Errors of knowledge vs evil

Brett Hall has tweeted about an alleged Ayn Rand quote:

The alleged Rand quote is “It makes a difference whether one thinks that one is dealing with human errors of knowledge or with human evil.” I haven’t been able to find this exact combination of words so I don’t know if Rand actually wrote this quote. I’m not saying she didn’t. I am saying that I haven’t found it. I looked it up to look for context to explain what Rand is saying.

On page 1059 of Atlas Shrugged John Galt explains Rand’s ideas on the difference between errors of knowledge and moral errors:

“Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any breach of morality. Give the benefit of the doubt to those who seek to know; but treat as potential killers those specimens of insolent depravity who make demands upon you, announcing that they have and seek no reasons, proclaiming, as a license, that they ‘just feel it’—or those who reject an irrefutable argument by saying: ‘It’s only logic,’ which means: ‘It’s only reality.’ The only realm opposed to reality is the realm and premise of death.

This is an important distinction. Somebody who commits a moral breach in the sense described in that passage is a lot more dangerous than somebody who is factually mistaken.

I’ll give an example. there are a couple of kinds of socialists. Some socialists are young people who take ideas seriously and in particular they take seriously the moral ideas preached by their parents, teachers etc. You should be unselfish, the highest virtue is sharing and all that rubbish. If these cliches were actually true, then it would be bad to refuse to give away your stuff to the poor. So why shouldn’t the government make you give away your stuff? So lots of young people who don’t know any better support socialism.

But if you’ve been on the internet for a while, you will find out that there are people who disagree with socialism. Some of those people will mention that socialist governments killed over 100 million people. I’l list some of the options you can take on finding out about these deaths. Option (1): ditch socialism since an ideology that results in so much death must have something wrong with it. Option (2) is to look into this issue until you find out why so many people were killed by socialist governments. The first hit when I look for criticisms of socialism on Google was a wikipedia page that mentions Mises. So there are leads you can follow to find better ideas than socialism. Option (3) is to do neither of those things. Rather, you just call people names like ‘fascist’ when they disagree with socialism.

The person who takes option (3), let’s call him Jim, has some serious moral flaws that make him a lot more dangerous than anyone who takes the first two options – this is a breach of morality. Since he insults and ignores anyone who tries to explain reality, it is difficult for him to improve his ideas. This creates two relevant problems.

The first is that Jim is dangerous. Lots of people are being scapegoated on the internet by people who take option (3). Jim may be willing to try to destroy people who disagree with him. He may try to get critics fired, or kicked off the internet, kicked off payment processors and so on. He doesn’t have a problem with a pile of corpses and he may not have a problem with trying to put your corpse on the pile.

The second problem is that it’s difficult to correct Jim’s errors. He would have to learn better ideas about how to engage with criticism. Trying to get him to change his mind about that issue is a different kind of task than just pointing somebody to Mises to correct his bad ideas about socialism.

Jim’s errors are a result of lack of knowledge, as the quote from BoI claims. But the knowledge he lacks is very different from the knowledge lacked by somebody who has never heard criticisms of socialism. Morally, Jim is a lot worse than somebody who takes options (1) or (2). To pretend he is no different is bad for reasons Rand pointed out.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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