Libertarian Activism: No Parody Required

 Posted by on 16 August 2005 at 9:31 am  Libertarianism
Aug 162005
 

My friend Ari Armstrong also recently sent me this e-mail, which he has also graciously allowed me to reprint here, since it was just so damn fantastic. (You might recall that Ari used to be a libertarian activist.)

I thought you might enjoy (or at least find perversely humorous) these criteria for earning a Lights of Liberty Award from Advocates for Self-Government.

This is from “Liberator Online: a Libertarian president in 2016?” dated August 9, 2005.

So here are two ways to earn the award:

1) Letters to the Editor: get 3 or more letters published that use the words “libertarian” or “libertarianism” in a positive light.

2) Public Speaking: give 3 or more prepared speeches to a predominately non-libertarian audience, using the words “libertarian” or “libertarianism” in a positive light.

This typifies the activism-without-particular-content strategy popular among many libertarians.

(Imagine if there were a similar award for “Objectivists!”)

Here’s a hypothetical example of my own design:

“Dear editor, My neighbor is a Christian libertarian vegan who believes it’s wrong to murder animals and pollute the environment with industrialization. But my other neighbor is an atheistic libertarian who claims ethics are social standards, and our society likes to eat meat, but he says society should recognize personal desires more. But I think they’re both swell, because they both say I’m a great libertarian because I want pull all U.S. troops out of the Middle East and apologize for America’s long history of global oppression. Vote Libertarian!”

Such a letter would have to count toward the award, right? And, while the views I describe are caricatured, they are fairly close to views I have heard expressed by libertarians.

I doubt that a better example of concrete-bound thinking could be invented than this contest, even by the most imaginative writer of fiction.

As Ari later noted to me, even if some people do write some reasonably good letters, the basic fact remains: the contest has no standards whatsoever. The term “libertarianism” can be given any meaning whatsoever and praised by any standard of the good. It’s as if mere mentions of the word have some kind of magic power, regardless of what is actually said. If that’s not subjectivism, I’m not sure what is.

More on Sanction in Speaking

 Posted by on 11 August 2005 at 6:11 am  Libertarianism
Aug 112005
 

My friend Ari Armstrong sent me this e-mail the other day, in response to my “Stinky Garbage on Islam” post. I asked him whether I could post it to NoodleFood, since I thought it elucided some valuable distinctions on the propriety of speaking in different fora.

Diana, your critique of Kelly’s take on Islam is quite good, and for that reason quite disturbing.

There is a subtlety here, though, pertaining to the Libertarian Supper Club, that just struck me.

There is nothing inherently wrong with inviting different speakers to discuss different moral views. An honest person can reasonably consider alternative ethical theories and evaluate them, before reaching firm moral convictions. And so I conclude that there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking to a group that invites speakers of different persuasions (e.g., Rand speaking at Ford Hall).

But the stated, explicit goal of many in the libertarian movement is to create a coalition of people with varied (i.e., incompatible) moral views. Thus, the motive in inviting speakers with different views is not to honestly evaluate different views and adopt the correct views, but rather to advertise libertarianism as a movement that is consistent with any ethical view. The idea is something like, “Look! Objectivists can be libertarians, too!” Next week, the message is, “Look! Christians can be libertarians, too!” And so on. I think that’s the thrust of Schwartz’s criticism [in "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty"].

The motive of the speaker is relevant, too. If the motive is to show that Moral View X is one of many possible foundations for libertarianism, then that’s a problem. However, I do think it’s possible to be ignorant of the full motives of the inviting group, and to go into a forum reasonably believing the goal of the participants is to establish the truth. In other words, it would not be appropriate to automatically condemn somebody just for speaking to a libertarian group about ethics; such a condemnation would require additional evidence concerning the goals of the speaker.

To tie this to Paul’s example of the surgeon, there is a difference between speaking to a group one knows to be sympathetic to quacks, and speaking to a group one reasonably believes is pro-science but in fact is not. One can be mistaken in one’s initial evaluation of a group. On the other hand, surely the speaker has some responsibility in checking out a speaking engagement first.

Yet I still haven’t resolved this issue completely. Here are three examples that illustrate my problems.

1. [Example omitted as it concerns unreliable information about a particular person.]

2. Diana is going to the “Positive Psychology Conference,” which pertains to a movement that contains some really bad ideas.

3. I am speaking to an economics reading group about Referendum C. It’s not a “libertarian” group, but I know some self-described libertarians will be there. Also, while I will not speak to any Libertarian Party group, I have thought that it would be a good thing if members of that party worked against Referendum C.

There does seem to be a crucial distinction between the sanctioning of bad ideas and the formation of appropriate strategic alliances. I feel like I’m starting to get a better handle on what’s appropriate and what’s not, but I’m still struggling to completely work this out.

I really appreciate Ari’s comments on the relevance of the basic purposes of the audience and the speaker: Is the goal to make a rational choice about some issue — or to show that rational choice is unimportant? That’s a really helpful way of framing these questions about sanction in speaking, I think. (Even more, I appreciate Ari’s thoughtful approach to this general issue over the past few years, particularly since it’s so unusual for someone in his position.)

In the case of David Kelley, it was wrong to speak to the Laissez Faire Supper Club — and as a professional Objectivist intellectual, he ought to have known that. Yet it was his defense of that action in “A Question of Sanction” that really sealed the moral case against him.

I do have some preliminary answers to the questions Ari raises toward the end, but not the full theory that I’d like. Any thoughts?

Stinky Garbage on Islam

 Posted by on 8 August 2005 at 12:54 am  Libertarianism, Religion
Aug 082005
 

On May 14th 2005, David Kelley spoke on “The Ideas That Promote Terrorism” at a “March against Terror” sponsored by an organization called Free Muslims Coalition. Although I heard that Kelley was slated to speak at that event, I didn’t notice that his remarks were posted on the web site of The Objectivist Center until an alert NoodleFood reader brought them to my attention. I’ve grown weary of beating on poor Ed Hudgins, a man seemingly incapable of grasping even my basic criticisms. So I hoped that David Kelley might say something more interesting and revealing in such a speech. I was not disappointed.

Kelley begins by saying:

I am not a Muslim. Nor am I a Christian, or a Jew. My philosophy of life, Objectivism, is a secular philosophy. But we are gathered here to protest the evil of terrorism in the name of values that transcend differences in religion and worldview.

Since a person’s values are determined by his worldview, whether in the form of religion or philosophy, what values might possibly “transcend differences in religion and worldview”? What values might be consistent with a wide range of positions on the basic nature of existence, the nature and means of knowledge, and the standard of the good? In fact, no such free-floating values are possible, as Ayn Rand certainly understood. That’s why the complex abstractions of philosophy matter so very much!

