accept an invitation: Why not judge ethical egoism by squarely confronting it in its most powerful and consistent form? Smith then gives the obligatory chapter-by-chapter overview of the course that she will follow in offering Rand’s ethics for such consideration. What is nice here is that we are given more than the usual skimmable list of topics-that-shall-be-addressed in each chapter: even in this summary, Smith is busy reinforcing essentials and sketching broad, illuminating connections to orient the reader to the overall logic of the presentation and Rand’s ethical thought.

2. Rational Egoism: A Profile of Its Foundations and Basic Character

If I had to pick just one word to describe Smith’s summary of Rand’s metaethics, it would be masterful. The bulk of this chapter represents a condensing and clarifying of the work Smith did in Viable Values, to set the context for the ensuing exploration of particular virtues. Smith’s explanation traces Rand’s exposition, weaving together elements of her own prior work, Rand’s ideas, and Peikoff’s illumination in Objectivism. Along the way, her running commentary shows the relationships to wider scholarship and highlights the conceptual distinctions and clarifications needed to grasp Rand’s metaethics more fully. I call it masterful because of her pacing and clarity in laying the essentials out, her wonderful and often witty examples, her running explanation of what is important and why, the warm tone she uses to lay out hard facts of life-and-death importance, and her timing in addressing how various ideas can and should be understood (or may be misunderstood). On this last, for example, there was the discussion of how she uses “life”, “happiness”, and “flourishing” as largely interchangeable terms, with each expressing connotations that highlight different aspects of the same thing as needed. Far from waving her hands at what some have taken to be confusing and clumsy equivocation, I appreciated her explanation of how this clarifies what is at hand and strengthens her presentation.

Smith’s summary of Rand’s metaethics is so well executed that I was regularly shaking my head and smiling at how effortless she was making it look.

Coming up next: Chapter 3 on rationality, the master virtue.

Judging Things by Their Covers

 Posted by on 5 April 2006 at 7:39 am  Uncategorized
Apr 052006

I was immediately captivated by the cover of the latest issue of The New Individualist from The Objectivist Center. So bold, it features the infamous Danish bomb-turban cartoon set against the blood-red background of a bloodthirsty mob. Editor Robert Bidinotto is fairly sure it is the first magazine in the nation to feature one of the Danish cartoons on its cover.

Surprised to see such seeming courage from an organization that has shown itself to be so wishy-washy, I quickly turned to the cover article, “The Jihad Against Free Speech” by TOC Executive Director Ed Hudgins. Bidinotto proudly characterizes it as lengthy and incisive and as presenting a potent case for something or other. Having actually read it, I’d characterize it a little differently: it is a lengthy and impotent disgrace to its provocative cover.

I found only a tepid mess where there could and should have been a strong presentation and defense of the values at stake — an answer to why such a bold and provocative cover must exist. It is vague, wandering, LONG, and largely argued from mushy appeals to a toothless foundation in Enlightenment-era sensibilities back when rights were barely a tolerant gleam in philosophers’ eyes. There’s precious little explanation and defense of the absolute validity of rights as against the irrational and bloody ideas of savages, and what is there certainly isn’t compelling. Worst of all, while the author is the Executive Director of The OBJECTIVIST Center, the power and clarity to be found in the Objectivist formulation and validation of rights is all but avoided. We’re instead treated to endless asides diluting and confusing what could have been a clear, powerful message about what’s really at stake. Sigh, I’d give a bunch of examples, but this train-wreck of an article is so diffuse and pointless that I would probably pass out from UTTER BOREDOM if I forced myself to go through it again.

In a discussion thread with people applauding and discussing ways to get it into more hands, Bidinotto said that “if you truly expect the obsessed critics of TOC to acknowledge positively this or anything else that we ever do, you are in for a harsh awakening.” But that assumes it is praiseworthy, and it is not. What was most striking about those applauding is that they never seemed to talk about having read the article. They were only focused on that cover. Well, the cover is great, but without a real commitment to the values that should drive being so bold and provocative, such action comes across as mere bluster and grandstanding — not genuine courage.

Those who are judging this magazine by its cover should try reading it.

