Just a Quick Argument About Religion and Morality

Thesis: If God exists, then anything is permitted.

(To be more precise: If God exists, then anything that actually happens is permitted.)

Assume that God exists. Then God is the creator of the actual world, God is omnibenevolent, and God is omnipotent. So God created the actual world, and, because of His omnibenevolence, He did so as well as He could. But because of His omnipotence, a world that is as good as He could make it is one that is as good as one could be. Thus the actual world is among the best of all possible worlds.

Other things being equal, pain is bad. Pain can be good because it is deserved, and pain can be necessary because of its consequences.

A best of all possible worlds would contain nothing unnecessarily bad. Undeserved pain that is not necessitated by its consequences is bad, and it is not necessary; thus, it is unnecessarily bad.

But the actual world is among the best of all possible worlds, so it contains nothing unnecessarily bad. Thus is contains no undeserved pain or pain that is not necessitated by its consequences. Thus all actual pain is deserved or necessary because of its consequences.

That includes any pain that I might deliberately cause. Thus, if I deliberately cause pain, that pain will be deserved or necessary. E.g., if I deliberately torture babies to death, in front of their helpless parents, the pain, both of infant and parent, will be deserved or necessary.

It is permissible to cause deserved or necessary pain. Thus, it is permitted to torture babies to death in front of their helpless parents.

If it is permissible to torture babies to death in front of their helpless parents, then anything is permitted.

Thus, if God exists, then anything is permitted. QED.

If there is a religion that could form the basis of some kind of morality, it is not a religion with a monotheistic deity or one that creates the universe and is omnipotent and omnibenevolent.


Rand’s Accidental Solipsism

Ayn Rand is most well-known for her libertarian politics; she is also known for the individualistic aspects of her ethics. But she made various claims in epistemology; she has a theory, or a set of remarks, about the formation of concepts. The basic idea is that we are able to grasp, pre-conceptually, differences in degree of qualitative similarity and difference between objects, and form the ability to treat objects that are relatively qualitatively similar to one another as though they were — we are able to apply what we’ve learned from one object to another object in the future because the second object strikes us as similar to the first. She has what she thinks of as a technical innovation to explain how we do this; it isn’t successful except perhaps in a handful of cases. But here, I want to mention her description of the formation of concepts of mental states. She says that we form these concepts by recognizing the similarities between our own mental states, using introspective awareness as an analogue for perceptual awareness. But what kind of similarities?

In the realm of introspection, the concretes, the units which are integrated into a single concept, are the specific instances of a given psychological process. The measurable attributes of a psychological process are its object or content and its intensity. (ITOE 31)

It’s in terms of contents and intensity that mental states can be similar to, or different from, one another. What it is for a particular mental state to fall under the concept of a kind of mental state is for it to be, in terms of contents or intensity, commensurable with other mental states that fall under that concept: relatively similar. (Rand has trouble with the concept of commensurability; she thinks that being measurable by a common unit qualifies objects as similar to one another, when commensurability would only guarantee that it was similar to or different from it.)

On this account, I am the only thing in the universe that has any mental states. Take, for instance, the mental state of belief. Now, I have various beliefs. I believe that my backpack is blue and that this tea is lukewarm. These beliefs are beliefs because they are commensurable with other beliefs in terms of their content and intensity.

If you believe that this backpack is blue, or anything else, then my belief and yours are as commensurable, in terms of their contents, as any two of my beliefs. How we measure the facts or states of affairs or propositions that are the contents of beliefs, I can’t guess, but apparently Rand thinks that it’s possible.

But no belief of yours has any intensity comparable with the intensity of any belief of mine. There is no common metric; we can’t compare any belief of mine with any belief of yours according to their intensities. Thus my beliefs and the beliefs of another person are not commensurable. They are not similar (or even different) in intensity. Thus they do not fall under my concept of belief: they are not beliefs. No one but me has beliefs.

The same point would apply to concepts themselves: your concepts have no quantity of intensity that I can “omit” to bring them under my concept of concepts. Thus you have no concepts.

Thus, on Rand’s theory, I am the only being in the universe to have concepts, beliefs, or any other mental state at all. On Rand’s theory, Rand never accepted any theories.

Obviously, Rand did not accept solipsism (much less solipsism for me). But because of the casual and inattentive way in which she describes the workings of the mind, she did imply solipsism.

Blast From the Past!

Once upon a time, I was the guy doing the opposite of what I’m doing now. Here’s a review that I wrote of an anti-Objectivist book in the late 90s, for the Institute for Objectivist Studies’ (Now the “Atlas Center”) newsletter. It’s pretty embarrassing how many falsehoods I wrote.

Has Objectivism Been Refuted?

by Bryan Register
[Originally published in the November 1997 issue of Navigator.]
Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System. By John W. Robbins. (Hobbs, New Mexico: The Trinity Foundation, 1997. 399 pp. $27.95.)

Battles for the hearts and minds of libertarians, which date from at least the 1971 birth of the Libertarian Party, are waged principally between those who argue for libertarianism with specific foundations in philosophy and those who claim that liberty is consistent with many or all philosophical positions. Among defenders of foundationalism, further disputes arise over which are the right foundations.

John W. Robbins, president of the Trinity Foundation and a one-time aide to U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas), enters the debate on the side of foundationalism-specifically Calvinist foundationalism. In this book, however, Robbins is principally concerned to eliminate the rival foundationalism of Objectivism by destroying all the major claims of that philosophy. Thus, even if Robbins’s own religious position attracts few admirers, Without a Prayer may draw an audience from the many who take an interest in Ayn Rand’s thought. For this reason, the work invites a close reading.

Robbins claims that he opposes Objectivism on the highest possible grounds: “My principal criticism of Rand… is her failure to be logical in her argumentation and precise in her definition.” (xv) Had Robbins held true to that principle, his book could have provided a welcome critique of Rand’s philosophy. Unfortunately, much of what Robbins says misses its target. Sometimes he errs by misconstruing the meaning of the position he discusses. At other times, he errs by poor reasoning.


Two major flaws of Without a Prayer are Robbins’s failure to attend to context when quoting authors and his failure to follow “the principle of charity,” which is the principle that one should give the most reasonable interpretation to a view one attacks.

A failure to attend to context is evident in this quotation from David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses. “Kelley praises Kant: ‘Kant recognized that awareness is always and necessarily conditioned by the means which produce it. A faculty of cognition must have an identity which affects the content of the conscious experiences it gives rise to… . Kant rejects the diaphanous model.’ So, of course, does Kelley.” (264) But Kelley’s passage reads: “Kant rejects the diaphanous model, but not the assumption, implicit in the model, that diaphanousness would be a necessary condition for knowledge of things as they are in themselves.” (Kelley, 39) The portion here emphasized was excised from Robbins’s quotation, and its excision is nearly equivalent to removing the word ‘not’ from a sentence.

Has Robbins failed to notice the significance of the excision? Apparently, for his critique of the Objectivist epistemology assumes (like Kant, but unlike Kelley) that if a means of awareness conditions how we are aware of the world then it must distort that awareness.

A failure to follow the principle of charity is often evident when Robbins quotes Ayn Rand. For instance, he writes that “Rand defined reason as ‘the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses'”; that “Rand also told us that reason is ‘man’s only means of perceiving reality'”; and that “Rand also told us that… ‘Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men. …'” Robbins concludes that “This multiplicity of definitions of a fundamental term indicates serious problems in the philosophy.” (pp. 27-28) But this is a most uncharitable interpretation. It is possible to describe a cognitive faculty in numerous ways that may or may not involve its definition. It can be true that reason is the only means of perceiving reality, as well as the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men, without both being defining traits of “reason.”

Among Robbins’s other flaws as a scholar is his tendency to make throwaway gibes. For instance, after quoting a metaphorical description of perception from David Kelley’s The Evidence of the Senses, Robbins tells us that “In this passage, one can see how easily Communist materialism [sic] slides into the mysticism of new age occultism. Kelley is a radio receiver channeling omnipresent energy.” (37) But the forms of “omnipresent energy” Kelley refers to are “sound waves, electromagnetic fields, mechanical forces of every kind,” in short, the forms of energy that give rise to sensory awareness, not forces ordinarily expounded upon by New Age cultists. And Robbins himself does not, in fact, seem to regard Kelley’s as a New Age theory of perception, for he spends no more time on the matter. The line seems intended merely to poison the well.

There is also one supremely tactless element in Robbins’s work that must be mentioned: the book’s dust jacket. It sports a photograph of the tombstones of Ayn Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor. It should go without saying that the solemnity of an individual’s death is not to be used as a debating point; that whether or not Ayn Rand is dead is irrelevant to the truth of her ideas; that her mortality is not to be punned upon by surviving foes. But these basic canons of taste and civility, which an author must go out of his way to violate, are not evident to Robbins.

Theory of Knowledge

Robbins asserts that reason always relies on faith: “Reason can never cease to be the handmaid of faith: All thought must start somewhere, and that initial postulate is unproved, by definition… . The only question that remains is, Which faith-which axiom-shall reason serve?” (22) Since Objectivism is grounded on a set of axioms, which are by definition unprovable, Robbins concludes that Objectivism rests on an act of faith in those axioms. But this assumes that there are only two kinds of claims: those one proves and those which one takes on faith. In fact, as the Objectivist literature makes clear, there is a third type of claim: one which is valid because it formulates a fact that is directly perceived. Such are the most fundamental perceptual judgments and such are the axioms.

Fittingly, Robbins denies Objectivism’s empiricism, the claim that sense-perception is the only ultimate source of human knowledge. Specifically, he attacks the empiricist claim that one’s mind is tabula rasa at birth, a blank tablet. Robbins cites Rand’s statement of this view: “Speaking metaphorically, [a child] has a camera with an extremely sensitive, unexposed film (his conscious mind), and an extremely complex computer waiting to be programmed (his subconscious). Both are blank. He knows nothing of the external world.” (29) Robbins replies that the doctrine of tabula rasa is a contradiction: “How could Rand speak of the child’s conscious mind if that mind is ‘unexposed’ and the child ‘knows nothing of the external world’? … Rand’s words imply that he is conscious of nothing. But to be conscious of nothing, as Rand elsewhere argued, is not to be conscious… .” (30) Robbins has confused the faculty of consciousness with the act of consciousness. A child is born with a faculty (a potential) for the awareness of things, and he uses it to be aware of things. Even Rand’s metaphor leads away from a possible misinterpretation: one can certainly have a camera which is not currently taking a picture or a computer which is not currently programmed.

Given his confusion about the diaphanous model of consciousness, Robbins predictably moves to skepticism regarding the senses. He argues that “to present ‘sensory evidence or rational demonstration’ for the statement that the brain works correctly is impossible on empirical grounds: One would have to know ‘reality’ by means other than his brain and mind in order to compare ‘reality’ with the ‘percepts’ constructed by the brain.” (40-41) But his critique fails to hit its mark through a failure to understand the Objectivist model of perception.

The argument Robbins uses is one taught to all undergraduate students of philosophy and is undoubtedly effective against seventeenth- and eighteenth-century representationalists and their contemporary counterparts. But it does not have any application to Objectivism, which espouses a philosophy of direct realism. In the representationalist model of perception, the mind is directly aware only of mental representations of the external world. A representationalist, to validate his knowledge of the external world, would indeed have to examine the world apart from his mind’s representations of it and see whether those representations were accurate. But the Objectivist account of perception is that people are directly aware of the external world in perception; that there is no mental stand-in for reality. And since the Objectivist position is a corollary of the axioms of existence and consciousness, it cannot be questioned without self-contradiction.

Human Nature

Robbins, like virtually all theists, argues that the primacy of existence in Objectivism renders impossible any doctrine of free will: “Nature has determined that man shall not be determined. This position is logically impossible.” (140) Now, the problem of volitional consciousness is a classic philosophical problem and one that has not yet been answered (to the satisfaction of this reviewer). But there is no absurdity in the notion of nature’s determining that there shall be a process the outcome of which is not determined by nature. By analogy, government can determine that there will be a market in goods and services and yet not determine the outcome of the market process.

Moreover, there are several promising ideas regarding causality that bear on the question of free will. One is the Aristotelian, as opposed to Humean, notion of causality. For Hume and for most moderns, causality is a chain of events in which prior events cause later ones. For Aristotle and Objectivists, causality means that an entity acts according to its nature. If it is somehow in the nature of human consciousness to be free, then human nature causes free human acts.

Furthermore, philosopher John Searle has argued for the irreducibility of consciousness to the mechanisms studied by physics, and for a novel kind of bottom-up causality wherein lower-level features of the brain cause consciousness, which is realized in the higher-level organization of the brain. While no full, thorough, and satisfactory reconciliation of free will with causation has yet been provided, there is no reason to abandon hope for such a project.

Because Robbins thus sees Rand as a simple-minded materialist, he insists that “Rand’s distinction between the looters and the producers-a distinction which forms a major theme of Atlas Shrugged-between the men who seek power over other men and the men who seek not to rule others, but to conquer nature, breaks down precisely because in Rand’s philosophy man is wholly a product of nature.” (141) But this is a specious argument. To deal with non-volitional nature is to adapt one’s actions to non-volitional nature for one’s benefit; to deal with volitional nature (people) is to adapt one’s actions to volitional nature for one’s benefit. And one benefits most, in dealing with other people, by treating them benevolently, honestly, justly, and in a rights-respecting manner. Those who seek physical power over men are, as Rand often points out, trying to treat men as something they are not-brutes.


Robbins cites Rand’s belief that “the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value, which for any given living entity is its own life.” But he then asserts, “Here is pure subjectivism, renamed Objectivism.” (148) Why? Because for Robbins, values must come in the form of commands, while (according to Objectivism) morality rests on free, human choice. It is this element of choice that Robbins regards as inherently subjective.

Robbins continues that line of argument as follows: The Objectivist morality is based on an individual’s life as his ultimate value and on his nature as his standard of value. But one’s life is a value only if one chooses to make it such. Robbins complains that, “Why one should choose to live is the unanswered and, on Rand’s ethical theory, the unanswerable question.” (148) This is correct. There is no reason provided within the Objectivist ethics for an individual to choose to live. Indeed, Rand claimed that “My morality, the morality of reason, rests on a single axiom: that existence exists, and a single choice: to live.” If her ethics rests on the choice to live, then it can hardly mandate that choice. Robbins’s claim, then, does not qualify as an argument. He is simply drawing a correct implication from Rand’s ethics and decrying that implication. He provides no reason for believing that the implication is false.

Robbins concludes his critique of the ethics with an attack on the notion of the life of ‘man qua man’ as the standard of ethical value. Like many of Rand’s interpreters, Robbins asks how she can get from “existence versus non-existence,” “life versus death,” to the ‘life of man qua man’ or a state of full flourishing, happiness, or eudaimonia. Existence for a human, these critics imply, should mean something like the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter required to survive into the next moment. Flourishing, however, means something like the successful pursuit of a vast array of physical, mental, and spiritual goods in the context of a life-long plan of values. Robbins wonders how Rand moves from her ethical grounding of the first value, existence, to her glorification of the second, happiness: “Rand provided no steps. It was one small step for Rand, but one giant leap for logic.” (173)

Robbins’s sarcasm aside, there is a good reason why there are no steps: there is only one position. Rand begins with man’s existence, which means his existence as a human being, including all of his attributes, conscious as well as physical; and she begins with the pursuit of this existence over the span of a lifetime. A man who seeks to survive by the skin of his teeth into the next moment is highly unlikely to survive for a normal life span, especially in the event of crises. One is more likely to succeed in sustaining one’s existence over a period of time if one attempts to create or trade for a vast array of values, such as material wealth, art, recreation, general education, self-esteem, friendship, romantic love, and all the other values that would make one flourish. Flourishing just is success in sustaining one’s existence.


In the realm of political philosophy, Robbins does not accept Ayn Rand’s argument for rights, which he believes is completely stated by Rand as follows: “If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being…” (183-184) These sentences, he maintains, contain an equivocation on the word ‘right,’ for it is used as an evaluative adjective three times and as a noun once with no discussion of the transition between the concepts.

One would never know, from reading Robbins, that Rand wrote more than these two rhetorical sentences on the basis of rights and set forth an argument more sophisticated than Robbins allows. Her supplementary material makes clear that, in the paragraph quoted, she does not equivocate on the word “right,” for using a word in two different senses is not an equivocation unless one rests an argument on the switch. Rand does not. Her claim is that some principle is needed to determine the allowable relationships between individuals if those individuals are to be able to seek their values. That principle is the principle of individual rights; its justification is that rights protect the pursuit by individuals of their values (right action).

Apparently still focused on those two sentences concerning rights, to the exclusion of explanatory material, Robbins goes on to ask: “If the proper function of government is ‘to secure these rights,’ does it not follow that it is the proper function of government to see that every man uses his mind, his judgment, forces [sic] him to keep the product of his work, that is, to do those things that Objectivism says are right?” (185) But in the Objectivist ethics, an action counts as morally right only if it is intentionally self-authored. Government cannot force people to do “those things that Objectivism says are right,” because what Objectivism says is right is to think and act for oneself. And that is why one needs rights.


Since Robbins believes that Objectivism asserts individuals have rights only in virtue of their rationality, “Logically … Objectivists must approve of the liquidation of imbeciles, morons, idiots, the retarded, the mediocre who don’t think … until the small group known as Objectivists is all that is left alive.” (209-210) Robbins also claims that there exist Objectivist discussions on whether or not Christians are to be slaughtered in some atheistic jihad: “[Christians’] continued existence under an Objectivist government has already been the subject of debate in Objectivist circles…” (210) Of course, he provides no citation for this outrageous allegation. Certainly, none of the periodicals published by Ayn Rand and her followers have ever included such a debate. Perhaps Robbins is referring to some bull-session by a few individuals who mistakenly believe themselves to subscribe to Objectivism, but that provides no grounds for ascribing the position to “Objectivism.”

In fact and in logic, Objectivism advocates a rights-respecting approach to all persons and notes that individuals have rights in virtue of their potential rationality, not in virtue of what actual use they may make of it. Other, more marginal cases (those of children and the retarded, for instance) have not yet come under Objectivist analysis; this is a gap in the Objectivist political perspective. But Robbins has no ground for deciding what the conclusion of these deliberations will be.

In sum, though Robbins says that he seeks to argue cogently and fairly with Ayn Rand on logical grounds, all he succeeds in doing is making himself look silly. Even the least knowledgeable student of Objectivism can tell that his hysterical condemnations are a warped presentation of the philosophy and that his argumentation is simply sophomoric.

Capitalism is Collectivism: Higher Ed Edition

Please read this article from next month’s Harper’s: The Neoliberal Arts: How college sold its soul to the market. It was in seeing the militant self-reduction of college students, eagerly planning, at the age of eighteen, their retirements some half-century later, with no regard to what went in the middle, that I grew convinced of the need for work like my book, written against one of the leading sponsors of the nihilism of our age.

Two high (i.e., low) points from the article. First:

A Princeton student literally made this argument to me: If the market is incentivizing me to go to Wall Street, he said, then who am I to argue?

Let’s think about this (hopefully apocryphal) Princeton student. First, we can set aside the specific edict of the market to find the logical form of his point; for any action A, he says:

“If the market is incentivizing me to A, then who am I to argue?”

Now let’s replace ‘the market’ with prior iterations:

“If God tells me to A, then who am I to argue?”
“If Dear Leader tells me to A, then who am I to argue?”
“If the King tells me to A, then who am I to argue?”
“If the people need me to A, then who am I to argue?”
“If my race needs me to A, then who am I to argue?”

The thing is that none of those supernatural edict-senders are genuine, spontaneous collectives. God says whatever the priests want Him to say; the Dear Leader and the King are individual people; “the people” always says what the politicians and bureaucrats want it to say; “my race” says whatever the nastiest politicians want it to say. Only with the market have we found something to obey that is an actual collective that speaks for itself with its “incentives”. This Princeton student is the perfect realization of collectivism: he loves Big Brother.


According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, [Wisconsin Governor Scott] Walker [R] “proposed striking language about public service and improving the human condition, and deleting the phrase: ‘Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.’ ” The university’s mission would henceforth be to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

If someone were to write a novel about a university suffering a Bolshevik purge, that is what one would write.

Stolen Concepts and “Why” Questions

Here’s something that Leonard Peikoff said:

The “stolen concept” fallacy, first identified by Ayn Rand, is the fallacy of using a concept while denying the validity of its genetic roots, i.e., of an earlier concept(s) on which it logically depends.

Ayn Rand rarely explained what she meant with her more obscure phrasings; she seems to have taken for granted that she was perfectly clear. The same is true of her followers. So it’s with some caution that one should try to say what they mean by anything that they say; the most sincere effort at interpretation is routinely met with accusations of intellectual dishonesty. In this case, one might want to know what it is to “use” a concept or what it is for one concept to logically depend on another or what it is for the concepts on which a concept logically depends to be “valid”. We can only guess. Allowing C1…Cx to be words that express concepts:

One uses C1 by saying, of some x, that x is C1.
C1 is valid if, and only if, for some x, x is C1.
C1 logically depends on C2 if, and only if, C1 is valid only if C2 is valid.

Assume that that is correct. Peikoff says that Descartes commits the fallacy of “stolen concept”:

Men have been wrong, and therefore, [Descartes] implies, they can never know what is right. But if they cannot, how did they ever discover that they were wrong?

(As a matter of Descartes exegesis, that is incorrect; Descartes argues that, since error is possible, our means of cognition must be basically reliable.) It seems that one steals the concept of C1 if, and only if:

1. One uses C1.
2. One says that, possibly, for no x, x is C2.
3. C1 logically depends on C2.

For example:

Descartes uses ‘wrong’.
Descartes says that, possibly, for no x, x is right.
‘Wrong’ logically depends on ‘right’.

I don’t know why “contradicting yourself” needs a special new name, unless it’s for the parallelism between theft of material goods and “theft” of cognitive accomplishments, but at any rate, certainly one should not “steal concepts” as (I hope) Rand and her followers would define that phrase.

How would one discover the theft of a concept? Condition 3 is never apparent to observation. And one might satisfy conditions 1 and 2 without realizing it, by satisfying them at very different times. If, for instance, on one day I say that some acts are just, and on the next day I say that nothing is virtuous, then we might not notice that I’ve stolen the concept of justice (nothing is just if nothing is virtuous) because of the time gap. How can one shrink that gap?

Here’s an approach. When someone uses C1 — says, of some x, that x is C1 — you might ask him why, or how he knows, that x is C1. If his attempt to state criteria for the application of C1 involves some concept C2 that he says is invalid, then you have shown that he has stolen a concept. Thus, asking “Why?” questions is a tool for the discovery of conceptual dependencies and other relationships; one way of putting this is that answering “Why?” questions legitimates one’s ownership of a concept.

To ask “Why is that the case?” is not necessarily to ask, “Is that the case?” And neither of those questions is necessarily a way of saying, “That is not the case.” American English emphasizes hesitance and deference, so we are often uncomfortable telling someone that he is wrong or asking him to prove that he is right. Thus we will sometimes fail to say “You are wrong” but instead say, “Is that so?” And, further, instead of challenging a belief directly, we will sometimes ask “How do you know that that is so?” when we are trying to deny that that is so. (This is the same sort of usage that leads us to ask someone whether he can pass the salt, instead of saying “Pass the salt” or even “Please pass the salt.”) Nevertheless, philosophers (and scientists) routinely ask “Why?” questions because we want to know about conceptual dependencies and hierarchies when we have no doubt at all about the truth of the claim about which we are inquiring.

What that all implies is that refraining from answering a “Why?” question in a philosophical context routinely conceals the stealing of a concept. Why would one refrain from answering a “Why?” question?

One Last Elementary Mistake: No, Peter Schwartz, That’s Not What Nietzsche Said

Objectivists have usually contrasted Rand’s benign, non-predatory version of egoism with Nietzsche’s egoism. Here is what Mr. Schwartz has to say about Nietzsche:


…the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche… held that self-interest calls for some people to rule others. Selfishness, he said, consists of a “will to power,” which is exercised by those — the “ubermen” — who are entitled to enslave others as a means to their “superior” ends. “What is good?” Nietzsche asked rhetorically. “All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” His heroes are authoritarian rulers like Caesar and Napoleon, who are “beyond good and evil.” They are guided by their desires, unimpeded by considerations of right and wrong.

Now, personally, I’m not a huge fan if Nietzsche. He strikes me as a colorful version of David Hume — same awful reductive tendencies, but with a livelier written style and a thick strain of clear-eyed cynicism. And as a literary stylist, he begs to be over- and mis-interpreted. (Here is film of him, sitting, enthrallingly.) But what Rand and other Objectivists say about him just isn’t true.

The will to power is the will to have an influence on objects in the world. Those objects don’t need to be people; power, in Nietzsche’s discussions, isn’t necessarily interpersonal. Moreover, the most difficult object to exercise power over is oneself; Nietzsche urges self-discipline as the necessary precondition of any genuine accomplishment. Moreover, everyone exercises the will to power at every moment, so evaluative terms like ‘selfish’ can’t apply to it. The concept of the will to power is not itself an evaluative or normative concept, but part of a theory of human nature. He doesn’t say that we ought to exercise the will to power (since we always do anyway), but that we do, and that in understanding ourselves we need to understand how our actions flow from the will to power and whether our actions really fulfill our highest potentials.

The uberman is above man, not above men. In his individuality and aloneness, he is in no way a generic human being and there is an air of the asocial about him. Trying to rule or enslave others is, for Nietzsche, beyond pathetic. There is no perspective from which anyone’s ends can be held to be superior or inferior to anyone else’s — a claim that Rand accepts when she makes values depend on being valued.

Nietzsche’s admiration of Caesar and Napoleon is limited to their military accomplishments, not their tyrannical rulerships. His usual paradigms of those who fully express their will to power are artists like Goethe and Beethoven. Being beyond “good and evil” means being beyond Christian morality, not beyond considerations of principle.

Those who fully express their will to power are certainly guided by considerations of right and wrong: that which is conducive to my excellence is right. They are not guided in some simple way by momentary desire: momentary desire won’t conquer Gaul or Europe any more than it will write the Ode to Joy.

That said, in the comments discussions on these posts on Peter Schwartz, I think that I’ve learned what there is to learn on the subject, and I shall now move on. Thank you for reading and, for those who contributed comments, for your thoughts.

Peter Schwartz’s Elementary Mistakes 3: More About ‘Selfish’

Aristotle urges that virtues are regularly “mean” behavior patterns — they are, in a vague sense, averages between extremes. The virtue of mildness, for instance, consists in getting angry the right amount, neither too little nor too much; the virtue of liberality consists in spending roughly what you have, neither pointlessly saving (he was writing before investment was a thing) nor indebting yourself. But he also makes some points about the distortions and tricks to which this fact lends itself.

Think about the trio of behaviors known as naivete, realism, and cynicism. The naif is irrationally sanguine about others’ honesty and good intentions; the cynic is irrationally pessimistic about the same matter; the realist knows that most people are usually trying to do the thing right but that trust should still be earned.

The naif can’t tell the difference between a realist and a cynic; he is likely to misidentify a realist as a cynic. He also can’t tell the difference between a naif and a realist; he is liable to mistake himself for a realist. Likewise in reverse for the cynic. This fact leads to such pointless arguments as, “You’re being cynical! — No, I’m being realistic. You’re being naive.”

That doesn’t imply that ‘cynical’ refers both to cynicism and to realism.

Now, consider a similar trio of behaviors, having to do with anger. Aristotle distinguishes between the vices of inirascibility — the inability to be angry when one should — mildness — being angry when and as appropriate — and irascibility — rising too quickly or too severely to anger. The pointless dialogue from the earlier trio will appear between inirascible and irascible people: “You didn’t need to fly off the handle like that. — That was totally reasonable; you let people walk all over you.” However, there is another factor. Which is more dangerous for me — to be around people who can’t get angry when they should, or to be around people who become angry when they shouldn’t? I’m in little danger, and no immediate danger, from people who are excessively calm. So even if I agree that both irascibility and inirascibility are vices, I’m much more likely to worry about irascibility than inirascibility. Even mild people will be inclined to see anger as excessive when it is actually appropriate. So the pointless dialogue isn’t symmetrical. It will often happen that the mild person is mistaken for irascible; it will rarely happen that the mild person is mistaken for inirascible.

That won’t, however, mean that ‘irascible’ refers both to irascibility and to mildness. The word isn’t ambiguous. It’s merely often wrongly applied by people who aren’t extremely refined and sensitive in their understanding of anger and its place in human life.

Take a glance back at cynicism. Now we might imagine that a cynical person is not likely to be a paragon of trustworthiness; after all, if he were himself trustworthy, he would recognize that trustworthiness is a realized human possibility, so he probably wouldn’t be cynical.

So imagine that a cynic is trying to take advantage of someone. It’s hard to take advantage of a cynic, and it’s easy to take advantage of a naif, but imagine that there are no naifs around to victimize. So the cynic has to target a realist. Unfortunately for the cynic, the realist, while open to trust, doesn’t immediately place his full confidence in everyone he meets, so the cynic will have to somehow win his trust. Here is a trick that could work for that: convince the realist that his totally reasonable concerns are in fact an expression of cynicism. So we would have the peculiar dialogue, “I’m just being realistic. — No, you’re being cynical.”

That won’t, however, mean that ‘cynical’ applies both to cynicism and to realism. The word isn’t ambiguous. It’s merely sometimes intentionally wrongly applied by cynics.

With ‘selfish’, we have all three of these effects at the same time.

Consider a couple of vices having to do with self-interest. The “selfish” person sacrifices others’ well-being for (what he thinks is) his own. The “schmoo” (we don’t have a word for this in English, sadly) sacrifices his own well-being for (what he thinks is) others’. There would be some virtue in the middle, for which, again, we lack a word in English; call it “legitimate self-interested action”.

The selfish person would have trouble distinguishing between the legitimately self-interested person and the schmoo; he would also have trouble distinguishing between himself and a legitimately self-interested person. Likewise in reverse for the schmoo. This fact would lead to such pointless arguments as, “You’re being selfish! — No, I’m acting in legitimate self-interest. You’re being a schmoo.”

Further, one is in more danger from selfish people than one is from schmoos. So there will be an asymmetry involved in mistaken uses of ‘selfish’ and ‘schmoo’.

Finally, selfish people want to confuse legitimately self-interested people into thinking that their legitimately self-interested behavior is in fact selfish. So there will be intentional misuses of ‘selfish’.

What this all adds up to is a word that will be so confusing, so connotation-laden, so often used to deceive, that it will almost never bring clarity to any issue or appear in any useful deliberation or advice.

Moreover, the people who are best-positioned to clear up the confusion aren’t motivated to do so. Legitimately self-interested people don’t think about self-interest. This is part of the theme of The Fountainhead: Roark only realizes what’s going on with the weird selfish people and schmoos around him because he’s basically forced to; in the ordinary course of things, he would have just focused his attention on buildings. [Roark(/Rand) doesn’t express his insights very well, I think, but he(/she) does have them.]

The rational thing to do with a word like that is to talk about how it is used, why it is useless, and consign it to the dustbin. (And that’s to say nothing of the nasty French neologism ‘altruism’ — as straightforwardly useless a word as one can find outside of the cult of the corporation.) One can also use this discussion to make some observations about the poverty of our language; we are so worried about selfishness that we forgot to coin a word for legitimate self-interest. I’m able to convey to my students what is recognizably Rand’s core thesis about so-called egoism, with perfect clarity — I know that this can be done. (And many Objectivists seem to have backed away from Rand’s misuses, too.)

A firmly irrational thing to do would be to try to redefine ‘selfish’ so that it refers to legitimate self-interest. If you’re interested in talking about reality, you won’t sacrifice clarity to a perverse linguistic hobby-horse.

