Force and Rights, Part 1

Part 1 of a series of posts on the fourth chapter in Leonard Peikoff’s book "Understanding Objectivism", "Force and Rights".

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on philosophy. I’m just a person trying to figure things out for myself, and speak for no one but myself.

This post is about Lecture Four, "Force and Rights”, in Leonard Peikoff’s book Understanding Objectivism. I’ll go through the chapter, summarizing and adding my own thoughts, comments, or questions.

Peikoff says that people are going to give presentations about the topic of force and rights that aren't scripted (note: the chapters in this book were originally in a lecture format, and earlier chapters had pre-scripted presentations from presenters). He says the main focus is on methodology and we should focus on that and not just on whether we agree with the content.

Peikoff asks us to consider the following as a "chewing" of the initiation of force. He says it has an error he's gone over several times:

We have to start with existence exists, existence has identity, consciousness is the faculty for perceiving it. Since everything is something, man must be man, that means he requires a specific course of action to survive, and that course involves him having to think and to work in order to achieve the values his life requires. Thinking is not automatic, it’s volitional; so therefore, he is not born with any automatic course of action, he has to choose the right alternative course. And that is the purpose of ethics, which is a code of values to guide human choices of action, and rights are guides indicating what man’s essential relation to others in society should be. Force is the only way to violate man’s rights. And therefore, the threat of force really destroys man’s means of survival. It really defies reality. Force negates the law of identity, because it doesn’t let man live by his nature; and it negates the law of causality, because it doesn’t let man keep the results of his effort. Therefore, the initiation of force is evil.

I'm not sure what error Peikoff has in mind. My thoughts are these:

  • One major point I think is omitted is that man does not just need his reason and judgment to pursue his values but his free, unhindered judgment and reason. He needs to be free to deal with reality as he sees fit. If he comes to a judgment about what needs to be done and somebody with a gun comes to stop him, that thwarts his ability to effectively use his means of survival (his mind).
  • Ethics is brought up but the content of ethics and specifically of man's rights isn't addressed. We're told that ethics is a code to guide choices but not what the code says, and we're told that rights are guides to action but we're not told what they are. We get one sentence on ethics AND rights and then we're talking about force! So force is being brought in without enough groundwork on the "lower levels" of Peikoff's philosophy tower having been established.
  • "Force is the only way to violate man's rights" is open to lots of questions/interpretations/ambiguities (people can reasonably wonder "what about fraud?")
  • The point that thinking is man's means of survival was brought up pretty late. Some groundwork was laid for it earlier re: the discussion of having to think and work and not being born with an automatic course of action. But there's no explicit point there that says "thus, man must use his reason to survive, and thus, that is his means of survival."

Let's see what Peikoff says.

OK so Peikoff mentions that rights is brought up before establishing rights, which agrees with one of my points above. But he says the bigger issue is that it's an overall summary of Objectivism, and not a chewing of the particular topic of force. If you recapitulate the whole context, which is the error Peikoff says the above presentation makes, then you run into the crow epistemology issue. Makes sense to me.

Peikoff then shares a checklist he's using to analyze the presentations:

  1. Right conclusion—is it the right conclusion?
  2. Context hierarchy—have they set the right context hierarchically? In other words, in the right order.
  3. Definitions oscillate—are they defining whatever is absolutely essential, and are they keeping that tied to reality by reducing it to the concretes?
  4. Concretized.
  5. Inductive—as opposed to that rationalistic deduction.
  6. Stages—if necessary, is the argument broken up into steps?
  7. Devil’s advocate—are there some objections that the person is just blithely passing by, that are blatant?
  8. Integration.

So next we have another presentation, this time from "Fred". It's long so I don't want to paste in the whole thing, but I will present the key points in a tree and then try to analyze it. This is a conceptual tree of my own making, and a lot of it is paraphrases, and some material was omitted, and it doesn't represent the order the material was laid out in originally. Refer to Understanding Objectivism for the original and complete content.

So some criticisms on Fred's presentation:

  • There is a BIG BIG leap from the initial context-setting to the concrete examples. Not nearly enough context was developed.
  • The claim that you need to obliterate what it means to be a human to use force isn't well-developed.
  • The individual parts of the definition of force weren't chewed very well IMHO. Like "compulsion" and "willful deception" could each use a bit of chewing.
  • Three big, complex examples are brought up, but only one is analyzed at all. And no smaller, simpler cases are brought up (like grabbing a guy's wallet or selling him a broken thing under the guise of it not being broken)
  • I disagree with Fred's claim that you could inductively work out a definition (but I don't expect Peikoff to complain about that!)

I liked that Fred specifically mentioned that man must be free to use his mind.

Peikoff says the purpose of examples is to connect your abstractions to clear-cut examples. Bringing up a point about excessive force in self-defense brings up a complicated point about detailed application within a broad topic. "Why is force evil?" is a big general topic. Picking a super tricky example distorts the discussion, according to Peikoff. He emphasizes you shouldn't use a controversial concrete but instead pick a range of simple, straightforward concretes. After you've got the idea down, you can work on harder examples. I basically agree with Peikoff here [EDIT: see the clarification below]. I think there is a tendency of people to want to focus on controversial/tough/tricky/edge/borderline cases. I think that's a mistake. It's related to how people think that stuff like the Trolley Problem or some life boat scenario is really critical and the essence of morality. The situations in those kinds of things are often ludicrously contrived anyways, and even if they did happen, 99.99999999% of someone's life is not gonna be spent in the midst of one of them, so it's a bad focus. The cases Fred brought up in the example above aren't absurd or unworthy of moral consideration or anything, but they're not a great place to start thinking about force.

Peikoff says that he thinks the Hitler example and hoodlum example are fine but that the Israel one is controversial. I thought that was interesting. I think he might be right about that but I don't think it should be controversial. Israel's a decent country whose neighbors have repeatedly attempted to destroy it. I don't like conceding the fact that it might be controversial so easily without any sort of comment about or criticism of the people who think it's controversial.

I remembered that Elliot Temple wrote a blog post about the Israel comment and reread it. Temple's main point was that the Israeli example shouldn't be controversial and that, by acting as if it is controversial, Peikoff is sanctioning the views of anti-semites. I agree. I particularly liked this quote:

He's letting anti-semites drag the conversation into a distorted reality where Israel's right to exist is a controversy. That's granting them way too much.

I agree.

I think there's an important thing I should clarify. Avoiding complex/tricky cases when you're chewing the basics of a topic makes sense. That's just engaging with examples of an appropriate "difficulty" level given your understanding. And avoiding controversial examples where some actual, reasonable controversy exists makes sense. For example, I think I'd avoid using examples involving abortion when discussing the basics of morality, because I think that some legitimate controversy exists around the ethics of abortion and it would just be distracting. But conceding what should be non-controversial stuff as controversial (as Peikoff did with the Israeli example) is bad.

Peikoff says that Fred's argument wasn't thoroughly developed. I agree. Peikoff goes into detail on the point about force being anti-life.

Let’s try this from the devil’s advocate point of view. We don’t know anything about Objectivism, and somebody comes in and says, “The initiation of force on someone is evil, because it obliterates or destroys their mind and your own.” On a commonsense level, what would be the obvious objection to that? There are many obvious cases where that does not seem to apply, if you take it in the way it was stated. How many times have people been mugged but still have the same IQ after as they had before? Their minds were not obliterated. They were the victim of force. It could even be brutal force. As it was presented, it’s as though force is like a lobotomy—once you use force on someone, it obliterates his mind, he’s finished. But how? If it’s a torture chamber and you’re shooting electricity through his brain, that type of force would do it. But in the ordinary course of affairs, the victim does something he doesn’t want to do—but does he lose his mind? Or how does the perpetrator lose his mind, for that matter?

Peikoff says that the key point that was omitted was the argument that connects force to rationality. Basically, Peikoff says we needed some specific details and examples about the relationship between force and the mind and how they are opposites, and we only got hints.

To be continued.