Rights Theory, Libertarianism

Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights – A Critique

It usually begins with Ayn Rand, wrote Jerome Tuccille back in 1972, and so it did with me. My first exposure to libertarianism was Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, and it didn’t take long before I adopted her strong rights-based view of libertarianism as my own. Heck, I even started my own student club, with the appropriately deferential, Rand-sanctioned title and everything.

I grimace a bit on reading that interview again now. I still think The Fountainhead is a terrific book. And I still think there is a lot to admire in Rand’s fiction and (somewhat less so) in her explicit philosophy. But as one might surmise from the title of this blog, I’ve moved quite some distance from Objectivism in terms of political philosophy.

Up until now, I hadn’t taken the time to write up any of my reasons for disagreeing with Objectivists. Partly, that’s because I thought that several of the critiques that had already been published did a very good job of expressing my concerns. Like this paper by Eric Mack, for instance. And thisthis, and this by Michael Huemer. Still, it was always something I wanted to get around to, eventually.

So when the Ayn Rand Society asked me to comment on a paper by Fred Miller and Adam Mossoff on “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights” at the upcoming Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (right here in sunny San Diego!), I gladly accepted.

You can read the full version of my comments here. My critique focuses on what I see as three problematic elements of the Randian theory of rights.

First, the relationship between Rand’s egoism and support for individual rights. The fact that your life is a value to you gives you a reason to preserve and promote your life. What is less clear is how it gives you a claim on anybody else not to be interfered with in certain kinds of ways. But such a claim is precisely what’s involved in the right to life.

Second, the nature of value and its connection to the Objectivist support for property rights. Rand famously held that man’s mind is the ultimate source of all value. And Adam and Fred make the even stronger claim that natural resources like land are, in themselves, no value at all. This makes the Randian justification of property rights easier, I think, than it ought to be. Whether natural resources are valuable in themselves, they are at the very least necessary preconditions for value. And this, again, raises the question of why others should respect your claim to exclusive ownership over those resources.

Finally, I raise some questions about the role of the Non-Aggression Principle in Ayn Rand’s theory. Rand opposed the initiation of physical force because she thought that force prevents individuals from acting according to the dictates of their own reason. But whether this is true – and whether force is the only way in which individuals can thus be hindered – depends on whether we understand the concept of “force” in a moralized or a non-moralized way. Unfortunately, either approach raises difficulty for the Randian argument.

After I present them this Friday, I’ll be revising these comments for publication in the proceedings of the ARS. So comments and feedback are more than welcome.

  • Bill Stepp

    Rand places patents and copyrights at the heart of her theory of property. See her essay on the subject in “Capitalism the Unknown Ideal.” That’s one reason why libertarians should reject her theory.

    • JohnDonohue

      You used a “should.” That implies judgment on a principle. What is the principle, all the way down to the root metaphysics, why “libertarians should reject her theory.”?

      • Bill Stepp

        Rand rejected the initiation of force, which is libertarian. However, she accepted the State, a libertarian-certified criminal entity, and patents and copyrights, which are grounded in statute law (but not common law) and therefore in force.
        You can’t have liberty and the State. One precludes the other.
        I’m surprised there has been no mention of Rothbard, who wrote a good defense of rights in his book “The Ethics of Liberty.”

        • JohnDonohue

          That is an vague, indirect answer to my question. So be it.
          Meanwhile, anarchism, which you seem to champion, is a horrendous philosophy, tantamount to consenting to murder.

          • Bill Stepp

            Statism is consenting to robbery, and whatever else the State does, which includes murder. Anarchism is a good thing.
            As Benjamin Tucker said, “The world’s population is gradually dividing into two types, Anarchists and criminals.”

          • Jason Brennan

            John, read Peter Leeson’s Anarchy Unbound and Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, and then get back to us.

            Whether anarchism is feasible or not is not a philosophical question, but an empirical question requiring the tools of the social sciences. Rand has no expertise to settle this question here, and her argument against anarchism is purely speculative.

          • JohnDonohue

            It’s feasibility is always a philosophical question. Thank god it is laughingly always unfeasible on its face.

          • Aeon Skoble

            “anarchism…tantamount to consenting to murder” Really? That’s on the basis of what research? See recent books by Stringham, Huemer, Chartier, Casey, (or yes, me).

          • JohnDonohue

            Intense arguments with Kinsella, showing the truth of my claim (irony). Also, examination of the asserted definition of anarchism as claimed by its champions.

            I’m upping my claim: Anarchism is tantamount to consenting to general murder of all by all, with some gangs involved, and chaos and death worse than the Dark Ages.

          • Vangel

            You might want to learn a few things my friend. One of them might be about how ‘dark’ the Dark Ages really were. Go to Europe, look at all those great cathedrals and try to convince anyone that they could be the product of a dark age. I think that love words so much that you try not to think what they really mean.

          • Bill Stepp

            Murder cannot be consented to unless you’re talking about suicide or self-murder. Consent is done by a property owner with his own property, not with someone else’s.
            You deserve an Ellsworth M. Toohey Anti-Mind Award.

          • Vangel

            I think that Bill’s argument is acceptable. Rand should be rejected on some issues because of the contradictions in her positions. It is hard to talk about non-aggression when you are supporting patent laws at the same time. Rand was confused about property rights and scarcity. As a result she took the wrong turn on the IP monopoly issue.

            And I do not see how anarchist philosophy consents to murder when its basic premise is that it is unacceptable to initiate force against other individuals. Anarchy is not about the absence of rules but about the absence of a ruler. Sadly, that seems a point that keeps getting ignored by both Objectivists and Statists from all sides of the spectrum.

          • Ross Levatter

            The things John Donahue doesn’t know…

            “Anarchists did not try to carry out genocide against the Armenians in Turkey; they did not deliberately starve millions of Ukrainians; they did not create a system of death camps to kill Jews, gypsies, and Slavs in Europe; they did not fire-bomb scores of large German and Japanese cities and drop nuclear bombs on two of them; they did not carry out a ‘Great Leap Forward’ that killed scores of millions of Chinese; they did not attempt to kill everybody with any appreciable education in Cambodia; they did not launch one aggressive war after another; they did not implement trade sanctions that killed perhaps 500,000 Iraqi children.

            In debates between anarchists and statists, the burden of proof clearly should rest on those who place their trust in the state. Anarchy’s mayhem is wholly conjectural; the state’s mayhem is undeniably, factually horrendous.”
            ― Robert Higgs

        • michael

          These are all common arguments within libertarianism but I reject the claim that the state is a “libertarian-certified criminal entity.” Countless libertarians (ranging from minarchists to BHL types sympathetic to possible state action outside of courts, military, and police), indeed probably the majority, don’t believe this to be true.

          • Libertymike

            Just drop the modifier, “libertarian” from the phrase and it is simply irrefutable.

          • michael

            About 99.9 percent of people believe it’s eminently refutable, including many libertarians. If you’re going to argue in favor of a highly controversial conclusion it’s best not to start off with “There’s no way this possibly be shown to be wrong.”

          • Bongstar420

            I thought actual libertarianism has almost no state, and the system has to “just happen” to be official?

  • dfjdejulio

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” — John Rogers

    • j r

      Why do people think it is either original or insightful to throw that quote out anytime Rand’s name is mentioned on the internet?

      • dfjdejulio

        Why are you under the impression that people only post things that they think are original or insightful?

        • Bongstar420

          I wouldn’t have liked either at the age of 14. Lord of the Rings is to “unrealistic” and Rand appears to be a kleptocrat in disguise (something I have never liked) which I’m sure she would deny.

          I like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other informative non-fictions (its been true since I was like 5).

          • Vangel

            Yet both Tolkien and Rand produced novels that were chosen as the most popular, most influential, or simply best by many readers in poll after poll. I suggest that the reason why you may not have liked them is because you did not really understand what they are about. If you look at the One Ring as a quest of power in which one man gets to rule over everyone and see the Modern State as the means to that power. When you see the way Tolkien, who was a medievalist and understood the Middle Ages well, describe the way the Shire is governed and understand that it is a description of an anarchist society you tend to see aspects that have nothing to do with Hobbits, Elves, or Orcs.

            The problem is that some people miss the points entirely while others who get them have a political agenda that provides an incentive to ignore them entirely.

          • Bongstar420

            Um. She reflected over %80 of my preconceived notions before I ever read anything related which including the title of Objectivism for a world view which I resent thoroughly. I don’t like her because I see a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I am one to know how it works being similarly minded by default. I discovered how lying works with the individual around age 5. I had to believe my own lye.

            The Bible is an all time best seller. I don’t believe that makes it good in any way

            http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/records-1/best-selling-book-of-non-fiction/

            The fact that it was presented as non-fiction is a serious affront objectivity and true morality.

          • Vangel

            Thank you illustrating just how mixed up and confused you are. It might help if you actually stated what you believed in rather than playing the role of an attack dog. For the record there are many aspects of Rand or the Bible that I do not like. But that does not blind me to the parts that are correct and good.

      • michael

        That quote is pretty funny. There’s nothing worse than people who don’t laugh because of ideology. That said, anybody who brings up that quote as if it is an argument rather than a witty line is not serious.

        • Libertymike

          Do you know that j r has not laughed at that quote in the past?
          Assuming, arguendo, that he did not laugh, this time, how do you know that it was because of ideology?
          Just asking.

        • Sean II

          I agree with the both of you.

          That line is very funny and yet atrociously over-played.

    • TracyW

      John Rogers must have had a limited reading range when he was a 14 year old.

  • Sergio Méndez

    Never read Rand, to be honest. 99% of her followers I ever met, discouraged me from doing so (the only Ayn Rand fan – and he is extremely critical of her- that I respect – and I know- is Roderick Long).

    • Bongstar420

      Your not missing much. It is a giant N-ladder (N= narcissist). Her self titling as objective is totally inaccurate and likely designed to make her assertions appear legitimate. She was not a naturalist and did not rely on observation to direct her ideologies (indicated by her lack of participation in the sciences which she couldn’t do anyways not being a naturalist).

      • Jason Brennan

        She did seem to be a terrible human being.

        On the other hand, Rousseau probably consigned five of his children to suffering and death, so at least she’s got him beat.

        • Aeon Skoble

          I’ve never understood why it’s even remotely relevant whether she was a terrible human being or not. My guess is that she was neither a moral paragon nor as monstrous as her detractors would have us believe, but in any case, I don’t care. The positions she advocates are either defensible or they’re not. Her observations are either insightful or they’re not. And of course whether one enjoys her fiction is widely variable – her style is not to everyone’s liking, although I would wager that most of the howling denunciations coming from the English departments are based on predispositions to dislike anything having to do with capitalism. I have yet to meet one English prof who had actually read her novels and could articulate exactly what is bad about them (beyond “I don’t care for that style of fiction.”)

          • Chris Cathcart

            usually the anecdotes trotted out to “show” that Rand was something less than a by-and-large likeable person, are flawed or false in some fashion or other. Nathaniel Branden, for one, is a master at using out-of-context anecdotes to make Rand look bad, like omitting the full context and scope of his lies and manipulations of her, to make *her* look like the unreasonable one when she broke with him. (Her behavior is more than understandable once the full context is known, as revealed in her journal entries on this matter, and were NB forthcoming about it all he’d have to fully admit what an untrustworthy bag of crud he was to her.)

          • Aeon Skoble
          • Jason Brennan

            I don’t trust Branden, either.

        • Other than her view of homosexuality – which she reversed later in life – can you point to anything specific that would lead you to believe that she was a terrible human being?

          • Jason Brennan

            She browbeat her husband into getting letting him have an affair. She cultivated a cult of personality around herself. She lies about other philosophers in order to promote her own image. She was incredibly narcissistic. She psychologically abused most of her intimate friends. She made each of her subjective preferences about music, etc., into a pseudo-philosophical test, and then used this things to control and ostracize people. Etc.

            She was a disgusting, defective person.

            That, or everyone lies about her.

          • Are you saying that a reasonable person cannot contest any of these points?

          • Jason Brennan

            Basically, I’ve heard only two accounts of Rand. From people who remained her disciples when she died, she is God Incarnate Font of Wisdom. And then there’s everyone else who knew who, who all say she was awful. So I think it’s possible but highly unlikely she was a decent person.

          • Given that neither of the two accounts you’ve heard is likely to be objective and reliable, wouldn’t you rather simply withhold judgement?

          • Sean II

            If he withheld judgement on that, he wouldn’t have many judgements in life that weren’t withheld.

          • good_in_theory

            But the two accounts are consistent with, and in fact corroborative of, the later account. Good people rarely cultivate cultist level ecstatic appreciation of their person.

            If some people are your “disciples” and treat you as a font of infallible wisdom, you’re probably engaged in some pretty creepy behavior.

        • Sean II

          A much overlooked part of Rand’s nastiness: she was a speed freak.

          If you’ve ever known a stimulant addict, her behavior is not far off the norm. Manic, delusional, irritable, solipsistic, horny, judgmental, cruel, sometimes creative, sometimes charismatic, but in the end, mostly just insufferable.

          You know those hilarious but painful scenes in Boogie Nights where the two lead characters get hooked on coke, become deluded about being musical geniuses, and alienate everyone who ever cared about them?

          Always makes me think of Rand, talking frantically behind a puffing cigarette, claiming to have solved all the world’s problem in an apartment filled with the kind of people who wouldn’t see anything wrong with that.

          • What is the actual evidence that she abused dexedrine?

          • Sean II

            Well, for one thing…I can easily recognize the symptoms in even non-disputed accounts of her behavior. I mean, I can personally recognize those symptoms…if you take my meaning.

            But perhaps more persuasively to one who is unfamiliar with the glorious ride, the recent Anne Heller biography of Rand is full of evidence. Allan Blumenthal is an especially oft-cited source in that book.

            It’s pretty much case closed. At this point, you’d have to be in the grips of stimulant-induced paranoia to imagine so many people conspiring to invent that much evidence against her. The lady was a fiend.

          • Heh, fair enough.

    • Vangel

      I think that you might try actually reading her and figure out if you like the material or not. While I am not an Objectivist and have trouble with some of her arguments I still think that the books were wonderful.

      That having been said once you read her material you might want to think about how hollow her actual IP argument is because her political ideas were strongly influenced by Isabelle Patterson and she borrowed plot/themes/characters from Garrett (Atlas seems to have been influenced by The Driver, Cinder Buggy: A Fable in Iron and Steel) and Zamyatin (the similarity between Anthem and We is startling).

  • Irfan Khawaja

    I realize it’s too late to back out now, but perhaps in the future, Matt, you might rethink your decision gladly to accept invitations from the Ayn Rand Society. I accepted three invitations myself (2000, 2007, 2011), but since 2012, I’ve canceled my membership and made it clear that I don’t intend to participate again. I’ve also privately gotten some fairly well-known invitees to back out of their invitations. I think there are some fundamental problems with the honesty of the ARS enterprise, problems that make it appropriate to consider a general boycott of the organization as such.

    ARS has no publicly available bylaws or constitution. Its Steering Committee is accountable to no one: unlike most comparable scholarly organizations, ARS’s membership does not vote on any of the Steering Committee’s decisions. Its current leadership consists entirely of people publicly associated with the Ayn Rand Institute. Despite all kinds of lugubrious and tedious rationalizations to the contrary, ARI’s official position on libertarianism remains in 2014 what it was in 1990: that libertarianism is “evil.” No one on the Steering Committee has publicly repudiated that position, and neither has the Steering Committee as a whole.

    Despite all that, ARS h as decided to invite Yaron Brook to address the Society at the Eastern APA this December. Brook has no qualifications whatsoever as a philosopher. He lacks the relevant credentials, he has no teaching experience, and he has written nothing in political philosophy. There is no bona fide academic reason why he was invited. (I’ve asked and wasn’t given one.)

    On the other hand, Brook is (among other things) the President of the Anthem Foundation, and Robert Mayhew (who’s on the ARS Steering Committee) is a member of Anthem’s Board. In 2007, there was a public controversy in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Anthem’s status as a source of funding for academic projects. It was speculated there that Anthem was problematically partisan, but no one had the “smoking gun” to prove it. I do. I have a letter from Yaron Brook, co-signed by Leonard Peikoff and John McCaskey, asserting quite directly that agreement with Peikoff’s “Fact and Value” is a condition of receiving a “direct and substantial grant” from the Anthem Foundation–a claim nowhere disclosed on their website, and flatly denied in the Chronicle of Higher Education by McCaskey himself. Here is the documentation:

    http://instituteforobjectiviststudies.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/the-long-arm-of-rationalization/

    You’ll have to read Peikoff-McCaskey-Brook’s letter carefully to see that it implies the claim I’ve ascribed to it. But it undeniably does. Since “Fact and Value” opens with explicit agreement with Schwartz’s repudiation of libertarianism (“On Moral Sanctions”), it follows (whether they admit this or not) that agreement with Schwartz-on-libertarianism-as-evil is a condition of receiving a “direct and substantial grant” from Anthem. I’d like to think that ordinary (non-Objectivist, non-ARI-affiliated) libertarians ought to have a problem with these obviously dishonest intellectual and institutional procedures. Any academic should. Any human being should. But few have.

    I’ve already elsewhere belabored the dishonesty of ARI’s current posture toward libertarianism. But once you connect the dots, I think it is obvious that there is a network of scholars connected via ARI, ARS, and Anthem; that they hold not just untenable but dishonest views about libertarianism; and that their decades-long record of exclusion, defamation, and dishonesty requires the rest of us to ask some hard questions about whether we really ought to be interacting with them in scholarly/academic contexts. I think the answer is “no.” Frankly, I think we should be boycotting them. At the very least, I think we ought to be asking harder questions about their principles, their policies, and their actions. No better time to start than the present.

    Irfan Khawaja
    Assistant Professor of Philosophy
    Chair, Dept of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Felician College
    Co-Editor, Reason Papers

    • timtimee

      Rationalizations can be lugubrious…?

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Why the hell not?

        • timtimee

          I guess if your son is named Rationalization, I see your point.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            I’m childless. I don’t see your point. The word “lugubrious” means (roughly): conspicuously mournful. Excuse-laden rationalizations are often lugubrious. “Well, you have to understand, the reason I had to do x is….” followed by lachrymose, self-pitying excuses for doing x. Example for another domain: spouse beating. “Sorry darling, I had to beat you up…I’m so very sorry…I’ll never do it again…it’s just the pressure at work…” etc. Domestic abuse tends to be a good template for understanding the Objectivist movement.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Sorry, I meant “example from another domain.”

    • Bongstar420

      I could barely tolerate familiarizing myself with the “philosophy” from the beginning as this woman appeared to be a kleptocrat in disguise.

      Later, I found out that she was a certifiable narcissist, had a paraphilia for coercive acts, and was deceptive/manipulative (all qualifying attributes of a kleptocrat).

      • Irfan Khawaja

        The only response I can muster is to note that the “Bongstar” thing seems to be your self-characterization. I’ll leave it there.

        • Bongstar420

          Because it is Haram? I hope that isn’t your reason (it wouldn’t be a good one for objective fact)- I am assuming you are Islamic with that muslimesque name of yours.

          Character assassination is a rather poor argumentative technique in many circumstances. My handle is a political tool. Dogma is not to stand- it is a double, double entendre. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_entendre

      • Vangel

        “The kleptocrat thing is my characterization. I didnt find any one making that claim.”

        Perhaps because she isn’t. Rand had her faults but stealing stuff from others does not seem to be one of them. While I slam her position on IP it seems clear that she was a strong believer in that position and is not guilty of anything more than making an error.

        • Bongstar420

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-deception

          My point is that her actions would not be consistent with her claims or what she thought she believed. She would collude with others to extract resources from people who had merit but she thought otherwise.

          The richest capitalist in the land exerts kleptocratic like powers by virtue of pervasive ownership.
          Owners have near dictatorial powers over their property.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kleptocracy

          In characteristic #1, outside oversite is not possible and the products are claimed as “property” by the rulers (this is the same as no regulation of private enterprise). Furthermore, they take additional funds that they believe they deserve from their “property” (this is the same as profits the consumer was tricked out of).

          In characteristic #2, notice how the “state” claims profits for exports of natural resources off of its “property”

          Characteristic #3 states that it is not an official form of government

          Are you saying that Rand wouldn’t steal something she thought was objectively hers? Furthermore, am I to believe that she would take a fair loss over an unfair gain?

          The only way I could think otherwise about Rand is if she advocated that property rights be implemented like maritime law or space which would eliminate the possibility of huge monopolies and their kleptocratic tendencies. She would also have to have been on the books stating that all profits must be the direct result of individual labor (no profiting off of “property” per se). Huge monopolies will always make rules in their favor if there are not rules to stop them from doing it (which is not lessez-faire capitalism in both cases). When people support lessez-faire capitalism (no rules stopping huge levels of ownership), I see a future prospective kleptocrat if they can muster it.

          In know way did I ever think or say that other observers would have my perspective on the issue..

          • Vangel

            The richest capitalist in the land exerts kleptocratic like powers by virtue of pervasive ownership.

            Since when do self proclaimed libertarians think that private property is evil? And how is your position different than that of a typical socialist?

            I think that you have a problem my friend because you assume that you are much smarter and more knowledgeable than you really are.

    • I don’t know anything about what goes on behind the scenes at ARS. But for what it’s worth, Irfan, the session in which I participated was perfectly delightful. Fred and Adam received my critical comments quite graciously. And the discussion period was fantastic. People took my criticisms precisely as they were intended – as an invitation to explore the ideas. I got no sense of defensiveness at all. Let alone “dishonesty.” It was just a terrific conversation.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        You’re missing the point. In fact, you’re missing it so wildly that I have to wonder whether you actually read what I wrote. (I often find myself in this predicament at BHL.) My point was not that your session would be less than delightful; I didn’t make any predictions about it. Nor was my point that ARS would receive you in a defensive spirit. Again, I made no predictions. My point was (is) that ARS functions as a front organization for ARI, so that when you interact with ARS what you are doing, whether you acknowledge it or not, is to play a bit part in ARI’s highly choreographed program for gaining respectability in academia. Feel free to play that bit part, but don’t fool yourself about it.

        Very little of what I mentioned in my post had anything to do with “behind the scenes” information. It’s almost all in the public domain. Follow the links and you’ll find 99% of it. You can choose to adopt a “head in the sand” attitude about this if you wish, but I’d recommend otherwise.

        As for honesty: Do you think it’s honest of John McCaskey to have played an auto-da-fe role in the excommunication of David Kelley in the 1990s, and now to pretend that he had nothing to do with it? Do you think it’s honest of him to ignore his own prior commitments when discussing a topic–libertarianism–which was central to those commitments? You haven’t said a word on either question.

        Do you think it’s honest for the Anthem Foundation to make agreement with “Fact and Value” a condition of receiving “substantial” grants, but NOT to disclose this on their website? Was it honest of Allan Gotthelf and John McCaskey to tell the Chronicle of Higher Education that the Anthem enterprise was not partisan when it was? Allan was the founder of ARS, and Robert Mayhew is on its Steering Committee. Allan has passed away, but no one (but me and a handful of others) ever bothered to ask him these questions while he was alive. When asked, he evaded them. His answers may not be in the public domain, but the basis for the questions is. What about Mayhew? Should the questions not be posed in his case? Why would ARS invite Yaron Brook to give a talk at the Eastern APA in the full knowledge of all of the preceding–in the full knowledge of Brook’s official role at ARS and Anthem? Is it just a coincidence that every member of ARS’s Steering Committee is affiliated with ARI and/or Anthem, and that they’ve had to get junior scholars from outside of philosophy to do the trick?

        There seems to me a remarkable incuriosity on the part of libertarians when it comes to these issues. “Randians” come in for a lot of abuse at BHL, but when it comes to the Head Honcho Randian whose organization has adopted the most convoluted policy of simultaneous rapprochement, infiltration, and condemnation, the questions seem to come to an abrupt end. Actually, there was plenty of silence over John Allison’s becoming president of Cato as well–and the same unprincipled policy of watching and waiting whether he’d “treat us nicely” as a substitute for asking the obvious question: what the hell was he doing there after all those years at the helm of an organization that had anathematized libertarians as “nihilists”? ARI’s anathematization remains in place, but apparently libertarians have no problem sharing the podium with the man responsible for keeping it in place (Brook). I guess they also don’t have a problem giving papers on libertarianism when invited by an organization whose Steering Comittee consists 100% of people associated with ARI, but none of whom have never explicitly repudiated ARI’s position on libertarianism.

        I’m not usually one for predictions, Matt, but here’s one. The next time they invite you to ARS, they will (I’m sure) treat you very, very nicely. This follows from the following “principle” of theirs, the only one to which they adhere in a completely wholehearted way: they’ll do what it takes to burnish their individual and collective reputations in academia, knowing that they have deficits to overcome in that particular department. They are flattered to have a Matt Zwolinski, founder of BHL, come and interact with them. It allows them to free ride on your reputation just a little bit, and overcome the (justified) aversion that the rest of the profession has for them. To refresh your memory, this is what that aversion was based on:

        https://chronicle.com/article/Advocates-of-Objectivism-Make/3533/

        Were the critics wrong? Look closely at Geoff Sayre-McCord’s remark in there. “They’ve been utterly nondirective,” he says, in all ingenuousness. In other words, the nice people cutting the checks treated him very, very nicely, and that’s all he needed to know. Unfortunately, Sayre-McCord was missing the point. So are you.

        • Irfan, I’m not sure that my discussing this with you any further is going to be productive. If your last message is any indication, it’s certainly not going to be pleasant. But here’s the way I see things. I was asked to provide scholarly commentary on a paper at a scholarly meeting, and I did. Both the paper itself and the session that was based on it were, in my mind, sincere and honest exercises of philosophical exercises. So, on that basis, I have no regrets about accepting their invitation.

          You suggest, however, that I should be concerned about ARS’s “dishonesty.” But why? Because members of its steering committee are affiliated with ARI? That, in itself, does not seem like any indication of dishonesty to me. You bring up John McCaskey. I don’t know anything about the specific charges you raise. But even if they were true, what would that have to do with my accepting this invitation? John didn’t invite me. John wasn’t involved with the session in any way. Nor does he sit on the steering committee of ARS. As for he or Allan might have misrepresented the purpose of Anthem at some point, my response is, who cares? I don’t make a practice of screening the personal integrity of every author on whose paper I comment; let alone the integrity of every person associated with every person on whose paper I comment.

          Honestly, this reminds me too much of all the “sanction” nonsense that made the ARI bunch so insufferable in the first place. If they’re dropping that attitude now, then I think that’s great. Let’s not pick up what they’ve dropped.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            There’s no significant connection between the productiveness of a conversation and the pleasure to be derived from it. Just consider Plato’s Gorgias. Socrates wasn’t aiming to make Polus or Callicles feel good, but it was a productive conversation all the same.
            You say that my claims remind you of “all the ‘sanction’ nonsense that made the ARI bunch so insufferable in the first place.” First, a simple historical point: “the ARI bunch” were not the only ones claiming to uphold sanction or act on the principle of sanction. The Kelley-Peikoff dispute was a dispute between two groups of Objectivists each one of whom claimed to uphold the principle, claiming that the other side had violated it. If sanction is insufferable, then Kelley was as insufferable as his opponents. To have forgotten this, or not to have known it in the first place, bespeaks either an amazing amnesia or an amazing ignorance on your part, as though the dispute had never happened, and could be safely ignored because it happened in the past. That’s part of the problem here. You’ve come to regard recent ideological history as irrelevant simply because it’s historical and you’d prefer to forget the facts and ignore their significance.
            One example of this is your complacent claim that ARI has dropped “that attitude.” It was never merely an attitude, but an avowed principle, and they have neither dropped it nor claimed to. You’re confabulating what you want to be the case, not describing what is the case.
            Second, I really doubt that you’re willing to reject the principle of sanction or regard it as “nonsense.” The principle says that you should withhold your approval from (those who commit) injustice. Is that nonsense? Let’s negate it then. Is it your view that one should give one’s approval to injustice?
            Perhaps you mean that the approval here is too attenuated to count as approval, since it doesn’t involve explicit approval for any particular injustice. But suppose that X really is a front organization for Y, and Y is, say, a group dedicated to Holocaust denial. Is it “nonsense” to scrutinize an invitation by such a group? Would it be nonsense to conclude–once the facts were known–that appearing at such an organization’s meetings gave it respectability it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) otherwise acquire? Finally, would it be nonsense to conclude that one should avoid conferring respectability on the Holocaust deniers of the world? Feel free to come out and say “yes, it’s nonsense,” because that’s what your so-far stated position implies.
            Put the point in different language, if you want: Suppose you subscribe to some version of the principle of ends. “Treat everyone affected by your action–including yourself–as an end, never as a mere means.” The principle implies that you shouldn’t allow yourself to be treated as a mere means. But if a front organization invites you to use your reputation to burnish its reputation when its reputation is one for injustice and immorality, you ARE allowing yourself to be used in the relevant way. Call this “nonsense” if you want, but tell me what the nonsensical part happens to be–as a matter pf principle, setting aside the factual question of whether or not ARS is a front organization.
            Perhaps you think that ARS doesn’t rise to the level (or fall to the nadir) of a front for a Holocaust-denying organization. I guess I don’t, either. But the following facts remain the case: ARI still regards libertarianism as “nihilism.” It has not renounced that position. Despite that, it has engaged in rapproachement with libertarians, and even started to infiltrate their organizations. That “by itself” should raise red flags about anyone affiliated with ARI. But everyone on ARS’s Steering Committee is affiliated with ARI–so closely affiliated as to raise the obvious question whether ARS is now a tool of ARI. I see you lack the patience to follow the links and facts re McCaskey and Anthem. The point of that material is that Anthem is quite obviously a tool of ARI, despite their somewhat pathetic attempts at denial. That fact lends plausibility to ARS’s functioning in the same way, since some of the very same people are involved.
            To be affiliated with ARI at a quasi-leadership level requires agreement with their position on libertarianism. That implies that ARS’s Steering Committee agrees with the standard ARI position–or is obliged to. Q: So do the members of the Steering Committee agree that libertarians are “nihilists”? That they’re “irrational”? That they’re “evil”? The quoted words are not mine, but theirs (ARI’s). If they (ARS) do agree, are you (and other libertarians) willing to accept invitations from them despite the fact that they want to be committed to the position (and to the organization upholding it) but not disclose their commitment?
            It sounds baffling, right? Why would they invite you if they thought you were evil? Of course the question goes the other way around, too–and in a more illuminating fashion: why have they not renounced their position now that they’ve invited you to speak to them and treated you so nicely? That’s where the dishonesty and cowardice come in. The answer is that they’d prefer to have things all ways at once. They want to be committed to a position that regards libertarians as “evil.” But they also want the academic respectability that comes from having academically respectable libertarians on their program. What are they to do? A: Bullshit their way through the whole proceeding, hoping that no one will notice or call them on their bullshit artistry.
            Not a bad calculation on their part, because how many people have noticed or called them on it? For your part, you’ve played right into their hands. So have Michael Huemer and James Otteson. So did I, for awhile (though I’m the first to admit that my reputation does less for them than yours, Huemer’s, or Otteson’s).
            Suppose I created an organization whose manifesto included the claim that all BHL-ers were all assholes, and which singled Matt Zwolinski out as the Greatest Asshole of Them All. Suppose I play this card for say, twenty years. Then one day it occurs to me that it would be more lucrative to join forces with BHL than to call them assholes. So WITHOUT EVEN TAKING DOWN THE MANIFESTO–in fact while taking every opportunity to uphold its claims–I just pretend that I don’t regard BHLers as assholes. This procedure turns out to pay great dividends in money and reputation and prestige, so I keep doing it. Bizarrely, your BHL colleagues show up at my conferences, and we all go through the motions of academic collegiality, discussing various topics in ethics and normative theory–refusing to pay attention to normatively relevant facts lurking in the nearby background, which we dismiss by saying, “Who cares?’
            I wouldn’t do that. What I find revealing about this conversation is that I now know that I’m part of a profession that operates on the assumption is that there’s nothing wrong with it. So it’s been a productive discussion after all.

          • Irfan, half of the people I engage with in academia probably think libertarianism is evil. If I was going to stage a boycott of everybody who thought that, or everybody who was affiliated with somebody who thought that, I’d have nobody left to talk to.

            Anyways, you can have the last word on this if you’d like. Pleasantness might not be connected with productivity, but it is connected with my willingness to continue this conversation. You’re long-winded and insulting, each of which characteristic on its own might be tolerable. But I draw the line at the conjunction.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            “Irfan, half of the people I engage with in academia probably think libertarianism is evil. If I was going to stage a boycott of everybody who thought that, or everybody who was affiliated with somebody who thought that, I’d have nobody left to talk to.”
            Let me help your analogy, because as it stands, it’s not really analogous to anything relevant to our conversation.
            Imagine that half of the people you engaged with in academia professed allegiance to an organization that came out and said that libertarianism was evil; then conducted a 20 year campaign of character assassination on behalf of the manifesto containing the claim; then pretended not to have done the preceding, even lying about it to the press; then invited you to discuss libertarianism while pretending that none of it had happened. In that case, I’d say: forget that half, and talk to the other half. I’m not quite sure how you infer from “half of the people” to “nobody to talk to.” Your supposed dilemma would only arise if 100% of academia were as corrupt as the leadership of ARI. But it isn’t. I have a higher opinion of my academic colleagues than that.
            As for “long winded, insulting, and conspiratorial”: I take “long winded” to be another way of saying “thorough,” and “conspiratorial” to be another way of saying “descriptive of shady behavior.” Neither claim is a genuine objection to the content of what I’ve said.
            As for “insulting,” a little introspection on your part should suggest that the accusation might go in the other direction, as well. I’ve taken every one of your claims seriously enough to respond to affirmatively to them. By contrast, you don’t appear to have taken me seriously enough to have read what I wrote with minimal care. I should be the one insulted, not you. And if my expectations were higher, I might actually be insulted. But they aren’t.

  • Cole Gentles

    “What is less clear is how it gives you a claim on anybody else not to be interfered with in certain kinds of ways. But such a claim is precisely what’s involved in the right to life.”

    Not that I am an Objectivist, or agree with Objectivism in general, and maybe I’m being a little too semantical (if that’s a word), but I think there is something very troubling about looking at the idea that somebody should not kill me as having a claim ON him/her.

    If anything, they are making a claim on me… that they have a right to decide what to do with my body. I would be defending my claim to my own body. Defense of a claim to the right to decide what should happen to my body is not a claim on there’s.

    • Theresa Klein

      there is something very troubling about looking at the idea that somebody should not kill me as having a claim ON him/her
      I agree. I don’t think that strikes anyone as quite right. There’s a difference between action and inaction. Preventing someone from doing a particular thing is not the same as demanding that they do a particular thing.

      • Jason Brennan

        The act vs. omission stuff isn’t relevant here. Matt’s making a very basic point about what a right is. Randian rights are what Hohfeld would call “claim rights”. When John Galt says he has a right to life, he thereby says that he has an enforceable claim against others or on others that they not kill him, etc. If I have a (negative) right to life, then others’ have an enforceable duty not to kill him. This isn’t a substantive point; it’s just the definition of what a right is.

        • JohnDonohue

          “When John Galt says he has a right to life, he thereby says that he has an enforceable claim against others or on others that they not kill him…”

          This is an error. One’s right to life is not a “claim” on another. It is an identification of imutable reality (unalienable): humans possess life. An attempt to contradict this is actionable on that attempt; prior to it, there is no reference to “another” in the ‘right to’ one’s life.

          • Bongstar420

            I do believe the claim is dependent on an assumption of value. Otherwise, why him over trillions of microbes? I’d because of power, and there is no other reason in practice (its not value per se). It is not possible to self reference yourself as more valuable unless you have power to force that fact.

          • Jason Brennan

            No, it’s not an error. You just don’t understand the terms being used here. I think you just don’t know what it is meant by the word “claim”. This is not a substantive philosophical debate.

          • JohnDonohue

            So…’claim’ as what? Whimsy?

          • Jason Brennan

            John, you’re really having a hard time here over nothing.

            To say I have a right to X = you have a duty not to interfere with my X = I have a claim against you that you not interfere with my X. That’s it. I’m not saying anything about subjectivity, objectivity, or whatnot. I’m not saying rights are mere whim. I’m just analyzing rights language. This is not hard. There’s a simple test here. If you think what I’m saying might possibly be false, then you have misinterpreted me. If you understood what I mean by “claim” here, you’d see that what I’m saying is trivial and that Rand accepts it.

          • Vangel

            Rand argued that the individual had the right to act in order to pursue his own goals using his own judgment and his own property without coercion. The individual has no claim on other people other than that they abstain from violating his rights.

            Where exactly is the problem?

          • good_in_theory

            The problem is you don’t know what people’s rights or property are or ought to be.

          • Vangel

            Sure I do. They own their own bodies and what those bodies produce.

          • good_in_theory

            Too bad bodies don’t produce ownership.

          • Vangel

            How is it that you guys call yourselves libertarians but do not believe in property? Do I get to go in the garden you planted and take what I want? Obviously I would have that right if your land and your labour do not produce ownership. What about your TV? Can anyone come in and take it? After all, it does not belong to you because as far as you are concerned there is no such thing as property rights.

            You might want to think things trough first and post second.

          • Jason Brennan

            You are agreeing with me vigorously!

          • Vangel

            Perhaps but I don’t really see how what you said was all that different than what Rand meant. While I am not an Objectivist and see many problems with some of her positions I really do not think that she was all that far off on individual rights even if she may not have explained herself well.

            And I still think that the best critique of Rand and the Objectivists can be found in Rothbard’s one act play, Mozart Was a Red. I think that he made some of the same points about language that you are making.

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIk5C2qsRH8

          • Sean II

            Still hilarious.

            Although, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought of this, it is already possible to imagine a version with BHL’ers as the foil.

            Host: “So, you’re interested in libertarianism…”

            Guest: “Yes, very much so.”

            Host: “How did you come to be…”

            Guest: “Well, this man named Tom Woods came to my school and gave a talk and…”

            Chorus: “Arggh! Psshaw! Tom Woooooods?” Surely you must realize he is a mere mockery of libertarianism.”

            Etc.

        • Chris Andrew

          I never read Rand or Galt that way. Rather, I read it as saying, when John Galt says he has a right to life, it is the short way of saying it is in the self interest of others to support a political system that upholds his right to life (and liberty and property) as well as your right to life.

          I would elaborate, obtaining a system that where you have these rights but others don’t is very difficult for most people, and as far as I can see, psychologically harmful. Most people are happier in symbiotic relationships rather than ones where one feeds on another. Psychology hasn’t gotten far enough to be conclusive on these types of things.

          If Kim Jung Un and others really are happier with a system where their own right to life is upheld and others aren’t, that is the moral choice for them. To be moral means to promote one’s own life in happiness. Any other explanation of what moral means has always seemed like the Flying Spaghetti Monster to me. No one has given me a good reason to believe anything else.

          • I think you’re closer to nailing it than Brennan. But still, the right to life isn’t even about what makes the best system.

            The point is: if someone tries to kill me, you, or anyone, the victim of the attack will fight back with deadly force. Period. “Reason ends where the barrel of a gun begins.” So you either reason with people, or you kill them. Life + reason or death + force, but either way you choose how you want it to be.

            See, I don’t even think Rand needed to justify a perfect political system, because the choice to her was that we either reason with each other, or we kill each other. So we’re either “life” or “anti-life.”

            You don’t need a system for that. You don’t need to philosophically justify a “claim” against anyone. It’s a simple choice about how you want to live. Therein lies the whole appeal. It’s not a flaw in Rand’s reasoning, it’s a huge, huge feature.

  • Jason Brennan

    Great essay, Matt!

    I don’t think Rand is a good philosopher, but I also don’t think she’s a complete nincompoop either. She has some insights. Unfortunately, lots of libertarians thinks she has all the answers, and the reason they think that is that they don’t notice all of her subtle equivocations.

    • michael

      What do you consider the best and worst branches of Objectivism in terms of arguments given that Rand addressed everything from metaphysics to aesthetics? I remember hearing some ARI institute making the case for Objectivist aesthetics and it seemed almost comically weak (though maybe I’m a dyed in the wool subjectivist on art so any theory of “good art” would fail to convince me). I remember, though, listening to Objectivist philosopher David Kelley once and was quite impressed by his arguments. As a BHLer, I didn’t entirely agree but he seemed quite sharp and thoughtful.

      • Jason Brennan

        I would say pretty much all of Rands arguments are bad. I don’t know if she has a single non-trivial, original argument that’s plausible. I pretty much think you can refute Rand just by referring her to the Philosopher’s Toolkit book (which outlines a number of basic distinctions that all philosophers know, but which Rand messes up).

        What I like about her, though, is that she sees creativity and productivity as heroic, and she has the idea that purposefulness is a virtue. Finally, she says that in a society of virtuous people, people will want to be traders with one another. They don’t want to relate just on the basis of need, but actually want to produce things others want for their own self-interest.

        • JohnDonohue

          Do you share conviction of Objectivism’s metaphysical axioms?

          • Jason Brennan

            I had to look them up.

            “A is A.” Yep, tautology.

            “Existence exists.” I don’t know what that sentence means. But the Randians seem to mean something like there is an objective, mind-indendent reality. Sure, I accept that.

            There seems to be disagreement on what the third axiom is. I was looking at a bunch of objectivist websites, and they all stated them differently. But if the axiom is that I am conscious, well, yeah, it’s self-evident that I’m conscious, though it’s of course contingent that I exist at all.

          • Aeon Skoble

            FWIW, it’s not meant as a tautology, but as a way of expressing the law of identity – that things are things of a particular nature and therefore have some kind of essence. Prioritizing that, and the PNC, are perfectly respectable moves, right out of Aristotle. You probably need more steps to get anyplace interesting, but it’s not ridiculous to start there.

          • Jason Brennan

            Okay, then. If she’s asserting that things have essences is axiomatic, then I deny that.

            Nota bene: I’m not denying that things have essences. I’m just denying that the claim that they have essences is axiomatic. It’s an interesting, substantive, not-self-evident claim.

            However, sure, I’ll accept the claim that things have identities is axiomatic, though from some quick reading, she jumps very quickly from a boring claim to a set of interesting substantive claims without any real argument.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I don’t think that’s quite it – I think she means that Identity is axiomatic, and essences are derived. But Roderick has a better knowledge-level than I do on this stuff. I don’t know how to Summon him though.

          • michael

            E-mail??? Would be interested to hear his thoughts, maybe a BHL debate on Rand between Roderick and Jason.

          • jdkolassa

            Pretty sure that requires a Summon Philosopher VII spell, which I think is a 12th level spell unless you sacrifice 4d8 hit points in a blood ritual to make it a 9th level spell.

          • Raymond Raad

            Rand doesn’t derive or jump from her axioms to anything else. The axioms are the basis of empirical reasoning. Nothing can be derived from them per se. Instead, they help open the door to looking out at the world and forming empirical knowledge.

            Rand’s philosophy is empirical to the core. She wants to base everything in reality, from the simple concept of a table up to ethics and politics. (there can be disagreements about whether she succeeds, but that’s what she was trying to do)

            Also, Rand denied that there are essences.

          • JohnDonohue

            1) Wait….you had to look up her metaphysics, yet above you said “…pretty much all of Rands arguments are bad.”?

            2) there’s no such thing as a “Randian.”

            3) you are a mod…..how do I put you on ‘ignore?’

          • Jason Brennan

            Of course there are Randians. And I can say someone is a bad philosopher without knowing everything he or she says by heart. I can’t quote Derrida without looking him up, but I still think he’s a hack. As for ignoring, I tried blacklisting you, since you’re obnoxious, but Matt Zwolinski reinstated your comments. I guess you win.

        • Bongstar420

          Rand was trying to institute a new religion with her at the head. The fact that she claimed the title of Objectivity and yet was not empirical or naturalistic says something to me.

          Or is it incorrect for me to think this woman had no familiarity with actual physics, chemistry, biology, technology, sociology, psychiatry, etc…? I know objectivism tries to look as though it is naturalistic and empirical, but that has been a super hard sell for me to buy into.

          • Aeon Skoble

            “this woman had no familiarity with actual physics, chemistry, biology, technology, sociology, psychiatry, etc…? ”
            As opposed to which people who do know all these subjects? I don’t know anyone with degrees in all of these. Her college degree was in history.

          • Sol Logic

            But it seems like those peple aren’t attempting for their philosophy to accomplish as much in so many areas either.

        • michael

          Very interesting. I’d love to see you in a debate with Leonard Peikoff who seems like Rand at her worst times infinity. That would be funny. It seems to me that Kelley is sympathetic to Rand’s basic conclusions about objective reality, the morality of capitalism and so on and so forth and is looking for better arguments to support them while still holding true to Objectivism in its broad strokes but that might be wrong.
          I have to end on a positive note re Rand by saying that I still think Howard Roark is cool as hell. Indeed, one interesting thing is that a fair number of people who read Rand’s books aren’t libertarians and don’t become libertarians when they finish them or Objectivists. They just dig the individualism and contempt for conformity.

          • jdkolassa

            That’s interesting. I’ve honestly tried to read Atlas Shrugged, but I can never, ever get through it. It’s just too much of a slog for me.

            I have, however, read some of her nonfiction, and since it is nonfiction the style works better. Though I was also listening to them as audiobooks, so there’s that.

          • michael

            When I’m done work for the day, the last thing I’m going to do is open up a 8098 (give or take a few pages) book. Like a “real” American I watch tv 🙂 It is quite remarkable, though, how many Americans with no evident interest in politics, at least before picking her up, start AS and her other works and read all the way through and love it. I think a good number of them don’t even really digest the philosophy or only do so on a limited level. I know, for example, that Mark Cuban who is kind of a centrist politically but is a huge fan of The Fountainhead, but he doesn’t subscribe to the full range of limited government ideas. He just seems to like the individualism and defense of creativity and productivity.

          • jdkolassa

            I agree. There’s a big gulf between just individualism and creativity/productivity, and the deeper philosophical tenets of Objectivism. Those are either glossed over (usually by people who don’t have the inclination for philosophical things – which is not bad!) or trip people up. There’s a lot more going on in Objectivism than most people think.

            *sigh* If only we could have a more basic, watered down version of Objectivism we could sell to the public at large…

          • michael

            that’s a good objective ha ha ha 🙂 I think of my libertarianism as incorporating everyone from Rand to BHL thinking though ultimately I side with BHL on social justice as a valid and central standard of moral evaluation.

          • jdkolassa

            As Matt notes in his essay on Hayek, Hayek supported a basic income because it would provide individual autonomy. And that is why I am a libertarian in the first place! Not the free market for the free market sake, but because without individual liberty and autonomy, life is basically meaningless. I thought that was what libertarianism was about, anyways? Not slavish devotion to Murray Rothbard’s texts and the ultimate zero point of anarcho-capitalism.

          • Vangel

            “As Matt notes in his essay on Hayek, Hayek supported a basic income because it would provide individual autonomy.”

            Hayek was an intellectual coward. He never had the onions to follow the long to where it would lead him and became an advocate of state interference. I wonder what level of Hell Dante would have placed him.

            “And that is why I am a libertarian in the first place! Not the free market for the free market sake, but because without individual liberty and autonomy, life is basically meaningless.”

            When people say stuff like that my 15-year old brings up Friar Laurence telling Romeo that virtue misapplied can easily become vice. Good intentions do not matter. Actual results do. When you subsidize idleness by the state and create transfer programs that are run by the government the net effects are always negative. There is nothing meaningful about a life where half the time is spent working to fund government programs that you do not agree with. Libertarians and anarchists are not supposed to have utopian notions. They should look around, see human nature for what it is, and act accordingly. Since men are not angels that means NOT giving any political group the power to meddle with markets and to transfer earnings and wealth from one group to another.

            If you want to help people that is great. Use your own earnings to do your best and give as much as you can or as much as you wish. But life is a lot better if we all have a choice and get to live in the absence of the type of coercion that you seem to support.

            “I thought that was what libertarianism was about, anyways?”

            It is about liberty. That means nobody has the right to steal from you so that they can pursue a goal that they choose and pay for it with your money.

            “Not slavish devotion to Murray Rothbard’s texts and the ultimate zero point of anarcho-capitalism.”

            Ahhh, let’s attack the evil Murray Rothbard for having the courage to go where the logic leads even if that is unpopular. Murray defended liberty. That is what libertarianism is about. From what I can tell you oppose liberty because you have little trouble with coercion.

          • michael

            100 percent down with that. In fact, whenever I’m trying to convince leftists of why our current welfare state is so awful I bring up the fact that it undermines individual autonomy and then from there go on to talk about basic income.

          • Raymond Raad

            Kelley is more than sympathetic to Rand’s basic conclusions. He basically agrees with the whole philosophy and has done more to elaborate on it and develop it than anyone else. In my view he represents objectivism without the negative aspects of Rand’s personality.

          • michael

            I’d love to learn more. I’m not sure how much of this comes down to personality but it seems like there are a fair number of people who think Rand is a terrible philosopher yet who like Kelley, not just as a man who is courteous and engaging or what have you, but in terms of respecting him as a thinker. Is it that he’s offering different arguments for the same conclusions Rand reached and that people find those arguments actually convincingly support Rand’s conclusions whereas her own arguments did not? Otherwise, I don’t know how they square their low regard for Rand with their high regard for Kelley.

          • Raymond Raad

            Kelley does not offer different arguments. He basically agrees with every fundamental point of Objectivism, as well as Ayn Rand’s methodology and arguments, and believes it all to be quite innovative. His main expertise is in Objectivist epistemology, but he’s written on almost all aspects of it.

            If it’s true that a lot of people have both a low regard for Rand and a high regard for Kelley, then I equally do not see how they square those two views.

            If you want to learn more about Kelley or Objectivism, I suggest you read “The Logical Structure of Objectivism”, which you can download for free:

            http://www.atlassociety.org/logical-structure-objectivism

            It lays out most of Objectivism, point by point, using both diagrams and text. I think more people should read that book, or David Kelley’s other works, before making a judgment about Objectivism.

          • michael

            People often accord great importance to personality and feelings in making judgments about the quality of particular arguments so that’s probably it. Thank you for the link and for your other contributions to the discussion.

        • Chris Cathcart

          How would you square all your claims with one another, viz., that pretty much all of her arguments are bad, yet she rightly sees creativity, productivity, and the trader-principle as good ideas, and then that a quality philosopher with credentials can view her arguments as not so bad after all? Perhaps your grasp of her arguments are not expert-level?

          I find it hard to believe that someone could read something like Sciabarra’s ‘Russian Radical,’ which does go through the effort of building an expert-level interpretation based on tons of research, and come away thinking Rand was some kind of lightweight. It would boggle my mind, in fact. That it’s never come close to happening in reality is quite telling.

        • Raymond Raad

          Isn’t the idea that material productivity is a major virtue a non-trivial thing that is unique to Rand (at least in the particular form in which she developed it)?

  • Daniel Duarte

    Nozick also wrote a little-known critique of Rand in 1972 called “On the Randian Argument”. I can’t find a non-paywall link to it, though…

  • I think one of the things that makes criticisms of Rand fall flat with me is that critics don’t really seem to understand the link Rand tried to draw between life, reason, and morality.

    To summarize briefly: unless humans employ reason, we’re dead meat. Thus the act of logical reasoning is the basis of morality. Unlike many philosophers who base natural rights on property/self-ownership, Rand based rights on reason-as-a-means-to-survive. That’s why she wrote things like “anti-life” all the time. What’s interesting about this is that it is simultaneously deontological and utilitarian. And yes, there are holes in the theory. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting a philosophy.

    So when Zwolinksi writes, “The fact that your life is a value to you gives you a reason to preserve and promote your life. What is less clear is how it gives you a claim on anybody else not to be interfered with in certain kinds of ways.”, this falls flat (to me) because a right to one’s own life isn’t a claim on someone else’s. This is the whole insight: All of these kinds of problems can be solved by reasoning with the “opposing” party, and capitalism is the mechanism by which that happens.

    And if you think about it, that kind of answers your second objection, too.

    Now, I’m not saying Objectivism is the way to go, but I will go on record as saying that people dismiss her ideas far too soon, in my opinion. There is real meat there, if you can get over her polemics.

    • Bongstar420

      Morals existed before we gave much thought to them. The prefrontal cortexes involvement has been an ongoing development. I posit that morals are observed social relationships and do not require sentient motive to be established. Dogs have morals. It is how they maintain a hierarchy.

      This proposition of Rand’s was built on her presumption that she would be able to reason better than most others. She wouldn’t advocate positions that she didn’t think she could compete satisfactorily in.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11557895

      There is a reason I require philosophers to have been initiated to naturalism and empiricism. And, yes. I know. DAMN socialism paid for that study. Shame on me for liking it and thinking it is better this way than not.

      • You’re equivocating on the word “morals,” which undermines the rest of your points here.

  • michael

    If there was ever an election for President of Bleeding Heart Libertarian Land, Matt has given his opponents a lot to run on “Matt Zwolinski says he cares about the poor and vulnerable. Oh really? Then why did he create a student club devoted to promoting Objectivism? And why did, as recently as 2014, call The Fountainhead a “terrific book.” Matt Zwolinski: a hard libertarian in Rawlsian clothing.” Hey come to think of it Corey Robin and company actually believe that this is whole blog is filled with wolves in sheep’s clothing.

    • Jason Brennan

      Who gives a crap what Corey Robin thinks?

      • jdkolassa

        I hereby nominate Jason Brennan to take over the Colbert Report next year.

      • michael

        I’m too busy helping the Koch’s kill democracy and implement Social Darwinism to care.

    • Bongstar420

      I care about the poor and vulnerable. I find charity as reinforcing their existence. You wouldn’t like my solution, and I doubt enough other people would either for it to be a functional outcome. I expect the poor and vulnerable to continue to exist indefinitely by design.

      • michael

        what is your solution?

    • A) I’m not a Rawlsian
      B) I don’t see any incompatibility between caring about the poor and vulnerable, and think that The Fountainhead is a terrific book.
      C) I’m not running for president. Of anything.

      • Jason Brennan

        Matt is benevolent dictator of BHL, though.

      • michael

        Very good, very good though I hope you realized my post was a joke 🙂 I of course share your conclusions. Indeed, I think you can like The Fountainhead and not even be a libertarian of any stripe.

      • michael

        Also wanted to say I really liked your critique. I also came to libertarianism through Rand though it was more a matter of “I like these themes.” I think just talking to various Objectivists turned me off Objectivism completely and now I consider myself some form of BHL.

  • michael

    It doesn’t help that you have pieces by people like Objectivist Harry Binswanger saying its time for the “99 percent” to “give back to the 1 percent.”

    • Bongstar420

      How about the %1 give me a real chance to compete with them instead of all this false hope shit?

      • michael

        absolutely.

    • jdkolassa

      Yeah, that was beyond absurd. That’s the image high-church Objectivists put forward and it doesn’t help their cause at all.

      • michael

        yeah I think the tendency libertarians have to defend Rand comes from utter contempt for the ignorance of many of her critics on the Left who say she was a “conservative.”

        • jdkolassa

          It does seem that a lot of the problems surrounding Rand come less from her (admittedly not 100% perfect as Brennan points out) philosophy, but more from bad PR, bad rhetoric (just in choosing which words to use), and a lack of active engagement on the part of her critics who instead just kneejerk reject what she’s saying.

          So there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.

        • jdkolassa

          It does seem that a lot of the problems surrounding Rand come less from her (admittedly not 100% perfect as Brennan points out) philosophy, but more from bad PR, bad rhetoric (just in choosing which words to use), and a lack of active engagement on the part of her critics who instead just kneejerk reject what she’s saying.

          So there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.

          • michael

            For sure. One big point though is that Rand seemed almost determined to piss off rather than persuade. Why else use the word “selfishness” and make it so central?

          • jdkolassa

            I don’t understand that at all. I get that you want to make a point. Fine, no problem with that. But to deliberately take steps at every point to antagonize others…I just don’t get it. If she wasn’t so dogmatically combative I think Objectivism would have a lot more followers today and we would be a lot better off as a society. Although Piekoff might not be one of them…

          • Vangel

            I agree with part of what you say. But what would you say the word selfish means?

            As Mises pointed out, every time we act we choose the action that we prefer to all the other options that we had at the time. All of us chooses what we prefer whether you are talking about the Pope, Hugh Hefner, or Hitler. I would argue that if that is what Rand meant by the word selfish she was totally correct but have no trouble if one of you smart people can convince me otherwise. The problem is that the more I read the more I realize that most who are on the left-libertarian side of the argument are incapable of defending their positions. The reason I moved from that side to Rothbard was because he could defend his positions quite easily without resorting to verbal gymnastics, novel definitions, etc.

          • michael

            Peikoff is like Rand without the conciliatory personality ha. He seems to have turned into quite a nut or maybe always was as aspects of orthodox Objectivism strictly understood and applied are kind of looney and he takes it all the way all the time.

  • misterioso

    It is difficult for a person carrying a Catholic upbringing to puzzle out Objectivism, but Matt is undaunted.

  • Chris Cathcart

    Matt, have you read my defense of Rand’s theory of rights in JARS? A non-paywalled link: http://www.oocities.org/cathcacr/Egoism-Rights-JARS-2006.pdf
    In the meantime I’ll check out the link you provided containing the full version of your comments. Also, Dougs R and D give powerful arguments for rights that are pretty much Randian (and you might recall how well they did in responding to Nozick’s otherwise-powerful-looking critique of “the Randian argument”).

    • I haven’t read your article yet, but will do so soon. For this particular piece, my task was to comment on Fred and Adam’s paper, and so my I didn’t include much in the way of references to secondary literature. When I revise it for their journal, I probably will.

      For what it’s worth, though, I did engage in a pretty extensive study of Objectivism as an undergraduate and graduate student. I listened to a lot of the old lecture courses with Peikoff, Binswanger et al. – on cassette tape, no less – studied OPAR in a phone course with Gary Hull, went through several reading groups on ItOE, etc. I might be making mistakes in the way I understand her, but I’ve done my due diligence. And I try to treat her thought with the same respect and fairness that I would extend to any philosopher.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Yes, you’re correct about Doug and Doug. They take Rand seriously, and their rebuttal to Nozick’s “On the Randian Argument” is pretty effective, but the work they’ve been doing the last 15-20 years is their own thing – it’s not necessarily antagonistic to Rand, but as you say has important differences. What puzzles me is why you haven’t come around to embracing NoL! 🙂 I can recommend an excellent secondary source….

  • Chris Cathcart

    I think it bears mentioning that a lot of the replies in this thread are of pretty low caliber, as far as having an actual clue about Rand goes. Any serious students of Objectivism coming to this thread and seeing the comments would have little alternative but to conclude that BHL is not an intellectually serious or respectable forum. I’d say this thread is a notch, maybe two notches at best, above a typical reddit thread on Rand, and that’s not good news.

    • jdkolassa

      Can we really blame the blog authors for the content of the comments, however? I mean really? Sure, some of the commentators here are the blogging team and a few are philosophers, but then some are just random people off the Internet.

      And then, if he deigns to appear, there’s Sean II, who exists in his own special category.

      • Sol Logic

        The myth, the legend, Sean ll. I’m still trying to find his blog if one exists.

        • Sean II

          The real mystery should be: where the hell is Sean I?

          The whole reason I have this ridiculous name is because when I first arrived, there was already a regular commenter with my name. So I called myself Sean II.

          Well, like three weeks later, that guy just disappeared, thus dooming me to forever seem like the kind of jerk who would put a numeral behind his name for no reason!

          • jdkolassa

            Clearly you killed him and usurped his throne, like the Lannister you are.

          • Sean II

            Ha! You can’t know how very close to the mark you are.

            Except for not the sister-love thing.

      • Sean II

        Not that special, nor hard to categorize.

        I’m the algae-eater in the fish tank here…not pretty, but useful.

        Left on its own, BHL has a tendency to become blurry with bullshit. It’s just an inevitable by-product of so many people trying so hard to seem earnest, original, interesting, morally superior, etc.

        All I do is, make a feast of that by-product for humor and sport. It’s been over 100 weeks now, and I’ve never missed a meal!

  • FeelsGoodPhilosophy

    “My first exposure to libertarianism was Rand’s novel…” I stopped reading here. Ayn Rand’s philosophy has nothing at all to do with “Libertarianism”. http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/libertarians.html

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s because Rand is linguistically incompetent and defines the word “libertarianism” incorrectly.

    • Jason Brennan

      That’s because Rand is linguistically incompetent and defines the word “libertarianism” incorrectly.

      • FeelsGoodPhilosophy

        “linguistically incompetent” Sure she WAS.

  • Raymond Raad

    Let me try to answer your first (and by implication your second) point.

    For Rand, your interest in having freedom to preserve and promote your own life does NOT by itself create a right, nor give you a claim against anyone else. To her, rights are political principles, not principles of individual morality. When she defines rights, she says that a right is a moral principle, defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action in a social context.

    So rights only come into play when trying to answer the question of how best to organize a society. In answering that question, we have to be mindful of the fact that each person should be acting to promote his own life. The question then becomes how best to organize society so that (a) every person can best promote his own life, and (b) each person has an interest in maintaining that social organization. The reason I care about every person is that I recognize that just as I should promote my own life, everyone else has to do the same for his/her own life – and I stand to benefit from the externalities and opportunities for trade that this recognition brings. I also most likely to create a stable social order if I make it in everyone else’s interests, not just in my own.

    Now, to maximize each person’s ability to promote his own life, we need to allow him/her the freedom to act on his own information and reason, and exercise his autonomy as freely as possible. But that is only possible for every person if two conditions are met: (a) each person’s freedom is compatible with every other person’s, and (b) we have a system of private property that divides up the material world so that each person’s sphere of decision making is clearly defined and maximized.

    The recognition of all the above is summarized in the political principle of a “right”.
    For shorthand, we say that a person has a right to his life, liberty, property etc. But that’s just a shorthand. It’s not a claim per se. Although, one can argue over whether, once a system of rights is implemented (either through establishing a government, or whatever), each person has any moral responsibility to obey its rules.

    • Vangel

      “…and (b) we have a system of private property that divides up the material world so that each person’s sphere of decision making is clearly defined and maximized.”

      I do not quibble with much that you have to say because I agree with most of your points. I just want to point out that it is on the issue of property rights that the left-libertarians go off the rails. They don’t realize that we need a system of property rights so that we can minimize conflict over scarce resources. (Stephan Kinsella does a lot of credit for much of the work he has done on this and for the patience he has exhibited when dealing with both Randians and left-libertarians on these issues.)

      The simple fact is that unless I own my TV, my car, or my house there can be conflict with others who want them. You would think that most of the readers on this site would recognize that but too many of them just soil themselves every time property rights are mentioned that it is hard to have a rational discussion on the issue.

  • Michael Philip

    Huemer replies to a version of egoism he seems to have made up himself. Most of the points he tries to refute aren’t the arguments Objectivists make in defense of egoism. A very lengthy straw man.

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