Monday, April 27, 2020

A Meditation About the Popularity of "Self-Sacrifice"

Politics is force -- and the initiation of force necessarily creates classes of victims and their victimizers. Politics invariably results in "zero sum," or "win/lose" relationships, where some people succeed only at the expense of others. Politics thus fuels resentments, hatred, and social polarization -- which we see all around us, as our society has become so thoroughly politicized.

The coercive interactions that characterize the political world are exactly the opposite of the peaceful, voluntary trade transactions that characterize a free market, which are "win/win" relationships to mutual benefit. Every day at checkout counters we willingly exchange our money for goods or services, and both parties to the transaction customarily smile and say, "Thank you." Why? Because we have both gained something we wanted from the transaction. Neither party has taken something from the other, against his will. It's a peaceful, "win/win" trade, to mutual benefit.

So, you'd think that people who truly want a peaceful, benevolent, harmonious society would realize this, embrace free market capitalism, and reject coercive political interventions that pit people against each other. But no.


Here's where I think Ayn Rand and her followers got things a bit wrong about the popularity of "self-sacrifice." They believe that all value-preferences are driven by philosophical ideas. And they believe intellectuals have spread the moral doctrine of altruistic self-sacrifice, which lies at the heart of various collectivist ideologies. They conclude that to fight the left effectively, they must train their fire upon the moral idea of self-sacrifice, philosophically refuting it, thus undermining its appeal.

But I think this interpretation is mistaken. On its face, self-sacrifice seems unattractive and nonsensical. I believe few people ever become liberals or leftists because they find self-sacrifice to be appealing, or because they've become persuaded of its merits through philosophical argument. Instead, I think their affinity for "selflessness" is a conclusion they've derived -- perhaps even reluctantly, but quite logically -- from their broader worldview or "Narrative" about how the world works.

What worldview?

A huge percentage of people harbor the misguided view that economic transactions are zero-sum, winner-loser relationships. They believe human economic interests are fundamentally in conflict, so that the "self-interest" and gain by some necessitates the "exploitation" and sacrifice of others. They therefore see socio-economic interactions in terms of a binary choice: either gain power over others, or submit to the power of others. And that's why they gravitate to the "class conflict" theories of Marx and other collectivists. Those political theories ratify and rationalize their underlying core belief about the inherent predatory "unfairness" of economic relationships.

This inherent-conflict-of-interests Narrative is rooted deep within humanity's tribal past, when human relationships were all about dominance or submission. We have to remember that, historically, free-market, win-win capitalism is very new -- and from the outset it was misinterpreted through the distorting lens of the traditional zero-sum, win-lose worldview. Early capitalists were thus "robber barons," not society's creative benefactors. Marx, and generations he influenced, construed capitalism and social relationships in terms of class warfare. Today, "identity politics" rests on the same view of inherent tribal conflicts of interest among demographic groups.

So, if I'm right about this, then many people's idealization of the ethics of self-sacrifice makes a warped kind of sense. They come to it not from philosophical/ideological persuasion, but from their deep-seated belief in inherent conflicts of interest among men -- and the corollary conclusion that the only way for people to live in social harmony is for all sides to sacrifice their "selfish" interests for the sake of "the common good."

This puts a different interpretive spin on the popularity of the morality of altruistic self-sacrifice. Again, on its face, self-sacrifice makes no sense. Deliberately sacrificing one's own best interests and well-being is bizarre, and why people should want to accept it as a moral ideal is even more bizarre. Ayn Rand and her followers, who have viewed human action as powered entirely by philosophical ideas, tried to explain the popularity of self-sacrifice by arguing that philosophers and thinkers have pushed it upon the gullible in the form of various religious and philosophical "isms." They have written countless books and articles trying to refute it as a moral idea. Yet we see that their critiques have had little societal influence.

My explanation for their failure is that their attacks on self-sacrifice, though philosophically accurate, are strategically misguided. Altruistic self-sacrifice is less a moral cause than a moral conclusion, for those who believe that socio-economic relationships necessarily involve inherent conflicts of interest. If that's your Narrative about the social world -- if you see transactions as nothing but power relationships about dominance and submission -- then you have a logical choice to make: either to become a cold-blooded predatory brute, or to remain "nice" and allow yourself to be an exploited victim. Those who truly believe in this Narrative may conclude they'd prefer to keep their self-respect by being victimized, rather than join the criminals and brutes. Such erroneous premises and conclusions would explain, for example, the rise of Christianity and the appeal of its altruistic ethics, as summarized in "the Sermon on the Mount."

