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Binswanger discusses the moral basis of capitalism


By Joan Abbott

Dr. Harry Binswanger '65 spoke last night on "The Moral Basis of Capitalism." The talk was sponsored by The Ayn Rand Institute.

Binswanger defended capitalism as the only social system that recognizes individual rights and outlaws the use of physical force. He reached this conclusion by arguing that life is an end in itself and requires no other purpose. Life, in turn, requires the use of man's mind to produce values. Using force to violate the work of man's mind is a moral violation. Preventing a man from keeping the values that he has achieved is immoral. The only system which upholds these rights, property rights, is capitalism.

Binswanger's defense of capitalism was based on Ayn Rand's philosophy, objectivism. During the question period, Binswanger fielded questions on environmental regulation, the origins of capitalism and socialism, the moral basis for manifest destiny, Native Americans, and objectivism vs. libertarianism.

The following is an interview with Binswanger focusing on his career at MIT and his views of MIT today.

Q: How did an MIT undergraduate degree prepare you for a professional career in philosophy?

A: It was fairly good. The courses were interesting and well taught. The professors were interested in teaching and communicating with the students. The curriculum was a combination of history of philosophy and contemporary issues. The professors worked to make their courses interesting, and they were. Given my position as an objectivist on the Anglo-American and European philosophic traditions, there is a limit to the value that I can ascribe to education from contemporary philosophers, but within those limits, I thought MIT was better than my graduate education at Columbia. I think that the Institute should retain its identity as a science and engineering school. I don't think it should try to become an all-purpose school. On the other hand, I think that a certain amount of philosophy is good.

Q: The current humanities distribution system at MIT replaced a four-semester core course on the history of Western ideas. The intent of this is to give students a broader exposure to humanities and more choice. Meanwhile, its almost impossible to get the education knowledge that was taught under the old system. What do you think about the new system?

A: I am upset at the way that the humanities department's curriculum has disintegrated. The four core courses were universally hated by those going through it but they provided a history of ideas and a general framework to understand where we are today. It was in concept a very good course and even those that hated it are probably glad that they took it.

Unfortunately, here, teaching varied a lot. I had one professor who began each class by asking, "What interested you in the reading?" They would just let the students talk the whole time, force them to talk because really nothing interested them. Some [professors] were good and well-liked and most were acceptable. The problem was that even then you had the impression that these professors were not really enthusiastic about what they were doing. Possibly because the students didn't want to be there. It was mutually reimbursing. [Students] didn't know how to express themselves in writing. There was a sort of strained hostility between the teacher and the classroom which did nothing for class chemistry. The elective courses in the philosophy department were much better.

Q: Western philosophy courses of the type once taught at MIT have been seen as discriminatory towards women and minority groups. What do you think about this?

A: This is a vicious, egalitarian racist idea which is very common in universities today. It's egalitarian because it tries to ignore the differences in individuals and it's racist because it looks at things through racial issues. The qualification for being on the core curriculum should be the quality of the contribution the person made not what race or sex they belong to. As an individualist, I say race, gender and all other such group affiliations are irrelevant. The criteria for selection of a course and any works to be studied should have nothing to do with the author, only the work.

Q: A question often raised at MIT is "What is the function of humanities courses in the education of a scientist or engineer?" What's your opinion?

A: Given contemporary, irrational ideas being presented in the humanities, I can understand why scientists and engineers would not want to make them part of their education. In a better intellectual environment, the need for scientists to gain a broader framework for their professional and personal lives through the humanities would be evident.

Today, the engineers are under attack by numerous anti-technology groups. A humanistic education that would arm them with answers to that group would be extremely valuable. If they could learn why technology is the highest spiritual function and to understand that they are exponents of man's creative faculty, not just "number-crunchers," this would give them the self-confidence to be proud to be engineers and to know that technology is the solution not the problem.

Q: I understand that you first saw Ayn Rand here at MIT. Tell us about it.

A: Miss Rand gave a lecture titled "The Objectivist Ethics" in Kresge in 1962. I had heard that she was a controversial figure but had not read any of her works so I didn't get a lot out of the talk at first. Then, Miss Rand came to a point in her presentation where she said, "Man has a choice to focus his mind or drift in a semiconscious daze." This hit me like a sonic boom, I leaned forward in my chair and spent the rest of the lecture struggling to understand what she was saying. I still didn't get a lot out of it, not that it was a difficult lecture but I was just unprepared. The question period was astounding. When asked if she was an atheist, Miss Rand replied, "of course," as if somebody had asked her is she dressed more warmly in the winter than in the summer -- "of course."

I was somewhat of an agnostic at that point and I thought that maybe there was some vast cosmic force that is behind the physical laws. When I heard her say "of course", I heard in my own mind "of course." She went on to explain that she accepted reason and nothing but reason and that if you believed in God, you believed in faith. What her "of course" said, besides the explanation, was that the question "Is there is a God?" is exactly like the question "Is there a person standing on the corner of Mass Ave. and Memorial Drive?" It's a factual question that's being answered by the same method of thinking that you answer any question. And once she posed it that way, "Is there some disembodied super-consciousness who created all of reality out of nothingness by means of a wish, is that how the world came to be? That's ridiculous." That's what I understood her to say.

She also had a heckler from the audience; she was extremely hated at that time by many people. Most of the audience came to scoff at Miss Rand but she won the audience over entirely. Particularly, somebody yelled out from the audience, "Why don't you go back where you came from!" She stopped, fixed on the audience, and asked, "Do you have the courage to stand up and repeat that?" A figure stood up in the seat and began to speak but never got to the end of his sentence. He trailed off and finally slumped down in his seat. It was so obvious that his statement had no cognitive content, only a slur because of her Russian accent. The audience burst into laughter immediately followed by applause for Ayn Rand.

I asked her later about that incident and she didn't even remember it. To me it was a very exciting moment but to her it was insignificant. She was only interested in ideas, and it was obvious to her that this heckler had no ideas and was just mouthing off. This was still at a time when people did not make extreme statements or do things like that. She was so black and white and dramatic. It was like coming into the sunlight after having grown up in Plato's cave. For every question she answered, she was very absolute and clear. She always gave extensive reasons for her position so after that I was very impressed, and I thought I had to read Atlas Shrugged. It took me a month to read because it was so much to integrate and also, I didn't want it to end.

It wasn't until a year later that I decided I was an objectivist. I gave it a year because I thought, "This sounds fantastic, this sounds like everything I have ever felt and thought and, better. It was more thought out." During the next year, the particular assignment I gave myself was that whenever I talked to somebody and they disagreed about these ideas, to find out what their objections were. Maybe there are some obvious flaws here that I don't see and others know more than I do. Maybe this is just a beginner stage where you think this is some kind of great philosophy. So, I talked about ideas a lot and met a wide range of people. I would always ask them "What's wrong with this, why don't you agree with it? What's the flaw?" What they would say was not something that I had not seen; it was some line that Ayn Rand had already addressed in Atlas Shrugged.

I found also that not only did these people have no answer to my questions but they had not even read the opposition. They knew only a few slogans like Ayn Rand was "right-wing" and "for selfishness." The opposition which had made me leery of Ayn Rand turned out to be completely bankrupt. Meanwhile, I was reading everything I could get my hands on and at the end of the year I had read literally everything Miss Rand had ever written. The results were integrated in my mind and I had no further doubts. I decided I agreed 100 percent with this philosophy. The years since have only added to the solidity of this.

Q: Were you involved with the Radicals for Capitalism?

A: Yes, I was involved but we gave talks on wide philosophical topics at a time when there wasn't much literature available on the objectivist philosophy on some of these topics. It was amateurish but fun. We had about 25 come to our talks regularly. Actually, we weren't interested in politics. It was called the Radicals for Capitalism because there is a line in Ayn Rand's writing which says, "We are radicals for Capitalism." But we never had any meetings about politics. Politics was easy. We all understood it right away. We had discussions on topics like the primacy of existence (even though we didn't have that name for it at that time), free will vs. determinism, and the aesthetics of music.