Ideology as the Rejection of Tragedy

Or, prudence is not the vice of abandoning principles, but the virtue of weighing one principle carefully against others.

One way of understanding what ideology is to understand it as the rejection of tragedy. First consider the conflict in Aeschylus's play The Suppliants. The Danaids come to King Pelasgus of Argos, fleeing a forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins. The king must balance two responsibilities:

1) He has the responsibility to protect suppliants, given that they have a genuine grievance, and have turned to him for protection.
2) He has the responsibility of defending his people, who will likely incur the wrath of the Egyptians should they offer the Danaids refuge. (It is important here that he is not just thinking of his own safety; he is responsible for the safety of an entire city-state.)

The key thing here is that this tragedy is not a matter of being forced to choose between a principle and one's own material well-being. This would be an entirely different play if the Pelasgus was worried that the Danaids might be too expensive to house, and so considered denying them refuge. But that is the way ideologues always try to frame the case for prudence: "Oh, you mean we should compromise our principles because it might be too painful or costly to follow them." That's not what this tragedy turns on at all: the king is weighing the force of two moral principles, which pull in different directions.

Ideologues try to deny this is possible by attempting to turn morality into an axiomatic-deductive system. Rothbard expressed this attitude perfectly:
Anyone who believes in the existence of a natural law discoverable through right reason (as Mr. Meyer and myself both do), must also believe that this natural law is self-consistent. Outside of the irrational world of the Hegelian dialectic, there can be no conflicting truths, nor contradictory but true propositions. And since the rights of man are deducible from natural law, these rights cannot conflict with one another. If one discovers a contradiction, one has also discovered an error in one’s process of reasoning. 
Notice the stunningly unjustified move Rothbard makes here*: Because moral propositions, if we wish to speak coherently, ought not contradict each other, he tries to assert that it follows that they cannot conflict with each other, in practical applications. This is absurd. Consider some normative rules for translation:

1) One should translate the words of the source text to their closest possible equivalent in the target language.
2) One should strive to produce an idiomatic work in the target language.
3) In that the source text has certain metrical or rhyming schemes, one should re-produce them in the target language.
4) In that there are certain symbolic or metaphorical uses of languages in the source text, one should attempt to re-produce them in the target language.

There are probably more valid principles I could list, but the above are enough for our purposes.It should be clear that none of these principles contradict any of the others. It certainly would be irrational if our principles of translation included, for example:

1) One should translate the words of the source text to their closest possible equivalent in the target language.
2) One should translate the words of the source text to a word as far away as conceivable in the target language.

Obviously, that would be nonsense, but the principles we listed do not harbor any such contradictions. On the other hand, they quite obviously can conflict in application. Just look at the multitude of translations of any classic work: they all differ because the translators have given different weights to each of the principles listed above (and others I have failed to list). Sometimes one is faced with a choice where one can, say, preserve a rhyme scheme, or use idiomatic English, or convey the author's metaphorical sense well, but simply cannot see a way to do all three well, or even two of the three well. One has not fallen prey to irrationalism in acknowledging this; one is just squarely facing the messy nature of reality.

Let us close by returning to morality simpliciter for a final example. I belive in the principle, "One should not support a government engaged in wars of aggression." But I also believe in principles such as, "One should be loyal to one's friends and family," and, "One has a default loyalty to the land of one's birth."

I would suggest that anyone who sincerely believes my first principle, but has not left the US, probably is weighing the force of that first principle against the force of the latter two, or some similar principles. And I praise them for doing so: that is what ethical deliberation is like: there are many principles we embrace, but they often come into conflict with each other, requiring us to weigh them in the balance. Recognizing that is not being unprincipled; it is being realistic.

* And, by the way, I think Rothbard was an extremely bright guy, plenty bright enough to know that the above paragraph was nonsense. He is an example of what Voegelin termed Marx: "an intellectual swindler." He wrote whatever he thought would advance the revolution, even if he knew it made no sense, was historically false, whatever: so long as he thought it would collect him devoted followers, he would put it down on paper.


  1. Very good article, Gene. And so is the previous one about ideology (the one with the football analogy).

    The problem with Rothbard, too, is that he never successfully proves the truthfulness of his axioms (of course, axioms are not supposed to be "provable", but that's because they are supposed to be self-evident truths, which Rothbard's "axioms" are not).

    Yet, he proceeds to discard every belief that contradicts them, and seems to take delight in reaching conclusions that contradict common sense e.g. abandoning a child is immoral but should be legal.

    I don't know whether he was an "intellectual swindler", but I do detect some trickery in some of his arguments, which is something I don't see, for example, in Mises.

  2. Do you perchance have a book brewing on the subject of ideology? These last two pieces on it are good stuff.

  3. Hey swindler, I don't know if this matters in the grand scheme, but you are quoting Rothbard talking about natural rights, and substitute him talking about moral principles. In Rothbard's usage, rights are a subset of moral principles. (Specifically, if you have the right to do X, then it would be immoral for someone else to use force to prevent you from doing X.)

  4. Bob, I don't see how that makes his argument or mine any different.

  5. Let me know if you want me to stop doing this, but I want to offer another comparison to the work of the rationalist, reductionist Eliezer Yudkowsky, who argues (what I see as) the same point in Policy debates should not appear one-sided. Relevant part (bold added):

    Some libertarians might say that if you go into a "banned products shop", passing clear warning labels that say "THINGS IN THIS STORE MAY KILL YOU", and buy something that kills you, then it's your own fault and you deserve it. If that were a moral truth, there would be no downside to having shops that sell banned products. It wouldn't just be a net benefit, it would be a one-sided tradeoff with no drawbacks. ...

    Saying "People who buy dangerous products deserve to get hurt!" is not tough-minded. It is a way of refusing to live in an unfair universe. Real tough-mindedness is saying, "Yes, sulfuric acid is a horrible painful death, and no, that mother of 5 children didn't deserve it, but we're going to keep the shops open anyway because we did this cost-benefit calculation."...

    I don't think that when someone makes a stupid choice and dies, this is a cause for celebration. I count it as a tragedy.

  6. Gene I will follow previous comments in praising you for the two eminently clear, well-written, and enlightening posts of your views on this subject.

    So, just to be clear- Rothbard created an ideology, per your definition, by trying to turn something as complex as morality into an axiomatic deductive system. Does it follow then that, per your definition, Libertarianism is not an ideology for someone who recognizes that morality does quite clearly involve balancing conflicting principles like, lets say, Hayek? Or are there other criterion you would use that you have not yet alluded to (or that I have missed)?

  7. Yes, Warren, that is correct.

  8. Warren, I almost wrote the same thing yesterday. I think it's possible to agree with Gene in these things and still be a libertarian in the sense Hayek, Mises and others were. One doesn't even have to stop admiring Rothbard. He might have been wrong in some things, but he got things right in others.

  9. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I call it being "open-minded" (nothing fantastically new). That seems to be more and more of an obstacle these days.

  10. This is going to get me in trouble with Gene, but I'm going to side with Rothbard on this.

    The passage is prefaced by "anyone who believes in the existance of a natural law discoverable through reason..." Now maybe this sound weird to someone who does not think such discovery is possible. And maybe this is one of those "sloppy reading/writing" things on my part. But I don't think it sound weird. Rothbard first states the _type_ of the thing he wants to discuss... and then discusses an instance of that type.

    The "non-contradiction" properties are consequence of the use of natural law, right? [identity, non-contradiction, excluded middle, and all that].

    Now I *think* Gene's beef with Rothbard is that Gene wants to promote a moral (or rights) theory which does not strictly conform to this "rationalist type"... which is fine.