Is my view of this so far-fetched? In a discussion on Facebook with Objectivists, I found many participants recoiled from the view that even emergency situations are zero-sum conflicts that might require us to become brutes, surviving at the expense of others. That is not the Randian view of "selfishness": Most principled individualists, in fact, would prefer to keep their humanity and self-esteem by dying nobly rather than survive like predatory beasts.

Well, to them I say: Imagine how you'd live if you truly believed that normal life was all about zero-sum conflicts of interest -- that each transaction under capitalism entailed someone gaining at someone else's expense. You'd conclude, logically, that economic winners would have to be rapacious robber barons. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep your soul, you'd have to sacrifice your prospects for economic well-being, doing your work solely for the love of it, and not for commercial success. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep the economic predators in check, we need a strong cop to suppress predatory "greed": a powerful government to regulate Evil Businessmen.

If my interpretation of altruism's appeal is correct, then the real target of individualists' moral criticism ought to be the zero-sum Narrative -- the false belief in inherent economic conflicts of interest -- and not altruistic self-sacrifice per se, which is mainly an emotionally driven reaction arising from the zero-sum worldview. We need to show that economic relationships in a free society are "win/win," not "win/lose." We need to explain what 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat labeled "economic harmonies."

And we need to teach that the "win/win" marketplace is the moral antithesis of the coercive world of politics, where all relationships are in fact zero-sum and "win/lose." The more relationships we can keep outside the political realm of force and coercion, and within the private sector of peaceful production and trade, the better for our social harmony.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Real Meaning of "Natural Rights"

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, devotees of individual liberty rightly became concerned about the kinds of drastic restrictions that were placed on our personal and economic freedoms. Is such interference with freedom ever justified? If so, what restrictions are excessive? And how long should they remain in force?

There are no easy answers to such questions. But they do raise broader and more fundamental questions about the nature and meaning of “rights.”

Some people object to any restrictions on individual freedoms, even during emergencies, seeing them as violations of their fundamental individual rights. That objection usually arises from the traditional view of individual rights, as being “natural” and/or “God-given” in origin. By this view—broadly accepted by most conservatives, libertarians, and even Objectivists—individual rights are elements or aspects of human nature itself. They are “intrinsic” or “inherent” parts of human beings; thus, they are “absolute” and may not be abridged or curtailed by anyone, at any time, for any reason—not even in an emergency.

This belief—that rights are intrinsic to human nature, and thus immutable and inviolate “by nature”—owes its appeal among liberty lovers to their justifiable fear of socially subjective theories of rights. This latter view, promoted by the political left, holds that rights are merely grants from some authority figure or from “society,” which confer special privileges, freedoms, goods, or services upon designated individuals. Viewing a right as a socially granted privilege implies that the source of rights is the granting authority. That, in turn, implies that the granting authority—whether it is a king, dictator, or social majority—is morally and legally entitled to exercise unlimited dominion over individuals. It means that individuals may act only by the authority’s permission.

But equating “rights” with “permissions” negates the very meaning of rights. To act “by right” means to act autonomously, without further permission. A right is a moral-legal entitlement—not a social permission slip.

It is therefore understandable that lovers of liberty would reject the left’s bogus interpretation of rights as socially subjective and instead seek some objective basis for the concept. Since the days of John Locke, those freedom-lovers of a secular bent have tried to ground the concept of rights in nature itself; those of a religious bent argue that individuals’ rights are “endowed by their Creator.”

But both err in thinking that their respective approaches provide the concept of rights with an unassailable, objective foundation.

Let me state up front that I believe the concept of rights does have an objective basis in certain facts of human nature. However, while my perspective draws from Ayn Rand’s seminal writings on this topic, I don’t believe the presentation she offered in her essay “Man’s Rights” (Ch. 12, The Virtue of Selfishness, November 1964) distinguishes her view unambiguously from traditional “natural rights” theories. And I do not accept theories of “natural rights” or “God-given rights” as they almost always are expounded.

First, the “God-given rights” view is problematic, not only because it reduces claims of rights to mere articles of faith, but also because I don’t believe there is any biblical reference to a concept or principle of “individual rights” that supports such claims by religious believers. Such assertions are, at best, shaky interpretations that believers have merely inferred from cherry-picked passages or ideas in the Bible, then inflated in meaning and elevated in status to become religious doctrine. Even a devout Christian ought to find such interpretations disturbingly arbitrary—especially when elaborated into full-blown theories of rights nowhere in evidence in their Bible. One does not successfully counter the left’s subjective notions of rights by offering, in their place, equally subjective appeals to faith.

