Morals and the Free Society: 1. Intro; Is a Free Society a Paradise of Moral Tolerance?

“Morals and the Free Society” is an essay I’d like to get feedback on. It’s much too long for a single blog post, so I’ll post it in installments every few days. For reference—or if you just can’t wait to read the whole thing in all its glory—the complete essay is posted here.

Introduction

What is the appropriate place of morals in a free society? By “free society,” I mean a social order that places heavy emphasis on individual liberty; for example, freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion; freedom from coercive state power, as exemplified by unreasonable search and seizure, incarceration without trial, conscription (military or otherwise), etc.; and freedom of commerce, particularly including the protection of property rights. By “morals”—which I shall use interchangeably with “ethics”—I mean fundamental principles for the conduct of life, making no preconceptions about what those principles must be. For instance, even a simple egoistic hedonism is on the table as a possible moral system and conceivably even as the best.

In asking about the appropriate place of morals in a free society, part of what I’m asking is which morals, if any, are encouraged or even required by a free society. Do the political arguments in favor of a free society imply any particular system of morals? Does the operation or the structure or the maintenance of a free society require or imply any particular system of morals? If a free society does not require any particular moral system, does it at least encourage (or inhibit) any? Or are the politics of a free society and morals completely independent? What moral vision, if any, should we associate with a free society?

The purpose of this essay is to explore these questions and eventually to attempt an answer. My strategy is to take the superiority of a free society for granted and ask what implications that has for morality. I aim to show that this strategy is fruitful. Although the conditions and requirements of a free society hardly determine a complete system of morals, I shall argue that they powerfully and helpfully constrain the character of a moral system. There is a moral vision for a free society.

Is a Free Society a Paradise of Moral Tolerance?

One approach to the question of what moral system is appropriate to a free society is to say that no particular system is more appropriate than any other. This view is sometimes held up with pride by advocates of a free society, as a point in its favor. The free society, they say, does not coerce its people in any way and a fortiori does not impose morals on them. On this view, people in a free society are left free to work out their own way of life and code of values. Thus, the free society is the social order of tolerance par excellence. For instance, Murray Rothbard, in “Six Myths about Libertarianism” (1980), writes that, “Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles.”

It is odd that this “tolerance” view of the free society is as common as it is, inasmuch as it is so obviously false. The free society is hardly neutral as between “hedonism,” “’bourgeois’ conventional or religious morality,” and “libertinism,” to quote some alternatives named by Rothbard. On the contrary, the complement of personal liberty is personal responsibility, and the free society is hard on those who forget that. The free society rewards ants (especially ants who get a good education), not grasshoppers. As George Gilder (2012), Michael Novak (1982; 1996), Deirdre McCloskey (2006), and many other writers have pointed out, the free society promotes the virtues of industry, initiative, perseverance, prudence, reliability, honesty, courage, independence, politeness, affability, frugality, probity, discretion, cheerfulness, goodwill, daring, endurance, sobriety, fidelity, restraint, entrepreneurship, and many others, all of a distinctly bourgeois cast. Hedonism and libertinism, by contrast, are punished—not by the government or any coercive authority, of course, but by their outcomes, which the individuals who engage in such practices are left to bear on their own.

One may say that all this is not due to the deliberate imposition of morality by a free society but is an entirely natural consequence of the fact that the free society does not allow persons (e.g., the hedonists and libertines) to impose the consequences of their actions on others. This is true, but it does not alter the fact that a free society is not morally neutral: it is a bourgeois paradise and by the same token a torment to contrary “lifestyles.” Nor is this any mere accident. The conception of individual freedom—as consisting in freedom from coercion, in freedom of all action that is not itself coercive, and in the observance of property rights—that lies at the base of the free society is not some neutral, obvious, universally accepted moral concept sanctified by God, “intuition,” and Harvard University. Rather, it is embedded in and depends on certain predominantly individualistic conceptions of human life, endeavor, responsibility, and happiness.

In addition, obviously the prohibition on coercion and protection of property rights themselves represent moral principles, and the free society is not “tolerant” of their violation. (Rothbard himself is quick to point this out.) Thus, a free society is not morally neutral; it plays distinct favorites.

Works Cited

  • Gilder, George. 2012. Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the 21st Century. Regnery.
  • McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. University of Chicago Press.
  • Novak, Michael. 1982. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Simon and Schuster.
  • ———. 1996. Business as a Calling. The Free Press.
  • Rothbard, Murray. 1980. “Six Myths about Libertarianism.” Modern Age, 24: 9–15. (Original title: “Myth and Truth about Libertarianism.”)

44 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 1. Intro; Is a Free Society a Paradise of Moral Tolerance?

  1. I’ve only read this first part of your essay, so my comments/questions may be answered in the later parts. I basically agree with your argument. In fact, as far as the core argument is concerned, I think it’s irrefutable. So in what follows, I’m just picking at details.

    (1) Your opening account of a free society “places heavy emphasis on freedom,” but doesn’t treat it as an absolute. I think it’s worth clarifying right at the outset whether or not you regard redistribution as a legitimate function of government. (Some people regard redistribution as a flagrant violation of property rights, some don’t. It’s a hard issue, part of which turns on an ambiguity in the very concept of “redistribution.”)

    It seems to me that to the extent that you grant any redistribution, you have to grant precisely that much of paternalism as a counterpart to it. I don’t use either “redistribution” or “paternalism” as pejoratives; I’m really just making a quasi-conceptual point.

    If a democratic government takes wealth from A to give it to B, the conditions on B’s receipt of A’s wealth have to be tied to moral considerations, whether those considerations involve B’s eligibility to receive the wealth, or the conditions on how B uses that wealth, or both. Redistribution can’t be unconditional or unlimited, at least to the extent that the regime doing the redistributing has granted the prior legitimacy of A’s holdings, taking them from A to give to B. No regime, no matter how “socialist,” could frivolously take from A and give to B with no moral strings attached. (That’s why what we call “welfare” is so paternalistic. Whether the degree and kind of paternalism involved in (e.g.) TANF is objectionable or not is a separate matter; my point is that if you have redistribution, some paternalism is ineliminable.)

    If that’s right, the thesis you’re attacking has no chance of getting off the ground: it’s really DOA, or DBA (“dead before arrival”). It’s only because Rothbard regards the prohibition against redistribution as a fanatical absolute that he doesn’t have to deal with the fact that redistribution requires paternalism. But relax Rothbard’s version of respect for property rights just a bit, and you inevitably face the fact. No regime could survive for long by taking people’s money and disbursing it in morally neutral fashion.

    I’m curious whether you agree that redistribution requires paternalism, and whether you’d want to take this route to your conclusion.

    (2) I’m (almost) embarrassed to say that though I’ve read my share of Rothbard, I haven’t read him in a very systematic or comprehensive way. For that reason, I literally am not sure I understand what he means by “libertarianism,” especially when it is the subject of a sentence, and it is alleged to be doing (or not doing) things. For instance, when Rothbard says, “Libertarianism does not offer a way of life…” I honestly don’t understand what the sentence in question is trying to say. What he says seems ambiguous as between two completely different claims:

    (a) “Libertarianism” names a political doctrine that neither makes nor presupposes ethical claims (or: neither makes nor presupposes ethical claims beyond the following set {a, b, c…}, where the set is very narrowly limited to a bunch of quasi-Lockean claims about the State of Nature, proportionality in self-defense, homesteading, etc). But in practice, a libertarian society is one in which you’ll find people non-coercively espousing all kinds of ethical judgments, and non-coercively acting on them in a social context. A moralized life is compatible with a libertarian society, even if moral claims are not part of libertarian doctrine.

    (b) The consistent advocacy of libertarianism requires moral neutrality in all dealings, except insofar as a given human interaction involves a violation of libertarian rights, in which case moral judgment comes into play.

    They both strike me as false, but whereas (a) is merely false, (b) seems so absurd that I can’t imagine anyone believing it (not even Rothbard). Do you have a sense of which of the two he means?

    (3) I wonder how much of your argument turns on the defense of specifically bourgeois morality. For one thing, it’s not clear to me what “bourgeois” morality is. (Disclosure: I haven’t read McCloskey/Gilder/Novak any more thoroughly than I’ve read Rothbard.) But I also don’t think avowal of bourgeois morality is necessary for the point you want to make. All you need to say is that a free society requires the defense, adoption, practice (etc.) of some substantive morality (a virtue ethics, perhaps) that goes beyond {universal toleration plus rights}. “Bourgeois morality” seems to me to bring in too much conformist, suburban-sounding baggage.

    It also leaves something significant out. I find it interesting that the list of virtues you cite from McCloskey/Gilder/Novak is entirely apolitical. It’s as though the virtuous bourgeois individual works hard, plays hard, is nice to other people (is rights respecting, respectful, polite), and takes responsibility for his own actions, but has no interest whatsoever in specifically political justice–in contributing to the common good, or in re-configuring the structure of the society he lives in, whether at a macro or a micro level (or anywhere in between). He doesn’t seem to want to rock the boat (any boat), or affiliate with others beyond a narrow and highly personal circle. You wouldn’t find him marching in a rally, attending a meeting of the Zoning Board (much less speaking out at one), taking a case to trial for the principle of the thing, fighting City Hall, etc. He lives a quiet, low key, self-responsible life–and that’s it. One can’t expect more of him.

    Perhaps that’s a mere omission; you did end the list by saying that there are other virtues than the ones mentioned. But then you said that the others have a “distinctly bourgeois cast.” I guess my difficulty is that I don’t think that justice–specifically political justice–has a bourgeois cast. Bourgeois morality seems too complacent and Epicurean to be much concerned with justice.

    I’ve been reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which I highly recommend partly because it’s such a good book, but also for its relevance to your essay. I suppose that Putnam’s preferred picture of civic life is itself bourgeois in a way, but it’s also very much at odds with the way the 21st century American bourgeoisie conceives of the good life. So though I find Putnam’s vision of civic life attractive, I couldn’t tell you whether it exemplified bourgeois morality or not. That suggests to me that “bourgeois” is a highly equivocal term, and a potentially misleading one. (Here is Putnam’s website for the book.)

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    • Thanks for the comments, Irfan.

      In the essay as a whole, I am trying to pull together the threads of my reading and thinking over the past six months into a theory of social morality that will satisfy me. In personal morality, I’ve been comfortably some sort of neo-Aristotelian for a long time (despite my awareness of plenty of questions and difficulties, none of which I have bothered to investigate much). So that’s not my focus right now. On the other hand, I’ve come to feel all at sea in the matter of political philosophy. For many canonical libertarians, such as Rand and Rothbard and Nozick, the foundations of political philosophy are really pretty simple, and so is the relation between social and personal morals. All these writers basically cook up a rationale for a ban on coercion—on the initiation of force—which is the ultimate basis of all their political principles. Then social morality consists in honoring this ban, and the relation between personal and social morality is that one lives according to one’s personal moral principles, whatever they are, being careful to respect the ban. That’s it. Simple. This may be a bit unfair to Rand, actually, who I believe thought much harder than the other two about why noncoercion is important and attempted to produce an integrated system of ethics and politics. It’s for naught, though, because her system doesn’t work in my view, and neither do the others. And that’s the problem. It’s not that I’ve decided coercion is okay after all, it’s that I’ve lost any sense of having a moral system that integrates the personal and social realms. Especially, I want something that (a) explains why individuals should respect a ban on coercing others, and (b) displays personal and social morals as all of a piece, as parts of a consistent whole. I think I’ve found the way to some answers, and that’s what the essay presents.

      (1) Yes, I can see the need to sharpen my description of a “free society.” It is vague mainly because I need to think about it more. That’s true of an awful lot in this essay, actually. But I would say that the vagueness or openness of my characterization of the free society is because I don’t regard freedom (or noncoercion) as absolute, and I want to signal my attitude that societies can be more or less free and that I would call “free” those that are clustered at the free end of the coercion scale. I regard noncoercion as an ideal subject to two qualifications. First, it isn’t always attainable; I am thinking of cases of market failure (simple example: environmental pollution; less simple but in my opinion equally clear example: law enforcement). Second, it isn’t necessarily always desirable. I’m not sure what these cases would be. Public funding for education? Here my attitude is that the burden of proof is heavily on the advocates of redistribution, but I don’t foreclose the possibility of their making their case in certain instances. And yes, it wouldn’t surprise me if all those instances were paternalistic. The arguments that come to mind for public funding of education are all paternalistic.

      I suppose that if redistribution is allowed, then that introduces issues of moral justification, but since the issues are already manifestly there—noncoercion is a moral principle and needs a moral justification, as Rothbard admits—that part of the case is already made and I would say has no hope of turning out otherwise. Rothbard’s claim, along with other “thin” libertarians, is only that within the confines of a ban on coercion, “anything goes.” And you can see why they say this. It’s a short step from, “a free society does not coerce people to behave in any particular way (except to observe the ban),” to “a free society doesn’t impose its morals on people.” The step is made by equivocating on “impose.”

      Thanks for the references on “thin” versus “thick” libertarianism. I had not seen them (or any other recent discussion of this issue). Charles Johnson’s piece was quite well done. Obviously, I’m in the “thick” camp. Nevertheless, I don’t particularly “identify” with it. What’s being discussed in these articles are the implications for other issues, such as for personal morality, of libertarian ideology. As will become clear, that’s not what I’m talking about when I speak of “taking the superiority of a free society for granted and asking what implications that has for personal morality.” I mean mainly to look at the actual functioning of a free society, not its ideology. So it’s not “libertarianism” I’m interested in, but the operation of the free market.

      (2) I think Rothbard means (a): Libertarianism per se rests on the morality of nonaggression, but within the libertarian society different individuals will have their different personal moralities, some will be religious, some will be voluptuary hedonists, etc.

      (3)

      I wonder how much of your argument turns on the defense of specifically bourgeois morality.

      The “bourgeois” morality will be the conclusion of the argument, not its premise. The moral view that emerges will encompass a great deal more than commercial virtues like being enterprising, so not to worry on that score. I wind up with a reasonably specific list of virtues, surprisingly so in view of how slapdash this all really is.

      “Bourgeois morality” seems to me to bring in too much conformist, suburban-sounding baggage.

