Objectivism Versus Christianity

 Posted by on 18 October 2007 at 6:54 am  Objectivism, Religion
Oct 182007

The already-lengthy comment thread on this article on the rejection of Christian values by Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism might be worth a post or two. The article itself accurately states the principles of the Objectivist ethics, then leaps off the cliff with the following:

Rand’s inversion of biblical norms had predictable results: Scott Ryan, who wrote a book on Rand’s philosophy, called objectivism a “psychologically totalitarian personality cult that allowed Rand . . . to exercise personal power over [her] unwitting victims.” He cites, for example, the way she manipulated “her own unemployed and dependent husband” to get him to agree for her to have “an adulterous sexual affair.”

We’re not talking here about personal flaws or merely human weaknesses. As Ryan puts it, these abuses are “demonstrably connected to Rand’s own ‘philosophical’ premises”–that is, her worldview.

Rand and her followers, you see, lived in a way consistent with her worldview. But you can hardly regard a philosophy that exalts selfishness and condemns altruism as the basis for a good society.

Obviously, that characterization of Ayn Rand’s actions is completely wrong. (Thank you, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, yet again!) Yet the critical point is that the author merely quotes Ryan’s assertion of a strong connection between her philosophy and that supposed behavior — without even hinting at the nature of that actual connection. One can only suppose that the author regards respecting other people as a form of self-sacrifice.

I’m happy to see articles like this one published. It doesn’t misrepresent Objectivism, except by implication. It rightly claims that the ideas of Objectivism are wholly opposed to those of Christianity. Those two points might well inspire some curious people to pick up Atlas Shrugged. Heck, it might even lead some ordinary conservatives to question whether they can admire both Jesus and John Galt, as many claim to do.

You can find the comments — over 210 so far — here.

The Opposite of Googling for Objectivism

 Posted by on 2 October 2007 at 7:52 am  Objectivism
Oct 022007

This is the latest incarnation of an email I’ve sent to a few friends to give some context and offer helpful leads in their investigations. Feel free to copy or adapt it for your own use!

Hi, Anonymized. You mentioned that you were looking around the web for information on Objectivism and Rand. Heh, that should prove entertaining: there are a lot of cranks and confusions to get tangled up in. So now I feel compelled to defend the honor by offering a few carefully-selected links for your propagandistic enjoyment. :^)

Seriously, though, it is a large topic and an extremely challenging one to assess fairly. She and her philosophy are recent enough that the signal-to-noise ratio regarding them are pretty horrid compared to the (still not exactly sterling) levels found with centuries-dead philosophers and their ideas — and this goes for both detractors and defenders. With that warning, though, it isn’t hopeless. Wikipedia, for example, is really weak in the more detailed articles, but the top-level entries for Rand, Objectivism, and the Objectivist movement are pretty reasonable to check out (with an extra dash of salt, of course).

However, if you want a clear overview from which to form your own judgment, I would suggest checking out some material from Rand herself, along with the top specialists in Objectivism. Summaries and explanations for any topic can range from elevator-pitch length, to a couple minutes for a hallway appetizer, all the way up to full volumes on the subject and then technical treatises on ever-narrower aspects of it. Probably the most productive way to approach a vast topic like this would be to begin with the anchor of an “elevator summary” and then spiral over the system at increasing levels of detail and completeness, amplifying on and further integrating what you’ve seen with each pass.

So with that path in mind, here is the best single-sentence summary of Objectivism I know of. It is by Rand, from an about-the-author appendix to her epic novel Atlas Shrugged, and while it is extremely broad, it really does nail the fundamental spirit of the system:

My philosophy, in essence, is 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.

Then spiraling over that same domain again but in a different and more detailed way, there is a little single-page summary of the essentials of Objectivism by her, and the people at the Ayn Rand Institute also have a one-page discussion of what is important and distinctive about the philosophy.

Slicing through from another direction, here is Dr. Onkar Ghate, senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute, with a very nice series of bite-sized articles (one, two, three, and four) introducing people to the spirit of Objectivism as a moral philosophy for human life and happiness here on earth.

Taking it up another notch, you might enjoy this nice 11-page summary of the philosophy that was written for a general audience. It is from an excellent quarterly journal of culture and politics that presents analyses from an Objectivist perspective (the editor Craig Biddle wrote it to introduce and set some context for the journal).

Shorter and more technical, but probably the most impressive link I have on this front is a brief overview of Rand and Objectivism (a mere 2500 words), authored by Greg Salmieri and Dr. Allan Gotthelf for a dictionary of modern philosophers. They accomplished so much in so little space, and so brilliantly — reading it feels almost like reading a poem.

Finally, there is this brief summary in about ten pages (fairly dense with more references to the history of philosophy) by Rand’s top student, Dr. Leonard Peikoff, taken from the appendix of his first book. (His second book is a wonderful summary 50 times as long. :^)

Those are still only a taste, of course, and would (should!) leave lots of questions and concerns to be explored. The next pass in the spiral might best involve actually going through a book by Rand herself. A friend who went off to Chicago a few years back dropped me a note out of the blue asking for a lead on that, so I’ll recycle my response below.

Happy exploring,

> I’ve never read Rand, but would like to. Where do you suggest I start?

How cool. Hmm, it depends a bit on your purposes. You didn’t specify fiction or nonfiction, or ask about any particular branch or domain in philosophy (e.g., theory of knowledge, ethics, politics, aesthetics), so I’ll stay away from purely nonfiction works that are more focused or dry and technical. That leads us to either of two great places to start, based on time and tastes:

1. The Ayn Rand Reader (500 pages, 194k words, about $14)

In the introduction, co-editor Leonard Peikoff talks about how Rand has a lot of published material and many time-pressed readers wouldn’t know where to begin or how to select a representative sample. “The present book is designed to meet these needs. … this anthology is intended as an entree for those who know little or nothing about her. Each of her four novels and [her nonfiction work in] every branch of philosophy are represented within its pages, even if only in brief excerpts. Whoever finishes the book, therefore, can say in all conscience that he knows the essence of [Rand] — and that he knows it by means of actually having read her.” (Please be careful, though: this book contains major spoilers and you’ll seriously miss out if you read Rand’s novels some day.)

