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Gary Brenner

The Prudent Predator argument

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In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand wrote,

“The men who attempt to survive, not by means of reason, but by means of force, are attempting to survive by the method of animals. But just as animals would not be able to survive by attempting the method of plants, by rejecting locomotion and waiting for the soil to feed them—so men cannot survive by attempting the method of animals, by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own. As evidence, I offer you any criminal or any dictatorship.” The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 25-26

There are two points I don’t understand here. First is the idea that man attempting to survive by “the method of animals” is equivalent to animals attempting to survive by “the method of plants.” Certainly, there is no animal that can synthesize carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water using sunlight as an energy source. But history and current events are full of examples of men who prey on other men and often survive quite well. To be sure, these predators face great risks, especially in nations where the law works against them. But stealing from productive men is hardly an impossibility, in the sense that sprouting roots on one’s feet and leaves on one’s hands is.

The other point that troubles me, a point central to her argument for rights-respecting egoism, is the idea that the price of looting is “the destruction of their victims and their own.” I would be the first to grant that enslaving and killing people is the surest way to make a society less productive. But a general decline in productivity does not necessarily bring about the destruction of the slave-owner or the dictator. The longevity of Stalin, Mao and Castro argues against the notion of predators not being able to survive beyond “the range of the moment.”

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First, welcome to the forum!

Next, allow me to kindly introduce you to my good friend, the search button. You can locate her at the upper right hand corner. Please don't hesitate to call on her for aid in finding threads on the topic you are interested in before creating your own.

You can find a couple of relevant threads here and here. You can probably find others as well.

Now, on to the topic at hand:

"But history and current events are full of examples of men who prey on other men and often survive quite well."

By survival here, Rand is talking about long range survival qua man.

"But stealing from productive men is hardly an impossibility, in the sense that sprouting roots on one’s feet and leaves on one’s hands is."

Stealing is not impossible, but stealing and surviving as described above is.

Your second point "But a general decline in productivity does not necessarily bring about the destruction of the slave-owner or the dictator" is really the same issue.

Briefly, the reason that this is so is that man must reason to survive. Unlike animals, man has no automatic means of doing so. The use of force is clearly not compatible with reason. In fact, it is the negation of reason. While instances of the use of force may not result in immediate death, they are a step towards it.

It appears that you may be struggling with the concept of principled action. Clearly, you must understand why you should act on principle before you can go about determining what those principles are. Therefore, I recommend listening to Leonard Peikoff's lecture entitled "Why Act on Principle?"

You can access it for free at the registered users page of aynrand.org here:

http://www.aynrand.org/site/UserLogin?NEXT...e%3Dreg_welcome

Edited by Nate

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By survival here, Rand is talking about long range survival qua man.
In fact, I think this is the most important "difficult" fact to grasp in comprehending the Objectivist ethics. Living doesn't just mean morgue avoidance, as Tara Smith makes brilliantly clear. The qua man part may be implicit, but in my experience, this is the implicit point that most often is missed and is so much at the root of misunderstandings such as the prodent predator argument, and it is always good to emphasize it when it is being missed.

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By survival here, Rand is talking about long range survival qua man . . .

Stealing is not impossible, but stealing and surviving as described above is.

Your second point "But a general decline in productivity does not necessarily bring about the destruction of the slave-owner or the dictator" is really the same issue.

Briefly, the reason that this is so is that man must reason to survive. Unlike animals, man has no automatic means of doing so. The use of force is clearly not compatible with reason. In fact, it is the negation of reason. While instances of the use of force may not result in immediate death, they are a step towards it.

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I understand the distinction Rand draws between survival in the sense of merely avoiding death and survival qua “man,” as Rand defines that word. I acknowledge her statement, “It does not mean a momentary or merely physical survival.”

I gather that “The Objectivist Ethics” is an attempt to arrive at a set of principles of right conduct. But I don’t see that Rand has made a compelling case for conducting oneself qua man, in the way that she defines that term.

For example, according to Rand, “productivity” is one of the “cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics.” No one would dispute that productive work is essential to the continuation of human life on earth. But we cannot leap from that datum to the moral conclusion that every (able, adult) human being should engage in productive work. Over the millennia men have survived and even prospered by forcibly exploiting the productivity of others. If the crux of Rand’s case is that looting from productive men does not make you a “man” as Rand defines it, then it is not much of an argument. I could assert with equal authority that the good life is that of a gentleman, and a gentleman simply does not work.

Furthermore, if “survival” in Rand’s essay is to be taken only in the sense of “man qua man,” then how does it follow that the price of looting is “the destruction of their victims and their own”? If there are no Objectivist values and conduct in place, precisely what is destroyed? To put it another way, if a looter has not been conducting himself in the manner of “man qua man,” what sort of “destruction” does he have to fear other than death? It's not as though he is trashing any cherished Objectivist values of his own.

Finally, if Objectivism is about upholding principles that are separate from mere physical survival, then we would have to discount one of the premises stated early in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”

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Finally, if Objectivism is about upholding principles that are separate from mere physical survival, then we would have to discount one of the premises stated early in “The Objectivist Ethics”: “An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”

You raise a lot of points, I'll tackle this one.

