In a Blog’s Stead
Archives: November 2002

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More Blogged Against Than Blogging

Lately this web journal has been living up to its claim not to be a blog: I haven't been blogging! Too busy -- and with all the work that's facing me now, I probably won't have a chance to blog again until mid-December. But I do want to reply, belatedly and all too briefly, to some of the feedback I've received over the last month or so. I'll start with the ones that focus on the Iraq crisis, and then move on to the ones that raise other issues.

I would like to thank those respondents who, even when severely critical, offered intelligent and thought-provoking feedback. That applies to most of them ....

Response to Henry Sturman

In my October 7th posting, "Bloody Constraint," I wrote:

Plus, there's the possibility that Hussein might provide aid to people who want to bomb civilians in America. Evil, evil. Of course, when our government bombs civilians in Iraq, that's different. The Emperor didn't explain how, exactly, but it must be different, because, well, Iraq is bad ….
Henry Sturman writes in response:
I think I can answer that question. The difference is that when terrorists bomb civilians in the US they do it to kill civilians and there is no benefit. When the US bomb civilians in Iraq they don't do it to kill civilians. They do it to destroy military infrastructure or to kill soldiers. Civilian deaths are a tragic side consequence which they try to minimize as much as possible.
I responded by pointing Mr. Sturman to my article Thinking Our Anger, in which the following passage occurs:
We know that the direct targeting of civilians is immoral .... But why might collateral damage be more justifiable? Well, the argument goes something like this. Suppose Eric straps a baby to his chest and then starts shooting at me. I can't shoot him back without hitting the innocent baby. Yet although it's too bad about the baby, it seems plausible to say that I still have the right to defend myself against Eric, and if the baby gets killed, the blame should lie not with me but with Eric, for bringing the baby into the situation in the first place. By the same token, it is argued, innocent deaths that result as a byproduct from attacks on hostile targets should be blamed on the hostile targets, not on the attackers.

But the moral legitimacy of collateral damage in the Eric case seems to depend importantly on four factors: first, the relatively small extent of the collateral damage (just the one baby); second, the high probability that shooting at Eric will actually stop him; third, the great extent of the contribution (total, as described) that stopping Eric will make to ending the threat; and fourth, the absence of any alternative way of stopping Eric that would be less dangerous for the baby. The case for collateral damage grows weaker as we alter any of these four variables. [1] If Eric is shielded not just by one baby but by a whole city of babies; or [2] if there's some doubt as to whether Eric is actually even in the city; or [3] if Eric is just one cog in a military machine, his individual contribution to the total threat being fairly small; or [4] if there are ways of taking Eric out without bombing the city -- to the extent that any or all of these are true, the case for the legitimacy of collateral damage is correspondingly weakened. As these variables move away from the Eric paradigm, the moral difference between collateral damage and direct targeting of civilians becomes more tenuous -- as does the case for treating the two as morally different. Since in most real-world cases of collateral damage in warfare, most or all of these variables are shifted pretty far away from the Eric paradigm, I conclude that a general military policy of comfort with collateral damage is without justification.
Mr. Sturman replies:
It is your own argument, in the case of Eric and the baby, that collateral damage can sometimes be justified. Then you cite 4 reasons where this justification diminishes. But you fail to show that these 4 things apply to a specific war, or war in general. The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan was extremely small compared to the number of people liberated and the number of thugs eliminated from power and there was no better way to do it without tremendous financial cost. The case for killing Eric and the baby is much weaker. The killing of say 1000 innocent Afghans to defend 25 million is like killing one baby to protect 25.000. That's 25.000 times more effective than your example of killing Eric and the baby. That's not even including the 250 million Americans for whose safety Al Qaeda's power was significantly diminished in the process. The Taliban would kill thousands just for fun just on one day, see for example: Killing 1000 to remove such a regime is a bargain very rarely seen in war.
I can't agree with Mr. Sturman's accounting. First of all, my condition (1) is concerned with smallness of extent, not smallness of ratio. Not being a utilitarian, I don't think extent of badness can be ascertained by dividing lives lost by lives saved. But even if I accepted the ratio approach, Mr. Sturman's numbers don't add up. Unless the Taliban were planning to kill 25 million people, it's not a ratio of lives lost to lives saved, it's a ratio of lives lost to lives improved, which is hardly the same thing. (And recent events show the improvement is not quite as much as the hawks had led us to expect.) We'd also have to throw on the other side of the balance the other costs of the war; few would argue that the world is a safer place as the result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. (Note also that the "tremendous financial cost" consists almost entirely of stolen money.)

Second, I don't see how my conditions (2) and (3) are met in the case of the Afghan war.

