When Arguments Fail: A Response to Jason Brennan

So far, the BHL crowd has had literally nothing useful–explanatory, action-guiding, otherwise illuminating–to say about the COVID-19 pandemic. They have mostly kept their counsel, and offered up a series of pointless, incoherent, ranting tweets masquerading as the latest wisdom in statistical modeling. Add it all together, and it amounts to less in the way of insight than might be dished up by a just-buried corpse. Continue reading

Disruptions on Campus: There’s Always an Excuse for Israel

A passage from a blog post by Steve Horwitz at BHL:

Here are a few thoughts for college libertarians who are able to invite speakers to campus and how they might do so in the most productive ways.

Let me start by saying that the sort of interruptions we’ve seen this week with Yaron Brook and Christina Hoff Sommers are utterly unacceptable. Those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space and students expecting a talk should be forcibly removed from the room and subject to the relevant disciplinary consequences. There should be no negotiating with anti-intellectual terrorists. They should feel free to ask questions when the time comes or protest outside the building in ways that do not prevent those who wish to attend from attending. No excuses.

A question for Horwitz et al: what if “those who disrupt planned presentations with official permission to use space” on campus call themselves “the Israel Defense Forces” (IDF) and are sent by something that calls itself the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria? Should they be “forcibly removed”? Forcibly removing them is what a policy of “no excuses” would really entail. Continue reading

Kevin Vallier on Decentralization and the Election Results

The election results have been traumatic to many people, and have occasioned the revival of two structural proposals usually unpopular among left-leaning liberals–decentralization through federalism, and secession. Both strike me as pointless and unrealistic gimmicks. The first won’t solve the problem; the second won’t work, and might not solve the problem if it did.

The real options, it seems to me–at least for those of us traumatized by the prospect of a Trump presidency, as opposed to those welcoming it or viewing it with equanimity–are endurance or emigration. Since I count myself among the traumatized, those are what I regard as my own options. Endurance is the less pleasant but more realistic option, emigration the more attractive but harder to pull off. Continue reading

American (and Muslim) Complicity in Saudi Theocracy

Here’s the best short commentary I’ve recently seen on our complicity in Saudi tyranny, from the letters section of today’s New York Times:

To the Editor:

What are American “interests” in this region, who determined them, and why have they not been shared with the American people?

We get energy from the Saudis and also used to buy significant amounts of oil from Iran. But we diversified our oil purchasing after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and cut off all Iranian shipments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the current glut of oil on the market, we have never been in a stronger position to press the Saudis for democratic reform. But we don’t.

The only plausible answer is that they continue to buy enormous quantities of American weapons and get support from that lobby. They also continue to invest tens of billions of their petrodollars in Western banks. So despite all our talk about human rights and democracy, it appears that our “interests” are being dictated by the arms industry and Wall Street, both of which have a lock on the White House and Congress.

We the people, who do have an interest in human rights, are left to write letters to the editor and hope that our so-called representatives will hear our voices above the money machine in Washington. Something is very, very wrong with this picture.


Long Island City, Queens

The writer is a professor at the CUNY School of Law.

Every element of that is right, but there’s one thing he doesn’t mention: no boycott of or blacklist against the Saudi regime can work unless Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, decide to join in and boycott the hajj and umra pilgrimages to Mecca (and Medina).

Continue reading

SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration

Should I stop reading BHL? Or should I keep reading and stop criticizing it? You tell me, PoT readers, because I find myself shaking my head at some of the stuff they’ve been producing lately.

Take Mike Munger’s latest post on religious toleration. Munger opens with some comments on Trump’s views on Muslims, then quotes a bit from Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, then “concludes” (sort of, but not really) that while he thinks Trump is wrong, Locke’s Letter convinces him that he’s not sure that Trump is wrong. The conjunction of the two claims skates perilously close to Moore’s Paradox, but set that aside, if you can. What exactly is the argument that convinces Munger that Trump might be right?

It’s mainly this passage from the Letter, overtly discussing Muslims, covertly discussing Catholics, but taken by Munger to apply implicitly to Trump and to Muslims today:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Munger’s comment:

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

I think the “relevant question” is how any commentary on this subject could get this confused this fast.

First, a pedantic opening criticism: Munger gets Trump’s views wrong. He describes them like this:

He [Trump] has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.

The link goes to a December 7 article in The Washington Post. A day or two later, however, Trump had changed his tune:

But on Tuesday Mr. Trump clarified his proposal, saying that he would exclude only foreign Muslims, not Muslim American citizens who travel abroad and then seek to come home. That distinction, legal specialists said, made it far less likely the courts would strike it down.

“If a person is a Muslim, goes overseas and comes back, they can come back,” Mr. Trump said on ABC. “They’re a citizen. That’s different.”

I quote this not just to score points–though I don’t mind doing that–nor just to make hay, for the nth time, of BHL bloggers’ strained relationship with the realm of fact. I say it because there’s something really implausible about thinking that Trump’s views are stable enough or theoretically interesting enough to have their roots in Locke’s Letter. Trump doesn’t mention Locke. Nor does he make arguments. What he does instead is to tweet 140 characters at a time, yell down his interlocutors, and let everybody else do his work for him by pretending that he’s said something that counts as political discourse.

So I have to wonder: what is the point of putting theoretical arguments in the mouth of a politician who doesn’t have any arguments of his own, and seems to want to turn the country into a police state? From treating Trump’s claim in heuristic fashion as if it were Lockean, Munger somehow skates in a clause or two to the claim that it just is a Lockean argument. At this rate, I guess BAIR is a Lockean organization, and an armed mob’s surrounding a mosque is a Lockean activity. What next? Lockean internment camps?

So let’s return to the text and try to understand the contorted route by which Munger wants to make Locke relevant to Trump. Though the passage is about Muslims, Munger takes it to be a shot against Catholics, then infers that what is true of the Catholics of Locke’s day might be true of the Muslims of ours. Here’s a suggestion: why not skip the pointless intermediate step and just read the passage as stated?

Here it is again:

It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

I won’t comment on how this passage applied to the Muslims of Locke’s day, but it has almost zero application to the Muslims of 2015.

First, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate, but there is no caliphate today (even ISIS only aspires to become one), and there hasn’t been a “real” one since 1924.

Second, the passage presupposes the existence of a caliphate to which Muslims universally or at least ubiquitously swear allegiance, but Muslims didn’t universally pledge allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate even when it did exist. To cite just the simplest and most obvious example, the Muslims of the Palestinian national movement rebelled against the Ottomans during World War I.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find universal allegiance to any caliphate since the death of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 AD). The disputes over caliphal succession began with his successor, Abu Bakr, and have continued to this day. Dispute over the legitimacy of this or that caliphate has been one of the major themes of Islamic history ever since. (Has anyone at BHL heard of the Sunni-Shia split?) To write about Islam and not know this (or not show any sign of knowing it) is like writing about Islam from the historiographical equivalent of a blank slate.  You might as well write about Christianity without having heard of the Protestant Reformation. It adds insult to injury when what you’re doing is making Trump into a Lockean while scratching your head about the plausibility of his proposals to violate the rights of American Muslims.

Third, caliphate aside, there is no global analogue to a “Church” among contemporary Muslims. The closest analogues might be individual mosques or Islamic Centers, or at best larger scale organizations like the Islamic Society of North America. But these don’t differ from their Protestant or Jewish analogues, and no respectable person is sitting around wondering whether we should deprive Protestants or Jews en masse of their rights because they belong to religious organizations that could conceivably (in someone’s morbid thought-experiment) rival the states we live in.

Nor is any decent person asking whether we should do the same for Catholics, despite the fact that the Catechism of the Catholic Church effectively makes adherence to consequentialism a sin against conscience (#1789), and regards abortion as morally on par with murder and genocide. The potential for conflict with the rule of civil law is pretty obvious on both counts: abortion rights are the law of the land, and “interest balancing” is an essential feature of contemporary jurisprudence. In fact, experts on the subject tell us that anti-abortion views entail violent civil disobedience, not that I agree. So  if we’re going to take Lockean worries about Catholicism seriously, we needn’t get lost in the thickets of Locke’s polemical intentions or the details of English history ca. 1688. Locke’s worries can be raised about Catholics today and used to buttress Trump-like proposals today–used, at any rate, by anyone whose commitment to the principle of rights is weak enough to be tossed about by the winds of Donald Trump’s oratory.

And then there’s the issue of the Church’s view on its lack of accountability to “the civil authorities” regarding accusations of pedophilia engaged in by Catholic priests. In the Apostolic letter Sacramentoriam sanctitatus tutela (2001), then-Cardinal Ratzinger  argued that “Cases of this kind [=accusations of pedophilia against priests] are subject to the pontifical secret,” i.e., that the Church has no binding obligation to report the findings of internal investigations into allegations of pedophilia to the civil authorities, even if it finds the accused guilty. I think by now we all know the story of how Cardinal Law escaped the law, whether or not we’ve seen “Spotlight” (I haven’t, yet).

The Vatican has long regarded itself, and its canon law, as above the civil law of any country and above international law as well, at least in cases of conflict between them.* And canon law binds all Catholics as firmly as sharia binds Muslims. So once again we confront a moral-political equivalence, not an idiosyncrasy of Islam: adherents of both faiths claim the right to supersede civil law, and both claim that God’s law stands above human law. (It should go without saying that I don’t mean that Catholics or members of any other religious denomination should be treated in the way that Trump wants to treat Muslims.)

Bizarrely, despite Munger’s misinterpretation of Trump, he doesn’t think Trump is limiting religious freedom, even if we (falsely) take Trump to be barring literally all Muslims from the United States. Here is Munger again:

That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

“The claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.” No, not at all. I wonder whether Munger has heard of Trump’s proposals to close down mosques. Or to put Muslims in internment camps. Or the suggestion (if that’s what it is) that Muslims be put on a registry–not ruling out the possibility that they have to sign up and register for it in the way that 18-year-old males currently have to sign up for Selective Service.  If these aren’t limitations of religious freedom, how would he characterize them?

But maybe he wants to focus narrowly on the issue of barring entry to Muslims, including citizens. Fair enough: here’s a real-life example. My parents spent the last three weeks in Pakistan, returning last night at JFK via Dubai. They’re both naturalized citizens. Though my mother is religious and my father is not, for present purposes let’s call them both believing Muslims.

So imagine that my parents arrive at JFK bearing visa stamps from Pakistan and the UAE, and bearing a Muslim-sounding name like “Khawaja.” On Trump’s original proposal, they wouldn’t be allowed back into a country that they had lived in for forty years. They’d never see friends or family again–and if Muslim, their American friends and family would never see them again, for fear of not being allowed back to their homes after visiting them abroad. My parents would forfeit all of their assets, including their house, and possibly including their bank accounts and their prospective retirement income. Since they’re not dead, their will wouldn’t apply, so all of those assets would revert to the state. They would have to find a home back in Pakistan, a place they left forty years ago–or else in the UAE, where they would lack citizenship and not know the language. They’re both in their 70s, but they’d have to begin their lives anew. (Would it be money laundering if I cut my parents a check or two for food? Would I be materially aiding the enemy if I sent them a care package of rice, lentils, and achaar?)

Perhaps Munger thinks that a barrier on entry back to one’s home country is not a limitation of specifically religious freedom, since the people in question are not returning home for a specifically religious reason. (Well, let’s be careful here. My mother is a kind of folk occasionalist, so as far as she’s concerned, every action is a divine action, and everything is a “religious reason.”). But obviously, their freedom would be limited on religious grounds–i.e., because they were Muslims. It seems obvious that Trump’s claim can accurately be characterized either by saying he wants to limit religious freedom, or more pedantically by saying that people’s freedom should be limited on a religious basis. One obvious way of reading “limited” would be to take it as a euphemistic synonym for “violated.” In other words, the proposition Munger is considering is: “Should we or should we not, on a Lockean basis, violate people’s rights, as long as they’re Muslims?” Is that really an improvement on Trump, or is it evidence that he’s managed to sweep libertarian academics into his juggernaut?

We’re left with one last issue. What if Islam “ipso facto requires…that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws”? Gee. In other words: what if Muslims were…anarchists, like half of BHL? Then we’d really have a case for keeping them out of the country. I guess this means that the next time Michael Huemer leaves the country, he’s indefinitely to be detained at the border and refused entry back into the United States. Same with Gary Chartier, Roderick Long, and all those other anti-authoritarians at C4SS. I can’t wait for the next time APEE holds a conference in Guatemala City, and half of the libertarian movement is stuck there for the rest of their lives. That’s a long time to have to pore over Locke’s Letter.

I guess the advice I’d offer here is: instead of speculating whether Islam “ipso facto requires” the rejection of non-Muslim civil authority, why not do some actual research and discover the answer? Every religion, and probably every major secular doctrine, can be interpreted in such a way that it entails a rejection of “civil authority and its laws”–Judaism, Christianity, Marxism, and (believe it or not) Lockean libertarianism. And every religion and every major secular doctrine has been interpreted so that it has implications that involve the rejection of such authority on particular occasions. The same is true of Islam. But the obvious inference is that every religion and every major secular doctrine can also be interpreted so that it’s compatible with civil authority, and compatible most or a lot of the time.

The vast majority of American Muslims interpret Islam in this latter “compatibilist” way. (The majority of them are garden-variety Democrats.) The relative minority who don’t accept Islam’s compatibility with “civil authority and its laws,” are, to be sure, a political, cultural, and security problem. But they aren’t a unique security problem, and we don’t need to target every adherent of the faith to deal with them. In case you haven’t noticed, Trump is focused on Muslims as such. He intends to target all of them. So it’s not to the point to haul out a version of Islam that no longer applies, to haul out centuries-old texts entirely irrelevant to our situation, and to wonder whether that’s why Trump is saying what he’s saying, and well, if so, maybe he’s got a point. That’s not why he’s saying what he’s saying, and he doesn’t have a point.  To write as Munger has is to ignore the obvious while creating mysteries where none exist.

Predictably, the BHL discussion devolves into claims like this:

Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

I’m sure the results would be pretty ugly. Of course, they’d be equally ugly if we widely publicized and held a Draw Fagin and/or Shylock Contest, offering a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry, and permitting contestants to festoon their drawings with choice quotations from “On the Jewish Question,” “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or Mein Kampf.  But even if all of the contestants of this would-be contest ended up dead at the hands of Jewish terrorists, it wouldn’t follow that we ought to embark on a witch hunt against “domestic radical Judaism.” Practically speaking, the implication would be that we’d have to exercise vigilance against these terrorists, and (without banning them outright) also have to question the wisdom of holding such contests. Exactly the same reasoning applies in the Muslim case.

Speaking of anti-Semitism, every passing day brings increasing confirmation of Edward Said’s much-derided but very prescient speculation that anti-Muslim bigotry (“Orientalism”) is a covert and modified form of anti-Semitism. He speaks in this passage of Arabs, but the point he’s making applies generally to Muslims, whether or not they’re of Arab ethnicity.

The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target [is] made smoothly, since the figure [is] essentially the same. …

Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow–because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites–can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels toward the Orient. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish hero, constructed of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist…, and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental (Orientalism, p. 286).

Try that hypothesis on for size. I think it explains a lot about life in the Age of Trump, Cruz, and Carson.

In any case, witch hunt is a good description of what Trump is after. I realize that one isn’t apt to discern a witch hunt if one has never been accused of witchcraft, but take it from someone who has: Trump & Co are out hunting witches. It’d be nice for libertarians, of all people, to see that, and to deal with it with the seriousness it deserves.


*For a book length argument, see Geoffrey Robertson QC, The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights Abuse (2010). Coming from the reverse political direction, many left-wing Catholics have insisted that illegal immigrants should enjoy legally incontestable sanctuary in Catholic churches. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the move, it’s a rejection of civil authority.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, my mentor Alasdair MacIntyre used to make a special bragging point of Catholicism’s rejection of civil authority when it clashed with some claimed prerogative of the Church (e.g., the confidentiality of confession vs. the duty to report a crime to the police). He interpreted his liberal students’ indignant reaction to his views as evidence of their debt, and liberalism’s debt, to Hobbes’s anti-Catholicism (cf. Leviathan, Part IV).

Postscript, December 29, 2015: Having seen “Spotlight” since I wrote this post, I highly recommend it–for the acting, for the story it tells, and for being the rare movie to dramatize intellectual inquiry in an effective way. It also nicely focuses some of the issues discussed in the original post. The next time someone describes political Islam as being a unique threat to American liberty–there’s no Catholic equivalent of ISIS, Al Qaeda, or sharia, after all–it might be worth asking what Islamic institution has sexually violated as many children and done as much damage to the rule of law in the United States as the Catholic Church. Still, that’s not a reason for violating the rights of Catholics or of anyone else. It’s a reason for re-doubling our commitment to respecting and protecting rights on principle across the board.

Eleven years ago, by the way, I was writing online essays like this one. No one can legitimately accuse me of being uncritical of Islam or of events in the Islamic world. But my views haven’t changed. What’s changed are the double standards that surround us. From cutting Muslims a bit of slack in the name of multicultural tolerance, we now seem to have slid to the reverse extreme of demonizing Islam as the root of all evils in the contemporary world. A little objectivity and sense of balance would be nice.

Postscript, February 25, 2016: I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I wish I’d said this in the first place. Munger had said:

Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.

How is covert rejection of the civil authority and its laws an overt incitement to violence and revolution? That claim is self-contradictory.

On the other hand, if incitement is overt, and we assume that incitement is justly illegal, where is the puzzle involved in dealing with it? The solution is obvious: arrest all and only those engaged in the illegal activity.

Munger appears to avoid this dilemma by predicating “threat” and “incitement” not of agents but of “religion” as such. But since a religion is not an agent, its content only becomes threatening or inciting when an adherent makes it one. Threats and incitements that sit within the pages of some dusty tome can only sit there until someone makes use of them. If the sheer existence of claims is to be regarded as inciting or threatening, you may as well start legal proceedings against the books themselves.

Bottom line: in addition to all of the other problems Munger’s view faces, it faces a fatal and obvious dilemma. And yes, I’m done discussing it.

Killing in the Name Of: Jason Brennan on Abortion and Self-Defense (1 of 2)

Jason Brennan has a post a few weeks back on abortion and self-defense (Nov. 30), written in the wake of the Planned Parenthood attack in Colorado Springs (Nov. 29). The point he makes is simple, and the argument he offers is, very narrowly construed, sound. But construe the conclusion slightly differently than he does, and the argument misses the point in an obvious way.

The claim in short is that if you think that abortion is murder, and its victims are innocent, you have the right to defend the innocent by force. If the force in question requires killing those who perform abortions, so be it. Brennan invokes a lot of “common law” reasoning to bolster the plausibility of the conditional*, but the appeal to common law is a dialectical fifth wheel that does no real work here. He’s just assuming what we all assume–that you can kill a killer.  After some thought-experimental invocations of superheroes, we reach the conclusion that if you believe that abortion is murder, it would be permissible for you to go around killing abortion providers.  Here’s the conclusion of the argument, put in the mouth of the would-be fetus defender:

“I will, if necessary (if there are no equally effective non-lethal means), kill any would-be child murders to stop them from killing children.” Again, this seems heroic, not wrongful.

Note the parenthetical. What we have here is a conditional claim whose antecedent involves another conditional. Let me re-phrase it slightly, without loss of authorial intention, but with a little gain in clarity:

If necessary, and if there are no equally effective non-lethal means, then kill those whom it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing.

Lots of modal claims going on there. Let’s rephrase once again:

If necessary, kill those it’s necessary to kill in order to stop the killing, but if it’s not necessary, do not do so.

What does “necessary” really mean here? I take it that “necessary” means “necessary for bringing about some end.” But the end is not plausibly construed as “bringing abortions down to zero, full stop, by all available means, regardless of any other normative considerations.” The end in question is some complex goal, e.g., a just society or the common good or whatever, where superordinate higher-order features of the goal regulate subordinate features, including strategies for achieving this or that political outcome.

So the anti-abortionist’s ultimate goal is not plausibly described as “do what’s necessary to stop the killing.” It’s “do what’s necessary to bring about the common good, stopping the killing in a way that’s compatible with bringing about the common good.” I’m pro-choice, but it seems to me that anti-abortionists (or pro-lifers or whatever we call them) are entitled to a plausible conception of post bellum considerations, no matter how militant they are about ending abortion. They don’t just want to end abortion, full stop. They want to live in a just society without abortion, and it may not be possible to do that if you try to end abortion by killing people. In any case, the two things–stop the killing and live in a just society without abortion–are not the same thing.

Suppose that abortion really is murder. In that case, killing abortionists would be one obvious means of stopping abortions, but killing would also likely have seriously adverse consequences. It might increase hostility for anti-abortionists to the point of instigating widespread persecution against them. It might even start a civil war. Further, it’s easier in talk than in practice to kill all and only the “right” people during a terrorist/vigilante campaign. Once the killing begins, the enterprise of killing is often overcome by some terrorist/vigilante equivalent of the fog of war, and the wrong people get killed with amazing frequency. Any of those outcomes could obtain, and any of them might end up being worse for the anti-abortion cause (much worse) than not killing abortion providers.

It’s hard to be precise about expected outcomes of this sort, so people reasonably disagree about them. Some people think that a campaign of killing would, all in, be good for the anti-abortion cause. Others disagree. Obviously, both the complexity of the calculations and the possibility of disagreement about them might help explain why even fervent anti-abortionists have a (disjunctive) principled reason for not going around killing abortionists. They may either think that doing so is self-defeating, or they might think that doing so might very well end up being self-defeating, and not worth risking, as long as there are relatively peaceful (or at least orderly) political means for achieving the same ends with fewer collateral damages.

In recent times, the history of the abortion controversy begins with a deceptively liberating case from the pro-choice perspective (Roe vs. Wade) and proceeds from there to a series of restrictions on the original Roe vs. Wade restrictions on abortion, so that abortion, though nominally legal in the U.S, is in many ways embattled and under siege. In other words, opponents of abortion rights have done a pretty creditable job of subverting the right to abortion by purely legal means. Of course, abortions do still take place, and on the anti-abortion view, those abortions are murder. But the question is whether a campaign of vigilante killing would have purchased more for them than the political-judicial campaign they’ve actually enacted. Hardly as obvious as Brennan’s argument suggests.

It’s an open question whether anti-abortionists could, by purely legal means, do a better job of subverting abortion rights than they could by killing abortionists. The United States ended slavery by warfare in 1865; Brazil ended slavery without warfare in 1888. Anti-abortionists could in principle plump for a Brazilian approach to the abolition of abortion on the grounds that while that approach would take longer, it might prove more counter-factually stable than a faster-acting but more violent approach. Arguably, violence would be counter-productive and self-defeating, possibly catastrophically so.

Since it makes no sense to enact a self-defeating strategy, and it’s highly risky to enact what could be (catastrophically) self-defeating, anti-abortionists need not worry that Brennan’s argument pushes them into wanton murder. Contrary to Brennan, “the” issue involved in the abortion debate is not just the moral status of abortion (though I agree that that’s the fundamental issue) but what to do about the fact that abortion is a complex issue that elicits widespread disagreement. In other words, the philosophical issue is not just the theoretical one of whether or not abortion is murder, but the practical one of what to do about the fact that certain ways of disagreeing about it are potentially murderous.

Now consider Brennan’s list of would-be objections to his argument:

There are a number of objections to this line of reasoning, including:

  1. It’s wrong to engage in vigilante justice.
  2. Batman must allow people to murder children because he has a duty to obey the law, and the law permits child murder.
  3. Batman must not kill the child-killers, but must instead only use peaceful means.
  4. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because it probably won’t work and won’t save any lives.
  5. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because they mean well and don’t think they’re doing anything wrong.
  6. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the claim that “killing six-year-olds is wrongful murder” is controversial among reasonable people.
  7. Batman must not kill the child-killers, because the government or others might retaliate and do even worse things.

I think these objections are either implausible (e.g., 2 is absurd), or are at best mere elaborations of the necessity proviso of defense killing. (E.g., #4.)

Putting aside (4), Brennan is right to say that these are pretty pointless objections. Objection (4) is where the action is. (Construed a certain way, [4] might well entail [1]: vigilante justice might be wrong because it’s likely to be ineffective, and it’s irresponsible to engage in a political strategy that might very well backfire. But I think Brennan intends [1] to mean that vigilante justice is deontically wrong qua violation of the law, full stop. So I’ll ignore it.)

Brennan dismisses (4) as a “at best a mere elaboration…of the necessity proviso of defense killing.” Well, that’s one way of putting things, and not a literally false one, I suppose. But it’s very misleading: a “mere elaboration” of a proviso can also explain why the proviso cannot be enacted under foreseeable conditions, and (4) does just that. In other words, what Brennan calls a “at best a mere elaboration” ends up explaining why, once we leave the thought-experimental laboratory, his suggestion makes no sense in the real political world where it’s supposed to have application.

Digression: the same sort of “elaboration” is the strategy behind what’s come to be called “contingent pacifism” in the just war literature; contingent pacifism is the strategy of justifying de facto pacifism by construing just war provisos in such a way that they can almost never be satisfied in the real world. This literature suggests that depending on how one construes its claims, just war theory (and its doctrine of necessity) can lead either to very hawkish policy prescriptions or to pacifism. But if the same theory leads different theorists to contrary outcomes with respect to the same issue, the differences between the different applications of the theory–the contingencies in question–can hardly be philosophically trivial. If my version of a doctrine leads me to wage war, and your version of the same doctrine prohibits you from ever going to war, it makes no sense to say, “Don’t worry, we’re agreeing on the theory; we just disagree on the contingencies.” In this case, the disagreement on the contingencies could mean the difference between a decade of war and a decade of peace. Conceptualizing that difference is a paradigmatically philosophical task.

Back to abortion: Not killing abortionists because you could get arrested, and/or because it would undermine the anti-abortionist cause, and/or because the collateral damages would be too high, and/or because it could start a civil war are not trivial considerations, whether “morally” or “practically.” From the first person perspective of an agent deciding what to do–not what to write in a blog post–these are all considerations of paramount importance. They make the difference between going ahead and killing someone and deciding not to. So a reader could grant 99.9999% of Brennan’s argument in principle, but still think that the 0.00001 remainder makes a crucial and theoretically significant difference to political practice. And he might insist that Brennan’s way of rendering the argument reveals a blind spot in his thinking about the relation between theory and practice.

I’d put the latter issue like this: Taken as an academic exercise, with all qualifications duly noted, and abstracting entirely from what would be necessary to enact his advice in practice, Brennan’s argument is perfectly sound. Taken as real-world political advice, however, and factoring in all relevant considerations–including prudential considerations about expected consequences–Brennan’s advice is myopic and insane. It seems to me that when the theoretical version of a prescriptive argument ends up sound, but the practical version of it is insane, we’re obliged to think harder about the relation between arguments, theory, and practice.

At a minimum, I think we’re obliged to note the huge gap that obtains between theoretical prescriptions and practical ones. It sounds oxymoronic, but it isn’t. A theoretical prescription is a prescription offered ex hypothesi, as an exercise in deontic logic, without pretending to guide real-life practice: it notes a normative entailment; it doesn’t claim to tell people what to do. A practical prescription is a prescription intended to guide practice, all things considered; it doesn’t just note an entailment, but tells us, all in, what to do.** Put differently, there is a huge difference between saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–but don’t actually do that, for God’s sake, I’m only pointing out where your views lead!” and saying, “Your views entail that you should go out and kill people–and if that’s where your views lead, so be it. So get your gun and hop to it!” Brennan is saying the former (I think), but you could be excused for interpreting him as saying the latter. The lesson here is paradox-like but not paradoxical:  A prescriptive argument can be sound and yet defective as advice.

The underlying disagreement here, it seems to me, is a version of Hobbes versus Aristotle on prudence. Aristotle takes phronesis (‘prudence’) to be an intellectual virtue that guides individual, first-personal decisions. Despite its practical, individualized, contextualized, consequence-sensitive, first-personal nature, Aristotle insists that phronesis a legitimate object of philosophical inquiry and a legitimate source of knowledge (Nicomachean Ethics, VI.5-13). A view like this puts a certain premium on the nuts and bolts of deliberation, from acceptance of the premises that motivate an action down to the details of what ultimately produces the action in the real world. On an Aristotelian view, what’s philosophically interesting is not just the abstract schema that the agent accepts but how the agent translates that schema into the particularities of a particular action. “Translating a schema into the particularities of a particular action” is the work of phronesis. 

Hobbes denies that prudence so conceived has any significant epistemic value (Leviathan, IV.46.1-6):

… we are not to account as any part thereof, that originall knowledge called Experience, in which consisteth Prudence: Because it is not attained by Reasoning, but found as well in Brute Beasts, as in Man; and is but a Memory of successions of events in times past, wherein the omission of every little circumstance altering the effect, frustrateth the expectation of the most Prudent: whereas nothing is produced by Reasoning aright, but generall, eternall, and immutable Truth.

Prudence, in short, is unscientific. It yields contingent, changeable, contextualized truths, neither important enough nor counterfactually stable enough nor wide enough in scope to count as genuine philosophical knowledge. How the agent translates an abstract schema into action is philosophically uninteresting. What matters is the schema–the model– itself. From this perspective, an inquiry into what the agent is, all things considered, to do seems too fine-grained, variable, and messy to be a genuinely philosophical or genuinely worthwhile activity.

Contemporary Hobbesians (as I’m thinking of them) prize thought-experimentation and social science at the expense of mere first-hand experience, and at the expense of an account of the requirements of first-personal deliberation (i.e., prudence). First-personal agents disappear from view, as do their deliberations and deliberative needs. From this perspective, the mere prudence required for intelligent political action is unworthy of philosophical inquiry. Anarchist Hobbesians have a plausible-looking rationale for this insistence: on their view, politics is an unworthy occupation, so it stands to reason that the epistemic virtues it require are themselves unworthy of sustained reflection.***

As I see it, one of the most valuable contributions of neo-Aristotelian theorizing (in the Nussbaumian mode) is to put social science and thought-experimentation in its place, and insist on the first-personal perspective of the agent and her deliberations–along with history, psychology, and common sense. On a view like this, it isn’t enough to know that if abortion is murder, and self-defense is justified, you can infer that defensive killing would be justified to save fetuses from murder. You need to know whether, even if that argument is sound, you should actually be out killing people. If so, you need to know whom to kill, when and how; how to prevent predictable disasters that arise when you start killing people; and how the killing enterprise fits into the larger aim of achieving the common good. That sounds like “mere strategy” to some people, but on an Aristotelian view, it’s precisely the kind of knowledge that the just and wise agent has, and that the political philosopher studies in order to grasp the nature of justice and wisdom.

Anyway, thought experiments and social science are of some, but relatively little value here. Eventually, thought experiments run out of prescriptive steam for the obvious reason that life isn’t an experiment. Social science runs out of useful things to say because we can’t do experiments on novel courses of action that no one has yet tried–but we can’t refuse to do novel things because there’s no existing social scientific literature about them, either. A virtue like phronesis is indispensable here, both for deliberative agents and for theorists theorizing about what such agents do. If you’re going to do something–e.g., engage in political action–you have to know how to do it, and the only way to know how to do something is to have done it (or have rehearsed doing something as much like it as possible). You need the kind of knowledge that Hobbes denigrates and that our neo-Hobbesians ignore. 

Bottom line: even if you think abortion is murder, don’t do what Jason Brennan tells you. (PS: It’s not really relevant to my argument, but in case you’re wondering, I’m pro-choice on the abortion issue. I believe in abortion on demand from the moment of conception until birth, with some moral reservations about late abortion, while rejecting legal restrictions on it.)

*I corrected this sentence. It originally said, “antecedent of the conditional,” but what I meant was that Brennan invokes common law to bolster the plausibility of the conditional as such.

**I reworded the latter clause after posting. The previous version (which I’ve now forgotten) was wordier and somewhat unclear.

***”Anarchist Hobbesian” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but I don’t think it is. It could mean (a) an anarchist whose meta-philosophical views map onto Hobbes’s and/or (b) an anarchist whose account of political authority maps onto Hobbes’s, but who infers on that basis that no states have authority.

The case against the Objectivist Movement, redux: David Harriman on the shoals of integrity

I realize that this post will only be inside baseball for people interested in the vicissitudes of and infighting within the Objectivist movement, but I’ll take that risk. Back in May, I took public issue with The Atlas Society’s invitation of David Harriman to The Atlas Summit, its summer 2014 event. That led to a predictably acrimonious argument at TAS’s site which ended with David Kelley’s issuing a snippy denunciation of me, and unceremoniously–or do I mean ceremoniously–closing down the combox.

My view is simple,and so far stands both unaddressed and unrefuted by Kelley and his associates. For twenty-five years, David Harriman made common cause with the most militantly dogmatic and defamation-happy elements of the Objectivist movement. And applied to ARI, “militantly dogmatic” and “defamation-happy” are literal descriptions, not exaggerations or metaphors. Like so many people associated with ARI–including people who spent decades attacking libertarians as “nihilists” but have now decided to make common cause with them–he’s recently done an abrupt and unexplained about-face, which TAS, in turn, has decided to accept at face value. My claim is that Harriman owes us a public accounting of, and apology for, his prior associations. Otherwise, he deserves condemnation and ostracism. Wrongdoing demands a response in kind. It can’t simply go ignored or excused.

In May, TAS had claimed that Harriman would appear on a panel at their summer event, and explain all. Here is a video of the event, if you have an hour of your life to waste on it, as I did the other day.

[November 20, 2014: For some reason, the video is no longer working, but you can still watch it via the Atlas Society site. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure.]

[November 23, 2014: see note below.]

It’s no exaggeration to say that the panel consists of a very tedious hour of evasions and rationalizations. It doesn’t respond to a single issue I raised; the panelists simply pretend that the issues don’t exist. I’ve responded to the panel here, responding in turn to a like-minded post by Jonathan Smith somewhat before mine. The thread as a whole is 130+ comments long and began in March, well before the Harriman controversy. (I regret that the thread ended up being “hijacked” by the Harriman controversy, but feel free to blame that on Kelley, who attacked me, and then closed down the most obvious forum in which to respond. I wouldn’t have joined the discussion on the Atlas Summit at the Objectivist Living site* had I not become the topic of the discussion there without any effort on my part.) Post 43 (May 25) is my rejoinder to Kelley’s “response” to me just after he closed down the comments at TAS.

Outsiders may well be mystified by the vitriolic character of the rhetoric involved, but I think insiders should be able to figure out why things have reached this point. Suffice it to say that there’s twenty-five years of back story here–a quarter of a century of lies, evasions, and defamations, and with it, a quarter-century of bitterness and betrayal. There are also a series of cautionary tales here for anyone who gets his feet wet in the controversy:

  • Lesson 1: The Objectivist movement is a thoroughly neurotic affair, regardless of what camp of it one has in mind.
  • Lesson 2: In general, movements tend to be thoroughly neurotic affairs, regardless of the original intentions of their founders.
  • Lesson 3: When the founders of a movement are themselves deeply neurotic–and here I mean Rand, Nathaniel Branden, and the entire “Inner Circle” that surrounded them, especially in the 1960s–expect the latent neuroses of the movement to ramify and intensify in directions set by the founders, and then to be transmitted, like disease vectors, across the decades.
  • Lesson 4: Whatever one thinks of Objectivism as philosophy, it’s time to end the Objectivist movement. It serves no beneficial purpose that isn’t offset by the harms it does and the corruption it involves. And that applies to the whole movement, in both its ARI and TAS incarnations.

I’ve made the case for Lesson 4 twice before, once on this blog, and once on a different one. David Kelley has, malgre lui, made the case for me yet again.

The original IOS project was one of promise and hope. Unfortunately, if you wish to see its monument, you’ll have to look to the distant past for a glimpse of it in dusty archives, old-timers’ stories, and track-back machines. The present organization is a pale shadow or dull echo–or honestly, just a bad parody–of its predecessor. Personally, I don’t find it worth looking at, worth listening to, or worth interacting with. Neither, I think, should anyone reading this. An inside allusion, but: no one is obliged to play Eddie Willers to this pathetic “movement.” The Objectivist train has come to a halt. It’s time to get off and, as John Galt puts it, to go back to the world. It’s bad enough to “live for the sake of another man.” It’s worse, much worse, to live for a “movement” with less life in it than any human being, and less capacity for forward motion. That’s what the Objectivist movement has become. What remains is just to admit it.

*For clarity’s sake, I added the phrase “at the Objectivist Living site” and the word “there” in the same sentence a few hours after posting.

[Postscript, November 23, 2014: Apparently, you no longer can still watch the video via the Atlas Society site. If you try, as I just did,you get a message that says “This video is private.”  Why the sudden need to make the video private? A few months ago, TAS was boasting about what their Atlas Summit panel presentation would reveal. Then they shut down the comments in which I predicted that it would reveal exactly nothing. Then I was proven right. Having been proven right, I decided to say so in public. All of a sudden, the loudly-heralded video that proved me right was quietly made “private.” Could it be that the champions of “Open Objectivism” are unwilling to bear public scrutiny–i.e., unwilling to “tolerate” the kind of critical discussion that takes place in the open?

Twenty-five years ago, in “A Question of Sanction,” David Kelley had criticized Peter Schwartz and others for advocating a policy of preaching to the converted, which he (Kelley) described, accurately enough, as “a sorry sort of ingrown activism.” Kelley has, I’m afraid, become heir to the attitudes he once criticized–and come to suborn the same attitudes in his “followers.” It’s a pathetic conclusion to what might have been an illustrious project and career.]

Postscript, November 6, 2014: This has nothing to do with Harriman-at-TAS, but is relevant to any chronicling of the malfeasances of the Objectivist movement. Having unfortunately let my JARS subscription lapse, I missed this revelation from Chris Sciabarra’s editorial to their July 2014 issue (also posted at his blog):

For several years, Allan Gotthelf and I exchanged correspondence, both before and after the 1995 publication of the first edition of my book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. I acknowledged his criticisms of my work in my book—indeed, it was he who provided the precise wording with which he felt most comfortable. But when the book was finally published, he felt obliged to tell me that he would do “scholarly battle against” my work and its “obfuscation” of the ideas of Ayn Rand (correspondence, 26 May 1996).

That battle sometimes took on a bit of partisan ugliness. When our journal was first published, we worked diligently to get it included in indexing and abstracting services across disciplines and geographic boundaries. Our efforts paid off considerably; we are now indexed and abstracted by nearly two dozen services in the humanities and social sciences. But getting JARS into The Philosopher’s Index was something that Allan Gotthelf opposed strongly. At a meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in December 1999, he took exception to the very idea of including The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies in The Philosopher’s Index. He could not outright oppose the inclusion of Rand scholarship per se in an index aimed at reaching academia, for he was a cofounder of The Ayn Rand Society, itself affiliated with the Eastern Division of the APA. But he made it very clear that, in his view, JARS was not a legitimate scholarly undertaking—despite the fact that several members of its founding advisory board had been officers of, and presenters to, the very society that he chaired. Nevertheless, as required, we submitted the first three issues of our journal to the Philosopher’s Information Center, and JARS was added to the Index immediately thereafter.

I counted myself a friend and colleague of Gotthelf’s during the period in question. I knew of his animus against JARS; at first I regarded it as partly justified but mostly overwrought, but eventually I came to regard it as pathological. That said, I had no idea that he’d worked to exclude JARS from The Philosopher’s Index (and I find it interesting that in more than a decades’ acquaintance with him, he never brought it up). I don’t think think Carrie-Ann knew that, either, and Carrie-Ann was (and is) an indexer/editor for The Philosopher’s Index. I draw attention to this issue because it’s of a piece with the Harriman affair, and also very much par for the course among movement-Objectivists: deliberate opacity as a permanent way of life for people who regard themselves as aspiring “public intellectuals” (in some cases without the modifier “aspiring,” but also, alas, without a public).

It all ought to be (but isn’t) a cautionary tale to the Matt Zwolinskis of the philosophy profession, who apparently operate on the premise that any association with any organization is justified, and any invitation from anyone is worth accepting–as long as you don’t look too hard at the agenda of the people you’re dealing with, and as long as you have a fabulous time doing whatever you’re doing (scroll down to the comments of this discussion). I guess if it came down to selling BHL to white supremacist organizations, then, there’d be no intelligible basis for demurral, right? Give it a shot, Matt. I’m sure they’d be happy to have you bless their next conference with your presence. Some of them are, after all, former libertarians. There’s always time to bring them back into the fold.

The truth is that when you interact with movement-Objectivism at, say, the APA what you’re doing is lending the movement respectability it doesn’t deserve, and couldn’t acquire in any other way. You’re also strengthening a series of front organizations who do what they can to exclude whomever they deem their ideological enemies from participation in the very events in which you might be participating. Feel free to say that you don’t care or have other priorities–I sympathize, because I did the same for so long–but it probably isn’t a good idea to invoke the accusation of “conspiracy theorizing” to deny that it’s happening, when, like Zwolinski, you conspicuously (and avowedly) have no idea what you’re talking about. And would rather not learn.