An organisms standard of value is its life, and it sustains that life by a particular method of obtaining values. A plant obtains its values from the sun and soil, through its roots and leaves, it has no other way of surviving (even if sun and soil are replaced with UV lamp and whatever, its method of survival is the same.) An animal survives (obtains value) through a more complicated means, it usues its perception to identify values, and has automatic responses to those perceptions which allow it to hunt, scavenge, harvest, etc. A man is an animal with no such instinct and no bodily apparatus to enable him to obtain food on a wide enough scale and timeline to ensure his survival. This is because man is "a being of volitional consciousness." He must choose all those actions which would enable him to obtain values, even those values (berries, nuts, etc) that are found in nature and not produced by him. He must choose to wander this way or that way. He must choose to identify which berry is poisonous, which is safe, and to do so he must use his mind. He must use his mind to clothe himself (since his skin does not protect him adequately) his must use his mind to build shelter. He must use his mind to make tools for hunting (since he has no claws, no speed). A man survives by using his mind, his mind "is his basic tool of survival." To live successfully, he must use his mind correctly, he must correctly build his shelter and his weapons, he must correctly identify the poisonous berry, he must correctly identify which actions he should take, i.e. he must correctly identify a code of values for himself, i.e. he must identify a correct morality; he does this by using reason, reason is the correct way of using his mind.

Reason tells him that his mind is his own, and that he must do his own thinking for himself, that he must understand, not parrot what others say or ape what they do. Reason tells him that his primary orientation must be with reality, that in order to gain knowledge of action, he must look at reality. Reason tells him the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made, and it tells him that he must adapt himself to the former, and never accept tha latter unquestioningly. Reason tells him to be an individualist, to be a first-hander, to let his first-hand knowledge of reality be his guide to his action, and it tells him to reject having to live off the minds of others, that he must trade with others if he is to properly avoid having to leech off their minds. To do so he must offer them an equal value of HIS mind. When he doesn't, he acts against reason. He acts as a second-hander, whose survival is dependant not on himself and his actions, but on the existence of others and on their actions. The productiveness of others becomes primary in his own pursuit of values. He is a dependant, and could not survive on his own. When he loots, he consumes values while destroying the incentive of values: the self-preservation of the producer. Since his survival depends on the existence of others, he threatens his own survival by looting, in as much as that looting prevents others from surviving. He is acting like a virus, a parasite. His virtue has turned into a blood-letting of virtue, his survival depends upon destruction, his life depends upon death.

Edited by IAmMetaphysical

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Reason tells him to be an individualist, to be a first-hander, to let his first-hand knowledge of reality be his guide to his action, and it tells him to reject having to live off the minds of others, that he must trade with others if he is to properly avoid having to leech off their minds. To do so he must offer them an equal value of HIS mind. When he doesn't, he acts against reason. He acts as a second-hander, whose survival is dependant not on himself and his actions, but on the existence of others and on their actions. The productiveness of others becomes primary in his own pursuit of values. He is a dependant, and could not survive on his own. When he loots, he consumes values while destroying the incentive of values: the self-preservation of the producer. Since his survival depends on the existence of others, he threatens his own survival by looting, in as much as that looting prevents others from surviving. He is acting like a virus, a parasite. His virtue has turned into a blood-letting of virtue, his survival depends upon destruction, his life depends upon death.

Thank you for taking the time to post a comment. I found nothing controversial in the first half of your message. I will therefore confine my response to the portion I have quoted above.

As I see it, Ayn Rand has not offered a convincing ethical case against leeching off the productivity of others (which is not to say that such a case cannot be made). I have already dealt with the issue of performing as man qua man in an earlier post: “If the crux of Rand’s case is that looting from productive men does not make you a ‘man’ as Rand defines it, then it is not much of an argument.”

By contrast, your approach centers on the idea that looting others is never in one’s long-term self-interest. You state that a looter’s “survival is dependant not on himself and his actions, but on the existence of others and on their actions.” That, of course, is undeniably true. However, no less true is the fact that in an advanced industrial society, the individual’s standard of living is very much dependent on the division of labor and the contributions of millions of others to the economy. It would be hard to imagine an isolated society of only a few hundred souls developing on its own internal combustion engines, hydroelectric power, telecommunications, computers, laser surgery, and interplanetary travel. So, to be exact, we do live off the minds and efforts of others, even if we follow the Objectivist ethics to the letter. This is not to equate living peacefully in 21st century America with stealing from others but to point out that my comfortable standard of living is very much dependent “on the existence of others and on their actions.” And to make it otherwise, I’d have to give up everything I didn’t invent myself and live a primitive, Robinson Crusoe existence.

But let’s look at your main point: “When he loots, he consumes values while destroying the incentive of values: the self-preservation of the producer.” Again, this is true, but it does not provide a sufficient reason to eschew looting. As I wrote my first post, “I would be the first to grant that enslaving and killing people is the surest way to make a society less productive. But a general decline in productivity does not necessarily bring about the destruction of the slave-owner or the dictator.” Even in the most poverty-stricken Communist societies, such as North Korea, the party bigwigs don’t starve, don’t go without warm clothes and shelter. In fact, they live quite lavishly. In short, dependency is not self-destruction.

So where is the case for rights-respecting egoism?

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However, no less true is the fact that in an advanced industrial society, the individual’s standard of living is very much dependent on the division of labor and the contributions of millions of others to the economy.

Being independant as a virtue, does not mean being isolated. I commented on this point with this: ".. that he must trade with others if he is to properly avoid having to leech off their minds. To do so he must offer them an equal value of HIS mind." When I create value using my mind and offer it as trade to others for the products of their minds, I am not piggybacking on their virtue, but trading. My survival rests primarily on my ability to produce values, not others' ability to produce values for me to steal.

It would be hard to imagine an isolated society of only a few hundred souls developing on its own internal combustion engines, hydroelectric power, telecommunications, computers, laser surgery, and interplanetary travel.

Ingenuity and progress do not rest on population numbers as the people who invent these inovations are very few, the rest of the population takes its cue from them. All of these things you list are the result of one man's thinking and planning. Man power enters into the equation, but with enough plannign and thinking, very little man power is needed.

my comfortable standard of living is very much dependent “on the existence of others and on their actions.”

You're comfortable standard of living rests primarily on the freedom of those others to produce and your freedom to produce, and your freedom to trade with each other, to be exact. This is the contradiction the looter wishes to impose on existence. He wants value while doing away with freedom, and freedom is the pre-condition of a functioning mind, which is the creator of human values. The looter wishes to gain values while undercutting them.

Again, this is true, but it does not provide a sufficient reason to eschew looting.

The reason is that a man must live by use of reason, and engaging in contradictory actions is unreasonable, unprincipled and ultimately impractical because of that. I do not argue that the reason one should not produce is because it actually makes someone else less productive, that would be altruism, i.e. determining your ethics based on their affect on others. My argument is that one should not loot because doing so, engaging in contradictory actions or actions contradictory to life and to values is unvaluable. There's a good example that I came up with while trying to explainto someone why I would not steal a million dollars even if there was absolutely no chance in ever getting caught, and how it wouldn't even be about hurting someone else either.

If I stole that million dollars, what would I buy with it? A house, a car, a plane? Whatever I buy with it would be a constant reminder that I did not earn it, that I did not produce it and never produced anything of equal value to it. Everytime I drove the car I would be conscious of how I was not worthy of it, everytime I looked at the house I would eb reminded of how it is not RIGHTFULLY mine, and it would accuse me of being a fraud my whole life, and it would be right.

This is the essence of a second-handed looter; the man who attempts to gain values without producing them, without using his mind for the production of values, but for their destruction.

Even in the most poverty-stricken Communist societies, such as North Korea, the party bigwigs don’t starve, don’t go without warm clothes and shelter. In fact, they live quite lavishly.

North Korea only survives because WE FEED IT. The evil only survives as much as the good feeds it, the evil creates nothing, the depandant creates nothing and is always living on borrowed time.

In short, dependency is not self-destruction.

Dependancy is self-destruction with a lifeline attached to the producer who can cut the cord at any time.

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Ingenuity and progress do not rest on population numbers as the people who invent these inovations are very few, the rest of the population takes its cue from them. All of these things you list are the result of one man's thinking and planning. Man power enters into the equation, but with enough plannign and thinking, very little man power is needed.

Let's agree on the value of innovation and free trade and move on to the central point:

You're comfortable standard of living rests primarily on the freedom of those others to produce and your freedom to produce, and your freedom to trade with each other, to be exact. This is the contradiction the looter wishes to impose on existence. He wants value while doing away with freedom, and freedom is the pre-condition of a functioning mind, which is the creator of human values. The looter wishes to gain values while undercutting them.

I do not doubt that the looter engages in a contradiction. He wants others to work and surrender the products of their labor to him, while he does not work and consumes the products of others. The issue is not whether the looter is being consistent, but whether there is a convincing argument for abandoning looting and taking up producing. Unless the looter is overthrown or all of his victims die before he does, he may have every reason to continue his way of life.

The reason is that a man must live by use of reason, and engaging in contradictory actions is unreasonable, unprincipled and ultimately impractical because of that.

It is only impractical if the looter cannot continue to live off the productive labor of others. However, the existence of slavery for thousands of years, the persistence of tyrannical governments on the planet, and the ability of people to steal and get away with it regularly suggests that looting is quite advantageous in some cases.

I do not argue that the reason one should not produce is because it actually makes someone else less productive, that would be altruism, i.e. determining your ethics based on their affect on others. My argument is that one should not loot because doing so, engaging in contradictory actions or actions contradictory to life and to values is unvaluable. There's a good example that I came up with while trying to explainto someone why I would not steal a million dollars even if there was absolutely no chance in ever getting caught, and how it wouldn't even be about hurting someone else either.

If I stole that million dollars, what would I buy with it? A house, a car, a plane? Whatever I buy with it would be a constant reminder that I did not earn it, that I did not produce it and never produced anything of equal value to it. Everytime I drove the car I would be conscious of how I was not worthy of it, everytime I looked at the house I would eb reminded of how it is not RIGHTFULLY mine, and it would accuse me of being a fraud my whole life, and it would be right.

That is a very good argument for convincing someone who already cares about the rights of others. But it won’t carry much weight with anyone who disputes the existence of rights or who insists that his own enrichment trumps all other considerations.

North Korea only survives because WE FEED IT.

Let’s suppose that’s true. So what? If the Communist bosses are still in power and still enjoying their stolen loot, what is the argument for respecting individual rights?

The evil only survives as much as the good feeds it, the evil creates nothing, the depandant creates nothing and is always living on borrowed time.

Stalin lived until the age of 74 on "borrowed time." Mao until 84. And at 80 Castro still lives. Maybe these guys didn’t believe in giving back the time they borrowed.

Dependancy is self-destruction with a lifeline attached to the producer who can cut the cord at any time.

Really? How do I cut the cord to the welfare state?

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I do not doubt that the looter engages in a contradiction. He wants others to work and surrender the products of their labor to him, while he does not work and consumes the products of others. The issue is not whether the looter is being consistent, but whether there is a convincing argument for abandoning looting and taking up producing. Unless the looter is overthrown or all of his victims die before he does, he may have every reason to continue his way of life.

This is the crux, that you think being inconsistent is practical, practical meaning living a full successfully happy life.

The fact is that if one doesn't accept reason, there is no point in arguing for anything, let alone trying to give them a reason to produce and not loot. If one accepts reason, one accepts principles, and the fact that in order to gain self-esteem and thus feel worthy of living, one must produce the values one consumes.

It is only impractical if the looter cannot continue to live off the productive labor of others. However, the existence of slavery for thousands of years, the persistence of tyrannical governments on the planet, and the ability of people to steal and get away with it regularly suggests that looting is quite advantageous in some cases.

The factor that makes it possible for slavery to exist for so long rests on the passive compliance of the productive members of society, not that looting somehow "works."

That is a very good argument for convincing someone who already cares about the rights of others. But it won’t carry much weight with anyone who disputes the existence of rights or who insists that his own enrichment trumps all other considerations.
I was under the impression that I was trying to give someone a reason for not looting. This pressupposes that they accept reason as valid and thus that they accept the concept of rights, if mistakenly not for everyone else, but for themselves. I have no desire to explain to a criminal why he should respect rights, when he attempts to flout mine I will answer him by force, NOT ARGUMENT.

Let’s suppose that’s true. So what? If the Communist bosses are still in power and still enjoying their stolen loot, what is the argument for respecting individual rights?
The existence of evil does not make it impractical to be good.

Really? How do I cut the cord to the welfare state?

By getting atlas to shrug, i.e. getting the productive and virtous to stop allowing evil to leech off of them.

Notice in Atlas Shrugged how Galt's biggest enemy is not Wesley Mouch or Cuffy Miggs, but Dagny Taggart, the producer who feeds the parasites.

Edited by IAmMetaphysical

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A looter is not a self-sustaining individual. By definition, he must depend on the work of others. He needs their loot since he chooses not to produce his own "loot" himself (if he produces it, it no longer is "loot"; it is just "goods"). So, the looter is dependent on others in a specific way. He depends on others' weakness (if he conquers them) or stupidity/naivete/ignorance (if he defrauds them) or wrongheaded moral views (if his victim is a willing slave).

Contrast the dependence of a looter with the independence of a producer. A producer's primary frame of reference is not on the weaknesses of his fellow men, but ultimately on theirs and his grasp of reality. If he chooses to properly and accurately identify the nature of reality, he is able to create his means of sustenance and trade with those who have done the same. His means of survival fundamentally is within his control, whereas the looter's means of survival fundamentally is not within his control. The producer, if he rationally appraises the opportunities reality provides him, creates his means of sustenance. In contrast, the looter is entirely dependent on the availability of victims. What if there are no victims, or the victims rebel, or they shrug? Then the looter has no means of survival. The loot is gone.

As a human, which way would you rather live? Sure, some looters get away with their crimes, but a larger number do not. Think of the many dictators who face the firing squad as another dictator overthrows them, or faces an angry mob as the revolution comes his way? For a more mundane looter, think of the many criminals of various stripes who die early deaths in gang violence or who get arrested and have to endure brutalities in prison. Sure, some gang members, a very small number, "retire" from their lives of gang violence and they live to be old men. How many are there? Where are they?

On a different level, consider the psychological state of a looter versus a producer. The looter lives in constant fear that a fellow gang member, or a member of the politburo, or a leader of an enemy country, will murder him. A thief, who loots individuals for a "living", lives in constant terror of getting caught by police, or killed by an angry victim. The producer, on the other hand, experiences the profound joy of creating values. A scientist knows this when he discovers something new in his lab. A businessman knows this when he makes a profitable deal. A carpenter knows this when his handcrafted work is executed flawlessly. A barber knows this when he skillfully cuts a head of hair.

It is not an accident that a producer experiences happiness as his fundamental psychological state, and a looter experiences a fundamental state of terror. Yes, there are times when the producer is unhappy, and there are times when a looter experiences a stolen moment of elation. But does this change the essential and enduring nature of their psychological states?

It is not an accident that the mental states of the producer versus the looter differ in this way because production benefits man. It improves his life; it aids his survival. As a manifestation of the integration of mind and body, is it any wonder that a producer when he is creating the values that sustain his life experiences happiness? In comparison, is it any wonder that a looter, who simply steals values from others, feels terror (the terror of getting caught)?

Considering the physical and psychological requirements of man's survival, I have no doubt that a productive life is infinitely preferable to the life of a looter.

As an aside, my post here briefly describes some of the psychology of a "successful" jewel thief who stole millions of dollars over the course of his life. He was one of the few thieves who "made it". Although he went to jail several times, ultimately he kept most of the loot he stole. If he is an example of looting at its "best", is this an ideal to strive for? Consider also that for every one of him, there are thousands of petty looters living miserable lives on the margins of society and in jail.

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This is the crux, that you think being inconsistent is practical, practical meaning living a full successfully happy life.

Actually, that is not what I think. To be exact, my position is that Rand has not made a case for rights-respecting egoism. I have presented some examples of individuals who have lived rather long, comfortable lives while taking the lives and products of others on a massive scale. Now you may argue that theirs are not “full successfully happy” lives. But that would require that you present a scale by which we can measure happiness objectively.

The fact is that if one doesn't accept reason, there is no point in arguing for anything, let alone trying to give them a reason to produce and not loot. If one accepts reason, one accepts principles, and the fact that in order to gain self-esteem and thus feel worthy of living, one must produce the values one consumes.

The looter may respond that he accepts reason, but not your particular interpretation of what is reasonable. He may argue that it is rational for him to crush others in order to advance his own wealth and power. He may further argue that doing so does not the least damage to his self-esteem or feelings of being worthy. To argue against his position would require the ability to take stock of his mental state beyond what he is willing to reveal to you – a power that is presently not in the realm of science.

The factor that makes it possible for slavery to exist for so long rests on the passive compliance of the productive members of society, not that looting somehow "works."

If the victims of slavery are passively compliant, that is hardly a reason why the looter should reject the notion of taking from others to benefit oneself.

I was under the impression that I was trying to give someone a reason for not looting. This pressupposes that they accept reason as valid and thus that they accept the concept of rights, if mistakenly not for everyone else, but for themselves. I have no desire to explain to a criminal why he should respect rights, when he attempts to flout mine I will answer him by force, NOT ARGUMENT.

