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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dear Ghate, It Needs More Cowboy


Onkar Ghate is a "senior fellow and chief content officer at the Ayn Rand Institute," and "the Institute’s resident expert on Objectivism," so his articles are an important gauge of thought leadership within Objectivist circles.  Last year I wrote a post titled, Onkar Ghate Loses the Plot, criticizing his article wherein he channels Ayn Rand's ghost to warn us about the rise of Trump.  More recently, I wrote a post identifying a more fundamental epistemological error that aims to both explain the flawed method underlying his Trump article and generally account for the hostility and controversy on political issues within Objectivist circles.  Am I being hypercritical of Ghate?  Yes.  These are not musings from some random person but articles that carry the imprimatur of the estate of Ayn Rand, and as such, they deserve heightened criticism.

In his latest piece, Ghate "shares some thoughts on the tribalist nature of American society today in light of the 75th anniversary of The Fountainhead."  Once again, this article displays a recurring error: context-dropping and rationalism.  As his very first example of "American tribalism," Ghate writes:
Cable news outlets now routinely support their side, right or wrong, and level strong criticism only at opponents. Imagine the vitriol Fox News would have directed at Obama had he bashed the U.S. intelligence services and FBI the way that Trump does.
In making such a claim, notice that he disregards important context and facts.  Through the work of investigative journalists like Sara Carter, Kimberley Strassel, and John Solomon, Congressional committees in both the House and the Senate, and Inspector General Michael Horowitz, it has become obvious that Obama weaponized the FBI and the intelligence services (as well as the IRS and the FISA courts) to serve his political agenda and Hillary's presidential campaign.  During the campaign, and since Trump's election, Obama appointees and holdovers like Loretta Lynch, James Comey, Susan Rice, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Rod Rosenstein, and ex-intelligence big-wigs like James Clapper and John Brennan have been engaged in an ominous shadow campaign to prosecute, undermine, and delegitimize the Trump administration which is tantamount to a virtual coup d'etat on an elected President.

Now, if this is true, and it is, Trump has every right to bash the U.S. intelligence services and the FBI.  In fact, one of the most important reasons I voted for Trump was in the hopes that, if nothing else, he'd begin the process of dismantling this Deep State rogue's gallery which threatens to undermine civil liberties by hijacking these supposedly non-partisan agencies to spy on and persecute innocent Americans.

Yet Ghate, in seeming ignorance of these facts, equates the two sides, as if legitimate and warranted public accusations of government corruption are equivalent to the vitriol of those who obfuscate and lie to protect that corruption.  By covering these investigations, Fox News among many other conservative outlets have heroically helped to push back on the mainstream media's onslaught of anti-American propaganda.  Is Ghate really equating the likes of Tucker Carlson, Mark Levin, Joseph DiGenova, and Alan Dershowitz to Joy Reid and Morning Joe - or equating a Rep. Trey Gowdy to a democrat shill like Rep. Adam Schiff? Does he even know who these people are?    

Ignoring facts and context, and leveling a tribalist charge at both sides, as if the two were nothing more than mindless warring collectives, is a dramatic example of context-dropping and rationalism that undermines the cause for political freedom.  Ignoring that one side is right and one side is wrong, at least in this particular context, also feeds the relativist narrative that both extremes are nothing but "ideologues" who stand in the way of "progress" (we know what that is).  In the very next paragraph, he writes:
Our elections are increasingly discussed in terms not of ideas but of how the white, black, Hispanic, old, young, male and female vote will fall. We then watch as white supremacists and Antifa members battle in the streets.
Here, notice how he implicitly grants Antifa some amount of credibility by implying they are a group who battles white supremacists.  Of course, Antifa doesn't just fight with white supremacists.  They are a violent fascist movement that attacks everyone who is not Antifa, including conservatives, Objectivists, Libertarians, and even liberal free-speech advocates.  The actual white supremacist movement is a small, fringe lot of nut jobs, whereas the cultural Marxists, and their Antifa brown shirts, dominate the universities and the mainstream media while propagating the vicious theory that "whiteness" is white supremacy - a chilling precursor to real fascism and genocide.

While Ghate tries to make the reasonable point that tribalism leads to these sorts of violent political factions, by dropping the context of the nature of Antifa and the larger identity-politics movement, he obfuscates the fact that it is primarily left-wing academics who are formally Balkanizing American society into victim groups and animating violent groups like Antifa.  Antifa uses the existence of these paltry fringe alt-right groups, who one rarely sees or even hears about, as a red herring to justify a broad attack on western civilization under the premise that western civilization is nothing but a fascistic regime of oppression and genocide (see Spike Lee's latest rant), which is why they quickly moved from tearing down statues of confederate generals to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  

These Marxists conflate defenders of actual individual freedom with literal Nazi's, proceeding to justify the use of fascist tactics against free speech and individual rights activists.  And Ghate plays right into their hands.

Once again, by ignoring today's political context, and by taking a seemingly neutral stand with respect to today's right and left, he implies that today's right are nothing more than mindless partisans, represented by Fox News and "white supremacists," lashing out at their soulless mirror images on the left.  I can hardly imagine a more complete acceptance of a vicious left-wing false alternative (e.g., see this articleHow Freedom of Speech Warriors Mainstreamed White Supremacists).

Ayn Rand said that freedom of speech was the last line of defense on the way to despotism, and it is under attack in a way I have not seen in my lifetime.  Virtually every western country besides the United States is prosecuting "hate speech" which today, I guess, means criticizing Islam and tomorrow, could mean criticizing the President, Nancy Pelosi, or the Party.  While I do not endorse the entirety of today's right and its various constituencies, which includes even liberal civil libertarians like Alan Dershowitz, they are the ones who are fighting for freedom of speech and the rule of law.  What unites and animates this movement is opposition to the growing power of the left, who act through the universities to inculcate legions of students into cultural Marxism, which then seeps into media, corporate policies (which many Objectivists fervently defend), and ultimately laws that promise to stifle individual freedom and violently suppress dissent.


While Ghate's intention seems to be to emphasize and distinguish the power and importance of individual reason and judgment against rampant ethno-centric identity politics, it's important to understand what collectivism is and isn't.  First, he seems to imply a false alternative between collectivism and political movements, or groups as such, as if identifying with or acting as part of a movement within a given context, in this case fighting against the left-wing progressive agenda, is somehow contrary to the ethos of individualism.  This could be seen when he equated the validity of Fox News (the right) with Obama's corrupt cabal or when he implicitly equated opponents of Antifa to white-supremacists.

He then arbitrarily dismisses cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, as a collectivist who "teach(es) a lethal collectivist doctrine: that each of us is a product of our heredity and environment, unable freely to think or act." Does studying or being informed by a scientific view of the brain's physiology, cognitive bias in aggregate populations, or factors of psychology or culture automatically kick one into the pure determinist camp (see Pinker on his actual theory of free will)?   Claims like this, made outside the context of facts or even a reference of some kind, undermine his credibility.  Later he even seems to imply that any link to culture is a form of collectivism.  He writes:
Instead, too many of our schools teach students that their identities come from their “ethnicity” — an irrational stew of the unchosen and the passively accepted, such as the place they happen to have been born, the genes they inherited, the religious dogmas they follow, the clothes they wear, the foods they eat, and the traditions their ancestors practiced.
While it's true that identity should not be tied inexorably to ethnicity or cultural tradition as such, it's important not to endorse a false alternative.  Collectivism is the idea that you are determined by your membership in a group, i.e., that your fate is sealed by your class, the geography of your birth, or some factor beyond your control.  Individualism holds that each person possesses free will and reason and thus can make independent judgments.  However, rationality is not automatic - it is a potential.  People are influenced, by a myriad of complex factors including their evolutionary biology (facts studied by scientists like Steven Pinker), their family, and the culture around them, where culture is defined as the dominant ideas and customs prevailing in each country or geographical area.

It seems that Ghate, like many Objectivists, in the name of opposing collectivism and upholding individualism, regard the ideal individual to be, in some sense, impervious to factors such as biology, family, culture, etc. as if acknowledging that such external factors influence people (for the better or worse) is an implicit endorsement of collectivism.  Of course, this is a fallacy. 

Could a boy growing up in a communist dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy independently conclude that dictatorship is evil and that he is living in a hell hole?  Yes, it is possible, but it would take a heroic level of intellectual ability and fortitude to overcome the influence of his conditions not to mention a practical means to hear and learn better, albeit outlawed, ideas. That is precisely why we revere Ayn Rand, who amazingly recognized the evils of Bolshevism at a young age and could escape to the west.  It is why we marvel at Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others who heroically maintain fidelity to their independent judgment against the influence of their family, their culture, their government, and even physical torture.

This is not a denial of the potential of individualism, it is a statement of fact regarding the difficulty of practicing rationality and why we regard it as a virtue.  Moreover, it is an affirmation of the nature of human cognition.  It takes time and effort to learn and integrate new knowledge.  Broad ideas about the nature of man, reason, individual rights, the proper role of government, etc. are not self-evident.  They are complex concepts developed over hundreds of years, the results of which are woven into the fabric of our culture through education, law, custom, language, art and so on.

However, while independent rational judgment can overcome biology and cultural customs (except in extreme cases), and we uphold reason as the primary tool for achieving individual success, we should not dismiss the influence of outside factors or regard those who study these influences to be "collectivists," unless they wrongly hold that we are inexorably determined by these influences.

These facts are part of the very basis for why we regard political freedom as necessary to the proper life of the individual, and why family is so important in serving to educate young people to value and uphold reason and individualism from an early age.  It is precisely why we say we are fighting for the culture - the dominant ideas prevailing in our society.  We want the value of reason and individual freedom to be widely spread in such a way that these ideas naturally impact and affect every aspect of our lives.  

We can both exercise independent judgment and welcome inspiring cultural achievements while disparaging objectively awful cultures that espouse slavery and superstition.  Americans should admire the genius of Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and the great industrialists.  We should be swept away by the uplifting art of Fred Astaire and Walt Disney.  We romanticize the Wild West and the rugged life of the American pioneers and the cowboys who symbolize the American spirit of hard work, freedom, and independence.  Growing up in a certain region deeply attaches one to his family, his ancestors, and his community, and the traditions of those groups - positive customs related to family life, holiday traditions, food, dance, art and the like.  This is an observable scientific fact that should be studied, understood, and embraced where it is positive - particularly if you have Italian ancestry like me and love pasta.

Dismissing the relevance or importance of primary cultural and genetic factors as merely "the place you happen to grow up" or "the genes you inherited" is an evasion of reality and, in my view, undermines the case for reason.  Even if we think these factors are usually marginal relative to the power of reason, the case for reason and the potential of rationality must be made within the context of these known scientific and qualitative factors.  While likely not his intention, Ghate's whole article and description of Roark in the Fountainhead, left me wondering if he sees the ideal man as a kind of wooden Platonic Mr. Spock-like vessel of reason pitted against a folk dancing robotic automaton.  The "resident expert on Objectivism" needs to do better.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Objectivists Disintegrating?


There is vehement disagreement among many Objectivists over issues such as immigration, gun control, political candidates, etc., and while there should be reasonable disagreement over complex political issues, I believe there are deeper philosophical issues underlying these disagreements.  In publishing various posts related to these debates, I've observed a common epistemological error underlying one side of most of the arguments - an error that leads its offenders into adopting often bizarre and contradictory political positions while fueling vitriolic intransigence. In my view, the root error lies in not grasping that knowledge is contextual

Ignoring that knowledge is contextual results in a form of floating rationalism or the habit of deducing knowledge from concepts in your head rather than integrating principles with facts.  Whereas empiricism negates principled thinking by refusing induction from facts, rationalism fastens concepts to other abstractions rather than the facts of reality. This is not just an ivory tower academic distinction.  This principle is at the foundation of knowledge, and its observance conditions the quality and ability of an individual's thinking method and conclusions.  

Moral Principles are Contextual
To understand this better, consider the Objectivist virtue of honesty.  Honesty is a virtue since acknowledging the facts of reality is required to achieve rational values. But we shouldn't practice honesty for the sake of being honest.  If you find yourself jeopardizing your ultimate value, life, in the service of the virtue, such as refusing to lie to a kidnapper because "lying is bad" or because the Bible says, "Thou shall not lie," then your thinking is inverted and dogmatic.

We don't establish moral or political principles for the sake of the principles themselves but, rather, to help guide us towards the achievement of values.  Whether you are working at a job, choosing a spouse, or walking your dog, every choice and action should aim to serve your ultimate value - life.  Leonard Peikoff writes (p. 273-74, all further quotations from Dr. Peikoff from here):
The principle of honesty, in the Objectivist view, is not a divine commandment or a categorical imperative. It does not state that lying is wrong "in itself" and thus under all circumstances, even when a kidnapper asks where one's child is sleeping...
To generalize the point, he writes:
Just as particular objects must be evaluated in relation to moral principles so moral principles themselves must be defined in relation to the fact that make them necessary.  Moral principles are guides to life-sustaining action that apply within a certain framework of conditions. Like all scientific generalizations, therefore, moral principles are absolute within their conditions.  They are absolute -contextually.  
Moral principles are inseparable from their context, but context-keeping does not render virtues to be arbitrary, subjective or "situational."  It just means that one must always consider the conditions in which he is acting and be prepared to revert to the facts rendering the principle necessary in the first place. He writes:
Lying is absolutely wrong - under certain conditions.  It is wrong when a man does it in the attempt to obtain a value. But, to take a different kind of case, lying to protect one’s values from criminals is not wrong. If and when a man’s honesty becomes a weapon that kidnappers or other wielders of force can use to harm him then the normal context is reversed; his virtue would then become a means serving the ends of evil.[emphasis mine]
It's important to note, this case is not an exception to the virtue of honesty - rather, it demonstrates the proper contextual understanding of the virtue of honesty.  The goal is not to be honest, in the dogmatic sense of "telling truth at all times no matter what," but in understanding that to achieve your values, you must acknowledge reality, in every sense of the word.  In this case, lying to the kidnapper is a form of honesty.  He writes:     
In such a case, the victim has not only the right but also the obligation to lie and to do it proudly.  The man who tells a lie in this context is not endorsing any anti-reality principle.  On the contrary, he is now the representative of the good and the true; the kidnapper is the one at war with reality (with the requirements of man’s life). Morally, the con man and the lying child protector are opposites.  The difference is the same as that between murder and self-defense. [emphasis mine]
This example demonstrates the concept of contextual cognition . Peikoff writes (p.123), 
an essential  rule of contextual cognition: always hold the context. Or, to put the point negatively: context must never be dropped. Out-of-context claims or proposals, like out-of-context quotations or concepts, are by their nature invalidated. Whenever one treats a conclusion as an atom unrelated to the rest of cognition, one thereby detaches the conclusion, along with the thought process involving it, from reality. [emphasis mine]

Political Principles as Contextual 
Like moral principles, we formulate political principles, not for the sake of formulating principles, but for the goal of pursuing our values - this time in a social context.  Identifying the principle of individual rights and forming a government to secure and protect those rights is the means by which we protect our ability to live successfully in a society of other individuals.

Political principles are contextual.  For example, individuals have a right to use and dispose of their own property.  So, one could say, "I have a baseball bat and I have a right to swing my bat, because it's my bat."  But if his bat hits other people as he swings it, could he just submit some universal concept of property rights arguing "it's my bat and I have a right to do whatever I want with my bat?"  

Of course, such an argument is an instance of context-dropping.  Did he accidentally strike someone, or was he defending himself, or was he willfully attacking others? Obviously, enabling one to hit people with his bat (because it's his bat) would not achieve the goal of protecting our rights to pursue our values.  It would result in total anarchy and the collapse of civil society.  One must specify the conditions or context for property rights.      

Consider another example - we have the right to our bodies and the freedom of movement.  One can freely move from one house to another or from one state to another within this country. One can freely go a store, a friends house, or the park.  But can you walk into any random person's home?  Can you move your fist into someone's face?  Do you have the right to go into a store or park that's closed?  Do you have the right to walk, not across an intranational state line, but an international border without restriction?  In all these varying contexts, could you submit some universal concept of freedom of movement arguing, "I have the right to go wherever I want?"  Again, specifying the conditions under which we assert the freedom of movement is essential to achieving the actual goal.  

Non-Contextual Political Principles as the Bridge to Libertarianism  
Such a method of argument is precisely why so many Objectivists used to criticize Libertarians who uphold "liberty" or cite the "non-initiation of force" principle as some kind of political commandment rather than as part of a broader system of philosophy tied to epistemology and ethics.  

Many Libertarians cite the "the non-aggression principle" arbitrarily rather than as a political principle objectively necessitated by our nature, and consequently, many end up espousing anarchism, pacifism, privatization of police, elimination of patent law, and so on.  The reason they end up defending these positions is because the essential to them is not the objective requirement of man's life, but the non-aggression principle itself.  Radical Jihadis building nukes? Non-aggression. Government enforces contract law? Non-aggression. Intellectual property rights? Non-aggression.  Immigration restrictions? Non-aggression.   

Again, the goal is not to uphold the non-aggression principle, or property rights, or honesty, as ends in themselves, but as means to achieve our values which in turn are related to our ultimate value: life.  In that context, one can be a strong proponent of individual rights and laissez faire capitalism yet still recognize the vital role that government serves in protecting our rights in many different contexts.  

Context-Dropping and Integration 
All principles require context - the conditions within which you are applying the principle.  In the examples above, it's obvious that to try and universally apply any of these political principles out-of-context would be a massive error. In discussing Neville Chamberlain's context-dropping appeasement of Hitler, Peikoff writes (p. 124-25):
A context-dropper believes that he can understand and alter one element...within a network of interrelated factors, while leaving everything else on the scene and unaffected. In fact, however, a change in one element redounds throughout the network. Every proposal and every idea, therefore, must be judged in the light of the total picture, i.e., of the full context.
Just like the property owner in the example above, you must always implicitly or explicitly specify the conditions in which you are asserting those rights:
All knowledge is interrelated; every element of it is potentially relevant to the rest. The context one must hold, therefore, is not a mere fragment or subdivision of one’s knowledge, however extensive, but: everything known at that stage of development, the sum of available knowledge, this is the only way to ensure that one’s knowledge is the sum, i.e., a consistent whole. Such consistency is not a given, but an achievement, which requires a methodical, effort-demanding process.  
When we consider the examples above, it's obvious that you cannot separate the principle from the conditions.  Such a process is a recipe for disintegration.  Attempting to apply principles out-of-context, results in floating rationalism (concepts or principles disconnected from reality).  The solution is integration. He writes (p. 125-26):
Logic requires noncontradictory identification within the full context of one’s knowledge, methodically surveyed; it requires an understanding of the fact that knowledge is a unity, not a realm of splintered propositions or disconnected subdivisions. Only if one keeps context can logic be the method of adhering to reality; only then can logic be the means of achieving objectivity


The Example of Free Speech as Contextual 
With regard to the principle of free speech, a civil libertarian might say, "I can say anything I want." So, can he advocate overthrowing the government?  What if he advocates overthrowing the government within a group that is assembling arms and plotting an attack?  Can he plot a murder with his friend? Can he defame or slander a prominent individual?  Can he urge a mob to attack an individual or, to take a famous example, yell "fire" in a crowded theater? In all these varying contexts, could he submit the universal concept of "free speech" arguing "I can say whatever I want, because free speech?"

Of course, all of these cases represent different contexts. One can advocate or say he wishes to overthrow the government, but if he takes action to overthrow the government he is engaged in sedition.   If one plots a murder, we cannot separate his speech from the action of plotting the murder.  Defamation perpetrates harm unjustly.  With respect to religious freedom, in my post, Is Islam a Religion?, I argued that "religion" as a body of abstract thought is protected speech under the First Amendment, but once adherents cross the line into an active political movement at war with America and western civilization, it ceases to be a religion in the context implied by the Constitution.  As to the mob example, the U.S. Supreme Court rightly does not protect incitement as a form of free speech: 
The imminence requirement [set by the US Supreme Court] sets a high hurdle. Mere advocacy of violence, terrorism or the overthrow of the government is not enough; the words must be meant to, and be likely to, produce violence or lawlessness right away. A fiery speech urging an angry racist mob immediately to assault a black man in its midst probably qualifies as incitement under the First Amendment. A magazine article - or any publication -aimed at stirring up racial hatred surely does not.
The imminence requirement is a valid standard since it recognizes the nature of cognition. Even though an individual has the ability to think and control his choices, the nature of cognition is such that properly compiling and weighing evidence takes time - time that is not available in the context of incitement. Someone yelling in a crowd is attempting to convey an immediate threat to others, and his claim is part of the action, meant to produce violence right away against a specific person. Given the immediacy of the threat, others would be justified in taking action, and if the innocent man was injured, the person who yelled (incited violence) would be culpable. Note that there is an enormous difference between one who is directly and imminently plotting murder or inciting a mob to violence and one whose speech is merely critical or even hateful.

In this example, it can be seen that context-keeping is critical in properly understanding and effectively advocating free speech.  That is because the goal is not "protecting free speech" for the sake of protecting free speech or upholding the "non-agresssion principle" in a vacuum.  The goal is protecting our right to think freely which is necessary to our pursuit of rational values.  That is the root fact underlying and conditioning this principle. 

Those anti-free speech advocates who argue that "free speech is not absolute due to these types of exceptions" are committing the fallacy of context-dropping.  These cases are certainly NOT exceptions, just like lying to a kidnapper is NOT a form of dishonesty.  Free speech, properly understood, i.e., in its proper legal context as expressing thoughts apart from action, is indeed absolute.    

This has serious consequences.  Imagine a pro-free speech advocate who does not possess a contextual understanding of free speech as it relates to the value of life, but, rather, advocates for a floating, out-of-context version of free speech where every utterance requires protection. This advocate would then have to uphold a criminal's right to plot murder, or a religious fanatic's right to disseminate propaganda while attacking our nation, or permit defamation and slander.  Such an approach would devastate the case for actual free speech.    

More Contextualized Thinking: Political Candidates
To further demonstrate the principle of contextualized thinking, consider the choice of political candidates.  Of course, in a mixed-economy, one can reasonably debate about which factors are tactically more or less vital given the goal of a rights respecting government.  But let's consider an argument that is not at all helpful. 

In my postHow Should Objectivists and Libertarians Select Political Candidates?, I asked: how would you feel about voting for a gangster?  My answer was that question cannot be answered without the full context.  The fact of "gangster" is a relevant fact, but what if all the candidates are gangsters and there are no other choices?  What is the current form of government - will their power be somewhat limited by checks and balances, and what are the major issues, if any, on which they will be voting?  Are they in charge of the dog catchers or the U.S. armed forces?  Will they be tasked with making appointments to other federal agencies or are they just sitting on a limited city council and so on? 

In other words, the full context must be taken into consideration when voting, not just the fact of gangsters.  That context involves myriad factors and can require a fairly detailed understanding of the various factors involved as it relates to your own self-interest, including the history of the candidates, recent political history, the nature of the current government, the major issues at stake, the term of the appointment, and so on.  And that in full context, rational people might disagree about how much weight to attach to the fact of "gangster." Some people might look at these other facts, and conclude "yes, gangster is bad, but in this particular case, I can vote for him."  However, it is a huge error to seize only on the fact of gangster and disregard all other context.  It would only compound the error if you then proceeded to criticize or harangue dissenters, who do weigh other valuable contextual factors, on the basis only of your knowledge of gangsters.

In this post, I pointed out that Dr. Onkar Ghate, was making just such an error in which, "speaking for Ayn Rand," he engaged in an isolated analysis of Trump's philosophical pathology, an analysis that could be carried out on all the candidates.

Such an analysis failed to grasp and identify the largest threat facing defenders of individualism today - the threat of post-modern philosophic trends that are threatening free speech, violently stifling dissent, whitewashing the threat of Islamism, purging western culture from the university curriculum, causing the balkanization of Americans into racial and victim groups, justifying wanton violence towards law enforcement, and breaking down the rule of law - not to mention the left's various political programs of environmentalism, socialized medicine, and confiscatory taxation.  Despite Trump's pathologies, Ghate failed to realize that his candidacy was the American public's response to these trends, given the choices available, and to the Deep State rogues gallery of bureaucratic dictators embedded within the Clinton machine's political operation now being exposed. 

While criticizing any political candidate's flaws is justified and necessary at times, excluding this larger political context and engaging in Trump derangement, where the positives from his full administration are dismissed and disregarded, is an example of context dropping.   In her essay, How to Judge a Political Candidate, Ayn Rand wrote:
One cannot expect, nor is it necessary, to agree with a candidate’s total philosophy — only with his political philosophy (and only in terms of essentials). It is not a Philosopher-King that we are electing, but an executive for a specific, delimited job. It is only political consistency that we can demand of him; if he advocates the right political principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours.
This type of contexualized thinking explained her advocacy of Nixon in 1972, not because she thought he was a perfect candidate, but that, at that time in that political context, she regarded his appointments to the Supreme Court to be the vital factor:
 We may hope that Nixon might gain time for the nation, by granting some relief (i.e., removing a few chains) to the private sector of the economy and by arresting the growth of the public sector. But, in view of his record, we cannot be certain. There is, however, one promise of his 1968 campaign – perhaps, the most important one – which he has kept: the appointment to the Supreme Court of men who respect the Constitution. It is still too early to tell the exact nature of these men’s views and the direction they will choose to take. But if they live up to their enormous responsibility, we may forgive Mr. Nixon a great many of his faults: the Supreme Court is the last remnant of a philosophical influence in this country. (From The Ayn Rand Letter, “The American Spirit,” page 136)
Of course, these judgments can be notoriously wrong as politics and people involve a complicated array of factors.  However, the method of contextualized thinking is our best hope at achieving our goals.   

Method versus Conclusion: The Reason There is So Much Vitriol?
The candidate example demonstrates the need for an important distinction: method versus conclusion.  I would never say that my analysis of every concrete political issue is absolutely correct.  On the contrary, I would expect a lot of rational debate over the nature and weight of the evidence given that I am not omniscient.  However, the validity of the contextual method of approaching ideas is an epistemological absolute.  

For example, two parties both acknowledge and understand the full political context, including being open to new evidence as it is presented, but one party claims, "you're wrong about political candidate X, because the real important factor is not his Supreme Court nominees, it's his foreign policy goals and his views on the actions of the Fed - that is far more dangerous in the long run as compared to candidate Y."  This is reasonable and arguable since we share the same fundamental context.  

However, if you said, "you're wrong about political candidate X, because he is a Christian and mystics are bad because they are anti-reason" I would not even consider such a claim.  If you could explain or show how the fact of his Christianity could affect or has affected his decisions and compare and contrast that to the other candidates, maybe you'd have something, but stating such a fact, out-of-context, is worse than useless - it's dangerous since you might come to the utterly wrong conclusion as it pertains to your own values.  What if he is mildly religious and otherwise pro-individual rights while his opponent is an atheist Marxist who wants to seize the means of production and imprison dissenters?        

This scenario helps to explain the level of anger and intransigence displayed by the out-of-context thinker.  He believes that he knows the unassailable formula, e.g., "mysticism is anti-reason and anti-reason is anti-life so a mystic is always and everywhere as bad as any other."  No amount of facts or context can shake this "dogma in a void" as Peikoff puts it, because his judgments are not tied to the full set of facts and reality - they are tied to disconnected abstractions.  Whereas the contextual thinker can be reasoned with, because other facts can be presented to alter the conditions of his judgment, the floating out-of-context rationalist cannot be reasoned with, because his mind only contains unassailable universal abstract formulas.   

This does not only affect Libertarians and Objectivists.  Consider the leftist who assails his opponent with the formula "you don't want to ban all guns, therefore you want to kill kids, therefore you are an evil person that deserves threats or worse" or "you don't believe in government welfare so you want the poor to die in the streets." Or consider the anti-abortion activist who declares "you support abortion rights, therefore you want to kill babies, therefore you are an evil person....."  These types are virtually unreachable because no amount of facts, explanation, or nuance can be integrated into their out-of-context formulation which translates into emotional appraisals and even violence against their opponents.     


Contextual Principles Related to the Immigration Debate
In a recent immigration post where I criticized Dr. Harry Binswanger's open-borders position and argued for a an objective policy of immigration restriction, I claimed the main reason that the immigration debate has metastasized into a full blown intellectual battle is the lack of contextualized thinking with regard to the government's role in protecting individual rights in the context of a sovereign nation. 

1) Immigration Policy: Out-Of-Context, Rationalistic Approach
I have observed that most advocates of the "right to immigrate" argument start with an out-of-context, rationalistic assertion of individual rights from which they proceed to deduce conclusions. "Everyone has rights" they will begin, "and therefore, any immigrant should be able to immigrate here freely at any time for any reason."  This argument commits the fallacy of context-dropping on a massive scale, and more fundamentally, it fails to grasp that the concept of individual rights exists within a broader philosophical framework.  

If you take this rationalistic approach to upholding rights, out of context, consider how you would answer the following questions. Readers of this blog likely uphold freedom of production and trade, so should a private company have the right to sell advanced military technology or weapons to North Korea or Iran? Private property owners have the right to voluntarily trade and meet with other individuals, but can a private property owner bring in foreign nationals who carry a deadly virus?  Can a private property owner bring in and house thousands of communists who wish to overthrow the government - even assuming they don't have weapons on them right now? Could a private property owner who owns ocean frontage allow an enemy nation to dock its nuclear submarine fleet and board its military personnel? What if a group of property owners decide to import fifty million Islamic radicals who seek to take over local jurisdictions and impose Sharia law?  Should we allow China, India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, and Syria to relocate half of their populations to the United States if they so choose?

2) Immigration Policy: An Inductive, Contextualized Approach
Of course, those who simply hold the "people have rights" principle as a floating abstraction either cannot answer these questions, or must answer them in a way that flies in the face of common sense.  Instead, consider the question inductively, i.e., ask what facts give rise to the concept of government and sovereignty in the first place so we can apply the concept in practical situations and easily answer the questions posed above.

Individuals possess rights, by virtue of being human, but the fact is that individuals must take specific actions in order to protect those rights in a social context.  Rights are not respected out of thin air by some mystical universal tribunal.  People must create and sustain the actual means through which they attempt to protect the rights to which they are entitled.

When a group of property owners and individuals agree to form a government to protect each other's rights and provide for the common defense, they create a sovereign "nation" by virtue of that agreement (like the thirteen colonies did under the U.S. Constitution).  They grant the government certain enumerated powers, and that particular government is created by and for those particular people - the citizens.  That particular government can take many different forms but, in essence, it is the framework by which those particular people choose to protect their rights.

Those people and their government are a sovereign nation, and one of the primary functions for which individuals create a government in the first place is to protect themselves, collectively, from foreign threats or invasion.   Therefore, they freely elect and grant power to government to represent them in order to deal with laws, treaties, and military affairs as it pertains to foreign nations or foreign nationals. The threats and various conflicts stemming from foreign relations can take different forms and a foreign policy must be defined and implemented, to fairly and objectively deal with foreign threats while respecting the rights of their own citizens.

Note the flow here.  It starts with property owners and citizens seeking to protect their rights by forming a government within their lands.  The people, through their representative government, then look out at the world and say "how do we protect ourselves from the rest of the world's bad guys (who are not part of our nation), while dealing beneficially with good guys?"

3) Practical Consequences of Non-Contextual Thinking Method in Immigration Debate
The conclusions resulting from each thinking method are night and day different.

In the case where rights are asserted as a floating abstraction, one cannot answer the questions I posed except in a way that ends with bizarre and contradictory conclusions.  "People have the right to movement," utters the out-of-context rationalist, "so anyone can come here at any time without restriction."  "People have the freedom to produce and trade," says the rationalist, "so anyone can sell anything to anybody, even to dangerous enemies."  Well, what if they have disease?  What if they are criminals?  What if fifty million third world migrants wish to come to a state that has three million people with the goal of imposing Sharia law?  Is that fair to your neighbor citizens?   

When faced with these types of questions, the rationalist, sensing something wrong, will often revert to a contradictory position where they advocate some minimal restrictions for "disease or criminal record."  But, if you drop the context of citizenship and sovereignty, how can that position square with their floating notion of rights?  If their position is "everyone has the same rights" then how could they justify stopping someone with disease?  After all, can an American citizen be stopped or deported for disease?  Can an American with a criminal record be deported?  On the other hand, if you do support the idea of immigration restrictions, in principle, then how can you assail or smear a fellow proponent of immigration restrictions who may just have a different standard of restriction than you?  

Again, not only does this contradictory position amount to an admission of the need for immigration restrictions, but, such restrictions imply the need for a means of enforcement, a border with controls!  You cannot say "I don't believe in any border control" but, at the same time, claim, "I want to keep out diseased terrorists." How?! 

Consider another example of rationalistic context-dropping. Often the open border advocate asks, "if a person peacefully immigrates which right of yours is violated?"  Note that the question smuggles in the assumption that all immigration is peaceful. Of course, the entire question revolves around what is peaceful immigration and what is not. Screening is needed precisely to ensure that all prospective immigrants are, in fact, peaceful.

4) Practical Consequences of Contextual Thinking Method in Immigration Debate
Now consider the answer to these questions from the perspective of an integrated, contextual understanding of individual rights. 

Recall, the whole reason for setting up a government is to provide the citizens an agency of self-defense against domestic criminals and foreign invaders, the latter being the subject of immigration.  The need to define and implement policies to protect citizens from foreign invasion is the purview of the elected government and its foreign policy. 

One of the primary functions of the national government is the protection of the country from foreign threats.  When immigration is rightly seen as part of our nation's foreign policy, it becomes obvious that to advocate protecting ourselves from enemies abroad based on rational foreign policy concerns, while not concerning ourselves with potential enemies crossing our own border, is a wild contradiction.  Both aspects of defense are crucial and complementary.

I discuss immigration specifically in this context here (all of my immigration posts are linked here).  In those posts, I define "threat" in the foreign policy context, and stress the necessity to identify such threats contextually since the nature of any given threat changes over time.  Any nation, group, or individual that has both motive to destroy us (e.g., communists, Islamists, etc.) and the means to accomplish it, constitutes a real threat.  Consequently, a reasonable and desirable goal of foreign policy is to identify objectively hostile ideologies which serve as motives for attack, and to assess other nations' or groups' military ability to achieve an attack. That is the job of the defense and intelligence agencies.

In discussing this issue, one must consider the fact that immigration can change the very composition of the electorate and thus change or overthrow the very institutions empowered to protect its citizens, and so occupies a special category which overrules purely economic considerations.  As I did in my post, one must consider the types of threats contextually in different parts of the world over time, the issue of mass migration versus individual migration, cultural assimilation, the context of the modern mixed-economy, and so on.  Additionally, this issue should be explored not only with these facts in mind, but integrated with facts from our nation's history and founding which further inform the discussion.

Such a contextual approach was taken by Dr. Peikoff, in a podcast from several years ago, where he advocated for restricted immigration due the fact that third world migrants stand to empower the left further if they get the vote.  This is exactly the type of real world threat that should be considered by the citizens of a country in directing its own government to protecting the existence of their government. 

Failing to consider these facts and conditions and asserting something to the effect of "people have rights therefore open borders" is a complete breach of rational epistemology.  To further compound the error by leveling charges of bigotry or xenophobia at rational opponents, involves an even more egregious and vicious default.  Yet, this is exactly what has happened within the Objectivist movement.     


Another Example of Disintegration: Condemning The Left, Mainstream Media, Big Tech
Consider that the modern left and its allies in Big Tech, the Mainstream Media, and Muslim radicals, under the spell of cultural Marxism and identity politics, seek to impose speech codes into law that would ban criticism of either Islam or, ultimately, any tyrannical political program.  This movement represents freedom's most ominous threat.  Anti-Islam speech is already being prosecuted in Great Britain and continental Europe as well as Canada, and the United States is the last bastion of free speech on earth.  In the context of this modern environment, where the radical left is attempting to violently suppress pro-freedom content, the essential political principle at stake is freedom of speech and the very existence of Western Civilization.  Without freedom of speech as understood in the American Constitution, we will be arguing ancillary political issues from concentration camps.  This context is crucial if we are to understand whom to support or to oppose.  

Given this context, consider the recent debate over Big Tech's demonetization and stifling of pro-freedom content.  In a prime example of Objectivist context-dropping, many Objectivists jumped to the defense of these companies on the basis of free speech arguments.  In my post,  Is Big Tech A Mortal Enemy of the Republic?, I expressed sympathy with the isolated legal argument defending these companies as it pertains to free speech, but shockingly, many Objectivists seem to equate the legal right to do something with the morally good. 

I argued that only focusing on a narrow legal argument, drops the context of the larger political movement threatening free speech (that starts as a cultural and academic movement like it does before every totalitarian revolution), and obviates the requirement to judge a moral evil whereby these companies violate their own terms of agreement to disproportionately stifle pro-freedom content.  (Remember, pro-freedom values are the objectively good, right?!)  While I highlighted certain legal strategies to use against these companies, at the very least, I argued, these companies deserve moral condemnation.  Not only was such condemnation lacking, some Objectivists actually lauded Zuckerberg and the like for being productive geniuses, a positive appraisal with which they could also fete the diabolical hedge fund manager, George Soros ,or maybe Iranian and North Korean nuclear bomb scientists.   I wrote:
Today, there is a real political movement seeking to overthrow the American system that has already had a massive effect on our culture, institutions and legal policies and is actually being implemented throughout the west in once free countries like Britain and Canada. To the extent that these companies use their resources to aid and abet this cause, they are actively seeking to undermine individual rights in this country.   While the legal principles and strategy involved could be debated, at best, Big Tech is engaged in a morally despicable cause that should provoke outrage among advocates of individual rights. 
The same principle could apply to those seeking to remove statues of American or Western historical figures.  In an isolated context, say of one small town removing some statue somewhere in accordance with town ordinances, this would not be an issue.  However, in the larger context of this global Marxist political movement, even if these activists proceeded to remove these monuments in a legal fashion (which they don't), their actions are morally reprehensible.  In Orwellian fashion, these monument removers are attempting to purge American history and denigrate American cultural values, replacing and revising our understanding of history with Marxist propaganda.  When looked at this way, the narrow legal issues pale in comparison to the enormous moral and philosophical crime being perpetrated against rational values and our Founding Fathers.  

In these cases, rather than express outrage, many Objectivists, like amoral Libertarians, focus on narrow legal issues, like free speech or property rights, rather than address the elephant in the room: an increasingly powerful and violent movement whose ultimate goal is tyranny. 


Philosophy is an abstract science.  It is not a direct recipe to solve every concrete problem - it is an indirect guide, since it provides the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical basis for more narrow disciplines that, in turn, offer solutions to concrete problems.  Ayn Rand was very quick to point out when some topic belonged to the "philosophy of law," or science, or psychology, which meant there were complex factors that fell outside the scope of the philosopher.  Immigration, for example, is not a branch of philosophy.  It is a complex political application that requires knowledge of fundamental political principles, but also, specialized knowledge of law, history, economics, as well as current intelligence.  

While political philosophy can define and explain the necessity of individual rights or the nature of government, it does not speak directly to complex applications which require an enormous amount of knowledge and context, i.e., the specific conditions and their relationship to the fundamental principle.  Consider that legal scholars spend their lives studying the theory and practice of law based on hundreds of years of cases to understand the issues involved.  

A casual reader of Objectivism could not be expected to understand the application of every possible principle in every situation - which is why we need scholars in law, economics, psychology, etc. The idea that any Objectivist, without specialized knowledge, including me, could do anything other than sketch out the basic fundamental philosophic parameters is ridiculous.  The idea that someone, armed with the "non-initiation of force principle" or "people have the right to movement" can sweep away the concerns and objections of those with a superior, contextualized understanding of this problem is an embarrassing disgrace and denigrates the efforts of those attempting to promote individual rights.

Betraying the proper method of reasoning will lead Objectivists into a "dogmatic void" of futility.  Specifically, out-of-context thinking on so many topics is a widespread pathology that has infected a large number of people who claim to understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy, including many official teachers of Objectivism.  The antidote to this pathology is to return to Ayn Rand’s actual epistemological method: integration. Peikoff writes (p. 127):
Integration, I have said, is something one must work to achieve.  If a man merely coasts mentally, relying on his automatic functions, then his ideas, by default, will remain unconnected, floating, out-of-context.  this is where philosophy should have come to mankind's rescue, by broadcasting to the world the method and the urgency of grasping cognitive relationships.  Unfortunately, we we will soon see, philosophy has done the opposite: it has thrown its immense power on the side of disintegration.   
Most significantly, the great power of Objectivist philosophy lies not just in its specific conclusions, but the method identified, defined, and utilized to reach those conclusions which, in turn, provide the basis for achieving knowledge in every conceivable field of human inquiry.  It is this method of thinking that can change the culture, save civilization, and raise our lives to untold heights.