Note: This comment system was replaced with Disqus in May 2010.
Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 12:55:49 mst
This is so much more clarifying, Diana! I fully understood the answer to the issue when you said:
"To be valid, the moral judgment should integrate mind and body by asking: What does the evasion accomplish in reality?"
So, I finally understand that the matter of moral judgment is not merely an abstract assessment of the "degree" of evasion committed, but the union of the the degree of evasion committed *and* the scale of its consequences in reality. So, all that stuff about "immoral + criminal is worse than only immoral" was just confusing matters.
So, in applying your method to the example of the dieter - the dieter can evade however long he wants to, his evasion in every aspect of his diet and exercise may be very high in degree. Moreover, the dieter evades wilfully, dishonestly, which compounds the irrationality (and therefore, immorality) of his evasion. However, since as you pointed out that motives and consequences, intention and action, mind and body must not be viewed or judged separately, inorder to assess the immorality of the dieter's evasion, we must consider his intentional irrationality in the context of the actions (consequences) they generate. Following that method, we properly arrive at the conclusion that the dieter is not immoral and evil to the degree and scale that a Marxist dictator is.
Wow! All this makes so much sense now. I understand your point about why Kelley is wrong in basing his foundation for moral judgment *only* on the degree of irrational evasion (which is only one half of the picture, and sustains a false dichotomy). Great! Thanks, Diana.
Oh, P.S.: This post helped me also clarify another issue I had been grappling with: In the "Best of Q&A" (pg. 3), Rand mentions that if parents are found physically abusing their children, the government has a duty to interfere and protect the child and punish the parents, but this does not extend in matters of intellectual abuse. In other words, the parents could abuse the intellect of the child by inculcating corrupt ideas (Marxist, for eg.). At first I thought this was a strange inconsistency on Rand's part - that she was creating the dichotomy of the mind versus the body. I thought, why would we permit abuse of the mind but not abuse of the body? If the child needs to be physically protected from harm, then shouldn't the child also need to be intellectually protected from abuse. (And I also knew how horribly evil the notion of "intellectually protecting a child" could turn out to be - mind-control, etc.)
I can see now, because of this post you wrote, that the intellectually abusive parents are more evil and immoral than the parents who only physically abuses the child. However, I am also comfortable with the fact that the physically abusive parents are criminal *and* immoral, whereas the intellectually abusive parents are only immoral (though more evil), which permits the role of government protection in the former case and not the latter.
Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 16:11:22 mst
Name: David Rehm
"[T]he intellectual persuades others while the dictator forces them" -- I think this is a rather glaringly large "possible [angle]" to have not touched on (particularly after showing us that you're aware of it by mentioning it explicitly). I'm not familiar w/ Kelley's argument (if I read it at one point I don't remember it), so I'm not inferring from the reference any meaning except that of the words themselves, but those words alone do strike me as a rather large and important distinction. Could you please comment on this in the context of everything else you wrote?
"I don't think the magnitude of his evil is a solely function of the magnitude of his evasion."
The first time I read this line I was struck by it. Of course after reading your subsequent argument I agree with you, but I went back to find what it was that had triggered the initial response by my subsconscious. I found it in Galt's speech:
"Thinking is man's only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his 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..." [emphasis by asterick added] (GS)
Notice (of course you already have, Diana [G]) Rand is merely identifying evasion as the *source* of man's evils, not his only evil. Indeed in the examples you give, evasion was the *source* of the evils of both the dictator and the intellectual. But considered in context with the effects in reality of their respective evasions (in accordance with mind-body integration), your conclusion becomes obvious. Yet again you illustrate how Kelley's errors about moral judgement stem from his implicit and explicit mind-body dichotomy. Bravo.
Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 17:00:13 mst
Name: Boaz Simovici
"While I do think that the Marxist intellectual must evade more than the dictator -- if only for the simple reason that he's called upon to think more in the course of his work -- I don't think the magnitude of his evil is a solely function of the magnitude of his evasion. (A hermit in the woods may evade all day long, but I wouldn't call him evil, for the simple reason that the scale of his destruction is so small. He's just immoral.)"
Then you would have to infer that no one is evil who *only* harms himself - regardless of the extent of that harm. So something can only be immoral, never evil, so long as it doesn't intrude on society? I do cringe at the frequency with which some call others "evil" for any perceived irrationality. I remember getting a letter from someone suggesting I was immoral for supporting Peikoff's position over Kelley's - since, as a student club leader, I was enabling support of a philosopher who encouraged other Objectivists to vote for Clinton and *therefore* made the 9/11 attacks possible (by her reasoning, Clinton was responsible above all others for leaving us vulnerable to terrorists, so Peikoff was complicit).
