We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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

Samizdata quote of the day

“American conservatives who want to blame pet villains like the public-employee unions for the insolvency wave in the U.S. are missing the forest for the trees. Those unions are doing nothing but rational minimaxing within a system where the incentives are broken at a much deeper level. And it’s no coincidence that the same problems are becoming acute simultaneously nearly worldwide, because the underlying problem transcends all details of any individual democracy’s history or particular political arrangements. Between 1880 and 1943, beginning with Bismarck and ending with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the modern West abandoned the classical-liberal model of a minimal, night-watchman state. But the redistributionist monster that replaced it was unsustainable, and it’s now running out of other peoples’ money. We are living in the beginning of its end.”

- Eric Raymond.

108 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • I very much agree that we are living through significant history. We’re coming up to one of those termination dates historians use in book titles, “British Social History 1760-1914″ or what have you.

  • Chuckles

    Will the last person to lose their job, please blow out the candle.

  • John Galt


    …the redistributionist monster that replaced it was unsustainable, and it’s now running out of other peoples’ money. We are living in the beginning of its end.”

    Unfortunately, as in “Atlas Shrugged” we are only at the beginning of the end. Lots of chaos and disorder to be gone through yet. I predict more bloodshed, not metaphorical – actual bloodshed.

    Time to start looking for a suitable hilltop to fortify.

  • Brad

    Commandeering other people’s money was the “peaceful” method of commandeering people’s labor. Now that the money is running out (or been debased too much) less “peaceful” methods to commandeer people’s labor will necessarily be employed. I use peaceful in the Statist usage wherein assault without battery is peaceful.

  • RRS

    There does seem to be a tendency to focus mostly on “money,” as reflected in schemes for redistribution, when examining the impacts on the general citizenry of the functions of governments.

    However, even though “money” represents the productive (providing services to others) efforts, or labor, of individuals, equally devastating, if not moreso, have become the intrusions and diffusions of those functions into individual lives, into human interactions, by virtue of directions, regulations, controls and dependency-inducing transfers of personal resonsibilities.

    There is a difference in both the sources of, and development of, functions of governments in the several parts of Western culture.

    But, all have evolved through periods when individuals have experienced widespread “helplessness” facing forces seemingly beyond control, for which they had no responsibility, be it deppressions, wars, disasters.
    The results have been a quests to shed responsibilties, and the rise of oligarchies to oblige, in exchange for the powers to direct, regulate and control.

    A radical view of that has been described by Angelo Codevillo in the U.S.

    It has really become a question of what people want most to be free FROM, rather than what they want to be free TO DO.
    The price of the first would seem at first to be just “money;” but in the end , the price is freedom to do.

  • Paul Marks

    I doubt there was ever agreement on a “mimimal state” (by the way such a state need not include a government police force, there often has not been one, its key feature is a government military for external threats) – but there was indeed a lot of agreement that the role of government should be LIMITED.

    And yes Bismark did not accept any clear limits on what the state should do. He did not want high taxes (not by modern standards anyway) – but he wanted the state to do X, Y, Z and opened the door to its growth. There had been many thinkers before Bismark with the same (or worse) ideas – but he was the man who transformed fantasy theories, into hard reality.

    Other people (in many nations) took this government-exists-to-provide-nice-things-for-the-people view and took it to its logical conclusion.

    As for the specific point.

    Yes – even if Jack Kennedy (actually not much a of a big government man by modern standards) had not given a sop to the unions with his Executive Order of 1962 (letting the unions into the Federal government – a policy that was then copied by many States and local governments) the unlimited view of what government should provide would be (to use an overused word – but an true one in this case) an “unsustainable” one.

    Let us say that the unions vanished from the American Federal government (or from such States as New York or Califorina) right now – at once.

    The present wild orgy of entitlements and so on might last a bit longer – but it would still collapse in the end, it would collapse because its basic nature (the growth built into these schemes – again, by their very nature) is unsustainable.

    And this is also true for Britain and so on (ironically, in a few ways the German situation may now actually be slightly less insane than the British and American one).

    The present system (the system of government as there to provide people with all their basic needs – education, health care, old age support, income support and so on) will not work.

    Even in the Roman Empire such a conception of government was never as extensive as it is with us – and only applied to the mob of a Rome and a few other cities (a small minority of the population – vastly outnumbered by people on farms who got no “basic entitlements” from government).

    To the follow of pretending that all basic needs can be met by government, we have added the follow of a credit bubble financial system that supposedly can finance everything (people forget that long before the government bailed out the banks the banks were bailing out the government – via taxes on the profits of their wild and foundationless speculation), in reality this demented monetary system (based on lending out savings that do not even exist) will only make things worse.

    Ian B. is correct – one way or another this period of history is comming to an end.

  • Paul Marks

    My brain is even more tired than usual – for “follow” read “folly”.

  • John B

    Agreed.
    The best one can do, I think, is to pursue Tea Party and Taxpayers’ Alliance type initiatives?
    Dismantle as much as possible of the super state.
    And, of course, Cameron’s great initiatives would seem to be a con.
    When he truly shuts down offices and closes down activities one can begin to take him seriously.

    I tend to agree things look very bleak but live in hope that common sense can prevail and push back the creeping paralysis of stolen wealth.

  • West

    All the unions were doing was ‘minimaxing’? Well, that certainly lets them off the hook.

  • Those unions are doing nothing but rational minimaxing within a system where the incentives are broken at a much deeper level.

    Didn’t unions specifically lobby for those broken incentives? Especially in the education industry?

  • Eric

    Will the last person to lose their job, please blow out the candle.

    What? Burning candles produces CO2, so no need – we’ll already be shivering in the dark.

  • The whole question of “why should people be free?” is interesting me at this time.

  • John B

    Why should we be free?
    That depends how far you want to take it.
    Because God made us in His image with free will to choose between good and evil?
    Because we are more productive and creative when free to pursue our goals?
    Because it feels nicer?

  • Because without freedom there is no life, literally. Not in absolute terms (as neither freedom nor the absence of it are ever absolute), but rather in the sense that the more freedom there is, the more life flourishes – and vice versa. This holds for all life, not just the human kind.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    What Alisa said.

    Even if there is no Creator as religious folk contend, freedom is a necessity for humans as creatures who have to consciously think in order to survive and thrive. Under conditions of oppression, that does not happen so well.

  • PeterT

    I disagree. Prediction is difficult, especially of the future. To claim that we are on the verge of some new era is not very Popper.

    The Western world is certainly in a pickle at the moment. We may see the state being rolled back by some degree, out of both necessity and choice. But it doesn’t seem to me like society (if I may anthropomorphise on this occasion) is having some great debate about what size the state should be.

    I suspect very much that once our economy has been sorted out it will be back to business as usual.

    The only thing I can see making a big difference is:

    a) mobility. Once the world has got richer it may be possible for the more productive people to, Atlas Shrugged style, move or at least conduct their business in low tax environments. This is already available to the rich of course, who can afford tax accountants and are allowed to move to Monaco. Once similar options are available to the middle class the tax base that supports the politicial class may disappear. There will of course be squeals of protest and moves to regulate across borders. Unfortunately it may work.

    b) technology. As products become cheaper we may simply choose to work less and produce more of our stuff ourselves. Self sufficiency is not very efficient of course, but I am sure making your own cheese and soap etc gives some satisfaction. Ultimately we may all have our own robots that function as butlers, surgeons, teachers, and nannies etc. Lets see the welfare state survive that. Furthermore, a greater proportion of the value added in the economy will be ethereal in nature. Hard to pin down so hard to tax. Obviously, to the extent that it is hard to tax it is also hard to make any money from (e.g. music being downloaded).

    That said, there are some more immediate developments that give reason for cheer. Apart from Wikileaks there is also this:

    http://paul.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1807:audit-the-fed-in-2011&catid=31:texas-straight-talk

    The beginning of the end for the Fed?

  • What is interesting Jonathan, is that, like I said, it holds true for all life. Try planting a tree in a cast-iron enclosure filled with soil and with a steady artificial supply of nutrients: it will not survive, because its roots will have no room to grow. The same will happen if you similarly enclose its top. As a long-time owner of dogs, domesticated animals are a very interesting case to me in that regard (with wild animals’ case going without saying). Life is dynamic by definition, and yes, it does not matter who or what created it in the first place. Sorry for going OT…

  • I suppose what I meant was: “what is the point of freedom?”

    If it is so much trouble to achieve, as is the case manifestly, is there not some other path to tread which could deliver human happiness and equity?

    I only explore these ideas, for I think we all ought to think about why the Enemy so fervently opposes us, at every turn.

    Why does the Enemy not want us to be free?

  • I mean, like, if we were truly free, then we could truly choose Evil over good. And we would be truly committed to it, having really chosen it out of logic and deduction, that it was the best course.

    Would the socialists not like that then?

  • David: no, they wouldn’t, because what they seek is control – it is an end in and of itself, not the means to some other end, however good or evil.

  • RRS

    To be meaningful, individual freedom, whether freedom from or freedom to, must have a function or functions in living.

    Otherwise, we are not speaking of “freedom,” but of some other drive, such as simple survival, subsistence or replication.

  • @Alisa

    If they seek control, then logic suggests they must have some end or objective. You don’t control your aircraft into the ground: you go for the sky.

    So what might that objective of theirs be, then? They have to have one, or what is “control” for?

  • Look guys!

    Some of you must remember. In the 70s and 80s, and even the 90s, we here in little-England were often told how we would “miss the bus” if we didn’t either vote for, or approve, or otherwise adulate, some sort of totalitarian pre-capitalist-barbarian thesis, (such as the EU for example.)

    What exactly is this “bus” that we are supposed to not miss, and where is it going? I don’t think they can mean it’s taking us to Auschwitz and similar stations, which is where a lot of “buses” seemed to terminate and not so long ago – unless I have been too charitable about the GramscoStaliNazis of today, and so I should start to be even less ejaculationally-positive about the fellas than I am?

    So what’s the “control” thing for then? They can only want “control” in order to bring some objective about, surely? Or have I missed something?

    To control, they must _know_ where they are going?

  • John B

    David.
    I would think most of them have as their goal “the greater good”. A dream of an emulsified human race where everyone is the same, there is no conflict. Perfect peace. The UN, after all, thinks it will be getting the lamb to lie down with the lamb and everyone beating their swords into ploughshares.

    What I would say is that it is “man” trying to usher in the greater millennium of peace through his own efforts. I realise most on this blog would say that “man” should usher in whatever good he can by his own efforts. Because you simply don’t think there is anyone else around.

    In short term goals, yes it is control and the lust for power, as power, and as money.
    It is also the sublimely luxurious comforts that wealth provides. The excitement and fun of playing around in aeroplanes and helicopters, luxury yachts. The joy of regarding other people as peasants and celebrating one’s own superiority. Whatever.

