L.A. Rollins v. David Ramsay Steele

David Ramsay Steele is an editorial director with Open Court Publishing Company and the author — most famously — of From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation. In the April 2010 issue of Liberty, Steele posts an in-depth  review of L.A. Rollins' The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays (still available for only $5 postpaid from my own Nine-Banded Books). The review is titled "Might Makes Right" and it's well worth reading.

Unfortunately, Rollins' submitted response exceeded the magazine's word-limit. So, with L.A.'s permission, I am printing his rejoinder below in its entirety for all to consider.

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L.A. Rollins' Reply to David Ramsay Steele's Review of The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays

In Dave Steele's
review of my book, The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays, it is
interesting to see that he agrees with me to some extent in rejecting
natural rights a la Rand and Rothbard. But here are some responses to
some of his criticisms.
 
He says in the second paragraph that I condemn all moral
judgments. But, to judge from the dictionary definition I recently
looked at, to condemn is to make a moral judgment.  And I am not so
irrational and inconsistent as to make a moral judgment condemning all
moral judgments. In this, as in other instances, Steele is misreading, or misrepresenting, what I wrote.
 
It would be closer to the truth to say that, for myself, I reject
all moral judgments, as I define "moral" in The Myth of Natural
Rights
. But it should be noted, as Steele
never does in his review, that on pages 44-48 in my book one can see
that the "morality" that I reject is any morality based on what Kant
called "categorical imperatives," i.e. claims about
alleged unconditional obligations or duties. I did not reject the possibility of hypothetical imperatives, claims about what one must do
in order to achieve a desired goal, e.g., "If you want to be happy for
the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife." If someone
wishes to make claims about alleged hypothetical imperatives and label
those claims "moral judgments," then he is using the word "moral"
differently than I did in The Myth of Natural Rights, but we wouldn't
necessarily have any substantive disagreement.
 
These distinctions are important because Steele
says I attack all morality while ignoring my actual definition of
"morality."  As a result. he claims that I attack all sorts of things
that I don't necessarily attack.
 
Steele writes, "The question then arises
why, as Rollins seems to assume, self-interest should be privileged
over other motives."  But I don't know what he's talking about.  In
fact, on page 45, I wrote, "…although I am an egoist of sorts, I
nevertheless reject what Brian Medlin calls the principle of 'universal
categorical egoism,' to wit, 'that we all ought to observe our own
interests, because that is what we ought to do.' I say, to the
contrary, that it is up to each individual, insofar as he has freedom
of choice in the matter, to decide for himself whether or not to pursue
his own interests." This is important because Steele
makes a number of comments based on the false premise that I preach
that everyone should always pursue their self-interest and nothing but
their self-interest. But I wrote no such thing.
 
Incidentally, many of Steele's comments
seem to assume that he knows the specific meaning of "self-interest"
for people other than himself. But how does he know? How, for example,
does he know that no one who campaigned against slavery in England had
any self-interest in doing so? In my opinion, self-interest is not an objective thing (bite it, Objectivists); it's subjective.
 
Steele says, "There's also the odd fact
that when he inveighs against moral arguments, Rollins plainly exhibits
an emotional tone that sounds very much like righteous indignation."
Really? Plainly?  I might take this more seriously if he cited any
specific example(s) of what he has in mind, but he doesn't. For what
it's worth, I don't remember feeling righteously indignant when I wrote
that essay.
 
In any case, I don't deny that I sometimes get angry, but I do
deny that anger is necessarily the expression of a moral judgment. If I
accidentally stub my toe on the leg of a desk and feel pain and anger,
am I expressing a moral judgment on myself? On my toe? On the leg of
the desk? I don't think so. I think I'm having an emotional reaction to
a painful experience. If I get angry when I hear a Zionist propagandist
making false claims (e.g., all the land that Israel ever got from the
Arabs was bought and paid for) in order to promote US government
support for Israel, a policy which I regard as inimical to my interests
(though perhaps Steele knows better than I do
what my interests are), am I thereby expressing a moral judgment about
the Zionist misleader? No, I don't think so. I think it's an emotional
reaction to something I regard as contrary to my interests. Why do so
many moralists claim or imply, without any actual argument or proof,
that an avowed amoralist is not supposed to have emotions? Why do
emotions supposedly presuppose moral beliefs? Why aren't beliefs about
self-interest sufficient to generate emotions?
 
Steele writes, "If people share certain
value judgments,  these judgments, along with an assessment of the
factual situation, can serve as a basis for common action. If I say 'We'd better get out of this building because it's on fire,' I'm
assuming that those who hear me would prefer not to be asphyxiated or
roasted to death. I assume this because I expect that they, like me,
want to stay alive and avoid excruciating pain."
 
Maybe so, but so what? How is this relevant to refuting anything I wrote in The Myth of Natural Rights? In case Steele
didn't notice, or has forgotten, I'll point out (again) that I did not
rule out hypothetical imperatives. And it's certainly possible that in
some cases there could be hypothetical imperatives that would apply to
all the members of a group.  In any case, I'd like to point out that
 in real life some people might trample others to death in the process.
Is that "common action"? Is that an argument for a morality based on
categorical imperatives?

Steele
acknowledges that advocating that everyone leave a burning building
might be opposed to his self-interest, if other people leaving the
building block the exits and delay his own escape to safety. But,
despite that, he seems to think that advocating leaving a burning
building is the right thing to do. If so, why? What argument, if any,
does he have for this opinion?
 
Following the burning building example, Steele
says, "If I said (around 1980), 'We ought to combat communism because
it leads to impoverishment, mass killing, mass imprisonment, and mass
torture,' I can similarly assume that people will share my preference
that these horrible things be reduced wherever feasible."
 
In the first place, I don't think it's as obvious as Steele
seems to think that the vast overwhelming majority of people share his
value judgments about mass killings, etc. Perhaps they do, but where's
the evidence? And why have there been so many mass killings in history
if hardly anyone approves of them? Let me point out that Communists
have had no monopoly on mass killings. How many anti-Communists
disapproved of Chiang Kai-Chek's mass killings of Communists in the
late 1920s?  How many anti-Communists disapproved of the mass killing
of Communists (or alleged Communists) in Indonesia in the 1960s. Or the
mass killings in East Timor by Indonesians in the 1970s and later? How
many anti-Communists disapproved of the mass killing of Koreans by US
forces during the Korean War or the mass killing of Vietnamese during
the war in Vietnam? And there've been many other mass killings in
history by non-Communists. How come, if virtually everybody disapproves
of mass killings?
 
If Steele were to answer that it's always
or usually just a miniscule minority that perpetrates mass killings,
I'd ask if that doesn't cast doubt on his assertion that those in the
"moral minority" are of no practical relevance.
 
Speaking of which, I'm not sure if I understand Steele's
meaning or his point when he says that those who dissent from the most
commonplace value judgments are of no practical relevance because they
are "exceedingly rare." Is this supposed to be an ostensibly factual
observation about the nature of society?  Is he saying that the
overwhelming majority who share the most commonplace value judgments
will invariably be able to impose those judgments on society, or some
such thing? If so, then he might be right in general, at least in the
short run, in those cases where there actually is an overwhelming
majority who share the most commonplace value judgments.  But in
reality, as distinguished from a philosopher's study, there are quite a
few matters, at least in the present-day US, where there is no such
overwhelming majority.  Abortion is one example. Which side in the
abortion debate has an overwhelming majority, "pro-choicers" or
"pro-lifers"? Neither, as far as I can tell.
 
Furthermore, as Steele undoubtedly
realizes, value judgments shared by an overwhelming majority  at one
time might later, perhaps much later, be rejected by an overwhelming
majority. Slavery, an issue discussed by Steele,
provides one such example. A few centuries ago or so, slavery was
acceptable to the overwhelming majority in England and the US. Now an 
overwhelming majority would no doubt express disapproval of slavery.
 
For the record, I will concede that bullshit about the
"immorality" of slavery probably played a role in bringing about that
change in attitude, though in the US, a major war also played a role in
the triumph of antislaveryism. And, also for the record,  I'm content
to live with the fact that chattel slavery is now illegal. In fact, I'd
like to see something done to eliminate wage slavery, if you'll pardon
my French.
 
But as for those cases where there actually is an overwhelming majority that shares the most commonplace value judgment, is Steele's
assertion that dissenters are of no practical relevance just an
ostensibly factual observation, or is he making a moral point? Is he
telling us that the power of the overwhelming majority that comes from
being the overwhelming majority guarantees that the overwhelming
majority will get what it wants?  Or is he telling dissenters that they
are morally wrong and should not be dissenters.
 
According to public opinion polls in late 2001, 90% of the US public approved of Bush II's military attack on Afghanistan. I was part
of the minority that did not support that attack. I thought it was
stupid and shortsighted and might become — all  together
now — a quagmire. (Got any more jokes to make now, Donald Rumsfeld, you
arrogant asshole?) How do Steele's comments
relate to this? If he's just making a factual observation that the 90%
majority was certain to get the war that they wanted, then I suppose
that's true. Big deal. Tell me something I don't know. But is Steele
making a moral point? Would he tell me that I should not have disagreed
with the overwhelming majority? Does he think that I ought to have
whooped it up for war, instead of writing satirical, sarcastic antiwar
song parodies, such as "Kill the Ayrabs" (set to the tune of "Sink the
Bismarck")?

As
for the simple-minded assumption that, if something is "evil," then we
ought to do something about it, that might seem good in the abstract,
but in reality, as distinguished from morality, it might be wise to
stop and think and take practical considerations into account. For
example, is it actually possible to do something about the evil in
question? And to do so without creating new evil? (E.g. engaging in
mass killing to stop Communists from engaging in mass killing.) There's
the "law of unintended consequences" to consider. Back in 1980, lots of
simple-minded anti-Communists were gung-ho to support the "freedom
fighters" (yuk,yuk,yuk) in Afghanistan who were so bravely and nobly
fighting the forces of the Evil Empire. But US support for the Muslim
holy warriors in Afghanistan helped fuel the jihadism that came back to
bite us on 9/11. (Could that be what Reverend Jeremiah Wright had in
mind when he declaimed about the chickens coming home to roost? If so,
he seems to have had a point.)
 
At one time, enough Americans considered drinking alcohol to be
evil that a Constitutional amendment was enacted to ban it. As the
familiar story goes, Prohibition led to such things as police and
political corruption, poisoned alcohol ("bathtub gin"), and the rise of
organized crime.
 
As for Steele's hypothetical assertion in 1980 that we ought to combat communism because it is "evil,' if Steele meant "combat" literally — as in war — then I'd like to point out that by most of the same standards by which Steele
judges communism to have been evil, war is also evil. Communism might
have killed tens of millions of people (or more) during the 20th
century, but the same ,or similar, can be said of war. 
 
For the record, I was anti-Communist in 1980, but thanks to Murray
Rothbard, among others, I was also antiwar and so I was not a supporter
of war against communism. If Steele thinks I ought to have been, then let him show me the argument.
 
If Steele didn't mean "combat" literally,
then perhaps he should clarify what he meant.  In any case, as for
combating communism by means short of war, the fact is that I did
sometimes lift a finger, if only to write satirical definitions mocking
communism. Of course, I also lifted a finger sometimes to express
skepticism about  simple-minded Cold War platitudes.
 
Steele, for some reason, assumes that I
would have objected in 1980 to anyone caring about the evil of
communism and doing something about it. But this is a misreading of my
views. Whether or not I would have objected would have depended, for
one thing, on what specifically they intended to do to combat
communism. (Steele never tells us specifically
what we should have done.) If someone wrote anti-Communist propaganda
I might not have objected at all. If, however, someone wanted to go to
war to combat communism, then I probably would have objected. As I've
already said, communism had no monopoly on evil. War is also evil. I
might have especially objected if someone had wanted to combat
communism in a way I thought involved a serious risk of leading to
nuclear war. Oddly enough, Steele never
mentions the danger of nuclear war in his otherworldly, philosophical
ruminations on combating communism.  As an anti-Communist who wants to
discredit egoism, Steele asserts that Americans had no
self-interested reason for opposing communism, but that they should
have opposed it anyway. However, I'd suggest that Americans (and
others) did have self-interested reasons for wanting to avoid nuclear
war, which could have proven to be an even greater evil than communism.
 
In any case, Steele is right about one
thing. I'm not a humanitarian. If someone had told me several years ago
that Saddam Hussein was evil and, therefore, I had an obligation to do
something, or to support doing something about it, I'd've told them to
bugger off. Unlike so many Republicans, who usually mock do-gooders,
but whose hearts were bleeding for the Iraqi people and supported
Operation Iraqi Freedom, I did not, and do not, pretend to care about
the Iraqis.
 
Steele devotes much space to refuting
statements I made to the effect that natural rights are totally
ineffective as protective devices. But let me point out, as Steele
did not, that, in a reply to a review by George H. Smith of the
original edition of The Myth of Natural Rights (see page 108), I've
already conceded that moral beliefs, such as beliefs about natural
rights, might be more useful than I originally asserted.
 
However, contrary to Steele, I did not imply that positive rights can stop slugs. I said that bulletproof vests might stop slugs.
 
According to rumor, Steele is, or was, once upon a time, a Utilitarian. Is that rumor true? Does Steele believe that we ought to do that which (one believes) will produce the greatest good for the greatest number? If so, can Steele
provide an argument for that premise, or is it assumed to be a
self-evident truth? (Incidentally, if I remember correctly, Ambrose
Bierce wrote somewhere: "Death — the greatest good for the greatest
number.")
 
In his discussion of the Holocaust related essays and review in my book, Steele
gets at least one thing just plain wrong. He says that, in my
criticisms of Holocaust revisionist and conventional Holocaust
believers, I'm "comparing the best that revisionism has to offer with
the weakest part of one lightweight
antirevisionist screed." But, in fact, I did not criticize the "best"
that revisionism has to offer. "Revising Holocaust Revisionism," written
in 1983, criticizes revisionism at its weakest. Thus, I did not
criticize Arthur Butz's The Hoax of the Twentieth Century precisely
because it did not contain the kind of outright factual inaccuracies
that I found in some other revisionist writings.  My only mention of
Butz in that piece was a quotation of his opinion on the writings of
Paul Rassinier, and of The Myth of the Six Million, the latter of
which he called "terrible." And I expressed agreement with that. So how
does Steele get from
that to the conclusion that I criticized the best that the revisionists have to offer?  I wonder if Steele ever bothered to read Butz's book.  It seems to me that it does "offer a worked-out alternate hypothesis" of  the sort that Steele asserts Holocaust revisionism does not offer.
 
It's a minor matter, but, for the record, the satirical
definitions in Lucifer's Lexicon don't owe anything to Thomas Szasz's The Untamed Tongue, since I've never read that book. However, I have
read Heresies and The Second Sin, as well as Karl Kraus and the
Soul Doctors
, so Lucifer's Lexicon might owe something to those
books by Szasz. In any case, I'm pleased that Steele calls my definition of "Neoconservative" a real gem.

END OF ROLLINS' REPLY

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Memento mori.

 

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