Find Enlightenment

OPAR, Chapter Ten
by Rick Minto

Date: 17 Nov 1993
Forum: Moderated Discussion of Objectivist Philosophy
Copyright: Rick Minto

The material of this chapter of OPAR will be familiar terrority for most of us, so I will concentrate primarily on the logical and epistemological issues that this chapter raises. My remarks here will focus on what I regard as problematic in the text, and will therefore come across sounding negative overall in tenor.

Despite several problems, in the end, I think it is a good chapter. There is much here that is nicely proffered. As usual, Peikoff goes beyond Rand's own presentation by highlighting the place of "philosophical politics" in the structure of Objectivism, and emphasizing the conceptual dependency relations necessary to validating the claims. In terms of real philosophical meat, though, there is little new material here. (All page references, unless indicated otherwise, are to pages in OPAR.)

Peikoff frames his philosophical task for this chapter by asking three questions: (1) "What type of society conforms to the requirements of man's life?" (2) "What type makes possible the virtues we have been studying?" and (3) "What type represents the supremacy of reason?"

A. "Right:" Ambiguity as Etymology.

Many libertarian-conservatives of the National Review/American Spectator variety find phrases based on the ambiguity of the term "right" to be particularly droll. In the midst of the post-modern socialist wastelands of Ontario, an election sign bearing a slogan like: "MAKE THE "RIGHT" CHOICE -- VOTE REFORM!" brings a smile even to the most cynical Objectivist. Another ambiguous use of the term "right" appears in Rand's own writing, such as in this passage from Galt's speech: "If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgement, it is right to work for his values ... . If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being ...." (AS 986, quoted in OPAR, 361) If this is supposed to be an argument for the conclusion "if life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being ..." then the argument is invalid, as "right" is used ambiguously, as an adjective in the premises, and as a noun in the conclusion.

Galt continues: "Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man's rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life." In the same context, in OPAR, Peikoff says that "... the victims rights are still inalienable: the right remains on the side of the victim; the criminal is wrong." (351) In these two passages, the same type of ambiguity appears: the inference from A's having of a right (noun) to it being wrong, that is not-right (adjective), for B to violate A's right.

I think that these passages should be read as containing an explanation, not an argument, and so the charge of fallacious reasoning can be dismissed. "Right" and "wrong" are usually understood as moral concepts pertaining to actions that are, respectively, morally justified, or unjustified. In order to give the political concept of "right" a thoroughly moral-foundationist sense, Rand and Peikoff supply what amounts to an etymological thesis: the term "right" was originally chosen to convey the idea that the justification of ascribing a right to anyone depends fundamentally on ethical considerations, as opposed to, say, a social contract, a papal encyclical, or a monarch's decree. Well, I think there is room for debate here -- as a historical issue, to what extent were the originators of the term "right" committed to a naturalistic moral foundationalism? (See Narveson's discussion of the senses of "natural" in Locke and Hobbes in his The Libertarian Idea, pp. 56-7.)

B. The Duty of Self-Preservation, and Attendant Logical Puzzles:

Much lively and thoughtful discussion on the "choice to live" as the foundation of morality has already taken place on this list, so at the risk of re-opening the can of worms, I will just indicate that the discussion pertaining to the puzzles surrounding Peikoff's presentation of the metaethics in chapter 7 can be brought to bear on assessing Chapter 10, too.

In one particularly annoying place (352) Peikoff approvingly quotes Samuel Adams (better than Hegel, I should think) saying that the rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness (and property) are "evident branches of, rather than deductions from, the duty of self-preservation, commonly called the first law of nature." This annoys me for three reasons.

Firstly, while Peikoff uses this quote to illustrate the lineage of Rand's concept of the logical unity of the rights, it implies an acceptance of the other idea contained in it -- that self-preservation is a duty. For a Lockean traditionalist like Adams, this "duty" is derived from the requirements of honouring our Master and Maker and recognizing that we are His servants. (Cf. Locke's Second Treatise, Ch. 6). For Peikoff -- an atheist who would no more countenance the idea of man being a servant to God than date Andrea Dworkin -- to use this quotation without even a footnote to emphasize the logical unity idea and downplay the self-preservation idea is truly baffling. We breathe easier after he corrects himself, maintaining that if "man existed to serve an entity beyond himself, whether God or society, then he would not have rights, but only the duties of a servant." (354-5) "Rights, contrary to a formulation common during the Enlightenment, do not derive from man's source or 'creator.'" (361)

Secondly, the quotation implies that Peikoff thinks that rights are aspects of this dubious "duty" of self-preservation. Now since when are rights duties for the individual who has them? The whole point of saying that A has a right to life means that anyone else, say B, has a moral duty to refrain from interfering with A's actions. It doesn't imply that A has any duties to himself, in particular the Lockean duty "not to willfully leave one's station." In "Man's Rights," Rand shows a preference for the phrase "negative obligation" (Cf. OPAR 355) instead of "duty" in this context, since "duty" for her implies doing, not non-doing. B satisfies A's right to life if B does absolutely nothing.

Thirdly, after having rejected, with Adams, the idea that the particular rights are deductions of some kind, he proceeds to give what certainly looks like a deduction of the right to life from the basic metaphysics of man -- the volitional nature of his consciousness. (353-4) He then "deduces" the right to liberty from the fact that reason is man's means of survival and the corollary virtue of rationality, and infers the right to property from these, with the additional premises of man's particular mode of survival -- adapting nature to suit his needs rather than adapting to nature -- and the corollary virtue of productivity.

For Peikoff, demonstrating the validity of the rights claims in this way is not a "deduction." It is a "reduction." What reduction is, as we saw in Chapter 4, is a tracing backwards of conceptual linkages through the hierarchy of concepts from the abstact to the concrete, "rationally reconstructing" the necessary integrations that give rise to valid concepts, "on the fly." Well, if the validation of the rights is nothing else than a reduction, I'll eat my hat. It still looks like a good old-fashioned Aristotelian demonstration to me.

C. The Unity of the Virtues? Well, at least the Rights ...

What Peikoff does (354) is to connect each "right" to a corresponding ethical thesis, and to a corresponding fact of anthrometaphysics (pertaining to the metaphysical nature of man -- sorry but we really need a word for this!) Schematically:

volitional consciousness -> life as the standard -> right to life

reason as means of survival -> virtue of rationality -> right to liberty

survival by altering nature -> virtue of productivity -> right to property

reason as attribute of individual -> virtue of selfishness -> right to pursue happiness.

Even though we can show that the rights indeed form a logical unity by showing the incoherence of denying any one of the other rights while affirming the right to life, that in itself suggests to me that the right to life is the starting point, logically. All of the other rights presuppose it, as Peikoff's "crude contradiction" paragraph makes out. (352)

I think that there is a stronger unity between the right to life and the right to pursue happiness than one of logical implication. As I understand the survival/flourishing distinction, the dichotomy is a false one. A is A, and human survival is Human survival. A merely biological survival is not a human survival--that is, a survival in which the organism values reason, achieving goals, and developing a noble character. Such a life would be a flourishing life, by my lights. Similarly, the right to life, understood as the right to survive just is the right to pursue happiness. What is needed to grasp the identity here is that they are aspects of the same phenomena viewed from different perspectives, one physical, one mental. You dualists out there are the only ones who should think that the survival/flourishing distinction is legitimate!

Although he does not discuss the issue, I get the impression that Peikoff thinks that a unity of rights thesis would be a consequence of a unity of virtues thesis in the Objectivist ethics. This is another question we might want to debate: are the virtues a logical unity -- all reductions/deductions(?) to/from/of(???) the virtue of rationality -- or is there additional inductive evidence that is needed to establish, say, the virtue of productivity -- evidence to be obtained by focusing on reality afresh rather than by looking at the way in which changing our perspective on a given phenomenon can yield new insights. This is really unadulterated speculation on my part now, but if the thesis of the unity of the virtues can be supported, then if I am right, this would count in favour of a stronger version of the unity of the rights thesis -- one that in my view is drifting dangerously in the direction of rationalism.

Ultimately, I would like to see us tackle the question of just what the concepts of "deduction," "reduction," and "logic" really mean. Of all the difficulties posed by Peikoff's book, the underdeveloped status of the Objectivist logic troubles me the most. The cash value of this would be to clarify in what the logical relations are between rationality and the other virutes on the one hand, and the right to life and the other rights, on the other hand.

D. On Government.

The section on why rights can be violated only by the use or threat of physical force (359-60) is excellent.

Libertarian anarchists usually take "liberty" as the starting point, and then question why the government has the right to intervene in the market to prohibit non-governmental "protection agencies." If the government is not morally justified in running monopolies for mail, telecommunications, currency, and so on, why is it justified in running a monopoly on the retaliatory use of force?

This is the sort of question that seems plausible if you lose sight of the fact that liberty is not a primary. The requirements of man's life in a social context are:

1. Peaceful coexistence with fellow citizens

2. Given that freedom, property defined, is the basic social requirement here, people need to know about how rights violations, contractual disputes, threats of foreign invasion, etc. will be dealt with.

The second requirement entails that there be some single, impartial, objective legal system in place, with the power to enforce the system effectively. Seen from this point of view, the anarchist alternative cannot implement the necessary system; it is only by means of an agency with a monopoly on the retaliatory use of force that the second requirement could be made a reality. This seems to me like the primary claim. The argument for the delegation of the power of self-defense to the state is based on the usual ad populum about mob rule. I would like to see a moral argument fleshed out here.

The rest of the chapter on Statism as the Politics of Unreason is fine.

Find Enlightenment at