The Bullets and the Battle: A Dialogue

Imagine a person A who confronts a complete stranger, B, and shoots B out of pure malice. A now encounters C and gets ready to shoot her from the same motivation, but is prevented by D, a police officer, who shoots A before A can shoot C.

Who has initiated force in this scenario, and who has engaged in retaliatory force? It’s an interesting question. Walking through a neighborhood park, I overheard a discussion on the subject, carried on by two interlocutors, Simpleton and Overthinker.

Simpleton opened by saying that on any plausible account of “coercion,” the answer to the preceding question was patently obvious: A initiated force; D retaliated. End of story. QED.

Overthinker demurred. Admitting the plausibility in saying that A initiated and D retaliated, he nonetheless pointed out that D was a police officer, and the existence of a police force, within the context of a state monopolizer of the use of force, was itself a force-initiation. Indeed, he continued, where A initiated force just once, the State initiated force at least twice over: first by claiming a monopoly on the use of force in a given territory; then by extracting revenue by taxation from those living in the territory. So while in one sense, A initiated force by shooting B, in another sense, D initiated force just by being (and hence functioning as) a police officer.

This struck Simpleton as rather odd, but Overthinker, having thought it all through, saw no oddity. Behold the following propositions, said Overthinker:

  1. There is no contradiction involved in saying that both A and D initiated force.
  2. Nor is there a contradiction involved in saying that while both A and D initiated force, D engaged in retaliatory force as well.
  3. Nor is there a contradiction in saying that A initiated force against B (by shooting B) and against C (by threatening C), as did D (against A, B, and C, by being the agent of a coercive state that coerces everyone in its jurisdiction).
  4. Indeed, paradoxical as it may sound, there is no contradiction involved in saying that D initiated force against C, B, and A–despite the fact that D‘s retaliatory force saved C, while doing A no injustice. The force that D initiated against A, after all, is different from the retaliatory and admittedly defensive force he wielded against A.

Simpleton reflected. He couldn’t deny the cogency of each discrete line of Overthinker’s argument. And yet the argument somehow seemed to miss some larger point. Surely, Simpleton mused to himself, Overthinker had missed the battle for the bullets?

“You are correct,” Simpleton declared. “And yet your argument is irrelevant.”

“How?” asked Overthinker.

“Well,” said Simpleman, pushing his simple mind into overdrive. “It’s quite simple. Your argument is irrelevant because it fails to observe a principle of relevance.”

“What priniciple is that?” Overthinker asked.

“I call it The Principle of Relevance,” said Simpleton.

“That makes sense,” said Overthinker, furrowing his brow. “And yet, I must confess that  your declaration leaves me quite unsatisfied.”

“It would,” Simpleton agreed, continuing with the following thought:

(Simpleton): What I mean, simply, is that a non-initiation of force principle must be supplemented by a principle of relevance, lest we be led into the absurdity that an injustice takes place when a police officer stops a crime from taking place. It is true that there are many force-initiations embedded in the scenario above. But not all of them are relevant to an evaluation of the justification of D‘s action, at least for immediate moral and legal purposes. They’re relevant to an overall philosophical assessment of the situation, to be sure, but not relevant to relative judgments of moral desert, or to the legal question of what’s to happen next, e.g., if A was merely wounded rather than killed by D. Given the facts of the situation, A‘s action is evil, D‘s is not; A‘s is unjust, D‘s is not; A should be prosecuted, D should not. The rest, though true in some abstract, utopian sense, is practically irrelevant. It doesn’t affect what must be done in the near or even foreseeable future.

Overthinker was impressed. “That’s a remarkably complex thought for so ostensibly simple a man.”

“Thank you,” said Simpleton.

“There is, in context, a certain defeasible plausibility and undeniable measure of approximate truth in your claims,” said Overthinker. “But alas, you have oversimplified things. I forgive you, for that is your nature. But my devotion to truth obliges me to object.”

“Whatever,” said Simpleton, wishing that Overthinker would get to the point already.

