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Monday, January 11, 2010

Wanna Play a Game?

Let's do this: We'll define a principle, let's call it "the Non-Evil Principle" (the NEP). We'll declare that our political ideology is in favour of doing things that are good, and is against doing things that are evil. Then, unbeknownst to others, we'll define good to be "political policies we like" and evil to be "political policies we don't like."

Once we're done with that, anytime we meet someone who recommends a political policy we don't like, we can taunt them with, "You're in favour of evil! You're in favour of evil!"

This will be fun!

33 comments:

  1. Anonymous6:02 PM

    Why would we have to define "good" and "evil" without the knowledge of others? Its not like they could make the terms any more useful.

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  2. It's funny how, if you punch an ethical relativist in the face, ethical relativity goes right out the window. As many people have pointed out, it's just not a serious position.

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  3. Whilest I do get where you are coming from, I was wondering: do you think that this is an honest analogy or not?

    I'm not sure and I'm not here to attack you. I think you made some valid points in the earlier discussion on whether or not taxation is theft. But I'd say that this analogy goes to far, so I was wondering to clarify your opinion?

    (And you mentioned that you were working on a book on political philosophy; care to tell a bit more about it?)

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  4. I do, at least in many cases. (This would not, of course, apply to, say, Roderick Long, or Pete Boettke, or Bob Higgs, or Sheldon Richman, amongst many others, but it does apply to several people who have shown up to comment here!)

    What's under contention is what is "aggression" and what isn't, not whether anyone is for it or not! (Yes, there may be some fringe voices, like the Nazis, who boast of being aggressive. But amongst serious alternatives, everyone thinks they follow the NAP!)

    So, e.g., a Marxist is going to say that pretending you "own" a portion of the earth is an act of aggression, and the innocent starving person who begins to farm a patch of your huge landholdings is doing nothing wrong, and you are the aggressor when you try to boot him.

    I'm not saying the Marxist is right and the libertarian view wrong, I'm just saying the NAP gets us nowhere in resolving this dispute.

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  5. I'm not saying the Marxist is right and the libertarian view wrong, I'm just saying the NAP gets us nowhere in resolving this dispute.

    I say bunk. On the way from being a run-of-the-mill American to thinking like the Gene-Approved scholars such as Roderick Long, a natural first step is to say things like, "Wait a minute, isn't the State stealing money from people? Isn't the draft really a form of involuntary servitude?"

    You are being too cute I think Gene. You might as well say, "Ha ha, let's start with some definitions like 'point' and 'line,' and then make up some transformational rules, and then 'derive' things about the real world, pretending we just discovered something beyond our definitions and conventions! Ha ha this will be fun and instructive!"

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  6. Yes, Bob, and on the way to becoming a serious Marxist usually you start having thoughts like, "Hey, isn't private property really a form of theft?"

    So, just how does the NAP help us resolve this dispute?

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  7. Bob, the geometry example is very good, because it prompted me to come up with the correct analogy here: Libertarians are, say, Euclidean geometers. Marxists and social democrats are different varieties of non-Euclidean geometers.

    Now, in regards the NAP, the situation is as if the libertarian geometers -- and I'm not picking on them, as other varieties of liberals will do the same thing! -- claimed, "See, you can tell our geometry is correct, because in our geometry, parallel lines don't meet!"

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  8. "It is characteristic, and perhaps definitive, of liberalism that it should seek to ground the historical contingencies of liberal practice in a foundation of universally valid principles. No aspiration is more peculiarly liberal... Liberalism, which in its applications to personal conduct aims for toleration and even pluralism, is in its political demands and expression of intolerance, since it denies the evident truth that many very different forms of government may, each in its own way, contribute to an authentic mode of human well-being. From the first, liberalism has always strenuously resisted this commonplace observation, since it cannot but undermine the claim to universal authority of liberalism as a political faith -- a claim which exhibits the structural similarity of liberalism to the evangelizing Christianity of which it is the illegitimate offspring... Because of its universalizing doctrinal zeal, liberal thought has always sought to elevate liberal practice into a set of principles, and then to demonstrate the unique claim on reason of those principles... It is an upshot of the essays collected in this volume that this project of a liberal ideology is a failure, and can be nothing else." -- John Gray, Liberalisms

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  9. Gene, I think we both know the merits of the other guy's position, and we're just disagreeing about the practice to which libertarians put it.

    When the guy at Reason (Doherty?) said, "The state necessarily engages in aggression and hence is illegitimate," he was talking to the average American, and moreover the average American who probably watches presidential debates and keeps up to date with Bill Kristol and Paul Krugman. So in that context, heck yes I think it's worth pointing out the implications of generally shared (if fuzzy) principles. They're all Euclidean geometers, except their "theorems" rely on bogus lemmas like "assume order without a state, you reach contradiction."

    Obviously if a Rothbardian is debating Kevin Carson and tries to just use definitions on him, then I agree with you that it's a word game.

