Moral judgments

Since the financial crisis began, I have noticed phrases like “free market fundamentalists” being thrown around, and an accusation being leveled against “unregulated” capitalism. Thousands of newspaper columns and hundreds of columnists have repeated the same thing over and over. And so have many other people and bloggers. The facts are crystal clear – there is no “unregulated capitalism” at play anywhere in the world, and the crisis was definitely not caused by any such non-existent entity; you could just as easily claim that Fred Flintstone caused the crisis. The fact is that the crisis was caused by government intervention in the economy; as long as “any” regulation exists, the government is in direct or indirect control of the economy. Once the government asserts its influence over the economy, its natural that crooks will rush towards it so that they can benefit by modifying the regulations to suit themselves. Such crooks are not capitalists. They are what I have already called them – crooks.

So what does that say about the people making such claims? (This question is very significant when it comes to morality, and instead of inventing an example, I will continue using the present one. Further, this article is why I thought I should write about it, and wgreen asks a similar question here.) The claim can only be made by the following people-

  • Those who are ignorant of the state of affairs, either purposefully, or as a result of an error.
  • Those who are aware of it but are lying through their teeth because it suits their ideology.

A moral judgment needs to be passed on each of these. I will come to the “why” later.

  1. Those who are purposefully ignorant are immoral because they are guilty of evasion.
  2. Those who, after careful thought, believe in an ideology that doesn’t respect individual rights are evil. They may “honestly” believe that egalitarianism is good, but that doesn’t change the fact that it isn’t. And the unprincipled from that lot may even lie to further their agenda.
  3. Only those who are ignorant as a result of an error – in judgment, or brought on by lack of sufficient information/ incorrect information can be said to be moral, but this is not a license that is granted for perpetuity.

Note that there are always degrees when it comes to moral judgments – a murderer is worse than a thief. So is a man who holds that there is nothing wrong in murder (even though he hasn’t actually committed a murder).

Sometime in the 1980s, the “movement” around Ayn Rand’s philosophy split on a question of principles. One of the questions was that of passing moral judgments and whether “ideas” can be judged “good or bad/ evil” or whether they can only be “true or false.” Kelley said (see Appendix A)-

[E]vil and error are not the same.

The concept of evil applies primarily to actions, and to the people who perform them. Schwartz asserts that we should not sanction the Soviets because they are “philosophical enemies.” This is a bizarre interpretation of their sins. Soviet tyrants are not evil because they believe in Marxian collectivism. They are evil because they have murdered millions of people and enslaved hundreds of millions more. An academic Marxist who subscribes to the same ideas as Lenin or Stalin does not have the same moral status. He is guilty of the same intellectual error, but not of their crimes (unless and to the extent that he actively supported them, as many did in the 1930s, although even here we must recognize a difference in degree of culpability).

Truth and falsity, not good or evil, are the primary evaluative concepts that apply to ideas as such. It is true that the horrors of this century were made possible by irrationalist and collectivist ideas. Bad ideas can be dangerous; that’s one reason we shouldn’t endorse them. But they are dangerous because people use them to perpetrate evil. We are not Hegelians: ideas per se are not agents in the world. Truth or falsity is the essential property of an idea; the good or ill it produces is derivative. It is also true that a given person may adopt false ideas through evasion, which is morally wrong. But another person might adopt the same idea through honest error.

From my understanding of his statement, he’s making a “guns don’t kill people, other people do” argument. He says, then, that ideas don’t have a moral component to them – they can only be true or false. And that its actions that are good or evil; that its actions that can be morally judged.

Peikoff responded in a lengthy paper

As one of his examples of an intellectually honest man, to whom others should show “tolerance” and “benevolence,” David Kelley offers not a groping teenager, but “an academic Marxist,” i.e., an adult who devotes his life to the job of teaching unreason, self-sacrifice and slavery to generations of young minds. When I speak of truth and falsehood in what follows, therefore, I am presupposing a definite (adult) context. I am speaking of truth qua truth (not of the arbitrary)—and of falsehood on the kind of scale and issues that preclude honest, short-lived errors.


In some contexts, a man is properly held blameless for an unreasonable idea, so long as he himself does not act on it. For example: if I conclude that, though you are innocent of any wrongdoing, your death would be a wonderful thing, but I then remind myself of your rights, hold myself in check and refrain from killing you, I may be free of blame and can even be given a certain moral credit: “He kept his idea within his own mind,” one could say, “he did not allow it to lead to the destruction of the innocent; to that extent, in actual practice, he was moved by the recognition of reality.” But this kind of analysis does not exonerate the philosophic advocate of unreason. In regard to him, one cannot say: “He implicitly advocates murder, but does not himself commit it, so he is morally innocent.” The philosopher of irrationalism, though legally innocent of any crime, is not “keeping his ideas within his own mind.” He is urging them on the world and into actual practice. Such a man is moved not by the recognition of reality, but by the opposite: by the desire to annihilate it. In spiritual terms, he is guilty of a heinous crime: he is inciting men to commit murder on a mass scale. Advocacy of this kind is a form of action: it represents an entire life spent on subverting man’s mind at its base. Can anyone honestly hold that such advocacy pertains not to “action,” but merely to the world of “ideas,” and therefore that verdicts such as “good” and “evil” do not apply to it?

Yet such is the essence of David Kelley’s viewpoint. “Truth” and “falsity,” he says, apply primarily to “ideas”; “good” and “evil,” to “actions, and to the people who perform them.” In regard to evil, he says, we must not be tolerant; but in regard to ideas, moral judgment is a mistake. In the cognitive realm, he says, the virtue to be practiced in regard to all comers, no matter what their viewpoint, is “tolerance” and “benevolence,” i.e., cool, open-minded, friendly discussion among civilized moral equals. Stalin, in this view, has killed people, so he is evil and intolerable; but Kant or “an academic Marxist”—he is merely a thinker of a different school, with whom one happens to disagree (and from whom, Kelley adds, we might even learn something “if we are willing to listen”). In regard to Kant and his academic progeny, therefore, moral judgment is inapplicable and even “hysterical.”

None of the excerpts do justice either to Kelley or to Peikoff. So reading their complete papers is recommended.

I agree with Peikoff that ideas “can” be moral or immoral and can thus be good, bad, evil etc. However I don’t agree with his narrow definition of “honest errors” (and therefore agree with Kelley – see Appendix B). I know from personal experience that errors are not the exclusive domain of youngsters, retards and illiterates. Depending on the kind of knowledge, the amount of material one has to wade through before reaching any kind of conclusion, and the ability that such a task demands, errors are more common place than Peikoff is willing to admit, particularly in the field of philosophy. I don’t refer to broad and thus simple principles – individual rights for example, but more technical and complex questions. If “such errors are not nearly so common as some people wish to think, especially in the field of philosophy” why is it then that two 40+ year old “rational” men who believe in individual rights are sparring over a question of “moral judgment?”

Note that Peikoff’s response is to Kelley’s brief paper. Kelley has written in depth about the subject of moral judgments in his book which I have linked to (but haven’t read beyond the two papers of interest.)

As for Schwartz’s addendum where he writes, among other things-

The Libertarian movement is not some innocuous debating club. It is a movement that embraces the advocates of child-molesting, the proponents of unilateral U.S. disarmament, the LSD-taking and bomb-throwing members of the New Left, the communist guerrillas in Central America and the baby-killing followers of Yassir Arafat. These views have all been accepted under the Libertarian umbrella (and remain accepted under it by everyone who still calls himself a Libertarian). It is these types of vermin that one is lifting into respectability whenever one sanctions Libertarianism—or whenever one maintains that ideas can be analyzed without being evaluated.

moral judgment doesn’t apply here like he thinks it does. He’s attacking an umbrella term. People cannot change that according to his convenience. Not everyone is C.S.Peirce.

The “why.” A judgment has to be made because the Krugmans and DeLongs and Stiglitzs and thousands of other statist economists, philosophers and politicians are not indulging in this subterfuge and gross disregard for individual rights out of some “honest error” – they are knowingly supporting a stance that is anti-liberty in every conceivable way. And thus they cannot be given the “benefit of the doubt.”

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