A friend of mine posted the following Ayn Rand quote:
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.