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  10. Good, well now I see that you see what I'm saying. And I agree, as a shorthand for saying a whole bunch of other stuff amongst libertarians, the NAP may be useful. But in my own posts on this topic I keep seeing commentators simply responding by repeating the NAP, in different terms, again and again, so a lot of libertarians don't see what you do here, and would debate Kevin Carson simply by repeating variants of the NAP.

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  11. Gene: "I do, at least in many cases. (This would not, of course, apply to, say, Roderick Long, or Pete Boettke, or Bob Higgs, or Sheldon Richman, amongst many others, but it does apply to several people who have shown up to comment here!)"

    me

    "What's under contention is what is "aggression" and what isn't, not whether anyone is for it or not! (Yes, there may be some fringe voices, like the Nazis, who boast of being aggressive. But amongst serious alternatives, everyone thinks they follow the NAP!)"

    I don't think this is right. Conservatives will often say that of course, of course, they are against aggression, but that unlike libertarians, it's not their "only" political value. I.e., they believe you have to weigh that value against others; i.e., in some cases, aggression is justified, because other things are more important. Even some soi-disant libertarians say this: they'll explicitly admit they favor the state and the inevitable aggression it does and must commit, because there would be even more aggression under anarchy: i.e., they are in favor of (some, relatively minimal) aggression, to stave off greater amounts of aggression. I find it is very common for people to admit and try to justify the aggression that they favor.

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  12. Anonymous1:55 AM

    "It's funny how, if you punch an ethical relativist in the face, ethical relativity goes right out the window. As many people have pointed out, it's just not a serious position."


    So while "aggression" can (and does) mean different things to different people and just using the term is useless, the terms "good" and "evil" are still useful and objective (at least, more so).

    Is this a serious position?

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  13. OK, anonymous, see the next post on this blog for my answer to that objection.

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  14. Ok, Stephan, perhaps you are correct, and I have underestimated the proportion of non-libertarians who will declare they are in favour of "aggression": still, there are many, many who don't say so, and my point that the NAP does not resolve disputes with them still stands.

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  15. Gene, you're right that being against evil isn't very specific--but it's not totally empty, and I'm sure we would both commit to the non-evil principle. What's wrong with that?

    As for the NAP--well aggression is not a totally empty word either. In its crude form it means initiating force against another's body. This is not empty at all. People who favor drug laws for example are clearly favoring aggression. If you say you are against aggression but you are for drug laws, you are being inconsistent, and this can be pointed out.

    But, esp. for property, NAP, it is true, is not fundamental and itself depends on one's conception of property rights. As I argued in "What Libertarianism Is," the NAP is a principle, not an axiom; and it itself is dependent on one's view of property rights.

    Basically, if your property theory says A owns object X, then it is aggression for B to interfere with your use of it, to invade its borders, to use it without A's consent.

    Now, every property theory will specify some owner of object X--whether it be individual A, the tax man, the state, a welfare beneficiary, or whatnot.

    So what distinguishes the libertarian view from non-libertarian ones is our particular property-assignment rules. And I submit that this is, in essence, some variant of the Lockean homesteading rule combined with the idea of voluntary contractual transfer.

    In other words, the libertarian NAP is informed by property rights based on Lockean homesteading. Now, Gene, you may no longer subscribe to such libertarian principles; you may not agree with this. But it's not empty. It's not incapable of resolving at least some disputes as to the use of property.

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  16. OK, Stephan in the exact same crude form, people who favor trespassing laws clearly favor aggression -- here is someone just peacefully strolling across a stretch of God's land, and some guy comes out with a shotgun and threatens him!

    But yes, Stephan, it is the property rights rules that actually carry the argument here. And this is the point I have been trying to make!

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  17. Gene, is it supposed to be news that the idea of aggression depends on and is informed by a particular view of property rights?

    In any event, the libertarian view does have a particular and distinct view of property rights (which informs what "aggression" means for them). So... it's not empty after all. You may not be a libertarian (any more?), but this does not mean we have no content to our principles, only that you might not agree with them.

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  18. Yes, Stephan, apparently to many of my correspondents, that is news, since they have been befuddled by my suggestion that the libertarian view of aggression is dependent upon already having a libertarian view of property rights, and is thus an example of petitio principii.

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  19. Gene: "people who favor trespassing laws clearly favor aggression -- here is someone just peacefully strolling across a stretch of God's land, and some guy comes out with a shotgun and threatens him!"

    If he is trespasing, he is using property owned by another without permission, which is a form of aggression--it's not "peaceful." The libertarian view does decide this dispute: it says that its not aggression for the owner to use force to prevent trespass.

    Example FAIL.

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  20. Anonymous1:07 PM

    Stefan is a huge douche who misses the point.

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  21. Stephan, having already conceded that I was right all along ("But, esp. for property, NAP, it is true, is not fundamental and itself depends on one's conception of property rights"), isn't it a bit unseemly of you to continue arguing?

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  22. Anonymous, Stephan is not very large at all! Take that slander back!

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  23. Anonymous1:40 PM

    Stephen is quite a short douche who still doesn't get the point.

