A qualified defense of Ayn Rand on Medicare

Michael Ford at Huffington Post calls out Ayn Rand for accepting Medicare payments when she was ill with cancer:

An interview with Evva Pryror, a social worker and consultant to Miss Rand’s law firm of Ernst, Cane, Gitlin and Winick verified that on Miss Rand’s behalf she secured Rand’s Social Security and Medicare payments which Ayn received under the name of Ann O’Connor (husband Frank O’Connor).

As Pryor said, “Doctors cost a lot more money than books earn and she could be totally wiped out” without the aid of these two government programs. Ayn took the bail out even though Ayn “despised government interference and felt that people should and could live independently… She didn’t feel that an individual should take help.”

But alas she did and said it was wrong for everyone else to do so.

This isn’t accurate. While there’s some surface irony in Rand accepting Medicaid payments, in her non-fiction writing she stated clearly that she thought it appropriate for people who share her beliefs to do so:

A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.

The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships, have no right to them; those who oppose them, have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.

Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others—the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it…

The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling co-workers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money—and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.

True, The Fountainhead wouldn’t have been quite as compelling if Roark were depicted collecting unemployment and living on food stamps. But given all the future taxes he surely ended up paying on his skyscrapers, he would have been totally within his rights to do so. That’s Rand’s argument, anyway, and whether or not it’s convincing her actions were in accordance with her stated beliefs.

This is a question that at some time or another confronts everyone of libertarian stripe. Whatever we think the ideal way is of funding various goods, we live in a world where we are taxed to pay for them and where private alternatives are crowded out by government services. For most of us, the question is not “Will I ever use services funded by taxes?”; it’s “Given the extent to which I am taxed to pay for services I may need, under which circumstances can I justify accepting them?” The answers to which we arrive have as much to do with our practical situations and personal integrity as they do with strict principle. To criticize a dying person who paid taxes all her life for accepting aid in her final days, and who had defended taking such aid years earlier, is uncharitable to say the least.

[Via BoingBoing.]


Mitch Daniels’ anti-atheist comments

Indiana governor Mitch Daniels is getting some favorable attention from libertarians, perhaps with some justification given his reading habits. However he has nothing kind to say about the atheists among us:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

Everyone’s certainly entitled in our country to equal treatment regardless of their opinion. But yes, I think that folks who believe they’ve come to that opinion ought to think very carefully, first of all, about how different it is from the American tradition; how it leads to a very different set of outcomes in the real world.

I was going to write a longer post about this until I realized the quote is from a December interview. That’s remarkable in itself, given that I just recently came across it. An American governor saying that any religion “leads to brutality” would surely have made bigger headlines, but disparage atheists and hardly anyone takes notice until months later.

Atheists have polled as the least trusted group in the US and a majority of respondents say they would not vote for an atheist candidate. Statements from politicians like Daniels are part of the reason. Since atheists are an invisible minority we have the option of letting such comments slide. As I’ve written before, I think this is a mistake:

Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.

So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

To their credit, the Center for Inquiry Indiana has taken Daniels to task for his comments, and Jonathan Turley was on it immediately.


I’m an atheist about all the gods that matter

Ron Rosenbaum’s “Agnostic Manifesto” at Slate has been making the rounds lately. He makes a few arguments against atheism, the central one being this:

Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence. […]

Faced with the fundamental question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” atheists have faith that science will tell us eventually. Most seem never to consider that it may well be a philosophic, logical impossibility for something to create itself from nothing. But the question presents a fundamental mystery that has bedeviled (so to speak) philosophers and theologians from Aristotle to Aquinas. Recently scientists have tried to answer it with theories of “multiverses” and “vacuums filled with quantum potentialities,” none of which strikes me as persuasive. […]

Agnosticism doesn’t fear uncertainty. It doesn’t cling like a child in the dark to the dogmas of orthodox religion or atheism. Agnosticism respects and celebrates uncertainty and has been doing so since before quantum physics revealed the uncertainty that lies at the very groundwork of being.

I don’t think this criticism hits the mark. For starters, as Rosenbaum quotes approvingly from John Wilkins, we are all atheists about something: “Christians are Vishnu-atheists, I am a Thor-atheist, and so on.” This is the lay meaning of the word “atheism,” and it’s a useful meaning. When I tell people I am an atheist they understand that this means I don’t believe in any of the gods imagined by (or revealed to, if you disagree) human beings, and their understanding is correct.

