01 January 2014

Objectivist and the Ideological Turing Test

In the current Winter 2013/2014 issue of The Objective Standard, a magazine that expounds the Objectivist philosophy of author Ayn Rand, editor Craig Biddle has an article that contrasts libertarianism with radical capitalism.  You can read it here, if you're interested.  To me, the actual interesting thing was not the purported topic; Biddle's confused invective against a series of artificial ideas, conjured up for the purposes of glorious defeat, really isn't very compelling.  Instead, the interesting things were his summaries of different belief systems, which fail Caplan's Ideological Turing Test in a hilariously complete way.

The Ideological Turing Test is the sensible proposition that anyone who is trying to tear down a system of belief should fully understand the system of belief, and should be able to prove that they understand that system by ably stating its arguments.  For example, if someone is in favor of permitting gay marriage, they should really also be able to adequately argue against gay marriage, if asked.  To truly pass the hypothetical test, in fact, their arguments against gay marriage should be indistinguishable from the arguments of a real opponent of gay marriage.

Even if the formal test might be a little silly in practice, I think that the principle is sound: if you don't understand the other side well enough to adequately restate their arguments, then you haven't learned enough to make a fully informed decision.  To wit: the Biddle essay in question.

In The Objective Standard, Craig Biddle devotes some space to considering the idea of "natural rights" from the perspective of three other belief systems: utilitarianism, altruism, and egalitarianism.  In each case, he describes how these "dominant moralities and philosophies reject the possibility that rights exist."  But Biddle's summary of how these systems think is remarkably different from anything that an actual proponent might say.  His straw men exist only in order to be knocked down.  Let's take a look, for example, at his summary of how utilitarians might view the idea of natural rights:
[O]ne of the most widely accepted moral codes today, utilitarianism, holds that the standard of moral value is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”5 On this view, the idea that people have inalienable rights is, as utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham puts it, “nonsense upon stilts.”6 If the standard of morality is the greatest happiness for the greatest number, then the notion that an individual should be free to live his life (the right to life), according to his judgment (liberty), using the product of his effort (property), for his own purposes (the pursuit of happiness) is ridiculous. Suppose the greatest number say his doing so makes them unhappy. Or suppose a majority, such as white southerners, is happy to enslave a minority, such as imported black southerners. Or suppose a majority, such as non-Jewish Germans, is happy to exterminate a minority, such as Jewish Germans. Clearly, utilitarianism is incompatible with rights.
This is one of the most shallow treatments of utilitarianism I've ever seen.  Biddle didn't bother to investigate what actual utilitarians might argue, because otherwise he would have seen that the field has somewhat advanced in the years since Bentham, and that most utilitarians are "preference utilitarians."  They believe something remarkably similar to the idea of natural rights Biddle is espousing, because they think that we shouldn't consider everyone's raw happiness, but rather their ability to fulfill their preferences in life (in other words, "the pursuit of happiness").  Treating the ideas of Bentham as the final word in utilitarian philosophy is a lot like treating Newton as the reigning authority on physics.

Biddle also didn't bother to think carefully about his own argument - it would have taken about thirty seconds of reflection to realize that the unhappiness of Jewish Germans is going to weigh rather heavily on a utilitarian scale of pain vs. pleasure.  Utilitarian philosophers have a way of talking about these things that's heavily jargonated, but the word "hedon" is useful to us.  A "hedon" is a theoretical and arbitrary measurement of pleasure/utility/preference.  A delicious sandwich when we're hungry might be worth 30 hedons, while a warm coat when we're freezing to death might be worth 3,000 hedons.

You can probably see where this is going... the negative experience of being enslaved, starved, and murdered might be pegged at some -10,000 hedons, while the positive experience of having your racial prejudices fulfilled is worth... what, 100 hedons?  Clearly, the Holocaust can't be justified by this basic utilitarian view.

A common response is that enslaving, starving, and murdering just one person might be outweighed by the preferences of millions, in a sort of moral "tyranny of the majority."  If a million people got 100 hedons from your death, then their preferences might outweigh your own very strong preference not to die.  But aside from the point that this is what we do already because it's convenient (e.g. Cameron Todd Willingham) there are second-order responses a utilitarian might give.  They might say, for example, that preference utilitarianism might eventually suggest a basic level of minimum rights, whose presence generally raises the civilizing bar for a society and makes everyone better-off.

But hey, that's a deeper level of thought, and while it would be nice if it was part of Biddle's essay, I don't expect it.  But I do expect at least some thought - some evidence that Biddle tried to actually engage with the ideas involved, rather than just tossing off the first thought that came to mind.

Biddle's essay shows that he not only doesn't really know about the arguments about his ideological opponents, but that he didn't even bother to give their ideas more than a moment's reflection.  It doesn't disqualify his own arguments; they take care of their own disqualification.  But it's certainly not a good sign - both for The Objective Standard and the Objectivist movement - that this is a flagship article in an Objectivist journal.

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