Yet we should wonder: Of what values is David Kelley speaking? He doesn’t say immediately, but his last paragraph identifies them explicitly:

I appeal to all those, of any creed or philosophy, who stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason–to join in opposing those who want to control the mind, roll back progress, stifle freedom–and who are willing to kill and maim to do so.

In other words, people of “any creed or philosophy” can “stand for human life and happiness, for freedom, for progress and for its source–the free exercise of reason” — meaning that any view is compatible with any other, that logical consistency is unimportant, and that philosophy is irrelevant to life.

Wow.

Really though, I shouldn’t be so astonished. Those comments just confirm my much-criticized interpretation of the last paragraph of Kelley’s “Party of Modernity” article. (In my public statement of disassociation from TOC, I wrote that David Kelley advocated “a pragmatic and superficial approach to political advocacy in which ‘allies and converts’ to the cause of freedom need not be philosophically grounded in the modernist worldview” in that article.) This latest speech merely offers a clearer and stronger statement of the same basic view.

Of course, most people are inconsistent in their personal philosophies, sometimes due to an honest failure to properly integrate. If we wish to encourage the better ideas of such people, then we must identify the contradictions, argue against the bad ideas, and argue for the better ideas via their proper foundation. We ought not overwhelm people with arguments, but we should take a clear stand in favor of rational philosophy — all the way down to the roots. That’s a necessary part of respecting others as a rational, thinking, honest people, I think. If we instead pretend that the conflicts between ideas don’t matter, we thereby encourage irrationality, disintegration, and carelessness. We also leave decent people open to the dangerous influence of the consistent advocate of their bad ideas.

Skipping a paragraph, Kelley continues:

The terrorists claim that violent jihad is the true path of Islam. I do not believe this for a minute. But I am not a Muslim. I have studied Islam and the history of Islamic civilization, but I am not a believer, I have not absorbed its traditions and practices, I do not know it from the inside. So it is not for me to say what is and is not part of Islam. Since 9/11, many people who knew nothing about Islam before have taken to citing passages from the Quran, either to prove that it does call for violent jihad or to prove instead that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance. But you can’t tell what a religion means by citing passages out of context. Christians, too, can cite passages in the Bible to support different ideas about their religion. Like Christianity, and Judaism, and the other world religions that have endured for centuries, Islam includes many different sects and interpretations. Within the broad outlines of Islamic doctrine, the pillars of the faith, the meaning of Islam is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.

The meaning of Islam is for Muslims themselves to determine in their thoughts and actions. If they believe that violent jihad is not compatible with Islam, then they are the ones who have the power, and the responsibility, for making it so. They and they alone must define what the religion means in the world today. But only if they make their viewpoint known. Unfortunately, it is the Islamists who have so far had the loudest voice. That’s why it’s vitally important for Muslims themselves to speak out against the terrorists and reject their actions as evil–absolutely evil, no ifs, ands, or buts. Too many Islamic spokesmen have taken “Yes, but” attitudes: Yes, the violence is wrong but Palestinians are still oppressed… or Yes, but there is still discrimination against Arab-Americans… or Yes, whatever. Well, yes indeed, these issues deserve our attention. But they do not justify or excuse murder and destruction. The “Yes, but” statements serve only to praise the terrorists with faint damns.

In essence, Islam is whatever its adherents want it to be, limited only by its Five Pillars of Faith. Muslims may ignore, reject, or revise any of the teachings found in its scripture, even if their meaning is clear and undisputed. In fact, Muslims positively ought to do so in order to render the religion less hospitable to terrorists. So Kelley does not reject the idea that “violent jihad is the true path of Islam” on the grounds that his study of the sacred texts and history have shown that the religion is fundamentally one of peace and tolerance. Rather, he rejects the very of idea of anything like a “true path of Islam.” The nature of religion is to be subjectively defined by its adherents.

As my astute e-mail correspondent observed, David Kelley’s subjectivist vision of Islam parallels his subjectivist vision of Objectivism as an open system. If we paraphrase his comment on Islam to apply to Objectivism, it reads: “Within the broad outlines of Objectivist doctrine, the fundamental principles of the system, the meaning of Objectivism is a function of what it actually means to those who believe it, practice it, and study it.” That’s nothing but the open system in a nice little nutshell!

Absurdly enough, this open system view of Islam isn’t even compatible with its Five Pillars. The first pillar states that “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger.” Since the Koran is the word of God as transmitted through the prophet Muhammed, any Muslim who ignored, rejected, or revised its teachings would be violating its basic tenets.

Moreover, Kelley’s application of the open system to Islam isn’t even consistent with his own discussions in Truth and Toleration. There, he specifically contrasts the open nature of philosophic systems with closed systems like “religions and totalitarian ideologies” (T&T 58). Yet I’m not sure that matters, since Kelley may not even believe this argument about Islam as an open system. (I don’t think it has any of the superficial plausibility of his argument about Objectivism.) Perhaps he regards it as the only plausible method of rendering the Islamic world less interested in blowing us to smithereens. (I’ve heard prominent intellectuals involved with TOC defend intellectual dishonesty about Islam on just those grounds.)

In general, if Muslims wish to persuade their brothers in faith that Islam preaches tolerance, values life, and supports democracy, so be it. I regard such arguments as deeply disingenuous based upon my extensive readings on Islamic doctrine and culture from college. They merely attempt to glue a cheap veneer of secular values overtop the stinking heap of Islamic mysticism, primitivism, and authoritarianism. Certainly, I would never wish to take part in such intellectual dishonesty.

However, the alternatives are not limited to either passive resignation to terrorism or dogmatic preaching to nobody. The proper approach is the clear, consistent, and uncompromising advocacy of reason — as practiced by Ayn Rand all her life. We cannot hope to persuade a person to choose reason over faith, life over death, happiness over sacrifice, freedom over statism, and prosperity over poverty — unless we are intellectually honest and clear enough to present those as the either-or options. We cannot hope to change a culture by encouraging people to graft values like reality, reason, independence, and egoism onto a foundation of God, faith, authority, and altruism. At best, the result will be the construction of a mental wall between a person’s abstract ideas and his concrete choices, i.e. between philosophy and life.

If we are uncompromising champions of reason, some younger Muslims may be persuaded to abandon Islam for a more rational philosophy. Yet most will not be — but they may be influenced to varying degrees over the years. If the message is watered down by compromise and delusion, no substantial change for the better is possible.

