Friday, June 04, 2010

Some Reasons Why I'm Not a Big Fan of Ayn Rand

A lot of libertarians were influenced by novelist Ayn Rand. It's important to keep in mind that she wrote her novels in a different time, when it was radical to suggest that profit and self-interest might not be bad. While I think it's possible to get some useful things out of her novels--a sense of outrage at the destructive capability of government intervention, for example--there's not a lot more to be learned from them. I read it in high school, and was briefly excited. It opened my mind to different ways of thinking about the world. I soured on the philosophy itself pretty quickly, however.

Charles Murray has a  new review of two recent books about Rand, and it has some great criticism. When I look at the lives of the people who created and tried to live by the Objectivist philosophy, I don't really see anything that makes me want to jump on board. They seem miserable, hypocritical, self-deceptive, and prone to witch-hunts and purity tests that seem more like religion than rational philosophy.

There are plenty of knocks against the philosophy itself. David Friedman points out that her derivation of "ought" from "is" doesn't follow. Bryan Caplan suggests that her philosophy is at adds with evolutionary psychology (the same occurred to me after reading Nathaniel Brandon's biography a few years ago; they seemed to think human nature could be overcome by pure rational thought, or perhaps that human nature was pure rational thought--but evolution selects for reproductive success, not rationality. The results were affairs that ended badly.). Roy Childs pointed out years ago that the logical conclusion of her philosophy is Anarcho-Capitalism, not minarchy. A quick Google search will show you other critiques of Objectivism, although some of them are weak.

(SPOILERS for Atlas Shrugged below)
It has also always bothered me that Galt's Gulch is hidden by some kind of holographic screen, which is a pretty serious public good, yet we're also told that there's no taxation. So who pays for the screen? Surely it's not charity; that would be, in Rand's view, evil. The rest of the economics is pretty laughable, too--even with a  motor that pulls static electricity from the air, they could not have a complex, wealthy modern society without heavy trade with the outside world, for natural resources at the very least. They'd be lucky to achieve subsistence. It reminds me of Art Carden's critique of the end of Wall-e: If they decide to try farming, 90% of the population will die within a year.

14 comments:

Art Carden said...

1. First, the ray screen isn't a public good because the Gulch is excludable. Midas Mulligan owns the Gulch, if I remember correctly, and membership is apparently by invitation only. There's a trade in kind: Mulligan provides a package of amenities in exchange for the presence of people he likes. It might also be a loss-leading/advertising complement for Galt's electricity. If you don't contribute to the public good, he can shut your power off.

2. There's no mention of how many people are in the Gulch, but it could be fairly large. They can also consume capital in the short run.

3. There's some discussion of trade with the outside underground. SInce they all have mountains of gold on deposit at the Mulligan Bank, they shouldn't have any trouble getting what they need.

This is from memory. I could be wrong, but I don't think the problems are as severe as you think.

Mike Hammock said...

Thanks for the comments!

1) Saying the ray screen isn't a public good because the Gulch is excludable is like saying National Defense isn't a public good because the U.S. could exile people who don't pay for it. Sure, it's technically true, but it stretches the meaning of "public good" to the point of meaning nothing. Public goods can be privately provided, of course. In any case, we're left with a pretty dramatic monopoly. If Mulligan is a truly self-interested rational actor, he'll extract as much rent for it as he can--enough to give people only a mild preference for living in the Gulch, rather than somewhere else. Perhaps there is a competing Gulch somewhere that competes down the price of joining the club? But then it gets harder to believe they can keep these places secret.

2) I don't know how many people can fit in a valley in the Colorado Rockies. I guess it could indeed be a lot of people. I got the sense from the book that it was a relatively small number of people, but that's just an impression--like you said, the book never tells us.

