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Bleeding hearts, destructive engagements, ad hoc morality

I have a long comment on a post by Jacob Levy (at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism) on the ethics of intellectual exchange. My comments there prefigure what I’ll be saying in the forthcoming parts of my series on Objectivist intellectual culture. They also have some obvious relevance to what I say below.

I’ve previously mentioned and criticized the ad hoc nature of the Ayn Rand Institute’s (ARI) approach to libertarianism. This item takes ad hocracy to new lows. Once upon a time, ARI’s position was that libertarianism is a form of nihilism involving a wholesale rejection of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Now, supporters of ARI are defending the view that libertarianism has made a “moral shift” from Rand to Hayek and Rawls via Bleeding Heart Libertarianism. Can’t quite make up our minds, can we? The incoherence is a predictable result of a pseudo-ideology based on a pseudo-historiography. It’s also a predictable result of a form of moral zealotry which consists in demanding strict adherence to rigid moral principles–while always conveniently managing, in its own case, to confect a new principle for every “difficult” situation.

Feel free to listen to the Hsieh/McCaskey interview on the subject near the bottom of the third link above. I found it singularly slapdash and unilluminating, and I think most political philosophers and historians would agree with that assessment (and might even regard it as charitable). The one thing it doesn’t do is provide any real evidence of a wholesale shift of any kind within libertarianism–whether from nihilism to non-nihilism, or from “Rand to Hayek and Rawls,” or from any one thing to any other thing. In fact, the interview doesn’t even characterize the kind of evidence that would be needed to make claims about libertarianism as such, much less “shifts” in the nature (or “essence”) of libertarianism, which is what a defense of the ARI position requires. A fortiori, it doesn’t give a moral justification for ARI supporters like John McCaskey’s dealing with libertarians after having spent the last two-and-a-half decades supporting their demonizers. But McCaskey doesn’t just “deal” with libertarians. He’s employed (or recently has been employed) by the Political Theory Project, run by John Tomasi, a well-known bleeding heart libertarian. I’d be interested in hearing a direct justification from McCaskey for this rather cozy dispensation. He’s certainly voluble enough on the subject of libertarianism to spare a moment or two to discuss it.

It may be worth reminding ARI’s supporters (and ourselves) what it is that ARI supports, and what it is that needs a defense before ARI-associated people start engaging in collegial fashion with supposed libertarian colleagues (and vice versa):

IS LIBERTARIANISM AN EVIL DOCTRINE? Yes, if evil is the irrational and the destructive. Libertarianism belligerently rejects the very need for any justification for its belief in something called “liberty.” It repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty”—and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior—political, moral, metaphysical. And since reality is the fundamental “restraint” upon men’s actions, it is nihilism—the desire to obliterate reality—that is the very essence of Libertarianism. If the Libertarian movement were ever to come to power, widespread death would be the consequence. (For elaboration, see my essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.”)

Justice demands moral judgment. It demands that one objectively evaluate Libertarianism, and act in accordance with that evaluation. It demands that one identify Libertarianism as the antithesis of—and therefore as a clear threat to—not merely genuine liberty, but all rational values. And it demands that Libertarianism, like all such threats, be boycotted and condemned.

Suffice it to say that being employed by someone isn’t compatible with boycotting and condemning them.

The excerpted paragraph comes from Peter Schwartz’s “On Moral Sanctions,” still the official position of ARI, and one of several ARI attacks on libertarianism, all in the same vein. Note well Schwartz’s claim that nihilism is the essence of libertarianism (a term he dishonestly and confusingly capitalizes). The claim is one about libertarianism as such, not some specific brand of it, and is not consistent with the ad hoc embrace of libertarianism when political convenience requires it (followed by equally ad hoc pseudo-empirical hand-waving about how libertarianism has recently undergone a change of essence worthy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses). The question is how a doctrinal essence can reverse its moral valence from being all-out evil and unworthy of cooperation to being not-evil and therefore worthy of cooperation. If the new ARI view is that nihilism is a feature of some very specific sort of libertarianism, they should admit that they’ve repudiated their old party line (which ascribes nihilism to the doctrine as such), and have come to embrace the exact position that David Kelley defended in Truth and Toleration more than two decades ago.

Bottom line: those associated with the ARI position on libertarianism are morally obliged publicly to repudiate it and apologize for having endorsed it.  It surprises me that some libertarians will accept less than that. But justice demands otherwise.  And nothing less than justice will do.

Irfan

P.S., May 22, 2013: The Ayn Rand Institute and Foundation for Economic Education “are teaming up to explore” questions pertaining to “the morality of capitalism” at a student conference two Saturdays from now. Apparently, one of the questions to be discussed is “how to defend” capitalism. At a bare minimum, shouldn’t tough questions about the  issues discussed in this post be part of any such discussion? (hat tip: Roderick Long)

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4 Comments

  1. There’s no inconsistency between “libertarians have shifted from nihilism to non-nihilism” and “libertarians have shifted from Rand to Hayek and Rawls” if one assumes that the official ARI position is now that Rand is a nihilist but Hayek and Rawls are not.

  2. Schwartz – an intellectual lightweight by any objective measure – hasn’t written any work of significance to Objectivism or “Libertarianism” for nearly a quarter century now. Yes, ARI still has his essay on “Sanction” on its website, but aside from a few op-eds here and there in the ’90s, I haven’t seen anything from him in a long time. This is approaching “dead horse” territory, especially when Yaron Brook goes to the UK to give lectures at the Oxford Libertarian Society. (For more on this, see http://ultimatephilosopher.blogspot.com/2010/12/yaron-brook-vs-peter-schwartz.html .) It’s a shame that Schwartz drove away Kelley and Walsh and, later, the Reismans (and others in the wake of the Reisman fiasco), but it’s getting to be really old news, especially in light of *Ayn Rand’s* cultural surge in the meantime. It’s Rand that matters here, and when ARI-affiliated scholars like Tara Smith and Allan Gotthelf are contributing literature of considerable import, the “factionalist” BS that has plagued the Oist movement takes a back seat to that.

    Let’s not also forget the shortcomings of David Kelley’s own approach to sanction. When the full scale and scope of morally criminal activity by Nathaniel Branden against Rand was made known ca. 2005, the response of the Atlas (or, in Perigo’s preferred nomenclature, KASSless) Society was an evasion. It apparently never registered with them in hindsight why Allen Blumenthal left the IOS when NB was brought back into the fold; AB *knew* of NB’s dastardly deeds, first-hand (being one of the people NB directly lied to about the nature and history of his feelings for Ms. Scott). Before Rand’s journal entries re: NB were published, there was a reasonable and legitimate excuse for not condemning NB wholesale, but not after that, and Kelley, Bidinotto, et al defaulted on their responsibility to judge and act accordingly. One sure hopes the new IOS won’t be going down a similar path, though I would recommend calling the current “CIO” of the new IOS to task for his evasions on this matter if you expect to be taken seriously by reasonable critics of Dr. Kelley’s approach. What IOS was in the ’90s – a respectable organization epitomized by the likes of Jimmy Wales – fell apart by 2006 when AR was completely vindicated in the Branden episode (and it matters not in the slightest whether or not Valliant was over-zealous in his prosecutorial approach – a non-essential if there ever was one). It would have been one thing for NB to honestly struggle with his conflicting feelings with respect to AR and Ms. Scott, but one thing that cannot be condoned or sanctioned is his monumental dishonesty and betrayal of Oist ideals. Fact of the matter is, he was fraudulently pretending to be an Oist hero (for whom AR reasonably and benevolently extended the *benefit of the doubt*) while lying this way and that, and he’s never owned up to that to this day. Recognizing this fact is perfectly consistent with intellectual openness and toleration as was pursued by the IOS in the ’90s. (How else did Allan B join, and then subsequently leave, IOS?)

  3. Roderick, the non-inconsistency on Schwartz’s part would be that since “Libertarianism” (a term which he never defines) is nihilistic, and therefore without any intellectual discipline, it can end up picking and choosing as it pleases. Latching onto Rand one day, Rothbard the next, Hayek the next, Mises (oops – he’s one of the Good Guys) the next, Nozick the next, etc. etc. But don’t try to locate any rhyme or reason to how Schwartz justifies his portrayal of “Libertarianism” except this: the conclusion that “Libertarianism” is evil is foregone, the only task is to find a plausible-sounding justification/rationalization for that. (This dishonesty is evident in the way he quotes and uses source material, up to and including altering the original text (capitalizing the “L” in “libertarianism”) from Rothbard, without any indication of having done so.

    Anyway, Schwartz is an insignificant gnat at this point. His presence in the Oist movement arguably set it back several years on net, whereas Branden’s misdeeds set it back *decades*.