But you have not yet presented an argument for rights-respecting egoism that withstands the objections I’ve raised. In short, why is it necessarily in one’s self-interest to honor the person and private property of another? There are many instances where one can get away with taking from others with no ill consequences to oneself. To state that the rights-violators are just not happy people requires some evidence of their state of mind. How would one gather such evidence?

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Contrast the dependence of a looter with the independence of a producer. A producer's primary frame of reference is not on the weaknesses of his fellow men, but ultimately on theirs and his grasp of reality. If he chooses to properly and accurately identify the nature of reality, he is able to create his means of sustenance and trade with those who have done the same. His means of survival fundamentally is within his control, whereas the looter's means of survival fundamentally is not within his control...

This type of integration, of the vice of force and its relation to the virtues, is very important.

You can not extract one virtue (or vice) from the Objectivist ethics, break it down, put it back together, and then expect to have full understanding without reintegrating it with the others. They are interconnected elements of a whole; failing at one is, necessarily, failing at all of them.

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But you have not yet presented an argument for rights-respecting egoism that withstands the objections I’ve raised. In short, why is it necessarily in one’s self-interest to honor the person and private property of another? There are many instances where one can get away with taking from others with no ill consequences to oneself. To state that the rights-violators are just not happy people requires some evidence of their state of mind. How would one gather such evidence?

I did, with my example of the million dollar house. You even said it was a good argument, but only to someone who accepts certain things such as objectivity and reason. I do not argue with people who don't accept these things.

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There are many instances where one can get away with taking from others with no ill consequences to oneself.

Actually, there aren't. You seem to know this at least implicitly. In your own examples you list SOME of the negative consequences, even though I would argue that you have omitted the worst of them. The whole idea is that you can't just take out the scale and weigh the benefits against the drawbacks since you've already thrown out the scale. How then do you decide whether or not the loot is worth committing these various degrees of suicide?

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Gary,

I have an exercise that might help you understand this, if you're willing to engage in it with me.

Let's suppose that you are a man who is a blank slate, emerging without ideology but fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus. Now you get to decide what kind of man you would like to be. I will play the role of a voice that helps you in this endeavor. You get to decide how you will shape your mind - but I warn you: I won't let you engage in contradiction.

The first question presented to you is, do you want to live? We will presume you have already answered "yes," as this would be a very short exercise, otherwise.

The second question, then, is: What is your means of living, then?

Do you agree that your means is reason?

I.e. that your first and most fundamental necessity is to know the world around you, and that you can only know it through reason; that without reason, you are as powerless and un-equipped as a newborn babe to deal with the shapes and colors, much less the reality, around you?

(remember, we are not talking about high-level abstractions such as "rights" or "property" yet; we're discussing you, the universe, and your means of living in it, fundamentally.)

Edited by Inspector

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Contrast the dependence of a looter with the independence of a producer. A producer's primary frame of reference is not on the weaknesses of his fellow men, but ultimately on theirs and his grasp of reality. If he chooses to properly and accurately identify the nature of reality, he is able to create his means of sustenance and trade with those who have done the same. His means of survival fundamentally is within his control, whereas the looter's means of survival fundamentally is not within his control. The producer, if he rationally appraises the opportunities reality provides him, creates his means of sustenance. In contrast, the looter is entirely dependent on the availability of victims. What if there are no victims, or the victims rebel, or they shrug? Then the looter has no means of survival. The loot is gone.

I acknowledged in my initial post that looting does entail the possibility of failure: “To be sure, these predators face great risks, especially in nations where the law works against them.” But possible failure is also something that traders and producers face. What guarantee does the CEO of Eastern Airlines have that his pilots won’t demand wages that would put the company out of business? What guarantee does Martha Stewart have that she won’t go to jail for violating some federal trading regulation?

What guarantee does a race car driver have that another driver’s error won’t suddenly end his career and life? Would it be inconsistent to be an Objectivist and a race car driver, because the driver’s life is not entirely within his own control?

In fact, both the looter and the trader, if they are intelligent, weigh risks against expected gains. In that respect, what is irrational or “unselfish” about the looter who “appraises the opportunities reality provides him” and seizes upon them? Yes, it would be stupid to rob a bank with a plastic squirt gun. Not so stupid is the 1990 theft of paintings worth an estimated $300 million from Boston's Gardner Museum. That crime remains unsolved and the trail has long gone cold.

As a human, which way would you rather live? Sure, some looters get away with their crimes, but a larger number do not. Think of the many dictators who face the firing squad as another dictator overthrows them, or faces an angry mob as the revolution comes his way?

Your point here seems to be that looting is simply too risky, that you might get caught or done in by a fellow looter. But this objection would not carry weight in instances where looting carries little risk. I once had an elderly neighbor, who was quite wealthy and rather senile. He had several filing cabinets filled with rare U.S. coins. It would have been very easy for me to have made myself $50,000 richer after the gentleman had nodded off during one of my visits. I never took a cent from him. But it wasn’t fear of getting caught that stopped me.

A producer, on the other hand, experiences the profound joy of creating values. A scientist knows this when he discovers something new in his lab. A businessman knows this when he makes a profitable deal. A carpenter knows this when his handcrafted work is executed flawlessly. A barber knows this when he skillfully cuts a head of hair.

It is not an accident that a producer experiences happiness as his fundamental psychological state, and a looter experiences a fundamental state of terror.

Yes, there are times when the producer is unhappy, and there are times when a looter experiences a stolen moment of elation. But does this change the essential and enduring nature of their psychological states?

A conscience and a sense of fair play do not come automatically to every member of our species. I once met a woman who thrilled to the “game” of shop-lifting. Conversely, my father was a hard-working businessman who felt ashamed of the wealth he had accumulated and gave all but a fraction of it away to “the needy.” In order to draw the conclusion that the looter must inevitably experience long-term unhappiness (and the producer happiness), we would need to examine some empirical data. But I don’t know of any objective means of measuring individual happiness. And even if such data existed and showed that the majority of looters are unhappy, that would not constitute a reason for a particular looter, who had no qualms or scruples against stealing, not to take from others.

As an aside, my post here briefly describes some of the psychology of a "successful" jewel thief who stole millions of dollars over the course of his life. He was one of the few thieves who "made it". Although he went to jail several times, ultimately he kept most of the loot he stole. If he is an example of looting at its "best", is this an ideal to strive for? Consider also that for every one of him, there are thousands of petty looters living miserable lives on the margins of society and in jail.

But why is that an argument against the highly skilled jewel thief practicing his craft? He doesn’t make the decision to steal based on the fact that the vast majority of humans don’t have his skill. The only important factor for him is that he knows how to get inside and get away with the loot.

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Actually, there aren't. You seem to know this at least implicitly. In your own examples you list SOME of the negative consequences, even though I would argue that you have omitted the worst of them. The whole idea is that you can't just take out the scale and weigh the benefits against the drawbacks since you've already thrown out the scale. How then do you decide whether or not the loot is worth committing these various degrees of suicide?

With the word “suicide,” you seem to be suggesting that there are dire and necessary psychological consequences for the looter. On this point, please see my response to 'Galileo Blogs' above:

“In order to draw the conclusion that the looter must inevitably experience long-term unhappiness (and the producer happiness), we would need to examine some empirical data. But I don’t know of any objective means of measuring individual happiness. And even if such data existed and showed that the majority of looters are unhappy, that would not constitute a reason for a particular looter, who had no qualms or scruples against stealing, not to take from others.”

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The first question presented to you is, do you want to live? We will presume you have already answered "yes," as this would be a very short exercise, otherwise.

The second question, then, is: What is your means of living, then?

Do you agree that your means is reason?

I.e. that your first and most fundamental necessity is to know the world around you, and that you can only know it through reason; that without reason, you are as powerless and un-equipped as a newborn babe to deal with the shapes and colors, much less the reality, around you?

(remember, we are not talking about high-level abstractions such as "rights" or "property" yet; we're discussing you, the universe, and your means of living in it, fundamentally.)

I would answer “yes” both to wanting to live and to using reason as my means for living.

Now I suppose that you will next argue that looting goes against reason. That is an argument I would very much like to see, step by step.

I will go ahead and warn you that, based on what I've read so far, I am not persuaded that looter goes against reason by committing the “contradiction” of taking from others while not giving anything in return. A looter who gives the matter any thought may conclude that there is no “right and wrong” except the right and wrong way of gaining power over others. The looter may conclude that he owes his victims nothing, just as he owes the wild quail nothing when he steals her eggs.

But humans are not quails, one might argue. So what? Why should a person who values his own life above all else show humans any greater regard than quails?

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Mr. Brenner, I have a few fundamental questions for you, since I really don't undertand the prudent predator argument, and I'd like to know how a rational being could hold that position. At some point, I'm thinking, you should say "No, that's where we disagree". First, in this scenario, are we talking about a man who has decided to exist (so we're ruling out those who have decided "I choose not to exist")? Then, do you agree that there is no such thing as "pure existence", but that existence entails identity -- you have to exist as something? So in this case, we would be talking about existing as man, not as something else. If so, we need to inquire into man's nature, especially how he survives. Do you agree that man is not born with awesome fangs, great speed, poison spurs or an instinctive knowledge of poison vs. edible fruits to graze on? And thus by nature, man's means of survival is to use his faculty of reason?

If you do, then it would be important to actually look into the nature of this faculty of reason. Man, alone among the animals on Earth, has a peculiar mothod of cognition, by the kind of abstraction known as "conceptualization" -- that is, the ability to reduce any number of concrete instances to an abstract mental representation (e.g. the concept "apple" standing for all of the apples you've seen or will see, "run" standing all actions of running, "blue" standing for what is common to all things that are perceived as blue). This allows man to encapsulate vital distinctions, such as "tiger" versus "cow", or "tomato" versus "nightshade". I hope you will agree that consistency is important in establishing the relationship between concepts and their referents (imagine the problems that would arise if tomatoes and nightshade were randomly interspersed, or if men tried to throw tigers into their herds of cows).

There are many kinds of concepts -- general principles applicable to all sorts of domains in human existence. Some of these concepts are normative principles about a choice of action that you face, and what action you should choose, given a goal. Thus you should not add gasoline if the goal is to put out the fire, you should not kick the puppy if you want a happy puppy, you should not put the water in the freezer if you want it to boil. Moral principles are examples of concepts, which pertain to your goal of existing (which implies "according to your identity", that is, as man -- the being that survives by reason). The identification of moral concepts is one form of reason, and the application of those concepts to concrete choices of action is another. Since it is in man's nature to survive by reason and not by force or instinct, it is right that he survive by reason, that is, in accordance with his nature, and not against his nature.

This is not to deny that a man can manage to exist physically for many years, predating on other men. But then the being is not living as a man, he is existing as less than a man, incapable of fully exercising his nature as a man. That is, he will not be dead yet, but he will not be flourishing.

I'm wondering which part(s) of this chain you reject.

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Mr. Brenner, I have a few fundamental questions for you, since I really don't undertand the prudent predator argument, and I'd like to know how a rational being could hold that position. At some point, I'm thinking, you should say "No, that's where we disagree". First, in this scenario, are we talking about a man who has decided to exist (so we're ruling out those who have decided "I choose not to exist")? Then, do you agree that there is no such thing as "pure existence", but that existence entails identity -- you have to exist as something? So in this case, we would be talking about existing as man, not as something else. If so, we need to inquire into man's nature, especially how he survives. Do you agree that man is not born with awesome fangs, great speed, poison spurs or an instinctive knowledge of poison vs. edible fruits to graze on? And thus by nature, man's means of survival is to use his faculty of reason?

Yes, we agree on the necessity of reason for human survival. I would only add that the most accomplished human predators in the modern world achieved their goals with their brains rather than “awesome fangs, great speed, poison spurs.”

If you do, then it would be important to actually look into the nature of this faculty of reason. Man, alone among the animals on Earth, has a peculiar mothod of cognition, by the kind of abstraction known as "conceptualization" -- that is, the ability to reduce any number of concrete instances to an abstract mental representation (e.g. the concept "apple" standing for all of the apples you've seen or will see, "run" standing all actions of running, "blue" standing for what is common to all things that are perceived as blue). This allows man to encapsulate vital distinctions, such as "tiger" versus "cow", or "tomato" versus "nightshade". I hope you will agree that consistency is important in establishing the relationship between concepts and their referents (imagine the problems that would arise if tomatoes and nightshade were randomly interspersed, or if men tried to throw tigers into their herds of cows).

Just as it is important not to confuse tomatoes and nightshade and tigers and cows, so it is in the looter’s self-interest not to confuse difficult targets with easy targets.

There are many kinds of concepts -- general principles applicable to all sorts of domains in human existence. Some of these concepts are normative principles about a choice of action that you face, and what action you should choose, given a goal. Thus you should not add gasoline if the goal is to put out the fire, you should not kick the puppy if you want a happy puppy, you should not put the water in the freezer if you want it to boil. Moral principles are examples of concepts, which pertain to your goal of existing (which implies "according to your identity", that is, as man -- the being that survives by reason). The identification of moral concepts is one form of reason, and the application of those concepts to concrete choices of action is another. Since it is in man's nature to survive by reason and not by force or instinct, it is right that he survive by reason, that is, in accordance with his nature, and not against his nature.

I do not understand what you mean when you say, “it is in man's nature to survive by reason and not by force.” If you had said it is not in a pig’s nature to sprout wings and fly, we would have no disagreement. But we do not have to look very far to find examples of men who live long, contented lives by means of force. Consider, for instance, how over the past century tax consumers have been steadily growing as a percentage of the U.S. population. If it is not in man’s nature to survive by force, then we have literally millions who are going against their nature by taking advantage of force-financed public schools, roads, housing, stadiums, arenas, television, etc. If an equivalent percentage of the pig population were taking flight, we would have to re-examine our definition of pig as an earthbound creature.

This is not to deny that a man can manage to exist physically for many years, predating on other men. But then the being is not living as a man, he is existing as less than a man, incapable of fully exercising his nature as a man. That is, he will not be dead yet, but he will not be flourishing.

I'm wondering which part(s) of this chain you reject.

The part that insists that the defining attribute of a man is producing. The successful looter could argue with equal authority that the great man, as distinguished from the common man, is by nature a warrior, a conqueror, a caesar. To your assertion that the victorious looter is “not living as a man . . . existing as less than a man,” he may just smile and say, “If that is the price I must pay for living in this palace, so be it. Let my slaves take satisfaction in ‘flourishing’ when my whip decorates their backs.”

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In fact, both the looter and the trader, if they are intelligent, weigh risks against expected gains. In that respect, what is irrational or “unselfish” about the looter who “appraises the opportunities reality provides him” and seizes upon them?

You didn't answer. Weigh them HOW? Risks or gains as determined by WHAT?

With the word “suicide,” you seem to be suggesting that there are dire and necessary psychological consequences for the looter. On this point, please see my response to 'Galileo Blogs' above:

Here, I was not talking about psychological consequences (at least not to one's self). This is what I meant by "but I would argue you have omitted the worst of it." My point was that in reality, you can not ever "get away with it."

I do not understand what you mean when you say, “it is in man's nature to survive by reason and not by force.” If you had said it is not in a pig’s nature to sprout wings and fly, we would have no disagreement. But we do not have to look very far to find examples of men who live long, contented lives by means of force...

The successful looter could argue with equal authority that the great man, as distinguished from the common man, is by nature a warrior, a conqueror, a caesar. To your assertion that the victorious looter is “not living as a man . . . existing as less than a man,” he may just smile and say, “If that is the price I must pay for living in this palace, so be it. Let my slaves take satisfaction in ‘flourishing’ when my whip decorates their backs.”

As DO has already pointed out, man is a conceptual being. It is through a process of conceptualization that man makes decisions regarding what will benefit his life, as opposed to the animal, which is born with an automatic means of doing so. Man has no such automatic means.

Say one decides to steal a million dollars, and he is relatively sure that he will not get 'caught' in the sense of the word that you use...

S/he still has not escaped the reality that man must survive in the manner DO described above. The million dollars is not going to do the subsequent reasoning that your continued survival requires.

Take the example of a professional criminal organization. For this example, think Ocean's 11. There is necessarily a double-standard at work. The use of force is somehow approved outside the organization, but (sometimes) not within it.

How do you decide when to use which (reason or force)? How does someone else know when you decide 'oh, I think I'll use reason this time' that you will not resort to force? How do you know that they will not resort to it? It is either reason or deuces wild. Do you see any contradiction in these examples?

Edited by Nate

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I'll try this another way.

I'm taking for granted life as the standard of value. I'm also taking for granted the basic explanation of man is a conceptual being.

I'm also taking for granted that you understand that man uses these concepts to make value-judgment based on this standard.

When you reach the question of how to obtain value from other men, you are faced a fundamental choice: force or trade

A basic example of trade: one man we'll call hunter, another we'll call farmer. One day hunter and farmer realize that hunter isn't very good at farming or gathering, and farmer is not very good at hunting. They see that if they both instead focus on their respective strengths, and exchange value for value, that they will have both more grain and more meat. Both benefit.

A basic example of force: in another part of the world, there are two men very similar to hunter and farmer, with one important exception. Hunter doesn't exchange meat for grain. Instead, he takes it, using his bow and arrow to prevent Farmer from stopping him. Additionally, since his grain is now insufficient to supply him and his farm animals, he is producing less and less grain every year. Additionally, another man, Fisher, has caught wind of these events. He doesn't see any reason to exchange any fish with Farmer for his grain when he can just take it in the same fashion. One day Farmer decides he's had enough of Fisher and Hunter. He doesn't see any incentive to produce grain if it will just be stolen. He decides to: ___________.

You can finish this story any way you like, but there are no happy endings.

In the first example, both Hunter and Fisher benefit.

In the second example, Hunter *thinks* he is benefiting, but he is really harming himself in the long run in the following ways, among others:

1) He is directly damaging or destroying the producers ability to produce.

Grain doesn't last for ever. What is he going to do once he runs out?

Even if he later sees the errors of his ways, what is he now going to buy with his meat?

The producers have since been damaged or destroyed, and now their products are less available or completely unavailable to him by any means.

2) He is removing the incentive to produce.

This is a corollary of the first. Why would the producer continue to produce? What is he going to do instead?

He may either stop producing any excess, or leave and go somewhere were there are men who are willing to exchange value.

3) He is sanctioning this course of action, thereby encouraging others to do the same (as opposed to producing).

This is by far the worst of the these three. Even if he is not "caught" in the sense that you are talking about, other people will likely be aware that "someone" committed the act.

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GaryBrenner, your arguments appear to boil down to the idea that some looters seem to enjoy what they do and can get away with it. So, why not do it?

My answer, which is similar to some of the other posts on this thread, is that productive work is an objective requirement of man's life, for all men, both the producers and the looters. For something to be enjoyed, or stolen, it first has to be produced. Objectively, for men to be able to prosper in a society (i.e., for values to be created and prosperity to result), individual rights must be protected so that those who choose to work productively, can work productively without interference from their fellow men. For this reason, governments are instituted to enforce rights. This means that governments exist to put looters in jail, so that the productive are free to rationally pursue their values.

One can choose to be a looter, but the productive are free to set up a government that will put the looters in jail.

As to whether one should be productive, that is the only way to create values. It is only through the achievement of values, not stealing, that one can truly be happy. I gave some examples of that in my post (the scientist, the businessman, the barber, etc.). Those are valid examples.

I also gave examples of the psychological terror that has to underlie a typical looter's psychology. A looter lives in perpetual fear of being put in jail or worse. Those are also valid examples.

Ultimately, you and everyone else are free to choose the life you want to lead. You can choose to be a looter, if you are willing to face the consequences. However, objectively, it is only through productive achievement that enduring values and their consequence, happiness, can be achieved. Gang members, thieves, murderers, con artists, and dictators generally lead miserable lives. The exceptions (the rare thief or dictator who seems to get away with his crimes) do not prove the rule. They are simply exceptions.

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In order to draw the conclusion that the looter must inevitably experience long-term unhappiness (and the producer happiness), we would need to examine some empirical data.

That is not true in the least. If one knows the cause of self esteem, then one can certainly know that someone lacking that cause will not experience the effect of self-esteem. It is not necessary that we approach the situation empirically.

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You didn't answer. Weigh them HOW? Risks or gains as determined by WHAT?

By the preferences of the looter. If an Objectivist philosopher prefers influence over monetary gain, or if an Objectivist capitalist prefers monetary gain over influence, does the philosophy of Objectivism dispute the goals of either?

Here, I was not talking about psychological consequences (at least not to one's self). This is what I meant by "but I would argue you have omitted the worst of it." My point was that in reality, you can not ever "get away with it."

So if you are not talking about psychological consequences, does “you can not ever ‘get away with it’” mean that all predators will be caught and punished? If so, when will the 1990 robbers of the Boston art museum be caught and punished? When will Castro be caught and punished?

As DO has already pointed out, man is a conceptual being. It is through a process of conceptualization that man makes decisions regarding what will benefit his life, as opposed to the animal, which is born with an automatic means of doing so. Man has no such automatic means.

Say one decides to steal a million dollars, and he is relatively sure that he will not get 'caught' in the sense of the word that you use...

S/he still has not escaped the reality that man must survive in the manner DO described above. The million dollars is not going to do the subsequent reasoning that your continued survival requires.

Okay, let’s say that stealing a “million dollars is not going to do the subsequent reasoning that one's continued survival requires.” What if one does not need a million dollars for continued survival? Some looters do quite well retiring on $100,000. And why is it all or nothing? Why couldn’t I steal $50,000 from my neighbor and then go back to my productive day job? Sure production and theft are opposite modes. But why should the ultimate egoist care? He takes what he can, when he can get it.

Take the example of a professional criminal organization. For this example, think Ocean's 11. There is necessarily a double-standard at work. The use of force is somehow approved outside the organization, but (sometimes) not within it.

So? Bombing soldiers is approved outside a military organization but not within it. Contradiction?

How do you decide when to use which (reason or force)?

First of all, I dispute the suggestion that the rights-violating egoist necessarily rejects reason. But to answer the question more directly, how does a spy decide when to lie or tell the truth? Answer: it depends on how the answer will benefit his cause.

How does someone else know when you decide 'oh, I think I'll use reason this time' that you will not resort to force? How do you know that they will not resort to it? It is either reason or deuces wild. Do you see any contradiction in these examples?

Consider the example of the U.S. government and its operators. Sometimes it uses “reason.” Sometimes it uses force. The fact that it engages in contradictory methods has not put it out of business or its employees out of work. And it has only been in operations for two centuries.

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