Prospective Remarks

This post comprises three sets of remarks:

  1. The first set laments how anarchists dominate groups I formerly believed I could endorse. I desire a nation, states, and localities characterized by liberty, not anarchy.
  2. One group of liberty advocates who oppose the turn to anarchism are the disciples of atheist novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Interest in that group has prompted me to start reading a book offering a Christian critique of Ayn Rand’s thought. This reading, in turn, has prompted this post’s second set of remarks, in which I play skeptic’s advocate in response to both Rand and her Christian critic.
  3. Having touched upon the philosophy of Ayn Rand, I then decide now is a good time to pass along a copy of comments I posted in response to an Ayn Rand Institute video. My comments on the video, which responded to the overturning of Roe v. Wade by calling abortion “sacrosanct,” make up the third and final set of remarks.

Some concluding comments will follow these three sets of remarks, though I can’t promise those comments will strengthen the linkages between the sets. I can’t even promise that they will attempt to do so. Favoring liberty but opposing anarchy, defending radical skepticism as a coherent and rational choice for unbelievers, and promoting the cause of abortion abolition to atheist empiricists who idolize Ayn Rand: can one forge more than a tenuous link between these topics?

Whether one can or not, those are the topics for today. Enjoy.

My Sad Farewell to Not Thinking Myself Moderate ^

I’ve never sought to be moderate in my viewpoints. Yet, time and again, I find that, compared to people I initially think I agree with, I am just that. I’m now finding that out in the case of libertarians, including libertarians who share my Christians faith.

Give Me Liberty, Not Anarchy ^

I may not have been traumatized by the experience, but I was disappointed. What experience, you ask? I speak of my discovery that a group claiming to represent the official “Libertarian Christian” viewpoint is wholly or mostly made up of full-on anarchists. Or so they say. These people want to abandon (commitment to) limited government in favor of something they call “civil governance.” Though this just sounds like government with a new name attached, they claim “civil governance” is not “government” or “the state,” and call themselves anarchists.

Now, making something smaller and more local does not change its basic character — a little state is still a state, no matter what you label it — so I’m not sure what the new terminology is supposed to prove. But that’s an issue for another time. If libertarians caught up in the latest trend dominating their favorite think tank want to insist they are anarchists while proposing to replace a legal system built up over centuries with a bunch of petty fiefdoms ruled by zany locals with strange ideas but money enough to pay for private police forces, then, as Pope Francis famously said of homosexuals seeking to enter the priesthood, “Who am I to judge?” Suffice it say I now make a point of identifying myself as an anti-anarchist libertarian:

Politically, I am an anti-anarchist libertarian. I support maximum individual freedom ensured by a constitutionally limited, republican government established for the sole purpose of protecting individual rights, as well as state or national sovereignty. [State governments protect state sovereignty; the federal government protects national sovereignty. Each should act as a check on the other if it violates constitutional constraints. And the people must act as a check on both. One acts as a check by refusing to comply with — and, when possible, punishing — government acts that violate the Constitution.] Since the right to life is the most fundamental of all rights, and the right upon which all others depend, I am an abortion abolitionist.

An Issue for Another Time ^

I should note that the preceding is a preliminary response I will have to return to later. I fear I have no choice but to dig into some of the written material being put out by the “civil governance is not government and any government or state is evil and can’t be prevented from growing and growing no matter what you do” crowd. I wonder: would the people in this group grant that the government God himself set up for ancient Israel was a government and a state? It was essentially a set of laws, a court system, and an enforcement mechanism of “judges” whose duties did include those we now assign to judges. They also served as militia leaders when required and, I suspect, were the chief law enforcement officers during times of peace — perhaps a bit like police chiefs or sheriffs, the peacetime equivalent of their wartime role. (This is a topic I need to study more closely.) Unlike the many local fiefdoms these quasi-anarchists would give us (apparently), however, the system God set up had a uniform code of laws across the entire nation. This made Israel a unified state. As a nation and a state, we could even call it a “nation-state,” though it was obviously very different from the highly centralized, top-heavy nation-states of our day.

In any case, groups of people who agree about many things tend to coalesce into tribes with uniform viewpoints on most everything, and that seems to be what’s happening here. I’m pretty sure the people in this anarchist tribe are not smarter than America’s founders and those who have followed their lead in politics, but I suppose I shouldn’t declare that a certitude until I’ve spent some time studying their material. Of course, as fallible humans, they are sure not to be wiser than God who established a state in ancient Israel. But, still, in fairness, I will abstain from final judgment for now. Given how today’s federal government has morphed into an enemy of the U.S. Constitution and of Christian faith and morals, and given how the same is true of many state and local governments, I can certainly see why good people might decide just to chuck the whole project of (re)establishing rightly limited, rights-ensuring, republican government. I’m not ready to do that myself, however.

From Anarchy to Objectivism to Skepticism ^

Since I am not interested in signing on with the anarchist project, and since this viewpoint seems to dominate many libertarian circles (via those human tribal impulses I find myself forced by temperament and constitution to resist and oppose), I’ve gone looking for alternatives (in addition to America’s founders and God’s word, that is). One group of liberty advocates who seem willing to oppose the anarchists are the Objectivists, the disciples of Ayn Rand. This group has even more unbelieving, atheist baggage than the Austrian school of economics, however, so it will be hard to draw upon without further preparation. To that end, I’ve finally started reading my copy of John W. Robbins’s refutation of Rand, Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System.[1] Robbins was very close to Rand politically — hence a positive blurb for the book from Ron Paul — but, as a Christian and disciple of Gordon Clark, he felt obligated to take Objectivist philosophy to task.

Playing Skeptic’s Advocate ^

In one place, Robbins criticizes Rand’s failure to consistently apply her anti-skeptical reasoning to her own thinking. This is a valid critique, but Robbins’s granting of the anti-skeptical case fails to convince. If I were not a Christian — if I did not ground trust in the general reliability of my sensory, perceptual, and rational faculties in the trustworthy God who gave them, and who has inspired and preserved a written revelation that corrects and extends what those faculties tell me — I would be a skeptic of the most radical sort. I will therefore spend some paragraphs defending the skeptical position that Robbins and Rand reject out of hand.

Since I do trust in the trustworthy God who gave me my faculties, and in his written revelation as a corrective for the effects of sinfulness and finitude on them, I could possibly justify holding to a Christian version of Objectivism. The following is, therefore, just a thinking exercise. If I were still an unbeliever, it would express my actual viewpoint. But, thank the Lord, I am no longer an unbeliever.

First Robbins Rejoinder ^

Robbins writes:

Throughout her writings, Rand was adamant that knowledge is possible to man, that, in fact, man actually possesses knowledge. She never tired of repeating that those who claim man can know nothing claim to know something — and therefore refute themselves; that those who say there are no absolutes are uttering an absolute — and therefore contradict themselves; that those who maintain that there is no truth, maintain a truth — and therefore show themselves to be liars. All of this is quite in order. Yet Rand seemed peculiarly susceptible to the idea that the self-refutation of skepticism and relativism is in itself a theory of knowledge: It is not. Skepticism is inadmissible precisely because it is absurd, that is, internally contradictory. But to make such a statement is not to show how knowledge is possible to man, only that it is possible.[2]

Robbins has rightly identified an error in Rand’s thinking: her argument against skepticism does not show that knowledge is obtained wholly or exclusively through the senses. But I’m not convinced that the refutation even shows “that [knowledge] is possible.” Rand and Robbins assume that a skeptic must make the claim that man can know nothing. Since this positive claim contradicts skepticism, no skeptic can make it without contradicting himself. But must a skeptic make this claim? Skepticism can be self-consistent if it refuses to claim that it knows that man can know nothing. What it should do is simply seek to show that any knowledge claim breaks down. Coherent skepticism does not say that knowledge is impossible, only that no claim to knowledge has yet been proved true. Rational skepticism abstains from affirming knowledge claims; it does not make a knowledge claim itself.

Second Robbins Rejoinder ^

Again, Robbins states:

Echoing Rand, Nathaniel Branden wrote, “It is rational to ask: ‘How can man achieve knowledge?’ It is not rational to ask: ‘Can man achieve knowledge?” This, of course, is quite correct: It is merely the self-refutation of skepticism stated another way. But Branden (and his is the source to which Rand refers in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) went on to say: “It is rational to ask: ‘How do the senses enable man to perceive reality?’ It is not rational to ask: ‘Do the senses enable man to perceive reality?’” Empiricism does not follow from the absurdity of skepticism. Both Rand and Branden begged the question. They assumed what they should have proved, and they did it loudly, arrogantly, and repeatedly, hoping to intimidate both followers and critics into not noticing their petitio. The unwarranted leap from the possibility of knowledge to the certainty that knowledge is possible only through the senses is quite obvious in their works.[3]

As it stands, this criticism is already fatal to Rand and Branden’s philosophy. Even so, I’m not convinced that “This, of course, is quite correct” is quite correct. That one cannot coherently claim to know that man cannot achieve knowledge does not prove that man can achieve knowledge. So, there is nothing irrational about asking, “Can man achieve knowledge?” Answering with a definitive “No” would be irrational. Answering with “Not so far as has been proved to me” would be perfectly rational. The fact that it is absurd to assert to know that humans cannot acquire knowledge does not prove that it is possible for humans to acquire knowledge. If humans indeed cannot know anything, it is impossible for them to know this. But that they cannot know this to be the case does not prove that it cannot be the case.

A rational skeptic is not someone who absurdly asserts to know that knowledge is impossible. Rather, a rational skeptic is someone who refuses to affirm that humans can know, and who has yet to be convinced of the validity of any knowledge claim he has analyzed. One can refuse to affirm a proposition without also denying the proposition. One can refuse to affirm a knowledge claim to be true without positively asserting that the knowledge claim is false. Either-or propositions, as opposed to propositions that are matters of degree, must, indeed, be either true or false. It does not follow from this, however, that every human thinker must affirm or deny every such proposition. One may choose neither to affirm nor to deny, to assert that one does not know either way. This agnostic stance is true skepticism, and it does not contradict itself.

Third Robbins Rejoinder ^

Just to belabor the point, Robbins again:

…it must be emphasized that the question is not: “Can man know anything?” That question, this writer insists, must be answered in the affirmative, on pain of contradiction. Augustine, whom the Objectivists despise, made that very point sixteen centuries ago. There is nothing original in the Objectivist argument against skepticism.[4]

The essential error in this argument is that is presupposes that anyone asked “Can man know anything?” must answer in either the affirmative or the negative. Answering in the negative would, indeed, be a contradiction. The true skeptic cannot claim to know that man cannot know. The true skeptic, however, may, though not answering in the negative, also refuse to answer in the affirmative.

“As a skeptic, I cannot claim to know that man cannot know anything,” I would respond if still an unbeliever. “Therefore, I cannot answer in the negative. Yet, as a skeptic, I also cannot claim to know that man can know something. I must pass over this question in agnostic silence, as I must pass over all questions that require affirmation or negation of claims to knowledge. I can, perhaps, adopt certain opinions as working assumption for pragmatic purposes, based on my belief that they seem likely to work out better than other opinions. I can never, however, claim to know that any opinion I adopt pragmatically is in fact true, or that any I do not adopt is in fact false.”

Agnosticism, Pragmatism, and Madness ^

To my eye, Robbins, like other presuppositionalists in the Gordon Clark line, fails to extend unbelieving thought as far as it can go. An unbeliever is not obligated to hold fast to trust in any of his faculties, including the rational faculty. He is also not obligated to answer “yes” or “no” to every yes-or-no question anyone chooses to pose. Within a rigorously self-consistent system of unbelief, certain questions simply cannot be answered in either the affirmative or the negative. The skeptic must refuse to answer such questions on the grounds that, whether or not he “can” know the answer, he does not know it and, in fact, doubts that he can know it. True skepticism means comprehensive agnosticism.

We can take this even further if we like. If we live in a godless universe, where the laws of nature and thought that we think we perceive could just be delusions of mental faculties that we shouldn’t trust (not that we could ever know that we shouldn’t trust them), perhaps some propositions can even be both true and false. Perhaps the laws of logic are a delusion. Perhaps the idea that anything we think or assert can be self-consistent is a delusion. And perhaps the possibility suggested in the prior sentence is also a delusion. In other word, Clarkian presuppositionalism fails to recognize that even self-contradiction and madness are viable, even respectable, options for a consistent unbeliever. This isn’t to say that such an unbeliever can know that he’s being consistent or inconsistent, of course. Anything may be tolerated, and anything may be deemed intolerable, in unbelief. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. De Q.E.D.

While We’re On The Subject of Objectivism ^

Since I’ve broached the subject of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, I will append the comments I posted on an Ayn Rand Institute video in late October. This will save me having to post them later.

Comments on: Roe is Overturned: ARI’s Response
Posted on: 29 October 2022
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Prefatory Notes ^

(1) My comments concern your identification of women with unwanted pregnancies as (possibly paraphrasing) “the only humans who matter” where abortion is concerned. I’m not interested in defending this specific Supreme Court ruling, since I agree with Judge Andrew Napolitano that Roe v. Wade should have been overturned differently.

(2) My comments focus solely on pregnancy due to the voluntary activity of consenting, sound-minded adults. Cases where genuine, legal consent is missing are a separate issue. I can’t endorse killing an innocent third party for the crimes of a parent (abortion in cases of rape), but I also can’t argue that mothers made pregnant through an involuntary act have a moral obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of that act. These cases, therefore, are beyond the scope of even this very long comment.

Main Remarks ^

If you are consistent in your defining of the “person” class to include only those humans who presently have in operation the faculties by which you’ve chosen to determine personhood — meaning, for instance, that you believe anyone currently in a coma is not a legal person and may freely be killed — I’ll grant that your viewpoint is rationally coherent. [Note that people have recovered from comas longer in duration than pregnancy.[5]] It is vile, harsh, heartless, and wicked (as I see it) — but consistent. (To my way of thinking, any attempt to define “person” as something other or more than just “living human individual,” such as by requiring some level of active self-awareness or intellectual ability, is unworkable and dangerous. [For a fuller outworking of this line of thinking, read my comments on an excellent documentary on abortion abolitionism.]) Dividing human individuals into classes with differing rights, or with no rights at all, based on externally observable characteristics, presently operative faculties, and realized potentialities is more in line with the spirit of Nietzsche and Hitler than the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but I cannot claim you do not have a proud, or at least prideful, philosophical heritage.

Still, I’m not sure what people claiming to value a free society think will be gained by separating responsibility from actions. The natural purpose of sex is procreation, the creation of new and separate human individuals. (This is the purpose of natural sex. I don’t propose to address any of the various unnatural acts corrupt moderns include in the “sex” category. [Apparently, corrupt moderns also want to make sure American children get involved with these unnatural acts.]) An essential aspect of a free society is that all individuals take responsibility for the consequences of their voluntary actions. People who voluntarily risk creating new human individuals thereby take on the responsibility to care for those individuals at least long enough to give them up for adoption.

Since this responsibility is a bigger burden for mothers than fathers, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to set up laws in such a way that fathers, for example, are required to shoulder more of the financial side of this responsibility. I also look forward to a day when technology has advanced to a point where embryonic transfer or artificial wombs allow mothers to give up children for adoption soon after conception. But the basic truth is that “liberty” does not include a right to engage in procreative activity without risk of procreation. When it was actively in operation, the organization Libertarians for Life thoroughly refuted the pro-abortion arguments against responsibility. People who do things that affect other people, including people who do things that create new people, have taken on obligations to those other people. For a free society to function, people must be required to live up to the obligations to others that they’ve voluntarily taken on.

This is why, by the way, Ayn Rand’s special obsession in her novels with adultery (the characters she thinks most noble are so often unrepentant adulterers) is incompatible with a functional free society. Even for those whose atheism rejects the concept of sacred union, marriage is a voluntary oath and contract. People who commit adultery violate an obligation they have taken on voluntarily and should be penalized for doing so.

Thank you for your time.

Retrospective Remarks ^

[10] The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth. [11] The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd. [12] And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. [13] Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:10–13)

To what extent the words of this post are “acceptable words,” “words of truth,” or “words of the wise” may be debatable. But I hope that any who read them will find them, if nothing else, spurs to thought.

Thanks for reading.

Notes and Comments ^

[1] John W. Robbins, Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997).

[2] Without a Prayer, 31-32.

[3] Without a Prayer, 33, quoting Branden from The Objectivist Newsletter, January 1963, 2.

[4] Without a Prayer, 34.

[5] List of notable cases of people who awoke from a coma, Wikipedia (accessed 03 December 2022).