The scale of destruction wrought by a thoroughly irrational person, who happens not to harm others or has chosen to stay to himself, is *immense* - to himself, to his own character and his own life. The homeless man on the street who begs and screams after you for change, who can't even summon the courage to look you in the eye if you *do* contribute a little out of pity, (as I did in college, early on) has and continues to evade on a massive scale. He has destroyed himself, so much so that he isn't even capable of admitting it (in which case he might plausibly reform or else commit suicide). Wouldn't you call that evil?
Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 17:57:19 mst
Name: David Rehm
I think Boaz makes a good point -- that *would* be the logical conclusion from the interaction between the first and second two sentences in the paragraph he quotes.
I'm now thinking that while the first sentence of the quoted paragraph is correct (focusing on its last clause that: "I don't think the magnitude of his evil is [solely a] function of the magnitude of his evasion"), the second two are false -- rephrased a different way, while the magnitude of evil is NOT solely a function of the magnitude of evasion, still _all evasion *is* evil_ (if even only to a minor magnitude).
Furthermore I don't understand the attempted implication of a difference between "evil" and "immoral". I should think that the immoral *is* evil. (Although one could distinguish between the immoral/evil and the _amoral_, but that's an unrelated issue.) It would appear as if this immoral/evil distinction smuggles in exactly the kind of non-Objectivist view of morality that Boaz suggests, namely that on some level morality is determined by social effects versus the relationship of the individual to his own existence, which we know to be false.
I'm very eager to see a proposed resolution to the seeming dissonance caused by this identification.
Saturday, March 25, 2006 at 21:06:52 mst
Name: Steve D'Ippolito
"So, I finally understand that the matter of moral judgment is not merely an abstract assessment of the "degree" of evasion committed, but the union of the the degree of evasion committed *and* the scale of its consequences in reality. So, all that stuff about "immoral + criminal is worse than only immoral" was just confusing matters."
For the record I did not say that criminal+immoral is *worse* than only immoral. I was pointing out that the one act fits only in the bucket labeled "immoral" while the other could be placed in both the "immoral" and "criminal" buckets--you seemed to have been asking what the difference-in-kind was, not the difference in degree. I would perhaps have been clearer had I not misunderstood the thrust of your original question.
My statement (as quoted by you) was: "The distinction is that a rights violation is both *criminal* and immoral, whereas the consequences of an evasion that only affects you are only immoral. "
....In any case, Ergo, I think you now grasp the issue and have the answer to your questions.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 8:51:46 mst
Name: Betsy Speicher
I judge everything I encounter, including people, as "good for me" or "bad for me" based on my objective, reality-based hierarchy of values. I use the term "evil" to mean the _greatest_ degree of volitional -- i.e., man made, "badness."
As to what I judge as evil, it depends on the context.
In the context of my own chosen actions, the worst thing I can do is evade. It will destroy me.
In the context of the actions of other people, the worst thing they can do it is to initiate force. The evasions of others are bad, but if they only wreck their own lives and don't use force to hurt others, it doesn't rise to the level of "bad for me" I would call "evil."
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 9:57:15 mst
Name: David Arceneaux
I can vouch for the very strong immorality of Marxist intellectuals. I took a course on Masterworks of Social Science where the professor, from the Department of Economics, was a Marxist. The first assigned reading was an article that argued that freedom was the property of having options, as if having the option to be shot, hanged, stabbed, or poisoned was a freer choice than merely being murdered by electrocution. The second assigned reading was an except from David Hume's "Enquiry Concerning Human Morals"--where Hume tries and fails to come up with a derived system of morals. The rest went downhill from there. The class ended up at Che Guevera's 'contributions' to social science, through E.O. Wilson, Skinner, and Marx.
I objected whenever I could, but I wasn't the lecturer.
The Marxist intellectuals disarm whoever they can, and work to recruit for their side--the dictators merely take advantage of the weakened intellectual immune system brought about by the intellectuals, much like how weaker diseases can take root in someone who is suffering from full-blown AIDS. Hitler and Stalin would be jailed like the thugs they were had the intellectual climate not been so easily exploitable for them.
I checked back at the University of Utah Economics Department listing -- all the big name Marxists are still there, and in senior positions. The fall of the Soviet Union has had no effect on their tenacity -- when I was attending, these professors were sponsoring pro-Castro student groups.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 11:16:34 mst
Betsy said: "In the context of the actions of other people, the worst thing they can do it is to initiate force. The evasions of others are bad, but if they only wreck their own lives and don't use force to hurt others, it doesn't rise to the level of "bad for me" I would call "evil.""