That said, I want to focus at greater length upon the broader, more inclusive claims that “natural rights” are essences or elements of human nature itself. I do not accept that view, either. For me, rights are not aspects or parts of nature, or some sort of essences that exist in or arise from human nature.

Rather, I hold that rights are objectively derived moral principles.

What do I mean by that?

To illustrate: Does something called “honesty” exist in nature, as a kind of actual thing? Of course not. Honesty is an abstract moral principle, devised by men to govern certain kinds of actions. However, this moral principle is not subjective or arbitrary: It is rooted in objective facts. What facts? These: To survive and thrive, we humans must face reality—that is, face facts, and deal with them. Likewise, to survive and thrive within a human society, we must be truthful with each other. Why? Because civilized society rests upon mutual trust, and mutual trust rests in turn upon our honesty with each other. Without honesty and trust, all the values we gain from social relationships are threatened and undermined. If dishonesty and mistrust become the norm, civilization unravels. So, there is an objective, fact-based, life-serving need for us to uphold the moral principle of honesty—to root our social relationships in facts, not in fantasies, lies, and deception. It is therefore in our own natural best interests to uphold that principle firmly and consistently, as a “moral absolute” in normal circumstances.

But not in all circumstances. For instance, you don’t owe honesty to a criminal or dictator who is trying to harm you by force. The principle of honesty serves a vital purpose: It is meant to further our lives and well-being in social interaction. That principle can’t be applied unilaterally, in circumstances where our lives and well-being are being threatened by those who don’t recognize the principle of honesty—or any other moral principles—and who would use our honesty against us. Exercised unilaterally, honesty would assist aggressors and thus become a threat to our lives and well-being.

Here’s the point: We don’t live in order to practice honesty; we practice honesty in order to live. Abstract moral principles exist to serve our lives; our lives do not exist to serve abstract moral principles. The latter is a “platonic” view of principles—a view of principles as ends in themselves, rather than human life as an end in itself.

The same goes for the moral principle of individual rights. Like honesty, rights are not things that exist somewhere in Nature. They are moral principles, devised by men, but rooted in objective facts. What facts? These: To create and then survive and thrive in a human society, we need to view and respect each individual as an end in himself—not as sacrificial prey for others. Why? Because a predatory, kill-or-be-killed society is to no one’s long-term best interests. So, to avoid reverting to primitive savagery, we must recognize, as basic principles of social morality, that each individual has a moral right to live for his own sake (the right to life); a moral right to take non-predatory actions to further his life (the right to liberty); and a moral right to transform the resources of nature into the products he requires to sustain his life, including the right to keep, use, and/or trade such creative products with others (the right to property).

In other words, the moral purpose of the concept of rights is to establish essential moral boundaries among people, so that within his own personal boundaries each sovereign individual may act freely to support his own existence, well-being, and happiness. (This is what I understand Ayn Rand to have meant in her essay “Man’s Rights” when she defined a “right” as “a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context.”)

That is the “natural,” objective source of the moral principles we call “rights.” And we need to hold these principles firmly and consistently, too, as “moral absolutes” in normal circumstances.

But again, not in all circumstances. For example, no concept of—or need for—“rights” would ever arise in the mind of a Robinson Crusoe living alone on a desert island, because there are no others present who could pose a threat to him, or argue with him about food and shelter and land boundaries. The moral issue of rights arises only in social relationships: only when other people are around to dispute or transgress upon the protective moral boundaries between and among individuals.

Also, the principle of rights cannot apply during catastrophes that break down all civilized boundaries and institutions—such as a war, when invading enemies transgress all boundaries and threaten all lives. Warfare is a crisis circumstance in which rights are under such direct and dire assault that they can no longer be applied and exercised by the combatants, and often by those caught in the crossfire. During such chaotic emergencies, the only moral mandate for those under attack must be to stop the aggressors, to end or escape the emergency situation, and to restore the moral order and normal civilized life. At such times, when the survival of the entire civilized framework of rights is at stake, it may temporarily become necessary for the defending forces to take drastic actions that transgress the rightful boundaries that normally apply among individuals—such as sending the defending army across private property to engage enemy forces, or enforcing curfews, or risking collateral harm to non-combatants by bombing the enemy. Horrible as these things are, the alternative is morally unthinkable: to let the aggressor prevail to harm and enslave all. The only options, then, are among degrees of short-term or long-term harm to individuals; and the ultimate long-term moral objective is to minimize and end that harm. So, the morally proper course for the defenders is to terminate the threat as quickly as possible, in order ultimately to restore and protect the rights of the threatened individuals.

