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Monday, May 17, 2010

NAPping at the Wheel

Now, to be very clear, in many of my recent post, such as this one, I have been concerned with a narrow topic: does the "non-aggression principle," employed as libertarians typically employ it, somehow point to libertarianism as a uniquely correct political stance? Is it true that all other political doctrines are "in favor of aggression"?

The reason I note the narrowness of my concern here is because of the startling number of times, as I've made these posts, that someone has responded something like, "Why do you claim libertarians have no reasons for their beliefs?"

Say what?! I have been pointing out that this one argument is circular, and therefore flawed. The response above is as if, when you tell your friend, "The fact you eat tunafish is not really evidence you love your wife," he responds, "Oh, so you're saying I don't love my wife!" No, maybe you do; I'm just saying the tunafish argument is a bad argument.

A variation on the above is the response, "Oh, so you're saying it's OK not to love your wife?" ("See, Callahan is arguing against any morality whatsoever" or "Callahan has embraced moral relativism.") Crimminy. Pointing out that one argument for one moral position is wrong now equates to moral relativism?! Well, it's often easier to just invent your opponent's position yourself and then attack it, because you can make it noce and vulnerable before you charge.

In any case, here I want to address the rubbish I've heard put forward a number of times by libertarians that "Anyone who is not a libertarian is in favor of aggression!" Let us again proceed by analogy.

Imagine, if you will, a doctor, Dr. Smith, who sincerely believes that arsenic is good for newborns, and recommends it for infants in a book. Now, it seems obvious to me that it is an abuse of language to claim "Dr. Smith is in favor of killing babies!" It is true that his advice, if followed, would result in the death of babies. But Dr. Smith loves babies, and is in favor of their flourishing -- he is just in error about what they need to flourish.

Similarly, Hobbes believes he has presented a good case for the necessity of a single sovereign in a society. (By the way, I like to use Hobbes as an example not because I am a Hobbesian, but because his straightforward case is easy to handle in a brief post.) Given that he believes his own case, it should be obvious that Hobbes does not think his sovereign engages in aggression by, say, collecting taxes. Now, Hobbes may be mistaken, but it is ridiculous to say he "favors aggression." No, he favors peace, but may, in fact, be mistaken about what constitutes peace. And pointing this out does not imply "So, you think Hobbes' political philosophy is just as good as libertarianism" or anything of the sort. It just means libertarians really ought to stop wielding the blunt propaganda slogan of "You're an aggressor" and deal with their opponents' actual arguments instead.

9 comments:

  1. In any case, here I want to address the rubbish I've heard put forward a number of times by libertarians that "Anyone who is not a libertarian is in favor of aggression!"...it is ridiculous to say he "favors aggression." No, he favors peace, but may, in fact, be mistaken about what constitutes peace.

    Well, yes, it would be ridiculous. That's why, despite having heard such utterances many times, I can't think of one time where it meant anything like the reading your giving it. In fact, I think it's fairly safe to say that they almost always mean something like, "If you only understood how much better our arguments are and thereby knew what you were endorsing!" Therefore I think it is both uncharitable and implausible to claim that when they say this, they are making a claim about the motivational or intentional state of the non-libertarian as being pro-aggression by their own standards.

    Re: relativism
    I was someone who brought up relativism with relation to your previous posts but I want to be clear that I did not claim that was your position. I asked questions, and questions about a specific section of one of your posts where the language was unclear. I think the ambiguity was stronger than you may be willing to admit. I for one appreciate this post for clearing it up.

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  2. It may be that you are saying simply that the language is misleading or detrimental to dialogue, without any claim as to the mental state of the other person. Perhaps that's true. But I also think it's a pretty common way of speaking, a sort of shorthand for "I think you're mistaken about your beliefs. The stakes are very high in that the correct beliefs would classify some of what you endorse as aggression. Therefore, I'm sure you wouldn't endorse it if you knew better."

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  3. "Therefore I think it is both uncharitable and implausible to claim that when they say this, they are making a claim about the motivational or intentional state of the non-libertarian as being pro-aggression by their own standards."

    Sorry, but Stephan Kinsella says exactly that all the time -- sometimes right on this blog, in fact. Ask him if you don't believe me, or search for his comments here.

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  4. Well, given that Stephan and I disagree on quite a lot, that doesn't surprise me. And I certainly don't think that it's never the case when a libertarian says this, only that it's implausibly the most likely. If I'm right about that then you can chalk my response up to this: while I agree with your analysis, I just don't find it particularly urgent or cancerous. Anyone claiming that other people knowingly pursue wrong in their choice of political philosophy so obviously undermines their credibility that it's hardly worth mentioning.

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  5. OK, Neverfox, except that the Mises Institute feels Kinsella is an intellectual stalwart, so I don't think I'm addressing just "some guy who said something in a bar," or anything of that sort.

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  6. I don't think I claimed that you were addressing just "some guy who said something in a bar." I questioned the probability that when you hear the words, "Anyone who is not a libertarian is in favor of aggression," that the speaker is making the claim the the subject knowingly favors aggression for being aggression. I stand by that since you've only given me one (unverified) example.

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  7. Come on, if my example is unverified, it's only because you haven't bothered to verify it -- I told you you could easily do so by checking his comments here or simply asking him.

    Since you're persisting on this point, I did a quick Google search. Here is a page by someone who finds this move (others favor aggression) characteristic of libertarian net talk.

    Here's Rothbard:

    “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.”

    So, this must be in contrast to other ideologies, which aren't against aggression, right?

    Another site:

    'A libertarian is someone who, as a general rule, supports the non-aggression ethic (or as some people call it, the non-aggression axiom, or NGA). The non-aggression ethic holds, to quote David Boaz's Libertarianism: A Primer, that "No one has the right to initiate aggression against the person or property of anyone else."'

    Since this is what differentiates libertarianism, then other ideologies must feel people do have the right to initiate aggression.

    Neverfox, there were 38,400 Google hits like this. Do you really need me to keep quoting them? You have my sympathies: in this regard, you are much smarter than the run-of-the-mill deontological libertarian.

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  8. Come on, if my example is unverified, it's only because you haven't bothered to verify it -- I told you you could easily do so by checking his comments here or simply asking him.

    I said that to inform you that I hadn't checked it out, not that it couldn't be verified. In other words, I was taking your word for it.

    Since this is what differentiates libertarianism, then other ideologies must feel people do have the right to initiate aggression.

    Only if you think people typically favor aggression, whatever it is. What I've been arguing is that it doesn't make sense to think that the libertarian thinks this about people. Very few people go against the negative coloring of conventional English words like "aggression"; that's why they are conventions. The libertarian, in saying, "Anyone who is not a libertarian is in favor of aggression," is not sitting around imagining the non-libertarian laughing manically and saying, "Oh, I'm so baaaaaaad!"

    My objection is simply one of conventional language. English speakers use "X favors Y" (where Y is something with a conventionally negative connotation) in at least two ways:
    1. To say that X has some definition of Y (that may or may not agree with mine) and nevertheless favors it.
    2. To say that X incorrectly disagrees with me about what Y is but doesn't favor behavior that fits her own definition of Y. But because she's incorrect about what Y is, she inadvertently favors actual Y.

    I'm arguing that #2 is a far more plausible subtext (and a less "ridiculous" thing to say) because of the convention in English that "aggression" is a colored word, i.e. it's something that you are supposed to dislike, whatever it is. Therefore, it's more plausible that the libertarian isn't being "ridiculous" but is in fact agreeing with you that, "No, he favors peace, but may, in fact, be mistaken about what constitutes peace." That is the most likely subtext to "X favors aggression."

    To argue, as I took you to be doing, that the libertarian means #1, is to claim that it's more plausible that the libertarian would think X rebelliously goes against the convention ("I'm so baaaaad!"). This makes the libertarian look implausibly silly. That's getting into straw man territory.

    Neverfox, there were 38,400 Google hits like this. Do you really need me to keep quoting them?

    If Kinsella has explained to you his subtext as #1, then so be it. But since neither quote you provided can tell us, prima facie, from the literal words whether the author means #1 or #2, I don't have much faith that the other 38,400 hits are going to show me the error of my ways.

    in this regard, you are much smarter than the run-of-the-mill deontological libertarian.

    Thanks? FWIW, I'm not a deontologist but rather a virtue ethicist.

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  9. Well, Neverfox, all I can say is that I never see libertarian explain this qualified sense of "in favor of aggression." And this happens all the time when people say this about terrorism for instance: "X is objectively in favor of terrorism." Why aren't libertarians explaining that they are using this less obvious sense of "in favor of"? (Think back to my initial example -- we would find it very weird to say the doctor in question was "in favor of killing babies" without qualification.)

    Furthermore, it loses all its propaganda force when interpreted that way -- of course, if two people disagree about when killing is justified, one or the other will sometimes be "in favor of murder."

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