Force and Rights, Part 2

Part 2 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 the second in a series 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.

As before, Peikoff has someone -- this time their name is Phil -- give a presentation on force. It's quite long so I'll summarize. Phil starts off saying that he's taking for granted metaphysics, epistemology, life as the standard of value, and egoism. He says he's taking reason as man's means of survival for granted but qualifies that and says he's going to chew it. He defines his purpose as proving that the initiation of physical force is wrong, and discusses force as involving taking a value from someone without their consent.

I'm going to quote part of Phil's talk:

Now I’m going to go into the proof. First of all, we can consider a man whom force is initiated against, and what can happen to him in those cases—he loses something: he loses his life, his values; his reason is prevented from acting to achieve what he considers to be to his survival. So I think it’s pretty clear-cut, the examples that I discussed—robbery, fraud, killing, and so on—that these things all are opposed to his survival. But I did want to establish that, that the person whom force is initiated against, is acting against his survival.

I think most decent people would concede that killing is opposed to someone's survival, but I don't think the argument is as clear for robbery or fraud. Someone could say "well, you survive even if you're heavily defrauded, so how is that against your survival?" even if they think fraud is very bad. So there's a gap in the argument here. Also, earlier, Phil gave this as one of his examples of force:

or threatens to do something to him (such as, if he doesn’t register for the draft, they’re going to put him in jail)

So that's clearly bringing up government action as within the scope of forceful things and raises potential tricky issues (like the issue of whether taxes are force and thus opposed to your survival).

Phil's discussion then pivots to whether the initiator of force gains something of value, and asks why, if he does gain something, is force destructive to the initiator's survival. Phil goes into an example about an engineer who goes through life using his mind and pursuing longer range goals and wider values. Then at some point in his life the engineer decides to rob a bank. Phil says that the engineer has to throw out various things he's been building over time -- like confidence and independence, and that he engineer is also making other people his adversary instead of cooperating with them. Phil says that the engineer is throwing out principles at living at an animal level.

I think Phil's presentation started out okay but got really muddled toward the end when he tried to make his point about whether the initiator gains something of value.

Peikoff has more specific criticism. Basically, Peikoff says that Phil was trying to integrate the topic he was discussing with his other knowledge (about productiveness, self-esteem, independence, and so on) but that's not the key think you have to accomplish in order to understand the topic.

The main flaw is that he took the topic of integration with the rest of his knowledge as the essence of understanding this one topic, when it’s not. Integration here is the cherry on the cake. He omitted the same thing that the first speaker omitted. What is the essential principle of why force is wrong? To grasp it, you first have to grasp it as a principle. What is it about force that makes it wrong? Sure, it’s anti-reason—why? You have to grasp it in principle, because if all you hold is, “It’s anti-reason because it’s anti-independence and it’s anti-long-range and it’s anti-principles,” it’s like the crow epistemology—you cannot retain it all—and consequently, what you feel in your mind is, “I have a whole bunch of arguments against force, but they’re all sort of like each other. They don’t jell into one insight, one clear grasp, ‘This is force, and this is why it’s wrong.’”

That makes sense to me. Grasping something in a principle and chewing on it is different than integrating it into your mind. There's an order and grasping the principle comes before integrating (and indeed Peikoff goes on to say this explicitly).

Peikoff then gives his chewing of force. He says that Objectivism says there are two fundamental ways of dealing with others - by reason or by force. And Objectivism says force is anti-mind, anti-reason. But why? Peikoff suggests considering that reality were different, and that you could somehow change someone's mind by using force. So e.g. someone says "Start believing in God, or I'll shoot" and it's actually possible to comply with that command. In that case, Peikoff claims, there's no argument against force (not sure I agree). Peikoff says the crucial fact is that you cannot force a mind to believe certain things. It's not that it is bad to do so -- it is that it cannot be done. That's because a mind is a cognitive faculty for perceiving reality by means of a complex process of observation/judgment/connection. If you try to order it to come to a different conclusion, there's no way to actually accomplish that. So force users can't affect the mind directly. But they can affect your actions. And if a force-user uses force against you in order to make you act against your own judgment, they're making your mind impotent. And your mind is your means of survival. So force is anti-mind. You can see how this sort of direct connection between mind and force was missing from the previous arguments.

Peikoff goes on and says that if you grasp the point in principle, you don't have to address whether force is harmful to the perpetrator of the force separately. And if you do have doubts, you might not have fully grasped the necessity of functioning by principle and by rationality. He then starts concretizing. A mugger says "Your money or your life." He makes your mind irrelevant to decisions about what to do with your money. Your own judgments are now irrelevant. Peikoff says that under complete socialism the government makes your mind irrelevant about the material side of life in general. He talks about slavery and concentration camps as examples of pervasive force coming into conflict with the mind.

Peikoff says the context is life, principles, rationality. But the argument isn't complete yet. It's a "partial". It needs to be integrated, which is the step Phil prematurely jumped to. He then concludes the topic by saying that a deductive argument like the following would have been a bad approach:

“Rationality requires the perception of reality; force interferes with the perception; therefore, force is anti-reason.”

He emphasizes that you have to know what these concepts mean and that they have to come from reality. You have to observe stuff in reality and form concepts about the stuff you see to know what's going on. The theoretical argument helps you organize your concepts. But you have to look at reality. That's what Rand did.

Then there's a presentation on a different topic -- this one is on rights and is given by Donna. Donna gives an Objectivist definition of rights - "Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action in a social context." - but doesn't really chew the concepts in that definition. They also go on a bit of a tangent. Like, they start from that definition, and then they say that rights are about how to live with other men (which isn't quite right IMHO), and then they start talking about the definition of "life". So they kinda get lost from their main point. Then they give some examples of rights issues -- abortions, guns, economic controls. I thought the whole thing was pretty scattered, though.

IMHO a better approach to the topic of rights would have been something like this (and I'm doing this without looking things up so it might not be correct):

Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action in a social context. What does that mean? Let's start with social context. Rights issues don't come up on a desert island. Why? Rights protect you from being interfered with (regarding certain actions, in a certain context) by other men. On a desert island, there aren't any other men, just coconuts or whatever, so there's no need for rights (this is different than the situation with morality, which you still need on a desert island). Now consider "moral principles defining and sanctioning man’s freedom of action". The right of free speech says you have a right to speak views others consider bad without others using force to stop you. The right of self-defense says you have the right to take actions to defend your life and property from the force of others and to take those actions without interference by the government or other people (e.g. you can buy some kind of gun to defend yourself). The right of property says that you have a right to keep the wealth you've earned by means of voluntary trade and the property you've acquired with that wealth, even if other people might prefer to take it by force. So in each case, rights define a sphere around some action or activity (again, in some particular context) and say that force is not permitted. Since morality is a guide to action in the world, since principles provide guidance across a range of cases, and since rights prohibit certain actions (the use of force) around certain broad categories of activities (speech, self-defense, the peaceful use of one's private property) rights are moral principles.

This is not a complete argument, obviously, and might have various problems, but I think the basic organization is okay.

Peikoff found Donna's presentation to be insufficiently structured. He says that Donna equated rights and ethics, but rights are more about a political context. She then proceeded to consider various examples but in light of an unclear definition of rights, so the examples weren't illuminating. Peikoff also mentions the problem I noticed regarding a spiral of wanting to define terms. Peikoff correctly says you need to delimit your assignment and not just jump around to a bunch of different topics. He argues that her selection of rights was controversial and complains about abortion (which I agree is controversial) and guns. Peikoff complains about guns cuz he says there's tricky where-should-we-draw-the-line types issues about what weapons people can be permitted to have. Also he says her concretes didn't clearly illustrate a principle.

Peikoff gives his approach to the topic of rights. He says you might think that you can just go from "we've established that the initiation of force is evil" to "let's have government ban it." But that would be on the principle that the government is the upholder of morality, which is totalitarianism. So the purpose of rights is to define the conditions required for men to live together in society. And this comes from morality and the requirements of life. We've defined how man should live in ethics already, as context we are assuming, and now the question is making that possible in politics.

In other words, society has to institutionalize the conditions that enable man to follow morality. You look back to the ethics, and we tell each man that the fundamental goal is life—act so as to sustain your life; your need to act a certain way is what creates values to begin with. And when we come to politics, what do we say? The fundamental principle has to be, you act in such a way as to sustain your life, and if other people interfere, they are violating the crucial condition of human existence and coexistence. The fundamental value in ethics is life, and the fundamental right is the right to life. In morality, we hold that you can achieve your life only by using your mind, your reason, and so on, and acting accordingly. What does that come out to in politics? Liberty—the right to act according to your judgment. So liberty is simply the sum of those virtues—rationality, independence, integrity, thinking by your own mind, acting accordingly, and saying that in society no one can prevent you from doing that, not if life is our goal and our purpose is to have a society in which you can practice the principles of human survival. Ethics tells us that productiveness is a central virtue. Politics tells you to keep what you’ve produced and use it to sustain yourself; that’s the right to property. Ethics tells us pursue your own well-being—that is, egoism, which in politics entails the right to the pursuit of happiness.

Peikoff says the context of rights is all of ethics, but he sums it up as life, rationality, productivity, and egoism. Peikoff concludes by saying that the issue of force comes earlier/is more basic than the issue of rights. Rights are more like details about how society should be organized. Force is "like a metaphysical issue pertaining to man’s nature and his relation to reality."