    But, yes, as you say, indeed: If in fact people can produce better when they are free, why don’t they let the people get on with it? Indeed.
    It has always been that way it seems.
    Wealth is generated in a free-ish market. And then the rip-off artists move in to tax and otherwise extract wealth from the system, eventually destroying it.
    Same sort of reasoning as children smashing a toy trying to grab it off each other rather than being willing to accept less time with it, but keep it as a functioning toy?

  • David: yes, you are missing something – namely (to repeat myself) that control is an end in and of itself. It is a psychological need all of us have to a degree: all of us want to control our physical environment, to suit us better. Now this goes beyond specific goals, because we want to be able to control our life before we even have any specific goals or regardless of them. In this, you or I are not different from Socialists/Fascists (but I repeat myself). The difference between us and them is that most of us restrict our drive to control to inanimate objects (we manipulate our physical environment to serve our needs), while understanding that other individuals cannot be manipulated in the same way. However, the various collectivist, in a way, treat other people as if they were inanimate objects. Some of them do understand the real difference between a person and an inanimate object (that difference being free will) but don’t really care, while others don’t even truly understand that difference. I’m not sure which is worse.

  • So back to the bus: it really doesn’t matter where is it going. Usually it goes to some kind of paradise (the ancient religious one or the workers’ one) or something or other. It doesn’t matter, they don’t really care. The SU never got where it was supposed to go, so what? You control the lives of millions of people, it’s a power trip, who cares where to? We are all dead in the long run anyway.

  • Laird

    Why do you assume that, David? I think Alisa is correct: for many of these people control itself is the objective. They simply enjoy controlling others; there is no deeper motivation than that simple pleasure. Oh, I suppose for some it might actually be a means to some other end, but I seriously doubt that most of them think that far.

  • Midwesterner

    But what about all of the people who want to be controlled? They exist and they are plentiful. The ones I know want to be absorbed into some larger entity and they freely cede self control to the consensus’ choice of controllers. What is interesting to me is how reliant those who control are on not just the adulation, but the opinions of those they control. I’ve mentioned it in threads in the past how collectivist ‘leaders’ get their own opinions from the public opinion polls. Truth by consensus.

    When those pubic opinion polls or elections do not support the goal of a collective state of being, the collectivist concludes it is because the samples or electorate are contaminated by inferiors that need to be purged from the polling and eventually from the society itself.

    My opinion D D, is that we are in a pitched battle between individualism and collectivism where technology has reached a point where both are possible. Collectivism does not intend to allow individuals to survive as such. That is the reason why every where and every time collectivists have gained truly unfettered control there is genocide. It is their immune system purging the ‘not self’ from the ‘self’.

  • No. No. I do not believe that socialists and GFNs are that myopic. They must have some vision of where they want the world, which is to say: all civilisation that we have ever known and shall know – to go.

    They are so articulate that they must therefore have some native intelligence, just like us. They have cheerfully stated their goals, in clear terms, fully-illustrated as to what their ideal societies would look like, time and time again.

    They must therefore know why we should not be free, and why they should be. We need to find out what the difference is between us and them, in their terms, as t how their brains work and how they think the brains of others work.

  • They made a deliberate choice to be like they are. Nobody forced them.

  • They are lying, David, to themselves and to the rest of us.

  • Kim du Toit

    But it doesn’t seem to me like society (if I may anthropomorphise on this occasion) is having some great debate about what size the state should be.”

    Speak for yourself. We’re having one in the U.S. right now, even though it’s being driven by the “we can’t afford it” mantra, rather than the philosophical one.

  • “Why should people be free”?

    There’s no “should” about it, really. That’s a Humean “ought” and as such you cannot derive it from any facts about nature.

    Historically, people have not been free. Perhaps the closest was in the earliest period of humanity, when there were few of us, and the world was effectively infinite, and you could just walk away from the tribe and start up somewhere else. That’s probably why mankind spread across the globe; people saying, “I don’t like it here, the Big Man is a berk” and picking up their pots and spears and walking over the next hill.

    But the land ran out a long time ago, and we’re forced to cohabit with others we do not agree with, in societies to which we do not wish to belong. Many libertarians like myself would like to make the whole world libertarian, but I think we all also really just wish we could pick up our pots and spears and bugger off over the next hill, really. But we can’t.

    But there really isn’t a “should” about it. Most of our fellows don’t want to be free. Most of them fear freedom, at least if it is given to other people. Even many libertarians don’t really want to be free. Anarcho capitalists don’t, for instance. They just want the oppression in the private sector. There has been no libertarian civilisation in history. Various ones have had more or less of it, and the freer ones seem to have done better on balance. So that’s a weak kind of “should”.

    But really, freedom is a desire, not an ought. That’s good enough for me. I just wish there were somewhere to walk away to, that’s all.

  • “That’s a Humean “ought” and as such you cannot derive it from any facts about nature.”

    I’m still not buying that because I think the critiques of the Randian derivation (e.g. Friedman’s) were not sensitive enough to tease it apart from the rhetoric in which it was typically couched.

    DD: I think Alisa’s point about control is correct (there is something deeply sociopathic about people such as this guy). But you are right when you say that they must have a ‘vision’, or theory about what society should be like – in ‘The Open Society & Its Enemies’, Popper spends a lot of time tracing the historical development of these theories and debunking them. Midwesterner’s point about people ceding self control to collectivist consensus is redolent of Popper’s phrase “the strain of civilization” which arises from the difficulty of living with the uncertainty of an open and changing society. Hence the appeal of collectivist ideologies.

  • Mike, Rand doesn’t seem to have quite grasped what Hume meant. It’s a subtle point because all of us, for emotional reasons, have some “ought” which we think is beyond rebuke. We then make teh error presuming this to be axiomatic and build a moral system from there. But none of these things ever jump the is/ought gulf, we just think they do because they seem so certain and right.

    So with Rand, you get, “you ought to stay alive because if you are not alive you cannot act”. But then you must ask, why ought you be able to act? There is nothing in nature that can show that a Mike who can act is superior to a Mike who cannot. You might be understandably emotionally attached to being in a state in which you can act, but that is not addressing Hume’s problem.

    It comes down to this; the universe has no overall purpose. It merely is. Therefore, nothing within the universe can have a purpose either. They just are.

    So we end up saying perhaps, humans ought to have liberty because that will make them happier, but then we can’t answer why humans ought to be happier. We might say, then they will work harder and produce more, but then we are stuck with why we ought to produce more, rather than less, or the same, or nothing. You just chase round in circles with an endless chain. There’s no reason that humanity as a whole ought to exist- let alone a single individual. We’re an evolutionary accident, like all other life. We just happen to be here.

    You can’t get an ought from an is. It can’t be done. It doesn’t stop you preferring to be alive rather than dead and pursuing that goal. But you’ll never prove that you ought to be.

  • David Davis-

    We need to find out what the difference is between us and them, in their terms, as t how their brains work and how they think the brains of others work.

    I think this is actually pretty simple to answer. They are basically members of a belief system. This belief system believes in maximising goodness and in the elevation of humanity to a higher moral state.

    It naturally follows that to achieve a greater good, it may be necessary to do a lesser evil. Since the goodness being pursued is infinite, the degree of evil which it is acceptable to do in pursuit of it is very great indeed.

    As I’ve said many times, just to annoy Alisa, which is itself a very great good all by itself, the Progressives are simply the continuing incarnation of Victorian era moralism, which itself derives from post-puritanism; the dissenters and evangelists who arose against the (relatively) free-wheeling liberalism of 18the Century England. They see moral corruption all around them and are determined to stamp it out.

    The movement these days after two centuries of syncretism has swept up many elements- marxism, backwardist ruralism, health crankery, cargo cult science, etc, but the driving force since about 1800 always has been moral fervour. They’re building Utopia, and it doesn’t matter how much harm they have to do to get there, because the end result will be worth it. They are missionaries, and we are the reluctant natives being civilised.

  • Veryretired

    I won’t pretend that I can answer some of the larger questions raised here, but I will take a shot at part of the phenomenon of people who are willing to relinquish their freedoms and liberties to an authoritarian state.

    Part of the reason is the utter newness and novelty of freedom in the modern sense. We forget how circumscribed life was for the great part of humanity for untold millennia.

    People lived in small homogenous groups, abiding by tribal norms which were very specific about hoe everything should be done, what was permitted and what forbidden, and what the acceptable beliefs were.

    Deviation was not only frowned upon, it was positively deadly. When you spend your whole life in a small village or nomadic group of a few dozen people, all of whom know everything you do or say, being unconventional becomes decidedly difficult.

    Over the last few centuries, however, the tribe has diminished in power and the individual has become more autonomous. It is not surprising, then, that the backlash against such a change in social and cultural structures should be very powerful, indeed.

    Liberty is one side of a coin. On the other side is immense responsibility. It is this responsibility that so frightens and defeats many who would surrender their freedoms to avoid it.

    A free society requires that each person become responsible for their own life, their decisions, their success or failure, their understanding and judgements. These tasks require an enormous and continuous expenditure of energy and commitment. Far too many people, unfortunately, are unable or unwilling to make such an effort on a daily basis.

    It is popular in our culture to talk of the stifling nature of family expectations or life in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and is in everyone else’s business.

    But many people find such constraints reassuring and comforting. Everything is laid out, options are limited and not confusing in their multitude and complexity.

    Demanding freedom at the level that most Americans have traditionally defined it is an extreme historical anomaly, requiring an acceptance of personal responsibility far beyond any previous norms, and a difficult task for many who find all that decision making and evaluating much more difficult and exhausting than simply letting someone else do it.

    People surrender their freedoms because liberty is a relentless and demanding series of tasks which calls for effort just as unrelenting, and never ends as long as life exists in the person’s body.

    To be a truly free human being requires a lifetime of careful, rigorous work. It’s walking the wire without a net.

    What is surprising is not that many people find it too difficult, but that so many people demand a life carrying the burden of being responsible for one’s own existence when there are so many people who would gladly make the decisions for them.

    Look at human history—it is freedom that is rare, slavery that is ubiquitous.

  • But really, freedom is a desire, not an ought. That’s good enough for me.

    Good enough for me as well, and it really should go without saying. David is free to think in terms of “I should be free”, or in terms of “I want to be free”. It really is subjective, so as long as he is not trying to force freedom on others, it really doesn’t matter, and so I don’t see where is the problem.

  • Mid: the desire to control is, at least technically, separate from collectivism (which is the notion that human beings are akin to inanimate objects, lacking free will – or the notion that free will is there, but it is irrelevant or inferior to the Larger Good). IOW, (and to rephrase and expand on my previous comment), what makes a collectivist is not his desire to control, but his disregard for free will. On the control point, some collectivists want to control, others want to be controlled – but one can observe these two tendencies (and often a mixture of both) with non-collectivists as well.

  • I disagree, VR. What you wrote about ancient tribes and villages etc. is certainly true, but you miss Ian’s point, which is that if you didn’t like your tribe or village, you could move to a different one or even start a new one – and many people did just that. What we have now is not an “atomized society”, as conventional wisdom would have it, but a tribe so big, that it had taken over the entire planet – there is no where to go.

