Should you judge other people? When you call someone “judgy” or “judgmental,” that’s taken as an insult. A caring friend, many believe, offers a “no judgment zone.” Some tell us to follow the biblical advice: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
But can this approach really guide us in our daily life and thinking?
No. On the contrary: in life it’s crucial to form moral judgments of other people — and act on your evaluation.
That’s what I argued in a recent webinar, part of ARI’s weekly series Philosophy for Living on Earth,drawing on Ayn Rand’s moral theory. Essential to Rand’s view is that our moral judgments must be objective, not emotion-driven. To reach objective evaluations is a serious responsibility. It’s a task, she observes, “that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought.” An aspect of what’s so distinctive in Rand’s perspective is that moral judgment is primarily about seeking out, nurturing, supporting the good people in our life and world (not just identifying the people to shun, avoid, condemn).
One highlight of the webinar was having my colleague Aaron Smith moderate the Q&A portion and also join in the discussion. A fascinating issue that came up early on: what are some reasons that people are reluctant to engage in moral judgment?
Watch the video of the webinar, or download the episode on the ARI Live! podcast (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher). And join us next time by subscribing to the series.
There’s a growing taboo in our society around the religion of Islam. Take an obvious contrasting example. The Book of Mormon, a musical that lampoons Mormonism, is a hugely successful, critically acclaimed Broadway show, but no one today would dare to stage a musical that subjects the religion of Islam to similar criticism and ridicule.
The taboo is partly the result of well-founded fear. For expressing criticism of Islam, filmmakers, novelists, journalists, playwrights have faced death threats and violent attacks. After a Danish newspaper published cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammad, there were riots, fire bombings, and a political crisis. For “insulting” Islam, twelve journalists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their office.
Beyond the threats of violence, the taboo is also enforced by a stinging epithet: “Islamophobia.” This term deliberately blurs together anti-Muslim bigotry and any analysis and criticism of Islamic ideas. The effect is to smear, and thus discredit, any critical discussion of Islam as an instance of prejudice.
To explore the taboo from a unique perspective, I turned to Sarah Haider. She’s the executive director of Ex-Muslims of North America. Today in America, she observes, we behave as if there’s a kind of de facto blasphemy law regarding Islam. Haider brings an admirable frankness to the issue of Islam and its impact on individuals and societies.
Born in Pakistan and raised in the U.S., Haider left Islam in her teens and is an atheist. Her organization works with people who abandon the religion of Islam. No mainstream religion, Haider notes, treats apostates quite the way Islam does. The stigma, difficulties, even threats, they face are considerable. Some people she works with insist on anonymity. Out of security concerns, the organization itself has no physical address.
One fascinating thread in our conversation relates to the pushback and attacks that Haider has faced from individuals she expected to be allies — notably from progressives, liberal feminists, and even secular humanists. Frustrated and disappointed, she called out in particular the hypocrisy of feminists who shut their eyes to the well-documented subjugation of women under Islamic norms.
The “Islamophobia” smear, too, came up in our conversation. Haider objects to what she calls the racializing of Muslims. The sheer existence of ex-Muslims attests to the fact that Islam is a set of ideas people can think their way out of and reject. Being a follower of the faith is not coded into one’s DNA.
In its own way, Haider’s organization is challenging the taboo around the issue of Islam. Which is important and necessary work, because no set of ideas, whether secular or religious, should be fenced off from critical scrutiny. That’s doubly important when some proponents of that ideology seek to silence all criticism by threats of violence.
Would you walk into a store, grab a bottle of wine, and walk out without paying for it? No, that would be stealing. It’s morally wrong, and few would even consider doing it. But many people routinely download or stream pirated content — movies, TV shows — without giving it a second thought. They do not think of these two cases, stealing a bottle of wine and violating a movie copyright, as equivalent morally.
This attitude is compounded by a growing hostility to copyrights and patents. For years some intellectuals and politicians have been calling for drastically scaling back the protections for these forms of intellectual property. And they’ve made inroads. The U.S. patent system once led “the world in securing stable and effective property rights in cutting-edge innovation,” innovation that has supercharged our standard of living in myriad ways. That system was widely seen as the “gold standard.” But no longer.
Why do patents and copyrights matter? What do they protect? What to make of the objections against them? For instance: that no one is really hurt by violations of copyrights or patents; or that these rights are obstacles to progress and innovation; or that they’re an unfair, government-granted privilege or favor?
To explore these issues, I talked to Professor Adam Mossoff, who teaches law at George Mason University. Mossoff is an expert on intellectual property law and policy, who has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Politico, among many others. He has testified several times before the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Two points resonated strongly with me after the interview. First, I was alarmed to learn that protections for patents in the U.S. have diminished so much that some companies, particularly in biotech, have opted to shut down operations: why spend years and invest billions of dollars in R&D if a breakthrough innovation cannot be secured under patents? Second, it was refreshing to hear a justification for intellectual property rights grounded not on economic arguments, but on a moral case about an individual’s right to the product of his mind.
Nearly twenty years ago, measles in the United States was declared “eliminated” — thanks to widespread vaccination. But measles has made a dangerous comeback. In the last year, several outbreaks occurred in Washington State and parts of New York, particularly in communities with low rates of vaccination. Such outbreaks reflect the influence of the anti-vaccine movement.
What animates this movement? What to make of its assertions about the dangers of vaccines? And what is the state of scientific knowledge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines? To explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, a physician and expert on infectious diseases. Adalja is co-editor of the new book Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, and he has published in scientific journals as well as popular outlets such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and USA Today.
Two major takeaways from the conversation: First, the war on vaccines does not stem from a dispute over facts; rather, it reflects a wider cultural disdain for facts, truth, and reason. Second, the anti-vaccine movement is itself a significant danger. The more it succeeds, the more we can expect an increase in preventable infections and deaths.
In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.
Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:
the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad
From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.
The movie adaptation of The Fountainhead was first released in theaters in July 1949, and it featured two of the era’s biggest stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. But the making of that film was itself a dramatic story.
It’s a story of “how Ayn Rand sold the screen rights to The Fountainhead — without selling out.” That’s how Shoshana Milgram, a scholar who has studied Rand’s life and writings in depth, has described it. To learn about the making-of story, I turned to Dr. Milgram, a professor at Virginia Tech, whose knowledge of Rand’s intellectual and literary development is truly encyclopedic.
During our conversation, Dr. Milgram shared a wealth of fascinating details about Rand’s role in adapting her novel to the screen. Warner Bros. Studios hired Rand to write the script. Although the scope of a two-hour movie required a considerable delimitation of the story, Rand was intent on ensuring that the film would convey some of the distinctive thematic aspects of the book.
During filming and then in editing, there were further challenges that Rand had to navigate gingerly. For example, there was the attempt to substantially alter the meaning of a climactic courtroom speech that Rand viewed as critical to the theme. (Rand wrote about that conflict in a previously unpublished letter, now available on ARI’s site.)
Finally, we also talked about Rand’s delimited purpose in selling the film rights and her evaluation of the finished product. Near the end, Dr. Milgram shares her own thoughts about the film and a 2017 Dutch-language stage adaptation of The Fountainhead by the director Ivo van Hove.
The interview assumes some knowledge of the basic plot of The Fountainhead novel — though we tried to fill in some context and avoid plot spoilers for those who’ve not yet read the book.
Remember DVDs? Along with the feature film, these sometimes included a short behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. My interview with Dr. Milgram offers something like that kind of background for The Fountainhead adaptation.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, was a grotesque enigma when it burst on the scene in 2014. After conquering vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS became notorious for beheadings and crucifixions, and for reinstating the practice of slavery. But to what end? What did ISIS really want? It soon became clear that our political and military leaders lacked anything like real understanding of the ISIS phenomenon.
Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, set out to answer a few simple, yet crucial questions: What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The resulting article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” went viral. By one reckoning, it received more than a million pageviews the day it went online. It became one of the most-read digital articles of 2015, garnering nearly 100 million minutes of reading time.
Wood’s article was remarkable for debunking a common perception of ISIS as essentially a collection of psychopaths who had hijacked Islam for their own decidedly secular ends. His research led to a different conclusion: ISIS is in fact deeply Islamic. Its ends and means are bound up in sincerely held religious belief.
Building on that article, Wood wrote The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, and recently I caught up with him to discuss his writings on jihadists. We explored the findings of his research, some of the opposing views, or counter-arguments, regarding what’s essential to the Islamic State, and the unwillingness of some scholars to take seriously the religious character of ISIS. Among other topics, we touched on the issue of “Islamophobia” and how it impedes discussion of jihadist ideas (an issue that came up in the attempt to shut down a panel discussion on Islamism that Wood and I took part in at University of Rochester).
A key takeaway from this conversation is that our intellectual and political leaders vastly under-appreciate, if not ignore, the role of ideas in animating the jihadist phenomenon.