More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and most relevantly in this instance through the continuation of Homer in the greatest latin epic, Aeneid, which links Rome with the Trojan prince Aeneas. As I pointed out before here, Tacitus’ idea of barbarian liberty strongly influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748, a work I will be posting on in future), whose view of liberty in modern Europe, in brutal but meaningful summary, was of a combination of Roman law and Germanic individualism.

Montesquieu was of course a great part of Classical Liberalism and we can follow up his interest in barbaric liberty with reference to other classical liberals. David Hume and Adam Smith, who were writing after Montesquieu, tended to write on ‘barbarism’ and a related idea of ‘savagery’ with some anxiety regarding the possibility that such societies, or societies closer to that stage than those European nations where civil society had advanced the most, might overwhelm commercial legalistic nations with their unrestrained force.

However, some element of respect for liberty in the most simple societies does manifest itself at times, but mostly through an interest in the earliest stages of the Roman and Greek republics of antiquity, which in Montesquieu’s thinking come between the Germanic individualism and the late Roman legalism. Tacitus was thinking of the ‘virtue’ (in the sense of patriotic courage and love of law) of the early Romans when addressing the courage, rough individuality, and fierce independence of the Britons and Germans.

The most interesting way of linking back from Enlightenment liberalism of the Eighteenth century, for me at least, is via Wilhelm von Humboldt, a thinker I will address in at least one dedicated post in future. Humboldt’s major contribution to political thought, The Limits of State Action, was written in the 1790s, so another generation on from Montesquieu, just after Smith and Hume.

At this point, we might think of a movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism in European thought. While we should be very careful about such general distinctions, and amongst other things not engage in simplistic oppositions, it is appropriate to think of Humboldt as belonging to a phase of interest in the history and current meaning of aesthetics, literature, culture, and language as part of the study of political ideas.

He was in fact a major thinker about language and the infinite capacities inherent in the combinatory nature of language, which was part of his thinking about individual human capacity and the power of voluntary co-operation.

It is the interest in aesthetics, language, culture, historical existence, and the capacity of the inner human which makes him ‘Romantic’ rather than ‘Enlightened’, though again we should avoid stereotype and simple opposition here. Humboldt was very much not against Enlightenment respect for reasons, and some of these ‘Romantic’ themes are in ‘Enlightenment’ texts.

One of the earlier big classics of Enlightenment, The New Science (1725, 1744) by Giambattista Vico, is a good example and that is a book giving great importance to Homer. Vico is someone else who merits at least one dedicated post, so there will be more about him at some point. I am not aware of any evidence that Humboldt read Vico, but he certainly made an impression on German thinkers of the time.

Anyway, Humboldt was a learned classicist from a philological and literary way, which has an impact on his idea of how liberty was strengthened in antiquity, which compensated for the tendency of the ancient state to interfere in the soul, as Humboldt thinks of antique laws and institutions to promote moral and religious traditions.

What compensates for this pressure on liberty is the struggle in the lives of ancient humans, which has two main aspects. First the struggle with nature to have enough food and shelter to preserve life. Second the military struggle with rival states and communities, which was a very frequent experience in antiquity, and was an aspect of the history of the early Greek and Roman republics.

The best place to look for that in antique sources is Homer, because of the breadth of the Homeric world, as well as its poetic qualities, as well as its enormous influence on Greek and Roman culture. I had meant to address how the kind of struggle which can promote some kinds of liberty does appear in Homer, but this post is already long enough, and the best thing is to address Homer directly in the next post.

In the meantime, careful reading of any of the translations in books and post on websites, of The Iliad and The Odyssey (or indeed the original Greek for those fortunate enough to have that linguistic capacity), should I hope provide material to confirm what I’m suggesting.

Liberty and Homer

The ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ label is not adequate for some texts that ought to be discussed with regard to liberty, since they have something important to say about liberty, but even on an expanded inclusive definition cannot be said to put forward a case for liberty, certainly  not from the perspectives of classical liberalism, libertarianism, the liberty movement, or any other label for thinking which favours liberty understood as individual rights, markets, voluntary association, and rule of law over communalism, collectively directed distribution, state domination of society, and administrative rules.

I have plenty of further texts to discuss under the ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ heading, but here is a beginning to the ‘Liberty and…’ sequence. It is an appropriate starting point in that the epic poems associated with the name of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are at the very beginning of European literature, culture, and knowledge. This is not say that there is pure beginning to Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage with no precursors and no outside influence. It is to say that these are the first big texts in the history of anything that can be labelled European history. The name ‘Homer’ conceals considerable uncertainty about whether these poems have a single author and if so who.  What can be safely said is that these are long poems written down in approximately 800 BCE, drawing on a long oral tradition of sung poetry, referring to a world of Mycenaean late Bronze Age Greeks, who traded with and fought with the peoples of Anatolia, in a civilisation that disappears from the archaeological record in about 1 100 BCE.

On the side of Homer not being a hero of liberty is the apparent endorsement of a world where war and piracy have greater respect than trade and manufacture, the greatest role for a man is to defeat enemy armies and sack their cities, women’s role is to stay at home, do a lot of weaving, and obey their husband. Political authority is patriarchal-monarchical, based on the claim that kings are warrior-hero aristocrats are close to the gods. Ordinary people are deprived of choices and influence, subordinated to the hero-aristocrat class and may even be slaves. In The Iliad, a league of Greek kings lays siege to Troy for ten years, purely for reasons of honour connected with a Trojan Prince taking a Greek queen from her husband back to Troy. The violent destruction on enemy cities, the enslavement and murder of civilians, the organised theft of property are all part of the value system of Greeks and Trojans. In The Odyssey after various adventures on the way back from Troy, Odysseus massacres a group of aristocrats who have been trying to marry his wife during the twenty years of his absence, living in his palace using up the wealth, and follows this up with a massacre of those servant women who were too friendly with the massacred men.

So where does liberty come into this world of violence and traditionalist authority? One part of the answer to this question is that maybe the Homeric epics are critical of this world, at least in some part. The exploration of where there might be a critical distance in the Homeric poetry from the most disturbing aspects of the world it depicts gets into much detailed and questions of ambiguity to pursue here, but is something to bear in mind when reading Homer. Leaving that aside, there is the underlying issue of the formation of a world of poetic creation, which in some degree must be distant from and reflect on a world, so raising the possibility of individual critical perspectives.

Anyway, even staying at the level of the more direct and literal meaning, it portrays different possibilities of individual character and ways of being. In The Iliad we are see Achilles the proud angry warrior who lives to become the hero of song, even if that means dying young. His devotion to violence co-exists with a belief that he has rights as an individual against his overlord, a passionate devotion to his best friend, a capacity to overcome his angry nature when he allows the father of the Trojan hero, Hector, who killed his friend to take the body for honourable burial.

Hector himself has a near Achilles level of ‘heroic’ violence combined with a deep and self-effacing attachment to his wife and child. Many other possibilities of human individuality are explored including that of the most intelligent and cunning of the Greek leaders, Odysseus, who understands that war is won by stratagems as well as devotion to violence. This man of reflection, forethought and an early form of the life of the mind, becomes the centre of the second Homeric epic, The Odyssey, which recounts the ten years of his journey back from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca.

Odysseus starts back with his own fleet of ships carrying an army of Ithaca, by the time he gets back to Ithaca all of this is lost, and he is alone, in disguise playing the part of a vagabond when he arrives on his home island. Early in his adventures he described himself as No-man to trick his way out of danger from the giant Polyphemus and then proudly shouts his real name at the giant on his escape. This is at the base of his ten year journey since the god Poseidon is the father of  Polyphemus and takes revenge on Odysseus when Polyphemus can tell his father how Odysseus harmed him. Again and again Odysseus has to struggle with his own impulses and with the need to play a part, stretching his identity, in order to return to his island kingdom. So he is growing as an individual, exploring all the possibilities of individuality, including self-concealment, self-invention, and self-transformation.

The extreme violence of the return of Odysseus is followed by the brief description of a new beginning in Ithaca, an order of social peace in which a possible cycle of revenge is pre-empted through oaths and the prospect of justice settling differences rather than violence. This reconciling ending of The Odyssey itself builds on the sombre peace at the end of The Iliad, when a truce is agreed so that the city of Troy can bury and mourn its hero Hector, so that the values of peace and acknowledgement of individual suffering can stand up against the cycle of destructive violence.

In these and many other ways, Homeric epic offers much to stimulate thought about the nature of individuality and the kinds of social form which might allow individuals to flourish together, even in its depiction of the most destructive outcomes of human passions.

Whither the ‘Liberty Canon’ series, amongst other questions?

For those of you who have been wondering what happened to Dr Stocker’s posts here at NOL, the man has been busy:

Apologies for lack of blogging. Rather basic tasks, particularly very detailed note taking on Homer for a philosophy and literature class on Homer and Vico, are the main reason. Hopefully the immersion in Homer will pay off soon in blogging, research and writing, as well as teaching.

Anyway rather appropriately given my current preoccupation, I have very recently been offered a contract by Macmillan Palgrave to co-edit the Palgrave Handbook of Philosophy and Literature. It should be out in 2017, comprising a large number of essays on basic topics in philosophy and literature, with the editors contributing an apparatus of an introduction, conclusion, index and the like, along with an essay each.

The other editor is Michael Mack of the Department of English Studies, Durham University, UK. Do have a look at his university homepage and see details of his extensive and excellent contributions to philosophy and literature. I’m very fortunate that he has agreed to work with me on this project.

Back to Homer now. Blogging here again and getting on with other commitments soon.

Congrats are in order to Dr Stocker, though I have to say I’ll miss him while he’s working. Maybe when he’s done with his very serious work, I can convince him to blog not only about the history of thought in the Western world, but also to blog more often about domestic Turkish politics and liberal (i.e. libertarian) UK politics, and affairs in the Middle East (three more areas where his expertise is second to none; see here and here, for example). What do you say?

I know I state this often, but be sure to follow along in the ‘comments’ threads to some of our conversations. Unlike a lot of blogs, they’re of pretty high quality (if you ask me!).

I know Jacques just got back from Mexico, and Matthew is still trolling Europe (last I heard he was in Greece), so hopefully their travels will elicit some expert notes about the world.

Let’s clear up the liberal mess

It appears there are as many liberalisms as there are liberals. To name just a few: libertarianism, classical liberalism, bleeding heart liberalism, economic liberalism, political liberalism, social liberalism, high liberalism, minarchism, objectivism, anarcho-capitalism, neoliberalism. And in international relations theory there is for example neoliberal institutionalism, liberal internationalism or embedded liberalism. Clearly this all amounts to a liberal mess. I attempt to sort it out in my forthcoming book Degrees of Freedom. Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, April 2015).

Getting a decent grasp of liberal political thought does not have to be this complicated. You only need to keep in mind a perennial question in political philosophy: what is the just relation between the state and the individual? Roughly, there are three answers: the state should have (almost) no role in individual life, the state should have a limited role, or the state should have a fairly large role. The liberal variants that are associated with these answers are libertarianism, classical liberalism and social liberalism, respectively. To be sure, these three are not completely mutually exclusive, while the thinkers associated with these do not always neatly fit the categorization.

This is not the right place to discuss the methodological underpinnings in detail. Suffice it to note that the divide is based on the analysis and ranking of the main political concepts in classical liberalism, social liberalism and libertarianism. This method originates in the writings of British political theorist Michael Freeden. Put briefly, every political ideology should be seen as a framework made of a number political concepts, who vary in importance. Accordingly, all three liberal variants have core, adjacent and peripheral concepts. Sometimes the individual concepts overlap, but in total there is significant variation, leading to the three liberal variants.

Classical liberalism originates from the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment, not least in in the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith. It is also associated with thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. It has a realistic view of human nature, which means that man is seen a mix between rationality and emotion. Individual freedom is the main classical liberal goal, which is best preserved by protection of classical human rights (freedom from), the rule of law in public affairs and reliance on spontaneous ordering processes in society, such as the free market. The classical liberal state is limited, which means it does have to perform or arrange for a number of important public tasks. Besides defense, police and judiciary this mainly concerns a minimal amount of welfare arrangements, some environmental regulation, or other issues that cannot be dealt with through the markets.

Libertarianism and social liberalism both originate from the nineteenth century and they constitute the two contrasting poles of the liberal spectrum. Libertarians think the classical liberals allow the state to grow too big. They favor a stricter protection of individual rights to life, liberty and property which to them ensures a just and good functioning society, where free people will be able to use their talents and cooperate in strictly voluntary ways. Some, like Murray Rothbard or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, argue this society can totally rely on spontaneous order for the provision of all necessary services and therefore want to abolish the state completely. Others, such as Ayn Rand, think there is a need to publicly organize defense, police and judiciary.

The social liberals (liberals in the contemporary American sense), such as John Stuart Mill or John Rawls think the libertarian and classical liberal ideas lead to social injustice. They argue that individual flourishing demands a fuller, positive kind of liberty (rights to), which enables individuals to fully develop themselves. Individuals should be able, especially through education, to learn skills and get knowledge to use their natural talents, at the labor market and elsewhere. Otherwise the idea of liberty is just formal, lacking any practical meaning. Concern for social justice also entails the redistribution of income (through taxation), to ensure a welfare system (social security, public health) that takes care of the less fortunate. This leads to a much bigger role for the state than in the other two liberalisms.

Interestingly, these differences also show up in the liberal views on international relations. Libertarians favor the least active (state) interference in world politics, classical liberals recognize the implications of uneven power distributions and believe in the spontaneous ordering effects of the balance of power, while the social liberals are supporters of international organizations and international law.

Needless to say this is just a very short description of the three liberal variants. Much more can also be said about the reasons to discard the other forms of liberalism that figure in the public debate. Still, in my view, this division into three stands up to critical scrutiny, is methodologically sound and therefore by far the best way to sort the liberal mess.

Wrestling with the Non-Aggression Principle

There is a story, likely apocryphal, concerning the great rabbi Hillel. When Hillel was learning in his academy, a gentile came to him and demanded that he teach him the entirety of the Torah. To make things harder, he would have to do this while the gentile was standing on one foot. If Hillel could achieve this feat, the gentile would convert to Judaism. Hillel was unfazed: “Don’t do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” The simplicity of the principle is attractive, and its validity is easily defensible. For example, I don’t want my employer to withhold my salary from me, so if I find myself in the role of a boss, I will not keep my employees from their rightful salaries.

However, it omits much of the Torah. Many of the commandments are not just “thou shalt not…” but also “thou shalt”: honor thy mother and thy father, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, stone your son if he is unruly, and so on and so forth. They are positive rather than negative commandments, enjoining action rather than prohibiting it. Furthermore, as a principle it elides many of the positive duties that are necessary to the functioning of a civilized polity. For example, if I were drowning in a swimming pool, I would not want the lifeguard to come to the edge of the pool, look at me floundering, and laugh. Thus I too would not laugh at a drowning person. But if I am drowning, I don’t want the lifeguard to just refrain from laughing at me. I also want him to pull my sorry ass out of the water.

This thought experiment can be reconfigured. I can say that, if I were drowning in a swimming pool, I would not want the lifeguard to not pull me out of the water. If I were put in the role of the lifeguard, I would then not not pull the drowning person out of the water. Seems okay, right? It works grammatically, but examine the drastic difference in nature between the two actions. To not laugh is to refrain from doing something, laughing. To not render assistance is to not do whatever steps are necessary to give aid, and so consists of doing precisely nothing. At best, because human beings can never not be doing something merely by virtue of being alive, it consists in just standing around. Because negating nothing also results in nothing, then to not not render assistance implies absolutely nothing. If I am being charitable and declare that to not render assistance means standing around, then to not not do this would mean to not stand around. But that is not descriptive of anything – the lifeguard could very well order a pizza instead. Thus we come to the central problem: that the lifeguard and I should refrain from laughter does not imply that we should also offer assistance, i.e. a positive action cannot be derived from a negative prohibition.

That this principle cannot account for all the actions required of a moral agent is damning to Hillel’s account of Judaism, but not to Judaism as a whole. After all, we have the moral axiom “do unto others, as you would have done unto you” as well. Returning to the example of the drowning swimmer, if I were he, then I would want the lifeguard to save me. That is, I would not want the lifeguard to just refrain from harming me, but to actively help me too. If I found myself in the role of lifeguard, then I would remember this reflection, and save the life of a drowning person. I demand a positive action from someone in the role of lifeguard, and so I render the same positive action when I am put into the same role. We thus have an equilibrium, where negative rights to life and positive duties to protect life are both upheld.

Although Hillel’s “silver rule” is a good principle to adhere to, it cannot be foundational, because it cannot do all the work that a complete moral system is required to do. As I thought about this example, my mind then roved on to something different, but related: the Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP, that is considered foundational for (at least legal) ethics in the Rothbardian strand of libertarian thought. The simplest formulation of this principle is that aggression should never be initiated against another human being or his property and livelihood, except to prevent force or fraud, or in self-defense. Professor Matt Zwolinski defines it as a principle which

“holds that aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.”

A competing definition from The Ludwig von Mises Institute defines it as:

“an ethical stance which asserts that “aggression” is inherently illegitimate. “Aggression” is defined as the “initiation” of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property”

There is, of course, a clear difference between physical force and physical violence, though some verbal gymnastics may be necessary to tease out the boundaries. Throughout his article I will be using Zwolinski’s definition, though I may take up the latter at some later time.

The justification for extending the NAP from persons to their property is derived from the analogy of self-ownership: if I own my self, then I also own those things that my self produces by extension. It also comes from John Locke’s homesteading principle, viz. “mixing of labor with an unowned resource makes that resource part of one’s self. Subsequent exchange of such property (e.g. sale, rental) simply transfers this right. Hence, to aggress against someone’s property is to aggress against the individual. As for freedom of contract, the right of self-ownership is held to imply freedom of action in the absence of aggression (e.g. in the absence of false or duress contracts, and the absence of contracts stipulating aggression against third-parties).”

Finally, if the NAP is granted to apply to both persons and their property, “then the non-aggression principle is held by its supporters to lead to the rejection of theft, vandalism, assault, fraud, pollution and the concept of victimless crimes.”

There is a lot to disagree with here. I could, for example, take issue with the very concept of the “self” and the “I” which owns it, but as Kant rightly stated, freedom is a necessary postulate for morality, and so even if it cannot be explained, it must be maintained. Such an enquiry is fundamentally necessary to determine whether such a “self” could own anything, after all. Furthermore, I could certainly disagree with the extension of ownership of the self to ownership of things with which that the self interacts. And so on and so forth. Instead of these objections, I have a simpler mission with this post. I want to start an enquiry into the suitability of the NAP as a legal/ethical, as well as a generally moral, principle. Thus I will ask two questions:

  1. Is the NAP a suitable foundational principle for ethics?
  2. Is the NAP a suitable foundational principle for the law?

