An Antidote to Alienation

This much of Marx’s theory of alienation bears a resemblance to the truth:

The design of the product and how it is produced are determined, not by the producers who make it (the workers)….

[T]he generation of products (goods and services) is accomplished with an endless sequence of discrete, repetitive, motions that offer the worker little psychological satisfaction for “a job well done.”

These statements are true not only of assembly-line manufacturing. They’re also true of much “white collar” work — certainly routine office work and even a lot of research work that requires advanced degrees in scientific and semi-scientific disciplines (e.g., economics). They are certainly true of “blue collar” work that is rote, and in which the worker has no ownership stake.

There’s a relevant post at West Hunter which is short enough to quote in full:

Many have noted how difficult it is to persuade hunter-gatherers to adopt agriculture, or more generally, to get people to adopt a more intensive kind of agriculture.

It’s worth noting that, given the choice, few individuals pick the more intensive, more ‘civilized’ way of life, even when their ancestors have practiced it for thousands of years.

Benjamin Franklin talked about this. “When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

The life of the hunter-gatherer, however fraught, is less rationalized than the kind of life that’s represented by intensive agriculture, let alone modern manufacturing, transportation, wholesaling, retailing, and office work.

The hunter-gatherer isn’t a cog in a machine, he is the machine: the shareholder, the co-manager, the co-worker, and the consumer, all in one. His work with others is truly cooperative. It is like the execution of a game-winning touchdown by a football team, and unlike the passing of a product from stage to stage in an assembly line, or the passing of a virtual piece of paper from computer to computer.

The hunter-gatherer’s social milieu was truly societal:

Hunter-gatherer bands in the [Pleistocene] were in the range of 25 to 150 individuals: men, women, and children. These small bands would have sometimes formed larger agglomerations of up to a few thousand for the purpose of mate-seeking and defense, but this would have been unusual. The typically small size for bands meant that interactions within the group were face-to-face, with everyone knowing the name and something of the reputation and character of everyone else. Though group members would have engaged in some specializa­tion of labor beyond the normal sex distinctions (men as hunters, women as gatherers), specialization would not have been strict: all men, for example, would haft adzes, make spears, find game, kill, and dress it, and hunt in bands of ten to twenty individuals. [From Denis Dutton’s review of Paul Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom.]

Nor is the limit of 150 unique to hunter-gatherer bands:

[C]ommunal societies — like those our ancestors lived in, or in any human group for that matter — tend to break down at about 150. Such is perhaps due to our limited brain capacity to know any more people that intimately, but it’s also due to the breakdown of reciprocal relationships like those discussed above — after a certain number (again, around 150).

A great example of this is given by Richard Stroup and John Baden in an old article about communal Hutterite colonies. (Hutterites are sort of like the Amish — or more broadly like Mennonites — but settled in different areas of North America.) Stroup, an economist at Montana State University, shared with me his Spring 1972 edition of Public Choice, wherein he and political scientist John Baden write:

In a relatively small colony, the proportional contribution of each member is greater. Likewise, surveillance of him by each of the others is more complete and an informal accounting of contribution is feasible. In a colony, there are no elaborate systems of formal controls over a person’s contribution. Thus, in general, the incentive and surveillance structures of a small or medium-size colony are more effective than those of a large colony and shirking is lessened.

Interestingly, according to Stroup and Baden, once the Hutterites reach Magic Number 150, they have a tradition of breaking off and forming another colony. This idea is echoed in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, wherein he discusses successful companies that use 150 in their organizational models.

Had anyone known about this circa 1848, someone might have told Karl Marx that his theory [communism] could work, but only up to the Magic Number. [From Max Borders’s “The Stone Age Trinity“.]

What all of this means, of course, is that for the vast majority of people there’s no going back. How many among us are willing — really willing — to trade our creature comforts for the “simple life”? Few would be willing when faced with the reality of what the “simple life” means; for example, catching or growing your own food, dawn-to-post-dusk drudgery, nothing resembling culture as we know it (high or low), and lives that are far closer to nasty, brutish, and short than today’s norms.

Given that, it is important (nay, crucial) to cultivate an inner life of intellectual or spiritual satisfaction. Only that inner life — and the love and friendship of a small circle of fellows — can hold alienation at bay. Only that inner life — and love and close friendships — can give us serenity as civilization crumbles around us.

(See also “Alienation” and “Another Angle on Alienation“.)

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XI)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Steve Stewart-Williams asks “Did Morality Evolve?” (The Nature-Nurture-Neitzsche Blog, May 2, 2010). His answer:

[T]here are at least two reasons to think morality bears the imprint of our evolutionary history. The first comes from observations of a class of individuals that psychologists all too often ignore: other animals. Nonhuman animals obviously don’t reason explicitly about right and wrong, but they do exhibit some aspects of human morality. Rather than being locked into an eternal war of all-against-all, many animals display tendencies that we count among our most noble: They cooperate; they help one another; they share resources; they love their offspring. For those who doubt that human morality has evolutionary underpinnings, the existence of these ‘noble’ traits in other animals poses a serious challenge….

…A second [reason] is that, not only do we know that these kinds of behaviour are part of the standard behavioural repertoire of humans in all culture and of other animals, we now have a pretty impressive arsenal of theories explaining how such behaviour evolved. Kin selection theory explains why many animals – humans included – are more altruistic toward kin than non-kin: Kin are more likely than chance to share any genes contributing to this nepotistic tendency. Reciprocal altruism theory explains how altruism can evolve even among non-relatives: Helping others can benefit the helper, as long as there’s a sufficient probability that the help will be reciprocated and as long as people avoid helping those who don’t return the favour. Another promising theory is that altruism is a costly display of fitness, which makes the altruist more attractive as a mate or ally. Overall, the evolutionary explanation of altruism represents one of the real success stories of the evolutionary approach to psychology.

Though I’m disinclined to use the term “altruism,” it’s useful shorthand for the kinds of behavior that seems selfless. In any event, I am sympathetic to Stewart-Williams’s view of morality as evolutionary. Morality is at least a learned and culturally-transmitted phenomenon, which manifests itself globally in the Golden Rule.

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Pierre Lemieux decries “The Vacuity of the Political ‘We’” (The Library of Economics and Liberty, October 6, 2014):

One can barely read a newspaper or listen to a politician’s speech without hearing the standard “we as a society” or its derivatives….

The truth is that this collective “we” has no scientific meaning.

In the history of economic thought, two main strands of analysis support this conclusion. One was meant to criticize economists’ use of “social indifference curves” (also called “community indifference curves”), which generally appeared in the welfare analysis of international trade between personalized trading countries. Countries were personalized in the sense that they were assumed to have preferences, just as an individual does. In a famous 1956 article, Paul Samuelson definitively demonstrated that such social indifference curves, analogous to individual indifference curves, do not exist….

A second strand of analysis leads to a similar but more general conclusion. The problem has come to be known as the “preference aggregation” issue: how can we aggregate—”add up” as it were—individual preferences? Can we fuse them into social preferences—a “social welfare function”—that would equally represent all individuals? This second tradition of analysis follows a long and broken line of theorists. The Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, Charles Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) in the 19th, and economist Duncan Black in the 20th all discovered independently that majority voting does not provide an acceptable aggregation mechanism.

I’ve discussed the vacuity of the political “we” and the “social welfare function” in many posts; most recently this one, where I make these two points:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

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I’m pleased to note that there are still some enlightened souls like David Mulhhausen, who writes about “How the Death Penalty Saves Lives” (September 30, 2014) , at the website of The Heritage Foundation. Muhlhausen cites several studies in support of his position. I’ve treated crime and punishment many times; for example:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
What Is Justice?
Saving the Innocent
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Lock ‘Em Up
Free Will, Crime, and Punishment
Left-Libertarians, Obama, and the Zimmerman Case
Stop, Frisk, and Save Lives
Poverty, Crime, and Big Governmen

The numbers are there to support strict punishment, up to and including capital punishment. But even if the numbers weren’t conclusive, I’d be swayed by John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who makes a succinct case for the death penalty, regardless of its deterrent effect:

I’m a bit surprised . . . [by the] claim that “the burden of empirical proof would seem to lie with the pro-death penalty scholar.” If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call.

The same goes for fraudsters, thieves, rapists, and other transgressors against morality.

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Walter E. Williams asks “Will the West Defend Itself?” (, October 1, 2014):

A debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not is entirely irrelevant to the threat to the West posed by ISIL, al-Qaida and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups. I would like to gather a news conference with our Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno; Marines’ commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford; chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert; and Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the U.S. Air Force’s chief of staff. This would be my question to them: The best intelligence puts ISIL’s size at 35,000 to 40,000 people. Do you officers think that the combined efforts of our military forces could defeat and lay waste to ISIL? Before they had a chance to answer, I’d add: Do you think the combined military forces of NATO and the U.S. could defeat and eliminate ISIL. Depending on the answers given, I’d then ask whether these forces could also eliminate Iran’s capability of making nuclear weapons.

My question to my fellow Americans is: What do you think their answers would be? No beating around the bush: Does the U.S. have the power to defeat the ISIL/al-Qaida threat and stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions — yes or no?

If our military tells us that we do have the capacity to defeat the terror threat, then the reason that we don’t reflects a lack of willingness. It’s that same lack of willingness that led to the deaths of 60 million people during World War II. In 1936, France alone could have stopped Adolf Hitler, but France and its allies knowingly allowed Hitler to rearm, in violation of treaties. When Europeans finally woke up to Hitler’s agenda, it was too late. Their nations were conquered. One of the most horrible acts of Nazi Germany was the Holocaust, which cost an estimated 11 million lives. Those innocents lost their lives because of the unwillingness of Europeans to protect themselves against tyranny.

Westerners getting the backbone to defend ourselves from terrorists may have to await a deadly attack on our homeland. You say, “What do you mean, Williams?” America’s liberals have given terrorists an open invitation to penetrate our country through our unprotected southern border. Terrorists can easily come in with dirty bombs to make one of our major cities uninhabitable through radiation. They could just as easily plant chemical or biological weapons in our cities. If they did any of these acts — leading to the deaths of millions of Americans — I wonder whether our liberal Democratic politicians would be able to respond or they would continue to mouth that “Islam teaches peace” and “Islam is a religion of peace.”

Unfortunately for our nation’s future and that of the world, we see giving handouts as the most important function of government rather than its most basic function: defending us from barbarians.

Exactly. The title of my post, “A Grand Strategy for the United States,” is a play on Strategy for the  West (1954), by Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cotesworth Slessor. Slessor was, by some accounts, a principal author of nuclear deterrence. Aside from his role in the development of a strategy for keeping the USSR at bay, Slessor is perhaps best known for this observation:

It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditure on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of the social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service that a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free. (Strategy for the West, p. 75)

Doctrinaire libertarians seem unable to grasp this. Like “liberals,” they tend to reject the notion of a strong defense because they are repelled by the “tribalism” represented by state sovereignty. One such doctrinaire libertarian is Don Boudreaux, who — like Walter E. Williams — teaches economics at George Mason University.

A post by Boudreaux at his blog Cafe Hayek caused me to write “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” where I say this:

Boudreaux … states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. Boudreaux embellishes that theme in the the next several paragraphs of his post; for example:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.


The Hall of Fame and Morality

Jonathan Mahler, in the course of an incoherent article about baseball, makes this observation:

This year, not a single contemporary player was voted into the Hall of Fame because so many eligible players were suspected of steroid use. Never mind that Cooperstown has its share of racists, wife beaters and even a drug dealer. (To say nothing of the spitballers.)

Those few sentences typify the confusion rampant in Mahler’s offering. The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs calls into question the legitimacy of the users’ accomplishments on the field. Racism, wife-beating, and drug-dealing — deplorable as they are — do not cast a shadow on the perpetrators’ performance as baseball players. As for the spitball, it was legal in baseball until 1920, and when it was outlawed its avowed practitioners were allowed to continue using it. (Some modern pitchers have been accused of using it from time to time, but I can’t think of one who used it so much that his career is considered a sham.)

Election to the Hall of Fame isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a moral judgment. If it were, I suspect that the Hall of Fame would be a rather empty place, especially if serial adultery and alcohol abuse were grounds for disqualification.

At the risk of being called a moral agnostic, which I am not, I say this: Election to the Hall of Fame (as a player) should reflect the integrity and excellence of on-field performance. Period.

I do have strong views about the proper qualifications for election to the Hall of Fame (as a player). You can read them here, here, and here. I’ve also analyzed the statistical evidence for indications of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by a few notable players: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire (both guilty) and Roger Clemens (unproved).

The Culture War

“Culture war” is a familiar term, but one that I hadn’t thought deeply about until a few days ago. I read something about abortion in which “culture war” occurred. The fog lifted, and I grasped what should have been obvious to me all along: The “culture war” isn’t about “culture,” it’s about morality and liberty. Rod Dreher, in the course of a premature paean to Barack Obama’s “diplomatic” approach to ideological strife, gets it right:

The source of our culture war is conflicting visions of what it means to be free and what it means to be an American – and even what it means to be fully human. More concretely, as Princeton’s Robert George has written, they have to do mainly “with sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life.” Because the cultural left and cultural right hold to irreconcilable orthodoxies on these questions, we find scant cultural consensus. That’s life in America. Unless we become a homogenous country, we will continue to struggle to live together, staying true to our deepest beliefs while respecting the liberty of others to stay true to their own. But we do not live in a libertarian Utopia. We can’t have it all. If, for example, courts constitutionalized same-sex marriage, as gay activists seek, that would have a ground-shaking effect on religious liberty, public schooling and other aspects of American life. Without question, it would intensify the culture war, as partisans of the left and right fight for what each considers a sacred principle. What irritates conservatives is the liberals’ groundless conceit that they fight from a values-neutral position, while the right seeks to impose its norms on others. Nonsense. Marriage was a settled issue until liberals began using courts to impose their moral vision on (so far) an unwilling majority. Who fired the first shot there? (“Obama Won’t End the Culture Wars,” RealClearPolitics, February 16, 2009)

And it doesn’t matter whether the unwilling are a majority or a minority. Just about everyone is a loser in the war against morality and liberty. When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society. The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism). That is civil society, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish.  As I observed some years ago, in connection with same-sex “marriage”:

Given the signals being sent by the state, the rate of formation of traditional, heterosexual marriages will continue to decline. (According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of adult males who are married dropped steadily from 71.1 percent in the 1960 census to 58.6 percent in the 2000 census; for females, the percentage dropped from 67.4 to 54.6. About half of each drop is explained by a rise in the percentage of adults who never marry, the other half by a rise in the percentage of divorced adults. Those statistics are what one should expect when the state signals — as it began to do increasingly after 1960 — that traditional marriage is no special thing by making it easier for couples to divorce, by subsidizing single mothers, and by encouraging women to work outside the home.)

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, and judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda. Dreher calls them liberals. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

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Related reading: Trevor Thomas, “The Laughable Liberal ‘Moral Imperative’,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013 Deborah C. Tyler, “Morality, Anti-Morality, and Socialism,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013 Related posts: Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values The Consequences of Roe v. Wade The Old Eugenics in a New Guise The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence Moral Luck Consider the Children Same-Sex Marriage “Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage Law, Liberty, and Abortion Equal Time: The Sequel Marriage and Children Abortion and the Slippery Slope More on Abortion and Crime Peter Singer’s Agenda Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty Singer Said It A “Person” or a “Life”? A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion Crime, Explained “Family Values,” Liberty, and the State Intellectuals and Capitalism Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage” Rawls Meets Bentham The Left Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage” “Intellectuals and Society”: A Review Our Enemy, the State Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism The Left’s Agenda More Pseudo-Libertarianism More about Conservative Governance The Meaning of Liberty Positive Liberty vs. Liberty On Self-Ownership and Desert In Defense of Marriage The Left and Its Delusions Burkean Libertarianism Crimes against Humanity Abortion and Logic True Libertarianism, One More Time Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism Utilitarianism and Psychopathy The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm The Spoiled Children of Capitalism Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty Libertarianism and Morality Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote Society and the State Are You in the Bubble? Legislating Morality Legislating Morality (II) Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications Liberty and Society Tolerance on the Left The Eclipse of “Old America” Genetic Kinship and Society Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism? Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians “Conversing” about Race Defining Liberty “We the People” and Big Government

LIberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

This is the fourth installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first three installments, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Am I Endorsing Moral Relativism?

In “Liberty and Society,” I argue that

liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

Liberty, in other words, is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

Before you accuse me of moral relativism, consider the following. I am not endorsing a particular social construct, merely describing reality. The ugly reality is that in some societies there are barbarous acts which are considered to be moral, or to be justified because they are committed to enforce a moral code. One need look no further than certain Islamic sects, which endorse acts of terror against infidels, the stoning to death of adulterous women, and the imprisonment of homosexuals just because they are homosexuals. Are those acts justified by their broad acceptance within the Islamic sects that preach and practice them? Not in my view, certainly. But abhorrence of such acts does not negate the fact that they are accepted as normal within certain societies.

These facts will not dissuade moral absolutists, among whose number are deontological libertarians. Such libertarians like to believe that there is a “correct” moral code, and that it is known to them. This is a rather priestly pretension for a sect whose ranks are populated mainly by atheists. Persons who come to moral absolutism through religious conviction have the advantage of intellectual consistency.

By the deontological account, every human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights — “natural rights.”  What are those rights? One might assume that deontologists agree unanimously about them, inasmuch as deontologists accept the non-aggression principle and self-ownership as axiomatic. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Does the non-aggression principle preclude abortion? Some deontologists say that it does; others, that it does not. Does the non-aggression principle preclude a preemptive strike when it is evident that an enemy is about to attack? Again, it depends on which deontologist answers the question. I could go on, but that should be enough to tell you that deontology is no guarantee of moral certainty. In fact, deontology is nothing more than Mill’s harm principle in fancy dress And it has the same fatal flaw: It is a general statement into which one may pour a variety of specific meanings. (See “Liberty and Society.”) Efforts by deontologists to ground “natural rights” in evolutionary biology are equally fatuous. (See “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”)

Then there are consequentialist libertarians, who claim that a regime of negative rights is best because it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. But the problem with that stance is its utilitarianism, that is, its presumption that the welfare of one person can be weighed against that of another person. (See “Enough of Social Welfare.”)

What about “progressives,” who are like deontological libertarians in the certainty with which they proclaim “natural rights,” which they (“progressives”) like to call “universal rights” and “human rights.” Unsurprisingly, “progressive” conceptions of rights are unlike those of most libertarians, who recognize only negative rights (“bleeding hearts” excepted). “Progressives” are champions of positive rights, that is, claims against the produce and property of others.

