Friday, December 09, 2005

Recent Items of Interest

Today Charles Krauthammer comes close to understanding the obvious about the Saddam Hussein trial in Iraq:

Although Hussein deserves to be shot like a dog -- or, same thing, like the Ceausescus -- we nonetheless decided to give him a trial. First, to demonstrate the moral superiority of the new Iraq as it struggles to live by the rule of law. Second, and even more important, to bear witness.
At least he agrees that Hussein "deserves to be shot like dog" -- this is something many Objectivists have understood all along. But contrary to Krauthammer's claim there's is no justification or need for demonstrating "the moral superiority of the new Iraq" and certainly not via a trial of a mass murderer. Dr. Yaron Brook at ARI states the case most clearly in a press release from December 2003:
"The values compromised or lost by going through an Iraqi trial would be far greater than anything we could possibly gain. By its nature a trial grants the defendant the presumption of innocence. With the evidence of his guilt so overwhelming, how can the Congress, the President or any honest person presume Saddam's innocence? A trial also grants the presumption that there could possibly be some sane defense of mass murder. That presumption should never be allowed. Worst of all, a trial would give Saddam a platform to address the world while under the presumption of innocence--an unconscionable concession to evil.
"Saddam is guilty of killing hundreds of American soldiers; he's guilty of initiating a war against the Kuwaitis; and he's guilty of murdering hundreds of thousands of his own people. This murderer deserves a firing squad, and the sooner the better."
Also today Caroline Click of the Jerusalem Post made this interesting point in her column "Arik and Iraq":

Quite simply the president has staked his presidency on the war in Iraq and he cannot afford to accept defeat on that battlefield. At the same time, the political weakening of the administration as a result of the unrelenting attacks on its handling of the war makes it unlikely that Bush will widen the war to include Iran and Syria (or Saudi Arabia) which serve as the principal bases for the terrorists fighting in Iraq. In the absence of a military option against any of these countries, it is difficult to believe that the Americans will be able to win the war in Iraq before the end of Bush's second term.

Bush's successor, regardless of his party affiliation, will not be personally invested in Iraq as Bush is. As a result the next American president will not be able to be counted on to see the war through to victory. In light of this, it cannot be ruled out that the US will depart from Iraq without victory.

I would have to agree that it's difficult to see how Iraq can be stabilized without initiating military action against Iran and Syria, yet I don't really see this administration doing so, unless Syria or more likely Iran provides a clear provocation. This is unfortunately necessary as our government refuses to consider all previous interaction with Iran as sufficient to justify a military intervention, even though ever since the embassy hostage taking, the Lebanese bombings of our Marine barracks and embassy in Lebanon, as well as hostage taking, the threatening of our publishers for publishing Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses", etc. it would seem we have had plenty of provocation.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Smear Followup (part 2)

(Continued from here)

Valiunas next criticises Ayn Rand's idea that "man is a being of self-made soul":
Human beings in [Rand's] view are entirely “self-made souls”: if there is no Creator, then man must be purely his own creation. But is a creature who arrives on earth through no will of his own, and whose nature, both as a human being and as an individual, is circumscribed by genetic endowment and other inscrutable strokes of fate. man is sole master of his destiny... Rand has no idea what being reasonable means, and no sense of men as creatures, each graced—whether by chance or design—with his own particular gifts, lacking others he may wish he had, and subject to all the pains of his individual nature and of human nature.
It seems Valiunas is here is taking a rather Augustinian view of man's life, or as Objectivists would term it a malevolent view. Contrary to Valiunas describes Ayn Rand does recognize that people come from different backgrounds and circumstances, as well as with different genetic endowments and this is evident in both her fiction and nonfiction. After all, she has both great and small, rich and poor, intelligent and not-so intelligent morally good and bad characters. It is also evident in her nonfiction, where she always emphasized that she is not morally demanding a certain level of intelligence but only the use of one's intelligence to one's fullest capacity.

However, she denies that one's background or genetics are fundamental to the formation of one's character, which despite Valiunas's denial to the contrary is entirely within our capacity to control and shape, so long as we are mentally free (i.e., not psychotic). Valiunas grudgingly admits that "[m]ost individuals are of course responsible for their actions," yet that rings rather hollow given his above endorsements of man's helplessness. It is rather strange to hear Conservatives sound like Liberals and in essence claim that individuals really can't help the way they are.

Valiunas concludes by criticising Ayn Rand's alleged disdain for "compassion":
As a champion of American democracy, finally, Rand is blind to the foremost democratic virtue, namely, compassion. She claims that reason scorns compassion, but that which she despises is in fact rooted in human rationality. Compassionate men of faith accept their gifts as an obligation to help others less gifted, while compassionate agnostics or atheists recognize that chance has a great deal to do with their own excellence, achievement, and prosperity, and, at best, they pity those whom fortune has not dealt with so generously.

There are of course reasonable limits to compassion: no one can be held responsible for everyone else, nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition, and some individuals are so depraved by their own choices that they deserve no compassion from others. But Rand sees compassion as simply evil, an unreasonable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness by nature’s aristocrats, who owe everything to themselves and nothing to anyone else. In this sense, too, her failure as a writer and thinker is her failure as a human being, and her idea of what life should be is inimical to life itself.
Sigh...where to begin! First of all, long time readers of Miss Rand's writings will be suprised to find her described as "a champion of American democracy," given that she made quite a big deal of her advocacy of capitalism and her opposition to unlimited majority rule or "democracy." And they will be further surprised to find that her opposition to altruism turns in Valiunas's writing into opposition to "compassion" even though she was always careful to distinguish altruism from benevolence or compassion.

However, let's assume that Valiunas meant capitalism and altruism and proceed from there. Valiunas claims that compassion is "rooted in human rationality" yet his entire argument for the moral "obligation to help others less gifted" consists in the following claims.
  • Religious people will assume their good fortune is a conditional gift from God -- a gift conditioned on their sharing the gift with the less fortunate.
  • Non-religious people will assume their fortune is largely the result of luck and ought to give to less fortunate out of pity for their lack of luck.
Excuse me? This is supposed to be a rational argument? Sure, if you are willing to believe in a God, all sorts of things may follow, although what those things may be seems to be a subject that has been debated for millenia. For those of us who understand that reason and reality permit no such concept, however, pity does not usually result in moral obligations. Of course, Valiunas again backtracks somewhat arguing for "reasonable limits" on what one is obligated to give but on what basis? Aren't the Christian Saints still admired for practically giving it all to the less fortunate, up to and including their own life? Are they not according to the predominant morality, the most virtuous men that are held up as examples to emulate. Well, Valiunas does not want us to go to extremes. He seeks a compromised "compassion" where "nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition."

I have to admit I'm regretting treating this "embarassing rejoinder" with as much respect as I have, as it does not deserve it. That it was published in Commentary, a magazine I used to respect is even sadder.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Smear Followup (part 1)

In the current December 2005 issue of Commentary Magazine, letters in response to Algis Valiunas's essay "Who needs Ayn Rand" from the September 2005 issue are published, as well as Valiunas's response to the letters. Unlike the original essay, the letters and Valiunas's response are available online (the letters begin on page 20 and the response follows, hat-tip HBL). As readers of this blog may remember, I wrote a long piece criticising the Valiunas essay back in September.

As already mentioned int the blog Passing Thoughts, Valiunas's response is "a truly embarassing rejoinder." It is however a good illustration how some Conservatives are simply unable to go beyond their preconceived views about Ayn Rand and their continuing stubborn refusal to take her ideas seriously.

First of all, Valiunas only concedes a single error -- "the publication date of Ayn Rand's first novel" even though numerous others have been pointed out to him in the letters preceding his response, including the fact that the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) was established in 1985, after her death, a fact he continues to ignore in his confusion of the Nathaniel Branded Institute with ARI.

But let's look at Valiunas's various attempts to criticise Rand's views. He claims:
Socrates, that paragon of reason, famously declared that he knew what he did not know; this awareness of reason’s limitations distinguishes him from those pretending to knowledge they do not actually have. Rand is one of the pretenders: she believes—never proves—that human reason can answer every question, and that indeed her own philosophy does precisely that, once and for all.
It difficult to see what Valiunas is aiming at here. Ayn Rand argued:
Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
As far as I know she did not necessarily argue that human reason can answer every question (though that may ultimately be true). At any given time many questions may be unanswered. She did argue that if there is an answer, it would have be arrived at by means of reason, since that is the way man reaches answers. She also never claimed that her own philosophy answers every question. She explicitly acknowledged philosophical problems to which Objectivism as she defined it has no detailed answer (e.g., the problem of induction). She did have many crucial and original answers to questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and esthetics.

Ayn Rand did have reasons and proof for the answers she gave and they are elaborated in her writings, particularly her nonfiction books Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology as well as in the various other collections of her essays and lectures. It is true that she personally did not write a single volume tome on her ideas. However, during her lifetime she did endorse a lecture course as "the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism." In addition, there has for some time now (since 1991) existed a book based on the authorized lecture course, written by the original presenter and foremost student and heir of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff. If Mr. Valiunas had been truly interested in gaining an understanding of Ayn Rand's reasoning he could have consulted any of those sources but it seems that such research would get in the way of his berating Ayn Rand for her lack of proof for her ideas.

Let's continue to review Valiunas' claims:
In fact, Rand’s reasoning is founded on the very gobbledygook of imperious sentiment that she loathes as reason’s nemesis. She cannot demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God: rather, her pride tells her there cannot be a God, for to acknowledge that a perfect Being exists would be to admit her own inferiority, something her emotional constitution makes unthinkable. So she thought—more precisely, so she felt—at the age of fifteen, when she decided she was an atheist, and, as I noted in my article, she never really refined her basic thoughts or feelings on the matter.
To begin with, it seems an elementary error of logic to demand that Rand "demonstrate by reason the non-existence of God." The onus of proof is on him who asserts the positive. It can however, be shown that the Judeo-Christian God, when desribed in the traditional terms of infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. violates all sorts of basic axioms of existence and logic that the concept simply makes no sense and therefore that cannot have an actual referent in reality. (and this was in fact done in Peikoff's authorized lectures on Objectivism). Of course, if the monotheist then chooses to redefine God, he may escape this reasoning but again, the onus of proof is on him to demonstrate the existence of God. Furthermore, to assert as a criticism that Ayn Rand "felt" that there is no God and "never really refined her thoughts or feelings" is a little disingenous. Ayn Rand refined and clarified numerous aspects of her thought, including her views on religion, as can clearly be seen if Valiunas bothered to study her intellectual development. Frankly, the issue of God is pretty basic. Valiunas, like all Conservatives, tries to pretend that having faith in God and not believing in God are equally faith-based position and thus the Conservatives's ever present assertion of "faith-in-reason" -- but the facts are otherwise. It is a rational conclusion that no evidence for God has ever been found and it is rational to conclude that an impossible of concept of God cannot exist in reality. On the other hand, it is a faith-based feeling that God exists. The two are not equivalent.
(to be continued)