Then according to Betsy's logic, a Marxist professor is not evil to Betsy but only "bad" for her because the Marxist professor is engaged in persuasion not force. The marxist intellectual, through their persuasive powers, give rise to agents of force, however, they have the full right to be persuasive of whatever idea they want, and hence are not violating anyone's rights.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 13:51:51 mst
Name: David Rehm
So we're back to square one..
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 14:07:29 mst
This whole issue of persuasion not being force raises another important problem I'm struggling to understand. I have thought, perhaps, that my question should be asked under the "Ask a Question" category... but I'll proceed here because I believe Diana's original post raises this persuasion/force problem. But please feel free to treat this as a question for which I'm eager to hear responses from Noodlefooder's and knowledgeable Objectivists:
In the Q&A, Rand emphasized that action and speech should not be conflated, and that to do so is to lose freedom in both. Action is different than speech, for Rand.
In the John Hopkin's debate I attended, Dr. Yaron Brook argued that the hate-speech of Islamic protestors on the streets carrying signs that said "behead the Danish Cartoonists" are not speech that should be protected under Free-speech laws because those posters and signs are *criminal acts* already. Dr. Brook said that any speech calling for violence, or inciting riots are not speech but actionable threats - these are criminals who must be arrested.
Now, my question is: Aren't those posters and signs persuasive in their nature (in that they seek to persuade other Islamists to rise to arms), and more importantly, can we really conflate those signs and posters as if they were already acts of crime, against what Rand warned us to do?
And in a related issue: by separating speech from action and forbidding their conflation, is Rand maintaining the dichotomy between speech(thought) and action(consequences), or motive and actions, or mind and body?
I am very confused at this point. I'd appreciate greatly, some clarification.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 14:24:49 mst
> Now, my question is: Aren't those posters and signs persuasive in their nature (in that they seek to persuade other Islamists to rise to arms), and more importantly, can we really conflate those signs and posters as if they were already acts of crime, against what Rand warned us to do?
You're looking at words rather than facts. What are the facts? The protesters were trying to intimidate the cartoonists and the entire West into silence by threatening us with violence. The fact that they said, "Someone else should do the killing," is irrelevant. If we allow people to call for violence against those whose speech offends them, then there is no such thing as freedom of speech. The threat of force *is* force.
> And in a related issue: by separating speech from action and forbidding their conflation, is Rand maintaining the dichotomy between speech(thought) and action(consequences), or motive and actions, or mind and body?
On the contrary, the distinction between speech and action arise precisely because of the unity between mind and body: it is because only force can divorce another man's thought from his action, the mind from reality, that force must be banned while speech must be free.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 14:30:33 mst
David writes, "So we're back to square one." Only if you agree with Betsy's analysis, which, if I understand it correct (and I'm not sure I do), I disagree with.
While someone using force against me is the worst thing someone can do to me, that doesn't by itself prove anything about the degree of evil involved. After all, what made his use of force possible? While it is true that philosophers leave men free to accept or reject their ideas, it does not eradicate the philosopher from moral responsibility when men do accept and practice his ideas -- it does not erase his responsibility for the destruction that follows.
To concretize this: if a concentration camp guard kills a prisoner's family, that guard is surely evil, but I submit that those who made possible the entire situation -- from Kant, to Hegel, to Hitler -- are not to be judged less evil, but more.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 16:45:10 mst
Name: Betsy Speicher
"Then according to Betsy's logic, a Marxist professor is not evil to Betsy but only "bad" for her because the Marxist professor is engaged in persuasion not force."
He is evil in the context of his personal conduct, but not in the context of the threat he poses to the non-consenting and innocent.
"The marxist intellectual, through their persuasive powers, give rise to agents of force, however, they have the full right to be persuasive of whatever idea they want, and hence are not violating anyone's rights."
No, agents of force freely choose to be persuaded by Marxist arguments and freely choose to use force. Some people can hear the Marxist arguments and disregard or ridicule them.
In any case, someone advocating ideas in a classroom (as opposed to while leading a rioting mob or other situation inciting to imminent violence) is not violating anyone's rights. I'm with Rush Limbaugh when he says that, when universities are peopled by rational professors, we should still keep a few Marxists on hand as museum pieces so people don't forget what they really are.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 16:57:13 mst
Name: Betsy Speicher
"While someone using force against me is the worst thing someone can do to me, that doesn't by itself prove anything about the degree of evil involved."
That is why I made the point that evil is _contextual_. An evader is an evil _person_. Evasion is the worst thing a person can do. Kant had evil _ideas_. In the context of ideas, they were the worst ideas, in every area of philosophy in respect to their content and consequences. Initiating force is the most evil thing a person can do in the context of his dealings with other men.
