A Guide to Principled Self-Defense


Mr. Bidinotto is a free-lance writer in Milford, Massachusetts.

A friend approached me recently, concerned about a course he was taking that was being taught by a Marxist. My friend had been assigned a speech topic: “Who should own/control the workplace?”

My friend accepts the free market philosophy, and knew of my special interest in such issues. He wondered if I had any information that might help him prepare a talk.

A week or two later I gave him a written analysis of the question. He seemed somewhat astonished at its seeming complexity, and intimated that he felt inadequate to achieve similar results on his own. He suggested that since I had read more than he had on such topics, I had a specialized knowledge he could not match.

This got me thinking. Actually, most of my argument had rested not upon vast scholarship, but upon a reasoned analysis of the question itself. Certainly a knowledge of the free market literature is extremely valuable. But while some might have the time and inclination to acquire such an education, most busy people do not; and some, such as my friend, are inclined toward individualism and capitalism based upon limited reading, general experience, and “common sense.” These people feel vulnerable to technical arguments from collectivists who are educated specialists in the humanities.

Can an engineer, housewife, or computer operator effectively defend himself against professors of economics, political science, and philosophy? Can the individualist layman hope to hold his own against the collectivist professional?

If successful intellectual self-defense depended upon education alone, the amateur would always be a pushover for the professional. But all of us share the capacity to reason. No matter how well informed a collectivist may be, his doctrine remains irrational; so no matter what the relative scales of knowledge, the individualist need not be overwhelmed by a collectivist opponent—if he employs valid principles of thinking.

It is not possible to discuss all such principles here. So I shall discuss just a few, then illustrate how I applied them to my friend’s speech topic: “Who should own/control the workplace?”

1. Define your terms.

It is astonishing how many discussions are based upon concepts whose meaning nobody bothers to specify. Most people literally “don’t know what they’re talking about.” Their concepts—the building blocks of every statement—are left open to implication.

Politicians are especially guilty of this, since their careers are erected upon a foundation of ambiguity. A classic relic in their verbal collections is “the public interest.” Specifying nothing, it permits anything.

One of the best defenses against being steamrollered is to require an opponent to define his terms. A good definition distinguishes a concept from all others, by (1) identifying the factual basis of the abstraction, (2) specifying the context in which it arises or applies, and (3) naming the essentials, the fundamental characteristic(s), upon which most of the concept’s other characteristics depend.[1] For example, a good definition of “justice” is: the act of evaluating human character and/or actions solely on the basis of factual evidence, by reference to an objective moral standard. This states precisely the referents, context, and fundamental essence of “justice” and thereby distinguishes it from any other virtue, such as “honesty” (which is not limited to character evaluation, i.e., a social context).

Since facts, context, and fundamentals are the very elements absent from collectivist doctrines, the act of defining terms may be sufficient to demolish most arguments based upon these doctrines.

2. Determine the context.

Is the discussion about politics, economics, or philosophy? Does it concern factual knowledge (cognitive concepts) or evaluations of facts (normative concepts)? Is it a fundamental issue, or does it rest upon some more basic, implied premise that must be addressed first (i.e., does it involve “question begging”)? One must determine the context of the discussion by answering such questions as these.

In cognitive issues, conclusions depend entirely upon logical progression from established facts. The chief responsibility is to determine the relevant facts, then to reason from them, admitting no logical contradictions.

Normative issues are built upon cognitive concepts. The tipoff to any normative or ethical issue lies in its (implicit or explicit) advocacy of some action or choice; frequently, normative premises signal their presence in a discussion by the words “should” or “ought” (“There ought to be a law . . .”). There is nothing wrong with ethical advocacy as such. The danger begins when ostensibly political or economic debates “beg the question” of a moral standard, as they almost always do. The reason is that political discussions are, at root, discussions of social ethics; and most people are either unwilling or unable to specify and justify their underlying moral premises.

Ethical arguments—open or disguised—must be identified and validated. This means they must be tied to basic facts of human nature and of man’s basic relationship to existence. This is true of any alleged “political” question which involves advocacy of some action that “should” or “should not” be taken. No advocacy position can be taken seriously that evades the answers to the questions: “By what standard?” and “For what purpose?” Failing an intelligible response to these questions, a person’s position may be dismissed out of hand, as an arbitrary assertion.

Unless the context of discussion is clearly established, it will be impossible to know which principles can be applied to resolve the issues involved.

3. Establish the burden of proof.

Once definitions and context are determined, the burden of proof can be established. That burden always rests with the person asserting or advocating something (the person “taking the positive”). The person to whom an opinion is merely asserted, without sufficient evidence and proof, is under no obligation to demonstrate or disprove anything: nobody is obligated to “disprove” an arbitrary assertion (“prove a negative”).

Whoever is making the case, whether collectivist or individualist, bears the burden of proof. Since answering a question usually requires an asserted position from the person answering, he assumes the burden of proof. Thus in any discussion with a knowledgeable adversary, it is wise to follow the example of Socrates and ask a lot of questions.

Two excellent questions are: “What do you mean?” and “why?” The first forces an opponent to clarify his terms; the second forces him to justify his position. Both, used repeatedly, can reduce a vague discussion to clear-cut essentials while keeping an opponent under the burden of proof.

4. Beware of smuggled-in “contradictions in terms.”

One of the most prevalent and least understood logical fallacies consists of using concepts while denying their very roots and meanings.[2]

A classic political example is Proudhon’s infamous statement that “property is theft.” Observe that the word theft has meaning only if there is a legitimate concept of property: “theft” means “the forcible acquisition of somebody else’s legitimate property.” If there is no property, there can be no theft! Thus Proudhon’s statement is a contradiction in terms. The concept “property” is smuggled into the meaning of the concept. “theft,” while Proudhon denies that property even exists.

Such sophistry has become a standby technique in philosophy discussions. If an opponent finds himself losing a debate, he may frequently challenge the very grounds of debate, proof, and even thought itself. There are many modern philosophical doctrines that claim to “know” that knowledge is impossible, that claim to “disprove” the validity of logical proof, that deny the “reality” of existence, that claim no “awareness” of consciousness, that “reason” to the conclusion that rationality is an illusion, and so on. Every such assault on the foundations of knowledge and rational debate entail smuggled-in “contradictions in terms”: they utilize the concepts they are denying.

And such assaults are also self-inclusive, i.e., they must include the person stating them. To argue against reason, logic, existence, awareness, and knowledge, means: to concede that oneself and one’s position are devoid of any of these things.

All concepts and principles are structured in a hierarchy. Make sure that an educated opponent’s flowery prose does not bloom while he yanks up its roots.

5. Demand logical consistency.

If concepts are the building blocks of thought, logic is its mortar. All arguments must be grounded in established facts; and every conclusion must grow from these roots without contradiction. This is what we mean when we say: “Prove it!”

Contrary to current academic fad, logic is not some arbitrary system of rules unconnected to fact. It is based in the very nature of reality. All things exist in a specific, particular way. And because things have a specific nature and identity, they cannot have a contrary identity at the same time. The system of logic defined by Aristotle is built upon the non-contradictory identification of things. To admit contradictions into discussions is to claim the impossible, and thus to invalidate one’s conclusions.

The ubiquity of irrational political and economic ideas is largely due to the fact that while they are required subjects in schools, logic is not. A good book on Aristotelian logic is a must for anyone serious about principled self-defense.

In discussions, the basic approach is to take the opponent’s premise to its logical conclusion, or to regress his conclusions back to their logically antecedent premises. In so doing, any follies should become apparent.

To summarize the principles:

1.       Define your terms.

2.       Determine the context.

3.       Establish the burden of proof.

4.       Beware of smuggled-in “contradictions in terms.”

5.       Demand logical consistency.

How do these principles apply to my friend’s classroom topic, “Who should own/control the workplace?”

The first thing I noticed was that the question was “loaded” with smuggled-in premises and assumptions.

The word “Who” implies that “the workplace” is up for grabs—that no legitimate owner exists. This begs a question, thereby implying an equal burden of proof upon both supporters and opponents of private ownership rights. Observe what happens when the begged question is asked: “Should there be any changes in current ownership of the workplace?” Now the burden is upon those who would advocate such changes. But to accept the question as worded by the Marxist professor is to accept the smuggled-in premise that current ownership rights are dubious, and to assume (unnecessarily) some burden of proof.

Secondly, the word “should” is a tipoff to a normative (ethical) context, while the topic appears, superficially, to deal with a political or economic question. Because of today’s ethical relativism and the absence of any agreed-upon morality, it is likely that no answer is going to be accepted as final. The purpose of asking such a question, then, seems to be to spread doubt and uncertainty about current ownership rights to “the workplace.” This is all accomplished by begging the question: “By what moral standard can issues of ownership be resolved?”-which helps disguise the essentially ethical context involved.