2. Atlas Shrugged (1100 pages, 561k words, about $12 for the size that doesn’t require a magnifying glass)

Rand’s artistic and philosophic magnum opus, a novel that has rightfully earned a place in the Western canon. It is no hyperbolic exaggeration to call this an innovative and gripping story that both embodies and presents an entire, revolutionary system of thought in an astonishing display of literary and philosophic integration. As far as I know, that feat is unprecedented in the history of literature, and it would be impressive independent of whether or not the ideas made any sense at all. What’s over the top from my perspective is that in almost two decades of poking and prodding and holding her ideas up to the harshest scrutiny I can find in myself or others, I have yet to discover an essential that she didn’t nail. The chick was that good.

While you are waiting for one of those meaty tomes to arrive, you could entertain yourself with her little blockbuster gem of a novella, Anthem, written a decade before another big dystopian novel, Orwell’s 1984. It is still in print and selling well, but also out of copyright and available on the web, and you could probably read the whole thing in about two hours. While stylistically unlike anything else by Rand, I can see why she described it as dear to her spiritually, a poem, a hymn.

Updates: a few tweaks; added Onkar’s New Statesman article series (HT: Ergo); added spoiler disclaimer on the Reader (HT: Aeon)


 Posted by on 23 July 2007 at 12:06 pm  Academia, Objectivism
Jul 232007

Now that OCON is past, I’m posting one final announcement about my new OAcademics list before opening it for business tomorrow:

The OAcademics mailing list is a private forum for Objectivist academics to discuss teaching, research, coursework, dissertations, job prospects, publication, and all other aspects of life in (or after) academia. The list is basically a means of sharing knowledge and experience as ever more Objectivists enter academia.

The list isn’t limited to philosophers. All Objectivists in academia, whether professors or graduate students, are welcome. Future academics, i.e. those in the process of applying to graduate school, may also join.

No subscriber is obliged to participate in list discussions. However, I do make two requests:

(1) That subscribers post the syllabi from the courses they teach (including the list of readings) at the beginning of every semester so that others may consult them in the process of their own course development.

(2) That subscribers post any significant announcements about their work, e.g. the successful defense of a dissertation, an article accepted for publication, a fabulous new teaching job, leaving academia to hunt bears in Alaska.

These are strong recommendations but not ironclad obligations.

The list is not moderated. Posts should be polite, friendly, and reasonably relevant to life in academia.

Messages will be archived, but those archives will be available only to other list members. List members should not forward list messages to anyone else or post them to any other forum without permission from the author(s).

If you have any questions, please e-mail Diana Hsieh, the list’s owner and administrator, at [email protected].

To subscribe, enter the relevant information on the web interface. Also, please feel free to forward this post (or a link thereto) to anyone you think might be interested in joining the list.

New List: OAcademics

 Posted by on 18 June 2007 at 8:32 am  Academia, Objectivism
Jun 182007

Along the same lines as my OBloggers mailing list, I’ve created a list for Objectivist in academia: OAcademics:

The OAcademics mailing list is a private forum for Objectivist academics to discuss teaching, research, coursework, dissertations, job prospects, publication, and all other aspects of life in (or after) academia. The list is basically a means of sharing knowledge and experience as ever more Objectivists enter academia.

The list isn’t limited to philosophers: all Objectivists in academia, whether professors or graduate students, are welcome. (Those in the process of applying to graduate school are also welcome to subscribe.) If you’re not an Objectivist in academia, please do not subscribe.

No subscriber is obliged to participate in list discussions. However, I do make two requests of subscribers:

(1) That you post the syllabi from the courses you teach (including the list of readings) at the beginning of every semester so that others may consult them in the process of their own course development.

(2) That you post any significant announcements about your work, e.g. the successful defense of your dissertation, an article accepted for publication, a fabulous new teaching job, or leaving academia to hunt bears in Alaska.

The list is not moderated. Please make sure that your posts are polite, friendly, and on-topic.

Messages will be archived, but those archives will only be available to other list members. Please do not forward list messages to anyone else or post them to any other forum without permission from the author.

If you have any questions, please e-mail Diana Hsieh at [email protected].

Objectivists in academia are welcome to subscribe themselves to the list. I’ll also be contacting people privately, but since I don’t have e-mail addresses for all the Objectivists in academia I know, please feel free to spread the word.

FYI: If some responsible person wants to manage an “OLawyers” or “ODoctors” or “OWhatevers” list, I might be willing to host that. Just drop me an e-mail. It’s not that I want Objectivists to talk to each other in some cloister — quite the contrary, in fact. The point is to foster success in the real world by sharing advice, experience, and expertise.

Mike Williams on DIM

 Posted by on 5 November 2006 at 7:40 pm  Objectivism, Religion
Nov 052006

Mike Williams recently sent a lengthy post on Dr. Peikoff’s (free!) DIM Hypothesis course to FRODO (Front Range Objectivism’s discussion list). I thought it worth reposting on NoodleFood.

Like many others, Mike was in strongly favor of voting for Bush in 2004. He’s changed his mind after thinking through the issues. When I asked him whether I could say that in introducing his post, Mike replied:

Absolutely. Most importantly, my progression came about after I reviewed Peikoff’s DIM course as well as reviewed the factual evidence about the rise of religion, both in the culture at large and within the leadership structure of the Republican Party. In retrospect, I think the evidence has been there (about the culture but particularly about the Republicans) at least since 1980 and certainly by the close of Reagan’s first term. However, it really took reviewing the fundamental significance of philosophy (“Duel Between Plato and Aristotle” and “For the New Intellectual”, in particular) combined with the insights of The DIM Hypothesis to see religion as the real threat that could preclude the advocacy of a rational alternative. (The most easily accessible factual info about the influence of religion within the Republican Party has been theocracywatch.org. Yes, its run by ACLU-types, but the best thing either side of the aisle ever does is expose the flaws of their opponents!)

So here’s Mike’s post on DIM:

In order to fully grasp what is at stake in the 2006 (and future) elections, it is important to bear in mind one of the central tenets of Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis: that societal change [for the better] will not come from electing a given political candidate or slate of candidates from a particular party.

Fundamentally, electing neither Democratic nor Republican politicians will advance freedom or in any way secure our rights. Politicians from both parties will continue to erode the Constitution, hamstring our national defense and move us closer to a totalitarian regime. Both pose significant threats to our rights of free speech, self defense and free choice in medicine. Neither party’s members have any clear conception of how to fight and win the war with the Islamic bloc, nor the requisite moral certainty to do so. The party platforms of both the Democrats and the Republicans (as well as the Libertarians) are recipes for disaster in the short term and for tyranny in the long term. There is, however, a key fundamental philosophical difference between the two major political parties, and that difference has real consequences for us as advocates of a rational philosophy.

