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Rand's dismissal of the hypothetical from The Mike Wallace Intervi

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brian0918
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In the http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEruXzQZhNI, Wallace presents the hypothetical situation where in the US, there is only one source of uranium (or some other natural resource vital to national security), and it is on some guy's property, and the man refuses to sell the property to the government. What Wallace is basically trying to do is say that the US would be in potential danger unless the government took that man's property from him.

Rand dismisses this hypothetical as an "impossible fantasy" for two reasons:

1. She says that a natural resource could not become "vitally needed" if it were that scarce. She does not go into detail about why this is true.

2. She says that such a situation would never arise, in which one individual controls the entire amount of something vital to national security. As long as the resource exists in more than one place in the world, no one man can control it.

I don't understand why these points are true, or even why they apply to the hypothetical situation. The example given is a single site of uranium in the US. Supposing that all other sites in the world are already controlled by other countries' governments, then that one man in the US would indeed have the only supply within the scope of the US government. Assuming that other countries are busy developing weapons with their supplies, we would potentially be in danger, having no such weapons of our own. What is the resolution?

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My resolutions would be:

a.) Develop a technology that doesn't need uranium to counter the threat.

b.) Let us all be blown to hell before I give my consent to the government taking private property from someone.

But if other countries are indeed posing a threat to all of us (as nukes would), isn't the guy being immoral (ie selfless) in not caring about his own safety? He has the power to make himself safe, but only if he gives his property over to those who can develop the weapons to protect him.

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My resolutions would be:

a.) Develop a technology that doesn't need uranium to counter the threat.

b.) Let us all be blown to hell before I give my consent to the government taking private property from someone.

I think the second point above really just ends up playing into the shystery trap of that fantastic hypothetical. Wallace is purposefully trying to push Rand to a point where she would have to say "OK, yeah, in that situation, individual rights wouldn't be as important as the collective's interest in not being annihilated". But it still gives too much credence to the hypothetical. How would that happen in a capitalist-dominated society? How would one psychotic person be able to amass the kind of wealth and financial support it would require to threaten so many people? It would take much more than a few irrational people to achieve this.

Same goes for those rare-yet-crucial resources: It would require that a huge number of people would support some irrational scheme whereby those who controlled the resource would not sell it at a reasonable price to those who would in turn make the best use of it. Soviet-style communism for example...

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Actually I think the best argument is her first one. There is no way that a resource so vitally needed would be that scare. If a resource is indeed scarce, it will serve to function as a luxury but never a necessity, much less a necessity for national defense. The entire situation as Wallace puts it just doesn't make any sense at all.

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Actually I think the best argument is her first one. There is no way that a resource so vitally needed would be that scare. If a resource is indeed scarce, it will serve to function as a luxury but never a necessity, much less a necessity for national defense. The entire situation as Wallace puts it just doesn't make any sense at all.

Several of the rare resources that exist on Earth are only present in large quantities in certain locations because meteors impacted the Earth at those locations, either bringing these rare resources along for the ride, or forming the resources upon impact, so I don't agree with the claim you are making. For me, it is not fantastical to say that a rare element that is the primary component of a weapon of mass destruction could hypothetically be found only at a couple locations, and that those locations could be owned by certain individuals or companies.

I guess what I don't get is the need or desire to discard hypotheticals as fantastically unlikely. Unlikely things do happen. Does Objectivism break down in these situations, or is it that you are simply avoiding the issue by ignoring it unless and until it becomes a reality.

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I understand Rand's reluctance to answer the question. You don't build a rational ethic and a system of laws on farfetched scenarios. The exception to the rule does not disprove the need for the rule.

Nevertheless, there are in fact cases in which a man’s only course of survival is to violate another’s rights. One of the moderators of this site has posted an example here .

The hypothetical posed by Mike Wallace is another. Rand would be correct to argue that there was no likelihood of the United States running out of enough uranium to build weapons to defend itself and having to trespass on a man’s property to get that scarce resource. (The fact that the U.S. has built its military by regularly violating property rights through taxation was not considered by either Wallace or Rand.)

But Wallace’s question was phrased as a “Suppose . . .” and there is no reason not to take it seriously and answer it on its own terms.

Would I violate another person’s property rights if the alternative meant my certain death?

Yes. Without question.

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How would one psychotic person be able to amass the kind of wealth and financial support it would require to threaten so many people?

Why must the person be "psychotic"? Or is this label simply used to artificially inflate the rarity of the situation? I would say that a farm owner who finds out that his land covers a deposit of a rare resource vital to natural interest, but who does not want to give up the family farm - that is neither a fantastically unlikely situation, nor does it involve any psychosis.