Response to Art Eatman

In response to the suggestion that U.S. designs on Iraq are motivated in part by the desire to control Iraqi oil, Art Eatman writes:
If BushOil (as a friend calls him) wants his particular friends in the Awl Bidness to make money off Iraq's oil, he'd do better to lift the embargo. If we do what all has been spoken of, vis a vis Iraq's oil, the particular oil companies which will profit are not in the Bush orbit.
I don't know which particular companies will benefit, and I don't see that it matters. All my argument requires is that the U.S. government would prefer to see Iraqi oil in the hands of a regime it can control. Does Mr. Eatman deny this?

Mr. Eatman continues:
There's a good bit of our foreign policy since the Berlin Wall came down of which I disapprove. The yowling and howling against Dubya, however, sounds to me more like the whining and yelping of a bunch of whipped cur dogs, than it does rational thought.

Frankly, the more I read the overblown pejoratives against Bush, et al, the more I'm prone to say, "To Hell with it!" and just go on and ignore the whole brouhaha ....
Mr. Eatman seems to be arguing as follows: "Those who defend Position P sound like abused canines; therefore there must be something wrong with Position P." This sort of argument is usually called the ad hominem fallacy, though in this case perhaps ad canem would be more appropriate. At any rate, it's still a fallacy.

Response to Dave Lull

In my October 7th posting, "Bloody Constraint," I included a photo of our peerless President holding a book upside down. Dave Lull has alerted me to a website which presents a compelling argument for the conclusion that, sadly, the photo is a fake. Check it out!

Response to Foster Morrison

In my October 10th posting, "The Logic of Empire," I compared the current situation with William Graham Sumner's classic lecture The Conquest of the United States by Spain, arguing that in becoming a world power, the United States was growing to resemble the Old World imperial states it was defeating. Foster Morrison responds:
By 1899 the USA had already conquered the Native Americans ("Indians"), the northern part of Mexico, and the CSA, so Washington had little to learn about imperialism from Spain or anybody else. And as imperialists go, Iraq would have to be pretty far down the list, well below Israel, let alone the USA.

The most basic fact is that the USA cannot afford to pay for its oil imports, let alone all those consumer goods from China. No savings could be realized be seizing the factories in China, many of which already belong to US-based companies, so the only alternative is to seize the oil in the Middle East to get it at the marginal cost of production rather than the global market price.

If this means provoking or even facilitating terrorist attacks, that is a well established part of Washington's modus operandi. Pearl Harbor, the battleship Maine, &c., ad nauseam. Elections may decide which special interests get more of the federal booty, but they have no influence on foreign policy, which is brazenly proclaimed as "bipartisan."
I don't have much to quarrel about with Mr. Morrison here, except to say that I meant America's domestic policies were beginning to resemble Iraq's, not that its foreign policy was.

Reply to Eric Coe

Eric Coe has written a second response to my blog page. (For the first, see here.)

Mr. Coe says he's "steamed" by my claim that the U.S. military has been "bombing and starving Iraqis" ever since the Gulf War. The bombings have all been, he says, of "legitimate military targets that threaten our planes in the no-fly zones." And the starvation is a "refuted leftist lie," since the sanctions have been done with UN approval, and the deaths are Hussein's fault anyway since he has been shifting the impact of the sanctions onto the Iraqi populace.

With regard to the bombings: the U.S. government itself admits that these strikes on "legitimate military targets" have resulted in the death of innocent civilians. So, yes, the U.S. has been bombing the Iraqi people. Moreover, those targets wouldn’t be threatening our planes if our planes weren't invading Iraqi airspace in the first place. The need to avoid civilian deaths should have been taken into account when deciding to enforce the no-fly zone in the first place.

With regard to the starvation, three points: First, of course Hussein has been shifting the impact of the sanctions onto his people. He's an evil dictator, that's what you'd expect him to do. Precisely because this was the predictable effect of the sanctions, it was immoral to impose them in the first place.

Second, why exactly should I be impressed that these sanctions have been approved by the UN? That argument might cut ice with some leftists, but not with a libertarian.

Third, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appeared on 60 Minutes (5/12/96) and was asked, concerning the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Albright did not challenge this "leftist lie"; instead, what she said was: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price -- we think the price is worth it." This is the mentality of our rulers.

In response to my claim that our ongoing war on Iraq is illegal, since the constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war has never been fulfilled, Mr. Coe responds that "if a resolution/bill authorizing the Presidential use of force is voted on and passed by both houses of Congress, then it fulfills all Constitutional requirements to be a declaration of war."

I hope Mr. Coe never has a run-in with the IRS. If he does, he will learn that the Federal government interprets legal restrictions on him far less generously than he interprets legal restrictions on it.

