Monthly Archives: May 2003

The Anti-Conceptual Mentality

I’ve been engaged in some heated debate with some commies over the last few days, and would like to share my last response, which is basically a rehashing and application of an essay from Philosophy: Who Needs It, which I didn’t read, and don’t have on me, but found an excerpt from here. Incidentally, I clearly remember possessing the book a few months ago, so if you borrowed it, I want it back!

Anyway, go read my essay on capitalism and the anti-conceptual mentality.

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Listserv: The Anti-Conceptual Mentality


The Anti-Conceptual Mentality

May 3, 2003

(This is a reply in an ongoing debate on capitalism.)

You accuse me of seeing the political and economic landscape of the world as two stark opposites: capitalism vs. socialism. According to you, my mindset does not allow me to see the “benefits and harms” of each system, or that no such thing as capitalism or socialism really exists: each is simply a convenient model for the groups in power to perpetuate their class/race/gender/ethnically based status. The origin of this view can be attributed to what Ayn Rand described this view as the “anti-conceptual mentality.”

A century of progressive education has crippled generations of students who are afraid to think because they have been taught the uselessness of their own mind, and the primary result of this education is the influence of an anti-conceptual mentality on all academic fields. This mentality is based on a particular view of concepts – or rather the rejections of concepts as such. It takes the perceptual level as given, and refuses to look any further or derive any universal conclusions from observations. Such a view deals solely in concretes: it takes the immediate, directly perceivable empirical evidence as only kind of knowledge possible to man. Directly perceivable objects such as “apple” and “hand” are not distinguished from higher concepts such as justice, jealousy, love, and freedom. The anti-conceptualist’s conscious mind stops at the perceptual level – it recognizes sensations and physical objects, but refuses to draw abstractions and form higher abstraction from lower ones. In short, the anti-conceptualist cripples his mind by destroying the very ability that distinguishes humans from animals – the ability to think in terms of ideas.

Because the anti-conceptual mentality is unable to draw conclusions from perceptions, it reduces the mind to dealing with particular events as disconnected and independent perceptions, without any notion of the “big picture.” However despite the best efforts of the anti-conceptualist to reject his mind, all human action requires some kind of thought – but without the ability to think in terms of ideas, the anti-conceptualist is reduced to vague and disjoined bits, vague and contradictory emotions jumbled together by his subconscious that provide no guidance for the future.

The consequence of this mode of thought on politics and economics (with similar influence on all other areas of human knowledge) is to destroy the very idea of political or economy theory and splinter it into the empirical study of particular instances without any connection to a larger theory or question of “why?” or “what for?” The modern economist or political scientist takes as a given all the subconscious and semi-conscious assumptions that are required before one can answer any particular question and attributes them to subjective traits of his culture or society. For example, a political scientist will ask, “How can we make bureaucracies more responsive to the public?” and then will examine specific programs and crunch numbers to reach conclusions that are narrow and tentative. (I am being generous – many political scientists ask questions that have very little bearing to reality and do not even attempt to reach any kind of useful conclusions.) He will usually not ask “Why is this question important? How does it tie in to the proper function of government? Should bureaucracies be responsive to the public? How are government bureaucracies different those found in business? What is the fundamental nature of government? Why do we need government at all? If we need it, what form should it take? What is a democracy and is it really a good model for government? How does my thesis tie into this larger big picture?”

Obviously, a political scientist cannot answer all these questions is a single paper – but he must consciously acknowledge what his premises are, and form a rational and hierarchical basis for them before he can claim that his thesis has any general applicability or larger lesson beyond the scope of the particular concretes he is studying. Just to know what questions to ask, he must first know what questions are fundamentally important to human life and which are trivial. (Or in the unfortunate modern connotation of the term, “purely academic”).

To understand a single one of the concepts he must define – say, democracy, the political scientist cannot simply observe various democracies and passively and unthinkingly understand what the word means. Understanding requires one to single out the essential elements held in common between various democracies and to discard the unique or non-essential characteristics. Democracies differ in their wealth, freedom, size, form of government, and longevity, but the share the essential characteristic of public influence or control over the government. One cannot say “one of the flaws of democracies is that they are short-lived and violent” because some have been short lived and others have peacefully persisted for centuries (assuming we take democracy to mean “representative government” and not “mob rule”). Thus, social instability and violence cannot be an essential characteristic of democracy. Likewise, one cannot make the absurd claim that poverty is caused by capitalism simply by observing that some nations called “capitalistic” have poverty. It is true that many nations with varying amounts of poverty have varying amounts of capitalism – but they also have varying amounts of redheads, bald men, and national monuments. To make a judgment, one first has to determine the essential traits of capitalism (individual rights, especially well protected property rights) and the essential aspects of poverty (low standards of living) and then determine the relationship between them, ceteris parabis. To even apply the example I just presented about democracies to capitalism requires certain fundamental assumptions and higher-level abstractions about the nature of knowledge and the relationship between a concept and a particular instance thereof.

Without the ability to operate on a conceptual level, what does the subjectivist see when he tries to determine the nature of capitalism? Only various instances of societies with various levels of freedom, various unrelated and related characteristics without any unifying or essential traits. Some vague idea forms based on the observation that “capitalism” is related to capital investment and Wall Street, which leads to other associations of “robber barons,” Henry Ford, corporate welfare, Reagan, greedy CEO’s, Enron, “exploitation,” and a dozen other disjoined associations and unidentified emotional responses without any unifying connections. As long as he deals with people whose minds are in a similar state of disarray, the anti-conceptualist feels safe. Without any ability to form connections or make judgments about his own or other’s views, he must necessarily be a subjectivist, always relying on the consensus of some collective to provide his reality, and always making compromises. At best, he pays lip-service to principles he is unable to define or justify, always vulnerable to any religious or secular authority possess an air of confidence and finds a convenient scapegoat to justify whatever atrocity he has mind. However, when confronted with someone who thinks in terms of ideas and ideals, he first attempts to discredit his opponents mind, and if unsuccessful, results to panic, evasion, or outright hostility.

Returning to the original accusation leveled against me, I proudly admit that I see the sad state of the world as the conflict between two forces: freedom versus slavery, individualism versus collectivism, capitalism versus god/state worship, the proud spirit of individualism and entrepreneurism versus the forced labor of communalism. I am an Objectivist because I believe that there is such a thing an objective reality, and it is in my power to know it and to act on it and that my survival depends on it.

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Check out today's Cox and

Click!Check out today’s Cox and Forkum. In other news, would conservatives object to this 7-year-old "abortion"?

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More on Crime and Punishment

Judging by the number of comments left, my last post left a bit of confusion. I believe I made my point clear enough the first time, but let me reiterate: no, I do not think that the police should spy on anyone unless they have reason to believe that their suspect is guilty of a crime. I believe that the Constitutional safeguards found in the Bill of Rights form a good, but not all-inclusive model for the safeguards that must be followed to prevent innocents from being harassed by the police. The proper level of precautions to follow is an empirical matter, depending on the nature of the crime (murderers should get more scrutiny that embezzlers, citizens more than foreigners) and the nature of the technology available to the police (with DNA, there is less need for eyewitness accounts.) Nevertheless, security and liberty cannot exist without the other.

By the way, it is inevitable that cops, judges, and juries will make mistakes. Innocents will be searched and convicted of crimes they did not commit, and perhaps even put to death for their crimes. Reason and evidence are rarely perfect, and that fact that mistakes will happen must be accepted as a given. The precautions and safeguards taken to prevent erroneous convictions will necessarily have to vary with the accuracy of the system, but the question of what amount of risk to tolerate, how many guilty men must be set free to prevent the imprisonment of one innocent is an ethical question that depends on the value one places on the sanctity of an individual human life versus the value one places on maintaining peace and order.

How does one weight the need to carry out justice versus the risk of punishing an innocent? I would say that the liberty of the individual must be placed first because it is its own end, while justice is only the means of ensuring it. Again, these are not mutually exclusive values, and I have yet to see a sound philosophical discourse on the topic. One thing that is clear however, is that the greater the accuracy of the system, the less guilty men will go free and the less innocent men will be punished.

Btw, what do you think of the background color changing to gray on mouseover? Should I just change the background to gray, or leave it white?

Also, please keep up the comments – I do find them entertaining, even if some of my readers (no names) need a good dose of reality.

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The Fallacy of "Liberty vs. Security"

One more thing I’d like to address is the fallacy of "security vs. liberty" — the notion that our choice is between having a Nazi-like police state and a wild, free-for-all, hedonistic orgy/looting spree. The truth of the matter is that there is no dichotomy between liberty and security, and we cannot have one without the other.

Liberty means "the freedom to engage in any activity which does not involve initiating force against other individuals." Security means "freedom from the initiation of force of other individuals." In other words, liberty is the ability to do as we choose, as long as we respect the same right in others, and security is being free from the force or fraud of others. I should be able to stop there, but the notion of "rights" has been so perverted that I feel that I have to elucidate to get my point across.

Consider the so-called conflict between freedom and security in wiretapping. Is liberty threatened by the attempts of the police to maintain security? If the criminal is truly guilty of a crime, then he is limiting the freedom of others by using force or fraud against them. Wiretapping a criminal is not an infringement of the criminal’s security, but the protection of the liberty and security of his victims. As long as the police take due care to not spy on innocent individuals (by following constitutional safeguards, for example) they are not infringing on anyone’s liberty or security. There is a fine line between being too zealous in going after criminals and being too lax – but there is a line nonetheless, not a murky gray area where both freedom and security are threatened. The precise procedures are an empirical matter for experts in criminology to define – but we must be clear on the philosophical point that neither liberty nor security can exist without the other. If the police allow citizens to run wild and do not act to stop crime, then the life, liberty, and property of innocent bystanders is threatened – and if the police go around strip-searching random victims and breaking into random homes, then everyone’s health and privacy is jeopardized.

This point is especially important to keep in mind as liberals and conservatives wrangle over the various Patriot Act(s) and the "balance" between our freedom and security. So how can we know when we are reaching the ideal? When neither government nor any other goons with guns try to stop you from any taking action that does not initiate force or fraud against others, then you can be sure that both your security and liberty are safe.

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What happened to all the terrorists?

Thanks to Hootinan for this story on the State Department’s report that deaths due to terrorism are down from 3,300 in 2001 to "only" 725 in 2002, the lowest in more than 30 years. I can already imagine the spin conservatives and liberals are going to give to this story.

Conservative: "This shows the effectiveness of the new Dept. of Homeland Security/Bush Administration/Federal Airport Security!"
Anti-war liberal: "See, I told you the Bush administration just made up a terrorist threat to turn America into a police state!"

I don’t think the decline in terrorism should be attributed to a huge new federal bureaucracy nor a sudden change of heart among former terrorists. The CIA still has a lot of dedicated and talented men trying to find as many terrorists as the bloated and un-responsive bureaucracy will allow them, and the federalized airport security is a security risk as much as it is a drain of our tax dollars. The major difference between early 2001 and 2002 is the government’s resolve. Granted, the initial determination to find the men responsible for 9/11 was greatly weakened after too many "why do they hate us?" and "love thy Muslim neighbors" tv specials, but the Clinton era pragmatism of lobbing a few cruise missiles into the desert as a pathetically weak response to a terrorist attack was replaced by proactive security agencies that didn’t just ignore known planned attacks, but actively went after terrorists and the regimes that supported them. Terrorists, and especially their leaders, who aren’t as willing to be martyrs for Allah as their brainwashed followers, took notice.

Let me say that again: any difference between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 levels of terrorism is not due to increased funding or more bureaucrats (in fact, I bet that the agencies could do just as well of a job fighting terrorism with half their current budget) — the difference is due to the resolve of the government to actually go after terrorists by letting FBI/CIA/etc agents to do their job.

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