ARI’s Funnel: Taking Ideas Seriously

 Posted by on 3 April 2006 at 7:56 am  Objectivism
Apr 032006

Despairing at various events leading them to wonder whether there’s any hope for humanity, a couple of friends were asking me about getting politicians with good ideas elected. I answered that it seems premature to worry about electing politicians to support the right things today, because without the right culture they probably can’t be elected — and they wouldn’t be able to do what we want even if they were elected. But if you change the culture to be less hostile to the right ideas, then you’ll have a chance. Of course they only heard their goal of a little sanity receding toward the vanishing point. Sighing, they asked how to best do that.

Archimedes famously wrote, “If you could give me a lever long enough, I could move the world.” As many here would expect, I explained that the fulcrum point is philosophy, and I briefly sketched the pattern of how philosophical ideas shape culture and history (ala Peikoff’s Ominous Parallels):

  • Philosophy, good and bad, is the fundamental integrator of human knowledge.
  • Some hot philosopher comes up with an idea and it can spread to his colleagues.
  • If it sticks, it can spread to other parts of the humanities, affecting and shaping those who study people, those who write stories and make films and report the news, etc.
  • It can then filter out into the general culture, affecting politics and the harder sciences.
  • Out here in the world, we eventually see the effects, major and minor, high and low… fundamental philosophical ideas shape everything from the political landscape and what government does, to popular TV, and even current theories being proposed in science. Consider Continental/postmodern philosophy’s effects in literary criticism, in legal theory, in art, in politics (totalitarian collectivism), and in physics (Copenhagen interpretation of QM). The effects are everywhere, implicitly and explicitly, and they are the result of some smart dude in a school writing a book: like Kant, who affected Hegel, who affected Derrida, etc., on down to these insufferable left-wing pointy-heads we’re surrounded by (to pick on the postmodernists).

After not paying attention for a while, I was delighted to learn that an Objectivist organization seems to be taking this idea very seriously. Diana began sharing how ARI is doing so after attending her first “State of ARI” talk by Yaron Brook. Mike of Passing Thoughts blogged on the following year’s version. Plus I’ve poked around a bit on my own. I really want to hear the next one, because the more I learn, the more I can see the purposeful, integrated, and productive efforts of a well-run organization focused on connecting the right people to the fulcrum point by which they can move the culture.

ARI calls its strategy the Funnel, and here’s the best sketch I can muster from what I’ve learned (please fill in more details and straighten me out on any mangled bits):

  • Millions. First, there is the tremendous effect of Rand’s books. Selling at least a half million copies a year all told, they affect millions and millions of people in varying degrees and on various levels, though mostly modest.
  • Hundreds of thousands. The first real stage of the Funnel is ARI’s Free Books for Teachers Program that places Rand’s novels in schools where they’ll be taught as literature. The result is hundreds of thousands of kids studying them each year and a further “softening” of the culture to the work of Objectivist scholars and specialists (after all, cranks don’t get taught as novelists in the Canon worthy of serious study).
  • Thousands. ARI offers big cash prizes to students in their annual essay contest. This means thousands of kids motivated to critically analyze and write on Rand’s novels each year, being exposed to philosophical ideas in general and Objectivism in particular. Plus, ARI gives each essayist a free copy of the novel they didn’t write about, so most of those thousands will deepen their appreciation and understanding of Rand and perhaps strengthen their respect for the importance of ideas.
  • Hundreds. When students arrive at college, they’ll find ARI-sponsored campus Objectivist clubs which draw on an active ARI speakers bureau to present on campuses, and they’ll see Objectivist experts from ARI regularly appearing on radio and TV, and producing a steady stream of op-eds and letters to the editor that appear in major papers. Also, they’ll see active ARI campaigns taking on important cultural causes like the free world’s response to the cartoon jihad. So hundreds of students who might make a career of working with ideas are further exposed to Objectivist thought and encouraged to study Objectivism seriously. Also, there is further softening of the culture to Rand’s ideas and their application in other disciplines (after all, cranks aren’t called to be on big cable and radio shows to argue issues of the day).
  • Dozens. If they become serious about studying philosophy in general and Objectivism in particular, these students will find generous support at ARI’s Objectivist Academic Center. There, dozens of philosophy majors are receiving rigorous supplemental undergraduate and graduate training in the Objectivist system, its methodology and relation to other systems, as well as training in related disciplines such as writing which are required for strong, effective scholarly work. (Great stuff, these guys are coming out sharp as hell.)
  • Handfuls. Finally, Objectivist PhD’s recieve critical support from the Anthem Foundation for Objectivist Scholarship headed by John McCaskey of Stanford. Anthem is an organization working within academia to elevate respect and demand for Rand studies by sponsoring fellowships, making book grants, helping with networking, etc. Their long-term goal is to support twenty Objectivist professors in the top fifty schools, doing significant work in writing books and articles, teaching Objectivist ideas — doing the core work that will affect the culture and further reinforce the Funnel. Along the way, we will enjoy the fruits of academia progressively opening up to serious engagement of Rand ‘s ideas. In addition to Anthem’s efforts, ARI also has its own grant programs and other forms of support for professors who wish to teach and work with Rand’s ideas.