Mr. Coe challenges my list of regimes possessing weapons of mass destruction, and asks what I mean by the phrase "weapons of mass destruction." It's a fair question, since the gun control crowd has taken to defining machine guns and the like as "weapons of mass destruction." But I meant what I believe is generally meant: nuclear, chemical, or biological. All the regimes I mentioned possess one or more of these types of weapon. (Mr. Coe says that most of these are run by "rational actors" and do not pose a threat to the US; but by all evidence, the same description applies to Iraq.)

Since I speak fondly of international law, Mr. Coe apparently concludes that I must be a fan of world government. Hardly! As an anarchist, I reject the legitimacy of all government, and an inescapable globe-spanning state is particularly unappealing. That is precisely one of the reasons I oppose U.S. involvement in Iraq: the United States is in a dandy position to transform itself into a world government or something close to it, and invading Iraq would only bring that day closer. But I do not equate international law with international government, since (unsurprisingly, given my anarchism) I do not in general equate law with government. Government is a parasite on law.

Mr. Coe dismisses, as "left-wing cant," my claim that "by most definitions of terrorism," the United States is a terrorist regime. Well, let's see. Some definitions do require that the perpetrator be a nonstate entity, or that the targets be civilians. The U.S. State Department, for example, defines terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." (emphasis added) But by this definition, Iraq cannot be a terrorist regime (not being "subnational"), nor can the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon (a military target) be a terrorist act. Hence most official definitions include neither requirement. The U.N., for example, defines terrorism as "criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public" (a definition inherited from a 1937 League of Nations document). The FBI defines it as "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Other official definitions are similar. By these definitions, the U.S. is surely a terrorist entity.

Mr. Coe describes my claim that the war on terror is "rapidly converting this country into an absolute dictatorship" as "unnecessary hyperbole." I suggest he take a good look at the content of the proposed Homeland Security Act.

Mr. Coe is unhappy with the tone taken by many libertarian commentators on the war. For example, Mr. Coe complains of many Mises Institute publications that their tone is "shrill," and that they too often "attribute to malevolence what can be accounted for by simpler and more common means, like incompetence, narrow-mindedness, hubris, laziness, and butt-covering." He concludes: "This stuff won't sell. It insults everybody it names, nearly. It is an example of why Libertarianism does so poorly in the polls."

I find Mr. Coe's response puzzling. Here's an argument against policy X. The argument is either sound or unsound. Mr. Coe complains about the tone of the argument, and quibbles about whether the arguer should say that policy X's badness is intentional or unintentional. But the question remains: is the argument sound? If not, why not?

Mr. Coe seems fond of the following argument forms: "Position P is held by many left-wingers; therefore, position P is wrong" and "Position P will scare off potential supporters; therefore, position P is wrong." But the first is an ad hominem, and the second an ad baculum. (And by the way, "Libertarian" refers to the political party, "libertarian" to the movement; the former is a subset of the latter.)

Mr. Coe had complained earlier that libertarians hadn't written enough to explain what sorts of social structures might replace the state. I expressed surprise at this claim, and offered a list of online resources. In response, Mr. Coe clarifies that he meant:
1. Not discussed enough in an accessible way on the Net.
2. I was not talking about markets (markets get discussed to death by Libertarians). I was talking about family, clan, social groupings, voluntary associations, etc.
With regard to (1): in what way are these resources not "accessible"? With regard to (2): yes, I was talking about civil society too.

Mr. Coe disapproves of the libertarian call for "massive, revolutionary, disruptive change in every aspect of government and society, all at once. It will never happen. Let's face it: Things don't change that quickly." Murray Rothbard has already answered this kind of criticism more eloquently than I could, so I will simply direct the reader to Rothbard's discussion here. (See in particular the section titled "Are We 'Utopians'?")

On broader philosophical issues: Mr. Coe apparently agrees with me that we can't conceive of ourselves as being determined because "we are the machine, and the inherent recursion defeats our reasoning from the inside." But he describes this as explaining why "we can't conceptualize clearly about our 'free will.'" Yet if an "illusion" is inescapable, how can we, the ones who are subject to it, coherently describe it as an illusion? The hypothesis that it is illusory appears to be self-disabling.

Mr. Coe also hypothesizes that the free will problem will be cleared up once we have a greater scientific understanding of the brain. I don't see how this could help. Since no conceivable scientific advance will ever change the fact that "we are the machine" (as he puts it), no conceivable scientific advance will ever put us in a position to deny our own free will without logical incoherence.

In response to my defense of Michael Watkins' book on colour (which once again I recommend to anyone with a genuine interest in the subject), Mr. Coe writes:
If there is currently no one identifiable physical feature all objects with the same color share, then obviously we don't know enough, and our science is incomplete.
But the problem is precisely that we do know enough to know that there's no such feature. We know what makes things of type X look blue, and it's not the same feature as what makes things of type Y look blue. Of course someone could always dogmatically insist that there must be some such feature and that we will someday find it; but there's no reason to think there is one, and positing one doesn’t explain anything that science can't currently explain without it. Philosophers spent a long time barking up that dead end, but were forced to abandon it, precisely because the scientific evidence against such a common feature is so strong.

Against Mr. Coe's earlier claim that this problem about colour is a pseudo-problem arising from the imperfections of natural language, I had expressed skepticism about the possibility of "dispensing with natural language in favor of something more precise." Mr. Coe finds this puzzling, since as a software developer he deals with artificial languages all the time. Well, sure; my skepticism wasn’t about the existence or usefulness of artificial languages (as a Fregean, I would hardly blaspheme against the Begriffschrift) but about their ability to replace natural language. As far as I can see, no one has yet come up with an artificial language whose meaningfulness doesn't depend on its being embedded in natural language. Until we can manage to occupy a perspective outside natural language, any philosophical solution that turns on the rejection of natural language will be self-disabling.

For Mr. Coe, "the real puzzler of this is: what the heck has this to do with politics?" Well, who said it had anything to do with politics? Not everything has to do with politics. (Gods willing, one day nothing will have to do with politics.) On my web journal I write about what I'm interested in. Since I'm a libertarian, that's often politics. Since I'm a philosopher, that's often philosophy. Many of my readers are either Randians or Austrians, two groups that are likewise interested in both libertarianism and philosophy.

Mr. Coe apparently finds baffling a non-politically-motivated interest in philosophy, since he hypothesizes that Randians care about issues like the objectivity of colour because they share with Marxists the idea that social and political theory must be based on natural science. But Randians are (rightly, I think) entirely opposed to any such idea -- as am I. In any case, the central message of Watkins' book is that it is the job of philosophy, not of science, to tell us what colours are; colour is not part of the subject-matter of science. Philosophy is not the handmaid of politics, or science, or anything else. As I sometimes tell my students: philosophy isn't about the meaning of life, it is the meaning of life.

Response to Keith Hoyes

In response to my September 25th posting, "Slip Out of Those Genes," Keith Hoyes writes:
I generally agree with most of your positions, however, I had to comment on your beliefs regarding free will and genes. I offer a counter argument.

I propose free will is purely a matter of genetic and cultural programming and is simply a probability battle between the two.

Genetically I am 99.99% more likely to be attracted to females, whatever my 'free will,' my school teacher, or CNN says. It was my genes that programmed my 'free will' to be that biased.

I am 99% more likely to prefer candy to spinach, but social programming may cause me to choose spinach on occasion.

My 'free will outcome' is simply the best attempt at simulating and grading the genetic and cultural value weights. Free will is always a loaded dice.
I myself will choose spinach over candy whenever the first comes in the form of spanakopita and the second in the form of a vending machine candy bar. At any rate, I responded as follows:
I certainly don't deny that genetic factors often determine which desires we have. All I deny is that they determine which desires we act on. (That's what I meant about psychological versus praxeological preferences.) Free will is about freedom to choose, not about freedom to desire.
Mr. Hoyes responds:
We're sure not going to agree on this one, but one last thought.

It seems so obvious to me our desires decide what we will act on, I suppose there is always the chance I will say no to the tax gatherer holding a gun to my head, but my genetic desire to stay alive will drive my free will to pay up. Or my desire for a family will drive my free will to marry a female.

Any rational observer of these scenarios would be able to predict my free will a priori, and if a betting man, would win every time.
But the question is: is the predictability of your doing X something that you could take into account, as a settled datum, when making a decision about whether to do X? I claim that the answer has to be no. And if the answer is no, then the hypothesis of genetic determinism is self-disabling. No amount of evidence can establish a hypothesis that contains an internal logical flaw.