“What you have done,” Overthinker continued with unruffled gravity,

(Overthinker) …is tacitly to draw a sharp distinction between the aims of philosophy and those of practical life. You’ve then treated the first as ‘irrelevant,’ and proceeded as though ‘relevance’ applied only to the latter. This is a questionable enough move on its own. But it is telling that your principle of relevance governs the application of the ban on force-initiations. In doing so, for all practical purposes, you exempt the State from the application of the principle. You take the practical legitimacy of the State, and its police forces, for granted. You then re-apply the ban on force-initiations within this context, not to the context itself. In narrowing the context, you narrow the scope of the principle’s applicability. This yields the practical result you desire: the would-be victim is saved; the criminal is prosecuted; the police officer is valorized for both saving the victim and apprehending the malefactor (so that the police and the State get credit more generally). The State’s injustice is minimized and moved off-stage. You admit it in theory, but deny it in practice. So your so-called Principle of Relevance is better seen as a Principle of Opportunistic State-Worship. I see the pragmatic value of your maneuver, but I’m afraid it’s an offense against a consistent policy of truth.

“Hmm,” said Simpleton, expressing in that single syllable a certain grudging acknowledgement of the defeasible plausibility and undeniable measure of more-than-just-approximate truth in Overthinker’s claims–while succumbing to a certain degree of impatience at Overthinker’s tendency to combine insouciant hand-waving with overthinking.

(Simpleton): I almost wish you hadn’t come to the point so fast. But don’t you think there’s a good rationale for drawing a distinction between the tasks of the armchair philosopher and those of the person of action? We live in a social system where the rule of law is promoted by and through the State. We can’t act as though some other utopian social order exists when it doesn’t. Maybe anarchy is preferable to the State, but if so, anarchy remains an unknown ideal. And an unknown ideal is by definition one based to a large degree of handwaving speculations dressed up to look like more than that. Unknown ideals are in some sense unknowable ideals. Given that, we can’t allow ourselves to be eaten alive by the predators of the world, waiting around for anarchy to come. We have to act in the here-and-now, and that means, as a matter of principle, applying the ban on force-initiations subject to a relevance-proviso, and in practice, treating the police as though they were a legitimate institution even if, by some idealized measure, they aren’t. I mean, if your car were being stolen or your house was being burglarized, wouldn’t you call the cops without qualms? And if the offenders were about to harm you, would you refuse the help you’d get from the police? If they did help you, would you feel no gratitude? Assuming you felt some, would you, if it were practically possible, seek to punish them for their force initiations?

“A veritable swarm of questions,” Overthinker responded with Socratic irony, continuing:

(Overthinker) But easily enough answered: Yes of course, if I were on the receiving end of crime, I would without hesitation call the police and ask for their help. And once they came, assuming they came in time, I’d ungrudgingly accept it. Assuming their assistance was successful, I’d feel some gratitude, if that’s the right word, but the gratitude* would be an emotion necessarily tempered by awareness of the moral status of the benefactor. I mean, if an all-out criminal saved me from falling onto the subway tracks, I’d feel a certain gratitude* toward him, too–but that would be gratitude* tempered by knowledge of his character, not the gushing, wholehearted gratitude I’d feel toward a wholly innocent person. So it is, mutatis mutandis, with the police.

Incidentally, I’ve tried to answer all of your question as asked, but your last question is based on a misapprehension that turns me into an unnecessarily punitive figure. You ask whether I would punish the very police department that saved me. But I never claimed to have a desire for punishment. Punishment is for simpletons. I believe in restitution. And of course I would demand that at the first opportunity for getting it, even if the first opportunity required getting it of the very police agency that saved my life. I wouldn’t forget the injustices that had preceded that. I would feel gratitude*, and a desire for restitution.

“That’s never going to happen,” Simpleton retorted, with asperity. “Honestly, a lot of what you’re saying here has a real pie-in-the-sky quality to it. You just sound like someone out to defend an ivory tower thesis deliberately detached from the demands of real-world politics.”

“So you say,” Overthinker responded with equanimity, along with a touch of weary resignation at Simpleton’s crude, but in some ways poignant pragmatism.

