Anti-Fascist Answers to Would-Be Thought Police

[Note: This post began life as a reply comment to Irfan’s recent PoT post: “Anti-Fascist Questions for Anti-Woke Warriors.” But it got to be too long for such a format, so I’m posting it on its own. However, I haven’t changed its tone of direct address to Irfan or bothered to summarize Irfan’s post or make long excerpts from that post. Thus, for the present post to be intelligible, one ought first to read the original post linked above.]

Hi Irfan,

I disagree with pretty much the entirety of your fundamental argument. No surprise there, I guess. However, I also found that argument thought-provoking. It has stimulated me to develop some thoughts on these questions that I’ve had incubating for some time. So, in what follows, I’ll concentrate on what seems new (to me, anyway) and try to avoid rehashing what we’ve been through before.

It seems like your argument can be summarized as, “Sometimes a lynch mob gets someone who richly deserves lynching. Therefore, lynch mobs are cool.” Stated thus baldly, I would hope it is obvious both that the conclusion does not follow from the premise and that the conclusion itself is unacceptable on the merits. The mafia, for example, does not become a good institution that should celebrated and promoted under the banner of social justice activism just because it so happens (as surely it must) that a just outcome is sometimes brought about by a mob hit.

I realize you don’t aim to justify lynch mobs and mafiosi, but rather political activism and “a principled commitment to moral accountability, outside of legalized officialdom.” However, restricting the use of mob power only to those cases where the mob has an appropriate target is not an available option. We can’t choose to have “The Equalizer” TV show in real life, or “Dexter”—cannibalism for justice!—where the screenwriters arrange for the scales to balance. What you are defending is moral vigilantism—as a common practice, a cultural norm—which is just why it is no adequate defense that once in a while the target might receive a deserved comeuppance.

Vigilantism of the regular kind has an earned reputation as a terrible idea, because mobs of outraged, impatient, poorly informed, trigger-happy zealots—which doesn’t seem like an unfair characterization of lynching parties—are not liable very often to achieve justice, but rather its opposite. What are the chances that moral vigilantism will be any different?

I think we can just look around and see the answer to this question. In the interest of de-politicizing this issue to the extent possible, consider a couple of famous early examples. In late December, 2013, Justine Sacco was an obscure, corporate PR executive who tweeted an unfortunate joke about race and AIDS just before boarding a flight to Cape Town, South Africa. During the flight, her phone turned off, her tweet went viral (despite her having <200 followers) and she became the most talked about person on Twitter. She landed to find herself one of the most hated and vilified people on the planet. She was fired from her job, of course, and—more importantly, in my opinion—had to spend the next couple of years recovering her mental composure. Here is Jon Ronson’s TED talk about it, which I strongly recommend.

Next, in July, 2015, Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil the Lion with a bow and arrow on a “big game hunt” in Zimbabwe. Although Cecil lived most of the time in the protected area of Hwange National Park, he had left that area at the time he was shot. The killing was apparently legal. Although the Zimbabwe authorities arrested the hunting guide that Palmer employed and the owner of the private farm where Cecil met his end, the charges were quickly dismissed and the two were released. It was alleged that the “beloved” and “famous” Cecil was deliberately lured out of the protected area. This is not implausible to me, but on the other hand, Cecil was known to leave the protected area on his own sometimes, so the truth is unclear. I mention this case mainly because I vividly recall the furor it caused. Cecil promptly became a cause célèbre and revenue generator for animal rights organizations. The dentist became a poster boy for evil. Abuse, scorn, and invective were heaped upon him, and he had to close his practice for a time. It is now reopened, and the Yelp reviews make illuminating reading. The Wikipedia version of events is here. Note that many of the facts are contested, including whether Cecil was lured out of the protected area and whether he was at all famous in Zimbabwe. Here is a site devoted to exploiting remembering Cecil. Note that you can make a donation and/or buy a t-shirt, and that the site owners can take you on a guided tour of “Cecil’s home” in Hwange National Park for a fee. A contrarian view of the incident can be found here.

There are many more examples that could be cited. For a recent review of the issues and more examples, see this piece by the excellent Cathy Young and also her analysis of a supposed debunking of cancel culture “alarmism” (found here). Finally, this amusing ContraPoints video describing her own cancellation is long but worth a look. (ContraPoints, by the way, studied philosophy in the Ph.D. program at Northwestern University. This caused me briefly to think I might have met her [before she was a she]. However, to judge from her age, she had probably not arrived there before I moved away from Chicagoland.)

Some salient features of these examples are the following. (1a) They have the feel of a moralistic crusade. They are driven by moralistic outrage and a desire to right perceived wrongs or achieve some kind of justice. (1b) They are fueled by emotion. Outrage and passion seem to provide nearly all the motive force. (1c) Although moralistic, they are not informed by moral principle or reason. A rational calculus of the good, philosophical principles of right and wrong, are not in evidence. (1d) The rank and file among the outraged, and often their leaders (in cases where there can be said to be leaders), are largely ignorant of the facts. Worse, they seem unconcerned to certify the accuracy of the claims on which their outrage and their actions are based. (2a) The expression of outrage at the individual level is cost-free, amounting to no more than clicking “Like,” composing a tweet, retweeting someone else’s tweet, signing an on-line petition, etc. (2b) The target is small. Usually, an obscure person without power or consequence. Occasionally, big fish are targeted (e.g., J.K. Rowling), but this is (perhaps) surprisingly rare. Organizations (the NRA, Planned Parenthood) are hardly ever targeted, much less institutions. (2c) The explosion is short-lived. (2d) However ephemeral, the explosion is nevertheless intense, which conveys a false impression of widespread public outrage. Whereas the truth is that the outrage at the events concerned—indeed, awareness of them—is almost entirely restricted to social media. (2e) The collective outrage is driven by social media and would not exist otherwise.

This is not a pretty picture. It is not a picture of people dedicating their time and energy to truth and justice. Rather, it is a picture of mob “justice” executed by people who know little and care less about what they’re really doing.

The features in the second group are specific to the new and ugly phenomenon of cancel culture. They are all dependent on social media, which is why cancel culture is such a recent thing. The involvement of social media also helps explain the power of cancel culture, I think. Social media can quickly assemble, concentrate, and coordinate the voices and actions of a large number of people. This facilitates collective action. But it is a two-edged sword: it democratizes power at the same time that it liberates those who exercise it from responsibility, consequences, and the need to invest much of themselves or their resources.

The features in the first group are characteristic of political activism more broadly. Thus, I think you are right to associate cancel culture with political activism. Cancel culture might be thought of as a branch of political activism (a nasty one). Political activism, exemplified by abolitionism in regard to chattel slavery, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, etc., is driven by passionate moralism as described above (and I’ll say more about that in a moment). And in this way, it is like cancel culture. But political activism is usually something more substantial, isn’t it? “Political activism” is usually a matter of a long-term struggle that requires organization, leadership, and investment of considerable resources and personal sacrifice on the part of the participants. The movements I associate with political activism take place over decades and stimulate a national conversation about the best course of action. In this way, they seem to be an instrument of democracy far more than cancel culture, which is more like “flash mobs for social justice.”

But I do not mean to be endorsing political activism. I am not saying, “if only cancel culture were regular old political activism, it would be okay.” Rather, I think that political activism is at best a mixed bag. Consider some of the “achievements” wrought at least in part by political activism:

  • The rejection of nuclear power (which may go down as the greatest calamity in the history of our species—though I hope we will eventually reverse course)
  • The rejection of nuclear power goes with hostility to energy in general, what J. Storrs Hall calls “ergophobia.” E.g., activism against fracking, which hasn’t gotten much traction in the U.S., but has done so elsewhere, with predictably unfortunate consequences.
  • Rejection of GMOs in many countries (e.g., Golden Rice)
  • The Bolshevik and other communist revolutions around the world
  • Immigration restrictions and legal persecution of immigrants
  • Foreign trade restrictions, tariffs, etc.
  • Rent control, “affordable housing” initiatives, and other reasons why housing costs too much
  • Minimum wage laws, “Uber laws,” agitation against “sweat shops,” and similar harms to the poor and unskilled
  • Environmental regulations whose main use today seems to be to obstruct the building of anything new
  • “Three strikes” laws, and similar draconian criminal justice policies
  • Prohibition in the 1920s/the “war on drugs” today
  • Abortion activism (pro or con, pick your poison—both have had their victories)
  • And lately: Occupy Wall Street, agitation for “socialism,” a wealth tax, vaccination “hesitancy,” “Stop the Steal,” Jan. 6, CHAZ, “racial reckoning” riots, “defund the police,” laws against teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools

Admittedly, the last bullet represents little in the way of actual “achievements” (not counting unnecessary Covid deaths due to vaccine phobia, which is a pretty serious consequence). But I include it because the items in this grab bag all exemplify in a rather pure form what I think is wrong with political activism: appalling ignorance and extreme emotionality coupled with claims to be fighting for justice.

Obviously, this list is a selection of activist movements that I think have done harm—in some cases, very great harm indeed. But I want to stress that my point doesn’t depend on one agreeing with all of my choices. Though surely any reasonable person will agree that global communism has been a disaster for those so unfortunate as to have been subjected to it. Again, it seems to be conventional wisdom nowadays that Prohibition was a mistake—at the same time that there is widespread failure to apply its lesson to the “war on drugs” of today. Rather, the main thing I want to point out is that all these activist objectives concern very thorny social, political, and moral issues about which reasonable and informed people can and do disagree profoundly. My choices above reflect some of my own policy/empirical/moral judgments, but I would admit that I could be wrong about pretty much any of them. The questions are difficult, and it is not easy to know what is the right course of action in regard to them.

I bring this up because you write as though the morally right course of action is clear to see most of the time. Also, it seems like the logic of your argument requires it. For mob justice to be a good idea, the mob needs to know just what justice requires in each case. But I submit that what justice requires is usually not clear, even for people who are well-informed and willing to think hard about the right course of action (attributes that no one in their right mind would apply to a Twitter mob).

Consider your own example of Texas Oil and Franco. The way you present the case, Texas Oil through oil sales materially helped Franco take over Spain, thus helping to hand a victory to Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, and the fascist movement. Fascism is morally heinous; therefore, either vigilante action of some kind (I suppose you envision a boycott, vociferous public denunciation, and the like—maybe firing the CEO?) is justified and good in this case, or else “complicity with fascism is not a particularly big deal.” But I really don’t think the case is that clear. We know with hindsight, of course, that Hitler would go on to start WWII and literally attempt to achieve world domination. But the decision in question had to be made in 1936, when, for example, the United States Olympic Committee decided to participate in the Berlin Olympics (though there was an internal fight about it). Fascism at the time, let us remember, had its defenders, including among literate and reflective people (famously, Ezra Pound and Martin Heidegger, for example). People said that Mussolini “made the trains run on time.” Never mind that that wasn’t true. The point is that what might have been the best course of action was not crystal clear at the time.

Personally, I am not so well acquainted with the history of the Spanish Civil War as to feel like I can say much about it. Fortunately, there is no need to look to history for examples of complicity with fascism, since we have examples around us in the present day. Across the Pacific, for instance, there is a (practically speaking) fascist regime that we are all well aware of, by which I mean, of course, China. It is a one-party, totalitarian dictatorship that disappears dissenters (and not just women tennis players, but businessmen and anybody else who displeases the Chinese Communist Party), abuses ethnic minorities severely, does not acknowledge civil liberties or much in the way of other individual rights, has subjugated Hong Kong, and may well soon do the same to Taiwan. Morally, China is not a better regime than Franco’s Spain. If anything, it is worse. But we are doing beaucoup business with China, and I don’t see any groundswell of mass popular protest, outrage, and denunciation. Such popular concern as I do see is concentrated mostly on the right, and it is minor. Institutions that have taken to lecturing Americans about moral issues, such as the NBA, prostrate themselves before China in abject displays of moral cowardice. For a demonstration of how much American corporations really care about moral issues, I doubt this one from Disney can be topped. (The stand taken by the Women’s Tennis Association is noteworthy precisely for the contrast it makes with virtually all other U.S. corporations and institutions.) The U.S. will soon send its athletes to the 2022 Winter Olympics there, although it seems that no U.S. diplomats will attend.

In other words, today’s situation with regard to China seems to be a repeat of 1936 in Europe (as far as we knew in 1936 or we know now). And I would say that today, as then, what we should do about it is not especially clear. And bear in mind that there are people now saying that China is proving that “authoritarian capitalism” is a good idea. For myself, I feel outraged by China’s crimes, but I haven’t stopped buying products made in China, and more seriously, I don’t know whether trying to boycott China or take any other such collective action is the right response or not.

The point is that moral issues and public policy issues are often not easy to sort out, both for epistemic reasons and for reasons of moral principle. Issues of this kind require a grasp of the facts of the case that are often difficult to achieve, especially when one is not personally involved in the matter. They also often depend on knowledge of economics, psychology, and the like, which relatively few people possess (and often maybe no one possesses). Nor are moral principles always so clear. It is striking, for example, that in 3000 years of intellectual history, essentially no principled moral stand against slavery is to be found almost anywhere. (NB: Don’t tell me about Spartacus. Plenty of people in history have complained bitterly about themselves being slaves. Slave revolts were never uncommon. What’s hard to find is the general charge that the very institution of slavery is unjust and wrong.) Historically, it was left to Protestant fundamentalists in the 18th century to be the first to seriously agitate for abolition and spearhead the movement that finally got it done. (This is well documented by Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, chapter 4.) And I submit that if slavery—slavery!—was an issue about which it was difficult historically to achieve moral clarity, then moral issues across the board are not that easy to determine. Nearly everyone’s set of explicitly articulated moral principles is absorbed from their cultural milieux, not by reasoning a priori from Kant’s Categorical Imperative or any other such method of individual reason, much as it may often feel as though the moral principles we embrace are “self-evident,” the result of a “moral compass,” mere “common sense,” etc.

Thus, the proper moral principles, and the causal principles that underlie human behavior, and the particular empirical facts of a given case will at best be only partially known to political activists. And that is assuming they seriously care about such things, which I believe they usually don’t. Most political activism is driven by moralistic fervor, emotion, and ideology, which are diametrically opposed to reason and concern with the truth. Indeed, a clear, sober, and complete grasp of the relevant facts seems positively incompatible with political activism, because it must undercut the moral certitude and passion on which activism depends.

So you’re right: concerning political activism altogether, I’m not a fan. I certainly agree that political activism has scored some important victories at times. But there is also enormous human misery to be laid at its feet. I have no idea which way the scales tip overall—toward the good or the evil that activism has accomplished—but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s toward the evil.

Most human progress of any kind is evolutionary in character. It rarely happens in a quantum leap as the result of a bold new discovery, initiative, movement, or design. That is to say, it is rarely intentional. Grand schemes are, as often as not, grand failures. When they succeed spectacularly—the U.S. Interstate Highway System comes to mind and, more recently, GPS—the nature and degree of their utility usually was unanticipated. Nearly all human progress, whether in science and technology or society and its institutions, results from tinkering, trial and error, and the gradual accumulation of what works. (For an introduction to what I have in mind, see here. Good book length treatments are here and here and here and here.) It does not result, as a rule, from marches, “movements,” and agitation for things to be “better.” The basic reason for this is simple: we aren’t that smart. The seductive temptation of moralistic thinking is to suppose that we know perfectly well how to improve the world, and we would do so but for the malign influence of bad guys who stand in the way because of their greed and selfishness. To think along these lines is very human but completely false. The truth is that everyone wants a better world, and if we could make one by design, we would. But we don’t because we can’t; we lack the necessary understanding. So, if we want to promote a better world, we should promote the conditions in which evolutionary progress can happen, such as large networks, open communication, freedom to experiment, freedom of thought, information sharing, and competition between plural, independent agencies.

Where activism seems most positive is in liberation movements. Oppression often is not that hard to understand and is a clear evil. Even here, though, the way forward is often unclear, as is illustrated by the historical case of slavery. And of course, a great deal of today’s political activism is not about liberation.

But political activism is a shining beacon of earnest and noble behavior compared to cancel culture. Everything wrong with political activism is raised an order of magnitude by cancel culture. Most of the members of a Twitter mob (or signatories of a petition to have somebody fired, a paper withdrawn, etc.) have no serious commitment to their “work”; usually, it’s something they heard about online and joined in with minimal thought and essentially no effort whatsoever. They take on faith and on other people’s say-so the “facts” of the case, and usually know very few even of such “facts.” Their moral reasoning is on the level of people tearing down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. It is saturated with Left–Right tribalism. Thought, soul-searching, debate, a sustained public conversation have nothing to do with it. And it is not about improving institutions, but about attacking people. And not weighty people—Rowling, Chappelle, Pinker—who usually withstand the attacks, but the comparatively inconsequential and powerless. And its proximate aim is to hurt these people. This is the meaning of the now-ubiquitous phrase “holding so-and-so accountable.” It means destroying them, to the extent possible. So, cancel culture can be summed up as: casual mobs of moralistic vigilantes idly wrecking the lives of pipsqueaks to achieve “justice.”

Now, I have been emphasizing the difficulty of moral judgment, but of course some judgments are easier than others. Here’s an easy one: hurting people is evil, unless there’s some good reason for it. This should not be controversial to any remotely benevolent person. The “good reason” for hurting someone will nearly always be that it’s punishment for wrongdoing. I agree that that is a good reason. But to be properly invoked, we have to know that the target of our hurt really committed wrongdoing. This is what Twitter mobs usually do not know or even seriously care about. After all, the reasoning here generally amounts to, “So-and-so said something ‘harmful’ (i.e., something political I disagree with); therefore, they must be punished.” This returns us to the vigilantism problem I began with. You don’t have the option of saying, “I support mob justice, but only when the mob is right.” The question is whether to endorse mob justice across the board, to institutionalize it. If you do so, then you must endorse all the consequences. Sometimes, no doubt, the mob will actually punish a wrongdoer. But most of the time it won’t, and even when it does, this will be mainly a matter of luck. For, by its nature, a mob is not a careful investigator of facts and deliberator of principles. If it were, it wouldn’t be a mob. Therefore, to endorse moral vigilantism is to endorse an institution of evil consequences. And, I guess, I just think this is immoral.

Defenders of cancel culture sometimes try to minimize its harm to individuals by saying that often the victim isn’t fired, even if that was the aim, that people can get other jobs, and so on. But I note that every personal account of the experience that I have seen emphasizes the emotional toll of being the object of such concentrated denunciation, abuse, and hate. Whether more material consequences are suffered or not, this seems to stick with people, and it must be terrible.

However, the harm of cancel culture that I would emphasize is the social cost of inhibiting free thought and open expression. I think the clearest example of this right now is the cluster of issues around transgender, where activism has succeeded in making it nearly impossible for ordinary people to speak their minds openly. I watched this happen to a fellow faculty member at my own institution just a couple of weeks ago. One unfortunate result is, for example, the recent spectacle of Lia Thomas, a transgender woman at Penn who competed as a male just two years ago, now likely to set women’s swimming records at the NCAA Championships in March. This seems unfair and blatantly counter to the whole rationale behind women’s sports, but the biologically female athletes who find themselves in this situation are inhibited from complaining because they know how they’ll be treated if they do. And the same is true of most other people as well, including NCAA officials and school administrators. And so this situation, which was instituted with almost no public discussion, and which has affected the whole range of women’s high school and collegiate sports for some years now, goes on still with very little discussion. Similar difficulties are faced even by careful, liberal journalists like Jesse Singal. And as many probably know around here, philosopher Kathleen Stock was finally hounded from her job at the University of Sussex in November. (Here is a mildly amusing brief interview with Stock in, of all places, Charlie Hebdo.) (And of course, the ContraPoints video linked above is relevant to this as well.)

I don’t mean here to sign on to any particular views about trans. The point is to defend the principle of open discussion, on this and every issue of public concern. Nearly all “cancel culture” stories turn out to be about the suppression of speech and opinion. Which is part of why it’s surreal to me that the validity of cancel culture is being treated as a serious question and that we’re even talking about it at PoT. If truth is a value, then so must free thought and expression be. You can’t have one without the other.

36 thoughts on “Anti-Fascist Answers to Would-Be Thought Police

  1. Hear, hear.

    The only point I would quibble with is that political activism can be (and sometimes has been) informed by moral principle and reason, and that political activists can be (and sometimes have been) scrupulous about evidence when ginning up their “movements” – and that the occasions of political activism with both these traits are precisely the ones which had good consequences. The opposition to the slave trade and slavery, begun by William Wilberforce, is a clear example.

    But it is so very easy for people in the fever of moral outrage to forget moral principle and reason, or to willfully ignore exculpating facts.


    • “it is so very easy for people in the fever of moral outrage to forget moral principle and reason, or to willfully ignore exculpating facts.”

      That is true; and that is one fault at least as common by the anti-woke as the woke; at least as common on the Right as the Left.

      sean s.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Michael,

      Actually, I doubt that the abolitionist movement was any different than other activist movements in regard to scruples about evidence. I am not armed with any particular facts or evidence on this score, but it’s just not human nature or the nature of activist movements. I’ve never seen a one, whether I approved of its aims or not (and there are many movements whose aims I approve of), that did not engage in propaganda, exaggeration, and outright lies in the service of those aims. It would be a mistake, I think, to suppose that the proponents of a “good” movement are an exception to this rule.

      What I admire about the abolitionists—indeed, what I find stunning—is the moral clarity they managed to achieve on the issue of slavery. From today’s perspective, you would think it was easy. But evidently it wasn’t. I don’t know whether it even came from a place of reason, or that it could have come from a place of reason. From what I know of the history, it was religiously inspired and nearly all the major figures were religious zealots. The problem with me with my secular reason is that I probably would have been “rationally” calculating costs and benefits, like “rational” people everywhere. But I don’t think a cost–benefit calculation would do the trick in this case. Similar remarks apply to so-called Axial Age religious figures, such as Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. I have gradually come around to the idea that there has been genuine moral progress over the course of human history. But it is striking the degree to which this has not been brought about by philosophers (qua exponents of reason). It’s something to think about.

      By the way, I want to say I thought you had quite an interesting point concerning Aristotle and the unmoved mover. So, I’m sorry I never responded. School duties, other projects, and life intervened.


  2. I’m not much of a philosopher; Irfan can fill you in on that! I’m more a “fix the problem” kind of guy. Philosophy should inform efforts to fix social problems, but when philosophers offer only problems and complications and no solutions, they leave that field wide-open to others (like me) who are not willing or able to just sit back and wait for a miracle.

    Regarding your selected examples; Walter Palmer’s killing of Cecil the Lion may have been legal, but criticisms of him definitely were. Some may be “exploiting” Cecil’s memory now; how is that worse than exploiting Cecil by killing him for sport?

    I doubt very few tweets about Justine Sacco were intended to get her fired (at least not at first) but were merely “unfortunate jokes”. If Sacco is free to make “unfortunate jokes” about death and racism, then she’s a fair target of “unfortunate jokes” by others.

    The emotional toll of being cancelled is not small. I’m sure the toll on Sacco was not trivial, but have you seen any of the TED talks about the mental toll of AIDS or racism (which Sacco joked about)? The emotional toll of bigotry and injustice on marginalized people is just as great, if not greater than anything Sacco or Palmer had to endure.

    Marginalized people have been subjected to “concentrated denunciation, abuse, hate” and VIOLENCE for decades just because they wanted to be treated fairly. Or had the “wrong” skin color, or “wrong” genitals. Some of those marginalized people ended up hanging from ropes. Or left for dead tied to a barbed-wire fence. One need not try very hard to provide a shit-ton of abusive, hateful, unjust things done which make “cancellation” seem pretty tame.

    Excessive criticism or violence are never justified by either side, but let’s not lose track of the history that preceded “wokeness”. Cancel culture is not a new phenomenon; under different names and with different rationale’s, “cancel culture” has been around as long as humanity has. What’s new is that marginalized people are making themselves heard. If the woke can stand up against ugly accusations and physical violence, then anti-woke people should be able to take verbal accusations.

    Much has been written about our declining trust in each other and our institutions; that mistrust has much to do with the “woke” phenomena. Marginalized people and their allies have been waiting a long, long time for our nation to live up to its rhetoric regarding liberty, justice, and law. We have by and large failed, and the woke are no longer willing to wait silently. Sometimes they overstep, but overstepping is the norm; overstepping by the comfortable majority is a root cause of our problem.

    Political activism has it’s risk and costs, but so does waiting around for the powerful to change systemic injustices that the powerful benefit. Appeals and arguments have been made about these issues for a very, VERY long time, and yet the problems persist.

    Finally, you are right to defend the principle of open discussion, but open discussion must acknowledge the history and the sensitive nature of the issues under discussion. Open discussion that is cabined to exclude uncomfortable truths and history deserves to be severely criticized.

    If truth is a value, then so must free thought and expression be even by the most marginalized persons. You can’t have free thought and expression for only some people. Open discussion is often uncomfortable. So, if you defend it, please recognize what it is you are defending: discomfort.

    I can take it.

    sean s.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sean,

      A great deal of what you say in this comment amounts to “whataboutism.” No doubt you’ve heard this expression, the new fad label for the fallacy traditionally called tu quoque. It is a fallacy because pointing out flaws in the “other side” is no defense of the wrongs committed by the first side, unless you actually think that somehow two wrongs make a right. Thus, for example, the racism of other people has nothing to do with, and does not justify, abusing and firing Justine Sacco for making a joke that was innocently intended. That was wrong, and no amount of pointing to racism and other social wrongs is going to make it okay. Nor do they make it “understandable,” as in, “well, of course it’s too bad what happened to her, but you’ve got to understand the context: people are very concerned about AIDS and racism.” People’s “concern” about one thing doesn’t make it okay to trash someone’s life for something else.

      In view of other comments you’ve made, only just today, it’s no longer clear to me that this was your intention, or, if it was, that it is any longer. In fact, I’m a bit nonplussed. You now say, “we must avoid moral judgment of people.” Then why are you defending cancel culture? Cancel culture is all about morally condemning and materially punishing people for their alleged sins. That’s what it is.

      Regarding “uncomfortable discussion,” you say, “I can take it.” Really? The way it looks is that you can’t even take a joke. I mean Justine Sacco’s. Such speech must be silenced because it is “privileged” and “hurtful” and “wrong.” I realize that you yourself didn’t say these things, but you are defending or apologizing for those who do.

      This “uncomfortable discussion” trope has become ubiquitous in recent years. I seem to hear it constantly. I have always thought it is weird, and in this context especially so. Why should the targets of censorship be thought to be the ones who are afraid to have uncomfortable discussions?

      To take a well-known example, an open letter campaign was launched to have Steven Pinker removed from the Linguistic Society of America’s list of “distinguished academic fellows and media experts.” (Details of the case are outlined here. A thorough discussion, probably more than you want to know, is here.) His sin was basically to have tweeted, when Black Lives Matter protests were raging in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd murder, to point out (citing the evidence) that police killings of black people are not disproportionate, holding rates of dangerous encounters with the police constant, and that police kill too many people in general, so that “focus on race distracts from solving the problem,” which would be better addressed (in his view, and he cites relevant research) by addressing the factors that make the police so violent altogether. Not all the accusations against Pinker in the letter were about race. Another: that in the wake of a shooting of six people (inaccurately said in the letter to be six women, when in fact only two of the victims were women) by a UCSB student in 2014, which people were citing as evidence of a pattern of misogynistic murder, that “The idea that the UCSB murders are part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse” and again citing some relevant data. His point was that it is “obtuse” and counterproductive to use a high profile shooting to claim that there is a wave of escalating murderous violence against women, when in fact the opposite is true.

      It is obvious who is bringing up “uncomfortable truths” in this case and who is trying to prevent that from happening. What I mentioned only briefly in my post is worth emphasizing: that cancel culture is basically about censorship. Occasionally, people are punished for alleged misdeeds (e.g., Walter Palmer), but the vast majority of cancel culture cases are about speech, about having and expressing the “wrong” views.

      And this is the main reason—actually, it is pretty much the whole reason—that I am concerned about “cancel culture.” It is an assault on the key Enlightenment value of free thought and open expression. As such, I fear that it is part of a broader assault on liberal values, such as secular reason and individual rights and individualism altogether, that is currently sweeping through our society. Of course, maybe I’m being unduly alarmist. Indeed, I hope so. Nevertheless, this is what worries me, and it is these values that I see myself defending. In particular, I do not see this as a Left vs. Right issue, which is how you seem to be framing it. Not that this framing started with you, I realize. Irfan addressed his own post to “Anti-Woke Warriors” and puts the issue in terms of Left, Right, proto-fascism, and so forth.

      But I want to set aside this Left–Right framing to the extent possible. For the record, in case this is not already clear, I am foursquare against any kind of canceling of anybody (who has committed no crime), for nearly any reason. I am appalled by the cancelations and cancelation attempts on the part of conservatives and Right-wingers (of which numerous examples are given in the Cathy Young piece I cited in my post) that I hear about every bit as much as any other cancelations. (Not that I am a conservative or Right-winger, but it seems pretty obvious that I have more sympathy for them than you and Irfan.)

      If extreme Lefties like Brian Leiter and Noam Chomsky can be against cancel culture, then I should think that anyone on the Left can be. Even a devotee of “identity politics” and “anti-racism” can be against cancel culture. All it requires is that they embrace rational persuasion as their tool and reject intimidation and coercion.

      Liked by 1 person

      • David; can you set my expectations, please? Exactly how many times do I need to say that cancelling can be inappropriate before you recognize that I think cancelling can be inappropriate? Just wondering, because I (and Irfan at least) have made that point several times.

        Because you have done a good deal of your own “whataboutism” to show that cancelling by Leftists has harmed people; I think others get to point out that cancelling by the Right has been just as bad, if not worse. Even in this latest comment, where you wrote that you “want to set aside this Left–Right framing to the extent possible” your examples of abuse all come from—drum roll!!—the Left. That is why mine come from the Right: because the abuse is a cross-ideology thing.

        How about we just agree that cancelling something that all groups sometimes do, regardless of their ideologies? And that sometimes, any group goes too far?

        If you are nonplussed by my later comments, David, it’s only because you have missed my criticisms of cancel culture; it can be taken too far, and often is. But that is not a fault of the Left more than the Right.

        When did I ever write that Sacco should be silenced? I’ll give you a clue: never. What I wrote is that her bad joke is not less harmful than the bad jokes about her. If you can characterize her hurtful comments as “jokes” then how can it be wrong to characterize the retorts the same way? You have expressed great sympathy for the pain she suffered; but what about the pain her “joke” caused?

        Sacco should not have been silenced, but any competent “corporate PR executive” would know that her comment was foolish. She worked in public relations, didn’t she?

        You asked, “Why should the targets of censorship be thought to be the ones who are afraid to have uncomfortable discussions?

        That’s a good question: shall we ask members of marginalized groups (people of color, women, lebians, gays, transgenders, bisexuals, etc. etc.) if they are afraid to hear uncomfortable things others may say about them? Anti-woke folks may find such comments hard to endure, for marginalized people it’s pretty ordinary stuff they have to put up with just about every day. Why should the targets of censorship and oppression be thought of as the ones unwilling to endure uncomfortable discussions?

        I am not familiar with the events involving Pinker so I will not comment on them at this time. Another day.

        What I mentioned only briefly in my post is worth emphasizing: that cancel culture is basically about censorship.

        We don’t entirely disagree, except that cancel culture is not limited to the Left. The Right’s version is just as bad.

        Another thing you could help me with: how many times must I say that cancel culture is a phenomenon of both the Left and the Right before you realize I am not framing this as a Left vs. Right issue? If it seems like I’m favoring the Left, that’s only because you and others are favoring the Right.

        Perhaps we should just agree that neither side is pure villain nor pure victim. That is already my position.

        I agree (I think) with your concern about any “assault on the key Enlightenment value of free thought and open expression. As such, I fear that it is part of a broader assault [ON?] liberal values, such as secular reason and individual rights and individualism altogether, that is currently sweeping through our society.” My only hesitation is that apparently missed word which I added in the square brackets. But remember; this assault comes as much from the Right as the Left; certainly, the Right seems to reject secular reason and individual rights that they don’t approve of. The Right is big on individualism until they cross paths with people of color in their neighborhood.

        So let me summarize for myself: Cancel culture is a phenomenon of all ideologies; and it can be taken too far. There has been bad behavior on the Left and the Right, and victims likewise. You can be a lefty, embrace identity politics, be anti-racist and find cancel culture being taken too far by other lefties. You can be Libertarian, conservative, religious and individualistic, and come to the same conclusion about abusive right-wingers.

        Can we move this conversation beyond the “whataboutist” tu quoque now?

        sean s.


        • Hi Sean,

          This looks like a retrogression, I’m afraid.

          Every party to this discussion agrees that Leftists sometimes try to cancel their opponents and that Rightists sometimes try to cancel their opponents. And every party to this discussion agrees that cancel culture can go too far. Further, everyone knows that everyone agrees to these points. Further, everyone has agreed to all of this from the start. So, I don’t know why you think that in saying these things you are saying something significant.

          a broader assault [ON?] liberal values

          Fixed. Thanks for the tip.

          If you want to advance the conversation, you need to address what is actually being said to you and do so in a way that doesn’t ignore or misrepresent what the other is saying. Try to “steel man” your interlocutor, not “straw man” him. That is how we make intellectual progress.


          • David,

            So agree that, “…Cancel culture is a phenomenon of all ideologies; and it can be taken too far. There has been bad behavior on the Left and the Right, and victims likewise. You can be a lefty, embrace identity politics, be anti-racist and find cancel culture being taken too far by other lefties. You can be Libertarian, conservative, religious and individualistic, and come to the same conclusion about abusive right-wingers

            Since we all agree (apparently) then what is the next step?

            sean s.


            • Hi Sean,

              For you, I’d suggest thinking about the apparent contradiction I pointed out between saying that, on the one hand, cancelation can be acceptable, and on the other, we should never pass moral judgment on other people. Since cancelation is precisely a moral denunciation and punishment of another person, the idea of not morally judging others suggests a much stronger conclusion than merely that “cancelation can be taken too far.” It suggests that cancelation per se necessarily goes too far. No doubt you can reconcile this conflict, presumably by modifying or rejecting at least one of the horns of this dilemma. Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. But I’d say there’s an ambivalence sticking out here, at the very least.

              For myself, I’ll wait to see what Irfan comes up with. I doubt he’s been much moved by anything I’ve said here.

              In the meantime, for the convenience of anyone who might benefit, here is a brief list of my arguments against “cancel culture”:

              (1) Uncertainty of epistemic and moral judgment. It is hard to be sure we are right about factual and moral claims, even in the best of circumstances. Even well educated citizens typically harbor many very dubious beliefs about social and psychological causation and about right and wrong. Since cancelation being justified depends on getting the facts and moral principles right, cancelation is liable to be frequently unjustified.

              (1a) All the above goes double or triple for judging a particular act of an individual, since you have to know the circumstances of the case, the context and backstory, the intentions of the individual, etc., and these are much harder to know than general propositions, since they have to be learned at third hand and often at fourth, fifth, and sixth hand.

              (2) Cancelation is a mob action, acting in the heat and passion of the moment. A lynching party is characterized by impatience, ignorance, and groupthink. It is possibly the worst sort of group that can be imagined from the standpoint of scrupulous attention to getting the facts and principles right.

              (3) Social media fuels irresponsibility. Clicking, posting, tweeting, etc. on social media is practically free. It is an idle pastime of many people. Moreover, the diffuse collectivity of the mob, and often the literal anonymity of its members, means they will face no adverse consequences for their actions, no matter how harmful. Mob members have no skin in the game.

              (4) Hurting people unjustly is a clear moral evil. By contrast with the difficulty of knowing that a cancelation is really justified, it is easy to know when it inflicts serious harm. Since a specific, concrete evil is done by a wrongful cancelation, people have a moral responsibility to ensure that a cancelation is justified. Casual, irresponsible cancelation—which is most cancelation—is wrong, and those who participate casually and irresponsibly in cancelation—which is most cancelers—are wrongdoers.

              (5) The targets of successful cancelation are inconsequential people. Bigshots usually survive cancelation. It is little people, whose alleged misdeeds cannot seriously be claimed to cause any great harm in the world, who suffer most terribly from cancelation. This heightens the evil of cancelation and raises troubling questions about the true psychological motives of the cancelers.

              (5a) Attempts to cancel bigshots are a warning to others, whether or not the cancelation succeeds. The message is: “You must conform to our view of the world. You have no right to deviate.”

              (6) The actual effect of cancelation is to silence dissent. Nearly all cancelations target wrongthink and wrongspeak. This is the main social harm of cancel culture. It imposes conformity with social codes laid down by the culturally powerful and punishes deviance. But dissent and deviance—even in most cases where they seem to be really harmful and evil—are in fact socially healthy and even necessary. For the reasons, see John Stuart Mill.

              Liked by 1 person

              • David;

                Regarding: “I’d suggest thinking about the apparent contradiction I pointed out between saying that, on the one hand, cancelation can be acceptable, and on the other, we should never pass moral judgment on other people. Since cancelation is precisely a moral denunciation and punishment of another person, the idea of not morally judging others suggests a much stronger conclusion than merely that “cancelation can be taken too far.” It suggests that cancelation per se necessarily goes too far. No doubt you can reconcile this conflict, presumably by modifying or rejecting at least one of the horns of this dilemma. Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. But I’d say there’s an ambivalence sticking out here, at the very least.” (emphasis in the original, except the word I emboldened)

                What you missed was in my comment time-stamped January 10, 2022 at 11:15 am:

                The major flaw in Rand’s essay that she overlooks the moral rule that one must avoid passing moral judgment on others; only the most exceptionally bad or good person would deserve that. I agree with her that one must never avoid passing moral judgement on acts, behaviors, issues, words, or deeds. But not people, except in the most exceptional cases.

                I’ll respond to the rest of your comment later. Duty calls …

                sean s.


              • David, regarding your “brief list arguments against ‘cancel culture’”:

                Uncertainty of epistemic and moral judgment cuts both ways. If rendering a moral judgement is a moral requirement, then failure to do so is as bad as doing so inappropriately.

                As regards individuals, (1a) cuts both ways again. The targets of “cancelling” are not the only persons with a backstory. Many of the most lamented examples (“whatabouts”) completely ignore the circumstances, context, backstories, and intentions of the “cancellers”. Everyone in this topic is a person, and every person has a story.

                Cancellation is a group action indeed. But since it can be justified (a given now) then calling that group a “mob” is self-serving. It might be a mob, but anti-woke warriors can be a mob too.

                If a “mob” is a group of long-suffering people who have finally reached the end of their patience and declare they’re not going to take it anymore, then that’s a so-called “mob” one could join without moral qualm.

                Your comparisons to lynching are overwrought. Verbal abuse on social media may be painful (BTDT). Losing one’s career is painful. But being lynched is in an entirely different category. As is being beaten, strung up on a barbed-wire fence, and left for dead. You may want to think back to your comments about history; about circumstance, context, and backstory.

                Social media does fuel irresponsibility, but again, that cuts both ways. For many, social media is the only way they can get their story out. And many of the examples of cancellation (more of those “whatabouts”!) begin with irresponsible, clumsy comments on some social media platform.

                Hurting people unjustly is a clear moral evil—USUALLY; “unjustly” is a standard subject easy to abuse. I prefer “unnecessary” as a standard.

                Whatever injustice there may be, that injustice may encompass those irresponsible tweets, posts, memes, etc.. that trigger cancellations in the first place. Cancellation does not happen in a vacuum.

                Whatever wrong they are responding to, “people have a moral responsibility to ensure that their response in whatever form is justified.” Cancellation has no special status on that point.

                The targets of successful cancelation are inconsequential people. That’s true and irrelevant; it shows only the limit of what cancellation can accomplish.

                If an “inconsequential person” (to use your term) does something that merits cancellation, then their cancellation is not wrong.

                If a “consequential person” (again, using your term) does something that merits cancellation, but they escape it, then cancellation as a practice is not invalidated. It just is not omnipotent.

                These two facts do not “heighten the evil of cancelation”; how can they when we all agree that cancellation is sometimes justified? Those two facts merely reflect the inequities of our society. Which is of itself a reason to dissent and resist.

                Attempts to cancel bigshots are a warning to others, whether or not the cancelation succeeds. That is true, but the message you suppose is a projection of your own thoughts, not that of canceler.

                The message of cancellation is one of accountability. Censorship is bad; holding people accountable for their words and deeds is a good, morally necessary message.

                The actual effect of cancelation is to silence dissent.” If you sincerely believe that, then you can stand down; it’s not working; dissent continues unabated. We have too many lingering social ills to end dissent with mere shaming.

                Characterizing the kinds of comments that get cancelled as “dissent” is irrelevant; cancellation is itself a kind of dissent; often it is the dissent of the marginalized and “inconsequential”. As you said that we “have to know the circumstances of the case, the context and backstory, the intentions of the individual, etc.” to reach a valid conclusion. Your broad-brush approach seems quite contrary to the more nuance, balanced approach you advocated earlier.

                Your brief list of arguments against cancel culture really don’t make much of an argument. Cancel culture is imperfect, but critically necessary. It’s forcing some of us to face long-standing moral failures in our communities and our nation. Some are unwilling to face those problems, but cancel culture in influential because a sizable majority is developing greater and greater empathy with those who are not like them.

                sean s.


                • Sean, I find this comment, like most of your comments, frankly, to be a marvel of motivated reasoning, as usual backed by no evidence or examples or realistic engagement with the actual cases we’re talking about. I know from long experience of on-line discussion that all participants, however insincere they may seem to be, honestly perceive themselves simply to be advocating for what is true. I’m sure that’s the case with you. Still, some discussions are more worthwhile than others. I’m done here.


                • David,

                  This is unfortunate, but c’est la vie.

                  I would have gladly engaged with “the actual cases we’re talking about” as I did in prior comments, but in your last comment there were none. Not sure how I’m supposed to engage with cases that you don’t mention. Hmm.

                  Take care.

                  sean s.


  3. @davidlpotts

    I can’t do justice to your post in a comment, so I’m not going to make the attempt. It’s an inopportune moment for me to be writing a long response anyway, given recent events in my personal life.

    My “Anti-Fascist Questions for Anti-Woke Warriors” post was meant to be the first in a series on cancel culture, modeled on my series on desert. (Actually, if you count my prior posts on that general topic, it’s really the nth in an ongoing series, but who’s counting?) The two series have the same motivation, to get clear on the nature of justice and its application to particular cases. I’ve long been interested in that topic, and resolved, when we first started discussing Sher’s Desert, to think out loud about it here.

    Ironically, the starting point for my thoughts on “cancel culture” is Ayn Rand’s “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” Though I systematically reject Rand’s politics, I often agree with her ethics, and agree with her here.

    I actually don’t think she goes far enough. It’s not enough to judge, as she claims. One has to act on one’s judgments both to avoid complicity in evil, and to prevent the betrayal of the innocent (including oneself) to evil.

    In that respect, my view is a kind of mirror-image of the one taken by many libertarians–politically at odds with Rand, but sympathetic on moral grounds. This essay, by Bryan Caplan, is a classic misinterpretation of Rand (and a classic misunderstanding of the relevant issues) which conflates what her followers did with the underlying principle involved:

    Critics of cancel culture, in my view, are guilty of an analogous error. The view I’m defending can’t be rebutted by piling on examples of the kind they (love to) adduce: a principle can’t be refuted by pointing repeatedly at failed attempts to put it into practice. You might as well argue that calculus is refuted by the grade I got in Mr Thompson’s class back in high school (C-). Either I was a terrible student, or Mr Thompson was a terrible teacher, or both. But neither fact reflects on the wonders of calculus, any more than a list of ill-conceived or ill-executed cancellations proves that cancellation is unjust.

    Anyway, what I propose to do is to respond to your post in the context of a longer series on the topic. Whether I end up responding in a single dedicated post, or across several posts on a variety of topics, I don’t know. Whatever I write will take longer than an off-the-cuff Super Comment, but will also be more worth reading.

    I am, in any case, glad that we’re (all) airing out our disagreements on this issue, however much we disagree, or even end up disagreeing.


          • I confess it took me several attempts to grasp the meaning of that sentence, and when I finally did, was left with the conundrum of how to translate it into Urdu so that my grandmother could understand it.

            Luckily, Google Translate has done the hard work for me:

            ایک بیمار یاک گم آپ کی دادی کی گندم کی پتلی ہوسکتی ہے۔

            Translated back into English: “A sick yak gum your grandmother’s wheat has made thinner.”

            I think my grandmother would be justified in canceling the entire blog for this.

            Liked by 1 person

              • I am familiar, or at least was–indeed, had seen this very segment back in the day. But I’d forgotten it, and had (believe it or not) totally blanked out the yak joke. Indeed, my grandmother lived with us when Carson aired, so I could have told her then. Another missed opportunity, alas.


    • I had the impression that Rand’s politics were a deductive consequence of her ethical system, so that if you accepted her ethics as valid you had to agree with her politics as well.


      • I’m sure that’s what Rand tried to do; it is not a given that she succeeded. I haven’t read the items Irfan just posted so now I have something to read over the weekend. I’ll have to discuss them with my elder son who has his degree in Ethics.

        sean s.


      • I read this in Caplan’s essay:

        “Here’s how Rand explained it back in 1962:

        “One must never fail to pronounce a moral judgment.

        “Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

        “It is obvious who profits and who loses by such a precept. It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men’s virtues and from condemning men’s vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither the good nor the evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?”

        And to my surprise, I immediately thought of MLK:

        “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

        Now I’m gonna have to go lay down; my head is spinning.

        sean s.

        “… listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” — Desiderata

        Liked by 1 person

        • I hadn’t thought of the MLK connection, but it’s actually poignant. There’s a certain similarity between Rand’s argument and MLK’s in the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” not that that similarity really puts them on much of the same page on anything else.


      • Well, for one thing, I don’t accept Rand’s moral philosophy in a wholesale way, just certain claims within it.

        That said, though Rand sometimes gives the impression that her political philosophy follows deductively from her ethics, she never actually comes out and says that, and it’s a very implausible claim. What she would have to show is that capitalism, defined as she defines it, follows deductively from the version of ethical egoism she espouses, itself independently demonstrated to be true. She does neither thing. There is an ambiguity here between thinking that there is a single deductive argument from her ethics to her politics, and thinking that there’s a series of deductive connections which add up to a conjoint series of deductions. The second option is more likely than the first (insofar as either is), but also complicates the task of anyone interested in satisfying the burden of proof.

        The only attempt I know of to lay Rand’s arguments out in quasi-deductive form is Will Thomas’s and David Kelley’s unpublished manuscript, The Logical Structure of Objectivism. I’ve read it through a couple of times, and regard it as a failure. I find the diagramming technique they rely on as pointless and defective (I used to skip it when I taught logic). As quickly becomes obvious, none of the arguments that rely on the technique are valid. Yet the authors regard the diagramming technique as the manuscript’s major selling point. It gives the book the superficial appearance of logical rigor without actually conferring any.

        Some of Rand’s less subtle followers seem to think that her ethics entails a “non-initiation of force principle” whose content and justification is transparent, and which in turn entails the whole of her political philosophy, down to every casuistic implication of that philosophy. There are five major claims in the preceding sentence, and I reject all five of them.

        The bottom line is that while I’m idiosyncratically influenced by Rand, I’m far from beholden to her, and least influenced by her where she’s been most influential, in politics.


        • Rand’s thoughts (in the essay Irfan linked above), though imperfect, seem generally commendable. And they seem totally contrary to the notion of selfishness as a virtue. A culture built on the veneration of selfishness could not avoid disintegration and corruption. So, in further reply to Michael Brazier’s comment: it appears that Rand’s politics failed to achieve “deductive consequence” of her ethical system.

          The major flaw in Rand’s essay that she overlooks the moral rule that one must avoid passing moral judgment on others; only the most exceptionally bad or good person would deserve that. I agree with her that one must never avoid passing moral judgement on acts, behaviors, issues, words, or deeds. But not people, except in the most exceptional cases.

          Rand wrote that, “The opposite of moral neutrality is not a blind, arbitrary, self-righteous condemnation of any idea, action or person that does not fit one’s mood”. Agreed, if we take the word “person” out of that. And that subtraction does not weaken Rand’s point in even the smallest way.

          Rand wrote that, “The policy of always pronouncing moral judgment … means: … that one must know clearly, in full, verbally identified form, one’s own moral evaluation of every person, issue and event with which one deals, and act accordingly”. Again, subtracting “every person” from that does no damage to Rand’s point.

          Disrespecting the humanity of persons is contrary to any valid moral evaluation; something Rand seems to have completely overlooked. Unjustified “moral” judgements of people are evils in and of themselves. They often serve as the rationale behind other, greater evil acts. Dictators, thugs, bigots, enslavers, and criminals are quite comfortable with justifying their evils because they need to act against bad persons.

          A fair criticism of my position is to point out that some people take any disagreement personally. Some will take “you are wrong” as “you are bad.” That is unfortunately so. However, if one avoids moral judgements against persons, some will take that the right way. Those who don’t take it the right way are unlikely to react worse than if you just called them bad; why not give them the chance do get it right? But I do want to be clear: even if you know that a valid criticism will be taken personally, you still are morally obligated to voice that criticism.

          The person, “who is willing to assume the responsibility of asserting rational [, moral] values” is not hampered by limiting their judgements to acts, issues, or events.

          Even the worst or the meanest can do good, and even the best err to the point of evil.

          sean s.


          • Hi Sean,

            There’s a lot to like in this comment. Perhaps our views are more similar than at first appeared.

            About Ayn Rand, I should say that she does not “overlook” any moral rule to avoid passing moral judgment on others. She positively denies the existence of any such rule! Both in theory and in practice, she was all about passing moral judgment on others.

            Concerning Rand’s politics being a deductive consequence of her ethics, Irfan has already addressed that. I have always thought it was a ridiculous accusation that Rand or her followers held any such idea. The only evidence adduced for it that I have ever heard is that, apparently, once upon a time, her followers would enter a discussion by asking, in a strident and accusatory manner, “Do you believe that A is A?!” The implication being that the answer to this one question would settle all others. And that would be because all other philosophical truths are deductive consequences of “A is A,” and Ayn Rand has sufficiently proved them to be such.

            This is absurd, of course, and Rand never claimed any such thing. But I can well believe that some of her followers thought it was true and would proceed in this manner. It also has to be said that her attitude, which is subtly on display in the piece Irfan linked, tends to be that her philosophy simply consists in the recognition of reality, and that a desire to evade reality is the only fundamental reason anybody could ever disagree with her (once the issues have been explained, of course). And some of her followers, notably Leonard Peikoff, have argued, in all seriousness, that her philosophy constitutes such a tightly integrated, interlocking whole, that that it has to be accepted in its entirety or rejected in its entirety—there is no middle ground! This is crazy, I feel safe in saying. But it could certainly abet the charge that she or her followers held that her politics is a deductive consequence of her ethics.

            By the way, if anyone is curious to know more about Rand’s philosophy, PoT blogger Roderick Long is the co-author of an excellent summary at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


    • When repeated attempts to put a principle into practice fail, it’s time to question whether you’ve got the right principle. The problem with “the policy of always pronouncing moral judgment” is that we’re usually not in a very good position to do so, for all the reasons I mentioned in my post (and I won’t rehash them here). To “always” do what you’re in no position to do responsibly is to do wrong most of the time. Which, I would say, is the result we see with cancel culture. So, it’s not a matter of just piling up examples. There are reasons to expect the very pile of failures that we see.

      Unleashing moral vigilantism to achieve justice is like trying to get the fox in the chicken coop by shooting a shotgun into the coop, killing every creature in it. “Look! I got the fox! Too bad about all the chickens.” I don’t think we should say that this person acted well or that he had the right principle. I guess you might say, “I’m talking about a laser beam, not a shotgun.” But I don’t think that a laser beam is an option. That’s not how humans operate.

      The main point of disanalogy here is that I don’t see moral vigilantism getting too many foxes. Or even aiming at them. Dave Chappelle? Seriously?

      We should also remember that what we’re talking about here is the moral condemnation of our fellows. This is a dangerous thing. Nearly all evil is done in the name of justice. This truth seems very much on display in the sort of cases we’re talking about.

      If you want to exercise moral judgment, it would be better to train your sights on institutions than on people. This still involves huge problems, which I talked about, but at least misjudgment against institutions doesn’t license cruelty.

      I wonder whether the biggest difference separating us here is that you think great social improvement can come about through moral reform, and I don’t. That is to say, even when done right—that is, no failures, just perfect application of moral judgment—I doubt that moral reform brings about the greatest gains, compared to other things. Put another way: I don’t think our biggest social problems are moral problems. (At least, not as conventionally understood.) This is a large topic, and I won’t pursue it here. But I hope it will come up in future discussion.


      • David;

        So far as I know, Abolitionism was religiously inspired, but that need not have been. A rational, secular person can appreciate the fact that enslavement anyone puts everyone in peril. Unequal consideration is at the heart of slavery; once that principle is put into effect, we are all in danger. A rational cost-benefit analysis helps only if you are clear on who’s cost and who’s benefit is being considered.

        In your second comment, you wrote that, “We should also remember that what we’re talking about here is the moral condemnation of our fellows. This is a dangerous thing. Nearly all evil is done in the name of justice.

        That is precisely correct. You beat me to that punch!

        We must avoid moral judgement of people; we must avoid moral condemnation of our fellows. Pronouncing moral judgement goes awry when it becomes judgement against persons. That is the flaw we keep stumbling into.

        You finished with, “I don’t think our biggest social problems are moral problems.

        I am very curious to know what social problems you consider non-moral problems. I cannot think of a significant one. I know I’ll have to wait for a reply, but it would be interesting to read one.

        sean s.


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