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  24. Guys! Gene, you have been making the same point for two weeks now: "Sometimes libertarians think they can blow people up by saying 'nonaggression na na na' and they don't realize this by itself is a circular argument."

    Stephan, you have been making the same point for two weeks now: "Gene, there is nothing circular about it the way I or Hoppe make the case. We objectively define where property rights come from."

    And I have been making the same point for two weeks now: "Gene, there are plenty of people who generally agree with the initial premises of libertarians, and also think they don't approve of aggression, who contradict themselves. And there are also people who AGREE that they sometimes support violating property rights for a more important principle."


    I think we're all right. Notice that that is possible; we don't have to decide whether Stephan or Gene (or me) is the moron here.

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  25. Bob, Gene seems to think it's some killer admission he wrung from me about the NAP depending on a particular conception of property rights. I've believed this for ... ever. In short, it's not a criticism of the NAP that it rests on a particular theory of property. The real issue is whether the libertarian conception of property rights is correct or not. I think it is. Non-libertarians (like Gene?) think it's not. this is not news either.

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  26. Anon Ymous PhD3:43 PM

    "this is not news either."

    "I've believed this for ... ever"

    Funny, I'd say the same things about the last comment by anon.

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  27. Stephan, I'm sure you did believe this for... ever. But it took you two weeks to acknowledge that in these threads. And no, I don't think this admission is "killer" -- just common sense.

    And Bob, believe me, I had no desire to keep saying this for two weeks -- I would have been much happier if people had just stood in awe before my perspicacity in the first place. But they kept arguing with me about it!

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  28. Gene, after all, Rothbard way back in Ethics of Liberty explained that there are only property rights; that even free speech is defined in terms of property rights. Even Rand said her own formulation of the non-initiation of force principle had to be understood in "context" of her theory of (property) rights.

    I don't know what you are talking about, it taking me two weeks to admit something. I've long called it the non-aggression principle not the non-aggression axiom.

    Now that we've agreed on the structural basics of property rights and its relationship to aggression, I'm not sure what you think you've proved. We libertarians still believe in the property-rights-informed view of the NAP. Maybe you'll make clear your own take on this in your forthcoming book.

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  29. Dr Ymous3:57 PM

    Steven you are aware that he isn't writing Political Theory for Preschoolers right? because everybody else got this in like 2 blog posts?

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  30. Dr Anon4:06 PM

    Lest anybody think I'm trolling. I really have Stef's best interest at heart.

    When I was five I got very disheartened because I didn't understand The Ethics of Liberty. A year later I managed to to figure it out, I thought it was very profoud at the time.

    Judging by the fact that he digs Hoppe I'm guessing he's at the stage where reading the same thing over and over again and in capital letters can give insights. And that's fine, we all go by that stage at some time in our life.

    I just wouldn't want him to get caught up in this critical thinking thing.

    (That said, I stand by my earlier comment)

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  31. Thanks for your comment, prof. Callahan.

    My 2 cents.

    "And I agree, as a shorthand for saying a whole bunch of other stuff amongst libertarians, the NAP may be useful." <= I was going to say something exacly like this, but you already did, so we have the same opinion here!

    I would also agree with Kinsella (as I think you did too, if I'm not mistaken) that a libertarian 'only' adheres to the NAP, while many other people (when pushed) would say that 'other' values count. It happens more often than not that I can push someone ordinary to admit that the state is doing something weird when it just takes money, but that's because it's not 'the only thing that matters' or something like this. So there is something true in thát sense.

    I would also agree that just repeating the NAP is not an argument. I made a similar remake on my blog a few weeks ago, saying that arguing against a socialist with the argument 'markets are efficient!' doesn't really cut it most of the time. More often than not; a socialist won't accept this argument, because he believes something completly different! I think it's a similar case as with the NAP-thingy.

    One way of dealing with this is the following: What you have to do (in an argument) is trying to find same principles/premisses from which you can deduce conclusions in which you differ. The art is in to trying to show that the deductive reasoning the other guy uses is wrong or dubious.

    Simple stated: using the NAP is more often than not, not really an argument. What you can do (or ought to do) is trying to prove the NAP. If the other person accepts it, than you can use it as an argument against things inconsistent with it.

    That doesn't mean that the NAP can't be proven - people like Rothbard, Hoppe and Kinsella did/tried to do so - but the NAP is a _conclusion_ of a bunch of arguments and not 'clear' from the outset; so using it as an argument requires repeating the proof you have. (You can't just say in an argument 'I've proven that this principle is correct, so it can be used as a valid argument'; I don't think the other guy is going to accept this.)

    Just my 2 cents. (But I think everyone can agree with me on this one!)

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  32. Anon PhD10:01 AM

    "But I think everyone can agree with me on this one!"

    I didn't really read what you wrote. But are you saying Stef is a douche? Because if so then I agree with you.

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  33. Anonymous11:55 AM

    The Blackadder Says:

    If we all agree that libertarianism presupposes a Lockean conception of property rights, could someone explain what is the argument in support of a Lockean conception of property rights? Cause to me the Lockean conception (at least as modified by Rothbard et al) looks pretty implausible.

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