Same goes for those rare-yet-crucial resources: It would require that a huge number of people would support some irrational scheme whereby those who controlled the resource would not sell it at a reasonable price to those who would in turn make the best use of it. Soviet-style communism for example...

Why is the scheme outright irrational simply because the individual(s) wants to hold onto their property? Maybe they believe those who want to buy the mineral would not make the best use of it. Denying your government the nuclear power that could draw a nuclear counter-attack that destroys you does not seem like an irrational position to take.

Reply to Gary Brenner:

But Wallace’s question was phrased as a “Suppose . . .” and there is no reason not to take it seriously and answer it on its own terms.

So Ayn Rand was evading a question?

Edited by brian0918
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Several of the rare resources that exist on Earth are only present in large quantities in certain locations because meteors impacted the Earth at those locations, either bringing these rare resources along for the ride, or forming the resources upon impact, so I don't agree with the claim you are making. For me, it is not fantastical to say that a rare element that is the primary component of a weapon of mass destruction could hypothetically be found only at a couple locations, and that those locations could be owned by certain individuals or companies.

I guess what I don't get is the need or desire to discard hypotheticals as fantastically unlikely. Unlikely things do happen. Does Objectivism break down in these situations, or is it that you are simply avoiding the issue by ignoring it unless and until it becomes a reality.

I believe his point was that if it was so rare and hard to get weapons wouldn't depend on it, they would depend on something else that isn't so rare and hard to get. That is a valid point, one that your post failed to address.

To add my own third reason against Wallace's hypothetical: the hypothetical is pointless since such a situation doesn't and won't exist; there are many sources of Uranium, including in countries allied with America, such as Australia.

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I believe his point was that if it was so rare and hard to get weapons wouldn't depend on it, they would depend on something else that isn't so rare and hard to get. That is a valid point, one that your post failed to address.

I addressed it in my original post. Let's say there are multiple deposits of the element around the world, but the other ones are already under the control of other governments, and those governments have been developing weapons from them. We find a deposit in the US on Old Man McGuthry's farm, but he refuses to let us get the resources necessary to make our own weapons.

To add my own third reason against Wallace's hypothetical: the hypothetical is pointless since such a situation doesn't and won't exist; there are many sources of Uranium, including in countries allied with America, such as Australia.

Yes, but unlikely events can and do happen. You are discarding the hypothetical example and addressing reality, when Wallace is asking you to address the (unlikely but NOT unreasonable) hypothetical on its own terms.

Reply to Gary Brenner:

In the pressure-cooker of a TV interview, I probably would have answered it the same way.

That is not to say the question should not be considered on its own terms.

Maybe she should have answered that individuals in the US would only be morally justified in taking his property if they were in immediate danger of enemy invasion due to our lack of a nuclear deterrent (and the enemy's nuclear advantage). Such a situation would be an emergency, and a given individual's right to life would outweigh another individual's property rights.

Edited by brian0918
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I addressed it in my original post. Let's say there are multiple deposits of the element around the world, but the other ones are already under the control of other governments, and those governments have been developing weapons from them. We find a deposit in the US on Old Man McGuthry's farm, but he refuses to let us get the resources necessary to make our own weapons.

Surely you concur that this situation is absurd. If there are multiple deposits of an element around the world, and the contents of these deposits enable great military technological breakthroughs, then a relatively moral country will be in posession of them before any other nation, primarily because individuals within that country were the ones who initially gave value to the resources by applying man's mind.

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Why must the person be "psychotic"? Or is this label simply used to artificially inflate the rarity of the situation? I would say that a farm owner who finds out that his land covers a deposit of a rare resource vital to natural interest, but who does not want to give up the family farm - that is neither a fantastically unlikely situation, nor does it involve any psychosis.

I think you are assuming that the possible outcomes in this scenario are:

1. The farmer keeps his land

2. The government takes it by force

If those are the assumptions I would say it would be rational for the farmer to want to keep his land. However in a free market, anyone who had an interest in self-preservation would be free to channel money towards an offer that any rational person could not refuse. Assuming that the resource was so valuable and crucial for survival then, what could the farmer expect to gain by holding out? Would more money be forthcoming after the apocalyptic destruction?

I would definitely argue that no amount of sentimental value could outweigh the amount of money that this person would surely be offered in a free-market, hence my assessment of such a person as irrational or "psychotic" (not clinically speaking of course, we would have to know more about his psychology) if he were to hold out.