(Overthinker) But remember that you’re the one who wants to treat the police and the State as though they were legitimate institutions when they may not be. So I’m not the only one engaging in as-if thinking here. Unlike you, my hypothetical thinking is driven directly by the moral law: I’m the first to admit that my kingdom is not of this world. Actually, I’m no fan of kingdoms at all, territories governed by artificial hierarchies of superior and inferior. I’m a citizen of the republic of ends, and I’m guided by what I legislate alongside my moral equals as a member of that republic. You call it ‘pie in the sky.’  I call it real, the only thing that is real: ‘The starry heavens above and the moral law within’.

Simpleton’s face plainly showed his exasperation. “Dude. I really think you’re overthinking this. I’m talking about an ordinary shooting, and you’re channeling Kant.”

“It’s complicated,” Overthinker said. “Most things are.”

“You’re telling me,” said Simpleton.

30 thoughts on “The Bullets and the Battle: A Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

    • It’s definitely possible. Miss Rand says that a gun is not an argument, but she never denies that an argument can be a gun. In fact, she says that philosophy requires us to “understand the enemy’s ideas and be prepared to refute them, you have to know his basic arguments and be able to blast them.” So I tend to shoot first, ask questions later.

      Beyond that, “today’s mawkish concern with and compassion for the feeble, the flawed, the suffering, the guilty, is a cover for the profoundly Kantian hatred of the innocent, the strong, the able, the successful, the virtuous, the confident, the happy.”

      A philosophy out to destroy man’s mind is necessarily a philosophy of hatred for man, for man’s life, and for every human value. Hatred of the good for being the good is the hallmark of the [twenty-first] century. This is the enemy you are facing.

      You really expect me to play footsie with hatred of the good for being the good? Not happening. Homie don’t play that.

      Anyway, every force initiation targets the brain. Don’t you remember your Objectivist catechism? “Force negates and paralyzes the mind.”

      I think you need some Objectivist re-education camp, holmes. The indoctrination seems to have worn off. Blank out.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hatred of the good for being the good? Blank out. I guess it’s off to re-education camp for me. If the O-ist overlords are ever in charge. Luckily, fat chance. Holmes.


        • Yeah, let me get you started on indoctrination camp. Start with this Atlas Society video.

          Could you possibly have imagined, back in the early 90s, that our beloved IOS would descend to this level? I mean, think back to you and me hanging out and talking about causal realism in Geneva, NY in 1992, or causal emergence in Bristol, RI back in 1993. We thought of it as a supplement to grad school! Did you really think it would end with video cartoons making fun of Bernie Sanders? If I’d known that back then….not even sure how to end that sentence.


            • The first and second sections of that look good, especially the second. I’d actually read some of this, but I don’t want to pay for the book. Let me know which bits you find most intelligent and on-target.


              • I see, so you desire the unearned. Frightened zombie.

                I’ve only read into the 160s. The best part so far is the extended discussion spanning Miller-Mossoff, Zwolinski, and Salmieri, roughly pp. 117-192.

                The first 113 pages consist of Darryl Wright’s attempt to defend the non-initiation of force principle. They gave him 100+ pages, but for some reason didn’t invite anyone to write commentary on any of it, and didn’t make reference to the commentator Wright had when he presented some of this material at the APA in the 1990s (Doug Den Uyl). I think Wright’s essays are worth reading, but don’t find the argument at all convincing (to put it mildly). Without referring directly to it, I think Zwolinski makes short work of Wright’s entire argument.

                So far, I haven’t encountered an Objectivist who’s ever dealt with the most obvious counter-example to the non-initiation of force principle. Suppose I decide, whimsically, to try to commit suicide. Someone forcibly stops me, initiating force against me, and saving my life. Afterwards, I come to realize that my rescuer was right, and I feel gratitude that they stopped me. There’s nothing psychologically or nomologically impossible about this scenario. It seems obvious that the force initiation is a net gain for the target, at least in cases where suicide was whimsical and ill-considered. And some suicides are whimsical and ill-considered, the result of plain old error, confusion, etc. So it seems a solid counter-example.

                At best, it seems to me that Objectivists can say that the example is too marginal to be of great normative significance. But that’s an empirical matter, and at any rate, even marginal cases flatly contradict the absolute prohibition that Rand offers on force initiations.


                • What’s with the frightened zombies thing, anyway? We are supposed to be frightened of them, right? What are they scared of? Us? We invade and burn down the shopping mall, the zombies running away screaming like teenage girls? Come on. Objectivists, starting with Rand, are just awful at marketing.

                  I’ll read that section of the book when I visit (or you visit) next — unfortunately, probably still awhile out with The Covid.

                  NIFP is clearly wrong in some cases relative to (a) collective ends (both moral and pragmatic) and (b) the best interests of the person who would be forced. One question, I suppose, is how often such cases occur (and how morally important or salient they are). I think these sorts of cases (including your not-thought-through suicide + paternalism sort of case) constitute important, non-marginal exceptions to the rule. I think Objectivists resist [a]-type objections/cases because they have not thought them through well enough (and because their distinction between moral and pragmatic ends is either non-existent or not well-developed).

                  Maybe NIFP is more on-target when what putatively justifies the action would be the (private) interests of the force-initiator. In order to get an exception here, you need something like an emergency and, even if the initiation were justified personally, it would not be morally justified (one would be doing something like stepping outside of one of the most essential elements in one’s basic moral relationship to another human being). I suppose an O-ist would agree, except about the part about the justification not being moral. So I sorta like a pretty strong version of NIFP, if it is restricted to *action, especially private action, that would be exploitative or predatory*.


              • I’m eager to read the review; Chris Sciabarra mentioned it to me last night.

                Let me guess…it was the Binswanger chapter(s), right? I found it remarkable that the editors felt the need to publish them. The supposed raison d’etre of ARS is to bring academic respectability to the study of (or really, advocacy of) Rand’s ideas. But Binswanger’s contributions obviously don’t do that. The weakness and non-responsiveness of his arguments, and the constant resort to fallacies and insults, are all transparent. But that didn’t deter Mayhew or Salmieri. For people who love to get on their high horse about “academic standards,” their inclusion of Binswanger is more proof, if any was needed, that ARS is basically a subsidiary of or front organization for, ARI. It would have exceeded the editors’ mandate to say to Binswanger, “Sorry, Harry–this won’t do.” Evidently, one can’t speak such plain truths to the Great Harry Binswanger. So the editors felt the need to include his essays on extra-intellectual grounds. Call it a case of ideological encroachment.

                Since I’m not an anarchist, I had a less intense reaction to Binswanger than I did to parts of Wright. Despite the shoddiness of Binswanger’s arguments, I have to confess to sympathy for some of his conclusions. But Wright manages to exhume and try to revivify what strikes me as the single most offensive thesis of the Objectivist “oral tradition”: the idea that non-industrialized people in a Lockean State of Nature lack bona fide rights (pp. 77-85). I first encountered this view at an IOS conference in 1991, then heard it confidently trotted out again by Will Thomas at a conference in 2013. It has a kind of quasi-canonical status in certain Objectivist circles.

                The idea is that primitive peoples don’t live in “organized societies,” and it’s only there that people need or enjoy the full protections of full-blown rights. So while the non-initiation of force principle has some indeterminate application to these unorganized people, that half-hearted application is superseded by the full-blown rights of “organized” people making “properly organized societies.” There’s no bona fide textual evidence for this view in Rand’s “official writings” (so beloved of the ARI crowd), so Wright is forced to the desperate expedient of inventing one: referring to a deleted passage from “Man’s Rights” as “explicit” evidence for the interpretation he wants to take. How can a deleted passage be explicit? Worse yet, the passage doesn’t do the work Wright needs from it. But beyond all of this, neither Wright nor Rand offer an argument for the view they’re defending. It’s not even clear what half of the claims mean.

                Wright claims that “nomadic peoples” lack property rights in the resources they use because nomadic life is not sufficiently “organized.” This is what that looks like in reality:


                Wright has no idea what nomadic life is. He writes as though the people involved are subhuman animals who could be pushed around like sheep or donkeys. But I would rather live among people like them than among people like Darryl Wright.

                It just amazes me that for all of the theoretical sophistication displayed in this book, the authors and editors have no compunction trundling out the most under-argued, reactionary, brutal dogmas and treating them as the subject of calm, dispassionate discussion. It would be more honest to say, “Hey, let’s assume that some people have moral claims unworthy of respect, vomit our derision all over them, and then pave the way for their wholesale annihilation.” Binswanger has the nerve to describe resistance to Zionism as “random slaughter [in] ‘retaliation’ against ‘Zionist imperialism,'” as though it was somehow an axiom that Zionists weren’t imperialists, resistance to imperialism was “random slaughter,” and all of it was an act of aggression.

                After two decades of thinking I could make criticisms like the preceding from “within” Objectivism, they finally got tired of me, and I got tired of them. I’ve learned a lot from the ARSPS book, but there’s a certain air of unreality that hangs over the entire ARS enterprise. I’m glad to have left it behind.

                Liked by 2 people

                • “Since I’m not an anarchist, I had a less intense reaction to Binswanger than I did to parts of Wright. Despite the shoddiness of Binswanger’s arguments, I have to confess to sympathy for some of his conclusions. But Wright manages to exhume and try to revivify what strikes me as the single most offensive thesis of the Objectivist ‘oral tradition’: the idea that non-industrialized people in a Lockean State of Nature lack bona fide rights”

                  Well, the two are connected though. The equivalence of stateless society = non-“organised” society = rightsless society is a crucial part of their argument against anarchism. After all, if you want rights, and the concept of rights applies only to societies with states, then you’d better have a state.

                  Do you subscribe to JARS? If so, you’ll see my review soon, as the relevant issue is swift forthcoming. If not, let me know and I’ll email you a copy of my review.

                  Liked by 2 people

                • I’ll have to check to see whether my JARS subscription is current. Sometimes I mooch or loot issues off of Sciabarra. Mostly mooch. He has a fatal weakness for dark, handsome young men, and I have no problem exploiting that weakness in the pursuit of knowledge.

                  In retrospect, I basically agree with you about the interconnectedness of the two points. I hadn’t read Binswanger carefully enough when I wrote what I wrote above. I think I had a “less intense reaction” to Binswanger on first reading because I read his essays less carefully than I did Wright’s: there was less substance in Binswanger’s, and I find his prose style so repulsive that I have trouble reading him. On closer reading, the connection becomes clear(er). And yet Objectivists tend not to be entirely consistent about it: the connection is either hard to see or hard to establish, depending on how one puts it.

                  On p. 230, Binswanger says, scathingly:

                  Bear in mind that, in fact, those who would granted the right to enforce their own notions of just retaliation include leftists who consider government intervention in the economy to be retaliation against business activities that the leftists regard as “economic force.” Then there are the terrorist groups who claim that random slaughter is ‘retaliation’ against ‘Zionist imperialism,’ ‘British rule’, and so on.

                  So when it comes to British rule, since the British have a state and their colonized antagonists don’t, the colonized are a mere disorganized gang undeserving of rights–unless the colonists are Americans, in which case their armed struggle is a paradigm of just revolution even before the guerillas form a state. Same, I guess, for Zionists under British rule in Mandate Palestine.

                  As for Zionism itself, Binswanger seems to be thinking of Palestinian terrorism after the establishment of the State of Israel. The Zionists have a state; the Palestinians are a disorganized society, hence they lack rights (so that their armed struggle is merely “random slaughter). But prior to 1948, neither the Palestinians nor the Zionist yishuv had a state, which seems to imply that they were both disorganized peoples equally undeserving of rights. And yet, I doubt Binswanger would put it that way.

                  A friend of mine from Palestine told me that because of the pandemic, tourism has dried up in Bethlehem, so he and his family have been forced to abandon their village (and home) and live, bedouin style, in the Judean Desert. They are, originally, bedouins, so they’re reverting, out of economic necessity, to an older way of life. They see it as a cost saving measure, but I guess from Binswanger and Wright’s perspective, they’ve lost whatever rights they might otherwise have had. What a difference five or six miles can make. Then again, it’s not as though the rights they had in town were so robust that losing them is…something to write home about.

                  Liked by 1 person

                • “He has a fatal weakness for dark, handsome young men”

                  Well, he seems to have a soft spot for fat, aging, pasty-skinned Alabamian profs too, so go figure.

                  “They are, originally, bedouins, so they’re reverting, out of economic necessity, to an older way of life.”

                  Ibn Khaldun says that urban dwellers reverting to a Bedouin lifestyle is frequently a response to excessively high taxes that destroy producers’ incentive to be productive — which would make the Bedouin lifestyle the equivalent of Galt’s Gulch. I reckon that would create some cognitive dissonance among the Randians. Should they ever deign to read Ibn Khaldun.

                  Click to access ibn-khaldun.pdf

                  Liked by 1 person

                • I see that Sciabarra has made an appearance below, presumably to preside over his harem.

                  I haven’t read Ibn Khaldun since college, which is probably the equivalent of not having read him. Then again, I haven’t read Atlas Shrugged since college either, which raises the question of what the hell I’ve been doing these last few decades.

                  Your comment reminds me that when I went to Palestine last year, I took a near-lethal hike in the Biblical “Valley of the Shadow of Death.”

                  The entire valley is Israeli “state land,” closed to commercial activity, but lo and behold, we encountered bedouins illegally grazing their animals there. In a sense, they were doing something like what Ibn Khaldun was describing: escaping the occupation, and taking back what had been taken from them, Ragnar Danneskjold-style. In a gulch, no less. I can only say that the bedouins are a hell of a lot more generous than anyone in Galt’s Gulch. In Galt’s Gulch, they’re forbidden to use the word “give.” But the first thing the bedouins did when we encountered them was to greet us like long lost friends, then offer us some of their food.

                  A friend and I once wandered onto the land of a Palestinian homesteader, a farmer. The first thing the farmer did after greeting us was to give me a free bag of the vegetables he was harvesting, some kind of squash. I was going to pay him when my bedouin friend stopped me. “No, no,” he said. “They will not take.” That was the word forbidden in their valley.


                • Yes, unfortunately, that does happen with WordPress.

                  Yes, TAS’s descent is pretty disheartening to watch. The comparison between what it was in the early 1990s and what it is now is actually rather painful. But clearly, it’s what their supporters, staff, and trustees want. Caveat emptor.


                • “The comparison between what it was in the early 1990s and what it is now is actually rather painful.”

                  A number of institutions seem to be following a similarly regrettable trajectory. I hear through the vínviðr that Liberty Fund, for example, is taking a turn away from historical scholarship toward contemporary partisan politics.


  2. You make a good point about zombies that I had not thought of before. That said, I take exception to your comment about screaming teenage girls, which is both ageist and sexist. You’re saying middle aged men don’t scream? Looks like you need some more video re-education camp:

    There is actually an exchange in the book between Michael Huemer and Harry Binswanger on whether Objectivists are any good at marketing ideas.

    I’m more sympathetic to (b)-type reasons for coercion than I was before. For an excellent discussion, I recommend this:

    Long, but enormously informative. Kronman’s point is that ordinary contract law is justifiably paternalistic, arguably in ways that violate a ban on first uses of force. I’m not sure Objectivists would agree that Kronman’s proposals do violate the NIF, but I’m not sure Objectivists have grounds to accept Kronman’s proposals consistently with that principle. Anyway, what I’ve been thinking about lately.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sexist and ageist stereotyping? Hell, yes. But necessary to express the trope and paint the picture well. Be strong, the moral fibers will hold! And I’ll happily take another helping of the unearned if you’ll produce a blog post on the Kronman. This kind of legal issue has interested me for some time with regard to landlord-tenant law. I take something like this sometimes to be the case: even if, in principle, you should be allowed to write up a non-fraudulent lease that requires X of tenants, you are not allowed to because, put into general practice, allowing this would result in landlords systematically taking advantage of tenants.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I expect the ARS book on Aristotle and Rand to be the best of the series. I’ve always expected that, and maybe in a couple years more, we’ll see. The presentations at Philadelphia and at Chicago last winter were good, to my mind.

    I have the Foundations of a Free Society volume and the other volumes in the series. However, it’s doubtful I’ll ever read that particular one, as I simply stopped studying political philosophy by the mid-80’s. That was about 15 years after finishing college, so 15 years of having studying classical political philosophy and contemporary libertarian thought, alongside making a living, that is. I really became bored with the minarchy/anarchy debates by the end. And that debate, as well and egoism/rights-of-others debates seemed to be unprecedented and captivating to each new crop of young people, and most always they were ignorant and without time for the old essays and books on those areas. By the time I was quitting writing on such things, I was pretty appalled at the lack of interest in relevance of game theory to libertarian social theory and appalled at the lack of interest in the relevance of anthropological research accomplished in those very years.

    Anyway, Irfan, here’s an excerpt on some of your issues from a piece I wrote near the end of my study and writings on such things.
    [From Part I of “Rights, Games, and Self-Realization”]
    “We consider now the rights that obtain with respect to benevolent interventions between two people when isolated from wider society. Eric Mack has taken the position that individuals have a right to do anything that does not violate the rights of others. On that supposition, he then could promptly infer that individuals have a right to do truly wrong things, such as deliberately cutting off their own fingers for no good reason, so long as they do not violate the rights of others (Mack 1984, 157). I do not think that Mack’s completely general supposition can be sustained, at least not in the present context.

    “The intervention of A to preempt B bringing physical harm to himself could be morally right. In addition to true preemption, a measure of preventative detention could in some cases be morally justified. At a minimum, there would have to be indicia in the prior acts of B that would portend physical self-destruction to justify the intervention of A, that is, to overcome the moral presumption against intervention. We assume those prior acts of B do not materially affect A. Then, under our formal definition of a right, A has no right that B not harm himself. Furthermore, A has no right against B’s resistance to A’s intervention. To have such a right, the resistance would have to be in support of an act against which A has a right and to which A is responding.

    “On the other side, the only plausible meaning to be given to a right of B to harm himself is that B has a right of resistance to the intervention of A. The resistance to the intervention of A is, by hypothesis, not an act of self-defense; it is the intervention of A that defends B. The acts of B that constitute his resistance cannot be rendered right by the fact of A’s intervention; the aim of B’s resistance is to complete the bringing of harm to himself, and this we have supposed, in the present case, to be wrong. There is in this setting no right of B to harm himself.

    “The rightness of other-defense is justified and bounded by the moral ideal: B’s life must remain his own and A’s life must remain his own. Actions that are preludes to physical self-harm create only a prima facie case for the justness of intervention. When more is learned of a person attempting suicide, for example, it may be found that the attempt occurs in a mood of depression and outside the context of realistic deprivation. Then again it may instead by found that it occurs (either within or outside the context of terminal illness) on account of suffering or decline of personal competences. The project of suicide may be the expression of a critically evaluated rational life plan. In the end, an intervener may be morally required to retreat; to do otherwise would, in some cases, deprive individuals of rational self-mastery and the meaning they may give their lives by ending them.

    “The license for benevolent intervention cannot be extended beyond defense against physical harms where A and B are both adults. It is only physical harm or coercion that can preclude the possibilities for self-realization in adults. Beyond physical self-harms, individuals have an incontestable right to take any action that does not affect others, however truly, objectively wrong such an action may be. That is life self-chosen. Coercive fashioning of other’s lives under the pretext of other-defense will count as a violation of the right to liberty.

    “In affirming the justice of limited other-defense, when two people are isolated from wider society, we have contradicted the proposition that individuals have a right to do anything that does not violate the rights of others. We have contradicted also the principle that an initiation of the use of interpersonal force always means that a right is being violated. We have not, however, contradicted the principle that no one has a right to initiate the use of force against another. Among these contentions, which ones will also obtain when we set A and B in the surroundings of society [in Part III] remains to be seen.”

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    • PS – point of personal clarification – when I left off studying and writing about political philosophy, it was not because of disappointments with that, but because I wanted to return to the areas of philosophy that I had studied in college. For some reason, to study philosophy in a very serious way, for me, requires opportunity to write things up and have them published (with say a hundred or more readers). Oral discussion of things studied in common with others was never enough for me to study difficult philosophy or develop it (unlike my best friend who has done only book clubs and the UC Basics Program with great satisfaction his whole life), unlike my keeping up with the latest scientific developments, where just knowing is enough, even if there in no sharing, oral or written, of what I learn. So I started the journal OBJECTIVITY, and I excluded there any philosophy primarily social (about four out of five submissions were ultimately rejected and many upfront because guess what–they were about political philosophy) so there would be a safe haven for zooming in on the everything else.

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