For the past year-and-some, I’ve been re-reading Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand with a few local Objectivist gals. (We only read about 30 pages per month, so our progress is slow!) A few weeks ago, we read the chapter on “Government” — and doing so raised a nagging question that I’ve had related to last summer’s heated debate about the NYC Mosque.

On Facebook, I’ve seen some Objectivists defend Leonard Peikoff’s position that the NYC Mosque ought to be forbidden by law by saying “the right to life trumps the right to property.” At first, I thought that Peikoff must have said something like that in his podcast on the topic. However, I was pleased to discover that, although I still disagree with aspects of that podcast, that’s not true. Here’s what Peikoff said, according to Trey Givens’ transcription:

Let’s start with property rights. Property rights are limited and they are contextual. You cannot do anything you want with property even though it is yours, not if its ramifications objectively entail a threat to the rights of others. You can’t build a bomb in your home. You can’t even build a big bonfire in your backyard legitimately because the principle of rights is that property rights are a derivative of life as the standard and there can be no right to threaten anyone’s life nor indeed to threaten anyone’s property.

Second, rights are contextual. In any situation where metaphysical survival is at stake all property rights are out. You have no obligation to respect property rights. The obvious, classic example of this is, which I’ve been asked a hundred times, you swim to a desert island — you know, you had a shipwreck — and when you get to the shore, the guy comes to you and says, “I’ve got a fence all around this island. I found it. It’s legitimately mine. You can’t step onto the beach.” Now, in that situation you are in a literal position of being metaphysically helpless. Since life is the standard of rights, if you no longer can survive this way, rights are out. And it becomes dog-eat-dog or force-against force.

Now, don’t assume that any unsatisfied need therefore puts you in this metaphysical category. For instance, you are very poor and you are hungry. Well, you need feed. But in a capitalist society, even in a mixed economy, that is not a metaphysical deprivation. There’s always all sorts of choices and ways in a free society for you to gain food. Always.

I agree with that portion of his podcast, and I think that’s consistent with what he says in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand about rights as as unity:

In content, as the Founding Fathers recognized, there is one fundamental right, which has several major derivatives. The fundamental right is the right to life. Its major derivatives are the right to liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

The right to life means the right to sustain and protect one’s life. It means the right to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the preservation of his life. To sustain his life, man needs a method of survival—he must use his rational faculty to gain knowledge and choose values, then act to achieve his values. The right to liberty is the right to this method; it is the right to think and choose, then to act in accordance with one’s judgment. To sustain his life, man needs to create the material means of his survival. The right to property is the right to this process; in Ayn Rand’s definition, it is “the right to gain, to keep, to use and to dispose of material values.” To sustain his life, man needs to be governed by a certain motive—his purpose must be his own welfare. The right to the pursuit of happiness is the right to this motive; it is the right to live for one’s own sake and fulfillment.

Rights form a logical unity. In the words of Samuel Adams, all are “evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature.” It would be a crude contradiction to tell a man: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to think or act. Or: you have a right to life, but you need the permission of others to produce or consume. Or: you have a right to life, but don’t dare pursue any personal motive without the approval of the government.

I don’t think that Peikoff’s views in his podcast or book can be properly summarized as “the right to life trumps the right to property.” That implies a false theory of rights, according to which rights can conflict, and when they do, the “lesser” rights must give way to the “greater” rights. That’s not just wrong: it’s an outright rejection of the demands of logic in politics. That’s because the whole point of calling something a “right” is to identify it not just as one value among others to be weighed, but instead to say that it’s a “trump.” Rights are supposed to settle — authoritatively — what people should be permitted to do. If rights can conflict, then rights aren’t meaningful any longer. They’re just a mush of who-knows-what.

Of all the errors in modern politics, the idea that people’s rights routinely conflict is probably the most pernicious of all. It opens the door to any and all rights violations — from OSHA to Medicare to the ADA to the Drug War — because when logic is removed from politics, it’s deuces wild.

So if you want to summarize Dr. Peikoff’s position, I’d think that something along the lines of “property rights are contextual, and in the context of America’s war against militant Islam, the property rights of the enemy are null and void” would be more accurate.

As for my own views, I agree with Peikoff’s general claims about rights in wartime. I continue to disagree about the proper application of those principles in the context of American’s current foreign policy. In particular, I regard voiding anyone’s property rights by any means necessary in an undeclared and unfought war as extraordinarily dangerous to the liberties of all dissenting Americans, including Objectivists. However, as is true for all mosques, any terrorist connections should be vigorously investigated — and prosecuted if confirmed.

Over the last year, the controversy over the project has died down, but I’ve not heard whether the project has been abandoned, delayed, or continues. I hope that it’s deader than Bin Laden, but if not, I’d be interested to hear about its current state.

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