Running the Gauntlet of Reason

I am incredibly impressed, and even a bit dumbfounded, that Irfan would invite me to blog with him.  From what I know of Irfan, he is a libertarian who has been influenced by Ayn Rand.  (That might be an understatement.)  By contrast, I am a radical egalitarian, a quasi-Marxist, and a critic of all things libertarian.  So you can understand my amazement when Irfan invited me to blog with him.  Then I read what some other people have said about Irfan, and I read some of his own work, and then I started to get it.  I suspect that Irfan and I have something in common.  It is the project of the Enlightenment, applied at a personal level.  I am using the word “enlightenment” in the way that Kant used it in his famous essay on that subject.  Enlightenment is using reason, in the broad sense of the word, to determine what you will believe and how you will act, and that requires subjecting your opinions and your actions to rational scrutiny, even when that is uncomfortable.  Let’s call it running the gauntlet of reason.  It’s a bit masochistic, in a way.  Subjecting yourself to rational scrutiny opens you up to the possibility of having to change your mind, and that can be painful.  But some of us are masochistic in that way, because we value truth that much.  When I was in my early 20’s, I was an evangelical Christian theist, and a conservative Republican who campaigned for Jack Kemp in the Republican primaries.  Now I am an agnostic who leans toward atheism, and a confirmed socialist.  And I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve changed my mind so much.  But I don’t want to shut my mind off just yet, and I can tell that Irfan doesn’t want to either.  So let’s do this.  Let’s run the gauntlet of reason.  I have worked on issues in a broad range of areas, from epistemology and metaphysics to philosophy of religion and political philosophy.  These days my attention is focused on the latter two areas, so I will probably blog about them the most.  But I have lots of other interests as well.  Hopefully some of them will interest you too.

9 thoughts on “Running the Gauntlet of Reason

  1. Ah, finally! A socialist! Now I won’t be the most left-leaning person around. Excellent! I’m too confused to know what I am politically, but I think in the last decade I’ve gone from being a MacIntyrean communitarian to a perfectionist liberal to a political skeptic (some days I’m probably still a perfectionist liberal, just a little more skeptical than I used to be). For the most part, though, I’ve never been a socialist, so I may even find myself further from your views than from Irfan’s (which, I admit, seem to me more and more reasonable as time goes on). I also have some amateurish interests in the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology, so I’ll be eager to read anything you have to offer in that department. Welcome!


  2. Wait a minute. You’re a quasi-Marxist? Oh crap!

    Kidding. Sorry for the delay responding and approving comments, but I’ve been away for most of this weekend (I was camping with a Marxist colleague, if you can believe that). Running the gauntlet of reason is exactly the point of Policy of Truth, so my aim is to get ideological diversity here. I like the way you put things there.

    On Rand: As it happens, though I’m highly influenced by Rand, I’m not a libertarian. This is a complicated issue, but to make it simple: (1) Rand herself didn’t think she was a libertarian (and I agree with her), (2) I think Rand’s views are even further from libertarianism than she, her libertarian-friendly followers, and her libertarian admirers realized or realize, and in any case, (3) I have deep misgivings both with Rand’s politics (on any interpretation of them) and with libertarianism (on any interpretation of it).

    My objection to both Rand’s politics and libertarianism can be stated very simply. Nominally, at least, the political principle common to both views is some version of a non-initiation of force principle, but all that such a principle says is that for any action x, if x counts as a case of force, x ought not (or defeasibly ought not) to be initiated. Neither Rand nor any libertarian has given an account (or even the sketch of an account) of what counts as a criterion for x, or for the permissible values for x. In that case, however, the principle is essentially indeterminate, and it’s unclear where it leads. What I found so clarifying about your debate with Schmidtz in Reason Papers is that to my mind it confirmed precisely that. Schmidtz’s argument was vulnerable to your criticisms because Schmidtz has no deep account of why it is that property-related boundary-crossings are force-initiations in the morally relevant sense. Neither does anyone else in the Objectivist or libertarian camp.

    For a long time, I thought of myself as a fellow-traveler of libertarians, but I no longer regard myself as a fellow-traveler of any particular ideological grouping except perhaps “intellectually honest people interested in justice” and liberals in the broadest sense (when they satisfy the prior criterion).

    Anyway, enough about me. More blogging once I put the camping gear away and join civilization again.


  3. Irfan, I’m not entirely clear on your criticism of the non-initiation of force principle (do you take this to be simply another term for the non-aggression principle, or do you see two distinct ideas there?). That principle is really where much of my opposition to libertarianism and classical liberalism lies. Up to now, though, I’ve thought that it was fairly clear what counts as force, ‘aggression,’ or coercion: intentionally bringing it about that a person do something other than what they would voluntarily choose to do. Of course that leaves some indeterminacy, and there are questions about whether and to what extent the ban on initiation of force or coercion admits of exceptions. But to my mind the problem with the principle so understood is not that it is indeterminate, but that it is determinately much too broad, and neither plausible on its face nor defensible by appeal to any other principles I’ve encountered. But perhaps I’ve just taken the easy way out by identifying the principle with its most expansive interpretation.