      Yes, perhaps I’ve read too much McCloskey and so have forgotten these associations. So I need to be more careful in using the term. However, I think the associations—you say complacent and Epicurean—are misplaced. After all, it is prosperous members of the middle class who are most likely to vote, be on the PTA and otherwise take an interest in the way their local schools, police, etc. are run, sponsor painting murals on public structures, establish parks, and so forth. That’s the way it is in my community, anyway. True, bourgeois types aren’t the ones who chain themselves to BART cars or stampede onto freeways when the police shoot a black person, or who shout down speakers at Oakland City Council meetings. But I don’t think the people in my community who do those things are very public-spirited or even have much authentic interest in justice. Or think about the early 19th century abolitionists. Who were they? Prosperous Quakers started the abolition movement, and it was taken up by other (mostly religious) bourgeois types.

      I’ve come to think there’s a disconnect between the way the bourgeois really are and the way they’re thought to be. And the main culprit in spawning this disconnect is a false ideology of the free market, derived from the science of economics and taken up by all too many libertarians, according to which free market behavior is all about the pursuit of personal interest. To counter this misperception is a main aim of what I’m doing.

      Interesting that you mention Putnam. A key event that started me down this road was reading his Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, from 1993. The first half or so of the book is a bit of a bore, as he describes the recent political history of Italy (since about 1969) and its older political history (since about 1100). But it picks up, especially in the final chapter. Italy performed a “natural experiment” in the influence of informal institutions on the performance of formal institutions, when starting in 1970, the central government set up twenty regional governments (a partitioning of the whole country) and delegated them significant authority, over matters such as education, health care, and economic development programs. Prior to this, the central government had been very strong, and there was essentially no level of government between the central government and municipal governments. The regional governments were all identically constituted—on paper. However, the way they performed was very different, and the differences in performance corresponded pretty exactly to the traditional division of the country into a southern region characterized by rigid social hierarchy, patronage of the poor by a few ruling local families in each area, corrupt officials (even by Italian standards), and endemic poverty, and a prosperous, politically egalitarian, commercial north central region. This is the thing that goes back 1000 years. Think of the commercial cities of Venice, Genoa, Florence, Milan, and Turin, versus the “picturesque” peasants of Sicily, and you get the idea. The thing is, the regional governments in the north central regions performed effectively and brought prosperity to these struggling regions, while the new governments of the southern regions were corrupt, inefficient, and achieved basically nothing.

      Putnam attributes the differential performance of the governments of the two areas to their different “civic traditions,” hence the book’s subtitle. He relates these civic traditions explicitly to the informal institutions that Douglas North talks about, which is how I learned about North and new institutionalism in economics. All this figures heavily in the paper I wrote, as you’ll see. In fact, I originally intended the paper to be about new institutionalism itself, but as the paper progressed, the writing took itself in a different direction. I still intend to write something about it, but I now want to read a bit more about it.

      A point Putnam makes in Making Democracy Work is that informal institutions can be remarkably resilient in the face of external shocks. The good institutions of northern Italy repeatedly brought it prosperity and social success, only to have this destroyed by plagues, the Spaniards, the French, etc. These shocks may have wiped out their commercial success and wealth, but they didn’t destroy the fundamental institutions—the mores, attitudes, and civic traditions that seem to be critical to the successful functioning of more formal institutions such as legal frameworks. The flip side, unfortunately, is that bad institutions seem to be just as resilient. The south of Italy has been incompetent for 1000 years and shows little sign of changing (as of Putnam’s writing).

      I haven’t read Bowling Alone, in part because it seems to be another jeremiad about how our world is breaking down. These tracts are often commercial winners—humanity has an insatiable appetite for the tales of Chicken Littles—but their predictions rarely come true and usually seem ridiculous rather than prophetic in hindsight. But maybe I should have a look at it, especially considering how influential Making Democracy Work has been for me.

      Anyway, you’re perfectly right to relate what I’m doing to Putnam. The role of informal institutions in producing the good or bad functioning of society that he talks about is central to the argument of my paper.

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      • I’ve just glanced at (not read) the rest of the paper. It’s really a monograph! It’s at least 70 pages long in standard double spaced format. But it looks terrific, I’m glad you wrote it, and I’m particularly happy that you’ve posted it here. It’ll provoke some good discussion, as it already has. Anyway, I’ll try to keep this short, since you’ve more or less responded to every question I asked, and much turns on what you say in the rest of the essay.

        I basically agree with your take on Rand, Rothbard, and Nozick. Rand seems to me more thoughtful on these topics than either Rothbard or Nozick, but all three have extremely simple-minded views about the relationship between ethics and politics. I see that you have a section on Rand, so I suppose we’ll get to it when we get to it, but I’d say two things at the outset.

        One is that I don’t think that the ban on coercion is normatively basic for Rand. She is a little unclear about what she regards as the basic principle of social ethics, but I think it’s clear enough on her account that no fundamental principle can consist of a ban. The fundamental principle has to be an injunction; the ban is there because it flouts or subverts the injunction. The two candidates for “basic social principle” are either the trader principle or the injunction to treat others as ends in themselves. The trader principle says that every interaction requires a reciprocal trade of value for value (whatever that ends up meaning). The principle of ends says (or implies) that we’re obliged to treat others as ends, rather than as mere means. (Both are in “The Objectivist Ethics.”)

        I take her view to be that coercion violates both. You can’t trade reciprocally under conditions that permit force-initiations, and every force initiation treats others as mere means rather than as respecting their rational agency as an end-in-itself. Further, trading and treating-as-ends are constitutive of the virtue of justice, which is itself constitutive of surviving qua human. Obviously, that’s just a description of the overall account she wants to give. She doesn’t do much to defend it, but I find that kind of account plausible, and I do think there is textual support for it (so that I’m not “over-theorizing” Rand).

        Another point is that I think it’s useful to appeal to the distinction between normative and non-normative theories of freedom. In Moral Rights and Political Freedom, Tara Smith argues that Rand’s theory belongs to the first category, and I agree. (I don’t particularly like the book, but I agree with that particular claim.) The most helpful formulation she offers is that freedom is defined in terms of a prior account of rights, which is itself defined in terms of a prior account of human flourishing. It turns out on this account that we are free when we can act where we should have sovereignty or complete control over our actions, where the content of the ‘should’ is itself supplied by some substantive moral account. (Actually, Nozick has a similar sort of account of “coercion.” Cf. his “Coercion,” in Socratic Puzzles.)

        There are lots of IOUs, lacunae, promissory notes, etc. there. But I think this sort of view gives one the flexibility to offer a much richer and more nuanced account of freedom than what one finds in most of the strictly libertarian (i.e., non-Randian) literature. It’s a long story, but on a view like this, all torts are rights violations, so that (e.g.) pollution crossing a certain threshold of acceptability (for human flourishing) violates freedom; government policies intended to rectify it do not. It’s too long a story to tell right now, but I don’t think law enforcement has to be conceived as violating freedom, either. I don’t mean to be insisting that even freedom broadly conceived must be conceived as an absolute. I just mean that if one has a more flexible account of what freedom is, one isn’t constrained by the sort of normative straitjacket that so many Rothbard- or Nozick-influenced libertarians seem content to wear.

        The take-away here is that “freedom” and “redistribution” turn out to be extremely complex, highly contested concepts, and much of relevance to your thesis will turn on how we conceive of them. No two injunctions to respect “freedom,” and no two prohibitions on “redistribution” will be substantively the same. The semantic differences will entail moral differences. (So that covers issue [1].)

        “Got it” on issue (2), though I suppose there’s still an unclarity there. Suppose that Rothbard thinks that libertarianism as a doctrine only “concerns” coercion. Meanwhile, a libertarian society will lead to a wide proliferation of lifestyles. Surely he can’t be insisting that if I practice lifestyle A, and you practice (incompatible) lifestyle B, it contradicts libertarianism for me to criticize your lifestyle, or vice versa, or for either of us to suggest that one’s own lifestyle is better in the long-run for the survival of a free society? Even if libertarianism is “purely” political doctrine, there could be other “purely” ethical doctrines that have implications for the parts of life libertarianism doesn’t discuss. He can’t sensibly be denying that, but with Rothbard, you never know.

        On issue (3), I guess we’ve just read different parts of Putnam. I know about Making Democracy Work, but haven’t read it, and you know about Bowling Alone, but haven’t read that. I do still think that Bowling Alone would be useful to you, and useful on this issue of “bourgeois morality.”

        It’s definitely true that (relative) affluence is a necessary condition of civic participation, but Putnam’s point is that there has been a decline in civic participation over the last five or so decades, and that it’s not explainable by economic decline. In other words, people are not less participatory because they’re less affluent. Put crudely, they’re less participatory because there’s something about the generations that came into existence after World War II that inclines them to participate less, to give less to philanthropy, to be more isolated, to be less socially connected, etc., and to prefer TV watching (and the like) to social interaction.

        My worry is that I don’t think McCloskey’s account of bourgeois morality discriminates between the more participatory and the less participatory, or the more socially connected and the less. It focuses on other things. So the worry remains that insofar as political justice requires civic participation, bourgeois virtue enjoins its practitioners to pursue one of its necessary conditions (wealth), but not to take the further step of participating to promote the common good. I don’t know this, of course, not having read McCloskey’s book. It’s just a suspicion from having read other things.

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        • Just a couple of things. On Rand, I agree we should probably discuss her when the relevant section of the paper comes up. One of the things I most want feedback on is corrections or criticisms where I’ve misconstrued authors or been too hasty or harsh with them. From your remarks about her, I gather you’ll think I’m too harsh with Rand! But one question:

          The principle of ends says (or implies) that we’re obliged to treat others as ends, rather than as mere means. (Both are in “The Objectivist Ethics.”)

          Really? Where in The Objectivist Ethics do you have in mind for the idea that she says we’re obliged to treat others as ends? That doesn’t really seem very Randian. Is this a fundamental for her? Or something that follows from an obligation to treat others on the basis of reason?

          On Putnam, the way in which I see a divergence between Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone (without having read the latter, of course) is that the former treats institutions as stable and resilient in the face adverse forces, whereas the latter treats them as vulnerable, and indeed as currently breaking down in the U.S. Otherwise, with regard to the civic engagement stuff—participation, as you say—that’s also in MDW, it’s just that I neglect it! I’m not convinced that those particular institutions are really that important. Putnam presents correlational data to support the idea that civic engagement (participation in clubs, boards, sporting organizations, and so forth) is important for the efficient and effective functioning of society. But is civic engagement cause or effect? I don’t think he actually makes a very strong case for “cause”. That said, I still think the bourgeoisie is more liable to be thus participative than other groups. But such virtues don’t play much role in my analysis.

          I could still be convinced. I know I have more research to do on this, and I’ve got reading lined up that will try to make the case. Actually, I’m currently reading Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration, the last chapter of which bangs the drum for Putnam and his ideas. So perhaps I will soon be set straight.

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          • Just on the textual issue in Rand: the most explicit passage is “The Objectivist Ethics,” (Virtue of Selfishness, p. 30). (Unfortunately, different editions of The Virtue of Selfishness have different paginations, but I’m using one of the more recent editions with larger print than the older ones–if that’s any help.)

            Here is the passage (all emphases hers):

            Principle of Ends: The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others–and therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose.

            That’s the (sort of) Kantian-sounding version. In “The Ethics of Emergencies,” there’s a version that sounds somewhat more Aristotelian or Stoic (as in the doctrine of oikeiosis). The putative topic here is what one owes strangers in an emergency, but in order to answer that, Rand ends up trying to give an account of what we owe others as such:

            A rational man…recognizes the fact that his own life is the source, not only of all of his values, but of his capacity to value. Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself. (VS, p. 53)

            I take the two passages to be related as follows: On the Objectivist view, a rational person lives for himself, in order to achieve his own happiness. He interacts with others qua rational in the knowledge that (and insofar as) they are (to some degree) doing the same thing, in the same way, with the same capacities. Call this italicized thought X. So he tries to interact with them qua X. When you interact with another qua X, you affirm your own dignity as an agent (“dignity” is not her word, but my word for the second passage’s reference conceiving your own agency as a “primary value”). Likewise, you affirm the other’s dignity as an agent, i.e., treat him as an end (again, not her formulation, but my way of explicating the first passage).

            I mean all of that as an explication. She doesn’t give an argument, so neither have I.

            Elsewhere, she describes justice as a matter of granting all and only what another deserves (VS, p. 28). But justice is merely an aspect of rationality, and rationality is one of three “means to and realization[s] of” the ultimate end (VS, p. 27). I take that to mean that rationality (and with it, justice) are constitutive of, or components of, the ultimate end as such.

            So, to answer your questions, does she think we’re obliged to treat others as ends? Yes. She says that explicitly.

            Is that obligation “fundamental”? Well, she regards the obligation as “the basic social principle,” so that it’s the most fundamental of her social principles (more so than rights or the ban on coercion). But her social principles have a deeper justification in other principles. So ultimately, it follows from an obligation to treat others on the basis of reason.

            One complication here is that she describes the Trader Principle as “the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice” (VS, p. 34). This seems to give her two basic social principles. Having two basic social principles wouldn’t be a problem if she was a pluralist about social principles, but she isn’t. The Principle of Ends is “the basic social principle,” and the Trader Principle is “the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships.” So either she’s writing carelessly, or the two principles are equivalent. But if they’re equivalent, why are there two formulations? Most charitable reading: the two formulations bring out different aspects of one and the same principle. Then why give them two names? Well, she doesn’t give them two names. I did, for ease of reference.

            I don’t know how helpful it will be, but I have a long paper on Rand on punishment in which I try to explicate the connection between egoism and justice. It’s the ultimate “tail wagging the dog” project: I was supposed to be responding to a short paper by David Boonin criticizing Rand’s theory of punishment by the state for criminal offenses. Boonin was, to my mind, misled by Allan Gotthelf into tackling that question by discussing Rand’s letter exchange with John Hospers on punishment. I wanted to re-direct the discussion from the letter exchange to Rand’s published work. But in order to make sense of punishment, I thought one had to make sense of justice, so I ended up writing this monster of a paper. Ironically, it still only scratches the surface, if that. But maybe there’s something there.

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          • On the textual issue in Rand, my own take is that the trader principle and individual rights—a ban on the initiation of force—are the same principle in somewhat different applications—social relations generally versus politics specifically—and that they derive from the same source. In TOE, her discussion of the trader principle and of rights occur together. It starts with an enunciation of the trader principle—the passage you quote. Interestingly, she links it with the principle that “the rational interests of men do not clash” and calls it “the [not “a”] principle of justice.” She then applies it to social relationships, especially “spiritual” values like love. She emphasizes that it is a principle of rational selfishness. Then—and this I regard as critical—she spends half a page discussing the benefits of human society. Mainly, these include benefitting from the discoveries of others and from the division of labor. She then observes that these benefits require that one live with rational fellows in a rational social structure; i.e., a social structure that prohibits people’s sacrificing others to themselves. Then she announces: “The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.” (VS 32). (My copy is the old Signet paperback. Retail price: $1.50.)

            Notice that the basic political principle is indeed a ban. I don’t really see the problem with this. It seems to me that it is functionally equivalent to the trader principle. Both prohibit sacrifices, or, equivalently, require that people deal with one another through persuasion, including the “persuasion” of offering values for values.

            Notice also that what directly precedes the declaration of the noninitiation of force principle is a discussion of what is necessary for people to be able to benefit from participating in society. I think this is what is fundamental for her. She derives her political (and more broadly social) principles from what is required for people to be able to thrive in a social setting.

            The same pattern occurs in “Man’s Rights.” She says we are an entity of a specific kind that “cannot function successfully under coercion, and that rights are a necessary condition of [our] particular mode of survival” (VS 94). She then quotes Galt’s Speech in support of this, to the effect that the human animal must employ reason to survive, which means acting on one’s own judgment, working for one’s values, and keeping the product of one’s work. She then announces the noninitiation of force principle. Again, the way I read this is that what justifies the noninitiation of force principle is an argument about the necessary social conditions for us to survive in the human way; i.e., by reason.

            On the other hand, the notion that she believes in, as her basic social principle, that we each have an obligation to treat others as ends, does not seem very well supported to me. It does not fit the style of her thought very well, does it? She never speaks of “obligations;” this is your term. Especially not “basic” obligations that don’t derive from some good of the individual, egoistic agent. She explicitly excoriates this very idea in “Causality versus Duty.” She also never talks about treating others as ends, as far as I can see. The main thrust of the passage you cite is egoism: “every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others.” She is saying her basic social principle is the rejection of sacrifice. She does say that one must not sacrifice others to oneself (as well as not sacrificing oneself to others). But this isn’t the same as saying one must treat others as ends, which sounds like a much richer principle than merely not sacrificing them. To do the latter, it would be enough not to initiate force against them.

            The context of the passage from “The Ethics of Emergencies” is an explanation of why one ought to grant “generalized respect and good will” to strangers. It is about why we should approach strangers with an attitude of benevolence. This isn’t the same as treating them as ends. She is saying we should regard other human beings as having value per se (unless or until they show they are unworthy of such regard). This also is not the same treating others as ends. Her rationale is obscure, but she seems to be saying that we naturally feel a common bond with other living beings, being all in the same struggle for life, and we feel it especially with other human beings, as being all the more like ourselves. We say something like, “he’s like me, and worthy of being valued for that reason” (as “a secondary projection of the primary value which is [my]self”). (It is noteworthy that she also defends good will toward strangers on material grounds: they have potential benefit to one if they develop the virtues.) This hardly seems to support the notion that her basic social principle is that we must treat others as ends.

            In general, the idea of “treating others as ends” sounds to me like a requirement to treat others as having some kind of primary value or Kantian dignity. That just doesn’t sound to me at all in keeping with Rand’s system.

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          • On the textual issue in Rand, my own take is that the trader principle and individual rights—a ban on the initiation of force—are the same principle in somewhat different applications—social relations generally versus politics specifically—and that they derive from the same source.

            Even if I granted everything you said about the texts in the four paragraphs, I don’t see how it entails the preceding conclusion, or even supports it.

            To trade with someone is to give them what they deserve in a mutually consenting interaction. Well, flattery violates the trader principle, but doesn’t violate rights. (Same with insults.) When I flatter someone, I’m giving them praise that by definition they don’t deserve (or that I don’t think they deserve). I certainly have the right to do it, and the recipient has the right to accept (or reject) the flattery. But the essential issue has nothing to do with rights; it has to do with the proper “payment” we’re to give when it comes to verbalizing the judgments we make on other people’s traits of character. What’s essential to trade on Rand’s view is the thesis that every interaction has to require mutually beneficial exchange, and every exchange has to require “payment” (in a somewhat metaphorical or extended sense) for goods or services exchanged. But if you can violate the trader principle without violating rights (and you can), I don’t see how the two principles can be the same.

            The trader principle doesn’t just require dealing with other people consensually. It requires granting them what they deserve, which can only be done under conditions of mutual consent. In other words, mutual consent is just a necessary condition for the application of the trader principle, not the whole thing, and not the essence of the principle itself.

            On “obligations,” she definitely does use the term, and goes out of her way to insist that it’s a legitimate term. The textual evidence is in “Causality and Duty” itself. Near the beginning:

            The legitimate concept nearest in meaning to the word “duty” is “obligation.” The two are often used interchangeably, but there is a profound difference between them which people sense, yet seldom identify.

            And near the end:

            The obligation to keep one’s promises is one of the most important elements in proper human relationships, the element that leads to mutual confidence and makes cooperation possible among men. Yet observe Kant’s pernicious influence: in the dictionary description quoted earlier, personal obligation is thrown in almost as a contemptuous footnote; the source of “duty” is defined as “the permanent dictates of conscience, piety, right, or law”; the source of “obligation,” as “the dictates of usage, custom, or propriety”—then, as an afterthought: “and to carry out a particular, specific, and often personal promise or agreement.” (Italics mine.) A personal promise or agreement is the only valid, binding obligation, without which none of the others can or do stand.

            Even if she hadn’t used the word, I think it’s clear that she’s relying on some such concept as obligation throughout the essay. The conception of conditional necessity she defends throughout the essay can easily be rewarded in “ought” statements, which can in turn be described, in nominal form, as “obligations.” Her point is that “duties” are in no sense performatively incurred by the agent’s actions, and bind the agent even to the detriment of her well-being; “obligations” have the reverse features in both cases. The agent performatively incurs obligations; the obligation promotes the agent’s well-being. I agree that the obligations are not basic. Obligations have to be derived from and promote the agent’s good. But a derived obligation is still an obligation.

            I don’t think “sacrifice” for Rand merely means violating someone’s rights, or using force against him (so that the ban on sacrifice merely requires not using force). It means not granting the person what he deserves (which goes well beyond the issue of force).

            At a bare minimum, Rand thinks that we can’t deal dishonestly with people. Dealing dishonestly with someone is both an instance of dishonesty (trivially), but it’s unjust to them, hence a violation of the trader principle (qua injustice). A genuine exchange of “value for value” requires honest dealings on both sides. Now, you might assimilate all dishonesty to fraud, and then call the resulting fraud a “force initiation,” so that all dishonesty in trade is banned because it’s force initiating. But that strategy will only go so far. Suppose I induce you to do something irrational by relying on your propensity for self-deception–and you acquiesce in my doing so. This is a paradigmatic violation of the trader principle (qua dishonest), but it’s totally consenting. Adherence to the trader principle can’t involve essential reliance on dishonesty, but an essentially dishonest transaction can be entirely consensual.

            Nor can adherence to the trader principle involve violation of one of the cardinal principles. Suppose that you induce me to do something that is agreed by any reasonable party to be incompatible with human self-esteem. Even I agree that it is, and I’m the one about to perform the act. And yet I do it, for whatever perverse reason, and do it to the last letter of your request. That’s a paradigmatic violation of the trader principle as well, but consensual. If the trader principle is the principle of justice, adherence to it can’t require the subversion of a cardinal value. (No one can “deserve” to act in such a way as to subvert a cardinal value, and no one can rationally be persuaded to do so.) But ex hypothesi, the “trade” in this example subverts a cardinal value.

            The cardinal values are cardinal because they have to be promoted in every action that a virtuous/rational agent takes. “Sacrifice” is either forcing or tricking or persuading/cajoling or otherwise inducing someone to act against such values (not just forcing or tricking). That’s why Galt’s Oath says: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask someone to live for mine” (my emphasis). Asking someone would violate the trader principle as clearly as forcing them. And the other person’s voluntary acquiescence in your request would violate the trader principle as clearly as their being victimized by your force.

            On treating someone as an end: it doesn’t dispose of the issue to point out that Rand’s principle of ends is egoistic. Of course it is. But her conception of egoism requires non-sacrifice on a broad conception of non-sacrifice. It’s a trivial inference from the claim I quote to the prescription that we ought not to treat others as mere means (where “mere means” = treating them as a means while not simultaneously taking stock of the fact that they’re an end in themselves). The virtuously egoistic agent doesn’t permit sacrifice of himself, and doesn’t sacrifice others to himself. But that means: the virtuously egoistic agent doesn’t allow others to coerce him or to deceive him or to manipulate him or to make requests of him that compromise his adherence to the cardinal values; likewise, he neither coerces others nor deceives them nor manipulates them nor makes requests of them that compromise their adherence to the cardinal values. To treat someone as an end on Rand’s view is to deal with them in such a way as to promote your interests by promoting their interests–on the premise that promoting their interests is the optimal way of promoting your own.

            All of that has a vaguely Kantian feel to it, but it’s not Kant (or even all that Kantian, at the end of the day), and it’s not only in keeping with her views, it’s pretty close to what she comes out and says. Peikoff adds some confirmatory gloss to parts of this in OPAR, but I think the basic point is clear enough from the Randian texts themselves. (And let’s not forget: OPAR, while not an articulation of official Objectivist doctrine, is still an authoritative explication of Rand’s views by her very best student, the only one with three decades of unparalleled access to The Mistress–and the imprimatur of The Mistress herself.)

            That she doesn’t support any of these claims is true, but a different matter. She never supports anything she says. My point is that she either said it, or is clearly (and by intention) committed to it.

            The “Ethics of Emergencies” passage is not about treating others as ends, true. I probably shouldn’t have brought it up at all, because it just ends up confusing the issue. On Rand’s view, we have an obligation to treat others as ends insofar as we have reason to trade with them at all. “The Ethics of Emergencies” is about cases where it’s not clear why you should interact with the other person in the first place (and once you do, not clear why it amounts to a trade). I agree that the argument is obscure, but the claim is that we just have a basic need to affirm benevolence, and assisting strangers satisfies this need by re-affirming the “benevolent universe” premise. (Incidentally, I wrote a long critique of “The Ethics of Emergencies” a little while back. As is characteristic of me, the critique came in “Part 1” of a series that only had one part.)

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          • What’s essential to trade on Rand’s view is the thesis that every interaction has to require mutually beneficial exchange, and every exchange has to require “payment” (in a somewhat metaphorical or extended sense) for goods or services exchanged. But if you can violate the trader principle without violating rights (and you can), I don’t see how the two principles can be the same.

            Yes, I see. I think you make a strong case for this. I think I was too hasty to say the trader principle is effectively equivalent to the noninitiation principle. The trader principle is stronger. It is significant in this passage that she emphasizes the earned and the deserved in exchanges, which as you point out is irrelevant to the question of the initiation of force. Thinking about it, this also fits her objective theory of value (as opposed to the subjectivism of the Austrian economists).

            Suppose I induce you to do something irrational by relying on your propensity for self-deception–and you acquiesce in my doing so. This is a paradigmatic violation of the trader principle (qua dishonest), but it’s totally consenting. Adherence to the trader principle can’t involve essential reliance on dishonesty, but an essentially dishonest transaction can be entirely consensual.

            This example, and the following example and discussion, are very persuasive. I also think your remarks on sacrifice are well-taken.

            However:

            The agent performatively incurs obligations; the obligation promotes the agent’s well-being. I agree that the obligations are not basic. Obligations have to be derived from and promote the agent’s good. But a derived obligation is still an obligation.

            I don’t know about this. Obligations might be nonbasic because they are derived from the requirements of the agent’s well-being. Alternatively, they might be nonbasic because one incurs them. She seems clearly, in the passage you quote, to say that the latter is the only legitimate source of obligation. “A personal promise or agreement is the only valid, binding obligation…”

            The question of “obligation” came up over the proposal that Rand holds that we each have an obligation to treat others as ends. I do think she thinks the noninitiation principle and even the trader principle promote the agent’s good. But then that would be the reason to adhere to them, as a matter of hypothetical imperative, not as a matter of a promise or agreement.

            Concerning treating others as ends, this just seems to have a substance or content—that one regards others per se (and their interests) as values for oneself (or even as intrinsically valuable)—that is out of keeping with Rand’s thought. In your defense of the idea that Rand thinks we should treat others per se as ends, you seem to neglect or soft-peddle this point about its substance. Just because one does not sacrifice others (in Rand’s broad sense) does not mean one treats them as ends. Perhaps one does it out of fierce pride in one’s own independence. That would be the Roarkian attitude!

            If by “treat others as ends” you just mean “treat others broadly nonsacrificially,” then maybe the issue has become merely semantic. But if so, I would still say it is misleading to describe Rand’s thought in this Kantian language. In certain ways she may have been more Kantian than she realized, but not in this way.

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  2. I haven’t read the rest of the essay either, and I’m sure you’ll get into the details, but it strikes me that “morally neutral” admits of a variety of interpretations, and it isn’t clear just which ones you have in mind. One might think that moral neutrality is secured just insofar as no moral conception of how to live is as a matter of fact made easier or harder to put into practice; it’s hard to think that any society could be morally neutral in that way. Alternatively, one might think that moral neutrality is secured just so long as the principles and judgments appealed to in public justification for the political policies that the society adopts are principles and judgments that everyone in the society accepts; it’s likewise hard to think that any society — well, any complex society that does not resort to extensive coercion, at least — could be morally neutral in that way. On yet another alternative, one might think that moral neutrality is secured just so long as the principles and judgments appealed to in public justification for the political policies that the society adopts are principles and judgments that everyone in the society can accept; but this seems either false or trivial — false insofar as it is supposed to mean that everyone, no matter what their moral views, can accept the principles and judgments without contradicting or changing their moral views, trivial insofar as it is supposed to mean that everyone is able to alter their moral views so as to accept the relevant principles and judgments. On another alternative still, one might think that moral neutrality is secured just so long as the principles and judgments appealed to in public justification for the political policies that the society adopts are in fact consistent with all the moral views held by members of that society; but even if that were to turn out true in some cases, it’s hard to see how it could be true of anything like the world we live in, and in any case all that would be required for neutrality to be lost would be for some members of the society to adopt some moral views inconsistent with the policies or their public justifications. Finally, one might think that moral neutrality is secured just so long as the principles and judgments appealed to in public justification for the political policies that the society adopts do not in fact appeal to any substantive moral views at all; but this seems scarcely coherent, let alone plausible. Some liberal political philosophers seem to say something similar when they insist that liberalism requires that our policies and the public justification of them not appeal to any substantive conception of the good. But even if we concede that such theories are successful, they hardly seem morally neutral simply because they are neutral about substantive conceptions of the good — if, like Rawls, Dworkin, and other neutralist liberals, they nonetheless appeal to disputed conceptions of the right, then they are not morally neutral; and even if they attempt to justify political policies without appeal to any substantive moral judgments whatsoever, they remain non-neutral simply by virtue of refusing to concede the legitimacy of moral views according to which more substantive judgments are an appropriate basis for policy.

