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Dennis Prager’s False Alternative and Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Life

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Image: Wikimedia

In a recent Townhall.com article titled, “A Note to Conservatives Who Are Secular,” Dennis Prager initially praises secular conservatives such as Paul Johnson, George Will, and Thomas Sowell for their understanding of history, human nature, and the state of mankind. “But,” Prager laments,

The vast majority of leading conservative writers, just like their liberal colleagues, have a secular outlook on life. With few exceptions, the conservative political and intellectual worlds are oblivious to the consequences of secularism. They are unaware of the disaster that godlessness in the West has led to.

To what disaster is Prager referring? He doesn’t say. But he appears to mean the possible or impending death of America. “Secular conservatives,” he writes, “think that America can survive the death of God and religion”; they think “fiscal and other forms of conservatism without social conservatism can preserve America.” But, Prager insists, “the only solution to many—perhaps most—of the social problems ailing America and the West is some expression of Judeo-Christian faith.”

In an apparent effort to support that claim, Prager poses some questions:

Do the inner-city kids who study the Bible and go to church each week lead wasted lives, join gangs, bear children out of wedlock or commit murder? Other than a religious revival, what do conservatives, with all their superb critiques of disastrous left-wing policies, think will uplift inner-city youths?

I’m not sure how Johnson, Will, or Sowell would answer those questions. And, being an Objectivist, I can’t answer for conservatives. But I’ll indicate how I’d answer such questions if they were directed instead to Objectivists.

Inner-city youths who embrace Judaism or Christianity are no doubt less likely to join gangs, bear children out of wedlock, or commit murder than are those who have no explicit philosophy. Religion—if tempered by Enlightenment values, as the practice of Judaism and Christianity generally are today—is certainly better than sheer whim-worship or secular subjectivism. But that doesn’t mean religion is the answer to the problems facing inner-city youths or America or the West at large.

With respect to youths, the goal should not merely be to help them refrain from joining gangs or getting pregnant or committing murder. The goal should be to help youths understand, embrace, and put into practice a philosophy that will guide them in making their lives the best they can be. The goal should be to help them grasp a philosophy of reason, purpose, life-serving value pursuits, self-responsibility, respect for individual rights, and the overarching aim of achieving a lifetime of happiness.

If inner-city youths were introduced to such a philosophy, might that uplift them? And does such a philosophy exist? It does. It’s called Objectivism. It was created by the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. And it’s all about understanding and applying observation-based principles designed to guide individuals in choosing and pursuing life-serving values—such as a productive career, healthy recreational activities, romance, and friendships—and respecting the rights of others to do the same.

What is better for a child, a teenager, or a young adult to learn: that his reasoning mind is capable of understanding reality, discovering observation-based principles of morality, and grasping earthly reasons to be honest, just, self-responsible, and rights-respecting—or that his mind is incapable of understanding reality (hence the “need” for faith), incapable of discovering observation-based principles of morality (hence the “need” for divine revelations), and incapable of grasping natural reasons to be virtuous (hence the “need” for supernatural commandments)?

Suppose, for instance, a teenager is trying to study for an exam but his friends interrupt and ask him to join them in robbing a liquor store or murdering a neighbor. Is it better for the teenager (a) to have faith that the Ten Commandments are somehow binding moral laws and therefore that he should not steal or murder? Or (b) to understand the evidence-based, self-interested reasons why he should respect people’s rights to life, liberty, and property? Which is likely to be more convincing: “knowing” on the basis of mysterious revelations that allegedly come from a supernatural being for whose existence there is no evidence—or knowing on the basis of moral principles grounded in natural facts the teenager can perceive?

Wait just a minute, says Prager at this point: “There are no moral ‘facts’ if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.” What does that mean? Prager explains: “If there is no God who says, ‘Do not murder’ . . . murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact.”

Well, if valid moral principles cannot be formed by observing and integrating natural facts we can perceive—if morality is instead a matter of commandments issued by a supernatural being whose existence we allegedly must accept on faith because there is no evidence for his existence—how can moral principles be rationally defended? How can they even be rationally understood?

Prager doesn’t address such relevant and pressing questions, even though they arise logically and immediately from his claims. Instead, he poses another question that he apparently believes supports his position:

[W]hy do secular conservatives think so many affluent and well-educated Americans have adopted left-wing dogmas, such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism and egalitarianism as their religions? Because people want to—have to—believe in something. And if it’s not God and Christianity or Judaism, it’s going to be some form of Leftism.

It is certainly true that people need a philosophy or a worldview of some kind. We need a set of ideas and principles to guide us in understanding and navigating the complexities of life. But it does not follow that we must choose between (a) religious scriptures and commandments demanding faith in and obedience to the Judeo-Christian God or (b) leftist opinions and dogmas demanding socialism, environmentalism, egalitarianism, and the like.

That is a false alternative. And, with all due respect to Mr. Prager, it is a false alternative that no intellectual has any legitimate excuse for maintaining much less propagating today.

What about the aforementioned alternative of a philosophy of reason (as against religious faith or secular irrationalism), rational self-interest (as against self-sacrifice or sacrifice of others), and observation-based rights (as against God-given or consensus-based “rights”)? In a word, what about Objectivism?

Why is it that more than a half century after the publication of Ayn Rand’s bestselling books Atlas Shrugged, The Virtue of Selfishness, and Capitalism: The Unknown Idealconservatives such as Prager remain unwilling to acknowledge and grapple with the fact that Rand put forth a secular, observation-based, life-serving, rights-grounding, capitalism-supporting philosophy? What’s to fear about her ideas?

Prager concludes his “Note to Conservatives” by asserting that the problem with secular conservatives is “they don’t seem to understand that a godless and Judeo-Christian-free America means the end of America, just as a godless and Judeo-Christian-free Europe has meant the end of Europe.” In reality, however, the problem with both secular and religious conservatives (along with their counterparts in Europe) is that they are unwilling to acknowledge the fact that Objectivism exists.

Prager has done some great work at Prager University (including the production of excellent videos by Objectivist Alex Epstein about why we can’t rely on wind power or solar energy and why everyone should love fossil fuels). But Prager’s persistence in asserting that our philosophical alternatives are limited to religious conservatism or secular leftism is morally unjust to Ayn Rand and factually harmful to Americans, inner-city youths, and everyone who wants to live and prosper.

It is morally unjust to Rand because when someone creates an observation-based philosophy identifying the fundamental requirements of human life, liberty, and prosperity—including multi-level philosophic defenses of Western civilization, individual rights, and capitalism—that person’s ideas deserve recognition (not to mention praise) from everyone who aims to support such values. And Prager’s pushing of the false alternative of religious conservatism vs. secular leftism is harmful to Americans and lovers of life in general because it perpetuates the myth that no rational, secular foundation for morality, rights, or freedom exists.

So I extend the following offer to Dennis Prager: I will—free of charge—write and help produce a video for Prager University showing how Ayn Rand derived objective morality from observable facts, what the basic principles of that morality are, how they guide individuals in making their lives the best they can be, and how this philosophy anchors the principle of individual rights and the propriety of capitalism in perceptual reality. Once that video is produced, if Prager thinks it does not make a sound case for secular, objective morality and rights, he or anyone of his choosing can respond to it with a video explaining where it went wrong. Making this set of videos available side by side at Prager University would enable viewers to hear both sides of the argument and to decide for themselves which (if either) side makes sense.

Mr. Prager, do we have a deal? You can reach me [email protected]

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