This past year saw the results of almost a dozen Objectivist books like Dr. Bernstein’s Capitalist Manifesto and Dr. Hull’s The Abolition of Antitrust, to name two I bought. And with the help of the Anthem Foundation, important works are beginning to emerge from prestigious academic publishers, like Dr. Smith’s forthcoming Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. We’ve seen the launch of The Objective Standard, a strong scholarly journal of politics and culture from the Objectivist perspective. There have been scores of op-eds and letters to the editor out of ARI, and ever-more frequent appearances by their experts on TV and talk shows. And besides existing scholars being productive, I’m told the supply of Objectivist professors is now inadequte to meet demand from schools, so it seems the Anthem Foundation is doing a good job of creating demand.

Lather, rinse, repeat. After a while, things will turn more sane and we’ll be in a position to elect representatives who understand the proper role of government. In the meantime, though, I’ll support ARI’s Funnel and benefit from being an early-adopter of philosophical technology that will save the world.

UPDATE: Noodlefood’s own Don Watkins mentions that chipping in $35 or more to ARI’s Funnel gets you a subscription to Impact, ARI’s monthly newsletter for keeping donors up to date on progress in effecting cultural change. (What’s extra cool is that Don now writes Impact!)

Mar 202006

You know, I’m almost getting used to defending myself against the presumption of eating babies for breakfast.

It seems to happen around discussion of morality, and in particular around what most take as top-tier other-regarding virtues like kindness, generosity, and charity. Maybe that’s why Tara Smith spends some time analyzing them in her forthcoming book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. I learned she was doing so while enjoying her excellent lecture, “Virtues or Vices? Kindness, Generosity, Charity”, based on a chapter under construction.

People commonly presume that egoists must be averse to kindness, generosity, and charity because of the focus on benefit to others. And it doesn’t hurt that these are high on the list of altruist virtues that are drilled into people from birth as demanded by said sacrificial code. Sure, when it comes up I explain how Objectivists reject human sacrifice as unnecessary, that we don’t consider life to be zero-sum as there are no conflicts of interest among rational men, yadda, yadda. But that’s a bit passive, even defensive. How unsatisfying. And the bulk of Dr. Smith’s talk, while wonderful, wasn’t doing much to affect that stance. She talked about how these ideas are no big deal for Objectivists and just fine as long as sacrifice isn’t involved of course, as well as how they can sometimes be morally required as an expression of integrity and fidelity to one’s values. (Also, it was a welcome bit of clarifying analysis for her to emphasize that because they aren’t unqualified goods and always demanded of us, that they shouldn’t be regarded as virtues. Or as vices.) Very cool lesson, another reason I’m eagerly looking forward to that book!

But the part that made me chuckle and rewind to listen again was where Dr. Smith turned that defensive stance around and talked about how the common presumption is utterly backward. It is the selfish egoists who are naturally inclined to kindness, generosity, and charity, while the selfless altruists are not.

See, we egoists are all about trading on every level and in every way — people can be very valuable to us. Our friends, associates, lovers, and so on all stand in mutually-beneficial relations to us, and we look forward to meeting new people who can do the same. Nobody has an automatic claim on us, so duds we discover can be dismissed — and if someone actually demands sacrifice, we shrug them off as morally confused. So it is easy and natural for us to look well upon those close to us (and at least neutrally on those we don’t know) and express our esteem for them and their actual or potential value in the form of kindness, generosity, and charity. Especially when it is an expression of our more important values. Acting this way can be good and is indeed “no big deal,” so we certainly don’t need to have it drilled into us. We are naturally predisposed to (appropriate) use of kindness, generosity, and charity.

