On Moral Sanctions
(This is written as an addendum to [“Fact and Value”], in order to amplify some points about the principle of not sanctioning evil.)
Evil is not self-sustaining. That which stands defiantly opposed to reality cannot survive on its own. Its enduring existence requires the acquiescence of the good. Existentially, the irrational survives parasitically, by feeding off the rational; intellectually, an irrational idea gains influence fraudulently, by covering itself with a veneer of rationality. (The practice of Marxism, for example, gains material sustenance from the productive free world; the theory of Marxism gains acceptance by declaring that it seeks to eradicate unfair exploitation, not that it desires to impose totalitarian enslavement.) The weapon necessary to defend against evil is justice: the unequivocal identification of the evil as evil. This means the refusal to grant it, by word or by deed, any moral respectability. It is by scrupulously withholding from the irrational even a crumb of a moral sanction — by rejecting any form of accommodation with the irrational — by forcing the irrational to stand naked and unaided — that one keeps evil impotent.
Current events provide a telling illustration of this principle. There is a bizarre affair being held in Iran: a government-sponsored book fair. Even more bizarre is the fact that some Western publishers were planning to participate in it. A spokesman for McGraw-Hill, defending his company’s involvement in the fair, maintained that, while he certainly opposed Khomeini’s policies, “there should be no sanctions on knowledge.” The chairman of the British Society of Authors said: “I was in favor of sending publishers to Russia in the Stalinist era and to South Africa today and now to Iran. How can you persuade that regime to change unless you open it to outside views and influences?” This is an eloquent example of evil being morally sanctioned by its very victims.
Here are publishers and authors, whose existence depends upon the freedom of expression, willing to cooperate with a totalitarian theocracy, one which censors unauthorized ideas and which offers a $5 million bounty for the death of the author Salman Rushdie for his criticism of Islam. And their cooperation consists in joining with their censors in a public display of books. Can it be anything but self-destructive for them to help the Iranian government engage in the grotesque pretense that it regards the free mind — which a book fair represents — as a value? Their protection against medieval barbarism rests upon their convincing the world that Iran poses an undiluted danger to civilization. Yet here are publishers and writers themselves announcing, in effect, that Khomeini’s atrocities may simply be the product of honest ignorance and may well be voluntarily reversed once his regime is exposed to rational argument. Who could possibly take seriously a call for economic boycotts or military retaliation against Iran, when Khomeini’s primary victims are so ready to engage in commercial and intellectual intercourse with him? Their verbal disagreements with Khomeini’s views are embarrassingly irrelevant. If by their actions they show how lightly they take their own rhetorical protests, why should others take them any differently?
The identical reasoning applies to trafficking with Libertarians.
In “On Sanctioning the Sanctioners,” I gave two examples of evils being sanctioned by those, such as David Kelley, who profess to be advocates of reason, honesty and justice. The first example pertained to the open or tacit support they have given to arbitrary, gratuitous attacks against Ayn Rand (such as those in Barbara Branden’s biography). These smears represent unjust assaults upon a profound value, and should be denounced, not tolerated — as should the sanctioners of those assaults.
Apparently, this point was well understood, since none of the responses I received to the article even mentioned this issue. It was the second example — that of Libertarianism — which generated a great deal of critical comment. So I will expand on that subject to clarify what may still remain unclear.
IS LIBERTARIANISM AN EVIL DOCTRINE? Yes, if evil is the irrational and the destructive. Libertarianism belligerently rejects the very need for any justification for its belief in something called “liberty.” It repudiates the need for any intellectual foundation to explain why “liberty” is desirable and what “liberty” means. Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty” — and no Libertarian (even those who happen to disagree) can objectively refute his definition. Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior — political, moral, metaphysical. And since reality is the fundamental “restraint” upon men’s actions, it isnihilism — the desire to obliterate reality — that is the very essence of Libertarianism. If the Libertarian movement were ever to come to power, widespread death would be the consequence. (For elaboration, see my essay “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty.”)
Justice demands moral judgment. It demands that one objectively evaluate Libertarianism, and act in accordance with that evaluation. It demands that one identify Libertarianism as the antithesis of — and therefore as a clear threat to — not merely genuine liberty, but all rational values. And it demands that Libertarianism, like all such threats, be boycotted and condemned.
Moral judgment, and not some pragmatic calculation of losses and gains, is what must precede any decision about whom to associate with. As Dr. Peikoff makes clear (in his lecture “Why Should One Act on Principle?” and, much more extensively, in his forthcoming book on Objectivism), there cannot be any “cost-benefit analysis” of justice versus injustice, or of not sanctioning versus sanctioning evil (or of the alleged pro’s and con’s of any proper moral principle). The moral is the practical. No matter what the short-range appearances may be, there are no real “benefits” in acting unjustly, and no “losses” in acting justly. There can be no value in pretending that the irrational is rational. The moral principles of Objectivism identify the kind of action — the only kind of action — that is in accord with the demands of reality and therefore beneficial to man’s life. If an action is consonant with moral principles, then and only then can the question of costs versus benefits legitimately arise. Only then can various alternative courses offer genuine advantages and disadvantages that need to be compared. But the immoral — the unjust, the dishonest, the irrational — is by its nature the anti-life and can offer no value.
Thus, the “benefits” of speaking to Libertarian groups are as nonexistent as the “benefits” of exhibiting books at an Iranian fair. The Libertarian movement is not some innocuous debating club. It is a movement that embraces the advocates of child-molesting, the proponents of unilateral U.S. disarmament, the LSD-taking and bomb-throwing members of the New Left, the communist guerrillas in Central America and the baby-killing followers of Yassir Arafat. These views have all been accepted under the Libertarian umbrella (and remain accepted under it by everyone who still calls himself a Libertarian). It is these types of vermin that one is lifting into respectability whenever one sanctions Libertarianism — or whenever one maintains that ideas can be analyzed without being evaluated.
Does this restrict the options open to Objectivist speakers? Certainly. Objectivism is a restrictive philosophy. It holds that the irrationalities of today’s culture should not be aided. However, this fact does not require Objectivist thinkers to communicate only with those already in basic agreement. Ayn Rand, after all, somehow managed to convey her ideas to many millions without having to violate her principle of not sanctioning evil. Aside from the books and articles to be written, there are countless non-Objectivist audiences that speakers can profitably address. There are college and high school students. There are numerous professional groups, such as medical or legal associations. And there are those with mixed ideologies, who hold mistaken but not necessarily irrational views, such as various conservative or liberal groups. There may be nothing wrong in cooperating or debating with those who merely hold mistaken views (as long as one makes clear what one disagrees with); there is nothing wrong in implying that they are moral. It is the irrational that ought not be granted a moral sanction; it is the irrational that should not be addressed as though it were open to reason.
IT IS PARTICULARLY HARMFUL to speak under the patronage of an organization that epitomizes Libertarianism, such as Laissez-Faire Books. This is a book store that is the major source of Libertarian literature in the world; it is a division of Libertarian Review, Inc.; its editor is a well-known Libertarian speaker and writer; it advertises itself as offering the largest selection of books on “liberty” — a term it defines according to the contradictory criteria of Libertarianism. (The fact that it carries Objectivist as well as Libertarian literature does not make it any less Libertarian. Such eclecticism is quintessential Libertarianism; the subjectivist, after all, does not abide by rigid standards. One of Libertarianism’s goals is in fact to incorporate Objectivism into its “united front” ideology.)
The evil of Libertarianism is in no way mitigated by the fact that some, or many, of its followers do not understand its essence and its implications. This phenomenon pertains to all ideologies (honest and dishonest alike). There are Islamic fundamentalists who do not see that their philosophy leads to the murder of dissenters, there are Marxists who do not see that their philosophy leads to totalitarian enslavement, there are Kantians who do not see that their philosophy leads to nihilism. This does not alter the inherent irrationality of their viewpoints (any more than the rationality of a correct viewpoint is diminished by those who fail to comprehend it). Nor are these deluded individuals absolved from responsibility for in fact abetting the spread of destructive ideas.
If one wishes to reach those who have been defrauded by Libertarianism, it cannot be done by speaking under the auspices of the defrauders. It cannot be done even if one’s topic is why Objectivism offers the proper foundation for genuine liberty. Such a talk grants Libertarianism precisely the moral sanction it seeks and thrives on. Libertarians will readily listen to a talk on Objectivism and liberty — and the next day they will invite someone to speak on why the Bible is the only basis for liberty — and the next week they will hear someone argue why only skepticism and amoralism can validate liberty, etc. They lap this up. It is all entirely consistent with Libertarianism. It is consistent with the philosophy that philosophies and reasons are irrelevant to a belief in “liberty.” By speaking under the roof of an organization dedicated to purveying Libertarianism, one concedes that Libertarianism does in fact value liberty (and is simply confused about the proper means — i.e., Objectivism — by which to gain that end). Once that fatal concession is made, Libertarianism has obtained the basic moral sanction its survival requires.
The contradiction, then, is this: The handful of Libertarians who may be open to reason need to be told that Libertarianism as such is anti-liberty and that Libertarian organizations should be boycotted. But this cannot be conveyed via a talk which is itself sponsored by a Libertarian organization.
The existence of Objectivism is widely known throughout the Libertarian movement. It is certainly not difficult for any of its members to seek information about it outside the confines of Libertarianism, where there are writers and speakers available to enlighten them. If an Objectivist wants to communicate something worthwhile to such people, there is one absolutely vital lesson they need to be taught and one indispensable method of teaching it. The lesson is that if they truly want a rational foundation for defining and defending liberty, they should renounce Libertarianism and its “tolerance,” and should instead adopt Objectivism, where there is no tolerance for the irrational. And an essential method of imparting this lesson is by not speaking to Libertarian groups — by demonstrating that Objectivism consistently refuses to cooperate with and to sanction its antithesis — by showing, in other words, that we practice what we preach.
The Intellectual Activist, Volume V, Number 1 (May 18, 1989)
Copyright © 1989 The Intellectual Activist, Inc.