    I think you can build a plausible pragmatic argument that a rationalist-like theory of justice is desirable. For example, it's fairly important for an agent to have some idea whether some possible action is just or unjust. We could say the same thing about morality, but the stakes are much higher for justice. If I screw up and commit an unjust act, then *other agents* have a right to forcefully oppose me. I think a workable theory of justice needs the property that many agents can understand and apply it without _always_ calling out to a pragmatic, experienced judge [although maybe it's OK to have him around for touch cases].

    Now a complete, real-world legal system may not be compressible into a tiny number of principles [which is what I think the "strict rationalist" really means].

    Re: The Suppliants, I think Pelasgus punts the question to his citizens, who vote for the feel-good ending, right? And so the great moral dilemma was resolved and the balance restored.

  11. No, Marris, that won't cut it at all. (And you're not "in trouble" with me, I'm just saying you are wrong.) And I showed why this won't cut it right in my original post.

    I *agreed* with the non-contradiction part! Yes, that follows from the principles being rational.

    But look back at my rational principles of translation: none of them *contradict* the others. But they *conflict* all the time. What Rothbard did was make the completely invalid move of sliding from non-contradiction (a purely logical property) to non-confliction (a property of actions in the real world).

    Look, this could happen even with geometry: that Euclidean triangles have straight sides and 180 degrees in their angles certainly are not contradictory: in fact, they are mutually implicated.

    But when an architect goes to build my design for a giant triangle on some real plot of ground, he very well may come back to me and say, "I can get you 180 degrees, or straight lines, but not both."

    Remember, Rothbard here is launching an attack on *prudence*, as being a terrible vice. That would have made any medieval natural law theorist puke.

  12. > But they *conflict* all the time. What Rothbard did was make the completely invalid move of sliding from non-contradiction (a purely logical property) to non-confliction (a property of actions in the real world).

    I agree that such a move *would be* invalid, but I don't think this move is being made in the quoted passage. I think the controversy boils down to this part:

    > And since the rights of man are deducible from natural law, these rights cannot conflict with one another. If one discovers a contradiction, one has also discovered an error in one's process of reasoning.

    In my humble reading of this, Rothbard is not saying that Pelasgus can't be pulled in multiple directions. Pelasgus can cite principles which pull him toward granting asylum, others which pull him away, and still others which pull him toward the use of a referendum. However, once he's cited these, Pelasgus still has a decision to make. What should he do?

    A prudence follower (pragmatist?) may say that we *cannot* build a meta-theory which can be applied here. The final choice must always be left to the actor's experience, judgement, etc. Only he can compare one principle with another and judge how much weight to give each one.

    A theorist like Rothbard would reply that this "cannot build" response is invalid, because it is not of type Theory.

    There are goods reasons to believe that the answer *should be* of type Theory. I don't claim these are definitive, but the reasons are certainly out there. For example, it's not clear how a pragmatic process can be "criticized." How can we approach a pragmatic Pelasgus and say "you should not have done that?" We can bitch and moan that his decision does not have features X, Y, and Z, but he will just reply: So what? I know the decision does not have features X, Y, and Z. And during my deliberation process, I decided to give X, Y, and Z low weights. You're just criticizing me because you don't have the "experience" I have. Or you're just an ideological follower of X, Y, and Z.

    Alternatively, the question does not "make sense" to the pragmatist in the same way that it makes sense to the theorist.

  13. "In my humble reading of this, Rothbard is not saying that Pelasgus can't be pulled in multiple directions"

    Which is rubbish. As I said, ideologists are blind to tragedy. You have illustrated my point!

    "For example, it's not clear how a pragmatic process can be "criticized.""

    Do you not live in the real world?! Pragmatic processes are criticized all the time!

    I recommend reading the Nichomachean Ethics, where Aristotle demonstrates that the answer to these problems cannot possibly be theoretical (it is the wrong type of reasoning) and that there exists another type of reasoning, phronesis, which is what is actually used tp resolve them, and certainly is open to criticism!

  14. > Which is rubbish. As I said, ideologists are blind to tragedy. You have illustrated my point!

    I don't get it. Why do you think he's sliding? Certainly Rothbard thinks we can yearn for both A and B, even though we *know* that given our means, we must choose between them. Most of MES is about these types of situations. What's he's doing above is being up front. He's saying that he does not think justice can be left up to pragmatism. You don't think it can be left up to theory. That's the whole dispute, right?

  15. "Why do you think he's sliding?"

    Well, because he is!

    Truths cannot be contradictory. That is fine.

    But Rothbard acts as if, if we accept that, *then* we must accept that there can be no *conflicts* when we try to follow different truths.

    The latter has nothing to do with the first. It has nothing to do with natural law. It has nothing to do with being rational.

    It is an entirely new premise that Rothbard has smuggled in, as if it followed from truths being non-contradictory. It doesn't so follow. I don't think any classical natural law theorist (the tradition Rothbard is *supposedly* drawing upon) ever would have said it followed. Why else would they consider prudence a virtue?

  16. > But Rothbard acts as if, if we accept that, *then* we must accept that there can be no *conflicts* when we try to follow different truths.

    Well, no! (! ! ! ! :-)

    It IS NOT possible [I *think*, not sure about this] to want A and not A (e.g. have my cake and eat it too). I want to apply the "inconsistency" label to these scenarios.

    It IS possible to want a state of affairs which has some of the features of A and some of the features of B (e.g. eat a cake, and have another cake). However, wants are not enough. We may only have the means to reach either A or B, but not both. Certainly Rothbard thinks these scenarios are possible, right? [please explicitly state whether you think this is not true, since what I write depends on this idea].

    I think you are applying "conflict" to this second type of thing... which is fine.

    I think Rothbard believed that justice theory cannot have any inconsistencies. Further, he believed that it cannot have any conflicts. These are two *separate* beliefts. If your underlying point is that the former does not imply the latter, then I agree. It does not.

    But, I don't think he's relying on this "consistency -> no conflicts" assumption. He's explicitly stating that natural law axioms apply to the *structure* of justice theory as well. So if you walked up to Rothbard with some new principle of justice AND the principle conflicted with some other principle, he would say that this needs to be worked out. The theory will be incomplete until you do. Does this mean that we can't perform *any* actions in the real world until we've worked out the conflicts? No. But we may work them out in the future and discover that some of our actions were unjust, and maybe reparations should be made.

    I don't think this "justice theory should have no conflicts" view is unique to Rothbard. Some of the Greek philsophers [the Stoics?] thought it applied to all virtues ["unity of virtue thesis"]. I think if you also pressed Rawls, he would agree with this idea.

    The dispute here is between theory and pragmatism, not between various "truths." The theorists and pragmatists are getting worked up over who gets to wield the "truth" talisman over their opponents.

  17. Marris, how in the world can a principle in a theory *conflict* with another principle in a theory? They can *contradict* each other, or have incompatible implications, but how, say, can the law of electrical attraction have a conflict with the law of gravity? They are fighting over who has precedence?

    You are taking a word which only has application in practice and trying to shoehorn it into theory.

  18. Gene, did you ever know Rothbard personally?

    1. No. He died six years before I knew of the Mises Institute.

    2. You say that he's an example of "an intellectual swindler" and that he "wrote whatever he thought would advance the revolution". So would be it accurate to classify him as something of a very successful scam artist? Or did he have some kind of end goal in mind?

      I've been pondering the nature of libertarian ideologues and I think a similar phenomenon can be found in groups like the sovereign citizen movement and freeman on the land. As I understand those two examples, adherents come to believe patent nonsense—actually, it's better to just read the articles to know how bad it is. Do you think the way some people come to believe Rothbard's legal ideas (i.e., homesteading, starving children, etc.) might work the same way sovereign citizens come to believe that British common law applies in America? That it's done through a sort of clever rhetoric on the scam artist's part?


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