Blogs > Liberty and Power > Randians on the Warpath

Feb 6, 2006

Randians on the Warpath

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Two recent Randian skirmishes:

  • As best I recall, I first encountered Robert Bidinotto at ISIL’s Rome conference in 1997. His main contribution at that time was a very nice speech urging mutual understanding and cooperation between Objectivists and (other) libertarians; my friend Bobby Emory in his FNF report called this extension of the olive branch on Mr. Bidinotto’s part “an important turning point for the movement.”

    In more recent years, unfortunately, Mr. Bidinotto’s tone in dealing with libertarian adversaries has grown increasingly hostile, but I was still able to have a fairly civilised debate with him on the anarchist question two years ago (see here, here, and here).

    But then came last month, when he sent me a link to a blog post in which he bade adieu to any canons of civility by denouncing anyone unwilling to support U.S. troops in Iraq as “scumbags.” Apparently the notion that the U.S. military policy of mass civilian homicide might be unjust, and that criticism of it might extend to criticism of those who carry it out, falls by his lights into a class of inherently dishonest ideas, sufficient to damn anyone who holds them as a “scumbag” without further discussion. (I can only infer that if Mr. Bidinotto ever read David Kelley’s Truth and Toleration, his memory of it has comfortably faded away.)

    Mr. Bidinotto also misleadingly equated not supporting the troops with despising the troops, which amounts to a smear of his opponents. (If a basically decent person has been unfairly manipulated into carrying out an unjust policy, despising that person is hardly an appropriate response. But neither is support.)

    Not being overfond of seeing myself and my allies smeared or called “scumbags,” I responded with some asperity, prompting Mr. Bidinotto to add the “lunatic” label on top of the “scumbag” label.

    What earned me this last was my supposedly amazing characterisation of his position as “malevolent tribalism.” But if this jingoistic don’t-you-dare-criticise-the-troops brand of patriotism doesn’t count as tribalism, what does? Tribalism also seems a fair description of Bidinotto’s dismissal of all criticism of America as criticism of America’s founding ideals of individualism and freedom; by thus identifying these ideals with a particular nation, Mr. Bidinotto evidently blinds himself to the possibility that the nation might not be living up to those ideals – and the result is that allegiance to the ideals get shifted instead to allegiance to the nation, even when this means discarding the ideals and attacking those who are actually defending them. (As for “malevolent,” the tone in which he talks about collateral damage speaks for itself.)

    Well now, turns out the latest person to be consigned to outer darkness is my comrade-in-arms Charles Johnson, who just got banned from commenting on Mr. Bidinotto’s blog for having the temerity to point out the logical inconsistencies in Mr. Bidinotto’s arguments. Check out Charles’ latest post for the details.

    As you’ll see, throughout his exchange with Charles Mr. Bidinotto is persistently unwilling to acknowledge basic principles of logic. I know from experience how frustrating he can be on this point: some time after our anarchy debate, I was having an exchange with Mr. Bidinotto on a discussion board (archived here and here) when he suddenly announced that he did not accept one of the basic principles of logic; specifically, he denied that there can be deductively valid arguments with false premises. (I note in passing that this would make reductio arguments impossible; since reductio is Randians’ favourite argument form, that seems a tad awkward.) Anyway, I withdrew from the discussion on the grounds that I didn’t see how it was “possible to continue a fruitful philosophical discussion once the basic principles of logic have been rejected.” (Much Randian abuse followed in response to this, but I declined to step back into the mire.)

  • Enough on that subject. In related news: In my November 24th post A View to a Kill I suggested there was an inconsistency among these three quotations from Rand on the permissibility of killing the innocent:

    A. Ayn Rand says: hell yes, kill the innocent
    If we go to war with Russia, I hope the ‘innocent’ are destroyed with the guilty. ... Nobody has to put up with aggression, and surrender his right of self-defense, for fear of hurting somebody else, guilty or innocent. When someone comes at you with a gun, if you have an ounce of self-esteem, you answer with force, never mind who he is or who’s standing behind him. (p. 95)
    B. Ayn Rand says: hell no, don’t kill the innocent
    Whatever rights the Palestinians may have had – I don’t know the history of the Middle East well enough to know what started the trouble – they have lost all rights to anything: not only to land, but to human intercourse. If they lost land, and in response resorted to terrorism – to the slaughter of innocent citizens – they deserve whatever any commandos anywhere can do to them, and I hope the commandos succeed. (p. 97)
    C. Ayn Rand says: gee, there’s no right answer
    Even as a writer, I can barely project a situation in which a man must kill an innocent person to defend his own life. ... But suppose someone lives in a dictatorship, and needs a disguise to escape. ... So he must kill an innocent bystander to get a coat. In such a case, morality cannot say what to do. ... Personally, I would say the man is immoral if he takes an innocent life. But formally, as a moral philosopher, I’d say that in such emergency situations, no one could prescribe what action is appropriate. ... Whatever a man chooses in such cases is right – subjectively. (p. 114)
    Diana Hsieh responds in Ayn Rand on Total War (conical hat tip to Chris Sciabarra). Here are her main points, interspersed with my responses:

    In the first [quotation], Ayn Rand is speaking of war of self-defense with Russia. The “innocent” in question were the passive supporters of the Soviet Union, i.e. the vast majority of Russians who accepted the horrors of the communist government without significant protest. Those people were morally responsible for their decision not to fight the communists, for their willingness to live as slaves to the Bolsheviks. Without them, the Bolsheviks never could have retained their iron grip on power. Such people were not innocent, but guilty – albeit perhaps less so than active supporters of the communists. Given their choice to live without any rights whatsoever under the Soviets, they have no grounds on which to protest their death by an American bomb rather than a KGB interrogator. The genuine innocents in Soviet Russia were the opponents of the regime – and those people would have welcomed an invasion from the US, despite the risk of being caught in the crossfire.
    So according to Ms. Hsieh (or Rand, or both), anyone who lived under the Soviet regime “without significant protest” was effectively a supporter of the regime, and so not innocent, and so fair game for killing. As Chris Sciabarra has pointed out, this claim bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Ward Churchuill’s suggestion that the office workers in the World Trade Center were “little Eichmanns” who had it coming because of their participation in neofascist corporatism.

    In any case, the claim that refusing to rise up against a tyrant counts as de facto consent to the tyranny embodies a collectivist fallacy: confusing the individual with the group. It’s quite true, as La Boétie and Hume famously pointed out, that tyrannical governments cannot survive without the acquiescence of their subject populace. But to suppose this means that the individual members of this acquiescing populace have consented in some straightforward and unproblematic fashion ignores the collective action problem (see here and here) involved. If we all resist the tyrant, the tyranny will fail; but if I resist the tyrant first, without sufficient support, I’ll just be martyring myself for nothing. Coordinating simultaneous and effective resistance is, notoriously, no easy task.

    In an article in The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (or The Return of the Primitive, as her heirs have chosen to rename it), expressing empathy for some dissidents on trial in the Soviet Union, Rand wrote: “I do not mean that I would have been one of the accused in that Soviet courtroom: I knew enough, in my college days, to know that it was useless to attempt political protests in Soviet Russia.” Doesn’t that make Rand herself one of those Soviet citizens who made no “significant protest” against the regime and so are allegedly morally culpable? A reductio ad absurdum, surely.

    Anyway, the notion that one should be happy to be blown to bits by an invading army so long as one’s country is liberated is a rather odd notion – frankly, a Soviet-sounding notion – for an egoist to uphold. And even if we grant it, the fact that someone should consent to being killed does not make it okay to kill her if she has not actually consented. As Rothbard points out, “anyone who wishes is entitled to make the personal decision of ‘better dead than Red’ or ‘give me liberty or give me death,” but “he is not entitled to ... make these decisions for others, as the prowar policy of conservatism would do. What conservatives are really saying is: ‘Better them dead than Red,’ and ‘give me liberty or give them death’ – which are the battle cries not of noble heroes but of mass murderers.”

    Ms. Hsieh continues:

    In contrast, the second quote concerns actual innocents, namely the ordinary Israelis conducting their daily, peaceful business within a fundamentally lawful, civilized society who are suddenly blown to bits by Palestinian terrorists. If the Palestinians had legitimate complaints against the Israelis, they ought to have settled them in a peaceful manner consistent with some measure of respect for law. They were not fighting a dictatorship – and so had no grounds upon which to inflict such senseless death and destruction.
    I certainly agree that Palestinians ought not to be killing innocent people; but I have a hard time seeing how this case differs from the first one. Can anyone claim with a straight face that Israel has really been a “fundamentally lawful, civilized society” for its Palestinian citizens (the fact that it’s not so bad for non-Palestinian Israelis hardly seems relevant), or that the Israeli legal system has been even remotely hospitable to Palestinian grievances (until so compelled by the intifada)?

    And how was the average Soviet citizen more complicit in Soviet tyranny than the average Israeli citizen is in the Israeli government’s oppression of the Palestinians? (If anything you’d expect Soviet citizens’ complicity to be less, since Israeli citizens are freer than Soviet citizens to protest injustices committed by their respective governments.) As far as I can see, both Soviet citizens and Palestinians are oppressed, both have a right to resist the governments oppressing them, and neither has a right to blow up innocent people as part of that resistance.

