Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Comment on ‘Conclusions’ and ‘Libertarianism’

[This is a follow up to a comment left by PM on this post. My response is long enough (and late enough) that I figured it best to make it a new post rather than trying to revive an older thread.]

To begin with, PM, the best criticism of libertarianism that I’m aware of is Peter Schwartz’s essay: “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty”, a highly condensed version of which can be found in the anthology The Voice of Reason. It addresses all the fundamental issues, so I refer you to that for a much more incisive and eloquent analysis than I’m capable of providing. You can also re-read the letter Paul McKeever sent you and peruse these two blog posts (1, 2).

Now with that said, let me present my more limited thoughts on your idea of grouping anyone with the same alleged “conclusion” into a given category and then I’ll proceed to take up the analogy you provide in your comment.

In my view, the basic error committed in your comment and original post is to think that simply mouthing the same words as someone else -- regardless of the genesis, context, and logical underpinnings of those words -- indicates anything at all let alone “agreement”. I’ll argue that only if there is some real basis for a conclusion does it have any meaning, and only if that basis and meaning is accepted by both parties can there be any talk of “agreement”.

Moreover, this view is not peculiar to Objectivism -- it is widely accepted. Indeed, it forms one of the very basic principles of science, and is a cornerstone of its teaching. For instance, my degree is in engineering, and I can assure you that no engineering professor of mine would ever consider a “conclusion” to be valid if it were unsupported by a proper method and/or process. Without evidence of such a process there can be no question of a student’s understanding, much less of his “agreement” with scientific truth. For example, if a student is given a complex problem involving many components and is asked to determine the end conditions of the system, simply writing down 5 N, or 50 eV is not considered of much or any value, even if that number happens to coincide with the system’s actual end condition. Doubly so if the alleged supporting work contains egregious errors and falsehoods. (And grades are awarded accordingly!)

Instead science, and scientific education, properly view a “conclusion” as the result of a certain process of cognition, of an identification of reality, and professors rightly evaluate students on the nature of that process. Merely writing down an answer, or supporting it with “I called a psychic hotline”, or “that’s what my parrot squawked this morning” emphatically does not indicate agreement with a properly derived solution based on physics, mathematics, engineering data, etc. Students must demonstrate an understanding of the concepts and principles involved, not only to show agreement in the particular case, but ultimately to ensure that they’ll follow a proper method and approach when in the future they must apply the knowledge to new problems and situations.

So, faced with an unsupported or improperly supported answer, no one in the sciences would say: “who cares, we have the same result, so why can’t we all just get along and ignore the ‘trivial’ difference in how we arrived at it.” Anyone with any regard for science guards the process and methods much more fervently than he guards any one particular result -- because only with the proper method can one arrive at truth and advance knowledge (including rooting out any innocent errors that one may make along the way). Without method -- or even worse, dismissing method, data, premises and logic as irrelevant -- one not only has no claim to the term “conclusion”, but more importantly, one becomes the wholesale enemy of knowledge itself. And this is precisely the case with the libertarian movement as you yourself outlined in your post.

The only “Objectivist twist” on all of this is that, in this day and age, only Objectivists seem to apply the principles generally accepted within the sciences to the humanities. That is, Objectivists holds philosophy to be a field of knowledge and as such maintain that it must arrive at its conclusions by a proper method. The essence of this method consists in abstracting concepts from their referents in reality, initially via sense perception, and then continuing with new identifications and wider abstractions and generalizations, all the while ensuring that the growing body of knowledge is logically verified and integrated. Acquiring knowledge is thus a painstaking and demanding task, but nothing less can result in truth or meaning.

The need for this method in philosophy stems from the same source as it does in science and all fields of knowledge: that if we seek to live in, and deal with, reality, then our thoughts must correspond to reality. In other words, valid thinking requires that our concepts be reality-based; that each thinker know what is being conceptualized, what is being referred to. Without a firm grasp of this, including the necessary hierarchy and context, it is impossible to make sense of any ideas, much less prove, apply or draw conclusions from them. So just as an engineering student must understand the facts and conditions underlying abstract theories and formulae (i.e. their source and context) if he is to apply them correctly to engineering problems, so too must a philosopher or politician if he is to have success in his chosen field.

In the matter at hand, a true advocate for liberty must have a detailed understanding of the referents and meaning of such concepts as “rights” and “freedom” if he is to apply them. How else would one decide what to do in the case of fraud, patents, abortion, foreign policy, etc? (See the posts referenced above for further examples and discussion of this.) Conversely, because libertarians proudly and vociferously reject the need for any basis, framework or underpinnings to their statements and precepts, they can have no common understanding or agreement on their nature and application. As a result, in practice libertarians end up with no positives to offer, but rather can only advocate a single negative: to destroy the state.

Looked at from another perspective, I’d suggest that no valid intellectual field can claim: “based on A, B, C we arrive at conclusion X, but we also accept Not A, Not B and Not C as equally valid evidence for our ‘conclusion’”. Libertarianism, as you yourself outline, is flagrant in this, overtly violating the most fundamental of logical axioms. Such a repudiation of method is one of the reasons for which, in my view, libertarianism disqualifies itself as an intellectual ideology.

So in summary, I maintain that if one truly is dealing in knowledge -- be it in the sciences or the humanities – one cannot detach a conclusion from its underlying arguments. Indeed, a conclusion detached from its arguments is not a conclusion but an ejaculation -- and should be treated as such. Moreover, if one asserts that the ideas and arguments underlying a “conclusion” are dispensable and irrelevant, then in logic one maintains that ideas themselves are irrelevant. And by this admission, I submit, libertarianism again, and this time permanently, disqualifies itself as an ideology.

Finally, I’d point out that despite the idea that libertarians are to be classified by a single out of context declaration, in practice libertarians are always quick to rebut any criticism by claiming “well that’s not what we mean by libertarianism” (see any web discussion ever on the subject). But this isn’t a defense – rather it’s a symptom of the faulty method underlying the movement. It comes from trying to maintain that libertarianism is everything – and nothing: that it has no definite identity. Sadly, this is all too true. Indeed, as I’ve tried to show, by holding conclusions devoid of arguments (or based on any and every argument – which amounts to the same thing) the various random libertarian statements have no tie to reality and thus no claim to knowledge. In short, they are empty and literally meaningless.

Given all of this, Objectivists recognize (and denounce) libertarians for what they are: champions of the arbitrary and destroyers of knowledge and of man’s mind. No seeming agreement on a particular out of context political point can ever justify the wanton destruction of method and process that supporting libertarians and their explicit anti-intellectual approach would entail. (And I stress “seeming” agreement since, as I’ve argued, in reality there is no agreement absent similar supporting data and logic).

Now turning to the analogy in your comment, I think you’ll see how it illustrates my point instead of refuting it. You say:
Suppose lung cancer and breast cancer had an argument. Suppose breast cancer refused to be called a kind of "cancer" because it was *not* caused by smoking. Breast cancer might make a big deal out of this, but it shouldn't persuade the rest of us not to call it cancer.
Yet your cancer analogy only has any plausibility and meaning because a normal reader assumes (in objectivist terms: supplies the vast amount of missing but necessary context) that the people making the two diagnoses are rational and use definite, objective (i.e. fact based) means to come to their conclusions. That is the doctors do biopsies, cultures, medical histories, etc. and then apply logical methods to rule out other causes and to confirm the two cancers, and then they refer to the work of other rational scientists who have established that there are indeed similarities between the two types of cancer which are more fundamental than just the specific cause of the particular disease.

But now imagine if we get a libertarian doctor to do the diagnosis: “Do you feel that you have cancer?” “Yes” responds one patient with trouble breathing. “Good enough for me -- you have lung cancer”. And to another who’s breasts are discolored: “Based on my reading of these sheep entrails and the alignment of the stars, I conclude you have breast cancer.”

Now, PM, you tell me what exactly you conclude about these two cases. Are they both the same? Do they both belong in the category of “cancer patients”? And while you’re reflecting, note that my example is charitable because a true libertarian “doctor” wouldn’t even need any symptoms, because any “conclusion” can be drawn from anywhere. And couldn’t some other libertarian doctor come along and say: “no, the first patient merely suffers from pre-mature baldness, and the second has hang-nail.”? What then, since you’ve ruled out the necessity --nay the very possibility -- of referring back to any supporting data and analyzing it by any definite process?

I submit that these types of problems and questions can only be resolved if one follows a method developed to ensure that one’s consciousness is properly identifying reality, i.e. that one’s conclusions are the culmination of a reality-based, logical process. Such a method, while being explicitly rejected by the libertarian movement as either irrelevant or too “restrictive”, forms the very heart of the Aristotelian/Objectivist system. Applied to the question of liberty, such a method is the only way to make a call for liberty a valid conclusion, rather than a meaningless emotional ejaculation.


Blogger Richard said...

Failure to use the proper method occasionally turns up among surprisingly knowledgeable and smart 'objectivists'. They learn the words & the logic. They can say all the right things in the right places. They can even provide, as rationalists, the basis for their conclusions in context. Yet, later perhaps, one discovers their actions completely contradict their vehemently held Objectivist positions.

Ultimately, their actions demonstrate that their understandings were no deeper than that of Libertarians' grasp of freedom. They like to sound and even act as if they stand for the right principles, but ultimately their words have no bona fide content like the chirps of a parro. Not only do they look good socially, but when the whim to act in the opposite manner strikes, and they think they can "get away with it", they do.

One made all the right arguments when called for, e.g. against downloading copyrighted music from Internet sites or loose sexual behavior, then not much later looted her (ex)boyfriend of her debt to him (tens of thousands of dollars) and moved into a strange man's bed. All best achieved by denying the debt and vilifying the boyfriend. Throughout she apparently insisted her actions were objective.

As Aristotle observed, virtue, unlike beauty, is invisible. In an individual it becomes manifest through his deeds over a considerable period of time!

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As I often heard in school:

"Show Your Work"

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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presentation. At times I disagree with your views but thinking about it who
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4:48 AM  
Blogger Burgess Laughlin said...

I highly recommend "Contextual Knowledge," a lecture by Peter Schwartz, available from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.

One of his main points is that a conclusion (e.g., "Liberty is good") is no better than its premises, which means no better than the context in which the conclusion is stated.

Context, at its widest, means all of one's knowledge, including one's basic philosophical principles--if any, for libertarians!

Burgess Laughlin

6:51 PM  

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