Hume, Rand, and The “Is-Ought Problem”

I want to take a look at a well-known assertion regarding ethics, or the foundations of ethics, made by philosopher David Hume. It is presented as a sort of “problem”, that seems fairly intractable for those of us who are secularist, and also assert that there are certain “shoulds” or principles of morality that one should follow. This is David Hume’s “Is-Ought Problem”. After I look at what Hume said, I will compare his approach on this subject to that taken by Ayn Rand. My goal is to show why I think the logic of her philosophy would largely regard the “is-ought gap” as a product of Hume’s mistaken view of both reason and his misunderstanding of the fact that the rational IS the moral and the moral IS the rational.

Hume says:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.” (Book III “Of Morals”, part I “Of Virtue and Vice In General”, section I “Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason”, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739))

In essence, Hume says morality is not based in what he calls “reason”. What is “reason” for Hume?:

Those who affirm that virtue is nothing but a conformity to reason; that there are eternal fitnesses and unfitnesses of things, which are the same to every rational being that considers them; that the immutable measures of right and wrong impose an obligation, not only on human creatures, but also on the Deity himself: All these systems concur in the opinion, that morality, like truth, is discerned merely by ideas, and by their juxta-position and comparison.” (Book III “Of Morals”, part I “Of Virtue and Vice In General”, section I “Moral Distinctions Not Derived From Reason”, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739))

Lets contrast this view “morality” and “reason” with the same concepts of Ayn Rand:

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a “moral commandment” is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments. My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem. Reason, as his only tool of knowledge—Purpose, as his choice of the happiness which that tool must proceed to achieve—Self-esteem, as his inviolate certainty that his mind is competent to think and his person is worthy of happiness, which means: is worthy of living. These three values imply and require all of man’s virtues, and all his virtues pertain to the relation of existence and consciousness: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride.” (Galt’s Speach, emphasis added, For the New Intellectual, pg. 128, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html)

So, I think that Rand would say in response to Hume:

You say that we cannot find an “ought” from an “is”, where an “is” is based in “…the ordinary way of reasoning…” that an “ought” is not “…founded merely on the relations of objects nor is perceived by reason…”. But, WHY do you make the “…usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not…”? WHY do you make is-statements at all? In other words, to what END do you aim when you REASON (make “is statements” based on your observation and thinking)? Hume makes a distinction between REASON on the one hand (so-called “usual copulations of propositions, is and is not”) and moral directives. But, he never discusses WHY one should reason at all? What is the “reason for reasoning”?

To recap, Ayn Rand says:

If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man’s only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a ‘moral commandment’ is a contradiction in terms…My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these….” (Galt’s Speach, For the New Intellectual, pg. 128, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/morality.html)

In other words, as I see it, the difference between Rand and Hume on this point is Rand doesn’t just ASSUME that one should go about reasoning -making “is-statements” as a sort of axiom. She says: IF you want to live, THEN you must recognize reality, which is what it is, regardless of human choice to the contrary. Similarly, Rand asks why you should follow ANY “oughts” at all?:

The proper approach to ethics, the start from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any touch of Kantianism, can best be illustrated by the following story. In answer to a man who was telling her that she’s got to do something or other, a wise old Negro woman said: ‘Mister, there’s nothing I’ve got to do except die.’…Reality confronts man with a great many ‘musts,’ but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘You must, if—‘ and the ‘if’ stands for man’s choice: ‘—if you want to achieve a certain goal.’ You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think—if you want to know what to do—if you want to know what goals to choose—if you want to know how to achieve them.” (“Causality versus Duty”, Philosophy Who Needs It, emphasis added, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/responsibility-obligation.html)

For Rand, the concept of “ought” or “should” or “must” only makes sense IF you ultimately CHOOSE to live. For Rand, both an “IS” statement and an “OUGHT” statement only makes sense if you’ve chosen to live. An “is” without the choice to live is purposeless, and an “ought” without the choice to live is unintelligible. I think that for Rand, the distinction between “IS” and “OUGHT” is not so great. Every “it is” implies an “I should”, IF you want to live. For instance: “Certain strains of fungus kill bacteria” (An “it is”.) Implies “I must try to isolate the substances involved to cure human diseases.” (An “I should.” or “I ought”.) “Plants grow more when they’ve received certain chemical substances in their soil” (An “it is”). I must put these chemicals, called fertilizer, into the soil to increase my crop yields” (An “I should” or “I ought”.)

For Rand, the only “oughts” are those that are based in the choice to live and the nature of reality. Any “oughts” not based in this are to be swept aside. Therefore, most of the “oughts” found in the Bible, are either to be rejected, or only accepted within certain contexts. “Though shalt not steal.” Becomes “Don’t violate the property rights of others.” But, this doesn’t mean you cannot take the property of another in an emergency situation so long as you can recompense them. This is because the “ought” of “respect for property rights” is, like all “oughts” based in the choice to live and the particular facts confronting you in reality.

Hume, and others, get into trouble because they accept “systems of morality” that have innumerable oughts not based in the axiom of “existence exists” and the choice to live. Some religions have ridiculous dietary restrictions that have no basis in principles of health or nutrition -or at least do not in modern times with modern food handling techniques. (Keeping Kosher, or not eating pork.) Some religions have restrictions on what kind of clothing women can wear. (Muslims require women to wear head covers or full-body covers, despite the fact that the Middle East is mostly a hot arid desert, and we have sunscreen today.) One of the Ten Commandments says “Honor your mother and father,” and makes no exception for being raised by psychotic narcissist. All of these “oughts” have no basis in the needs of man’s life, and, rather than simply brushing them aside, or delimiting them to certain factual contexts, Hume and others try to find “is statements” that can justify these commandments from some supernatural realm. This is where I think they get into trouble. They have a mental habit or “mind-set” of assuming we should have morality while never asking why be moral at all? Then that mind-set is combined with the post-Enlightenment mental habit of wanting to be rational and reality-oriented, and that gets them into trouble.

An example of this is someone I used to know who was quite sincerely interested in Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but he had real trouble with her ethics. He had been a fundamentalist Christian in his younger years, but subsequently had become an atheist in young-adulthood. He would find the following statement by Rand very problematic as a result:

Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” (“The Objectivist Ethics”, emphasis added, The Virtue of Selfishness, http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/standard_of_value.html )

He routinely asked questions like: “But why is life the *ultimate* value?” He could see that it was “a” value, but not the “ultimate value”. He decided that propagating your genes was the actual “ultimate value” and that your life was just your “penultimate value” -the value that you achieve in order to achieve the goal of reproduction. The reason I think he found the idea of gene propagation more satisfactory was because he could see that genes are these sort of small “information vehicles”, and he thought, at least on a sub-conscious level:

“Ah ha! Here is my ‘secular commandment’. Here, at last, is something that I am being commanded to do -by my genes. They are saying: ‘Though shalt reproduce.’”

The remnants of his fundamentalist Christian “mindset” found this very satisfying. Of course, he never asked, if he does find a ‘commandment’, it doesn’t answer the question of *why* he ‘should’ follow the commandment. He would then need an “ought statement” that tells him he is supposed to follow the commandment -as opposed to ignoring it.

The choice to live is a ‘basic choice’, but it’s a choice, not a commandment. *If* you choose to live, then you must do certain things because of the nature of reality. If you don’t want to live, then there’s nothing in particular that you have to do. Furthermore, it’s “either-or”: Either you want to live, or…you don’t. There is no in-between -at least for those who want to live.

My theory on Hume is this: He was a post-Newton Enlightenment thinker. He respected reason and observation, but he was still a Christian when it came to his system of morality. He found certain moral principles to be very emotionally satisfying. He couldn’t justify his morality by anything he observed in reality or any reasoning from such observation. But, he never thought to ask: “Why do I reason?” Without the basic choice to live, reasoning serves no purpose. Once this is understood, then all principles of action that are not based in the choice to live and the nature of reality can be mentally swept aside. At that point the concept of “morality” is salvaged and converted to a completely secular format: Reason as a fundamental *ethical* principle, or guide to action, the purpose of which is the choice to live.

Faith and Force Revisited

In 1960, Ayn Rand published an essay called “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”. At some point around 1995, I read the essay in a book called “Philosophy: Who Needs It”. It asserted that “faith and force are corollaries”:

“I have said that faith and force are corollaries, and that mysticism will always lead to the rule of brutality. The cause of it is contained in the very nature of mysticism. Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible. Why do we kill wild animals in the jungle? Because no other way of dealing with them is open to us. And that is the state to which mysticism reduced mankind –a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence. And more: no man or mystical elite can hold a whole society subjugated to their arbitrary assertions, edicts and whims, without the use of force. Anyone who resorts to the formula: ‘It’s so, because I say so,’ will have to reach for a gun sooner or later.” (https://www.amazon.com/Philosophy-Who-Needs-Ayn-Rand/dp/0451138937/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1489794988&sr=8-1&keywords=philosophy%3A+who+needs+it)

I suspect the essay was likely written more as a response to Communism, since Rand regarded the philosophy of “materialism” as “neo-mysticism”. However, the essay applies equally to major world religions, which is what I want to focus on here. (We can leave aside the issue of whether Rand’s description of materialism as neo-mysticism is true or false here.)

In 1995, I found this essay to be very powerful. It made a mental connection for me that I had never even considered. (This often happened when I read Rand.) This connection later gave me a perspective on the events of September 11, 2001 that I have carried forward to today.

What I would like to do now is provide additional context to the following generalization: Faith and force are corollaries, and mysticism, when adopted by enough people, will always lead to the ‘rule of brutality’. (If you don’t like “absolute” statements, then I’m satisfied if you read this and think that mysticism, with a “high degree of probability” will lead to the rule of brutality.)

Before I begin, I want to note who this is written for. It is not written for someone who believes that there actually are revelations from some other realm that is not reality. I don’t expect to persuade the believer in Christianity, Islam, or any other religion not to believe  with this essay. It’s not my purpose. (This becomes more apparent when I define “faith” below.)

This essay is aimed at people who generally already have a “secular” outlook on the world, but who tend not to believe me when I say that a very religious society, regardless of its religious content, is a society that initiates a lot of physical force -either institutionally, through government, or by the acts of individuals. It is aimed at people who haven’t grasped the logical connection between “faith” on the one hand and the “initiation of physical force” on the other. (I say “initiation” of physical force because I am referring to people who start the use of force to gain a value or to destroy a value held by another person who wants to live, as opposed to the use of force in self-defense or to stop a criminal from committing further crimes by putting them in jail.)

At root, I think Rand’s argument is that there is a connection between the “psychological phenomena” of “faith” and the initiation of physical force. By “psychological phenomena”, I mean the actual mental processes going on inside the mind of a person acting on “faith”. How do I define “faith” for purposes of this article? First, I’ll say that there is, in fact, no supernatural realm that is giving people divine flashes of insight. I’m not going to argue that point here. (Which is why this is not aimed at the “believer” –there are plenty of works arguing for atheism, and I’ll leave it to the reader to research them.)

If there is no supernatural realm giving people flashes of revelation, then where are people who claim to be acting on faith getting their “commandments from god”? “Faith” is usually defined as the belief in something without proof or sensory-evidence. What does the psychological phenomena/process of “faith” consist of, if there is, in fact, no supernatural realm? That psychological process is a reliance on one’s <b>feelings</b> as guides to knowledge, or a belief that one’s feelings are the fundamental basis of knowledge as opposed to sense experience or logic derived from sense experience. An idea simply pops into the faithful’s head, probably coming out of their subconscious, and they decide that it feels right, and that is it. Or, someone tells them, either orally or through a book, that an idea is right, and they simply accept it because they feel that they have to accept what this person has told them.

With these terms defined, how can you reach the conclusion that faith and the initiation of physical force are corollaries? In other words, how do you reach the conclusion that routine and systematic use of the psychological process of “faith” will lead, with some degree of necessity, to the act of initiating physical force against others? (Obviously, I don’t want you to take what I say on faith.) I think the only way to arrive at this conclusion is to look at enough examples and try to see if you can find a pattern. I will provide you, the reader, with a few hypotheticals, and then leave it to you to come up with more:

Example 1: Your religion says that you aren’t supposed to keep certain types of meats stored together. You cannot store meat A and meat B together. You enter into a contract with a truck driver who is not of your religion to transport meat A to you in a truck, and you pay him money in advance for that.

When the truck driver arrives with the delivery, it turns out that he has unknowingly stored meat B in the truck along with the meat A he is delivering to you. (The truck driver had another customer and he was going to deliver meat B to the other customer after stopping off at your house.) You say that you cannot accept the meat because it was stored with meat B, and you want your money back. The truck driver says you’re “off your rocker” and refuses to give you your money back or pay “damages” for this alleged “breach of contract”.

A secular court system would say there is no scientific basis for your belief about storage of meat A and meat B together. Your breach of contract lawsuit would be dismissed. You can either discard the meat you paid for, or discard your religion, but in a secular system of government, you cannot have both.

You cannot use rational persuasion to convince the truck driver to give you your money back because he thinks your religion isn’t true. The temptation would be to resort to “self-help” in order to recover your money from the truck driver. This is an initiation of physical force. Your faith has led to the initiation of physical force. If there is a court system that is based on your religion that has jurisdiction, then it will get you your money back. But, this is an initiation of physical force, since the use of physical force can only be justified in self-defense or to recompense someone whose right to life has been violated in some way. Either way, if you act on your religious principles about storing meat A and meat B together, and take it seriously, you are led to the initiation of physical force against the truck driver that doesn’t hold your religious beliefs.

Example 2: Your religion says that a particular piece of land is holy, and is not to be used for any human purpose. According to your religion, the land is just to be left as it currently is. Someone owns the land who doesn’t ascribe to your religion, and decides he’s going to build his house on it. If there is a secular legal system, you will not be able to prevent the house construction. You cannot use reason to persuade him not to build the house, because your belief isn’t based in reason. If you try to point to your holy text, he’s going to say it’s baloney, and he doesn’t believe it. There is only one way to stop him: the initiation of physical force. Once again, either you personally will have to resort to the initiation of physical force, or your theocratic government will have to resort to the initiation of physical force to stop him. Combine this with the fact that any “interpreter” of your religion (priest, imam, rabbi, or whatever), going off of his feelings, can suddenly claim that god has told him that a particular land is “holy” and belongs to members of your religion, and this is a recipe for constant conflict with the non-believers who want to use land for actually living their lives in the here and now. Then combine this with a multiplicity of religions, all claiming some tract of land as “holy” and you get the crusades, the 30-years war, or the conflict in Israel.

Example 3: Your religion has a “holy animal” that is not to be eaten or harmed. Someone who doesn’t ascribe to your religion routinely shoots and eats the “holy animal”. You cannot use reason to persuade him not to eat your holy animal, because your belief isn’t based in reason. Once again, he’s just going to say your religion is false…and he’s hungry. There is only one way to stop him: the initiation of physical force. Once again, either you personally will have to resort to the initiation of physical force, or your theocratic government will have to resort to the initiation of physical force to stop him.

The more all-embracing one’s faith is in their mind, that is, the more they rely on ideas based in nothing but their feelings, and the more they take such ideas seriously, the more they will end up in irreconcilable conflicts like the three examples above, that can only be resolved by either not taking the “holy text” seriously, or by the initiation of physical force against non-believers. There will be a multiplicity of instances like the three outlined above.

My point here isn’t concerning the content of particular directives and commandments contained within any religious doctrine. I’ve made up these particular examples for purposes of illustrating my point, and I don’t even know if they are part of any actual major world religion. My point here is that the religious doctrine is insulated from any sort of ability to resolve a dispute with followers of other religious doctrines or those who embrace a secular view-point because it will create insoluble problems with those who don’t follow the creed, or those who interpret the creed differently.

A follower of a creed based in faith, will be left with the choice of either: (1) separating himself from those who don’t believe. This is probably why you see “religious ghettos” when people of one religion move into a country with a majority that doesn’t ascribe to their faith. These minority religious groups just separate out and live in their own special areas of a city. Or, (2), the believer will use force against non-believers to the extent necessary to ensure that his doctrine based on faith is respected by the non-believers.

Additionally, note that I have made no mention of examples from actual religions concerning directives or commandments that say either: (1) kill the infidels/sinners, or (2), say something that could easily be interpreted as “kill the infidels/sinners”.

For instance, the Bible talks about killing adulterers: (“‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” Leviticus 20:10) The Koran talks about killing infidels: “And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing… but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone….” http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/pages/quran/violence.aspx

This is because my analysis of “faith” and how it necessitates the initiation of physical force doesn’t rely on the content of any particular religious doctrine. The psychological process of faith itself necessitates the initiation of physical force against others to resolve the conflicts that will occur.

However, when you start looking at the content of actual world religions and some of the things they say regarding how the “sinful” are to be dealt with, and then combine those words -that religious content- with a method of “thought” (faith) that provides no means of dealing with non-believers because reason is jettisoned, you can see why it can be a potent psychological cocktail motivating the initiation of physical force.

Why are the countries in Europe and North America relatively peaceful and free compared to countries in the Middle East? After all, America, and, to a lesser extent, Europe is full of church-going people who believe. I think the difference is the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. If you’re atheist and you talk about religion and science with even the most religious Westerner, he will probably, eventually, say something along the following lines: “There is a place for faith and there is a place for reason.” I suspect this represents a sort of centuries-long compromise or rapprochement between religion and secularism in the Western World. It has sufficiently delimited faith in important areas of human life, especially in the realm of politics, and allowed for the creation of a (generally) secular legal system. I suspect that most Western intellectuals do not realize how “all-encompassing” faith is in the mind of the average Middle Easterner, because we haven’t been there ourselves for centuries. It is why Western politicians and intellectuals tend to describe Islam as “ideology” rather than as religion. For instance, a Dutch politician has noted:

Let no one fool you about Islam being a religion. Sure, it has a god, and a here-after, and 72 virgins. But in its essence Islam is a political ideology. It is a system that lays down detailed rules for society and the life of every person. Islam wants to dictate every aspect of life. Islam means ‘submission’. Islam is not compatible with freedom and democracy, because what it strives for is Sharia. If you want to compare Islam to anything, compare it to communism or national-socialism, these are all totalitarian ideologies.” (“The Lights are Going Out All Over Europe”, by Geert Wilders, emphasis added, http://www.truthprovider.com/?app=articles&id=155 )

Christianity once was a system that laid down detailed rules for society and the life of every person too –we just haven’t seen it for about 500 years. As a result, people who take religion that seriously seem strange to the average Westerner –you would have to look to what would widely be regarded as a “cult” here in the West to find a similar mindset. (For instance, the “Branch Davidians” in Waco, Texas.) This is why I believe the average Westerner has a difficult time thinking of Islamic terrorism or the theocracy of a country like Iran as being based in religious faith. Faith is just not as all-encompassing in the mind of even the most religious Westerners.

After the November 2015 attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were murdered, I saw comedian Bill Maher ask, in a not so comedic mood, “Why do they hate us?” (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/14/bill-maher-on-paris-attacks-why-do-they-hate-us/ )

Based on what I’ve said above about the mind of someone who operates primarily on the basis of faith, this is my theory on why so many in the Middle East seem to hate us:

Part of the reason is examples like 1, 2, and 3 above. In these instances, the non-believer doesn’t even know he’s done something that violated their religious faith. I think this is going to enrage a member of the faith, not just because of what the non-believer is doing, but because the non-believer, rightly so in my opinion, doesn’t care about their religion. The non-believer wants to live. The Westerner, with a much more delimited view of religious faith, will take numerous actions to live his life, all of which are offenses against Islam. This lack of concern for religious rituals will tend to infuriate the faithful, and is a spur to violence.

People in the West will tend to think there is some secular reason for the faith-based mind’s antagonism. They will look at factors like “US bombing in the Middle East” or “poverty” or anything besides the terrorist’s proclamations of fidelity to Islam. This is because people in the West have trouble conceiving of a mind that is that “faith-based”. Westerners assume there must be some secular reason that is the “real” reason planes are getting blown up, journalists are getting their heads cut off, and innocent people on sidewalk cafes are being shot. The reality is that they hate us because we aren’t just ignorant of their religious tenants, but because, on some fundamental level, they know we don’t regard their dogma as having any basis in reality. They hate us because we want to live this life, which is the only one we’re going to get.

Why Act on Principle?

I recently said to a friend that any form of “gun control” is an initiation of physical force, and that allowing even a little initiation of physical force abrogates the entire principle of individual rights to life, liberty and property. When I thought about this some, I realized that the question might actually have been this: “Why act on principle at all? Why can’t you occasionally violate a principle without throwing it out altogether?” This is a good question, even if my friend wasn’t actually asking it, so I will endeavor to give an explanation to something he may or may not have actually been asking.

First, what is meant when we speak of a “principle”? I will start with an example and then move from there to a definition. Let’s consider the principle of respecting the property rights of others. I’ll reduce this to the following maxim: “Do not take the property of others without their consent.”

But, why shouldn’t I just occasionally steel when I can get away with it? For instance, when I go to the grocery store, I could take a few items and walk out without paying. If I stuck to stealing food, I might get away with this indefinitely. So why don’t I?

If I’m going to start stealing from the grocery store, I need to develop a methodology to maximize my chances of success. Lets take a look at my “game plan” for stealing from the grocery store:

When I go into the store, I have to check for security cameras.

I have to wait until employees aren’t watching. Once I’ve stolen the items, I’ve got to casually head outside, still checking to see if employees, store customers, or the manager have noticed me stealing from the store. These people are now all potential enemies to me –a threat to my existence- so I cannot trust any of them. I would constantly have to be “looking over my back”, checking to see if anyone noticed me stealing.

I have to develop a plan prior to going in, as this will reduce my chances of getting caught. So I will spend some time working it out. This is time I could have spent doing other things.

I probably want to go in beforehand, and scope out the store, but this could look suspicious -going in, looking around and then returning soon thereafter. So, maybe not?

What will be my “take” from stealing from the grocery store? I can only steal small items, so probably my “gain” will be less than $50.

There are also the penalties involved, if I’m caught. If I steal less than $50, then I am only looking at a fine in Texas, but the fine is up to $500, plus the store can sue me for treble damages and attorney’s fees. If I steal more than $50 of merchandise, I’m looking at anywhere from six months to a year in jail, plus big fines, plus the store suing me.

I think it’s legitimate to consider the government-imposed penalties like this in my analysis since I am not an anarchist -I actually think one of the major ways the government protects rights is by imposing sufficient “pain” or “cost” on the person committing the crime that they won’t want to do it. Criminal laws have a “deterrent effect”. (This isn’t the only reason for criminal penalties, however, they also serve as a “restraint”. For instance, locking up a murderer prevents him from committing more murders.)

Additionally, many jobs will be unavailable to me if I’ve been convicted of a crime involving “moral turpitude” like theft. Many employers won’t hire you with a criminal record for theft or fraud.

After any particular episode of theft from the grocery store, I might get $50 to $100 in merchandise, if I don’t get caught. I also stand to loose up to a year of my time in jail, plus all of the fines and civil penalties. That seems like a very “bad bet” to me. All of these “costs” associated with such a life of crime will also add up to feelings of anxiety about getting caught. Anxiety is not a pleasant emotion to feel on a chronic or long-term basis. (I also suppose I could eliminate the anxiety by refusing to think or consuming a lot of alcohol, but that means I’m really likely to get caught if I don’t think about how to get away with it.)

You should also consider the long-term risks of a policy of theft. You might get away with theft once or twice, but the more you do it, the more likely you are to get caught. It hardly seems worth all that pain for $50 of “free” stuff from the grocery store.

I’ve shown that stealing isn’t actually “free”, in terms of your effort and thought. There is actually a “cost” associated with every time you steal. There is the cost of all the mental energy and labor you expend executing your thefts successfully. There is the cost associated with the risk you’ll get caught. Furthermore, the greater the value of the things you are stealing, the greater the risk, because you will face more severe criminal and social penalties. More people will be watching, the more the valuable items, so the more effort you must expend. For instance, it’s a lot harder to steal from a jewelry store than a grocery store because everything is under glass. That means additional labor, time, and energy goes into a jewelry heist.

It seems easier to me to just work a legitimate job, and earn the money I need to buy things at the grocery store. Then, when I walk into the grocery store, I can just get the stuff I want, pay for it, and then walk out.

Additionally, as we saw, if you start stealing from the grocery store, you will wind up “juggling” in your mind, so many variables in trying to pull off a grocery store theft that it will overload your mind’s capacity to deal with all of them at once. This actually points to an important purpose that a “principle” serves. A “principle” is a sort of concept. A concept is a mental summation of relevant observed facts into a generalized “mental tag” -a word and/or a definition. (Although a “principle” is more of a “proposition” –a series of words.) It allows your limited mind to deal with many aspects of reality simultaneously, which would otherwise overwhelm it. You can deal with three or four concrete items as individuals in your mind at one time, but any more than that, and you cannot hold it all successfully. Your mind disintegrates into mental chaos without concepts, and when it comes to concepts of action, which is all I think a “principle” is, your behavior will become equally chaotic.

Given all of this discussion, I will define a “principle” as: “A consistent standard of action you use in the face of a particular set of factual circumstances.”

For instance, “Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is a standard of action that I use whenever I face a particular set of facts. When I see a man-made thing that doesn’t occur in nature, and I didn’t produce it with my own effort, I do not physically appropriate it for my own purposes without the owner’s consent.

Can there be “exceptions” to this principle? For instance, if you break into a cabin when you are stranded in a snow blizzard in the mountains, have you taken the property of the owner without his consent? I believe this isn’t actually an “exception” to the principle, because “factual circumstances” are different from the grocery store example. You can articulate facts that make the situation different from going into the grocery store and taking groceries without the owner’s consent. The primary factual circumstance that is different is that you are willing to compensate the owner of the cabin at a later date for any loss, so it isn’t likely to be without his consent. (This also gets into the issue of what “consent” is, and whether the owner’s consent has to have a rational basis, but I leave that for another discussion.) Another “factual circumstance” that is different is that it is a “life and death emergency”, which means it is an extremely low-probability event that isn’t likely to occur very often –it is “life boat ethics”. (Remember, that part of the reason you don’t steal from the grocery store is you have to hide it, and the more times you do it, the more likely you are to get caught one of those times.)

By thinking of enough concrete scenarios like the grocery store theft example, I eventually decided that stealing just isn’t worth it. It’s better to adopt a general standard of action in my mind: “Don’t take the property of others without their consent.” I leave it to the reader to think through other examples of general standards of action such as “Don’t kill those who haven’t initiated physical force against you,” (i.e., don’t murder), “Don’t misrepresent facts to gain things from others,” (i.e., be honest), “Judge others according to a rational standard, and treat them accordingly,” (i.e., be just), etc.

How does my definition of “principle” compare to the “socially-accepted definition”? If you perform a “define: principle” search on google.com, you get some of the following definitions (as of 11-10-2016):

“…fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”

“…a rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior…”

“…morally correct behavior and attitudes…”

“…a general scientific theorem or law that has numerous special applications across a wide field…”

“…a natural law forming the basis for the construction or working of a machine…”

These definitions are all essentially, compatible with mine, I believe. For instance, regarding the principle “Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” it is a “fundamental truth” that human beings must produce the material values necessary for their survival, because most of what we need to survive or flourish does not exist in nature. It is also a “fundamental truth” that human beings must use their reasoning minds to produce those material values, and that if you want to live with others they must respect your desire to live and you must respect theirs. (It’s also a “fundamental truth” that human beings are not omniscient, so they need an impartial system of laws and an institution with the socially-recognized exclusive right to the retaliatory use of physical force to protect rights.)

“Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is also “…morally correct behavior…” If one wants to live, and if one’s life is the standard of the good, then, in order to live peacefully with others, you must recognize the property rights of others.

“Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is also a “natural law” in the sense that it recognizes that the human mind functions by persuasion, not coercion. It is a “natural law” in the same sense that the law of universal gravitation is a “natural law”. If you want to build a rocket, you must take the law of inertia into account, because “nature to be commanded must be obeyed”. Similarly, if you want to have a functioning society, it must respect property rights.

Tying all of this back in, why would any form of “gun control” be an abrogation of the principle of individual rights? What is meant by “gun control”? Does it merely mean: “Prohibiting the possession of a weapon with an intent to commit a crime”?  The intent to use a weapon to violate others rights is the start of an initiation of physical force, and, if it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it can and should be prosecuted by the government. Taking any physical steps towards the eventual goal of force being used to destroy the values of others is an initiation of physical force, and therefore a violation of the principle of individual rights. Anyone who has ever seen a John Wayne movie recognizes that you don’t have to wait for someone to actually shoot you in the gut before you can defend yourself. When the bad guy “goes for his gun”, John Wayne shoots him, and that is self-defense, not an initiation of physical force.

An example of an rights-respecting gun law is something like the statute found in the state of Vermont:

“A person who carries a dangerous or deadly weapon, openly or concealed, with the intent or avowed purpose of injuring a fellow man,…shall be imprisoned….” (See http://ago.vermont.gov/divisions/criminal-division/gun-laws.php, emphasis added, last accessed on 11-12-2016.)

This is a perfectly acceptable and appropriate law regarding the possession of a firearm. It only prohibits carrying a weapon if the person can be shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have the “intent” or “avowed purpose” of injuring a fellow man. (Presumably, “injuring a fellow man” here means injuries of one’s fellow men other than for purpose of self-defense.)

This, by the way, is why the government could investigate someone who built a weapon of mass destruction in their backyard. Such a device would not be necessary for self-defense. If you walked around with a nuclear bomb strapped to your back for self-defense, even a “low-yield” device, you’d blow yourself up as well as the mugger -and half the city. Your possession of such a device would create the suspicion that you planned to use it for violating the rights of others. There is no likely or probable need for such a device if you are an individual. Now, you might ultimately be able to show that you had an innocent reason for possessing a WMD, but you’d have to go before a court, and the government’s “prima facie case” of an illegal intent is probably satisfied just by showing that you have no business interest in building such a device. For instance, you aren’t engaged in the business of building nuclear bombs for the US military or some sort of mining or industrial concern. After the government makes its “prima facie showing”, the burden can rightly be shifted to you at court to show some reason that doesn’t involve violating the rights of others. (Additionally, you could face civil liability if you create a “nuisance” that invades or imminently threatens the property of others, which a nuclear bomb probably qualifies as.)

But this isn’t what the left means when they speak of “gun control”. What is generally meant by “gun control”, as that expression is used by most members of the Democratic party and the political left, is the following: The government will initiate, or start, the use of physical force against someone for mere possession of a device, in this case, a devise that uses a controlled explosion to release a metal projectile through a tube by means of an explosive material, such as cordite. The government will initiate physical force against such persons even though they have no intent to use the device to violate individual rights. The initiation of physical force by government takes the form of actual or threatened use of force, and, it will continue to escalate the use of physical force until you comply with its commands, or die -whichever comes first.

Here is how government works: If you break a law, you’ll be arrested (force). If you resist arrest, more cops will come to restrain you (more force). If you use a weapon to resist, the cops will use weapons to stop you (deadly force). Ultimately, all laws follow this pattern: “Do not do X, or you will ultimately be killed.” If the government says: “Do not murder, or you will be killed,” then this is fine because murder violates the rights of others. If the government prohibits things like guns and marijuana, then it says: “Do not own a gun or you will be killed,” or “Do not smoke a joint or you will be killed.” At that point you are being threatened with a violent death despite the fact that you are not violating the rights of others. (Like I said, possessing a gun with intent to commit a crime is different, just as smoking a joint and deliberately blowing the smoke in someone’s face is different.)

So what’s wrong with a little governmental initiation of physical force? You face the same sorts of problems that you face with the example of stealing from the grocery store, but this time it’s on a society-wide level. For instance, if the government says you cannot own a gun to defend yourself from a criminal, when there is no time to call the police to protect you, then the government is implicitly saying: “We’re willing to risk your life in order to satisfy a bunch of soccer moms who have an irrational aversion to guns.” How will this be distinguished from other people’s irrational desires that would involve violating your right to life?

Since no one wants to say: “Government officials can arbitrarily murder some people whenever they feel like it,” the legislature and courts will need to come up with some sort of principled distinction between the prohibition on the ownership of a gun for emergency self-defense and any other number of actions you might take to maintain your life. This is why our legal code has become so “Byzantine” with all sorts of “loopholes”, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. Our legal code is mostly unhinged from any principles distinguishing what should be prohibited and what shouldn’t be because we no longer follow the principle of individual rights.

Additionally, once the principle of individual rights is discarded, the legislature will be constantly bombarded by individuals, and groups of individuals, all trying to appropriate the property of others. It becomes a system of constant “pressure group warfare”, a “cold civil war”, if you will, with a particular political faction gaining power and stealing from some to give to others. They will hold onto power, handing out political favors to their cronies, until some other faction takes over the levers of government and imposes their will on others for a bit.

As I said, a “principle” is a sort of concept, which is a mental summation of relevant observed facts into a generalized “mental tag” -a word and/or a definition. It allows your limited mind to deal with many aspects of reality simultaneously, which would otherwise overwhelm it. You can deal with three or four concrete items as individuals in your mind at one time, but any more than that, and you cannot hold it all successfully. Your mind disintegrates into a mental chaos without concepts, and when it comes to concepts of action, which is all I think a “principle” is, your behavior will become equally chaotic. When society-wide principles like individual rights to life, liberty, and property are disregarded, that society will become chaotic. Eventually the “cold civil war”, of political factions fighting in the legislature, will disintegrate into an actual, shooting, civil war, and people will form gangs fighting one another for the scraps of what is left of civilization, or a “strong man” will take over and the country becomes a dictatorship, with his gang appropriating the property of all. Either way, life will become nasty, brutish, and short without the principle of individual rights to guide us.

An Example of What I Call “Platonic Rationalism”

A “logical fallacy” is an error in logical reasoning. An error in logic can occur because of some “formal” flaw such as Affirming the consequent ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirming_the_consequent ). An error can also occur because of the use of a common method of argument that may be widely used but is actually irrelevant. I thought these were called “informal fallacies”, but I cannot find confirmation of that on the Internet now. (http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H2)

Most of these informal fallacies have Latin names. For instance, “ad hominem” means “to the person” or “against the man” and involves making an irrelevant attack on the arguer and suggesting that this attack undermines the argument itself. For instance, if a medical doctor is trying to convince his colleagues that they should vaccinate their patients at age four instead of age two, and someone responds that he is having an extramarital affair, so he shouldn’t be listened to, that is clearly irrelevant to his argument.

I want to address a particular type of argument that is similar to argument ad hominem, but has its origin in a particular, mistaken, view of the nature of the concept of “rationality”.

I found an example of this while doing keyword searches on the Internet for “Black Lives Matters”. The article quoted a popular musician I am fairly unfamiliar with named Sean Combs. The article quoted Mr. Combs as saying:

“‘For the last couple of months we have experienced a lot of injustice and wrongdoings to a community. But there is a flip side,” wrote Diddy. He continued, “Yes #BLACKLIVESMATTER ! But no one will respect us if we as a people don’t have any respect for our own black lives. We are committing genocide on ourselves. We are always looking for scapegoats.’” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)

The article then went on to say:

“Diddy added, ‘We as a people hurt ourselves more than anyone has ever hurt us. That makes no sense. We as a people including myself have to take accountability and do whatever we can do individually or together to stop the madness and realize that we are KINGS and QUEENS AND Must love ourselves and each other. I know I’m rambling a little bit’” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)

Essentially, what Mr. Combs seemed to be referring to is the fact that a black person is more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than they are to be unlawfully killed by a cop. This can be confirmed by looking at the statistics on the number of people killed while interacting with cops where the killing is classified as a “homicide” versus the murder statistics kept by the FBI. I have referenced this in previous blog posts.

What is the author’s response to Mr. Comb’s verifiably correct factual assertion that a black person is more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than to be unlawfully killed by a cop?

“It must be nice to be black, rich and oblivious to issues that plague society.” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.)

In other words, Mr. Combs is wealthy, therefore he is mistaken.

The author of this article could be saying one of two things here:

(1) Sean Combs has some sort of interest in either lying or presenting only part of the facts (presenting half-truths). That his desire to acquire or keep wealth is serving as a motive for him to lie. This is what we would normally call “bias”. But, Sean Combs is correct that more black people are unjustifiably killed by other black people than they are by cops, and the sources of this information seem reliable. (FBI crime statistics.)

(2) Although Sean Comb’s factual assertion is correct -that black people are more likely to be unlawfully killed by another black person than by a cop- his *argument* is flawed because he is rich.

Since I don’t see any evidence to refute the fact that black people are more likely to be unlawfully killed by black people than by cops, then I think it is safe for me to assume that the author of this article means the second: that Sean Comb’s argument is flawed simply because he is rich. That his argument, while logical, is flawed because of his status as a rich man.

Argument “ad homenim” is a logical fallacy in which an argument is rebutted by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, or persons associated with the argument, rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself. The author of this article is making a sort of “argument ad homenim” against Sean Combs. She does this by: (1) Stating that he is rich, and (2) by saying his “…rhetoric [is] similar to that of conservative voices.” (http://www.theroot.com/blog/the-grapevine/diddy_on_blacklivesmatter_black_people_are_committing_genocide_on_ourselves/2/ , last accessed on 10-22-2016.) The author implies that since political conservatives make this argument, then Sean Combs use of the same argument is incorrect. But the author never bothers to address the argument of conservatives on this topic, or to show that it is mistaken.

So, this is probably argument ad homenim, but I want to address another, subtler point, aside from that. “Ad homenim” means “against the man”. Why is it “against the man” to say that Mr. Combs has wealth and wants to keep and acquire wealth?

Wealth, i.e. material values, are necessary in order to maintain your life. So, this is ultimately an argument that Mr. Combs’ desire to live is distorting what would otherwise be “objective truth”. The author believes there is a conflict between the interest to live and rationality or objectivity.

Before proceeding any further, lets discuss the concept of rationality. If you type the words “rationality” “logic” and “reason” into an Internet search engine, you will get some definitions of these terms:

“rationality” -> “based on or in accordance with reason or logic.” (define: rational on google.com, 10-22-2016)

“logic” -> “reasoning conducted or assessed according to strict principles of validity.” ( define: logic on google.com, 10-22-2016)

“reason” -> “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.” or “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” (define: reason on google.com, 10-22-2016)

“Rationality” means something along the lines of: to conform your mind to reality by the use of a systematic methodology (logic). This is somewhat seen in the definition of “reason” above, when it says that “reason” is a “cause” or “explanation” “for an action or event”. (Although all of these Internet definitions are somewhat “circular”.) In other words, you make some sort of mental connection in your mind that explains why something you observe happens the way it does.

Here is an example of using a systematic methodology to build concepts or ideas from observations: If you see that when you give a plant light, it grows, while when you put the same type of plant in a dark closet, while keeping all other factors the same, it dies, then you recognize that light is a “cause” of plant growth. It explains the “action or event” of a plant growing. Furthermore, you have used some sort of system or method to determine this. Specifically, you took two plants, and put one in the sun while the other one you put into a dark closet. You tried to keep all other factors the same. You gave them the same amount of water and soil, and otherwise tried to control all other variables and make them the same for the two plants. This is because you recognize that if you are going to be able to say that light is a “cause” of plant growth, you had to keep all other variables or factors the same. This is a “methodology”, the “scientific method”, which is a type of “logic”. All logic is ultimately based on the principle that all things have a specific identity, and that they act in accordance with that identity. (Which is “causality”.)

However, when we speak of “rationality”, we can also mean something slightly different. We can also mean that an action achieves a particular goal. “Rationality implies the conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s reasons to believe, or of one’s actions with one’s reasons for action.” ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationality , last accessed on 10-22-2106) “Rationality” means that you conform you actions with your “reasons for action”. In other words, you conform your actions to achieve your goals. Ultimately, this is not a different definition of “rational”, since you are still recognizing reality, and acting in a systematic way in accordance with the nature of reality. For instance, if you want to eat, you must recognize that plants grow in a certain way, and that if you want to grow enough to eat, you have to give them sufficient food, water, and sunlight in order to grow them. If you want food to eat, you must work to grow crops. The goal of eating, means that you must recognize reality and act accordingly. If you want to have good health, you must eat certain types of food, you must exercise, take vitamins, etc. If someone wants to have good health, but they shoot up heroin, eat only red meat, never exercise, and chain smoke cigarettes, then their rationality will be questioned. Their rationality is questioned because they are not recognizing the principles of good health, or at least are not acting in accordance with those principles of good health, and they are not likely to achieve their goal.

If your ultimate goal is to live, you must take certain actions to achieve that goal. This is because life cannot be achieved without taking certain actions. You must grow crops, you must hunt for food, you must build shelter, you must avoid dangerous animals and dangerous people, etc. By contrast, if you do not want to live, then no particular systematic action or methodology is necessary. You don’t need to recognize reality if you don’t want to live. You don’t have to act in accordance with the methods of logic if you don’t want to live. What this points to, or suggests, is that, ultimately, “rationality” means conforming your mind and actions to the nature of reality in order to maximize your chances of living.

Now, there is another conception of “rationality” that is disconnected from the concept of “life”. This is a conception of “rationality” based in the idea that there is some sort of “pure knowledge” in some other realm that has nothing to do with the desire to live. Plato is the oldest example of this view of “rationality”.

“…Platonism can be said to have in common is an intense concern for the quality of human life—always ethical, often religious, and sometimes political, based on a belief in unchanging and eternal realities, which Plato called forms, independent of the changing things of the world perceived by the senses.” (See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Platonism , last accessed 10-22-2016.)

Platonic philosophy suggests that there is a basis for knowledge not connected to reality and the desire to live. It suggests that knowledge, “true knowledge” exists in the “forms” in some other realm. “Rationality” then becomes psychologically or mentally disconnected in the Platonist’s mind from the desire to live or the requirements of living. In fact, for the Platonist, reality and the requirements of life, will be seen as a “distorting factor” towards “pure” or “genuine” understanding and “genuine” logic or reason.

There’s just one problem with this “Platonic rationality”. There is no evidence, in reality, for another world of “forms”. There can be no evidence for anything other than that which exists –so belief in another realm outside reality is a nonsense belief. When someone claims to have some sort of “intuitive” or “mystical” insight regarding some sort of “world of forms”, they are simply acting on emotional whim.

People who tend to hold the Platonic view of rationality will tend to disdain any desire to live as a disqualifying or “distorting agent” keeping you from “true rationality”.

Wealth is important because human beings require material values -food, clothing, and shelter- in order to live. The more wealth you have, the better you are able to live. Think about it in terms of personal health. A very wealthy person can afford to have a personal doctor that follows him around, which, other things equal, is going to promote his life. A very wealthy person can have a personal bodyguard to protect him from criminals, which also will tend to enhance and lengthen his life. At a mass level, we can see a difference in life spans between people living in the first world versus those living in the third world. This is because people in the first world are wealthier (on average).

The desire to live for the “Platonic rationalist” is a “distorting agent”. The desire to live means a focus on reality and acting systematically to achieve one’s goal of life. But, to the “Platonic rationalist”, true knowledge is based in some other realm, and has nothing to do with promoting your life. The desire to live, for the Platonic rationalist, is therefore a “distorting agent” preventing one from being “entirely rational”.

Mr. Comb’s argument is dismissed in the article because he is rich, but anyone can be criticized with this sort of argument “ad homenim” by those who hold the Platonic view of rationality. Because ascetic self-deprivation is the key to this Platonic view of rationality, and no one still alive can completely deprive themselves of everything. So long as one wants to live at all, and makes any effort to live, then they can be criticized as somehow “biased”. Mr. Combs is being criticized as biased because he wants to live.

The connection I am making here between “rationality” and “life”, with the “purpose” of rationality being the maintenance of one’s life, raises an interesting question. Is there such a thing as “bias”? What does it mean to say that someone is “biased”?

“Bias” generally means someone is either not telling the truth or is only telling half-truths, when it comes to reciting the facts. For instance, a witness in court is “biased” if he lies or only tells half the facts because of some “interest” he has. This “interest” doesn’t have to be *self* interest. He could be an altruist, and believe that he is serving that cause by lying. For instance, an environmentalist might believe that he is saving the planet by lying as a witness in a trial having to do with pollution. He isn’t lying because of any self-interest he has. He is lying because of his interest in saving others –in this case the environment.

Another example of “bias”: A news paper can have a “left wing bias” in that it reports only facts that serve its agenda while leaving out essential facts that would give a proper perspective. In both cases, we are talking about the reporting of facts, not logical argument. To say someone is “biased” is to say they are misreporting the facts, they are lying, to serve some interest. If someone is making a purely logical argument, and you agree with the facts they are using to make that argument, then you cannot say they are “biased”. You must refute the logic of their argument –assuming you agree with the facts and don’t believe there are any additional facts that need to come out to provide a more complete picture.

So, if the author of the article about Mr. Combs had said he was biased as a result of the facts he was reporting, about how black people are mostly being murdered by other black people, not cops, then perhaps the author could say he is “biased”. But, the author doesn’t seem to dispute the facts on homicide and murder rates. The author certainly didn’t present any additional facts, or show that that FBI and government statistics are wrong. The author simply said that his argument is flawed because he is good at acquiring wealth -i.e., because he wants to live. This is to claim that the desire to live and rationality are somehow at odds, but we are rational because we want to live.

How do we tell when it is proper to speak of someone as “biased”? Only when they are reporting factual observations. We say that they have some interest or motive that causes them to lie or to tell half-truths. But, if you agree with the facts they are reporting, and only disagree with their logical argument based on those facts, then I don’t think it is ever proper to claim they are biased. In such a situation, you are engaging in some sort of argument ad hominem. Furthermore, if you criticize someone’s logical argument because they want to live, or are successful at living, then you aren’t just engaging in argument ad hominem, you are implicitly accepting the “Platonic rationalist” view of reason, and are claiming that the desire to live is a distorting agent when it comes to reasoning. You are mentally severing rationality from it’s goal -which is life.

Thomas Hobbes on Accidental and Essential In “Leviathan”

In his book “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes prefaces his discussion of politics and the “social contract” with a discussion “Of Man”. (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm) (My references to “Leviathan” are to the Penguin Classics version, 1987, ISBN 0-14-043195-0 http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?bi=0&bx=off&ds=30&isbn=0140431950&recentlyadded=all&sortby=17&sts=t )

Hobbes recognizes that one must study the nature of man before discussing how men should be organized into society and what sort of political system they should adapt. He also recognizes that the nature of the human mind, and how it acquires knowledge, is key to understanding the nature of man.

In historical context, Hobbes lived in a time when some of the scientific assertions of Aristotle, which had been re-incorporated into Western thinking by Thomas Aquinas, were being questioned.

Galileo Galilei had presented evidence that tended to overthrow the Ptolemaic system, which had described the Earth as the center of the universe. This idea had become official doctrine of the Church with its adoption of Aristotle, through Thomas Aquinas, at the beginning of the Renaissance.

Hobbes wrote against this backdrop, in which all of Aristotle’s science, especially his cosmology, was starting to be questioned.

Despite his declared rejection of Aristotle, Hobbes didn’t go far enough in questioning the philosopher when it came to the distinction between “essential” and “accidental” properties of a thing. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accident_%28philosophy%29)

Although Hobbes was right to reject the Platonic/Aristotelian view of “essences”, his embrace of the idea of “accidental” features in things that are not man-made lead him to believe that definitions are based on mere “accidental” features.

An alternative to both Hobbes and the “realists” (Plato and Aristotle) holds that essential features are characteristics perceived by a particular type of mind, the human mind, to serve human purposes -ultimately, man’s life.

There is a long-standing debate in the history of philosophy about where the essential feature(s) that comprise a concept come from:

“The problem of universals is the problem of the correspondence of our intellectual concepts to things existing outside our intellect. Whereas external objects are determinate individuals, formally exclusive of all multiplicity, our concepts or mental representations offer us the realities independent of all particular determination; they are abstract and universal. The question, therefore, is to discover to what extent the concepts of the mind correspond to the things they represent; how the flower we conceive represents the flower existing in nature; in a word whether our ideas are faithful and have an objective reality.” (E.C. Moore, American Pragmatism: Peirce, James, and Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press (1961), quoting DeWulf, M. Catholic Encyclopedia, XI, “Nominalism, Realism and Conceptualism”(1909).)

“Since man’s knowledge is gained and held in conceptual form, the validity of man’s knowledge depends on the validity of concepts. But concepts are abstractions or universals, and everything that man perceives is particular, concrete. What is the relationship between abstractions and concretes? To what precisely do concepts refer in reality? Do they refer to something real, something that exists -or are they merely inventions of man’s mind, arbitrary constructs or loose approximations that cannot claim to represent knowledge?…To exemplify the issue as it is usually presented: When we refer to three persons as ‘men’, what do we designate by that term? The three persons are three individuals who differ in every particular respect and may not possess a single identical characteristic…If you list all their particular characteristics, you will not find one representing ‘manness.’ Where is the ‘manness’ in men? What, in reality, corresponds to the concept ‘man’ in our mind?” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed., “Forward to the First Edition”. New York:Meridian (1990).)

Plato said that “essences” exist in pure form in some other realm, and that the world we see around us is just a vague, shadowy approximation of that real world of forms. This is probably what was meant by Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegory_of_the_Cave

Plato said we are all like people who are chained and forced to face the wall of a cave with a fire behind us. We can see the shadows of people and other things as they pass by, but we cannot see the actual things. This is a metaphor for the idea that human senses do not perceive actual entities or things, just the shadows of things that actually exist. What actually exists are the “forms”, which are in some other realm. Human beings are merely perceiving the shadows of those forms. Those “forms” are what we mean when we speak of the essence of a thing. The “manness” that we perceive in men actually exists in some pure form in another realm, and the individual men that we perceive are just shadowy approximations of the “Platonic form” of man.

Plato’s student, Aristotle was somewhat more “this worldly” than his teacher. Aristotle rejected the idea that “forms” exist in some other realm. Instead, some scholars interpret Aristotle as saying that the “form” or “essence” of a thing exists within each concrete instance. http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/arist.htm The practical result of this would be that for Aristotle, studying concrete particular things is important to understanding them, since that “essence” of the thing exists somewhere within it, whereas Plato said the “essence” isn’t in the thing –the thing is just a shadow of that “pure essence”. Plato’s view of knowledge would tend to suggest that one gains knowledge by learning about some other world, other than the one you perceive, while Aristotle at least believed that you should study the things you can actually see and perceive in order to learn about their essence.

Starting in the late Middle Ages, the ideas of Aristotle were rediscovered by Western Scholars like Thomas Aquinas. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Aquinas By the time of the Renaissance, much of Aristotle had been incorporated into Church doctrine. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaissance The ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas became part of the “scholastic” tradition. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scholasticism

In the 1600’s, Hobbes, and other thinkers and scientists, began to reject the ideas of the “Schoolmen” (the Scholastics).

“Lastly, the Metaphysiques, Ethiques, and Politiques of Aristotle, the frivolous Distinctions, barbarous Terms, and obscure Language of the Schoolmen, taught in the Universities, (which have been all erected and regulated by the Popes Authority,) serve them to keep these Errors from being detected, and to make men mistake the Ignis Fatuus of Vain Philosophy, for the Light of the Gospell.” (Leviathan, Pg. 708)

Along with the doctrines of Aristotle, Hobbes also denounced, amongst others, the idea of Papal infallibility (“…that the Pope In His Publique Capacity Cannot Erre…” Leviathan, Pg. 706) and transubstantiation (“…they assure the same, by the Power they ascribe to every Priest, of making Christ; and by the Power of ordaining Pennance; and of Remitting, and Retaining of sins.” Leviathan, Pg. 708)

Hobbes likely regarded Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as an “abuse of speech”:

“Secondly, when they use words metaphorically; that is, in other sense than that they are ordained for; and thereby deceive others.” (Leviathan, Pg. 102)

The allegory of the cave could be considered a “metaphorical” use of words, aimed at deceiving others into doubting the evidence of their senses.

If Hobbes rejected the essentialism of Plato and Aristotle, what did he believe we were referring to when we speak of an essential, defining characteristic of a thing?

For instance, I read an article about a chimpanzee that lost all of his hair in a zoo because of alopecia –a disease. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1322472/Guru-chimp-suffering-alopecia-looks-human-star-zoo-attraction.html)

This is what Hobbes says the schoolmen would say:

“From these Metaphysiques [the philosphy of Aristotle], which are mingled with the Scripture to make Schoole Divinity, wee are told, there be in the world certaine Essences separated from Bodies, which they call Abstract Essences, and Substantiall Formes…” (Leviathan, Pg. 689)

Aristotle tried to draw a distinction between “essential” and “accidental” properties of a thing to account for something like a chimpanzee without hair, and why it is still a chimpanzee. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accident_%28philosophy%29)

The fact that most chimpanzees have hair on their bodies must be an “accidental feature” of a chimpanzee. Something else must be “essential”.

Although he is not always clear on this point, I believe Hobbes thought all definitions ultimately rest on “accidental qualities”:

“Of Names, some are Proper, and singular to one onely thing; as Peter, John, This Man, This Tree: and some are Common to many things; as Man, Horse, Tree; every of which though but one Name, is nevertheless the name of divers particular things; in respect of all which together, it is called an Universall; there being nothing in the world Universall but Names; for the things named, are every one of them Individual and Singular.

One Universall name is imposed on many things, for their similitude in some quality, or other accident: And whereas a Proper Name bringeth to mind one thing onely; Universals recall any one of those many. ” (See Leviathan, pg. 103)

“Secondly, it may enter into account, or be considered, for some accident or quality, which we conceive to be in it; as for Being Moved, for Being So Long, for Being Hot, &c; and then, of the name of the thing it selfe, by a little change or wresting, wee make a name for that accident, which we consider; and for Living put into account Life; for Moved, Motion; for Hot, Heat; for Long, Length, and the like. And all such Names, are the names of the accidents and properties, by which one Matter, and Body is distinguished from another. These are called Names Abstract; Because Severed (not from Matter, but) from the account of Matter.” (See Leviathan, Pg. 107.)

In the above passages, Hobbes says there are “accidental qualities” that make up “matter” and “body”. Hobbes initially did seem to suggest that one “…Universal name is imposed on many things, for their similitude in some quality, or other accident…” (Leviathan, Pg. 103)

This could be interpreted as meaning he made a distinction between “similarity” and “accident”. So, for instance, the chimpanzee with alopecia has no hair as a result of an “accident” (a disease). However, given what he then gives as examples of “accident” (“living”, “moved”, “hot”, “long”, etc), the logical implication is that all characteristics of any given entity would ultimately be considered “accidental”.

Additionally, for Hobbes, a “body without us” is what is commonly called an “object”. “Objects” are the things we perceive with our senses:

“Concerning the Thoughts of man, I will consider them first Singly, and afterwards in Trayne, or dependance upon one another. Singly, they are every one a Representation or Apparence, of some quality, or other Accident of a body without us; which is commonly called an Object. Which Object worketh on the Eyes, Eares, and other parts of mans body; and by diversity of working, produceth diversity of Apparences.” (Leviathan, Pg. 85)

Every “object” that we perceive, according to Hobbes, is a “Representation” of “Apparence” of “some quality, or other Accident of a body [an object] without us; which is commonly called an Object.”

The logic of Hobbes’ view of knowledge is to say that everything about a particular entity that we call “matter” or “body” is just an accidental feature. Therefore, all of our concepts must be based on “accidental features”. There is no “essence”, as Plato or Aristotle speaks of them.

One of the strengths of Hobbes is his commitment to good definitions:

“Seeing then that Truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise Truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or els he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed. And therefore in Geometry, (which is the onely Science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind,) men begin at settling the significations of their words; which settling of significations, they call Definitions; and place them in the beginning of their reckoning.

By this it appears how necessary it is for any man that aspires to true Knowledge, to examine the Definitions of former Authors; and either to correct them, where they are negligently set down; or to make them himselfe. For the errours of Definitions multiply themselves, according as the reckoning proceeds; and lead men into absurdities, which at last they see, but cannot avoyd, without reckoning anew from the beginning; in which lyes the foundation of their errours. From whence it happens, that they which trust to books, do as they that cast up many little summs into a greater, without considering whether those little summes were rightly cast up or not; and at last finding the errour visible, and not mistrusting their first grounds, know not which way to cleere themselves; but spend time in fluttering over their bookes; as birds that entring by the chimney, and finding themselves inclosed in a chamber, flitter at the false light of a glasse window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in. So that in the right Definition of Names, lyes the first use of Speech; which is the Acquisition of Science: And in wrong, or no Definitions’ lyes the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senslesse Tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men, as men endued with true Science are above it. For between true Science, and erroneous Doctrines, Ignorance is in the middle. Naturall sense and imagination, are not subject to absurdity. Nature it selfe cannot erre: and as men abound in copiousnesse of language; so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary. Nor is it possible without Letters for any man to become either excellently wise, or (unless his memory be hurt by disease, or ill constitution of organs) excellently foolish. For words are wise mens counters, they do but reckon by them: but they are the mony of fooles, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other Doctor whatsoever, if but a man.” (Leviathan, Pg. 105-106)

Here, Hobbes says that all authority must be rejected (specifically the authority of “…Aristotle…Cicero…[and]…Thomas [Aquinas]…” He says that one must “…examine the Definitions of former Authors…” to see if they are right or wrong. Hobbes says that failure to do so will cause one to “…find himselfe entangled in words…”

But, Hobbes doesn’t always follow his own advice on definitions. Hobbes uses the term “accidental” without thinking about what that means -what its definition is. The definition of “accident” is:

“a sudden event (such as a crash) that is not planned or intended and that causes damage or injury.”
“an event that is not planned or intended: an event that occurs by chance” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accident)

An “accident” means something that was not planned or intended. With respect to “the metaphysical”, i.e., all aspects of reality that don’t involve human choice, the concepts of “planned” or “intended” do not apply. Only human beings, and, arguably, certain other types of living organisms, are capable of “planning” or “intent”. These concepts pertain to entities that possess a mind like human beings.

Similarly, the concept of “chance” means that an event occurs about which one does not have sufficient information to know for certain what the outcome will be. For instance, if I flip a coin, whether it will come up heads or tails is a question of “chance”, and I can speak of the probability that it will come up heads or tails.

If I had enough data about the original position of the coin prior to being tossed, the angle(s) and speeds of all the forces that worked on it when it was tossed, the wind and weather factors involved, etc., then I could know for certain whether the coin toss would end up heads or tails. It would no longer be a matter of “chance” because I have sufficient knowledge to know all the factors that are playing into its eventual resting state.

All inanimate things act in accordance with their nature, and the nature of other things that they interact with, and they absolutely must act that way. “Chance” is just a way of saying that a human being doesn’t have enough knowledge about the nature of certain inanimate things to know what the outcome will be.

For example, the fact that the Earth and the other planets came to revolve around the sun the way they do, and at the orbits they occupy, had to occur that way because of the nature of the Sun and the other planets. (Their masses, their speeds, their composition, etc.) The element of “chance” comes into play because human beings do not know all of the factors that led to the Earth orbiting the sun in the way it does. “Chance” is just a reflection of some human being’s level of knowledge on a subject.

As far as we know, only human beings make choices. Since only human beings can make plans or intend to bring about some event or goal, only human beings are capable of having their plans or intentions fail due to some ignorance, negligence, or irrationality on their part. Only human beings can have “accidents”, because only human beings can be mistaken.

This means that when it comes to reality, apart from those aspects that don’t involve human choice, nothing is “accidental”, because the concept does not apply. It’s like asking: what is the sound of one hand clapping? Or: what is outside the universe? Since clapping, by definition, is the striking together of two hands, it is a nonsense sentence. If the universe is all that exists, then you cannot speak of anything “outside” it, because anything that exists is part of the universe. “Outside” is also a relational concept, implying that something that exists is not within something else, so there is no “outside” the universe. (Arguably, there is no “inside” the universe, either.) Similarly, speaking of “accidental” aspects or features of reality, that don’t involve human choice, is a nonsense statement.

Going back to the chimpanzee with alopecia, the fact that he lost all of his hair is not an “accident”, nor is the fact that other chimps have their hair an “accident”. Chimps that don’t have alopecia have their hair because of their nature as a living organism, plus the nature of the rest of reality that they interact with. It isn’t an “accident” that chimps have hair. It had to be that way, because reality is what it is. There is no god making choices about how reality is going to be. Reality simply is. Only human beings make choices, that we know of, and only human beings can make plans. Human beings, not reality, are capable of having “accidents” -of making mistakes. If a chimp looses his hair for some reason that doesn’t involve human choice, it had to be that way because of the nature of certain diseases and the nature of the chimp’s body in reaction to those diseases.

What is the consequence of believing, as Hobbes appears to, that all features or characteristics of “matter” and “body” are “accidental”? He would have to believe that all concepts that human being hold must be, in some sense, “accidental”. Concepts for Hobbes are not going to be fully real to him. Hobbes is what is known today as a “nominalist”:

“Denying that concepts have an objective basis in the facts of reality, nominalists declare that the source of concepts is a subjective human decision: men arbitrarily select certain characteristics to serve as the basis (the “essentials”) for a classification; thereafter, they agree to apply the same term to any concretes that happen to exhibit these “essentials,” no matter how diverse these concretes are in other respects. On this view, the concept (the term) means only those characteristics initially decreed to be ‘essential’. The other characteristics of the subsumed concretes bear no necessary connection to the ‘essential’ characteristics, and are excluded from the concepts meaning.

Observe that, while condemning Plato’s mystic view of a concept’s meaning, the nominalists embrace the same view in a skeptic version. Condemning the essence-accident dichotomy as implicitly arbitrary, they institute an explicitly arbitrary equivalent. Condemning Plato’s ‘intuitive’ selection of essences as a disguised subjectivism, they spurn the disguise and adopt subjectivism as their official theory…Condemning Plato’s supernaturally determined essences, they declare that essences are socially determined, thus transferring to the province of human whim what had once been the prerogative of Plato’s divine realm. The nominalists’ ‘advance’ over Plato consisted of secularizing his theory.”(Leonard Peikoff, “The Analytic Synthetic Dichotomy.” In: Rand, A. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed.” New York:Meridian (1990).)

Hobbes is correct that all definitions of concepts rest on human choices -that all essences are based on human choice. He is mistaken in believing that certain aspects or characteristics of the things we perceive, given certain contexts of knowledge, should be considered no more essential than all of their other features, though. This is because the human mind has a certain nature, and it must organize the material it perceives in accordance with that nature if it is going to function effectively. Since human thought serves human life, certain characteristics of the entities we perceive are more fundamental than others, because we adopt certain principles of “fundamentality” that serve our nature as living beings with a certain nature of mind.

“Now observe, on the above example, the process of determining an essential characteristic: the rule of fundamentality. When a given group of existents has more than one characteristic distinguishing it from other existents, man must observe the relationships among these various characteristics and discover the one on which all the others (or the greatest number of others) depend, i.e., the fundamental characteristic is the essential distinguishing characteristic of the existents involved, and the proper defining characteristic of the concept.

Metaphysically, a fundamental characteristic is that distinctive characteristic which makes the greatest number of others possible; epistemologically, it is the one that explains the greatest number of others.” (Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Ed., Chapter 5, “Definitions”. New York:Meridian (1990).)

For instance, in the case of the chimpanzee, we know that it is a living organism that must obtain the fuel necessary for its continued existence. It must gather food and other resources. It will seek out females to reproduce with because all living organisms are capable of reproducing themselves, and, with the possible exception of humans, are driven by inexorable mating cycles to do so. Its internal organs are all aimed at sustaining itself. It reacts to its environment and attempts to adapt itself to that environment in a manner that will allow for its continued existence, so it behaves in certain ways. It possesses a consciousness that is, perhaps different from human beings, but a consciousness, nonetheless.

Take away its hair, and the chimpanzee is still a living organism, albeit one that is in a diseased state, so it might not be quite as successful at living. To the extent that human beings interact with a chimpanzee without hair, they will still do so in largely the same way. Hair, as far as human beings are concerned, is not an essential feature of the chimp. But, this is only as far as a human being are concerned. Outside of the way human beings organize certain entities that they perceive in their minds in order to serve human purposes, every entity is unique. No two chimpanzees are the same. The concept of “similarity” serves human needs.

What are some of the “principles of ‘fundamentality’” that human beings adopt in order to serve their purposes? Probably the most important one is the principle of causality. We try to find aspects of reality that we can use to bring about certain results. This is important because reason is our means of survival. So, for instance, we find that certain types of molds kill bacteria. A certain type of mold is the “cause” of bacteria death. We then extract the substance from that mold that leads to the death of certain types of bacteria, and make antibiotics. This means that when we form concepts we look for characteristics that are the “cause” of other characteristics of the thing. The more characteristics of a thing that a particular characteristic(s) causes, the more likely it is to be considered “fundamental”.

This isn’t always an easy task, since we may have incomplete knowledge, but this is what we are doing when we try to find “essential features” of a thing -and finding those essential features is necessary for successful living by human beings. The fact that the concept of essential features is necessary for living life means that there is a “right” and a “wrong” -that some ideas held by human beings are “true” and others are “false”. If one person believes that penicillin kills bacteria while another believes that voodoo incantations will cure disease, then the former is right and the later is wrong. If you want to live, then it’s not all just a matter of arbitrary definitions based on “accidental qualities”.

In the case of a chimpanzee, the fact that he has hair is not considered a fundamental feature. Other mammals have hair, and it doesn’t explain most of the chimp’s behavior patterns or the overall structure of his body. He also is still capable of reproduction with other chimpanzees, which is a strong indicator that an animal is the same species as another animal -although not always a definite indicator. (Wolves and coyotes can interbreed.) Why is interbreeding such a strong indicator? Because two animals breeding and giving rise to offspring tends to be very important to human beings in terms of farming. Agriculture, at least since the Neolithic period, is important to mankind because livestock for food and other purposes is important to human survival.

Essential features are neither “out there”, as Plato/Aristotle would say, nor “arbitrary creations”, as Hobbes would have to say. They are aspects of realty perceived and organized by a certain type of organism, a human being, who needs them to serve a certain purpose, which is living.

The legacy of Hobbes and of the Enlightenment is one in which tradition and authority is questioned. Hobbes just didn’t go far enough when he accepted, without criticism, the idea of “accidental qualities”, because the concept of “accident” does not apply to those aspects of reality that exist apart from human choice. (The “metaphysical”.) Only the metaphysical should be accepted, while all human choices and institutions should be judged, and, if necessary, reformed, if one wants to live.

A Review of “Altruism as Appeasement” by Ayn Rand

In 1962, Ayn Rand asked a student at MIT why so many of “…today’s young intellectuals were becoming ‘liberals’…” (pg. 32) A few weeks later, the MIT student wrote Miss Rand a letter, outlining his thinking on the subject. Miss Rand wrote “Altruism as Appeasement”, which expands on the response she got from this MIT student. This essay can be found in The Voice of Reason. (My page citations below are to the 1989 Meridian version, ISBN number: 0-452-01046-2)

In his letter, the student told Miss Rand that “The majority of college students…do not choose to think; they accept the status quo, conform to the prescribed code of values, and evade the responsibility of independent thought…’In adopting this attitude, they are encouraged by teachers who inspire imitation, rather than creation.’” (Pg. 32)

However, there is another group who are “…not willing to renounce their rational faculty.” Miss Rand then quotes at length from the MIT student’s letter: “‘They are the intellectuals -and they are the outsiders….They are teased and rejected by their schoolmates. An immense amount of faith in oneself and a rational philosophical basis are required to set oneself against all that society has ever taught…The man who preaches individual integrity, pride, and self-esteem is today virtually nonexistent. Far more common is the man who, driven by the young adult’s driving need for acceptance, has compromised. And here is the key -[the result of] the compromise is the liberal.’”

What is the psychological result? Most “liberal intellectuals” are driven by a strong guilt complex, because a person who sets himself against society in favor of rationality will feel guilt due to his rejection by the mediocrities around him. The “liberal” “…’loudly proclaims the brotherhood of all men. He seeks to serve his escapist brothers by guaranteeing them their desire for social security…’” (Pg. 33) “Liberals” are driven to atone for their false guilt, and they do so by working for “…’their welfare…’” (Pg. 33)

Miss Rand agreed with the MIT student regarding the psychological process he had identified, however: “…the situation he [the MIT student] describes is not new; it is as old as altruism; nor is it confined to ‘liberals’.” She says that this is the “…story of men who spend their lives apologizing for their own intelligence.” (Pg. 33)

Miss Rand then describes how this psychological process works out in the mind of the average college student. In an effort to avoid a massive quantity of quotations, I will summarize Miss Rand’s description of this process as best I can, as well as discuss some of my own observations that have led me to believe that Miss Rand is describing a psychological process that occurs very often in the mind of persons that usually self-identify as “liberals” or, more often today, as “progressives”.

When I originally read this essay in the mid-nineties, I was 19 or 20 years old. I hadn’t had enough experience to know if Miss Rand was right, so I just mentally “shelved” the issue. 20 years later, I’ve dealt with and seen enough people, and I’ve spent enough time thinking about their behavior, that I consider Miss Rand’s theory in “Altruism as Appeasement” to be a highly probable explanation for many people that are college educated, and self-describe as “liberals”, “progressives” or “social democrats”.

Miss Rand observes that bright children have a sense of being trapped in a “nightmare universe” when they are growing up. Growing up mostly in the Bible Belt and going to public school, I can relate to this description of childhood. In the South, large numbers of people will tell you that you are going to hell for some inherent moral vice called “original sin”, unless you repent your non-existent guilt to god. This could certainly be a frightening prospect for a child. In my own case, I started questioning the existence of god around age 13, and my mother must have sensed that because I was made to go to church despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly interested. Fortunately, the church that I was sent to was fairly “liberal”, and didn’t take the bible literally, so it could have been worse, I suppose.

Public schools, especially high school, were filled with their share of bullies -by which I mean children that would engage in low-level initiations of physical force, especially against anyone who didn’t seem to fit in, or that their emotions told them deserved such treatment. (By low-level initiations of physical force, I mean things like handing out quadriceps contusions —a “deadleg”- or being spit on, or having your books knocked out of your hands in the hall, etc.) Although in my case, by the 11th grade, most of the kids that were initiating physical force against others had either been removed from the school to a special “alternative school”, or were already in jail. Additionally, Plano Independent Schools contain a large number of children with parents that actually care about academic achievement and personal success, so my overall public school experience wasn’t what I’d call a “nightmare”. I suspect that an inner-city public school would be four years of complete hell all the way through, and make my experience look like I was living in Galt’s Gulch (a utopia).

I discovered Ayn Rand’s philosophy when I was about 15, and I did note that most people were hostile to Miss Rand’s ideas, if they knew about them at all. I did have a couple of teachers that seemed sympathetic towards her ideas, but that was rare. So, I can relate when Miss Rand says that the intelligent teenager wants to “…understand things and issues, big issues, about which no one else seems to care.” (Pg. 33)

Miss Rand goes on to say that most intelligent teenagers start college with the hope that it will be better, but their first year is too often a “psychological killer”(Pg. 33). He went to college hoping to find answers and meaning, and some companions to share his interest in ideas. She notes that he may find a handful of teachers that live up to his hopes, but “…as to intellectual companionship, he finds the same gang he had met in kindergarten, in playgrounds, and in vacant lots: a leering, screeching, aggressively mindless gang playing the same games, with latinized jargon replacing the mud pies and the baseball bats.” (Pg. 34)

I found Rand’s description of college to be fairly accurate at the University of Texas at Austin, which is easily the most left-wing school in Texas. One English professor was particularly terrible. He interpreted everything we read through the lens of “multiculturalism” and “feminism”. He told the class that Thomas Jefferson was a racist and a hypocrite when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. I raised my hand and disagreed with him. I told him that the Declaration of Independence may not have been consistently applied at the founding, but it formed the intellectual basis on which the nation eventually moved towards abolishing slavery. His response was that the civil war was the reason the slaves were freed. I disagreed, and said that slavery would have been abolished eventually anyway. In that professor’s mind, ideas had nothing to do with it. The use of physical force was all that mattered. It makes me wonder why he bothered to be a professor at all, if he thought ideas were so futile.

Going back to Miss Rand’s essay, how do too many intelligent college students deal with the intellectual wasteland that is college? “There are many wrong directions he can make at this crossroads, but the deadliest -psychologically, intellectually, and morally- is the attempt to join the gang at the price of selling his soul to uninterested buyers. It is an attempt to apologize for his intellectual concerns…by professing that his thinking is dedicated to some social-altruistic goal.” (Pg. 34) She notes that this is rarely a conscious decision on his or her part. It is done gradually and subconsciously and by semiconscious rationalization. She also notes that altruism “…offers an arsenal of such rationalizations: if an unformed adolescent can tell himself that his…subservience is unselfishness…he is hooked. By the time he is old enough to know better, the erosion of his self-esteem is such that he dares not face or reexamine the issue.” (pg. 34)

What is the psychology of an intelligent person who goes to college and professes that he is using his mind to serve others? Such a man or woman has some “…degree of social metaphysics [secondhandedness]…” (Pg. 34) The concept of “social metaphysics” requires some explanation, which Rand does supply: “Basically, a social metaphysician is motivated by the desire to escape the responsibility of independent thought, and he surrenders the mind he is afraid to use, preferring to follow the judgments of others.” (Pg. 34)

If you’ve read Miss Rand’s book The Fountainhead, the character Peter Keating is the ultimate “second-hander” or “social metaphysician”. If you haven’t read that novel, it could be thought of as the “go along to get along” type of personality. (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/go_along_to_get_along) It does not mean never compromising on non-fundamental or trivial matters. So, for instance if you are going to dinner with a friend, and they prefer Italian food and you want Chinese, and you compromise by going to an Italian restaurant, with the understanding that next time you will pick the restaurant, that isn’t social metaphysics. That is simply recognizing that there are a range of food preferences that vary by person, you can only go to one place at a time, and that friendship is about shared values, which means showing an interest in what your friends are interested in.

The social metaphysician regards society -others- as the standard of reality. The social order as it happens to exist is accepted by him, or her, and then he or she operates within it. A social metaphysician can be quite successful at operating within that social order, but she never questions it. This is why Rand called them social metaphysicians.

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the most fundamental aspects of the nature of reality. Metaphysics are the principles that must be understood before one can study particular sciences like physics or biology. For instance, in Miss Rand’s philosophy, she accepts the existence of an external universe as the given. The entities that make up the universe have a particular nature and those entities act in accordance with that nature. According to Miss Rand’s system of metaphysics, an entity is what it is regardless of anyone’s desires or wishes to the contrary. If one is a social metaphysician, then the metaphysical, i.e., reality, is less important than the “man-made”. The man-made includes all of our social institutions and customs. Unlike reality, the man-made depends on human choice, and could be other than it is. For instance, America is a Republic and not a Monarchy because people chose to make it that way. It’s continued existence as a Republic depends on human choice. The social metaphysician simply accepts these man-made customs as the given, and rarely questions them. In fact, a social metaphysician has so internalized this way of thinking, that anyone who questions generally accepted social institutions will make her feel uneasy.

Social metaphysicians who are less intelligent, and didn’t go to college, are the “good old boys” and “rednecks” that one might see in a small, rural town. The social metaphysician is also quite common in inner cities, but I don’t know what the polite word to describe them would be. For lack of a polite term, I will call them “black rednecks”. A “black redneck” from a large inner city like Chicago or New York will be highly critical of anyone from his neighborhood who studies hard and tries to better his economic standing. He will accuse high-achievers in his race of “acting white”. This is a perfect example of the social metaphysician attitude. The “black redneck” believes there are certain social customs and institutions that are not to be questioned -unfortunately those social customs and institutions in minority communities include the belief that gaining knowledge and education is not in accordance with being of African descent. Anyone from his racial group who defies those customs is therefore a traitor in the social metaphysician’s eyes. There was once a great episode of a show that I didn’t typically watch that covered this topic, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” where the “nerdy” character “Carlton” is accused of being a race-traitor.

Another great essay by Rand describing basically the same mentality as this type of social metaphysician, the “anti-conceptual tribalist”, can be found in Philosophy: Who Needs It called: The Missing Link.

The intelligent teenager who goes to college and has the “social metaphysician” mindset will not become a redneck, though. He (or she) will become a “liberal” -which is the “educated” equivalent. To a social metaphysician college student, it seems like all of his professors and peers accept the idea that the individual must sacrifice himself to the “common good”. This means that in the social metaphysician’s eyes, the idea of self-sacrifice is one of the social institutions and custom of college. It is the social order that is not to be questioned.

The psychology of social metaphysics doesn’t entirely explain the “liberal mindset”, however. The college “liberal” is also engaged in “intellectual appeasement”: “…an intellectual appeaser surrenders morality, the realm of values, in order to be permitted to use his mind. The degree of self-abasement is greater [than the social metaphysician]; the implicit view of the mind -as functioning by permission of the mindless -is unspeakable. (Nor does the appeaser often care to speak of it.)” (Pg. 34)

“There are as many variants of the consequences [of being an intellectual appeaser] as there are men who commit this particular type of moral treason. But certain scars of psychological deformity can be observed in most of them as their common symptoms.” (Pg. 35) Rand then describes some common consequences of being an intellectual appeaser.

First, the intellectual appeaser tends to hate mankind in general, and to regard them as “…evil by nature, he complains about their congenital stupidity…” (pg. 35) I regard the “people are stupid” attitude as the hallmark of the “liberal” or “progressive”. “Liberal” politicians like Michael Bloomberg pass laws to restrict the size of sugary drinks because he thinks people are too stupid to regulate their own caloric intake. The “liberal”, intellectual appeaser view of “…the people at large is a nightmare image -the image of a mindless brute endowed with some inexplicably omnipotent power -and he lives in terror of that image…emotionally, he keeps feeling the brute’s presence behind every corner…The brute is the frozen embodiment of mankind as projected by the emotions of an adolescent appeaser.” (Pg. 35)

In my own experience, the belief that the majority of people are brutish is why most “liberals” are for gun control. They believe that most human beings are seething cauldrons of rage who will snap at the slightest provocation -that they are brutes. I saw this when Texas legalized concealed carry with a license in the mid-1990’s. “Liberals” claimed that it would lead to the “wild west” -with people shooting each other over trivial matters like parking spots. This is not to say that murder never happens, but the world today is arguably less violent than it has ever been. (“Steven Pinker: The surprising decline in violence” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ramBFRt1Uzk )

Second, a “…corollary symptom, in most intellectual appeasers, is the ‘elite’ premise -the dogmatic, unshakable belief that ‘the masses don’t think,’ that men are impervious to reason, that thinking is the exclusive prerogative of a small, ‘chosen’ minority.” (Pg. 36) In politics, this “elitism” manifests itself in the form of two types of “intellectual appeasers”. There are the more aggressive “liberals”, who believe in rule by physical force because “…people are unfit for freedom and should be ruled -‘for their own good’- by a dictatorship of the ‘elite’.”(Pg. 36) These are the Michael Bloomberg’s and Hillary Clinton’s of the world, who want to force people to buy smaller soft drinks or to buy health insurance because they are supposedly too stupid to take care of themselves.

Unfortunately, the other type of intellectual appeaser is predominately found in the Republican Party: “The more timorous type of appeasers, the ‘conservatives,’ take a different line: they share the notion of an intellectual ‘elite’ and, therefore, they discard intellectuality as numerically unimportant, and they concentrate on cajoling the brute (‘the masses’) with baby talk -with vapid slogans, flattering bromides, folksy speeches in two-syllable words, on the explicit premise that reason does not work, that the brute must be won through appeals to his emotions and must, somehow, be fooled or cheated into taking the right road.”(Pg. 36)

This analysis of conservatism provides a possible explanation for the popularity of Donald Trump in the Republican party. One thing I’ve noticed about Trump’s campaign is that it tends to be short on many specifics, but it contains a lot of emotional appeals, bromides, and verbal “put downs” of the other Republican candidates. This is not something new within the Republican party, though. Ronald Reagan was the master of “flattering bromides”, “folksy speeches”, and one-liners at debates. Trump is just a little bit more blunt in his delivery than Reagan was.

A third consequence of being an intellectual appeaser is moral cowardice, which is “…the necessary consequence of discarding morality as inconsequential.”(Pg. 36) For the “progressive” intellectual appeaser, the image of the brute is “…the symbol of an appeaser’s belief in the supremacy of evil…when his mind judges a thing to be evil, his emotions proclaim its power, and the more evil, the more powerful.” (Pg. 36)

This can be understood in terms of what the intellectual appeaser has accepted as “good” or “moral”. The intellectual appeaser is a proponent of self-sacrifice in the service of others, which is generally known as “altruism”. This means that “good” action for the altruist consists in destroying one’s own happiness and sacrificing one’s life in order to serve others. As a result, “good” and “right action” is self-weakening, and self-destructive. To the altruist, those who do not engage in self-sacrifice will be regarded as morally bad. However, the altruist can see that people who do not sacrifice themselves to others are more successful at living. For instance, someone who rejects altruism will have more wealth because they refuse to drain off their financial resources to help complete strangers. The person who rejects altruism has an easier life. In the altruist’s subconscious mind, the good has become associated with self-destruction, while the evil has become associated with the efficacious. The mistake lies in the intellectual appeaser’s belief that self-sacrifice is “the good”, when it is, in fact, the opposite of the good -if one wants to live.

The result of the intellectual appeaser’s inverted moral system is his belief that “…the self-assertive confidence of the good [the good by the standard of those who actually want to live] is a reproach, a threat to his precarious pseudo-self-esteem, a disturbing phenomenon from a universe whose existence he cannot permit himself to acknowledge -and his emotional response is a nameless resentment. The self-assertive confidence of the evil [those who violate individual rights] is a metaphysical confirmation, the sign of a universe in which he feels at home -and his emotional response is bitterness, but obedience. Some dictators -who boastfully stress their reign of terror, such as Hitler and Stalin -count on this kind of psychology. There are people on whom it works.” (Pg. 37)

The final result of this sort of moral cowardice of the “liberal” intellectual appeaser is to oppose those who want to live, the actual good, in order to appease those who want to violate individual rights, and eventually “…to pounce upon every possible or impossible chance to blacken the nature of the good and to whitewash the nature of the evil.” (Pg. 37) This is why so-called “liberals” were always quick to apologize for atrocities and human rights violations committed by the Soviet Union. It’s also why “liberals” engage in ad hominem criticisms of Ayn Rand because she collected social security -like we’re all supposed to be forced to pay into that system and then “fall on our own swords” and not try to collect out of it. (This is altruist thinking.)

A fourth consequence of being an intellectual appeaser can be seen in art. “Progressives” are always fascinated by movies and art that is a “…projection of cosmic terror, guilt, impotence, misery, doom…” (Pg. 37) “Liberals” and “progressives” are fascinated with movies that study “homicidal maniacs” (Pg. 37), like “Natural Born Killers” or “Dexter” because of their subconscious belief that such people are the norm. They believe destruction is the norm, while creation is an aberration, because they hate mankind.

A fifth consequence of being a “liberal” intellectual appeaser is “…the dry rot of cynicism…”(Pg. 38) that eventually sets in. As the “liberal” appeaser grows older, any “…pretense at any belief in altruism vanishes from his [or her] mind in a very few years, and there is nothing left to replace it: his independent capacity to value has been repressed -and his fear of the brute makes the pursuit of values seem hopelessly impractical.” (Pg. 38) I suspect that this is the point that has been reached by a politician like Hillary Clinton. At this stage in her life, she is probably running on fumes. Her denial of any responsibility in the attacks on the American embasy in Benghazi, and her attempt to shift blame onto a YouTube video shows this sort of cynicism. In response to Congressional criticism about Benghazi, Hillary Clinton said: “What difference at this point does it make?” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ka0_nz53CcM) It doesn’t make any difference in Clinton’s mind, because the truth doesn’t matter. All that matters to her is whether she can con the American people into making her President.

Sixth, the intellectual appeaser ultimately spends so much time pandering to her own image of the “the masses” as a stupid, irrational mob, that she eventually “…assumes the standards of those he [or she] professes to despise…Any man who is willing to speak or write ’down,’, i.e., to think down- who distorts his own ideas in order to accommodate the mindless, who subordinates truth to fear -becomes eventually indistinguishable from the hacks who cater to an alleged ‘public taste.’ He joins the hordes who believe that the mind is impotent, that reason is futile, that ideas are only means of fooling the masses (i.e., that ideas are important to the unthinking, but the thinkers know better…” (Pg. 38) In my own experience with self-described “liberals” and “progressives”, this has been true. They will imply to me that reason is just a means of tricking or fooling people, and that objective truth is not even possible.

Ayn Rand had a more realistic picture of the majority of mankind than the “liberal” appeaser: “No, men are not brutes; neither are they all independent thinkers. The majority of men are not intellectual initiators or orginiators; they accept what the culture offers them….their abstract range is limited…The truly deliberately evil men are a very small minority; it is the appeaser who unleashes them on mankind; it is the appeaser’s intellectual abdication that invites them to take over…When the ablest men turn into cowards, the average men turn into brutes.” (Pg. 39)

Ayn Rand was not pessimistic about the future, so long as the more intelligent people refused to become altruistic intellectual appeasers: “No, the average man is not morally inocent. But the best proof of his non-brutality, of his helpless, confused, inarticulate longing for truth, for an intelligible, rational world -and of his response to it, when given a chance he cannot create on his own -is the fact that no dictatorship has ever lasted without establishing censorship.” (Pg. 39)

How does one avoid becoming an intellectual appeaser? By being “…proud of his intelligence -regardless of their [the average person’s] approval or disapproval. No matter how hard this might be in a corrupt age like ours, he has, in fact, no alternative. It is his only chance at a world where intelligence can function, which means: a world where he -and, incidentally, they -can survive.”  (Pg. 39)

Regrettably, I suspect that by the time most people are about 30, it would be very difficult for them to change. They have too many habituated behaviors and thought patterns. But, Ayn Rand remains popular with the young, so I think that there is still a chance.

Bernie Sanders: The Pied Piper of Self-Sacrifice

Bernie Sanders will likely loose the Democratic Party Primary. Despite this, I want to take a moment to discuss his ideology and his philosophy, which must be resisted -if you regard your own life and the pursuit of your own happiness as important. This is true whether you are “rich” or “poor”. I will discuss Mr. Sander’s philosophy in the context of an interview I found online. The interviewer’s name was Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation. Mr. Rosica is a Catholic Priest. The interview with Bernie Sanders was posted on the Washington Post web site, and can be found in its entirety at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/bernie-sanders-calls-pope-francis-a-socialist/2016/02/22/9fefd340-d9b4-11e5-8210-f0bd8de915f6_video.html

I transcribed the portions of the interview that I considered to be relevant to what I want to write about here:

Bernie Sanders: [1:00 minutes] “What the Pope has done in a very bold way is not only talk about the dispossessed…people who just don’t have enough income to survive…but what he has also done is raise the issue of the worship of money, the idolatry of money, and to say maybe that’s not what human life should be about…”

Fr. Rosica: [1:40 minutes]“They call you a socialist…do you think he’s a socialist [Pope Francis]?”

Bernie Sanders:[1:54 minutes] “….Well, what it means to be a socialist in the sense of what the Pope is talking about, and what I’m talking about, is to say that we have got to do our best and live our lives in a way that alleviates human suffering, uh, that does not accelerate the disparities of income and wealth. Uh, when he talks about wealth being used to serve people – not as an end in itself- I agree with that. In this country, and obviously the Pope is a worldwide figure, the church is worldwide, we are the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and if you go out in the street and you ask people, “Did you know that we’re the wealthiest country in the world?” They’d say “No, I’m working two or three jobs, I’m making 8 dollars an hour, I don’t know that we’re the wealthiest. I can’t afford childcare for my children.” So, what the Pope is saying is that human life, our existence, should be more than just the accumulation of more and more wealth, and everybody knows that right now we have the wealth, we have the technology, to provide at least a decent standard of living for all of our people, and so few should not have so much, and I think that’s what the Pope is talking about.”

Mr. Sanders isn’t exclusively talking about more welfare for poor people here. This is made clear when he says: “What the Pope has done in a very bold way is not only talk about the dispossessed…people who just don’t have enough income to survive…but what he has also done is raise the issue of the worship of money, the idolatry of money, and to say maybe that’s not what human life should be about…” (emphasis added) Mr. Sanders claims that people “worship” money.

What is money? It is a medium of exchange used instead of the barter system. Money involves trade. It is used when people want to voluntarily exchange goods and services with each other. It presupposes that (1) Each party to the transaction has something that the other regards as valuable, and (2) that each party has a right to use and transfer what he has produced as he sees fit. Why does each person have the right to dispose of what he has produced? It can only be the case if one regards his own life as important to him -if he wants to live. Money is a tool -it is a means of satisfying your material wants and needs by voluntary trade with other people who are also interested in satisfying their material needs. We all have these material needs -we all need a certain number of material goods in order to live. We all need food, clothing, and shelter, and it isn’t provided by nature. It must be produced by someone. If some produce while other appropriate by force what they have produced, then those producers are not free to live their lives. They are slaves to those who don’t produce.

I would hasten to add that it is possible to be irrational about the pursuit of money. It’s possible to pursue it over and above other things that would be more important to a rational human being. In the novel “A Christmas Carol”, Ebenezer Scrooge chooses to pursue more money over a marriage to the woman he loved (Belle):

[Belle:] “Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.”… [Scrooge:]“Have I ever sought release?” [Belle:] “In words. No. Never.” [Scrooge:]“In what, then?” [Belle:] “In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us,” said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; [Belle:] “tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!” He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle, [Scrooge:] “You think not.” [Belle:] “I would gladly think otherwise if I could,” she answered, [Belle:] “Heaven knows! When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl—you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were.” He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed. [Belle:] “You may—the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will—have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen!” (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm)

Scrooge was not truly acting in a manner that promoted his own life. He chose a little more money over love of a “dowerless girl”. (A “dowry” was money or property that a wife or wife’s family gives to her husband when the wife and husband marry.) The problem here is Scrooge had already satisfied a certain level of material well-being, but he choose a few more dollars over the love of his life (Belle). Even in this case, who did Ebenezer Scrooge hurt -in the most fundamental sense? He hurt himself. (Belle went on to find a man that valued her in a more rational manner -as shown by a later scene in “A Christmas Carroll”.) Scrooge’s own life was (presumably) of utmost importance to him, but he damaged that life by pursuing more money over Belle.

Rational egoism means making your own life your ultimate value, and recognizing that reality demands that you must take certain actions in order to further it, such as working to produce the material values you need to survive. But, rational egoism means more than just acquiring material wealth. If you want to fall in love, you actually have to go out, and try to meet people, and you have to go out on dates. If you want friends, you have to find people that you have things in common with, and make an effort to make them a part of your life. If you want knowledge, you must read books, go to school, and study new ideas. If you want to be rational, you must study logic, and learn the method of objectivity. If you want happiness, you must discover what will make you happy, and then pursue it relentlessly. The level of wealth that each of us chooses to acquire in relation to other important values is a personal matter, and will often depend on your personal context and situation. One of the values of Capitalism is that it leaves each individual free to decide what level of wealth he will pursue. If he chooses to irrationally pursue additional wealth over love or friendship like Ebenezer Scrooge, that is his choice to make, and he will live with the consequences.

But, Bernie Sanders is not talking about the irrational pursuit of money like the case of Ebenezer Scrooge, because he does not accept the morality of rational egoism. He does not want you to live your life for your own sake. He reveals this when he discusses what it means to be a “socialist”. As a preliminary matter, it must be noted that the actual, accepted, definition of “socialism” is along the lines of: “…a way of organizing a society in which major industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individual people and companies…” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/socialism Whether governmental ownership of the means of production is actually in anybody’s rational self interest is more of a question for Economics and History. (I refer you to the old Soviet Union for an example of how socialism just makes everyone poor.) Governmental ownership of the means of production is not what Bernie Sanders is primarily talking about:

Bernie Sanders:[1:54 minutes] “….Well, what it means to be a socialist in the sense of what the Pope is talking about, and what I’m talking about, is to say that we have got to do our best and live our lives in a way that alleviates human suffering, uh, that does not accelerate the disparities of income and wealth.”

Whose suffering is Mr. Sanders talking about here? Are we talking about you taking action to better your own life and maximize your own happiness? It’s doubtful, given the rest of what Mr. Sanders said, that this is what he means. Bernie Sanders is not advocating “socialism” per se here. He is advocating “altruism”. He does not believe that your own life is important for its own sake, or that you should pursue your own happiness -and leave others free to pursue their own as well. Mr. Sanders says we should all: “…do our best and live our lives in a way that alleviates human suffering…” Service to others and self-sacrifice, i.e., altruism, is what Bernie Sanders advocates. To Mr. Sanders, your own life is secondary to the purpose of alleviating the suffering of others.

Furthermore, for Bernie Sanders, the more successful you are -the more productive you are- the more you should sacrifice yourself to others: “…right now we have the wealth, we have the technology, to provide at least a decent standard of living for all of our people…” However, “wealth” is nothing but the material means by which you maintain your life and pursue your own happiness. Imagine that you want to spend more time furthering your writing career (or painting, or sculpture, or dance). If you want to buy a washing machine so that you don’t have to spend enormous amounts of time washing your clothes by hand, so that you can pursue your career in art, according to Bernie Sanders, you can’t -unless you first buy a washing machine for all the people in inner cities, Appalachia, and the Third World. Imagine that you want to get married to the love of your life. If you want to buy your girlfriend an engagement ring as a symbol of your love when you ask her to marry you, you cannot -unless you ensure that every unmarried bachelor in the world can afford to buy one for his fiance. Imagine that you want to have children. You can’t buy that toy for your child -until you buy a toy for every child, everywhere. Furthermore, would Mr. Sanders even limit this self-sacrifice to the material realm? Once this notion is accepted, shouldn’t you go out and marry a girl you don’t love out of charity? Hell, maybe you have to find a spouse for everyone else first? Shouldn’t you spend time with your worst enemy, who does nothing but denigrate you, rather than seeking out people who would value you and your friendship? What about the “suffering” of someone who chooses to be obnoxious and boorish in any social situation, such that no one wants to be his or her friend? Shouldn’t you put up with his or her undesirable behavior and be friends, even though you gain nothing from the relationship and feel totally “drained” by their toxic friendship?

What motivates support for Bernie Sanders? For some it may be genuine envy -a hatred of those who want to live and are successful at doing so. However, I have too much faith in the good will of my fellow man, so I refuse to believe that this is anything more than a small number of people. I think most people support Bernie Sanders out of fear. They fear loosing their job, they fear getting sick and having no way to pay for it, they fear their child will get sick or starve, and they won’t be able to pay for it. There are no guarantees in life, and that is a scary thought. I understand this fear, and I feel it, too, sometimes. But, the desire to use armed force to obtain from others the goods you need for survival must be resisted -and that is what we are talking about when we talk about the welfare state and socialism. If you refuse to pay taxes for the support of others, the police will come for you and arrest you. If you resist, they will use clubs and handcuffs. If you resist with a weapon, they will shoot you. If they put you in prison for not paying taxes, and you try to escape, you will be shot by the guards. Right now, you may regard someone else as “the wealthy”. You may think that you can “get away with” expropriating the goods produced by “the wealthy”, and make your own material circumstances better. Be aware that you’re playing a risky game. Someone, someday, may decide that you are “the wealthy”. They may also decide they have a big enough voting block and the necessary government force, i.e. a big enough gang, to take it from you. Then you will be the one to have his wealth expropriated.

What is Proof?

I was recently asked what I consider to be “proof”. This question came up specifically with respect to my blog post on why I am an atheist and not an agnostic.  So what is “proof”?

I hold that the most essential form of proof is observation -that which you can come into contact with by means of your sensory-perceptual mechanism. In other words, “proof” is generally what you can see, hear or touch. (Taste and smell would also count, but these are pretty weak senses for human beings.) There are other types of proof that are possible, but they are related back to observation.  Some things are not directly perceivable, but we know that they do exist because of how they interact with things that we can observe. We can observe the effects on things that we do observe directly, and thereby come to understand something about the imperceptible thing that was the cause.

In the natural sciences, much of what we would call proof involves observing the effects on things we can perceive by things that we cannot perceive, thereby providing evidence about the existence and nature of those imperceptible things. For instance, bacteria were first observed by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676, using a single-lens microscope of his own design. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bacteria#History_of_bacteriology  With bacteria, human beings have been able to use a device with known properties to observe what was previously unobservable. The device was something that used specially shaped glass to amplify light. We knew that when glass was shaped in certain ways, it would make something appear bigger. We then extrapolated that if we bent and shaped this glass and combined it with other bent and shaped glass -other lenses- then it would amplify even smaller things. With sufficiently powerful enough lenses, such a device would eventually amplify the appearance of things that were too small to see with the naked eye. This device was named a microscope, and when Leeuwenhoek looked through it, he saw tiny organisms that were not visible with the naked eye, which were subsequently called “bacteria”.

The atom was discovered thanks to a number of observations made by scientists:
“In the early 1800s, John Dalton used the concept of atoms to explain why elements always react in ratios of small whole numbers (the law of multiple proportions). For instance, there are two types of tin oxide: one is 88.1% tin and 11.9% oxygen and the other is 78.7% tin and 21.3% oxygen (tin(II) oxide and tin dioxide respectively). This means that 100g of tin will combine either with 13.5g or 27g of oxygen. 13.5 and 27 form a ratio of 1:2, a ratio of small whole numbers. This common pattern in chemistry suggested to Dalton that elements react in whole number multiples of discrete units—in other words, atoms.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atom#First_evidence-based_theory

This knowledge was combined with other knowledge such as the phenomena of “Brownian Motion”:

“In 1827, botanist Robert Brown used a microscope to look at dust grains floating in water and discovered that they moved about erratically, a phenomenon that became known as “Brownian motion”. This was thought to be caused by water molecules knocking the grains about.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atom#First_evidence-based_theory

In the case of atoms, it was observed that a certain amount of tin always combined with a certain amount of oxygen in one of two ways, suggesting that whatever the ultimate constituents of tin and oxygen were, they must be discrete units. In other words, they must consist of units that cannot be divided any further -at least if you still wanted to speak of them as “oxygen” and “tin”. This knowledge, combined with other observations, such as Brownian motion, eventually led to the widespread acceptance of the existence of atoms. We inferred the existence of something, the atom, based on things that we could observe with our inborn sensory-perceptual mechanisms (our eyes).

The Theory of Evolution is another example of how we have come to have, at the very least, a theory, that explains our origins. There is no way to directly confirm this theory by direct observation. If it is happening, evolution happens over millions of years, with parents giving rise to slightly different offspring, who then are either more or less successful at survival because of these characteristics. These offspring have more children than those without those characteristics, and this continues on and on, until the resulting organism is so different from the original ancestor that it can no longer even be considered of the same species. This theory is based on things like:
(1) Geological observations that suggest the Earth is billions of years old.
(2) Observing the fact that different members of the same species of organism have different characteristics from each others. (E.G. some people have red hair while others have brown hair.)
(3) Parents are able to pass some of their unique characteristics on to their children. (E.G. blue-eyed parents have blue-eyed children.)
(4) Some of the unique characteristics an organism has can make it more successful at surviving and reproducing than if it didn’t have that characteristic. (E.G. a bacteria might have partial resistance to penicillin, while other members of its species do not, meaning resistant ones will tend to survive and reproduce.)

All of these observations suggest that, given sufficient time, one organism can be the ancestor of organisms that would be considered a completely different species, and that this occurs because of changing environmental conditions.

Proof of things that we didn’t observe by observing other things, and recognizing that there is a relationship, is not limited to the natural sciences. For instance, in a murder trial, all of the evidence that is presented is something that the judge and jurors can observe directly with their eyes and ears. For instance, the prosecution can present finger prints that were lifted from the murder weapon, and explain the chain of custody of the object such that no one had touched the murder weapon since it was discovered at the scene. Or, the prosecution can explain how each gun barrel leaves unique markings on the bullet when it is fired, and that the markings on the bullet found in the victim matches the markings on a bullet fired through the weapon by a ballistics expert.

Witness testimony can also establish other facts for the jury, such as if someone saw the accused walk into the victims house, and then heard a shot ring out. In that case, the jurors are relying on the eye witness’s observations, which are generally going to be believed, unless it can be show that the witness had some bias to lie or some mental problem that makes them unreliable. Even testimony such as someone seeing the victim and the accused in a heated argument a few days prior to the murder can be evidence, based on what we know about human nature. Human beings tend to do things because they have a motive for doing so, and if the accused hated the victim, then that would suggest he might have killed the victim. This recognition of human behavior is also based on observation.

What is the method of relating the things that we observe and then concluding the existence of something that we didn’t observe? The method of logic provides us with guidance in this area. Logic generally takes two forms: the inductive and the deductive. In deductive logic, we mentally place a specific instance into a general category or principle. It is reasoning from the general to the specific. For instance: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. “All men are mortal” is a general category or principle. Socrates is shown to be a specific instance of a man, and therefore everything that is known to be true about all men is true with respect to Socrates, i.e., that Socrates, just like all men, is mortal.

Deduction is a means of coming to have knowledge that doesn’t depend on direct observation of the conclusion, but the conclusion is based on other direct observations. In the case of the Socrates syllogism, you didn’t observe Socrates being born, growing old, and then eventually dying, but you were able to conclude without such direct observation that he is mortal -that Socrates will eventually die. What is the evidence for this?  One such fact is that every other man who is known to have lived eventually died. You then assume that since Socrates is in this category of “men”, that he has the same characteristics as other men, and is therefore mortal.

The above discussion of deduction leads to the other major form of logic. Where did the “all men are mortal” part of the Socrates syllogism come from? This is a complicated subject, and is not even fully agreed on today, but, in general, such knowledge is gained by observing a sufficient number of concrete examples of a thing and then generalizing that all members of that category possess that characteristic. For instance, it is impossible to actually observe all men and see that they are mortal, but you observe enough examples that you can eventually conclude that “all men are mortal.” The problem is that this can lead to generalizations that are erroneous. An example of this is the generalization: “All swans are white.” You observed numerous examples of white swans, and you conclude that they are all white. But, one day, you discover a bird that is morphologically the same as white swans, but it has black feathers. How do you know when you have a valid generalization versus an invalid one? I would like to know the answer to that one myself. In general terms, I think that if you are clear about the nature of the thing, and your purposes when you generalize, then it is possible to come up with valid generalizations. So, in the case of the invalid statement “all swans are white,” if you were clear about what a swan is and also about why the color of swans matters to you, then you probably wouldn’t make such a generalization in the first place. I cannot even think of a situation where it really matters whether swans are black or white. If you regard swans as a food source, then their color makes no difference. If you simply think swans are beautiful and graceful, then I think that belief applies to both colors. For my purposes here, the minutia of valid induction can be put aside. The point is that you generalize, or induce, by observing a sufficient number of examples to reach the generalization. Induction ultimately depends on your observations -on what you can perceive with your senses.

Someone might claim that they have a means of gaining knowledge other than through observation or logical reasoning, but I am aware of no such means. However, if they can provide me with proof, then I am open to hearing what they have to say. I just don’t know how you provide proof without proof, which seems to be what they are claiming.

Why I am not an Agnostic

A friend of mine asked me about being an atheist recently, and I realized that I had written very little directly on that subject, especially in recent years. I typically just refer someone to what others have written on the subject. For instance, I found “Atheism: The Case Against God” by George H. Smith to be a fairly thorough explanation, and to be largely correct, although I haven’t read it since 1994, so I don’t know to what extent I might now have disagreements with that book.

I am a proponent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. I am also fully convinced that it is inconsistent to be an Objectivist and be anything other than an atheist, but that is not actually an explanation for why I am an atheist. After all, maybe Objectivism is right on that one issue, and wrong on everything else, or vice-versa, or somewhere in between. So, in my mind, simply saying: “I am Objectivist, therefore I am atheist,” is not a satisfactory explanation to give to someone regarding why I am, specifically, an atheist. In this essay, I will explain why I am an atheist, but I will do so in the context of a related issue: Why I am not an agnostic.

For me, being an atheist rests on a logical principle that is known as “the onus of proof” principle. This is generally defined as something like: “He who asserts a claim has the burden of proof.” Every statement has a truth-value. That statement can be true, it can be false, or it can be “arbitrary”. A statement is “true” if there is evidence to establish that the statement is in accordance with reality. A statement is “false” if there is evidence to show that that the statement is not in accordance with reality. For instance, imagine that person A says: “All swans are white,” and then he shows person B ten white swans to prove it. However, person B then shows person A an eleventh swan that is black, thereby establishing that A’s statement is “false”. Or, Person A says: “All men are law-abiders,” and person A shows person B ten men who are obeying the law. But, person B then shows person A an eleventh man that is breaking the law, thereby showing person A’s statement to be “false”.

It is also possible to make a statement and offer no proof regarding that statement. Such a statement is neither “true” nor “false”, but “arbitrary”. For instance, person A says: “All swans are white,” and B asks for proof, and A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” As far as B is concerned, A has made an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it. Notice that unlike the example above, person A did not show ten white swans to prove his statement. He just “arbitrarily” asserted it.

Another example of an arbitrary statement would be if person A says: “Portland is a city in Oregon.” Person B then asks for proof, and A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” As far as B is concerned, assuming that B didn’t already have any independent proof of this statement, this is an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it. (In this case, it can be established that Portland is a city in Oregon, but the evidence simply hasn’t been presented to B.)

A more common example of an arbitrary statement will be something more mystical, along these lines: Person A says: “I was Julius Ceasar in a past life.” Person B then asks for proof, and person A says: “Prove that it isn’t so.” A has made an “arbitrary” statement. In B’s mind, there is no evidence to establish it.

So, if someone asserts: “There is a little gremlin standing on my shoulder, but he is invisible, and you cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell him, nor can you use any sort of logical reasoning or deduction to establish that he exists, now prove that it isn’t so,” then they have violated the onus of proof principle. Their statement is neither “true” nor “false”. It is merely “arbitrary”.

How should such an “arbitrary” statement by a person be dealt with by the listener? This question depends on what you think the purpose of knowledge is. I assert that human beings use their rational faculties –that they think- in order to maintain or enhance their individual lives. Knowledge, in general terms, is about grasping causal relationships between perceived entities in order to effectively use those things to maintain or enhance your own life. For instance, people study Biology and human anatomy so that they can understand how a particular entity, the human body, works, and how it interacts with things in its environment like viruses and bacteria. This enables them to develop means of curing disease, which maintains and enhances human life. Or, we study planetary motion, which gives us the ability to understand the nature of gravity, which, thanks to Isaac Newton, gave us the law of Universal Gravitation, which eventually, along with other knowledge, let us build rockets. This allowed us to launch weather satellites that we can use to predict hurricanes. Such technology gives us the ability to evacuate cities in the path of a hurricane, thereby saving countless human lives. One last example that isn’t from the natural sciences: We study man’s fundamental nature in order to understand and grasp certain general principles of action that will enhance or maintain his life. These general principles of action for maintaining one’s life are what Ayn Rand called “ethics” or “morality”.

If the purpose of knowledge is to allow human beings to understand laws of nature, i.e., causal relationships, then any assertion which is not backed up by proof or evidence is an attempt to get people to act on ideas that have no established connection to reality. Acting contrary to the facts in this way is typically not life-enhancing. It is more likely to lead to self-destruction. For instance, if I decided that I could flap my unaided arms and fly like a bird, then went to the roof of a building and jumped off, that will likely end badly for me. This is why it is important that all ideas, statements, and assertions be established in your own mind to be in accordance with reality before you act on them.

The onus of proof principle is the primary reason I self-describe as an “atheist”. When someone makes any statement, I expect proof, if I don’t already have it. Thus, if someone says: “There is a god,” I want proof, just like if someone said: “There is a little green man on Mars.” It just happens to be that within our culture, belief in some sort of god is so common that there is a word for what I am: “a-theist”. But, I am also “a-little-green-man-on-Mars”(ist). (If the majority of the human population were “atheist”, then there probably wouldn’t even be a word for it. That would just be considered “normal”.)

I once explained this “onus of proof” basis for being an atheist to someone who was generally a “secular humanist”, and he said that sounded like “agnosticism”. I must disagree. Let’s look at the definitions of “atheist” and “agnostic” found via a “define: atheist” and “define: agnostic” in Google’s search engine:

Atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

Agnostic: a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

My interpretation of these two contrasting definitions is that agnosticism says: “I don’t know if there is a god or not, so I am not going to take a position one way or the other.” But, the truth-status of every assertion of fact matters, if you want to live. Imagine if this were done in some other area, such as if you worked at a construction site. If someone said: “There is a crane about to drop a ton of bricks on you,” the truth or falsity of this statement matters. If you look up and don’t see any crane or bricks, then you’re going to think: “This person is a liar. I am going to distance myself from him and not listen to him.” You might also investigate why he said that. Perhaps you will discover that you were standing on a hundred dollar bill you had dropped, and he wanted you to move so that he could get it without telling you the real reason. This says something about his character.

On the other hand, if you look up and see that there is a ton of bricks about to fall on you, then you will take action: you will get out of the way. (In that scenario, you’re more likely to take that person’s word for it, and jump out of the way. But, after the fact, if you see that he was lying, then, if you want to live, it will affect your opinion of him, and how you deal with him -or don’t deal with him- in the future. My point here is that the truth-status of his assertion matters to your life.)

Imagine what agnosticism would mean to your life in practice. Imagine that an advocate of Sharia Law came to an agnostic and said to her: “God says all women should wear a burka.” Is the agnostic going to think: “I don’t want to take a position on this, so I’ll cover my head half of the time, and not cover it the other half of the time,” or: “I will just cover half my head”? The agnostic can’t say: “Prove that there is a god, and until you do, I am going to disregard everything you say on this subject,” because that would be taking a position. If she does that, then she isn’t actually an agnostic in that situation. She is an atheist. Whether she wants to use the word “agnostic” to describe herself to others is a different issue, but in her mind the truth-status of the assertion matters to her, and she refuses to act on arbitrary assertions. She is an atheist, at least on that issue.

I suspect that there are several reasons why most secularists tend to want to self-describe as “agnostic” rather than “atheist”. “Atheist” is synonymous with “immoral” in our culture because most people believe that any sort of respect for the rights of others must necessarily rest in religious faith. (“Religion” and “morality” are synonymous in many people’s minds, although I don’t think that is correct, if morality means “principles of action necessary for living your life”.) Agnosticism also seems more “reasonable” or “middle of the road”, and our culture tends to promote “the golden mean” between two “extremes” as an ideal, but it is not actually more reasonable. Not if you care about living, because that is why we must adhere our minds to reality on all issues.

Ayn Rand Lexicon on “arbitrary“.

“Free Will” and “Determinism”

I was thinking about the “determinism versus free will” debate yesterday, and I had a couple of thoughts that I thought might help in this debate. I am aiming my thoughts at people who are generally secularists and who look for naturalistic explanations for all phenomena.

First, I think it’s useful to think about things that clearly *are* determined. These are all non-living things, some of which are man-made and some of which are not. Examples include: billiard balls on a pool table that bounce when struck by other billiard balls, water reacting to a pebble being thrown in it with waves, the planets moving in orbit around the sun, a mouse trap when it is set and then sprung by a mouse, a basket ball that is dropped from a height and then repeatedly bounces -but less and less until it comes to a stop, and a rube goldberg machine. Both a proponent of determinism and an opponent of determinism will agree that all of these things are completely “determined”. These things possess no “internal will” that causes them to act as they do.

Second, it is also useful to look at the human mind to see if all of our mental actions are the same in terms of “level of choice”. Internal introspection of your own mind is the only way to really do this. There are certain “mental behaviors” or “mental actions” that seem less “chosen” than others. Normally, your emotions typically just react to external stimuli with very little or no ability on your part to avoid feeling those emotions. You feel anger, hatred, sadness, or happiness in reaction to certain perceived events seemingly “automatically”, like a mousetrap going off. At any given moment, your emotions seem closer to the examples of non-living things that are determined. If you are a man interested in women, and you see a woman with a certain body shape, size, and age-range, who behaves in a certain way, you feel a certain amount of romantic desire for her. If you are a woman with a child, you will normally feel fear if you see your child facing some sort of danger -or you will feel hatred or anger for the source of the danger towards your child. If someone tries to rob you with a gun, you will feel fear or anger. If someone you care about dies, you feel sadness. In all cases, you have little choice about the feelings that you feel at that moment. Your actions with respect to those feelings appear to be more under your control, but not the feelings themselves. Over time, your emotional reactions to certain things seem like they change. If you see someone you were romantically involved with several years after you broke up, you may no longer have the same romantic feelings you once had for them, or not to the same degree, but this happens over time. At any given time, one’s emotions are more fixed. (Some psychological schools seem to be based on the assumption that your thoughts can change your emotions over time, so if you change your thinking, which is under your control, then you will eventually change your emotions, but that is beyond the point here.)

But, when it comes to certain tasks, your ability to mentally solve problems seem less “automatic” than your emotions. For instance, if you are a physicist trying to solve a complex math problem, you actually have to sit down and work on the math problems. If you are a doctor trying to diagnose a patient’s illness, you actually have to draw on your store of knowledge and try to come up with a diagnosis. If you are a computer programmer, you actually have to sit down and try to figure out what data structures and if-then-else statements will solve the problem you are trying to solve. If you are a lawyer, you have to think about the facts of the case, and then go research the law and try to determine what legal precedents the facts of your case fit into. If you are a structural engineer, you have to decide what are the requirements of your building, such as: What will it be used for? How many people will use it? etc. Then you actually pick construction materials, work out the load requirements, etc. This applies equally to “blue collar” occupations. If you are a taxi cab driver, and your fare wants to get to the airport from downtown in less than 30 minutes, you have to consider the time of day, the traffic conditions, which roads are under construction, possibly consult maps, and mentally devise a route. In all of these cases, the mental activity involved is not nearly as “automatic” as when you feel an emotion. They all involve thinking to solve the problem of human survival.

Now, I think that a dedicated determinist is just going to say that all of these examples of thinking are “illusory” examples of choice because at some “lower level”, we are all just made up of some substance(s) that appears wholly determined. For instance, he will say on the molecular level, an atomic level, or a subatomic level, you are actually determined. He says this with the following reasoning: Your brain is made of nothing but molecules (or atoms). Molecules are entirely determined. Therefore, your brain is entirely determined. In other words, your mind is actually just a more complicated example of things like the mousetrap discussed above. My concern with that sort of reasoning is that it basically says: what you perceive as reality is not really reality at all. “Reality” is the molecular level, and the world that you perceive is nothing but an illusion. But, if you cannot count on what you perceive, including your perception of the choice to think, then I am not sure that any sort of knowledge of the molecular level, or any other level, is actually possible. Without knowledge, life would seem to be, as Hobbes said in another context, “nasty brutish and short”.