Why is the scheme outright irrational simply because the individual(s) wants to hold onto their property? Maybe they believe those who want to buy the mineral would not make the best use of it. Denying your government the nuclear power that could draw a nuclear counter-attack that destroys you does not seem like an irrational position to take.

Okay, but in this case you are actually making an argument for individual rights, ie, the farmer would be able to do what is in his interest despite the governments claim that it should have the right to sacrifice his interests. I think what you need to look at is whether "among rational men" there can or should be conflicting interests. Objectivism demonstrates that the answer to that question is most emphatically no (cf OPAR or CTUI).

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Rand dismisses this hypothetical as an "impossible fantasy" for two reasons:

1. She says that a natural resource could not become "vitally needed" if it were that scarce. She does not go into detail about why this is true.

If a resource, call it unobtainium, were so scarce in America as to exist only under the property of one man, then it very likely would be just as scarce everywhere else in the world. Therefore it's even more unlikely any scientists would experiment enough with it to make something useful from it, let alone make it a vitally needed resource.

2. She says that such a situation would never arise, in which one individual controls the entire amount of something vital to national security. As long as the resource exists in more than one place in the world, no one man can control it.

As far as natural resources go, that's true. It could be that one man knows something, or can develop something, that is exclusively his. But that, too, is very unlikely.

Besides, you do not derive general principles working with exceptions.

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Surely you concur that this situation is absurd. If there are multiple deposits of an element around the world, and the contents of these deposits enable great military technological breakthroughs, then a relatively moral country will be in posession of them before any other nation, primarily because individuals within that country were the ones who initially gave value to the resources by applying man's mind.

The situation is unlikely but not absurd. The question supposes that the uranium deposits were limited to individuals/counties unwilling to sell to the moral country. This scenario is no more difficult to imagine than that of a desert country that depends on a river originating in the territory of a moral but unfriendly neighbor.

I would definitely argue that no amount of sentimental value could outweigh the amount of money that this person would surely be offered in a free-market, hence my assessment of such a person as irrational or "psychotic" (not clinically speaking of course, we would have to know more about his psychology) if he were to hold out.

Okay, but in this case you are actually making an argument for individual rights, ie, the farmer would be able to do what is in his interest despite the governments claim that it should have the right to sacrifice his interests. I think what you need to look at is whether "among rational men" there can or should be conflicting interests. Objectivism demonstrates that the answer to that question is most emphatically no (cf OPAR or CTUI).

Obviously, there is a conflict if A needs what B owns in order to survive and B refuses to sell it to him. In Odden’s snowbound scenario, there is no question of the cabin owner’s right to his property; there is also no question that the freezing man should save himself by breaking into the cabin.

If a resource, call it unobtainium, were so scarce in America as to exist only under the property of one man, then it very likely would be just as scarce everywhere else in the world. Therefore it's even more unlikely any scientists would experiment enough with it to make something useful from it, let alone make it a vitally needed resource.

This response does not deal with the question but rather attempts to change the premise of the question. Yes, obviously, if a substance is too scarce to experiment with, then no one can produce anything practical with it. But Wallace’s question is based on the premise that uranium is a vital component in nuclear weapons construction (true) and that a moral nation might be unable to acquire a credible defense because it had no access to uranium (possible).

It does no good to tell Wallace that the situation he describes is not going to happen to the U.S. He knows that. His asking “what if” is a legitimate means to explore the limits of Rand’s prohibition against violating property rights.

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No, the question supposes that the US cannot survive without uranium. That is absurd.

Here, let's make it simple. Every country surrounding us wants to invade us. They all have nukes pointed right at us, so we're afraid of retaliating against their invasion. The only thing that will stop their invasion is a nuclear deterrant. Old Man McGuthry's 200-acre farm is the only known source of uranium in the US; there may be many other sources in the US, but there's no time to go searching for it. Is this situation absurd? If so, how?

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Here, let's make it simple. Every country surrounding us wants to invade us. They all have nukes pointed right at us, so we're afraid of retaliating against their invasion. The only thing that will stop their invasion is a nuclear deterrant. Old Man McGuthry's 200-acre farm is the only known source of uranium in the US; there may be many other sources in the US, but there's no time to go searching for it. Is this situation absurd? If so, how?

Yes, it is.

How? Simple. If the Old Man's farm is the only known source in America, then no one in america could possibly know how to separate U-235 from U-238, much less how to generate plutonium from the uranium, and if someone knew how to put a nuke together under such circumstances, well, he'd be a mad scientist in a pulp SF story.

I repeat: principles cannot be derived from exceptions.

