My Divergence from Objectivism and Objectivists

I consider myself an Objectivist*, but there are some places where I disagree or, at least, don’t yet agree with Objectivism or with what many/most Objectivists think. I thought it might be fun to make a list of these issues, and maybe I’ll keep this up to date as my ideas grow and might eventually put links in to posts where I explain my views in more detail. Not all of these ideas are dealt with directly by Rand’s work, but for those that aren’t I believe my view differs from that of a significant portion of Objectivists, and that those Objectivists view the issue as an important philosophical one.

  • I don’t think metaphysics on its own can tell us very much about cosmology or ontology, even to a greater extent than most Objectivists. For example, I don’t think we can say from philosophy alone whether the universe has finite spatial extent, whether the universe contains empty space or is completely filled with matter, whether instantaneous action at a distance is possible, or whether conscious awareness can play a special role in a fundamental physical theory. I do think all of these questions can be answered, and that many of them have been partially or totally answered by scientific study, but the answers cannot come from philosophy.
  • I do not think all generalizations are fundamentally statements of causality. An important class of generalizations are, perhaps the most important class, but statements like “tables are furniture” and, even, “lightning is electrical discharge” are not statements of cause and effect (though they may have to be proven by identification of certain cause-effect relationships).
  • I do not see that definitions are as important in the concept formation process as Rand did. I’m not convinced that they’re not as important as she thought, I just don’t see it (yet).
  • I think Objectivists are libertarians.
  • I disagree with the vast majority of the Objectivist sexual ethic. I think things like pornography (consumption and creation), casual sex, prostitution (selling and buying), non-monogamy both in terms of sexual partners and probably even in terms of life partners, and all sorts of kinks, fetishes, and orientations, even those that I might find extremely painful or disgusting, can all be moral in a wide variety of non-exceptional circumstances. This topic deserves its own blog post, and I just may write it some day.
  • I think the gender roles that Rand’s theories of masculinity and femininity try to put people into (both in and out of bed) are rubbish. I think a women can rationally want to be president, that a man can be a primary caregiver, that transvestitism, transsexualism, and all sorts of gender-bending can be completely moral. In fact, I think most of the assumptions in our society about how a person’s genitals relate to their behaviour and preferences are largely fucked up and the fact that we need a concept for, for example, men who wear dresses is largely an indictment of our culture, not an indication about the nature of the behaviour itself. Also, while I do think that in cases of undetermined gender the singular masculine pronouns (e.g. “he”) are more grammatically appropriate than the third-person plural (e.g “they”), I think the word for person is “person” and not “man” and the word for people is “people” and not “men”.
  • I think that the government must be the ultimate arbiter of retaliatory force, but not necessarily the only wielder of said force. For example, I think that a private individual who follows the proper procedures (e.g. obtaining warrants from a judge, following the proper limits on search and seizure, using only due force, announcing his presence, etc.) could be able to investigate crimes and even perform arrests. How such a system might work or whether the system would be preferable to the current one is not my point, my point is just that as long as there is a single entity ultimately responsible for determining the justice of the use of physical force the actual force-wielders need not be government agents. In particular this applies to military action: if there is a country where rights violations are occurring on a massive scale but there is no threat to your country or its citizens, I think there should be a path you can take to get together private volunteer forces, get your goals approved, and use force to stop the rights violations in the foreign country.
  • I think that the “total war” view on warfare is completely mistaken. While I do think there are limits to the steps the military should take in preventing civilian casualties when attacking military targets, the idea that it’s moral to purposely target civilian centers is abhorrent. I think military actions like Sherman’s march to the sea are viciously unjust, and ideas like “the citizens are responsible for the actions of the government” and “the government couldn’t do what it’s doing without the support of its people” are extremely collectivist and completely ignorant of just how hard it is to change a government, especially a totalitarian one. I definitely don’t think things like building a mosque near ground zero or cheering in the streets after a terrorist attack are as such deserving of a forceful response.
  • I don’t think an aesthetic view is fundamental in philosophy, and I don’t agree with Rand’s aesthetics. I don’t disagree with it either, I just don’t really have any views on the issue either way. I don’t get much out of painting, sculpture, architecture, or any other visual arts, and I’ve never understood how a philosophical understanding could deepen my appreciation of the arts I do care about (literature, television, film, theatre, and music).
  • I do not think patents and copyrights, when awarded in a proper intellectual property framework (which I think we don’t have today), should have any limits on their duration.
  • I think any clear term in a properly signed contract should be enforceable. This includes contracts in which one person makes himself a slave, a person promises to allow another to punch him, etc. How these terms should be enforced is a difficult matter: in the absence of an enforcement clause, I can see a fine or jail until the uncooperative participant allows the contract to be followed. I don’t think it’s reasonable for the courts to have to bear the burden of actually enforcing each term (e.g. holding a person still so the other can punch him), but I don’t in principle have an objection to a court issuing permission to the winner of a breach-of-contract case to use appropriate force himself to satisfy the terms of the contract. I think that if such a system were to be put in place, most contracts would (properly, IMO) include a clause specifying monetary damages in case of breach.

*: With some worries about the term, see this post.

About Shea Levy

  • Seth

    Regarding the second to last point, what about when the enemy military hides within the civilian population as Hamas does?

  • Shea Colton Levy

    As I said, I do think there are limits to the steps the military should take to avoid civilian casualty. If the civilians won’t voluntarily move or show the military where the enemy combatants are, then the military is probably justified in attacking where they have a reasonable guess of the enemy location. The important thing is that the goal is to attack the combatants and that the civilian casualties are not the primary intent: in the “total war” doctrine purposely attacking civilians is a central goal.

  • Joshua Job

    Well on the same topic, I don’t think Sherman’s March is quite the same as some of the proposals to intentionally target civilians (like nuking cities or something similar). Sherman killed next to no one, and most of the damage he caused on his March was to slaveholders estates (which is fine- they enslaved people). I think he burned down Atlanta (another city I think was burned down, but he didn’t order that, historians think some of his soldiers got overzealous), which probably wasn’t great but it killed no one since the city had been evacuated beforehand. There is a huge difference between destroying property vital to a war effort and destroying the ill-gotten property of slaveholders, and on the other hand massacring civilians because war is supposed to be nasty and hard. I’d be fine if we used a Sherman’s March to the Sea type campaign in wars, as he did NOT target civilians (and most of his destruction was levelled on slaveholders and their estates).

    Sex and gender are an area I haven’t given a lot of thought about, outside of the more standard cases. I’m a heterosexual who likes wearing pants, button-up shirts, and when it is a reasonable temperature, a sport coat and necktie of some form, so I haven’t really ever had to address cross-dressing or transgenderism in my own life. I’m too concerned about STDs to ever think of casual sex or a prostitute (well, if they were like the Companions from Firefly, then I guess it might come up, but barring that–definitely not).

    However, where did you get the impression that having sex with multiple people or even having multiple lovers (as in people you love) was wrong according to Objectivist sexual ethics? I think that is up to personal characteristics and the field of psychology rather than philosophy (and I’m pretty sure that is the position of most Objectivists, even though the vast majority would say it isn’t a good idea). Maybe I missed something?

    As for government, I suggest you read Bruce Benson’s “The Enterprise of Law” and “To Protect and Serve”- they’re interesting empirical studies of the production of law and order in various societies throughout history. You can probably get them from a university library. They’ve had a pretty big impact on my thinking on this issue (I read them about a week ago).

  • Aaron Bilger

    Why so much focus on the divisive?  Some of the items you mention are relatively obscure, and while some are at odds with particular Rand’s writing (e.g. IP duration), others (e.g. total war) are just views of some big-Os who I think are not on the same page as Rand.  In any case – and whether I agree or disagree with you, with ARI party line, or hadn’t thought about that issue – I don’t think any of these are defining essentials of Objectivism.  I consider these all areas where we can be Oists and have good faith disagreements and arguments.  I can see wanting to discuss and debate the issues, but just don’t see why you’d want to focus on all potential conflicts and setting yourself apart from Objectivism.

  • Aaron Bilger

    That’s interesting about Sherman.  While his role in the killing or destruction has some debate, what I think’s important in this discussion is that Brook+Epstein and others hold him up as an example of the right approach *because* they assume he did intentionally harm the innocent.  Assuming there was no question Sherman truly did only destroy slaveholder property, and didn’t burn or kill others (I do not believe this extreme, but for sake of argument) then I’d agree with you – but the big-Os in question would write him off as a needlessly restrained bleeding-heart.

    While I largely agree with Shea on sexual ethics, I think most of the prudishness or unhealthy sexual attitudes of some Objectivists come less from anything Rand wrote and more from people who likely grew up Christian, cast off the religion when becoming Oist, but still implicitly hold some of the bad Christian sexual views but now with an Objectivist veneer.

    Thanks for the recommendations for Bruce Benson – I’m putting those on my list.  I enjoy reading and thinking about conceptions of how the justice system would work in a free society, and historically what has come close.

  • Shea Colton Levy

    I don’t think any of these are the defining essentials either, that’s why I still say I’m an Objectivist. I do think, though, that these are all issues that set me apart from most Objectivists. That doesn’t mean we can’t have good faith disagreements or arguments about it, it just means that these are issues where I have a disagreement about things. I didn’t really have a well-developed point in posting this, I just thought it might be fun to have this list around somewhere.

  • Joshua Job

    What, in your minds, is “essential”? I mean, what is necessary to still be an “Objectivist” in your view (both Aaron and Shea)? Is there a sort of fixed list of positions, or is it a “I know it when I see it” sort of thing?

  • NSFW

    Don’t forget that you’re a nihilist, Shea. A total nihilist. That’s a pretty big difference, I think.

  • NSFW

    Wait, hold on: what’s the thing about getting together a team of vigilantes to combat “rights violations”? You mean seeking justice against those who have violated American rights, right?

    Also, doesn’t that already exist in the way of private contractors?