"After all, what made his use of force possible? While it is true that philosophers leave men free to accept or reject their ideas, it does not eradicate the philosopher from moral responsibility when men do accept and practice his ideas -- it does not erase his responsibility for the destruction that follows."
Of course it doesn't. He is an evil man with evil ideas.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 17:46:30 mst
Betsy writes, "In the context of ideas, they were the worst ideas, in every area of philosophy in respect to their content and consequences. Initiating force is the most evil thing a person can do in the context of his dealings with other men."
That clarifies things, thanks. However, I'm not convinced that initiating force is necessarily the most evil thing a person can do in the context of his dealings with other men.
For instance, if someone cheats a man out of $100, that is bad. But it absolutely doesn't approach the scale of evil represented by Nathaniel Branden's actions toward Ayn Rand. Or, to take another example, I do not regard someone who eggs my car as more evil than a person who brainwashes his child with Nazi or Christian propaganda.
The point is, you can destroy other men's values without resorting to force - in some cases, the destruction you achieve can be much much greater.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 17:56:34 mst
Name: John Dailey
~~ I'm trying to 'connect some dots' re points that have been argued in varied threads, so, bear with me re apparent side-issues.
~~ When the 'intellectual' shows support for an up-and-rising, as well as a practicing, dictator (or group of them), his 'paving-the-way' is obvious, hence his moral standing _should be_ obvious due to his apoligetics re the practitioner. Whether the recent Soviets are defended in their ostensible and superficial intentions of beneficent Communism (regardless obvious 'discoveries' about gulags and secret-police monitoring all 'suspicious' citizens...after the Soviets were in power), or, present-day Muslims are defended for either their sick view of how to morally treat non-Muslims or those other Muslims who supposedly disagree but are rarely seen doing so, the 'intellectual' supporters of both are clearly advertising the worthless moral status of their own perspectives and arguments. All the apologists (including present-day ones for Muslims who dislike 'toons about Muhammed) are clearly purposely avoiding (ie: evading) dealing with any rational arguments about any immorality in applying their 'justifications' to civilized people or even to civilization itself. Hence, all such 'intellectuals' can be regarded as more evil than the actual practitioners. I see that clearly. Without such 'pavers', the practicers would have no acquisition of, nor contued political (or otherwise influential) power over their ruled ones. The pavers (academic AND media) FOOL, 1st themselves, then the populace they are 'justifying' the practices to. Such teachers/explainers are immoral, though for different reasons than practicers of power-lust are.
~~ Overall, methinks only some of the practicers are initially idealistic and not really power-lusters, like Leo in WE THE LIVING; at some point if and while continuing to climb the power-ladder however, they all definitely become the same. But, such idealists are a minority of 'leader'-wannabees. All the rest (comprising most of such practicers) are mere thugs looking for increased power to manipulate and control all others; thugs who couldn't care less about any meaning attached to the words 'morality' or 'ethics', and the only thing desired by them (not exactly 'valued' in Rand's full definition of the term) is the power referred to above.
~~ I'm going to make a simplistic analogy: think of the practicers as the stereotyped step-father who sexually abuses a step-daughter. The 'supporters' can be analogized to the daughter's mother who, regardless the signals unintendedly or explicitly sent by the daughter that something's really a problem here (if not clearly complaining about rape), and regardless that in many cases the daughter kept complaining to mom directly, or indirectly about the problem, the mother kept 'looking the other way'. After the whole situation is one way or another brought to officials' attention, and all is brought to light, what has the mother too often said? "But, I never knew. I'm sorry I didn't pick up on her complaints. I'm so sorry I didn't listen to her. But, I didn't really know." --- A decade or so ago, this type of story used to be a staple of daytime talk shows (Donahue, Povich, Williams, even Winfrey I believe). All I could think of is: "I believe that the mother is sincerely truthful. But, why didn't she 'know'? Because she evaded 'knowing'."
~~ Such mothers were 'enablers' of the abuser. So, also, are the supporters (academic or media pundits...all 'intellectuals') of the legally-official political-practictioners of, as Rand defines it, 'evil.' All are 'enablers' allowing the continuance of evil by avoiding what one dreads to think about, chronically otherwise looking for some 'excuse' to excuse what superficially only 'seems' to be bad actions, but, supposedly in-the-long-term-view 'really' aren't.
~~ Such 'enablers' ARE more evil than the practitioners. The latter can't continue (or, in some cases even begin) without the former. The former may be technically ignorant (hmmm...'Why?') about consequences of the latters actions, but, 'ignorance of moral consequences of one's decisions' (including verbal supporting/defending/justifying)...to coin a phrase...is no moral excuse for it.
~~ Then, there's the likes of Kant.
