The New Clarion

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The Road to Hell

By Jim May · January 9th, 2011 7:40 pm · 7 Comments ·

Over at Instapundit in November, Glenn Reynolds took to task a reader who deploys the “but they have good intentions” argument against morally equating communists with Nazis.

Glenn is completely right on this count.  What I wish to lay down here is why he’s right; why the “good intentions” argument, no matter which of its forms is used, is never a valid defense against moral responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, in either the physical OR the ideological realm.

First, let me lay down the basic metaphor which I use to illustrate the idea I use in this regard: the principle of what I call ideological causality.  I chose this term because it encapsulates my answer to the question: what moves men?  In what sense can ideas “cause” actions, if men have free will?  How can Objectivism talk of ideas driving history in light of this fact?

I see ideas as being like roads, and individuals as being the drivers on these roads.  The driver chooses which roads to travel, how fast, in what direction etc.  He is free at any time to speed up, slow down, reverse direction or change roads entirely.

However, the driver cannot change the roads themselves.  So long as he is travelling on a road, he is heading towards a destination that is determined by the nature of that road, not by the drivers.  Real roads possess a determinate physical nature, in particular their intersections with other roads, and their ultimate end destination.  Ideas, for their part, have a determinate logical nature, which includes their logical intersections with other roads, as well as their ultimate destination, or end-of-road.

Now imagine a scenario involving physical roads for a moment.  A driver says that he’s going to drive to New York.  He is completely 100% sincere in this goal.  However, the road he has chosen actually leads to Los Angeles.  It is obvious that his destination is not a function of his stated intentions, but of where the road leads, and so our driver will end up in Los Angeles in spite of all his honest intention to go to New York.

What would your reaction be, if upon his arrival in Los Angeles, he screams “but I didn’t mean THIS!” and therefore absolves himself of responsibility for where he ended up?  What would your reaction be if he insisted that the reason why he ended up in L.A. wasn’t because he was on the wrong road, but that he simply used the wrong make of car, or shifted the gears incorrectly, or didn’t go fast enough?  What if he kept insisting that the map he invented clearly shows the road going to New York, so that’s where he should end up?  What if, after it’s pointed out that all the other drivers using his map ended up in L.A., he insists that they must have been doing it wrong?  What if he insisted that he should be judged a good driver because he intended to go to New York, not by the fact that he ended up repeated in L.A.?  What if some other driver, noting the failure of all those drivers, concluded cynically that while maps are good in theory, they are a failure as such in practice, and so we should simply drive around at random, having faith that “things will work out”?

Why, we would laugh in their faces, of course.  In the common-sense physical world, we would expect him to know where he was going — i.e. to use a valid map, to understand which roads he ought to choose.  If you want to reach destination X, you must use road Y, reality says.

Ideas work the same way.  When we evaluate ideas, we judge them by where they lead, on their own merits — not by the purported intentions of those who hold them.  End results are not a function of intentions.  In my example of the driver above, the reader should be able to recognize several of the arguments often used to rationalize Marxism in the face of its results (and one of the common conservative rebuttals).

The answer to all of them is the same: it doesn’t matter what any given Marxist intended, but what Marxism logically achieves.  Do not think for a moment, amid the ruins at the end of your road, that screaming “but I didn’t mean THIS!” will absolve you.  It won’t.

This is the principle of ideological causality.  While all of us retain the freedom to accept or reject ideas, we cannot alter the underlying logical nature of those ideas — in much the same way that we are free to make choices in reality, but not to alter the basic facts of physical nature.

In both cases, the constraint is causality; in both cases, our freedom of choice — and our moral responsibility — consist in a commitment to rationality, in comprehending the nature of things/ideas, in order to enact the causes that will bring us the desired results.  Logic, to be commanded, must be obeyed.

So, of what use is this notion of ideological causality?  First and foremost, it provides the framework of understanding how it is possible to talk about ideas in a causal manner, without invoking the specter of determinism that is implicit in physical causality.  So long as a person or a culture accept certain ideas, it affects their choices and direction in a pre-determined (and therefore, predictable) manner, much like physical determinism does insentient nature.  It allows us to say “Ideas have consequences” while remaining logically consistent with a tabula rasa view of man.  The crucial difference between physical causality and its ideological counterpart,  is that insentient objects, by definition, cannot “opt out” of physics, but any given person is free to alter their ideas — to change the road they are on.

In the here and now, ideological causality provides the framework we can use to begin assigning proper moral responsibility in the realm of ideas, on the pattern we use for human actions in the real world. We should be able to show why shopworn excuses such as “The Soviets betrayed the revolution, so they weren’t “real” communists”  or “China wasn’t really communist because under communism, the state ‘withers away'” etc. are completely fatuous at best, and plainly dishonest at worst.  We can point out how disingenuous it is for certain conservatives to invoke such causality when insisting that Objectivism and/or liberty would result in the “loss of civilization”, while ignoring the causal roots of their own ideas about what civilization is, in the primitive religious feudalism that predated the Enlightenment for over a millenium.

To use an even more contemporary example: trying to paint Gabrielle Giffords’ attacker as “right wing” because “We the Living” is in his book collection, is the basic “correlation is not causation” fallacy.

Just as reality will intransigently deliver to you the consequences of certain actions without regard for what you intended, and it’s your moral responsibility to understand the facts of reality involved in order to get what you intended — logic will deliver to you the consequences of certain ideas without regard for your goals, and it is your moral responsibility to understand the facts of logic involved in order to ascertain that your idea leads to your stated end. We are morally responsible to look at reality, in order to do what is possible to ensure correspondence between our goals and our actual results — as opposed to merely having faith that the two will match up (i.e. relying on blind luck, or worse: wishing).

In NO case are “good intentions” a defense against the responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, nor against the moral charge of evading the responsibility of cognition, to make the rational effort to find out where your road leads.

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff // Jan 10, 2011 at 4:20 am

    Very well said and enlightening. Thank you.

  • 2 Embedded I // Jan 10, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Excellent! I have often thought of it as being similar to the saying, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll probably end up some place else.” I always took “where you are going” as including the route or method to be used, not just as a destination.

  • 3 Anna // Jan 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Wow! Thanks for this article. I am currently reading the essay “The Metaphysically Given Versus the Manmade” in Ayn Rand’s book “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” and your discussion about not being able to change the logical results of holding and/or acting on certain ideas served as a great example outlining the points made in her essay.

  • 4 L-C // Jan 11, 2011 at 8:37 am

    This entry is a gem. I get the spontaneous reaction that this identification is a big deal. Volition pertains to ideas, not the nature (consequences) of ideas. You can choose to be a Marxist, but can’t choose for Marxism to deliver happiness and prosperity.

    And, of course, Communism is not a good intention that somehow failed. It was a positively monstrous intention that delivered precisely what its nature demanded. I’ve heard the “good but poorly implemented” line several times in real life, and if that is how people view Communism, we’re in trouble. Partly because they think consistent altruism is good, and because they they think the poor bastard could use another try.

  • 5 Jim May // Jan 12, 2011 at 1:30 am

    Volition pertains to ideas, not the nature (consequences) of ideas. You can choose to be a Marxist, but can’t choose for Marxism to deliver happiness and prosperity.

    It was born of my thinking about the idea that freedom pertains to choice, but not to the consequences thereof — reality decides the latter. The metaphysically-given consequences of a man-made fact, as it were.

    I use this road metaphor against Leftists all the time; these days, their entire defense against being made to own up to and account for communism, is the “intentions” argument. It likely stems from the primacy-of-consciousness premise, from whence the idea that intentions shape reality is a perfectly logical outgrowth, an easy stop on that road.

  • 6 Gene Palmisano // Jan 13, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Indeed, when one studies praxeology it is imperative to consider causation on a micro level. To borrow your metaphor, all roads lead to the philosophical dead end known as pragmatism.

  • 7 Elisheva Levin // Jan 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    What a well thought out metaphor you used here. It was very clear, and illustrated your point perfectly. I shall be borrowing it to explain the idea to my high schooler.