I won’t bother discussing the rest of Kelley’s speech, as I think I’ve said enough already. I did want to comment on this endorsement though:

I salute Kamal Nawash for the absolute, unqualified stand he has taken, and for his courage and commitment in speaking out. I salute the Free Muslims Against Terrorism for sponsoring this rally. I urge everyone to support them and make common cause with them.

Mind you, this bit of text constitutes an explicit and wholehearted endorsement of a pro-Muslim organization in a speech that never criticizes Islam, religion, faith, or whatnot. That the “Free Muslims Coalition” is deeply tied to Islam is evident from its web site. On its About Us page, the group describes itself as “promot[ing] a modern secular interpretation of Islam which is peace-loving, democracy-loving and compatible with other faiths and beliefs” and “encourag[ing] Muslims and Arabs to be proud of their faith and at the same time critical.” On its Democracy page, the group justifies its advocacy of democracy on the grounds that “Islam is a religion, not a blueprint for the creation of a modern state” such that “the Koran does not contain sufficient guidance for the creation of a state.” (If only it did provide such a blueprint, presumably we would be obliged to adhere to it!) On its Terrorism page, the group claims that in “a modern day context… no holy war needs to be waged; there is no clear and present threat to Islam.” (If only Islam were threatened, then we could slaughter the infidel!) In other words, Islam governs all, even if only as rationalization.

Of course, I’d rather be friendly with the Free Muslims Coalition than with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. That’s not the point, however, since that’s not the choice at hand, now or ever. The point is that David Kelley is promoting a pro-Muslim organization in both word and deed. He is thereby sanctioning Islam, albeit only when dishonest enough to deny its true nature and implications.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to compare and contrast this explicit sanction of Islam with David Kelley’s implicit sanction of the subjectivism of libertarianism in his talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club so many years ago.

In that talk to the Laissez Faire Supper Club, David Kelley clearly identified reason, egoism, and mind-body integration as necessary to any proper defense of liberty. He openly criticized those who defend liberty on the grounds that we shouldn’t force anyone to conform to our inherently subjective notions of right and wrong. Given the content of his speech, it can seem more than a bit strange to say that David Kelley sanctioned subjectivism in giving it. That’s pretty much what he says in defense of it in “A Question of Sanction“:

The sole purpose of the occasion was to hear my explanation of why individual rights and capitalism cannot be established without reference to certain key principles of Objectivism: the absolutism of reason, the rejection of altruism, and the commitment to life in this world as a primary value. Since I explicitly criticized libertarian ideas that are incompatible with those principles, I was obviously not endorsing them.

Understanding the criticism leveled at this talk requires understanding the precise way in which the libertarian movement is thoroughly subjectivist. Obviously, not all libertarians are subjectivist in the substantive sense of opposing the initiation of force because right and wrong are just a matter of personal opinion. After all, many libertarians advocate some particular moral foundation for liberty, whether utilitarian public good, vague common sense, Christian scripture, or even Objectivism. However, that doesn’t rescue the libertarian movement from the charge of subjectivism, but only confirms it. The movement is wide open to any claimed foundation for liberty, no matter how absurd. So while each individual person might have his own preferred moral foundation, his libertarian alliance with others simply on the basis of claimed agreement with the principle of the non-initiation of force amounts to an admission that his moral foundation is optional. Even if he claims otherwise, his actions speak louder than his words.

Peter Schwartz makes his general point in his essay “On Moral Sanctions“:

If one wishes to reach those who have been defrauded by Libertarianism, it cannot be done by speaking under the auspices of the defrauders. It cannot be done even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty. Such a talk grants Libertarianism precisely the moral sanction it seeks and thrives on. Libertarians will readily listen to a talk on Objectivism and liberty–and the next day they will invite someone to speak on why the Bible is the only basis for liberty–and the next week they will hear someone argue why only skepticism and amoralism can validate liberty, etc. They lap this up. It is all entirely consistent with Libertarianism. It is consistent with the philosophy that philosophies and reasons are irrelevant to a belief in “liberty.” By speaking under the roof of an organization dedicated to purveying Libertarianism, one concedes that Libertarianism does in fact value liberty (and is simply confused about the proper means–i.e., Objectivism–by which to gain that end). Once that fatal concession is made, Libertarianism has obtained the basic moral sanction its survival requires.

The contradiction, then, is this: The handful of Libertarians who may be open to reason need to be told that Libertarianism as such is anti-liberty and that Libertarian organizations should be boycotted. But this cannot be conveyed via a talk which is itself sponsored by a Libertarian organization.

Paul also developed an excellent analogy on this point in his Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon.

So over the course of more than 15 years, David Kelley has moved from the implicit sanction of libertarianism to the explicit sanction of Islam. In light of his pragmatist rules of association, I’m not surprised.

However, I am astonished that any claimed Objectivist could sanction such activities by continuing to associate with The Objectivist Center — whether by donating money, speaking at conferences, or defending their activities. I have some small hope that a few will soon wake up to smell the now-overpowering strench of stinky garbage. I hope they do so sooner rather than later, as they already have much explaining to do.

Vague Muddle

 Posted by on 21 July 2005 at 9:01 am  Libertarianism
Jul 212005
 

I must admit, I wasn’t favorably impressed with this commentary on “the enigma of the moderate Republican judges” that I found via my “Ayn Rand” Google News alert. (That’s hardly surprising, since it is posted on Alan Keyes’ Renew America site.) Nonetheless, I found its method of argumentation rather revealing. Consider this mention of Ayn Rand:

Libertarian ideas have steadily increased in influence since Ayn Rand wrote The Fountainhead in 1943. Libertarian concepts have infiltrated both conservative and liberal thought. Sometimes both the ACLU and Evangelical pastors slip onto Ayn Rand’s turf without realizing it. The infectious power of her ideas are in their elemental simplicity. However, God’s creation is anything but simple, and man–who is part angel and part devil, part spiritual and part worldly–is a mass of contradictions.

As far as I can tell, those last two sentences say absolutely nothing meaningful. The author does not bother to say in what way Ayn Rand’s ideas have an “elemental simplicity.” (And that matters, since they are essentialized to fundamentals but not simplistic.) Nonetheless, the supposed complexity of the world refutes her. Yet no particular instance of such complexity is offered in comparison to Ayn Rand’s thought, merely a string of references to God the creator, mind versus body, and contradictions in reality. Thus is Ayn Rand dismissed.

The rest of the essay seems to be written in the same basic vein. Overall, it seems to be little more than a bumbling attempt to dress up an appeal to Christian faith with the veneer of rational argument. Personally, I suspect that the “mass of contradictions” in question exists in the mind of the author, not reality.

