In Defense of Subjectivism

Andrew Cohen’s latest post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (“Against Subjectivism“) left me scratching my head, for a while. After a bit of pondering, I was able to sort it out. Here’s the gist of Cohen’s argument:

  • “Many people seem to think that whether a particular act is wrong cannot be determined objectively. Many, indeed, seem to think it is a purely subjective matter….”
  • “[T]he truth of a claim does not depend on my opinion, your opinion, or even our opinion.”
  • “[D]oes the fact—and I now assume we all agree it is a fact—that people have different opinions about whether God exists matter to the objectivity (or lack thereof) of the claim that God exists?”
  • “[T]he answer is obvious: none whatsoever. It is either the case that God exists or it is the case that he does not. One of those is the objective truth.”
  • Therefore, “why should morality … be any different? “

The only logically valid conclusion that one can draw from this disjointed argument is that there is or is not an objective morality: one that holds at all times, in all places, regardless of the varied and differing opinions of individuals. If that is Cohen’s point, I cannot disagree with him.

But Cohen seems to be defending the proposition that there is an objective morality. Consider the title of his post, and consider the following statement from the post:

Others think [morality] is a cultural matter: our society thinks the act is wrong so it is wrong for us; yours does not, so it is not for you. Obviously, I think this is misguided. Indeed, I think we should be seeking truth, where that should be read as “objective truth.”

Regarding morality, I fear that the only objective truths are these:

  • There are differing opinions about the source of morality.
  • There are varying, group-dependent conceptions of morality.
  • Despite the differing opinions and conceptions, moral codes may have key features in common (e.g., the prevalence of the Golden Rule across religions and even among irreligious people).

The commonality of key features proves nothing about the source of morality or its objective existence. It may be God-given; it may reflect an eternal Platonic form, which has an existence of its own; or it may be an culturally transmitted phenomenon that reflects certain “constants” human nature, namely, empathy and self-interest.

Somewhere in there lies an objective truth. My money is on human nature.

Related posts:
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Evolution and the Golden Rule

Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism

A note to readers who arrive here from Timothy Sandefur’s “Some Odd Confusion about Natural Rights.” I followed up with “What Are ‘Natural Rights’?” Sandefur’s comments on that post appeared in his “Teleology without God.” I responded to that post with “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’.” See also my followup, “What Are ‘Natural Rights’?

Orin Kerr, in “One More Round with Tim Sandefur,” waxes plaintive about an exchange with Timothy (not Tim) Sandefur:

Tim[othy] Sandefur has responded to my post below.

To be candid, I find Sandefur’s response perplexing. He seems to want to wage epic battles over natural law versus positivism, with him as the champion of natural law and me as the evil positivist. But the questions we were discussing have nothing to do with natural law or positivism. When I was explaining what the cases say, I wasn’t saying that I think the cases are right, are true, reflect God’s will, or anything like that. I wasn’t staking out any jurisprudential ground at all. I was just saying that’s what the cases say, for those who happen to care about such things. If you want to have a theory of the True Constitution that makes caselaw irrelevant, that’s great: Just say that you think the cases are irrelevant and move on. I won’t object.

I, too, have been on the receiving end of a Sandefur tirade about my supposed “positivism.” As far as I can tell, what he means is that the “positivist” in question doesn’t share his Objectivist set of priors.

One of those priors seems to be the pre-existence of “natual rights,” as they are defined by Sandefur or some Objectivist guru, of course. Those rights are “natural” because they don’t come from anywhere, they “just are” (like Original Sin, I suppose).

This kind of Platonic mysticism seems out of character for a loudly self-proclaimed atheist like Sandefur. (A link to The Out Campaign — some kind of atheist, not homosexual, support organization is posted at the top of his sidebar.) If there is no God (or the functional equivalent thereof), then where do those pre-existing rights come from? Perhaps they were created spontaneously at the moment of the Big Bang, but can be perceived only by persons equipped with the proper antennae.

And by what grace does Sandefur know a true “natural right” from the plethora of privileges listed as rights in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which seems to be popular on the left? Unless you want to admit that your views are based on religious morality (and I’m sure that Sandefur doesn’t), then you have to start with something other than mysticism.

A good place to start is with the axiomatic observation that rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others. (Of course, at that point you’ve lost the bleeding hearts and jingos, who want to make exceptions in the name of the “truly deserving” and “national pride.”)

Then comes the hard part. You must haggle about things like the necessity of law-enforcement and defense forces, and what they should be allowed to do, and how they should be paid for. And the extent to which government should override social custom, if at all, in an effort to ensure negative rights. And all the while, you are fending off the bleeding hearts and jingos, not to mention the pseudo-libertarians who believe that liberty is something that “just happens” without the expenditure of blood, sweat, and tears.

And then you come to the question of open borders. Which, some would say, must be a good thing, because all God’s children have negative rights. Or do they? Negative rights cannot be be honored except through mutual recognition backed by strong enforcement. Therefore, it is eminently reasonable to say that a regime that honors negative rights can enforce them only for those persons who are bound to honor that regime and help pay for its defense. (The implication of this statement for the rightful home of leftist peaceniks I defer to a future post.)

After all of that, I am left with the strong feeling that there is nothing natural about “natural rights,” and a lot that is natural about the messy process of defining and securing rights.

Perhaps Sandefur will deign to address these matters in the comment thread for Kerr’s post, inasmuch as his blog seems closed to comments. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a matter of personal preference; perhaps even a “natural right.” It’s a right of which I avail myself, being of the view that my blog is like my house, and I’m very picky about who enters it.

Related posts:
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Goodbye, Mr. Pitts
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
The Left
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

The Unreality of Objectivism

Charles Murray, in a review of two biographies of Ayn Rand, says that

Objectivism takes as its metaphysical foundation the existence of reality that is unchanged by anything that an observer might think about it—”A is A,” as Aristotle put it, and as Rand often repeated in her own work. Objectivism’s epistemology is based on the capacity of the human mind to perceive reality through reason, and the adamant assertion that reason is the only way to perceive reality.

Objectivism is just a refined form of bunkum, which can be shown by examining its four Randian tenets (in italics, followed by my commentary):

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

It is true, and tautologous, to say that reality exists; that is, the real has “verifiable existence.” But there are many conceptions of reality, some of them based on identical observations of the physical world. (Read about physical cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example.) There may be an objective reality, but it is trivial to say so. The reality that we perceive depends on (a) the limitations of our perception (e.g., the degree to which telescopes have been improved), and (b) the prejudices that we bring to what we are able to perceive. (Yes, everyone has prejudices.) And it always will be thus, no matter how many facts we are able to ascertain; the universe is a bottomless mystery.

In my experience, Objectivists flaunt their dedication to reality in order to assert their prejudices as if they were facts. One of those prejudices is that “natural rights” exist independently of human thought or action. But the concept of “natural rights” is an abstraction, not a concrete, verifiable reality. Abstractions are “real” only in a world of Platonic ideals. And, then, they are “real” only to those who posit them. Objectivism is therefore akin to Platonism (Platonic mysticism), in which ideas exist independently of matter; that is, they simply “are.”

It would be fair to say that Objectivism is a kind of unreality.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are “real” facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else (see above).

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid “knowledge,” right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts — such as the “Golden Rule,” “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” and “talk softly but carry a big stick” — are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice (see Theodore Dalrymple’s In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas).

3. Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

This dictum is an attack on the straw-man concept of altruism, which has no basis in reality, as I explain here and here. All of us are individualists, at bottom, in that we seek our own happiness. It just happens that some of us correlate our happiness with the happiness of (selected) others. Rand’s third tenet is both a tautology and a (lame) justification for behavior that violates social norms. Objectivists (like anarcho-capitalists) seem unable to understand that the liberty which enables them to spout their nonsense is owed, in great measure, to the existence of social norms, and that those norms arise (in large part) from observance of the “Golden Rule.”

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Here, Rand shifts gears from preaching the bed-rock prejudices and tautologies of Objectivism (tenets 1, 2, and 3) to the “ought” of Objectivism. It is hard to distinguish Rand’s fourth tenet from the tenets of libertarianism, which makes me wonder why some Objectivists scorn libertarianism (e.g., go here and scroll down). It is not as if Objectivism is reality-based, as opposed to libertarianism. In fact, consequentialist libertarianism (anathema to anarchists and Objectivists, alike) has the advantage when it comes to defending laissez-faire capitalism. The facts of history and economics are on the side of laissez-faire capitalism because it yields better results than statism (see this and this, for example).

I will not bother, here, to dismantle the jejune rejection of preemptive self-defense: the so-called non-aggression principle, which I have addressed in this post (and in several of the links therein). Nor is the notion of complete separation of state and church worth more than a link this post (and the links therein) and this one.

In sum, Objectivism reminds me very much of a late-night, dorm-room bull session: equal parts of inconsequential posturing and uninformed “philosophizing.” Sophomoric, in a word.

Related post: This Is Objectivism?