Who is to say that the “progressives” are wrong and hard-core libertarians are right? In other words, if there is a moral high ground, who decides who is standing on it? If a group of “progressives” were to form a cohesive society in which certain positive rights were agreed and accepted by all, without resort to coercion, would that not be a legitimate state of affairs? I have to admit that it would be.

That said, there is among “progressives” broad resistance to a pure share-and-share-alike ethos. In fact, “progressives” adhere to a share-this-much-but-no-more ethos. Though the “sharing” is not true sharing but redistribution by government edict. And the proper amount of “sharing” is always an idiosyncratic product of “progressive” attitudes du jour.

If you seek a good example of moral relativism, you can always find it in “progressivism,” with its ad hoc morality. Consequentialist libertarianism is no better, in principle, though when it comes to policy, consequentialists tend to be indistinguishable from deontologists. The latter, if they are nothing else, are demi-paragons of moral absolutism. If they were paragons, they would all discover the same operational code — one that goes deeper than an invocation of “natural rights.”

But I have wandered from the main point, which is whether variations in moral codes necessarily denote significant differences as to the nature of morality. Moral codes have two types of component: core values and instrumental values. Core values usually are expressed as absolutes: You shall not kill; you shall not steal; and so on. And those values may be held in common by many societies, even though those societies may have markedly different instrumental values.

The Amish, for example, subscribe to the core values that are enunciated in the Ten Commandments. But their instrumental values vary from sect to sect; thus:

Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.

The last sentence of the quotation will cause “sophisticates” to smirk, though secular “sophisticates” are loathe to associate with persons who hold “mistaken” views about abortion, child-rearing, capital punishment, and the proper role of government — to name but a few examples. And yet, those same “sophisticates” will agree with their ideological enemies that murder, theft, and several other acts are wrong. The devil, as I say, is in the details.

Instrumental values may be as trivial (to the non-Amish) as the width of a hat-brim, or as consequential (to a large number of persons on the left and right) as the proper punishment for premeditated murder (i.e., whether it should be incarceration, perhaps with a rehabilitative aim, or execution).

Why are instrumental values so important? And do differences about instrumental values preclude common cause with respect to core values?

A society is much more than its core values, As I have said,

[a] society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

(On the importance of genetic kinship, see Genetic Kinship and Society.”)

But genetic kinship stretches only so far as a bonding material. When a person — even a person of the “right” race and ethnicity — flouts a society’s instrumental values, he signals disrespect for all of that society values, not just disrespect for the instrumental values in question. Take the predominantly white, flag-burning, rampaging, long-haired, bearded war-protestors of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example. Even though the United States is not a society and never has been one, it cohered in Old America because of commonalities among the societies of which it was composed. To be long-haired and bearded in the 1960s and early 1970s was (rightly) taken not just as a sign of one’s anti-war views but as a sign of one’s rejection of the values common to the societies of Old America. And so it was that to wear one’s hair long and to sport a beard (especially if the hair and beard were unkempt) was to risk a beating at the hands of white “good old boys.” (That the “good old boys” later adopted long hair and shaggy beards only underscores the role of signaling in social solidarity.)

It is nevertheless possible for societies that differ in their instrumental values to find common cause — as long as the differences are not too great:

Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

Old America was a large and richly diverse nation, united as much as it could be — and as much as it needed to be for mutual self-defense. Much of that unity has been undone by the purveyors of “diversity” (i.e., state-imposed preferences), who are also the purveyors of “equality” (i.e., unearned entitlements). Those same purveyors are moral relativists who cannot bring themselves to keep Americans safe from violent sub-cultures, at home and abroad.

Which brings me to my criteria for judging moral codes:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.)

2. A code that fosters beneficent behavior must conform to the Ten Commandments, or to the last six of them, at least.

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved. (Dissent does not encompass treason.)

4. Those who cannot abide the code must be able to exit society’s jurisdiction, without penalty.

There is more, if a society is part of a larger polity.

5. That polity is illegitimate if it overrides the otherwise legitimate moral codes of its constituent societies.

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them. (A case in point: Obama’s support for uprisings in the Middle East — uprisings led by Muslim extremists, as Obama must surely have known.)

7. That polity is illegitimate if, in overriding those moral codes, it effectively negates voice and exit. (This has happened in America, where we are hostages in our own land.)

In closing, it is true that liberty is a social construct. But that is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society

Enough with the Bleeding Hearts, Already

Regular readers will know of my disdain for the “bleeding heart” variety of so-called libertarianism. I not only find bleeding-heart libertarians (BHLs) to be unnecessarily apologetic about libertarianism, but also all too willing to impose their views about “social justice” through state action. (On the latter point, see my post “Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists,” and this from a BHL who clearly advocates state action on utilitarian grounds.)

A recent post by Aaron Ross Powell at reminds me that not all useful “libertarian” idiots are housed at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Powell’s post, “Libertarian Caring,” makes some good points; for example, Powell ends the post with this:

Liberty does not come at the exclusion of all other concerns. Rather, liberty is the best way to maximize all other concerns. Yes there are libertarians who want nothing more than “to be left alone.” But that feeling doesn’t carry with it Haidt’s implied “and screw all the rest of you.” Instead, “left alone” means freed from officious government so we can better go about making the world a happier, healthier, richer, and more caring place.

Very well said, except that earlier in the post insists that his heart is in the right place not because he is a libertarian but because he “cares”; for example:

Of course libertarians value liberty. But a great many of us, myself included, value caring very highly too. In fact, the reason I shifted from being a progressive to a libertarian was not because my moral foundations changed but because I came to realize that genuine caring means making an effort to actually help people—and that government programs intended to help have a rather poor track record.

Which means that Powell does not value liberty, or thinks of it as a secondary value. In his heart he is still a “progressive” — just one who is looking for the best way to maximize the mythical social-welfare function. Powell is right about the fruits of liberty, but it seems that if he were convinced that liberty did not have beneficial consequences he would revert to statism.

I do not care why anyone is a libertarian, just as long as he is not a left-statist in libertarian clothing.

On that point I turn to David Henderson (with whom I sometimes disagree).  Henderson makes an excellent point in the video embedded here. Free markets (i.e., libertarian institutions) foster ethical behavior because producers compete by striving to do things that benefit consumers. The same is not true of governments and NGOs.

The teaching of ethical behavior is not to be scorned. But scoundrels will always be with us, in all walks of life. There is nothing about business that attracts or breeds a disproportionate number of scoundrels. In fact, I would say that politics and bureaucracies attract and breed more than their share of scoundrels. But even if that is not the case, the scoundrels who are drawn to  “public service” are less constrained in their behavior toward others than the scoundrels who are drawn to business.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists

Legislating Morality

As noted here, I am belatedly watching Prohibition, a production of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which first aired on PBS in October. A main theme of the second episode is that “you can’t legislate morality.” Well, morality can be legislated — and is legislated — but enforcing it is another thing. And that is the real lesson of Prohibition in the United States, the “noble experiment” that lasted from 1920 to 1933.

When I say that morality can be legislated, I mean simply that a moral precept (e.g., “Thou shall not kill.”) can be memorialized in formal law, thus enabling the state to prosecute persons who violate the precept. Diligent prosecution reinforces the precept by punishing those who violate it and deterring would-be violators.

An important lesson of the “noble experiment” is that the ability of the state to prosecute violations of a formal law depends on the degree to which the law’s underlying moral precept is accepted among the population. Killing — when not done in the course of war or self-defense — is one thing; drinking alcohol is quite another. The one is an irrevocable harm; the other is not harmful, in itself, except possibly to the imbiber. (Yes, it is true that drinking was not banned, but the drastic reduction or cessation of drinking was the clear aim of the Eighteenth Amendment’s prohibition of “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.”)

Even if a formal law is not squarely grounded in a moral precept, the law may be widely observed if (a) it is prosecuted rigorously and (b) the penalty for violating the law effectively deters the routine violation of it.

Take speeding, for example. Speeding does not, in itself, violate a moral precept. But speeding can be the proximate cause of a violation — the taking of a human life, for instance. This, in turn, can result in prosecution for vehicular homicide. There is, in other words, a moral distance between speeding and an actual wrong. Accordingly, the observance of speed limits usually depends on the likelihood of being caught and on the penalty attached to the particular instance of speeding. That is why most drivers observe the speed limit in a school zone, even before school has been dismissed and after students have left the scene. And that is why highway speed limits seem made to be broken. To put it another way, the “real law”  for school-zone speed limits is not the same as the “real law” for highway speed limits. School-zone speed limits are usually obeyed because they are enforced more stringently than highway speed limits. Highway speed limits are not enforced stringently, and (except in speed-trap jurisdictions) are usually 10 miles an hour above posted limits. Given that,  and the less-stringent enforcement of highway speed limits (except around certain holidays), the result is widespread disobedience of posted speed limits on highways.

It seems to me that to most Americans outside the “Bible Belt” — and to not a few within it — Prohibition was not akin to the imposition of a speed limit but to a ban on driving.  Restrictions on speeding are understandable (if not always observed) because an automobile is a lethal weapon, but think of the hue and cry if driving were banned. And yet, the intent of Prohibition was to ban the use of a product that is inherently less dangerous than an automobile. Alcohol is a lethal weapon only when it is wielded by an alcoholic — and then it is a means of committing suicide, not murder. In most instances, and for most persons, the consumption of alcohol does not lead directly or indirectly to the violation of moral precepts. (Laws against drinking under a certain age reflect the norms that most adults would impose on their own children and are therefore generally acceptable.)

