Nathaniel Branden Versus Objectivism

 Posted by on 2 August 2005 at 3:29 pm  The Brandens
Aug 022005

On occasion, I hear people claim that Nathaniel Branden is still very much an Objectivist. For various, I believed that myself for many years, unfortunately enough. (I was stunned to my senses by re-reading his Benefits and Hazards essay.) I certainly hope that Branden’s increasingly public professions of mysticism will quiet those claims somewhat, but I’m not holding my breath. Too many people wish to love him unconditionally, I suppose.

For the rest of us, Nathaniel Branden offers quite a few choice examples of the deliberate obfuscation and sloppy thinking required for such a once-knowledgeable man to criticize Objectivism in a recent interview with Alec Mouhibian for Free Radical. (The interview is posted on SOLO in four parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)

For example, in Part 2, we find this exchange:

AM: You said at the last TOC conference that you’ve come to differ with Rand on some political issues. Could you elaborate?

NB: Well, it’s a subtle issue, and it goes like this: Objectivism says the sole purpose of government is to protect individual rights. I would say the primary purpose of government is to protect individual rights. And any other activities that the government may claim justification for doing must not be of an order that violates anybody’s rights. For example, some national weather disaster in which certain problems can arise that the marketplace has no way to respond to quickly enough. Or diseases that travel across borders and don’t respect passport laws. I will leave the door open for emergency situations that I just can’t imagine being resolved in a market context. If they could be, then they should be. But the fact of emergencies should not be made as justification for violating individual rights, so as you can see, it’s a very tiny difference.

In other words: A proper government will never violate rights, but it may sometimes act for a purpose other than the protection of rights. I must admit, I was rather baffled by this argument when I first read it many months ago. How could a government act not so as to protect rights without thereby violating rights? Governments are, after all, all about force. So if a government action does not wield retaliatory force against those who initiate it, then it must be initiating force itself. Is anything else possible? I started wondering about a voluntarily-financed government that opened restaurants, doled out blankets to the homeless, and manufactured computer hardware. Would that government be acting not so as to protect rights, but also not violating rights? At this point, I knew that I had fallen into hopeless confusion. So I asked Don Watkins about the matter in private e-mail. As I hoped, he promptly straightened me out:

The fundamental point, I think, is this: what distinguishes a government from other entities is that it has the exclusive right to dictate the terms on which force is used within a geographical area. If what the government is doing is not ultimately reducible to force, it is not acting as a government — it’s acting as a business. So long as it is acting as a government, “protecting rights” and “not violating rights” amount to the same thing. So long as it isn’t acting as a government, it’s going to do a screwy job. But more than that, as [another person] indicated, if the government is acting in a non-governmental capacity, even utilizing voluntary taxes, I think you could make the case that that is a violation of its citizens’ rights, since presumably people paid those taxes for the express purpose of funding a rights-protecting agency: not a not-for-profit corporation.

All of that is completely right, of course. Branden’s general theory of government action that neither violates nor protects rights is incoherent, as it ignores the basic nature of government as an agent of force. So let us now turn to the two particular examples Branden offers as concrete instances of this theory.

Branden’s first particular disagreement is that governments ought to offer some services in natural disasters because they can respond more quickly than markets. Certainly, governments must respond quickly to ensure law and order in case of natural disaster. Yet looting cannot be the problem in question, since preventing that is just the protection of rights. In general, governments lack the incentives for swift and effective action felt by individuals, businesses, and charities in times of crisis. A rights-respecting government wouldn’t even have the resources to do anything beyond ensure law and order in a natural disaster. So what on earth does Branden mean by saying that “certain problems can arise that the marketplace has no way to respond to quickly enough.” It beats me! It’s just an arbitrary assertion, too vague to have any meaning whatsoever.

Branden’s second supposed disagreement about disease is equally vague. What exactly is he proposing? Presumably he means to say that we ought to refuse those with communicable diseases entry into the US. But what kind of communicable diseases — Ebola, smallpox, typhoid, AIDS, the flu? How are these diseases to be detected — self-reporting, suspicious symptoms, mandatory testing for all? What should be the response — turning away, quarantine, forced medication? Branden does not even hint, so I cannot hope to comment. (However, I should mention that Ayn Rand regarded quarantines as justified under certain conditions by the principle of rights.)

Such is the clarity and depth of thought that Nathaniel Branden brings to his objections to the Objectivist politics. I’m not impressed.

Branden then continues:

I have a suspicion–I haven’t read her essays in many years–that if I reread Rand today I might have differences not necessarily with her conclusions, but with the reasons she gives on her way to getting there. I don’t think, for example, that the case she makes for individual rights is strong enough. I think there are things in it I could see an intelligent person questioning. Do I think she could end up answering appropriately and winning? Yes. But it’s not in the text, it’s in her head. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, Galt says (and I’m paraphrasing) that since man needs his rational faculty to survive, you mustn’t suppress his rational judgment. What’s tricky about that is, does that mean you do what you want with his irrational judgment? Her theory of rights has to be broad enough to include the right to be irrational, but you don’t see that in the way she has formulated it.

Branden’s hypothetical objection from “an intelligent person” obviously refers to this critical passage of Galt’s Speech:

You who’ve lost the concept of a right, you who swing in impotent evasiveness between the claim that rights are a gift of God, a supernatural gift to be taken on faith, or the claim that rights are a gift of society, to be broken at its arbitrary whim–the source of man’s rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A–and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, his right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.

In essence then, Branden is criticizing Ayn Rand for failing to spell out her views with adequate clarity and detail. She said that a person has “a right to live as a rational being,” but not that he also has the right to live as an irrational being. Obviously, the proper response to that objection is that you cannot force a person to be rational. Force negates the mind by rendering a person’s judgment (right or wrong) irrelevant to his actions. So the freedom to be rational is just the freedom to exercise your reason as you see fit — and to enjoy or suffer the consequences.

However, the real question to be asked of Branden’s criticism is whether it is fair or not. Surely he is right that “an intelligent person” might raise that question. Perhaps such a person might even be confused about it for a while. Is that worrisome? Absolutely not. After all, Ayn Rand has provided that person with more than adequate means to resolve any confusion in the pages and pages of prior philosophic discussion about reason as volitionally exercised by the individual, a man’s life as depending upon his independent judgment, force as opposite to mind, and much more. All that the “intelligent person” must do is put two and two together to make four.

In essence, Nathaniel Branden rips this argument out of its rich and detailed philosophic context of Galt’s Speech, then criticizes Ayn Rand for failing to offer an adequate philosophic context. A writer who attempted to follow his advice could not make any claim, not matter how well-grounded by prior discussion, without addressing the gaggle of objections possible to someone who, although smart, hasn’t yet integrated it all yet. (Just for the record, I haven’t bothered to check whether Ayn Rand addresses this particular point in any of her other many writings.)

The tapestry of ideas woven into Atlas Shrugged are daringly revolutionary, rich in complexity, and pregnant with implications. As a result, a person is unlikely to grasp them in a single reading. Unlike Nathaniel Branden though, I do not regard that as a reason to find fault with the book — or its author.

Then, in Part 3, we find this exchange on moral judgment:

AM: Let’s talk about moral judgment. This was certainly essential to Randian Objectivism, as the initial title of your memoir suggests. And much is made of the personal, judgmental nature of our current political climate. According to Rand, one’s only exemption from being “evil” is ignorance. You’ve denounced the harsh moralizing of Rand, yet you’re presumably a pretty judgmental man, who’s probably made over 7,000 judgments about me already.

NB: Wait, let me check. 6,700.

AM: Either way, what is the proper role of moral judgment? At what point is one immoral?

NB: One of the mistakes that Rand makes is that after she condemns a belief or an action, she goes on to tell you the psychology of the person who did it, as if she knows. I focus my judgment on the action and not on the person. My primary interest is: do I admire or dislike this behavior? And there, judgment is important for me. People often attribute all kinds of things to another person, without ever knowing where that person’s coming from. Most of the time, I regard the judgment of people as a waste of time. I regard the judgment of behavior as imperative.

Now, there are some people who are so clearly evil (e.g., Saddam Hussein) that we can’t imagine anything mitigating their horror. But even there, I’ve come to feel the following: if there is a mad animal running around, eating people, I may have to shoot him. I don’t think: “Oh, you rotten bad dog, you.” There’s nothing you can do except shoot him.

But the Saddams are only a small minority. Take the Middle East suicide bombers. God knows, if I had the opportunity, I’d kill them without any hesitation. But I also know, as a psychologist, that they were raised in a culture in a world I can’t even conceive of. They were propagandized about the glory of martyrdom since the age of five. Whereas Leonard Peikoff might be hell-bent on calling every one of them evil, I wouldn’t. They may or may not be. All I know is: in action, one kills them, rather than getting killed by them. Lots of times, we don’t know the ultimate truth about a person. And here’s the point: we don’t need to know.

To start off, Alec Mouhibian misrepresents the Objectivist view of moral judgment in claiming that “According to Rand, one’s only exemption from being ‘evil’ is ignorance.” Ayn Rand distinguished between breaches of morality and errors of knowledge, not between evil and ignorance. (Also, I suppose that I should at least mention the omitted possibility of right action.)

It gets much worse with Nathaniel Branden’s reply — so bad that it’s probably unnecessary for me to say anything about it at all. I’ll make a few quick comments anyway.

First, Branden’s explicit focus on particular actions (i.e. “behavior”) rather than moral character (i.e. “people”) ignores the obvious fact that a person’s actions flow from his moral character. We do not reinvent ourselves at every moment with every choice. Rather, all our choices are framed within the context set by moral character, i.e. by our deepest beliefs, values, and commitments as thoroughly automatized in our subconscious by myriad past choices. So to focus upon a person’s concrete, here-and-now actions is to willfully blind ourselves to the general character of his future choices. After all, if a person is acting cowardly now, he will continue to do so until and unless he chooses to overhaul his character by deliberately committing to defending his endangered values. Yet such is precisely the sort of consideration that Branden’s concrete-bound focus on “behavior” would compel us to ignore.

Second, by likening thoroughly, irredeemably evil people to mad animals in need to bullets not condemnation, Branden explicitly exempts them from moral judgment. Of course, as the saying goes, that’s an insult to mad animals everywhere. A rabid dog has no choice in its actions, no capacity for rationality — but Saddam Hussein did. Saddam deserves to be morally condemned, not in the hopes of magically transforming him into a decent person, but for the sake of preserving our own moral clarity, for the sake of the countless people who suffered and died under his rule, for the sake of warning those like him that they will share his fate.

Third, the tentative free pass that Branden gives to suicide bombers who intentionally kill and maim innocent men, women, and children for the crime of being Israeli is similarly revolting. Of course, the Palestinian terrorists grow up in a deeply irrational culture, right alongside all their non-exploding brothers. That pervasive irrationality is why clear moral condemnations of those who choose to kill and maim innocents is so very urgent. It’s not an excuse.

In general, I’m struck by the likeness of these views to behaviorism. Much like the behaviorists he tore to shreds in Psychology of Self Esteem, Nathaniel Branden is now saying that mental states are internal mysteries inaccessible to observation, so we ought to just ignore them and focus instead on discouraging or arresting certain undesirable behavior. (Oy, I’m feeling a bit sick to my stomach now!)

Honestly, I wanted to work through some more examples, but I’m just too disgusted to continue. It’s hard enough to slog through Nathaniel Branden’s twisted sophistry against Ayn Rand and Objectivism, but with Alex Mouhibian’s pathetic bootlicking, it’s just too much to bear.

I’m reminded of Ayn Rand’s fantastic line from “Of Living Death”: “Actually, this is too evil to discuss much further.” So it is. Like her, I have a few more observations to offer — but I’ll save them for later posts.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha