Guns, Health, and Truth

What Don B. Kates, Henry E. Schaffer, and William C. Waters IV revealed about the Centers for Disease Control's holy war on guns in "Public Health Pot Shots" (April) rings true.

Just as fiction requires suspension of disbelief, medical-social activism requires suspension of scientific ethics. I have repeatedly brought the same criminology research the authors cite to the attention of medical society boards of directors and medical journal editors.

Usually these gatekeepers of medical knowledge fabricate some reason to exclude the evidence from discussion. In other cases they simply suppress it. An example is the California Medical Association's 1995 White Paper on Violence, in which a policy committee of physicians admitted, "Violence is a wide-ranging issue that has been studied by a number of disciplines (e.g., sociology and criminology). The [committee], however, limited itself to looking at violence as a public health issue and considered items primarily from the medical literature, which is by no means exhaustive."

The same committee had two years earlier refused to examine criminologists' gun research findings on the pretext that they were not peer-reviewed by physicians. One wonders if this committee of doctors would be equally sanguine about criminologists reviewing scholarly papers on open-heart surgery.

Timothy Wheeler, M.D.
Director, Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership

The Claremont Institute
Upland, CA

Hoodwinking the Voters

Regarding "Drug Test" by Nick Gillespie (April) and its poll of congressional members from Arizona and California on the medical marijuana issue: I found the responses to your second question very interesting. ("Opponents of medical marijuana measures such as Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl have claimed that voters were 'asleep at the switch' and 'hoodwinked.' Do you think voters of your state were incompetent in passing this law?") Nine representatives answered yes.

Both propositions were available to be read by any interested party, and it would have been little trouble to find out every last detail of what these initiatives meant. They passed with fairly good percentages of the vote. The citizens of California and Arizona finally had something of substance to vote on, and they did what intelligent people do: They made a decision based on facts.

When it comes to voting for a representative, however, it would be extremely difficult to find out what the representative had taken a stand on in the past and impossible to predict what he would do in the future. All those who said yes to your question should take a hike, because they don't give the voters enough information to make an intelligent decision. If there was any hoodwinking going on, we should look at our elected officials first.

Mark Walker
Burlington, KY

Benevolent Disagreement

Like Loren Lomasky, I am a great admirer of Judith Martin, whose new book he reviewed along with my Unrugged Individualism ("Nice Distinction," April). Miss Manners would doubtless be too gracious to protest the kind of criticism Lomasky directed at me. But having been raised in the rough-and-tumble world of academic philosophy, I have no such qualms.

My book was an effort to show that benevolence has an egoistic basis, that treating others benevolently is not a sacrifice of our interests but a way of advancing them. Lomasky argues that my effort failed because benevolence simply means giving others more than is necessary to get what one wants in trade.

But his argument rests on a pair of what philosophers call persuasive definitions: definitions that incorporate the conclusion one is trying to establish. Defining self-interest as economic gain, and benevolence as the willingness to forgo such gain, Lomasky leaves himself a pretty short step to the conclusion that benevolence is not in our interest. But these definitions, which he does nothing to justify, are at odds with the Objectivist analysis of self-interest and benevolence that I developed in the book.

I cannot reproduce those analyses in a letter, but even a casual reader of Ayn Rand must know that Objectivists do not equate self-interest with economic gain. Self-interest includes "the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan" (in Rand's formulation), including such values as enduring personal relationships and such virtues as integrity and justice. Nor is this conception of self-interest a stipulation; it is grounded in Rand's analysis of value.

On a related front, Lomasky criticizes me for confusing benevolence and justice (a distinction I took considerable painsto draw in the book), citing my definition of benevolence as "the commitment to achieving the values derivable from other people in society by treating them as potential trading partners." Living by trade rather than plunder, he argues, is the virtue of justice, not benevolence. I agree.

But benevolence goes beyond mere respect for rights; it means projecting ways to exploit the positive potential represented by other people. Justice is exercised in evaluating and complying with the terms of actual trades; benevolence in the openness to possible trades and to the potential of others to enrich our lives.

Finally, among all the forms and occasions of benevolence that I discuss, Lomasky takes exception to my analysis of why it is in our interest to help others in emergencies, like stopping for a stranded motorist. This is a complicated problem, which I do not claim to have solved completely. But it won't be solved with a tunnel-vision conception of self-interest in terms of concrete, range-of-the-moment benefits, as reflected in Lomasky's statement that "the egoist will be pleased if others stop when her car breaks down, but if she's rational she will not stop for someone else."

A rational egoist knows that help is not likely to be forthcoming when he needs it unless there is a general social practice of providing such help. And so, not thinking it rational to count on luck, he will consider whether there is anything he can do to promote this general practice. The answer, contrary to Lomasky, is yes. A general social practice is sustained by the acts of individuals, each of whom sets an example for others. The probability is vanishingly small that I will set an example, through my benevolence, for the very people who may someday be in a position to help me.

But that is not the point. The trade I engage in is not with those particular individuals; it is with everyone else in my society. It is a kind of informal insurance policy against unexpected risks, mediated by custom rather than contract.

These considerations do not solve the Prisoner's Dilemma problem that Lomasky poses. But without the narrow conception of self-interest on which he relies, it is not clear how significant that problem is.

David Kelley
Executive Director
Institute for Objectivist Studies
Poughkeepsie, NY

In his interesting review of David Kelley's booklet on benevolence, Loren Lomasky is too sweeping when he suggests that Randians, as a breed, are rude as a matter of course. A brief check of Internet discussion groups will confirm that rudeness as a trait of ideological zealots is not specific to Objectivists. It should also be conceded that much has changed in the Objectivist movement over the past 30 years, for the better.

Lomasky seems to assert that a policy of benevolence cannot spring from a policy of self-interest, and, further, that self-interestedness as such cannot encompass anything more than narrow calculations of the moment. But why? Everyone is conscious at some level of how he treats others, and habitual incivility or discourtesy toward others must have a negative effect on his own character and on the willingness of others to deal with and befriend him. Otherwise the rest of us would not be shying away from dyspeptic Randroids. Certainly, a person may pursue his self-interest in ways that do not actually achieve his self-interest and well-being; what he should do instead, then, is pursue it in a better way.

When Lomasky merely equates altruism and benevolence, he muddies the waters. An altruistic defense of virtue must founder because it treats the well-being of the morally choosing individual as either irrelevant, or subordinate to the needs of others.

Under altruism, for a given ethical actor the goal of ethics becomes severed from the goal of the actor's own life. If others come first, when and by what criterion is an individual ever entitled to look to his own needs? Usually, the resolution is a tacit détente between altruistic sentiment and self-interested reality. But this is an unstable détente and does not provide any definite guidance in actually living a life.

David M. Brown
New York, NY

Loren Lomasky replies: David Brown correctly observes that a taste for Rand is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for bursts of rudeness. And, indeed, the preceding responses to my critique of Unrugged Individualism are impeccably civil. They do not, however, render any less Procrustean the task of trimming Objectivist ethics to mesh with benevolence.

David Kelley observes that Objectivism does not equate self-interest with economic gain. I have no reason to maintain otherwise, as a description either of Objectivism or of the good life. Any such straitened view of what it is to live well is too desiccated for human consumption. That is precisely why I find curious Kelley's persistence in attempting to limn an account of benevolence in terms of potential opportunities for trade. Hasn't he just agreed that the moral life is wider than that? Benevolence is one such wider dimension insofar as its essence is provision of benefits to others out of a primary concern for their interest, and doing so without insistence on receiving a quid for each quo tendered.

At one point in his letter Kelley seems to say that this characterization is an arbitrary piece of persuasive definition and thus disposable as a merely semantic quibble. But that proves not to be his settled view, for he acknowledges that a society in which many people regularly provide small, unreciprocated kindnesses to others is abundantly more congenial than one in which they do not. That's benevolence. Kelley cannot quite abide it but neither is he willing to discard it, and so it is at this stretch of the argument that his philosophical wheels spin.

Perhaps, he suggests, one's acts of kindness will set a general example that redounds to one's own benefit. Or they are a kind of "insurance policy" taken out to guard against risk. For reasons set out in the review, these attempts to reduce benevolence to enlightened prudence cannot succeed.

Kelley semi-concedes the point when he admits that his remarks do not surmount Prisoner's Dilemma problems but suggests that these problems might not be severe given a sufficiently wide understanding of self-interest.

David Brown deplores my equation of benevolence with altruism. This, I protest, is an overly extravagant reading between the lines. I cannot see where I equate benevolence, or anything else, with altruism. The latter is not a concept for which I've ever had much use.

In this disregard I am not alone. Altruism understood in Brown's terms as self-abnegation practiced by sacrificial detachment from one's own projects and well-being is virtually nonexistent in the philosophical literature–other, that is, than in the fulminations of Objectivists. It is a straw man, one given life by Rand's dramatized self-portrayals of her distinctness and agonistic struggle against the rest of the philosophical tradition.

Concerning those predecessors, however, Rand possessed a store of spectacular misconceptions. In fact, only with Aristotle does her understanding rise to the level of plausible misunderstanding. I say this as much with awe as accusation, for it is amazing how little inconvenienced she was by these oceans of ignorance and prejudice. That may be because Rand was an imaginative genius able to produce riveting critiques of works she had never bothered to read. But emulating this example has proven intellectually deadly to many of her followers.

Those who most closely hew to her excoriations of so-called altruism and refuse to wander away from the confining egoistic circle she has drawn have imposed on themselves an irrelevance within the greater philosophical world. To his credit, David Kelley valiantly attempts in Unrugged Individualism to expand that circle. But until he is willing to toss overboard more of Objectivist orthodoxy and to regard Rand as simply one philosopher among others, it will continue to confine his investigations.

Needless to say, these remarks are offered in a spirit of exquisite politeness and, yes, exemplary benevolence!

We're Not Worthy

Thanks but no thanks for the patronizing review of Radical Son ("Desperately Seeking David") in your March issue. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

The idea that the war with the left is over (hence my book and my life are pathetic anachronisms that needn't bother the truly enlightened) is laughable. It is also insulting to Ward Connerly, Newt Gingrich, me, and others who–because we are in the battle–live with constant death threats from this left and are subject to daily character assassinations in the mainstream media and from the university culture that the left still owns (or has review author Steve Hayward even bothered to visit a campus lately?). If the left is passé, how come racial preference systems still rule the land?

The power of the left is manifest in the fact that, after 25 years of being mostly right about the big issues, REASON remains a marginal publication, its editors and writers obscure nobodies in the literary culture, and major thinkers like Hayek and Mises are incomprehensible names for 99 percent of the graduates of our elite universities. At the same time, brain-dead socialists like bell hooks, Cornel West, Catharine MacKinnon, and Noam Chomsky occupy chairs at premier universities and are cultural celebrities and hallowed icons for the same students.

Radical Son–which is the only description of the left from the inside over the past five decades–explains why this is so and provides a unique arsenal with which to fight back. Too bad for Steve Hayward that he doesn't think this makes Radical Son a socially relevant document.

Finally, let me say I'm sorry for Hayward that the personal story recounted in my autobiography embarrasses him and that he would rather pretend it didn't exist. It occurs to me, however, that it is just this kind of reaction to the human experience that gives conservatives a bad name.

David Horowitz
Center for the Study of Popular Culture
Los Angeles, CA