In sum, Prohibition did legislate morality, but it was the morality of a politically effective minority of Americans. Because of that, the legislation could not be enforced effectively because its moral premise was not widely accepted. In fact, it was widely ridiculed and resisted, even by many of the persons who were sworn to enforce it. And a lot of them had no compunction about breaking the law and actively helping law-breakers, often for a price.

Prohibition is a leading example of the collusion of “bootleggers and Baptists.” This is a term coined by Bruce Yandle in “Bootleggers and Baptists–The Education of a Regulatory Economist,” which appeared 29 years ago in Cato Institute’s Regulation (Volume 7, Number 3). As Yandle explains in the article,

the pages of history are full of episodes best explained by a theory of regulation I call “bootleggers and Baptists.” Bootleggers, you will remember, support Sunday closing laws that shut down all the local bars and liquor stores. Baptists support the same laws and lobby vigorously for them. Both parties gain, while the regulators are content because the law is easy to administer. Of course, this theory is not new. In a democratic society, economic forces will always play through the political mechanism in ways determined by the voting mechanism employed. Politicians need resources in order to get elected. Selected members of the public can gain resources through the political process, and highly organized groups can do that quite handily. The most successful ventures of this sort occur where there is an overarching public concern to be addressed (like the problem of alcohol) whose “solution” allows resources to be distributed from the public purse to particular groups or from one group to another (as from bartenders to bootleggers).

In the case of Prohibition, the regulation of alcohol proved difficult to administer because the amount of money at stake fostered criminal activity and corruption.

Like most regulations — which are meant to proscribe specific activities without regard for ancillary effects — Prohibition had costly, unintended consequences. The unintended consequences of Prohibition were greater violence and widespread disrespect for the forces of “law and order,” which were either corrupt, ineffective at maintaining the peace, or dedicated to the enforcement of a morally baseless regimen.

The Least Evil Option

Wilson D. Miscamble, writing at Public Discourse in “The Least Evil Option,” defends Harry Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan:

[T]he United States eventually could have defeated Japan without the atomic bomb, but all the viable alternate scenarios to secure victory—continued obliteration bombing of Japanese cities and infrastructure, a choking blockade, the likely terrible invasions involving massive firepower—would have meant significantly greater Allied casualties and higher Japanese civilian and military casualties. These casualties would likely have included thousands of Allied prisoners of war whom the Japanese planned to execute. Notably, all of these options also would have indirectly involved some “intentional killing of innocents,” including the naval blockade, which sought to starve the Japanese into submission. Hard as it may be to accept when one sees the visual evidence of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese losses probably would have been substantially greater without the A-bombs….

Bluntly put, the atomic bombs shortened the war, averted the need for a land invasion, saved countless more lives on both sides of the ghastly conflict than they cost, and brought to an end the Japanese brutalization of the conquered peoples of Asia.

(I, too, have defended Truman’s decision. See this post, for example.)

Miscamble’s article is aimed at Christopher O. Tollefson’s critique of  Miscamble’s book, The Most Controversial Decision. Tollefson, according to Miscamble,

largely repeats the fundamental criticism mounted against President Harry Truman by Elizabeth Anscombe over a half-century ago: Violating the moral absolute against the intentional killing of the innocent is always wrong. The atomic bombs involved such killing and so should not have been used––end of story. It is all neat, and clear, and logically consistent.

Is the intentional killing of the innocent always wrong? Consider these situations:

1. A homicidal maniac rushes into a restaurant, grabs a diner and holds her in front of himself as a shield, then begins to shoot other diners. You are seated in the restaurant, in the maniac’s line of vision, and he will soon shoot you if you do nothing. You are carrying a high-powered handgun, and have time to take a shot at the maniac before he aims at you, but your only sure way of stopping the him is to shoot through the innocent diner whom he is using as a shield. It is your life or the innocent person’s. Would you shoot before being shot or wait to see what happens; the maniac might not shoot at you, he might not hit you, he might not hurt you seriously, or you might be able to duck. But you do not know which of these things will happen. Therefore, if you do nothing, you are inviting the worst of them to happen, namely, that the maniac will shoot you and kill you or seriously wound you.

2. Then, there is this classic: You are at a train track and see five people tied to the track ahead. A switch is in front of you which will divert the train, but as you look down you see a man is strapped to that track and will be killed. Is it permissible to flip the switch and save the five people at the expense of one?

3. And this variation: Now imagine in order to save the five people, you have to push a stranger in front of the train to stop it. You know for certain it would stop the train in time to save the five people tied to the tracks. Is it permissible to push the man and save the five people at the expense of one?

There are three ways to view each situation:

  • through the lens of utilitarianism, which considers one (innocent) life to be the equivalent of another
  • through the lens of in-group solidarity, which places a premium on one’s own life and the lives of those with whom one has a special relationship (kinsfolk, neighbors, countrymen) for reasons of affection and/or mutual dependence
  • through the lens of the Golden Rule, which (in my view) is a social convention that arises from self-interest tempered by empathy.

The utilitarian answers to three problems are as follows:

1. Shoot. Your life is equal to the life of the human shield, and if you are able to kill or seriously wound the thug, you may save the lives of other innocent persons in the restaurant.

2. Flip the switch and save five lives at the cost of one.

3. Overcome your squeamishness about being so directly involved in the death of the stranger; push him in front of the train and save five lives at the cost of one.

These are the “right” answers from the perspective of in-group solidarity:

1. Shoot. The life you save may be your own, and you are the center of your in-group. Moreover, you probably have more in common with the other diners (most of whom are probably productive citizens) than with the thug (who is in the process of killing productive citizens).

2. If the potential victims of the train are strangers to you, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to throw the switch or leave it alone. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

3. If the potential victims are strangers, you have to flip a coin to decide whether to push the man in front of the train or do nothing. Otherwise, your action depends on your relationship(s) with any of the potential victims of the oncoming train.

These are the “right” answers for a person whose adherence to the Golden Rule arises from a combination of self-interest and empathy:

1. Shoot. Unless you are a psychopath like the homicidal maniac, you identify with the other diners and you cringe when he shoots one of them because their pain and death affects you emotionally. And if you do not shoot him, he probably will shoot you.

2 and 3.The answers can be the same as they were from the perspective of in-group solidarity. But, if all of the potential victims are strangers to you, it is not utilitarian to suggest that you can have more empathy for five strangers than for one stranger, especially if you take into account the (probable) larger number of persons who would be hurt by the death of five than the death of one. Moreover, if all of the potential victims are strangers, the saving of five of them is more likely to yield positive “returns” in the form of friendship and gratitude. The latter might, in turn, lead to a better job, a monetary reward, or something else along those lines.

What does all of this have to do with Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb? If you are a utilitarian, you might be persuaded that Truman’s decision was the correct one because it resulted in fewer deaths than there would have been in the case of an invasion or blockade. (I dismiss the possibility that the Japanese military would have quit fighting if the U.S. had simply stopped fighting after driving Japanese forces back to their homeland.) If you place great stock in in-group solidarity, Truman’s move was the correct one because it saved American lives — possibly the lives of friends and family members.

If you are an adherent of the Golden Rule, you come to the same place for two reasons. The first reason is the empathic one just mentioned: the saving of lives of persons for whom you have a natural affinity.

The second reason arises from self-interest and has at least two branches:

  • You are glad that Truman put an end to a war that would have proved more costly to you (directly or through your ancestors) had he not decided to drop the bomb.
  • You are glad that Truman, in effect, warned off prospective enemies of the United States who are therefore enemies of your interests. That Truman’s warning was later undermined by his own actions in Korea, America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and similar actions has not entirely vitiated the strong signal sent by the dropping of the A-bomb. Truman told the world that aggression against the United States invites the United States to smite the aggressor. (Do unto others what they do unto you.)

If you still object to Truman’s decision because you believe that it is always wrong to take an innocent life, you are putting yourself in the shoes of an armed diner who decides against shooting a homicidal maniac because that would require the shooting of an innocent person. But do not forget that  the diner’s refusal to shoot the maniac probably will allow the deaths of many innocent persons (the diner included). The refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, can be the moral equivalent of murder and/or suicide.

To put it baldly, the refusal to kill an innocent person, under any circumstances, is shallow posturing. It is not a considered moral stance.

*   *   *

Related posts:
Why Sovereignty?
Liberalism and Sovereignty
The Decision to Drop the Bomb
The Folly of Pacifism
Transnationalism and National Defense
The Folly of Pacifism, Again

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Evolution and the Golden Rule
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

An Explanation Is in Order

In two recent posts (“Libertarianism and Morality” and “Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote“) I make it a point to locate social morality in the beneficial social convention known as the Golden Rule, which arises from self-interest and empathy. This might come as a surprise to readers who are familiar with my deism (see this and this), my denunciation of strident atheism (see this, for example), and the high value I place on the Judeo-Christian tradition (see this, for example).

As a deist, I am not prepared to say that morality comes directly from God, about whose nature and involvement in the workings of the universe I am agnostic. I am prepared to say the following:

  • It is possible that there is a God who takes a “personal” interest in human beings and their doings.
  • Such a God could have endowed human beings with free will.
  • The Golden Rule, as a manifestation of free will, would therefore be God-given.
  • And the degree to which human beings abide by the Golden Rule could be one “test” (among others) by which God judges the worthiness of His creatures, individually and collectively.

Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

There is a key passage in Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea that I did not quote in “Libertarianism and Morality.” In the version of Narveson’s book that is available online, the passage goes like this:

[I]f morality is an artificial construct, a rational convention, [which is a main point of Naveson’s book and my post] then those who have refused to make any deals acceptable to others are in the condition of rulelessness — in the Hobbesian “state of nature”. Hobbes himself characterizes this condition in an unfortunate way: that everyone has a “right of nature” to do whatever he or she thinks best, no matter what it is…. [T]hat is a useless, nonsensical employment of the term ‘right’ and should be dropped. Much less misleading to say that in the Hobbesian state of nature, nobody has any rights, period. And therefore nobody has the protections inherent in a moral system, where people accept rules which limit what they may do to others. These are rules which those others have reason to accept only if they likewise extend benefits to them. And whoever has not made the deal is someone with respect to whom no bets are on, no limitations authorized; and therefore people may do whatever they wish with them. Note that the ‘may’ here is normative. The person who signs no agreements is a person such that anyone else, willing to sign an agreement of mutual advantage, does have a moral right to deal with that person as he may. No one may blame him for doing so.

Whether one would deal harshly with a person who stands outside the agreed rules is another matter. For, as I note in “Libertarianism and Morality,” we humans are ruled not only by self-interest but also by empathy.

Be that as it may, the passage quoted above boils down to this:

Most people do have the desire he imputes to them of willingness to cooperate with others as a means to best advance one’s own interests. Those who do not can be overpowered. There are very few of them; and, as they will not agree with the rest of society, on what moral basis can they complain over the way others treat them? (from David Gordon’s review of The Libertarian Idea in Reason Papers, Spring 1989, pp. 169-177)

Whether there are “very few” of “them” is a questionable proposition in this day (or even 22 years ago, when Gordon’s review was published). An inordinately large share of the populace seems to have opted out of or simply rejected the “deal” that is represented in the Golden Rule. A key element of that “deal” is the mutual observance and enforcement of negative rights:

Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

[Negative] rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of [negative] rights. (from “The Protection of Negative Rights,” in the section on “Minarchism” in “Parsing Political Philosophy“)

Now, as in 1989, the “deal” for too many Americans is to grab what one can at the expense of others. (The futility of this “new deal” is a tale that I have told in “The Interest-Group Paradox.”)

In any event, Narveson’s attitude toward those who stand outside the rules is parallel to mine. This is from an early post, about “The Origin and Essence of Rights“:

…Fundamentalist libertarianism [Narveson’s “intuitionism”] reduces liberty to a matter of faith. If libertarianism cannot stand on more than faith, what makes it any better than, say, socialism or the divine right of kings?

The virtue of libertarianism … is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don’t wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites. (emphasis added)

Later, in “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism,” I put it this way:

What if A and B agree, honorably, not to kill each other, whereas C “leaves his options open”? It then behooves A and B to reach a further agreement, which is that they will defend each other against C…. A and B therefore agree to live in liberty (the liberty of self-restraint and mutual defense), whereas C stands outside that agreement. He has forfeited the liberty of self-restraint and mutual self-defense. How so? A and B, knowing that C has “left his options open,” might honorably kill or imprison C when they have good reason to believe that C is planning to kill them or acquire the means to kill them. [a quotation from  “Anarchistic Balderdash“]

In sum, there can be no system makes everyone happy (unless you believe, foolishly, that everyone is of good will). Try to imagine, for example, a metric by which C’s happiness (if he succeeds in his predatory scheme) would offset A and B’s unhappiness (were C successful).

The problem now is that there are more than a “very few” Cs standing against the As and Bs. And it is the Cs who have seized the power of the state.

Libertarianism and Morality

I have come late to Jan Narveson‘s The Libertarian Idea, which is the subject of a series of posts at; thus far:

The Libertarian Idea: Setting the Scene (11/04/11)
The Libertarian Idea: Part One, part one (11/14/11)
Morality and Its Discontents (11/21/11)
Is Contractarianism Serious (Or Just Clever)? 11/21/11

So much libertarian theorizing, it seems to me, amounts to the search for an intellectual hook on which to hang an instinctive yearning to be left alone. The intellectualization of the yearning proceeds in stages. The first stage is an appeal to morality. But this cannot be the kind of morality that arises from social constructs (e.g. the Golden Rule); it must be a “higher morality.” This leads libertarian theorists — or most of them, in my reading — toward “natural rights” and “natural law.” But, as atheists (which most libertarian theorists seem to be), they cannot attribute “natural rights” or “natural law” to God, so they conjure super-human sources that lie somewhere between God and social convention. Narveson call this conjuring “intuitionism.”

One such source, which is no less supernatural than God, is Platonic in character: “natural rights” just are (and known, by some mysterious process, to the proponents of this view). The chief alternative to Platonism is evolution: “natural rights” as evolutionary adaptation (though how one knows which rights are “natural” remains a puzzle). I have said much about these intellectual misfires in several posts; for example:

“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

Narveson, by contrast with other libertarian philosophers, is refreshingly clear-minded about the roots of libertarianism. The following is taken from a version of The Libertarian Idea that is available online (here).

Libertarians in general support their views by appeals to intuitions, especially intuitions about our “natural rights”. This is a method that has very wide currency in contemporary philosophy; it is by no means confined to libertarians. Libertarians who base their convictions on intuition are thus in good company. This, as we shall see, is ironic, for the other members of that company have widely varying views about these matters. The burning issue thus becomes, whose intuitions are the right ones? But adoption of the intuitional method virtually precludes rational decision of that burning issue; it simply continues to burn. (from “The Options,” in Chapter 9)

*   *   *

By “Metaphysical” intuitionism I mean the view that there exist some sort of “ethical entities” which are denoted by such words as ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘just’ (as the case may be); and that ethical knowledge is acquired by the mind’s “apprehending” or, as we may say, “spotting” one or more of those at the appropriate points. On this view, when we say that an act is Right, we mean that it has one of these properties — namely “That one!”…

The shortcomings of this “metaphysical” type of intuitionism are legion, and it is not surprising that as an option it is virtually extinct among current philosophers. (I say ‘virtually’, because no theory I can think of is totally extinct among current philosophers….) (from “Metaphysical Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

Especially in this scientifically-oriented era, the appeal to what seem mysterious entities and faculties is likely to elicit impatience, and perhaps a certain amount of irritation. To those of us who don’t seem to have one of the special faculties required for detecting these strange items, this explanation isn’t going to be much help… (from “Mysteriousness” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

In the past few decades, long after Metaphysical intuitionism was relegated to the philosophical dust-bins, a presumably quite different use of “intuitions” in moral philosophy was elevated to the status of theoretical respectability — not a new one, to be sure, since philosophers have been doing it, to a greater or lesser extent, since Plato. In this version, we supposedly make no assumptions about the fundamental meanings of moral terms or the sort of things they may refer to. Rather, we employ intuitions as a sort of data, and construct a theory to “explain” them. The fact is that people have tendencies to affirm of certain things that they are right, others that they are wrong, and so on; and the moral philosopher’s job is to find the principles which will account for these tendencies. Of course, this is moral philosophy, and so the output of our theorizing will be moral statements and not just statements about morality….

Now, consider what philosophers wish to do with their appeals to intuitions. They are discussing some controversial topic, ordinarily — nobody writes articles advocating the view that murder is wrong! But in a controversial area, we are going to have some people sincerely maintaining that something or other is right, and others that that very same thing is wrong. Abortion, for example, or capital punishment of repeat-murderers. Of what use is it to point out to people holding some view on these matters that a great many people think otherwise than they — or the same as they? Suppose some small minority thinks that a certain popular practice is quite wrong. Are they going to be impressed to hear that many people don’t think so?

It is here that this new sort of appeals to intuition gets into some of the very same problems that its less-respectable Metaphysical version has. When people have contrary intuitions, appeals to intuition are not likely to do much — except maybe irritate the people we’re trying to persuade.

In fact, appeals to intuition can hardly constitute reasons for the very attitudes that those intuitions express. The best they might do is provide a rather weak sort of evidence. We might say, “well, surely 90% of the people are unlikely to be wrong, are they?” Perhaps that is true. But the trouble is, it is also true that 90% of the people plainly can be wrong, about all sorts of things: why not about this, then? Especially when the effect of their opinion is to cram something down the craws of the remaining 10%. (from “Methodological Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

My objection to appeal to intuitions in moral theory is, in brief, that when (not merely ‘if’!) intuitions conflict, we are bereft of conceptual tools for reaching reasoned agreement. Indeed, one must say that under those conditions, “reasoned” agreement is impossible. Surely it would be better, at any rate, if we could have a theory that was persuasive without presupposing anything like moral intuitions.  (from “The Need for Clarity about Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

We have a habit of talking as though moral principles were simply “truths”, like those of science: as though they were just “out there”, to be discovered, found out. But it’s not quite like that. Either you act in certain ways or you don’t. No mere external truth could make you do that. There are, certainly, “external truths” to which we must conform, willy-nilly: the Law of Gravity, for example. But the “must” here is so literal that “conform” is out of place. The gunman makes me conform, by threatening to shoot me if I do not. In some sense I can refuse to go along; if so, and he shoots me, I shall then literally have no choice but to die, if he’s a competent shot. We “conform” to the Law of Gravity in the same sense that we die if shot; it simply isn’t a matter of choice at all.

Moral principles and rules are just that: principles and rules for behavior, to which we can voluntarily conform or no….(from “Personal vs. Social Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

One apparent aim of the Libertarian is to provide a schedule of rights that is “hard”, so that in any given case we will always be able to identify the area of permissible action, precisely bounded by the relevant set of rights. Moreover, these are to be wholly “nonteleological” in one sense of that rather obscure term. That is, they are not to be founded upon considerations of the general good or general interest…. (from “The Compleat Deontologist” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

[W]e tend to identify morality with what is taught us in our childhoods, say, or with what the people around us will react to in certain ways. Any given society will have a number of rules which are enforced in the various ways mentioned above. The fact that they are thus enforced provides, and of course is intended to provide, some motivation for doing what the enforcers are trying to get us to do. But is that the end of the story? Are we to say, simply, that what is right is what people will praise and reward you for doing, or blame and punish you for not doing? It is not, and we are not. For we are capable of reflecting on these demands, and of questioning them….

…The de facto rules of morality may be accounted conventional — by definition, indeed. And this in particular means that they are, at least to a degree, changeable. They are certainly changeable in some way, since they do change. Whether they are changeable by intention, like the law, which is made and unmade by certain intentional acts of certain people, the legislators, is quite another matter. And one would certainly have to be naïve to think that writing a tract or two is enough to do the job! It wouldn’t even if everyone would read the tract; which, in a society of millions, they certainly won’t.

There is thus a question of what to do, as it were, with any “philosophical” or “critical” morality we might come up with…. But there is also an answer: one can act on it oneself. One can start criticizing people in the light of these possibly novel principles you have found to be more reasonable than the ones actually reinforced in your current society….

One of the historic projects of philosophy is to try to find some or other rational foundations for morality, or at any rate for some morality, some set of overriding general guides to behavior which, even if it is not entirely reflected in current practice, has the solidest reasons for being so…. I shall shortly describe, again very briefly, what seems to be the best answer currently available. Like all answers judged to be so by philosophers, the judgment is guided by a certain sense that no other view could be right. This is philosophical hübris at work, no doubt: history has a way of suggesting that we have overlooked something when we make such claims. That’s a risk one simply has to take. (from “Conventional vs. Critical Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

That theory, I think, is Contractarianism. The general idea of this theory is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which are reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules which everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone.

In so saying, I am presenting a slanted view, so to say. As with every important philosophical theory, this one has many different versions with their own specific shades and twists, and the shades and twists are not trivial. Contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago, our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! Plainly such a theory is not going to give us the rational motivation we need.

On the other hand, any ordinary contract, made in the full light of day between consenting adults, supplies motivation in just the required sense. The “required sense”, as will shortly be seen, is not so simple. But few will dispute that any theory that could attain the same degree of rational “bite” as actual contracts would be doing very well indeed.

The problem is that morality is obviously not the result of a literal contract; and indeed, it cannot be, among other things for the very good reason pointed out by David Hume, namely that “the observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice; and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it.” To account for the obligation to keep promises on the basis of a general promise to do so seems, shall we say, unpromising Clearly the sense in which morality is founded upon or due to or represents an “agreement” is going to have to be less straightforward than that. (from the introductory section of Chapter 12)

*   *   *

What the philosopher would really like is a universal “contract” in the sense of an agreement which literally everyone would find it reasonable to accept. It is not clear that this can be done. Perhaps people are too different, or have interests that are fundamentally, irresolvably antagonistic. If so, it’s put paid for our project. It is so because our interests are indeed what we have to appeal to as the basis of the “social contract”.

But it should not be thought that this possibility puts paid to the theory in question. There are at least two reasons why not. In the first place, the truth about morality could be that it cannot be quite as universal as all that. The insistence that it must be may be just a philosopher’s prejudice, comparable to the Aristotelian idea that of course the earth must be the centre of the physical Universe.
But secondly, and more hearteningly, the possible nonuniversality we are worrying about may be nothing to worry about….

Let us suppose that morality is a kind of club — the “morality club”. Anyone can join — no problem. Those who join have certain responsibilities and certain rights, and we, the people who run this club, offer a package that we think no remotely reasonable person could really refuse; but nevertheless, some might. All we are saying is that our package is such that it must appeal to the widest set of people any set of principles could appeal to. Anyone who doesn’t buy our package wouldn’t buy any package compatible with living among his fellows on terms that they could possibly accept. (from “Universality?” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

All this has been quite abstract. Let us now see how it works in more nearly real-world terms. One of the contractarians’ favorite real-world types is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes5 In the Hobbesian picture, at least as understood by me, the place to begin is a wild and unruly sort of place known as the “state of nature”. In this state — a highly artificial one, in truth, but we’ll worry about that a little later — there is no morality at all. Nobody acknowledges any restrictions whatever on his or her behavior vis-a-vis others, nobody blames or praises anyone else’s conduct, and it is quite literally everyone for him-or-herself. And what happens there? All sorts of horrible things, in brief. Since there are no rules at all, there are of course no rules against violence, which is freely employed whenever the person employing it thinks it will get him what he wants….

What is important to the argument here is that the cause of this condition is the absence of rules, rules having precisely the character we have attributed to Morality: namely, rules that can override the individual inclinations of any person to the contrary, and rules that are the same for all….

It is important to appreciate just what Hobbes’ argument does and what it does not presuppose about people. It does not, to begin with, presuppose that people are nasty or evil by nature….

Nor does it actually require that their interests are selfish or even strongly self-directed, though Hobbes evidently believed that they would normally be. But what matters is that they have conflicting ends, however the conflict may be engendered….

We now need to bring out a further feature about the sort of conflicts Hobbes is concerned about. From the point of view of each party to the conflict, the “warlike” solution may seem preferable to the “peaceful” one…. [T]here is a problem with mutual arrangements of all sorts, since in such cases, each party gives up something in return for something he wants more; yet given the opportunity, he’d presumably prefer to have both the gains from the deal and also not to have to pay the costs he has undertaken by his promise to pay.
This situation is known as Prisoner’s Dilemma….

Hobbes’ own view is in line with modern theorists: the rational individual will rat in such situations. And Hobbes’ “solution”, as we know, is the Policeman, otherwise known as the “Sovereign”. Gauthier’s solution is to take what many theorists regard as the heroic course of identifying rationality with the disposition to take the cooperative option. The one recommended here may perhaps be classified as intermediate between the two…. (from “Hobbes” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

The Hobbesian solution may seem all well and good, perhaps. But there are two crucial shortcomings. The first is: how do we get a suitable Enforcer appointed? In our hypothetical state of nature, nobody already has the kind of power needed; that power must be “handed over” by those concerned. But you don’t just “hand over” power: instead, you make an agreement which gives someone the power. Terrific — but that agreement would have to be, genuinely, an agreement – the very sort of thing which can’t be done in the state of nature on Hobbes’ own reasoning. The second is that enforcers are costly. For one thing, they cost money, or the equivalent (in his State of Nature there was, of course, no money), viz., whatever sacrifices A and B have to make in order to make it worth C’s while to be Guardian. (Once C somehow got the power in question, of course, there is the further point that C will surely be inclined to use it to feather his own nest — a small incidental concern, in one sense, but in another, of course, one that has been a or even the main problem with Government, historically as well as theoretically.) (from “The Sovereign” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Here enters David Gauthier with his intriguing new solution.7 Gauthier insists that the rational agent, when acquainting himself with the facts of life in the form of Prisoner’s Dilemma (and related problems), will see that he must modify, or perhaps reinterpret, his theory of rationality. The rational man will not Defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Instead, he will adopt a disposition to cooperate, though not an unconditional disposition to take the cooperative option: he takes that option, provided those with whom he interacts are similarly inclined. This he calls “constrained maximization”, as opposed to the disposition to take the money and run, which he calls “straight” maximization….

Constrained maximizers will do better than defectors, for they will do as well as defectors when interacting with defectors, since their rule is to cooperate only with fellow constrained maximizers, and they will do better than defectors when interacting with constrained maximizers, since the defector’s policy is to defect when interacting with anybody. Gauthier’s argument is that it is therefore rational to adopt the constrained maximization disposition….

Now in the classic, one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not true that our move is a response to the other person’s move. We and the other player are moving simultaneously, for instance, or at any rate moving in such a way that neither can know what the other player’s move is until after we have made our own. Real-life models of Prisoner’s Dilemma may be characterized in just that way. To create any real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma, we must take steps, if necessary intentionally rigging the situation so as to ensure that this condition holds. This ensures that our move will not be literally a “response” to the other player’s move. If it is a “response” at all in this literal sense of the term, then what could it be a response to?

It is when we contemplate this question that the force of Gauthier’s position asserts itself. For it seems that the only thing there is to respond to here is the disposition of the other player…. Each can know something about the other, and what they know will be largely information about character, derived of course more or less inductively from observation of past performance in particular cases. (from “Gauthier’s View” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Now let’s go back to the State of Nature and ask what to do. There are as yet no rules, and without them, life is miserable for everyone….

What we will do, in fact, is whatever we can to set Morality in motion: a social institution of reinforcing behavior. And which behavior? Plainly, cooperative behavior: that is, behavior which it is advantageous from the point of view of each one of us to have everyone, including ourselves, engaging in. This is the rational thing to do in social situations for a simple reason: it doesn’t cost very much by comparison with having a Sovereign (and anyway, we don’t have one yet — remember? And we can’t until we have enough morality to enable the Agreement to establish the sovereign to be viable), and the advantages of general performance much outweigh the disadvantages imposed by the necessity of having to comply oneself.

Generally speaking, then, the foundation of morality is the interests of those party to it, given the facts of social life. Morality is a set of requirements which will make us all better off if they are met by everyone — and which, accordingly, are liable to the problem of defection by some who will try to take the money and run. For examples, the murderer and the thief, who have been cheerfully collecting the benefits of social cooperation all along, and yet at the judicious moment will take advantage of the good dispositions of those they interact with by depriving them of their lives or property without a by-your-leave. (from “Morality, the Real World, and Prisoner’s Dilemma” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Why accept the contractarian view of morals? Because there is no other view that can serve the requirements: namely, of providing reasons to everyone for accepting it, no matter what their personal values or philosophy of life may be, and thus motivating this informal, yet society-wide “institution”. Without resort to any obfuscating intuitions, e.g., of “self-evident rights” and the like, the contractarian view offers an intelligible account both of why it is rational to want a morality and of what, broadly speaking, the essentials of that morality will consist in: namely, those general rules which are universally advantageous to rational agents. We each need morality, first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others. So we need protection, in the form of the ability to rely on our fellows not to engage in activities harmful to us; and we need to be able to rely on those with whom we deal. We each need this regardless of what else we need or want or value. (the introductory paragraph of Chapter 13)

*   *   *

Many philosophers, such as Aquinas and John Locke, have held that there is a “Natural Law”. This idea was not clarified by these philosophers, although that they had fairly explicit ideas about its content. Aquinas, for example, held that natural law (like all law) had to be for the “common good”. And Locke in particular held that the natural law forbids all men to refrain from injuring others in their “life, health, liberty, and possessions”. Their lack of articulation of the concept of natural law, however, has left them short of adherents among contemporary philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. Insofar as they simply appeal to natural law without further explication or defense, they are liable to all of the charges I have laid above to the door of intuitionism in all its forms.

But perhaps further reflection on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other decision-theoretic problems can assist understanding here. To say that a law is “natural”, to begin with, obviously cannot mean that it is like the law of gravity, governing us independently of our wills. Were the content of Locke’s natural law operative on us in that manner, there would be no need of ethics as we know it. However, this doesn’t preclude a different way in which a “law” could be “natural”. It could, namely, be natural in being acknowledged, recognized, or employed implicitly as a canon of interpersonal criticism of behavior, without articulation, in the normal dealings of people with each other.

Even as so characterized, it is not clear that there is a “natural law”. But we can inject one further element. Locke and Aquinas both insisted that the natural law was “rational”, “apprehended by reason”, or words to that effect. What we can forthrightly say is that there are reasons, reasons that are natural rather than being in their turn artificial constructs, favoring informal reinforcement of certain rules for interpersonal situations. Prisoner’s Dilemma, concentrated on above, gives a beautiful example. Wherever the structure of preferences of the different parties is clear to both parties (and it is not always), we have a basis for a rule of precisely that kind: a natural basis for a moral rule, in fact. The claim that natural morality calls upon us to refrain from the things Locke lists, and more generally that it bids us cooperate in what would otherwise be prisoner’s dilemmas, may be accepted if understood along the lines just explicated. We should expect any groups of persons who were clear about the options which would otherwise render the situation a prisoner’s dilemma situation, and who were capable of communicating effectively with each other, to recognize as an interpersonally authoritative rule that people refrain from the “Defect” strategy, and to recognize this by verbal and other sorts of reinforcement. So understood, we may accept the idea of Natural Law nearly enough. What its relation to political structures may be is, of course, another question, and the main question dealt with in this book.

But it is apropos to note here that the moral factor is potentially substantial. James Buchanan observes that “.. it is essential to incorporate some treatment of the role that ethical precepts play in maintaining social stability. First … if there is no conflict … there is no need for law, as such. By the same token, however, there is no need for ethics … When conflict does emerge, however, .. the value of order suggests either some social contract, some system of formal law, or some generally accepted set of ethical-moral precepts. It is important to recognize that these are alternative means of securing order. To the extent that ethical precepts are widely shared, and influence individual behavior, there is less need for the more formal restrictiveness of legally imposed standards.” (from “The Natural Law” in Chapter 13)

Narveson echoes much what I have said in the posts linked above. So, I find myself in close agreement with Narveson because I find him in close agreement with me. The kind of “contract” that Narveson describes is found in the Golden Rule. This is from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’“:

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

But is that all there is to it? Not at all. This is from “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The empathic source of the Golden Rule, which is just as important as the self-interested source, is (for me) the key point of Julian Sanchez’s critique of Narveson in “Morality and Its Discontents“:

In effect, [Narveson] wants to reduce morality to prudence, showing that people would have strictly self-interested reasons to constrain their own behavior even if they are not “reasonable” or concerned with the welfare and dignity of others except insofar as those others are able to aid or hinder their self interested pursuits….

…[A]ttempts to reduce morality to prudence generally assume that there’s something metaphysically unproblematic about the idea, not just that people do care about their long-term self-interest (as opposed to just their immediate short-term desires), but that they have reason to, whereas the claim that they have similar reasons to care about or respect the interests of others is some kind of “queer” claim standing in need of special explanation…. Theoretical, moral, and practical reasoning all ultimately depend on foundational axioms that can’t be established without circularity. In logic, it’s the familiar list of axioms and inference rules; in ethics, it’s the basic idea that other people are real, and that their happiness and suffering fundamentally matters in some way, just as much as your own. That all these forms of reasoning “hit bottom” at some point is, admittedly, intellectually unsatisfying. But it’s also a fact we’re stuck with, and trying to dismiss those foundational domain-specific axioms as mere intuition seems less like a road to progress than an attempt to change the subject.

Sanchez’s point — a good one — is that it matters not where empathy comes from. It may be a genetic quirk, or it may be a socialized habit of thought, or it may be both. But it is a fact of life, just as much as self-interest. And it takes both of them — in my view — to account for the morality of the Golden Rule.

That morality, however, leads to a different kind of libertarianism than the one to which most self-styled libertarians seem to subscribe. Returning to “The Golden Rule and the State“:

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

This, of course, will not do for most libertarians, who want to manufacture a rigid list of negative rights from one of their mysterious sources. It even smacks of moral relativism. But I have answered both objections in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it….

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior….

[But] [t]here is … a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

But what I am talking about is true libertarianism, not the kind of “leave me alone” libertarianism that one usually encounters on the internet. As I say in “here,” true libertarianism

is really a kind of conservatism, which is why I call it Burkean libertarianism…. [T]he kind of “libertarianism” much in evidence on the internet … rests on the Nirvana fallacy and posits dangerously false ideals.

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Such are the fruits of morality — on the mortal plane, at least.

The State of Morality

David Brooks — who sometimes resembles the conservative that he claims to be — writes about

a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults from across America….

[A]nd the results are depressing….

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers … you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so….

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”…

[The researchers] found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism….

Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb warned that sturdy virtues are being diluted into shallow values. Alasdair MacIntyre has written about emotivism, the idea that it’s impossible to secure moral agreement in our culture because all judgments are based on how we feel at the moment.

Charles Taylor has argued that morals have become separated from moral sources. People are less likely to feel embedded on a moral landscape that transcends self. James Davison Hunter wrote a book called “The Death of Character.” Smith’s interviewees are living, breathing examples of the trends these writers have described.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

And where was morality “once revealed, inherited and shared”? In religion, of course. But, as I say here,

[t]he weakening of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion)….

I believe that the incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It is not surprising that “liberals”  tend to be anti-religious, for — as [Theodore] Dalrymple points out [here] — they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Such things will not be taught in public schools. They could be taught in homes, but are less likely to be taught there as Americans drift further from their religious roots.

Related posts:
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable
Beware of Irrational Atheism
The Creation Model
The Thing about Science
Evolution and Religion
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
The Legality of Teaching Intelligent Design
Science, Logic, and God
Capitalism, Liberty, and Christianity
Is “Nothing” Possible?
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
Science, Axioms, and Economics
The Big Bang and Atheism
The Universe . . . Four Possibilities
Einstein, Science, and God
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Evolution as God?
The Greatest Mystery
What Is Truth?
The Improbability of Us
A Digression about Probability and Existence
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Atheism of the Gaps

In Defense of Subjectivism

Andrew Cohen’s latest post at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (“Against Subjectivism“) left me scratching my head, for a while. After a bit of pondering, I was able to sort it out. Here’s the gist of Cohen’s argument:

  • “Many people seem to think that whether a particular act is wrong cannot be determined objectively. Many, indeed, seem to think it is a purely subjective matter….”
  • “[T]he truth of a claim does not depend on my opinion, your opinion, or even our opinion.”
  • “[D]oes the fact—and I now assume we all agree it is a fact—that people have different opinions about whether God exists matter to the objectivity (or lack thereof) of the claim that God exists?”
  • “[T]he answer is obvious: none whatsoever. It is either the case that God exists or it is the case that he does not. One of those is the objective truth.”
  • Therefore, “why should morality … be any different? “

The only logically valid conclusion that one can draw from this disjointed argument is that there is or is not an objective morality: one that holds at all times, in all places, regardless of the varied and differing opinions of individuals. If that is Cohen’s point, I cannot disagree with him.

But Cohen seems to be defending the proposition that there is an objective morality. Consider the title of his post, and consider the following statement from the post:

Others think [morality] is a cultural matter: our society thinks the act is wrong so it is wrong for us; yours does not, so it is not for you. Obviously, I think this is misguided. Indeed, I think we should be seeking truth, where that should be read as “objective truth.”

Regarding morality, I fear that the only objective truths are these:

  • There are differing opinions about the source of morality.
  • There are varying, group-dependent conceptions of morality.
  • Despite the differing opinions and conceptions, moral codes may have key features in common (e.g., the prevalence of the Golden Rule across religions and even among irreligious people).