    All in all, I’m not sure I’m able to identify a sense of moral neutrality in which it is remotely plausible that any state or society is morally neutral. Maybe I’m just confused about that. But in any case, there is an important difference between neutrality in outcomes and neutrality in justification. I don’t think the prospects for neutrality in justification are very good, but they are at least not so obviously hopeless as the prospects for neutrality in outcomes. It seems close to inconceivable that any society could fail to make it easier to live in accordance with some substantive moral visions than others, whereas the possibility of offering genuinely neutral justification seems less obviously hopeless. I don’t think there’s much hope for either variety of neutrality, but there’s a big difference between them.

    I’m not sure any of this helps at all, but I hope at least it isn’t entirely irrelevant to what you’re up to. For what it’s worth, I think it is helpful to distinguish between neutrality, impartiality, and overlapping consensus. Neutrality seems impossible, but it doesn’t seem impossible for justifications (or even outcomes?) to be impartial insofar as they do not require taking sides in some particular dispute between parties. For the same reason, it seems possible and advisable for public justifications to appeal to notions that are widely shared even among people who otherwise disagree. But even if overlapping consensus and impartiality can get us a long way, they won’t get us to genuine neutrality, I don’t think.

    I hope this response is somewhat helpful somehow.

    — djr

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    • Hi David. Thanks for your ruminations on neutrality, they gave me an opportunity to think a bit more about it. Not that I have much to say as a result.

      I don’t think the prospects for neutrality in justification are very good, but they are at least not so obviously hopeless as the prospects for neutrality in outcomes. It seems close to inconceivable that any society could fail to make it easier to live in accordance with some substantive moral visions than others, whereas the possibility of offering genuinely neutral justification seems less obviously hopeless.

      Funny, I think Rothbard would say the opposite. That is, I don’t think he thinks his “nonaggression axiom” (his justifying principle) could ever be anything but a moral principle (even if this would be desirable, which for him it wouldn’t), but he does think his system is neutral for outcomes. It’s “neutral lite,” though. That is, it’s not that “no moral conception of how to live is as a matter of fact made easier or harder to put into practice.” I think if you confronted him with that proposition, he would agree that, for example, a lifestyle of total laziness is probably harder to put into practice without welfare state support.

      But I also think he would still insist that his system doesn’t imply or favor one view of how to live over any other. He would say that if no one is coerced to live in a particular way, that is enough to show that libertarianism doesn’t play favorites; people are free to sort out which way of life suits them best. The problem I see for this attitude is that it neglects the systematic way that a free society rewards ants and punishes grasshoppers, and nonaccidental nature of this encouragement and punishment. Rothbard’s very conception of what constitutes aggression and nonaggression is thoroughly entangled with an ethic of individualism and self-responsibility. Non-neutrality of outcomes (of which moral ways of life are promoted or discouraged) is an unsurprising consequence of non-neutrality of justification.

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      • Would he really think, at least as you understand him, that a society that met his standards would not in fact favor some ways of life over others? I can grasp the grounds for thinking that it really is neutral in its intended outcomes, but not in its actual outcomes. Of course, what the actual outcomes are will depend on factors beyond the formal neutrality of the state*; but given that neutrality and certain cultural background factors, it seems pretty plausible that formal neutrality will allow certain cultural trends to flourish that disadvantage certain classes of people, that some conceptions of the good will be more fully realized than others, and that people who choose to live in accordance with the dominant culture will be more successful than those who choose to live otherwise. Compliance with the non-aggression principle is consistent with racial bigotry, sexism, religious insularity, and hostility toward outsiders, all of which can take forms that fall far short of subjecting people to coercion or fraud but nonetheless make their victims less well-off, sometimes even in purely material terms. Ways of life, as I’m understanding them, also extend beyond what individuals choose to do in their own private lives and encompass shared, communal practices; even if I am free to choose to do and say whatever I like without being subject to coercion, I simply won’t have the same way of life living among a bunch of evangelical Christians as I will living among a bunch of tolerant cosmopolitan progressives who value Millian experiments in living. A Rothbardian society the majority of whose members staunchly endorse a traditional Christian conception of marriage will be a difficult place for gay men whose conception of committed relationships allows for some promiscuity, just as a minority of traditional Christians will find it more difficult to realize their conception of marital fidelity in a culture that complies with the NAP but widely embraces polyamory as an ethical ideal. It’s not that Rothbard’s principles favor some of these outcomes more than others, either in intent or in mere consequence; it’s that, given a non-neutral dominant culture, complying with the NAP will not yield neutral outcomes. I haven’t read much Rothbard, but my impression was that he accepts this conclusion but thinks it doesn’t tell against his position because so long as the NAP is respected, people will be free to act in ways that shape the culture going forward; yes, racists will be permitted to refuse to hire black folks, but black folks can start their own businesses and find other ways of escaping economic dependence on racist bastards. Have I got him wrong? Does he think that the outcomes will actually be neutral? Or are we just working with different senses of neutrality in outcomes that we need to disambiguate?

        * Heh. I said “formal neutrality of the state,” but of course for Rothbard that formal neutrality is the state’s non-existence. So I suppose I should say “formal neutrality of the society, where formal neutrality consists solely in compliance with the non-aggression principle.”

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        • Would he really think, at least as you understand him, that a society that met his standards would not in fact favor some ways of life over others? […] I haven’t read much Rothbard, but my impression was that he accepts this conclusion but thinks it doesn’t tell against his position because so long as the NAP is respected, people will be free to act in ways that shape the culture going forward; yes, racists will be permitted to refuse to hire black folks, but black folks can start their own businesses and find other ways of escaping economic dependence on racist bastards. Have I got him wrong? Does he think that the outcomes will actually be neutral?

          I am hardly a Rothbard expert, but I imagine the answer to the first and last questions is yes, at least relatively speaking. I think there are a couple of things he would say. First, it’s not actually very realistic to imagine a whole society full of traditional Christians or polyamorists or racists, just because people would be free to dissent, to form their own opinions and go their own way. To be sure, a society dominated by one such group may be “logically possible,” but it is unlikely. And if somehow there got to be such a place, it would be undermined by the force I just mentioned without the power of the state to enforce compliance. Especially to the extent that what is in question are “lifestyle choices” not subject to reinforcement or inhibition by objective forces à la prudence, my guess is that he would think that people would be free to experiment and that many would take advantage of that opportunity, thus preventing the formation of monolithic cultures.

          Second, as long as it’s a question of a statist versus a libertarian society, he would surely say that the libertarian society, even if not perfectly tolerant, would surely outperform the statist society in the promotion of toleration. Objectivity, reason, and tolerance have the best chance of winning when no party is allowed to use state coercion to enforce its views.

          This is all without appealing to standard arguments such as that market forces reward fair and equal treatment, because black people’s (gays’, etc.) money is just as green as anybody else’s, and to the point that a culture capable of sustaining the primacy of the principle of noncoercion is more likely to manifest a “live and let live” attitude than any other. He would no doubt employ these sorts of arguments as well.

          It seems to me that most of this is not unreasonable.

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          • Ah. Did Rothbard ever visit West Texas? I think the culture there is sufficient to cast doubt on the idea that it’s not very realistic to imagine a society full of traditionalist Christians. They have formal freedom of religion there; but you don’t want to live there if you are not a pretty serious Christian.

            More seriously, I think the question of how realistic these scenarios are has now changed a great deal because of the easy availability of a wide variety of media, prominently including but not limited to the Internet. A hundred years ago it was considerably more difficult in places like West Texas to be exposed at all to viewpoints that differed from the dominant culture; now it is basically unavoidable. That does, I think, make it considerably less realistic to suppose that a monolithic culture can develop in Rothbardian conditions.

            But I also don’t think the basic argument for skepticism about Rothbard’s optimism depends on the supposition that a monolithic culture can develop. We don’t have a monolithic culture; we have a wildly pluralistic culture. Traditional Christians who complain that this sort of pluralism makes it incredibly difficult to develop and sustain a genuinely Christian way of life do not seem to me to be making wildly implausible claims. So much the worse for traditional Christianity, we might say, but even if so, that’s enough to suggest that Rothbard’s belief in neutrality of outcomes — if that is his belief — is dubious at best.

            But you’re not taking a Rothbardian line, if I understand you correctly, so this is all rather tangential to your main points. I’m enjoying these posts and the discussion they’re generating; keep them coming! (Oh, there’s a new one…)

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          • First, it’s not actually very realistic to imagine a whole society full of traditional Christians or polyamorists or racists, just because people would be free to dissent, to form their own opinions and go their own way. To be sure, a society dominated by one such group may be “logically possible,” but it is unlikely. And if somehow there got to be such a place, it would be undermined by the force I just mentioned without the power of the state to enforce compliance. Especially to the extent that what is in question are “lifestyle choices” not subject to reinforcement or inhibition by objective forces à la prudence, my guess is that he would think that people would be free to experiment and that many would take advantage of that opportunity, thus preventing the formation of monolithic cultures.

            I don’t find that plausible. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, where A discriminates against B, but is not allowed to use force against A. Let’s say that A’s outnumber B’s, and possess significant asymmetric bargaining power relative to B’s. Now suppose that though B’s have exit options from the situation (they’re free to leave), they either don’t exercise them because they see some other virtue in staying, or in some cases aren’t able to exercise them for lack of better options if they leave. Even if you hold some of the B’s culpable for failing to leave, the Rothbardian story cuts almost no ice here. The fact remains that A’s dominate B’s, and B’s are systematically victimized*. In other words, you have systematic injustice, and nothing about the Rothbardian story either makes this injustice impossible or explains why it would be unlikely to happen.

            The anarchist part of the Rothbardian story makes things worse. The whole fantasy of private protection agencies conceals the fact that if the protection agencies in question come to dominate a “market” (as they can), they do so because someone in the story has significant asymmetric bargaining power relative to everyone else. Once they do dominate their market niche, there are absolutely no constraints on what they can work into the “protection contract” they “negotiate” with their “clients.” They can’t initiate force against the clients, but they can drive bargains like the following: either join our protection racket or go without protection, because there’s no one else for miles who can do the job. There are no constraints on what you can be asked to do if you do join, and no guarantee of any kind of procedural fairness, either. So if the B’s in my example are under the protection of the A’s, nothing prevents the A’s from inserting wildly outrageous discrimination clauses into the protection agreement, so that B’s are rendered second-class citizens while A’s have first-class status.

            I don’t think Rothbard deals effectively with the fact that people can be formally free to experiment with alternative lifestyles but lack the power (or resources) to engage in experimentation (or exit). Even if they have the power but for whatever reason don’t exercise it, that fact complicates but doesn’t erase the injustice: an unjust party practicing injustice against a victim mired in learned helplessness is still practicing injustice.

            *I had originally written “out of luck,” but that contradicts my own way of setting up the situation. What I meant was that the injustice remains even if some have exit options.

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          • I don’t find that plausible. Suppose you have two groups, A and B, where A discriminates B, but is not allowed to use force against A. Let’s say that A’s outnumber B’s, and possess significant asymmetric bargaining power relative to B. Now suppose that though B have exit options from the situation (they’refree to leave), they either don’t exercise them because they see some other virtue in staying, or in some cases aren’t able to exercise them for lack of better options if they leave. Even if you hold some of the B’s culpable for failing to leave, the Rothbardian story cuts almost no ice here. A dominate B, and B are essentially out of luck.

            This is exactly analogous to saying, “Suppose A has a monopoly, then B has to pay A’s prices no matter what they are and groans under the weight of A’s oppression.” It neglects that in the case under consideration there’s no question of a natural monopoly. A’s moral requirements, whatever they might be—requiring women to cover their heads in A’s stores, perhaps, or refusing to do business with people who’ve had abortions—are not like owning the only water source at the oasis. Indeed, I even specified that the moral requirements in question be relatively arbitrary with respect to prudence (as in the examples of head covering and abortion); values questions that don’t immediately threaten life in the way libertinism might be supposed to do. Thus, the economic forces that can be counted upon to wreck monopolies should apply in full force: the very rent seeking of the monopolists provides the economic incentive for outsiders to enter the market; incentivizes members of A to defect and of B to make their own alternatives; and provides the money to finance it.

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          • David,

            I wanted to return to this, because I think we’re talking past one another. The point I’m making is simply that you can have systematic injustice in a market, and that the freedom associated with a free market can be insufficient to overturn it. You can have systematic injustice even in cases that fall far short of threatening life or livelihood. Asymmetric bargaining power may not literally constitute a natural monopoly, but can play the same functional role and have the same effects.

            First, even if I granted that the economic forces that can be counted on to wreck monopolies “apply in full force,” their doing so takes time, and injustice can crop up in the interim.

            Second, the fact that the market incentivizes defection doesn’t mean that defection from an unjust scheme will inevitably take place. It only takes place if the people in question are primed or motivated to respond to market incentives. They may not be. It may be irrational of them not to, but they still may not do so. If I am unjust toward you, and there’s an economic incentive for you to escape my injustice that you fail to take or refuse to take, your (economically irrational) refusal doesn’t erase or even mitigate my injustice. It just compounds its effects. But it can only compound effects that were there because I put those effects there in the first place, market or not.

            Third, there is in fact a natural monopoly in play here–an ineliminable one. Recall that the discussion was about Rothbard. Rothbard thinks that everything should be privatized and homesteaded. But he has no account whatsoever of justice in appropriation or holdings. He is adamant that private property is inviolable, but has no account of what it is.

            Well, private property is a natural monopoly: it’s literally a barrier to entry. The question at issue is whether it’s possible to imagine a whole society of racists, etc. compatibly with the existence of a “free society” in the sense intended by your series. It’s certainly possible to imagine that racists take over, say, a whole line of business in a certain area (e.g., rental property), conceal their racism by claiming a prerogative of legally protected secrecy or opacity over what they own, and do business indefinitely in this manner. That’s systematic injustice via asymmetric bargaining power and the explanation for the injustice is precisely the private character of private property: precisely because the landlord is answerable to no one in a system of pure Rothbardian private property, it will be difficult to know with any confidence that his dealings involve racism, and difficult (though not impossible) to compete with him. He enjoys many of the advantages enjoyed by someone with a natural monopoly, simply by virtue of owning what he owns.

            Deal with a racist landlord (when you’re the wrong race), and you will consistently lose. He holds all the cards. (Likewise: deal with a racist doctor, dentist, mechanic, store clerk, etc.) Will you die? Let’s stipulate not. I’m not saying that ownership of rental property is like owning the last water hole in the desert. We can even stipulate that the costs you incur are not all that high, in the larger scheme of things. Let’s stipulate that eventually the market will correct for the racist landlord problem, and housing-for-the-victim-race will open up elsewhere. Granting that doesn’t change the fact that a correction was needed, and that private property is part of the explanation for the ill effects of the injustice. The costs you incur in trying to do an end-run around racist landlords may be relatively low, but they are still costs, and still involve injustice.

            It’s a demonstrable fact that zoning laws have had racially discriminatory effects in the housing market–which I take to be a systematic injustice, even if it’s compatible with the fact that the victims are, formally, free to rent or purchase housing. The example of exclusionary zoning laws may seem precisely irrelevant, since our discussion is about a free market in housing, and exclusionary zoning laws seem to flout that. But I don’t think it’s obvious that zoning laws flout “the free market,” or “the free society,” especially since your description of “the free society” throughout this series is meant to be general, rather than precise. You aren’t employing a conception of “free society” that rules out zoning laws any more than it rules out noise ordinances.

            To repeat something I said: Rothbard simply insists that private property is inviolable. He has no account of what it is. In other words, he not only lacks an account of why exclusionary zoning laws violate rather than protect private property, he lacks the resources for producing one. (As a generalization: the stricter the libertarian, the truer this tends to be.) For all that he says, zoning laws are as necessary to a regime of private property as noise ordinances. In an anarchist “regime” of the kind Rothbard favors, all of these laws would be “enforced” by private entities immune from any requirements of transparency. If they wanted to be racist, they could be racist. Could the victims escape the grip of that racism? I guess so–after awhile. But that doesn’t change my point: in escaping, they would be escaping from the grip of a society of racists. The existence of the latter phenomenon is perfectly compatible with a free market, and in some respects, given a boost by it.

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  3. For what it’s worth, the best case against neutrality I know is in George Sher’s book, Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics. I suspect you’d disagree with some of Sher’s substantive judgments, but I don’t think one has to accept those in order to learn from his critique of liberal neutrality.

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    • Thanks for the reference. Is this a case against the supposed neutrality of “public reasons” liberalism (Rawls and others) that Vallier alludes to in the piece Irfan linked? I’m supposing so. Otherwise, I wonder how “neutrality” gets to be such a large issue. It’s hard to see how the notion that there could be a morally neutral political order could get much traction outside the little world of “thin libertarianism.”

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      • More or less, yes. Though Sher wrote before the terminology of “public reason” became dominant, he sets his sights mainly on Rawls, Dworkin, Nozick, and some lesser known but influential folks like Charles Larmore and Jeremy Waldron. One of the most interesting things about the book, to my mind, is that while it opposes many of the same features of liberal political theory that so-called communitarians critiqued in the 1980’s, it does so from a rather different standpoint, and avoids the kind of conventionalism and collectivism that one might not implausibly find in communitarian thinkers like MacIntyre, Taylor, Sandel, and Walzer.

        I too scratch my head at how theorists committed to public reason-type neutrality think they can rule out minimal-state libertarianism in favor of quite robust social democratic states. But half of my complaint about the neutrality is that it’s never really neutral in the first place, so it’s not a surprise that they tend to stack the deck in their favor by setting themselves up as the arbiters of what counts as a “reasonable” disagreement.

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  4. Just a note, looking only at this opening part, David: It seems likely that what virtues are naturally rewarded in a free society (those traits beyond refraining from force) are significantly dependent on the property-rights scheme adopted in the free society. It might be packing too much into what counts as a free society to restrict so much which system of property rights may be counted as consistent with freedom. What is seen as redistributive will depend on what is the system of property rights in play. All property rights in chattel and real estate are dependent on which system for property rights in land (in the economic sense) is adopted. The right to conveyance of title in land would also be contoured to the theory behind that system. Perhaps all those bourgeois virtues would still ascend were the property rights thought right for a free society to have property rights in land upon death of the owner to go into a pool for a lottery for the poorest citizens or were to not legally provision the formation of corporations or allow the making of money on money. Endorsers of such choices in design might have virtues not among those bourgeois ones (though possibly the additional ones are also bourgeois), perhaps the present ones would get new weightings, perhaps not, and perhaps new ones such as went into the design might ascend in the actors under the system. Which alternative arrangements in property rights are consistent with a free society might need to be addressed eventually (including the traditional thorn of whether a person ought to be free to sell the entire capitalization of the future rents of his or her labor, i.e., sell themselves into servitude or slavery).

    Naturally, I wonder about the relation of your present study in its relations to what Nozick came up with for Part 3 of ASU. Looking forward to more.

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    • Hi Stephen. You raise a good point. Yes, what precise virtues are encouraged by a free society are liable to differ depending on what precise property rights (and other formal institutions) prevail there. And I certainly wouldn’t say that the designation “free” admitted of only one conception that determined one precise set of such arrangements.

      Two things I would say about this, offhand. First, I doubt there is a rigid, a priori way to answer questions about how to define property rights. Some people really seem to think that a principle like “the noninitiation of force” is a sufficient basis to decide all questions, so that the very concept of freedom, appropriately defined, admits of essentially only one set of social arrangements (property rights, etc.). However, I think the direction of definition goes at least as much in the other direction. That is, we decide what constitutes the initiation of force by reference to what property rights people have as much or more than we decide what property rights people have by reference to what actions constitute an initiation of force against them. Not that I have a strong alternative theory (to a simple noninitiation of force principle). But I would say that considerations of economic efficiency ought to be an important guide to the establishment of property rights. That is, property rights ought to be established in such a way as to promote people’s ability to satisfy their interests through voluntary arrangements. Or in short, an important standard ought to be effective economic functioning; and more broadly, effective societal functioning, where that means that individuals are maximally able to pursue their lives and satisfy their interests. You will see that “effective functioning,” of society and of individuals, is a standard I rely on heavily.

      Second, it is going to turn out—you will see in the end—that it is not just the free society and its structure of rights that promote certain virtues as a matter of enlightened self-interest (being an ant, not a grasshopper). It is also that certain virtues of individuals are needed to promote the functioning, and the very existence, of a free society. Effective societal functioning is still employed as the basic standard for these particular virtues. But it isn’t just that they are caused to ascend in individuals by the operation of the free society. It is that they need to exist for there to be a free society at all.

      Naturally, I wonder about the relation of your present study in its relations to what Nozick came up with for Part 3 of ASU. Looking forward to more.

      Well, you should remind me when we get there, if it still seems relevant. I do discuss Nozick’s approach in ASU later in the paper, but my treatment of him is pretty brisk. If I’m leaving out something important, please let me know.

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  5. David, I take your main point here to be that, if we take for granted the norms of a free society and ideal (or perhaps just good-enough) adherence to them, we get social conditions characterized by people not being able to impose on others the costs of their actions to themselves (at least not via the coercive powers of government). Perhaps there are other social conditions at work too, but it is primarily this social condition that makes it easier to practice the “bourgeois” virtues on your list and harder to practice hedonism, libertinism, and perhaps other lifestyles or moralities that might be characterized as “alternative.” (You also mention that the norms that regulate a free society are themselves moral and hence are incompatible with things like moralities that endorse the widespread use of coercion. And that the justification of the norms of a free society might rely on broadly “individualistic” conceptions of human happiness or what constitutes it. But I take these points to be ancillary.) Is this an accurate reading?

    What, specifically, do you take the relevant norms of a free society to be? What claims about what is morally valuable and what we (or the government) is or is not obligated to do constitute this set of norms? Your initial formulation suggests something like this: according to the norms of a free society, either the value of people being free from coercion or the moral obligation not to coerce typically outweigh competing political values or norms such as those of paternalism, achieving general conditions in society of value to all, and distributive justice, such that, given typical conditions, governments are not justified in heavily taxing and regulating citizens. That is, I think, an appropriately broad characterization. But I’d like to know a bit more about what such a society looks like (both in terms of the priorities between competing norms and in terms of what ideal or good-enough adherence looks like in present sorts of social conditions).

    On the “normative presuppositions” side of non-neutrality, it will be important the extent to which (some or all) of the norms of a free society are based on a substantively “individualistic” conception of morality (or the relation between the individual and society or the state) as against being based on the virtue of respect for others in the context of reasonable values pluralism a la Rawls. I suspect that this latter sort of justification both does some important work in justifying a free society (at least of a certain sort) and presupposes a kind of tolerance that is not identical to neutrality about (most of) the content of morality.

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  6. Hi Michael.

    […] Is this an accurate reading?

    Yes. The only remark I would make is that I don’t regard the encouragement of “bourgeois” virtues by the free society and its moral presuppositions as only ancillarily (word?) related. It is not an accident that virtues of personal responsibility are encouraged by political arrangements derived from individualistic morals. An individualistic moral code will say people should do their own thinking and acting and not depend on or be beholden to others. It is pretty unavoidable then that a social system derived from this sort of view enforces personal responsibility and its consequences.

    As far as the relative priority of noncoercion versus paternalism, distributive justice, and so forth, I have already said something about this in reply to Irfan, but basically—trying to be undogmatic about it, I really don’t have very fixed views about this—I take noncoercion to be the default arrangement unless some pretty strong reasons can be advanced in favor of violating it. The two basic sorts of possible reason are market failure (for example, pollution of common goods that it is impractical to establish private property rights in, such as the atmosphere) and interventions that would promote market efficiency even though the lack of efficiency isn’t due to externalities. Sorry for the economics jargon, but I hope you may know what I’m talking about.

    By the latter type of possible reason, I have in mind something like public support for education. Rodney Stark argues that the institutions of education—both grammar schools and colleges—that Americans set up with such assiduity almost from the beginning of European settlement and throughout the 19th century, contributed substantially to the productivity of the American worker and thus directly to the prosperity of the American economy. (Wages were historically quite high in 19th century America, and this was due to high worker productivity.) But these institutions were mostly set up by the voluntary grants and efforts of the people, not by profit-seeking businessmen (or governments, for that matter). A vigorous market for education probably wouldn’t have existed. This isn’t a matter of market failure; people aren’t being frustrated in getting what they want, because the fact is that they wouldn’t want education enough to pay the full cost, even though it might be better for them and society as a whole to get it. So this would be a case where the efficiency of the economy can be substantially enhanced by providing a “public good,” even though its lack is not due to what would usually be called market failure. This would be a case of “paternalism,” in that institutions are set up on people’s behalf that they don’t want enough to pay for themselves (and if it’s the government that does this through taxation, it’s coercive). And this is the sort of argument I would consider sufficient to justify it.

    On the “normative presuppositions” side of non-neutrality, it will be important the extent to which (some or all) of the norms of a free society are based on a substantively “individualistic” conception of morality (or the relation between the individual and society or the state) as against being based on the virtue of respect for others in the context of reasonable values pluralism a la Rawls. I suspect that this latter sort of justification both does some important work in justifying a free society (at least of a certain sort) and presupposes a kind of tolerance that is not identical to neutrality about (most of) the content of morality.

    Yes, I agree. At any rate, as things develop in the paper, “individualism” alone is not sufficient to justify a free society. This is a point which has surprised me as my thinking about all this has developed, but there it is. However, I am definitely not much interested in “reasonable values pluralism a la Rawls”! I am looking for a more objective foundation for moral principles than just what everyone or most people or ideally rational people or fully autonomous decision makers or… can agree on. What I’m angling toward will unfold as the paper progresses.

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    • Thanks for the reply. Helpful. I do have two additional points. First, even if, in a maximally non-coercive or free society, there is little or no government coercion that would function to protect one from the consequences of one’s own actions, this is consistent with there being robust non-coercive, non-governmental mechanisms that provide a robust “safety net” that indeed protects one from the consequences of one’s own actions. Perhaps this is not what has happened in most cases historically and perhaps there are some pretty-universal or deep reasons for this, but we need to add in the relevant premises regarding the absence of voluntary mechanisms that would protect one from the consequences of one’s own actions in order to get your personal-responsibility-virtue-encouraging result. Second, the encouragement of such virtues does indeed seem accidental relative to anti-coercion norms. Why should this norm, however we make it out, imply anything about the moral desirability of being personally responsible, etc.? Any such a connection seems entirely dependent on what justifies the prioritizing-non-coercion norms. I agree that the connection does not seem accidental. But it could be and we should want to know why it is not (thus confirming the intuition).

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  7. Are you certain a free society punishes hedonists and libertines? This does not match my personal experience.

    I am an escort and dominatrix working in under conditions of decriminalisation, where salutary neglect of a “disreputable” economic sector has for the present created highly deregulated conditions for independent sex workers. I consider myself a self~conscious hedonist or libertine, in both the ordinary language and philosophically essential senses of these words. I’m at the same time a businesswoman, and I would embrace any reasonably flexible notion of bourgeois virtue, including most of the values listed in the essay above—so long, of course. as it didn’t insistently brand hedonism or libertinism as the enemy. I don’t see any reason why (1) hedonists/libertines can’t do perfectly well in a free society, and (2) hedonists/libertines and commercial morality need to be at each others’ throats. Can’t we all just get along?

    Now, I can certainly see the possibility of tension between commercial and some “alternative” value sets. Many of my friends have been self~identified bohemians. And I have, I admit, found myself progressively distancing myself from many of them—precisely because I’ve realised their tendencies to radical left politics are connected with a dysfunctional sense of entitlement to live emotionally indulgent fantasy lives. As a result, I’ve found they’re not only inclined to political parasitism but return bad investments as friends.

    But not all libertines are like that, by any reasonable accounting. There’s absolutely no reason why someone who places a primary value on sense~pleasure or unconstrained spontaneity can’t simply choose a career and construct a lifestyle in which pleasure~seeking makes market sense. And while it’s certainly possible for classically liberal political conditions and a social atmosphere heavily intolerant of hedonism to coincide, I see no evidence this correlation is necessary or particularly likely in the historical long run. I might even suggest the possibility that the occasional radical libertine may experience some degree of socioeconomic success within a competitive commercial environment. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we can always tell the commercialists and the libertines reliably apart.

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    • Hi Alice. Good to have you here. Your take is very interesting, and in one way I don’t disagree with you at all. If you look at neoclassical economic theory, for example, it explicitly assumes that people are all selfish utility maximizers. Now, “utility” here is just an abstract word for pleasure. So neoclassical economics is rooted in the idea that everyone is a hedonist! A rational hedonist, but still a hedonist. This being so, if economics is the science of the free market, which is more or less synonymous with the free society, and if economics says that the perfectly free market optimizes outcomes for everybody—well, then, one can hardly accuse the free society of being inimical to hedonism. It’s only imprudence that is the problem.

      However, I’m not sure you can say the same about libertinism. This has associations not merely with being sexually unconstrained, but with being a profligate, a dissolute. And profligacy is the sort of “grasshopper” behavior the free society definitely does not reward. For that matter, even sexually, the idea of being “unconstrained” seems to imply imprudence or lack of foresight. You seem to endorse this yourself with the phrase “unconstrained spontaneity.” I can certainly see how you can make a commercial success of catering to the unconstrained spontaneity of other people, but it seems like you would need to set definite limits to it yourself if you’re to stay out of hot water. Spontaneity, you know, has its time and place. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

      More fundamentally, the sort of amorality or unprincipled approach to life that terms like hedonism and especially libertinism imply, if this means living at whim or at random, seems unlikely to lead to long term personal happiness. It also seems incompatible with prudence.

      I should say that if your basic point is just that sexual freedom, of a sort that is typically condemned by “middle class morality,” is not incompatible with living well and prospering in a free society, then I totally agree.

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  8. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 2. Is the Perfectly Free Market a “Morally Free Zone”? | Policy of Truth

  9. Thank you most greatly for your kind welcome. I’ve been imprudently staying up late tonight reading the entirety of your essay. I hope you can forgive my violation of bourgeois normativity.

    Please let me say—this is one of the most interesting theoretical writings I’ve read this year. You manage to touch, with systematic if sometimes oblique precision, upon virtually every relevant point going through my mind with discussions of ethical egoism. Thank you for introducing me to Robert Frank’s work, which is entirely new to me, and which I’ll have to place on my list of acquisitions.

    I actually believe I don’t disagree with you at all in regards to spontaneity and prudence, at least within regards to fundamentals. I have no quarrel with prudence as a virtue, and respect that a market rewards strategic planning. If I defend spontaneity as a reasonable virtue, I do so in the sense that I see happiness as life’s final bottom line, and flexibility, autonomy, and work satisfaction as goods of happiness alongside material or social profit. Nearly everyone desires some balanced basket of these things, and the tilt of the basket will vary with individual preference. I’m completely fine if other people make more money than I do, and I wouldn’t classify this reality as “punishment”, unless failure to display a strong orientation towards wealth~maximisation is advanced as a basis for social ostracism. Actually, I find myself in a position where cultivating a spontaneous and expressive personality well compliments others of otherwise similar temperaments who have themselves specialised in outcome efficiency, and is thus indirectly materially effective. This is hardly uncommon, and there’s anything but a conflict of interest here.

    Returning to your essay, I’m following right along until I hit the final three paragraphs. At this point, I get confused. you’ve ably demonstrated that individual egoism and practice of the virtues which maintain the social ecology of egoism are nonidentical, and ably dispatched every appeal to emotion or pattern~dependency which might confuse this issue (I very much appreciate your refusal to evade these points). You then describe a neo~Aristotelian ethos which promotes both individual and social goals as subsets of a broader, “human”, flourishing. But you nowhere show a move which should, by reason alone, move us to take this “human” standpoint, and to me this move looks identical to the appeals of Nozick, Hayek, Rand, et. al. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    I appreciate your explicit endorsement of sexual freedom. And, in an ordinary conversation, a clear sign that sexual minorities and sexual merchants are de facto as well as de jure included within a liberal market order is all I would ask. And it’s truly wonderful to see a Randian society which has matured on this matter. Again, thank you.

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  10. I’ve been imprudently staying up late tonight reading the entirety of your essay. I hope you can forgive my violation of bourgeois normativity.

    Why, thank you—how flattering! And I can’t fault your imprudence in staying up to read it, in view of my own in writing it when, if I were to do what would be good for me, I would be writing papers in what is supposed to be my area of expertise. And the consequences of such imprudence in academia are serious; the chances are reasonably good that if I had done what I’m “supposed” to, I would be teaching right now in a much more elite institution than a community college. But I have always preferred, where I could manage it, to pursue the intellectual avenues that engaged me most. And for most of my life, I’ve been able to manage it. So here I sit. I have no reason to complain of my “basket” (as you say) of goods. So yes I think we’re on the same page there.

    Returning to your essay, I’m following right along until I hit the final three paragraphs. At this point, I get confused. you’ve ably demonstrated that individual egoism and practice of the virtues which maintain the social ecology of egoism are nonidentical, and ably dispatched every appeal to emotion or pattern~dependency which might confuse this issue (I very much appreciate your refusal to evade these points). You then describe a neo~Aristotelian ethos which promotes both individual and social goals as subsets of a broader, “human”, flourishing. But you nowhere show a move which should, by reason alone, move us to take this “human” standpoint, and to me this move looks identical to the appeals of Nozick, Hayek, Rand, et. al. Perhaps I’m missing something?

    Heh, heh! Yeah, well, it’s always easier (and usually more fun) to criticize opposing views than to articulate clear reasons for one’s own positive position. If by “a move taking us to my human standpoint by reason alone” you mean some reason in terms of one’s own personal interest, I can’t supply one. This is a problem, because that is what “reasons” usually boil down to: some good of yours that is served. But for my view, that would mean finding an egoistic reason for nonegoistic values. There isn’t going to be one of those.

    The best I can do is the honeybee argument, which looking at the paper in light of your comment I can see is perhaps not stated as explicitly as it might be. It is this. If you had to explain to a rational honeybee why it should sting an invader of its hive, thus killing itself, you could hardly appeal to its own benefit. But you could appeal to its being a good bee. You could say, “You’re a bee, and this is bee life. Bees are hive insects. This is how bees function. One of your functions is to support the hive by stinging invaders even at the cost of your own life. You can be a good bee and perform your functions well, or you can be a bad bee and perform your functions poorly. There is no other meaning to your life. Being good of one’s kind is what there is for a living organism.”

    If you were a bee, would accept that argument?

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  11. Oh dear. Imma bit thrown into a distressing condition here. I think I don’t know how to bee.

    To answer your question, no—at least not as an argument. With all due and most sincere respect, to do something because “that is the sort of organism you are” commands no more assent from me than a categorical imperative or a Platonic ideal. The notion of accepting oblivion, self~sacrifice, and the extinction of all further pleasures “because species” is entirely foreign to me.

    And, I would hope, to you as well. What would you do in this cosmic horror thought experiment, where you’re the only sane bee in a hopelessly altruist~collectivist hive species? Forgive my presumption, but I’m skeptical you’d find it sweet and fitting to die for the worker bee’s paradise.

    That said, I’m quite sympathetic to a naturalistic account of value, not as an argument to motivate us, but as a conceptual framework to aid in understanding the motivations we already have. In this sense, I may be quite close to you. I definitely see my goals in terms of living well as an organism. Escorting and dominance/submission are very much built around biological dynamics. And as a businesswoman I do tend to look at success as essentially a high~degree or high energy state of biological survival. And “living well” as a human does seem highly parallel with what we would call health and functionality in any other organism. So I think I’m pretty Aristotelian this far.

    But I also think too much of what makes us happy defies or transcends nature. Surely no goal can be more teleologically imminent in biology than reproduction. And yet rational individuals and liberal societies consistently tend to sharply reduce childbearing as soon as they have the means to do so. The latest study I’ve seen shows the birth of a first child to dish out a happiness hit greater, on average, to a loss of employment or loss of a partner to death or divorce. I conclude biological purpose and happiness can diverge essentially and fatally. Certainly, as a feminist, anyone trying to insist I take up the burden of the species gets classified as an active threat, and immediately forfeits their presumption of benevolence and any and all future social contract coverage.

    Our capacity for happiness is always built out of biology, and it’s foolish not to learn to work with rather than against our biological processes. But organisms experience these evolutionary inheritances as direct ends; a rational organism can take these ends off the rails of evolved biological purpose and be much happier for doing so. Steven Pinker, for instance, proclaims music as evolutionarily valueless, “auditory cheesecake”, irrelevant to our survival or reproduction. I’m actually not so sure about that (pretty much anything which sustainably induces happiness improves neurological health, and happy people provoke good responses from others, which has survival value). But even if he’s right, who cares? Imma love me some vapid pop music anyway.

    I say there are a multitude of meanings in life, after species~being. Today was beautiful. I caught a regular client in the morning, picked up groceries (actually another client gave me a ride out of nowhere), munched fried mussels and a samosa, worked on my primary relationship in the evening. Read through the materials for an upcoming LARP and tried on my costume (I’m playing John Simm’s Master from Doctor Who). Guzzled energy drinks. Got some laundry done. Listened to some lectures on politics. I’m quite happy and moving forward on all fronts. “Business and earning a living and that in man which makes it possible—that is the best within us.”

    Thank you again for the compliment of your time and thought.

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    • You persistently raise quite fundamental challenges! Good on you. Some of them, in fact, I have (as yet) no pat answers for. They’re on my to-do list. But let’s see what I can come up with for the moment.

      The notion of accepting oblivion, self~sacrifice, and the extinction of all further pleasures “because species” is entirely foreign to me.

      It’s not quite “because species.” I would put it by saying that one does it to be a good person, or equivalently, to do well. What makes a good person is performing well the functions of a person, the human functions. Species characteristics set the standard of what is good, but they aren’t the reason. The reason is that it is good.

      Moreover, if the functions in question are really the right ones, they will mostly feel good and be difficult to thwart. We are naturally motivated to perform our functions; it could hardly be otherwise. Look at all the practical difficulties that dishonesty entails, for instance. You have to labor to keep track of them. The perceptiveness and intelligence of others become threatening to you instead of being an asset. You take on the anxiety of possible detection. You have a bad conscience about the harm you inflict on others, and simply about dishonesty itself. And so forth. Thus, honesty is the path of least resistance, even on the occasions when you might do best overall by dishonesty. Organic functions form an integrated set; you can’t step outside usually even one of them without disruption.

      Still, what I’m proposing here is a theory of intrinsic value, and there’s no getting around that. I’m saying that this (functioning well) is being good, as a matter of objective fact, whether you like it or not and whether you recognize it or not. This is a claim about the good that is independent of your own preferences and desires. This can seem deeply strange, especially since some of what I’m saying—not much! but some—entails that being good is not good for you. At least health—another intrinsic, objective good—is completely a matter of your personal good. But not everything good has to be that way, if the good is a matter of functioning well. It depends on the functions. However, the logic is the same either way (i.e., whether the functions are individual or group). It is not a logic that depends on a prior foundation of egoism or on the assumption that a reason for action must always appeal to some benefit or desire of the agent.

      Just to turn up the heat on my position still further, consider the following. You might say, “OK, I grant just for the sake of argument that being good means functioning well, even when the functions I perform aren’t to my benefit; for example, when I fall on a grenade to save my buddies in the midst of battle. Fine. But then why should I care about being ‘good’? When I have to choose between being good and being benefitted, why shouldn’t I choose to be benefitted?” Answer: You should choose to be good because it is good. (There’s a Mamet play where somebody says, “Everybody needs money! That’s why they call it money.”) There is no other objective source of meaning or value. So, you should want to be a good person. (On a personal note, this attracts me very much. I passionately want to be a good person.)

      Now flip the question: If you should choose to be benefitted, why? There doesn’t seem to be any serious answer. Suppose you define your benefit in some alternative way, such as what promotes your long term survival. Now the question is why you should care about that; equivalently, why is that good? You might say that life is an end in itself, so survival simply is the end—the good—for any creature. But if this is intended as functionalist talk—my kind of talk—then in the first place it isn’t true, because there are many ways in which an organism’s functional organization promotes ends other than, and even contrary to, its own life. Functions promoting reproductive success, for example. And in the second place my kind of talk leads to my conclusions. When the good is derived from the functions of an organism, then the good is performing those functions well. And if this doesn’t mean necessarily all of the organism’s functions (see below), it must certainly mean an integrated, mutually reinforcing set of them. So there is going to be little scope for, say, choosing only the individual functions and discarding the group functions. For, if my argument is anything like correct, group functions are critical to human social functioning; they are not a superfluous, discardable addition to more essential human functions.

      But if talk of what is to your benefit is not rooted in functions, what is it rooted in? Perhaps you can begin to talk about indestructible robots or the concept of life being a prerequisite to the concept of value. But I think we both know that these are dead ends. We seem left with a subjectivistic approach that says something like, “I choose my own benefit (survival, life, happiness, well-being, etc.) as my highest value, and that’s all there is to it!” (There is support for this as the true Randian position, actually, in the passage from “Causality versus Duty” quoted in my paper: “If [one] does not choose to live, nature will take its course.”) Fine. But that’s not to choose one’s own benefit for any reason. It is not to say why one should choose one’s own benefit. It is to declare that one simply does, without justification, and leave it at that.

      Surely no goal can be more teleologically imminent in biology than reproduction. And yet rational individuals and liberal societies consistently tend to sharply reduce childbearing as soon as they have the means to do so.

      Challenging example! And it gets worse for me, because there are other cases where arguably we have functions that aren’t merely a drag on happiness, but that are positively counterproductive. I have in mind impulses like the group solidarity, or in-group/out-group thinking, that Hayek complains of.

      It seems I must say that discerning the true or relevant human functions is not always straightforward. I don’t have well-developed ideas about this, but here are a couple of things I can say.

      First, not everything for which there might seem to be a clear biological imperative necessarily corresponds to a function. I’m thinking of reproduction. Take a related example, homosexuality. From the standpoint of evolutionary biology, homosexuality is a great mystery, for which there is currently no solution. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve read an argument of the following sort, it would make the down payment on a home: “Trait X could never exist in a population. For, if it were ever to appear, it would so interfere with the organism’s ability to reproduce, it would disappear in the first generation.” Evolutionary psychologists in particular frequently appeal to this logic. And often it may be true, but not necessarily. Homosexuality is just the sort of X that would go in this argument, and yet the conclusion of the argument for homosexuality is false. Homosexuality exists—and it does not appear to be entirely cultural—in spite of the obvious way it flouts the reproductive imperative. I conclude that more sophisticated reasoning is needed to establish claims about human functions than simple arguments about assumed evolutionary selection pressures. In the specific case of reproduction, it seems clear that individuals who fail to reproduce do not necessarily thereby fail to be well functioning human beings.

      Second, we needn’t necessarily accept all of our functions. It is possible that we might have been endowed by our evolutionary history, for example, with functions that are not productive or compatible with other functions. Evolution, as is well-known, does not even in theory produce optimum organisms, but only organisms that are good enough to hold their own against competitors in existing niches. Evolution also exhibits “path dependence”—i.e., evolutionary development always proceeds from existing organisms and traits as they are. New adaptations are necessarily modifications of existing traits, which constrain the path of development. Finally, evolution is slow, but environmental change can be fast. Traits that were adaptive in previous environments might cease to be so in new environments. Such traits might be “repurposed” (as the giraffe’s neck apparently did not evolve to enable it to feed from tree tops but is useful for that purpose). Others might become counterproductive or disruptive. So the total function set we have—though it seems bound to be largely integrated and interdependent and mutually reinforcing—need hardly be optimal. We may well have functions that are not particularly effective in general or that are effective much of the time but that produce counterproductive outcomes under certain conditions or even that are outright maladaptive in our current environment. This was Hayek’s claim about the moral impulses of “solidarity and altruism,” for example.

      For reasons of this kind, it will be a subtle business to sort out exactly what the “human functions” are. As should be pretty obvious, I am only starting out on this and have no clear agenda for getting there. The trick will be to find some relatively strong, objective criteria to prevent the process from degenerating into simply choosing in accordance with our contemporary cultural prejudices. Economics seems to provide some criteria of this rigorous kind, which is why it features so prominently in the paper.

      I say there are a multitude of meanings in life, after species~being. Today was beautiful. […]

      I quite agree. (And I’m glad you seem so actualized.) I was struck a long time ago by Somerset Maugham’s metaphor in Of Human Bondage of the conduct of life as the weaving of a tapestry. We each are endowed with our own tastes and talents and proclivities and influences, like materials available for weaving a tapestry. Our object in life is to weave them together into a coherent pattern of our own, and to make it as beautiful as possible.

      Thank you again for the compliment of your time and thought.

      No need to thank me. Your comments have been quite as stimulating as anyone’s here.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. As you wish. Your words are most kind. That said, I always appreciate the most unsparing criticism directed towards more rewarding ways of knowing and being. I agree with Epicurus: the person who “loses” a conversation and thereby gains a new perspective profits more than the person who wins.

    “Moreover, if the functions in question are really the right ones, they will mostly feel good and be difficult to thwart. We are naturally motivated to perform our functions; it could hardly be otherwise. Look at all the practical difficulties that dishonesty entails, for instance. You have to labor to keep track of them. The perceptiveness and intelligence of others become threatening to you instead of being an asset. You take on the anxiety of possible detection. You have a bad conscience about the harm you inflict on others, and simply about dishonesty itself. And so forth. Thus, honesty is the path of least resistance, even on the occasions when you might do best overall by dishonesty. Organic functions form an integrated set; you can’t step outside usually even one of them without disruption.”

    I’m not entirely sure why you’ve brought up dishonesty; I don’t recall mentioning the issue. The name of this website is “Policy of Truth”, and honesty is the inescapably paradigmatic virtue of productive philosophical enterprise. And while no one’s perfect, I try to be my best.

    That said, I’m a little surprised to hear you would put any weight on the above argument… because you perfectly and systematically took it apart in your own essay! Of course, being nice to people is the most efficient cognitive and performative default. But while the advantages of virtue in a free society are real they are not absolute, and the exceptions are nontrivial. They’re far more nontrivial in the actual societies we live in. On the issue of deriving the “moral point of view” from contingent egoism you’ve laid bare everything I can imagine saying on the manner. And you’re entirely right—and speaking as a businesswoman in a low transparency market it works exactly like that. One advantage of escorting as a profession is it allows a chance to vibe out the inner lives of a broad sample of half the human population, and among other things it teaches that all just world beliefs are fallacies. There is little relation between conventional morality and happiness. The wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power. And some of the most ethical people in the world are treated by the world with the most consistent unfairness.

    And these problems are extremely serious on a world~historical scale. In American society, generosity and honesty correlate inversely with socioeconomic class (c.f. David Graeber’s, “Caring too much: that’s the curse of the working classes”). Opportunistic abuse of the social contract is at the heart of our most recent economic crisis (I’m inclined to think Alan Greenspan looked into that abyss and blanched). And the very sky burns above us with the promise of a Deluge—because collectively our entire species is indifferent enough to externalities to destroy the world. And while I agree with Rand that altruists scapegoat egoists for their failures, and with Koestler that collective emotions bear central responsibility for the last century’s totalitarian democides, I also think we are living in the wrong time to believe that straight egoism is harmless. I respect your attempt to attempt to leaven a neo~Randian ethics with a balance of frankly altruistic values because I think there’s no other way to save egoism. I wish I didn’t feel very confident your problem is not solvable… at least by philosophically pleasing means.

    “On a personal note, this attracts me very much. I passionately want to be a good person.”

    I see that. And I very much believe you.

    Let me pause here and take a stab in the dark, before going any further. Are you by any chance highly uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance: dishonesty between idea and idea, idea and word, word and action, person and person? How important to you is principle, or “living in truth”? Orwell: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

    “…I’m glad you seem so actualized…. I was struck a long time ago by Somerset Maugham’s metaphor in Of Human Bondage of the conduct of life as the weaving of a tapestry. We each are endowed with our own tastes and talents and proclivities and influences, like materials available for weaving a tapestry. Our object in life is to weave them together into a coherent pattern of our own, and to make it as beautiful as possible.”

    I am going to disregard your request and thank you again. That was beautifully spoken, and your visibility is much appreciated. Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, §290): “To “give style” to one’s character… is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”

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    • I’m not entirely sure why you’ve brought up dishonesty; I don’t recall mentioning the issue.

      I only meant to illustrate the point that where we have natural functions, we are as a rule motivated to perform them and inhibited in a variety of ways from shirking them. For example, we have a mechanism of conscience, whether innate or socialized—probably both—that strongly affects most of us and punishes us for opportunistic dishonesty and other cheating. Or, back to the honeybee irrationally stinging an invader, we can imagine that the circumstances of invasion consume it with rage to the point where it ceases to care about its life. We can imagine this because it’s reasonable to imagine that we ourselves have an element of this psychology, which promotes the irrational punishment function I talk about in the paper.

      But the point is only that if one wants to be a fully rational egoist in the sense of devoting energy to individual functions alone, never to group functions, one can’t be an integrated person. The group functions are there, a substantial number of them, tugging at you and manipulating you. Trying to be a thoroughly individual-function-person must involve a great deal more reengineering yourself, I think, than resisting the relatively few counterproductive functions I acknowledge we must probably have. But the practical difficulty of escaping group functions isn’t the reason to embrace them. The reason is that they are your functions. We are a deeply social animal, and there’s no getting around that. What I’m advancing can be put by saying that a well-adjusted person must embrace as much of his nature as is consistently possible.

      all just world beliefs are fallacies. There is little relation between conventional morality and happiness. The wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power. And some of the most ethical people in the world are treated by the world with the most consistent unfairness.

      You’re much more pessimistic about this than I am. But I’m not sure what good empirical basis there is right now—beyond our different personal experiences—for deciding it. Anyway, at least there’s this: if the free society provides the greatest alignment between happiness and virtue, as a rule, then that is a reason to work for the creation of a free society.

      Here’s Nietzsche (The Gay Science, §290): “To “give style” to one’s character… is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye.”

      Would it surprise you to learn that when I teach Nietzsche in my moral philosophy class, I always teach this passage? And not just assign it, but I read it aloud to the class (the whole thing, although it’s a long one)? By now I expect not!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. “The reason is that they are your functions. We are a deeply social animal, and there’s no getting around that. What I’m advancing can be put by saying that a well-adjusted person must embrace as much of his nature as is consistently possible.”

    Oh, dear, dear, dear. OOC content warning sweetie. Imma have to use my bratty sub loli voice for this.

    “Alice is a modern. Alice is a self~governing citizen of a liberal democracy. Imma not rilly inclined to regard myself as born with functions to fulfill.”

    And. if I did, I would cheerfully announce my intention to dodge this teleological draft. I simply don’t need this concept to live an enjoyable and prosperous life; as Laplace said of God (and I do believe we are effectively talking about God): “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

    What facts within this field of objects before my consciousness give rise to a need to perceive myself as having a “function”? Priests and husbands think that women have “functions” within their natures, and we all know what it accomplishes is taking away my power.

    Think about it. If what you’re saying is true, then I should really be horribly miserable right now…. and I’m totally not! I mean, my life isn’t perfect, of course. I fight health issues every day, almost certainly of genetic origin, which isn’t fun (DIY healthcare has helped a lot). More money would always be nice, tho’ I definitely have enough for my needs. Also the supermarket was out of pastrami last night. That’s wrong.

    Let’s see: I indulge rationalistic tendencies more than is good for me. I show off in excess of proper pride, which I consider a serious if predictable epistemic vice. I have moderate anxiety issues which mainly matter because I’m in a perfectionistic networking environment. And I get bored a lot. (That last one plus opportunity costs would to my mind be your best target to attack.) But, overall, I think I can honestly call myself happy. I don’t think I’d trade my life for that of most people I know. I know I’m way, way happier than most people dealt the same set of Rawlsian cards I was (I’ve survived severe social oppression and my childhood was the stuff of nightmares), and I can legitimately say I fought very hard and very smart to get where I am today.

    I propose a game. If your hypothesis is true, then we can make it falsifiable. I mean, If all humans need to stay on the teleological straight and narrow to be happy, then that applies to me, right? Here’s what I suggest: you give me a list of actions which you think contrary to my fulfillment as a social animal, but which don’t violate my standard of individual survival and fun. Then I go down the list and go do a bunch of them! Well, any of them which aren’t too squicky or contextually suicidal (I can email my checklist). Otherwise, I’ll try just about anything once.

    Now, if any of these dreadful species~being violations are bothering me half an hour later (after clean~up, of course), you win. And, since I very much do want to live the happiest possible life, I will totally then change my relevant ways.

    Or, if I win, I get to choose a punishment. Don’t worry, I’m actually only mildly sadistic. I wonder if i can get you to worship a whim?

    I’d actually love to be proven wrong. Because general gaining knowledge and self~improvement reasons. Because I most assuredly find the theological~political problem as vexing as anyone. And because there is absolutely no one I respect more than someone who can actually take me down and defeat me. I’m amazingly like Ayn Rand that way. (And in a surprising number of other ways.)

    Let us follow the argument wherever it leads.

    ~~~

    Very glad to hear someone’s teaching Nietzsche!! (and as something other than a cheapened gateway drug to postmodernism.) My favourite passages are “On the Way of the Creator” from Zarathustra and the first few sections of the Antichrist. My beat up copy of Kaufmann’s Portable Nietzsche was probably my most prized possession in college. You know, I really respect what it takes to survive in academia without conceding an independent mind. Escort was my second choice of profession: my first was philosophy professor. A long time ago. And nothing I’ve ever experienced in eleven years as a sex worker has been as hard as facing the academic game—while carrying the anvil weight of a genuine love of truth.

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    • Hello. This is not a contribution to discussion of David’s paper, but I just wanted to say “delighted by your contributions” and to share my favorite Nietzsche, which I here snip to my liking. Though it remains I don’t agree with all of it, I like it very much:

      BEFORE SUNRISE
      Oh sky above me, you pure, you deep one! . . .
      . . .
      Mutely you rose for me today over the roaring sea, . . .
      . . .
      . . . Before the sun you came to me, the loneliest one.
      We are friends from the beginning . . .
      . . . We are silent to one another, we smile our knowledge to one another.
      Are you not the light to my fire? Do you not have the sister soul to my insight?
      Together we learned everything; together we learned to climb up to ourselves by climbing over ourselves, and to smile cloudlessly.
      . . .
      And if I wandered alone—for whom did my soul thirst in nights and on wrong paths? And if I climbed mountains, whom did I ever seek if not you on mountains?
      And all my wandering and mountain climbing: they were only a necessity and a help to the helpless one—the only thing my will wants is to fly, to fly into you!
      . . .
      I am a blesser and a Yes-sayer if only you are around me, you pure, you bright one, you abyss of light! Into all abysses then I carry my Yes-saying that blesses.
      . . .
      But this is my blessing: to stand over each thing as its own sky, as its round roof, its azure bell and eternal security . . .
      Truly it is a blessing and no blasphemy when I teach: “Over all things stands the sky accident, the sky innocence, the sky chance, . . .”
      “By chance”—that is the noblest nobility in the world, I gave it back to all things, I redeemed them from their servitude under purpose.
      This freedom and cheerfulness of the sky I placed like an azure bell over all things when I taught that over them and through them no “eternal will”—wills.
      . . .
      Oh sky above me, you pure, exalted one! This is your purity to me now, . . .
      —that you are my dance floor for divine accident, that you are my gods’ table for divine dice throws and dice players!
      But you blush? . . .
      . . .
      Oh sky above me, you bashful, you glowing one! Oh you my happiness before sunrise! The day is coming, and so let us part now!

      Thus spoke Zarathustra.

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    • Sorry for the late reply. This past week was Spring Break, which might seem to signal a lot of free time, but for me it meant (characteristically) a full week of out-of-town house guests and (uncharacteristically but not unhappily) four days of the APA Pacific Division meetings. My last few replies to comments were written in a Sonoma hotel room with a bunch of people around. I might have done similarly at the APA, but the bleedin’ hotel wanted $20/day for Wi-Fi! This pricing surely is for people who have grant funds for attending conferences. Anyway, things are back to “normal,” now, so, without further ado—

      “Alice is a modern. Alice is a self~governing citizen of a liberal democracy. Imma not rilly inclined to regard myself as born with functions to fulfill.”

      And. if I did, I would cheerfully announce my intention to dodge this teleological draft. I simply don’t need this concept to live an enjoyable and prosperous life…

      […]

      I propose a game. If your hypothesis is true, then we can make it falsifiable. I mean, If all humans need to stay on the teleological straight and narrow to be happy, then that applies to me, right? Here’s what I suggest: you give me a list of actions which you think contrary to my fulfillment as a social animal, but which don’t violate my standard of individual survival and fun. Then I go down the list and go do a bunch of them!

      OK, I’ll play. Here’s a short list to start with.

      1. Stop working. You could go on public assistance maybe, or wheedle money out of parents or other relations, get a sugar daddy of some kind, get married to someone who would “keep” you, or find other means to convert yourself into what Nietzsche called a “household pet.”
      2. Become socially servile. Ingratiate yourself with more or less everybody by flattery and obsequiousness and mildly clownish behavior. Do not dare to contradict anyone. People will regard you with mild contempt but otherwise be mostly well-disposed and helpful toward you.
      3. Consult others to decide what is true about most things. This isn’t called for about basic observational facts like whether it is day or whether it is raining. But as for the facts about such things as health and nutrition, appropriate dress, social standards of behavior, personal financial management, transportation needs, career, social reality, politics, etc., adopting the opinions of the people in your social milieu will probably be adequate—it is how much of humanity actually lives, after all—and will save time and effort.
      4. Do not get upset if you are cheated, robbed, or assaulted. People can ultimately take from you only material things, the loss of which is water under the bridge. Such events are rare in practice. Put them out of your mind and move on.
      5. If at first you don’t succeed, then just forget it. The vast majority of people who try to achieve something remarkable fail and condemn themselves to anguish. It is best to accept your mediocrity and get through life without trouble.
      6. Cultivate a habit of lying to get things. People are remarkably gullible and/or accommodating. You can get free meals by complaining in restaurants, free goods in stores and online, jobs and other forms of social preferment, the admiration of strangers, and so forth. Be creative! This can take you far.
      7. Stop reading so much. You don’t need to know all that stuff. Your life will be easier, and people will probably like you better.
      8. In any conflict between what you regard as your principles and some immediate material advantage, side with the material advantage (unless there’s something obviously imprudent about doing so). “Principles” should not be allowed to get in the way of the good life; they are mostly expressions of false consciousness anyway. Come to think of it, just jettison most or all of them.

      This should be enough to get you started. When you’ve done most of them, we can make an evaluation and see whether my notions about a good life are falsified. —Oh well, you know I’m kidding. Maybe you’re hardier than I am, but I personally couldn’t even begin to do any of them.

      I have tried to restrict the list to what doesn’t impose on fun or immediate survival, as you asked, although the stricture isn’t really fair. Performing well your natural functions ought to produce a recognizable state of well-being or happiness nearly all the time, so violating them ought to do the opposite. This is about living a good life for a human being; it ought to result, at least for the most part, in longevity and good affect.

      Note also that this is a virtue theory. Therefore, the functions in question are to be performed well, not just performed, and continually, as a matter of settled disposition, over the long term. It’s not mainly a matter of one-shot performances. The consequences of virtue and vice typically play out over the long haul.

      Finally, I should reiterate what I said in the paper about the empirical nature of the theory. I really do intend that people ought to be able to come to some sort of rational agreement about appropriate human functioning, hard though this may be. I mean, look at all the controversy that surrounds the similar, and comparatively straightforward, notion of physiological health! Nevertheless, I intend that people should be able to sort out empirically what constitutes good life functioning and come to broad agreement, at least in principle. What that means for the present is that all ideas about human functions are speculative, including mine.

      Re Nietzsche, although my college copy of The Viking Portable Nietzsche is also beat up—to the point of falling apart—I should say for the record that I’m not actually a huge fan. The same goes for Ayn Rand. But I think they both are terribly mistreated (each in a different way) in contemporary academia.

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  14. Pingback: Belated Blogcation | Policy of Truth

  15. Thank you for replying, and please feel no need to apologise. You owe me none of your time, and please always put your own business first. And my own apologies for an overly irreverent tone: early morning night after a dopamine~spiking domination session may not be the ideal set and setting for philosophic engagement.

    ~福~

    Okay, as an aside and at the risk of tangent, a word on (1) as a matter of sex worker pride. I have in fact worked as a mistress or concubine on two occasions, and while the experience was beneficial, I found it among the more demanding forms of sex work I’ve tried. If that’s counterintuitive to you, I invite you to imagine walking a mile in these sorts of shoes. If someone approaches a relationship as a job, what you are looking at is a high overhead of interpretive and performative labour to maintain a professional role. I once worked as a personal assistant and felt it was basically the same thing.

    If it is objected that many girlfriends and housewives perform similar labour without payment, I entirely agree—women’s work routinely goes unrecognised and unquantified. As Coase understood, “respectable” relationships and living arrangements are already economic transactions. The majority of heterosexual relationships involve asymmetric expectations in terms of resource provision on one hand and emotional, domestic, erotic, and/or reproductive labour on the other. The only difference to my eyes is the absence of an explicit cash nexus in favour of traditional social bonds, surrounded by taboos which keep economic reality tacit. Mistressing merely replaces a feudal economy with accountable cash payment, allowing the désirée to explicitly negotiate and leverage demand up to a market rate of compensation.

    For those who find this epistemic standpoint painfully unromantic, I will merely note that rosy sentimentality is rather suspiciously cherished specifically in women. Meanwhile, most men conduct their sexual lives more than a bit like prototypical rational actors, flexibly extracting maximum value from both spot transactions and long~term domestic partnerships. I would never advise anyone to fly into the wind of that kind of power imbalance. Market rationality on one side and “labour of love” altruism on the other is a formula for an energy drain—which is of course the norm of gender relations as they really are. I believe one reason for the systematic persistence of inequality is that women love men more than men love them, and people who love are imprudently generous with their time, energy, and critical judgment. One reason I am starkly suspicious of any attempt to normativise biological altruism is because I think it works fatally against female equality and freedom. To paraphrase Thrasymachus, biological justice is the advantage of the stronger—and it is men who will collect these sacrifices.

    In sum: I think classifying sex and relationships as outside the sphere of work is an illusion which immediately devalues sex workers to the larger disadvantage of all women. I believe we’ll accomplish greater social good if we drown this chivalrous enthusiasm in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

    Now, please forgive this diversion. Let me return to the main issue.

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    • Market rationality on one side and “labour of love” altruism on the other is a formula for an energy drain—which is of course the norm of gender relations as they really are. I believe one reason for the systematic persistence of inequality is that women love men more than men love them, and people who love are imprudently generous with their time, energy, and critical judgment.

      This seems to me to be a topic on which it’s easier to share perspectives than to establish serious conclusions. Social scientists struggle to establish anything firm, and in the meantime all we have to go on is our own experiences and observations and attempts to reason things through. So my remarks are in this spirit. I really just have two things to offer.

      First, I see what you’re saying and appreciate it. With respect to the remark quoted above, though, I think it’s a little one-sided. Think of Anna Nicole Smith and her nonagenarian husband—and the many similar cases that could be named. Was she really draining all her energy on “labor of love” altruism there? In a less extreme way, there are many, many cases like this, of women who marry without feeling much love for the sake of resource provision. And, short of marriage, it is not uncommon for women to exploit men they don’t care about—letting them buy things for them, run their errands, pay for their schooling, and so forth—knowing full well there’s no chance in hell these guys are going to get anywhere with them. I’m not speaking of myself, but I have observed this sort of victimization go on repeatedly in my life. And from personal experience, I can tell you that men often feel that women are only in it (i.e., marriage and “romantic” relationships of any kind) for the money and other resources. And I’m not saying they’re right, but you can’t say they have no empirical basis for this feeling. I’m just saying it’s a bit one-sided to portray women as falling in love all the time while men merely maximize their erotic utility. This both idealizes women in a way that is not realistic and fails to give male love its due.

      Second, surely the number one antidote for the sort of asymmetric relationships you justly complain about—and that men complain about too—is female financial empowerment. When women have their own financial resources, they have no need to sell themselves for this purpose. They need not stay in relationships that don’t satisfy them. They can give love or have sex because they want to, not as a transaction. I expect you may agree with me so far on this point. But there’s something further. I suspect women’s empowerment results in their giving love more freely, not in their “leveraging demand up to a market rate.” I think the demand has already been leveraged up. I think that is just the function of the “feudal economy” and “rosy sentimentality” you complain of. A major effect of restrictive sexual mores is to raise the price men have to pay for sex. It may seem that it is women’s sexuality that is mainly restricted, and that is so. But that’s just the point. Think as an economist: what is the effect of restricting supply? To raise the price. Thus, in a perverse way, restrictive sexual mores serve women’s interests, not men’s. And arguably, this is just why such mores evolved in the first place. Of course, it’s not really in women’s interest. What is really in their interest is the same as for anybody: to be independent, self-sufficient agents who live their lives as they want and have sex when and because they want, not because it’s their only resource in a society where working for a living is not an option. So again, the answer here is female financial empowerment. The change in our society in this regard over the past 70 years must surely rank as one of the best things to happen in history.

      I should say that the argument in the latter half of the last paragraph is due to the work of Roy Baumeister, social psychologist extraordinaire, who got interested in sexuality in the early 2000s and published, with colleagues, a bunch of articles on the topic. They’re all terrific, but if you read just one, it should be Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs, “Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 8 (2004): 339–363. You can download it here.

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  16. David~ I agree with most everything essential in what you say above, and thank you for that interesting~looking article. Will read. You’re of course right that I’m portraying my personal perspective, and consciously so: my primary point is simply to defend sex work as a form of work within a framework which recognises the interpenetration of sexual and economic life. Otherwise, you’re quite right on most or all points. Thank you for providing much needed corrective balance.

    Three notes:

    (1) I think that as an escort, I witness aspects of male sexuality which are invisible to most observers—a quite significant number of men who look unremarkable in everyday life reveal a very different character towards women in the social dark. I don’t mean most clients are objectionable; on the contrary, most callers are quite respectful, and the rest is why you do screening. But extensive experience and research have led me to conclude that about 1/3 of men operate as de facto “whatever means work to get the candy out of the vending machine” pure opportunists when seeking “free range” sexuality: whether in prostitution, casual sex scenes, kink scenes, university campuses, or war zones.

    I’m really, really not trying to idealise women or myself when I say this looks exactly like a localised ethical blindspot in cognitive processing. I regard this as a value~neutral fact, and draw no particular political implications, but coming to this conclusion gives pause and has altered my view of men, women, and human nature. More generally (and more on this below). I think our natural ends as biological organisms—egoistic and social alike—quite easily point in deeply illiberal and antihumanistic directions. I sometimes think people who find human nature fulfilled in liberal humanism may be generalising their own ecumenical benevolence to a species which does not for the most part share it.

    (2) More counterintuitivity, but please understand I personally don’t see love as an ideal. I don’t view commercially driven sex as particularly better or worse than that driven by interpersonal emotion; in both cases, human needs are being fulfilled in an exchange. I think the binary of doing things because one “wants to” as opposed to transactional motivation (I’m tempted to call this “the bohemian fallacy”) biases the fulfillment of emotional needs as inherently more substantive than the achievement of material goals. But both in the last analysis reduce to neurotransmitters hitting receptors; the difference is almost literally a matter of taste. Personally, I happen to find sexual commerce thrillingly erotic, but have no interest save the literal in being tied down by a partner.

    Now, I can see perfectly well that placing a high value on love matches many people’s subjective experience, and I completely respect others’ preferences here. But we easily make unqualified assertions about emotions which don’t apply to everyone. Some people are not interested in the opposite sex, some people are asexual, and some people are de jure or de facto aromantic. The most rewarding and respectful relationship of my life was mutually and transparently aromantic, and I’ve made a personal policy decision not to participate in romantic dating markets. If this seems strange to you… well, people experience life differently enough to make confident statements about common human purposes essentially problematic. Our natures do not all want the same things.

    3) I very greatly appreciate the humanistic and feminist values you’re defending above: These are also the normative values of any society I wish to live in. But what I don’t think these values are is natural. I see them as quite specifically artificial, the product of societies in which rationalism has acquired significant hegemonic influence in tension with otherwise natural human dynamics. The liberal values you defend express an abstract, integrated, inner~directed, textual, and intellectual cast of mind. I highly respect these instincts, but I think it is a terrible misalignment to see them as grounded in the common survival and flourishing of humans as a biological species.

    On the contrary, in terms of biological destiny, humanity has one foot rooted in naive tribal affection and the other in raw power. The biological mainstream of the human species finds intellectualism inherently unattractive, because (1) intellectual tastes displace energy which would otherwise go towards sociobiological success, and (2) intellectual independence and integrity tend to conflict with the virtues of success as a member of a social species. If libertinism exists at an uncomfortable relation to the purposes of the species (and it does), so too does intellectualism. I highly suspect that the differences between libertines and philosophers pale in comparison to the alienation of both from common species~life. I’m very aware that as a libertine I’m in essence playing hookey on the species game—even if the symbiosis works out in outcome to mutualism. I just think you and your values are in much the same situation.

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  17. Pingback: The Circumstances of Justice: 1. The Idea of “Circumstances of Justice” | Policy of Truth

  18. David, I am curious as to what your thoughts are on the classical and newer ideas of Confucian interpretations of virtue and society? Mencius comes to mind as source that could help you get through some of the difficulties left here in these comments.

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    • Hi Daniel. I’m afraid my knowledge of Confucianism—in any era—is very slight. Therefore, I have no thoughts on the matter! Was there something more specific you had in mind?

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