Reply to L. Giaccone

Again in response to "Slip Out of Those Genes," L. Giaccone writes as follows (I've interspersed my responses):
To say that some human behaviors are not genetically mediated is simply wishful thinking.
I’m not sure what (Mr.? Ms.?) Giaccone means by "genetically mediated." What I deny is that all human behaviours are genetically determined. Perhaps my position is "wishful thinking," but I did offer an argument for it. Until Giaccone explains what is wrong with my argument, the dialectic stands against him/her.
The idea that humans possess the characteristic of "radical freedom" was abandoned by its philosopher proponent (Sartre) before his death.
First, my position is not equivalent to Sartre's "radical freedom." Second, the fact that Sartre repudiated his earlier views is irrelevant to the truth or falsity of those views.
Moreover it would completely separate us from the animal cohabitors of this planet virtually requiring special creation.
"Completely" separate us? Well, it would make us like them in some respects and unlike them in others. But we knew that already. I don't see how this would require "special creation." What's the argument for that conclusion?
Even Christianity which is the principal proponent of "free will" recognizes the dichotomy between behaviors derived from the flesh and the spirit.
I don't regard Christianity as the "principal proponent" of free will; the Christian commitment to free will has always been undercut by doctrines incompatible with free will: predestination, original sin, etc. At any rate, the argument "even Christianity admits ...." has no more validity than the argument "even Sartre eventually admitted .…" ("Even Adam Smith admitted the need for state provision of public goods ...." "Even David Hume admitted natural selection couldn't explain the human eye ...." So what? They were wrong.)
You and I might prefer to characterize such a dichotomy separating genetically mediated impulses from those inspired by rational thought. That humankind has impulses which are genetically mediated cannot be denied (i.e. the impulse of a new born to suckle). That these impulses can affect adult behaviors is also not to be denied (sexual behaviors are replete with examples). What makes the difference between an acculturated man who is trained to control and even deny his unseemly impulses (sin if you will) and an unacculturated man who cannot control his genetically mediated behaviors is to the point.
I've never denied that we have impulses that are genetically determined. (I don't think the class of genetically determined impulses is the same as the class of sinful impulses, though.) Free will is about choices, not impulses.
Libertarians like to think that an unacculturated human being, in his natural state, is suitable as a denizen of the libertarian utopia. Total nonsense.
I don't know of any libertarian who thinks this.
It takes training and education to produce the citizen capable of supporting a civil society.
I agree with this last statement; but Giaccone's next sentence is a non sequitur:
Thus we have a dilemma, it takes a strong central power to impose a cultural milieu in which individuals are created capable of living without it.
Why should such a cultural milieu require a "strong central power"? That claim doesn't seem to be supported by our best sociological understanding of how cultures develop.

Giaccone also replies to my October 1st posting, "True Colours: Outranding the Randians":
The idea that, if colors do not actually exist on the surfaces of objects, then that in some way diminishes the experiences of color viewers is true than that is too bad, because that is the way it is. The idea that if bees or other animals do not see the precise range of colors, at exactly the same frequencies as we humans do, might imply defective perception of reality on their part is an anthropomorphization derived of a stunning egotism.
Quite true. But irrelevant as a criticism of Watkins' book. Watkins is at some pains to insist that animal and human perceptions are different but equally veridical. Humans and animals respond perceptually to different properties; but the properties we perceive and the properties they perceive are equally real. The colour properties we perceive are right there in the object. So are the properties that animals perceive. What we perceive is really there, but we don't perceive everything that is there.
As a species our brains provide us with colors as tags (markers), for the physical perception of those ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum which was of most use to our progenitors. To impose our perceptions on the physical universe is, well to be blunt, if not stupid, then certainly ignorant to an extreme.
The view that colour perceptions correspond to wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum was once popular, but it has long been abandoned as scientifically untenable, for reasons explained in Watkins' book. If Giaccone's view were still a live option, colour wouldn't pose the philosophical problem that it does. The "ignorance" here would appear to be on Giaccone's part, not Watkins'.
It is however an excellent ploy on the part of clever writers to extract money from quasi-intellectuals by pandering to their ignorance.
Misrepresenting an author's position and then insulting him, without bothering to read his arguments, is better, I suppose?

Response to Jason Roth

On, Jason Roth has posted the following review of my book Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand:
A New Term for this Garbage: "Philoso-Babble"

If the following quote from the author (see also above) says anything about his writing skills, clarity of mind, and awareness of "reason", then it's obvious who should buy this book. Come on, you reality-hating academic philosophers, crawl out of the woodwork, dust yourselves off, and buy this book!
"In particular, I maintain that Rand's rejection of Aristotle's coherentist, testimony-based epistemology in favor of her own version of foundationalist empiricism both opens the door to a corrosive skepticism that she rightly wishes to avoid, and forces her into defending an instrumental survival-oriented conception of the relation of morality to self-interest, even though a constitutive, flourishing-oriented relation along Aristotelian lines would more closely match her basic ethical insights."
But seriously, folks. Doesn't this quote make you laugh out loud? Can you believe there are people who actually spout this nonsense without blushing? Somebody tell this guy that the emperor does not, in fact, have any clothes!
Mr. Roth apparently found that quotation tough going. It certainly does have a lot of long words in it, plus all those commas and stuff. Thankfully, there are many remedial reading courses and anti-illiteracy programs available in today's world, and I'm confident that once Mr. Roth finds his way to one of them, he'll be reading at an adult level in no time.

In the meantime, here's a helpful glossary for some of those long words that Mr. Roth stumbled over:

coherentist – The view that the way to justify a belief is to show that it coheres with your other beliefs.
testimony – Information that comes from what other people tell you rather than what you experience yourself.
epistemology – The branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge.
foundationalist – The view that the way to justify a belief is to show that it can be derived from a set of self-justifying beliefs.
empiricism – The view that all knowledge is based on sensory perception.
corrosive – The property of gradually eating away at something.
skepticism – The view that knowledge is impossible.
instrumental – Being a tool for producing some goal beyond itself.
survival – Continuing to stay alive.
conception – A particular way of thinking about something.
constitutive – Being a part, especially an essential part, of something.
flourishing – To be in a thriving or successful condition.
Aristotelian – Characterising the ideas of Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher who lived many many years ago in a city called Athens, and who, unfortunately, also used very long words, plus writing in a weird language that isn't even English.

Response to Jonathan Sturm

In response to my bio page, Jonathan Sturm writes:
Yesterday, I serendipitously found your most interesting blog. Much to my surprise, I found scepticism among your "chief targets for annihilation." Given that much of the success of statism/scientism appears to be due to a shortage of scepticism among its victims, I would appreciate your reasoning if you are not too busy.
It is certainly true that, as Hayek for example has shown, much of the devastation wrought by statism is the product of a "pretense of knowledge." Skepticism, understood as a cautious, critical, and epistemologically modest attitude, can certainly be a healthy thing. What I had in mind, however, was a certain kind of dogmatic skepticism that takes the form of a closed-minded refusal to acknowledge the possibility that anything of importance can really be known, or proven, or objectively established. It is an attitude I frequently encounter in my undergraduate students, and one that combines quite harmoniously with religious fundamentalism. A good many of my students have said that, precisely because nothing can be known with certainty, we have to accept certain things on faith or authority. When skepticism becomes global, it undermines the very critical faculties that skeptics in the other sense cherish.

Response to Wirkman Virkkala

As readers of my September 22nd posting, "A Blog By Any Other Name," know, Wirkman Virkkala is (inadvertently) responsible for my having to change the name of my (un)blog! Anyway, in his reply to my September 15th posting, "Philately: Who Needs It," Mr. Virkkala takes issue with my assumption that there is something incongruous in the cultlike quality that has characterised some strands of the Randian movement. I assumed that the emergence of dogmatic conformity in a movement dedicated to reason and individualism required explanation (and I suggested one). But Virkkala thinks such a result was only to be expected:
Remember, cults encourage and nurture a sense of certainty. Reasonable people, on the other hand, cultivate the courage to doubt. Certainty is a luxury available only in a fantasy world, not the messy one in which we live. So, by emphasizing, as she did, apodictic truths and a dogmatic philosophy, Rand provided the pearl of great price that cultists everywhere demand: certainty.
But I cannot agree with Mr. Virkkala's suggestion that certainty, in the Randian meaning of the term, is an unrealistic ideal, or one that naturally encourages dogmatism. On Rand's view, certainty is contextual, and is compatible with fallibility. And she always insisted that the longing for an effortless, automatic certainty was the psychological root beneath both skepticism and dogmatism, making these two positions two versions of the same mistake. (All of which seems pretty plausible.) Accordingly, the content of Rand's philosophy is not compatible with a cultlike approach.

If my view makes it harder to explain why so many Randians are cultists -- well, Mr. Virkkala's view makes it harder to explain why so many Randians are not cultists.

Mr. Virkkala's response to me contains a link to another of his discussions of Rand; I can't resist commenting -- briefly, or at least selectively -- on that page as well. Much that he says there is interesting and thought-provoking (and he is certainly quite right to object to Rand's un-Aristotelean definition of virtue as an act). But I shall focus on his complaint that Rand misuses the words "egoism," "altruism," and "selfishness."

Mr. Virkkala charges Rand with using these words in a nonstandard way. I think she is innocent of this charge with regard to the word "egoism," which is primarily a philosophical term of art rather than a common word in everyday language. In philosophy the word "egoism" means pretty much what she says it means: it's the view that self-interest (properly understood) is the sole basis of morality.

The case of "altruism" is more complicated; that word began as a philosophical term of art, again meaning pretty much what Rand says it means: the view that concern for people other than yourself is the sole basis of morality. But "altruism" has been picked up by ordinary language far more than "egoism" has, and has come to mean -- even for philosophers -- something more like what Rand means by "benevolence." Rand was certainly too quick to assume that anyone who used the term "altruism" must mean what she meant by it. Still, some advocates of altruism do seem to mean just what she feared they meant; and if one is looking for a label for the diametrical opposite of egoism, on etymological grounds "altruism" is hard to beat.

The most interesting case is "selfishness," which is not and never has been a philosophical term of art; it belongs unequivocally to ordinary language, and as Mr. Virkkala points out: "By definition selfishness is bad." That is, selfishness is defined, not as concern for one's own interests, but as excessive concern for one's own interests. Since, for an egoist, concern for one's own interests can never be excessive, perhaps Rand should have titled her book The Impossibility of Selfishness rather than The Virtue of Selfishness.

