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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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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Jordan Peterson at OCON: Video and Objectivist Commentary

On July 1, Objectivist Summer Conference 2018 hosted Dr. Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin in discussion with Objectivists, Dr. Greg Salmieri and Dr. Yaron Brook. Here’s the video of the discussion:

After this discussion, Yaron Brook hosted Greg Salmieri and Dr. Onkar Ghate on his show for some illuminating after-action analysis. Here’s that video:

You can see more interviews and discussions like this by subscribing to Yaron Brook’s YouTube channel, here: The Yaron Brook Show.

You can listen to Greg Salmieri on Ayn Rand’s ethics on the Elucidations philosophy podcast, put out by the University of Chicago, here: Episode 73: Greg Salmieri discusses Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy

On a related note, I am now producing original videos for YouTube. My YouTube channel is here: Sword of Apollo.

Why Moral Theory is Needed in the Fight for Liberty, Not Just Economics and the Non-Aggression Principle

The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty needs moral theory for support.Many libertarians will tell you that moral theories have relatively little to do with their advocacy of libertarianism. They think that liberty is morally neutral. Their thinking for why this is so is basically that liberty enables people to live by all sorts of different moral ideas. It doesn’t favor any morality over others, they think, so liberty itself must be morally neutral.

To the extent that some libertarians think that morality is involved, it’s usually just conventional ideas that you shouldn’t harm others, steal from others, etc. So they think that all one has to do in arguing for liberty is to talk about something like the Golden Rule or the Non-Aggression Principle, and show that liberty has good economic consequences.

Or, if they’re doctrinaire students of Austrian economics, they may think that the need of liberty can effectively be derived from praxeology–a “purely descriptive discipline” studying human action–without any need to resort to moral ideas.

But in this essay, I will argue that a controversial moral theory is deeply involved in any advocacy of freedom, and that in order to be persuasive on a cultural scale and achieve a lasting victory, advocates of liberty must make a deliberate break with today’s conventional morality. They must advocate for a full moral theory based on reasoning, not just the “conventional wisdom” that’s widely accepted without thought.

Statists are Guided by Moral Ideas, not Economic Ones

The argument from “good economics” is a very common one among libertarians: Free market policies lead to economic prosperity, and therefore we should enact those policies.

But what if the people you’re arguing with don’t really value economic prosperity? What if they value other things above prosperity? Whatever lip service the political left gives to economics and prosperity, the fact is that they don’t value it–not really. What they actually value are things like “fairness,” “equality,” and “social justice.” To see evidence of this, pay attention to what they talk about first, what they get passionate and angry about. Watch virtually any Bernie Sanders campaign speech, and you’ll find that his main focus is on wealth inequality and “social justice.” In virtually every speech, he will say that large wealth inequality is wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about. He links inequality to economic problems, but his economic arguments are shaky. They don’t really support the use of the government to “equalize” wealth, and most of them have been refuted. (See Equal is Unfair for details on how the arguments against wealth inequality fail.)

Bernie Sanders and many other leftists keep pushing for a higher minimum wage, even though it is very well known among economists that it is bad economic policy and will cause unemployment among the very people it’s supposed to help. (Paul Krugman is an economist who used to know better, yet he has flip-flopped to say that minimum wages should be raised.) Leftists keep trying to implement greater degrees of socialism, even though socialism has been tried countless different ways and has failed to produce economic prosperity again and again. There’s a clear correlation between economic freedom (with property rights protection) and economic prosperity, and the Left has been working against economic freedom and property rights for centuries.

Leftists–for the most part–are not complete idiots, and they’re not insane. So there’s one conclusion left as to why they have kept pushing for policies that destroy economic prosperity: they’re not really after economic prosperity. What are they really after? Take Bernie Sanders’ speeches as a clue: a more “moral” governmental system.

And what about social conservatives who want to legislate against “sins” and what you can do with your body in private? Well of course, this is even more obviously guided by morality.

Libertarians’ Political Ideas Depend on Controversial Moral Ideas

So deep down, statists, both left and right, are focused on morality. But should we be, as advocates of liberty? Should we try to get statists to forget about morality and focus on economics? Well, it turns out that ideas about “good economics”–as well as every other governmental policy capitalists might advocate–ultimately presuppose and depend on moral ideas, whether people are aware of it or not. So moral issues cannot be escaped in political advocacy.

Case in point: What do capitalists mean when we advocate “good economic policies?” Do we mean policies that encourage suffering and famine like in Soviet Russia? No, we mean the policies that will enable people to achieve economic prosperity. And what do we mean by “economic prosperity?” We mean the material conditions that lead to the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world.

