The silence of Objectivism about the moral character of private acts, and thus of public acts

Kristor, the man whose understanding, Randian Bob A. tells us, is as deep as a shallow puddle, writes:

I was ruminating about Randians while tending the fire last weekend, and it seems to me that what it boils down to is that they reject any notion that there may exist objectively wicked acts that do not directly harm others, but that, due to their intrinsic wickedness, harm those who perform them, thereby indirectly harming society, and so create a valid social interest in their control.

The classic example is drugs. If I’m not harming anyone else with my drug habit, what’s the problem? This assumes that (a) there is in fact no way that my drug abuse harms others and (b) that my drug abuse is not objectively objectionable, as inherently wicked, quite apart from whether it directly harms anyone else’s interests. As to (b), it seems clear to me that drug abuse is intrinsically wicked, because it disorders (even if only temporarily) the natural form of the body, so that it does not work as nature or nature’s God intended. As to (a), it seems clear that when I abuse drugs, the intrinsic wickedness thereof, by disordering my body, reduces my productive capacity—perhaps permanently—and reduces thereby the likely future prosperity of society at large, ceteris paribus.

Now, society—my parents and other relatives, my friends, the church and the state—has invested a lot in me. Certainly the capital I embody is now under my control, to dispose of as I see fit; but it—or, at least, the raw material of it, in which over the course of my life and education I, too, have invested by my labors—has been devolved to me gratis by society, especially by my parents. In no sense did I purchase my own existence, for it was given to me freely from the beginning, before I existed to possess the least jot of value, that might have merited the donation. Nor do I really own the productive capacity that I choose to invest in multiplying the value of the investment society originally made in me; my life is given to me, moment by moment, along with the rain, the sun, and the seasons. I did not earn any of the physiological and epistemic assets I now employ in my own enrichment, nor have I earned my continued capacity thus to use them. I don’t arrange to wake up in the morning, or breathe, or metabolize, or see, or think. All these are given to me. So I don’t really own my own existence. Rather, I am no more, really, than a steward of the resources now under my control. I owe everything to the past, but since it is past I can render compensation only toward the future. The resources of my body are intended, then, finally, for the long term health and welfare of my descendants. Should I consume them, it ought to be in service of some longer term good, that will ultimately redound to the prosperity of my heirs, even if only by making me happier in my work, and thus more productive—as, admittedly, some drug use (especially I would say of coffee, beer, and wine) indeed does.

Whether I am in danger of destroying the human capital I embody is, it seems to me, to be of legitimate concern to society. If everyone were a coke head, society would come crashing down. Behavior that can potentially have such a lethal effect on society is ipso facto dangerous to all its members, and would seem to fall within the scope of its legitimate concern, and self-defensive control. If you harm a member of society, you harm society; and this is no less true when the agent of that harm is the member himself. A society has the right and duty to defend itself—i.e., its members—from harm. So the traditionalist might say that society has the right and duty to defend its members from the most dangerous kinds of self-destructive behavior, by trying to prevent them. And high school health classes are evidently insufficient to this purpose (particularly when all the most authoritative organs of social order adjure the young to disdain all authority). Since so many self-destructive behaviors wreak their deleterious effects over a long period, making their eventual painful consequences far more difficult to discern (especially for the invulnerable young) than their near-term payoffs, it makes sense for society to weight the scales against them by adding to our moral calculus a near term legal penalty for vice.

What I don’t know for sure, though, is whether Randians believe that an act that directly redounds to the detriment only of its agent can be characterized as intrinsically wicked. They might. But I doubt it. I don’t see how as atheists they really can do so, in the final analysis. For if atheism is true, there is no such thing as a final analysis; because there is no ultimate order at the back of things, so there is no sense that can ultimately be made of them. If there is no final analysis, then there is no analysis of any kind whatsoever, but rather only vapid maunderings that have the appearance of meaningfulness. And, so, if there is no final analysis, there is no way to analyze anything as essentially wicked, or virtuous either. Morally, the Randian would seem to be paralyzed, at least insofar as he attempts to carry his moral theory into practice. And moral paralysis is ipso facto political paralysis.

To get back then to the point I started out to make, what this boils down to is that as atheists the Randians have no way to discern the moral character of private acts (and thus no ultimate foundation for such discernment with respect to public acts; so that their proscription of force and fraud is not ultimately warranted, and so is no more than adventitious). With respect to that character, they have to remain silent. But by their silence, of course, they provide tacit approval, for what is not forbidden is allowed—is, i.e., within the pale of social justice, and so treated by the authoritative organs of society as a normal, respectable aspect of social order. And this cannot but have the effect of making self-destructive behavior normal, and thus commonplace. That is a recipe for catastrophe, as we are now seeing. Laxity with respect to sexual morality, encoded in law beginning in the 1930s (accomplished, let it be noted, by a libertarian relaxation of legal prohibitions of deviations from traditional sexual mores), is systematically destroying the subsidiary systems of society, by destroying the family, women, and especially men. Sexual libertinism is deforming even male skeletons and genitals (not just of humans, but of many animal species), as female hormones pollute our food and water.

The bottom line: the dictum, “Do whatever you like, so long as you don’t hurt anyone else,” does not suffice to order a society, because it does not suffice to order an individual life. There is a complex nexus of feedback relations between individual lives and the social order, of which the legal order is an aspect. Individual lives depend upon society, and constitute it. As they go, so it goes; and as it goes, so do they. To say this is no more than to say that if we are to live, we must do so together, and so must order our lives in respect to each other, and to our joint prosperity—not just across space, but across time.

Ordering lives across time, across generations, is the function of tradition. Libertarianism presupposes a vibrant moral tradition, that has informed a people from the bottom up, so that the net result of their unsupervised activities is social harmony, justice, prosperity. Where such a tradition perdures, the libertarian project can perhaps succeed. Where not, not. If you have no tradition, you have no nexus of support for your individual agency, and thus no true freedom to organize your activities toward your own ends. Rather, you have only raw lurching from one dire exigency to the next, with no notion of a fundamental moral order to inform your deliberations. Randian atheism demolishes the ontological basis for morality, and so cannot but destroy moral tradition, thus preventing the option of libertarianism. “If there is no God, then all is permitted”—including force, and fraud.

- end of initial entry -

LA writes:

Thanks to Kristor for this profound essay.

For the moment, one thought. Objectivists say that they do posit a moral criterion for private acts that redound only on the agent: does the act advance, empower, and enrich the life of the agent, or harm it? The obvious problem with that criterion is that numerous private acts that redound only on the agent may be believed by the agent to be good for him, because they advance his life, when in reality they are bad for him, because they damage his life. What, then, is the common and authoritative source of valuation to decide such cases? Plato, Aristotle, and Rand would all agree that the source of valuation, the criterion of morality, is human nature in its fullest development, though they each define human nature differently. The problem for the Randians, it seems to me, is that the Randian view of human nature is far too narrow and limited to have anything useful to say regarding the vast range of moral problems of the type that we are discussing.

To take just one example, because it is the example that is brought up most frequently and most vociferously by the Randians who write to me: Randians believe that homosexual acts are good, if the individual desires to engage in them. Yet all of Western morality, including not just Judaism and Christianity but Plato, holds that homosexual acts are bad. The Western position is based on a large and comprehensive view of human nature, and the insight that homosexual conduct harms that nature. The Randian position is based on a very narrow view of human nature, which comes down to the desire of the individual to do what he wants, without interference by the forces of society. The Western view is compatible with the good of the human being and the good of the society of which he is a part. The Randian view is compatible only with the desire of people to do what they want, notwithstanding the Randians’ insistence that they posit a moral criterion for human actions.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 01, 2010 01:57 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):