Among the issues most commonly discussed are individuality, the rights of the individual, the limits of legitimate government, morality, history, economics, government policy, science, business, education, health care, energy, and man-made global warming evaluations. My posts are aimed at thinking, intelligent individuals, whose comments are very welcome.

"No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it." Ayn Rand

28 March 2009

A Reader's Comment on Student Gangsters at the Lincoln Memorial

John made the following observation as a comment to another topic as a means of asking me what I thought of it. I like to accommodate my readers reasonable requests, especially because almost all of the comments I get are of a reasonable nature. It is reassuring that the time and effort that I spend writing up my thoughts and observations here provide some value to rational readers as well as to me in clarifying my own thoughts, as a means of standing up for my principles, and as an invitation to challenge to any faulty line of reasoning that I might have exposed here.

John said:

I understand that this comment does not pertain to the Wind Power topic but it is an interesting observation that I want to share and hear your response.

I visited D.C. today after work and decided to walk to the Lincoln Memorial. As I approached the stairs I saw a handful of college students dressed as gangsters and tossing dice as if gambling while another student filmed the event. In witnessing what they were doing I was disgusted by their disrespect. Since I do not believe in pronouncing a moral judgement simply because I feel it, I began to ponder the meaning of my disgust towards them. I asked why does it matter that those individuals were throwing dice on the steps of a monument to Abraham Lincoln. I had to ask what the purpose of a monument is and realized that a monument is a tribute to the greatness of a man and all that he accomplished. A monument is a means for man to celebrate achievement and solidify in such a way that future generations can share in his greatness, not by mooching off of it, but by understanding and recognizing it. A monument of course is not the source of greatness but rather only has value equal to that of which it is representing. If the man is worthless, so to is that which memorializes him. A monument to Hitler would not be worth the materials used to construct it. When a man looks at a monument there are many things for him to admire. He can admire the man immortalized in stone. He can admire the builder who with skill designed and built the magnificent structure. He can admire himself because the reason he admires the monument is because he shares its values.

So by what rational purpose did I pronounce my moral judgement upon those students? Because they failed to recognize the value of that monument and thus what it represented. They fail to see greatness and understand it, and that is the source of my disgust.

I look forward to your additional insight and comments.

I think I would have had to be there and see these students and observe their behavior for a while before I could make an assessment. I can understand your thoughts in the context of what their behavior may have been, but your description of them does not go far enough that I can be sure that their behavior was anything more than light-hearted fun, such as young people often do without any serious desire to cast aspersions upon heroes. Sometimes, the young have not yet acquired the wisdom to value great men and women as they should and they certainly are not encouraged to do so in our anti-hero worshiping public schools and our universities. I do not like this fact, but I am hesitant to condemn the young for it too severely. I was very fortunate in growing up at a time when American heroes were still largely respected. Now, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are all too often just characterized as dead white men who owned slaves.

Is it possible that they were making a political statement? Suppose since Obama has tried to attach himself to the coattails of President Lincoln, since Obama has risen to power through the corrupt politics of Chicago and Illinois, and since Obama is rolling the dice to turn the American government into a thoroughly socialist government and is thereby completely overthrowing the Constitution, since he is throwing the dice to strip wealthy Americans of their wealth and gambling that they will nonetheless continue to produce, he is throwing the dice to socialize medicine and hoping that somehow medical advances will continue, and since he is throwing the dice generally that some crippled portions of a capitalist system will still support his socialist egalitarian society to provide it with some of the unrecognized trappings of civilized life, that these students were making a protest video for YouTube.

I have a bit of an ambiguous respect for President Lincoln. I do think of him as a relatively remarkable President, but I do not think of him as a remarkably good President. I give him credit for effort, for freeing the slaves, and some credit for holding the union together. At the same time, the South did have long-standing objections to the tariffs that supported young industries in the North, but cost them much higher prices for many of their imported goods. Our government gets its legitimacy from the people, so I do believe that the people of a state have the right to secede, provided they set up a government which is consistent with the rights of every individual to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Clearly, the South was not doing that given the institution of slavery, so armed opposition to secession on that basis would have been justified. But, that was not the basis of Lincoln's use of force to keep the South in the Union. Instead, he simply asserted that no state could secede. Such an assertion is an attempt to nullify the source of the real sovereignty of the individual. In many other matters Lincoln made it all too clear that he was not a strong protector of individual liberties, including his waiting until late in the war before proclaiming the slaves free.

In living our lives, we all have many moments when we are not aware of the many heroes who came before us and developed the ideas that gave us our modern Western civilizations. I expect that many of my readers do think about these men and women often, but all of us are so busy managing our own lives that we frequently go about our affairs without a thought of thanks to Aristotle, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon, Newton, Faraday, Lavoisier, Pasteur, John Locke, Adam Smith, James J. Hill, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Albert Einstein, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Nathaniel Greene, Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Neils Bohr, Ayn Rand, and many thousands of other great and very useful men and women. In many ways, their great work has enabled our ability to simply concentrate on living our own lives. We all walk among the products of their labors and only occasionally give it thought. But, in many ways, this is what made their work great.


John said...

Dr. Anderson,

Thank you for your insight. So every action presupposes a purpose or a motive for that action whether or not the person performing the action is wholly aware of their own purpose. To judge an action one must also be aware of the purpose if a valid conclusion is to be drawn. An action which seems contrary to the observer's virtues can often be assumed to have a motive contrary to the observer's virtues. However in the case of the student gangsters it is possible that due to the government's blatant gambling with the economy and disregard for individual rights, even those whose purpose and values are typically contrary to mine can have instances in which they can discern the evil being perpetrated.

John said...

I failed to mention in my previous comment the example of Dagny and Francisco D'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged. Dagny viewed Francisco's actions as motivated by certain values based upon her understanding of what type of motive is required to perform those actions. It was not until she learned the real purpose that she understood the action.

Charles R. Anderson, Ph.D. said...


Your additional first comment does not accurately state my viewpoint on this matter. It is not clear to me that you were trying to summarize what you thought my viewpoint to be, however.

To judge someone else's actions with respect to their moral character, we need to establish the context of their knowledge and what their purpose may be as a minimum. This is a hugely complex issue and there is no way I can adequately discuss it in a brief note.

We can evaluate someone's act either in terms of their intent or in terms of its effects. Both evaluations are important in different ways and contexts. If someone harms another with an action, but did not intend to do so, we may still hold him responsible for failing to think through the consequences of his knowledge and any failure on his part to access available knowledge. But, we will generally not condemn him to quite the degree we would someone who willfully acted with evil intent and with the knowledge that they were acting to harm others. In evaluating the person who did the harmful act, we should also be less condemnatory if the knowledge they needed to recognize the harm they did was not available to them. For instance, we should take into account the generally smaller pool of knowledge of people living in earlier times or of many uneducated people in the undeveloped countries of the present world in making moral evaluations of them.

Evaluations of the morality of someone's actions are justified without respect to their intent as well. There is good reason for us to recognize that sometimes actions are bad even though they were not intended to be so. This is more a judgment of the act itself than of the person who is the actor.

There are many times when we see someone perform an act where we first imagine a purpose on their part which may not be their purpose at all. I have often had someone tell me that I did such and such for such and such a reason when the reason they attributed my act to could not have been further from my mind at the time or further from my nature in general. There are a great many actions whose purpose is ambiguous. We can only remove the ambiguity by careful observation of the person over time in a great many cases.

For instance, an employee tells his boss that he really admires the way the boss figured out a problem. Is the employee simply doing the boss justice and perhaps indicating that he is trying to learn from the boss' example, or is he simply buttering up the boss. In time, the boss should be able to figure this out as he comes to know the nature of the employee, but for a time, he simply has to live with the ambiguity of not really knowing which it is.

David Kelley noted some time ago that most human beings have a very difficult time living with uncertainty. He is right and I have also long emphasized this. But, if one is to be a clear thinker and to have any possibility of achieving wisdom, a man must keep careful account of what he knows and what he does not know. Since life for man is mostly about expanding his knowledge, he must be clear about what he does not know so he can figure out where he should rationally put his effort to further expand his knowledge. This in general is one of life's trickiest issues.