Lifting Burdens

 Posted by on 6 July 2005 at 11:26 pm  Libertarianism
Jul 062005
 

In general, I love blogging on NoodleFood. That’s hardly surprising, since I’ve been at it for over three years now. Yet sometimes I find the need to write up replies to wrong criticisms of my blog posts rather tiresome. Of course, I always take a moment to consider the proper response to any criticism in my own head. If it troubles me more than usual, I will usually discuss the issue with Paul, sometimes even at great length. I may change my mind, I may not. Yet if the criticism is fundamentally wrong or deeply confused, the process of writing up a response is usually boring and tedious. Sometimes it is necessary, but often I just avoid the task altogether. Of course, that should not be misinterpreted as a failure to give it due consideration.

For example, Paul and I had a very interesting and lengthy discussion on a hike last week about the criteria that ought to be used to determine whether it is right and proper to support a given political organization or not. That discussion was prompted by a comment in response to this post about supporting the Institute for Justice even though it describes itself as libertarian. I’m actually fairly eager to write that up, as I’d like to get some feedback from those more clear on these issues than me. (However, I probably won’t post it until after OCON, since many of those people are actually here at present.) In general, the problem with such replies is that I’ve already done the interesting part — the conceptual heavy lifting — in private discussion. The mere writing isn’t so compelling to me.

In the case of this criticism from libertarian Julian Sanchez of Paul’s Fable of the Cardiac Surgeon and the Organization of Health Practitioners, I probably wouldn’t have bothered responding at all. Not only are Julian’s criticisms wholly misplaced, not to mention superficial, but it was Paul’s post anyway, not mine.

However, in this case, I only found out about Julian’s criticisms because — happiness of all happiness — Don Watkins already wrote up an excellent reply! The work was already done for me! What a rare delight!

P.S. Have I mentioned how pleased I am to have Don back in the blogosphere? Probably, but sometimes I don’t mind repeating myself.

Hammering on the Libertarians

 Posted by on 21 May 2005 at 11:47 pm  Libertarianism
May 212005
 

Over the past few years, I’ve watched my friend Ari Armstrong grow increasingly disenchanted with the Libertarian Party. It’s been rather interesting, I must say.

When Paul and I first moved to Colorado in 2001, Ari was actively involved with and supportive of the Colorado LP. For example, he organized the May 2002 Convention of the COLP, even inviting me to speak. (I accepted. It was actually something of a wake up call for me, in that it was my first exposure to the rank and file of the Libertarian Party, as opposed to my prior acquaintance with libertarian intellectuals as an intern at the Cato Institute in college. As my altogether too mild write-up of the convention indicates, I was particularly disturbed by the widespread animus toward any sort of authority — not merely the authority of government, but also the authority of principles, objectivity, and even reality itself. Still, I was slow to realize that such subjectivism is inherent in the libertarian movement itself — but just more obvious in the Libertarian Party.) Ari wasn’t entirely happy with the COLP back then, but he was willing to work within it.

Since that time, Ari has been slowly reconsidering his views of the LP and of the libertarian movement more generally. Back in May 2004, he wrote a thoughtful reply to Peter Schwartz’s essay on Libertarianism, part in agreement and part in disagreement. In July 2004, he cut his ties with the Colorado Libertarian Party for their naked hostility to his well-justified concern for political principles. Just last month, he wrote an essay showing that “the problems Schwartz described two decades ago are widespread” in the libertarian movement. He’s since detailed even more examples.

I’ve been intrigued by the course of Ari’s disenchantment with L/libertarianism largely because it parallels my own slow rejection of David Kelley’s bastardization of Objectivism. Like me with respect to TOC, Ari was an insider with the COLP for so many years — meaning that he can point to noteworthy particulars hidden to others. He also cut ties on principle, despite many years of investment into the organization. However, perhaps the most noteworthy commonality is that both of us were deeply influenced by the particular people and general culture of Front Range Objectivism. Our respective intellectual courses were shaped by our involvement with that intellectual community of serious Objectivists — both for the better, I might add.

Front Range Objectivism is extraordinary just for the size and scope of its activities. Via FROST, it has six well-attended supper talks with prominent Objectivist speakers every year. Via FROG, it conducts two fun and engaging monthly discussion groups with almost 20 active participants each. Via FROLIC, it has a monthly social dinner with an average attendance of about 18. To my knowledge, no other Objectivist group in the country is doing anything like that.

However, Front Range Objectivism is particularly extraordinary for the influence that it has upon its members. The culture of FRO fosters the development of serious Objectivists, i.e. of people who actively seek to understand the philosophy deeply and consistently apply it to their lives. I’ve certainly benefitted from that culture, as my break with TOC suggests. Paul has also been changed by it, largely in that he has become far more seriously interested in Objectivism since our move to Colorado. And Ari, although still doubtful of certain tenets of Objectivism, has profited from it as well.

From what I’ve seen of Objectivist groups over the years, that’s pretty damn astonishing. (Certainly, in my own case, no one was more shocked than me!) Lin Zinser — and all the others who made and make Front Range Objectivism what it is — deserve the warmest of praise for all that they make possible.

The Routledge Monstrosity

 Posted by on 11 April 2005 at 12:08 am  Libertarianism
Apr 112005
 

Ever since I was alerted to this monstrosity in January 2004, I’ve been wanting to blog it. Unsurprisingly, it pertains to The Objectivist Center (TOC), particularly to their 1998 response to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Ayn Rand. (When I learned of it, I was still in the middle of writing up my public statement disassociating myself from TOC. So I didn’t want to say anything about it at the time. Then, I forgot that I hadn’t ever blogged it — until recently, that is.)

In the October 1998 “Sightings” of Navigator, Roger Donway reported upon the Routledge Encyclopedia’s inclusion of an entry on Ayn Rand. Here’s what he wrote:

Routledge has just brought out a massive ten-volume encyclopedia of philosophy (a mere $2,500 at the special introductory price good through October 31). Writing in the New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 5, 1998), George Steiner praised the work highly but went about the critic’s task of picking nits. He lamented that several people were missing, such as Carlo Michelstaedter, now apparently influential among Italian existentialists, and then, having displayed his learning, Steiner remarked: “Not that these men would have wished to be in the company of Ayn Rand, whose vacuous vaporings harvest a full entry!” (Exclamation point in the original.) Congratulations to Routledge for having the wisdom and courage to include Rand in their encyclopedia, though doing so has opened them to the sneers of the world’s Steiners.