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    First, a quick procedural issue: I’ve approved your comment because I happen to know your blog and website from prior experience of it. Because it has a stable existence and track record, I take that to be a kind of proxy for your having a public identity. But that’s me cutting you some slack, not an expectation that you or anyone else should insist on. IOS’s official policy asserts the reverse: you’re supposed to sign your full name. It seems to me that if we’re going to trade in adverse moral judgments of named people, accusers ought to be able to sign their names to the accusations. You’re offering moral recommendations to us, which is fine. But the need for a full non-pseudonym signature is one of our own. One of the problems with Objectivists is that they’re a lot braver when they’re anonymous than when they have to sign their names to their moral judgments. That, in turn, produces quite a lot of moral grandstanding, but not a culture of moral responsibility. The need for this last is one of the things David Kelley got right in Truth and Toleration, and I think full name signature is a corollary. A related problem is the tendency to exaggerate the need for anonymity, as though Objectivists were somehow surrounded by the equivalents of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. But the truth is, I know people who are surrounded by the Taliban who insist on using their own names. So I don’t quite understand the need for it outside of those contexts–unless you’re writing from Kandahar, which I doubt.

    Second, you accuse me (I think) of factionalist bullshit, but your whole second paragraph is an exercise in factionalist polemics, so it seems to me you’ve got to make up your mind. Is factional discussion OK or not? I assume it is. That’s why I engage in it from time to time. But you seem to be on both sides of a fence you yourself have erected.

    As for your first paragraph, I think it’s an ignoratio elenchi. I was criticizing a double standard espoused by people associated by with ARI. Schwartz’s recent productivity or lack of it has no bearing on that issue at all. As you yourself concede, ARI still has Schwartz’s essay up on their website. They also have “Fact and Value” on their website, and that essay begins by affirming Schwartz’s views. I can repost the link(s) if you like (tell me), but I have a link on this website in which Brook not only affirms “Fact and Value” but accuses me personally of not being an Objectivist because I reject it. He also admits in the same exchange that beneficiaries of substantial grants from the Anthem Foundation are required to agree with “Fact and Value” (and by implication Schwartz). On top of that, ARI has re-affirmed its commitment to Schwartz’s view within the last year or so on its website. I have an email from Leonard Peikoff addressed to me (which I’ll post here when I get the chance) in which he himself endorses the Brook re-affirmation. So my criticism is very far from “dead horse territory.” They themselves see the need publicly to update and clarify their own position (whatever the hell it ends up being). Brook’s interactions with libertarians makes things worse, not better (on both ends: ARI’s and the relevant libertarians, though to lesser degree in the latter case). What these libertarian-friendly interactions demonstrate is Brook’s brazen, opportunistic dishonesty–as well as the similar dishonesty of the people who, knowing what I’ve just enumerated above, are willing to sanction it. If you can get Allan Gotthelf and Tara Smith on the record as repudiating Brook’s dishonesty, I would be much obliged. But I highly doubt you will get any such admission from them. (It might be too much to get them publicly to repudiate Schwartz’s misquotations from Rothbard–a malfeasance you yourself have noted.) It’s Gotthelf’s Ayn Rand Society that has invited Yaron Brook to speak at the APA, after all–an invitation I assume he made in the knowledge of the facts I’ve enumerated. Allan Gotthelf is a great Aristotle scholar. But that doesn’t exempt him from moral judgment. And on this issue, my judgment on him is not a positive one.

    As for Kelley’s shortcomings, I’ll say this: I left the original IOS in 1997 in part over Kelley’s invitation to IOS of the Brandens (one of many other reasons I had). My criticisms of the Brandens are out there online: I can dig them up if you want, but they are sharper than most. But whatever the shortcomings of Kelley’s rapproachement with the Brandens, it doesn’t constitute a wholesale attack on the moral character of a whole class of people. Nor is it a case of outright, brazen dishonesty like ARI’s rapproachement with libertarianism. It’s just a very, very wrongheaded alliance with an unsavory person. I regard such things as being in a completely different category than ARI’s malfeasances. In any case, the Brandens are now for all practical purposes peripheral to the Obejctivist scene. They are a non-issue, except to those who insist on bringing them up. I’m not one of those people. So if you’ve got a criticism to make about the Brandens, I don’t quite see why I’m its intended object.

    Irfan

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