The Nature of Individual Rights: Short Notes

Bill of Rights - First Ten Amendments to the US ConstitutionSome short notes about the nature of genuine human rights. I start by clearing up some common misconceptions about rights, then discuss what rights actually are.

What Rights Are Not

  1. Rights do not come from religious texts, like the Bible. Biblical Commandments like “Thou shalt not murder,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” don’t provide an answer to what killing counts as murder, or what taking counts as stealing. In the Biblical book of Exodus, priests and leaders may kill those in their community who are not attacking them, and it is apparently not considered murder. (See: Exodus 32:27-29) Also, many early Christians eschewed private property and lived a communal lifestyle, with all things held in common. (Acts 2:42-45) The Judeo-Christian tradition relies on the arbitrary dictates of the Biblical God and does not provide a solid basis for rights to life, liberty and property.
  2. Rights are not moral duties or “side constraints” on purposeful action, as many academic libertarians believe. They don’t have their basis in some vague concept of “inherent human dignity.”
  3. Rights are not means to “general utility”–i.e. the “collective pleasure” of everyone in society–as John Stuart Mill thought.
  4. Rights do not protect need-based claims to goods or services to be provided by other people, such as food, shelter, healthcare, etc. Contra Bernie Sanders, healthcare is not a right.

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Why Facebook and Twitter Can’t Censor Speech

facebook-twitter-instagram-icons-png-social-media-iconsFacebook and Twitter have been banning a lot of conservatives and anti-social justice activists recently, like Paul Joseph Watson, Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin), Tommy Robinson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones. This has commonly been called “censorship” by them and others. But in this essay, I will argue that this is not censorship. It is something fundamentally different from censorship: moderation.

Censorship is always bad. Moderation can be good or bad. But even when it is bad, irrational and/or biased, it should not be regulated by law.

What is Censorship? What is Moderation?

According to Dictionary.com, a censor is “an official who examines books, plays, news reports, motion pictures, radio and television programs, letters, cablegrams, etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.”

“Suppressing” here means “suppressing by using the force of the government.” That is, this is the government punishing citizens and/or confiscating their property (the banned materials in question.)

This is fundamentally different than a citizen regulating the speech of another on his property, as a condition of using it. If someone comes into your house and starts denouncing your wife or mother as a slut, you are within your rights to demand that he leave and to assert your property rights by the force of the police. If you and an opponent have been invited to a debate on abortion, and your opponent, or someone in the crowd, starts screaming about how you’re just privileged and your view is invalid, that person can be asked to leave and forced out if necessary. If someone is continually talking loudly during a movie, again, the theater is within its rights to have that person removed.

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The Elements of Moral Philosophy on Ethical Egoism: A Critique

The Elements of Moral Philosophy - Sixth Edition CoverMany college philosophy classes today discuss ethical egoism. Many take as their main source the work of James and Stuart Rachels, in their book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The main philosopher referenced in the Rachels’ discussion of ethical egoism in Elements is Ayn Rand. But their account of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethical theory and their arguments against it are problematic. Their account of her theory is not entirely accurate, and their arguments against it miss important considerations.

Here, I will look at how they present ethical egoism, including the arguments they present for and against it. Where appropriate, I’ll use this discussion to show how their conception of Ayn Rand’s theory is faulty. (After this point, I will refer to “Rachels” in the singular. The reader can take it to refer to whichever Rachels is responsible for the essence of the content.)

Part 1: “Duty” and Ayn Rand’s Ethics

On page 63 of Elements (6th Ed.), Rachels says:

[Ethical Egoism] holds that our only duty is to do what is best for ourselves.

This is not a good way to talk about Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, because Rand doesn’t accept moral duties as legitimate. Rand only thought that there were moral obligations, not duties. This may seem like a minor issue of semantics, but it is actually a deeply revealing point about how Ayn Rand’s conception of ethics is different from most other philosophers’.

In the field of morality, a “duty” means a rule that one must allegedly follow, apart from one’s own interests or happiness. When we do something because we see that it will cause something else that we want for our own happiness, we do not call that “following our duty.” For example, if I work and earn money to buy a new gaming computer, my working is not following a duty. It’s doing something in order to get something else for myself. Or again, if I invest in a company to get a larger return on my investment later, we do not say that I am investing out of duty. If I help my wife because her happiness is important to my own, that is not following a duty, but doing something that improves my own life and promotes my happiness. I help her because I genuinely want to, not because I have a “duty” to.

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Video: Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights

I just published a video version of my essay, “Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights.” In it, I discuss the “purest” and “most economically reasonable” form of socialism, and I show why it’s immoral and impractical, by the standard of a morality that is pro-human life.

Now, of course, if your morality is against human life on Earth, socialism may be perfectly “moral,” according to your anti-human moral code. And indeed, as Ayn Rand argued in Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, conventional altruism is one such anti-human moral code. It is the origin of the appeal of socialism to so many people in the past 200 years. This includes, not only Marxists, but utopian and Christian socialists as well.

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What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

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Philosophy of Perception: Naïve Realism vs. Representationalism vs. Direct Transformative Process Realism

Painting of a beautiful woman in a garden - Shows the richness of perceptionWithin epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowledge, one of the most fundamental topics is the nature of perception. Philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the present have offered various theories of what perception is and how it occurs. Because it is a topic so fundamental to human knowledge, specialized natural science can’t answer the basics about it. Science relies on perceptual observations of reality. Thus science itself relies on the idea that perception allows us to be aware of an external reality. If perception does not give us awareness of external reality, then scientific study of the external world is not possible: We would always, at best, be inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Thus, it is the job of philosophy to answer the most basic question: Does perception give us an awareness of reality, and if so, at the most basic level, how?

In this essay, I’ll explain three different theories of perception. To the question of whether perception gives us an awareness of reality, all three of them attempt to answer, “Yes.” Where they disagree is on the “how,” or the basic nature of perception. The three basic theories are naïve realism, representative realism, and Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR.) (“Representative realism” here is a synonym for representationalism. Note that these theories are all variants of “realism” in perception. Theories that answer “No” to the question of whether we can observe mind-independent reality would be variants of “idealism.”)

Philosophers sometimes use “naïve realism” as a synonym for “direct realism,” and there are many different theories that could be called “direct realist.” But here I will take “naïve realism” to be one specific sort of direct realist theory: the sort of approach to perception exemplified by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Representationalism too has quite a few variants, but they all share a common thread. I will focus largely on the version of representationalism associated with the English philosopher, John Locke. Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR) is my term for the theory of perception put forward by Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals after her. It’s a form of direct realism that is very different from Aristotle’s approach. I’ll explain this term in more detail when I explain this theory later in this essay.

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Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and Objectivist Ethical Egoism

The purpose of this article is to explain different ethical theories and compare and contrast them in a way that’s clear and easy for students to understand. There are three major categories of ethical systems that students typically learn about in philosophy classes: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. I will describe all of them briefly, then describe each one of them in more detail, pointing out their defining features and major variants. I’ll then discuss the nature of Objectivist Ethical Egoism and how it compares and contrasts with each of these types of ethics.

The Ethical Theories: Brief Summary

Consequentialism names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices, like actions or rules, based on their consequences. Human practices that produce good consequences are morally right, while ones that produce bad consequences are morally wrong. Roughly speaking, a consequentialist says that you should do certain things, because those actions produce good consequences. By far the most common historical variant of consequentialism is Classic Utilitarianism. Classic Utilitarianism was advocated by such philosophers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Deontology names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices based on whether they are consistent with certain duties that the theory holds as intrinsically moral. Consequences are irrelevant to a fully deontological theory. Deontological theories tend to focus on the motives of actions, and whether a given action was motivated by duty or something else. In many deontological theories, motivation by moral duty itself–rather than other factors, like self-interest–is essential to an action’s being morally right. An advocate of deontology says that you should do certain things, just because those things are the right things to do, (they “align with duty.”) The originator of deontology as a formal theoretical framework was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Later advocates have included W.D. Ross, Robert Nozick and Christine Korsgaard.

Virtue ethics names a type of ethical theory that takes virtues of character, rather than individual actions or rules, as the most fundamental ethical concepts. Moral virtues like honesty, courage, integrity, temperance and generosity are taken to be inherently good first, then actions are evaluated based on whether they express those virtues. That is, do the actions match what a virtuous person would do in those circumstances? Basically, a virtue ethicist says that you should do certain things, because they are examples of good character. Modern virtue ethics takes inspiration from the moral theories of Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, (especially Aristotle.) Prominent advocates include Christine Swanton, Rosalind Hursthouse and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism, unlike the other terms here, names one specific theory. It takes human life as the abstract or general standard of moral evaluation. Roughly speaking, that which promotes human life is the good, that which damages or destroys it is the bad. Because Objectivism, the whole philosophy from which this ethics springs, views human life as fundamentally individual–needing to be lived, maintained and enhanced by each individual through his own action–Objectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) takes each individual’s own life as his own effective standard of value. That which promotes the individual’s own life overall is the good for him, that which damages or destroys his own life is the bad for him.

But OEE does not simply say that actions that end up promoting your life are moral, and actions that end up damaging it are immoral. Objectivism holds that the fundamental job of morality is to guide human choices in the context in which they are made. Objectivism accepts the obvious truth that humans are not omniscient, and so cannot predict all the exact consequences of their actions in advance. It says that the way humans gain general or conditional knowledge–knowledge that can be applied to predict future consequences–is by forming rational principles from empirical observation and experience. In the field of morality, this means deriving rational moral principles from experience. These principles are general statements of fact that are then applied to particular situations to determine a proper course of action. Thus, OEE says that a chosen action is moral, if and only if it represents a proper application of a life-promoting moral principle to the acting individual’s current circumstances.

Among the principles that OEE holds as true are the idea that the rational self-interests of individuals do not conflict, and that initiating force against others (murder, slavery, theft, etc.) is destructive not only to the victims’ lives, but also to the perpetrator’s.

Basically, Objectivist Ethical Egoism says that you should do certain things, because those things actually support and/or enrich your own life. OEE is Ayn Rand’s highly distinctive theory that is widely misinterpreted by academic philosophers and the general public. It has been advocated and explained by such philosophers as Leonard Peikoff, Tara Smith, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri. I will discuss OEE’s relationship with the three ethical categories, and whether it can be considered a member of any of them, when I discuss it in more detail later in this essay.

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