31 January 2009

The Undercurrent, Spring 2009 Edition

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26 January 2009

Leonard Peikoff Podcast 46

Today’s podcast (for 26 Jan 2009) from Dr. Peikoff is available.

Teasers: Americans who believe in God, rationalism in youth, atheism ads on buses, humanism, sexual exclusivity.

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 5

(Note: This is Part 5 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #5:

If there is no God, the kindest and most innocent victims of torture and murder have no better a fate after death than do the most cruel torturers and mass murderers. Only if there is a good God do Mother Teresa and Adolf Hitler have different fates. (Note 1.)

In fact, there is no “fate after death,” if Prager means experiences that can be perceived by the dead person.  When a person dies, he’s dead.  His soul and body die.  (By “soul” I am referring to the non-material, but very real, aspects of a person: his mind, his will, his character.  I certainly do not mean some sort of mystical, eternal spirit that floats around the heavens.)  A conscious being that dies can no longer be conscious; if it were, it would still be alive.

The human mind requires a physical platform: the human brain.  The human brain requires the human body for its self-sustaining actions, its energy source, and its contact with the world.  When the organism dies, the mind dies with it.  The raw material - the matter that makes up the corpse - continues to exist, of course, but the living thing is gone forever.

It’s hard to state the point without being redundant and tautological.  To die is to cease to live.

There is simply no justification for claiming the possibility that a human can experience anything after death, never mind for inventing the entire apparatus of heaven, hell, purgatory, God, Satan, etc.  Alas, this is another instance of Mr. Prager claiming something to be true solely because he wishes it to be true.  I understand why such fantasies are popular - it feels good to think that murderers and rogues who get away with their crimes during their lifetimes will be punished after they die - but the wish does not make it so.  

If we want torturers and murderers to experience a different fate than do innocent men and women - in other words, if we want justice - then it is essential for us to establish the proper social system here on earth.  This is the very purpose of a proper government: to protect its citizens from others who use or threaten to use force against them.  For all it may do to placate the frustrated and helpless masses, fabricating elaborate tales of heavenly retribution does nothing to punish criminals. 

The nature of Prager’s claim here in point #5 is actually identical to that of point #3, in which he lamented how tragic life is without God.  So, I’ll refer the reader to my response there for more details.

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

25 January 2009

The Audacity of Hope: The Hope That Obama Doesn’t Mean What He Says

Blogger 3 Ring Binder linked to a grimly amusing video from Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show showing how President Obama’s rhetoric is not significantly different from that of President Bush.

Of course, at least part of the reason for this is what I mentioned in my previous post: one can read just about anything in President Obama’s words.  He is the archetypical “Rorschach candidate.”  This is obvious with respect to the fawning millions who adore him fiercely for no particular reason they would be able to put their fingers on, but it is also true for detractors who are looking for things to be critical of.  So, it is not hard for Jon Stewart to find plenty of material to support his skit.

Unfortunately, the particular passages that Stewart selected highlighting the similarity between Presidents Bush and Obama demonstrate a mixture of good and bad policy statements.  I certainly agree with Stewart’s implicit criticism of the Presidents’ bringing “the Almighty God” into such bold statements, which does not merely muddy the waters but actually hampers an otherwise rational statement of foreign policy with the faith-based superstitions of our enemies.  I also agree with the criticism of “nation building” policies.

However, some of the quotes from the Presidents were uncompromising statements of self-defense.  It is perfectly right for our Commander-in-Chief and sworn defender of the Constitution to say to those who would murder Americans, “We will defeat you.”  It is right for the leader of the (relatively) free world to say, “We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”  If only the Presidents meant it!  I can only wish George Bush had acted accordingly, and I have little hope that Barack Obama will.

Frankly, I’m sorry to hear that “the cowboy days are over,” as Jason Jones, the comedic correspondent in the skit, says.  That means they are over before they began, for George Bush was certainly no cowboy.  Cowboys do not bluster; they act.  A cowboy, knowing he had just one bullet in his revolver and finding himself face to face with his enemy, would not fire his weapon into the ground.  (This last borrows the metaphor that Leonard Peikoff applied to George Bush, referring to his invasion of Iraq instead of Iran.)

Near the end of the skit, Jones delivers its most significant line.  No longer able to evade the contradictions he holds, Jones finally admits, “When Obama says this stuff, I don’t think he really means it... and that gives me hope!

Yes.  That is the best we can hope for.

24 January 2009

Notes On Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address

Here are a few of my comments on President Obama’s inaugural address of Tuesday, 20 Jan 2009.  I made no attempt to organize or integrate my thoughts; they are simply extemporaneous remarks appended to quotes from his speech.  There were many other comment-worthy quotes, but I found that I was starting to repeat myself and it was taking too long to finish.  I’m sure I will have plenty of opportunities in the next four (or eight) years to comment on Mr. Obama’s activities.

With no further ado:

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath...”  (Note 1.)

Forty-three Americans, not forty-four, have taken the presidential oath.  Grover Cleveland, who was the 22nd and 24th President, counts as only one American.

... America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers and true to our founding documents.

On the whole, I would say Americans retain a sense of independence much more than say, Europeans (who have never valued individualism), but I do not think that “We the People” have remained faithful to the ideals of the founders.  The fundamental, integrating principle of the founding of America was the notion of individual rights; the government was established as a servant of its citizens with the sole purpose of safeguarding those rights.  To be American in spirit is to stand upright, alone if need be; to produce; to pull one’s own weight; and to trade and associate with whomever one wishes - provided only that one initiates no harm to others.  I suspect our forbearers would hardly recognize Americans who look to the government for assistance at every turn, and they would be aghast at a bloated federal government that rings up trillion dollar deficits and injects itself into every nook of private life.

That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood...  Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.  Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.  Our health care is too costly.

None of this is the province of a proper government.  Beyond upholding contracts and punishing fraud, which are issues of rights protection, the government has no business being in business.  Politicians should have no influence whatsoever in the economy.   And if “our health care is too costly” - an arbitrary estimate that Mr. Obama is in no position to make for me or anyone else - he has only to look to the encroaching federal government, its headlong plunge toward socialized medicine, and the killing burden of regulatory agencies.  Notice that it is the industries that are most pushed and pulled by the government that are suffering the most: banking, finance, medicine, education, and now automobile manufacturers, who have been crippled for years by unions and the tightening grip of environmental regulations.  Nobody is complaining about semiconductors or software being scarce or “too costly”; but of course, that is because those companies are left relatively free from government intervention. 

I shudder at Barack Obama’s call to “make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”  His “new age” is an era of even more heavy-handed government than we’ve already had under the Bush administration.  As blogger Myrhaf wrote in his comments on the inauguration, “In a free country a president does not tell people they must work hard.  In a free country a president does not lecture people on their responsibilities.  That is the kind of talk you get in a dictatorship.”

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, photo from NYTimes.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

I’m not sure what he means by choosing hope over fear, but if he is referring to his election - that he (and fellow Democrats) represent hope over the fear that is allegedly peddled by Republicans - then I think it is a poor description.  As I’ve written before, I do not think there is much difference at all between what the two parties say or do.  Democrats and Republicans are nearly alike.  Neither party has much in the way of principles anymore; pragmatism rules.  I’m glad, though unenthusiastically so, that the Democrats won, for the simple reason that it will be easier to point to their statist policies as the reason for their failure.  When Republicans inflict those very same statist policies upon us, the inevitable failures absurdly get blamed on the “free market.”

Getting back to Mr. Obama’s sentence, I think it would be more accurate if he had said, “On this day, we gather because you the voters have chosen style over stodginess, poise over discomfiture.”  John McCain didn’t do himself any favors by putting himself on television or by picking Sarah Palin as a running mate.  And in the end, come to think of it, Obama’s silky smoothness may have been needed only to pummel Hillary Clinton.  Mr. Obama didn’t have to win the election, being able to count on the Republicans to lose it.  President Bush lost the election: strange to say, as he wasn’t even running.

... we proclaim an end to ... the worn-out dogmas.”  “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works... 

This is a perfect expression of the pragmatism that pervades his speech.  Principles are denigrated as “dogmas”; a man who connects two or more thoughts together is scoffed at as an “ideologue.”  Tinkering is the science of the day.  Seizing trillions of dollars of our money, doing a little of this and a little of that, is the method Obama openly boasts of.  “Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward.  Where the answer is no, programs will end.”  Alas, about the only thing politicians are unwilling to try is the one thing that would save America: to withdraw and leave people alone.

... the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness...

The admirably precise statement of the founders was that all men are created equal.  They did not say that all men are equal, as Mr. Obama said.  The former is a testament of political rights, a guarantee that from birth all men are free to think and act; the latter, a statement of egalitarianism, which negates all rights.  And needless to say, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, to attribute rights to God is to deny them outright.  

Despite these defects, the rest of that particular passage of Mr. Obama’s speech is very good.  He carefully noted that men have a chance to pursue their happiness - it is not guaranteed - and he emphasized earning, productivity, and entrepreneurship.  

But is this not typical of Obama’s rhetoric?  In the same sentence, he manages to placate the right by mentioning God, the left by hinting that everyone will get an equal piece of a collective pie, and even the freedom lovers (where we may still be found), by referring to the Declaration’s “pursuit of happiness.”

[Americans of past generations] saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions...

On its face, this sounds like the President is lauding the greatness of America, but he is actually sneaking in an idea that is the very opposite of American ideals.  His eloquent statement - calculated to inspire - is simply a part of his paean to collectivism. 

America is great precisely because - and only to the extent that - it elevates the individual above the state.  It is a contradiction to proclaim the greatness of America by pointing to the littleness of individual’s “ambitions,” which means: the insignificance of each American’s goals, efforts, and dreams.

It’s simple math.  To say x is greater than y is to say that y is less than x.  What Mr. Obama is literally saying is that each person is smaller - worth less - as a mere individual than he is as a member of a collective.  This is a grotesquely un-American sentiment, uttered by the President in his first ten minutes on the job.

Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began.  Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year.  Our capacity remains undiminished...  Now, there are some who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans.  Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve...

All this is true, but Mr. Obama and the millions of Americans watching him would do well to notice that all this achievement and prosperity was created by free people, unfettered by the government.  One can only imagine how much further we would have come without the government seizing ever more power in its “progressive” policies over the last century or so.  Unfortunately, though President Obama can beautifully articulate the reason for productivity - free minds - he does not believe his own words.  He thinks (as do his comrades on the right and left) the solution to every problem, predicaments that were largely created by the government in the first place, is to throw more government at it.  “Our economy calls for action, bold and swift...”

Indeed, it does, Mr. Obama.  The action is: laissez faire!

[E]arlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.  They understood that our power alone cannot protect us...

Well, I agree that power alone cannot protect us; we must also have those “enduring convictions,” as he put it.  This is all too clear today.  There is little doubt that we could militarily obliterate the murderous thugs who kill us with impunity, were it not for the fact that Americans on the whole lack the moral conviction that we are right to defend ourselves.  

However, this is an extremely disingenuous thing for this President to say, considering his political views.  Who has done more to snuff out those “enduring convictions” than left-leaning intellectuals?  Who has succeeded more than the left to make Americans doubt that we are the good guys?

As for “sturdy alliances,” it would be great if other freedom-loving countries supported us.  But a moral country, just like a moral man, must stand alone if necessary.

[W]e’ll work tirelessly... to roll back the specter of a warming planet.

My wife pointed out with some amusement how accurate this statement is (though perhaps inadvertently so), if we take the other meaning of the word “specter.”  A specter is a ghost.  Ghosts don’t exist.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

That is really beautiful and inspiring.  I only wish the man did not contradict such rhetoric with his actual political convictions.

We honor [the American soldiers abroad] not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

This is another expression of the disgusting sentiment I mentioned above: the idea that Americans are greater than “mere” individuals when they consider themselves to be cogs in a great collective machine.

What is required of us now is... [a recognition] that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.  This is the source of our confidence, the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.  This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed...”  [Emphasis mine.]

What, according to the President of the United States, is the meaning of liberty?  Duty.


1.  All quotes are from the transcript of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, Wall Street Journal, 21 Jan 2009, p. R4.

1.  I fixed a minor typographical error.

22 January 2009

Financial Aid for the Yankees

I am one of those rare Red Sox fans that does not hate the Yankees.  In fact, I like and respect them.  Derek Jeter is one of my favorite ball players of all time, and I admire many Yankees of the last decade - Pettite, Mussina, Posada, Matsui, Damon, Rivera, Williams, Brosius, O’Neill - even though they have given the Red Sox trouble from time to time.  (Not lately, though!)

Mark Teixeira (photo from MLB.com).


So, in this off-season, when the Yankees signed three of the four most talented players on the open market by throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at them (including Mark Teixeira, whom the Sox were interested in but could not match the Yankee offer), I did not begrudge them one bit.  If they can afford these salaries even while they are building a new stadium, good for them.  It’s their money, and they should be able to spend it however they wish. 


And then I saw this article in the New York Times:

Now, beyond all sense or sensibility, the New York Yankees have appeared with a request for $370 million in new taxpayer-backed financing for a new baseball stadium that will open in April.

This is more.  New.  In addition to.  On top of the $942 million in previous financing, and $660 million that the city is pitching in to replace parkland sacrificed for the new stadium and transportation improvements.  (Note 1.)

Are you kidding me?  The Yankees - the richest team in baseball - are looking for public funding because they can’t afford to simultaneously build their new stadium and allocate $500 million for three players?  The Florida Marlins, with their entire payroll being just north of $20 million dollars, must be shaking their heads in disbelief.

This is madness... but somehow appropriate in the Bailout Era.


1.  Jim Dwyer, “In Matters Concerning A New Yankee Stadium, Sanity Rides the Bench,” About New York column, New York Times, 10 Jan 2009, p. A15.

2.  photo credit to Jeff Zelevansky, MLB.com, http://newyork.yankees.mlb.com/images/2009/01/22/QHlWENFZ.jpg.

20 January 2009

An Historic Day

Today is an important day in history.

No, I am not referring to the inauguration of President Obama.  Of course, every Presidential inauguration is a matter of historical importance, but the fact that this is trumpeted as a particularly historical day because of the President’s skin color does little to indicate progress in race relations.  (Note 1.)  If anything, it emphasizes the prolonging of racism.  True progress will be indicated when nobody notices or gives a damn about skin color, gender, or any other unchosen characteristic.

The historic event I am referring to is the release of the fifty-two remaining American diplomats on 20 Jan 1981, after they had been held hostage for 444 days by Islamist students.  The attack on the American Embassy signaled the virulence of the Iranian Revolution and the coming of a new age of Islamist theocracy and totalitarianism.  

It has been twenty-eight years since the release of those hostages.  In the time that has passed, how has the West, with its moral imperative of defending individual rights and its indisputable military, cultural, economic, and technological superiority, fared against its medieval, homicidally irrational antagonists?  Here is a link to a list, courtesy of Dr. John Lewis, that will give some indication of the state of our self-defense.  (Note 2.)  Skip down about a third of the way down the list to see what has happened since 1981.


1.  This insightful point was made by another Objectivist blogger recently, but for the life of me, I can’t remember who wrote it.  If any readers know who it was, please let me know so I can credit the author.

2.  The list of Islamist attacks can be found on Dr. John Lewis’ web site, http://www.classicalideals.com/chronology.htm.

19 January 2009

Leonard Peikoff Podcast 45

Leonard Peikoff Podcast 45 (19 Jan 2009)

Today’s podcast from Dr. Peikoff is available.

Teasers: confronting aging and death with equanimity; rational comedy.

18 January 2009

US Airways Flight 1549

I had seen a little footage of the rescue on the news and a still photograph of the aircraft while it was descending, but I didn’t realize the actual landing of US Airways Flight 1549 had been caught on film by the Coast Guard.  The YouTube video below capture the dramatic scene.

At the 2:03 mark of the video, the plane can be seen gliding in from the left to drop into the Hudson River.  The camera operator zooms in to view the passengers scrambling onto the wings.  It is striking how quickly everything happened.  The passengers are out of the aircraft in remarkably short order, and three boats are almost immediately hastening to the scene. 

The passengers and crew must have performed admirably under the circumstances, but above all, I marvel at the poise that the pilot must have had in such dire straits.  The former fighter pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, III, managed to ditch his Airbus A320 safely in the Hudson River, saving his own life and the lives of 150 passengers and four crew.  

These stories don’t usually have happy endings, so it’s very uplifting to see competence (and not a “miracle,” as some reports absurdly claimed) save the day.

Chesley Sullenberger, III

photo from NY Daily News

17 January 2009

Dennis Prager: If There Is No God, Part 4

(Note: This is Part 4 in the series started here.  The previous installment is here. In each post, I comment on one of the fourteen points made by Dennis Prager in his article, “If There Is No God.”)

Dennis Prager’s Point #4:

Human beings need instruction manuals. This is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane. One's heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane. The post-religious secular world claims to need no manual; the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and to making a good world. (Note 1.)

Is Mr. Prager’s assertion correct?  Do human beings really need instruction manuals?  Or put more precisely: does every man need a guide to his actions, a set of principles by which he may determine what is good or bad, right or wrong?


For other living things, the processes required for survival are automatic functions, requiring no guide whatsoever because there are no options.  The amoeba digests its food automatically.  When a sunflower bends toward the sun, it does so not by choice but by a chemical process.  The thrush finds its remote winter home and the salmon wends its way upstream entirely by instinct.  Even the higher animals that can learn to fly, swim, hunt, or fetch, and occasionally demonstrate remarkably complex behavior, cannot be said to be choosing, at least not in a human way.  (Note 2.)  

All living things - from single-celled organisms to mammals - have values, of course, their lives being the most basic of these.  But in plants and animals, particular values cannot be chosen, nor can the actions that lead to those values.  An animal does not so much pursue his interests as follow them.  Thus, for all but one known species, morality simply does not apply.  The hyena that steals food from its brother deserves no censure; the lion that kills could not have done otherwise.

Not so for a man.  Though he has some basic hardware that functions automatically - his organs, senses, basic body functions, and even some parts of his consciousness - a human being is entirely dependent upon the free operation of his mind.  Sans mind, Homo sapiens is poorly equipped to even survive, never mind flourish.

As a conceptual being with free will, a man must have a guide, a set of principles to direct his actions.  Both of these characteristics of a man - his concept-forming capability and his freedom to operate it - contribute to the necessity of morality.  

Concept formation permits a man to organize and integrate direct perceptual facts (which can be obtained automatically) into abstractions that are not immediately perceivable.  These first-level concepts may be integrated into higher and higher level concepts.  When done properly, it yields a condensation and grasp of reality that is far beyond anything that can be obtained automatically by direct perception.  Without it, we would never have conceived the wheel or plow, never mind the sonnet, symphony, and skyscraper. 

But concept formation is not an automatic function.  (If you don’t believe it, ask any child laboring over her geometry homework.)  Almost every waking moment of his life, a man chooses how to operate his mind, including whether or not he will actively think at all.  This requires effort, an expenditure of energy.  And importantly, concept formation can yield errors. 

This is where morality comes in.  As with any living organism, a man’s most fundamental value is his life, but in the pursuit of values man is different from other creatures.  The particular values that contribute to his life qua man must be chosen, as must the means of arriving at those values.  And for this a man depends upon a faculty that is not automatic and is inherently fallible: reason.  To live, a man must operate his mind properly.  Morality consists of the set of principles a man develops and holds so that he may achieve his values throughout his life.

The fact that using one’s mind requires labor and is inherently fallible is no reason to throw up one’s hands in dismay at the futility of it all (as the subjectivists do) or to relinquish the responsibility of thinking to authorities (as the religionists do).  On the contrary, it is the very reason to make the effort to grasp the universe properly.(Note 3.)  So, even though Dennis Prager and I apparently agree on the necessity of morality, we have very different ideas about what morality consists of and why it is necessary.


There are three phrases in Mr. Prager’s paragraph that require attention.  In two of these instances, it is difficult to tell if his choice of words reflects a simple carelessness or if he is willfully misdirecting the reader.  The frequency of such seemingly innocuous terms in his writing sometimes strains my opinion of his intellectual honesty, but I’ll continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.  It is possible that these are not so much attempts to deceive as they are reflections of his own philosophy. 

The first is very subtle: his referring to one’s moral code as an “instruction manual.”  This metaphor is clever and appealing, but implicitly suggests that the “instructions” for moral behavior were written by someone else and must be heeded whether or not they are understood or even agreed with.  That is, after all, what instruction manuals are: detailed directions from experts, to be followed in order and without departure by the utterly dependent non-expert.  Of course, such a model is completely consonant with Prager’s view that moral behavior consists of unquestioning obedience to scriptural commands.  This is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian worldview.  And indeed, if one goes looking for a literal “instruction manual” in nature - a complete moral code that is dug out of the ground or fished out of the sea, to be handed to men without the inconvenience of having to think - the search will be met with futility.  Such a "manual" does not exist.  This fact advances Prager's line of argument, for he has a divine "manual" readily at hand.  His metaphor cleverly calls to mind Old Testament stories; the very words that Prager chose smuggles in an image of stone tablets with the chiseled commandments of a supernatural authority.

This “instruction manual” view of morality flies in the face of moral principles determined by reason, and is contrary to the requirements of human beings.(Note 4.)  As I’ve indicated above, one must never relinquish the responsibility of thinking for oneself by surrendering it to authorities - scriptural, spiritual, scientific, or otherwise.  This does not mean that every man must be a philosopher; on the contrary, it emphasizes the fact that one’s moral code is essential to every man, from the simpleton to the genius, and must be guarded thusly.  One’s morality has much more to do with being honest than being smart.

This brings up a point that is worth a brief digression.  A man must learn to operate his conceptual faculty properly but this does not necessarily imply that he must be taught.  Teaching can save a lot of time and effort, but it can also be destructive.  Philosophy could and should assist here - it ought to provide the framework by which men can grasp reality - but unfortunately, with few exceptions philosophers have completely failed.  However, even if philosophers got everything right, they still must be understood, not obeyed.(Note 5.)  Ultimately, each man must discover and comprehend reality himself.  There is no more sovereign authority to a man than his own mind.  To defer this to others is immoral... and foolish.

Returning to Prager’s text: the second phrase of his that must be examined is his combining of the words “heart and reason.”  First, he uses “heart” alone, writing, “One’s heart is often no better a guide to what is right and wrong than it is to the right and wrong way to fly an airplane.”  This is indubitable, if by “heart” he means feelings or whims, as is the general connotation.  In fact, I would dispense with Prager’s hedge of “often” and state emphatically that “one’s heart” is never a guide to any action, including determining right from wrong.  Reason is the only proper guide.  

However, later Prager binds “heart” and reason together when he writes: “the post-religious secular world [claims] the heart and reason are sufficient guides to leading a good life and making a good world.”[Emphasis mine.]  Here in his “post-religious secular world,” Prager lumps together subjectivists (who dispense with morality and for whom feelings and whims are guides to action) with rational men (who hold that reason alone provides our connection with the world and the means of discovering what is true and false, right and wrong).  This lumping together is no doubt convenient for Prager, who can flush the men of reason down the drain along with the proverbial bath water that is the subjectivists, but it is utterly unjustified.  That “heart and reason are sufficient guides” may be what subjectivists believe, but it is certainly not what I claim or what other Objectivists claim.  Feelings and emotions are quite real, of course, but they are generated automatically by one’s subconscious; via introspection, they can provide information about one’s own experiences and premises, but they are not guides to “leading a good life.”  Again, reason alone is the only proper guide to living a good life.

Having criticized Mr. Prager for two of his phrases, now let me give him credit where he deserves it.  If we can strip his “instruction manual” sentence of its scriptural connotation and understand it to refer simply to living a principled life, he followed with an excellent and insightful sentence: “This [necessity of principled action] is as true for acting morally and wisely as it is for properly flying an airplane.”  I like this formulation because it neatly ties together the moral and the practical.  (Frankly, I’m stunned that Prager recognizes the truth of it; after all, the Ten Commandments do not help one fly an airplane.)  It's true.  Morality is not some esoteric or impossibly abstract code that must be obeyed to earn a place in heaven.  Morality is a necessity for man to live on earth.

(Note: The next installment in the series is here.)


1.  Dennis Prager, “If There Is No God,” http://townhall.com/columnists/DennisPrager/2008/08/19/if_there_is_no_god.

2.  I leave it to the experts to judge if some of the higher mammals sometimes show the most basic, rudimentary signs of “choice.”  For the purpose of this essay, I am referring to two faculties (or perhaps they are two aspects of the same faculty) - conceptual thought and free will -  that permit men to operate their minds and bodies in a manner that is distinctly non-instinctive, non-automatic.  This ability of men is different not merely in degree, but in kind, from that of any other known life forms.

3.  It is beyond to scope of this post to expand much more upon a reason-based morality (as against one based in the supernatural).  I refer the interested reader to “The Objectivist Ethics,” the first chapter of Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness.

4.  By “human beings” I mean modern men.  I do not wish to quibble about the requirements of pre-historic men - namely, whether or not savage or tribal men were even capable of grasping reason or formulating a reason-based morality.  I’ll limit the purview of my comments to mankind starting with the Greeks of the 5th century BC, whose influence spread rapidly via Alexander and the Romans through Europe and some of Asia, then to the New World during the Age of Exploration.  Certainly, in the modern world reason is available to every man who is honest enough to grasp it.

5.  I bring up Ayn Rand a lot in my writing because I discovered her to be the philosopher that “got everything right” - that is, her formulations and insights are all-encompassing and completely consonant with reality.  Nevertheless, I do not regard her writings as “teachings” in the sense of wisdom handed down from on high.  On the contrary, precisely because of my agreement with her, I have scrutinized her works with a razor that no other author I’ve read has been subjected to.  For more on this, see my post, “It’s Not About Her.”