Friday, March 31, 2006

The latest

Earlier this week I finally received the first issue of The Objective Standard (TOS). The issue clearly represents a new milestone in Objectivist publications in every aspect. First it seems by far to be the largest Objectivist periodical publication ever -- over 120 pages in the first issue. Second, while I would have preferred a color other than red (I like the blue on the web page -- why didn't they use that? Red has too many bad connotations-- but I digress), the issue has a highly professional look and feel. Third, the content is excellent. In particular, the Brook/Epstein article on “Just War Theory” vs. American Self-Defense finally lays out in print and in detail the full critique of present war effort.
**
If one thinks the American political scene is depressing, perhaps a look abroad will demonstrate that it could always be worse.

As presumably everyone knows by now, elections were recently held in Israel. Here are the official results per the Jerusalem Post.

The first 12 parties on this list -- those with more than 2% of the vote -- will get proportional representation is Israel's 120 member parliament (the "Knesset") -- see this helpful Q&A. For some details on what the parties stand for see here.
The 12 parties can be more or less divided into four blocks: Religious, Right-Wing, Left-Wing, Arab

Religious (ultra-orthodox -- "haredi") -- 14.1%
  • Shas (run by "Sephardi" Rabbies, i.e., with ethnic origins in Muslim countries)
  • United Torah Judaism (run by "Ashkenazi" Rabbies, i.e., with ethnic origins in European countries)
One has to keep in mind that these parties are more concerned with funding of religious schools and religious laws than any security issues -- they are not to be confused with the religious right in the US.

Right-Wing -- 24.9%
  • Likud
  • Israel Beitenu
  • NU/NRP (also religious)
The NU/NRP is basically the religious right. It's the party of the religious settlers. Israel Beitenu is further to the right than Netanyahu's Likud in terms of defense issues but they tend to be more Anti-Arab than is just, flirting with the idea of a "transfer" of populations.

Left-Wing -- 36.5 %
  • Kadima
  • Labor
  • Gil (party promising to address Senior citizen's issues -- imagine an AARP party)
  • Meretz
Arab -- 7.9%
  • United Arab List
  • Hadash
  • Balad
I think this election clearly demonstrates Daniel Pipes recent thesis that Israel Shuns Victory. Pipes writes:
And so, they experiment with compromise, unilateralism, enriching their enemies, and other schemes. But as Douglas MacArthur observed, "In war, there is no substitute for victory." The Oslo diplomacy ended in dismal failure and so will all the other schemes that avoid the hard work of winning. Israelis eventually must gird themselves to resuming the difficult, bitter, long, and expensive effort needed to convince the Palestinians and others that their dream of eliminating Israel is defunct.

Should Israelis fail to achieve this, then Israel itself will be defunct.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Around the web

  1. Nick Provenzo takes on Jack Wakeland's claims that Objectivists highly critical of Bush's war efforts are "are doing our enemy's work" in an important post on Rule of Reason. Also please support his "$50K to fight for freedom" campaign for the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism
  2. At Stephen Speicher's Forum for Ayn Rand Fans Burgess Laughlin is holding a fascinating detailed discussion on Rodney Stark's controversial new book Victory of Reason:How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics

Contrary to Dennis Prager, many people have no problem drawing the somewhat socialistic implications of these two ancient religions. C. S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity admitted that a truly Christian society would be more socialist society. Now, we have a detailed article (hat-tip Andrew Sullivan) that claims to be "An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics." The article was written by Susan Pace Hamill of the University of Alabama School of Law. From the abstract:
This article severely criticizes the Bush Administration's tax policies under the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics. I first document that Judeo-Christian ethics is the most relevant moral analysis for tax policy because almost eighty percent of Americans and well over ninety percent of the Congress, including President Bush, claim to adhere to the Christian or Jewish faiths. I also show that evaluating federal tax policy under Judeo-Christian principles not only passes constitutional muster but is also appropriate under the norms of a democracy. I then provide a complete theological framework that can be applied to any tax policy structure. Using sources that include leading Evangelical and other Protestant scholars, Papal Encyclicals and Jewish scholars, I prove that tax policy structures meeting the moral principles of Judeo-Christian ethics must raise adequate revenues that not only cover the needs of the minimum state but also ensure that all citizens have a reasonable opportunity to reach their potential. Among other things, reasonable opportunity requires adequate education, healthcare, job training and housing. Using these theological sources, I also establish that flat and consumption tax regimes which shift a large part of the burden to the middle classes are immoral. Consequently, Judeo-Christian based tax policy requires the tax burden to be allocated under a moderately progressive regime.
So far so good. I have never accepted that Judeo-Christian values lead to laissez-faire capitalism. However, Hamill manages to reach this bizarre conclusion:
Using a wealth of sources, I then establish that the moral values driving the Bush Administration's tax policy decisions reflect objectivist ethics, a form of atheism that exalts individual property rights over all other moral considerations.
Certainly, I would like to hope that Objectivism is influencing the President but judging by his actions the influence has, at best, been surface deep. The fact that the President is hesitant to raise taxes is certainly commendable (though I would say that Ayn Rand was hardly the first American to call taxation evil -- this used to be a far more mainstream position). But his many other positions are hardly consonant with what Objectivists would like to see done. Nevertheless, the article includes a mostly surprisingly reasonable summary of Objectivism:
Objectivist ethics views human beings as independent agents and deems each person acting in his or her own rational self-interest as the only avenue to reach moral correctness. Because individual autonomy and right of each person to be able to personally benefit from their efforts in the free market are valued above all other considerations, objectivist ethics unequivocally epitomizes the “leave us alone” philosophy of Grover Norquist and his coalition, which includes the Bush Administration and therefore it is reasonable to assume also includes President
Bush himself.

When morally evaluating legal and economic structures, the principles of objectivist ethics state that in order to avoid discouraging personally autonomy, government functions beyond what is needed to protect each individual’s life, liberty and private property should ideally be eliminated. Because taxation is considered a restraint impinging on the personal autonomy and right of every individual to enjoy the profits from his or her success, the ideal tax policy under objectivist ethics would raise only enough tax revenues to cover the needs of the minimum state and would make the payment of all taxes completely voluntary. Opportunities such as education would be available only in the private free market economy and minimum safety nets providing subsistence and healthcare for the poor and elderly would only be covered by voluntary charitable contributions. In that proponents of objectivist ethics recognize that on a practical level their ideals cannot be fully achieved, they politically advocate cutting all government expenditures beyond the needs of the minimum state as much as possible while substantially reducing the tax burden of the wealthiest individuals and businesses by adopting a flat/consumption tax model. The moral conversation surrounding President Bush’s first term tax cuts, and, the long term goals of taking those trends further towards a flat model squarely reflects the values of objectivist ethics.

Objectivist ethics represents a form of atheism because the human person is substituted for a supreme deity. Within the framework of objectivist ethics individuals owe no moral obligations to endure greater sacrifices for anyone else’s benefit because only each individual’s own self-interest has any moral relevance. Human beings acting in their long term self-interest are considered the sole source of all wealth, and, through the strength of their own rationality are viewed as capable of acting morally without God’s grace or God’s standards of justice as a guide. By providing moral justification for legal structures, such as tax policy, that minimize and seek to eliminate the moral obligations owed to God and therefore to all others in the community, objectivist ethics presents a monumental stumbling block for all Christians and Jews enjoying greater levels of wealth and power than the average person.

Aside from Hamill's frustrating refusal to tread Objectivist as a proper noun, one senses that Hamill has not tried to understand anything beyond Objectivist ethics, which she thinks encompasses the whole philosophy. The reasons for the atheism in Objectivsm are not derived from ethical considerations but for far more fundamental metaphysical and epistemological reasons. The article gives Ayn Rand a lot of credit in influencing the views of today's Conservatives, and certainly some of that is true but really, as far as laissez-faire is concerned, it has a long history in the United States with many supporters particularly in the 19th century. And even in the 20th, given the inconsistency of Bush's own support for capitalism, it's clear that he is far more influenced by moderate, compromising voices than the radicals for capitalism. In the end he is no more influenced by Ayn Rand than Hillary Clinton purportedly is. As Andrew Sullivan states "the Randians could do better" -- and when the time comes, when the culture is ready, we will.
Black Holes, RIP?

Many years ago I planned on being a physicist and spending the rest of my life researching the mysteries of the universe. While I did get an undergraduate degree in physics from UCLA, I did not pursue graduate work and pretty much abandoned the field, at least as far as my occupation is concerned. Nevertheless, I continue to have some enthusiasm for the field and, as a result of my Objectivist philosophy, I particularly maintain an interest in the philosophical implications of physics.

It has been my experience that physics (or rather, certain interpretations of it) is often used to claim that Objectivism violates physical law. Objectivism does claim to have a certain "veto power" over presumed physical claims. That is, physics cannot violate metaphysics. That is because all science in fact depends on the fundamental principles and axioms of metaphysics. No matter what the specifics of the phenomena we discover, the axioms of existence and identity will continue to apply and causality will continue to operate -- entities will act in accordance with their identity. One implication of the Objectivist metaphysics is that infinities cannot be actual but are merely potential. Actually, all existents are necessarily finite because otherwise they would have no specific identity.

So in particular, Objectivists would have some difficulty accepting the existence of Black Holes, if as the theory seems to imply, their existence would require a singularity. This helpful page describes what the theory predicts:
At the center of a black hole lies the singularity, where matter is crushed to infinite density, the pull of gravity is infinitely strong, and spacetime has infinite curvature. Here it's no longer meaningful to speak of space and time, much less spacetime. Jumbled up at the singularity, space and time cease to exist as we know them.
I don't follow the scientific reports on black holes carefully, but based on the popular press, it seemed more and more as if the idea of black holes was becoming less controversial as more and more evidence accumulated for their existence.

Today however, I came across an interesting new report in New Scientist. Apparently,
DARK energy and dark matter, two of the greatest mysteries confronting physicists, may be two sides of the same coin. A new and as yet undiscovered kind of star could explain both phenomena and, in turn, remove black holes from the lexicon of cosmology.
The scientists who have suggested this are George Chapline, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin of Stanford University "and their colleagues." It seems that some of the contradictions embedded in the theory of black holes are finally making some scientists think:

This radical suggestion would get round some fundamental problems posed by the existence of black holes. One such problem arises from the idea that once matter crosses a black hole's event horizon - the point beyond which not even light can escape - it will be destroyed by the space-time "singularity" at the centre of the black hole. Because information about the matter is lost forever, this conflicts with the laws of quantum mechanics, which state that information can never disappear from the universe.

Another problem is that light from an object falling into a black hole is stretched so dramatically by the immense gravity there that observers outside will see time freeze: the object will appear to sit at the event horizon for ever. This freezing of time also violates quantum mechanics. "People have been vaguely uncomfortable about these problems for a while, but they figured they'd get solved someday," says Chapline. "But that hasn't happened and I'm sure when historians look back, they'll wonder why people didn't question these contradictions."

Since I have never completely grasped the physics behind black holes in the first place (or much of the rest of physics, if truth be told), I cannot say whether this new theory is correct. But I do find the following quote from the article quite revealing and hopeful:
Black hole expert Marek Abramowicz at Gothenburg University in Sweden agrees that the idea of dark energy stars is worth pursuing. "We really don't have proof that black holes exist," he says. "This is a very interesting alternative."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


Free Speech Campaign

The Ayn Rand Institute has announced a campaign to bring "to bring the Danish cartoons to the widest possible audience—and to arrange a series of panel discussions to discuss the vital need to defend free speech." The Institute is asking for donations to support this project. The letter announcing the campaign is reproduced at Noodlefood. I urge everyone who supports freedom to support this project. I have already made a contribution.

Update 3/8/2006: Added Mohammed cartoon image

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

South Dakota: A small loophole

In today's edition of Slate, William Saletan writes that a careful reading of the new anti-abortion law implies that "South Dakota gives you five days to kill what it calls your unborn child." This is because while it prohibits taking drugs to abort the embryo after pregnancy has been detected, it does not prohibit them after sex. Thus a window of a few days is opened that legally allows pharmacists and doctors to prescribe women abortive contraceptives before a pregnancy is detected. Saletan points out that:
The purpose of the loophole is to give rape victims a grace period. Americans overwhelmingly think abortion should be allowed in cases of rape. Rape victims are the women most likely to know immediately after sex that they're at high risk of unwanted pregnancy. Give them morning-after pills, and you've solved the political problem.
Of course, this completely goes against the law's own logic:
But now you've got a scientific, moral, and legal problem. The South Dakota law purports to supersede Roe because "scientific advances since the 1973 decision" show that "life begins at the time of conception." It concludes that unborn children, "from fertilization to full gestation," have an "inalienable right to life." Nobody who seriously believed these things would give you five days to kill an embryo, any more than they'd give you five days to kill a baby. The loophole discredits the law's rationale.
I suppose we should be grateful that the law's proponents are not yet fully consistent. But then evil never has to be.
Lowest of the low: Right vs. Left

Usually it is the nihilist left that excels at expressing ideas and engaging in actions that are beneath contempt. However, Robert Tracy of Illustrated Ideas brings to our attention a part of the religious right that seems to want to compete in that category of depravity. The level of profound evil that motivates these "people" simply boggles the mind.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Today in South Dakota

State of South Dakota
EIGHTY-FIRST SESSION
LEGISLATIVE ASSEMBLY, 2006
529M0546
HOUSE BILL NO. 1215 (emphasis added, comments in brackets):
Section 1. The Legislature accepts and concurs with the conclusion of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion, based upon written materials, scientific studies, and testimony of witnesses presented to the task force, that life begins at the time of conception [life sure -- but do rights begin at that time?], a conclusion confirmed by scientific advances since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, including the fact that each human being is totally unique immediately at fertilization. Moreover, the Legislature finds, based upon the conclusions of the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion, and in recognition of the technological advances and medical experience and body of knowledge about abortions produced and made available since the 1973 decision of Roe v. Wade, that to fully protect the rights, interests, and health of the pregnant mother, the rights, interest, and life of her unborn child [Are the elderly then undead bodies since they are potentially corpses?], and the mother's fundamental natural intrinsic right to a relationship with her child, abortions in South Dakota should be prohibited.

Section 2. That chapter 22-17 be amended by adding thereto a NEW SECTION to read as follows:
No person may knowingly administer to, prescribe for, or procure for, or sell to any pregnant woman any medicine, drug, or other substance with the specific intent of causing or abetting the termination of the life of an unborn human being. No person may knowingly use or employ any instrument or procedure upon a pregnant woman with the specific intent of causing or abetting the termination of the life of an unborn human being.
Any violation of this section is a Class 5 felony.

Section 3. That chapter 22-17 be amended by adding thereto a NEW SECTION to read as follows:
Nothing in section 2 of this Act may be construed to prohibit the sale, use, prescription, or administration of a contraceptive measure, drug or chemical, if it is administered prior to the time when a pregnancy could be determined through conventional medical testing and if the contraceptive measure is sold, used, prescribed, or administered in accordance with manufacturer instructions.

Section 4. That chapter 22-17 be amended by adding thereto a NEW SECTION to read as follows:
No licensed physician who performs a medical procedure designed or intended to prevent the death of a pregnant mother is guilty of violating section 2 of this Act. However, the physician shall make reasonable medical efforts under the circumstances to preserve both the life of the mother and the life of her unborn child in a manner consistent with conventional medical practice.
Medical treatment provided to the mother by a licensed physician which results in the accidental or unintentional injury or death to the unborn child is not a violation of this statute.
Nothing in this Act may be construed to subject the pregnant mother upon whom any abortion is performed or attempted to any criminal conviction and penalty.[Isn't that nice? The woman is left to fend for herself because only doctors are subject to criminal penalties, do they know the history of backalley abortions?]
Section 5. That chapter 22-17 be amended by adding thereto a NEW SECTION to read as follows:
Terms used in this Act mean:
(1) "Pregnant," the human female reproductive condition, of having a living unborn human being within her body throughout the entire embryonic and fetal ages of the unborn child from fertilization to full gestation and child birth;
(2) "Unborn human being," an individual living member of the species, homo sapiens, throughout the entire embryonic and fetal ages of the unborn child from fertilization to full gestation and childbirth;
(3) "Fertilization," that point in time when a male human sperm penetrates the zona pellucida of a female human ovum.
Sigh...so it's come to this. Abortion is presently illegal in a state within the U.S. -- this is what happens when liberals think that "pro-choice" is a sufficient response to the faith of the anti-abortionists and more fundamental rational arguments for the morality of abortion are not heard. One can only hope that this law will be challenged and overturned at the Supreme Court though that is far from certain.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Positive News

I came across a couple of items that qualify as good news.

The first item is Robert Tracinski's article The Lessons of the Cartoon Jihad is featured at the top of the Friday, March 3 edition of RealClearPolitics.com. This is an excellent article which criticises both right and left for their inadequate response to this controversy.

The second item is a hopeful sign that another important book by a prominent Objectivist may be published by a distinguished publisher. One of my daily pastimes is to check the resume of John Lewis, Assistant Professor of History at Ashland University. I check the resume because he has a section in which he notes the publication status of the books he has written. Specifically, I was very interested in seeing his Nothing Less than Victory published as it includes the details of his argument against the indequacy of the present war effort with some comparison to a number of historical wars. Over the last few months the listing on the website has mostly been "in progress", which I surmise means that no publisher is looking at it. There was a brief time a while ago when it was listed as "under press review" -- presumably that means that some unidentified publisher was reviewing the book. However, after a week or so of this status, the page was updated back to "in progress." Now however the listing has not only returned to "under press review" but has in fact been updated as follows: "under review, Princeton University Press." This is certainly a very positive and hopeful sign. I certainly hope Prof. Lewis gets the publishing contract. That the book may be published by Princeton University Press will likely ensure that it gets the exposure, publicity and reviews that it deserves.