~~ He was not exactly a 'practitioner.' He was a 'paver', an 'enabler', to be sure; but, not clearly for any actual practitoners. Who, or what was such 'paving-the-way' for? If any big-name philosopher seemed to pave-the-way for thugs, Nietzsche certainly seems to fill the actual bill with his WILL TO POWER essays. Yet, Kant DID pave a complete and total distrust in the use of man's reason...while ironically attempting to use a semblance of it in derogating it's worth. But, pave for whom? All I can see is: other (and presumably lesser) intellecuals who themselves could become thug-road-pavers. Is this what he should be castigated for as the most 'evil' person in history? Did he 'know' what he was doing re influencing others? Or, is it merely the idea that he 'knew' he was contradicting his own arguments in making rational arguments for the ideas?
~~ For all I've read on this view that he's the most evil of all, pro and con, I still find it hard to accept, as well as even considering any answer to "So what if he was? He's not around anymore to ostracize or even kill, so, his 'evilness' is...merely academic now, no?" --- To be sure, his game-plays with logical argument HAVE to have evil consequences on any intellectual who allows themselves to fall for the 'stolen concept' arguments Kant uses, but, the onus on 'evil' arguments paving for thugs use (and the ruled's acceptance) is really more on the secondary intellectuals I'd say. What Kant argued (in effect, "ignore your use of what you call reason; accept my categorical imperative insight") ultimately is no different from any present day TV evangelist, but, such latter are arguing to the masses who, to some degree, can be excused somewhat from failings in logic-use (given educational establishments, past and present)...unlike the specially educated academics who Kant was clearly writing for and to.
~~ It's unfortunate that Rand and Piekoff's reason given for considering Kant as the most evil person in history boiled down to little more than his arguments as having crossed such a depth and wide scale. I understand the viewpoint...to a point...but have a hard time accepting it as, well, adequate, UNLESS such evilness applies ONLY to his own sabotoging of his own self; where the argument is considered as primarily applicable to others as the basis for his depth of evilness raises a question in me re the nature of judging such about anyone. Methinks MUCH more needs to be written on this very subject by the professional philosophers/O'ists themselves. --- Besides, it's a bit unclear as to how Kant might have influenced influential fundamentalist mullahs who follow their (or others? there's more than one 'fundamentalist' interpretation of any book) interpretations of the Koran/Qu'ran...and are clearly hell-bent on setting up a global theocracy of terror for both believers and unbelievers. And if any 'enabler's are guilty of the worst crimes in history, I'd say that beyond Kant, it's all those who support the practicers behind 9-11 (and the Danish 'toon riotings); these apologists clearly see 9-11 as a starting point to end everything a rational person would call civilization. In short, the mullahs...and their financiers...are definitely more dangerous to us than Kant, or any of his followers, was.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 18:38:19 mst
John Daily writes, "Besides, it's a bit unclear as to how Kant might have influenced influential fundamentalist mullahs who follow their (or others? there's more than one 'fundamentalist' interpretation of any book) interpretations of the Koran/Qu'ran...and are clearly hell-bent on setting up a global theocracy of terror for both believers and unbelievers."
I don't have time to reply to your entire post, but I would like to point out something that is relevant to the above. I would say it is Kant who is ultimatley responsible -- not for the existence of Islamic Totalitarianism -- but for the fact that the United States has not wiped them out.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 18:44:51 mst
Name: Betsy Speicher
"I'm not convinced that initiating force is necessarily the most evil thing a person can do in the context of his dealings with other men.
"For instance, if someone cheats a man out of $100, that is bad. But it absolutely doesn't approach the scale of evil represented by Nathaniel Branden's actions toward Ayn Rand."
They are BOTH examples of fraud which is (as Ayn Rand explained) an indirect form of force. The difference is that what NB did involved much higher values and was much longer in duration.
"Or, to take another example, I do not regard someone who eggs my car as more evil than a person who brainwashes his child with Nazi or Christian propaganda."
I was going to include mistreating children as a great evil, but left it out for brevity.
What makes both force and child abuse so extremely bad is that in both cases, the victim is not an consenting adult and thus cannot avoid being victimized.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 18:48:48 mst
Name: John Dailey
~~ Hmmmm...good point; 'touche', maybe. Thanx.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 19:35:47 mst
Betsy wrote: "[The Marxist professor] is evil in the context of his personal conduct, but not in the context of the threat he poses to the non-consenting and innocent."
The whole thing about 'he evil for himself for only bad for me' or that he is evil only to the consenting and the convicted not the non-consenting and innocent... all that sounds very Relativistic to me.
Do other Objectivists hold a similar argument? Is a person's evil immorality only contextual? And does the degree of 'evilness' differ between innocent and convicted, or consenting and non-consenting? Is moral evil not an absolute?
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 22:53:37 mst
Name: Boaz Simovici
With respect to Betsy (hey Betsy!), I agree with Ergo that someone can't be evil only for some people but not for others. "Evil" is a property of a person, an idea, an institution - in relation to values and life. Evil doesn't necessarily have to do with rights-violation. Not all evil men are violent. That evil is destructive doesn't entail that all evil men be a direct physical threat to others - most are not. I don't see any philosophical basis for the implicit division of 'immoral' and 'evil' into separate categories, one moral and the other political or social.
The evil is a species of the immoral. The scale of evasion, of its magnitude in a person, and therefore of destruction to values, is what separates the two. The ordinary catholic who feels guilty about eating meat on Fridays, versus the Franciscan monk who gives up medicine to devote the better part of his life in self-abasement, praying for mankind's redemption. The mother who doesn't tend seriously enough to her obese childrens' diet, versus the Christian-Scientist mother who refuses to give her children medical care.
Sunday, March 26, 2006 at 23:13:06 mst
Name: Betsy Speicher
"Betsy wrote: "[The Marxist professor] is evil in the context of his personal conduct, but not in the context of the threat he poses to the non-consenting and innocent."
"The whole thing about 'he evil for himself for only bad for me' or that he is evil only to the consenting and the convicted not the non-consenting and innocent... all that sounds very Relativistic to me."
Remember that when I use the term "evil," I don't just mean bad, despicable, immoral, or not worth my time. I reserve that word for something that is the extreme and worst degree of "badness." In a social context, a man who deliberately harms himself, but only himself, is immoral, and I would avoid dealing with him. Someone who also harms others, but only with their knowledge and consent, is worse. Someone who uses force (or the dependency of children) to harm the unwilling and non-consenting is as bad as it gets and that's what I call "evil."
"Do other Objectivists hold a similar argument? Is a person's evil immorality only contextual? And does the degree of 'evilness' differ between innocent and convicted, or consenting and non-consenting? Is moral evil not an absolute?"
I don't know if other Objectivists classify it as I do, but Peikoff did discuss the various types and degrees of badness and how _he_ classifies them in his lectures on "Judging, Feeling, and Not Being Moralistic" available from <http://www.aynrandbookstore.com/>.
Monday, March 27, 2006 at 5:40:34 mst
Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Ayatollah's are definitely more evil than dictators like Saddam... those are men who corrupt the minds of the people, issue vile orders demanding allegiance in the name of faith, they probably have never raised a sword to kill a man, but are guilty of all the worst crimes committed because of their ideologies.
Monday, March 27, 2006 at 8:32:28 mst
I've been following this interesting discussion which has raised three issues I question. These are just thoughts to consider--I'm not arguing with anyone's particular points.
The first is the idea that words or concepts can be evil in themselves. How can an idea be evil? If ideas themselves are evil, that is, just having the idea is evil, how could we possibly judge them. We first have to have an idea before we can judge it. For example, if simply having the idea, "kill Americans," was evil, I would have to be evil (because I would have the evil idea) to make the judgement, "to kill Americans is bad idea." Words are entities, and the concepts they represent are mental or psychological entities and no entity is intrinsically good or evil--only actions, what is done with entities, can be good or evil. Our judgement of concepts can be evil, but not the concepts themselves. If I am a Muslim and make the judgement, "to kill Americans is good," that judgement is evil, but the statement of that judgement (which I just made) is only a concept and in itself not evil. That is why freedom of speech must mean all speech, even speech we loathe.
The second is a question. What is the point of attempting to determine the degree of evil of anything, if there is such a thing, beyond as an academic exercise. I've alway been a bit put off by the idea that a person who kills 5 people is only half as evil as the person who kills 10. Trying to ascertain "how evil" someone in the past might have been seems as pointless as trying to determine how many angels can dance on head of a pin? Even if it could be done, what good would that knowledge be? What could you do with it?
Finally, I think the emphasis on evil itself is a mistake, especially for Objectivists. On this I rely on Rand's evaluation, not mine.
Monday, March 27, 2006 at 9:55:33 mst
Your first point is correct. You can say an idea has to lead to destructive consequences if put in to practice, but stictly speaking it's the belief in the idea that is always either good or evil.
Your second point is a good point in the sense that ultimately degrees of evil don't matter. If someone is evil, stay the hell away from him! On the other hand, if you want to know why this conversation is useful, consider the other questions it involves: the role of ideas in history, moral evaluation of men and of ideas, the relationship between ideas and action, free speech versus "free expression," force and mind, mind and body, etc, etc. Often subjects that themselves don't have a direct impact on one's life illuminate subjects that do. This is one of those cases.
As far as your third point, I have no idea what you mean. If you mean it is wrong to focus on evil as a subject of study, you are completely wrong. What Rand said was that you must not grant evil metaphysical importance. But she would have never said that evil should not be the object of contemplation and discussion - it exists, and everything that exists must be open to human analysis.
Monday, March 27, 2006 at 13:09:48 mst
"What Rand said was that you must not grant evil metaphysical importance," is exactly what I meant.
As a subject of study, I think primarily being able to identify its more subtle forms is important, but to study evil as evil, that is, as something worthy of interest in itself, that has become a kind of disease in our age.
I agree about the historical importance of understanding evil, especially identifying its nature and the philosophical framework that made (and still makes) it possible.
Sunday, April 2, 2006 at 14:40:39 mdt
Name: Mike Shapiro
The chain of causality from a Marxist intellectual's rhetoric to harm or loss of human life involves several intermediate human consciousnesses along the way - those of the individuals listening to the intellectual's ideas, who can agree or disagree, and in any event have make a choice to act in order to implement the ideas. By contrast, a dictator implements his or her destruction directly, without any need of consent, choice, or even awareness of anyone else. Doesn't this provide the basis for some form of distinction between the two?
Put another way, if A needs to convince B to act destructively in order for something bad to happen, then in saying that A caused the destruction firsthand aren't we denying the causal efficacy of B's volition?
Several weeks past topicality,
Sunday, April 2, 2006 at 21:48:18 mdt
Name: Diana Hsieh
Obviously, a person's choice to initiate force against others is relevant to a proper moral evaluation of him. However, those who persuade and/or manipulate others to do evils to themselves and/or others are not exonerated *to any degree* for merely using words. That's particularly true when the person is openly advocating the initiation of force, as all Marxists do. The advocates of force and other evils cloak themselves in the veneer of civilization, claiming that others are free to disagree. However, their evasions, rationalizations, and outright lies intellectually disarm and confuse ordinary people who would otherwise fight for their lives against the impending evils.
Significantly, those ordinary people cannot be rightly held to the same high standards of responsibility as professional intellectuals. First, the ordinary people merely accept the bad ideas, whereas intellectuals originate, refine, and preach them. That last requires far more knowledge -- and thus far more evasion. Second, ordinary people lack the intensive training and specialized study of professional intellectuals. To hold them equally responsible would be like holding me to the standards of an ER doctor if I administer first aid to an injured hiker.
Also, you might wish to consider some concrete examples from Ayn Rand's fiction, such as Ellsworth Toohey's destruction of Catherine Halsey. Yes, by accepting his advice, she is complicit in her own destruction. But what realistic chance did she have against such a man? She is not a terribly smart girl, nor an innovative thinker. However, she does have a strong desire to be moral -- and Ellsworth uses that very goodness as a weapon against her. To have locked her in a closet would have been more kind: the evil would have been evident to her. The spiritual destruction he vigorously and knowingly urges upon her is so much more insidious, precisely because it's so far beyond her capacity to identify, let alone fight.
Peter Keating, in contrast, is far more complicit in his own self-destruction. He sees the alternative of Howard Roark, he glipses the truth in that one genuine conversation with Dominique toward the end of his marriage, he knows that he should fight against the influence of his mother and Ellsworth, yet he consistently turns away from that knowledge. Still, Peter had a fighting chance before meeting Ellsworth, since he would have surely married Catherine if not for Toohey's interference.
Finally, if the use of force were decisive in the way that you seem inclined to say, then Pavel and Sonia from _We the Living_ would be more evil than Ellsworth Toohey. I think that's absurd -- and I think Ayn Rand would agree with me. Also, the society of _Anthem_ would be significantly less evil than that of _We the Living_ since the citizens of the former live under fairly mininal force (or threat thereof). For example, Equality is able to easily break out of prison when he chooses to do so, as well as simply run to the Uncharted Forest. That was obviously not an option available to Lydia and her husband in _We the Living_.
People do have free will: a person can always choose to think or not. However, a person cannot simply will himself to arrive at the truth, nor check all his premises at once. (That would be the Existentialist view of free will.) Even a person committed to rationally grasping the facts can be influenced, confused, and led astray by the common ideas of his culture -- particularly when those ideas are supported by lies (as with Marxism) or treated as unquestionable (as with altruism).
To put the point another way: One of the reasons why it's so important to promote Ayn Rand's ideas in our culture is that we cannot reasonably expect even thoughtful ordinary people to discover the principles of Objectivism on their own. However, many people can grasp and accept them, if given the option. To fault them for failing to discover them on their own would be unreasonable and unjust.
Monday, April 3, 2006 at 0:19:19 mdt
Name: Paul Hsieh
Mike Shapiro asks: "Put another way, if A needs to convince B to act destructively in order for something bad to happen, then in saying that A caused the destruction firsthand aren't we denying the causal efficacy of B's volition?"
As a fortuitous coincidence, I've been listening to Leonard Peikoff's lecture course, "The Art of Thinking" and in lecture #2 (which I listened to yesterday) he addresses this very point. He's explaining the need to integrate arguments to *all* of our other available knowledge, and he uses the following real-life example. He cites a fallacious argument written by an Objectivist student and then his analysis of the error as a failure of appropriate integration. Here are the relevant excerpts:
[Student's argument]: "Kant's philosophy was deadly. But why blame Kant? Nobody forced whole cultures to listen to him. Nobody was forced to accept his philosophy, in part or in whole. I can't stand this idea of morally condemning Kant simply because he put together this philosophy which nobody else was obliged to adhere to. If men have volition and the capacity for free will, why should Kant be blamed if they didn't exercise their free wills and treat his doctrine as the mess it is. Why blame him for other men's mistakes?"
[Peikoff]: "...The argument is coherent within its own terms if you accept it, ... if you just live with that little world: 'People have free will, Kant's free will doesn't interfere with your free will', that follows on its own terms."
[Peikoff]: "But that is an arch-perfect example of dropping the context, of not integrating. Now what is he not integrating to?"
(Some sample responses from the live audience snipped.)
[Peikoff]: "...The fact that fundamental ideas influence a culture. But why should that be if you have free will? Why should someone else's fundamantal ideas -- and it's a very obvious point if you took a course in economics but it applies just as well in philosophy. Are we all professional philosophers? Could we survive if everyone was a professional philosopher?"
[Peikoff]: "No, I'm serious. You'd have to have food and cars and Lexuses and all the crucial things that make life possible! So what is that we have to count on in order to survive? The division of labor, right? And the division of labor necessarily means that specialists in each field have to give us their best. And if the specialists in a given field, the one that sets the terms for that field is corrupt, all the rest of the innocent victims are going to perish regardless of the fact that they have free will because they can't do everything. They have to count upon trade with someone who provides something. And this is not only true of philosophy, it's true in medicine and agriculture too. If they got the idea in medicine to dose you with some powerful poison, you couldn't say, 'Well, his mistake, you shouldn't have accepted it. You have free will'."
[Peikoff]: "How can you become a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief, a philosopher, and everything at one time? This person is entirely ignoring the division of labor; he's entirely ignoring the fact of what is free will. To put it another way, he's treating free will as isolated dogma, like God said from above, 'You got free will, you're your own master.'"
[Peikoff]: "Well, what does that mean? Could I inject a person with poison and say, 'Well you've got free will, you're your own master, so good luck, take charge'? Free will is a delimited faculty, a faculty which has a specific identity, it's not equivalent to omnipotence. All it tells you is that within the limits of your knowledge, your ability, your time, and your interests, you can focus or not on certain things. It does not say every question is up for you to start from scratch and if you make a mistake anywhere, no matter what the corruption of the people in that field, then you're just as much to blame as them. That is fantastic."
[Peikoff]: "...But it's a very good example of an argument that has internal plausibility which stops people because they're only way of analyzing it is to say, 'Can I find some error in his premise? No, it's true people have free will. Can I find some false deduction? No, it's true that if they have free will then they're responsible." Then you're completely trapped without standing back and saying that every argument has to be judged against the background of the total knowledge we have. 'What do I know from any other field that would be relevant to this?'"
As a practicing physician, Peikoff's point resonates quite powerfully with me. If I give one of my patients some bad medical advice that leads to his death, the fact that he had free will in no way morally exonerates me from that bad outcome, if the destructive nature of my advice was something that either I knew or should have known. As a professional in my field, I set myself forth as someone who possesses (or should possess) specialized expertise, and others are acting in good faith and relying on my claimed expertise.
Hence to answer Mike's question, if a respected professor of nutrition science at Harvard Medical School published a diet book saying, "Everyone who wants to live a healthy life should eat foods X and Y together every day", but he either knew (or should have known) that those two foods in combination actually caused permanent paralysis, the professor bears primary moral responsibility for those bad outcomes, even though we aren't denying the causal efficacy of the volition of the innocent consumers who acted in good faith on his advice.
Monday, April 3, 2006 at 1:27:45 mdt
Name: Mike Shapiro
Thanks to both of you for your responses. I appreciate your taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly, and will likewise take some time to digest what you've offered.