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Objectivism in the June 2013 Reason Papers: a preview, part 1 of 6

Having gone out of my way institutionally to dissociate IOS from Reason Papers (RP) in my last post, I’m now going to go ahead in the next few posts and preview the Objectivist content of the forthcoming (June) issue of the journal. As it happens, a fairly good chunk of the June issue discusses Objectivism—more so than any issue we’ve edited, and more so than most issues of the journal prior to our becoming editors. That’s really a coincidence more than anything else; a lot of Objectivist material happened to come together at one time and made its way into the same issue. I’d encourage Objectivists and anyone else to read all of the content in the issue, whether Objectivist or otherwise, but in the present context, I think it’s worth surveying the specifically Objectivist content for its wider implications about Objectivist scholarship as such. So here’s the first of several posts on Objectivism in the June 2013 RP.

The issue opens with an exchange on Ayn Rand’s account of punishment involving David Boonin and myself, with Boonin having written a critique of Rand’s view of punishment, and my having written a defense of it. Boonin is an associate professor of philosophy and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He works primarily in ethics and political philosophy, and is the author (among many other things) of four books, including a book on the topic of the exchange–The Problem of Punishment (Cambridge, 2008). The RP exchange began life as a session for the Ayn Rand Society (ARS) at the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association back in April 2011. After agreeing to publish the exchange in RP, Boonin finalized his draft and sent it along; I presented a version of my paper at one of The Atlas Society’s (TAS) Online Research Workshops, then revised it, and finalized it for publication.boonin.cover

Both the ARS and the TAS audiences were heavily stacked with Objectivists who had more to say about my paper than about Boonin’s. As it happens, Objectivists in both places were highly critical of my paper, questioning my definition of “punishment” and taking sharp issue with my account of the trader principle. There was a lot of discussion both at ARS and at TAS about whether the trader principle “applies to” rights-violations, and whether I had overextended the trader principle past its proper scope of application. Interestingly, the issue of what “applies to” what in ethics (and why) turns out to be a minor sub-theme of the Objectivist material in the June RP issue.

I won’t say much more about the details of the exchange (or audience criticisms of my paper) until after publication this summer.  For now, I’ll just say that I can’t recommend Boonin’s book highly enough: it fundamentally changed the way I think about punishment, and it’s a model of how moral philosophy (including Objectivist moral philosophy) should be written. Obviously, I didn’t agree with everything in it, and there’s no single argument in it that clinched the case for me. But it was by grappling hard with Boonin’s arguments that I found myself confronting the fundamental justificatory questions of punishment in a frontal way: what is it, and why have it? And how does the answer to those questions cohere with the rest of Objectivism?

It occurred to me while reading Boonin’s book and writing my own paper how easy it is to fall into a complacently retributivist view to the effect that the guilty deserve punishment, and therefore must be punished simply because they deserve it, period. That very natural, and (for some) intuitively obvious belief really does not, in my view, survive a confrontation with Boonin’s book. If you believe it, you owe it to yourself to read Boonin before you spend very much of the rest of your life believing it. You might in the process discover that you’re more of a Kantian than you ever thought you were. In that sense, Boonin’s book helps the reader begin to think about punishment “from a metaphysically clean slate, untainted by any touch of Kantianism,”[i] and I was grateful for the chance to read it, wipe my own slate clean, and start from scratch.

Boonin’s command of the literature on punishment is extremely impressive. Of the references in his bibliography that I read, the most interesting and rewarding was “The Permissibility of Punishment” by the Oxford philosopher Daniel McDermott. Though I fundamentally disagreed with McDermott, the view I ended up defending in the paper was a variation on his, or was at least inspired by his, and my disagreements with him helped me give some precision to what I really wanted to say.

One interesting issue that arose in discussion at the APA, not directly related to punishment, concerned the right way of approaching Rand’s texts to figure out her view—or “the Objectivist view”—on the subject at hand. One way to approach the issue is to focus fundamentally on what Rand said about punishment. Another way is to focus fundamentally on what Rand said about justice, and deduce what follows from that for punishment. Boonin, at the advice of other Objectivists he consulted, took the first approach. I took the second. I took it because I don’t think Rand had very much of interest to say directly about punishment per se—at least not in her “official,” published writings, which is where I think the action is. There is an exchange between Rand and John Hospers on punishment in Rand’s Letters, and some rather confused material on punishment in Robert Mayhew’s Ayn Rand Answers book, but I think this stuff is of very limited interpretive or philosophical utility, and I only discussed the Hospers exchange because Boonin did. Had he not discussed it, I would have ignored it, at least in this paper. Leonard Peikoff’s discussion of punishment in OPAR is good as far as it goes, but doesn’t go very far (and I ended up disagreeing with parts of it as well).

On my view, the trader principle is the fundamental principle in the Objectivist theory of justice, so that a theory of punishment ends up being a theory for how to handle non-compliance with the trader principle (or at least, a variety of non-compliance). Clearly, not everyone agrees, but it’s an interesting further question how one should formulate the question that ought to motivate the inquiry, and how to approach the inquiry itself. I’m hoping that other interested parties will weigh in on this and other related issues, so that we get a chance to air the issues out in open discussion.

One last point. It’s hard to over-state the sheer distance between the sorts of conceptual-level issues that Boonin and I were discussing, and the reality of punishment policy in practice.  I don’t think that’s a defect of our discussion, but it is a limitation. I call it the prescriptive gap: the distance between the formulation of an abstract prescriptive principle in philosophical inquiry and its practical implementation. That’s a topic of its own with ramifications of its own—but for another day.


[i] Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 98.

Disclaimer: My use of any images here and throughout this site is intended only for educational purposes. It serves no commercial purpose and is covered by Fair Use.


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