    But many people find such constraints reassuring and comforting. Everything is laid out, options are limited and not confusing in their multitude and complexity.

    Yes, and so do I, to an extent – we are social animals for a reason. This reality stands in no contradiction to freedom, as long as our social associations are voluntary – or, alternatively, can be feasibly physically abandoned. The former holds only partially, and is constantly being diminished, the latter no longer holds at all.

  • Thank you, Ian, for yet again stroking my overinflated ego. Plus, it is quite comforting to realize that you keep repeating this stuff just to annoy little me – does it mean that you don’t really believe it, and that therefore there’s still hope for humanity? I am also surprised that you do not find yourself annoyed with debating below the level of your full ability. It’s a shame, really. Try telling us something we have not heard before, please? Come on, you can do it.

    Either way, to the point itself: whether Ian is correct about the victopuritan origins of Progressivism (and he may well be), is a secondary point. The main point, in my view, is that Progressivism is just another incarnation of the age-old human tendencies for control, coupled with some people’s disregard for the free will of others – or, as Mid pointed out, their own.

    I will now go and rest in the glow of my self-importance.

  • Ian – congratulations I suppose. I’ve just deleted a comment trying to apply the Den Uyl and Rasmussen version of Rand’s argument to the problem. I couldn’t get it to work.

    However, surely this stricture…

    “…freedom is a desire, not an ought…”

    … does not apply to people who aren’t suicidal or sociopathic, or Islamist lunatics, because anyone who isn’t one of these people will have other values that are more likely to be realized under freedom.

    “…it really should go without saying.”

    Oh no – the importance of the problem is precisely why it should not go unchallenged.

  • John B

    So Ian, your take on it is that there is no order?
    It is all random?
    There is no purpose.
    It simply is.
    But then how did it simply happen?
    From where came the potential, the difference, for anything to begin to happen?
    How did anything begin to move, to separate, to exist?

  • Midwesterner

    I don’t think the desire to control others derives from the desire to control oneself. Funny thing is, I may have thought so quite recently.

    Collectivism is not “the notion that human beings are akin to inanimate objects, lacking free will – or the notion that free will is there, but it is irrelevant or inferior to the Larger Good)” Collectivism is the belief that life itself and the rights attached to it resides at the societal level, not the individual. Consensus of the elite is an essential core element of collective societies. Even in what appear to be absolute dictatorships like in North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq or Stalin’s Russia, a dictator that does not have the voluntary cooperation of his lieutenants, of his elite, is a dead ex-dictator.

    Looking past day to day, to long term, that also applies to the non elite as well. It is only while the dictator appears to be ‘a winner’ that a population is governable. As CeauŠŸescu learned, a cult of personality can only take you so far. Once a dictator appears mortal and vulnerable (as in ‘The Man Who Would Be King’) the ‘head’ is rejected by the ‘body’. Sometimes with astonishing viciousness.

    It is not only in the desire to be controlled. There is an essential collectivist foundation to the desire to control others. Whenever and to whatever extent control assertion or abdication occur in a society, that is collectivism becomes it unavoidably requires some degree of belief in a unified identity. It may seem an exception when a would be controller believes the controllees are inanimate objects but even that case requires them to be ancillary and supportive to the core being.

    Did that make any sense?

  • RRS

    Going back to the origin of this thread – Redistribution

    Surely some others of you have caught on to what has been evolving – politically and sociologically.

    Attention has been focused on “spreading the wealth around” mantra’s and redistribution of incomes.

    What has been creeping up to a now accelerated pace in increasing amounts is:

    REDISTRIBUTION OF COSTS

    This is the “new” face of socialist and ruling class agendae.

    See it in the U.S. in spreading the effects of mortgage defaults, financial losses, heathcare costs, federal subsidies for state borrowing, public employee pensions, education costs, etc.

    Out of other people’s money? Your never out of other people’s costs.

  • I don’t think the desire to control others derives from the desire to control oneself.

    Neither do I – where did you get that?

    Collectivism is not “the notion that human beings are akin to inanimate objects, lacking free will – or the notion that free will is there, but it is irrelevant or inferior to the Larger Good)” Collectivism is the belief that life itself and the rights attached to it resides at the societal level, not the individual.

    Mid, it seems to me that you are mistaking the (societal) symptom for the (psychological) “disease”.

    Consensus of the elite is an essential core element of collective societies.Even in what appear to be absolute dictatorships like in North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq or Stalin’s Russia, a dictator that does not have the voluntary cooperation of his lieutenants, of his elite, is a dead ex-dictator.
    Looking past day to day, to long term, that also applies to the non elite as well. It is only while the dictator appears to be ‘a winner’ that a population is governable.

    That’s because, obviously, most people are not collectivist.

    There is an essential collectivist foundation to the desire to control others.

    That’s exactly what I said. I see you totally missed my point, and I’m sure it’s my fault at least as much as yours:-)

  • Midwesterner

    Mid, it seems to me that you are mistaking the (societal) symptom for the (psychological) “disease”.

    Horses & carts, chickens & eggs. Innate collectivists, spiritual collectivists do not believe in the collective administration of the lives in a society. They believe that society is the life itself. This is the force behind the emotional rage that so often boils from obstructed collectivists. When you harm their collective, you are harming their life. The collective is their life.

    That’s because, obviously, most people are not collectivist.

    No. They may or may not be but that is not at all what I am saying. I am saying that when a leader of a collective is perceived by their membership to be weak or ‘a loser’ that the collectivists will turn on and destroy that leader. Yes, embedded non-collectivists may see a window of opportunity during those times, but it is the collectivists who will lead the charge with the most ferocious and impatient intent. Their intent is to find a ‘winner’ who is strong to replace the rejected leader. Just because a people turn against their despot, don’t for a minute expect them to seek personal liberty. That can only occur if they were controlled by an external force that is withdrawn (eastern Europe) and are inclined to individualism when left to themselves. But if the deposed despot was in power on their own reputation, then the population will simply seek to replace them with a new and ‘better’ despot.

  • “Once a dictator appears mortal and vulnerable (as in ‘The Man Who Would Be King’) the ‘head’ is rejected by the ‘body’…”

    Great film!

    “…spiritual collectivists….This is the force behind the emotional rage that so often boils from obstructed collectivists. When you harm their collective, you are harming their life. The collective is their life.”

    Can I ask how you reached that conclusion Mid – from discussions with these types themselves?

  • mike-

    “…freedom is a desire, not an ought…”

    … does not apply to people who aren’t suicidal or sociopathic, or Islamist lunatics, because anyone who isn’t one of these people will have other values that are more likely to be realized under freedom.

    That doesn’t change the issue. Why ought the values of people be realised? You can’t escape Hume’s Guillotine; whatever you declare as an ought will always be based on another ought and not an is. This is why anyone seeking to build an objective philosophical system will either ignore Hume or try to declare that they’ve solved the problem; because if Hume cannot be solved, then an objective moral system is fundamentally impossible.

    And since we can show that Hume is correct, then there can be no objective moral system. Nobody has ever solved the problem, because nobody ever can.

  • You misunderstand the sense in which my comment was intended; did you not read the bit where I admitted defeat?

    My point is that since most people will agree on some basic prescriptive premises which I’ll admit cannot be derived from descriptive ones, Hume’s is-ought gap should rarely be raised as a problem. What should be raised (i.e. in a persuasion context) are questions about basic ‘oughts’ that can be agreed upon and the derivations that follow from them. Similarly with Hume’s take on causality, just because ’causes’ cannot be directly shown, but only inferred by the observer does not mean that this must always be raised as a serious objection to particular theories of cause and effect. Since our causal inferences work well enough at explaining and predicting – well, then, job done.

    In case that isn’t clear, think of an analogy with weapons. Hume’s ‘is-ought’ is a devastating nuke and in any ‘battle’, its’ use could only be warranted by drastic circumstances. Most of the time, the ‘aircraft carriers and dreadnoughts’ of basic prescriptive premises and derivations therefrom should be sufficient to persuade. If I were to raise Hume’s ‘is-ought’ repeatedly to nullify moral arguments (e.g. concerning political rights) with which I disagree, I might end up doing more harm than good because the nuclear wake of “all morality is subjective” is tainted by the poisonous association of “subjective” with “whimsical” and “arbitrary”. Hume’s ‘is-ought’ problem annihilates any constructive conversation on political rights at precisely the time when we need to win that conversation with as many of the soft-core lefties and other unaffiliated individuals as we can.

    Just last night I was at a local bar arguing with Marxist (sorry, ‘economics’) students at one of the ‘top’ Universities here (yeah, I know). I want to persuade these students, if I can, not only that their economics is wrong, but that their moral philosophy is (for want of a better word) ‘wrong’. I’m not looking to blast them off the face of the earth… (yet).

  • Sorry mike, I misunderstood the “admitted defeat” bit.

    Hume’s Law doesn’t lead to such terrible places as it first seems. Most people reject it precisely because they think that if we say “everything is subjective” we cannot make any ethical progress; it is all nullified isn’t it? But one way to look at that is that it’s not just “us” who are nullified. It’s everyone.

    Consider a statement of Hume’s Law-

    “There are no objective facts about ethics”.

    That seems pretty hopeless. Luckily, it is not correct. Instead, we should state a deliciously self-referential version which is correct.

    “There are no objective facts about ethics except Hume’s Law“.

    So, we realise that the only objective basis for an ethical theory is that everything is subjective. I love that on pure grounds of taste :) We can now create an objective theory based on subjectivity. Life is grand!

    Now an ethic is the pursuit of a purpose. E.g. to stay alive, or to ensure the survival of one’s family line, or to ensure your nation prospers, or to preserve human life, or to follow God, or to have sex with a Playboy centrefold, or to save the whales, or whatnot. What you ought to do is what satisfies this purpose (which in Rand’s case was personal survival and fulfillment).

    From Hume we can derive that no purpose is greater than any other purpose; they are all individual sentiments. It thus follows that we cannot as a group objectively sanction any purpose over another. So no man can ever assert a justification for imposing his will upon another man. We are forced by Hume’s Law to interact with others only with their agreement; when our personal purposes, our oughts coincide. Voluntarily. If a situation arises in which you are going to impose your will upon another, you must fall back onto the nul state of non-action.

    So, from absolute subjectivism we discover the libertarian fundamental of non-coercion. Hume’s Law is a law of nature- the only ethical law of nature. We thus find that liberty, in a libertarian sense, is built into the universe. It is the only possible ethical theory we can derive from what is. Every other philosophy is inherently against nature.

    That’s a pretty powerful argument for liberty, I reckon.

  • John B

    Ian, that sounds positively post modern.
    So libertarianism is: subjectivity declared absolute. And thus become the basis for moral and ethical decisions?
    You are not far from your enemies, methinks.

  • Read it again John.

    It derives the non-aggression principle from nature. That’s a pretty good starting point for moral and ethical decisions. I think even Jesus might approve of the idea that non-aggression was built into the Universe.

  • “Hume’s Law is a law of nature- the only ethical law of nature. We thus find that liberty, in a libertarian sense, is built into the universe. It is the only possible ethical theory we can derive from what is.”

    It hadn’t occurred to me to look at it like that… that’s brilliant.

  • Thanks mike, it was a eureka moment. In the bath, for real. I didn’t run down the street though. Wish I had. :)

  • John B

    I don’t have a problem with is and ought.
    The is can be questioned and run around, interpreted or misunderstood, but it does not come to an ought. Oughts are not really of consequence until one relates to something or somebody, and it’s more to do with behaviour than an objective thing that exists.
    To nail the absolute to the relative is a cop out that no amount of convoluted thinking can justify.

    Re non aggression, I don’t see it as built into the physical universe. My perception has been that life survives at the expense of life, in the natural, such as the cow at the abattoir, the buck in the veld, or the amoeba in a pond.
    Jesus’ realm is of a contrary current and can seem to contradict what we see as logic sometimes

  • It hadn’t occurred to me to look at it like that… that’s brilliant.

    Indeed.

    John, please do not confuse this with postmodernism, as the latter is based on the nullification of all subjective values, just for being subjective (as if there are any others) – except for those held by the postmodernist himself.

  • Yes, Mid, it is indeed horses-and-carts, and no, it is not chickens-and-eggs – not at all, big difference there. My personal obsession (yes, I do have one) is psychology, i.e. why people think and behave the way they do. So while I’m talking about the why, you are talking about the what – IOW, you are talking about those psychological motives’ social manifestations. Is that clearer now? BTW, I do take your point about leaders etc. – it is interesting.

  • “In the bath, for real. I didn’t run down the street though. Wish I had.”

    Bet your neighbors are glad you didn’t though!

    John – I’m not being funny here, but I honestly can’t get past your first two sentences, you’re using English, but it’s like a different language.

  • ” My personal obsession (yes, I do have one) is psychology…”

    … that and replying to my every comment on Samizdata! ;-)

  • …yours and Ian’s;-P

  • John B

    mike. Sorry.
    It’s because I refuse to accept the prejudices that most people seem to have to think in and I try to (often unsuccessfully) see through.

    But it’s simple. Like everything. (Beware those who make things complicated. They have one of two motives. Either they don’t understand it themselves, or they are trying to con you):

    There is that which is, whatever that may be.

    There is that which you think ought to be.

    To confuse the two is results in unreality and I think is a result of being inaccurate with thought or words (saying a “bad driver” rather than an untrained, nervous, angry, or ineffective driver.)

    There seems to be something in us that likes to load concepts with judgmentalism. Instead of simply seeing things for what they are.

  • Midwesterner

    Can I ask how you reached that conclusion Mid – from discussions with these types themselves?

    Yes. Empirically. Not always ‘discussion’, ‘interactions’ may be more accurate. Any question and answer can quickly become problematic. I first began to understand with a sports fan and I got to wondering about and dissecting his nature. He was one of the subset of team fans who are not sports fans per se, but who are bound into the identity and fate of their team. I like sports but I often don’t know who I am watching, it is the game that I enjoy.

    Individuals (as well as societies) contain varying proportions of individualist and collectivist compartments. People can appear very normal until you knock on the door of a compartment that houses the opposite nature. I’m sure collectivists experience the same reaction when the discover a protected insubordination compartment in a member of their collective.

    There is a subset of sports fans who have what appears to us ‘normal’ people to be a pathology. Watch them watching their team and you will see physical pain and pleasure as though they were on the field, on the team. They speak of their team as ‘we’ and ‘us’, etc. All team fans have some degree of this but there are some who are at the saturation point. They are fortunately, at least in the US, a small subset of all sports fans but I get the impression that they form a higher share of fandom in other cultures. When you find one, you can dissect them much more easily than the same personality but with one of the other common identities. Environmentalists can be dangerous to approach. Zealots of some religions can disappear into their religious identity. Nationalists are team fans writ dangerous.

    A way to identify someone of this personality or spirit or to understand the content of a compartment of an otherwise ‘normal’ appearing person is, when asked rational emotion free questions, their emotions begin building. They respond not as to a query, but as to a deliberate jostle. Doubting or even questioning their beliefs is to challenge the space they occupy. If you want to study them, be very diplomatic because picking at their doctrine is picking at their identity itself. They are likely to flee or bring reinforcements to ‘correct’ you.

    All people compartmentalize to varying degrees. Some are at the far collective identity end of the spectrum and they won’t need many compartments. Some are at the far individualist end of the spectrum and they also don’t need many compartments. The people in the middle have quite a catacomb of compartments and receiving an anti-rational, emotive response to queries will give you a clear signal of what kind of compartment you’ve opened. For me the nineties was a wonderful time studying how people interact and relate in the cauldron of an association of large recreational clubs on a major university campus. I would like some time to take what I’ve learned here at Samizdata and go back and study some more but that it isn’t going to happen any time soon.

  • Midwesterner

    or to have sex with a Playboy centrefold,

    I see Ian has crossed one of his life goals off of his list. But he isn’t finished. He still has to save whales or whatnot. :-)

    More seriously, Ian, where in Hume’s law do you find a prohibition against force? A non-justification, yes. But while it can be used to unfoot somebody who claims moral basis, what can it do against somebody who denies morality and asserts control simply because they can. Hume places us back in the circumstance of forming strength based alliances with people who share our chosen goals. No?

    My approach is to begin not from proving nobody else may tell me what to do. There is nothing to stop them just as their is nothing to compel my consent. My approach is that I have a spiritual (not in the metaphysical, but in the human spirit sense) nature and I choose to act on it. At the same time I concede that others may have contrary spirits that they choose to act on so I pursue courses of action with the intent to realize mine and defeat their interference with mine.

  • Hume places us back in the circumstance of forming strength based alliances with people who share our chosen goals. No?

    What’s wrong with that?

  • Midwesterner

    Perhaps the semantics. Hume doesn’t actually place us back there, he only fails to take us somewhere else. :-)

  • Oh, I got that – still, what’s wrong with being there as opposed to ‘somewhere else’? And why ‘back’ there?

  • It’s nearly 2am here and I really should be getting to bed, but…

    “To confuse the two is results in unreality and I think is a result of being inaccurate with thought or words (saying a “bad driver” rather than an untrained, nervous, angry, or ineffective driver.)”

    John, what’s the difference between a ‘bad’ driver and an ‘ineffective’ driver other than the latter adjective may be marginally less ‘offensive’ than the former?

    Mid: yes. I recognize all of that from experience, and actually, very recent experience too.

    “Doubting or even questioning their beliefs is to challenge the space they occupy. If you want to study them, be very diplomatic because picking at their doctrine is picking at their identity itself. They are likely to flee or bring reinforcements to ‘correct’ you.”

    Yes, but of course not all encounters allow for diplomacy, and even when they do, diplomacy may sometimes be the least effective option. Westerners here in Taiwan are continually vulnerable to gangs of young men – tribal instincts alloyed to inferiority over status, women etc… not a good combination. Judging when and how to escalate is a crucial skill; subtracting cell phones from the equation can be the first order of business (or making use of your own).

    “My approach is that I have a spiritual (not in the metaphysical, but in the human spirit sense) nature and I choose to act on it. At the same time I concede that others may have contrary spirits that they choose to act on so I pursue courses of action with the intent to realize mine and defeat their interference with mine.”

    I don’t understand you here Mid: “human spirit sense” as opposed to metaphysical…? And I don’t think you answered Alisa’s question; ‘strength-based alliances’ may be untrustworthy, but why would they be inferior to the question-mark left hanging in the air by your ‘take us somewhere else’?

  • Midwesterner

    I only meant to use diplomacy if it was your intention to study them for a while. But in situations that can escalate into physical danger, understanding their dynamic is very useful as your cell phone point demonstrates.

    I don’t understand your question on the usage of ‘spirit’. Many people hear ‘spirit’ and think ghosts or supernatural. I mean ‘spirit’ as “the animating force” within living beings.

    In answer to Alisa’s question, in the language of this discussion, “forming strength based alliances” is an amoral (not immoral) acceptance of what ‘is’. It is “because I can“. As such, it is an ‘is’ and cannot be used to create an ‘aught’ which is what is the imperative consequence of the judgmental word ‘wrong’. In other words it would not be neither superior or inferior to. At least I think although I’m not a student of Hume, etc. What I meant by “somewhere else” is to ‘a logical imperative for a particular value’. Perhaps I have it wrong. I’m busy for a couple of hours so I probably won’t be able to reply until after you’ve gone to bed.

  • But while it can be used to unfoot somebody who claims moral basis, what can it do against somebody who denies morality and asserts control simply because they can. Hume places us back in the circumstance of forming strength based alliances with people who share our chosen goals. No?

    While we are presumed to be people of morals, aren’t our goals therefore moral, and thus aren’t people who share them in effect share our morals? Remember, I asked you ‘what’s wrong with that?’, using the word ‘wrong’ in the same sense you do.

    And while I’m at it, Hume’s law – or any law, for that matter – cannot do anything ‘against somebody who denies morality and asserts control simply because they can’ (this is when the use of force is called for, and that’s what strength-based alliances are for). All it can do is ‘unfoot someone who claims moral basis’.

  • Midwesterner

    I see only two options to what ‘is’. One is to be passive and one is to be active. Passivity is an option that writers like Sartre (Nausia) and Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus) wrestled with; passivity as a response to being overwhelmed by what is. I’m not going to debate the morality of activity versus passivity because I don’t really care. My spirit is emphatically one of activity. I act on it because I can, not because it is ordained that I must.

    Once having determined to be active, options are limited. As I see it they consist of the ‘over the next hill’ option Ian describes or the ‘forming strong alliances’ option. Many libertarians reject the ‘forming strong alliances’ approach and go so far as to reject participating in a democracy on principle. I don’t see how principle or morality can enter into the decision yet unless one assumes a ‘natural rights’ or a ‘logically good’ belief, which I don’t think can be developed from what ‘is’ and as a consequence must be axiomatic/religious in nature. ‘Forming strong alliances’ is a question of whether to act, not how to act. To reject ‘forming strong alliances’ out of hand is to reject activity itself. Isolation is no longer an option and perhaps never was. Complete isolation is an intrinsically finite course. We begin life as part of a social unit and if we are to reproduce, we are compelled to engage in another one.

    For us to be active, any kind of active whether individualist or collectivist, requires joining alliances. I don’t see any way that it is optional. The only alternative is to terminate existing alliances and cease to live either immediately or at the end of a period of isolation but in any case without progeny. Because there are no other options to it, there is no possible moral component to the act of joining alliances. Therefor, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not applicable descriptions.