Does this mean I am 100% certain that no gods exist? No, but certainty is a mug’s game. In real life we are faced with countless hypotheses about the nature of the world and we must use our best judgments about which of them to take seriously. I will concede that there is a non-zero probability that God once made a covenant with my ancestors, or sent down his son to offer us eternal life, or even that we are all headed toward Ragnarök. However I’m not going to spend much time investigating these possibilities.

On this I think Rosenbaum agrees, which leaves us with the less exciting kinds of gods that only philosophers bother talking about. It’s true that I cannot explain “why there is something rather than nothing.” But I don’t see why it should be my job to explain it, or how positing a god does any better. To this question the philosophers’ god is not a solution, but rather the placeholder to a solution. As Julian Sanchez writes, this is merely “gesturing at the realm of mystery and calling the question mark that lives there God.” Without giving the word meaning there’s nothing for me to be agnostic about.

Will advanced physics explain why there is something rather than nothing, if that question makes sense? I don’t know, but I also don’t know where else one would reasonably look. Perhaps the answer will turn out to be something we might call a god, or maybe someday I’ll be presented with a definition of god that plausibly and meaningfully answers the question. Until then I think it most honest to call myself an atheist, at least in regard to all the gods that matter.


Science on the Edge

This year’s Edge question and answers are up. After a nicely libertarian introduction, John Brockman asks, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Here, somewhat at random, is Daniel Dennett’s answer:

Will universities and newspapers become obsolete? Will hospitals and churches go the way of corner grocery stores and livery stables? Will reading music soon become as arcane a talent as reading hieroglyphics? Will reading and writing themselves soon be obsolete? What will we use our minds for? Some see a revolution in our concept of intelligence, either because of “neurocosmetics” (Marcel Kinsbourne) or quantum-computing (W. H. Hoffman), or “just in time storytelling” (Roger Schank). Nick Humphrey reminds us that when we get back to basics — procreating, eating, just staying alive — not that much has changed since Roman times, but I think that these are not really fixed points after all.

Our species’ stroll through Design Space is picking up speed. Recreational sex, recreational eating, and recreational perception (hallucinogens, alcohol), have been popular since Roman times, but we are now on the verge of recreational self-transformations that will dwarf the modifications the Romans indulged in. When you no longer need to eat to stay alive, or procreate to have offspring, or locomote to have an adventure — packed life, when the residual instincts for these activities might be simply turned off by genetic tweaking, there may be no constants of human nature left at all. Except, maybe, our incessant curiosity.

There are more than a hundred other responses, to have fun scrolling through.


Two kinds of belief

Writing in the L. A. Times earlier this month, Lee Siegel concludes an op/ed about militant atheists with harsh, misguided criticism:

When our anti-religionists attack the mechanism of religious faith by demanding that our beliefs be underpinned by science, statistics and cold logic, they are, in effect, attacking our right to believe in unseen, unprovable things at all. Their assault on religious faith amounts to an attack on the human imagination…

The leap of faith is really a very ordinary operation. We take it every time we fall in love, expect kindness from someone, impulsively sacrifice some little piece of our self-interest. After all, you cannot prove the existence of truth, beauty, goodness and decency; you cannot prove the dignity of being human, or your obligation to treat people as ends and not just as means. You take a gamble on the existence of these inestimable things. For that reason, when you lay scientific, logical and empirical siege to the leap of faith at the core of the religious impulse, you are not just attacking faith in God. You are attacking the act of faith itself, faith in anything that can’t be proved. But it just so happens that the qualities that make life rich, joyful and humane cannot be proved.

Ugh. It’s a pernicious myth that because atheists insist on being scientifically rigorous in their beliefs about the world that they must be equally austere in their relations with the world. This is nonsense.

The distinction isn’t difficult. Orson Scott Card put it well in Children of the Mind, the muddled fourth book in the Ender series. In the scene, Andrew is asking his wife if they can join a Christian order together. She says no with good reason:

“You don’t believe in God, how’s that for starters?”

“I certainly do too believe in God,” said Ender, annoyed.

“Oh, you’re willing to concede God’s existence, but that’s not what I meant. I mean believe in him the way a mother means it when she says to her son, I believe in you. She’s not saying that she believes that he exists — what is that worth? — she’s saying he believes in his future, she trusts that he’ll do all the good that is in him to do. She puts her future in his hands, that’s how she believes in him. You don’t believe in Christ that way, Andrew. You still believe in yourself. In other people.

Technically speaking, atheism concerns itself only with belief in God’s existence. The rest — faith in other people, artistic inspiration, personal feelings of transcendence, a sense of awe — is totally up for grabs.

I’m not going to let Siegel off the hook for this; he is, after all, making an obvious error. But his confusion does bring to mind Sam Harris’ recent essay on atheists’ image problem:

As “atheists” we give others, and even ourselves, the sense that we are well on our way toward purging the universe of mystery. As advocates of reason, we know that mystery is going to be with us for a very long time. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that mystery is ineradicable from our circumstance, because however much we know, it seems like there will always be brute facts that we cannot account for but which we must rely upon to explain everything else. This may be a problem for epistemology but it is not a problem for human life and for human solidarity. It does not rob our lives of meaning. And it is not a barrier to human happiness.

We are faced, however, with the challenge of communicating this view to others. We are faced with the monumental task of persuading a myth-infatuated world that love and curiosity are sufficient, and that we need not console or frighten ourselves or our children with Iron Age fairy tales.

Unfortunately, some of our most vocal advocates are among the least effective at this challenging task.

[Via Joanna.]

Atheists and libertarians, same boat
Trust me, I’m an atheist


Atheism roundtable

Given recent blogging, I’m looking forward to this AFF event:

On Wednesday, October 24, AFF will host a roundtable on atheism. Though historically disorganized and decreasingly popular on the national political scene, fundamentalist Christianity has retained enough force to attract a powerful new salvo of criticism. Some charge that what Andrew Sullivan calls ‘Christianism’ has collapsed the wall between faith and government, harming both. Others seek to do away with religion entirely. Figures arrayed across both science and the humanities, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have published a wave of bestsellers making the atheist pitch to the masses. But instead of surrender, this diligent barrage has prompted an equally diligent counterattack. With western civilization at yet another moment of apparent peril, internecine cultural conflict could needlessly provoke another paralyzing crisis. To the contrary, such conflict may prove precisely the west’s enduring strength. Regardless, when cultural combatants go on offense, we judge them on the merits in those terms. How does what Peter Berkowitz calls the New New Atheism fare in that regard — harshly dogmatic or valuably reasonable?

Joining us to discuss these issues are Ross Douthat of the Atlantic Monthly, Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute, Michael Brendan Dougherty of The American Conservative, and Keith Pavlischek of Ethics and Public Policy Center. James Poulos will moderate. The event will take place at the Fund for American Studies, 1706 New Hampshire Avenue, NW, near Dupont Circle. Drinks at 6:30; Roundtable begins at 7:00. Roundtables are free for members, $5 for non-members. So join today! Please RSVP to Kathleen O’Hearn at kathleen@americasfuture.org.


Atheists and libertarians, same boat

Via Andrew Sullivan, is there a “problem with atheism?” Sam Harris thinks so and explains why in a challenging essay:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves…

While it is an honor to find myself continually assailed with Dan [Dennett], Richard [Dawkins], and Christopher [Hitchens] as though we were a single person with four heads, this whole notion of the “new atheists” or “militant atheists” has been used to keep our criticism of religion at arm’s length, and has allowed people to dismiss our arguments without meeting the burden of actually answering them. And while our books have gotten a fair amount of notice, I think this whole conversation about the conflict between faith and reason, and religion and science, has been, and will continue to be, successfully marginalized under the banner of atheism.

So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves “atheists.” We should not call ourselves “secularists.” We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them…

We will have won this war of ideas against religion when atheism is scarcely intelligible as a concept. We will simply find ourselves in a world in which people cease to praise one another for pretending to know things they do not know. This is certainly a future worth fighting for. It may be the only future compatible with our long-term survival as a species. But the only path between now and then, that I can see, is for us to be rigorously honest in the present. It seems to me that intellectual honesty is now, and will always be, deeper and more durable, and more easily spread, than “atheism.”

As Harris tells it it, libertarians strike me as facing much the same dilemma. On the one hand, by identifying with a political ideology we make it easier for others to dismiss our policy arguments rather than confront them on the merits. On the other, if we eschew the label for something more generic we miss out on opportunities to express our opposition to the dominant, pro-state views of modern conservatives and liberals.

I agree with Harris that using the atheist label concedes too much to religion, as if we atheists should also call ourselves “aghostists” and “aNessiests” and “aESPists” when asked our opinion of other irrational beliefs. I, too, would love to live in a world where the basic ideas of major religions are considered so bizarre that it would be silly to assign a label to non-belief. Similarly, I wish proposals for socialized medicine or federal marriage amendments were viewed with such ridicule that I could simply call myself a liberal and be done with it. But we’re far from that state of affairs, both in religion and in politics.

Thankfully, as Harris points out, people of sound mind don’t have to join the “non-racist” club to express their lack of irrational prejudice. But in a previous century they did and organized a movement around abolition. The shedding of labels is a luxury for the victors. We atheists haven’t won acceptance yet. As I wrote last year:

…we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

Strategically, I think Harris is right that we should work harder at debunking specific religious beliefs rather than always declaring war on religion as a whole. But the need for a label isn’t something we control; it’s forced upon us by a religious society that expects people to fit into religious categories. Much of the time, refusing the category means ducking the conversation, and thus foregoing an opportunity to normalize unbelief.

Even so, Harris’ essay does have me rethinking when to use the label. I know there are a few other atheists reading this site. What do you think?


High on religion

Speaking of atheism, a few neuroscientists have a new theory about how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam got started. From The Syndey Morning Herald:

Glad tidings of great joy: there could be a straightforward medical explanation for at least three of the world’s major religions. Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus all experienced revelations on mountains, but they were probably just suffering a form of altitude sickness, say a group of Swiss and Israeli neurologists, casting doubt in the process on the very existence of God.

All three felt, heard or saw a presence, experienced lights and felt afraid, say the brain scientists from Lausanne, Geneva and Jerusalem. But so have contemporary mountaineers who are more interested in ice picks and thermal undies than anything mystical – suggesting the dizzy heights may have the effect of turning ordinary mortals into prophets.

Note that the paper is published in the journal Medical Hypotheses, which the Herald describes as “positively boastful about giving a run to bright new ideas that haven’t been through the usual discouraging process of scientific peer review.”

I’m not sure what to make of that. But in a similar, perhaps more credible vein, Daniel Dennett’s new book looks interesting.

[First link via TMN.]


Trust me, I’m an atheist

“…those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

So said John Locke in his otherwise commendable “Letter Concerning Toleration.” I’d have thought the intervening 300 years would have made Americans more trusting of people like me, but University of Minnesota sociology professor Penny Edgell finds there’s still a long way to go:

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. “Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years,” says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the study’s lead researcher.

Edgell also argues that today’s atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the past—they offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. “It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious,” says Edgell. Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

Considering that the most disruptive atheist in recent memory is Michael Newdow, I’m surprised we currently rank below homosexuals and Muslims on the list of whom intolerant Americans see as part of a shared society. We’re unorganized and don’t wear our beliefs on our sleeves. We’re not pushing for changes to marriage institutions. (We can already marry your daughters, even if you don’t want us to. Nyaah, nyaah.) Radical sects of us don’t go blowing things up. Other than having a suspicious amount of free time on Sundays, we fit right in.

Then again, perhaps that’s the problem. Religious, racial, and sexual minorities have endured painful struggles to create public identities and gain acceptance. Atheists haven’t, and haven’t needed to. Like the communists in the 1950s, we could be anyone. The friend, the neighbor, the coworker. The person who always seemed so trustworthy till that Richard Dawkins book was spotted in his living room.

Respondents to the survey call atheists elitist and in one sense they are right. Academia and the sciences are wide open to us. Educated Americans on the coasts are more tolerant of atheism. Unless we’re running for public office, no ceiling blocks our ambitions. Unlike other minorities, we have the luxury of not caring what other people think. And so we don’t.

So maybe we ought to be speaking up more. I don’t mean by forming advocacy groups or adopting pretentious new words like “brights,” but by being forthright when people inquire about our religious beliefs. I’m as guilty as anyone of equivocating by saying I’m “not religious” when asked rather than matter of factly admitting to atheism. This polite ambiguity prevents some awkwardness, but keeps atheism outside the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable and, ultimately, shows a lack of respect for ourselves and the people we interact with. Enough of that. We’ve got catching up to do.

[Via Rogier van Bakel, who more succintly responds to the survey, “bite me.”]

[Update 3/23/06: Evan at Coffee Grounds offers his experience as an atheist New Zealander introducing himself in Minnesota.]