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Gary Johnson: Better than Clinton and Trump in 2016

Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump-Gary Johnson-2016 Election-Third Pary

The Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee, former governor Gary Johnson, is definitely not a perfect candidate from an Objectivist perspective. But he has been doing well in the polls, and I think he’s a much better alternative to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. You can take a look at his website at GaryJohnson2016.com and watch his interviews on YouTube to get a sense of his qualifications and policies.

By and large, libertarians advocate limited government and property rights in a way that approximates the founding principles of the United States, and the Objectivist political viewpoint. But they are not Objectivists and they lack a good, consistent philosophical foundation for their political ideas. Thus they don’t provide the best arguments for liberty and often advocate certain political ideas that are at odds with Objectivist politics. The lack of a consistent, reality-based philosophy also means that libertarians will not be able to sustain liberty in the US in the long term.

I don’t consider the Libertarian Party the “party of the future,” in the sense of being a political expression of a future ideal society. That would be something like the nascent American Capitalist Party. But I do think that the movement away from the corrupt, decaying, proto-fascist Democrats and Republicans, toward a libertarian third party is a step forward. It at least brings the critically important issue of personal liberty versus authoritarianism of all sorts, into the foreground of debate. Instead of just two parties bickering over whether to regulate people’s economic lives more, or personal lives more, you will have a major third party calling into question the need to heavily regulate either sphere. You will have a major party standing up for personal choice and against government coercion in all major areas of life.

I’m continually amazed at people’s capacity to hold inconsistent philosophical ideas for long periods. American conservatives have voted on a mixture of religious faith–which logically leads to authoritarianism–and a semblance of economic freedom for over a hundred years. American leftists have voted on a mixture of Marxist economic totalitarianism and personal freedom of lifestyle for just as long. Libertarians too are a mixture: political liberty in general (mostly) and a moral outlook largely composed of altruism and subjectivist emotionalism. This mixture is at least closer to what the US had culturally in the early 1800s. So from an Objectivist perspective, the Libertarian Party is not a long-term fix to US politics and culture. But what it represents–in its better forms–is a partial turning back of the cultural clock.

Ayn Rand was born too late to stop the American slide into the present collectivist-altruist-statist cultural milieu.  But she influenced the libertarians politically, and libertarianism has been growing. If libertarianism becomes dominant, Objectivism gets a second chance to transform the culture to one of reason, individualism and egoism. I would much rather be arguing with a culture of libertarians that their political ideas require Ayn Rand’s philosophy to be properly grounded, than desperately fighting for my right to speak against Marxists or religious zealots.

Even if libertarianism doesn’t become dominant, but only more culturally significant, that should have a positive impact on how many people read Ayn Rand’s works and how seriously they take them. And it is Ayn Rand’s works that truly point the way forward, to a future of lasting freedom and prosperity.

Let’s get Gary Johnson seriously noticed this election! Feel free to share the image above.

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Why a Proper Ethics is Not a Set of Social Rules, But a Complete Way of Life

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

“Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy,” by Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.

American leftism/progressivism is the established way of thinking. It did not win by reason or persuasion; merely by default, or in the absence of any principled, rational alternative. The leftist agenda of a weak defense; unsustainable national debt; fostering dependence …

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Source: Bill Nye: The Tyrant Guy | Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D. | Living Resources Center

What is Individualism? What is Collectivism?

German man refusing Nazi saluteModern political debates, from the 18th Century up until today, are full of appeals to the ideas of individualism and collectivism, whether open or merely implied. People speak of “the common good” or “public goods” or “obligations to society” on one hand, and of “individual rights” or “individual freedom” on the other.

The late novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known today for being an arch individualist who was very opposed to any form of collectivism. But what does it really mean to be an individualist or collectivist? Are the two views mutually exclusive? Is one or the other right, or is the reality a mixture of both? Here I will discuss what individualism and collectivism mean, which one or mixture represents the truth, and what the major implications of each of the views are for today’s moral and political debates.

Life is the Active Pursuit of Self-Sustaining Goals

The issue of individualism versus collectivism does not arise out of thin air. It arises out of the observation–whether explicitly stated or implicitly understood–that life consists of organisms that pursue goals that keep them alive. Lions find watering holes and hunt gazelles, eagles catch rabbits or fish, termites dig and build mounds for shelter, etc. The ultimate goal of this activity for any given organism is its continued life as the type of organism it is. (The origin of organisms in evolution has ensured that reproduction is a natural part of the life-pattern of each nonhuman species–i.e. reproductive behavior is part of an individual organism being the type of organism it is.)

The question of individualism versus collectivism is the question of what the living unit is for human beings–that is, what is the human organism that acts toward self-sustaining goals: is it the individual, or some group?

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