Is there a point to this essay? Or have I simply caught alienated Objectivists doing the same thing as the True Believing Objectivists: spouting off platitudes and bromides which masquerade as arguments that only those already converted to the true faith could endorse? I am reminded of that great scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where all the would-be followers of Brian show up in the square outside his window. He tells them to leave, that they must think for themselves, that they must be individuals. They all reply in unison: “We are all individuals;” while the lone dissenter exclaims, “I’m not.”
Worship the romantic vision of the individual. Praise her. Aspire to be like her. Create a clever acronym and pronounce the virtues of NEM. But do not think for a second that a world populated by individualist heroes brings the world any closer to Objectivism. We should not be surprised that people thinking for themselves will necessarily lead to divergent views, not just because we sometime have different facts, or understand the import of facts differently (and by the way time is limited so this is always our condition), but also because, unless you’re a Kantian, you do not believe that reason sets its own ends, only that it provides the most effective means and methodology to think about the world. (Rand by the way horribly misreads Kant, and there is great deal that is worthy of exploration by Objectivists). Reason after all was Rand’s epistemology. There is no necessary connection between it and her politics, despite the fact that many think there is. (No doubt, a good Objectivist will respond with all the tautologies they can regurgitate, like A is A and existence exists, but those that do, do exactly what Rand criticized Khrushchev for doing when he parroted the received Marxist dogma on his visit to the U.S. and boldly asserted the coming failure of the American model.) As Rawls points out, fundamentally incommensurable views will necessarily flourish under a system of free institutions. It is the inevitable result of reason operating under highly favorable conditions. And if you believe in freedom and reason, this should not be a lamentable fact. But make no mistake, the more genuine individuals there are, the less likely it is that any one of them will adhere to the philosophy of objectivism.
The “argument” starts with unreflective praise of NEMS, but then the argument takes a shift, and we move from praise of NEMS to examples of the sad state of current affairs. Lindsay writes:
“Sadly, we have only partially heeded those admonitions, and have continued to use the faculty of conceptual thought in the very service of that previous norm: brute force. Thus we see an evolutionary anomaly—we brought conceptual thought and its inseparable twin, volition, into play, yet continue to treat each other as though we had neither.
Examples of this anomaly abound in the headlines each day. They range from the brute to the subtle, from the murder of schoolchildren in Beslan to the call by supposedly educated Americans for an end to "outsourcing" (a phenomenal boon to hitherto Nem-deficient regions of the earth, providing at the same time new markets for its Nem-rich countries of origin)—which "end," of course, can be achieved only by … force. Inescapably, an intelligent observer is drawn to the conclusion that though we have had the wherewithal to do so for millennia, we have singularly failed to effect a widespread transformation from paleolithic men to New Enlightenment Men.”
Kant for example, and others, might explain this fact by distinguishing between instrumental reason and practical reason. Instrumental reason takes the end of action as given with the only relevant question of how to achieve it. It is of course a necessary part of reason: to will an end is to will the means to that end. Or else the desire to obtain that end was insincere (or sour grapes). Practical reason is about what we ought to do, where that “ought” may be either moral or prudential. Therefore, Lindsay’s point, at least with regard to Beslan is usefully summed up as: the terrorists were supreme masters of instrumental reason, but they set the wrong ends. A pointless point, especially to this audience.
But how in the world did the argument move from the unreflective praise of NEM’s to the terrorist attack in Beslan and an objection to populist rhetoric about outsourcing? The answer it seems comes from the anthropomorphized voice of Nature: “Use this tool—your free-functioning rational mind—to protect yourself from my rages, refine and enhance my delights, and make compacts with your brothers so that you may live in harmony with them. Use it to vanquish me—and those of your brothers who retain the brute methods of social intercourse that were the norm before I gave you this gift.”
Lovely and poetic. And pointless. Only if we live in a naïve fantasy land, (i.e. only if we do not believe that existence exists) can it possibly be claimed that reason alone can solve the worlds problems or advance justice. As if reason leads to some one right answer. Reason is a tool of thought used by all, though some use it in different ways, and some are better at using it than others. All practice some form of instrumental reason and all must set some ends, be those ends set rationally or irrationally. But rational beings can only reason with reasonable people, namely, those willing to engage in the practice of reason giving and listening, and those willing to hold their beliefs in a sufficiently contingent way that in the face of a better argument, they will prove themselves not to be dogmatists and change their view. But some cannot be reasoned with. Nor is it worth trying. I for one have no interest in reasoning with the Neo-Nazi. It’s a waste of my time to convince her of the error of her thinking. Moreover, let her think and believe as she likes. It is really no concern of mine. What matters is that she not act on those views in her personal conduct with others, and that those who disagree see that the political aims that she advocates are never realized. And after all, that is what a free society is all about. A totalitarian society cares why you do what you did. A free society only cares that you conformed your behavior to the law.
Perhaps because it is fashionable, Lindsay seems to consider the NEM’s and the SOLOist movement to be fighting an uphill battle. “Humanity is at a crossroads in its evolution, as critical as was the transition from perceptual to conceptual thought.” (If that last clause about perceptual and conceptual thought is anything other than gibberish, please explain. There are things known perceptually, things known conceptually, and usually, as we develop and grow into agents, our perceptual knowledge allows us to begin to formulate and construct concepts. It’s not as if one is superior to the other, they work in tandem and aid us in different ways. But I digress.) A war is after all raging:
“We are in a philosophical war. Instead of bullets and bayonets, we fight with words and ideas. Our enemies are irrationality and the initiation of force, and the people that promote the use of them. The culture is our battlefield, and the stakes are nothing short of the future of Western Civilization. It is a war for men's mind.” (See War)
Just like the Democrats, and oddly enough, just like the Religious Right, all seem eager to take underdog status. There is it seems, in today’s world, a peculiar merit to marginality. And while the relative obscurity of objectivism gives some credence to that claim, the utter and total dominance of capitalism betrays that assertion. Sure, its not the minimal state, its the whole globe now, but then again, why would you think that in this highly complex and sophisticated world that a minimal state would even be remotely sufficient to adequately protect all the rights the law currently recognizes or to facilitate and foster complex and sophisticated markets? Or more to the point, why equate the minimal state with capitalism? I leave that question open, and turn to consider how the “war” is being fought.
First, if the war is really raging, in what way, if any, has any attempt been made to create a broad based appeal to those who don’t buy into the faith of Objectivism? How sincerely is the battle really being fought to change peoples conceptions of their philosophical systems and ends with such assertions (not argument) as is found in this article. Like the politician who tells his unreflective constituents what they want to hear, so too here. Perhaps Objectivism is far to sophisticated for many, and it will be objected that the theory should not be dumbed down merely to gain adherents. If that’s true then the war is already lost. As ardent capitalists, one should find nothing wrong in adapting the message so as to effectively sell the product. Tragically, this will also never be. Most objectivists are unbearable to talk to, not because as they believe that they are so rational in a world of irrationality, but because its like talking to a missionary intent on saving your soul. Objectivists are like Christians, explaining to all who will listen, that only through Rand, the Way, the Life and the Truth, will one be saved. Indeed, to call someone irrational for the objectivist is not a call to reevaluate one’s argument, it is a charge of heresy against those who do not agree with objectivism's substantive conclusions. It is an effort to publicly shame thought into its proper place based on emotional appeal and external pressure, rather than reason and logic.
Second, there is a simple cure for irrationality: a better educational system. But the lack of irrationality does not translate one for one into some magical utopia where all agree and endorse objectivism or the NEMS, or even guarantee that the NEMS act as you think they ought. Rational people are often adverse to each other. Take, for example, contracting between sophisticated firms. Even rational angels need law.
Third, how serious is the commitment to the principle of the non-initiation of force if no conditions are laid out for when force may be used to defend the principle itself? Reason and rationality do not stop bullets, though they may sometimes prevent their being fired in the first place. But only sometimes. A credible guarantee of force to effectuate the principle is necessary, but the conditions have not been adequately fleshed out. As Rand might say: what are your premises? Al-Qaida may have a serious philosophical reasoned system behind it. I’m still not interested in persuading Bin Laden of the correctness of my capitalist ways. As a thug who will kill over and over again, and who deliberately targets civilians, he must be simply stopped. From this point of view, its not about helping people see the true and correct ends that reason may or may not set for them. Rather, having already discerned one’s own ends, namely, capitalism, two sets of questions arise: how can one explain one’s ends so as to gain popular support, and how can those ends be bolstered and pursued?
Cheers! I eagerly await your reasoned retort.
On a different tangent, Jennifer Iannolo wrote:
“Actually, it is quite the opposite. Embracing God as an entity at all is what has hampered progress in nearly every area of human development, save that of the carnival barker's cry that altruism is the highest good. Look where that has gotten us.”
Part of what drove some of those who pioneered the Enlightenment Project, what made the quest for scientific understanding even possible for them, was the belief that there must be a God who had created order. Absent that belief, the quest would have made no sense. A search for the ordering principles as revealed through science only happens if you already expect to find regularity and order in nature. Now, someone like Hume for example, wasn’t impelled by this thought, which is also why in the Treatise on Human Nature he spends much time dealing with the issue of “induction.” As Bertrand Russell put it: how do we know that future presents will resemble past presents. Or more simply, what is the guarantee that the rules that apply tomorrow, will apply today. It’s an empirical matter of fact, a strictly contingent matter with no necessity attached that the sun “rises” everyday or that the equations that explain the gravitational force between bodies with mass hold. It could be a different. It may be different. Or it may be that God likes it this way, and so it will never change.
In short, don’t collapse the atrocities of religious doctrines that possessed political power into the study of God and theology.