A friend of mine has started a podcast, called "Objections to Objectivism". You can listen to his work-in-progress here
. I think it's fantastic that the internet has been graced with more libertarian-oriented ethics exposition, so I highly encourage you, my dear reader, to at least give this one a try!
I've also provided my thoughts below; it's generally difficult for me to devote a lot of time to such a verbose analysis, and indeed I've even sworn off
what inevitably leads to political-related discourse. But, the kids have been otherwise occupied tonight, and I slept well last night-- so I'll make an exception this once.
The first episode provides, to my ears, a solid summary of objectivism, which aligns with what my own understanding was going in. It was concise, and effective. I also really enjoyed my friend's calm style
; it was fun hearing a voice that I know fairly well from in-person communication, in a novel setting!
The second episode attempts to provide critique of Ayn Rand's venerable philosophy by exploring the non-aggression principle. It succeeds, in that it got me so intellectually excited that I had to prematurely terminate my treadmill exercising, so that I could run to my PC and begin madly typing this very account! And indeed, perhaps that should be the very purpose of such podcasts: to stimulate discussion, and draw attention to meritorious-- however partially-- ideas!
But-- and engaged readers will surely have anticipated onrushing reservations-- I think this second episode somewhat misses its mark. Here is a hopefully interesting, entertaining counter-critique!
, the podcaster misses Ayn Rand's biggest, most insoluble logical quandary, one which she was unable to reconcile-- because it is irreconcilable: one can not hold the non-aggression principle, and also support the State, at the same time.
The State, by definition, is funded through compulsory taxation, i.e. theft. Theft is a violation of the non-aggression principle. Further, most of the actions taken by the State's actors, even post-taxation, are initiating force, as I explain here
I conjecture-- because I've seen the pattern before-- that the podcaster may have ignored this two-ton elephant in the room because he too holds a similar contradiction in his own mind. If he reads this counter-critique, perhaps he can provide clarification.
, the podcaster does a lot of what Ayn Rand called "philosophizing in midstream": creating hypothetical scenarios based on one set of premises, then bleaching away the context, and using it as a foundation for a counterargument.
The "some random guy is starving in the woods, is it ok for him to steal just a tiny
bit of bread" is the most egregious example; the short answer is, it is not right for him to steal no matter how hungry he is.
But why was he starving? How did he wind up in the forest? Is it a post-apocalyptic setting, and the property claim on the hypothetical house has been relinquished through vaporization of its owner? Or is the to-be thief evil, and is justifiably and rightfully being shunned by the community's members?
I've played the "gotcha!", "silicon-based aliens land from Mars and use brain washing, confetti-shooting ray guns on people", "let's see how many increasingly extreme, context-starved examples we can come up with" game, and it is an infinite, madness-inducing, intellectual mirror-hall, rat's maze to nowhere, that could go on pretty much forever. I can only take it in small doses before I grow weary.
, the podcaster uses too many emotional ploys in his counterarguments. For instance, the "what if I could steal just a tiny
bit from a billionaire", and give "life saving!" vaccinations to "desperate children!" What kind of a monster could reject such a proposition!
This kind of exposition is barely a whisker away
from an outright ad hominem to those who would provide perfectly rational reasons why such a proposal is morally bankrupt, and probably even counter-productive. In other words, it's "back in the real world..."
And besides, committing evil is evil, because the "value" derived from the act is provably subjective in nature. Consequentalism is a logically self-defeating fool's errand approach to ethics, which is why it always needs to be rationalized with emotional language, to compensate for its lack of intellectual rigor.
, the non-aggression principle has been applied to many situations much more nuanced than those which emerged from the podcaster's florid imagination, by innumerable libertarians over time-- many of whom Ayn Rand herself was in frequent (and, interestingly, sometimes not too friendly) contact with.
As an overall course, it wasn't clear to me how trying to poke holes in the non-aggression principle was a criticism of Objectivism per se, since Ayn Rand merely adopted that principle from others, who I've personally read or heard explain all of the "holes" that the podcaster points out. It makes more sense to take objection with and seek answers from them, not Rand.
As a fun exercise, I've supplied a few of those explanations below.
, the presence of gray areas does not invalidate a principle; just because it's difficult to tell if someone committed murder in a given instance does not invalidate the principle that murder is wrong.
That's why, in the real world, States have court systems, and anarchist societies have non-binding arbitration and other forms of communal dispute resolution. The real world is complicated!
The podcaster devotes time to dismissing the non-aggression principle based on "where do you draw the line" argumentation. But this same argumentation is true of any
ethical or legal-based system. Ask a jurist from any criminal trial why they and their peers deliberated for hours or days
regarding their verdict; did the culprit actually
perform fraud, when it was a fine line? Did the person actually
escalate the tragic conflict? And so on.
Non-Aggression Principle explanations
- Parenting is fully compatible with the non-aggression principle. Fellow contributor, Dude, once explained this compatibility in a post. I will re-articulate the argument here:
- Children have the value of life. If they didn't, they'd stop eating and keel over dead (as an infant), or kill themselves (as an older child)
- Children begin life totally unable to independently fulfill their value for life, yet gradually become more and more able to as they age
- When you do something immoral, you live with the consequences (people won't want to interact with you, you might be harmed via someone else's self-defense, and so on)
- When you do something moral, you get to live with the consequences (for example, obtain property rights over whichever discrete, physical thing you've made or labored upon)
- When you inflict life on a child, you live with the mandatory consequence of helping them fulfill their preference for life, only to the moment-to-moment, varying degree that they are unable to do so on their own, or until they are able to rationally express that they no longer value life
- Your assistance must follow the principle of proportionality; your forceful actions must never exceed the bare minimum required to help the child fulfill its value towards life-- just like during self-defense, where your forceful reaction must be the bare minimum required to neutralize the threat
- The same applies to a drunk man; an empiricist must conclude that the unconscious drunk values life, because he hasn't killed himself yet. You are not initiating force by pulling him out of the middle of the street
- You are also not obligated to do so, because that would imply a positive right-- positive rights are logical impossibilities
- The same thing applies to the mentally ill; whomever inflicted life upon them is obligated forever, as the child never obtains the ability to reason. Absent a genetic caretaker, someone else could "homestead" the mentally disabled person, and take on that responsibility, if they so choose (and as is frequently the case with voluntary, charitable organizations)
- Loud music-- merely annoying, or potentially even deadly, air vibrations-- is a form of property violation, just like combustion smoke, the kinetic force of a bomb explosion, or the poisoning of a well. The exact same logic applies to noise as it does to any of these other forms of aggression.
Specifically, one is morally within their rights to act in self-defense, according to the law of proportionality-- meaning, the use of the minimal amount of force needed to counter the severity of the threat.
Maybe the victim can sleep with ear-blocking mechanisms on, if the music-- the air vibrations-- are mild? "Pick your battles", as the wise say. More severe vibrations could require dispute resolution; the vast majority of neighbors' self-interest will compel them to merely turn the volume down, for a plethora of social-fabric driven motivations.
Extreme cases, where the vibrations could shatter ear drums or break windows, call for the same kind of self-defense that would an active gunman situation. Fortunately in the real world, those cases are extraordinarily rare.
- Intellectual property, the ultimate oxymoron, is a topic which I've utterly debunked here. Besides the arguments presented therein, "theft" means to deprive someone of a physical possession; by definition, you can't "steal" someone's ideas, or words, because they still retain their copies.
Really, "intellectual property" is born from the provably fallacious, classical liberalism notion of the "labor theory of value", which was adopted by such intellectual heavyweight luminaries as Karl Marx (no sarcasm at all intended here, I assure you).
- Lying; you can't universalize it, therefore, it cannot be moral to lie-- in fact, lying is a violation of the victim's natural rights.
Fraud is lying; it is the reneging of a previously, voluntarily-entered upon contract. It is an initiation of force, because it violates others' natural rights.
When you exchange goods with someone else-- for example, if you sell a product that you've made-- you are entering into a contract with the other party, where they are acting according to the terms set forth in the agreement. One such term is the stated quality, or condition of the product.
If you have misrepresented that quality or condition, you have violated the contract that you have made, committing fraud (lying) in the process.
- Preemptive force; it is not the initiation of force to hypothetically hurt someone in the future, in the same way that one can not claim ownership of a house in the hypothetical case that they might buy it in the future.
The only exception-- and this is an excellent (and unfortunately somewhat rare) intersection of the American judicial system pillars, and natural law-- is that you aren't providing a real and imminent threat to their property. In fact, this notion dates even back to English common law.
Unfortunately, the favorable intersection ends there: clearly, simply driving a car is not an initiation of force. Swerving a car towards a pack of pedestrians is, in the same way that pointing a loaded gun at them, or actively trying to knife them with a machete, or pointing an armed nuclear missile at them, is.
Each action needs to be evaluated separately. "Speeding" harms no one; ramming into their vehicle does. Assuming otherwise leads to the kind of confusion that the podcaster was exhibiting; to the kind of "worldly irrationalities" of which Kant warned when trying to universalize a mistaken principle.
- Consequentalism; On the prior bullet's note, and with regards to ethics, consequentialism is an invalid form of reasoning, because value preferences are subjective.
The podcaster asks if one should balance force, with "benefit". But he doesn't define "benefit"; what one person views as "beneficial", another will view as "harmful".
Whenever someone says that the State should steal, or that initiating force is "worth it" (to use the podcaster's language) because it's "beneficial", that someone is injecting-- sometimes unconsciously (as I'm sure is the case with the podcaster), other times malevolently-- their own subjective values, and are assuming the (illegitimate) authority to impose those values on everyone else, at gun point.
This is why Ayn Rand was rightfully opposed to the notion of the "common good"-- it presupposes what "good" is; it sneaks unspoken, subjective values in through the back door. People often fall for these claims, because they aren't attentive or vigilant enough to notice the parlour trick. Josef Stalin called these kinds of people "useful idiots".
The podcaster uses the example of preventing a "foolish accident". Note the value-loaded term: "foolish"-- but with no accompanying explanation as to what "foolish" entails, nor an acknowledgement that what appears foolish to one man, is perfectly in line with another man's subjective value preferences.
Everyone thought that this writer was foolish for attempting to drive a rear-wheel drive sports car through the Minnesota winters. And yet, subjectively, he was willing to trade perceived safety, for driving engagement. Incidentally, the car has wound up being a marvel to drive in snow, proving the "foolish" notions to be outright incorrect!
- The infamous trolley car! I'm ending with this one, because it's one of my all-time favorites!
If I had a dollar every time someone brought up the trolley car, and how it was so obviously great to choose to run over a single person people instead of multiple (or to push the fat slob over the bridge-- there are so many variations of this theme that I've lost count), I'd be living on a beach somewhere!
In reality, the moral act is to leave the switch alone, for the simple, irrefutable reason that it's impossible to cardinally rate the value of human lives; is running over a single person still better, if the multitude contains a miraculously resurrected Adolf Hitler amongst their number? What if the "multiples" group contains mere janitors, whereas the one is a renowned brain surgeon?
The podcaster says that it's "intuitive" to kill the few over the many. The use of such a squishy term is an admission that there is no logical or moral way to solve the quandary. The only permanent is that killing anyone is wrong-- which means to ignore the switch altogether.