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October 25, 2004

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Randian

Now, I'm not declaring that any views ought to be banned from the opinion pages, or even that any particular attitude of expression ought to be banned. I'm not denying that providers of argumentation ought to challenge their readers, sometimes even offering them the other side in unvarnished form. After all, once upon a time, the Providence Journal published a strongly worded piece of mine that its targets would surely find offensive. Still, I find myself wondering what the thought processes were that landed Harry Binswanger's assault on the Ten Commandments within that same paper's pages.

That said, excerpts can't capture the permeating turns of phrase designed to cast scorn toward the religious, and I'd prefer to take on Binswanger's ideas, such as they are. Read the full piece to judge for yourself whether it deserved publication. Here's the essence of the rhetorical case:

In sum, the first set of commandments orders you to bow, fawn, grovel and obey. This is impossible to reconcile with the American concept of a self-reliant, self-owning individual.

The middle commandment, "Honor thy father and mother," is manifestly unjust. Justice demands that you honor those who deserve honor, who have earned it by their choices and actions. ...

The second set of commandments is unobjectionable but common to virtually every organized society -- the commandments against murder, theft, perjury and the like. But what is objectionable is the notion that there is no rational, earthly basis for refraining from criminal behavior, that it is only the not-to-be-questioned decree of a supernatural Punisher that makes acts like theft and murder wrong.

The basic philosophy of the Ten Commandments is the polar opposite of the philosophy underlying the American ideal of a free society. Freedom requires: a metaphysics of the natural -- not the supernatural; of free will -- not determinism; of the primary reality of the individual -- not the tribe or the family; an epistemology of individual thought, applying strict logic, based on individual perception of reality -- not obedience and dogma; an ethics of rational self-interest, to achieve chosen values, for the purpose of individual happiness on this earth -- not fearful, dutiful appeasement of "a jealous God" who issues "commandments."

Rather than the Ten Commandments, the actual grounding for American values is that captured by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged: "If I were to speak your kind of language, I would say that man's only moral commandment is: Thou shalt think. But a 'moral commandment' is a contradiction in terms. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood, not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments."

I like that last line. Apart from the circularity — rationality is sufficient to derive morality, because morality is rationality — how perfect a blind assertion of radical libertarians' central flaw!

The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.

Thou shalt follow no commandments! Presumably, that includes such "commandments" by which rationality and reason are defined. In that case, what could it possibly mean to apply "strict logic" in a world that bends to "the primary reality of the individual"? Petitio principii? Sorry, bub, not in my reality. Justice demands that I honor my mother and father because they've earned it? Well (the impulse-driven rationalization might go), they'd deserve honor if they'd just stop trying to rope me into helping them with irrational appeals to my status as their "son."

With a nod toward Binswanger's offense at the suggestion that his ideology is inadequate to construct a moral society, let's accept that murder and theft are wrong by definition. "Refraining from criminal behavior" is entirely rational in an "earthly" way; the question is, what behavior ought to be criminal? Sure, it's easy to see that murder is wrong, but what is murder and what is licit killing?

Preborn, or even pre-rational, humans can't express their desire to live, or even their awareness that they are alive. May they be killed? Some might argue that the elderly and disabled drain resources in order to maintain lives that they illogically consider worth preservation. Fair to say "no"? Maybe it isn't theft to commandeer the property of those who devote their resources to imposing on others' freedoms by asserting religious morality in the public sphere; maybe it's "justice."

As I've said of Binswanger before, in tangential context, the option he favors is essentially "unlimited minority rule." Such people have striven to layer abstruse concepts to disguise the conclusion toward which their ideology leads. But a "metaphysics of the natural" becomes an epistemology of determinism dictated by the powerful in the form of chosen values serving a rational self-interest that follows a strict logic that the rest of us are too dense to comprehend. In short:

Let me do whatever I want. To do otherwise would be unacceptably irrational, because there's no rational reason to restrict me.

And thou shalt not be irrational.

Posted by Justin Katz at October 25, 2004 1:49 PM
Libertarians vs. Social Conservatives

Simply sublime. Morality is composed precisely of commandments--otherwise, it isn't morality. And his table-pounding dogmatism about rationality and morality only further enhances the point. Morality follows from strict logical dictates such as the law of noncontradiction. Each and every moral claim is a "Thou shalt not" statement, and choosing to formulate it otherwise (as in "one ought" or "one ought not") fails to alter this fact. Binswanger's objection seems a trifling one of diction, at bottom.

Unless he thinks there is such a thing as a moral principle which is not binding, which of course would not be a moral principle at all.

Posted by: Sage at October 25, 2004 4:47 PM


Thanks for correcting my french for using the f-word, and putting in asterisks (sp) instead.

Oh, by the way, did you ever hear that joke about Nathan Hale? It's a computer thing.

He had only one ass-to-risk for his country !

Posted by: Phil Sadler at October 31, 2004 11:44 PM