Free Will Defended

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A new essay defending the idea of free will.

In this new essay I defend the idea of free will against Sam Harris, leading atheist, who claims that we are the puppets of the unconscious forces. He makes arguments from philosophy, neurology and introspection, all of which can be shown to be flimsy and even unfair to the other side. Harris problem, I conclude, is that he is in the thrall of religious ideas still ambient in our culture.

This is a book of interest to anyone who cares about human hope and dignity, especially those who are concerned that a secular worldview puts those things in danger.

Available in a Kindle Edition from Amazon.

Words Fail Me

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I just bought a poster with this image from Amazon. I cannot say how much this photographer’s work means to me. I know that he would say that God creates the beauty and he just shows up with a camera, but I don’t think we would see that beauty without his spirit and his sensitive eye.

Attack of the God-Zombies

I come from a family that became religious over time. Of the six of us, only my mother and I have been consistent non-believers. Fortunately, my family was not very religious when I was a child and I was left completely alone on the subject. I was an atheist because I had never been brainwashed into thinking anything else. I barely knew the tenets of Christianity. We had a neighbor who was a minister and I was allowed to play in his church once. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what the building was for.

Religion made absolutely no dent on me as a boy. It was all in one ear and out the other, like most of the foolish things adults said. I was quite the little Howard Roark. It was only when my family started becoming seriously religious when I was in my teens that I took cognizance of it. This was right after (and partly due to) my family’s drug phase. My life in those years had a lot of horror in it. I saw people I loved change from open and intelligent to closed and rationalizing. It was a nightmare for me and it was in those years or maybe a little later than I started having actual nightmares about zombies chasing me down the street.

I was very afraid of people losing their true selves (or of never having them in the first place). I came up with the image of a “spark” that existed only in some people, a spark of self-awareness and authenticity. I made the mistake once of sharing this idea with a friend of mine who was very confused about many things, and he became concerned over whether I thought he had a spark or not. This was a very uncomfortable moment, because his spark seemed so smothered under the oddities of his personality that I couldn’t see it and doubted whether it existed at all.

No doubt I saw the issue too much in black and white. I now see degrees of self-awareness. But I still believe in a ideal amount of self-awareness and freedom that one obtains by ceasing to falsify one’s self, getting centered and using one’s mind.

That’s what Killing Cool is about. And that’s what my next book, Practical Freedom, as it’s provisionally titled, will be about, although from a different angle.

Rights as Aura; Rights as Rules

I think there are two ways, broadly speaking, that we could look at individual rights. It may be that they are both valid within their own contexts, but there is a tension between them.

The first and more popular idea is “rights as aura.” This holds that a right is something that attaches to a person like a moral force field. This kind of right is “absolute” in the sense that it can be defined in a vacuum and in that it is never acceptable to “violate” it. The language of the Declaration of Independence, which holds that rights are “inalienable” and “self-evident” partakes of the aura theory, at least rhetorically.

The most extreme example of the aura theory is Murray Rothbard’s “non-aggression axiom.” That term makes it sound as if rights are completely intrinsic, a given like existence itself. Many of the problems of libertarian thought, especially anarchist thought, stem from granting rights this sort of acontextual status.

The other idea of rights holds that they are principles, like rules of a game, that are used to achieve the kind of society that is best for man. The Utilitarian defense of liberty might play out something like this. Pushed to its extreme you might get a liberal view like legal realism, which holds that laws are just politics disguised as science. I would argue that there is more to this theory than these unsavory associations suggest, however.

There are elements of both views in Objectivist thought. Man is an end in himself not the property of anyone else. That isn’t an “axiom” or “self-evident,” but it is an absolute. You could look upon it as like an aura, but that will prove problematic later.

However, it is not a right. It is a obligation, perhaps the only unchosen one that Objectivism recognizes. It is not a right, because, as Leonard Peikoff points out in OPAR, the question of rights never comes up until you are trying to organize or reform a society.

Well, OK, you might respond, a right is just the obligation of recognizing others as ends in themselves construed as a societal principle. It’s an aura-in-context.

That’s certainly better than the basic aura idea, but it still doesn’t quite come to terms with an inconvenient fact: Society has “overhead,” i.e. requirements qua society. This is not the same thing as saying that that groups have rights, but it does mean that rights have to take into account the overhead.

The obvious example of overhead is that for society to function, the individual has to give up his “right” of retaliation. I can know for a crystal-clear objective fact that John Smith robbed me, because I know him and I saw him do it. In the “state of nature” the moral thing to do would be to go over to his cave, take back my property and beat him up or kill him, depending on whether I thought he would bother me again.

But “society” can’t function if I act this way. Rand said it was because the use of force needed to be put under objective control, but this is not exact. My action against Smith might be perfectly objective—but it’s not publicly verifiable in and of itself. It has to be objective in a way that the rest of us can see too. The need for public verifiability is a big part of the “overhead.” If I try to exercise my “natural right” of retaliation, society, through its legitimate government, is correct in sending men with guns to block my action, even though I am NOT initiating force against anyone.

Along with this would go the right of subpoena. We cannot settle criminal or civil disputes if we cannot compel people to testify. And yes that means going over to their house with a gun and forcing them to go down to the courthouse, even if they haven’t ever initiated force against anyone in their whole lives. The overhead demands this. So much for the aura, at least simplistically understood.

Let’s take a harder case. It would be right to get rid of the entire welfare state. But if we had the political ability to wipe it out with the stroke of a pen, would that be a good idea? What about all the 75-year olds receiving Social Security checks? Should we stop sending them that money? I would say that it would be deeply immoral to cut them off, even though they have received far more money than they have contributed (even with interest). We have an obligation to phase out Social Security gradually, without beggaring anyone, even if that means continuing to have taxes to do it. Yes, I mean sending the tax man to your house with a gun to make you pay.

Kind of violates the aura, doesn’t it? Yet the morality of this course of action should be obvious: As a society, through our elected representatives and with the support of the majority of the populace, we made a commitment to people who bought into a system in good faith. Either we honor that commitment, even though it shouldn’t have been made in the first place, or we do terrible harm to vulnerable people whose greatest sin was wishful thinking. That doesn’t seem like a difficult choice to me.

The fact is that although rights are based on something a bit aura-like, namely the recognition that we are all ends-in-ourselves, they are just as much a practical tool for realizing a certain kind of moral ideal of society. A society where force is never initiated against the innocent is not a possibility, because people living together create irreducibly social dynamics that have to be worked around. Individual rights are the principles or rules that allow us to best achieve our moral goals in a social context. It will not be perfect in the Platonic sense. It does not reduce our allegiance to the principle that all people are ends in themselves to admit that the initiation of force is necessary in certain limited cases, in order to create a society that is as just and pro-life as possible.

Perhaps we could say that rights are absolute in a contextual way, but they do not constitute an aura.

A Superficially Good Novel

I liked Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus in spite of myself. The story concerns two sociopathic old sorcerers who pit their young protoges against each other in a fight-to-the-death over who can make a certain circus the most enchanting. Naturally, there are complications as the protoges fall in love. All of this is played out against a nineteenth-century backdrop with sumptuous descriptions of luxury and magic.

I don’t care for books with magic or the supernatural in them. I think we spend a lot of energy playing out the arbitrary rules of the magical universe and often a plot resolution appears out of thin air, so to speak. There is some of that in The Night Circus, but I was won over by the charming characters and the imaginative vision of the circus.

Still, I want to know what it was all for. I do enjoy pure imagination (Wow! Look! Dinosaurs!) but I’m very much a What’s-the-meaning-of-it-all? kind of guy. I basically want sci-fi and fantasy to be allegorical commentary on the real world or at least on the human condition. The Night Circus isn’t that. It’s about the same two or three things that most stories about magic are about: rising to an arbitrary challenge, true love for no real reason, a sense of wonder at unreal things, and charming people.

Gee, I sound like I didn’t like it. Really, I did. It was very clever. But it’s not Jorge Luis Borges, where the magic stands for something.

There ARE some things I really, really didn’t like. Some of the characters are very cruel and they do not get their comeuppance. Even one of the nice characters is a serious manipulator who steals years from another man’s consciousness. We’re still supposed to love him.

Yes, I really did like it. It had a vision that was enchanting. That vision had enough texture for me to chew on so that I didn’t dwell on how shallow the whole thing was.

Honestly, I enjoyed it. I probably won’t read another novel with magic in it for ten years, but I don’t regard it as a waste of time.

Still, this reviewer giveth and this reviewer taketh away. If you want a novel with atmosphere, visual imagination, charming characters and a crackling style that is actually about something in the real world, try Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. There, my conscience is clear. **** because I’m feeling sentimental and the novel had kids in it.

“Self-Esteem” and Narcissism

Is Nathaniel Branden (and by extension Ayn Rand) partly to blame for the rampant narcissism that seems to be stalking America? This is the contention of a recent book called The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Jean M. Twenge, PhD. and W. Keith Campbell, PhD.

The book is about how the narcissistic personality style (not the clinical disorder) has become increasingly more prevalent over the last generation or so. We can see evidence for this in the increasing number of people who are famous for being famous, like Snooki, in the increasing number of people who want to be famous more than they want to be smart, strong or beautiful, in the relentless self-promotion of many young people in the social media, etc.

The authors blame this shift on child-centered parenting practices, the rise of the social media and—you guessed it—the self-esteem movement. As “the father of the self-esteem movement,” Nathaniel Branden gets a small mention in the chapter about origins.

Branden’s idea of self-esteem has often been distorted by other writers. Some seem to believe that self-esteem for Branden means mere unconditional positive self-regard or self-love. This is not the case because for Branden, self-esteem has to earned. “The deepest pride a man can experience is that which results from his achievement of self-esteem: since self-esteem is a value that has to be earned, the man who does so feels proud of his attainment.” Branden, Nathaniel (2001-01-01). The Psychology of Self-Esteem: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Understanding that Launched a New Era in Modern Psychology (p. 125). Jossey-Bass. Kindle Edition.

Nor is self-esteem just a contentless self-approval: “Self-esteem has two interrelated aspects: it entails a sense of personal efficacy and a sense of personal worth. It is the integrated sum of self-confidence and self-respect. It is the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.” Branden, (Kindle Locations 2060-2062).

The kind of self-esteem that is too-often promoted in today’s society does consist largely of unconditional and contentless self-love. “I am special, I am special, Look at me, look at me” goes one pre-school song taught to the tykes, whose parents buy them T-shirts that say “Princess” or “Rock Star.” It is unfair to blame Branden and Rand for this perversion of their idea. But then again, maybe they are a little bit responsible.

I have always felt there was something a little “off” about the concept of self-esteem. What bothers me is the subjective component. Self-esteem, as Branden often describes it, is a psychological virtue. It is a form of self-confidence (a mental state) experienced as a feeling (a mental state).

I am not saying that this isn’t true, and it makes sense from a therapeutic point-of-view to speak of mental states, of course. But from a philosophical standpoint, this is misleading. Rand and Peikoff aren’t much better. They also use the term self-esteem and the term “pride,” which of course also refers to a mental state. I think a lot of the confusion over the concept of self-esteem could have been avoided if there were less reference to states of mind and more to facts.

Let’s try an alternative formulation: “What is most important in a person’s life is that he practice rationality, that he choose and stick to a purpose to structure his life, and that he make sure he is both a good and a competent person.” Now that doesn’t have the same ring to it as the familiar formulation, but it would be harder to pervert, and I think it might be easier to digest. Rand sometimes uses the term “moral ambition” to describe what she means, and that is better because it refers to characteristic action, rather than a state of mind, per se.

I think Branden might unintentionally confuse two separate issues by use of the single term “self-esteem”: 1. Am I a competent and good person? This is a question of fact. 2. Do I allow myself to recognize that I am a competent and good person? This is a more subjective question.. Notice that I am not saying that Branden is unaware of the difference between the two issues, but I am saying that using one word to describe both is misleading, because raising your self-esteem in the sense of addressing the second issue could be taken to be the whole of the matter.

The ultimate reason for the confusion may rest in Rand’s goal of portraying an ideal man in her writing. In order to have serious literature, you have to character growth. In order to have growth, you have to start out with some sort of deficiency. Rand’s hero worship does not seem to have allowed her to come up with a seriously flawed or undeveloped protagonist. Her literary solution to this problem seems to have been coming up with heroes who are in some sense unself-aware, like Roark, or who have a kind of self-esteem problem in the second sense, like Rearden. I don’t think Rand would be interested in them if they were not objectively good and competent men, but she can happily portray their struggle to see their place in the world. Once again we see an emphasis on the more subjective element of self-esteem, the “Do I recognize my value?” part.

Rand also structured her plots by creating villains (specifically Ellsworth Toohey and Lillian Rearden) who strive to keep others from recognizing their self-worth. She evidently saw this as an important dynamic in the drama of life. I am not sure how important it really is, at least in today’s culture, but it certainly is a real phenomenon. On an ideological level we could point to environmentalists who regard man as an infestation of nature. On a personal level we could mention spouse abusers who try to keep their victims feeling bad about themselves so they won’t walk away or fight back. Rand and Branden are correct that recognizing your worth is an issue that needs to be addressed. Apparently it’s not enough to be good and competent, you have to know it as well.

But where it all gets problematic is that using one term, self-esteem, to refer to both having qualities and knowing you have qualities, creates an opportunity to misunderstand and think the more important part is the knowing. From there we get slippage from knowing into merely believing you have self-worth as the important part, and from there we go to psyching yourself up to believing you have self-worth as the important part. And this gets us the contentless, unconditional self-love of narcissism that parents, teachers and the media encourage.

I don’t dispute Rand and Branden’s underlying ideas, but I suspect that Rand’s concerns might have subtly pushed the self-esteem discussion in the direction of sounding like narcissism. Later thinkers bear most of the responsibility for this misunderstanding, of course: Rand and Branden clearly speak of earning your own respect. But Rand and Branden do seem to bear a little of the blame because of their emphasis on mental rather than factual language.

In conclusion, I would probably abandon terms like “self-esteem” and “pride” in favor of saying that being a good and competent person is a value, moral ambition is a virtue, and that recognizing your own good character is a matter of psychological survival. Perhaps more concise and elegant language could be found, but at least these phrasings are less likely to mislead.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also be interested in my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life.