Thursday, November 27, 2008

beyond parody

I've been meaning to blog about an exchange Will Wilkinson had with Brian Leiter a while back. It's really doing my head in, Leiter is a bigshot philosopher who is just ridiculously mean about people he disagrees with. Leiter hasn't lost his mind like Chomsky seems to have (Leiter loves Chomsky though) and he's not like Michael Moore or Naomi Klein so I'm trying desperately to understand how he can be so uncharitable to people he disagrees with without simply dismissing him. I know people find it mystifying that I care so much, but I guess I'm just weird.

Anyway, I was browsing his blog and came across this

More Fun with Ayn Rand

Via this German blog, I am reminded that the 2008 Philosophical Lexicon has an amusing entry on the pseudo-philosopher du jour:


rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. "When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand." Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. "When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist."
This is an accurate description of Rand, but it describes Leiter's blogging style so perfectly that I'm stunned at his lack of self-awareness (when I e-mailed Leiter about his exchange with Will, he attributed a slip Will made to animus). Obviously I know he doesn't think this of himself but it's jarring to read him faulting someone else so specifically.

Here's a taste of Leiter's style
It is perhaps worth remembering that the “conservatives” of each prior era in America in the last century were, without an exception I can recall, on the morally reprehensible side of every major social and economic issue:
Yip, conservatives loved communist mass slaughter. I know how Leiter would respond; either that all liberals were on the same side and he meant issue where liberals and conservatives were on different sides. Either that or conservatives were only on the right side for morally reprehensible reasons (I'm not kidding!). But you get the idea; in all debates, without exception conservatives have been morally reprehensible.

Added: On the off chance that you're a reader who skims my posts but doesn't read the comments, Leiter responded in the comments. Three of the comments are his.

And here's my name.

Stuart Torr.

10 comments:

Richard said...

Good Heavens, can you not grasp that the idea of a "rand" is a contrivance? It is formed by those who resent her views, to paint Objectivism as irrational before anyone can investigate Rand's ideas.

The very idea of "a rand", is to encourage disregard of thought in favor of one's established inner feelings. Heaven forbid that one should think honestly!

You were suckered, accordingly.

Anonymous said...

Hey Stuart, Andrew Loly here, drop me a line in between philosophising.

Over and out.

Brian Leiter said...

I am certainly aware that right-wing dopes with blogs would believe that the joke about Rand applies to me, but this, I am afraid, does not establish my lack of self-awareness as much as it establishes the bias and stupidity of some of those on the right.

The "taste" of my style you selectively quote omits the colon and what follows the explicit reference to "social and economic" issues: "the 'conservatives' opposed the New Deal, opposed social security, supported segregation, opposed civil rights laws, and on and on." I'm not sure how to make it much clearer that I was not referencing foreign policy, though even there conservatives are largely wrong--as in the case of the actual grounds of their opposition to communism.

If you are going to attack people by name, you should sign your name to the attacks.

Stuart Torr said...

I wasn't referencing foreign policy either. Surely communism was also a social and economic issue.

I’d say describing opponents of the New Deal as being on the morally reprehensible side fits nicely with the rand joke.

You’ve complained that economics fails to make good predictions. Given this, how could anyone be confident that the policies of the New Deal were a good idea? If it’s difficult to know the effects of policy you’d expect a lot of people to be wrong, so why not just say that, instead of accusing people of being morally reprehensible?

Brian Leiter said...

You believe that "conservative" opposition to communism represented an issue of domestic social and economic policy? Curious. Do you think liberals in, say, the 1950s supported communism in the United States?

Issues of social and economic policy, such as the New Deal, implicate moral issues and moral judgments, and it is, of course, quite proper to characterize the moral standing of opposing positions in a moral debate, especially when one side was so dramatically and starkly wrong nad self-serving. But that was not what the Rand joke was about: I take it it referenced her habit of personally attacking those who had philosophical disagreements with her.

The claim I have actually defended regarding economics is that it does not make predictions with the degree of quantitative precision, or progress in their quantitative precision, that we would expect from a successful empirical science. That is, rather obviously, compatible with successful qualitative predictions, a capacity economic theories sometimes share with common sense. And, of course, in the case of the New Deal, we have substantial ex post evidence about the value of New Deal policies. I realize that there is a minor industry of debunking that evidence among those who still live in libertarian fantasy land, but that's neither here nor there.

Bob Solomon's Ghost said...

Leiter's napolean complex has put him an a reputational chinese finger trap. He's already pointlessly destroyed his reputation with an entire generation of his junior colleagues. And in his sad, vain attempts to salvage it, shows up in blog comments, acts like a total dick, and pulls the trap tighter. I've come to suspect that his main contribution is going to be as inspiration for a character in a beloved tragicomic novel.

Greg said...

Well Mutt, surely you can at least take some satisfaction from the fact that Leiter very quickly and emphatically demonstrated the exact behaviour you were puzzling over. In the first sentence of his comment he called you a biased, stupid, right-wing dope!!

stuart torr said...

You believe that people only thought of communism as a foreign policy issue in America? Curious. I’m a young South African so I wasn’t around to support or oppose segregation in America, but I would have had an opinion about it and I wouldn’t have thought of it as a foreign policy view. Also, after being encouraged to wonder what Michelle Malkin would have said back in the day it would seem appropriate to note that there were people on the left who supported communism. Not people that you approve of maybe, but people on the left nonetheless.

“Issues of social and economic policy, such as the New Deal, implicate moral issues and moral judgments, and it is, of course, quite proper to characterize the moral standing of opposing positions in a moral debate, especially when one side was so dramatically and starkly wrong nad self-serving. But that was not what the Rand joke was about: I take it it referenced her habit of personally attacking those who had philosophical disagreements with her.”

So I guess disagreements are fine, so long as you decide that the disagreement is acceptable. If you judge the other side to be dramatically and starkly wrong, then personally attacking those who disagree with you is fine. I bet Rand would have signed up for that.

Seriously, how is your stance different from a “rand”? There is a disagreement over the New Deal and without explaining why, you accuse those who oppose it as morally reprehensible.

My point was that we don’t have a lot of evidence of the way things would have turned out without the New Deal. Describing the New Deal as a mixed bag is not an extreme position and is held well outside libertarian fantasy land.

Brian Leiter said...

One more try, and then I'm giving up. The joke about Rand described her as "mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption." None of the disagreements we are talking about are philosophical disagreements. It is perfectly reasonable in a moral disagreement to think the other side morally misguided, as they are in almost all the cases I mentioned: the opponents of the New Deal accused Roosevelt of being a "class traitor," i.e., someone who betrayed the selfish interests of the ruling class; the opponents of the civil rights movement were overwhelmingly racists; and so on.

With regard to commmunism, I had assumed the reference was to opposition to the Soviet Union, which was the issue in the U.S. The American Right opposed the Soviet Union, alas, because of its anti-capitalism, not because of its totolitarianism. But opposition to capitalism is obviously a morally important position. It's absurd to imply that opposition to capitalism is morally on a par with opposition to civil rights, but perhaps that's not what you meant.

Stuart Torr said...

You’re right. The joke was about philosophy and your remark about conservatives was about social and economic issues. Obviously the philosophy bit was the heart of the joke and not the bit about disagreement being evidence of unspeakable moral corruption.

Of course it’s reasonable to think that people on the other side on the other side are morally misguided. Morally reprehensible is not the same thing, just like opposition to civil rights movement is not morally the same as opposition to the New Deal.

“It's absurd to imply that opposition to capitalism is morally on a par with opposition to civil rights”

What?! I think it's absurd to imply that there has to be a morally reprehensible side to every major social and economic issue.