Also, thanks to Routledge for informing IOS that the author of the Rand entry is Chandra Kukathas, an associate professor in the School of Politics at the Australian Defence Force Academy, University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia. Though not an Objectivist, Kukathas is a familiar figure in libertarian circles. In a note to IOS, Kukathas observed that “a bad error” had crept into his Rand entry in some way he could not explain: “The Virtue of Selfishness is cited as a novel.” Also, its publication date is given as 1974 rather than 1964, which would make it the last of the four collections of essays published in Rand’s lifetime rather than the first. Beyond such bibliographical quibbles, however, lies the fascinating fact that Kukathas gives prominence to the concept of “despair.” Its application to many secondary figures in The Fountainhead is obvious, but is it true that Atlas Shrugged “charts the rise of those who begin in despair”? Would it not be more accurate to say the strikers begin with a refusal to despair of the world and join the strike only after they can refuse no longer? Whatever the answer, Kukathas’s focus on this emotion in Rand’s two great novels is sure to have Objectivists raising interesting questions about its place in the human landscape.

Before reading the actual entry on Ayn Rand, note that Roger Donway’s review of it is quite positive. He praises the “wisdom and courage” of the editors of the Encyclopedia. By saying that the author (Chandra Kukathas) is “not an Objectivist” but “a familiar figure in libertarian circles,” Donway suggests that he is knowledgeable of Ayn Rand and perhaps even friendly toward her. He treat Kukathas’ focus on “the concept of ‘despair’” as a legitimate and interesting question. His only complaint seems to be the (inadvertent) biographical errors in the entry.

Okay, so now read the actual entry:

Rand, Ayn (1905-82)

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born US novelist and philosopher who exerted considerable influence in the conservative and libertarian intellectual movements in the post-war USA. Rand’s ideas were expressed mainly through her novels; she set forth a view of morality as based in rational self-interest and in political philosophy defended an unrestrained form of capitalism.

Ayn Rand was born Alyssa Rosenbaum into a middle-class Jewish family in St Petersburg. Her family’s expropriation by the Bolsheviks and subsequent poverty had a profound effect on her; her first novel, We the Living (1936), describes the tragedy of a Russian student struggling against an evil society in the ‘vast prison’ that was the USSR in the 1920s. Her work was marked not only by a hostility to communism but also by a strong antipathy towards any form of compromise among competing values.

Popular success came in 1943 with the publication of her philosophical novel, The Fountainhead, the story of an architect who refuses to compromise his independence or his integrity while good people despair in the face of evil. A deeply moral work, its theme is integrity which, for Rand, was at the root of the idea of freedom. Even greater success came with Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand’s final work of fiction. More explicitly political than her earlier work, it tells of the breakdown of a society of evil as the captains of capitalist industry withdraw from a world marked by political and moral corruption. As with her earlier works, the hero is uncompromising in his integrity and confidence in the value of the moral path; the bulk of the novel charts the rise of those who begin in despair. However, Rand also turns more explicitly to philosophical problems in ethics in an attempt to set morals on a more secure epistemological footing. The book contains many long philosophical speeches by characters speaking for Rand.

The popular success of her fiction brought discipleship and the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of an ‘objectivist’ movement. The influence of Rand’s ideas was strongest among college students in the USA but attracted little attention from academic philosophers. Her outspoken defence of capitalism in works like Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1967), and her characterization of her position as a defence of the ‘virtue of selfishness’ in her novel of the same title (published in 1974), also brought notoriety, but kept her out of the intellectual mainstream.

The central philosophical argument of Rand’s thought is an attempt to show that the good life is itself a substantial ethical value from which may be derived important moral conclusions. In this she is self-consciously Aristotelian, although most commentators have concluded that her argument falls victim to the same difficulties, relying on a morally substantive and controversial account of human nature to generate ethical conclusions.

Rand’s political theory is of little interest. Its unremitting hostility towards the state and taxation sits inconsistently with a rejection of anarchism, and her attempts to resolve the difficulty are ill-thought out and unsystematic. Of more enduring interest is her fiction, belonging to a genre she labelled ‘romantic realism’. Despite her attack on altruism and insistence on the virtue of selfishness, her real concerns were the defence of the value of integrity (to the point of self-sacrifice) in the face of evil and moral despair.

Could a worse encyclopedia entry on Ayn Rand have been written? I suspect not. It is inaccurate, superficial, dismissive, spotty, and worse. Yet the real horror is Roger Donway’s review. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actual encyclopedia entry: Donway neither accurately reports its content nor properly evaluates it. The review is a monstrous injustice to both Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

I have no inside information concerning Roger Donway’s motivations for writing the review that he did. The most plausible explanation is that TOC was attempting to appeal to libertarians — and chose to do so by sucking up to Chandra Kukathas and his “libertarian circles” rather than by challenging the better libertarians to seriously engage Ayn Rand’s ideas. Such appeasement is TOC’s standard operating mode, after all.

Notably, most of Roger Donway’s readers would not have easy access to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry itself. As such, they could not possibly judge the honesty or justice of Donway’s comments upon it. I think that Donway was counting upon such ignorance. Why? Because he dramatically changed his tune in response to sharp criticism from Irfan Khawaja in the January 1999 “Sightings”:

Last October, “Sightings” mentioned that Routledge had published a massive ten-volume encyclopedia on the history of philosophy that included an article on Ayn Rand by Chandra Kukathas, who is not an Objectivist but a well-known figure in libertarian circles. Navigator’s decision to see the entry as a welcome bit of cultural recognition for Rand brought a sharp response in the form of a letter to the editor from Irfan Khawaja, who cited the entry’s numerous deficiencies. Since Navigator has no “Letters” column, the disagreement over how to treat such a deeply flawed recognition is simply noted here. Those who would like to read a brief but harsh critique of Kukathas’s article should check the Web site of the Ayn Rand Society (http://aynrandsociety.org), where there is a letter from Allan Gotthelf to the encyclopedia’s editor, Edward Craig.

Notice the backtracking: Only now does Donway mention that the encyclopedia entry was “a deeply flawed recognition” of Ayn Rand with “numerous deficiencies.” No such worries were even hinted at in the original review. Also notice the bizarre claim that it was “Navigator’s decision to see the entry as a welcome bit of cultural recognition for Rand” — as if his total evasion of the essence of the entry was merely an optional matter.

Looking back on it now, I’m not surprised that I was sick to my stomach for hours upon discovering all this material back in January of 2004. At the time, I was particularly distressed that IOS/TOC was obviously and concretely corrupt way back in 1998 — and I missed it. It was a real low point, I must say.

On a more positive note, the referenced letter from Allan Gotthelf to the editor of the Routledge Encyclopedia is a tour de force of intellectual virtue: strong, clear, principled, essentialized, detailed — and always polite. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available on the Ayn Rand Society web site. (I would love to post it here, but I haven’t asked for permission.) You can read it via the Wayback Machine — and I do strongly recommend that you do so, particularly if you are interested in a detailed analysis of the Routledge entry.

More Libertarian Delights

 Posted by on 15 August 2004 at 8:26 pm  Libertarianism
Aug 152004
 

Paul just pointed me to this gem of a libertarian interview of John Perry Barlow (the founder of EFF) by Reason. Let me just quote a few choice bits, with emphasis added:

But by virtue of our abdication, a very authoritarian, assertive form of government has taken over. And oddly enough, it is doing so in the guise of libertarianism to a certain extent. Most of the people in the think tanks behind the Bush administration’s current policies are libertarians, or certainly free marketeers. We’ve got two distinct strains of libertarianism, and the hippie-mystic strain is not engaging in politics, and the Ayn Rand strain is basically dismantling government in a way that is giving complete open field running to multinational corporatism.

Then, in response to the question: “What are some of the specific actions or policies of the Bush administration that alarm you more than Clinton did, or Reagan or the first Bush?”

An unwillingness to engage in any kind of mitigation of the free market. The one thing that I know government is good for is countervailing against monopoly. It’s not great at that either, but it’s the only force I know that is fairly reliable. But if you’ve got a truly free market you only have a free market for a while before it becomes completely regulated by those aspects of it that have employed power laws to gain a complete monopoly.

And then, speaking about multinational corporations:

We need them. We have a deeply symbiotic relationship with large corporations. I wouldn’t want to eliminate them, because they are the engines of our economic well being at the moment. But we need something — and I think it’s governmental — to reregulate the market and make it free, because the multinationals have taken it away.

Yup folks, Barlow wants to force us to be free. And that’s not some hidden implication, but his explicit ideological claim, time and time again. Nonetheless, Reason seems quite happy to embrace him as a fellow libertarian. Since “reason” was discarded a while back, I’m not surprised that “free minds and free markets” have followed suit.

Back in April, in attempting to make some sense of the term “libertarianism,” I wrote:

Yet we might still ask: Precisely what meaning does the concept “libertarianism” have? Is there some set of core political doctrines held in common by those commonly considered libertarians, such as Milton Friedman, John Locke, Jan Narveson, Ayn Rand, David Friedman, George H. Smith, Rod Long, Adam Smith, Friedich Hayek, Julian Simon, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Thomas Jefferson, and so on? I think not. Such libertarian thinkers differ widely in the foundations of their political views: moral versus economic, egoistic versus altruistic, utilitarian versus deontological versus teleological, and so on. They differ in their substantive views of the proper political order. Some libertarians are anarchists; they seek to abolish the state in favor of private defense agencies. Others advocate a minimal state limited to police, the courts, and national defense. Others are willing to use government to solve so-called market failures, educate children, and provide for the poor. Such libertarians also often diverge in their implementation of rights, including on abortion, self-defense, animal rights, intellectual property, and more. Given these substantial and wide-ranging differences, the term “libertarianism” seems to be based upon family resemblance more than any feature (or features) common to all. Such a mixed-bag concept seems epistemologically indefensible to me… and virtually useless.

I also argued that the attempt to identify libertarianism with a belief in the non-initiation of force principle is hopeless:

Many people do opt for a different approach, namely that of reducing libertarianism to a single principle: the rejection of the initiation of force. As an example of this view, the oath required to join the Libertarian Party is merely: “I certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals.” This approach is untenable, even dangerous, because it strips libertarianism of the content which gives it meaning, such that it can become just about anything to anybody.

The basic problem is that what does or does not constitute coercion is radically dependent upon prior notions of the range of actions to which an individual is entitled. If I am not entitled to the money I earn, then the government is not coercing me by redistributing it to the needy. If I am not entitled to self-defense, then I am initiating force in warding off a rapist. If I am not entitled to my car, then anyone may use and abuse it.

…[Further elaboration in the form of a quote from Jimmy Wales]…

So by stripping a rich political theory down to a single principle which is not even comprehensible in isolation, the focus on the non-initiation of force principle lends credence to the claims of socialists, communitarians, and other statists that they are the true libertarians. After all, they too are opposed to the use of force. They just simply understand what does and does not constitute force quite differently from you and me.

In light of those earlier thoughts, I found the Reason interview with John Perry Barlow to be quite interesting, as it shows just how little mainstream libertarians care about their once-beloved initiation of force principle these days… or about agreement on basic political issues at all. I’m not surprised.

 

Once upon a time, there was a young heart surgeon named David who had just finished his medical training, (including 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 6 years of general surgery residency, and 3 years of cardiothoracic surgery subspecialty fellowship training). He had just started practicing in his hometown as a heart surgeon, and his practice was thriving due to a combination of his excellent technical skills and his compassionate bedside manner. David enjoyed his work immensely, and took pride in his ability to improve his patients’ health based on application of reason and science to their medical problems. As a conscientious surgeon, he believed that preventative medicine was an important part of his therapeutic arsenal, so he was also an active advocate of a healthy lifestyle, counseling his patients on the need for good nutrition, regular exercise, etc., in order to prevent cardiac disease. Because of his friendly and effective communication style, David quickly became a popular and regular speaker on local TV and radio talk shows.

One day out of the blue, David was contacted by one of his medical school classmates, Bill. Bill said that he had been impressed by David’s work as a health care advocate and wanted to know if David would be interested in joining his organization. Their discussion follows:

Bill: I’m the head of the local chapter of the Organization of Health Practitioners or OHP. Everyone in our group is health practitioner of some sort, and our goal is to promote health in our patients. Based on your work, we think you’d be an excellent candidate and we’d love for you to join our organization.

David: Oh, really? So what kind of health practitioners are in the OHP and what do they believe in? Is it an organization of MDs?

Bill: Oh, no, we’re much more broad-minded than that. The OHP consists of a variety of health practitioners, including some MDs as well as practitioners of fields such as reflexology (people who believe that massaging zones of the foot can cure diseases in other parts of the body like the liver or spleen), iridology (people who believe they can diagnose diseases from the color patterns in the iris of the eye), homeopathy (people who believe that administering ultra-dilute solutions of toxic compounds can cure disease), etc. We even have a few faith-healers who believe that guided prayer can cure disease without the need for medicine or surgery. But what unites us is that we are all advocates of good “Health” in our patients. In fact, one can’t join the OHP unless you take the OHP Oath stating that you will practice your craft in order to better the Health of your patients.

David: I don’t see that I have anything in common with your group. My advocacy of good health practices is based on a solid grounding in sciences like biology, chemistry, physiology, and anatomy. I think that any advocacy of health is impossible without a firm basis in the biological sciences. Does your organization believe in the need for a scientific basis for health?

Bill: Sure, we do – at least most of us do. Of course, we don’t always agree on the underlying scientific theories behind our views of health. Some of us MDs believe similarly to you. Others believe that the key to Health is massaging special pressure zones in your feet to align the life-energy flows within your internal “meridians”. Still other believe that the key to health is giving chemicals to bind your circulating internal blood toxins. Others believe that the key to health is giving a special dilute preparation of toxins to cancel the illness caused by too many other toxins. I admit that OHP also includes a few faith-healers that reject the need for any scientific theory at all and believe that faith alone is sufficient, but these folks are in the minority.

David: So you don’t believe that you need to agree on a single scientific theory in order to be a member of OHP?

Bill: Of course not! We’re a health advocacy organization, not a scientific organization. Since there are many ways to advocate patient health, we don’t exclude people on the basis of mere disagreements on underlying science. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re scientifically tolerant at OHP, and in fact the constant internal debates between the various subgroups at OHP keeps things interesting and lively. But what unites us all is our concern for Health, so even the faith-healers are welcome at OHP as long as they take the OHP Oath to promote patient Health.

David: But that’s the very problem! By its very nature, the OHP rejects science whether you recognize it or not. First of all, the OHP is willing to include under its banner faith-healers that explicitly reject the need for any scientific basis for their methods. Second, even within the rest of the OHP which claims some sort of “scientific” basis for its practices, the various alleged scientific bases are a hodge-podge of mutually inconsistent theories, which inevitably leads to an incoherent approach to health advocacy.

The “scientific tolerance” that you’re so proud of is basically a refusal to make the judgments necessary to distinguish between genuine science and junk science. If you’re willing to acknowledge all of those incompatible theories as valid “science” and as legitimate grounds for advocating good health, then you’re rejecting the genuine concept of “science”. Even if you privately believe that some of those theories are wrong, but remaining willing to embrace those practitioners as genuine allies and advocates of “Health”, you’re essentially saying that science is unimportant to your goal of promoting “Health”, and hence once again rejecting science whether you acknowledge it or not.

This nebulous goal of “Health” is an indication of this fact. The practitioners at OHP may all superficially sound like they’re advocating the same thing, but in reality they don’t agree on what “Health” is (whether it be a balance of “toxins”, the proper flow of “chi” along the body’s “meridians” or whatever) or how to promote it. I don’t want to promote your vague notion of “Health”, I want to promote genuine, scientifically-based medical care that leads to biological flourishing and a long active, productive life.

In fact, you even went to the same medical school as me, so you should know better. I don’t blame the reflexologists or the faith-healers that much for wanting join the OHP, hoping to gain some legitimacy in the eyes of the public as genuine advocates of “Health”. I can understand their incentives – they benefit from an intellectual package-deal in which the concept of “Health Practitioner” includes them as well as genuine MDs. But I do blame you and the other MDs who are helping them gain this unearned legitimacy, and I want nothing to do with you!

Bill: Come, now – you don’t have to be so dogmatic! I can see that you won’t join us. But would you be willing to come to speak to us at our next OHP meeting? You can speak on any topic you want, even it’s to attack our approach and defend your own approach based on your concept of science. Last year, one of our old medical school professors came and gave a talk to the OHP explaining why the concept of Health could only be based on rational scientific grounds, which he then proceeded to spell out. The follow-up debate was quite spirited, and we believe that debate and discussion is the heart of our intellectual growth.

David: Absolutely not. Even by giving a public talk at the OHP, I’d be granting it an unearned legitimacy as a place where genuine health advocacy takes place, and that’s precisely the one thing I don’t wish to grant. It’s not that I’m unwilling to debate reflexologists or iridologists – I’ve done so before in neutral online discussion groups. But I won’t do so under the banner of the OHP. Even if there are some better, more reasonable people at the OHP that I could reach, I can reach them in other venues, like the local medical society meetings or through my appearances on the local TV and radio talk shows. And hence, I think that our former medical school professor did a grave disservice to legitimate practitioners of medical care by appearing in front of the OHP.

The OHP has nothing of value to offer me, and for me to join or even speak at the OHP would undercut everything that I’ve worked for these many years – namely, the practice and promotion of medical care grounded in genuine rational science.

Bill: Well, I’m very disappointed in you. I guess we won’t be seeing much of you.

David: That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along…

FINIS

This little fable is obviously an analogy for the issue of why as an Objectivist I don’t support libertarian organizations. Lest some of the readers think I’m exaggerating, I’d like to cite some real-life data. A few years ago, I attended some Libertarian Party functions in order to learn first-hand if the criticisms made of the LP by Objectivists were true. One of the things I did was ask LP members and officials what they believed, and why.

In particular, I was interested in their answer to the following questions:

(1) What are your political beliefs, and the political beliefs of the LP?
(2) What moral foundation do you hold for your political views?
(3) Do you believe that others in the LP share your moral views?
(4) Do you believe that it’s important for the other LP members to share the same moral views or not?

The nearly universal responses were as follows:

(1) The LP party and LP members believed in promoting something they called “Liberty”. Some of it was couched in the language of rights, but the only ideological condition for membership in the LP was taking their Oath of Non-initiation of Force.

(2) The LP members I met had a variety of moral foundations for their political views, some better and some worse. A few were explicitly subjectivist, such as the woman who told me, “Since there is no objective right and wrong, it would be wrong for the government to tell us what to do”. The obvious internal contradiction was so blatant that it was almost funny. Besides the subjectivists, I learned that there were Christian Libertarians who believed that rights came from God, atheist Libertarians who believed that rights were part of human nature, utilitarians who didn’t believe in rights but advocated the “Non-initiation of force” principle because it maximized “social utility”, Hayekians, Milton Friedman fans, Rothbardians, some supporters of Ayn Rand, some people who were actively hostile to the ideas of Ayn Rand, some single-issue advocates who liked what the LP said on one topic or another (such as drugs or guns or foreign intervention) but disagreed or had little interest in other topics, etc.

(3) They all agreed that there was not anything even remotely resembling agreement on the moral foundations of their varied defenses of Liberty.

(4) They all agreed that it was not important for the members of the LP to agree on the moral foundations of Liberty. In fact, the common refrain I heard was, “We’re a political organization, not a philosophical organization. We don’t need to agree on the correct moral philosophy in order to advocate our political views.” In fact, many of the LP members were quite proud of their philosophical tolerance and considered it a strength rather than a weakness.

Besides their disagreement on moral foundations, there were quite a few disagreements on what Liberty meant in theory and in practice. I learned that there were minimal-government Libertarians who believed that government was essential for protecting individual rights, anarchist Libertarians who believed that any government at all was automatically a violation of individual rights, pro-choice Libertarians who believed that women had an inviolable right to abort their fetuses, pro-life Libertarians who believed that abortion was a violation of the fetus’ rights, Libertarians who believed that spanking a child was a violation of it’s rights, Libertarians who believed that outlawing spanking was a violation of the parents’ rights, etc.

All claimed that their views were consistent with their Oath of Non-initiation of Force. But since they held such different moral theories, this led to different opinions of what constituted “force”, and hence (sometimes radically) different opinions on who should or should not be sent to jail for the use of such “force”.

Yet all were embraced as Libertarians. Sure they might have vigorous internal debates, but they all considered themselves allies in the overall cause of Liberty.

The more I saw, the less I liked.

In contrast, I’d like to make my own views explicit so that there’s no confusion. The analogies with the above fable should be pretty clear:

(1) Advocacy of the proper political philosophy can proceed only from the proper objective moral foundation.

(2) Political advocacy groups like the LP that embrace members with a hodge-podge of philosophic foundations for their politics are in essence embracing subjectivism. Sometimes the subjectivism is explicit (as in the case of the recent appalling events with the Libertarian Party of Colorado as documented by Ari Armstrong in this essay), and sometimes it’s slightly more indirect (as in the case of tolerating multiple, inconsistent, ill-grounded notions of “Liberty” as compatible with a genuine advocacy of individual rights). But in either case, the subjectivism is present, and is in fact the core of the LP philosophy.

(3) An Objectivist has no value to gain from joining or speaking to the LP. To do so would merely grant legitimacy to its underlying subjectivism, and thereby undercut his own rational advocacy of individual rights and proper government. If one wants to reach the better people in the LP, there are other means that don’t sanction the subjectivism inherent in the LP. Similarly, if one wants to debate the mistaken Libertarians, there are other forums in which to do so that again avoid conferring any sanction of subjectivism. And although I’ve focused primarily on the LP, this analysis applies equally to any other libertarian organization that adopts a similar subjectivist “tolerant” or pluralistic defense of Liberty.

It took me a while to come to these conclusions, and I don’t expect automatic or immediate agreement with my views. But I hope my short fable helps illuminate my reasons for holding them. As a physician, I found that by translating these abstract philosophical issues into a more concrete medical context the issues became much clearer to me, and I hope they will for you, too.

– Paul S. Hsieh, MD

Footnote:

Those who want to read more about the specific alternative “health” practices I’ve described above can find more information at the following:

Reflexology (treating disease by massaging zones of the foot)
http://www.ofesite.com/health/reflex/chart/index.htm

Iridology (diagnosing disease from color patterns in the iris)
http://www.kevala.co.uk/iridology/

Homeopathy (treating disease by giving dilute “toxins”)
http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/homeo.html

Chelation Therapy (treating disease by removing “toxins”)
http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chelation.html

A New Low for The Objectivist Center

 Posted by on 6 August 2004 at 2:31 pm  Libertarianism
Aug 062004
 

The person who forwarded me the following announcement wrote at the top, “*Groan* This is gonna’ be a train wreck, I can already tell.” I agree completely.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area or traveling through here next Tuesday, Aug 10, you are cordially invited to the below event, put on by IHS for the Koch Fellows and other friends of liberty!

———

The Institute for Humane Studies and Koch Fellowship program invite you to a debate on:

Are Ethics Objective or Subjective?

Pro Objective:
Edward Hudgins
Washington Director
The Objectivist Center

Pro Subjective:
Max Borders
Program Director
Institute for Humane Studies

Are ethics ultimately objective or subjective? This is an important question for classical liberals and libertarians. All agree on the goals of individual liberty, free markets and limited governments in a society in which individuals deal with one another based on mutual consent rather than the initiation of force. But on what moral grounds can they defend such a society and government? In this debate Edward Hudgins will take the objective side, basing his argument on the philosophy of Ayn Rand while Max Borders will take the side of a skeptical subjectivist.

When:
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
5:30pm: Refreshments
6:00-7:30pm: The Debate

Where:
The Cato Institute
F.A. Hayek Auditorium
1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20001

RSVP:
John Coleman
703-993-4969
jcolema2@gmu.edu

Just remember folks, we’re all “friends of liberty”! And we all “agree on the goals of individual liberty, free markets and limited governments in a society in which individuals deal with one another based on mutual consent rather than the initiation of force.” We just want to know on what moral grounds we can defend liberty.

Sheesh. What ever happened to the idea of not making common cause with the so-called “subjectivist wing” of the libertarian movement?!? Perhaps it officially died with David Kelley’s “Party of Modernity” article, in which he indicated that philosophic foundations aren’t so important to political movements after all:

[A party of modernity] is especially important for those who have committed themselves to the political cause of liberty, individual rights, limited government, and capitalism. We are more likely to find allies and converts among those who value reason, happiness, individualism, and progress than among those of premodern or postmodern values. It was the Enlightenment that gave us liberty as a moral ideal and a practical system. The culture of modernity is still liberty’s natural home.

Notice the implications of the claim that “we are more likely to find allies and converts among those who value reason, happiness, individualism, and progress than among those of premodern or postmodern values.” Kelley does not rule out the possibility that genuine political “allies and converts” can be found among advocates of the “premodern” and “postmodern” worldviews. He specifically allows for such a possibility, merely noting that the odds are better among “modernists.” In other words, the necessary philosophic foundations of liberty — such as the primacy of existence, reason, individualism, egoism, and moral principles — are dispensable conveniences in a political movement. Freedom is primary; “reason, happiness, individualism, and progress” are merely means to that end.

Notably, way back when Kelley gave his schism-precipitating “Objectivism and the Struggle For Liberty” lecture to the Laissez Faire Supper Club, he argued for reason, egoism, and mind-body integration as the three preconditions of a proper defense of liberty. As with so much else at TOC, those minimal standards have been discarded as inconvenient. So we ought not be surprised to find Ed Hudgins, the “Washington Man” without an adequate understanding of Objectivism, publicly and animcably debating skeptical subjectivist libertarianism on the premise of total political agreement. And yet, it does seem to be a new low for TOC… or at least it will be.

As a final note, let me suggest a worthy topic for Ed Hudgins’ next debate: “Is reality real?” Now that would be exciting!

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha