The Hated Middle.

A friend of mine posted the following Ayn Rand quote:

Ayn Rand

Okay, the text in that is two small to read easily so, here:

“The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees nor disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world. Reality is an absolute, existence is an absolute, a speck of dust is an absolute and so is a human life. Whether you live or die is an absolute. Whether you have a piece of bread or not, is an absolute. Whether you eat your bread or see it vanish into a looter’s stomach, is an absolute.

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromise is the transmitting rubber tube.” – Ayn Rand

I have to dispute with Ms. Rand here.  there are a number of things where she, errs.

First is that she ignores the possibility that a person might just not have enough information to have an informed opinion on some proposition.  Much evil in the world has happened because well-intentioned people “took a side” on something of which they have little information, that sounded “reasonable” even “intuitive” and yet was flat out wrong.

There is another, and more fundamental, flaw.

Where Ms. Rand goes astray up there (in addition to not recognizing that “I don’t know enough to have a meaningful opinion on that topic” as a valid position) is the implicit categorical “either this or that”.

Things in the real world are rarely that simple.

Consider the case of clean water. Pretty much everyone would agree that clean water is a good thing to have and that contaminated/polluted water is bad. But…how much and how clean? That is the question. The categorical position tends toward “all” and “absolutely” but…well, we live in a world of scarce resources that have alternative uses. The resources spent to reduce, say, lead contamination from a few parts per billion (safe for drinking water per EPA standards) to a few parts per trillion are resource that are no longer available for producing other good things we would like to have.

Or consider water contaminated by something like e.coli.  How did it get contaminated with e.coli?  Well, because the deer and bears in that forest upstream don’t just do it in the woods, they do it in the stream (and what they do in the woods drains into the streams).  How much resources are you going to spend on sanitation for wildlife because you want absolutely clean water?

Or “acidification” of the water.  While it was popular for a while to blame that on acid rain, it turns out that the runoff from forests and meadows tends to be somewhat acidic.  The runoff from ash (from forest or brush fires) tends toward the alkaline and neutralizes the acid.  Vigorous fighting of forest and brush fires means more acid, less alkaline runoff, leading to a net acidification of the water.  “Clean water” (as in “less acid” in this case) and “Unburned forests” are good things we want that are in direct conflict.  Pick one.  Having more of one means having less of the other.  The question is how much of one at the cost of how much of the other, a tradeoff.  It can’t be solved categorically, but we can incrementally trade a little bit more of one at the cost of a little bit less of the other until we find a best balance.

We live in a world not of categorical “all of this” or “all of that” but of incremental tradeoffs. And since not everybody is going to agree in where that tradeoff should be made, we even need to tradeoff on the tradeoffs. In such a situation you will find that many, indeed most, people will not be entirely at one end or the other. And any given individual will see some folk who are not as much “this way” as they are without necessarily being “on the other side.”

And. That’s. Okay.

Different people value different things differently. That’s the core of economics in general and free market economics in particular. (Economics, as readers of this blog will have noted, being a particular hobby-horse of mine.)

One of the great causes of strife in the world today is the binary thinking, that anyone not fully on “my side” is, therefore, “other.” Whether it’s someone on the far left calling anyone not as left as they are a “Fascist” (never mind how they completely butcher the meaning of the term “Fascist” in doing so) or someone on the Right calling anyone not agreeing with them a “Commie”, or a Libertarian (big-L) with their blanket accusation that anyone who suggests there might actually be a valid role for the coercive power of government, within limits, a “Statist”, it leads to lots of heat with very little light.
And it all comes from categorical thinking, it must be “this” or “that”, either totally black or blinding white.

And that’s the objection I have to the Rand quote above.

6 thoughts on “The Hated Middle.”

  1. *gets halfway through the quote*

    Wow, I can definitely see why you’d need to argue against her, but I’m also going to have to DEFEND Ms. Rand. (Not my normal forte.)

    The facts she points out are why false choices are so bad– they, too, disrespect the actual facts involved, by demanding a black and white when it doesn’t exist.

    *keeps reading and finally gets to your comments on it*

    The only thing I’d add in is that you didn’t get her on the poison thing. The poison is in the dose. If one person wants (for whatever reason!) a just over fatal level of lead, and the other wants absolutely zero lead, then mid-point is actually a decent solution.

    On the third hand, “what do we do about it” is a matter of making choices, not of pretending the choice doesn’t exist to be made. (And it’s the pretending when there is a choice that’s the problem, and visa-versa.)

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  2. The author of this article does a classic straw man. He is arguing against her ‘you cant have compromise’. That would be a severe misread out of context at the very least. Saying there are absolutes and that compromises against evil only helps evil is hugely different than his interpretation.

    His arguments actually lend her some credence because he talks about using I dont know about a particular subject. In other words dont make a decision that could serve evil because you compromise without lack of knowledge. Or, he sets up an argument that isn’t about evil, but public safety and shows a need for compromise with something that isn’t an absolute.

    He then goes on to argue about fascist and communist being used in arguments. The water with those 2 terms should not be muddied. When the term is used it should be obvious, because using them incorrectly is an evil itself and causes the division he speaks of.

    I’m not sorry for saying this. This is poor argumentation at its finest and is obvious evidence for teaching logic and argumentation in school. I love any argument for nuance normally, but the total misrepresentation of the quote is asinine. There are reasons to compromise. There is such a thing as evil. There is a time to stand against evil.

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    1. And your comment is obvious evidence for teaching reading comprehension in the schools. Clearly, they are sadly lacking in that department. Taking somebody’s words, as written, and addressing them, as written, is pretty much the exact opposite of a “straw man.” (Not addressing what you preferred they said, or your own personal “interpretation” of those words does not make it one either.)

      Amazing how people claim “out of context” rarely provide a context that actually alters the meaning of the quote in question. Where is the context that makes the quote not a blanket condemnation of positions in the middle? Where is the context that makes “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong” not mean exactly what it says? If you say it’s “out of context” then show the context.

      Claiming that not taking a stand because of a lack of knowledge of a position lends her credence requires some truly breathtaking sophistry. The entire two paragraph screed is on taking an absolutist position with everything counted as either all one thing or all the other, either all good, or all bad. And ironic that she should make a comparison between “food and poison” because too much food can kill you just as dead as does poison and a poison, under the right circumstances, can save your life (that’s what many medicines are, after all).

      The world is full of middle positions. Indeed, one is hard pressed to come up with a truly absolute position. Consider: Murder is bad? I think we can agree with that. Might even call it an absolute. But, whether a particular killing of a person is murder? That can be a little fuzzier. There are folk who outright reject the idea of lethal force used in self defense (for instance) as being valid making all such killings as murder. There are those who consider killing enemy combatants in wartime as murder. Thus, we have to very specifically define what “murder” is in the first place if we want to call it an absolute that murder is wrong. And we can’t just say murder is “wrongful killing.” because, well, I’m sure someone who snarked about teaching logic and argumentation in school would understand why that kind of circular definition is fallacious. Right? So when we have that precise, clear, unambiguous definition, the question remains what to do about it. Since murder is wrong, we want there to be no murders. So we take steps to prevent murder. We have police to act as a deterrent. We take other steps. But, here’s the thing, none of those things actually prevent murder. Some of them may reduce the rate, preventing some murders, but not all of them. We still have murders, which is a bad thing. So what? What other steps to take? And what other consequences will those other steps have. Already with things like having police to act as a deterrent, we’re doing things like taxing, using the coercive power of the state to take money from some and give it to others “for a good purpose.” We’re arming people and sending them out among the population where mistakes, lethal mistakes will happen. Efforts to try to reduce murders (at least claimed toward that end) have and often do include attempts to disarm the general public, trying to make it more difficult for them to commit murders. And on and on. And no matter what we do, there will still be murders.

      Even something as straightforward, as clear cut absolute, as “murdering people is bad” becomes infinitely fuzzy when one starts trying to convert principle to application because there are lots of other things that are bad and less of this one particular “bad” means creating more of another. At some point, as much as we decry murder, we must accept that some level will happen anyway or we end up taking increasingly egregious steps to “prevent” murders. Either way, it can be described as “compromising” with “evil.

      Because there is no perfection in the world. That is an absolute.

      {sigh] The whole point of bringing up how people use words like “Fascist” and “communist” in arguments is because they are doing it wrong and should stop. That use is part and parcel of the binary thinking I’m decrying here.

      You see, it’s one thing for a person to smugly suggest they’re “not taking sides” (usually while actively being quite partisan for one side or another, often as a form of trolling), and yeah, that’s a bad thing. As John the Revelator wrote “I know your deeds; you are neither cold nor hot. How I wish you were one or the other! So because you are lukewarm— neither hot nor cold— I am about to vomit you out of My mouth!” Revelations 15-16. However, the absolutist, binary thinking view, the categorical “all one thing or all the other” that Rand is talking about up there is equally bad.

      Indeed, I’m not even saying that most people who “don’t take sides” or seek a “middle road” are actually thinking things through to that extent. They’re not taking a reasoned, nuanced position, where they look at the tradeoffs, the “bad” that comes with obtaining more of their “good”, and things like opportunity cost to try to find some optimum position. They’re just being piously smug (there’s no righteousness like self-righteousness). But then, the same can be said of people to take absolute positions as well. They haven’t thought through their position much and considered the costs and tradeoffs either. Most people don’t really come to positions by reason but by feeling. And it’s gotten worse in recent decades. As Thomas Sowell said. “The problem isn’t that Johnny can’t read. It isn’t even that Johnny can’t think. It’s that Johnny doesn’t know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling.”

      He who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

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      1. Amazing how people claim “out of context” rarely provide a context that actually alters the meaning of the quote in question.

        *waves hand in air* Oooh, ooh, that’s my job!

        …which kind of sucks when I LIKE what they’re using a quote to say, but it’s important. ^.^
        (Shouldn’t argue against something you don’t understand well enough to argue for, after all, and appeal to authority is a bad argument even when the authority actually said a thing.)

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        1. It’s been my experience that when somebody says “the actual context of that was…” followed by a description of the actual context, they very often have a point.

          When they simply say “that was out of context” it usually isn’t, and when it is, the context either does not help or actually makes it worse (cf. “You didn’t build that.)

          Liked by 1 person

    2. Seriously DJ? You start by saying “the author of this article” like you don’t know who wrote it? His name is David Burkhead, which you can see if you look at the pictures of his books just off to the right. I won’t address the content of your argument because David did that quite well first. I hate to say it but your whole post sounds like the kind of drivel that I get from my high school students when I ask them to write any sort of essay.

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