I count some Objectivists as friends, and have always thought that those who condemn them are at the very least too quick to do so. We have common attachments: to small government, individual freedom, secularism, science, etc.
Objectivists insist that we start with fundamentals, that you can’t begin to hope to solve political puzzles and conflicts unless you get your deeper conceptual issues straightened out. This is often true. However, I think there is a deeper conceptual issue that Objectivists get wrong, and that this matters.
Objectivists take Bishop Butler’s admonition “everything is what it is, and not some other thing” and run with it, fast and hard. Fans and observers will know that their favorite way of expressing this point is with the phrase “A is A,” which is shorthand for Butler’s point. This is said to be Aristotle’s “Law of Identity.”
Objectivists have lots of company in the following confusion though; perhaps almost every philosopher in history shares in it [hat tip Ruth Millikan]. And that is: identity and classification are the same thing. They aren’t. I am self-identical. My left toe is self-identical. The temporal slice that is me today is self-identical. The silly mereological fusion of my left toe and the Eiffel Tower is self-identical. The class of all mammals is self-identical. The silly class given by enumeration that contains all mammals and the Eiffel Tower is self-identical. We are up to our eyeballs in the self-identical.
But the principle that says that everything is what it is, does not tell you how to classify things. We do not classify things by determining that they are identical. Otherwise classification would be way easier than it actually is. Rather, we classify things that are non-identical but relevantly similar. Brussel sprouts resemble carrots; the similarity is close enough in relevant respects that we regard them as both members of the same class: vegetables. But they are different in many respects too, just not in enough important ones.
Now I’m not saying that establishing identity is always easy, or tautological. If it were, there would be no such thing as the genre “murder mystery.” (Think about this long and hard). But most of the things Objectivists characterize as matters of identification are really matters of classification, where no identities are hidden, but what a good classification looks like may remain to be seen. These thoughts were triggered, by the way, by the last post on gay marriage. Consider the marriage conservative:
“Everything is what it is, and not some other thing. Marriage is the civil union of a man and a woman. Therefore, same-sex marriage is a logical contradiction. A is A.”
OK, we could do that. Or we could not do that. See how that works?
Consider one sort of hard libertarian:
“Taxation is theft. Theft is slavery. Slavery is immoral. Therefore taxation is immoral. Everything is what it is and not some other thing. A is A.”
These kinds of arguments dissolve like tissue paper origami swans in water as soon as it becomes clear that the correct formulation of the first step is “taxation resembles slavery in certain respects, and slavery is immoral.” This is exactly right. And the progressive can reply, “and there are respects in which taxation is also very different from slavery,” which is also true (for example, the government cannot sell you outright to anyone, the chattel dimension is missing, government is not a private party, what the taxes will be is decided by democratic procedures, etc. etc.). So what comes next? A discussion. How much do the similarities to the bad thing pervade the case? How do the dissimilarities reveal other similarities to good things? A lot? A little? Not at all? Etc. There is simply no honest shortcut around asking and trying to answer these questions. This applies even-handedly: the progressive who responds to “taxation is slavery” with “don’t be ridiculous” may not be laughing quite so hard if it turns out that there are disturbingly many relevant similarities. But, to repeat, there is no shortcut that will enable us to avoid examining the similarities and differences, finding out what they are, and then assessing them in light of our concerns.
There is a lot of anti-post-modern (!) rhetoric shared by Objectivists with both conservatives and old school progressives about relativism, anti-realism, social constructivism. And it is true that how we classify brussel sprouts and carrots doesn’t determine what they are like. Who in their right mind would’ve ever thought otherwise? But here’s a surprising fact. You know what is a social construction? Society is. And how we classify conduct has an awful lot to do with how we treat it, which in turn has an awful lot to do with what kind of conduct occurs.
Is hitting on your employees out of lust relevantly similar to refusing to hire someone because they are African-American? In some ways it is and in some ways it isn’t. In the end we decided that the similarities are relevant, and strong enough, that without changing the laws on the books, we’ve decided that the law that prohibits the latter also already prohibits the former. Changes in how we see which things are similar, which similarities are relevant, when the topics are charged with moral significance, are precisely how moral change happens.
If one fails to grasp the difference between classifying by similarity and identification, then one will repeatedly find oneself confronted with opponents who seem for all the world to be committing the most glaringly elementary errors in logic. If you saw this over and over again, you would find it well-nigh irresistible to think that your opponent was an idiot. Unless of course the evidence suggests the hypothesis that no one could be that stupid. Which will leave only self-deception, or malice and dishonesty as hypotheses.
And then we get books with titles like “Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism” or “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans” (not that these books were written by an Objectivist, but there seems to be an elective affinity there).
All this is unwarranted, because classification is not identification. After all, everything is what it is, and not some other thing!