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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A medley of interesting things

Sean Gabb has been a busy chap lately. As mentioned in an earlier post, the latest issue of Free Life Commentary exposes the fraudulent nature of the British Conservative Party’s ‘intellectual revival’.

Also Sean will be on BBC Radio 5 Live on Sunday 1st April at 11:30am UK time, to discuss whether ‘junk food’ advertisements should be banned (no prizes for guessing what his position is). This programme takes calls and so some of Samizdata.net’s readers might like to ring the relevant number and air their views. All the BBC Radio 5 details, such as telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, and on-line listening, can be found here.

Another thing of interest and relevance: the Libertarian Alliance has released its latest pamphlet called Habits Are Not Illnesses: A Response to Dr Robert Lefever, by Joe Peacott.

11 comments to A medley of interesting things

  • Mr Kruger knows British politics better than I do, but I can only say that I really wish that American elections were decided by competing armies of Drum Majorettes. I would rather watch beautiful girls than Hillary, Guiliani Obama and the rest.

    Also in 2004 the Democrats raised and spent more money and still they lost.

    Sorry, our elections are won or lost on the same mix of emotion and self interest that exist everywhere else.

  • Pa Annoyed

    On the Peacott document, while I understand and sympathise with what he is trying to say, I thought it worth bringing up a point about his argument that “In order for someone not to be in control of their actions, someone or something else would have to be.”

    Take the example of breathing, and ask the question “Am I in control of my own breathing?” To some degree, yes, but if you were to choose to stop breathing entirely, the symptoms you would experience would soon change your mind. So who or what controls this, if you do not? It doesn’t have to be another person, it can be your own biology, obviously.

    This is an extreme example, but it shows that it isn’t unreasonable for our behaviour to be determined by in-built mechanisms rather than “free choice”. Some people may feel the pleasure and pain differently, enough to over-ride common sense judgements about what is good for us, or moral judgements about how we should behave. Someone who was wired to enjoy the sensations of asphyxiation might see it differently – they might indeed see you as being addicted to breathing.

    What is more controversial is the idea that the will itself is a biologically determined mechanism, and that it might be wired to be stronger or weaker. (And I do not take any position here on nature or nurture – much of our ‘wiring’ is done after birth.) This seems to be not because there is any particular evidence that it is not true, but because it has adverse consequences for our moral system in that we believe in moral responsibility.

    Punishment, we believe, is only justified against someone if they were morally responsible. You cannot punish someone for breathing, even if that breathing somehow resulted in terrible consequences. Accidental, inintentional, and involuntary consequences of our actions are not seen as culpable.

    This isn’t the only moral approach possible. For an alternative, consider the Genesis story in which a crime committed by those who did not know the difference between good and evil was still punished because the primary requirement is obedience, not that you knew that what you were doing was bad or were capable of judging. The baby who snatches gets smacked.

    In my view, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that addicts may be to some degree biologically determined, but I don’t see that this necessarily precludes their punishment. If people’s behaviour is controlled by their sensations, then punishment is simply the creation of artificial sensations where the ‘natural’ ones are missing. The urge to punish is itself a biologically determined behaviour, and if we are to excuse crime, then we must by the exact same reasoning excuse the punishment.

    I take no position here on whether the will is or isn’t determined. (Or whether moral responsibility is or is not required. I have my own view, but I’m philosophising here.) All I’m saying is that assuming it is so doesn’t necessarily lead to the consequences that are feared, since the morality of crime and punishment should both be affected the same way.

  • Chertiozhnik

    The Twelve Step program and “disease” label may have been misused (especially in the US), but Mr. Peacott has no understanding of “addiction”, or whatever one cares to call it.

    I’m not clear what his argument actually is, but his conclusion, that “eliminating authoritarian governments and countering puritanical religious sentiments” will “counteract the misery such institutions can cause” is simply silly.

    The general suggestion seems to be that “addiction” is really an (unfortunate) lifestyle choice, and that calling it a “disease” is an evasion of personal responsibility.

    The Twelve Step program emphasises that I am responsible, and solely responsible, for my actions. Only I can stop myself picking up the next drink. It asks me to thoroughly examine and understand the damage I have done to myself and others through drinking, in the past, and to make amends where possible. It is anything but an evasion of personal responsibility.

    People do not, outside of certain exotic novels, pleasure themselves helplessly to death. “Addicts” (or whatever) can certainly drink or drug themselves to death, while not in any normal sense of the word “choosing” to.

  • Chertiozhnik

    …too much cutting and pasting, result dog’s breakfast.

    I meant to say that there is evidently more to addiction (to drugs and alcohol) than the choice or habit of a particular pleasure, while agreeing that the term is becoming widely misused.

  • Banjo

    Doesn’t the twelve step group insist that you can’t do it alone,without a) the group and b) a higher power . Don’t you reckon that these groups create a dependancy . It is becoming abundantly clear that recovery programs have a low sucess rate , compouding the problem of ” I have a terrible disease if I don’t keep going to groups I will relapse”; if people are encouraged to think thus it is a case of ” name your limitations and sure enough they’re yours”. The wider debate around question broached by Peacott has staggering implications as as alluded to the financial stakes, insurance and tax costs are vast . Simpler information to encourage people with addiction problems to take responsability and quit does exist. If anyone wants to know more on this I would suggest takin a trip (no pun) to Rational Recovery.org.

  • 1327

    I enjoyed the radio show especially Mr Gabb’s opening remarks 🙂 He can’t have come across like the lunatic the BBC had hoped for given the presenters comments at the end (something about no one else thinking like that) and their general attempts to rubbish him. Even better the presenters surprise on receiving a text or email from a listener who agreed with Mr Gabb a few minutes after the interview.

  • Chertiozhnik

    Thank you for the pointer, Banjo, I shall take a look.

    I don’t think the groups create a dependency (not my experience anyway).

    I think the article misrepresents relapse, but I don’t have any figures.

    AA is near enough free, certainly free to employers.

    Agreed that the Recovery Industry (which is mostly selling the AA Twelve Step Program anyway) is growing like Topsy and ought not to be.

    I objected to Peacott’s suggestion (as I read it) that AA is some kind if VictimFest (“it certainly sounds like addicts and their therapists are saying it’s not their fault”)… and to pretty much everything else he’s written!

  • mike

    I think philosophers tend to overemphasise the poltical importance of moral responsibility, or at least they are sometimes guilty of confusing the issue with other things.

    “Accidental, inintentional, and involuntary consequences of our actions are not seen as culpable.”

    Whenever this subject comes up I remind myself to distinguish ‘culpability’ from ‘responsibility’ a la their legalistic meaning. I realise arguing about definitions of words is silly, but for myself I like to think of these two words as denoting slightly different concepts.

    I think of responsibility as simply ability-to-respond (or rather, ability-to-respond in more than one way) in any given moment of time. So for me, responsibility is a power that can increase or decrease over time. For example, an alcoholic starts off as responsible, in the sense that his ability to stop drinking is at its’ heighest point, but over time this ability diminishes until either he dies from liver failure or he somehow makes a great effort to stop.

    But I think of culpability as an either/or. If something bad happened to you, you are either culpable or not culpable – culpability is not subject to changes over time. So in the case of the alcoholic, though his responsibility may diminish over time, his culpability does not – for precisely the reason that there was a moment in time when he started drinking when his ability to stop was at its’ zenith.

    “The urge to punish is itself a biologically determined behaviour, and if we are to excuse crime, then we must by the exact same reasoning excuse the punishment”.

    Urges toward punishment may be biologically determined, but insofar as we are interested in the social implications, then it is the form of punishment that is important. When a woman commits adultery, should the punishment (if any) be some form of freely chosen social discrimination or religiously-enforced death by stoning? It would seem to me that arguing over how much control the woman had over her actions is neither here nor there.

    Similarly, the urge to commit a crime may be biologically determined, but it is rather more important what the crime is and the seriousness of its’ consequences, than whether the transgressor had any control over what he did. Should our courts severly punish a man who, in a fit of passion, muders his wife and her lover having caught them in the act, or should our courts show leniency as his crime was one of ‘diminished responsibility’? Is the man not still culpable for not having sorted his marriage out (or filing for divorce) at some earlier stage?

    To me, the key question is: was there something you could have done, at some earlier stage to prevent whatever bad thing has now happened? Are you culpable or not culpable? The free-will issue has to be untangled from the mess up of responsibility-culpability first before it can be sensibly discussed.

  • Pa Annoyed


    I’d agree with that, although there are cases where the culpability is in doubt. If you first took the drugs not understanding the consequences, are you excused for not having messed your life up deliberately, or guilty for not doing the proper research before doing something new? If a woman is raped, and cannot find four respectable male witnesses to attest to it, is she thereby guilty of adultery?

    The idea of requiring moral responsibility is a useful one in capturing certain features of our culture’s sense of justice. Arguments against its strict scientific validity don’t invalidate the conclusions drawn from it – because the cultural sense of justice comes first and the concept of moral responsibility is just a post hoc explanation. It it the cultural mores that justify the discipline.

  • mike

    “the cultural sense of justice comes first and the concept of moral responsibility is just a post hoc explanation”

    Yes, that was what I was getting at.

    “If a woman is raped, and cannot find four respectable male witnesses to attest to it, is she thereby guilty of adultery?”

    Well no – since it is one woman’s word against a man’s, presumably there is insufficient evidence to attest to the intentions of either party.

    But your general point about doubt over culpability is interesting. Consider the case of the Moncktons in Chelsea recently. I forget the names of the scumbags that mudered Mr Monckton at his own home in front of his family – but in the first case they are obviously culpable for that awful crime. But is there not some secondary culpability on the part of the British State for outlawing firearms by means of which Mr Monckton might have successfully defended himself? After all, without a serious weapon at his disposal, Mr Monckton’s ability to respond to a life-threatening situation was diminished by the existence of laws prohibiting firearms, and presumably also his own desire to live within the law. That is a controversial idea (though perhaps not on samizdata!)…

    To get away from the specific case of the Moncktons, if I choose to live in an area populated by gangsters in a country where firearm ownership is prohibited, is there no secondary culpability on my shoulders if one day I am robbed or kidnapped in my own home at gun-point? Ought I not to have armed myself despite the prohibition? Or ought I to have done my homework on the local mafia before choosing to live in that nice lake-view condi with the swimming pool?

  • I’m currently listening via this link. Start listening 1h37m in.

    I don’t know how long the link will last. Sean is well worth listening to — he doesn’t hold back.