by Michael Stuart Kelly
During the last two days I have had an interesting experience on the “Rebirth of Reason” forum. I allowed myself to get sucked into a discussion that illustrates some very interesting aspects about the nature of what goes wrong when you adopt a philosophy and automate fundamental issues in your subconscious. This is the Ayn Rand Love side of the Love/Hate division.
To be clear, I am extending the “Rand Love” concept to people who believe that all fundamental issues of existence and life have been covered by Objectivism and the only things that need to be done now are (1) program your subconscious with these principles, (2) discuss how to apply them, (3) flesh out and maybe correct a few inessential details, and (4) preach Objectivism to the rest of the world.
I contested one fundamental issue on RoR. I have learned the hard way the wisdom of making periodic “reality checks” in my thinking. With principles, I used to substitute the word “absolute” for “no longer need to think about it” in my mind and this led me to great loss and harm. So now, when I see something that bothers me, I go down to the roots and question my sacred cows, if need be. If my fundamental principles are sound, they will stand up to the scrutiny and challenge that reality demands. If they are not sound, I have no business adopting them.
What was discussed on RoR simply would not be an issue to normal people. Believe it or not, normal people – the 98% plus – who read Rand that I mentioned in the first part of “The Ayn Rand Love/Hate Myth,” even those who have very vague moral notions, are extremely clear on the essentials of this case. But they go about living their lives according to their own chosen values and moralities and belong to no formal group.
These people, the vast majority of whom probably have not read Rand in depth, would have no problem at all in identifying an abomination (purposefully starving a strange child to death in an emergency) and condemning it to the point of making it illegal. In their world, this is naked evil. It would be called a crime like homicide or infanticide and the adult who did that would be severely punished. In a word, they have no moral doubts about the theoretical identification of such an evil (ethics) and the practical implementation of what to do about it (politics). They are morally firm and committed in both mind and body.
What is interesting is that this example is generally condemned as evil by both sides of the Rand Love/Hate divide. And our 98% plus “ambivalent” public who leans one way (Love) or the other (Hate), but is not fanatical, universally condemns such an atrocity.
Yet those who are more studied in Objectivism and have swallowed certain tenets whole, like non-initiation-of-force for instance, without proper digestion (i.e., those who merely “integrate” according to an artificial logical construct), these people are morally ambivalent about this. They claim that such a monstrosity is evil ethically (somehow – this is based on feeling, not a philosophic principle like right-to-life or species solidarity), but they break down on how to deal with it in politics. When pressed to the wall, they cannot present anything in Objectivist ethics and politics that would outlaw such an outrage.
They essentially claim that in Objectivist ethics, an abomination that results in a stray child’s death by starvation with malicious intent can be identified as evil, but there is no practical prevention and redress in Objectivist politics. Thus, ethics as a code of values is divorced from reality in their minds. In this case, the translation of ethics into political principles (called individual rights) is a sham. The right-to-life of a stray child is not neither defined nor protected.
This is disturbing. This is very disturbing. However, from the hysterical nature of the reaction I received, I think this is much more disturbing to them than it is to me. And that is one of the things that gives me great hope for Objectivism.
What happens when two fundamental principles collide
Throughout the entire discussion, the single characteristic that was present on all sides was the adoption of the perspective from one of the two ethical-political principles that were colliding, usually to the exclusion of the other.
The first principle is the sovereignty of an adult’s life to independently decide and do what he wishes, so long as it does not violate the right of another.
The second principle is the right to life of a child, who, by definition, depends on an adult for his survival.
There is a third principle, a political one, which is that the government is constituted to protect the rights of all individuals. That is one place where all hell breaks loose.
Here is the problem. When you speak from the perspective of the adult’s rights, any coercion at all to make him act is infringing his sovereignty. When you speak from the child’s view, any adult who stayed around him with food and denied it for a long period of time would be starving him to death.
What should a government do? Which right should it protect? The adult or the child? Should the right of one be more important than the right of the other? What are the actual values (ethics) involved?
One thing stands out. Reason is the method of thinking that Objectivists use to define ethics. Nowhere is reason more needed than on looking at an issue like this. The stakes are sky-high.
On one end, Objectivism could run the risk of sanctioning government interference in the lives of individuals. On the other, the monstrous nature of the example that was discussed is clear to all people of all philosophies and religions, yet Objectivism has no practical moral-political protection against it. Thus Objectivism could be seen as mere kookiness.
What clouds the issue is that Ayn Rand made a brilliant impassioned defense of the rights of productive heroes in her novels and some of her nonfiction. She made it clear that they were lacking a moral defense throughout history – that in choosing between the autonomy of a productive hero and the needs of a helpless person, you choose the hero’s autonomy because ethically that is the good. She grounded that defense in principles that go all the way down to the metaphysical axioms of existence and identity
Rand’s defense of productive heroes stands out as one of the high points in mankind’s intellectual wealth. I consider it to be akin to something like the invention of the wheel. The world is a far better place because of her influence, and that influence is growing. The right of a productive achiever is one of the most sacred rights humanity must treasure and care for. It took centuries of blood to get it. Nothing should ever endanger it.
On the other end, I would like to quote from an email I wrote yesterday:
My whole point in the argument is not to have all the answers. I certainly would not want to put something into law if it could be avoided by all means possible. What I cannot accept is when you ask one of these people, what about the kid? His rights? (…) Then they sidestep, or say that this would never happen (thus [his right-to-life] depends on their goodwill). And if you take this to the end, the answer is always "tough" for the kid.
Well "tough" doesn't cut it with me for a kid – and it doesn't cut it with the vast majority of humanity either. If Objectivism continues this silliness of trying to prove an individual's sovereign rights by contrasting them against things like starving a kid to death (using jargon like "positive rights"), Objectivism is doomed to remain a marginal subculture.
I, as an Objectivist, feel a strong need to speak out and help end this nonsense. How can I adopt a philosophy whose members sabotage it right from the start?
Thus the real problem here is not defending the rights of producers that Rand so brilliantly did, nor defend the basic right-to-life of all citizens that the Founding Fathers so brilliantly did. It is how to reconcile the situation when these two rights collide. The “fact of nature” of the child’s dependency on adult care for survival is the joker in the pack.
Merely ignoring the rights of one to the exclusion of the rights of another is not good enough.
The tricks of evasion
I am loath to use the word “evasion” for what I observed, since it is a term loaded with emotional buckshot for Objectivists, and I strongly believe in the essential goodness of those I debated. But I can think of no better characterization. Two principles were on the table to be discussed: adult’s rights and child’s rights for short. The essentials of one of the principles were consistently avoided by all (child). When you avoid thinking about something essential, that is called evasion.
The rights of the adult were very clearly defended. I even agree on the essentials of what was generally presented. Objectivism 101. The rights of the child were ignored, though. So, being pressed for an example, I developed a scenario where starving the child to death would be chosen consciously over a long period of time by an adult who had enough for both in an emergency.
A nonstop reaction from the posters was to alter the example in order to avoid the issue of the child’s right-to-life.
The lonely child in the wilderness became the oppressed children in Africa or a beggar on a busy street (where other adults were available). The “long period of time” the adult took to starve the child in my example was changed to an adult “walking by,” implying a very short amount of time. The adult making a conscious choice based on his inalienable right was changed to sociopath. (This last example shows clearly how impotent Objectivists are making the philosophy. They claim that there is no protection from the monstrous evil that a sociopath may inflict by starvation on a child.)
There were other attempts, but the bottom line was that the essentials of the issue were pushed aside by constantly rewriting the scenario.
Another form of not dealing with the issue was to proclaim that it was too concrete – that there were no philosophical principles involved. So I supplied the principles, including ethics, politics and rights. The ones that applied to the kid were simply ignored.
Even the last resort of cornered Objectivists was used, which is declaring that the issue is not important. Notice that the essentials do not get discussed when you do that, either. Since the issue is “not important,” you have an excuse to avoid it.
My favorite evasion was by one poster who simply declared that “starving a child to death” under those conditions does not exist because no obligation exists to feed him. Total blank-out of reality and rights of the child.
Another favorite was stating that I was calling Objectivists “child murderers.” That never happened and will never happen. The reason for this accusation (when not politically motivated) is that it sidesteps the children’s right-to-life issue completely by a primitive smear technique.
The whole thread was an exercise in avoiding the discussion of a stray child’s right-to-life. I don’t blame people either. “Tough” sounds terrible when you look in the mirror and say that this poor phrase – “tough” – is all you have to offer for protecting a stray child’s inalienable right-to-life.
Another characteristic of the discussion was the vicious nature of the arguments directed at me. I was called many names. Obscenity and constant accusations of dishonesty and so forth were leveled at me. There are good reasons for this, but I want to get the inessential one out of the way first.
There has been a great deal of emailing and telephone calls back and forth on this by people who have a vested interest in another issue where I have some influence (the Brandens). I have made notable enemies, especially because I will not bow down before these enemies. I stand-up to them – and I do it well, since I firmly believe in my position. When you pull the covers off the hypocrisy of a public person, like I sometimes do, you gain his animosity. That is one of the prices to be paid for doing that. In short, some of the viciousness against me was nothing more than baiting that was orchestrated from backstage.
(I am highly amused by a one-man type conspiracy theory to undermine Objectivism running around. I must be one badass dude.)
Here is the essential reason I believe was the source of the attacks. It is from another email I wrote yesterday:
What I wanted to do was drag the issue of stray child care out in the open for all to see in the clearest terms possible. This is one area where Objectivism fails dismally. I had to drag them screaming and kicking to do it. I still didn't get to some of them, but I know I made the readers think hard and start questioning how good a philosophy is that condones preventable atrocities.
I am starting to have a theory. I am starting to believe that a person feels guilty about adopting a philosophy that can categorize the starvation of a child as being morally ambivalent. I think they feel real uneasy about that. So when a person like me who is a bit knowledgeable about Objectivism reminds them of the need to care for that child in an emergency, and how monstrous it is not to, and how that child has a right-to-life, and how starving a kid like that is murder, they go off – but they are ranting against their own eyes, not really against me. I am merely one hell of an inconvenient mirror showing them something about themselves they do not want to see.
That's what makes the attacks grow until they are particularly vicious.
I will admit to a bit of heavy-handedness myself. I saw no other way to bring the issue of conflicting rights to the table. There was way too much rhetoric and not enough substance. The essentials were being avoided. So I basically said that if nobody was going to protect that right of that child, I would do it myself – including punishing an adult who was guilty of malicious negligence.
I’m no sure how much value that has as an argument, but it sure got people’s attention. It got them to thinking that there was “something” wrong somewhere. That something was being left out. Through this gesture, I was able to put the child’s right on the table. It was not actually discussed, but it started readers to thinking about it. That’s all I could really hope for in that environment, but that was a good thing. The evaded issue was starting to be considered. People started using their own minds and not the jargon to think with.
I will always call that a good thing. I trust the independent mind and judgment of a man/woman of goodwill more than any fanatic who has swallowed dogma as reason, irrespective or how good the principles he swallowed are. I echo what Jody Gomez, a very good young independent mind (who disagrees with me at times) stated publicly about me. I would trust Jody (and other people who think with their own minds) with my own sovereign rights. I have nothing to fear from a man like that, as we meet by reason. I do have a great deal to fear from people who suspend their reason to follow a crowd or act on dogma.
I will only touch on this part lightly, but it is very important to the Rand Love/Hate issue. When a man surrenders his need for making the periodic “reality check” of fundamentals that I mentioned at the beginning, he sabotages his emotional faculty. He has “programmed” his subconscious to automatically react, rather than think again. The idea is that the essential thinking has already been done, so it is not needed any longer.
The world is a wonderful place to be in. Unfortunately, though, we are not omnipotent and life throws all kinds of curveballs at us. It is just as wrong to close down the “What is it?” approach when looking at familiar things as it is to sanction evil. Sometimes something familiar comes at you with a curveball.
I witnessed up close an emotional hijack. A friend became an enemy right before my eyes – before the issue was even fleshed out. Suddenly, nothing remained of this friendship, which had flourished with great exchange of value over time. It turned into me watching my friend engage in a repetition of catchphrases and sudden harsh accusations, punctuated in the air by an accusatory finger and an increasingly nasty tone of voice.
I admit that I started getting pretty harsh in response, since that kind of robotic anger always ticks me off. What I witnessed, though, was like pushing a button. All communication instantly shut down and accusation mode kicked in.
If I had wanted to turn the anger off, it would have been the easiest thing in the world. I could have lied and said that I was mistaken and that “tough” for the kid when the adult let him starve to death was OK by me. It would have worked like clockwork, too. Boinggggg. Nice guy again.
I attribute this bipolar behavior (partially at least) to a person surrendering his thinking capacity on fundamentals. This is something that needs to be thought about more deeply. I noticed this same behavior in exchanges with some of the posters on RoR. Reason went right out the window and was replaced by righteous rage. (I strongly support Barbara Branden’s recent examination of this issue. She is doing what needs doing urgently. This problem is far more universal and serious than a mere dispute with one person or another.)
The bottom line is that I reject any process that instills robotic on-off anger in a person. Rand stated that you must program your subconscious emotions. I am not against doing that, but the parameters and limits must be well defined. This is playing with fire. This gets very close to becoming brainwashed – too close for comfort. I expressed my personal evaluation on this in another excerpt from an email yesterday:
I don't EVER want to be that way and I don't want that for my loved ones and friends. That's really spooky and I am trying to figure out how Objectivism can become merely a set of principles that are used in contexts, not something that does a total brainwash in that manner. This borders on emotional mutilation.
When I see that level of kookiness, I start thinking about that kid. I start thinking real hard. I start thinking that maybe I can't trust this kind of person, not because he is dishonest, but because he is emotionally imbalanced and driven by rules, not reality. So I start thinking that maybe a law is a good idea after all, where before I did not. And I start thinking all kinds of weird things. But that's because I see all kinds of weird things.
If other Objectivists do not wish to deal with protecting children's rights, I will deal with it. I intend to discuss it and analyze it from all angles. I don't want all that acrimony, though. I want intelligent discussion. So I don't know how I am going to do this. Another RoR session like that is not good. But this really needs work badly. What these dudes preach is PR poison [for Objectivism].
I guarantee that an intelligent (and common-sense) approach to ensuring care for stray children will do much toward Objectivism being accepted by the public at large, rather than being for a small subculture that gets neurotic at times and bickers itself to death.
One of the strongest indications of the danger of this inadvertent brainwash was shown on RoR after I took a breather. A few posters mentioned that both sides presented strong logical arguments, but that reading the thread was painful.
I submit that the pain was due to seeing irrational naked rage touted as reason. And it was due to seeing how the lack of doing a reality check on a basic premise can lead to that. “After all,” you think, “If others have become that way, is that what I am going to become?”
So how do I come down on the legal aspect? Frankly I am divided on this. From the standpoint of the adult, I am strongly against any law that would limit his freedom. From the standpoint of the child, I want some kind of legal protection for his fundamental rights.
One thing is clear. Politics must rest on ethics. Not the other way around. Ethics does not rest on politics. Non-initiation-of-force as a social principle should never trump individual human life as the standard of value. NIOF is even based on human life. So this is a very complicated issue.
I believe that defining the parameters of the crime of starvation of another is a good start. Also, a standard practice in USA law is to include psychological principles, so maybe it is a good idea to look at this from a philosophical viewpoint.
Shunning was proposed as a practical measure. It is a very good idea for individuals to do, but it does not deal with the child's right-to-life. So I do not believe that merely shunning a person who committed an intentional abomination resulting in the death of a child is good enough for redress.
There is still much thinking that needs to be done here.
One thing I do know, however. Of this I am certain. The moral ambivalence in Objectivism that I have witnessed so far regarding the fundamental right-to-life of children needs to be dealt with before Objectivism will gain any real headway with the 98% plus of Rand’s readers.