Peter Schwartz’s Elementary Mistakes 2: ‘Egoism’ and ‘Altruism’

What are “egoism” and “altruism”, according to Mr. Schwartz?

“Sacrificing yourself for the needs of others is universally seen as the essence of morality. The tenets of altruism are widely regarded not simply as true, but as practically self-evident. …the doctrine… tells you to subordinate yourself to other people. It tells you that in any choice you make, your own interests should be less important to you than those of someone else.”

So described, “altruism” is the claim that you must sacrifice yourself, or your interests, to others, others’ needs, or others’ interests. Now, what are these needs for which we’re supposed to be making sacrifices? “…under altruism only one thing qualifies as a need: that which requires someone else’s sacrifice to fulfill.”

On this account, altruism tells us to sacrifice for the sake of having sacrificed. No one else has to benefit. That is of course not “subordinating yourself to other people” or sacrificing your interests for others’ interests. So altruism seems to be two very different doctrines. One kind of altruism would be self-destruction for its own sake. The other would be self-destruction for the sake of the well-being of other people. So let’s distinguish:

Altruism-1: the destruction of one’s interests

Altruism-2: the pursuit of others’ interests

Altruism-1 has never been held by anyone, ever, under any circumstances. What Rand and Mr. Schwartz are talking about is not a theory, but an alleged psychological condition. People with this (hypothetical) syndrome need clarification and guidance, not refutation and very definitely not condemnation.

Egoism, on the other hand, is supposed to prescribe “selfishness” which is “a concern with one’s own interests”. The two different kinds of altruism would then be two different ways of not being an egoist. So we have egoists who pursue their own interests, altruists who pursue others’ interests, and altruists who pursue no one’s interests.

Egoism (so described) contrasts with the two kinds of altruism in different ways. Altruism-1 is the negation of egoism. Egoism says to pursue interests; altruism-1 says to destroy them. That makes altruism-1 just a parasitic perversion of egoism. Egoism and altruism-1 would agree about what our interests are; they would just disagree about what to do about those interests.

Altruism-2, however, would have a more complicated relationship with egoism. Egoism tells me to pursue my own interests, and altruism-2 tells me to pursue others’ interests. Why can’t I just do both? Mr. Schwartz would rapidly point out that altruism is supposed to tell us to pursue others’ interests by way of destroying our own. But can I actually achieve anyone’s interests by destroying my own? Not really; other people benefit substantially more from my pursuit of my own interests than they would from my self-destruction. If altruism-2 demands that I destroy my own interests to pursue others’, which is doomed to fail, it’s just telling me to destroy my own interests, and would collapse into altruism-1.

Egoism and altruism-2 contradict one another only on the assumption that there are conflicts of interests. If there are no conflicts of interests between people, then, when I pursue my own interests, I am achieving others’ interests, and when I pursue others’ interests, I’m achieving my own. If there are no conflicts of interest, then there is no question for either egoism or altruism to answer. But Mr. Schwartz follows Rand in denying that there are conflicts of interests: “Among rational individuals, there are no conflicts of interest.” Why is the word ‘rational’ in there? Your interests are your interests; whether you’re rational or not has nothing to do with it. A rational person is liable to correctly identify his interests and an irrational person is liable to be wrong about them, but our interests don’t rely on our knowing about them. If there are no conflicts of interest, then egoism and altruism will always give the same advice. It’s hard to see what all of the fuss is about, then.

However, according to Mr. Schwartz, altruism creates conflicts: “It is altruism, by replacing desert with need, that generates continual conflicts.” That’s as may be, but those are conflicts between people, not interests. Our interests are our interests; neither egoism nor altruism has any answer to the question of what our interests are. They are supposed to be answers to the question of whose interests to pursue. If our interests are in accord, then there is no such question: pursuing the interests of either self or others would consist in exactly the same actions and so no decision must be made about whom to benefit.

Another peculiarity of Mr. Schwartz’s contrast between egoism and altruism has to do with the objectivity, or otherwise, of interests. “Under the code of egoism, the good is determined by what is objectively necessary for sustaining man’s life.” However, “By an altruistic standard, if your neighbor expresses an irrational desire, you should accommodate it; saying no would be selfish on your part.” In this case, ‘selfish’ is supposed to mean “non-self-destructive”. But altruism construed as the doctrine that I must pursue others’ interests is incompatible with altruism construed as the doctrine that I must serve others’ whims; others’ whims no more correlate with their actual interests than my whims correlate with mine.

The underlying problem is that Mr. Schwartz uses the word ‘interest’ ambiguously. When he defines egoism and altruism, he takes interests to be given independent of moral theories. Egoism is the pursuit of one’s independently-specified interests; altruism-1 is the destruction of one’s independently-specified interests; altruism-2 is the pursuit of others’ independently-specified interests.But when he claims that altruism creates conflict, he takes interests to be dependent on our beliefs about our interests. That’s because rational people’s interests can’t conflict, but irrational people’s can. That makes one’s rationality affect what one’s interests are. You can’t believe that interests are both independent of one’s (rationally accepted) moral theory and also dependent on one’s rationality (and the moral convictions that it leads one to adopt).

This is only one expression of Rand’s general failure to grasp the difference between the valued and the valuable, but more about that in another place.

Peter Schwartz’s Elementary Mistakes, 1: The Word ‘Selfish’

This is the first in a series of posts about Peter Schwartz’s new book, In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive.

Mr. Schwartz says, “the term ‘selfishness’ means only a concern with one’s own interests”. That is not true. I have never heard of anyone being described as “selfish” for working for self-improvement. People who go to the gym for health are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You’re trying to lose weight? How selfish!” People who eat well for health are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You’re trying to eat more healthily? How selfish!” People who read literary fiction or who educate themselves about science or history are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “How dare you read Tolstoy! How selfish!” People who do their work well and conscientiously are not selfish. Have you ever heard anyone say, “You put in a full eight hours today just like you were required to, and you were working diligently the whole time, and exceeded expectations? How selfish!” If you’re like me, you have not. That’s because the word doesn’t apply to those actions.

Mr. Schwartz says:

Altruism’s purveyors… try to equate selfishness with the destruction of others. Note how some dictionaries have slipped this notion into the very definition of ‘selfish’. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, for example, defines it as ‘regarding one’s own comfort, advantage, etc., in disregard, or at the expense, of that of others. Defining selfishness in this manner makes it seem that the harming of others is an integral part of the concept.

No dictionary that I’ve checked has failed to “slip” “destruction of others” “into the very definition of ‘selfish’”. That’s because the destruction of others is the very definition of ‘selfish’. This is just a fact about the English word ‘selfish’, available to any native speaker of English. ‘Selfish’ does not and has never meant a concern with one’s own interests. It is not true that “The authentic concept of selfishness, of simply pursuing one’s interests, has been surreptitiously expunged from our vocabulary.” The concept of simply pursuing one’s interests was never the concept expressed by the word ‘selfish’. And it obviously hasn’t been expunged from our vocabulary, since “simply pursuing one’s interests” is a perfectly good phrase of English that Mr. Schwartz uses correctly and that precisely expresses the concept that he desires to express. You can’t say, “Here is a concept that I cannot express in this language”, and then express it in this language.

Why is Mr. Schwartz tilting at this linguistic windmill? I think that there are two reasons, the first of which is not an “elementary” error: he doesn’t know the difference between concepts and words. (The second one is another elementary error that I’ll talk about in another post.)

Notice that he blurs the distinction in this remark: “…there is simply no concept, in common usage, that refers to actual, i.e., non-predatory, selfishness. The word that should identify the behavior of an honest producer is used instead to identify only the behavior of an unprincipled parasite.” If “common usage” means “language”, then there is no concept in common usage at all, since words are what are in common usage and words are not concepts. Words, unlike concepts, are conventional symbols with histories. That ‘cat’ means cats is a convention of English that results from the etymology of the word. The word ‘cat’ can change its meaning and could have had different meanings from what it has, had linguistic history gone differently. But that the concept of cats is of cats is not conventional and it doesn’t result from anything; that’s just part of what it is to be the concept of cats. The concept of cats results from a process of abstraction from experience, but the fact that that concept is of cats isn’t an additional fact about it, above and beyond its being the concept that it is. The fact that the word ‘cat’ means cats, on the other hand, is not just the fact that it is spelled c-a-t and sounds like “kat”; the same word could have had, and could acquire, a different meaning. If someone has a concept that doesn’t apply to all and only cats, then it isn’t the concept of cats, even if he tries to use ‘cat’ to express it. Words are bound by language; concepts are not. I have no words in common with a speaker of Chinese, but we share most of our concepts.

We use words to, among other things, express concepts. (We can use words to refer to objects because we use them to express the concepts of those objects.) The fact that a word expresses a given concept is conventional and the result of the history of use of the word. There are objective facts about those conventions and histories. But, blurring the difference between words and concepts, Mr. Schwartz has contended that, because the concept that he desires to express cannot be expressed with the word ‘selfish’, the objective facts about language — the reality of people speaking — are wrong and must be replaced by his preference.

The word ‘selfish’ expresses the concept of predatory, irrational behavior that is directed at satisfying desires for wealth, power, pleasure and so forth, at the expense of others; selfish behavior is nearly always self-destructive. The word ‘selfish’ has never expressed any other concept. To say that the word ‘selfish’ should express some other concept, instead of the one that it expresses, is near-perfect in its arbitrariness. Mr. Schwartz might as well complain that the real concept of a bachelor is the concept of a man, married or not, but being unmarried has been slipped into various definitions of ‘bachelor’, so that the word that should have meant ‘men’ doesn’t mean what it should and it is now impossible to talk about men as such.

Why does this matter? I’m not sure that it does; I’m partly writing this out of sheer frustration. I look at Schwartz’s book, and even though I want to throw it aside and give up, one thought stops me: the thought that it is philosophy and that I have to save it, as others could not pass a drowning man without leaping in to the rescue.

Addendum: No sooner did I wrap this up and turn to re-reading David Hume than I found exactly what Mr. Schwartz should have mentioned: Hume does indeed use ‘selfish’, in some places, in the way that Mr. Schwartz wants it used. (His specific phrasings had slipped my mind, unfortunately.) He seems to handle it gingerly, though — his “narrow” selfishness is what we would mean by ‘selfishness’, and he has several other words that he uses, such as ‘self-love’, that he seems more comfortable using to refer to a respectable character trait. I’m not sure how significant is the fact that three hundred years ago, it was possible to use ‘selfish’ to mean what Mr. Schwartz wants to mean by it without courting quite so much paradox. But I know how significant Mr. Schwartz thinks it is. If he (and Rand before him) had actually cared about the matter, then they might have actually given some evidence that the word ‘selfish’ means what they say that it means.

Drawing Muhammad

It seems to have gotten serious in 2005, when a Danish writer, Kåre Bluitgen, wanted to write a children’s book about Islam. He was having trouble finding people to illustrate it — apparently, people were rightly worried about violence. That his intentions were not demeaning is obvious from the cover that was eventually drawn.

Bluitgen coverThe book itself seems pretty benign, though I’ve read only a few pages of it. (You can get it on the Kindle for $5.)

(Oh: I will be posting several depictions of Muhammad, Peace be Upon Him. I understand that this might be upsetting to Muslim readers. If you are Muslim and you believe that it is wrong of me to depict Muhammad, then you are welcome to try to convince me that your religion is true and that it forbids such depictions. You are also welcome to tell me that I am behaving offensively, though as I already know that, you wouldn’t be very informative. Finally, it is of course possible to avoid the offensive content by closing the browser window, though I would prefer that you endure the offense and engage in a constructive conversation. Go with your god, my friends, and peace be upon you.)

Word got out about Mr. Bluitgen’s problems, and the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten commissioned a set of depictions of Mohammad; I think that the most aggressive of them is this one:

bombheadmuhammadThe pattern is that someone wanted to depict Muhammad in a way that is offensive only if depictions of Muhammad are offensive by nature, they were (or at least felt) threatened, and in response to the threats, someone depicted Muhammad in a way that would be offensive to pretty much any Muslim. It’s a sarcastic gesture.

This pictorial escalation was matched with an escalation in violence: over two hundred people were killed in anti-Danish riots across the Muslim world. Some people don’t get sarcasm:


Later came the “South Park” fiasco, the Charlie Hebdo attack, and the defeated attempt to massacre the attendees at a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, TX, a few weeks ago. The winner of the contest was former Muslim, supporter of Ayn Rand, and Eisner-nominated cartoonist Bosch Fawstin, and here is what he drew:


(Muhammad seems to be a cybernetic organism that has replaced its original right-hand-shaped endoskeletal appendage with a small garden rake and pulled its artificial skin over that. — …so maybe this isn’t actually a depiction of Muhammad at all?)

In this case, we have the issue presented in the form of a short dialogue between a cartoonist and his cartoon. The cartoon demands not to be drawn; the cartoonist insists that he will draw the cartoon just because it doesn’t want to be drawn. That’s the original pattern from Denmark: we’re only making offensive images of Muhammad because some Muslims violently freak out when we make any images of Muhammad, for any purpose at all.

So let’s think about this. Imagine that you know a man called ‘Tiny’. Imagine that Tiny’s beloved mother has just passed away. Now, the thing with Tiny’s mother is that she was a meth-addled, crack-addicted prostitute. Also, Tiny is in a little bit of denial about his mother’s unsavory behaviors.

Should you, at the wake, point out to Tiny that his mother was a whore? Probably not. That would be crass and rude of you. Why insult people?

But let me fill in a couple of blanks about Tiny. He is a very large, very strong, somewhat ill-tempered man; this wake is at a biker bar. If you puncture his illusion about his mother, he will get angry and you are liable to get beaten up.

Does that change the calculus about whether you should point out to Tiny that his mother was a whore? Does the fact that the offended person would become violent constitute a reason to offend him? Surely it does not.

Switch the case. Imagine that Tiny believes that his mother has gone to Heaven, but you, as an atheist, think that that is a silly fairy tale. Is the wake a great time to point that out? Maybe not, and the fact that Tiny might get violent about it probably doesn’t make it a great time to point that out.

The fact that something would be offensive to someone else is a reason not to do it or say it or draw it.

The fact that the someone might get violent about it is not a reason to do it or say or draw it.

The fact that drawing Muhammad is offensive to many people is a reason not to do it: all other things being equal, one ought not to do it. But all other things are not equal. Drawing Muhammad might be really funny. It might be educational. It can serve a wide variety of purposes, and once in a while, those purposes are worth the offense. Of course, the people performing this calculus are almost never the ones who would suffer the offense. It’s easy to say that what is beneficial to me is worth whatever harm it causes someone else. People depicting Muhammad ought to consider how they feel when their own beliefs, if they have any, are similarly insulted. For instance, we flag-waving patriots might consider that we don’t take kindly to people who burn the flag, and then realize that, while people might have reasons to burn the flag, they also have a pretty good reason not to; if you take up your pen to draw Muhammad, consider that what you’re doing is the equivalent of someone else taking up our flag to burn it.

But what happens when the fact that something is offensive brings it about that we have a reason to do it? For instance, the fact that something is offensive might be precisely what makes it funny — the offensive can be shocking, and the shocking is sometimes the surprise that gets a laugh. And the fact that people are threatened with violence for doing something offensive might make doing it into a statement about free speech.

So offensiveness can be a double-edged sword: it constitutes a reason not to do something, but it can sometimes underlie a reason to do the very same thing!

Think about the Danish cartoon above. It has several levels of meaning. On the first level, it says that Islam is violent. That’s just a direct insult to everyone who is Muslim. At a higher level, given the context in which it was created, it’s intended to be a statement in defense of free speech. But it isn’t. It doesn’t distinguish Islam from Islamism, or Islamic fundamentalism, or Jihadism, or Islamic terrorism, or Islamic theocracy. Its higher-level meaning is the fact that its lower-level meaning is offensive to Muslims is a reason to create the image. It treats Muslims as people who need to be offended, as an end in itself. But that isn’t true: it is not true that, all other things being equal, if something will offend Muslims, then you ought to do it. Violence and threats of violence have nothing to do with it.

Think about Mr. Fawstin’s cartoon, though. It says, right in its content, that it exists exclusively as a statement about free speech. It says that the fact that it is offensive isn’t a reason to create it; it says that the fact that some Muslims respond so badly to being offended is the reason to create it. It doesn’t say anything about Islam as such. It says something about how some Muslims act and whether their actions warrant respect: it says that their violence does not constitute a reason not to depict Muhammad. It doesn’t say that their being offended constitutes a reason to depict Muhammad. On its own, then, that cartoon should be celebrated and displayed widely.

But let’s add some context. The contest that Mr. Fawstin won was organized by Pamela Geller. Ms. Geller is a fan of Ayn Rand who became prominent by trying to prevent the construction of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. She produced a “documentary” on the subject:

second wave

Building a sanctuary of religion X near where some self-described practitioners of X committed an atrocity is not the second wave of the atrocity. It could be, of course. Had al Qaeda conquered Manhattan, torn down City Hall, and put a mosque in its place, then that would be an insult added to the original injury. (Many churches in western Europe were built on sites of pagan worship, in direct affront to the pagan religions; the relevant pagans were no doubt horrified and disgusted, and rightly so, at the desecrations.) But building a mosque in southern Manhattan is not, remotely, the same thing. The Catholic church nearest my home is not a wave of the Inquisition.

Who benefits from this sort of advocacy? If I were writing propaganda for jidahists, I would be overjoyed by Ms. Geller. “The Americans say that they have freedom of religion, including for our religion. But they don’t! They won’t allow a mosque to be built! Americans hate Islam! Flock to the banner of jihad!” I know that Ms. Geller’s advocacy is an expression of stupidity, rather than treachery, but good heavens.

Likewise, Mr. Fawstin asserts that all Muslims are jidahists. Check out his twitter feed for such gems as, “In reality, jihadists are the scum of the earth, capable of committing unspeakable violence, but in Islam, they’re what passes for ‘heroes'”. It’s true that, in reality, jihadists are scum. But why on Earth would you insist, to a billion and a half Muslims, that jihadists are their heroes? Again, jihadists must be thrilled at such rhetoric: “Even the Americans say that we are the only true Muslims! Flock to our banner!” How many people do we want to have to kill in our “war” on terror? Do we want to actually risk the destruction of western civilization? Why go out of your way to tell your potential allies that they are hypocrites and that if they were sincere, they would be trying to kill you?

The threats and violence against Mr. Fawstin and Ms. Geller are indefensible, wicked, evil. No one should convert Mr. Fawstin’s and Ms. Geller’s persecution fantasies into reality. They have a right to speak freely, they should not allow threats of violence to alter their messages, and they must be protected from violence with the full force of our legal systems. Violence shouldn’t affect what they say — but reason should. Instead of exercising their right to speak freely by blithering nihilistic nonsense, it would be grand if they would exercise their right to speak freely by saying things worth saying. Mr. Fawstin’s cartoon is a great example of that — but in general, these people just ooze a desire that the world be cleansed with fire and blood.

(Addendum 6-25-15. The flag-burning/Muhammad-drawing analogy isn’t very precise, since Islam isn’t a country [ISIS allegedly to the contrary notwithstanding]. Putting a crucifix in a jar of urine is more closely analogous. Drawing a misogynistic, obscene cartoon of Ayn Rand or something might be analogous.)