But not so for altruists. If you’re an altruist, people are needy. So fundamentally needy that you’ve got an entire moral code built around that fact. Everybody has an automatic moral claim on you — every need that goes unmet is an unfulfilled duty weighing down your soul, and every value you enjoy is a source of guilt. Talk about an excuse for repression! To the degree you live up to your moral standard you push toward death by giving up values; to the degree you don’t, your self-esteem falters for not acting as you should. Sure, that impossible standard can be used as a basis for kindness, generosity, and charity… But then it only underscores how everyone around you is a threat to anything of value you have. It is easy to come to see people and their actual, potential, and even imagined needs as albatrosses. It is easy to grow to resent them, dreading the inevitable moment they voice a need you’ll be duty-bound to fill. Being already obligated to sacrifice to others’ endless needs, these further reminders of that fact (or of your moral failing for not acting on it) only emphasize the conflicts of interest that altruism sets up, and invite a struggle to suppress the natural reaction, “Be kind to such people? Get out of my face!” (A memorable line.)

So it is no wonder altruists work to constantly convince themselves that kindness, generosity, and charity are important virtues they must strive to practice — and no accident that they are reflexively concerned with how we egoists fare regarding them. Well, I for one expect rational egoists to fare wonderfully because our creed actually encourages us to value our lives and the people in them.

Come to think of it, I’m almost looking forward to the next time some tortured soul asks me what’s for breakfast.

The Objective Standard is Here!

 Posted by on 15 March 2006 at 6:28 pm  Uncategorized
Mar 152006

Hey, just noticed that the innagural issue of The Objective Standard is now online!

Editor Craig Biddle’s excellent article, Introducing The Objective Standard has been online for a while, but now the others are there for web-subscribers, and the full text of Brook and Epstein’s “Just War Theory” vs. American Self-Defense is available for free.

I’m looking forward to burrowing through it all.

Last Gasp for the God of the Gaps

 Posted by on 13 March 2006 at 7:11 am  Atheism, Religion, Science
Mar 132006

For a first posting I thought I’d recycle an article I wrote for Axiomatic Magazine back in October, about finally approaching morality like scientists. (Enough time has passed that I can share it here.) It is adapted from part of a lecture I gave in 2003.

Last Gasp for the God of the Gaps by Greg Perkins

Every gust of wind and bolt of lightning was a direct act of God. But then came Ben Franklin, and we no longer think about meteorology that way. The same thing happened with tornadoes and earthquakes: the Acts of God that insurance policies exclude used to be divine punishment, but with our current understanding the term is really a euphemism for natural disasters. And today, most people don’t consider themselves impious just because they catch the flu or get a nasty infection–they know it’s because of germs.

The history of mankind has been one long account of religious explanation being crowded out by scientific discoveries and rational understanding. This striking pattern is called the “God of the Gaps,” where something supernatural is cited as the reason behind those things we do not understand–God lives in the gaps of our knowledge. As our gaps close and we grow in understanding and power, ever more supernatural territory vanishes. But one stretch of territory has stubbornly remained: the realm of values. Science may be able to explain facts, believers say, but only God and religion can establish moral concepts.

In fact, this attitude is widely shared by nonbelievers as well, who agree that how-questions about the workings of the world are entirely different than why-questions of meaning, value, purpose. Both camps say that the domains of science and religion are important but different in kind, that they are “separate but equal.” Scientist and nonbeliever Stephen Jay Gould laid this out with forceful clarity in his book Rocks of Ages:

I write this little book to present a blessedly simple and entirely conventional resolution… I speak of the supposed conflict between science and religion, a debate that exists only in people’s minds and social practices, not in the logic or proper utility of these entirely different, and equally vital, subjects. I present nothing original in stating the basic thesis (while perhaps claiming some inventiveness in choice of illustrations); for my [thesis] follows a strong consensus accepted for decades by leading scientific and religious thinkers alike.[1]

To pick two prominent examples: the National Academy of Sciences endorses this separate-but-equal perspective,[2] as did the Pope in explaining how the Church was wrong regarding Galileo.[3]

On some level, most people understand the genuine need for a code of values and principles to provide guidance in living life. Seeing no source in the facts of science, they are easily driven to religion by authorities who maintain that the supernatural is the only viable basis for morality. For example, one of the most influential religious apologists of our time, C.S. Lewis, offered such a “moral argument for God” via his bestselling book Mere Christianity.[4] But if we want to capture the essence of what is wrong with the moral argument, we need to appreciate its reliance on this separate-but-equal doctrine. We need to understand why that reliance means the moral argument should fail just as thoroughly as countless other God-of-the-Gaps arguments-from-ignorance have failed in the realm of science.

