TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character—An Important Conference for College Students

May 22–25, I’ll be speaking at “Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character” along with Andrew Bernstein, Brad Thompson, and several libertarian speakers. The conference is for students between 18 and 24 years old; the deadline for applications is March 8 [now extended to March 31!].

I’ve spoken at similar conferences hosted by The Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism over the past few years, and I’ve enjoyed them immensely. The students tend to be extremely bright and active minded, and many of them have told me (and other faculty) that they learned more of substance during these few days than they learned during their years of college. This year’s conference, however, promises to be especially interesting and enlightening.

This year, The Clemson Institute has teamed up with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE); so the conference faculty now include Objectivists and libertarians, each presenting their views about what a free society is and what such a society depends on. I’m delighted to see libertarian and Objectivist intellectuals presenting their respective ideas to students at the same conference. Given the growth of the pro-liberty movement and the many active-minded, high-energy youth involved in it—and given the unique power of Objectivism to undergird liberty with observation-based moral and philosophic support—I regard this conference as a great opportunity to educate liberty-minded youth about the importance of such a foundation.

The philosophic orientation of the conference can be seen in the marketing of the event, which opens with this:

“There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice.” —Ayn Rand

What is the connection between liberty, free markets, and moral character? Economic thinking provides powerful insights about the world by explaining that people make choices and are driven by incentives. However, it does not tell you why people must make choices or, more importantly, what choices to make.

This seminar turns economic thinking on its head by looking at its foundations through a philosophic lens. What are the moral and philosophic underpinnings of economic thinking? Why do we have to make choices and how does moral character determine the choices people make?

The lecture descriptions follow suit. Here is the speaking schedule:

  • “Value: Subjective or Objective?” by Dr. Aeon Skoble
  • “The Source and Nature of Rights” by Craig Biddle
  • “A Christian Perspective of Natural Rights” by Dr. Anne Bradley
  • “Contrasting Other Ethical Bases for Liberty” by Dr. Aeon Skoble
  • “How Society Orders Itself” by Dr. Tom Bell
  • “The Trader Principle” by Dr. Andrew Bernstein)
  • “Is Money the Root of All Evil?” by Dr. Andrew Bernstein
  • “The Origins and Nature of Law” by Dr. Tom Bell
  • “Power Corrupts: How Good Intentions Pave The Road to Serfdom” by Max Borders
  • “Self Interest Rightly Understood” by Dr. Anne Bradley Thompson
  • “Entrepreneurship: Creating Value in a World of Uncertainty and Big Government” by Max Borders
  • “The Path to Flourishing” by Dr. Anne Bradley
  • “The Arena” Debate: “Is moral diversity an asset or liability for the liberty movement?” —Craig Biddle and Max Borders (Relevant Readings: “Rights Schmights” by Max Borders, and “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism” by Craig Biddle)
  • “Rights-Protecting Government and Objective Law” by Craig Biddle

This is a perfect opportunity for students to examine these crucial issues by hearing arguments from Objectivists and libertarians; by asking questions to clarify the speakers’ claims and meaning; and by thinking, debating, and striving to figure out which (if any) of the ideas make sense.

If you are between 18 and 24 years old, don’t miss this opportunity: Apply today. And share this information with any friends who might be interested.

I hope to see you there!

Posted in: Announcements

Jonathan Hoenig’s Pit Trading 101: Fuel for The Capitalist Soul

Jonathan Hoenig’s new film, Pit Trading 101, is a fascinating and inspiring look at a small group of highly ambitious capitalists who attended the University of Trading in the 1990s and went on to trade in the commodities pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where they allocated huge amounts of capital via split-second decision making under immense pressure.

Check out the trailer below; then purchase the film at Amazon, iTunes, or Vimeo.

This is high-octane soul fuel—for a mere $2.99. Fill up!

Posted in: Business and Economics

Announcement About TOS Blog Schedule

During the next two weeks, while we are completing and launching the new TOS website, posting on TOS Blog will be extremely light. We will resume our regular (and soon enhanced) blogging schedule in March.

In the meantime, please enjoy our many timeless articles and posts, which can be found here, and by perusing the Blog Topics below on the right.

Posted in: Announcements

The Spring Issue of The Objective Standard

The print edition of the Spring issue of The Objective Standard goes to press today and will be mailed shortly. The electronic versions—including online (HTML), ebook, audio, and Kindle—will be posted by February 25. The contents of the Spring issue are:

FEATURES

A Peek at Thinking in Principles: The Science of Selfishness
Craig Biddle
Presents the introduction and first chapter of Biddle’s forthcoming book.

Aristotle Versus Religion
Andrew Bernstein
Offers a concise history of the relationships and conflicts between Aristotelianism and the three major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; illustrates the varying degrees to which Western and Middle Eastern cultures accepted or rejected The Philosopher’s ideas and attempted to mix them with religion; shows the power of rational ideas to sustain and further human life and the power of irrational ideas to throttle and thwart it; and shows the importance of understanding that Aristotelianism is the root of all good in the world today and of fighting to expand recognition of this fact.

Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”
Ari Armstrong
Addresses Harris’s public challenge: “Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.”

BOOK REVIEWS

Free Market Economics: An Introduction for the General Reader, by Steven Kates
Reviewed by Richard M. Salsman

Responsibility & Luck: A Defense of Praise and Blame, by Diana Hsieh
Reviewed by Ari Armstrong

The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty, by Timothy Sandefur
Reviewed by Slade Mendenhall

FROM TOS BLOG

Colorado “Personhood” Measure Would Outlaw All Abortions and More
Ari Armstrong

Janet Yellen: What You Should Know about the Next Fed Head
Richard M. Salsman

Ayn Rand’s Reality-Based Philosophy vs. Cass Sunstein’s Fantasy
Ari Armstrong

FDA Has No Moral or Legal Right to Ban Trans Fats
Ari Armstrong

Libertarians Fiddle while Rome Burns
Craig Biddle

Gun Ownership and Feckless Libertarian Arguments
Ari Armstrong
Listen to the audio recording.

Court Violates Cake Baker’s Right Not to Serve Gay Weddings
Ari Armstrong

The Libertarian Case for Legalized Plunder
Craig Biddle
Listen to the audio recording.

Duck Dynasty and the Difference between Rights and Tolerance
Ari Armstrong

Jobs Celebrates Man Who Put a Dent in the Universe
Ari Armstrong
Listen to the audio recording.

Basic Moral Theories Essentialized
Craig Biddle

Dow Chemical and Crew Illustrate Impracticality of Rights-Violating Policies
Kevin Douglas

Court Correctly Rejects Rights-Violating Net “Neutrality” Rules
Ari Armstrong
Listen to the audio recording.

“A Cause Greater Than Yourself”—In What Sense?
Ari Armstrong
Listen to the audio recording.
DEPARTMENTS

From the Editor

If you’ve not yet subscribed to The Objective Standard, you can do so here. The journal makes a great gift for your active-minded friends and relatives. Subscriptions start at just $29 and are available in Print, Online, Ebook, and Audio editions.

Subscribe Here | Give Gifts Here

Enjoy the Spring issue—and be sure to let your friends know about the journal for people of reason.

Posted in: Announcements

Subscribe to the New TOS Audio Feed

In conjunction with TOS’s new website, which will be launched shortly, we have created a new audio feed (available via direct rss feed or iTunes).

The new feed currently offers a selection of recorded TOS Blog posts, Reason at Large talks, and more. We will add new audio items on a regular basis and, in time, expand the offerings to include interviews and other commentary.

Here’s a taste of what is currently available:

Don’t miss out on new audio from TOS; subscribe via rss feed or iTunes.

Posted in: Announcements

Olympic Skater Katarina Witt: “The Most Beautiful Face” of a Grotesque System

The Diplomat, an ESPN documentary about two-time Olympic champion figure skater Katarina Witt of East Germany (the former German Democratic Republic, or GDR), is released to video February 18. The film serves as a reminder—or a revelation—of the crushing grip communist dictatorships held on the people who “lived” under them.

The documentary features numerous interviews, including with former East German athletes and GDR officials, who discuss the GDR’s sweeping violations of individual rights—violations the government attempted to overshadow in part by funding athletes and using them for propaganda purposes.

The GDR pervasively violated its victims’ rights to (among other things) speak freely, travel outside the country freely, and pursue their professions freely. Often the government monitored the mail of top athletes such as Witt and bugged their homes.

Although Witt was, in her words, “thankful to the system” for supporting her athletic pursuits, she also makes clear that she was driven to excel at skating in part because that allowed her to travel outside East Germany, where she would otherwise have been held behind barbed wired borders and the Berlin Wall along with her fellow citizens. She says in the documentary, “It was just like, ‘wow, I get to see the world,’ [whereas] everybody else is not allowed.”

The government, however, was watching. The GDR surveilled Witt extensively from the time she was seven years old.

In one of The Diplomat’s most chilling scenes, Ingo Steuer, a champion skater who trained alongside Witt, talks about how, at age 17, he faced imprisonment if he refused to inform on her to the Stasi (secret police), who feared she would defect to the West. When she learned that her close friends informed on her, she was understandably shocked: “I always think why did they [have] to do it? In a way, maybe they had to survive.”

Whereas Witt knew the state had the power to support or crush her childhood dreams, the communists recognized her as a special propaganda tool. As a beautiful, charming young woman poised to win gold medals in the name of socialism, Witt became the most internationally recognized East German. Lother Raschker, a director of Stasi archives, identifies the nature of the GDR’s relationship with Witt:

Katarina Witt was known as the most beautiful face of socialism. If she had suddenly changed sides and defected to the enemy in the West and stayed there, it would have been a big defeat for the GDR system.

When Witt’s skating coach, Jutta Müller, asked state officials to allow Witt to pursue a professional skating career after the Calgary games, they replied that they would consider it only if she won a second gold medal. She did.

As the film shows, the communists exploited athletes such as Witt to put a mask of beauty, ability, civility, and achievement on a grotesque, anti-ability, rights-violating political system. The Diplomat offers a revealing glimpse at “life” under the boot of a communist dictatorship and at a young woman’s effort to live.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: History, Sports

Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of The Moral Landscape, has issued a challenge:

Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Helpfully, Harris describes his “central argument” in a single paragraph, and we can shorten it without loss of meaning to a single sentence: “Morality and values depend . . . on the fact that [conscious] minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering. . . .”

I have already explained the major errors of Harris’s theory of morality in my essay, “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality.” So far as I can tell, he has ignored that essay—and I suspect he will ignore this one as well, for it too cites the works of Ayn Rand.

Previously, Harris smeared Ayn Rand and completely misrepresented her positions—all while bragging that he has never read her work. But I am not writing this essay to change Harris’s mind—which appears by his own admission to be closed to the only ideas that could correct his errors: those of Ayn Rand. Rather, I’m writing it in hopes of reaching and changing the minds of others familiar with Harris’s work.

By carefully considering the relevant issues, we can attain something far more valuable than a $2,000 check: We can grasp and live by an objectively true moral theory that is part and parcel of what Rand called “a philosophy for living on earth.”

The following is my reply, in a thousand words:

Harris’s central argument regarding his purportedly “scientific understanding of morality” is wrong on four counts:

1. Values do not depend on the existence of conscious minds as such; rather, they depend on the existence of living things, only some of which are conscious. A value, as Ayn Rand identified, is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Conscious beings, including men, mice, elephants, and whales pursue values such as food, shelter, a suitable climate, companionship. Unconscious living beings, including trees, worms, and bacteria, act (unconsciously) to gain and keep values such as sustenance, protection from damaging things, a life-sustaining temperature. Harris is wrong, then, in claiming that values depend on the existence of conscious beings alone; values pertain to all living things.

2. Nor do moral values in particular depend on the existence of conscious beings per se; rather, moral values depend on the existence of a particular kind of conscious being, a rational being, a being that survives by means of reason: man. Morality is a code of values to guide man’s actions. Only rational beings are capable of contemplating morality, forming a moral code, living according to such a code, or rejecting such a code.

Lions, dolphins, and all conscious species other than man are incapable of formulating a moral code or living by one. If man had never evolved, there would be no such thing as morality, nor would there be any creature capable of contemplating it. (Although various scientists ascribe to other species “moral” behavior such as reciprocal giving, such behavior is strictly speaking not moral behavior; it does not involve volition or a conceptual grasp of principles.) Harris is wrong, then, in claiming that morality depends on the existence of conscious beings per se. Whereas values pertain to all living things, moral values pertain only to man, the rational, volitional animal.

3. Morality does not depend fundamentally on the experience of pleasure and suffering; it depends on recognition of the requirements of man’s life. Otherwise, a drug-induced euphoria would be as good a state as one could hope for.

As we can see in lower species, the pleasure-pain mechanism evolved to help guide animals toward the attainment of values that further their life. If lions found the experience of chewing off their limbs to be pleasurable or the sensation of eating prey to be painful, they wouldn’t live long. Lions eat because it is pleasurable, and by doing so they sustain their lives, which is (unbeknownst to them) their ultimate goal.

For human beings, our experiences of pleasure and suffering depend largely on our emotions, which—as Rand observed—depend in turn on our evaluations of facts. For example, my emotions about the election of a new president depend on my evaluations of that president. By what standard do we properly evaluate the facts around us? To say, “by the standard of what we find pleasurable,” as Harris does, is to argue in a circle, for what we find pleasurable depends in large part on how we evaluate facts. As I argue in “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality,” “Aside from purely physical sensations, pleasure and happiness are, as Ayn Rand points out, emotional states, which are consequences of our values, not justifications for them.”

What is the proper moral standard? As Ayn Rand identified, it is only a person’s own life that, ultimately, can serve as his highest value, which all other values properly support. Life, Rand pointed out, makes values possible and necessary. The only reason we can pursue values is because we’re alive, and the only reason we need to pursue them is to remain alive. If we attain the values on which our lives depend, we can live; if we don’t, we can’t. Or, as Ayn Rand put it, the fundamental alternative that gives rise to the need for values, including moral values, is: existence or nonexistence.

At a practical level, it is not possible to integrate all of one’s values according to what one finds pleasurable—because, again, what one finds pleasurable depends largely on how one evaluates various facts. (Consider one’s pleasurable or displeasurable reaction to the construction of a nuclear reactor.) It is possible to integrate all of one’s values according to the standard of one’s life. Ultimately, life is the only standard that makes possible the full and consistent integration of one’s values.

For a full defense of this life-based morality, see the works of Ayn Rand.

4. The principles of morality do not arise from the need to maximize the well-being and minimize the suffering of all conscious beings; the principles of morality arise from the need to further one’s own life, as the kind of being one is: a human being. As I explain in my earlier essay, Harris’s moral theory is a type of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that one should act to achieve the most pleasure for all people; Harris’s version holds that one should act to achieve the most pleasure for all conscious beings.

The basic problem with all variants of utilitarianism, including Harris’s, is that there is no reason to act for the well-being of other conscious creatures, apart from how doing so redounds on one’s own well-being. Harris presumes otherwise without offering any argument for his position. And, by including all conscious creatures rather than just people, Harris’s theory raises even more problems than traditional utilitarianism does. For example, how are we to weigh the relative pleasure and suffering of mice running through our living rooms? Harris’s theory runs into innumerable problems of this order.

Such are the four major errors in Harris’s “central argument” for a scientific morality. As wrong as he is on these issues, however, Harris is right that morality has something to do with well-being and that morality is based on facts and is properly a science.

Now, if he would only consider Ayn Rand’s ideas, he would see that his few truths are already part and parcel of her robust, fully fleshed out, genuinely scientific morality.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: Ethics

Milton Wolf’s PatientCare: A Sensible Alternative to ObamaCare

As ObamaCare extends to government more and more control over health care, Milton Wolf—a medical doctor and candidate for U.S. Senate from Kansas—advocates “free market solutions to our healthcare problems” through a package of reforms he calls PatientCare. Wolf’s reforms would, among other things:

  • Reform the tax code to give individual purchasers of health insurance the same pre-tax advantages that employer and union plans have. Because individual policies are not tied to a particular job, individuals don’t lose them when they change jobs.
  • Eliminate government insurance mandates. Such mandates legally empower bureaucrats to “dictate what insurance options you must purchase [even if] you don’t want them, don’t need them or can’t afford them.” For example, the ObamaCare contraception mandate forces single men and infertile couples (among others) to spend more on their insurance premiums to fund contraception used by others.
  • Eliminate interstate trade barriers for insurers and doctors. Currently, doctors and insurers can generally offer their services only in the states in which they are licensed, severely hampering competition and raising prices. “The solution is straightforward: States should open their borders and allow reciprocity for physicians and insurance carriers that are licensed in other states to practice medicine and offer more insurance products to compete for your business.”

Although Wolf stops far short of advocating a consistently free market in medicine (he would maintain, among other things, Medicare and Medicaid as well as occupational licensure for doctors), his proposals would substantially decrease government rights violations in the realm of medicine, and substantially free doctors, insurers, and patients to contract for the health-related services that best meet their needs.

Few even remotely rational alternatives have been offered by politicians or pundits as counter proposals to ObamaCare. Wolf’s is by far the best put forth by any viable U.S. political candidate.

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Posted in: Health Care

The GOP’s Rights-Violating Immigration Proposal

A recent immigration proposal by U.S. House Republican leaders comports with the standard of individual rights in two important ways. First, it seeks to allow many immigrants now here illegally to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.” Second, it recognizes that such legal status need not be coupled with a path to citizenship or the ability to vote in U.S. elections.

Unfortunately, the Republican plan also would substantially violate people’s rights in numerous ways. It seeks, among other things, to largely forbid the immigration of peaceable people not already here, to let government dictate how long new immigrants may stay, to establish an “electronic employment verification system” by which the federal government may track everyone’s employment, and to force illegal immigrants here now to “pay significant fines” to stay.

Why do the Republicans propose this hodgepodge of rights-respecting and rights-violating laws? In part because their standard is not individual rights but “national interests.”

The nation, however, has no interests apart from the interests of the individuals who comprise it. In order to pursue their values by their own judgment, individuals need freedom to do so—which means they need government to consistently protect and not violate their rights. The Declaration of Independence recognizes each individual’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s high time for the government to protect these rights.

A government that protects individual rights does not forbid employers to contract with employees, whether they are from another state or another country. Nor does such a government deport peaceable people for the “crime” of having come to the Land of Liberty.

So long as Republicans continue advocating laws that violate individual rights, it is sheer pretense for them to pose as advocates of individualism or properly limited government.

With today’s immigration debate, the GOP has an opportunity to change course and to become the party that advocates individual rights and a government limited to protecting them. Will Republicans seize this opportunity, or will they do what they’ve always done?

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Posted in: Immigration

Super Bowl Celebrates America

Yesterday’s Super Bowl game was a glorious victory for the Seattle Seahawks and a stunning loss for the Denver Broncos. But the game, while focused on athletic competition, involved more than that: It involved a celebration of American liberty and of American commerce, an economic consequence of that liberty. A few highlights:

  • Preceding the game, Fox broadcast a reading of the introduction and conclusion to the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding document. This is now a tradition for Fox, and an admirable one at that.
  • Soprano opera singer Renée Fleming beautifully performed the National Anthem before the game, turning the patriotic song into fine art.
  • Fox saluted America’s military servicemen and women, and Budweiser sponsored an advertisement in which it threw a homecoming party for a serviceman.
  • Producers of beer, breakfast cereal, automobiles, soda, insurance, deodorant, fast food, and more purchased expensive broadcast time—$4 million for thirty seconds—to promote their goods and services. Many of the ads were brilliantly and artistically produced, ranging in tone from hilarious to sentimental. Although a few of the ads made me cringe (one airing in local markets even promoted a religious cult), on the whole the ads celebrated the American spirit, capitalism, and the pursuit of profit.

Being from Denver, for me the game was largely an unpleasant experience as the home team got crushed. But the Super Bowl is about more than just football. It’s about celebrating not only athletic greatness but the many qualities that make America great.

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Image: NYC Marines

Posted in: Sports