    What is morality and where does it come from? My personal process is to use my natural spirit and rational thought to develop values. Using spirit directly to choose values is dangerous although many, perhaps most, people do. My spirit would have me attempting to live on chocolate chip cookies. My reason says that is a really bad idea. Therefor, chocolate chip cookies are a fairly weak value qualified against other values by reasoning. After I have a set or system of values, ‘moral’ is that which my reason tells me will advance those values, ‘immoral’ is that which will be to the detriment of those values.

    Morality cannot exist without values, values cannot exist without spirit and that spirit is best served by the aid of reason. To my eye, individualists to use reason to attempt to find a spiritually satisfying place in reality. Collectivists ignore reason and attempt to modify the human spirit itself. That goal and everything necessary to achieve it horrifies me.

  • Because there are no other options to it, there is no possible moral component to the act of joining alliances. Therefor, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are not applicable descriptions.

    This is where I disagree with you, Mid. There is another option, which is death, as you yourself pointed out. I think that you and I agreed long ago that a fact to be faced is that there are other moralities, which happen not to see life as the main goal of an individual/collective. I don’t happen to share in those moralities, to me human life is the supreme value, more so the lives of those close to me and my own. So it follows that actions that support human life are moral, and those that don’t, are not. This includes strong alliances, it can include the use of force, even deadly force to support life (no, no contradiction there).

  • What is morality and where does it come from? My personal process is to use my natural spirit and rational thought to develop values. Using spirit directly to choose values is dangerous although many, perhaps most, people do. My spirit would have me attempting to live on chocolate chip cookies. My reason says that is a really bad idea. Therefor, chocolate chip cookies are a fairly weak value qualified against other values by reasoning. After I have a set or system of values, ‘moral’ is that which my reason tells me will advance those values, ‘immoral’ is that which will be to the detriment of those values.

  • Paul Marks

    Traditionally in ethics there are two sorts of things – crimes and bad things that are not crimes.

    To take Ian B’s example of a tribe……

    Let us say it was a tribal custom to wear a hat. No one punishes you for not wearing a hat – but people stare at you, mutter behind your back, choose to do business with other people rather than you (and do the other stuff that J.S. Mill was so upset about in “On Liberty”).

    It is worth noting that, contrary to J.S. Mill, people are NOT violating your liberty by “parading their disapproval” in the above ways. However, you may (quite understanably) find it all very irritating and wish to leave the tribe to go to another place where hat wearing is not the norm.

    Now if people prevent you leaving by force – they are aggressing against you (just as they would be if they said “wear a hat – or we beat you up”) they have broken the nonaggression princple and are therefore guilty of breaking the law (the real law – not whatever arbitrary ravings are contained in local statutes).

    The law and crime are of course objective (not subjective – law is the effort to take the principle of justice, the principle that people’s bodies and goods are their own, and make it work in the wildly different circumstances of time and place) otherwise libertarianism falls (being just a preference – no better than the preference to rob, rape and murder people), but this does not automatically mean that noncrimes are subjective.

    It is the case that some ways of living are NOT crimes but are NOT good either. For example, if a person is a miser (never gives anything to anyone) he is NOT a criminal (he has not violated the nonaggression principle of justice). This does not mean that the person is virtuous – on the contrary it is clear they lack the virtue of charity, but lacking a virture or virtues does NOT mean that someone is a criminal (a bad person need not be a criminal person).

    Indeed it is the great fault of the origins of liberalism (which are, of course, in Protestant Puritanism) that it sometimes (not always) confused crimes and sins – holding that the duty of the state was to do more than oppose violation (oppose aggression against the person or goods of others), but that the state was also their to make people “good” i.e. to make them have all the virtues.

    Such things as “compulsory charity” are obvious contradictions (although not so obvious that thinkers like Samual Pufendorf and John Locke did not walk straight into them), but “good behaviour is X – Y behaviour harms both other people and the person who does it themsleves, so we should step in to prevent Y behaviour” is not such an obvious trap.

    One does not have to go back to the 1500′s (or before – for such thought can be found even before the Reformation) with various laws against being a drunk (not only leading to one’s own miserable existance and early death – but also starving one’s wife and children and …..) and so on. Many well meaning liberals even in the 19th century felt that it was the duty of the state to combat imoral conduct – not just for the good of the imoral person directly, but also to save other people (such as those people who depended on the imoral person – and were directly harmed if they spent their money on booze, or gambling and so on).

    Gladstone argued against this liberal position (perhaps his High Church conservatism remained within him), but he had an uphill climb at times (for example the famous pub licensing act that led to the terrible defeat of the Liberal party in the elections of 1874).

    The Liberal position is so strong because it is based on truth – a half truth, but still a truth. Some forms of life are better than other forms (it is not just a subjective “matter of opinion”) and the sufferering of the person who has fallen into vice (and vice is a real thing) is obvious over time – as is the suffering of those who depend upon them.

    So it is only natural to try and “do something” and the power of the state is tempting – after all did not even Aristotle say (in oposition to Lycrophon and others who held the traditional view that force should only used to be held to counter force) that the role of the state was to “make men just and good” not just to prevent them from violating others.

    What Aristotle meant by this is unclear (not only did he reject Plato’s strange fantasy schemes – but he even rejected government welfare for the poor, famously saying that for the government to give people money was like pouring liquid into a container that had no bottom), however he did say it……….

    Of course modern liberals reject the idea that the state can enforce good behavour – at least they used to, with the rise of such things as “anti discrimination” doctrine and anti “hate speech” doctrine, the state is now seen in a moral role again (as opposed to the principle that force should only be used against force).

    However, modern “liberals” (perhaps starting with the American Pragmatists – William James) also seem to reject the very idea of good and evil, right and wrong, as objective concepts. Even to reject the very idea of objective truth itself (even in a non moral context).

    In this they do indeed seem to go right back to the self defeating absurdities of David Hume (self defeating as they undercut, radically undercut, Hume himself).

    Not only is Ian B. right to say that David Hume rejected the idea of objective right and wrong (thus unintentionally giving an argument to every religious person who wishes to UNFAIRLY claim that athiests are moral subjectivists – an unfair claim because David Hume does not speak for all athiests), he also (in the same casual way) rejected the existance of the exterior world (it could not be proved – we just assume it as we just assume right and wrong) and even the mind itself (Hume rejecting the obvious truth that thought means a thinker – no, no, no, cries David Hume).

    Whether David Hume was serious about all this utter rubbish I do not know (often his playful sceptic style seems to indicate he is just playing games), but certainly some thinkers who came after him were serious.

    The American Pramatists (William James and so on) may have been conventional in their personal lives – bu they held that neither right or wrong or ANYTHING ELSE had any objective truth in it.

    For example, if a man wished to rape a women it woudl not be correct to say that the act was “wrong” or “evil” because such things were just preferences that could be judged by no objective standard.

    Mussolini was greatly pleased by such doctrines (and those of the European writer Sorel – who also taught that morals were just stories that people told, and had no objective trugh), partly because he was a rapist (he relates in his own writings how he used physical violence to obtain sexual gratification), but more because he was looking for a more general subjectivism.

    Mussolini was a Marxist – indeed in many ways he remained a Marxist till the day he died (even after the fall of the puppet socialist Republic he set up in nothern Italy with German help – indeed his friend Bombacci cried “long live socialism” as he died, and was not being ironic even though Mussolini was killed by mainstream Marxists – the Marxists also, allegedly, raped the mistress Mussolini had with him before the murdered her, although I doubt the irony would have pleased Mussolini).

    However, the objective evidence was starting to pile up against Marxism (and contrary to what is often thought – Mussolini was an intelligent and well read man), for example wages were going up (year after year, decade after dacade) whereas “scientific” Marxism said they should be going down.

    So Mussolini faced a hard situtation – obejectivly collectivism was false, so one should no longer be a collectivist. UNLESS ONE COULD REJECT OBJECTIVE REALITY.

    This is what Sorel, the American Pragmatists, and so many others (going back to David Hume and beyond even him) offered. One did not need to reject one’s “heart’s desire” to “remake the world” with total power for an evil group of people (I am, of course, thinking of the “Fabian Window”) because one could simply deny the objective failure of one’s policies – as there was no objective truth.

    One could also deny one was evil (no matter how much robbing, raping and murdering one did) because “there is no objective good and evil – it is all a matter of relative opinion…..”.

    Of course it is all crap – but useful crap. And soon Marxists themselves had found ways to use it without leaving mainstream Marxism.

    After all basis of the Frankfurt School of Marxism (in America – the new School of Social Research, which has had such a huge influence on Western academic life) is just this – old style Progressivsm of the Pragmatist sort (i.e. a denial of objective truth in moral or other matters), but put into the service of the Marxist cause.

    So what if the workers “failed” Marxism – one could create a “cultural politics” of other groups (women, ethnic minorities, homosexuals – whatever) and tell them their sufferings (real or not) were all caused by the existing state of society, and lead them (step by step) to the conclusion that this evil thing was in fact “capitalism” and that getting rid of it would “liberate” them from their suffering.

    It did not matter in the slightest that this “Political Correctness” (a term of “cultural politics” invented by the Frankfurt School of Marxism) had nothing to do with the “scientific” economic theory of classical Marxism (after all there is no objective truth – so it does not matter that Marxism is false, because if there is no truth there can be no falseness either).

    Nor does it matter if one intends to drop (or even exterminate) an “alienated” group (for example homosexuals) the second they are no longer useful – because, if there is no such thing as good and evil, lies and treachery are not evil (for there is no evil – no wrong).

    To go from “big” things to “small” ones – what does it matter if one makes up history. For example, one can say that John D. Rockefeller was a Social Darwinist – even if one knows that, in reality, he was an old school Babtist.

    One can claim (if it suits one’s purpose) that the English Poor Law started in 1834 – even though it started almost two centuries before (if anything the Act of 1834 SCALED BACK what had been going on for some decades).

    And if anyone noticies that one is telling blatent lies – one can simply say the critic is insane (Richard Hofstader – “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” with all the phony medical langauage he got from his Marxist mentor Frankfurt School Theodor “The Authoritarian Personality” Adorno).

    There is no objective truth – so one can say anything, and there is no shame in lying partly because there is no truth (see above) and partly because good and evil have no objective existance. They are not standards to measure one’s conduct against – they are just whatever one wants them to be.

    There is only POWER (the lust to gain and use power) – that is the only truth (the only guide) the elite accept.

    Of course (before someone points it out) in this modern Frankfurt School Marxists (often called “Critical” this or that in the United States – by those academics who are shy about publically using the word “Marxist”) are not really breaking with Karl Marx himself.

    The early writings of Karl Marx show all his power lusting desires – long before any of the “scientific” theories were created to supposedly justify them.

    David Hume was wrong to imply that reason is always the slave of the passions (to be fair – when challenged he admitted that), but “reason” (false reason) can indeed sometimes be used as tool to “justfy” the desires of evil men. And Karl Marx was an example of this – just as the modern elite (Marxist and nonMarxist) are.

  • Paul, that’s a long essay. It didn’t address a point I asked you before though. If there is an objective ethics- which you objectively claim to exist- then from where do you derive it? You can’t just keep saying “there is one” without saying where you get it from.

    I gave an example above of where to get one from, but you would reject that because it comes from evil David Hume[1]. So where do you get yours from? How do you leap the is/ought gap in your philosophy?

    [1] Only in the narrow sense that it was Hume who first articulated the is/ought divide of course.

  • Laird

    I keep returning to Ian’s “eureka moment” post on December 19, 2010 at 10:01 AM. Frankly, I think it’s one of the most insightful things I’ve read in a long time. Someone here already said it was “brilliant”; I’d like to second that.

  • Thanks Laird. It’s the result of a great deal of thought, both in and out of baths. It’s very gratifying that others think it has merit.

    The big problem I’ve been stuck with since is what I call the “agency problem”. What is the boundary of the individual agent? We can derive (as in my post above) that A may not impose their value set on B (and vice versa) but what defines A and B? Suppose B wishes to punch A. We can show that B has no right to do this (from the above reasoning) but only if we can prove that A’s body is part of A. How far beyond A’s mind does A extend?

    This is the property rights problem, but stated a little differently. In libertarian formulations we often say something like, “B cannot punch A because A’s body is her property“. I’m looking at it slightly differently and saying that A’s body is part of her “agency”. That is, she is an individual and her body is a constituent of that individual agent.

    That might seem fairly obvious, but where is the boundary? Her private possessions, her land, a song she wrote?

    The best I can come up with so far is that individuals should voluntarily arrange themselves into societies where there is common agreement on said boundary; but that’s just a pragmatic solution and doesn’t really have any philosophical meat to it.

    So I can’t make any progress on property rights, which is annoying, as I started this whole chain of reasoning in the hope of finding a compelling philosophical derivation of property rights :)

    How to we decide where a person’s boundary is? Without this, I feel the theory is very incomplete.

  • The best I can come up with so far is that individuals should voluntarily arrange themselves into societies where there is common agreement on said boundary;

    You have hereby just defined ‘rights’.

    but that’s just a pragmatic solution and doesn’t really have any philosophical meat to it.

    Same goes for ‘rights’ – see above.

  • Indeed Alisa. I guess I just feel that having proved (if I have) the autonomy of agents, it would be nice to have a similarly bulletproof definition of what an agent *is*.

  • Ian:

    having proved (if I have) the autonomy of agents

    You have not, and you can not ‘prove’ it: it is not a theory, it is a social construct, subject to agreement. This is speaking objectively, of course. Subjectively speaking, your ‘agent’ (and, by extension, its boundaries) is anything you want it to be – it only becomes relevant to the rest of us within a social (i.e. objective) context.

  • Alisa, my “eureka” post stands (or fails) as a proof of the autonomy of agents, by proving from an “is” that we “ought” to not impose any value system on another agent. Maybe my logic is flawed, but if it isn’t, that is what it does. It shows that libertarianism is the only philosophy that is not an arbitrary social construct, effectlvely. That is, you can choose to be a communist for example, but can never assert the right to impose communism on somebody else, because that violates Hume’s Law.

    It thus becomes IMV important to define the boundary of the agent, because without mapping the boundary we can’t agree when an imposition has occurred, even though we’re “all agreed” that impositions are a violation.

    To use an example from an earlier lively debate, we can’t decide whether it is a violation if A touches B’s junk, until we can decide whether B’s junk is part of B. The US government thinks it owns B’s junk and can thus touch it at will. Can we disprove that?

    All this anyway has led me to a more anarchist position. It seems to fall naturally out of the theory that by definition it is a violation of A to force A to be a member of any society he does not choose to be a member of. That leads us back to the problem of where A can go, if he wishes to not be part of a society but there is no next hill to walk over with his spots and pears into virgin territory.

  • The US government thinks it owns B’s junk and can thus touch it at will. Can we disprove that?

    Not a good way of putting it; I should have said something like “the US government doesn’t believe that B’s junk is part of B but is some kind of “common property”".

  • All this anyway has led me to a more anarchist position.

    No kidding – welcome aboard. Past (and present) pissing contests aside for a moment though, I think you and I are in agreement on principle – that is why I left a me-too comment on your ‘eureka’ moment (you should take baths more often:-)) The point I am trying to make now is semantic: I am having a problem with your use of the word ‘prove’, as in:

    my “eureka” post stands (or fails) as a proof of the autonomy of agents, by proving from an “is” that we “ought” to not impose any value system on another agent.

    Autonomy (= the boundaries of agent = its very definition) is in the realm of ‘ought’, not that of ‘is’ – therefore, it is not in the realm of things to be subject to proof.

    That leads us back to the problem of where A can go, if he wishes to not be part of a society but there is no next hill to walk over with his spots and pears into virgin territory.

    A major, maybe the major problem indeed.

  • Midwesterner

    The best I can come up with so far is that individuals should voluntarily arrange themselves into societies where there is common agreement on said boundary; but that’s just a pragmatic solution and doesn’t really have any philosophical meat to it.

    My first comment addressed to Ian’s argument:

    More seriously, Ian, where in Hume’s law do you find a prohibition against force? A non-justification, yes. But while it can be used to unfoot somebody who claims moral basis, what can it do against somebody who denies morality and asserts control simply because they can. Hume places us back in the circumstance of forming strength based alliances with people who share our chosen goals. No?

    “societies where there is common agreement” = “strength based alliances”

    Two asteroids accidentally collide. Who had the right-of-way? Who was at fault? Who’s rights were violated? It is obviously a silly question as is calling it an “accident”. Finding the first appearance of ‘rights’ on the path from asteroids in asynchronous orbits to humans to social groups is the key to knowing where ‘rights’ come from.

    Is it agency? Clearly without agency ‘rights’ do not exist. Once something develops agency, once it begins to be proactive in its own interest does it enter the realm of ‘rights’? Clearly ‘rights’ are at the very least derivative of agency. They cannot be found in what ‘is’ and must include what ‘it’ ‘does’. So, does a rabbit have rights in respect to the activity of foxes? Wolves and deer? Deer and grass? No, but why not? What else is missing?

    The first appearance of ‘rights’ is found in those two quotes I began with. ‘Rights’ are found in the “common agreement on said boundary” and in the “strength based alliance”. There isn’t a loop hole for the “is/aught” disconnect and you will never find ‘rights’ innate in what ‘is’ because their origin is in social agreements.

    There will never be a moral argument against those people who declare “survival of the fittest” (by which they mean ‘survival of the least civilized thugs’) and go on killing rampages. The only moral argument which has a tick box on their check list is the sort that departs the barrel of a gun. That is their moral code and it preexists ours just as predator and prey predates human existence.

    The best you can do with the argument you have found is to pull the rug of moral superiority out from under the thugs in the presence of their acolytes and hope that those acolytes are enough like us to change sides. But since most collectivist acolyte sorts cling to strong leaders, you will be more likely to genuinely persuade them with a show of strength. I emphasized “genuinely” because that is how the collectivist value system works. To the extent that they can, the seek out a winning team.

  • Laird

    “you will never find ‘rights’ innate in what ‘is’ because their origin is in social agreements.”

    So much for our being “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable rights” or, for that matter, for any sort of “natural rights” at all. If “rights” are nothing but a social construct then there’s really no point in arguing about them, as they are merely whatever the social zeitgeist dictates. And any distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights is completely meaningless.

    Sorry, but I’m not buying that. You’ve elevated “might = right” into a moral principle. You’ve vitiated the entire concept of “rights”, turning it into something more akin to a privilege accorded (or, implicitly, withdrawn) by common consent. I can’t accept that my “right” not to be murdered has its origin in mere “social agreements”.

    “societies where there is common agreement” = “strength based alliances” is a complete non sequitur. You’re essentially stating that consensus equals force. Not so; not even implied.

  • Midwesterner

    Laird,

    You’ve made a whole lot of assertions there but not provided an iota of an argument to defend them. You’ve also made a few straw man assertions in the form of assuming derivative claims that are not at all derivative.

    Some straw man claims:

    If “rights” are nothing but a social construct then there’s really no point in arguing about them, as they are merely whatever the social zeitgeist dictates.

    Clearly I don’t think that. I’ve laid out very clearly how I arrive at what I recognize as ‘rights’. And there is plenty of room and point to argue about them. Since you apparently weren’t paying any attention. I’ll quote myself: “Morality cannot exist without values, values cannot exist without spirit and that spirit is best served by the aid of reason.” Just in case you didn’t work it out, ‘rights’ fall into the sphere of ‘morality’.

    And any distinction between “positive” and “negative” rights is completely meaningless.

    This is so absurd I can’t believe you are not just venting. You are saying there is no difference between being left alone and attacking others. How you got there is utterly beyond me. The difference between being left alone and attacking others is the absolute core of an individualist system of rights.

    You’ve elevated “might = right” into a moral principle.

    I never said nor do I claim “might = right”. Clearly you weren’t reading before your outburst. You must explain to me where I said that before I can even see what you are missing. “Might” is not a social construct. So by your own claim that I am equating the two or even allowing them to be equated you are saying that I am claiming ‘right’ is both a social construct and an ‘is’. Defend that claim.

    “societies where there is common agreement” = “strength based alliances” is a complete non sequitur.

    So how do you propose to eliminate conflict between two different societies that are each internally in common agreement? Or do you propose to compel membership in a single unified society?

    If you haven’t worked it out by now, I am angry. You could at least have presented some arguments in support of your assertions instead of merely vandalizing my carefully reasoned claims. Yes I may be wrong but at least you could have the respect to address my arguments and show the logical foundations of your own assertions.

    And

    I can’t accept that my “right” not to be murdered has its origin in mere “social agreements”

    So tell me why you have that right and the rabbit and deer don’t? Or even wolves attacking each other. Are wolves immoral for taking over a hunting range? If you are going to say “because I am human” you’ll need to explain what distinguishes a human from a rabbit.

  • Laird

    Mid, I’m sorry if I couldn’t follow your “carefully reasoned claims”. I read through all the words several times but came away baffled. That’s my shortcoming, I suppose, but while you accuse me of not clearly reading your post you didn’t read mine very carefully, either. The first paragraph of my post, after my quotation of your line (one I actually thought I understood!), was simply a statement of my understanding of its logical implications (the positive and negative rights thing, for instance), with all of which I specifically disagreed in the very next sentence. That’s not a “straw man” argument.

    You very clearly said that the “origin” of rights is “social agreements”. What does that mean, if not that “rights” are a “social construct”? “Social agreements” is simply another way of saying majority preference, no? And if rights are indeed a social construct, they are both changeable with fashions and bestowed (as well as removed) by majority whim, i.e., by force. If a majority (via “social agreements”) determines what my “rights” are this week, and imposes that determination simply by virtue of its superior numbers, how is this not the same thing as saying “might equals right”?* My whole point is that I disagree with that line of yours which I quoted (or at least, I disagree with what I think it means). Please correct me if I’m reading it wrong.

    As to wolves, neither they nor I have any “rights” with respect to each other. If a wolf kills me, or I kill it, no “rights” have been violated by either of us. Whatever rights I have only exist with respect to other humans. (I can’t speak to whether there are intra-species “rights” among wolves; you’ll have to ask them.) Frankly, I don’t see where you’re going with that.

    * And, for that matter, so is your whole “strength based alliance” thing. If two societies have different conceptions of “rights” and come into conflict, the stronger will win and will impose its conception on the losers. And since “rights” are determined by the “social agreement” to which the losers are now subject, mere force is the determinant of what constitutes their “rights”. Thus, might = right.

  • Midwesterner

    was simply a statement of my understanding of its logical implications (the positive and negative rights thing, for instance), with all of which I specifically disagreed in the very next sentence. That’s not a “straw man” argument.

    You have labeled them “logical implications” so I call. Lay down your cards. Show me your logic. One kind of straw man is when a party asserts (without demonstrating) that somebody is making claims that they are not making and then uses those asserted claims for attacks on the original claim. Since you are accusing me of advocating those things, you need to present your reasoning to demonstrate the merit of those accusations.

    If “rights” are nothing but a social construct then there’s really no point in arguing about them,

    You clearly understood I was talking about agreements and not some predefined ‘social contract’ because you said “You very clearly said that the “origin” of rights is “social agreements”. What does that mean, if not that “rights” are a “social construct”? “

    So since a builder’s contract is also “nothing but a social construct” (which, accepting your language, all agreements are), there’s really no point in arguing about its terms? Are its participants irrelevant and its true terms are just the whim of everybody everywhere? Since when are agreements between people, and all agreements between people are as you say ‘social constructs’, since when are they meaningless whims? How did you get from ‘people agree to it’ to ‘so it is a meaningless whim and Mid is really making a case for unlimited majoritarianism’? There are people who believe that all private contracts can be rewritten at the whim of society, look at the contract gold clause revocation by FDR. We call them ‘collectivists’ but you need to build your logic provenance for how and why you accuse me of advocating that.

    As to wolves, neither they nor I have any “rights” with respect to each other. If a wolf kills me, or I kill it, no “rights” have been violated by either of us. Whatever rights I have only exist with respect to other humans. (I can’t speak to whether there are intra-species “rights” among wolves; you’ll have to ask them.) Frankly, I don’t see where you’re going with that.

    WHY?! Why? Why? Why? Why? Did God tell you that? Did you have a vision? Did you work it out logically? If you did, show your reasoning. A grizzly bear wants to kill me. I kill him to save my own life. He is just an animal and I have no agreement with him to not be killed. Same story, this time it is a thug with a knife wants to kill me. Why? I don’t know, I didn’t know why the grizzly wanted to kill me. So I kill this guy to save my own life. Explain the difference between these two actors. Ian has presented a description that reasonably can make the case that there is no moral difference (IIUhimC). I don’t think that was his intent but it seems to me to work that way and I look forward to his comments.

    Don’t try to figure out where I am going with this. Why would you want to? Are we searching for understanding of the provenance of rights or are we casting votes on a correct libertarian doctrine? If you don’t like where I am then explain how you got where you are. I’ve laid out how I reached the conclusions that I have and you have neglected that provenance and at the same time refused to lay out how you reached the beliefs you hold.

    Why you are refusing to present your reasoning for where rights come from? You note quite accurately that if they are in fact social agreements they are subject to human failings. I agree. They are. But I have tried forever to find a non religious basis for ‘the rights that I like and want people to respect’ and I can’t find one. All I can find is a lot of other people who share my preferences.

    I am in very close agreement with what I think is Ian’s take on the fundamentals of this matter, disagreeing only with the loop hole in Hume’s law. He has probably developed a useful tool for defending against moral assertions for redistribution and I hope he continues the discussion of it. But he is right and I agree with him on a key point he has made. You can’t find ‘oughts’ in what ‘is’.

    I’ll repeat it yet one more time so you can see what I am saying. Morality cannot exist without values, values cannot exist without spirit and that spirit is best served by the aid of reason.” ‘Rights’ fall into the sphere of ‘morality’. That is where I think they come from. Where do you say they come from? Not what do you claim they are, where do you get them from?

    If my arguments are that obtuse, then parse them. Quote a confusing sentence and ask for a clarification. I will eagerly try again because if you aren’t getting it then I assume many in the gallery aren’t getting it either.

    Quoting the Samizdata front page:

    A blog for people with a critically rational individualist perspective. We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future.

    Bold in the original. That is what I’m trying to do; emphasis on “critically rational” and “individualist”.

  • I’m up to my eyes in work at the moment and don’t have time for a long post, even though I’m itching to answer Mid’s points etc.

    One observation though is that Laird is basically arguing that “I refuse to consider that things are that way because I do not want things to be that way”. That isn’t very logically sound.

    Surely what we’re trying to do here is discern how things are, and simply stating how we would prefer that things ought to be is the whole problem that Hume dumps in our laps.

    Mid, my “loophole” isn’t I believe a loophole. It’s a consequence of value subjectivity. If all individuals’ value systems are equal, no individual can logically assert his system upon another, since that would constitute a statement that his value system takes precedence- and that is not consistent with the nature of reality. He can of course simply say he doesn’t care and use force, but no moral/ethical/reasoned argument, however correct, can deflect a bullet. Our arguments can only ever hope to be any use when we are interacting with those prepared to discuss.

  • Midwesterner

    Well I hope it’s the sort of work that pays. I seem to be having problems with that minor little detail.

    Laird presumably believes in ‘Natural Rights’ of an unspecified origin. Since I held that same position for most of my life, it was wrong of me to lose my cool that way. I’ve had a good nights sleep and now hope I haven’t ruined a good friendship.

    In my case, I reached a point as I studied more of the interaction of moral and political philosophies where I realized that calling rights ‘Natural’ meant that they must be found in nature, that they must have a provenance tracing back to physical reality. Without one, then they can only be described as ‘super natural’ as their origin would be outside of nature. It was in my effort to find that link that my faith in ‘Natural Rights’ broke down for many of the reasons including some I’ve listed in this thread.

    Perhaps the biggest structural flaw against accepting the concept of ‘Natural Rights’ without a rational provenance is that it requires a moral authority outside of the humans subjected to it. It is for practical philosophical reasons, a religious belief. To clarify, for something to have “rights” if it achieves certain qualifications (ie sentience) means that a moral authority must exist prior to that thing achieving moral status. Logic demands that standards exist before it can be determined that something has met them. Either the qualifications exist prior to the act of qualifying or the qualifications are a creation of those who determine themselves qualified. Put bluntly, to believe that rights can be innate in the character of an object means that there is a moral judge superior superior to the judged. God.

    I’m stating this poorly but perhaps you or others can better communicate what I am trying to say. I’ll try it one more time but I risk over simplifying and making more, not less confusion.

    ‘Rights’ involve the interactions of two actors. One or both of them claim a ‘right’ as in “It is my right to do this.” The other disagrees. They can’t both be right so they must appeal either to moral authority or to the laws of physics. The laws of physics cannot be a moral authority because they cannot be anything but what they are. No one can break the laws of physics, of nature. Any dictum that is not enforced by the laws of physics, ie gravity, motion etc, requires judgment, an interpretation of the laws of physics and a projection of the consequences of various actions. If that interpretation is not provided by the actors, then it must come from a preexisting rational entity. God.

  • Laird

    Mid, I’m really sorry that I have made you so angry. Seriously; that wasn’t my intention at all. So let me make one more feeble effort at explaining myself and then I’ll bow out, as I’m clearly out of my depth here.

    When you used the phrase “social agreements” I understood that to mean the prevailing beliefs of a society as a whole. That’s very different than a contract with a builder, which is a private agreement between two individuals and, moreover, has specific (and generally written) terms. In contrast, a generalized “social agreement” (again, as I am understanding that term) is unwritten, is somewhat fluid (in that it can change, sometimes very quickly) and hence is not necessarily consistent over time. If this amorphous “social agreement” is the basis of all “rights” (which, again, is what I understood you to be saying in that particular phrase) then it is a highly unstable foundation. Any such “rights” would be highly tenuous things, which doesn’t comport with the immutability and permanence I think are inherent in the concept of “rights”. It is this position with which I was disagreeing. That’s all. If that is not the point you were making then I apologize for my misunderstanding.

    So, if I don’t believe that “social agreements” can be a legitimate foundation for “rights”, what is, you ask? Not being religious, I don’t think that there can be one, which brings us back to Ian’s observation that if all ethical systems are inherently subjective (you can’t derive an “ought” from any “is”) the only truly moral position is the libertarian principle of non-aggression. Are we OK on this?

    To your grizzly bear analogy: If either a grizzly bear or a thug with a knife is trying to kill me, and I kill it/him in self-defense, I have violated no “rights” of either. My ethical system recognizes a right of self-defense. The only difference is internal to those two actors. I asserted that I have no rights with respect to the bear (no “right” to have him refrain from killing me) but I do have with respect to the man, that the concept of “rights” has no meaning inter-species. I still think that’s correct, but I don’t now have a logical explanation for it. Call it a vision, if you like (Ian is correct that it “isn’t very logically sound)”. However, I’m not sure it’s a rational question in the first place. Can I have “rights” with respect to a stone? A tree? Does the question even make any sense? If rights are related to moral values how can they be attributed to something which doesn’t possess the capacity to have moral values (at least, in any sense I would recognize)? So I think that’s the answer to your question: rights only inhere to entities with the capacity to possess moral values, which on earth only means humans (as far as we know).

    Damn, I wish I had just stayed out of this thread!

  • Laird and Mid, if I may chime in, but feel free to ignore me if I’m not helping.

    When you used the phrase “social agreements” I understood that to mean the prevailing beliefs of a society as a whole. That’s very different than a contract with a builder, which is a private agreement between two individuals and, moreover, has specific (and generally written) terms.

    Why is it different? I don’t think that it really matters how many individuals are subject to an agreement, whether it is written or not, and whether it is even explicit or implicit. The agreements Mid is talking about are between multiple parties, are mostly unwritten and mostly unspoken. These attributes make them no less valid than an agreement you may have signed with your builder, and they are fluid only to a very minor degree. These moral agreements (from which various rights have been derived, from which rights, in turn, basic laws have been derived) are the very foundation of what we call ‘civil society’. It’s not for nothing that we call people who do not subscribe to these agreements (AKA the moral code) ‘antisocial’.

  • are subject to an agreement

    Meant ‘party to an agreement’.

  • Further, on animals: if you killed either the bear or the thug in self-defense, there is no problem. But what about when you kill to eat? Why does a cow have no right not to be eaten, but I do? (you don’t really want to eat me – too skinny, but just for the sake of the argument).

    the concept of “rights” has no meaning inter-species. I still think that’s correct, but I don’t now have a logical explanation for it. Call it a vision, if you like (Ian is correct that it “isn’t very logically sound)”.

    Fear not, help is underway: we – most of us humans – have this implicit agreement not to eat each other, and people who break this agreement are strongly frowned upon even in places where there are no specific laws regarding cannibalism (Are there such laws on books anywhere? Just curious.)

  • Midwesterner

    Laird,

    No, do not stay out of threads. If you are not getting something I am trying to say then it is a very safe bet that there are a lot of readers (assuming they endure this far into a thread) scratching their heads and wondering “WTF is Mid on about?”. If I appear to be saying something inexplicable, ask me to explicate it. I would not be bothering to comment if it wasn’t to persuade people to take another look at assumptions and if you can’t figure out what I am saying, then it has probably flown past most others as well.

    To address the “social agreements” confusion. Whasisname wrote that book called “The Social Contract” which I leave to Paul to defame. It started with some promising observations and then went straight down the shitter. I strongly did not want to imply anything like Rousseau concluded. But the problem remains to demarcate the realm of physics (the ‘is’ IIUC) and the realm of interaction between agents. Since a human in total isolation need care nothing of rights, the context of interaction is definitively ‘social‘, definition 1 a of the first group and definition 1 (Sociology) of the second set of definitions. To describe a consensual activity, I chose ‘agreement‘ as in definitions 1, 2 and 3 of ‘agree’.

    In hindsight, I can see that this word usage was not obvious to somebody who did not already understand the point I was making and could have used more clarification on my part instead of steam venting.

    if all ethical systems are inherently subjective (you can’t derive an “ought” from any “is”) the only truly moral position is the libertarian principle of non-aggression. Are we OK on this?

    Ahhh. To the philosophical meat. I do disagree because I have been unable to find any rational basis for an expectation of non-aggression from anything else that does not invoke their consent. There are too many problems. A Muslim defines aggression to include ‘insults’ to ‘God’ that is, using ‘his’ deity in ways he doesn’t approve of. I define aggression to include using my copyrighted material in ways I don’t approve of. What basis is there in physics to differentiate the two? It appears to me now, without further study, that any argument for the principle of non aggression that is found directly in the laws of physics must resolve down to total passivity, ie demographic and perhaps even physical suicide. I think Alisa (?) may have asked a question about the passivity conundrum. In any case, I have no interest in that degree of pure non aggression so my only alternative is to seek like minds. Summarizing, no I can’t even find non aggression as anything more or less than an agreement, not a ‘right’. But lets chase this dog around the yard if you still disagree because I suspect there are a lot more holders of your position than mine.

    The only difference is internal to those two actors. I asserted that I have no rights with respect to the bear (no “right” to have him refrain from killing me) but I do have with respect to the man, that the concept of “rights” has no meaning inter-species. I still think that’s correct, but I don’t now have a logical explanation for it.

    If in fact, “The only difference is internal to those two actors”, then any projection of a concept of ‘rights’ onto either of them is an act of aggression on them. I am at a loss, and I have tried in the past, to find a way to project expectations on another being and not be both subjective and partisan. Every effort I have made has devolved into the need for “societies where there is common agreement” which, in order to survive contact with each other, must be based on strength (the laws of physics) in all of their dealings with entities outside of the society.

    Can I have “rights” with respect to a stone? A tree? Does the question even make any sense? If rights are related to moral values how can they be attributed to something which doesn’t possess the capacity to have moral values (at least, in any sense I would recognize)?

    Now you are beginning to traverse the terrain where I spent time stumbling from one dead end to another. Every option I pursued in an attempt to answer those question put me back to rights requiring reciprocity in order to exist. At the very minimum, a presumed libertarian foundation of rights requires imposing a uniform vision of and interpretation of reality on everybody. Hardly an act that could be described as individualist. There is an imposition of compulsory uniformity inherent in “rights only inhere to entities with the capacity to possess moral values, which on earth only means humans (as far as we know).” I cannot consistently impose my vision and interpretation of reality on others without yielding my own by the need for consistency. And yielding my own perception of reality is not something I am willing to do.

    Damn, I wish I had just stayed out of this thread!

    Heh. I think that just about every time I comment because once I do comment I need to defend and articulate that comment and there go the horses. And my time. But it is in a good cause.

  • Midwesterner

    Alisa, good point on the cow. I guess I dropped the prey predator question somewhere along the way.

    And agreed, I think, on the nature of agreements. My disappointment when I realized what Rousseau had in mind for his contract was pretty strong. Not really a contract after all, was it?

  • Mid,

    Regarding non-aggression. My derivation comes to what libertarians call the non-aggression principle, but it’s not couched in terms of “aggression”. I agree that aggression as a concept is, heh, subjective.

    What I’m getting at is this: Consider two parties A and B. Each has a moral value system, and they differ. We are (I think) agreed that from Hume, neither A nor B may assert that their value system is superior. It is subjective and personal.

    Now suppose that A does something which imposes his value system on B. A is now impliclity asserting that his value system takes precedence over B’s value system. This is incompatible with our nature-derived principle that neither value system is superior. I will use a crude (literally) example from that previous lively thread about the TSA-

    A grabs B’s junk. In doing so, A is implicitly asserting that his value system, in which it is okay to grab junk, is of greater precedence than B’s value system, in which it is not okay to have his junk grabbed.

    Now I think the point here is that ethical systems- “oughts”- don’t apply to individuals, they apply to interactions between individuals. So let us teleport an ethical judge into the situation. A and B ask J, “ought A to grab B’s junk, or not”. J replies that each value system is subjective, and so cannot choose between them.

    But.

    B is passive in this situation, whereas A is active. B does not need to assert his value system on A, until A has asserted his value system on B. J, as representative of the “ethical court”, can never authorise first contact. So A is restrained in enacting his value, and so is B, but B does not need to so long as A does not. They are both nulled, and that nulling is identical to the non-aggression principle, without stating it in the word “aggression”.

    In pragmatic terms, it resolves to; “you must gain consent before interacting”, since non-consensual interaction is an assertion of one value system on another.

    This is why the “Agency Problem” becomes important, because what we haven’t done is prove whether or not B’s agency extends over his junk or not. Body parts may seem obvious, but things get a lot more nebulous when we turn to non-bodily property of various kinds. The best I can come up with, and it may be the best there is, is what we’ve been talking about in terms of social agreements. People will have to define agency by personal preference.

    Which doesn’t solve the problem of when B thinks his junk is part of his agency, and A doesn’t…

    But if we can agree what an agent (a “person”) is, we can derive from nature the principle of, er, “non-imposition”, at least.

  • Laird

    Alisa, re your cow: I think I already answered that with the sentences following the passage you quoted. A cow has no “rights” because it lacks the capacity to have moral values (in a human sense, anyway). So neither of us has any “rights” vis a vis the other. Of course, I know that’s not a satisfactory answer for Mid, but I’m on a much lower intellectual plane and it works for me.

    This thread is making my head hurt; I don’t think I have anything more to contribute (if, in fact, any of the foregoing could actually be considered a “contribution”!). But I think the issue has some similarity to the question addressed by Randy Barnett in his book “Restoring the Lost Consitution”, in which he discusses how the current citizens of the US can legitimately be subject to a two-century-old Constitution to which none of us ever formally agreed. Interesting book; worth a read.

  • Which doesn’t solve the problem of when B thinks his junk is part of his agency, and A doesn’t…

    How is it different from B thinking, for example, that A should be delighted to have his junk grabbed by B, while A thinks such an idea preposterous? IOW, yes, ‘people will have to define agency by personal preference’. ‘Interaction’ (I really liked your specific point about it) will therefore have to be defined by personal preference as well.

    BTW and apropos both the above and Laird’s point on the fluidity of social agreements: we can actually see it happening over the course of the past couple of decades by observing the sexual-harassment issue: the moral code on this issue has been changing right before our eyes, for better or for worse.

  • Laird, if you are still reading this without the aid of two advils: substitute a mentally-incapacitated person for the cow – why can’t I eat him/her?

  • Midwesterner

    “oughts”- don’t apply to individuals, they apply to interactions between individuals.

    Hold up here. I don’t disagree, it seems reasonable enough. But I don’t see a provenance for the distinction. If ‘oughts’ exist at all, why should they adhere to what are subjective boundaries between individuals. Doesn’t the statement require as a starting premise that the boundary between individuals is an ‘is’. I suppose it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. How could I not appreciate a philosopher like Billy Jeff? Let me count the ways.

    B is passive in this situation, whereas A is active.

    This is a place where I have a problem, defining ‘passive’ and ‘active’. Even these words are subjective. Using the Muslim case again, in their reality, we are actively infringing ‘God’ by rejecting him. Where is the foot hold to define the boundary at which the division occurs? ‘Rejecting’ is a first act when somebody believes that it is the ‘rejector’ who is trying to change the status quo. I can’t even figure out how to philosophically support defining ‘a fist in the face’ as aggressively transiting an ‘is’ boundary and can’t even imagine trying to support ‘trespassing a real estate title’ as aggressively transiting an ‘is’.

    It seems to me that this process requires a presumption of where the boundaries between individuals lies (something I think you touched on way up the thread) and answering that, well, the devil is in the details.

    Which doesn’t solve the problem of when B thinks his junk is part of his agency, and A doesn’t…

    Which sounds like you hit the same wall I did.

    But if we can agree what an agent (a “person”) is, we can derive from nature the principle of, er, “non-imposition”, at least.

    That is a magnificently huge ‘if’ considering we are dealing with collectivists who define the agent, the ‘life’ as being in the society, not the individual. Defining the boundaries between ‘agents’ is where I’ve always hit the wall and had to use ‘agreement’ as the only solution capable of defining ‘aggression’.

  • Midwesterner

    This thread is making my head hurt

    Laird, take two aspirin and comment in the morning. That usually works for me. Or if you want to use Alisa’s pharmaceutical of choice, Advil. That might make her obsession with cannibalism a little less unsettling. :-|

  • Mmmm, earlobes…

    I still don’t see why you hit a wall – I’m walking right through. What is wrong with using ‘agreement’ as the only solution capable of defining ‘aggression’?

  • Laird

    Alisa, now you’re just being cruel. I’m going home to have a scotch and forget about all this!

  • Midwesterner

    I mean a wall in the search for an indisputable ‘is’ based delineation of what ‘rights’ are or are not. I haven’t found any argument based in physics (for lack of a better way to describe it) than can claim to have found a ‘true’ bill of rights. This deeply upsets many people who believe they have the one true ‘right’ answer. It cannot be done without projecting one’s own perceptions and values on the agents who are ‘wrong’.

    This is why I so frequently resort to ‘the Constitution as a Contract’ in arguments. Do I believe the Constitution is the source of rights? No. I believe it is the consensual contract reached between a lot of different individuals who over many generations have elected to join an alliance to protect the rights that they each claim. If that seems like a distinction without a difference to anybody out there, fire away.

  • No Mid, I’m with you, it’s just that I thought that you (and maybe Ian) think that lack of actual “physical” agent boundaries presents some logical contradiction somewhere – because I don’t see one.

  • And Laird, please come back – I won’t touch them, I promise…