The commonality of key features proves nothing about the source of morality or its objective existence. It may be God-given; it may reflect an eternal Platonic form, which has an existence of its own; or it may be an culturally transmitted phenomenon that reflects certain “constants” human nature, namely, empathy and self-interest.

Somewhere in there lies an objective truth. My money is on human nature.

Related posts:
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Evolution and the Golden Rule

Peter Presumes to Preach

Thanks (?) to one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (Jason Brennan, in “Class Experiment on Helping the Poor“), I was introduced to an essay by Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Singer was writing in 1972, when there were thought to be nine million destitute refugees in Bangladesh as a result of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

I hope that Brennan, who teaches philosophy at Brown University, is using Singer’s essay to illustrate fallacious reasoning about moral obligations. For that is the lesson to be drawn from Singer’s presumptuous sermon on moral duty and its fulfillment.

I begin the lesson by arranging pertinent excerpts of Singer’s essay to give the main points of his argument:

[1.] I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad….

[2.] My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it….

[3.] The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position….

[a.] The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him)….

[b.] There may be a greater need to defend the second implication of my principle – that the fact that there are millions of other people in the same position, in respect to the [persons in need], as I am, does not make the situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent something very bad from occurring. Again, of course, I admit that there is a psychological difference between the cases; one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations….

[4.] The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it….

[5.] It follows from some forms of utilitarian theory that we all ought, morally, to be working full time to increase the balance of happiness over misery…. Given the present conditions in many parts of the world, … it does follow from my argument that we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters…. [W]e ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance.

Singer continues:

I now want to consider a number of points, more practical than philosophical, which are relevant to the application of the moral conclusion we have reached….

This argument [against private giving] seems to assume that the more people there are who give to privately organized famine relief funds, the less likely it is that the government will take over full responsibility for such aid. This assumption is unsupported, and does not strike me as at all plausible. The opposite view – that if no one gives voluntarily, a government will assume that its citizens are uninterested in famine relief and would not wish to be forced into giving aid – seems more plausible….

I do not … dispute the contention that governments of affluent nations should be giving many times the amount of genuine, no-strings-attached aid that they are giving now….

[Another] point raised by the conclusion reached earlier relates to the question of just how much we all ought to be giving away…. [E]arlier I put forward both a strong and a moderate version of the principle of preventing bad occurrences. The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility [the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift]. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one. I proposed the more moderate version – that we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant – only in order to show that, even on this surely undeniable principle, a great change in our way of life is required. On the more moderate principle, it may not follow that we ought to reduce ourselves to the level of marginal utility, for one might hold that to reduce oneself and one’s family to this level is to cause something significantly bad to happen…. Even if we accepted the principle only in its moderate form, however, it should be clear that we would have to give away enough to ensure that the consumer society, dependent as it is on people spending on trivia rather than giving to famine relief, would slow down and perhaps disappear entirely. There are several reasons why this would be desirable in itself. The value and necessity of economic growth are now being questioned not only by conservationists, but by economists as well. There is no doubt, too, that the consumer society has had a distorting effect on the goals and purposes of its members. Yet looking at the matter purely from the point of view of overseas aid, there must be a limit to the extent to which we should deliberately slow down our economy; for it might be the case that if we gave away, say, 40 percent of our Gross National Product, we would slow down the economy so much that in absolute terms we would be giving less than if we gave 25 percent of the much larger GNP that we would have if we limited our contribution to this smaller percentage.

Singer’s dicta make it evident that Singer not only is a strong utilitarian but also considers himself the keeper of the collective conscience of mankind. He knows how to measure the pain and pleasure of individuals, how to sum those quantities, and how to redistribute the world’s goods so as to arrive at a sustainable level of net pleasure.

The sustainable level, in Singer’s benighted view, is not the maximum that human beings could produce through their ingenuity, which is never a limited resource. No, the maximum, in Singer’s view, is much less than that because he is also a puritan who “knows” that there is entirely too much “consumerism,” and that its devotees ought to be made to scale it back to the “right” level — as defined by Singer.

In sum, nothing counts unless Singer says it counts. That rules out many values which compete or interfere with Singer’s view of what the world should be like. Those values include liberty, bonds of love and affection, the striving to better oneself and to leave something behind for one’s descendants, the cooperative spirit without which material progress and mutual acts of kinds and charity cannot flourish, and much more.

Singer’s world is a world in which governments apply a formula whereby persons having an “excess” of worldly goods — above some arbitrarily determined minimum — are required to forfeit that “excess” to those who have less than the minimum.

With this understanding of Singer’s mindset, the “logic” of his argument becomes apparent. I restate it more plainly below. Each restatement is accompanied by a libertarian alternative, in bold, italicized type.

1. I begin by appealing to the image of 9 million suffering human beings, as a way of lulling the unwary reader into believing that I am a caring human being, when in fact I have an authoritarian penchant for imposing my views on others.

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened.

2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it. However, it is morally wrong for anyone to have more in the way of material possessions than anyone else. The limit of sacrifice is therefore defined by whatever one has to give up in order to reduce himself and his dependents and descendants to the standard of living that would result through massive income redistribution.

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

3a. It is wrong to favor persons nearer to oneself over persons who are farther away. I am able to say that because I believe that such things as family, religion, ethnicity, club, church, community, and nation have no moral relevance. It matters not that individuals may form bonds of mutual respect and affection that lead them to commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, and to treat each other with restraint. Such things are beyond the ken of the cold rationalist that I am.

It is foolish to say that persons with whom one shares no connection are as important as persons to whom one is connected. It is equally foolish to ignore the positive value of social connections. The personal choice about helping others (or not) may properly take into account the effects of that choice on those connections, without which there would be for more anti-social acts and state interventions.

3b. One’s moral obligation to give aid is unaffected by failure of others to do so.

Moral obligations arise from individual circumstances and mutual understandings, not from philosophical abstractions. But if one is inclined to help others in need, it is reasonable to ask whether a certain amount of money will materially aid those others. If not, withholding the amount may be the wisest course because it will be available for use in a case where it can have a material affect. Giving for the sake of giving can be irrational if one is truly committed to helping others.

4. Charity is duty; therefore, it is not charity.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

5. There is a universal social welfare function, and everyone ought to be striving, at all times, to maximize it. Moreover, only I know how to maximize universal social welfare. Anyone who contravenes my edicts is acting anti-socially and ought to be brought into line by the state (as long as it acts according to my dictates, of course).

If there is a universal social welfare function, then reducing the level of consumption in an affluent society just for the sake of reducing it (as Singer would) makes no sense; the outcome would be a reduction of social welfare. Of course, it may be that Singer would be so gratified by the reduction of others’ welfare that his own would rise by enough to offset that reduction. The preceding (facetious) observation points to the emptiness of the concept of a social welfare function, which implies that A’s unhappiness at having money stolen by B (or taxed away for B’s benefit) is canceled by B’s happiness at acquiring the money that he has acquired from A (by theft or taxation).

Finally, at the risk of seeming cold-hearted, I must ask the following question: Given the scarcity of resources (at a given time), is it not better to put those resources to work where they will do the most good? I disagree with Singer’s arguments for abortion and euthanasia (including “death panels“) because, among other things, such practices put us on a slippery-slope toward eugenics. But I can do disagree with Singer and still say that, given a choice, I will (and do) give to those who have a chance of a better life (especially if I love them) before giving to those whose lives seem hopeless.

My first duty (as Singer would say) is to those whom I love. And by helping to secure a future for them, I am also increasing the possibility that one or more of them will invent, develop, or apply technologies that help to prevent the kinds of suffering for which Singer merely prescribes palliatives.

Other posts about Peter Singer:
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Singer Said It
Rationing and Health Care

Other related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Left
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda

Government vs. Community

Tibor Machan reminds us that, contra Paul Krugman, government is not community:

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it….

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense….

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin….

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

Sharing at the point of a gun is not sharing, it is theft. When government forces “sharing,” it removes opportunities for true acts of kindness and charity. It is such acts that help to foster a sense of community. And a sense of community is essential to civility.

Government interventions in economic affairs are therefore destructive of the social bonds that inhibit anti-social and criminal conduct. It follows that government interventions in economic affairs lead to increasingly expensive and oppressive efforts by government to regulate social conduct.

Related posts:
Enough of Krugman
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
The Golden Rule and the State


Bryan Caplan seems to think that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias.”

It is nothing of the kind, however. It is a simple case of self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

The cause of Caplan’s confusion is his adherence to a kind of libertarian idealism. In the anti-war argot of the 1960s, it was expressed as “Why can’t we all just get along?” But hope is not reality, Caplan notwithstanding.

Not getting along, to Caplan, is a moral defect. He therefore considers the differential treatment of insiders and outsiders to be an unmitigated wrong. But group cohesion is a prudential social instinct that no amount of rationalism can obliterate. Differential treatment of insiders and outsiders is an inevitable aspect of that prudential social instinct. It is not, at bottom, a moral issue.

If Caplan were logically consistent, he would focus his moral lens on the animal kingdom. There is plenty of inter-group conflict to condemn there: shark vs. tuna, cheetah vs. antelope, spider vs. fly, and so on. In the case of man vs. cattle (hog, fish, fowl, or other living thing), I wonder if Caplan opts for veganism? It would be the proper choice — for him.

Related posts:
Parsing Political Philosophy
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty