Roderick T. Long  BUY MY BOOK OR ELSE!

Archives: November 2005

Back to archive list       Back to current page



It’s Your Duty to Vote!

To vote in this poll for the best libertarian academic blogs, that is.

For purposes of the poll, “libertarian” means “generally supportive of free markets, civil liberties, and individual rights,” while “academic” means that the “majority of blog members must be either currently enrolled students or have experience as professors or instructors at universities, colleges, and high schools, or as professional staff at educational, research and public policy institutes and programs.” So if you don’t see your favourite blog on the list, it may be just because it didn’t qualify.

But of course you will see your favourite blog on the list, because Austro-Athenian Empire is your favourite blog. (Or anyway it’s the favourite blog of your Noumenal Self, to whom you should defer in all things.)

Remember: If you don’t vote, the terrorists win!

[In other news: if your browser supports it, you’ll see a favicon at the top of the page. Thanks to fellow Left-Libertarian Blogospheroid Joel Schlosberg, who designed it based on my peace-anarchy-libersign.]

Posted November 30th, 2005



Civil War Aims?

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I just saw a C-span interview with William Styple, author of Generals in Bronze, which presents a fund of previously unknown interviews (by artist James Kelly) with various Civil War generals. It contains a lot of information that will apparently change many historians’ standard accounts of the war, but the point that most struck me was that two Union generals – Porter and Pleasonton – testified that the conditions to which Grant had to agree in order to receive command of the Army of the Potomac were that the war must not be ended until:

1. the South was crushed
2. slavery was abolished
3. Lincoln was re-elected
Point 2 seems to give grist to the mill of pro-Lincolnites (by suggesting that emancipation was part of the plan all along, not a last-minute war measure), while points 1 and 3 seem to give grist to the mill of anti-Lincolnites. Any comments from historians?

Posted November 26th, 2005



A View to a Kill

So is it morally permissible to kill innocent people in the course of retaliating against an aggressor? Ooh, good question; let’s ask Ayn Rand, a collection of whose responses to such questions has just been published as Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A.

A. Ayn Rand says: hell yes, kill the innocent
If we go to war with Russia, I hope the ‘innocent’ are destroyed with the guilty. ... Nobody has to put up with aggression, and surrender his right of self-defense, for fear of hurting somebody else, guilty or innocent. When someone comes at you with a gun, if you have an ounce of self-esteem, you answer with force, never mind who he is or who’s standing behind him. (p. 95)
B. Ayn Rand says: hell no, don’t kill the innocent
Whatever rights the Palestinians may have had – I don’t know the history of the Middle East well enough to know what started the trouble – they have lost all rights to anything: not only to land, but to human intercourse. If they lost land, and in response resorted to terrorism – to the slaughter of innocent citizens – they deserve whatever any commandos anywhere can do to them, and I hope the commandos succeed. (p. 97)
C. Ayn Rand says: gee, there’s no right answer
Even as a writer, I can barely project a situation in which a man must kill an innocent person to defend his own life. ... But suppose someone lives in a dictatorship, and needs a disguise to escape. ... So he must kill an innocent bystander to get a coat. In such a case, morality cannot say what to do. ... Personally, I would say the man is immoral if he takes an innocent life. But formally, as a moral philosopher, I’d say that in such emergency situations, no one could prescribe what action is appropriate. ... Whatever a man chooses in such cases is right – subjectively. (p. 114)
I have a difficult time seeing a consistent principle underlying these different answers: Americans killing innocent Russians strikes Rand as obviously permissible, while Palestinians killing innocent Israelis strikes her as obviously impermissible; but when killer and victim are fellow-subjects of the same dictatorship all this obviousness suddenly vanishes. The acceptability of innocent casualties seems to vary depending on political rather than philosophical considerations; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was just giving her knee-jerk emotional reaction to the politics of the actors involved.

In general Rand tended to be rather cavalier with questions of casuistry (the application of moral principles to hard cases) – a symptom, perhaps, of what I’ve long considered her chief philosophical failing: impatience. Elsewhere in the Q & A book she notes that “if there’s one thing I cannot do mentally, it’s handle anything more than two ‘ifs’” (p. 170) – as though this were a feature, not a bug. In fact she’s quite mistaken; in plotting a novel she could be enormously painstaking and patient in constructing a complex and detailed structure and making sure every bit of it fit; that’s because, as I believe, she loved writing fiction far more than she loved writing nonfiction, taking up the latter primarily as a theoretical biologist might decide to act as a medic during a plague. That, I hypothesise, is why she had so much less patience for detail in her nonfiction than in her fiction (I’ve written more about this here), which, I further hypothesise, helps to explain why she tended to allow herself (I don’t mean consciously) to answer these sorts of questions on the basis of gut feeling rather than a consistent philosophical analysis.

Rand’s anti-Communism gave her a motivation to answer (A) in a way that would favour the Americans, but to answer (B) in a way that would favour the Israelis. (Rand’s support for Israel, perhaps along with her bizarre judgment that Israel’s Arab antagonists are “still practically nomads,” seems to have been motivated by the fact that “Soviet Russia ... is sending the Arabs armaments.”: p. 96.) As nothing ideological was at stake in (C), she had no political motivation to answer it in any particular way. Hence, I suggest, the inconsistency. (For my own approach to the question of killing innocents see here and here.)

Posted November 24th, 2005



Star Search

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

As I’ve related in my libertarian bio article, I was first led to Ayn Rand – and thus, ultimately, both to philosophy in general and to Aristoteleanism and libertarianism in particular – by an article in the science fiction magazine Starlog, improbably illustrated by the now-famous fantasy artist Boris Vallejo (depicting the John Galt torture scene from Atlas Shrugged).

Unfortunately, my copy of that issue is for some reason long lost, and I didn’t remember either the date or the author. When I contacted the magazine’s offices they said they had no record of such an article, and suggested it must instead have appeared in Starlog’s sister publication Future Life, for which they no longer kept records. (This turned out to be a red herring.) I even got in touch with Kerry O’Quinn, former editor of Starlog and himself a Randian (he’s been trying for years to get a movie of Anthem made), but while he had a vague memory of there having once been a Boris Vallejo painting of Galt, he couldn’t recall it having run in either Starlog or Future Life, nor could he recall the article. Despite the vast quantities of Vallejo paintings on the internet I could also find no record of this Galt painting.

Well, I’ve finally managed to track down the issue in question – so I’m not crazy after all! (On that point, at least.) It’s Starlog issue 22, May 1979; the cover depicts Roger Moore as James Bond in Moonraker, flying through outer space without a helmet. The article, which I had remembered as being titled “The Science Fiction of Ayn Rand,” is actually titled “SF Currents in the Mainstream, Part IV: The Science Fiction of Ayn Rand” – which perhaps explains why Starlog’s offices couldn’t locate it (the subtitle may not have been listed in whatever records they were looking at). The author is one David Houston, described as being Starlog’s West Coast Editor; he is clearly quite knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward Rand’s works, but I can’t recall having come across his name in any other context. (No doubt I once read the other installments in the “SF Currents in the Mainstream” series but I don’t remember anything about them.)

Houston draws some interesting contrasts between Rand’s dystopian fiction and that of Orwell and Huxley:

The world of Anthem is the bleakest imaginable of future dystopias. If Huxley’s world can be likened to a glittering plastic chandelier, and Orwell’s likened to a searchlight that makes hiding impossible, then Rand’s is the sputtering stump of a candle. ...

Unlike 1984 and Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged presents not merely the dystopia of collectivism; it offers an alternative utopia of individual liberty, complete with a new philosophical basis for it.
Anyway, heureka. So if you’re interested in an engaging (though not spoiler-free) introduction to Rand’s work, along with a famous artist’s virtually unknown painting of John Galt, used copies of Starlog no. 22, May 1979, shouldn’t be too hard to track down on the internet (I found mine on eBay). And if anyone knows anything about this David Houston, please let me know.

Posted November 24th, 2005



Briefing for a Descent into Hellenistic

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Tomorrow morning I’m off to the Northeastern Political Science Association meetings in Philadelphia to present a paper on “Three Conceptions of Nature in Hellenistic Political Thought.” Here’s the abstract:

Hellenistic thought makes use of three different conceptions of nature: 1. nature as the default condition that will obtain if no effort is made to avoid it; 2. nature as an original simplicity that must be recovered through removal of conventional accretions; and 3. nature as an ideal telos to be achieved through moral education. The relations among these three conceptions and their implications for Hellenistic political philosophy will be explored.
Mainly I talk about how the Epicureans combined all three conceptions while the Stoics moved from (2) to (3). I’m also serving as a discussant on Fred Miller’s “Aristotle on Law,” Charles Butterworth’s “Philosophy of Law in Medieval Judaism and Islam,” and Anthony Lisska’s “Thomas Aquinas and the Foundations for a Secular Theory of Natural Law.” (All of this grows out of our various contributions to Fred Miller’s forthcoming anthology A History of Philosophy of Law from the Ancient Greeks to the Scholastics.)

Back to blogging next week!

Posted November 15th, 2005



It’s All In Her Head

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

According to this article in The Guardian, recent studies show that “[w]omen find the punchlines of jokes more satisfying than men do.” According to one Allan Reiss, a brain specialist at Stanford, this divergence can be explained in terms of neurophysiological differences between men and women – specifically, differences in “the prefrontal cortex, involved in language processing, and the mesolimbic reward centre, responsible for satisfactory feelings from things such as earning money or taking cocaine.” When men and women were shown the same cartoons, not only did the women laugh more, but these linguistic and reward portions of the brain were more active.

Dr Reiss said women seemed to analyse the cartoons more before rating them funny, because they were not necessarily expecting them to be as rewarding as men.

“Women appeared to have less expectation of a reward, which in this case was the punchline of the cartoon,” said Dr Reiss. “So when they got to the joke’s punchline, they were more pleased about it.” The funnier the cartoon, the more women’s reward centres were activated.

This was not the case for men, who seemed to expect the cartoons to be funny from the start.
Reiss’s causal hypothesis seems clear enough: women’s lower expectation of reward explains both why they analyse the joke more than men do (thus the greater prefrontal activity) and why they experience more of a pleasant surprise at the punchline (thus the greater mesolimbic activity). But notice what Reiss then goes on to conclude:

Dr Reiss said this had implications for the treatment of depression in women – if their reward centres are more sensitive to emotional stimuli, it may help explain why depression strikes twice as many women as men.
Clearly Reiss is assuming that these differences in brain activity between men and women are the factors that explain the psychological and behavioural differences. If women have lower expectations of reward, or get depressed more easily than men do, it’s just because the reward centers of their brains are “more sensitive” than men’s – a fact about their biology, not about their circumstances.

Yet consider how odd it would be for differing expectations of reward to be hardwired by our biology. We identify mental states – beliefs, desires, feelings, expectations – largely in terms of the role they play in our lives and activities. Part (only part – I’m not advocating functionalism) of what it means for something to be a “desire to eat X,” for example, is that it leads to pursuit of X, that together with the belief that Y is a means to getting X it generates a desire for Y, that it decreases in response to the information that X is poisonous, and so forth. A mental state that didn’t interact with other mental states and with overt behaviour in something like these ways simply wouldn’t count as a desire to eat X. Likewise then, an “expectation” that was invariant across changing experiences, that was immune to this sort of feedback, not strengthening with positive evidence or weakening with negative, would hardly count as an “expectation” at all; it would be a mere tropism. And this places a limit on the sorts of explanations of human behaviour we can regard as intelligible while still applying psychological concepts to it.

Suppose it’s true that women enjoy the punchlines of jokes more than men do. (I have no idea whether that’s true, but I’m happy to grant it for the sake of argument.) And suppose that Reiss’s proposed explanation is correct – that it’s because women have less expectation of reward. (I likewise have no idea whether that’s the correct explanation, but hey, I’ll play along.) Why on earth should we infer that it’s differences between men’s and women’s brains, rather than differences in their social circumstances, that explain these results? Might not women’s lower expectation of reward owe something to the fact that in our society women receive fewer rewards than men – that they bear a disproportionate burden of unpaid labour such as housework, that they earn less than men in the job market, that they are less likely to be credited for their accomplishments, that they are socialised to be nurturing and other-directed, etc.?

Now if women and men do have differing expectations of reward when they read cartoons, it’s hardly surprising that this difference is correlated with a difference in brain activity; we are embodied beings, after all. But it would be a mistake to infer that the difference must therefore be innate rather than acquired; surely acquired psychological characteristics have neurophysiological correlates just as much as innate ones do. (The alternative would be rather weird, no?)

Likewise, if women are more depression-prone than men, no doubt this psychological fact is correlated with some neurophysiological fact about women’s brains. I think it would be rather odd, though, to talk about this neurophysiological fact as the cause of the psychological fact; rather it just is the physical side of the psychological fact, the matter in which the form of depression-proneness is realised. At any rate, the correlation should not be taken as a license to disregard the possible (probable, surely) sociological causes of women’s greater liability to depression. If this liability corresponds to greater mesolimbic sensitivity, that hardly settles the question of whether greater mesolimbic sensitivity itself has sociological causes. I worry that these studies’ “implications for the treatment of depression in women” will be interpreted, mistakenly, as justifying a still greater emphasis on medicative rather than agentive approaches to therapy.

Neurophysiological determinism is bad philosophy – and it’s also bad politics. Placing the cause of women’s depression-proneness and lower expectation of reward in their neurophysiology rather than in their social circumstances provides a convenient excuse for neglecting or denying the need for any change in those circumstances. This is how power structures reinforce themselves – by generating their own ideological rationalisations.

I’m not making the silly charge that Dr. Reiss and the other scientists who produced this study are evil sexists deliberately plotting to perpetuate women’s subjection. What I am saying is that the conceptual tools we use to analyse the societies in which we live are also the products of those societies and will often share their shortcomings. Facts that challenge the dominant paradigm tend to become invisible, not because anybody is actively covering them up (though of course that sometimes happens) but because the dominant paradigm determines what is salient.

Update: see further discussion here.

Posted November 10th, 2005



Some People Push Sideways

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

David Beito (see here and here) identifies the French welfare state as a cause of the current Paris riots.

I think the French police state also bears some of the blame; see the articles by Laurent Lévy and Antoine Germa here, and commentary by Brad Spangler here, here, and here.

As in the United States, so likewise in France, class oppression employs not only the carrot of welfare but the stick of police brutality: dependence is rewarded and independence punished.

Paris is a sparkling jewel ringed by squalid slave pens; the inmates of the suburbs are quite right to be furiously angry, but unfortunately they have no idea how their anger might be constructively expressed – so they express it destructively instead, by beating and looting the innocent. (Which from the French government’s standpoint is probably just as well. While it can’t welcome the prospect of mass violence, it would surely find the prospect of mass nonviolence still less appealing.)

Well, clueless and futile political violence has a long history in the City of Light.

Posted November 8th, 2005



Better Killing Through Chemistry

Good news for the Bush claque – WMDs have finally been located in Iraq!

The bad news is, they’re being used by US troops.

From today’s Independent:

Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon.
Read the rest of the story here. (Conical hat tip to Lew Rockwell.)

The US complained about Saddam Hussein’s rape rooms – then created its own rape rooms at Abu Ghraib. The US complained about Hussein’s use of chemical weapons – now it’s using them itself. For Christ’s sake, how long will it take for people to get it?

The State is the coldest of all cold monsters ... whatever it saith it lieth; and whatever it hath it hath stolen.”

Posted November 8th, 2005



Red Star Rising

Check out Mars in the eastern sky just after sunset this week; it won’t be as bright again for another decade.

Posted November 6th, 2005



Antarctic Trilogi-gi!

Fun fact: Did you know that Jules Verne and H. P. Lovecraft each wrote a sequel to a novel by Edgar Allan Poe?

Sure enough. Needless to say, they took the story in somewhat different directions ….

I. Edgar Allan Poe – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket – 1838 (read it online) (buy it)

II. Jules Verne – An Antarctic Mystery; Or, The Sphinx of the Ice Fields – 1897 (read it online) (buy it)

III. H. P. Lovecraft – At the Mountains of Madness – 1936 (read it online) (buy it)

One of the delightful ironies (whether intended or unintended I’m not certain) of the Lovecraft book is the narrator’s automatic revulsion at the thought of a subjugated class rebelling.

N.B. Not having checked the original French I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the Verne translation.

In unrelated news, a grant application I helped write was recently awarded $200,000 of stolen taxpayer money. Woo-hoo!

Posted November 3rd, 2005



Antifascist Before It Was Cool

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Happy (Celtic) New Year!

My talk “They Saw It Coming: The 19th-Century Libertarian Critique of Fascism,” delivered at the Mises Institute Conference on Fascism, is now available in three different formats:

HTML text

Prepare to embark on a multimedia antifascist experience!

Posted November 1st, 2005



Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left
Ring Owner: Thomas Knapp Site: Blogosphere of the Libertarian Left
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Site Ring from Bravenet

Back to archive list      Back to current page