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Fraternizing with the Enemy

July 5th, 2005 · 3 Comments

Via a circuitous route, I came across an old post by Paul Hsieh explaining why he agrees with the Catholic (i.e. West Coast) Objectivist position that it’s not halal for good Randians to make common cause with—or, indeed, be seen in the general vicinity of—libertarians. Paul offers a parable in which a surgeon is offered a chance to join or speak to an organization of “health professionals” whose members run the gamut from those who practice western medicine to herbalists, reflexologists, chiropractors, faith healers, and other assorted people with odd notions about medicine. He argues—rightly enough, I think—that the surgeon’s right not to want anything to do with such a group, to the extent that it appears to legitimate medical practices that don’t work and may even do harm.

Now, I’m probably frankly no more eager to be riding the same bandwagon as the Catholic Objectivists than Paul is—not least because “legitimizing” isn’t the first word I think of to characterize the effects of the association. But the parable does actually help demonstrate just what’s wrong with that view. Because the proper analogy isn’t to a group with all sorts of different—and in many cases incorrect—ideas about the effective means to promote health. It’s to a group with many different ideas about why health is valuable. Maybe some think it’s just intrinsically good to live as long as possible; others take a more instrumental view, perhaps even viewing it as a good that medical technology or healthy practices make it possible for people to engage in a certain amount of unhealthy behavior without bearing too high a cost; still others have a religious conception of the body as a temple, which we owe it to God to maintain well. Within broad parameters agreement of how to promote health, I think it’s pretty clear that it’s no objection to joining such a group that its members have different ideas about why to promote health.

Paul states explicitly later what I think is the bad premise in his argument: “Advocacy of the proper political philosophy can proceed only from the proper objective moral foundation.” Well, that just seems clearly wrong. Obviously, for tactical reasons, you don’t want to march under the same banner as someone who defends free trade on the ground that it will immiserate foreign populations, and foreigners deserve to be miserable. But if you think it’s important to end the drug war on the grounds that people have a fundamental right to control their own bodies, I see no reason not to work toward that end with someone who’s primarily concerned with the appallling costs—financial and human—of prohibition, or the way it requires evisceration of Fourth Amendment rights. Especially if appealing to these different arguments makes it more likely that the bad policy will actually be overturned.

Tags: Libertarian Theory



3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 M // Jul 5, 2005 at 11:08 pm

    So, which group of wacos are the Randians supposed to be in the above parable? I can see them having characteristics of both chiropractors and faith-healers, and just want to make sure I get things straight! 😉

  • 2 jeet // Jul 7, 2005 at 9:53 am

    I faced an analogous dilemma with the Iraq War. I opposed it because it was a distraction from al-Qaeda but couldn’t stomach standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of ANSWER.

  • 3 Kate // Jul 15, 2005 at 7:36 pm

    Well you made a very pragmatic argument for objectivists working with libertarians, however objectivists cannot abide pragmatism…

    I think you are right that it is wrong to say “[a]dvocacy of the proper political philosophy can proceed only from the proper objective moral foundation.” However, what one might want or expect from such advocacy likely depends on the philosophy of one’s allies.

    There is a good argument that join up with, for example, utilitarians or pragmatists than the results are going to be muddled. If victories are won “purely” then the principles on which the win was based will further the objectivist philosophy and their causes.

    To steal an example from someone, I cannot remember from whom, it is like forming an alliance with everyone’s favorite utilitarian, Judge Posner. Sure, at times our goals happen to align, but do I really want our joint victories to be secured in part by a person who thinks “justice” is a useless term? Any such victory would be prone to fail for lack of a proper foundation and/or may serve to further his viewpoint.

    Of course I was just arguing the other day that it is counter-productive for my libertarian/objectivist father to decide to stop sending money to a libertarian organization because of what he thought was their pointedly non-objectivist, treatment of Ms. Rand’s 100th birthday this past winter. So, I don’t think that the refusal to ‘make common cause with’ libertarians is a good idea, I just that there is a better argument for it than the one you refuted above. Of course, I am only a self-described, “quasi-objectivist.” (imagine how long my comment would be if I were a true believer).