    • That’s too big an issue to handle in a combox, so for now just a reference: the paper to read is David Kelley’s “Life, Liberty, and Property,” Social Philosophy & Policy 1 (1984). Here’s the closest to an online copy there is of it:

      The paper is an Objectivist critique of libertarian versions of the non-initiation of force principle, and Kelley argues that those (essentially deontic) versions of the principle are all indeterminate. At the end, he suggests that the only way to defend the non-initiation of force principle is to invoke a kind of perfectionist conception of well-being, and argue that freedom from force is a constituent of that well-being. He says very little in elaboration, but I infer from what he does say that the non-initiation principle as stated is indeterminate, whereas the principle as justified by a perfectionist conception of well-being has unclear legal or policy implications (not necessarily libertarian ones).

      I read Tara Smith’s Moral Rights and Political Freedom (Rowman, 1995) as implying the same thing, contrary to Smith’s intentions. On her view, to give content to rights that specify the boundaries of our freedom from force, we need a prior account of “what belongs exclusively to the agent,” where that account, in turn, is specified by a theory of flourishing. Unfortunately, her account of flourishing (in her later books, 2000 and 2006) doesn’t discuss that. Hence my claim that the issue has been left undealt-with in the literature.

      Rand herself makes some idiosyncratic claims about property rights (and by implication force). For instance, she claims that some rights (intellectual property rights, e.g., copyright) involve a time-limit. You have the right for x years, then it expires. She obviously couldn’t “derive” such a claim from the non-initiation of force principle by itself; the principle itself is mute on whether or not property rights can have time limits. The conception of rights at work here–and of force–presupposes substantive claims about the human good that she isn’t making explicit. (The claim is in “Patents and Copyrights” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)

      I think one can generate examples like this ad nauseum, but I’ll blog it separately when I get the chance.


      • Ah, gotcha. I think I was simply starting from a rather extreme, quasi-Rothbardian notion; I’d assumed, for example, that rights to intellectual property would not be covered under the non-aggression principle (or even that the absence of such rights would follow from it, since there is evidently more coercion when the state prevents me from implementing ideas that someone else came up with than there is in my implementing them). I wholeheartedly agree that any principle of non-initiation of force founded on a perfectionist conception of well-being will have fairly indeterminate and probably not very libertarian implications; as a perfectionist, that’s one reason why I reject the non-initiation principle as I understand it; I think most any plausible conception of well-being will recognize some sort of role for autonomy and hence for liberty, but I do not think that any plausible conception will yield anything like a universal prohibition on all forms of interference with voluntary behavior. Certainly it seems odd even to suppose that one could make a simple set of moves from a general principle of the non-initiation of force to intellectual property protections with time limits.


        • Yes. All of that is why Rand was so adamantly (and to many people, counterintuitively) opposed to libertarianism. Fundamentally, Rand was a perfectionist with a strong commitment to a virtue of independence that requires agents to exercise reason within a zone of non-interference, where that zone includes private property rights. She thought, reasonably enough, that this non-interference ought to take the form of a principle prohibiting unconsented-to boundary-crossings within such zones. The principle in question is a context-sensitive prohibition on boundary crossings. In other words, there is some definable context such that within it, boundaries are inviolable, and boundary-crossings are impermissible (whereas outside of it, things are less clear). That’s the part I accept.

          But Rand didn’t unpack the layers of complexity involved in the principle, and she didn’t discuss the grey areas once we get past the clearest cases. She also hugely exaggerated the determinacy of the principle, confused the issue by invoking “physical” force as though “physical” was a criterion of force’s being force, and indulged in a lot of loose talk about capitalism and free markets that made it seem as though there was some straight inferential line from “non-initiation of force” to Rockefeller Center, General Motors, General Electric, and the railroads. That part of Rand drives me insane with frustration.

          I can say all this here at Policy of Truth, since it’s my own blog, but I couldn’t say it in official Objectivist contexts, which is why I eventually either got thrown out of them or had to leave. What I find distressing is that I think Rand was aware of everything I’m saying here, but felt the need to write and speak as though she wasn’t (the textual evidence is in the essays on intellectual property and property rights in the electronic media). The Movement has followed suit since then. In a strange way, the Kelley essay is the exception that proves the rule. It anticipates by several decades the BHL critique of the non-aggression principle, and does a better job of it. When I first read it, I thought it’d be the first step toward a more nuanced Objectivist politics. Wrong again!

          Incidentally, as Smith’s book makes clear, one difference between a non-initiation of force principle and a non-aggression principle is that the former doesn’t require aggression. Aggression is an intention, but aggressive intentions aren’t a necessary condition of rights violations. On Smith’s interpretation, if my tree falls on your house and destroys it, I’ve violated your rights even if the tree’s falling was an act of nature. If a tree falls on a house and destroys it, its falling makes a sound–and the tort lawyers hear it.


  4. Thanks for the warm welcome, and for all these great comments. I am already intrigued by the discussion, and learning from it. So this is going to be fun.


    • Gordon (if I may),

      Welcome! I’m excited that you’re officially part of the blogging team. I’ve enjoyed your work over the years, so sharing blog space with you is an honour as well as a treat.


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