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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Desperate A Priori, Part Two

Another popular instance: It is commonplace for libertarians to claim that it is a "problem" if "a non-violent, non-fraudulent act is defined as a crime," that such laws are invalid and needn't be obeyed, etc.

As "libertarians" are more properly called "propertarians," however, they certainly want laws protecting private property rights enforced! So what do they do when confronted with a case like, "Well, let's say a group of people sit down and have a picnic on your lawn: is it OK for that to be a crime, since it is neither violent nor fraudulent?"

You might think this would force the person positing the above principle to say, "Hey, my principle must be wrong." But no, the actual response I've encountered is to re-define violence so that quietly picnicking on some grass is actually a violent activity!

And that's an illustration of why ideologies are impenetrable to reason.

12 comments:

  1. Modifying a claim in the face of a counterexample is entirely appropriate. One way of doing that is to change the words of the statement; another is to stipulate an unusual definition for one or more of the words. The latter is usually annoying, but it is logically equivalent and in no way absurd.

    You write that this is "an illustration of why ideologies are impenetrable to reason." I'm not sure what you mean by that. What your example shows is that these statements by libertarians are (on a natural reading) inconsistent with their ideology. But that observation is not an attack on libertarianism, and so there is nothing for the ideology to resist.

    The real problem here is more subtle. It consists in using the emotive power of a word (in this case, "violence") as a premise in an argument.

    Premise 1: Violence is bad (for who can favor violence?).
    Premise 2: Violence means [insert something that includes what the author is assailing here].
    Premise 3 (usually uncontroversial): The thing at issue falls within the stipulated definition of violence.
    Conclusion: This thing is bad.

    This leads to a series of half-ridiculous exchanges, wherein each person opts to "debate" premise 2. But premise 1 and premise 2 are really just a confused restatement of premise 1.5: "[Insert something that includes what the author is assailing here] is bad."

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  2. But I think changing the definition of violence is the way to slip 1.5 in unnoticed.

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  3. But no, the actual response I've encountered is to re-define violence so that quietly picnicking on some grass is actually a violent activity!

    Right - just as the picnickers barging into your home to eat in your kitchen or in your bed would be considered "violent" (although I never use that terminology - a better term would be forceful).

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  4. But no, the actual response I've encountered is to re-define violence so that quietly picnicking on some grass is actually a violent activity!

    Right - just as the picnickers barging into your home to eat in your kitchen or in your bed would be considered "violent" (although I never use that terminology - a better term would be forceful).

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  5. Mattheus, "barging into your home" may, without stretching words too much, be considered "force" or "violence," especially depending on how the barging is done. "Quietly walking onto one's lawn and having a picnic" is by no ordinary sense of either word "forceful" or "violent."

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  6. I think in some ways, a la Long and Rand, "violence" has become and anti-concept. I'd contend, when properly understood, libertarianism has nothing to say about violence per se. Libertarianism, at it's base, is a justification for a certain flavor of property-rights frameworks. When most people use "violence", "force", and "aggression" in common usage they do not mean the same thing that libertarians mean when they use them. Libertarians probably also, therefore, have a bad habit of moving back and forth between the two meanings in argumentation. So, I think libertarians are primarily to blame for not defining their terms clearly within debates. On the other hand, the main libertarian thrust doesn't fall apart merely because there is a discrepancy in how we use certain terms.

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  7. "So, I think libertarians are primarily to blame for not defining their terms clearly within debates."

    Or for just not sticking to normal usage.

    But the reason WHY this odd usage is employed is evangelical: Everyone is against violence and aggression. So you can get "raw meat" interested by telling them "We libertarians are against violence and aggression!" Sounds great!

    Then, gradually, the recruit learns to think of violence and aggression in totally new ways. Before you know it, he is seeing the world through libertarian lenses, and is commenting here, telling me "Of course having a picnic on someone else's lawn is violent!"

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  8. Gene,

    I don't think these are completely unfair criticisms in some respect. Although, I don't really think intention to do what you claim is being done really exists with many libertarians. If it IS a mistake, I don't think they're employing such a mistake knowingly or purposefully.

    In a related sense, I still think it's fair for them to employ the terms as they do - even if we should oblige them to make those meanings clear at the outset of conversation. I consider "aggression" and "force" in particular (although not "violence") to be packed terms in much the same way "altruism" or "selfishness" are in that sense. If you take the average person off the street and Ayn Rand and pit them against one another regarding what she would consider to be the vice of "altruism" or the virtue of "selfishness" they would be talking past each other as the way in which she employs these terms are different - although not incorrect (I think that's important to distinguish).

    In both cases, the issue is clearly, primarily, semantics. Maybe it's a good idea to push libertarians into using less confusing terminology (fair enough), but I don't think it represents and ideological flaw or anything like that.

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  9. On another note, I wonder how the perception really changes (regarding usage) when comparing words like "violence" and "force" to "aggression." For instance, yes, it seems silly to think that having a picnic on someone else's property is "violent" in any normal respect. Is it as far-fetched to call it aggression - even in a more common usage? I'm not quite as convinced it's not. For instance, someone stealing your car while you're asleep isn't violent in that sense. But I think most of us who have a basic framework of personal property rights WOULD consider it aggression, strictly within the bounds of normal usage.

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  10. "For instance, yes, it seems silly to think that having a picnic on someone else's property is "violent" in any normal respect. Is it as far-fetched to call it aggression - even in a more common usage?"

    No, it is not far-fetched -- but what makes it not are known laws that say you can't do that, not some a priori natural right. In the UK, where there are right-to-wander laws, having the picnic would certainly NOT be an act of aggression!

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  11. "No, it is not far-fetched -- but what makes it not are known laws that say you can't do that, not some a priori natural right."

    Well I guess that depends on where you are and what framework of rights you happen to adopt. In some real sense, a priori or not, laws are derived from some normative theory of justice...and ethics more broadly. I don't think positive law and "natural law", or any other parallel framework, have some kind of divorced relationship. Just because one place has adopted, temporarily or otherwise, some other normative framework within their system of laws doesn't mean they aren't connected. But maybe that's an argument for another time =)

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  12. Yes, laws are not floating abstractions. But one of the ethical principles they draw upon is "You should normally follow the law."

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