Posts Tagged ‘american conservatives’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 5)

June 16, 2019

Interestingly (to me at least) the very nihilism at the heart of the Republican administration which is putting together this panel actually suggests an argument that something like this is actually necessary.[i] According to Alasdair MacIntyre, it was inevitable that Western culture would collapse into Nietzschean nihilism once it ceased to base morality in the values of a particular culture. The Enlightenment dream of a universal ethics valid for all persons qua persons was a fantasy from the start. All morality has to be rooted in and derived from some vision of human flourishing. The virtues recommended by that ethics are the character traits that aid in living the sort of “good life” embraced by that particular culture. Outside of any social context, those virtues are arbitrary and unsustainable. Unless you embrace the sort of eudaimonia prized by Athenian gentlemen, the Aristotelian virtues such as bravery, self-control and pride won’t make any sense. An Augustinian Christian’s virtues such as humility and universal love would seem absurd to Aristotle, just as some of his virtues would seem to be nothing more than “glittering vices.” In MacIntyre’s understanding of the history of Western thought, the Enlightenment project of basing ethics on universal reason alone apart from all religious, national or other communal standards was doomed from the start, and in fact cut the foundation out from under human moral thought. The result was emotivism, where moral language simply collapsed into a contest of wills, each individual attempting to get everyone else to feel the way he or she felt about whatever point was being debated. From this point of view (sometimes called “communitarian ethics”), the moral nihilism of Donald Trump and the Republican Party is simply an open acknowledgment of the fact that God is dead and has been for a long time, and all the lofty claims by liberalism to seek universal ethical standards has simply been a fraudulent attempt to impose the standards of their group on everyone else through trickery and persuasion. The notion of “human rights,” from MacIntyre’s perspective, would be rights as defined by a certain group using a certain understanding of human nature, but using language that asserts their view to be the only legitimate one. Conservatives, in this view, are simply more honest in relying on political and physical force rather than sophistical argument.

If MacIntyre offers a reason to doubt the common notion of “human rights” as a culturally and religiously neutral, universal ethical standard, then MacIntyre also offers a solution that would cast more doubt on the legitimacy of the State Departmet’s human rights panel as presented in the press. In his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” MacIntyre argues that loyalty to one’s own group is the cardinal virtue, the one essential quality for any further moral life.[ii] The virtues stem from one’s vision of the good, fulfilled, “happy” human life; and that vision of human flourishing is conveyed to one by one’s particular culture. Without a particular culture, one has no human ideal to seek to live out, hence no virtues as habits enabling that good life (or vices to lead away from it), no moral roots, and one’s moral life simply withers away. Each of us are products of our culture, and our vision of the good life comes from that culture. However, MacIntyre says, that does not mean that everyone in the culture agrees on everything. For example, he points to Adam von Trott, who was involved in a plot to kill Hitler.[iii] Trott did not act out of commitment to some abstract universal morality; he acted because he felt the Nazi leadership of Germany had betrayed German values and German culture and had to be stopped. On this view of patriotism, “dissent is patriotic,” if it is rooted in core values of the community itself and aims to perfect the community as a project. To discover those core values in any community, one would have to look not only at its explicit claims but at its overall history and trajectory, what that society valued as shown in its deeds and its aspirations and what it seemed to be striving towards.

By this standard, conservatives today seem to be going astray; they do not discover and live out their country’s values, but try to recreate it in terms of some other, smaller community’s project. For example, conservatives in America today do not study history; they rewrite it. Even in the communitarian view, facts are facts; what value one puts on those facts may be another matter. And the facts are that the leaders of the American Revolution, the “Founding Fathers,” studied and quoted Enlightenment philosophy, particularly social contract thinking inspired by Rousseau and Locke. They distrusted religious extremism, what we would call “fanaticism” and which they called “enthusiasm.” They embraced the scientific, empirical investigation of truth. Many (roughly half) were Freemasons, embracing a religious liberalism that rejected sectarian or what we would call “fundamentalist” spirituality; a good many were not even Christian, but rather Deists. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, the three men selected by the Continental Congress to write the nation’s Declaration of Independence, were religious liberals. Jefferson, who is credited with describing the “separation of Church and State” as a “wall” between the two, was the third president of the United States; yet in conservative circles he is treated as an outlier and unimportant fringe thinker compared to Aquinas despite the fact that only two Catholics signed the Declaration of Independence.[iv] In an attempt to undermine “liberal” and “Democratic” importance in American history, the Christian Reconstructionism or Christian Dominionism promoted by such religious conservatives as Rousas Rushdooney and Jerry Falwell has sought to present the American revolution as a conservative revolution against a liberal monarchy. In fact, it is no coincidence that both the British Conservative party and the Americans who supported King George III were called “Tories.” So when Pompeo says the State Department’s new panel on human rights will seek to express “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights,” this seems disingenuous. The overall thrust of conservative efforts, including those by some people on the panel, has been not to return to the principles of the Founding Fathers, but to rewrite them. A better way for such a committee to establish “our nation’s founding principles” would be to include historians who could review the personal views and public writings of our Founding Fathers, as well as seminal texts such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech and other documents that have contributed to the wider civil religion of the USA.

To be continued….

[i] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue second edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 1-78

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Pearson Education Inc., NY 2014) pp. 405-410; originally presented in The Lindley Lecture, Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas (1984).

[iii] “Patriotism,” p. 408

[iv] For example, Brian Thevenot, “TribBlog: SBOE vs. the Media,” The Texas Tribune March 22, 2010 ( The actions described here are by no means unique to Texas, but are representative of conservative rhetoric for at least the last several decades.

POSTSCRIPT: Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)

October 1, 2012

POSTSCRIPT:  Would Ayn Rand Join the GOP? (pt. 2)


In her interview on The Colbert Report, Rand scholar Jennifer Burns identifies three aspects of Rand’s philosophy that she considers vital for understanding its reception by American conservatives:  rationality, selfishness and laissez-faire capitalism.[1]  While conservatives generally like Rand for the latter two, they generally reject her views on rationalism.  For example, Paul Ryan has said that reading Ayn Rand is what inspired him to get into politics, and he requires his staff to read her fiction.  However, he also says that when he read her philosophy, Objectivism, he “of course” rejected it because of its atheism.  In other words, he, and most American conservatives who claim to be inspired by Ayn Rand, treats these three elements of her philosophy as independent modules, to be swapped in and out at will.  In the case of laissez-faire capitalism, this is not true.  Rand’s defense of capitalism is the conclusion of the rest of her philosophy.  Capitalism is the best economic system because it recognizes, affirms and rewards selfishness.  Systems that seek to repress selfishness ultimately destroy nations that adopt them.  Only capitalism, based on selfish striving, can generate the wealth that would be necessary to improve the lives of others.[2]  Anything else is simply criminal robbery of the rich, generating nothing good.[3]  Ultimately, any system other than pure laissez-faire capitalism is simply a step on the road to Stalinism.[4]  Either the individual is completely free of all controls and regulations, or the individual is a slave.  There is no middle ground.

Rand’s faith in capitalism is logically dependent, therefore, on her positive evaluation of selfishness.  This in turn is dependent on her definition of “selfishness” and its link to rationality.  As she writes:


            The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.


The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]



So it is not just any selfishness, but only rational selfishness that Rand upholds.  Furthermore, that is the basis for her rational capitalism.  The rationally selfish person does not desire to exploit anyone.  The worker does not desire to rob the boss; neither does the boss wish to rob the worker.  The rationally selfish banker does not persuade poor people to take out loans they will not be able to repay, simply to get a bigger bonus; the rational banker explains the terms, risks and benefits of the loan and expects the rational customer to take it or not.  In such a rational world, there would be little need of regulations; the free market and the informed consumer would be enough.  And the rationally selfish person takes personal responsibility, which means he or she doesn’t attempt to shift the costs of his or her errors onto others.  Rand would say that applies, for example, to the old person who didn’t plan adequately for retirement; a rationally selfish person would not want Medicare or Social Security.  It would also apply to the millionaire banker who engaged in foolish or criminal trades; he or she would be liable for the losses to those he or she deceived.

As Burns points out, today’s conservatives like Rand for her defense of selfishness and capitalism; and as Weigel points out, politicians often simply grab snippets of quotes to use without regard to their context or true meaning.  And as I said, sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What happens to selfishness when we take rationality out of the equation?  Quite simply, Objectivism collapses into Nietzschean nihilism.  If selfishness is not based on rationality, then it is based on whim; and that is the essence of Nietzsche’s subjectivism.[6]  And the whims of individuals naturally clash, so instead of the free and orderly market of fair traders Rand envisions, we end up with reciprocal robbery and caveat emptor.  And if you introduce religion into Nietzsche, that simply becomes a tactic in the struggle between wills to subjugate one another.  It is the philosophy of the underman, of the failure.

Most American conservatives would say they are not throwing out rationality; they are only adding religion to Rand’s essentially rational philosophy.  In much the same way, I am not killing you; I am just quickly adding an ounce of lead to your heart.  Religion is not rational; both its detractors and its adherents agree to that.  Rationality is what everyone can observe and agree to; it is the objective, the publicly discernable, the factual.  Rationality is the natural; religion is the supernatural.  When Paul Ryan, or any other politician claims to be defending rational selfishness while also defending belief in God, that politician is asserting the right to be irrational, and to set public policy based on whims, fantasies and/or wishful thinking.  You believe, as Ayn Rand did, that a woman should have control over her own body?  You are wrong; God told me that we men have the responsibility to defend the unborn person, which I know to be a person because God told me.  You believe tax money should not be spent to teach creationism because it isn’t rational?  You are wrong; God has told me that the world was created in a totally supernatural and unverifiable way, and I have every right to demand my particular religious belief be taught in public schools.

A fully rational society, like Rand describes, would probably be a pretty nice place to live.  Government would let you live your own life according to your own morals, instead of trying to impose values on you.  You would not be required to take care of the unborn embryo in your body, or the poor person outside your door; you would have every right to choose to do either.  Sellers of goods and services would not try to cheat you, and would freely take responsibility for their own mistakes; so there would be no need for government inspections of meat packing factories or of stock brokerages.

However, we do not live in this rational utopia, and it is unlikely that we ever shall.  First, it is clear to any unbiased observer that “rational” individuals by Rand’s standards are as rare as warm winter days in Wisconsin.  When people defend the right to be “selfish,” they are rarely if ever defending the right to be rational; more usually, they are defending the right to promote their own self-interests at the expense (or at least disregard) of others.  What for Rand is a principle of social harmony (like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Spinoza’s confidence that rational people’s interests won’t really conflict) becomes, for many of Rand’s self-professed disciples, something more like Callicles’ notion that the superior man should live as a wolf among sheep, using his wits and strength to exploit others at will.  Rand complains that this is a distorted meaning of “selfishness,” foisted on us by the preachers of “altruism” (primarily Christianity).  She admits that her definition of “selfishness” is not the usual one, although she argues that hers is more correct.[7]  In reality, it has more in common with Kant’s definition of autonomy than it does with what we commonly think of as “selfish;” Rand comes close to quoting Kant’s Categorical Imperative herself.[8]  But neither Kant nor Rand would have any room for the voice of God overruling natural reason, universal logic and the normal laws of causality.  To be “selfish,” or “self-directed” as Kant would put it, is to trust reason and reason alone, not any outside authority and least of all a supernatural one.  And it is to desire that oneself should be judged by those same standards, and to be willing to condemn oneself if one fails to live up to them.  Very, very few are willing to abide by the strictures of rationality, or even capable of putting their own desires and prejudices aside long enough to try.

Second, since American conservatives continue to let God into the conversation, there is no rational way to resolve conflicts.  The same Bible that is used to justify persecuting homosexuals or banning abortion also denounces  greed and selfishness.  “He who has two shirts must give to him who has none.”  Both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures put severe limits on what one can do with one’s own property, in the interest of protecting the poor.  Every Bible passage that can be used to argue that the poor are lazy and/or dishonest can be countered by one that claims the poor are God’s special children, victims of oppression by the rich, and/or unfortunate brothers and sisters who deserve our love and help.  If anything, the number of Bible passages on the liberal end swamps the conservative side, which is why Rand rejected Christianity as an irrational, mystical attack on selfishness for the sake of “altruism” and the self-sacrifice/suicide of the individual.

When politicians claim to be arguing in favor of Ayn Rand’s rational selfishness, they are generally either self-deceived or lying.  That is a problem because Rand minus rationality is not “Rand Lite;” it is nihilism.  Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and the others do not offer us Ayn Rand improved by the blessing of Jesus; they offer us mere subjectivism, irrational whims and the clash of will-to-power with will-to-power, disguised as religious prophecy and moral crusade.  It is no wonder that our politics today consists almost entirely of point-scoring, excoriating Them for doing something We praised last week, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, circular reasoning and every other logical fallacy ever cataloged.  We have to rely on emotional manipulation and subterfuge, when we have lost faith in rationality and facts to lead us to solutions that all or even most can share.

[2] Ayn Rand, “Collectivized Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York:  Penguin Group USA, Inc. 1964) p. 97

[3] “Collectivized Ethics,” pp. 95-6.

[4] “The Monument Builders,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 100-101

[5] Ayn Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34

[6] “The Objectivist Ethics,” p. 33

[7] “Introduction,” The Virtue of Selfishness

[8] “Objectivist Ethics,” p. 30