Thirdly, observe the interesting usages of the concepts “own” and “workplace.” “Own” (when defined) means “the exclusive right to keep, use, and dispose of something.” Yet, as we have already seen, the question itself implies that such an exclusive right to keep “the workplace” under control of its current owners is in doubt. Translated, the question means: “Since the exclusive right to own the workplace is in question, who should own the workplace?” The Marxist professor is using the concept “own” while questioning its validity. (A clue that even he grasps what he is doing lies in his inclusion of the modifier or alternative concept, “control.” But everything I have said about the word “own” is true of the word “control.”) It is a smuggled-in “contradiction in terms”—and a most subtle example at that.

As for the term “workplace,” it is an ambiguity or euphemism for the concept “capital.”

Now consider the question. If it means: “Who should own the capital?”—the meaning is utterly trivial (Answer: “Those who own it”ownership being a moral claim of right). If it means: “Who is morally entitled to capital to which some men already hold moral title?”—the meaning, and the point, is utterly absent. If the question means: “Who should take the capital?”—the meaning is utterly clear, and utterly sinister. Remembering that the word “should” is a moral concept, and the idea of taking something from an owner (theft) is an immoral notion, the last interpretation is another smuggled-in “contradiction in terms.” But supporting speculation that this is an accurate interpretation of the professor’s question is the fact that he is a Marxist.

In fact, the only intelligible meaning of the question is that all currently held private capital is up for grabs, and “should” be redistributed on (unspecified) moral grounds.

That six words can beg several questions, obliterate the burden of proof, leave terms ambiguous, use a concept self-contradictorily, and sneak implied moral premises into an ostensibly political-economic issue, is a marvelous achievement of some sort.

Notice that the foregoing analysis involves no specialized political or economic knowledge, yet is sufficient to deal with the professor’s question. But knowing that the professor might pretend that all of this somehow “ducked the issue,” I proceeded to employ a strictly logical analysis on the collectivist position as if the question could be taken at face value. Let us assume that capital is up for grabs, and that our (unspecified) moral standard behind the “should” is the collectivist “general welfare.” Would a change of capital ownership promote “the general welfare”?

This switches the argument to an economic context. Any proposed solution to the question that would deny private capitalists the right to own and invest capital would make economic calculation impossible, thereby creating an economic chaos that would undermine the “general welfare.” Why?

Human well-being is only possible if the economy fills human needs. And this necessitates economic calculation: the purposeful production of goods and services to fulfill consumer demand. Economic calculation is only made possible by prices—the signals established by the interaction of the forces of supply and demand, in terms of money. The means by which these forces interact is competition in the marketplace. The competitors are entrepreneurs, who struggle to control the factors of production, in accordance with consumer demand. This means they must produce and market what they hope will bring the best return (profit) on their invested (risked) capital. But profit-seeking can only occur in the context of private ownership of capital.

Without private ownership, there is no profit motive; hence, no investment; hence, no competition; hence, no prices; and hence, no possibility of rational economic calculation. This would create chaos and the harm of “the general welfare.”

Without prices, the factors of production must be allocated by decree, i.e., by political instead of economic considerations. Supply and demand forces can no longer interplay; production is severed from consumption. This means overproduction of the unwanted, and shortages of the needed. There is simply no way to duplicate the complexity of the automatic signaling system of market prices; but without private capital ownership, competition does not arise to establish prices, and that system breaks down.[3]

Thus the contradiction in collectivism is that collectivist politics (public ownership or control of capital/“the workplace”) necessarily contradicts collectivist economics (maximizing “the general welfare”).

The foregoing economic discussion illustrates how one might proceed with a strictly “cognitive” issue. While some basic knowledge of economic principles was required, exhaustive erudition was not: merely a clear grasp of the hierarchy of the relevant concepts and principles.

The Great Equalizer

In the early days of America, the most urgent need was for some means of physical self- defense for the average man, and the revolver was regarded as “the great equalizer” of men. But today, men need the means of intellectual self-defense even more urgently. And the principled man’s guide to self-defense—his “great equalizer”—is his power to reason. []

1.   For a most useful discussion of how to define concepts, see Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New York: Mentor/New American Library, 1979).

2.   Described elsewhere as “the stolen concept.” Ibid., Chapter 6.

3.   This argument was formulated by Ludwig von Mises. See Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape: Revised, 1951), pp. 520-1.


December 1982

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