    Ms. Hsieh continues:

    The context of the third quote is substantially different from that of the first two, in that it concerns an ordinary person attempting to escape dictatorship, not a political conflict of any kind. It might be psychologically difficult for an ordinary person to kill under those circumstances, but that has nothing to do with the propriety of killing innocents (whether genuine or supposed) in war.
    This strikes me as another irrelevant distinction. What’s the deep moral difference between a so-called “ordinary person” trying to escape from a tyranny, and a so-called “political” agent trying to overthrow a tyranny? Don’t they both count as self-defense? If so, how can killing innocents be clearly permissible in one case but not clearly permissible in the other?

    The distinction between “political” and “ordinary” activities seems anyway oddly un-Randian. After all, isn’t the whole point of Rand’s political theory to subordinate political activity to the same moral rules that apply to “ordinary persons”? In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, for example, she contrasted the traditional view that “morality was a code applicable to the individual, but not to society” – society thus being “placed outside the moral law” – with her own advocacy of individual rights as “means of subordinating society to moral law.”

    In short, there may be some interesting moral differences among these three cases that could justify Rand’s differing treatments if them, but if there is, Ms. Hsieh hasn’t shown it.

    In conclusion, I want to address a couple of further points that Ms. Hsieh makes:

    The same assessment applies to the rationalistic libertarians claiming that the non-initiation of force principle prohibits self-defensive action against anyone other than a voluntary agent of a force-initiating regime. On that view, if Hitler ever invaded the US, US soldiers would be forbidden from defending the borders, since at least some of the enemy soldiers were unwillingly drafted.
    Here Ms. Hsieh has simply misunderstood the position she is criticising. That “rationalistic” (i.e., principled) position states that force is justified against aggressors. A soldier invading the US is an aggressor, whether or not she has been drafted, and so force is certainly a legitimate means of repelling the invader. The objection to killing innocent civilians is that they are (ordinarily) not aggressors. (To be precise, I think killing nonaggressors can be justified, but only under certain fairly rare circumstances; for elaboration, see here and here.) So the analogy with an invasion by Hitler doesn’t hold.

    Similarly, the US military couldn’t bomb Hitler’s concentration camps – and thus save millions of genuinely innocent lives by destroying the machinery of the Holocaust – because we might kill or maim some of those innocents.
    This is a trickier case than the first one, but it’s still not analogous to the cases Ms. Hsieh is using it to defend, because the people in the concentration camps are presumably going to be killed anyway, so saving some of them by killing the others seems less clearly indefensible. I’m not saying that it is the right thing to do – that’s a famously difficult moral question – but it doesn’t involve the objectionable feature of sacrificing some noninvasive lives – lives that would otherwise not have been lost – in order to save someone else. It’s the latter case that seems most blatantly to violate Rand’s prohibition on treating human beings as sacrificial animals.

    The pacifist libertarians fail to appreciate the philosophical context of the non-initiation of force principle, particularly the fact that its purpose is to protect human life by making peaceful co-existence in society possible.
    As an Aristotelean, I must of course reject the utilitarian idea that the sole “purpose” of the ban on initiatory force is “to protect human life by making peaceful co-existence in society possible.” Justice is part of the good life, not just a strategy for promoting it. (For the unresolved tension in Rand’s own thought between utilitarian and Aristotelean conceptions of virtue, see Neera Badhwar’s Is Virtue Only A Means To Happiness? and my own Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand. For the superiority of the Aristotelean approach, see both of the above plus my discussions here, here, here, and here.)

    The reference to “pacifist” libertarians is a red herring, by the way; while there have of course been some pacifist libertarians (e.g. Robert Lefevre), the libertarians that Ms. Hsieh is mainly arguing against are people who firmly believe in the legitimacy of using violence in self-defense against aggressors.

    I should add that Ms. Hsieh has not called me a scumbag or a lunatic, so I don’t means to be lumping her with Mr. Bidinotto. I discuss both in the same post only because they’re both Randians defending a position on military policy that I regard as incompatible with an individualist, libertarian ethic.

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More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

It would take twenty comments to do justice to the issues raised in that post, but maybe it'll help to distinguish between two sorts of issue discussed in it.

There are the first-order issues concerning the topics of discussion: Iraq in the Bidinotto case and killing innocents in the Hsieh case. But there is a second-order question here about the ethics of discourse: what norms govern how we debate about these issues? A comment on the latter:

One of the unresolved issues of David Kelley's Truth and Toleration was the exact relation between error and evil. Both Kelley and Peikoff took there to be some relation; they differed on how direct it was, and on the evidence required for an inference from "S is in error" to "S's error is morally culpable." The sad fact is that the Kelley-Peikoff debate was so acrimonious, so confused, and was conducted under such terrible conditions, that the questions it raised have never really been adequately grappled with, much less resolved.

In the case of the war (and related issues), I think we have to come to grips more explicitly with the fact that many people in the classical liberal/libertarian camp disagree fundamentally in their assessments of things. Consider a couple of facts that have to be made coherent in each of our minds:
(1) many of us are friends with one another,
(2) many of us disagree vehemently about the war,
(3) the nature of our disagreement is such that some of us think that others are counseling courses of action that are deeply immoral or wrongheaded or heedless of terrible consequences,
(4) we are hesitant to ascribe moral culpability to friends for what we take to be their errors,
(5) we can't dogmatically preclude the possibility that our friends are culpably be in error (merely because they're friends).

That's a tough balancing act for any number of reasons, but I think we owe it to ourselves to get it right--as, in my view, neither Bidinotto nor Hsieh do.

The only recourse I can think of is explicitly--publicly--to exhaust the non-morally-culpable explanations for coming to the views we disagree with before invoking culpability. And as a secondary point, to recognize that one can ascribe culpability to others both explicitly and implicitly: explicitly by calling them a "scumbag," and implicitly by using a certain tone.

Anyway, I hope that doesn't come across as overly platitudinous. It actually seems a colossally difficult thing to pull off. It's kind of sad that Kelley's book was (whatever its flaws; I happen to disagree with a lot of it) the first and last sustained effort to deal with these issues. No one in the Objectivist or libertarian movements seems to taken things the next step.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sorry, there's a typo in line (5) of the extended thought in my post. I meant to say, "We can't dogmatically preclude the possibility that our friends might culpably be in error."

Gary McGath - 2/8/2006

Simply from what you said, I'd call it a non sequitur, not rationalism. If I heard your actual argument, the fallacy might or might not be rationalism.

Raising a hypothetical case isn't the same as rationalism. It simply points out a contrast with the conditions that give rise to moral issues. You could offer a counter-argument that the robot could still have purposes, but it would still be a different issue from rationalism. (I assume you mean the "immortal, indestructible" robot scenario; I'm pretty sure she didn't use the word "invincible.")

Steve Jackson - 2/7/2006

When you point out to a Randian that based on Rand's ethics there is no good reason to support rights for others, they claim its rationalism.

However, that is merely pointing out an inconsistency in Objectivst thought. (In the same way that they point out problems with borderline cases for Utilitarianism.)

And why isn't Rand's "invincible robot" an argument based on rationalism?

Gary McGath - 2/7/2006

The term "rationalism" as used by Objectivists means engaging in flights of abstract reasoning which aren't tied to reality -- for instance, defining your terms so as to guarantee your conclusion. It can be a valid criticism.

But true-believing anythings are impossible to argue with. By definition. :)

Steve Jackson - 2/7/2006

My experience in dealing with true believing Randians is that response to criticism is: (a) you are taking statements out of context ("context dropping") or (b) you are engaged in "rationalism" (not exactly sure what that means, but they will direct you to some tapes by Lennie Peikoff which you can buy for lots of money at the ARI).

Sheldon Richman - 2/7/2006

Gary, you were at the Vermont conference (1999)? So was I.

Gary McGath - 2/7/2006

Last I checked, Lisa was in San Francisco; she gave me a kitten which I had for 15 years till it died last year. Steve is in Washington state, and I think Susan is too (both in Microsoft-related jobs). Haven't heard from Julio since the Ergo days.

My recollection is that Bob was writing for Ergo in the late 70s. The last time I saw him in person was the 1996 IOS conference -- no, I saw him briefly at the more recent one in Vermont.

Roderick T. Long - 2/7/2006

Hi Gary! I used to write for Ergo pretty regularly during the period 1981-1984, but I don't remember meeting him there; was he around at that time? The main people I remember from Ergo, besides you, are Lisa Jungherr, Steve Wright, Susan Winokur, and Julio Marquez. (What ever became of them?)

It's possible that I met Bidinotto at the two IOS/TOC conferences I went to in the mid-90s, but my first firm memory of him was in Rome.

Gary McGath - 2/7/2006

I've noticed the same thing myself regarding Bob, whom I've known since the Ergo days. (As I recall, you dropped by the Ergo office once or twice yourself, so you may have also known him that long.) He's written some excellent stuff, but that "scumbag" post was just shooting from the hip.

I still don't want to write him off completely, and his post on the cartoon jihad was very good. But he's definitely going off in a direction I don't like.