3) I suppose they could buy lots of stuff with that gold, but I can think of at least two problems with that.
a) The outside world is collapsing; it's going to get harder to rely on external production.
b) Shipping the amount of stuff--particularly raw resources, if the outside world can't do the manufacturing any more--necessary to maintain a high-income lifestyle will be hard to hide. The standard of living in the U.S. relies on a large amount of interstate trade. They're going to need trains running in and out frequently, and the bigger the population is, the more they'll need.

I think Galt's Gulch is a satisfying ending, story-wise, but I just don't think it makes much economic sense.

Art Carden said...

1) Presumably it's a small enough area that it isn't (quite) like national defense. There are exclusion mechanisms, like the pledge. And I would guess that whoever owns the power plant (Mulligan? Galt?) can charge for it through people's power bills. It's probably also temporary, because Mulligan (and everyone else) expect society to collapse eventually. They're involved in a very complex set of repeated games, and note that at the margin, people (Dagny, Hank) have a slight preference for staying on the outside. There's also no mention of what's being charged, but (a) Mulligan is almost certainly appropriating all the location-specific rents and (b) everyone in the Gulch is fine with it. If you're a perfectly rational objectivist, then presumably you know that the screen is the product of a voluntary exchange between Galt and Mulligan and that you're there on your terms.

2) I'm also not sure, but there are a couple of mentions of miles, and they apparently need cars to get around.

3) They also have (menial) jobs on the outside, which allows them to earn income. It's also important to note that they aren't planning to stay in the Gulch permanently because they're going to emerge after the world has collapsed. They also have planes and a master of avoiding detection, so they can probably get at least some machines and machine tools in without too much trouble. They also have $0 energy and a lot of human capital, which would suggest to me that they're probably able to accelerate crop growth with artificial light.

Michael M said...

The question to ask here is why did you call these "reasons"?

Objectivism is a body of ideas — identifications of the nature of the you and me and our universe. They only need to meet one single standard: true or false. You could have lots of personal reasons for not liking Ayn Rand, but the only valid reason for not liking her philosophy would be that it did not accurately identify reality.

It does not appear that you have ever scratched that surface. Here, at least, you have taken a short cut and settled for a bibliography of those who have disagreed with her. Since these are supposed to be your reasons, where is the commentary on your view of whether they were right or wrong. When you tell us you soured on the philosophy in your youth without any explanation of why you did, you are actually practicing a kind of authoritarianism. It is implied that you think your word should be enough to make that piece of knowledge a value. To whom I ask?

Anne C. Heller posted to her blog her "reasons" for not being an Objectivist (after spending six years writing Rand's biography). Hers were only marginally better than yours. I wrote a detailed critique of them and she was intrigued enough to publish it not as a reply, but as a separate post along with her comments on my critique. I just answered those and it remains to be seen if she will continue. The posts are long and we have agreed to be patient.

I mention this only because our exchange has acquired a secondary underlying theme, namely the context within which one ought to dissect and judge Objectivism, some of which is applicable here.

Her original post: Why I Am Not An Objectivist
Current exchange: A Reader Comments and Heller Responds

I would suggest that you read David Friedman's position and Ayn Rand's and tell us subsequently what your position is. Keep in mind, that before a gardener can grow a plant to reach its maximum potential, he must define its nature and the requirements of that nature — what it IS.

Also, Objectivism's politics of radical capitalism is wholly incompatible with so-called Anarcho-Capitalism that is actually a contradiction in terms. Capitalism protects individual rights by removing physical force from human interaction. It does that by monopolizing the use of force under the control of checks and balances to guarantee that it will be used solely to prevent, stop, or punish its use in human exchanges of values. To free the populace from the debilitating fear of force, it must objectify its use according to known laws and procedures. After all, over half the value of liberty is the justifiable expectation of it in everyday life. Anarcho-Capitalism cannot objectify force. Rather, it is a de facto institutionalization of arbitrary force.

Mike Hammock said...

Art, I'll have to dig out my copy of the book. It's packed away somewhere. My impression of the end was that a small number of atlases had shrugged themselves away to live mostly independent of the collapsing world, but perhaps I misremember. I am still skeptical that human capital and zero marginal cost electricity can substitute for the incredible production benefits of free trade (the costs of sneaking stuff in and out must, at the least, be equivalent to a serious tariff). I mean, they'll need fertilizer, water, pesticides, chemicals of all kinds for (for refrigeration, medicine, cleaning, etc.). They'll need light bulbs of all sorts (including grow bulbs for plants), parts for cars and planes. If they have livestock, that's another set of problems--they need their own food supply, plus processing facilities. I can't remember; is Galt's motor powerful enough to power a car or plane? If not, they'll need gasoline. It just seems like it would be logistically difficult and expensive.

Michael M., I'm not sure what to make of your comment. The links I provided contain arguments that are some (but not all) of the reasons I am not an Objectivist. I'm not going to catalog all the reasons I'm not an Objectivist because it's not worth my time. I'm not going to elaborate on the links I provided because I think they're pretty great as they are--that's why I linked to them. I don't think I can express them better than they have already been expressed. I posted them because I think they're correct. This is a blog, not a journal article. If you want more explanation, go read the links. I would have linked to the Prudent Predator arguments, too, but they're too sprawling for most people to actually bother reading today.

As for Anarcho-Capitalism, the link to Roy Childs's letter provides all the necessary counterargument. I don't see why one would believe that force can only become "objective" when monopolized by government. Laws and procedures can and have been known without government. Whether such a society is desirable is, I think, a different and difficult question.

Michael M said...

You are using the word "objective" here in an entirely different context. The flaw in anarchy is not in the ability of anarchists to formulate or defend objective laws — as opposed to subjective laws. The flaw in anarchy is its inability to objectify the use of defensive force in a society. In this context, it means that in any given region or jurisdiction, the exercise of one's freedom to pursue the values necessary to support and perfect one's life requires confident knowledge of how force will be dealt with when it occurs. It requires that the laws and procedures for defending force will be, jurisdiction by jurisdiction knowable, understandable, reliable, and above all, unique — one hierarchical set per jurisdiction.

You can have a hierarchy of enforcement jurisdictions (city, county, state, and federal, etc.) but each separate set of laws and procedures must be objectified , meaning capable of being objectively known. It is the present monopoly over the use of force that the respective governments exercise now that gives you the confidence when you leave your home each day that an act of violence in which one cannot tell who is aggressor and who is defender will be dealt with neutrally until that is ascertained and prosecuted in a manner known to all.

Anarchy enshrines the opposite — arbitrary force. In an anarchy there are multiple defense agencies each of which could have different laws and procedures. And new ones could appear at any moment. There would be no way to inform yourself about them, and when violence would occur you would have no idea what to expect. And, I must repeat, over half the value of liberty is in the justifiable expectation of it.

Ultimately the libertarian anarchists have only one "argument". How can you justify using force to stop me from using defensive force against an aggressor or one who defrauds me? The answer is the same as the one to the question, why do I have to go downtown and to court if I kill someone in self-defense when he breaks into my home at night. Because no one can be truly free until the use of force is objectified. Everyone needs to know that every act of force will be open to scrutiny by all and that the systems for verifying it as valid or criminal will be consistent and hierarchical all the way to the Supreme Court.

Consequently, any arbitrary use of defensive force against one who has violated your rights that would be moral and just outside of a society effectively constitutes an initiation of force against others in the context of a society. A right to life cannot exist in the presence of arbitrary force.

Anarchy is so contradictory, its advocates become ensnared in strange conclusions. They demand that there be a "free market for defensive force." They fail to recognize, however, that a market can only exist and can only be said to be free after the prevention of using force in human exchanges of values is already an established condition.

They have created their own problems just like the rest of the libertarians who have tried to assemble a political philosophy by starting with economics. While Rand's radical capitalism devolves logically from the egoist ethics from which she arrived at the non-initiation of force principle, they accept the principle without any foundation, as if it fell from the sky full blown. Consequently they have no basis from which to grasp the necessity of objectifying force, and like little children, demand the right to be arbitrary. That is why Rand aptly labeled them the "hippies of the right" — right-wing economics conjoined with a wholly arbitrary code of values.

Mike Hammock said...

I am sorry I have not responded more quickly. I've been too busy, and for that reason, this response will also be brief.

Michael M., I can only conclude from your comment that you haven't actually read Friedman's hypothesized anarcho-capitalism. In particular, the following is troubling:

"In an anarchy there are multiple defense agencies each of which could have different laws and procedures. And new ones could appear at any moment. There would be no way to inform yourself about them, and when violence would occur you would have no idea what to expect."

It suggests that you are not aware of the web of contracts that could exist to deal with such disputes. Anarcho-capitalists are not arguing for arbitrary force.

Also, I think Rand's egoist ethics don't make much sense--one reason being Friedman's refutation of her "oughts from is" claim. Another is that her argument leads to Prudent Predation, rather than rights-respecting. I don't pretend to have a complete, consistent alternative ethical framework, but that doesn't mean hers is correct by default.

Michael M said...

While I understand your perceived obligation to respond promptly to every comment, no one has a right to expect it, least of all those of us whose comments fall on you from the sky, as it were.

You are wrong that I have not given Friedman serious consideration. I have read his work and participated in debates with him some years back on the Objectivist forums/lists.

I am fully aware of the ways interacting anarchist defense agencies are supposed to work, not just from him, but from many others who have varying expectations re their workings. All of them, however, rely on expected response to built in incentives and rewards of refraining from coercive behavior. That leaves none of them capable of mitigating the arbitrary choices of the limitless number of those who may, can, and, in many cases, would choose to stubbornly circumnavigate that web of contracts and incentives — i.e. to try to beat the system.

There is simply no way for an open-ended number of independent wielders of defensive force to objectify the consistent treatment of initiated force that would provide the populace with a known and justifiable expectation of liberty in their everyday life.

Those are the concrete consequences of anarchy. This is the mental error that sets them up:

The non-initiation of force principle derives from the recognition of two things:

1) That man survives and thrives by applying his reason and his actions to the voluntary production and trade of values in the service of surviving and thriving — his life.

2) That the only enemy of that task is interference by physical force, so the prerequisite condition for the pursuit of life is individual autonomy.

The error of anarchists lies in assuming that the exercise of force is a value like goods and services that we must have autonomy to pursue. It is not. It is rather the exact opposite. An autonomy in the pursuit of values can exist only in the absence of an autonomy in the exercise of force. Freedom and force are not companion values, they are mutually exclusive. We are free only to the extent that force is completely controlled.

Anarchy establishes an autonomy in the exercise of force as a matter of principle. It is inherently arbitrary and self-contradictory.

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Rather than dredging up Friedman's chapter on oughts from is to show you point by point that he only refuted his claim to understand the issue, consider it from this different perspective. What person involved in the task of raising a living entity of any kind to the level of its full potential — be it a gardener, grower, breeder, scientist, or whatever — would compile the prerequisite set actions without first discovering and defining what the living entity actually is? What is its nature and its fundamental means to survive and thrive? How could one know what one ought to do in order to perfect any living creature without first knowing what it is?

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It is impossible to be an Objectivist and simultaneously engage in prudent predation. It violates a multitude of the philosophy's tenets. There is the primacy of defining one's oughts in principles; the primacy of evaluating the consequences of one's actions for the long run; the primacy of the principle virtues that include the integrity that precludes ethical exceptions; the primacy of rational self interest that recognizes the implicit necessity to grant and sustain the rights of others in order to justifiably claim and sustain them for oneself.