One of Peikoff’s identifications in his DIM hypothesis work is that the current schools of thought and future trends in a given field are shaped by the underlying approach toward integration of the intellectual leaders within that field. In spite of the successes that ARI and other intellectually active rational individuals have recently enjoyed, a reality-oriented, reason-based conceptually integrative orientation is not widespread in any culturally influential field today. The ‘I’ approach is not even a factor in the political arena (where it has no significant adherents), while it is just barely represented in the educational and cultural fields to which politics is derivative. Further, Peikoff notes that an other-worldly, faith-based misintegrative (or ‘M’) approach will be more internally consistent, more attractive, more influential and ultimately more sustainable in practice than the third possible alternative: concrete bound, conceptually blind disintegration.

Some in the Democratic Party, particularly the ideological hardcore of the far Left, are representatives of the disintegrative approach in politics (to the extent that they represent anything). They seek to destroy America and the West (for the sake of the third world, or the environment, or in the name of equality, or however they care to excuse and dress up their hatred of the good). While the majority of Democrats are surely less consistent mixed cases, and even with some consistent religionists obviously included, the most consistent ‘D’ types set the trend and the agenda within the Democratic party. The DNC is far more in thrall to Greenpeace, MoveOn or the ACLU than it is to Focus on the Family. If elected, the long term political influence of today’s Democrats will be to continue America’s slide toward self-destruction through increasingly statist policies.

However, Peikoff argues that the disintegrative approach is impotent in the long term. Politically, the far Left does not appeal to the majority of the American population and will not be able to hold political power or remain culturally dominant for any lasting period of time. These mixed cases or even pure nihilists do not offer any type of integrated worldview, no deeper motivating internally consistent system with which to justify or sustain their political ambitions. Whatever ideological remnants of their Marxist past might remain are in decline in the broader culture and pose no lasting threat to the advocacy of a rational philosophy. The Democrats in power will not be successful in implementing the full gamut of their political agenda, even if they were to gain control of both houses in Congress. And, though tenuous and vestigial, the Left retains some nominal commitment to hearing all viewpoints and to the equality of all opinions in their multicultural relativism.

Yet continuing political control by the Republicans could and would lead to political domination of the US by religionists. Make no mistake: the RNC is as deeply committed to as it is indebted to the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family and their ilk. Unlike the disintegrative, nihilistic agenda of the far left, the misintegrative policies of the religious right are supported by an ardent, confident and growing base of US fundamentalists, who cannot be opposed by their less consistent, but equally faithful, fellow travelers. Republican success would fuel the ascendancy of an other-worldy misintegrative theology in both academia and the wider culture. Further, and most alarmingly, the continued control of the US federal government by the Republicans could lead to the political imposition of totalitarian Christianity, supported by a comprehensive though false worldview that has proven to be as sustainable as it is destructive (see medieval Europe).

And a primary target of the Republican religionistas is and will continue to be freedom of speech. Keep in mind Rand’s observation that each political party in the US seeks to control the realm that it considers important, either the mind or the body. The breakdown of the 1st Amendment injunction against state-sponsored religion under Bush, combined with the stacking of the judiciary to prevent legal challenges to this breakdown, continues unabated and will only accelerate if Republicans remain in power. The substitution of Christianity for cultural relativism in the schools, direct government funding for religious organizations, censorship of the media and the internet in the name of decency and family values: all these are only precursors to the political actions the religionists will take in their all out attack on the remnants of our rational, secular Enlightenment heritage (which they correctly identify as their only real enemy, rightly dismissing the hardcore of the nihilistic Left). Clearly, the Christian Republicans are seeking to control the minds of US citizens, or at least enough of us to ensure their dominance of the country.

Prior to the landslide election of Reagan in 1980, individual candidates from either party could be evaluated independently for their political philosophies, as they were often almost identical pragmatists, each grabbing for power and not serving to advance any real intellectual trend one way or the other. Exceptions like McGovern, who were holdovers from an already fading secular Marxist past, were soundly defeated. Today, individual dissenters within the Republican Party are ineffective and do not serve to stem the current dominant misintegrative trend as long as the Christian-Neocon cabal sets the agenda for the Republican leadership. Any truly pro-freedom Republicans cannot come to the fore until the religiously motivated political agenda of today’s Republicans has been stopped. Also, widespread failure of current Democratic candidates to get elected may prompt a philosophical shift within that party, giving a further boost to true leftist religionists, such as Barack Obama, while lessening the prospects of a pragmatic power luster such as Hillary. Failure to support a political stopgap today might destroy the possibility for such an alternative, and could lead to the further rise of an ‘M’ element within the Democratic party as well.

Try not to think of this election in terms of which candidate has the better understanding of the fact that we are at war, or who might lessen the chance of socializing medicine. (If you are concerned with the war, recall the assessment of Peikoff, Lewis, Brook and others that there is no foreign enemy that can defeat the United States militarily if we have the will to defend ourselves.) The real threat is not the Islamic theocracies abroad. Rather, it is the possibility that our political system will continue to be co-opted by Christian theocrats as they serve to reinforce and further institutionalize their growing influence, thereby shutting out the possibility of a true rational alternative ever having the chance to matter. Voting for a truly pro-freedom candidate in the future will be the eventual consequence of widespread adoption of a rational philosophy not its cause. Such a possibility will never even come to pass if the majority of individuals in this country succumb to Christian fundamentalist delusions and their mandates are enforced by law.

Mike Williams

PS: For comprehensive historical documentation of the calculated power grab within the Republican Party by the Christian fundamentalists, please see Theocracy Watch or the books With God On Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America by William Martin and The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege by Damon Linker, in addition to the Thompson article in The Objective Standard. While informative, recognize that these details are not necessary to understanding the basic alternatives we face in this election.

Oct 292006

Dr. Leonard Peikoff recently posted the following Q&A on the upcoming election on his web site.

Q: In view of the constant parade of jackassery which is Washington, is there any point in voting for candidates of either entrenched party? Throwing out the incumbents “for a change” is to me an idea based on the philosophy that my head will stop hurting if I bang it on the opposite wall.

A: How you cast your vote in the coming election is important, even if the two parties are both rotten. In essence, the Democrats stand for socialism, or at least some ambling steps in its direction; the Republicans stand for religion, particularly evangelical Christianity, and are taking ambitious strides to give it political power.

Socialism–a fad of the last few centuries–has had its day; it has been almost universally rejected for decades. Leftists are no longer the passionate collectivists of the 30s, but usually avowed anti-ideologists, who bewail the futility of all systems. Religion, by contrast–the destroyer of man since time immemorial–is not fading; on the contrary, it is now the only philosophic movement rapidly and righteously rising to take over the government.

The survival of this country will not be determined by the degree to which the government, simply by inertia, imposes taxes, entitlements, controls, etc., although such impositions will be harmful (and all of them and worse will be embraced or pioneered by conservatives, as Bush has shown). What does determine the survival of this country is not political concretes, but fundamental philosophy. And in this area the only real threat to the country now, the only political evil comparable to or even greater than the threat once posed by Soviet Communism, is religion and the Party which is its home and sponsor.

The most urgent political task now is to topple the Republicans from power, if possible in the House and the Senate. This entails voting consistently Democratic, even if the opponent is a “good” Republican.

In my judgment, anyone who votes Republican or abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life–which means that he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world.

If you hate the Left so much that you feel more comfortable with the Right, you are unwittingly helping to push the U.S. toward disaster, i.e., theocracy, not in 50 years, but, frighteningly, much sooner.

I fully support Dr. Peikoff’s statement.

I am acutely aware of the concrete evils of voting for the Democrats: high taxes, environmentalism, welfare programs, socialized medicine, and gun control. Nonetheless, I will vote for Democrats as long as necessary, even for Hillary Clinton in 2008.

That is a substantial change for me, as some of you might recall. In the 2004 election, I was hopelessly torn by the choice between Bush and Kerry. While I knew that both were evil, I could not say Bush was apocalyptically evil while Kerry was merely ordinary evil. (Frankly, that middle ground was progress for me, as I’d been pro-Republican in the general vein of TIA Daily for many years beforehand.) I continued to pursue the matter after the election: I knew I needed to understand the relevant principles much better than I did. Listening to Dr. Peikoff’s excellent DIM Hypothesis course made the most difference to me: upon hearing the whole course, I finally understood the real meaning of the posted excerpt on the 2004 election. Of course, I still had much more thinking to do. Dr. Peikoff’s Religion Versus America and America Versus Americans lectures were illuminating, as was Dr. Yaron Brook’s lecture The Morality of War and Dr. John Lewis’ Ideas and the Fall of Rome. Dr. Brad Thompson’s recent article The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism is also a must-read.

I mention those sources for a very specific reason: It’s hard to understand the depth and power of Dr. Peikoff’s position unless you are familiar with them, particularly his DIM Hypothesis course. Dr. Peikoff’s position is not based on any casual survey of recent events; it is well-grounded in fundamental principles, particularly the essential factors governing philosophic change in cultures over the course of centuries. The Objectivist view of the role of philosophy in shaping individual lives, politics, culture, and history is a massive integration. While most professed Objectivists could summarize it, they do not genuinely understand it for themselves, i.e. based upon their own induction from the concretes. Dr. Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis course makes that induction so much more clear. It helps a person cut through the confusing sea of today’s concretes, so as to see the essential trends. (Note: The Ayn Rand Institute has made Dr. Peikoff’s DIM Hypothesis course available for free to registered users!)

As regards the election, the past two years of the Bush Administration and its Republican Congress have displayed the true philosophic commitments of today’s conservatives more starkly than ever. In their domestic policies, the Republicans fully support socialism and statism. They simply do so in craftier ways than the Democrats. Most obviously, the Bush Administration successfully pushed its prescription drug plan — a massive new entitlement — through a Republican-dominated House and Senate. Even with his Democratic Congress, Clinton was unable to match that feat of welfare statism. As a general matter, the Bush Administration is not even slightly concerned with controlling spending or the growth of government. Consider these “hard facts” from Dr. Thompson’s The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism:

Government spending has increased faster under George Bush and his Republican Congress than it did under Bill Clinton, and more people work for the federal government today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. During Bush’s first term, total government spending skyrocketed from $1.86 trillion to $2.48 trillion, an increase of 33 percent (almost $23,000 per household, the highest level since World War II). The federal budget grew by $616.4 billion during Bush’s first term in office. If post 9/11 defense spending is taken off the table, domestic spending has ballooned by 23 percent since Bush took office. When Bill Clinton left office in 2000, federal spending equaled 18.5 percent of the gross domestic product, but by the end of the first Bush administration, government outlays had increased to 20.3 percent of the GDP. The annualized growth rate of non-defense and non-homeland-security outlays has more than doubled from 2.1 percent under Clinton to 4.8 percent under Bush.

Increased spending inevitably means increased taxes. Thus, despite President Bush’s much vaunted tax cuts, Americans actually pay more in taxes today than they did during Bill Clinton’s last year in office. The 2006 annual report from Americans for Tax Reform, titled “Cost of Government Day,” sums up rather nicely the intrusive role played by Republican government in the lives of ordinary Americans. The report says that Americans had to work 86.5 days just to pay their federal taxes, as compared to 78.5 days in 2000 under Bill Clinton. In other words, the average American has worked 10.2 percent more for the federal government under George Bush than under Bill Clinton. When state and local taxes (controlled in the majority of places by Republicans) are added to federal taxes, Americans worked for the government eight hours a day, five days a week, from January 1 until July 12, meaning they worked full-time for the government for more than half the year. As Tom Feeney, a congressional Republican put it: “I remember growing up and reading in some school textbooks that if more than half your paycheck went to the government, then you were living in a socialist society.” Just so, Mr. Feeney.

The profligate spending of President Bush and the Republican Congress is thoroughly consistent with current Republican principles. In fact, Bush’s massively expensive prescription drug plan was based upon the very same model of a “conservative welfare state” as his failed attempt to reform Social Security, his support for school vouchers, and his tax cuts. As Dr. Thompson explains:

How does a conservative welfare state work? And how does it differ from a liberal welfare state? The neocons advocate a strong central government that provides welfare services to all people who need them while, at the same time, giving people choice about how they want those services delivered. That is what makes it “conservative,” they argue. That is how the neocons reconcile Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Hayek and Trotsky.

In practice, this means that the coercive force of the state is used to provide for all of the people’s needs–from universal social security to health and child care to education–but the people choose their own “private” social security accounts; they choose their own “private” health and child-care providers; and parents receive vouchers and choose which schools their children will attend. The choices, of course, are not the wide-open choices of a free market; rather, the people are permitted to choose from among a handful of pre-authorized providers. The neocons call this scheme a free-market reform of the welfare state.

As economic “supply-siders,” the neocons occasionally support tax cuts–but not because they want to return to taxpayers money that is rightfully theirs. Instead, they advocate lowering the marginal tax rate because it will provide an incentive for people to work harder, earn more money, spur economic growth–and, thereby, generate more tax revenue that will be used to fund the conservative welfare state.

In other words, President Bush’s occasional vaguely free-market rhetoric means nothing. The guiding ideal of his administration is that of total government control over our lives, albeit with some nominal choices sanctioned and regulated by that government. That’s the kind of “freedom” that today’s Republicans support — and that TIA Daily routinely praises. It’s worse than a farce: it’s a dangerous illusion. Due to the apparent choices still available to them, Americans might not recognize the ever-tightening vise of government control until it’s too powerful to effectively resist. To put the point somewhat crudely, the Republicans want Americans to indulge their power-lusting fantasy that their kinder, gentler form of rape is actually consensual sex, i.e. that their form of statism is actually freedom. It’s not. If Objectivists can’t see that, then America’s prospects are very bleak.

Even more alarming, Republicans at the local, state, and federal levels are actively intertwining religion and politics. Republican candidates clearly display their Christian credentials in their campaign literature and declare their intention to govern by Christian principles. They claim that America was founded upon Christian principles — and advocate a return thereto. They actively promote religion with state power and taxpayer dollars via faith-based initiatives. Many now openly reject the very idea of secular government, i.e. of separation of church and state. For example, Janet Rowland, the woman Colorado’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez selected as his running mate, openly advocates teaching creationism in public schools, wholeheartedly supports faith-based initiatives, and denies any Constitutional support for separation of church and state. She claims that “we should have the freedom OF religion, not the freedom FROM religion.”

Based upon recent threads on Objectivist discussion boards, many Objectivists seem to think that the meaning of Christian government in America is limited to marginal issues like abortion, stem-cell research, evolution, euthanasia, and the like. That’s completely false. Christianity is an all-embracing worldview: otherwordly, mystical, altruistic, and authoritarian. Its holy scriptures are explicitly and unequivocally opposed to all the values of this world: success, wealth, pleasure, science, justice, love, reason, pride, independence, and even long-range planning. It demands poverty, incompetence, misery, suffering, mercy, humility, submission, miracles, faith, and death. In recent decades, ever-growing millions of American Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, have embraced an ever-truer faith. They are committed to living in obedience to God. They are rediscovering the actual meaning of the teachings of the New Testament. They are rejecting the common sense worldliness that has long tempered American Christianity; they are embracing the blind emotionalism of faith. Ominously, they are raising an even more radical generation of Christians, teaching them to be “sons of God” rather than “children of the world,” just as Augustine demanded. This new Christianity is a whole new animal.

Unsurprisingly, these millions of serious Christians want to live in a society that reflects and supports their Christian values. Also unsurprisingly, they are perfectly willing to use the coercive power of the state to achieve that end. They fight to implement and/or retain laws criminalizing homosexual sex, forbidding the co-habitation of unmarried couples, and requiring modest clothing. They support the Bush Administration’s vigorous prosecution of obscenity and heavy fines for indecency in the name of “family values.” They demand that religious nonsense (i.e. “intelligent design”) be taught as science in public schools. They demand the removal of un-Christian books from public and school libraries. Significantly, serious Christians will not be satisfied with success on those limited issues. They will demand strict divorce laws, limit access to birth control, prosecute adultery, and demand religious instruction in schools. To set a proper moral example for the children, they will force everyone to live a Christian life. They will silence critics of religion, whether by actively denying the right to offend religious believers or by passively permitting the intimidation of speakers. (Sadly, that’s not much of a stretch in light of Bush the Father’s response to the fatwa Salman Rushdie and Bush the Son’s response to the Muslim jihad against the Danish cartoons.) Meanwhile, these Christians will continue to support socialism for the simple reason that the New Testament commands it. It demands total collectivization of property and distribution according to need. In passage after passage, it inculcates vicious hostility to wealth, in part on the grounds that the wealthy exploit the poor. Marxism collapsed as an ideological force with the Soviet Union, but Christianity can and will give socialism a new lease on life. The utter misery created by Christian socialism will not be a reason to abandon it; Christianity is explicitly opposed to worldy values like happiness and prosperity. It lauds the silent endurance of suffering and misery as a virtue — and Christians will force you to be virtuous.

The size and power of the evangelical Christian subculture in America should not be underestimated. It is millions strong, generously funded, and growing quickly, often below the radar of the mainstream media. (See the excerpt from the DIM Hypothesis course for details.) Moreover, consider the slew of large Christian organizations seeking to influence American politics, such as American Family Association, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, Christian Coalition of America, Pro-Family Law Center, and Family Research Council. All were created in the last 30 years. In addition, Christian conservatives are successfully infiltrating academia, filling the vacuum created by the ideological death of the left. (To head off a likely objection: Yes, Democrats are increasingly appealing to religion. However, they’re doing so because they’ve seen the great success of the religious Republicans. For now, it’s just opportunistic me-too-ism. If religious Republicans are rejected by the American people sooner rather than later, it will disappear. If not, Christian Democrats will gain power over their party and thereby eliminate the possibility of secular government.)

For those who understand the awesome power of philosophy in human life, the grave threat posed by this virulent new strain of Christianity is obvious. If America embraces the Christian government of the Republicans, the anti-reason and anti-life ideals Christianity will soon permeate every aspect of American life: politics, business, foreign policy, art, science, criminal and civil law, medicine, education, child-rearing, and more. Of all people, Objectivists ought to see that, precisely because Objectivism recognizes that philosophy is the fundamental driving force of human life and society. Yet many of Dr. Peikoff’s critics dismiss the reinvigorated Christianity spreading throughout the Republican Party as irrelevant or marginal, focusing only upon superficial issues of policy. They are utterly missing the point.

As if the prospect of Christian government in America isn’t bad enough, the foreign policy of the Republicans is even more dangerous. The Bush Administration is not fighting a half-war against Islamic totalitarianism, as its Objectivist apologists claim. It is fighting an altruistic pseudo-war in which the lives of thousands of American soldiers and billions of taxpayer dollars are openly sacrificed for the good of the enemy.

To take the most telling example, President Bush has embroiled the American military in years of fruitless war in Iraq — with no end in sight. On the present course, America can only leave Iraq in defeat, i.e. by withdrawing troops as the country sinks further into chaos. When that happens, Iraqis will be free to do as they please, namely to slaughter each other in religious and civil war culminating in the establishment of a repressive Islamic theocracy. That new Iraq will be far more dangerous to America than Saddam’s regime ever was; it will be another Iran. Notably, Bush’s lofty plan for Iraq diverges only slightly from that grim reality: he wants Iraqis to democratically vote themselves some new government, any new government. Since his basic goal is to promote democracy rather than secure America, he’s willing to accept an Islamic theocracy hostile to America, so long as Iraqis vote for it. That’s what our soldiers in Iraq are fighting and dying to protect in President Bush’s “war on terror.” The fact that they have killed some jihadists is wholly irrelevant: militant Islamists are not in short supply in the Middle East.

America’s bloody self-sacrifice in Iraq is the concrete reality of President Bush’s “Forward Strategy of Freedom.” According to that doctrine, the root cause of the “stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export” common to almost all countries in the Middle East is the absence of democracy. So the solution to Islamist terrorism is to allow Islamists the power of the vote. By implication, Islam is fundamentally unrelated to terrorism. As a “religion of peace,” Islam cannot inspire or motivate terrorism, whatever the terrorists might say. Notably, Bush explicitly connected his Forward Strategy of Freedom to his own religious faith. He declared the spread of democracy to be America’s “calling,” a task to be accomplished with God’s assistance and American sacrifice. Iraq was supposed to be the first major step: “the establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.” In fact, the only significant outcome has been an explosion of Islamism in Iraq.

President Bush’s much-lauded Forward Strategy of Freedom has worked equally well elsewhere. The Bush Administration has vigorously promoted government by democratic vote in Muslim countries, even when that elevates violent Islamic totalitarians to power. Democracy brought Hamas to power over the Palestinian Authority, injected Hezbollah into the Lebanese government, and enshrined Islam as the law of the land in Afghanistan. Yet Bush continues to push for full-blown elections in Egypt and Jordan, even though that would undermine the efforts of those semi-friendly countries to suppress militant Islam. By promoting democracy, President Bush is aiding our enemies, openly helping them gain political power that otherwise would have been out of reach. Yet he has not been deterred from his God-given mission by the ever-growing political power of the Islamists around the Middle East. Like any good Christian, he is impervious to the facts of this world.

The Bush Administration’s foreign policy is influenced by Christianity in more than just this “love your enemies” plan for Islamists. In his recent talk, “Nothing Less Than Victory,” Dr. John Lewis rightly argued that America ought to demand that the Muslim world wholly separate mosque and state. As in Shinto Japan after World War II, Muslims would be free to pray to Allah in their private lives, but Islam would be barred from public life and politics, including education. Muslims could rationalize that public secularism however they pleased — or abandon Islam entirely. Such secular government in Muslim countries is required to eliminate their threat to the West. Yet President Bush is completely incapable of demanding anything of the sort. He does not believe in the separation of church and state; he’s actively intermingling religion and politics in America. So he has no principled objection to states governed by Islamic law. He regards religion as a positive force in human life and in the state. He merely prefers Christianity to Islam.

In essence, by the very nature of his guiding philosophy of life, President Bush is incapable of defeating Islamic totalitarianism. He lacks the capacity to identify the enemy as Islam and to demand the separation of mosque and state. The result is not some half-good measures against Islamic totalitarianism. He’s actively sacrificing American lives, dollars, and security in order to promote Islamists to political power.

Even worse, by so doing while posing as a tough defender of America, the Bush Administration has substantially destroyed the critical ingredient in the battle for Western civilization against the Muslim barbarians, namely our will to fight. America’s military might is awe-inspiring. If victory was the goal, America’s military could probably crush Islamic totalitarianism in mere months, if not sooner. The only question is whether America has the moral confidence to use that awesome military power in the service of its own defense. In the weeks and months after 9/11, most Americans were eager to terminate the deadly ambitions of the Islamists. The Bush Administration bled dry that fighting spirit with years of war in Iraq, not to mention the ongoing appeasement of terrorists and the states that sponsor them. The cultural and political power of the Islamists in the Middle East has only grown since 9/11, so much so that many Americans now regard victory against the Islamists as impossible and self-defense as slow suicide. They do not think we can win; they aren’t certain we deserve to win; they don’t even know what “winning” would mean. That’s obscene. In concrete terms, the loss of moral confidence means that America will not confront Iran or Saudi Arabia, even though they are the two ideological and financial fountainheads of terrorism against the West. Our government will continue to appease Iran with diplomacy while it openly pursues nuclear weapons. It will continue to pretend that Saudi Arabia is an ally.

Of course, I cannot imagine that the Democrats will wage anything like proper war against the Islamic totalitarians determined to destroy America. However, I can reasonably hope that their fearful cowardice will protect us from self-sacrificial wars. They will not sap America’s will to fight, but perhaps even reinvigorate it by their inaction. For example, by pulling out of Somalia in disgrace, the Clinton Administration saved us from the self-sacrifice of Bush the Elder’s humanitarian “war” to protect and serve a hostile population. Americans were not sapped of their will to fight thereby: most understood that we could and should have retaliated — even though we shouldn’t have embroiled ourselves in that mess of a country in the first place. In contrast, if Bush the Younger were in charge, American soldiers would probably still be dying senselessly in Somalia, just as in Iraq today, on the premise that Somalis really want freedom too.

The world would be a safer place today if President Bush refused to take any action in response to the 9/11 attacks. Fewer Islamists would be in positions of political power in the Middle East. Americans might be frustrated by the inaction rather than cowed by improvised roadside bombs.

Objectivists ought to recognize the total failure of Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly in light of the slew of articles and lectures on the topic in recent years by Dr. Lewis and Dr. Brook. Yet many seem utterly blind to the disaster, focusing only upon insignificant concretes. The fact is that the Bush Administration is not fighting a war against Islamic totalitarianism: as a matter of deliberate policy, it is promoting their political and cultural domination of the Middle East. Yet that’s the Administration that TIA Daily praises, supports, and urges you to vote for — precisely on the grounds of its “war on terror.” It’s appalling.

Those are my basic reasons for regarding today’s Republicans as far, far more dangerous than today’s Democrats. The problem is not some few individual Republicans but the whole Republican Party, including its leadership. It must be told in no uncertain terms to reverse course. It will only do so if punished by voters for injecting religion into politics and promoting Islamism in the Middle East. Yes, the Democrats are awful. Yes, it will be painful to vote for them. However, the alternative of Christian government is so much more dangerous to our liberties.

The fundamental philosophic principles required to clearly understand the nature of our choice in this election are not self-evident. They can be difficult to understand, even for someone long familiar with Objectivism. An honest Objectivist could be confused by the flood of irrelevant concretes and misleading analyses, particularly if attentive to the seemingly Objectivist defenses of the Bush Administration published in almost every TIA Daily and commonly posted on HBL (based on what I saw during my trial membership this spring). However, I think such confusion is possible only to a person without anything like a firm grasp of the relevant philosophic principles. That’s why I agree with Dr. Peikoff’s claim that “anyone who votes Republican or abstains from voting in this election has no understanding of the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life–which means that he does not understand the philosophy of Objectivism, except perhaps as a rationalistic system detached from the world.” Sadly, that assessment has been confirmed by the flurry of concrete-bound objections to Dr. Peikoff’s statement posted on various Objectivist forums. More particularly, most critics of Dr. Peikoff dismiss as insignificant (or even deny) the rise of a new form of Christianity among millions of Americans over the last three decades. They treat Christianity as relevant to little more than birth and death, i.e. to abortion and euthanasia, even though millions of Christians are determined to live by the actual teachings of the New Testament. They claim that America’s sense of life makes theocracy impossible, as if the sense of life of a nation is independent of and impervious to massive changes in explicit philosophy. In essence, they do not recognize that Christianity is an all-encompassing philosophy with the power to drag America into a second Dark Ages if unchecked. In other words, they fail to grasp “the practical role of philosophy in man’s actual life.”

In response to Dr. Peikoff’s claim, some argue that a person’s vote reveals nothing about his understanding of Objectivism. In fact, a person’s concrete actions often do reveal failures of understanding–particularly when the choices are stark. An Objectivist who occasionally shoplifts doesn’t understand property rights (and more); an Objectivist who stumps for the Libertarian Party doesn’t understand the role of fundamental philosophy in politics (and more); an Objectivist who admires Kant’s philosophy doesn’t understand much of anything. Similarly, an Objectivist who thinks that today’s Republicans are less evil or as evil as today’s Democrats fails to grasp the fundamental ideological commitments of the Republicans and the real life meaning thereof, particularly the totalistic crushing oppression of life in a Christian culture and under Christian government.

Moreover, I’m glad that Dr. Peikoff was so blunt, even though some were insulted. Many Objectivists needed to hear those shocking words. They needed to be told in no uncertain terms by the foremost expert on Objectivism that their understanding of the philosophy is seriously deficient. If Dr. Peikoff had stated his views in less stark terms, most pro-Republican Objectivists would have dismissed them without much consideration. Others would have remained oblivious to the enormous differences underlying the positions advocated by Yaron Brook, John Lewis, Craig Biddle, and Leonard Peikoff on one hand and Robert Tracinksi, Jack Wakeland, and Harry Binswanger (at least in 2004) on the other. A wake-up call was needed. Yes, it’s blaring — probably because the softer alarms weren’t often heeded.

Obviously, a person who fails to properly understand Objectivism is not thereby dishonest or immoral. However, some of Dr. Peikoff’s most vehement critics have interpreted him as saying just that — wrongly, I think. Dr. Peikoff wrote:

Given the choice between a rotten, enfeebled, despairing killer, and a rotten, ever stronger, and ambitious killer, it is immoral to vote for the latter, and equally immoral to refrain from voting at all because “both are bad.”

In my judgment, that claim of immorality presumes that a person understands the choice in question basically as stated, i.e. between an ever-weaker killer and an ever-stronger killer. If a person fails to understand that despite serious and honest effort, then his failure to vote for the Democrats would not be a moral failing, although still a serious mistake. More generally, the identification of a certain act as immoral doesn’t imply that everyone performing it is immoral. For example, it’s immoral for a husband to lie to his wife to spare her feelings, but if he’s accepted the standard view of honesty, he might reasonably think that some “white lies” are proper. Such a husband has done something wrong by lying, even though he’s not acted immorally in the sense of evading his knowledge. Hopefully, someone will tell him that he’s doing wrong, that lying to his wife is immoral, and that he doesn’t understand honesty. That’s what Dr. Peikoff has done for Objectivists. (Of course, some pro-Republicans Objectivists are probably dishonest in their views. However, my point is simply that Dr. Peikoff didn’t say that all were.)

Finally, I must comment upon some of the vicious attacks on Dr. Peikoff posted to the ObjectivismOnline and The Forum threads on his statement. To be blunt, I’m appalled by them, particularly by the many accusations of intimidation, bullying, dogmatism, and the like. (For example, Jack Wakeland began this post with “Thank you, [name omitted], for so quickly standing up to Dr. Peikoff’s attempt to bully.”) Such charges are absurd: a person does not dogmatically impose himself upon anyone else by expressing strong epistemological and moral judgments. (That’s David Kelley’s “tolerationist” view; it’s not Objectivism.) Dr. Peikoff is certainly not obliged to sugarcoat his negative judgments for the sake of spineless cowards fearful of his disapproval, particularly not on such weighty issues like the fate of America.

More generally, Dr. Peikoff deserves far better treatment from Objectivists than he’s received of late. Apart from Ayn Rand, he’s undoubtedly the most knowledgeable and accomplished Objectivist philosopher — by far. No one else could have so skillfully and clearly systematized Objectivism as he did in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. For that feat alone, he deserves the deep respect and admiration of Objectivists. In action, such respect means that Objectivists ought to give his arguments careful attention and scrutiny, even if ultimately disagreeing with them. That’s hardly too much to ask. However, that’s not happened in this debate. Dr. Peikoff has been attacked in the very same terms as I often heard in TOC circles, i.e. with the same casual disregard for facts and the same specious arguments about intimidation. Also like at TOC, many people have dismissed his arguments as absurd without any substantial effort to understand them. That’s inexcusable.

To be perfectly clear, I will not tolerate any such attacks upon Dr. Peikoff in the comments on this post. Disagreement is fine, but I want nothing to do with anyone who treats him with the dismissive contempt I’ve seen elsewhere. My admiration for Dr. Peikoff and his accomplishments means something to me, something serious and important. So those supposed Objectivists who cannot treat Dr. Peikoff with some minimal respect are kindly invited in advance to remain silent.

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 http://tomgpalmer.com/wp-content/uploads/papers/palmer-morallyjustified-harvard-v13n3.pdf, 855. [3]Stephan Kinsella, “Against Intellectual Property,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 15, no.2 (Spring 2001):1-53, available online at http://www.mises.org/journals/jls/15_2/15_2_1.pdf, 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 http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=arc_ayn_rand_man_rights. [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 http://capitalism.net/Capitalism/CAPITALISM%20Internet.pdf, 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 http://www.findlaw.com/casecode/constitution/, 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.]

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!)

Jun 202002

A while back, I was working on my lecture on metaphysics and epistemology for the Objectivism 101 course soon to be given at the TOC Summer Seminar. Working on that lecture reminded me that my own serious interest in Objectivism was largely sparked by Ayn Rand’s short description of her theory of concepts in “The Objectivist Ethics” (of VOS). At the time, I was immersed in the confusion and muddle of a very demanding philosophy of language course. The obviousness and simplicity of Ayn Rand’s account hit me like a sack of bricks:

A “concept” is a mental integration of two or more perceptual concretes, which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by means of a specific definition. Every word of man’s language, with the exception of proper names, denotes a concept, an abstraction that stands for an unlimited number of concretes of a specific kind. It is by organizing his perceptual material into concepts, and his concepts into wider and still wider concepts that man is able to grasp and retain, to identify and integrate an unlimited amount of knowledge, a knowledge extending beyond the immediate perceptions of any given, immediate moment. Man’s sense organs function automatically; man’s brain integrates his sense data into percepts automatically; but the process of integrating percepts into concepts–the process of abstraction and of concept -formation–is not automatic. (VOS 21)

It was clear to me at the time — and is even more clear now — that this description was merely a beginning of a theory of concepts. But what a promising beginning it was — and still is!

So I’ve long wanted to write a book entitled How I was Seduced by Epistemology. Perhaps that will be the title of my autobiography when I’m a wrinkled old philosopher. In any case, with a title like that, the book cover will have to look like this:


Mar 192002

The phenomenon of self-deception has received a great deal of attention in recent years from philosophers and psychologists. The general account of self-deception that has emerged is, as one might expect, strikingly similar to the Objectivist understanding of evasion.

In The Varnished Truth, David Nyberg describes self-deception as “voluntary blindness, numbness, dull-mindedness, and ignorance” (81). According to Nyberg self-deception is an active purposeful process, for “remaining ignorant on purpose requires effort” (82). The centrality of purposefulness to self-deception appears earlier in Herbert Fingarette’s book Self-Deception (16). Fingarette notes that “this element of internal purposefulness is reflected in such phrases as ‘persuades himself to believe’, ‘makes it appear to himself’, ‘lies to himself’” (28). Mike Martin’s Self-Deception and Morality describes self-deception as “the purposeful or intentional evasion of fully acknowledging something to oneself” (7).

Such characterizations of self-deception do sound fairly similar to the Objectivist account of evasion as the refusal to think. (However, it cannot be emphasized strongly enough that self-deception is commonly regarded as unavoidable and morally acceptable by philosophers and psychologists.) In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand presents the basics of evasion in Galt’s Speech:

[Man's] basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think–not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment–on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘It is.’ (944)

Despite the similarities between evasion and self-deception, I do not think the concepts of self-deception and evasion are quite identical. Rather each concept emphasizes a slightly different aspect of a single mental phenomena.

Both evasion and self-deception involve attempting to fake the facts to ourselves. Evasion specifically refers to the process of avoiding and suppressing knowledge or reasonable suspicions. This emphasis fits well with the other meanings of evasion as avoidance of something. Thus, a criminal might evade capture by a policeman by running away physically, just he evades awareness by running away mentally. Self-deception, in contrast, focuses on what that person is running towards, on the false (or suspected to be false) belief that he convinces himself of instead. Self-deception is like the friend’s apartment in which the criminal hides while the police are looking for him.

So, let’s separate out self-deception from evasion using the example of the father of the drug addict from Sabini and Silver’s Emotion, Character, and Responsibility:

A loving father notices that his normally ebullient daughter is becoming more and more withdrawn, listless, and grouchy. She loses her appetite. She gets calls at odd hours and then leaves abruptly, yet her old friends don’t stop by anymore. She starts wearing long-sleeved blouses even though it’s summer and refuses to go to beach, once her favorite spot. She begins to lock her room, something she rarely used to do. He occasionally asks if she’s feeling all right, but she dismisses him with a laconic “yeah.” One day she is discovered dead with a needle in her arm. When the police tell him the news, he says that he can’t believe that his daughter was a junkie, that he is dumbfounded, that it’s all impossible (106).

The father’s evasion consists of refusing to consider the implications of his daughter’s changed behavior. Any thought that she might have a drug problem is immediately pushed out of his mind. He refuses to follow up on any suspicions to confirm or deny them. He won’t connect the dots, no matter how numerous they become. He is avoiding truth.

The father’s self-deception consists of the alternative theories and explanations that he concocts for himself to explain his daughter’s behavior. Her long sleeves are just the latest fashion. Her emotional withdrawal is just the usual teenage angst. She locks her door because she doesn’t want anyone to walk in on her while she’s undressed. He is pursuing fiction.

Whatever conceptual distinctions we might make between self-deception and evasion, the fact is that usually these processes are usually tightly intertwined like a Gordian Knot. The self-deception supports the evasion and the evasion supports the self-deception. So, for example, to make the self-deception that long sleeves are just the latest fashion, the father has to evade the fact that other fashionable teens don’t seem to be wearing long sleeves. To avoid the obvious implications of her strange behavior, the father needs to self-deceive with alternate explanations. It does seem, however, that evasion might be possible without self-deception. A person might push something out of her mind, but not latch on to some other false or dubious idea in its stead.

So evasion is faking reality by refusing to accept what you know or suspect to be true. And self-deception is faking reality by persuading yourself of what you know or suspect to be false. They are, as Ayn Rand might say, two sides of the same coin.

So the question to my readers, particularly those familiar with the Objectivist theory of evasion, is: Does this sound plausible? Would you describe the differences and similarities between self-deception and evasion differently?

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