Consider folk remedies–everything from the witch doctor’s poultices, herbal teas, leeches, and dances, to modern-day supplements people use to stave off colds, to the magnetic inserts they put in their shoes, to hangover cures. Folk remedies are found by chance and by trial and error. Indeed, some are total bunk and any effectiveness they have is due to the placebo effect. But many really do help, and sometimes dramatically.

The downside is that folk remedies are not well understood, so their results are often inconsistent and they can have severe side effects. This is because their users lack a genuine causal understanding of what makes the remedy work. To achieve that, the part that actually does the work–the “active ingredient”–must be identified by isolating it from the irrelevant factors, and this is accomplished by using inductive logic as embodied in modern scientific methodology.[5] The Aristotelian/Objectivist tradition understands the law of causality as being the law of identity applied to action, so achieving genuine causal knowledge of how something works–of why something works the way it does–means grasping a “why” that is rooted in the identities of the relevant existents.

When we do identify the active ingredient, the remedy becomes much more effective because we can reduce side-effects by using only the parts that do the work, leaving aside other parts that might be poisonous or trigger allergic reactions or nasty interactions. Plus, we can produce it in greater supply and deliver it in controlled concentrations. But more than merely improving effectiveness in the original solution, we can study the active ingredient and solve a wider array of problems. Causal knowledge strengthens and extends our control and understanding beyond the original, narrow treatment.

For example, people noticed the patterns of heritable traits in offspring, such as eye and hair color. Gregor Mendel improved our understanding and quantified these patterns by carefully breeding peas and discovering the rules of dominant and recessive traits, among other important concepts. We were then able to more effectively breed and crossbreed plants and animals to suit our purposes, and we could even understand some of the patterns in heritable diseases. But then James Watson and Francis Crick identified DNA–the causal factor Mendel had shown must exist–and our world was revolutionized. This is a metaphorical active ingredient so powerful and instructive that it is now the cornerstone of our understanding of life. It allows us to understand and treat illness like never before–we’re creating solutions like genetic therapy and contemplating nanorobots able to fix genetic defects. We can create organisms to produce useful chemicals and build microscopic structures. We have the power to design genetically modified crops, saving millions of people from disease and starvation. We use genetic fingerprinting to convict criminals and free innocents, and on and on. All of this flows from striving for the active ingredient rather than stopping at getting by with a few narrow, folk-remedy-style solutions like crossbreeding animals or plants.

Now, the idea behind the moral argument–that religion is the only possible basis of value and source of moral principles–really amounts to arguing that we cannot find the active ingredient and understand what makes morality work; that the incredible power of a causal understanding is simply not available to us in this realm; that in ethics, there can be no Newton to light up our understanding and make the murky obvious. The moral argument stands or falls on the separate-but-equal assumption that there is a difference in kind between facts and values, between moral knowledge and scientific understanding. Ayn Rand made a key contribution in rejecting this dichotomy and rooting value in the phenomenon of life, closing the notorious “is-ought gap” and showing that values are actually a species of fact. In her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand explained how “the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality.”[6] In rejecting the fact-value dichotomy, we should expect to see the God of the Gaps squeezed just as hard in the realm of morality as in the realm of science–and to similarly positive effects.

Squeezed He is.

Morality is objectively valuable to humans because our existence literally depends on it. We need abstract principles to guide our choices and actions, short- and long-term, and over the span of an entire lifetime. So it is no accident that the longstanding religions all have moral codes. Current-day conservative scholars such as Thomas Sowell talk about the “collective wisdom derived from the past,”[7] echoing a line of conservative leading lights:

Like [Edmund] Burke, [Friedrich] Hayek combines liberalism in economics and politics with a marked conservatism in morality. … Traditions encode the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations in a way that no single generation, however sophisticated, could discover for itself; and it is through learning those traditions and passing them on to our children that we avoid extremely costly mistakes.[8]

Thus, we can view major religions and mythology in part as accumulators and transmission vehicles for the moral equivalent of folk remedies. Rand recognized this in her comment that

Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy–an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality–many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man’s existence.[9]

It is likewise no accident that there is great overlap in religions’ moral ideas: some of them have tremendous value to our lives, and the better ideas are more likely to be passed on, shared, and incorporated in neighboring traditions. In contrast, moral ideas that do not help people tend to die off, at least when not carried along by enough good ideas or shielded from scrutiny by the promise of benefit or redress in an afterlife.

Given the identification of values as a species of fact, the parallel between folk remedies in medicine and the moral ideas in traditional institutions is instructive; the latter are likewise open to objective study and causal understanding. And the result is what happens any time we find the active ingredient: we move from narrow and cloudy discoveries that work marginally well, to a deep understanding that is much more useful and can be applied more widely, more cleanly, more powerfully. We can examine traditional institutions to understand what values they are aimed at fostering, and we get to look at the internal structure of virtues to see how they work, where they work, and exactly why. We can:

  • clarify real virtues and how they serve our lives: rationality, honesty, productivity, integrity, independence, justice;
  • highlight supposed virtues which aren’t real, such as humility, self-immolation, and the self-sacrifice of altruism;
  • tease apart “package-deals” that really mix both false and genuine virtues in one idea, like conflating benevolence with the self-sacrifice of altruism;
  • discover the virtue of supposed vices, like self-interest and pride;
  • understand the moral place of social norms such as etiquette.

This approach has the advantage of keeping moral principles that identify causal connections grounded in fact-based inductive evidence, rather than attempting to capture morality in rules supported by appeals to faith, duty, intuition, and the like. A simple example of the dangers of the latter can be seen in the idea of living peacefully with others, something widely incorporated in tradition. Someone avoiding murdering simply because he is committed to following the commandment that “thou shalt not kill” is not so much against murder as for obeying God; he would likewise obey if he instead thought God wanted him to kill (consider terrorist suicide bombers, or the case of Abraham and Isaac). Similarly, someone committed to following the rule that “violence is evil and must be avoided” could easily slip into pacifism by not attending to conditioning factors like the difference between aggression and defense in understanding how shunning the use of force serves life. In contrast to both of these, understanding the principle that the initiation of force is evil draws our attention to the morally salient elements in our context. Rule-based moral codes are brittle precisely because they do not respect context and cut us off from the inductive evidence that can limit error and serve as a platform for extending and refining our understanding.

In approaching morality like scientists, we don’t reject “traditional values” out of hand, nor do we follow tradition blindly. Instead, we use this bounty of material to identify and refine principles of human action that support our lives. The value of doing so can be as immense as in any area of science: just as a causal understanding is more than a “rule of thumb” that “sort of” works in physics and medicine, a causal understanding is more than that in identifying good moral principles–these are identifications of the effect of an action on man’s life.

The idea that science and morality are separate but equal realms governed by fundamentally different rules is tragically mistaken. In illuminating the essential connection between fact and value, Rand effectively closed off the last refuge of the God of the Gaps and cleared the way to a rational, scientific morality based in facts and causality–a morality that can be pure and powerful in serving peoples’ lives as against the muddled morality of tradition.


[1] Stephen Jay Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1999), 3

[2] “National Academy of Sciences (1972),” Voices for Evolution, available online at

[3] Pope John II’s address on November 4, 1992, available online at

[4] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco; Harper edition 2001). For a discussion of varied less-populist moral arguments for God, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry online at

[5] John Stewart Mill, A System of Logic, available online at (see Book III: Of Induction). These central rules of inductive reasoning (“Mill’s Methods of Induction”) are described concisely online at

[6] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1989) 18. For a scholarly exposition of Rand’s metaethics, see Tara Smith’s Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000).

[7] Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York: Basic Books, 2002) 39.

[8] Jonathan Sachs, “Markets and Morals”, First Things 105 (August/September 2000): 23-28, available online at Jonathan Sacs is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth.

[9] Ayn Rand, “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1971).

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha