Open to all,
its definitive credo is:
Universal human progress by private and voluntary means.
Property Rights, Human Rights, and Why Thou Shalt Not StealThe first and most basic human right is life, that is, the right to keep it.
Life is composed of time spent metabolizing, or, for vegetables, photosynthesizing. We can dispense, respectfully, with the vegetable kingdom for now.
Many species of animals spend a part of their time alive securing property. An animal cannot sue in court to assert property rights, but possession is the first component of property ownership, and many animals do take possession of things. Squirrels cache nuts. Dogs bury bones. Bees store honey.
If they lose those things, the portions of their lives, the time, attention, and effort spent securing them are lost. The things they stored are things for which they traded those components of their lives. If what was stolen was critical, as with, for example, a beehive robbed too thoroughly late in autumn, the loss may doom them.
Human beings make more conscious decisions to secure property. Even in a hand-to-mouth state of savagery, the possession between hand and mouth is a component of property rights. The possession in hand of something edible, however briefly, constitutes the edible as a repository of the time, attention, and effort expended to secure it. Its snatching away by another savage is a deprivation of that much of the victim's life.
A unique feature of human survival is human emphasis on providence. Humans deliberately invest substantial parts of their lives in acquiring property, that is, providing for themselves and those legitimately dependent on them. The acquisition of certain possessions both increases chances of survival and makes it more comfortable. Some accumulate more, some less, according to individual judgment and inclinations. If too much, some may ruin before it can be used. If too little, a time may come when it is as though nothing at all had been saved.
The amount of property owned usually equates to the portion of life dedicated to productivity and thrift, or prudence. Providence is productivity plus prudence. As a secondary matter, it reflects an individual's materialistic ambitions, liking of comforts or luxuries, taste for things that cost considerable effort, or desire for feelings of security or achievement. Gratification of each of those impulses requires a payment in time, exertion, and attention, that is, the stuff of life.
Accumulation of property does more. It enables exchange, or commerce. That is the method whereby people trade anything they have in excess, or surplus, for that which they lack. It even includes necessitous circumstances in which some of what is possessed in bare sufficiency, even in insufficiency, is exchanged for something else needed even more desperately. Unless people can accumulate things to trade, that easing of individual circumstances does not take place.
People discovered that commerce expedited providence. If a person could make or do what that person was inclined or trained to produce, undistracted by other tasks, then each could produce more efficiently without fear of want because of the ready opportunity to exchange surplus for necessities. Doing what they preferred, people became more energetic and efficient. Even those who did not particularly care for their occupations could earn more working at them without constant turning aside to other tasks, and at least benefit from the inspiration of opportunity to acquire more spending power and desirable things than they would have had without the diversity of occupations made possible by commerce.
As production became more efficient, it also became more complex. People began to ponder the subject of capital goods. Those are things valuable not so much in themselves as for facilitating acquisition or production of other things. Fish hooks, bows and arrows, hammers, and steel mills are capital goods. Capital goods are, quite simply, tools, or implements, or means rather than ends, but they are acquired as is any other sort of property: by manufacture or exchange. They expedite productivity, but they, too, are repositories of portions of human lives. To steal or vandalize them is a species of murder, a deprivation of components of human lives, and, in addition, a deprivation of opportunities for greater prosperity and security in the future.
The effect of theft resonates. Humans tend to be anxious creatures. A thief may rationalize correctly that a victim can afford to lose, or will hardly miss, or will not miss at all, the thing taken. But if the loss is discovered, the victim will infer a pattern of thievery, a thieving environment, and act to prevent repeated losses, and losses of things really vital to survival and well-being. The victim is likely to spend time, effort, energy, and money installing prevention devices or hiring guards. Others, hearing of the theft, do likewise. When there is thievery about them, people simply modify their behavior to defend against it. Every increment of time, effort, energy, and money devoted to such purposes is subtracted from the fund that could have been devoted to productivity. Goods are proportionately less plentiful and more expensive as a result of every theft.
Theft teaches lessons. One, just discussed, is the prudence of security, an impediment to productivity. Another is suspicion of other people. Anyone perceivng a thieving environment will be less open and trusting with others. Social friction develops. Valuable things are devoted to use as collateral security, to lie idle or encumbered as hostage guaranteeing behavior will be honest and promises kept rather than be devoted to unfettered productive use.
Another lesson thievery teaches is dismay. If one trades life components for something of value and another steals and benefits from it, the first will not as eagerly invest another increment of life in producing a second such thing. People deprived of the fruits of their labors, the toilsome hours they devoted to expectations of benefit, will tend in the future to work no harder than they must. Hope and enthusiasm, and their provident abundance-generating benefits, are diminished.
Thieves steal from themselves. By accepting predatory means of survival and conniving at them, they divert their own time and attention from ingenuity, productive effort, security, prestige, and the satisfactions of achievement. By settling for the most primitive means of surviving, they forfeit the greatest natural attributes of humankind, creativity and providence. Those attributes are so revered that they are traditionally the first qualities attributed to divinity as humans comprehend it. A thief lives in the style and image of no divinity, nor even a fulfilled human, but rather than of an animal that can do no better.
If, in human history, theft by force, coercion, stealth, or guile had never occurred, all of us would be living in circumstances of prosperity beyond imagination. We would have had the products of fortunes in time, energy and attention that were lost or diverted by thievery. Every life would have been considerably more productive and enjoyable as well. The lost assets and those they would have produced would have compounded like interest on principal in a bank, doubling and redoubling every several years. A world that had never known theft would not have been Paradise, but, could we experience it, it would seem so to us. We might now be roving the stars.
Every thief who ever lived, stole from us who are living now. It is particularly ironic, and inappropriate, for a thief to make the excuse of poverty. Were it not for thievery, there would probably be no poverty now. Such a plea is akin to a person with a wound deepening it, a person cutting off a limb because another has previously been amputated. If people, if children, starve today, and they do, all the thieves of all our yesterdays share in guilt for their deaths. Any who indulge, condone, or excuse thievery are logically precluded from advocating good will and fellowship among people: They alibi the malicious taking of life itself. Theft fractional homicide of existing lives, and also murder by time bombs that obliterate millions.
Thou Shalt not Steal -- Anyway
A curious and grotesque proposition has found its way into modern ethical debate, the assertion that if divinity cannot be proven or known, indeed if the nature of the universe cannot be certainly established, then nothing is knowable and no ethical principle is tenable. In the United States of America, public schools may not exhibit the Judaeo-Christian Ten Commandments for fear of using public property to establish a religion. But antiestablishment activists push the prohibition further, to insist that no moral proposition reflected in any religious material can be advocated in any public facilities, particularly schools, because all such principles are of religious derivation. In other words, because a scripture many think holy contains the statement, "Thou shalt not steal", children may not be taught stealing is wrong. They may be taught that it is right, or tolerable, however, because no religion makes that assertion.
A parallel conclusion has been reached due to discoveries in physics. It seems natural law dissolves, or becomes enshrouded, in a mysterious enigma when investigated to extreme extents. At some point, matter and energy become indistinguishable. At some point a thing might exist or it might not. If it does, it might or might not display certain characteristics. In some cases probabilitites can be determined, but never certainties. Observations are relative to, that is, depend on, the surroundings and conditions in which they are made. It is not only spirit, but also matter and energy that are not completely understood, and, apparently, are beyond hope of being so. It is sometimes asserted that we have no intellectual right to acknowledge consistently prevalent physical processes as valid for us, though not necessarily universally operative. Since things work differently in the interiors of stars or the relative voids of almost-empty space, we are sometimes told we have no right to adhere to the conditions surrounding ourselves because they are not universal truths.
Throughout the history of western civilization, particularly of its intelligentsia, there was until recently a steady thread of confidence that all truth would someday be discovered. Morality has indeed been derived from religion in most centuries, because people had confidence divinity would reveal all, or, at least, all humans needed to know to govern their behavior. Schisms, surprises, and disgracefully violent disputes within Christianity during the European Renaissance eroded that faith, but replaced it, among intellectuals, with faith in pure reason.
Reminiscent of the Classical Greeks, thinkers of the Enlightenment era believed disciplined contemplation would some day uncover ultimate truths. It was pointed out, by Immanuel Kant among others, that all reason must proceed from assumptions, and assumptions beyond "I exist" are all suspect. to one extent or another. We cannot prove the reliability of our sensory or thinking organs: Indeed, we can demonstrate them to be fallible, capable of being deluded: Illusionists, also called magicians, and some cognitive psychologists make their livings demonstrating just that. Hope was transferred from pure reason to keen and disciplined observation, but the proposition that, some day, all would be discovered did not waver.
But observation and measurement themselves, the methods of empiricism, instead revealed a universe that seems to spring from a chaotic enigma of possibilities such as might exist in the maelstrom of a singularity, or black hole, in space. Mathematics, a pure form of reason, produced descriptions of just such conditions without stumbling on fallacy. Matter and energy investigated with ever finer measurements seemed to disintegrate in ambiguity. The fundamental principle, or principles, of the universe began to appear either inaccessible, incomprehensible, or fortuitous. There was ultimately nothing but chaos to know, it seemed, and, if there were anything coherent, humans could never discover it. It might also be that human experience is such a minuscule incident that an accurate description of the greater universe would be functionally useless to human beings. Ultimate reality is mostly irrelevant to us particular entities. As such realizations began to dawn, moralists, ethicists, and social theorists collapsed in despair in the century just now ended.
Because of the horrors of world war, many took that despair to bitter extremes. Nihilists asserted there is no truth, divinity cannot be, life is meaningless and accidental, people are helpless and ignorant, and every proposition is as true and/or false as any other. Philosophy as a profession became no more than study of the history of the progress of thought until it was discovered thought was futile, of intriguing but socially insignificant comparisons of various thinkers' methods of measuring and reasoning. In a meaningless universe, nothing could be responsibly advocated, it was asserted. To call one thing good, another bad, or one thing true, another false, was an unjustified intrusion on the impressions cherished by others. The only valid proposition was that no other proposition was valid.
In the past two decades, thought has begun substantially to emerge from those doldrums. People have begun to write as mathematicians have long analyzed, negotiating the difficulties of multiple variables, limitation of claims of validity for conclusions to cases described by accurately stated premises, that is, contextual precision, proportionate weights or significances in factors, and the importance of extent or degree. We have begun to realize the problems we have to solve are not questions of all one thing and none of another, this or that, but of how much of each of many things, practical utility depending on context. For example, most of our arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, and trigonometry are based on the fallacious premise that straight lines exist. We now know a more comprehensive and accurate view of physical reality is that space warps, waves, and convolutes so as to make any such existence impossible. Unless we are fanatically doctrinaire, we persist in learning and applying the mathematical tools we first developed for the simple reason that their use in our environment is expedient. We benefit from their provisional utility and let the question of their ultimate veracity go hang, or entertain mathematical specialists.
We are like children learning to balance bicycles at the moment helpful parents take their steadying hands away. At first, there is panic. Then the realization dawns that the hand has for quite a while been doing very little if anything. Human life has always been fraught with uncertainty, particularly about the nature of ultimates. Until relatively recently, the vastness of the astronomical universe was thought to be nothing more than some lights hung or errant in a relatively closely positioned sky, the Earth being the center of everything and there being very little of anything else. And with this perception, our species progressed and thrived despite its eventually discovered falsity. Our anxieties have been succored by people who pretended to have perfect knowledge, clergy and savants, and by the expectation that everything would in due course come clear. Now we have confronted the probability that there is, from our perspective, a functionally infinite amount to learn, that we may never be able to learn it all, that the overwhelming majority of it is practically useless to us, and that, individually, each of us will succeed in learning very little. But the panic and despair associated with those realizations are past us, and we are realizing our understanding is no worse off than it has ever been.
Indeed, it is improved by every datum acquired as we continue to investigate despite the prospect of ultimate incomprehensibility. The common fund of knowledge enables options. But each human and human community must choose among the options, and once the choices are made and lives planned or even obliviously pursued, most of the contents of the figurative common library are irrelevant. We do not only acquire new expedients, we also abandon old ones. The writer and most readers of this essay would prove woefully, pathetically, even fatally ignorant of once-commonly-understood skills if suddenly transported to a primitive forest without means of escape to our customary habitats. We do not live by knowing it all, but rather by learning what we need where we are.
Legitimate humanism, a philosophical starting point, is based on the proposition that, whatever else may be true, humans want to feel good as much as possible. That imperative changes the philosophical mandate. Ayn Rand and the objectivist conviction obstinately refused to admit the validity of either physical relativity or moral relativism, and certainly rejected the nebulosities of quantum physics and any ethical derivatives it may seem to suggest. The human perspective, they said, is absolute. Nothing need be done except continue to refine it, and, while doing so, apply its discernible lessons. An unimpeded provident meritocracy, Rand Objectivists maintain, produces more human happiness than any other socioeconomic arrangement.
At this time, and this time will not last forever, Rand Objectivism seems simplistic for its denial of ambiguity in the universe. But insofar as it asserts it is foolish for humans to mold their behavior to other than human perspectives and wise to improve understanding of those perspectives, it is squarely within the humanist tradition of Classical Greece, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, one of the strongest traditions in western civilization. It is the cloudspinners proposing to base human ethics on remote and abstruse considerations who are functional idiots, virtually insisting that since, for example, it has been learned that our ancestors came from the sea, we should all act as porpoises do.
Operating on this later side of the philosophical reawakening, Radical Positivism takes a broader view. Compared to Randist Objectivism, its conclusions are a fortiori: compatible, sometimes fully consistent, and often extending and expanding the Rand Objectivist vision. It builds upward and outward on that vision, just as, Radical Positivists hope and trust, the wisdom of future generations will extend and expand this one. No individual or group composed of members of a transitional, developing species in a dynamic, developing universe can hope to enunciate all truth for all time, nor should it pretend to.
Rand Objectivism seemed to conceive creativity and genius as talents restricted to a tiny minority born possessing them, and recommend all people subordinate themselves to those select few. Radical Positivism emphasizes the flourishing of opportunity in the dawning era of provident globalization. When people of many different predilections are able to support themselves pursuing their widely diverse inclinations, a much greater proportion can march at the widening vanguard of ingenuity and partake of the invigorating gratifications of self-realization.
Radical Positivism maintains that creative and productive endeavor are natural, not toilsome burdens imposed by necessity, and their prime gratification is not wealth, but deep emotional fulfillments in the thrill of the effort and the satisfaction of accomplishment. In this it differs not only from Rand Objectivism, but all of the philosophical systems that concluded material prosperity to be the consummate goal of humankind, that is, essentially all secular philosophy of the past two centuries. Means of production and distribution, and their object of greatest general prosperity, are all indeed means, not ends. Yet they are highly expedient ends, and the anti-materialistic negation of materialism is also misplaced.
They are important because, without them, there would be no prospect of burgeoning opportunities for human fulfillment. Only a relative few sorts of talent and genius would be susceptible of being pursued as occupations. Providence begets prosperity, but that is not the end of the story. Prosperity, with providence, can beget human fulfillment scarcely imagined even now.
Material prosperity is also humankind's legitimate business so long as some humans remain destitute and in misery due to material privation. At this time, half or more of humankind remains in that condition. Thievery and slaughter, usually closely associated with rapine, have left them so. It would be absurdly arrogant for those enjoying affluence to despise materialism while others remain in distress.
That providence is the highest quality of humans is ancient wisdom. That thievery, illicit or legalized, impedes providence and maintains misery is also. The ancients did not distinguish among religion, philosophy, and science. They attributed awesome and little-understood natural forces to divinity. What we call natural principles, learned by steady and repeated observations, they attributed to divinity, its word and will. If something worked, they assumed that phenomenon not only divinely ordained, but divinely enunciated in the coherent Logos, or will-expressing word, of divinity. Superstition, intimidation, and dogma have always been only appendages, never the main components, of religious belief.
For that reason, modern skeptics and atheists err to dismiss moral tenets held in common by the great and ancient religious traditions as products of contrived superstition and repression. That any great thing is subject to abuse does not make it worthless, and the virtue of such a thing as religious faith is not to be judged by distortions inflicted on it. More particularly, the commandment Thou Shalt Not Steal can be validly viewed as a statement of natural law, a principle that works consistently well if heeded by the humans in this universe.
For many, that statement is a matter of faith, a principle actively and deliberately imposed by divinity. But for those without such belief, the fact that it is contained in all faiths' scriptures evidences it is a natural principle universally recognized. That ancient scriptures endorse it is not a cause for suspicion or denial, but rather a validation of its verity. Religion would not have long maintained as pronouncements of divinity, principles found capricious, unreliable, or invalid. Assertions of that nature are the subjects of dispute among faiths. The denunciation of thievery is a tenet all affirm. As such, it is not less credible for its religious endorsements, but more. It is no product of superstition, but rather of universal human testimony reporting constantly reconfirmed observations, just as with empirically established principles of science. The ancients did not have modern laboratories and empirical methodology. But they did have memory and time.
It is because of the clarity of the rationale supporting it, and the validation of the most empirical and unanimous conclusions of the great religions viewed as virtual encyclopedias, that Radical Positivists are confident that providence is superior to predation and parasitism and is entitled to prevail over them, and that the proposition, Thou Shalt Not Steal, is one a prudent society will insist on with unshakeable firmness.
Radical Positivists of the world unite, and make it a better place for all!