You no doubt have heard:
- Antiracism is the only acceptable position on race.
- Secularism is the cause of moral subjectivism and cultural relativism.
- Social justice is a moral imperative.
- Toleration is a virtue we can all agree on, whatever our differences.
- Selfishness is the root cause of our problems—and altruism is the solution.
- Equality is a moral imperative.
- Democracy is under siege, and we must return to this moral ideal.
- Capitalism has failed.
- Extremism must come to an end.
The subjects of such claims are terms or phrases that supposedly mean something specific, but their meanings often are vague or equivocal in people’s minds. What, for instance, is the precise meaning of “equality,” “antiracism,” or “social justice”? How about “capitalism,” “democracy,” or “toleration”? To what in reality do these terms refer?
If we know the referents of the terms we use, then we know what we are thinking and talking about when we use them. If we don’t, we don’t. And using terms (or phrases) when we don’t know their referents in reality means that our minds are disconnected from reality—that is, disconnected from the very realm to which we must keep our minds connected if we are to survive and thrive.
The terms above (and many more) often are held in people’s minds as vague approximations. Yet clarity about the meaning of such terms is essential to thinking rationally about extremely important matters pertaining to freedom and flourishing. In particular, clarity is essential to protecting ourselves and our loved ones from those who seek to sow confusion or “muddy the waters” for the purpose of getting away with claims, proposals, or policies that conceptual clarity would not permit. As Ayn Rand noted, “All philosophical con games count on your using words as vague approximations.”1
If we want to understand and protect the values on which human life and liberty depend, we need clear understandings of the terms we use in thinking about them. We need to use language in accordance with such understandings. And we need to point out when others use words in ways that are vague or don’t make sense.
Toward this end, it is helpful to understand the fallacy that Rand called “package-dealing” and the nature of what she called “anti-concepts.”
We’ll take them in turn.
Package-Dealing: Mentally Mixing the Logically Unmixable
The purpose of a definition is to draw a mental bright line between the things to be included under a given concept and those to be excluded from it—between the things the concept refers to and those it doesn’t—so that when we use the corresponding word, we know what we are thinking or talking about. Package-deals violate this principle.
The fallacy of package-dealing consists in conceptually packaging together things that are superficially similar but essentially different and, thus, logically do not belong under the same concept.2 If and when we commit this fallacy, we muddle our thinking about the subject in question and make clear communication impossible.
To see how package-dealing wreaks havoc on people’s minds and lives, we’ll consider several words and phrases that, in popular usage, involve package-deals. (Bear in mind that the use of these terms is not inherently fallacious. Rather, the fallacy consists in using a given term in a way that groups together, into a single mental package, things that are essentially different and thus do not belong together under the same concept.)
An extremely common instance of package-dealing is the mental blending of “majority rule” and “rights-protecting social system” under the term “democracy.” . . .
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1. Ayn Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1982), 16.
2. See Ayn Rand, “How to Read (and Not to Write),” in The Ayn Rand Letter 1, no. 26.
4. Ayn Rand, “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), 46.
5. For more on this, see Rand, “America’s Persecuted Minority,” and Michael Dahlen, “The Assault on Corporations,” in The Objective Standard 15, no. 3.
6. For more on the true nature of rights, see Rand’s essays “Man’s Rights,” “Collectivized ‘Rights,’” and “”The Nature of Government” in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964); see also my essay “Ayn Rand’s Theory of Rights: The Moral Foundation of a Free Society” in Rational Egoism or in The Objective Standard 6, no. 3.
7. For more on the true nature of capitalism, see Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal; Michael Dahlen, “Corporations and Political Corruption: The Curse of Cronyism and How to End It,” The Objective Standard 15, no. 4; and my essay “Capitalism and the Moral High Ground,” The Objective Standard 3, no. 4. For additional clarity on the related matter of how package-dealing muddies the waters in regard to the left-right political spectrum, see my articles “Political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Properly Defined,” The Objective Standard 7, no. 3, and “The Vital Function of the Political Spectrum,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2.
8. For more on rational secularism, see Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness:; and my Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts That Support It and Rational Egoism: The Morality for Human Flourishing.
9. For more on this, see my essays “Religion vs. Subjectivism: Why Neither Will Do,” The Objective Standard 4, no. 1; and “Religion Is Super Subjectivism,” The Objective Standard 12, no. 2.
10. Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?” in Virtue of Selfishness, 82–83.
11. For more on this package-deal, see my article “The Ground Zero Mosque, the Spread of Islam, and How America Should Deal with Such Efforts,” The Objective Standard 5, no. 3; my “Reply to a Letter about Toleration,” The Objective Standard 6, no. 1; and my video “Islam, Tolerance, and Rights” on YouTube.
12. Rand, “The Ethics of Emergencies,” in Virtue of Selfishness, 51.
14. Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 79, emphasis added.
15. Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 56, emphasis added.
17. Rand, introduction, Virtue of Selfishness, vii.
19. See Rand, “Credibility and Polarization,” in The Ayn Rand Letter; “‘Extremism,’ or The Art of Smearing” and “The Obliteration of Capitalism,” in Capitalism; and “Causality Versus ‘Duty,’” in Philosophy. The definition here is a combination of her several definitions.
20. Rand, “Extremism,” 197.
22. Rand, “Extremism,” 177.
24. Rand, “Racism,” in Virtue of Selfishness, 147.
25. Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York One World, 2019), Kindle edition loc. 433.
26. Quoted in Grace Baek, “Affirmative Action and the Diversity Dilemma,” CBSN Originals, April 15, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/affirmative-action-and-the-diversity-dilemma/.
27. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist, Kindle edition, loc. 406–409.
28. Ibram X. Kendi, “Pass an Anti-Racist Constitutional Amendment,” Politico Magazine, 2019, https://www.politico.com/interactives/2019/how-to-fix-politics-in-america/inequality/pass-an-anti-racist-constitutional-amendment/.
29. Frederick Douglass, “What the Black Man Wants,” a speech at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, April 1865, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/afspfdat.html.
30. For more on the rational assessment of racism, see Ayn Rand’s essay “Racism,” in Virtue of Selfishness; and Tim White, “To Black Lives Matter, No Lives Matter,” The Objective Standard 15, no. 3.
31. Rand, “Credibility and Polarization.”
32. Rand, “Philosophical Detection,” in Philosophy, 21.