Likewise exceptions do not invalidate principles. Coming up with an absurd hypothetical situation to invalidate a principle because, gasp, it may not work in such a situation, is akin to proclaiming we should not eat apples because one of them might have a worm inside it.

The purpose of such hypotheticals is to bring you to the point where you say "Ok, the government has a right to seize the Old Man's property." Which is an admission that government can seize property when it deems it necessary.

If you want a plausible hypothetical, here's one:

Terrorists have released an airborne virus at dozens of ariports nationwide. The virus is highly contagious and has a lethality rate of 90%. Hundreds of thousands of people may have been infected before the act was discovered. These people have already traveled all over the country and, perhaps, to other countries as well; most of them are carriers of the disease. There is no known cure for the virus. If nothing is done, millions will likely die.

Does government have a right to impose a nation-wide quarantine? Does it have a right to enforce it at gunpoint if necessary. Does it ahve the right to kill citizens who attempt to defy it?

I won't say such a hypothetical is likely, but it could happen. It certainly isn't absurd, except for the fact that no such virus exists right now (not even small pox, which is closely guarded). But one could be developed (unlikely by terrorists but not impossible) or it could arise naturally but be confined to a relatively small area (I don't know if this can be quantified).

The reason it isn't absurd is that epidemics ahve taken place which ahve killed millions of people. The Black Death, The Spanish Influenza, and others of lesser scale. Resources, on the oter hand, are not confined to tiny portions of the Earth only.

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The uranium scenario doesn't seem all that far fetched if you apply it to a smaller country. Say Objectivistopia is created in South America, on the border of a hostile nation with new nuclear capability. If there is only one uranium source in Objectivistopia, and it is privately owned by man who is unwilling to accept money for his uranium, and buying it in sufficient quantities on the open market is exceedingly difficult, then initiation of force seems the only viable option to the government if it is to retain some kind of nuclear deterrent. And it better do it post haste as its going to take some time to enrich the uranium to weapons grade levels.

I agree with Gary Brenner that this does seem to be a scenario where one must concede that Objectivist principles break down. I understand D'kian's point that principles can't be derived from exceptions, but my question is: are there other philosophies that break down under certain circumstances? And, such as the need to contain a deadly virus, aren't there other circumstances where the "greater good" can outweigh an individual's rights? Or do we accept KevinDW78's premise that "Let us all be blown to hell before I give my consent to the government taking private property from someone"? That question is hanging in the air on this thread, without being explicitly addressed.

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How? Simple. If the Old Man's farm is the only known source in America, then no one in america could possibly know how to separate U-235 from U-238, much less how to generate plutonium from the uranium, and if someone knew how to put a nuke together under such circumstances, well, he'd be a mad scientist in a pulp SF story.

You're just delaying having to respond to the hypothetical. Either modify my hypothetical to add the (unnecessary) clarification that an expert team of scientists defected to the US to help build nukes, or respond to Publius's version (or both).

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I agree with Gary Brenner that this does seem to be a scenario where one must concede that Objectivist principles break down. I understand D'kian's point that principles can't be derived from exceptions, but my question is: are there other philosophies that break down under certain circumstances?

Well, all altruistic/colelctivist philosophies break down under every circumstance. So yes.

No one can possibly anticipate every contingency, every problem, every development and every possible outcome of every situation. Neither can any philosopher.

The matter of absurd hypotheticals boils down to: "See? Your principles don't apply to every situation, therefore they are not valid because the truth is unknowable and reason is limited." That's ridiculous. Therefore the way to deal with such hypotheticals is to dismiss them. A whole raft of popular ones start with "If you were in a life boat..." Well, so what? We're talking about a philosophy to deal with everyday life to its full extent. Most people, no doubt you've noticed, don't spend the majority of their time living in lifeboats, or dealing with an irrational property owner who's essential to millions of people.

As to exceptions, how far would medicine advance if instead of studying all people, doctors only studied left-handed dwarves? Well, for one thign you, and just about everyone else you know, would be too tall and neeed to be cut down to size.

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The matter of absurd hypotheticals boils down to: "See? Your principles don't apply to every situation, therefore they are not valid because the truth is unknowable and reason is limited." That's ridiculous.

You are putting words in Wallace's mouth. He made no indication as to how he would respond if she said that government intervention was justified. Nor was that ever my intention; I simply wanted to know what an Objectivist individual or society would do in such a situation. I think if Rand had presented it as an emergency situation where someone's right to life definitely outweighed another person's property rights (see David Odden's winter cabin scenario), she would have given the best answer possible within her philosophical framework. Simply dismissing it is just evading the question.

Edited by brian0918
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Rand was entirely right to dismiss the question. To communicate why the absolutism of ethical principles is compatible with their irrelevance in an emergency situation requires a heck of a lot of background, and there's no way one would be given the time to express it during an interview. And Rand is right on both points anyway.

1. It took us many years and countless dollars to figure out how to make use of uranium. This required: (1) enough uranium to use for R&D, and (2) enough known to be available for future use to make the R&D worthwhile. Why develop an entire industry and science around something like Unobtanium, if you know there's hardly any of it?

We've been assuming the use is for a weapon of some sort, but this point, I think, would apply to *any* use of *anything*. If we knew there was exactly one barrel of sorbitol in the world, and we could never make any more of it, no one would even bother figuring out how to use it to make food yummy. Not worth the effort. Point being: rarity can produce value, but over-rarity just tends to make something useless.

You might say "well, what if we had a lot of it when we developed the Unobtanium industry, but then we used all of it, except for what was left under some guy's farm?" Fair enough. What happens when a good becomes scarce? We find *substitutes*. By the time that we're down to a few oil wells in the world, for instance, we won't need oil anymore, because we will have switched our entire infrastructure to a more easy-to-come-by alternative. I doubt I need to detail the economics - it's pretty clear why that happens, and happens *every time*.

2. I think the answer to #1 goes a long way toward explaining this one. Scarcity + value = high prices, which leads to the relative attractiveness of developing alternatives. I doubt, actually, that we'd ever end up in a situation where our national security depends on *one thing*; rather, it might depend on achieving *one goal*. But it's extraordinarily rare for there only to be one way to achieve a goal.

...

Ok, all that aside, what if it's a genuine (and genuinely weird) emergency? We, in the tiny nation of Objectivsylvania, somehow irked the world to the point of having a gazillion nukes aimed at our heads. We have exactly one doomsday machine, and it runs only on a battery made of Unobtanium. Farmer Bob is hiding the Unobtanium because... who the hell knows. What do we do?

I can't capitalize this enough. WE TAKE THE FRICKIN' UNOBTANIUM.

Moral principles are for living life, long-range. Rights are for dealing with others, long-range. Y'know what makes things not so long-range? An imminent apocalypse tends to do that, for one. If we have a gazillion frothy-mouthed statists with a gazillion nukes ready to blow tomorrow, there is no long-term. It's an emergency. In an emergency, you *end* the emergency, then you clean up the mess once things are back to normal. (In this case, maybe some sort of restitution for Farmer Bob.)

You are not violating his right to the Unobtanium because he doesn't *have* a right to Unobtanium. Not in that context.

--SpiralTheorist--

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Every country surrounding us wants to invade us. They all have nukes pointed right at us, so we're afraid of retaliating against their invasion. The only thing that will stop their invasion is a nuclear deterrant. Old Man McGuthry's 200-acre farm is the only known source of uranium in the US; there may be many other sources in the US, but there's no time to go searching for it. Is this situation absurd?
Yup, it's absurd. Not only would it be impossible for us to separate U-235 from U-238 even if we had the uranium because we'd be nuclear morons, and for that matter there would be no nuclear weapons because the Elbonians, who have all of the world's uranium, just don't have the technology to smelt metal, much less make A-bombs, but it now also requires us to buy into an insane set of assumptions where the entire world is populated by vampires and werewolves just waiting to pounce.... what are they waiting for?? How did this "America" come into existence in a universe that is completely, totally and utterly irrational and yet somehow timid enough that they didn't destroy us decades ago with dynamite? Anyhow, in the scenario that you invented, we're dead already, so there's no point in invading his farm to confiscate his uranium farm.

Also note that there are many types of explosive device that do not require uranium. There is no physical or statutory law that requires us to respond to a nuclear threat with only nuclear weapons.

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You are putting words in Wallace's mouth.

I'm saying that's the way most outlandish hypotheticals are headed. I've no idea what was Wallace's intent.

Nor was that ever my intention; I simply wanted to know what an Objectivist individual or society would do in such a situation.

Ok. Name one time in history when the fate of a nation hung on the availability of a crucial natural resource, available only from one man's property. then I'll give you my evaluation on the subject.

I think if Rand had presented it as an emergency situation where someone's right to life definitely outweighed another person's property rights (see David Odden's winter cabin scenario), she would have given the best answer possible within her philosophical framework. Simply dismissing it is just evading the question.

Rand wrote an essay called "The Ethics Of Emergencies." I don't think I have to explain what it is about. As for the rest, dismissing an absurd question is not an evasion.

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