What should a Randian say about selfishness? Arguably, nothing. Rand defined an "anti-concept" as "an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept," and again as "a 'package-deal' of two meanings, with the proper meaning serving to cover and to smuggle the improper one into people's minds." Since anti-concepts presuppose the equivalence of things that are not actually equivalent, a person aware of the falsity of the presupposition should not use the concept. For example, Rand claims that "extremism" is an anti-concept, since it lumps "extreme" defenders of evil and "extreme" defenders of good together as though they were equivalent. Hence one should not say either "yes, I am an extremist" (which would commit you to acknowledging a kinship with extreme defenders of evil) or "no, I am not an extremist" (which would commit you to being a moderate defender of the good); instead one should reject the very notion of "extremism" and decline to use the term at all. (Though it would horrify Rand to think so, this is a Wittgensteinian moment in Rand -- one of many, I would argue. But that's a story for another occasion.)

There are good reasons for thinking that, from a Randian point of view, the term "selfishness" ought to count as an anti-concept. Use of the term presupposes that human interests are at least potentially in conflict, so that an unconditional commitment to one's own interest must involve a disregard of other people's interests. But this presupposition is precisely what Rand denies. Hence one might expect her to dismiss "selfishness" as a package deal, one that lumps an unconditional commitment to one's own interest together with a disregard of the interests of others. As Mr. Virkkala writes:
To recast selfishness as an unconditional virtue entails [1] a denial that a concern with oneself can be excessive and [2] a demonstration that seeking one's own interests without regard for others' interests is in itself a good thing. [numbers added]
Mr. Virkkala evidently believes, first, that (1) and (2) are both false, and second, that Rand regards both as true. But for Rand, (1) is true, and (2) is either false or meaningless -- since on a proper conception of self-interest, there is no such thing as achieving one's own interest by disregarding the interests of others. So why doesn't Rand say about "selfishness" what she says about "extremism," "isolationism," "ethnicity," "meritocracy," "duty," "an open mind," and other terms which she identifies as anti-concepts -- and which she generally avoids using in propria voce? Arguably, Rand should say neither "yes, I am in favour of selfishness" (which would commit her to endorsing disregard for others' interests) nor "no, I am against selfishness" (which would commit her to regarding self-interest as sometimes bad). A term whose use involves a false presupposition should not be used at all.

But is that necessarily true? A term whose ordinary use involves a false presupposition should not be used with its ordinary use. But one might be justified in using it as a way of championing linguistic reform. An interesting analogy is the word "queer," as applied to homosexuals. As an epithet it has traditionally functioned as an anti-concept, lumping together a description with an evaluation; but many homosexual activists have tried to reclaim and redeem the term. In doing so they are trying to change its meaning, and thus to disable the term's prejudicial use. This seems a perfectly legitimate project, and one that Rand, mutatis mutandis, may be regarded as attempting for "selfishness."

Mr. Virkkala, however, considers such a strategy disastrous: "Ayn Rand advocated the decent doctrine, but by sticking with a rhetorically loaded term she was led, as if by an invisible hand, to behave despicably." I grant that Rand -- like many other great philosophers (e.g., Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Russell) -- sometimes behaved despicably. But I am not convinced that her choice of terminology had anything to do with it!

A less radical attempt at linguistic reform might simply be to urge the recognition of two different senses of the word "selfishness," and to use either when appropriate -- in effect, to disaggregate the package deal, dissolving the anti-concept into two legitimate concepts. This is precisely the course recommended by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics IX. 8, and I'll give him the final word:
The question is also raised whether one ought to love oneself or someone else most. We censure those who put themselves first, and 'lover of self' is used as a term of reproach. And it is thought that a bad man considers himself in all he does, and the more so the worse he is -- so it is a complaint against him for instance that 'he never does a thing unless you make him' -- whereas a good man acts from a sense of what is noble, and the better he is the more he so acts, and he considers his friend's interest, disregarding his own.

But the facts do not accord with these theories; nor is this surprising. For we admit that one should love one's best friend most; but the best friend is he that, when he wishes a person's good, wishes it for that person's own sake, even though nobody will ever know of it. Now this condition is most fully realized in a man's regard for himself ....

Now where there is a conflict of opinion the proper course is doubtless to get the two views clearly distinguished, and to define how far and in what way each of them is true. So probably the matter may become clear if we ascertain what meaning each side attaches to the term 'self-love.'

