End Philosophies that Sponsor Genocide

Or, Why I am Not an Objectivist

Anybody who's got a blog of any kind has to write about September 11 at some point; I suppose, coming up on its anniversary, I should say something. This has a lot to do with why, despite the fact that I am an atheist, romantic realist, rationalist, and naturalist philosophically, I disagree with Objectivism very strongly on matters of ethics and morality. I believe the Objectivist position, specifically the ARI's position on the much-touted War on Terrorism is both misguided and hypocritical.

Peikoff's article has three main themes. First of all, people are responsible for the actions of their government. This is new, and I haven't read it in Objectivist literature before. However, the other two themes -- Genocide is acceptable if the group being genocided has been deemed culturally inferior by Objectivist standards, and flagrant ignorance of the actual actions of a government when describing its values -- were explored in a previous article by Michael S. Berliner, Ph.D. where Dr. Berliner claims that we should ignore the fact that Christopher Columbus brought death, disease, mayhem and theocracy (the catholic church) to America because he claimed America for Science and Reason. (In fact, he did it for King, God, and Country -- but why would an Objectivist concern himself with historical facts?)

Let me state to begin with that I am not, as Rand refers to them, a goddamned pacifist (shades of religious hypocrisy, anyone?). I believe that the judicious application of force in order to remove a threat to one's life or liberty is perfectly acceptable. Self defense is fine by me. In addition, I believe that sometimes even war may be necessary; but the war is necessary to topple an evil government as quickly and efficiently as possible. Not only ought the United States government possess the moral fiber to carry out war in this manner, it now also posses the technology to do so. War without regard to innocent lives, using weapons of mass destruction, could never be a responsible or judicious application of force, or reasonably considered self defense. I also note that the after-effects of such weapons are no better than the after-effects of such crushing defeats: nuclear fallout has potentially harmful blowback effects, especially with today's incredibly powerful nuclear devices. As far as crushing defeats... one such war-ravaged nation gave rise to the Third Reich.

Though Eric S. Raymond and I mainly disagree on the scale of acceptable use of force in this situation, he does quote and agree with a poster with whom I agree:

I don't want to understand them, I don't want to let them reap the benefits of our liberalism while plotting our destruction. Like most Americans, I would have been more than happy to let them pretend the last 400 years of progress never happened, as long as they didn't force their warped-vision goggles on anyone else. But since they brought the war to us, let's pave the middle east with outlet malls, fast food franchises, and Disney Mecca. Let's infect their entire population with personal liberty and dissension and critical thinking. And if that doesn't work, let's flood them with porn spam. [- Michelle Efird]
What I agree with is that while the Islamic world should not reap the benefits of our liberalism while plotting our destruction, they must be shown the benefits of that philosophy and tolerance, not just have American air strikes stir the rubble with a few nukes and hope that will teach them something of an Objectivist way of life ( -- which I note is not endorsed by the U.S. government; I will discuss this later). Does the despair and anger that lead to terrorism arise simply from a wrong-headed philosophy? No, otherwise most of the world would be in a constant state of mutual destruction. The state of mind that proceeds from this is helplessness against the natural world, and misery from the pain of historical victimization. If you believe, as Mr. Peikoff purports to, that the mind is one with the body, then it is affected by the body's condition. In order for the Islamic world to reason as we can, they must be nourished, at least to the point where happiness, and not merely survival (or, in the case of those already committed to terrorism, eternal life through self-sacrifice), is their primary concern. (A note to potential critics: I am NOT saying that subsidizing aid to these countries is a good idea. What I mean by this is that the benefits of commerce are going to avoid, like the plague, a war-torn country with broken families and thousands or millions of people who cannot work because they have been wounded in combat, and this will only expand the problem. )

Peikoff's hypocrisy begins to shine through in the second paragraph. As any Atlas Shrugged-thumping neophyte knows, Objectivists believe in individual, not collective, responsibility and property. Strongly. They even use the word collectivist as a special code-word used to automatically discredit their opponents' opinions in the eyes of other Objectivists, short-circuiting the need for further thought. It is therefore surprising to see this in the most prominent Objectivist titan's essay:

Fifty years ago, Truman and Eisenhower surrendered the West's property rights in oil, although that oil rightfully belonged to those in the West whose science, technology, and capital made its discovery and use possible. The first country to nationalize Western oil, in 1951, was Iran. The rest, observing our frightened silence, hurried to grab their piece of the newly available loot.
(Emphasis mine.)

Let me address the two emphasized portions. The weaker claim I can make here is that Peikoff is endorsing the notion of nationalized oil for the American, but not Iranian government, thanks to the implicit acceptance of the nebulous west's rights to property, not specific individuals. Obviously I do not believe this to be the case, but the language he's using is appealing to internal, irrational collectivist impulses within us all, setting us up for where he takes the essay later.

After implicitly declaring allegiance with the ill-defined West, Peikoff makes a more startling claim. He explicitly claims the frightened silence which invoked this violation of property rights belongs to us, that is to say, a group of which he is a member. Implying that he at least owned some portion of that frightened silence, or was silent in a frightened way towards iranians. By saying our frightened silence, I will assume that Peikoff is referring to his government's frightened silence, and not that he believes that he was in some way the initiator of that behavior.

Throughout his essay, Peikoff continues to refer to the American military-industrial complex as a group of which he is a member, while simultaneously reviling its indecision, its cowardice, and its contributions to the menace which it (we?) now must fight, at his urging. He says:

We need not prove the identity of any of these creatures, because terrorism is not an issue of personalities. It cannot be stopped by destroying bin Laden and the al-Qaeda army, or even by destroying the destroyers everywhere. If that is all we do, a new army of militants will soon rise up to replace the old one.
I wonder at Mr. Peikoff's experience in the military, or his position of military authority to declare that we must [destroy] the destroyers elsewhere . Some people who actually have experience with the military, and experience with the situation in question, are not quite so certain that we should be going to war with terrorist states.

It's also interesting to note that our leaders likely do not even consider Mr. Peikoff a citizen of this country. George Bush Sr. has stated many times, for the record, that Atheists are not Americans and probably not even deserving of human rights. Our current president has not gone so far, but my inclination is to believe that the apple does not fall far from the tree, and the few public comments he has made concerning atheism have been rather lukewarm. Remember, this is the president that established the office of faith-based services.

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the essay is when Mr. Peikoff abdicates all moral responsibility by laying the blame for all the millions of innocent civilians the American military might kill by laying it at the feet of their own government, while simultaneously refusing to accept the responsibility for supporting a corrupt, oppressive, explicitly theistic, massive government here in America. In fact, he conflates Objectivist and U.S. Gov't values consistently, a rhetorical device which seems impossibly confusing coming from the man who wrote The Ominous Parallels. Let's look at these two paragraphs closer together for comparison.

A proper war in self-defense is one fought without self-crippling restrictions placed on our commanders in the field. It must be fought with the most effective weapons we possess (a few weeks ago, Rumsfeld refused, correctly, to rule out nuclear weapons). And it must be fought in a manner that secures victory as quickly as possible and with the fewest U.S. casualties, regardless of the countless innocents caught in the line of fire. These innocents suffer and die because of the action of their own government in sponsoring the initiation of force against America. Their fate, therefore, is their government's moral responsibility. There is no way for our bullets to be aimed only at evil men.
Conservatives are equally responsible for today's crisis, as Reagan's record attests. Reagan not only failed to retaliate after 241 U.S. marines in Lebanon were slaughtered; he did worse. Holding that Islamic guerrillas were our ideological allies because of their fight against the atheistic Soviets, he methodically poured money and expertise into Afghanistan. This put the U.S. wholesale into the business of creating terrorists. Most of them regarded fighting the Soviets as only the beginning; our turn soon came.

If, as Peikoff states, the inhabitants of a government's territory are responsible for its sins, and as he implies, the wages of sin are death, then why do we begin by destroying other governments? Wouldn't an armed revolution at home be the first thing to do? In fact, until that government has been destroyed and replaced, are not the victims of terrorist attacks on American soil reaping their just reward, for being the citizens of a government that funded and probably trained the terrorists who killed them?

I cannot believe that this is consistent with any rational morality. Declaring that we are at war does not change the essential moral character of the universe, does not absolve us from acting in ways which are destructive and fatal to other human beings, many of whom are just playing out their struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No matter how dire the threat, a completely unrestrained response will only lead to greater and greater destruction until both combatants philosophies are eroded to the simple imperative: kill or be killed.

Most importantly, I believe that the American people are not fundamentally responsible for the actions of the thugs that run our government, any more than citizens of middle-eastern theocracies are responsible for the actions of their clearly evil leaders. This does not mean we should not let our government know how we feel; my representatives have been notified how I feel about war and censorship and a host of other contentious issues, and defy my will because it's not the will of the majority. I thought that Objectivism was about freeing oneself from the slavery of collective opinion, but at least according to Leonard Peikoff, if the collective behaves badly, it's my fault anyway for being too close to it.

Finally: if you are an Objectivist and for some reason reading this, please consider that you may abandon your beliefs, correct your opinion, and be inconsistent for once. While I am not a skeptic according to the Objectivist definition of the word (someone who believes certainty is impossible), I do not believe certainty is so easily won. The self-righteous, too-sure attitude of many Objectivists, especially in matters relating to lethal violence, ill fits a philosophy that is supposed to be derived from reason.

You might want to take your cues from actual Science on the limits of certainty rather than the dogmatic, half-baked Objectivist misrepresentations of what Science is. A scientist who publishes a paper or does an experiment does not do it in isolation, using only the resources of her perfect mind. Scientists are fallible, and therefore work in massively parallel teams in order to reduce the failure rate of their experiments. They validate their results repeatedly. After having confirmed both their physical results and their reasoning process with a community of thousands of their peers, their work goes from hypothesis to theory; later still, it may become a law. A philosophical community beholden to such external validation and rigorous discussion would rarely develop such violent and drastic (and probably ineffective) solutions to social problems.

Glyph Lefkowitz
Last modified: Wed Aug 14 05:25:46 CDT 2002