In practice, an egoist ethics demands an unflinching loyalty to principles that are one's guide to survival that precludes any expedient lapse into predation. It is rather the pragmatic libertarians and their anarchist branch who, having failed to grasp Rand's ethics and rejected it for rationalist and mystical substitutes, who have nothing to protect themselves from wandering into prudent predation.

Mike Hammock said...

"All of them, however, rely on expected response to built in incentives and rewards of refraining from coercive behavior. That leaves none of them capable of mitigating the arbitrary choices of the limitless number of those who may, can, and, in many cases, would choose to stubbornly circumnavigate that web of contracts and incentives — i.e. to try to beat the system."

Because people can try to beat a system, it is therefor unworkable? Do you apply this standard to government as well?

"There is simply no way for an open-ended number of independent wielders of defensive force to objectify the consistent treatment of initiated force that would provide the populace with a known and justifiable expectation of liberty in their everyday life."

Assertion without argument. Everyone knows who their protection agency is; everyone knows its contracts with other agencies. Everyone has a known and justifiable expectation of liberty in their everyday life.

One cannot derive that one should never initiate force from those two principles. One could derive a belief that I would be better off if no one initiated force against me, but it would be rational for me to initiate force against others whenever it suited my goals of surviving and thriving--the prudent predator problem.

For that matter, the non-initiation of force principle is itself insufficient for dealing with all sorts of situations.
insufficient in dealing with all sorts of situations such as small, diffuse harms and probabilities.

"We are free only to the extent that force is completely controlled."

But a government isn't "completely controlled"; it's a mess of individuals pursuing self-interest and ideology, pushing and pulling policies in different directions. It's arbitrary and capricious, influenced by those with money and those with votes. It will apply force in whatever ways are beneficial to those in office. Government no more under anyone's control than the price of bananas is under anyone's control.

"How could one know what one ought to do in order to perfect any living creature without first knowing what it is?"

I do not understand this argument. Humans have existed and (more recently) thrived for a long time without a thorough understanding of what they are. For that matter, every living creature has genetic programming which tells it what to do without any understanding whatsoever of what it is. Humans have survived for 200,000 years without Objectivism; why would they need it to survive now?

You explained why an Objectivist who engages in prudent predation would be a hypocrite, but not why it would be irrational to do so. If it violates one's principles to violate the rights of others--even when it is in one's interests to do so--then it makes sense to simply change one's principles, if self-interest is a virtue. If humans are purely rational beings, then why not toss aside regard for the rights of others when it is to one's benefit to do so? If one could violate another person's rights for a $5 gain, with zero expected punishment, then pure rational self interest demands that one do so.

Unflinching principles and avoiding expediency don't sound rationally self-interested at all.

Michael M said...

"Because people can try to beat a system, it is therefor unworkable? Do you apply this standard to government as well?"

No, because the system of a government is the rule of objective law that criminalizes the arbitrary exercise of force, while anarchy enables the rule of subjective law that inherently condones the arbitrary exercise of force.

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"Everyone knows who their protection agency is; everyone knows its contracts with other agencies. Everyone has a known and justifiable expectation of liberty in their everyday life."

Not true. Anarchy imposes no obligation on any agency of force to contract with other agencies or to make their laws and procedures objectively knowable to those who could be subject to their use of force.

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"One could derive a belief that I would be better off if no one initiated force against me, but it would be rational for me to initiate force against others whenever it suited my goals of surviving and thriving--the prudent predator problem. "

The recognition that one ought to be free from initiated force is derived from defining what one is, i.e. a human being with a specific means to survive and fulfill one's potential. To the degree that that ought is valid for me, as a human being, it is valid in principle for all human beings who are, were, or ever will be. It would be a self-destructive contradiction for any human being to claim freedom from force so derived for himself while denying its validity for all other human beings.

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"But a government isn't "completely controlled"; it's a mess of ... "

You may not lay the failings of governments established and sustained by subjectivist cultures on the politics of Objectivism. To do so, you will have to state which specific tenets and principles of the philosophy and/or its politics will cause those same failures to occur.

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"For that matter, every living creature has genetic programming which tells it what to do without any understanding whatsoever of what it is."

Deriving oughts is not a concern of any living entity except human beings, because only they are volitional and must choose among their alternatives. And for us to make the right choices among the alternatives for perfecting a living entity we control (dogs, cats, oaks, fish, corals, etc.) we require a thorough knowledge of what the entity is — its fundamental nature and means of surviving and thriving. Similarly, the code of values (ethics) to guide us in making the choices of actions in the service of our life must be derived from and specific to that which we are in principle.

Also, the political oughts throughout the history of man have, without Objectivism, been a perpetual stream of blood-soaked tyrannies.

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"If it violates one's principles to violate the rights of others--even when it is in one's interests to do so--then it makes sense to simply change one's principles, if self-interest is a virtue."

One's principles are based on definitions of the nature of oneself and the rest of existence that is independent of the actions of our consciousness. Valid principles, therefore, cannot be created or altered; they must be discovered. Abandoning a valid principle for short term gain can never be in one's self interest. Violating a right of another to his life or property cannot either, as it would implicitly deny the validity of one's own rights.

Mike Hammock said...

I have tried repeatedly to get this down to the 4096 character count limit, but failed. It will be split over two comments. One further note: Unless you actually begin addressing these arguments, or show more signs that you have actually read the relevant debates already, I am not going to publish any subsequent responses. All of your arguments so far have already been refuted elsewhere, and I’m not interested in rehashing it all again. I try to maintain some editorial control over the comments to this blog.
"No, because the system of a government is the rule of objective law…”

So even if Anarcho-capitalism worked as advertised, you hold it to a different standard than you do government. This conversation is rapidly becoming unproductive.

"Not true. Anarchy imposes no obligation on any agency of force to contract…”

Friedman dispenses with this argument in a paragraph:
The most serious objection to free-market law is that plaintiff and defendant may not be able to agree on a common court. Obviously, a murderer would prefer a lenient judge. If the court were actually chosen by the disputants after the crime occurred, this might be an insuperable difficulty. Under the arrangements I have described, the court is chosen in advance by the protection agencies. There would hardly be enough murderers at any one time to support their own protective agency, one with a policy of patronizing courts that did not regard murder as a crime. Even if there were, no other protective agency would accept such courts. The murderers' agency would either accept a reasonable court or fight a hopeless war against the rest of society.

An individual or firm could choose not to contract with anyone at all, but they would be in the same position as an individual who refused to submit to the laws of the government.

"The recognition that one ought to be free from initiated force is derived from defining what one is, i.e. a human being with a specific means to survive and fulfill one's potential. To the degree that that ought is valid for me, as a human being, it is valid in principle for all human beings who are, were, or ever will be. It would be a self-destructive contradiction for any human being to claim freedom from force so derived for himself while denying its validity for all other human beings."

Again, you've come up with an argument for why I want others to respect my rights, but not why I should respect the rights of others. It's hypocritical to ask others to respect my rights while (occasionally) not respecting theirs, but it is not contradictory to the nature of a purely rationally self-interested person. It is, in fact, the stance that will bring that person the largest possible benefit--demand that others respect one's rights, and violate the rights of others when it is beneficial. One could argue that this results in a collectively undesirable outcome (like the prisoner's dilemma) but that doesn't make the individual action irrational (like the prisoner's dilemma).

Mike Hammock said...

Objectivists (rightly) wouldn't apply this reasoning to anything else. The argument seems to be:
1) I want others to respect my rights.
2) Therefore to avoid contradiction I must respect the rights of others.

As I've said, that doesn't follow, but let's pretend it does. Substitute in something else for "respect my rights".
1) I want to be provided unlimited health care.
2) Therefore to avoid contradiction I must want to provide unlimited health care to others.

The Objectivist assertion that one must respect the rights of others, even when it means forgoing personal gain, is altruistic.

A counterargument one could make is that violating the rights of others could become a bad habit, so that one ends up doing it more often than is optimal--but then, that just means that person isn't being rational enough. They need to be more calculating in their prudent predation. One could argue that any risk is too much, but then that becomes an argument about the morally correct amount of risk aversion--which would be, I think, a silly argument.

"You may not lay the failings of governments established and sustained by subjectivist cultures on the politics of Objectivism. To do so, you will have to state which specific tenets and principles of the philosophy and/or its politics will cause those same failures to occur."

If your proposal requires that everyone in government become Objectivists in order for it to work, it has already failed (rather ironically, in a manner similar to that of Marxists who suggest that communism would work if everyone would just stop being selfish). In any case, as Public Choice Economics studies and predicts many forms of government failure, and it assumes rational self-interest, that is sufficient grounds for me to believe that an Objectivist government would face the same collective action problems as any other kind of government. Also, it’s a bit bizarre to argue that in the future Objectivist place everyone will be Objectivists, which means that they’ll all respect each other’s rights to avoid contradiction, and yet there still needs to be a government. I suppose a government will still be necessary to protect against outsiders (Which raises that nasty public good problem again—taxes will be needed! This problem afflicts anarcho-capitalism, too, however.) . I don’t see how government has any other functions in this hypothetical society—not even law or courts.

"Deriving oughts is not a concern of any living entity except human beings…”

I'm sorry; I thought you were speaking more generally when you asked "How could one know what one ought to do in order to perfect any living creature without first knowing what it is?" As a minor side note, I think that neuroscientists are showing that other primates can also make decisions in some ways (but not all ways) like humans, but that's not really important here.

"And for us to make the right choices among the alternatives for perfecting a living entity we control (dogs, cats, oaks, fish, corals, etc.) we require a thorough knowledge…”

That depends on what you mean by "thorough". I don't know how altruistic or selfish my dog is; I don't know what he's thinking, and I can't be sure if he's feeling what he looks like he's feeling, or if it's a biological ruse designed to get me to give him what he wants. There's an awful lot I don't know about him, really. I can only tend to his most obvious needs--food, shelter, and (apparently) attention. Does that count as thorough?

Mike Hammock said...

"Abandoning a valid principle for short term gain can never be in one's self interest."

This is an empirical assertion that cannot possibly be proven, but a single counterexample is enough to refute it. You leave a pile of money on the table while you go to the bathroom; I take out one dollar, safe in the knowledge that no one has noticed, and that you will not miss it until it is too late for you to figure out who did it. It makes me a jerk, but it doesn't make me irrational. You live in your house downwind of 100 factories belching smoke. I decide to increase the dangerous pollutants I emit (as a side effect of some production decision), safe in the knowledge that you'll never be able to figure out which pollutants are coming from which factory. It's not very nice, but it's rational. That's the very nature of collective action problems, such as public goods and externalities.

"Violating a right of another to his life or property cannot either, as it would implicitly deny the validity of one's own rights."

This still doesn't explain why I, as the hypothetical purely rationally self-interested person, should care about the rights of others. I certainly care that my violations of their rights, if discovered, might cause them to stop respecting my rights. It's a reason to be very prudent. But so long as I am not discovered, why would I care about implicit denial of my rights? What matters to me is whether or not other people respect my rights, not whether my rights are valid in an abstract sense. These rights aren't physical or real; they're social constructs-ideas we came up with. What your argument really seems to suggest is that a person who doesn't care about this "contradiction" would be a happier, materially better-off person. They'd demand others respect their rights, but only selectively respect the rights of others--which, of course, is what real people do (and which we may have been selected by evolution to do--our brains are very good at both finding ways to cheat and detecting cheating. The end of Matt Ridley's The Red Queen has a really interesting discussion of this).

Mike Hammock said...

I ended up splitting it over three comments; there seems to be a discrepancy between the stated character limit and the character count provided in Word.