Those then who make it a term of reproach call men lovers of self when they assign to themselves the larger share of money, honors, or bodily pleasures; since these are the things which most men desire and set their hearts on as being the greatest goods, and which accordingly they compete with each other to obtain. Now those who take more than their share of these things are men who indulge their appetites, and generally their passions and the irrational part of their souls. But most men are of this kind. Accordingly the use of the term 'lover of self' as a reproach has arisen from the fact that self-love of the ordinary kind is bad. Hence self-love is rightly censured in those who are lovers of self in this sense. And that it is those who take too large a share of things of this sort whom most people usually mean when they speak of lovers of self, is clear enough. For if a man were always bent on outdoing everybody else in acting justly or temperately or in displaying any other of the virtues, and in general were always trying to secure for himself moral nobility, no one will charge him with love of self nor find any fault with him.

Yet as a matter of fact such a man might be held to be a lover of self in an exceptional degree. At all events he takes for himself the things that are noblest and most truly good. Also it is the most dominant part of himself that he indulges and obeys in everything. But as in the state it is the sovereign that is held in the fullest sense to be the state, and in any other composite whole it is the dominant part that is deemed especially to be that whole, so it is with man. He therefore who loves and indulges the dominant part of himself is a lover of self in the fullest degree. Again, the terms 'self-restrained' and 'unrestrained' denote being restrained or not by one's intellect, and thus imply that the intellect is the man himself.

Also it is our reasoned acts that are felt to be in the fullest sense our own acts, voluntary acts. It is therefore clear that a man is or is chiefly the dominant part of himself, and that a good man values this part of himself most. Hence the good man will be a lover of self in the fullest degree, though in another sense than the lover of self so-called by way of reproach, from whom he differs as much as living by principle differs from living by passion, and aiming at what is noble from aiming at what seems expedient. Persons therefore who are exceptionally zealous in noble actions are universally approved and commended; and if all men vied with each other in moral nobility and strove to perform the noblest deeds, the common welfare would be fully realized, while individuals also could enjoy the greatest of goods, inasmuch as virtue is the greatest good. Therefore the good man ought to be a lover of self, since he will then both benefit himself by acting nobly and aid his fellows; but the bad man ought not to be a lover of self, since he will follow his base passions, and so injure both himself and his neighbors. With the bad man therefore, what he does is not in accord with what he ought to do, but the good man does what he ought, since intelligence always chooses for itself that which is best, and the good man obeys his intelligence.

But it is also true that the virtuous man's conduct is often guided by the interests of his friends and of his country, and that he will if necessary lay down his life in their behalf. For he will surrender wealth and power and all the goods that men struggle to win, if he can secure nobility for himself; since he would prefer an hour of rapture to a long period of mild enjoyment, a year of noble life to many years of ordinary existence, one great and glorious exploit to many small successes. And this is doubtless the case with those who give their lives for others; thus they choose great nobility for themselves. Also the virtuous man is ready to forgo money if by that means his friends may gain more money; for thus, though his friend gets money, he himself achieves nobility, and so he assigns the greater good to his own share.

And he behaves in the same manner as regards honors and offices also: all these things he will relinquish to his friend, for this is noble and praiseworthy for himself. He is naturally therefore thought to be virtuous, as he chooses moral nobility in preference to all other things. It may even happen that he will surrender to his friend the performance of some achievement, and that it may be nobler for him to be the cause of his friend's performing it than to perform it himself.

Therefore in all spheres of praiseworthy conduct it is manifest that the good man takes the larger share of moral nobility for himself. In this sense then, as we said above, it is right to be a lover of self, though self-love of the ordinary sort is wrong.

Posted November 16, 2002



Signs and Portents

More urgent duties (specifically, the need to prepare for my APS Presidential Address) have kept me from blogging lately. Apologies to all those who've responded by blog or email -- I'll be replying to your comments here soon.

Science-fiction and fantasy fans have a number of new DVD releases to look forward to this month, including Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Spider-man, and the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (with 30 minutes of additional scenes!).

Particularly exciting for fans of Michael Straczynski's masterpiece Babylon 5, the greatest science-fiction series ever made (okay, with the possible exception of the original Twilight Zone), is the long-awaited release of the first season on DVD (with promise of more seasons to follow).

The first-season collection doesn't include the series pilot The Gathering, but that too is available on DVD, packaged together with the Babylon 5 tv-movie In the Beginning. The Gathering should be viewed before Season One. By contrast, In the Beginning -- although it takes place before The Gathering -- was not filmed until after Season Four, and should not be viewed until then either, lest many surprises be ruined. Consider yourself warned.

If you missed Babylon 5 when it was on the air, now's your chance to catch up with it. Another warning: the show takes a bit of time to hit its stride. (Some would say it didn't fully hit its stride until the third season. Certainly the first season didn't really begin to hit its stride until around episode 13.) Be patient; give it a chance. And don't assume, from the Star Trek-ish character of some of the early episodes, that you've seen this sort of thing before and you know what to expect. Keep in mind Ambassador G'kar's warning: "No one here is exactly what he appears."

Posted November 1st, 2002



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