Blogs > Liberty and Power > Feser on the Family

Aug 8, 2005 5:06 pm


Feser on the Family



Over at the new blog The Conservative Philosopher, my fellow Hayek scholar and frequent sparring partner Ed Feser raises some interesting questions about conservatives, libertarians, and the family.  Ed's a smart guy and has made some of the best cases I've seen for reading Hayek in a conservative way, although I think those cases ultimately fail.  I want to respond to some of Ed's argument here. Ed writes:

Still, since conservatives also tend to hold that there are natural ties between human beings far deeper and more important than the sort of contractual ties definitive of market society, they do not make a fetish of the market. This often distinguishes them from libertarians, who frequently exhibit a tendency to want to reduce all human relations to the contractual or economic sort.

Well, "frequently" and "tendency" fudge things a bit, but I'm not convinced this is as true as Ed thinks. 

Chief among these non-contractual ties are those definitive of the family, and the family is that institution that conservatives are most keen to conserve, for they not only regard it as a natural institution, but as the arena within which the fellowship human beings need for their well-being exists, or ought to exist, to the fullest extent.    ...  The family is the place where we learn, or ought to learn, that we have obligations that we did not choose and needs that cannot be satisfied if we insist on having things our own way. It is where we learn that there are greater things in the world than our own narrow interests and a greater good for us than the mere pursuit of those interests.

One can be a libertarian, including with respect to the family, and believe that people have bonds and obligations "deeper" than the sort that appear on the market.  One can, from a libertarian perspective, and specifically a Hayekian perspective, argue that families are, and should be, hotbeds of altruistic commitment in just the way Feser describes.  What Feser says here might be true of the sub-species libertarianus Randianus, but need not be of the species more broadly.  In fact, in a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, I compare Hayek's and Rand's views of the family.  An online excerpt can be found here

I think the problematic place Ed goes with this argument below is the weight he puts on the family being a "natural' institution.  For example:

This is why conservatives and libertarians are, I believe, increasingly going to part ways in coming years. If you believe that the family is an institution we did not create (either because it has a divine origin or, a la Hayek, a cultural evolutionary one) and have no right to tinker with; that our deepest obligations are those we do not choose to take on but are given to us by nature; and that a good and happy life requires a humble submitting of oneself to those obligations, then you are going to take a decidedly conservative attitude toward matters of public policy concerning the family.

Note several things here.  First, saying that family is an institution we did not create does not mean that it is a static institution.  The whole point of the Hayekian argument is that it's about cultural evolution.  The family, as we know it today, did not appear from nothing;  it evolved over time as well.  We would surely never make parallel arguments about other institutions we did not "create," e.g., money, law, the market.  Money as we know it today has evolved and changed in a variety of ways (and would have even if government had been absent).  The mere fact that we didn't "create" something doesn't mean that it is or should be static.  (What about the evolution of language?  Don't we expect that language will continue to evolve, just as perhaps the family has and might?)  And the use of the word "tinker" is interesting as well:  is any change "tinkering"?  After all, from a Hayekian perspective, these institutions are the result of human action but not human design.  Is Ed arguing that human action is ruled out of court, lest it change the institution?  Ed's static perspective here seems to equate even marginal evolutionary changes with social engineering. 

Second to note is the invocation of the "natural."  Is natural here meaning "part of any human society" or is it more literal, in the sense of our biology implies certain obligation and institutions?  Is the "natural" the raising of children inside a family unit (certainly all human societies need an institution to do that), or is it something more?  Is it that certain familial arrangements are "natural" because biology "made us that way?"

One way to frame this is that Ed is sliding here between function and form.  There is no doubt that the functions families serve need to be tackled by some institution in any human society.  In that sense, the family is a "natural" institution.  However, the question of whether any particular form of the family is uniquely suited to perform those functions is a very different question.  That question is even more interesting when linked to the historical fact that the family has evolved and changed over time.  Might those changes (which certainly have been affected by government policy) be changes in form that have resulted from social and economic changes that have affected the functions families can, or have to, perform?  That is, perhaps the changes in the form of the family we've seen are responses to changes in other institutions that "we did not create."  If so, why is it okay for those other institutions to change and evolve (be tinkered with?) while not the case for the family, especially if such changes are responses driven by the changes elsewhere?

My take on the functions of the family, from a Hayekian perspective, are in a paper forthcoming in the Cambridge Journal of Economics that can be found here.

Ed ends with:

And while it is true that conservatives and libertarians have much in common where the defense of the market and the critique of big government are concerned, it is also true that for conservatives, issues touching on the family and its well-being must necessarily always trump issues of tax policy, government spending, and even war and peace. Tax rates, government programs, wars, and the like come and go, and however long-lasting and significant are their effects, they simply cannot equal in their significance radical changes to the structure of the family. The family is forever, and far more basic to human well-being. For the conservative, if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters.

And here, Ed gets to the heart of the matter by talking of "radical changes to the structure of the family."  Two points to make in response.  First, at least now we know what we're talking about.  It's all about structure.  Note that Ed doesn't say that he's concerned about changes in the functions that families perform, or, directly, how well or how poorly they work.  Rather he is concerned about "radical" changes to the "structure," which seem to be equivalent in his mind to a loss of functionality.  If we radically change the form of families, they will function less well. But why identify form with function?  What's missing here is the argument that says that changes in the structure will reduce functionality.  To me, that argument is non-obvious.  It's a case to be made and Ed doesn't make it, at least not here.  The implicit premise that the (current? recent? how recent?) structure of the family is the most/only functional one is unargued for.

Second, what radical change is he talking about here?  Again, it's not named, but it seems clear it's same-sex marriage, though perhaps other things as well.  The use of "natural," the notion that marriage/family is all about self-interest and contract, and the use of the word "radical" are all evidence of that view, especially given that the stereotype of the selfish, libertine homosexual is as old as the hills.  I feel no need to rehash arguments on these questions that have been raised in other places by many others. However, I do find it interesting that, if same-sex marriage is the real driving issue here, Ed has hitched libertarianism to that star.  The underlying suggestion is that libertarianism is ultimately a form of libertinism, and because same-sex couples are really only interested in their own pleasure not the obligations of a family, the common cause between libertarianism and the advocacy of same-sex marriage is, shall we say, "natural."  In a cynical reading, it's an attempt to smear libertarians in the eyes of conservatives by painting us with the same caricature of self-interested libertines that has been used by conservatives use for gays and lesbians.  I don't necessarily think that was Ed's intention, but it is not an implausible reading of the text.

Of course, why we should care about what conservatives think about libertarians in general, and especially if they are accepting of the insulting view of gays and lesbians that this argument rests on, is a whole other question.




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Stephan Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Steve, very very nice comment.

It seems to me one of Feser's points is that some people--"conservatives"--value "family" more than abstract libertarian concerns like "rights". Well, this could well be so, but of course the libertarian is simply a person who, at root, believes it is *unjustified* to commit aggression against innocent victims.

What this of course implies is that people who nevertheless do engage in, or endorse, various forms of aggression, do not believe this. For example, a common criminal values getting what he wants more than avoiding violent conflict. A socialist who agitates and votes for taxation, confiscation, and wealth transfer also has his own priorities which conflict with the libertarian value of avoiding violent conflict, and in particular of refraining from the *initiation* of conflict. Yes, the socialist will have his makeweight reasons, just as the petty criminal implicitly does--but so what? The fact is that non-libertarians, or people to the extent they are or act non-libertarian, simply value something more than they value peaceful cooperation. For whatever reason... but the reason really does not matter.

Their reason is the *motive*, so to speak, but does not change the fact that these people, or their actions, are are in essence criminal and uncivilized. Take an analogy to criminal law: when a crime is committed, the criminal has mens rea, which means the *intent* to commit the prohibited act. This simply means the action was intentional, not an accident. But this is different from *motive*. I might steal bread because I am hungry; or because I just want a thrill. In both cases, the act of stealing is still intentional, though the motives differ. The motive is the (internal) explanation of *why* the criminal decided to commit a criminal act; as such, the motive is irrelevant in deciding whether there was a crime; for that, we ask only if there was mens rea, i.e. intent. The motive might come into play later in the punishment phase, but to determine *that there was* a crime, motive is totally irrelevant.

Likewise, socialists of all stripes, and private criminals, are all just variants of criminals or those who advocate criminality. Sure, their reasons differ, just like the motives of some criminals differ, but just as all criminals who act intentionally are still criminals, so all these people, whatever their ratioanlizations, who commit or advocate crime or socialist measures are, in essence and to that extent, criminals and uncivilized.

Now, this brings me back to Feser's comments -- to the extent he is saying conservatives believe "family obligations" are "deeper" than "those on the market" (and I am paraphrasing Horwitz's summary here, so may not be exact)... this is just another way of saying that conservatives may be socialistic criminals but they have their reasons.

Sure, and so what? Libertarians are a minority in this world. Are we supposed to be impressed at every argument that a socialist of one stripe or another trots out to justify what is in effect their hitting me over the head? Hey, all you socialists/criminals out there: WE GET IT. We realize you all have your pet theories rationalizing your advocacy of the use of violence against innocent victimes. We get it. Nonetheless, we'd appreciate if you'd just leave us the hell alone, thank you very much.

Again, nice post, Steve.

Stephan


Stephan Kinsella - 7/14/2005

This is the implicit approach of Randians re abortion, for example, referring to the fetus as a blob of cells, and all those left libertarian types who get so worked up at the idea that there should be consequences for total sexual licentiousness. But you are right, I am probably exaggerating a bit too much. In any event, I believe creating a human being has moral consequences for the creator.


Stephan Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Next time I see some libertarian who embodies this, I'll alert you.

I may be lumping together a bit the NOW types with some libertarians.

But don't you think Rand's and her followers callous dismissal of pro-lifers' concerns by simply referring to a fetus as a ball of cells.... which hostility I believe is driven by her glorification of how important it is to express yourself sexually etc..... sort of is a good example of what I'm getting at?


Stephan Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Mr. Feser,

Please realize my points were not directed specifically at you, but were rather general. The shoe only fits to the extent that the shoe fits. In any event I certainly meant nothing personal toward you. (Yes, I'd be curious about your reply--what is the link to this alleged Conservative Philosopher blog?)

A few comments:

"From this and other writings of yours, it is obvious that you are very impressed with the idea that all critics of libertarianism can be easily brushed aside by saying that they are in favor of "aggression" and that libertarians are not."

Well, as a libertarian, I of course believe that aggression is a crime; and I believe that what aggression is, is the unconsented to use of the property of another, where "property of another" means one's own body and all scarce resources either first homesteaded by the person or ultimately acquired voluntarily from someone who did. Therefore, like ALL LIBERTARIANS, I necessarily have to believe that actions or laws that amount to aggression are criminal; and that anyone who is not a libertarian is therefore advocating criminal acts.

This is not surprising nor is it unique to me. A complaint about this is tantamount to a complaint that libertarianism has any fixed ideas whatsoever.

My claim has nothing to do with being "impressed" or with "brushing aside" anyone. Rather, it amounts simply to a claim identifying certain actions as criminal. Whether naming crime as crime does any good, or "brushes aside" anything, or "impresses" anyone, is not interesting to me.

"The trouble is, this move is entirely question-begging. For what counts as "aggression" depends on what rights we have, and what libertarians and non-libertarians disagree about is (in part) precisely that."

I disagree entirely that it is question-begging. First, I stated the matter generally; to the extent it applies, it applies. I also implied that socialists of various stripes are of course criminals or advocating criminality.

Of course it is also true that there are gray areas or uncertain areas among libertarians. That of course does not mean there are not plenty easy cases.

"If you have a right to the TV set you're holding (because you bought it, say) then I commit aggression against you if I forcibly take it from you. But if you don't have such a right (because you stole it, say) then I don't commit aggression against you even if I forcibly take it from you."

Sure, this is of course right. So what? This is encompassed within a carefully defined and nuanced statement of libertarian principles.

"By the same token, a socialist would argue that in redistributing wealth he is not committing aggression, but only enforcing people's rights to an equal share of wealth."

This is not "by the same token" since itis simply wrong. It does not matter that he "would argue" that he is justified. A simple thief might "argue" that he is entitled to my wallet because he really needs it, or he has had a hard life, or people like me are "lucky" and don't deserve it... so what? So what if people that advocate or engage in theft have an "argument" for why it's okay? Of course most people will try to come up with reasons why their criminal actions are okay. What has this fact to do with anything?

"Now you and I both agree that he would be seriously wrong to think this, but that is what he thinks, and so it will not suffice to refute him to claim, in a question-begging fashion, that he is committing aggression."

So what? If a homicial maniac is determined to murder me, it may not "suffice" to "refute his claim" by pointing out that he is committing aggression. It in fact does not "suffice" for me to tell the IRS that they have no right to steal my money; they will just disregard me. So what? It is no surprise that rights CAN be violated; people CAN disregard others' rights. Why is this surprising? Why is the FACT THAT rights can be violated supposed to have some significant implications for the claim THAT THE VICTIM HAS RIGHTS? Clearly, "having rights" is compatible with the rights being violated. Just as a criminal act--a rights violation--does not disprove the claimed right... so the fact that a (purported) advocate of criminalty gives a reason for the criminality advocated does not mean that it is not criminality!

"You have instead to show him that we do not have the specific right (to an equal share of wealth) he mistakenly thinks we do."

Well, I don't have to do a damned thing. Do you mean this in hypothetical form... that is, something like, IF you want to convince (who? someone?) that a socialist is a criminal, THEN you have to "show" (someone) that the socialist is wrong." Sure, but so what? If I want to persuade a rapist not to do it, I have to find a way to show him he is wrong... but it might not be possible to show him, or I might not have time... or I might not want to--I might prefer to blow his head off instead.

So what are you trying to say? Surely you would not adopt some ridiculous ethical-skeptic stance and say that *just because* a socialist "gives an argument" implies that ... libertarianism is wrong...? that the libertarian has ... a "duty" to "show" that he's wrong? What exactly are you saying?

"I never said, as you seem to think I did, that there are deeper moral claims than those of rights, so that rights can be overridden."

I admitted I was paraphrasing Horwitz's paraphrase. To the extent you dont' maintain this, the shoe does not fit and I am not referring to your position. Feel free to clarify if you wish. I am simply saying that IF and to the extent being a "conservative" means that the person "values" "family obligations" "above" "those of the market" (by which I understand to mean libertarian-type norms), then all this means is that the conservative would, in some cases, select to endorse or commit aggression in order to achieve these family goals. But all this means is, like all other criminals, he has some excuse or reason for his criminality.

"(It seems to me, from this and other encounters with you, that you are intent on reading your favorite straw man into every argument you don't like.) What I said was that there are deeper moral obligations than those we consent to (e.g. via contract). If you can't see the blindingly obvious difference between these claims, that's your problem, not mine."

I am not sure what you mean by this. If you mean what I said above, then my comments apply. If not, not.

BTW, I have never said all rights or morals "derive from contract." In fact, nothing derives from contract; contract presupposes rights in property. Contract is just a way of exchanging titles to property.

"My view would be that children, for example, have certain rights that do not plausibly derive from any contract, such as the right not to be aborted, the right not to be neglected, the right not to be morally corrupted, the right to be given a sound education, etc. etc."

Unlike most of my fellow libertarians, I don't strongly disagree with you here, except I'd say it's a right as against their parents, who created them, not against society at large. I do believe that if you create children you are engaging in an action that creates a rights-bearing, rational being with certain natural needs, and thereby become responsible to satisfying those needs. Libertarianism is not opposed to positive rights or obligations in general, just against unchosen obligations. For example you can obligation yourself by contract, or by other actions such as committing a crime, which obligates you to make restitution for example. You have no legal duty to rescue a drowning stranger (I would argue you have a moral duty); but if you push someone in a lake you DO thereby incur an obligation to rescue them. You put someone in a position of peril, of need, by your actions, and thus have a duty to minimize this damage or meet this need.

Likewise, if you engage in sex which leads to the creation of a baby who has needs, you have an obligation to care for them. Unlike many libertarians, I am tired of this atomistic, noncontextual, hedonistic, do-as-you-wish-regardless-of-consequences mentality. There is nothing in libertarianism, IMO, that opposes the idea of being responsible for the consequences of your actions.

"The obligation to fulfill the needs entailed by the positive rights among these falls to parents; the negative rights among them must be respected by all. Now you might disagree with this: that's fine, but it will not do to accuse me of endorsing "aggression.""

as you can see, I agree with you, pretty much (though I think it's usually impractical to try to force parents to be good parents...)

" For my view is that it is those who violate these children's rights who are the aggressors. Thus, to accuse me of endorsing aggression is, again, to beg the question."

Mr. Feser, let's stop the beg-the-question accusations. I can make a general statement about aggression, that is true insofar as it applies. This is the case even if we can have disagreements about what is aggression. Just because some libertarians might have disagreements about hard cases like abortion, child rights, gay marriage, immigration, voucher system, etc., does NOT mean that the socialist's positions are equally "up in the air," respectable, or debatable. Socialism is wrong, evil, immoral, wicked, uneconomic.

"So the issue is what rights we have and where they come from. Only once that is settled can talk about "aggression" have any non-controversial content."

Well, in a general sense, by your terminology, EVERYONE is against "aggression," they just have different views of WHAT AGGRESSION IS. I do not disagree with this way of putting it. But if you put it this way, then you have to recognize that to be a libertarian IS TO HAVE A PARTICULAR VIEW OF WHAT AGGRESSION IS (even though there are some unclear areas). It is NOT TRUE that socialists agree with us that aggression means the initiation of force against the person or Lockeanly homesteaded property of another.

" You ought to engage this issue seriously and not assume that the "non-aggression principle" is a magic bullet that can slay all non-libertarians."

I don't assume this at all. I think you, like too many libertarians, are far too bound up in "strategy" issues; you seem to be confusing success with truth. Personally I think we are unlikely to "win".

"You ought also to stop calling everyone who disagrees with you a "criminal." This sort of thing is all too common among a certain kind of libertarian. It is unbecoming, and it is unlikely to get many people to listen to you who don't already agree with you."

Again, I am not of the view that the sole obligation of the libertarian is to try to "be persuasive". I also do not equate persuasiveness or popularity with an position's soundness.


Stephan Kinsella - 7/14/2005

"I'm not sure what you're trying to imply in speaking of the "alleged" Conervative Philosopher blog."

Dude, it's a joke. I sprinkle a lot of my conversations with that. Most nonlawyers find it humorous. Like, "Honey, what time is that alleged cocktail party?"

" Surely you know that the blog really exists, since Steve Horwitz himself referred to it, and linked to it, in commenting on the post I had made on it. And surely also you have already visited the blog yourself to read my original post, so that you could be sure you knew what you were talking about before expressing agreement with Steve's comments and adding a few of your own."

No, Steve's link didn't work for some reason.

"Then again, given that you admit to "paraphrasing Steve's paraphrase" of me, maybe you didn't actually read my post, in which case I don't see why you thought yourself qualified to criticize it."

I was criticizing what he was describing. As I said, either the shoe fits or it does not.

BTW I had some similar comments about the aggression and criminality urged by conservatives here, at the Chronicles blog, a while back. What always mystifies me is that some people want to advocate for measures that clearly invade the person or property of others but then want to cry foul when they are charged with advocating criminality. Can't have it both ways.

"And don't pretend that your remarks "were not directed specifically" at me, since in your original comments on Steve's post you refer several times to me by name in a critical way. But maybe your memory is playing tricks on you again, so you might want to go back and re-read what you wrote."

Ed, I really didn't mean this personally or offensively. I was trying to make the point that if someone advocates non-libertarian measures but then tries to evade this charge by saying, "no no, we just value family matters more," that is just a way of saying that you have a REASON for advocating various non-libertarian (that is to say, criminal) measures.

"Though my basic point is very simple, you really seem hell-bent on not getting it. Yes, yes, yes, I entirely agree with you that socialism is "wrong, evil, immoral, wicked" and even, I suppose "uneconomic" (whatever that means)."

It means a socialist system is inefficient. It won't achieve its stated goals.

"If you want actually to refute the socialist, though, you have to say more than that."

Sure... but as a libertarian, I have already by virtue of being a libertarian accepted a set of reasons that already does this... as other libertarians have too, presumably. Every post does not need to be infinitely long.

Anyway, why do you presume that I want to refute the socialist? Maybe I just want to help fellow libertarians--those who have already adopted the civilized stance--identify various stripes of our enemy.

"You also have to do more than accuse him of aggression, since he thinks his view is not committed to advocating aggression, even though you and I both know that it really is. What you have to do is appeal to some premises you and he already share, and then show him from those that his view realy amounts to aggression. Otherwise you'll just be begging the question against him."

I do not disagree with you, if you are discussing tactics to be used in an argument with a socialist or when socialists or noncommitted people are listening. But not every discussion need be an argument with a socialist.

"This has absolutely nothing to do "adopt[ing] some ridiculous ethical-skeptic stance.""

Good, then... as I predicted, you are not adopting this ridiculous view. I don't see the problem.

"It's just basic logic. If your aim is to try to show rationally that people you disagree with -- socialists, or me -- are wrong, you need to do so in a non-question begging way."

Yes, IF that is my aim. Why do you assume it is? Let me be clear. I am sure you and I agree that, say, rape, murder, and armed robbery are immoral and nonlibertarian and rights invasions. Now, you could say, "If your aim is to try to show rationally that people you disagree with -- rapists and murderers -- are wrong, you need to do so in a non-question begging way." I suppose this if-then statement is correct, but the if-condition is just not satisified. Neihter you nor I want to waste time doing this. It is purely a tactical decision or personal preference whether to engage in debate with outrights socialists.

As for "people like you", I am not sure what that is... but if you are some kind of only partially libertarian conservative, i.e. a partial socialist or advocate of criminality, then of course, to the extent I'm trying to persuade you of my libertarian view, I need to argue for it.

Incidentally, I mean "socialist" as a synonym for criminality, because I agree with Hoppe's definition of it in his A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (p. 2), as "institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims." Therefore, any socialist is a criminal; and any criminal is a socialist of one type or another. There are just different stripes.

"Since I assumed that what you were interested in was engaging in such rational argumentation, it seemed worthwhile to point out that your arguments, even the ones whose conclusions I agree with, are queston-begging. But maybe all you're really interested in is venting and name-calling, in which case I'd rather not waste my time continuing this exchange."

I have not called you names and indeed meant this exchange and still do, in a friendly way. I am happy to engage in substantive discussion of various issues but like to clearly label and categorize the positions of various proponents first.

Let me be clear. Let's disregard the gray areas; the *libertarian view is* that as a general matter, it is criminal and unjustified to invade the borders of (that is, to use without consent) the property of others, where property is understood to be the scarce resource of one's own body, and external scarce resources first homesteaded by that person or by some person in the chain of title.

Now, if you advocate any measures that call for the taking of innocent victims' property, or for punishing them for any non-aggressive behavior, then you are advocating and in favor of what the libertarian views as aggression and criminality.

From our point of view, IF you want to justify your proposed laws or rules that amount to what we see as aggression, then you can either (a) try to argue that the measure is not an unconsented to use of others' property; or (b) that it is aggression, but that aggression is sometimes justified.

Now, my view is that quite often conservatives try to avoid admitting (b) because it just does not sound good, so they in Orwellian fasion disingenuously use tactic (a), to try to deny that what they are in favor of is aggression. Far more honest to admit it and then either try to justify it (as a libertarian I say it can't be done, but you are welcome to try), or admit that, like a roughneck criminal, you don't CARE if you justify it or not--you have the power, and will use it, no matter what.

I have used a similar argument in my article, What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist.

I can assure you I am not name-calling nor merely venting. So if you are willing to respond, I'd be curious to know whether you are libertarian; or if not, whether you would adopt (a) or (b) above; or if not, why you think my dichotomy is not proper?


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Steve: "I think we're getting somewhere. It helps to indicate what one means by "aggression" if one is going to make these sorts of arguments. What you've done here doesn't quite beg the question and would open up the discussion of what exactly one means by aggression.

"For me, it's not just a question of strategy, and the reason is that I'm not 100% convinced of the truth of libertarianism in the way you are Stephan, nor am I a believer in natural rights in the way that you are."

Steve, where have I indicated support for natural rights? In fact I am as skeptical as Hoppe is of that grounding for rights, as he explained in his A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, ch. 7. pp. 130-132, note 7 (pp. 234-235) (quoted below). In fact I think the main argument for rights has in a sense to be hypothetical; but this is okay. The entire purpose of rights is the same as property rights: to specify which person of many possible claimants gets to use a particular scarce resource. I have elaborated on this approach here: Defending Argumentation Ethics: Reply to Murphy & Callahan.

"The result of that is twofold:

1. I'm concerned about consequences. If respecting the l-aggression concept leads to a world that I don't find desirable, I'm going to dump it and adopt another one. I don't tend to argue with people in terms of "aggression" and "criminality" and "force" but in terms of whether or not the concepts and policies they adopt will achieve their stated ends. I'm not interested in a debate over what constitues aggression; I'm interested in what the results on human well-being are of various policies and institutions. For that reason, perhaps, like Ed, I'm willing to grant, as a default, that those with whom I debate *share* my general opposition to aggression and that the real issue is what will result from the world they wish to implement. Thus, I'm not likely to call them criminals, because I don't believe they are, nor do I believe they support criminality."

But Steve, I think you are lapsing into tactics and strategy almost completely, without realizing it. To me, it's a spectrum: from hardcore anarcho-libertarians, to minarchists, to some conservatives, ... and then from there it gets worse and further away from genuine respect for property rights, -- to modern liberalism, environmentalism, welfarism, soft socialism, democratism, down to various forms of totalitarianism. The further down you go the less willing I would be to grant them the benefit of the doubt that they are really interested in the goals we are--peace, prosperity, cooperation. Or, that, if they really are, they are so corrupt or stupid that they have deluded themselves. Whatever.

But as a libertarian surely you have to believe some state laws amount to rights violations, and are thus criminal actions. I really don't see how you can avoid this. You seem not to deny it, but not to want to say it out loud or something. Whether you want to call a given person a criminal is to me not the issue; the issue is, if someone endorses a law which you feel is clearly unlibertarian, then whether or not the person has good motives or whatever, you cannot avoid the conclusion that he is in fact advocating what you to believe to be criminal action.

"2. I'm also open to the possibilty that libertarianism might be wrong!"

Sure, so am I, but so what? You might be wrong that rape and murder are "genuine" crimes, but so long as you are convinced that they are, you would support a regime that uses force to stop, and maybe punish, these people.

"There's lots of smart, well-meaning people who don't buy it. Am I wrong in assessing their intelligence? Are they secretly criminal bastards? No, they aren't. They simply disagree. They may be *ignorant* about libertarian ideas, but that's not the same as stupid or evil."

Well, Steve, this might be your opinion, but it is not a LIBERTARIAN opinion. It is just your personal one. Libertarianism itself does not require that we view opponents in a kind light. It does not prevent it either. I personally think to say this of everyone is wrong; some people are intentionally, or recklessly, evil. I believe in the power of free will and that some people do choose evil. At the very least, some people value wicked things over and above cooperation and peace so much that they have no qualms about overriding the latter to achieve the former. Of course some people are honestly mistaken; of course we might be wrong; of course there are hard areas in libertarianism itself and some libertarians might disagree on some areas. But the more explicit and severe the forms of socialism advocated by someone are, the less likely you can attribute benevolent motives to them... the more like a common criminal they become.

None of this has anything to do with strategy, notice. It's just trying to establish a clear picture of the situation.

"Their resistance to my ideas suggests to me that there might be problems with my own ideas that I haven't yet identified. As a result, I hardly see myself in a position to call them "criminals" for their beliefs."

I myself am very averse to any form of the "blame the victim" mentality. So I am loath to blame myself or other libertarians--who are victims of their fellow men's policies--for not convincing them, any more than I would blame a rape victim for not finding a way to dissuade her attacker.

I think our difference here maybe this Steve. I don't think we are going to win. I think it appears inevitable that a sizeable portion of humanity will always tacitly endorse a degree of institutionalized aggression--socialism--thereby rendering any kind of libertarian society impossible. I think that's just reality. Given this, I don't think it's our fault; I think the best argument in the world at most, would make temporary, almost imperceptible improvement, which would go primarily for the benefit of people who don't deserve it.

Whether you call someone a criminal merely for their *beliefs* is up for debate. What is clear to me is that the *reason* we oppose the measures advocated even by our well-meaning, non-criminal neighbors is that these measures are unjust, in our eyes; they violate rights; they are criminal actions. Our neighbors advocate criminal actions; whether this makes them criminals, is not the point. Whether you want to admit out loud that they are advocating criminal actions is a strategy question and also not relevant to whether it is the case.

"Only if I had a, I hate to say, Bush-like certainty about my worldview would I feel comfortable with the sort of arguments you make."

I have not claimed any more certainty than you or Ed have. Whatever you believe, Steve, for whatever reasons, you believe it. Surely as a liberarian you and I for example agree that a mimimum wage law is WRONG; a law taking half my income is WRONG; I would say this means it violates my rights, and is therefore properly described as criminal. I fail to see how you can evade this conclusion if you are indeed a libertarian. Notice that this analysis does not depend on being *certain* about your rights views, but merely upon your holding certain views.

"Let me add that I used to be part of the "non-libertarians are either stupid or evil" crowd."

I don't believe I stated that. I stated that non-libertarians are either criminals or at least advocate criminal measures. As I said before, the reason *why* varies--a simple criminal basically has no reason, he thinks might makes right; a theocrat might say God told him to do so; whatever. There are varyihng types of rationales, and reasons therefor. Some are innocent mistakes, I guess, and some, the more wicked they are, are less innocent.

" But then I started meeting lots of people who were much smarter (and just as nice ;) ) as me who didn't buy it. Rather than retreat into an echo-chamber of table-pounding and purity tests, I decided to actually listen to them and reassess my own ideas."

"After doing so, I still came out a libertarian, and I think a pretty radical one at that, but without the bullheaded certainty that has often characterized the worst of libertarians and their institutions. We need fewer Cardinal Richelieus (I have no idea if I spelled that right) and a lot more Miseses and Hayeks."

As I said, 100% certainty does not underlie my simple logical statement that non-libertarian laws are in essence criminal.
Hoppe quote: "The relationship between our approach and a “natural rights” approach can now be described in some
detail, too. The natural law or natural rights [p. 235] tradition of philosophic thought holds that universally
valid norms can be discerned by means of reason as grounded in the very nature of man. It has been a
common quarrel with this position, even on the part of sympathetic readers, that the concept of human
nature is far “too diffuse and varied to provide a determinate set of contents of natural law” (A. Gewirth,
“Law, Action, and Morality” in: Georgetown Symposium on Ethics. Essays in Honor of H. Veatch
(ed. R. Porreco), New York, 1984, p.73). Furthermore, its description of rationality is equally ambiguous
in that it does not seem to distinguish between the role of reason in establishing empirical laws of nature
on the one hand, and normative laws of human conduct on the other. (Cf., for instance, the discussion in
H. Veatch, Human Rights, Baton Rouge, 1985, p.62-67.)
In recognizing the narrower concept of argumentation (instead of the wider one of human
nature) as the necessary starting point in deriving an ethic, and in assigning to moral reasoning the status
of a priori reasoning, clearly to be distinguished from the role of reason performed in empirical research,
our approach not only claims to avoid these difficulties from the outset, but claims thereby to be at once
more straightforward and rigorous. Still, to thus dissociate myself from the natural rights tradition is not to
say that I could not agree with its critical assessment of most of contemporary ethical theory; indeed I do
agree with H. Veatch’s complementary refutation of all desire (teleological, utilitarian) ethics as well as
all duty (deontological) ethics (see Human Rights, Baton Rouge, 1985, Chapter 1). Nor do I claim that it
is impossible to interpret my approach as falling in a “rightly conceived” natural rights tradition after all.
What I claim, though, is that the following approach is clearly out of line with what the natural rights
approach has actually come to be, and that it owes nothing to this tradition as it stands."


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Alright, Aeon, you have a point. The atomistic comments were half-cocked. But I am right about calling socialists--of all stripes--advocates of criminality, am I not? Come on, give it up.


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Aeon: I agree with you that we can distinguish what the law is, from what it should be. In this sense, taxation is not theft because it is currently legal.

But it is theft in the libertarian usage and *therefore* taxation is unjustifable. I don't mean to imply by saying something is criminal, or theft, that it *is currently against the law*, and I think this is clear.

Rather, I am getting at this. When we libertarians say a given law should be abolished, we mean that it violates individual rights. NOw we would make it a crime to violate rights, but only to violate rights. So a criminal, for us, is someone *who violates rights*. Ideally, the law should criminalize all actions we view as inherently, or naturally, criminal. This is really just semantics. Would you agree so far?

Given this, if I say a rapist is a criminal, it could mean he is violating a given criminal statute; or that he is performing an action that intentionally violates the (natural) rights of the victim. The libertairan means the latter, because even if there were not statute outlawing rape, we would still regard it as a crime. If 2 people are on a dessert island and one rapes the other, we still say it's a crime. It means nothing more than to say it's a rights violation, or aggression.

Given all this, a socialist is someone who endorses laws or measures or policies that invade individual rights. These are actions that should be criminalized because, well, we regard them as criminal, or aggression. Why all this handwringing over calling a spade a spade?

Surely the opposition to this label by minarchists and conservatives is NOT that it's inaccurate since technically various mearuse are "the law" and "thus" not "criminal"; rather, they know what I mean and they dont' like it. THey don't want to admit they are in favor of criminality, or measures that the libertairan regards as criminal.

As someone sent me in an email about this exchange:

"Now I know why you are bald---you tore out your hair trying to debate the paleocons. Jesus **** Christ, is it so hard to admit you favor aggression? I guess it is. Try debating liberals and they will swear that taxation is not aggression because there is some "social contract" you have to obey. It's mystical mumbo-jumbo on both sides. Perhaps this is good---maybe most people know ~deep down~ that aggression is bad and are just trying to play word games to rationalize themselves. Maybe that's a start of some sort, although you seemed to run into a dead end with everyone. But how many criminals admit they are criminals? I've seen former S.S. guards at Nazi death camps say with a straight face that what they were doing was self-defense. Yes, sending children into the gas chambers was "self-defense" because they'd grow up to be nasty adult Jews."

As for your "rhetorical advantage" email... I am really sick and tired of every libertarian I talk to devolving substantive issues into pointless discussions of tactic, strategy, rhetoric. Can't anyone talk about issues anymore without trying to measure an idea's validity by how many people it's likely to persuade?

BTW, calling someone "bad" is of course ambiguous; we mean more than that. Someone who is rude to their mother is "bad"; so is a rapist. A rapist is more than just bad, he also violates rights--he is an aggressor. Or, as one might say, a criminal. A socialist is more than bad--his big flaw, for the libertarian, is in his advocacy of measures that are (take your pick)--aggressive, invasive, rights-violative, criminal. The socialist is in essence, to the degree he is socialist, literally un-civilized.


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

I agree in principle, I just don't agree that it applies. There is nothing wrong with objectively identifying aggression. If Ed (say) supports a law that I believe to be unlibertarian, I can reasonably say to him that I oppose such a law and the REASON is that the law is criminal! I.e., that it violates rights! He might take umbrage, but too bad. HE is free to tell me why (a) he does not mind that the law is criminal; or (b) that he thinks it is not criminal after all, for specified reasons. I'm sick of people trying to evade or get out of a discussion by picking on a stupid semantics or thin-skin issue.


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Ed and Steve,

It is possible that you are both misunderstanding me (but maybe not). I liked Steve's post and it spurred me to post about what I did... about the status and relevance of denials of rights, or refusals to recognize rights, by certain opponents.

I believe you are also both so fixated on the strategy game that you don't separate it from the truth game. You seem to equate them. Surely you realize there is a role for unadorned truth seeking, from trying to understand something or clealry state a position, and that this is very different from the issue of what works best at persuading people--whether the non-committed, or your opponents, or what have you. And surely you recognize there is no kind of moral or even libertarian obligation to always fashion everything you say with an eye towards how well it might "persuade" others, especially your enemies or opponents.

Given this, can you please explain to me why you insist on repeatedly interjecting standards appropriate to tactic, strategy, rhetoric, and persuasiveness, when I have made it abundantly clear that I am not necessarily stating that my arguments are designed to persuade socialists?

For example, Steve, you say, "Stephan's rhetorical stance here is incredibly problematic, in my view, and will absolutely get libertarianism *nowhere* in trying to persuade *anyone* of our views." Now, when I say an argument is "problematic," I mean there is something wrong with it. Steve here you seem to assume the problem is that, well, it turns people off. I agree that this is relevant if one is talking about strategy, but my God, if we can't forget about strategy and focus solely on the unadorned substance and validity of claims and arguments amongst fellow freedom-seeking intellectuals, what have we become?

I will focus only on this issue here and addres some other matters in a separate post, because I encounter this over and over again by "movement" type libertarians, and to be honest, it's quite maddening. It's not that this is their "thing"; specialization, and different tastes are great. It's that they either don't see the difference between an idea's validity, and its persuasiveness... and frankly I find it hard to believe they can't understand this, as most of them are not stupid... or they disingenuoulsy pretend not to understand it, so as to avoid discussing substantive issues and to keep pointing to flaws in an arguments "acceptability" or likeability.

Now I am not accusing anyone here of disengenuousness. But I would really appreciate if someone could simply explain why you guys always do this. Why, in a conversation that concerns the truth of given claims, you repeatedly make some comments about "but that is not likely to persuade your enemies." What am I missing? Do you honestly think that an argument's validity is tied to how likely it is to convert others? Or do you honestly think that all that really matters is strategic, tactical success or arguments? Do you really think all libertarians are all monomaniacally obsessed with strategy and rhetoric and tactics? Does it just boggle your mind that anyone would have libertarian views if they did not also delude themselves into thinking we are part of some great battle, that we must at all costs endeavor to "win" or something?

If you could explain this it could be very helpful in fostering communication.


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Ed and Steve,

To make a few substantive comments. Let me take a religious example. Most religions hold views that are mutually exclusive. A Calvinist necessarily believes Catholics are *wrong*, about a lot of issues, and vice-versa. The mere adhering to a given view means one necessarily thinks alternative views, to the extent they conflict, are *incorrect*.

That said, I think it clear libertarianism means *something*. That Feser is "no longer interested in fighting for that label (any more than Hayek was)" does not really change this (and maybe it was because of Hayek's many deviations from libertarianism, as summarized by Walter Block in the JLS). It does not mean that libertarians only oppose aggression, if you have to grant like Feser (apparently) wants to that aggression is also what socialists oppose, given their understanding of rights. If you want to be so loosey-goosey with "aggression," then you have to add some extra views to distinguish libertarians from non-libertarians. And that would be that aggression rests on our view of rights, which is the view that all actions are permissible except violations of the person or property of others, where property is understood in its Lockean sense. Of course this is crude, but this is a good summary. This is only a *definition* so it is not question begging.

Now given this view, libertarians *must believe*, like the Calvinists do of Catholics, that socialists' *are wrong*. What does this mean? It means libertarians of necessity do view socialists as advocating actions *which do violate rights*. That means, the libertarian views the socialist *as advocating criminality*.

Now, to me, this is an elementary matter. If you would not want to admit this because it is "not likely to persuade the socialist," I simply have no idea how to converse with you, since I don't think this way. I find it hard to believe that you do either. Just as I can claim a rapist is evil even though that claim is not likely to deter him, so I fail to see the *relevance* to my *claim*, of the mere *fact that* someone is not persuaded by it.

If we are focusing on strategy of converting socialists, I could see how you could reject arguments based on their persuasiveness. If we are trying ot just set down our positions in a clear manner, I don't see the "persuasiveness" rejection as relevant at all. It's just bside the point. Something can be correct even if others reject it, of course.

Can either of you really disagree with what I have said, to this point? I can't see how.

Now. Of cousre merely stating matters this way is not any sort of proof, nor does it pretend to be. Saying what libertarians believe is not question begging because it does not pretend to be a justification of those views.

There is nothing wrong with me defining aggression in terms of the *libertarian* conception of rights--let's call it l-aggression--and then putting the following question to my non-libertarian oppponent: "Libertarians oppose law or measure X on the grounds that it involves l-aggression, which we oppose. If you advocate this law, it must be that (a) you do not believe the law involves l-aggression; or (b) that you think that l-aggression is justified."

Now, worded this way, I fail to see how you can disagree. And you can see that if there is an honest opponent who is not intentionally evasive and he answers the question, it can help narrow down exactly what is disagreed upon. And in my view, putting it this way also helps to subtly teach the opponent that his opposition to libertarianism is flawed, because most civilized people implicitly value avoiding l-aggression.

Ed, in your case, you might respond that you are in favor of l-aggression in some cases--you think it is justified--because you believe the libertarian conception of rights upon which it rests is flawed. For example, you could say that you think parents have rights against their children (for such and such reason), and therefore that's why you are not opposed to l-aggression to the extent that it means taking lockean property of a child and giving it to the parent. At least then we would see where we differ. And then we could see if we could persuade each other, etc.

None of this is possible if people keep evading the discussion with cries of "but that won't persuade socialists" or "it's unfair to call socialists criminals" or whatever.
Ed: SK: "Incidentally, I mean "socialist" as a synonym for criminality, because..."

"Come on, Stephan, give me a break. Suppose a socialist you were arguing with said "Hey, don't get all offended, I just mean "libertarian" as a synonym for bloodsucking capitalist swine!" or "I just mean "libertarian" as a synonym for someone who has contempt for poor people!" Would you say "Oh, OK, I get it. No problem"?"

Well, I would regard those replies as nonresponsible, emotive, and irrelevant. Even if they were true they do not prove the socialists' argument. I think you mistake me: I am not calling someone a socialist or criminal for some rhetorical trick, or to be a big meanie; I am merely trying to be descriptive *from the point of view of libertarianism*. I am trying to accurately state our view.

What is funny is that to the extent you would agree with me that certain aspects of socialism amount to theft of private property, I assume you would have to agree with me that socialism *is criminal*. Am I wrong here? If not, then you agree it's criminal... you just think it's ... unwise?... to admit this? If so, we have left the realm of truth-inquiry and are now worrying about "persuasiveness".

"In that regard, casually to wonder, as you do "...if you [EF] are some kind of only partially libertarian conservative, i.e. a partial socialist or advocate of criminality..." is to present the alternatives in such a preposterously question-begging and implausible way that I can only hope you are joking. Are you saying that someone either agrees with (your brand of) libertarianism or is a "partial" socialist and criminal? That those are the _only_ alternatives? If so, there is no way I can refute such an absurd claim in a brief post, because there are so many things wrong with such a view that I'd be doing nothing but writing for the rest of the weekend."

Well I'd say that the further away from libertarianism is one's view, the clearer it is that it's advocacy of outright criminality, sure. I think this is *necessarily implied* by merely *holding* libertarian views. Libertarianism *means that* one rejects certain private and public actions *because they violate individual rights*, i.e. ARE CRIMES. Now libertarianism is not some rigid, fixed dogma with no dissent; so it is not possible to say that *libertarianism itself* views everyone with a certain view of, say, abortion, or immigration, as advocating criminality, since libertarianism is not settled on some issues. BUT, a pro-life libertarian DOES believe that abortion is a rights violation, and he thus DOES BELIEVE that a pro-choice libertarian is advocating the legality of criminal acts; similarly, the pro-choice libertarian DOES BELIEVE the pro-life libertarians who advocates outlawing abortion is indeed advocating a criminal action against the mother. Diverse libertarians at a cocktail party might not go around calling each other partial criminals out of politeness, but that does not mean that their differnces do in fact imply a belief on the part of each of them that the other is advocating crimes. What is wrong with this? This is the reality of the situation. It is not my fault that this is the way the world is; but denying it will not make it not so.

Note: I am not here saying that *having a view about rights* means that you have or are giving a proof of it; stating ones position is different than trying to justify it.

"Your dichotomy is not proper because not all rights to what others have are based on consent. For example, my parents would, I think, have a right to part of my property if they became destitute, whether or not I wanted to help them out. (That doesn't entail any state intervention; that's another matter altogether.) A starving man in the woods also has a right to break into my cabin and get some food, even if I never consented to this and even if he knew I would not consent. (He should also compensate me for this later, though.) Now maybe you think these examples simply must entail "socialism" and "criminality." If so, I think you have an extremely crude understanding of rights theory, and I don't have the time to give a remedial course just now."

Ed, this is probably a bit uncalled for. I don't think you really want to suggest you can give me a remedial course in rights theory.

"I would also advocate what you call strategy (a) for some cases. See my recent JLS article (in the latest issue) for how these two strategies would be fleshed out. I'm sure you will suspect me of "Orwellian" insincerity, though, and how can I blame you? We conservatives are all just "roughneck criminals," right?"

By this latter phrase I am referring to the type who don't even care to justify their actions. You don't seem to be that type.

I would say that to show that the parent has a right of support from the child means that he has a claim against the child's property. This to me means a transfer of property from the child to the parent, which is theft unless the child consents to it, or unless he has some legally enforceable obligation to do so. I gave a sketch of an argument previously for why I think the parent has such an obligation to the child. If there is a good argument for the other way, fine. If not, then it is just criminal to take the child's property. So it seems to me that my dichotomy works fine: it forces you to specify whether you think it is NOT theft of the child's property (and if so, why the child does not own property he was the first to appropriate), or that you think it is theft but the theft is justified for some reason. Now we are getting somewhere.

Stephan


Stephan (K-dog) Kinsella - 7/14/2005

Thanks Ed. I believe that far from missing your point, I understand exactly what you are saying; it seems, rather, to me, that you are completely missing my point, which may be partly my fault; but to me it's as if you are used to a particular type of discourse and language and hear things only through that filter. I don't see that only diminishing returns are possible, as long as we could have stuck to substance and not gotten sidetracked by commentary on strategical considerations or evaded issues by these irrelevant, extra-libertarian side-issues. But it appears we'll have to agree to disagree, since I disagree with most of what you write above, and I won't take the time to relate why since you don't seem interested and/or I don't seem able to communicate in your language.


Aeon J. Skoble - 2/1/2005

"This is really just semantics. Would you agree so far?"
Yes, exactly.
"Can't anyone talk about issues anymore without trying to measure an idea's validity by how many people it's likely to persuade?"
Sure, I have no problem with that, but I think you do need to adjust the context depending on your interlocutor. If you're discussing stuff with me, e.g., you can use that "criminal" terminology because we've had enough conversations that you can assume I'm on the same page. But your conversations with Ed will be more productive if you don't make those assumptions. He self-identifies as a conservative, not a libertarian, so assuming you actually want to have a conversation, you can't just define terms in a way that presupposes your point.


Aeon J. Skoble - 2/1/2005

"But I am right about calling socialists--of all stripes--advocates of criminality, am I not?"
Yes, but only in a way. Socialists are certainly advocates of something _wrong_, but calling it criminal is weird, just in the straightforward sense that what they advocate, as you know, isn't against the law. I guess I don't quite see what rhetorical advantage there is to calling them criminals, as opposed to "bad."


Aeon J. Skoble - 1/31/2005

But there's nothing especially _libertarian_ about _any_ of the different views on abortion. So if a libertarian has the view of abortion you describe, and stipulate that's a false view, that's not a slam on libertarianism. It's like having a preference for Rush over Journey... ;-)


Aeon J. Skoble - 1/31/2005

"all those left libertarian types who get so worked up at the idea that there should be consequences for total sexual licentiousness."
You're doing it again! To whom exactly does this refer? Seems like a caricature to me. What kills me, Stephan, is that it is primarily lefties, esp. the communitarians, who thrive on the caricature that libertarians are "atomistic" and believe in the obviously-mockable "liberty=license, do whatever you feel like." Problem is, I can't find any libertarian theorists who say this.
I agree with you that "creating a human being has moral consequences for the creator."


Aeon J. Skoble - 1/31/2005

Stephan, you write that "Unlike many libertarians, I am tired of this atomistic, noncontextual, hedonistic, do-as-you-wish-regardless-of-consequences mentality." Many? Which ones? I've been a scholar of libertarian ideas for nearly 20 years now, and can't think of any. Bad enough that the left caricatures libertarians this way without you doing it too!


Steven Horwitz - 1/29/2005

One more time. Stephan wrote:

***Now. Of cousre merely stating matters this way is not any sort of proof, nor does it pretend to be. Saying what libertarians believe is not question begging because it does not pretend to be a justification of those views.

There is nothing wrong with me defining aggression in terms of the *libertarian* conception of rights--let's call it l-aggression--and then putting the following question to my non-libertarian oppponent: "Libertarians oppose law or measure X on the grounds that it involves l-aggression, which we oppose. If you advocate this law, it must be that (a) you do not believe the law involves l-aggression; or (b) that you think that l-aggression is justified."

Now, worded this way, I fail to see how you can disagree. And you can see that if there is an honest opponent who is not intentionally evasive and he answers the question, it can help narrow down exactly what is disagreed upon. And in my view, putting it this way also helps to subtly teach the opponent that his opposition to libertarianism is flawed, because most civilized people implicitly value avoiding l-aggression.***

I think we're getting somewhere. It helps to indicate what one means by "aggression" if one is going to make these sorts of arguments. What you've done here doesn't quite beg the question and would open up the discussion of what exactly one means by aggression.

For me, it's not just a question of strategy, and the reason is that I'm not 100% convinced of the truth of libertarianism in the way you are Stephan, nor am I a believer in natural rights in the way that you are. The result of that is twofold:

1. I'm concerned about consequences. If respecting the l-aggression concept leads to a world that I don't find desirable, I'm going to dump it and adopt another one. I don't tend to argue with people in terms of "aggression" and "criminality" and "force" but in terms of whether or not the concepts and policies they adopt will achieve their stated ends. I'm not interested in a debate over what constitues aggression; I'm interested in what the results on human well-being are of various policies and institutions. For that reason, perhaps, like Ed, I'm willing to grant, as a default, that those with whom I debate *share* my general opposition to aggression and that the real issue is what will result from the world they wish to implement. Thus, I'm not likely to call them criminals, because I don't believe they are, nor do I believe they support criminality.

2. I'm also open to the possibilty that libertarianism might be wrong! There's lots of smart, well-meaning people who don't buy it. Am I wrong in assessing their intelligence? Are they secretly criminal bastards? No, they aren't. They simply disagree. They may be *ignorant* about libertarian ideas, but that's not the same as stupid or evil. Their resistance to my ideas suggests to me that there might be problems with my own ideas that I haven't yet identified. As a result, I hardly see myself in a position to call them "criminals" for their beliefs. Only if I had a, I hate to say, Bush-like certainty about my worldview would I feel comfortable with the sort of arguments you make.

Let me add that I used to be part of the "non-libertarians are either stupid or evil" crowd. But then I started meeting lots of people who were much smarter (and just as nice ;) ) as me who didn't buy it. Rather than retreat into an echo-chamber of table-pounding and purity tests, I decided to actually listen to them and reassess my own ideas.

After doing so, I still came out a libertarian, and I think a pretty radical one at that, but without the bullheaded certainty that has often characterized the worst of libertarians and their institutions. We need fewer Cardinal Richelieus (I have no idea if I spelled that right) and a lot more Miseses and Hayeks.

This is not just a matter of strategy, it's a matter of belief and intellectual honesty. The arguments against libertarianism are too strong to be steamrolled by assertions of "criminality" and "aggression" when those very concepts are part of what's up for debate and about which we should not be so certain.


Edward Feser - 1/29/2005

...that last post was meant as a reply to Stephan K.'s reply to you, not (primarily) to your post, for which I thank you!

Ed


Edward Feser - 1/29/2005

I think we're fast approaching the point of diminishing returns here. Stephan, it seems to me you're still just missing the point, and with all due respect, I'm a little tired of re-iterating it.

Whether or not socialist redistribution amounts to a kind of robbery, say -- and I personally think it does --is not the point. The point is that it does not help things to call the socialist a criminal. Part of the reason is that left all by itself it is question-begging. But another reason is that the word "criminal" implies all sorts of things -- about the overall moral character of an individual socialist, about the character of a society in which such redistribution takes place, etc. -- that do not apply to all individual socialists or all societies that have redistribution.

For example, to lump the Soviet Union and postwar Britain together as "socialist," without any qualification, obscures as much as it reveals; and to call the governments of both "criminal" would simply not be accurate. Postwar Britain at least still had free institutions and the rule of law -- that's why socialism got rolled back there peacefully. Were the policies of both governments objectionable, even immoral? Absolutely, but not in nearly the same way, and it is just crude and analytically imprecise (to say the least) to call both "criminal." The Soviet government was criminal, the British government, however bad, was not.

Similarly, to refer to both Stalin and, say, George Orwell as "criminals" because both were socialists would be ridiculous. While they were both seriously wrong about economics and moral theory, Stalin was a criminal and Orwell was not. Anyone who can't see the moral difference between these two men just doesn't have very clear moral vision, and part of the difference is that the word "criminal" connotes things that simply don't apply to Orwell.

Loren Lomasky had a very good article in Social Philosophy and Policy a few years ago called "Libertarianism as if (the Other 99% of) People Mattered." Among the other things he says there is that even though redistributive taxation is seriously morally problematic, it is also problematic simply to call it "theft." It is conceptually sloppy, for just the sorts of reasons I've said it's conceptually sloppy to call (all) socialists "criminals." I used to think Loren was wrong about this, but now I think he is right, and that the point he was making is very important -- not just as a matter of strategy, but as a matter of intellectual precision and honesty.

And I think Steve H. would agree with me when I say that the point isn't merely a question of strategy, though that is part of it. Part of the reason why I don't like the sort of rhetoric you've been using is that I just think it isn't fair. As intensely as I dislike socialism and egalitarian liberalism, I don't hate socialists and liberals, and I don't think all socialists and liberals are bad people or intellectually dishonest.

When I was younger I was more inclined to tolerate -- and yes, occasionally indulge in -- the "Smash the state!" and "Taxation is theft!" kind of rhetoric. Now I am, frankly, just sick and tired of it, and sick and tired too of the destructive effect I think it has had on the intellectual quality of the work of many people I know and respect. It's not that polemic doesn't have its place -- I am certainly known to engage in it from time to time if I think there's a point to it. But some people seem incapable of anything else, and incapable of separating a polemical attack on ideas from a polemical attack on the people who hold them.

Steve H. and I have had some heated disagreements about some very serious issues, but it's never gotten personal, and not just because we're applying a clever "strategy" for dealing with each other. I've always liked him and don't for a moment believe that he's somehow personally corrupt or dishonest simply because he disagrees with me about some serious matters.

Anyway, I thank Steve H. for the support, and for his comments--

Ed


Steven Horwitz - 1/29/2005

Well, it's a bit odd watching this Battle Royale take place after my original post lit the spark, but... :) One quick thing, though. Ed wrote:

***Seriously, though, I'm sorry that you apparently fail to see how similar rhetorical moves like the ones you make are to the Marxist tendency to reject all criticism as "ideological." You seem, just like Marxists do, to want to poison the well against anyone who disagrees with your version of libertarianism, attacking their motives and calling them nasty names rather than seriously trying to answer their arguments in good faith. You seem to think that no one but the Kinsella-libertarian really has a virtuous or intellectually honest or well-meaning bone in his body. Everyone else, apparently, is just a thug trying to hide his true motives behind insincere arguments.***

Agreed 100% Ed. I used to think nothing would drive me battier than when colleagues on the left assume that conservatives and libertarians are either mean or stupid or both. We can't possibly be caring and smart but just disagree with them.

But no, the one thing that can do it is when *libertarians* start playing that game with those who disagree with them. Stephan's rhetorical stance here is incredibly problematic, in my view, and will absolutely get libertarianism *nowhere* in trying to persuade *anyone* of our views. If any one cares, I think Ed's got the better of him here, particularly in the accusation that Stephan's whole position is one big giant begging-of-the-question.


Edward Feser - 1/29/2005

SK wrote: "Ed, I really didn't mean this personally or offensively."

I'm glad to hear that.

SK: "I was trying to make the point that if someone advocates non-libertarian measures but then tries to evade this charge by saying, "no no, we just value family matters more,"..." etc.

But that's simply not what I was saying, nor do I think conservatives in general say it. It's not a claim that "sure, we have such and such rights, but there are good reasons to override them"; it's rather a claim about what rights we have in the first place. You realize that now, since I've made it clear, but I don't see why you saw fit to give such a characterization to what I wrote in the first place, since nothing in what I wrote implied it. You now say "Well, if the shoe doesn't fit, then don't wear it -- I wasn't talking about you anyway" but then what was the point of giving this characterization in a reply to something I wrote?

SK: "Anyway, why do you presume that I want to refute the socialist?"

I don't, I was just using socialism as an analogy to make a point. Just as, if you _were_ trying to refute a socialist, it would do no good to start out by accusing him of aggression, so too it does not refute me or conservatives in general (which I assume you _did_ want to do, otherwise what was the point of replying to what I wrote?) to simply accuse us of advocating aggression. In both cases, this strategy just begs the question.

SK: "Incidentally, I mean "socialist" as a synonym for criminality, because..."

Come on, Stephan, give me a break. Suppose a socialist you were arguing with said "Hey, don't get all offended, I just mean "libertarian" as a synonym for bloodsucking capitalist swine!" or "I just mean "libertarian" as a synonym for someone who has contempt for poor people!" Would you say "Oh, OK, I get it. No problem"? Of course not. You'd recognize this for the cheap rhetoric and question-begging epithet slinging that it is.

In that regard, casually to wonder, as you do "...if you [EF] are some kind of only partially libertarian conservative, i.e. a partial socialist or advocate of criminality..." is to present the alternatives in such a preposterously question-begging and implausible way that I can only hope you are joking. Are you saying that someone either agrees with (your brand of) libertarianism or is a "partial" socialist and criminal? That those are the _only_ alternatives? If so, there is no way I can refute such an absurd claim in a brief post, because there are so many things wrong with such a view that I'd be doing nothing but writing for the rest of the weekend.

SK: "So if you are willing to respond, I'd be curious to know whether you are libertarian; or if not, whether you would adopt (a) or (b) above; or if not, why you think my dichotomy is not proper?"

Your dichotomy is not proper because not all rights to what others have are based on consent. For example, my parents would, I think, have a right to part of my property if they became destitute, whether or not I wanted to help them out. (That doesn't entail any state intervention; that's another matter altogether.) A starving man in the woods also has a right to break into my cabin and get some food, even if I never consented to this and even if he knew I would not consent. (He should also compensate me for this later, though.) Now maybe you think these examples simply must entail "socialism" and "criminality." If so, I think you have an extremely crude understanding of rights theory, and I don't have the time to give a remedial course just now.

I would also advocate what you call strategy (a) for some cases. See my recent JLS article (in the latest issue) for how these two strategies would be fleshed out. I'm sure you will suspect me of "Orwellian" insincerity, though, and how can I blame you? We conservatives are all just "roughneck criminals," right?

Seriously, though, I'm sorry that you apparently fail to see how similar rhetorical moves like the ones you make are to the Marxist tendency to reject all criticism as "ideological." You seem, just like Marxists do, to want to poison the well against anyone who disagrees with your version of libertarianism, attacking their motives and calling them nasty names rather than seriously trying to answer their arguments in good faith. You seem to think that no one but the Kinsella-libertarian really has a virtuous or intellectually honest or well-meaning bone in his body. Everyone else, apparently, is just a thug trying to hide his true motives behind insincere arguments.

In answer to your question about whether I am a libertarian, as I explained in my reply to Steve on the Conservative Philsopher blog, I am no longer interested in fighting for that label (any more than Hayek was). I think it has probably been ruined for those committed to both the free market and limited government on the one hand and traditional morality on the other.

EF


Edward Feser - 1/28/2005

I'm not sure what you're trying to imply in speaking of the "alleged" Conervative Philosopher blog. Surely you know that the blog really exists, since Steve Horwitz himself referred to it, and linked to it, in commenting on the post I had made on it. And surely also you have already visited the blog yourself to read my original post, so that you could be sure you knew what you were talking about before expressing agreement with Steve's comments and adding a few of your own.

But maybe you just have a bad memory, so here again is the URL:

http://theconservativephilosopher.blogspot.com/

Scroll down and you'll find my reply to Steve, entitled "Horwitz on same-sex marriage."

Then again, given that you admit to "paraphrasing Steve's paraphrase" of me, maybe you didn't actually read my post, in which case I don't see why you thought yourself qualified to criticize it. And don't pretend that your remarks "were not directed specifically" at me, since in your original comments on Steve's post you refer several times to me by name in a critical way. But maybe your memory is playing tricks on you again, so you might want to go back and re-read what you wrote.

Though my basic point is very simple, you really seem hell-bent on not getting it. Yes, yes, yes, I entirely agree with you that socialism is "wrong, evil, immoral, wicked" and even, I suppose "uneconomic" (whatever that means). If you want actually to refute the socialist, though, you have to say more than that. You also have to do more than accuse him of aggression, since he thinks his view is not committed to advocating aggression, even though you and I both know that it really is. What you have to do is appeal to some premises you and he already share, and then show him from those that his view realy amounts to aggression. Otherwise you'll just be begging the question against him.

This has absolutely nothing to do "adopt[ing] some ridiculous ethical-skeptic stance." It's just basic logic. If your aim is to try to show rationally that people you disagree with -- socialists, or me -- are wrong, you need to do so in a non-question begging way.

Since I assumed that what you were interested in was engaging in such rational argumentation, it seemed worthwhile to point out that your arguments, even the ones whose conclusions I agree with, are queston-begging. But maybe all you're really interested in is venting and name-calling, in which case I'd rather not waste my time continuing this exchange.

Edward Feser


Edward Feser - 1/28/2005

I'm not sure what you're trying to imply in speaking of the "alleged" Conervative Philosopher blog. Surely you know that the blog really exists, since Steve Horwitz himself referred to it, and linked to it, in commenting on the post I had made on it. And surely also you have already visited the blog yourself to read my original post, so that you could be sure you knew what you were talking about before expressing agreement with Steve's comments and adding a few of your own.

But maybe you just have a bad memory, so here again is the URL:

http://theconservativephilosopher.blogspot.com/

Scroll down and you'll find my reply to Steve, entitled "Horwitz on same-sex marriage."

Then again, given that you admit to "paraphrasing Steve's paraphrase" of me, maybe you didn't actually read my post, in which case I don't see why you thought yourself qualified to criticize it. And don't pretend that your remarks "were not directed specifically" at me, since in your original comments on Steve's post you refer several times to me by name in a critical way. But maybe your memory is playing tricks on you again, so you might want to go back and re-read what you wrote.

Though my basic point is very simple, you really seem hell-bent on not getting it. Yes, yes, yes, I entirely agree with you that socialism is "wrong, evil, immoral, wicked" and even, I suppose "uneconomic" (whatever that means). If you want actually to refute the socialist, though, you have to say more than that. You also have to do more than accuse him of aggression, since he thinks his view is not committed to advocating aggression, even though you and I both know that it really is. What you have to do is appeal to some premises you and he already share, and then show him from those that his view realy amounts to aggression. Otherwise you'll just be begging the question against him.

This has absolutely nothing to do "adopt[ing] some ridiculous ethical-skeptic stance." It's just basic logic. If your aim is to try to show rationally that people you disagree with -- socialists, or me -- are wrong, you need to do so in a non-question begging way.

Since I assumed that what you were interested in was engaging in such rational argumentation, it seemed worthwhile to point out that your arguments, even the ones whose conclusions I agree with, are queston-begging. But maybe all you're really interested in is venting and name-calling, in which case I'd rather not waste my time continuing this exchange.

Edward Feser


Edward Feser - 1/28/2005

Stephan-

From this and other writings of yours, it is obvious that you are very impressed with the idea that all critics of libertarianism can be easily brushed aside by saying that they are in favor of "aggression" and that libertarians are not. The trouble is, this move is entirely question-begging. For what counts as "aggression" depends on what rights we have, and what libertarians and non-libertarians disagree about is (in part) precisely that. If you have a right to the TV set you're holding (because you bought it, say) then I commit aggression against you if I forcibly take it from you. But if you don't have such a right (because you stole it, say) then I don't commit aggression against you even if I forcibly take it from you.

By the same token, a socialist would argue that in redistributing wealth he is not committing aggression, but only enforcing people's rights to an equal share of wealth. Now you and I both agree that he would be seriously wrong to think this, but that is what he thinks, and so it will not suffice to refute him to claim, in a question-begging fashion, that he is committing aggression. You have instead to show him that we do not have the specific right (to an equal share of wealth) he mistakenly thinks we do.

I never said, as you seem to think I did, that there are deeper moral claims than those of rights, so that rights can be overridden. (It seems to me, from this and other encounters with you, that you are intent on reading your favorite straw man into every argument you don't like.) What I said was that there are deeper moral obligations than those we consent to (e.g. via contract). If you can't see the blindingly obvious difference between these claims, that's your problem, not mine.

My view would be that children, for example, have certain rights that do not plausibly derive from any contract, such as the right not to be aborted, the right not to be neglected, the right not to be morally corrupted, the right to be given a sound education, etc. etc. The obligation to fulfill the needs entailed by the positive rights among these falls to parents; the negative rights among them must be respected by all. Now you might disagree with this: that's fine, but it will not do to accuse me of endorsing "aggression." For my view is that it is those who violate these children's rights who are the aggressors. Thus, to accuse me of endorsing aggression is, again, to beg the question.

So the issue is what rights we have and where they come from. Only once that is settled can talk about "aggression" have any non-controversial content. You ought to engage this issue seriously and not assume that the "non-aggression principle" is a magic bullet that can slay all non-libertarians.

You ought also to stop calling everyone who disagrees with you a "criminal." This sort of thing is all too common among a certain kind of libertarian. It is unbecoming, and it is unlikely to get many people to listen to you who don't already agree with you.

If you're interested, I've replied to Steve Horwitz's own points on The Conservative Philosopher blog.

Edward Feser


Sheldon Richman - 1/28/2005

Good post, Steve. I believe you have bested Feser. And thanks for the links to your papers. I'm eager to read them.

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