I see the same principle applying during a deadly epidemic. In a situation where a potentially lethal virus is spread rapidly by individuals through normal socializing, it may become necessary—temporarily—to impose rational social restrictions in order to get the disease under control, or suppressed to at least a manageable level. Nobody has a “right” to engage freely in conduct that poses an unreasonable risk of harm to others. And during a deadly epidemic, that’s exactly what normal social behavior does. This does not mean a total, long-term lockdown of society, which would cause its own catastrophic harm and death. But prudent, temporary requirements, such as “social distancing,” wearing face masks in certain public areas, and short-term closures of places where people congregate, make sense—again, only until the disease is brought under manageable control (e.g., sufficient medical supplies and tests are available, hospitals and emergency services are no longer overrun, etc.).

To sum up: “Rights” are not arbitrary social privileges and subjective conventions; nor are they elements, aspects, or metaphysical essences existing within nature itself. What we call “natural rights” should be understood instead as moral principles, defined and applied by men, but arising from our identification of the objective, factual requirements of human nature in social relationships. To survive and thrive in society, we humans require moral boundaries to protect us from predatory aggression and to resolve disputed property claims peacefully. Rights are the moral principles we employ to establish such moral boundaries between and among individuals.

We can debate exactly how such principles apply, or where and when emergency conditions arise that might require temporary exceptions. But this view of the basis and meaning of objective natural rights is, I believe, rationally defensible. And it establishes firm moral-legal barriers to stop would-be predators, tyrants, and mobs.

(Copyright 2020 by Robert Bidinotto. All rights reserved.)

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Am I Still an "Objectivist"?

As a college freshman way back in 1967, I became enamored of the novels and ideas of Ayn Rand. In the decades since, my writing and speaking has been influenced in profound ways by that late philosopher and novelist's fertile mind and artistic sensibilities. I also held positions in various organizations and publications promoting her work.

During those years, I referred to myself by the name she gave to her philosophy. I was an "Objectivist" and I promoted "Objectivism."

But I no longer use those terms in self-description. Nor am I involved in any Objectivist organizations, publications, or "movements." For anyone interested, I'd like to explain precisely why, and where I now stand.

Without getting into complicated specifics, my essential philosophical ideas have not much changed, as anyone reading my nonfiction or fiction would quickly realize. The Randian influence is deep and unmistakable. 
However, my views about the validity, usefulness, and desirability of a formal movement of "individualists" who are organized in ideological groups and hierarchies, which are run and policed by designated "representatives" or "intellectual heirs" (including self-proclaimed ones), have changed, and radically. In fact, even during the years I was mired within the "movement," I argued against any such organizational structures, as being in contradiction with the substance of individualism. (For example, if you can find a copy, in a recorded lecture, "Organized Individualism? Building the Objectivist Community.")

Anyone who takes seriously the lessons of Rand's novel The Fountainhead would have to reject any such creature as an "organized Objectivist movement." (For those familiar with the novel: Can you imagine its individualist hero, Howard Roark , subjugating himself as a "member" or "follower" or even "student of Objectivism"?) For some years, Ayn Rand allowed such an organized movement to be established to promote her philosophy; it was called the Nathaniel Branden Institute. It later imploded disastrously -- ostensibly because of personal issues between herself and its founder, but actually because of the issue of "intellectual representation." 

Rand had designated the eponymous head of NBI as her "intellectual heir and representative," her public spokesman and champion -- the supposed embodiment of her ideas. In practice, that meant he was a professional yes-man, required to perfectly reflect and champion her ideas -- not his own. That inevitably proved to be untenable: A philosophy of individualism cannot be promulgated as a dogma. Yet the nature and structure of an organization aiming to perfectly embody somebody's entire philosophy -- to the letter and without deviation -- mandates and encourages dogmatism.

If you read Rand's own published statements in the immediate wake of the NBI debacle, you'd see that she learned that lesson explicitly. She wrote that she always had been dubious about an "organized movement of Objectivists" and never wished to be the head of one, let alone forced into the role of trying to police "misrepresentations" of her philosophy. She also -- again explicitly -- stated she would never again authorize or endorse any such Objectivist organization. But she was barely cold in her coffin before a new, self-proclaimed "intellectual heir" (never and nowhere did she ever designate him as such) declared that, with her death, that restriction no longer applied. He then created an organization, the Ayn Rand Institute, which essentially mirrored the disastrous approach of NBI.

I participated for a long time in a different, competing Objectivist organization, one that positioned itself as hostile to the notion of any intellectual gurus, hierarchies, and dogmas. But I still found the core problem had not been effectively addressed -- because it began with the label of the philosophy itself.

Ayn Rand had developed her personal philosophical system and slapped a label on it, one in which she also declared a proprietary interest: "Objectivism." This put her admirers in a moral quandary. Were only those who agreed with Rand's every significant utterance "Objectivists"? Or could one call himself an "Objectivist" if he agreed with most of her philosophical essentials, but disagreed with her on this or that specific application or inference? And if the latter, where, exactly, did one draw the lines?

Years (and may I say, lives) have been wasted in an absurd tug-of-war among individuals and organizations over the "moral right" to use Rand's invented label in self-description. People have built their entire self-esteem (and careers) upon that "Objectivist" title; upon their "loyalty" to specific utterances and positions of Rand's (and those of her self-appointed, posthumous interpreters); and upon whether or not particular notions are "essential" to Objectivism. The determination of what is and isn't "essential" is completely arbitrary and subjective, ranging from the utterly dogmatic ("Objectivism is everything and only what Rand wrote and said of a philosophical nature") to the utterly relativistic (e.g., notions by various self-proclaimed "Objectivists" who equate that term with moral and political views Rand herself loathed and denounced).

I saw that the basic error of Rand -- as an advocate of independent judgment and individualism -- had been to ascribe a label to her personal philosophy (with all its countless implications), but then try to limit and restrict its "authorized" use by others...unless they conformed completely to every dotted "i" and crossed "t" of her own interpretation. Understandably, she imposed these restrictions about use of the label lest others publicly "misrepresent" her and damage her reputation. Yet this put sincere admirers in an impossible position: either slavishly nod and parrot Rand's every utterance, or abandon the label "Objectivist." If the former, then being an "Objectivist" means being a dogmatist -- which contradicts the individualist epistemological and moral basis of the philosophy. If the latter, though, then the only real "Objectivists" are those who abandon the label, in order to preserve their own intellectual independence and moral integrity.

Absurdly, five decades after they first arose, these debates continue to rage throughout the small and insular Objectivist subculture. Nearly a decade ago, I happily abandoned that subculture and its baggage. At my age, life had become far too short to remain mired in such pointless and preposterous preoccupations. To what end? Will the "winners" of the rhetorical battles swell their chests with pride that they -- and only they -- are the "true Objectivists"? Will that have the slightest substantive impact upon the course of their lives, let alone upon the course of the world outside their skulls?

Finally, from a personal, practical, and professional standpoint, using the shared label also meant having to constantly, publicly disavow a multitude of idiots and scoundrels masquerading as "Objectivists," and bizarre notions advanced as "Objectivism." Sadly, that included some of Rand's own private foibles and erroneous ideas. Like the "Scarlet Letter," the label has become a way for ideological enemies to employ "guilt by association" smears, linking the decent people using it to odious others, and to their dubious views. I have no time or interest in answering for the private quirks and weird ideas of total strangers, with whom I would be lumped by a shared, artificial label, but very little else.

As a principled individualist, I answer only for myself. (And I use the term "principled individualist" purely descriptively, and not capitalized.)

I cannot tell you how relieved and liberated I have felt for the past decade to be light years removed from "the Objectivist movement," and from its unproductive distractions. I remain proud of many things I accomplished during my years of involvement in that movement. But I wasted way, way too much time myopically mired in a silly, rhetorical tug-of-war over an unimportant label.

So, I no longer use the label "Objectivist." I neither have nor seek any affiliations or involvement with organs of "the Objectivist movement" --
which is "moving" nowhere, and which is an oxymoron, if you take seriously the point of The Fountainhead. I leave such petty preoccupations to those with far more years left to fritter away.

If you wish to label me anything, try my name.

Likewise, if you want to argue with my ideas, try arguing with mine -- not Ayn Rand's, or Leonard Peikoff's, or David Kelley's, or anyone else you care to name.