The NAP as a Moral Principle

Because the NAP considers aggression to be ceteris paribus illegitimate, it has the force of an unequivocal moral law. If I covet my neighbor’s cow and I steal her, that is aggression against him, and thus wrong. If I want to institute a tax to pay for a town library, that is theft of my neighbor’s funds, a form of aggression, and therefore illegitimate. If I want to protest the new Walmart in the neighborhood by defacing the storefront with a lewd graffito, that is damaging the property of the shareholders of Walmart, and thus wrong. However, if a man pulls a knife on you in a dark alleyway, you are justified to pull a gun on him, in protection of your life and your property. If a sharper tries to extort money from you in a Ponzi scheme, you are justified to bring down the police on his head, in protection of your property against fraud. I can continue to come up with examples, but the point should be clear: any initiation of aggression is illegitimate, unless it is in response to an act of aggression initiated first by someone else, whether through force or fraud.

This is a very simple, intuitive, and easy-to-remember moral axiom. Because of this, it is overly broad, and thus overly thin. It cannot account for all the moral intuitions people have, and at times is radically opposed to a commonplace sense of right. While these reasons are not sufficient to dismiss it entirely, they are enough to question its suitability as a foundational principle of general morality for libertarianism. The NAP, by focusing only on the negative duty to avoid harm, ignores a whole swath of other important moral considerations: whether the costs of an action are commensurate with its reward; duties to help or to not harm; the roles involved with or implied by duties; and the nature of the human being, whether such a nature implies positive, or merely negative, duties.

The benefit of the NAP is that it prohibits doing all action that is clearly, intuitively, wrong. Murder, rape, and theft are always wrong, regardless of whatever gains may accrue from them. While any right thinking person will grant the truth of this, these same people may not notice that all these cases are acts of “doing” – that is, acts that a single moral agent, out of his own free will, elects to do. However, many moral dilemmas do not depend on what an agent actually does, but more importantly, what he allows to happen. This is where the ethical principle of doing and allowing comes in. There are some actions that on principle a moral agent cannot do, but that he may be allowed to let happen. For example, a moral agent cannot run over a person stranded in the road to save another person stranded atop an active volcano, but that same agent can allow one person to drown in order to save five other drowning people.

I will use a thought experiment to illustrate this (which I stole from some obscure paper on moral philosophy I read in undergrad). You have an elderly neighbor named Janet. Over several years, an arrangement developed between you and Janet that, during wintertime, you would gather firewood and stoke her wood-burning stove, the only source of heat in her home. You never established a formal contract with Janet, nor have you ever spoken about it, but there is a tacit understanding between both of you; you saw a need, and you provided. It is wintertime, and you receive a call that your best friend was hit by a car and is dying in a hospital three hundred miles away. You have the option of staying to help Janet, or going to see your friend before he/she dies. There is no one to help Janet except you. If you leave, Janet will likely die from the cold. What should you do?

Under NAP, there is no direction as to which option to choose. There are no legal, economic, or contractual obligations either to Janet, or to your friend. Not aiding Janet is not the positive action of initiating force, and so it is not prohibited by NAP. Not going to see your friend is also not an initiation of force, and so is equally permissible. What you do in this instance is entirely dependent on what would be, under the NAP, non-moral considerations:

  1. Janet requires your help, but Janet does not hold your affection in a way that is more than benignly charitable
  2. Your friend does not require your help, but does hold your affection in a very deep way.
  3. Seeing your friend before he/she dies is important to you, as it will be the last time you will ever see him/her

There is no such thing as a moral duty to help embedded in the NAP, and so your only recourse is your own sense of right and wrong, and your own motivations. If your sense of right and wrong is based on NAP, there is nothing wrong with not helping Janet, and because your attachment to your friend is stronger, you will leave to see him/her and allow Janet to die from the cold. If your sense of right and wrong incorporates the NAP, but also other moral ideas such as positive duties, you will likely stay to help Janet stoke her fire.

The main problem with NAP is that it is entirely negative: it prevents harm by making all actions subject to the prohibition on initiatory force. However, in doing so it neglects the necessity of positive duties. Here, by not helping Janet stoke her fireplace, you are not actively initiating force against her. Really, you are doing nothing at all. You are not breaking a formal arrangement ratified by mutual oaths or by contract, and thus infringing on her rights to the labor you are contracted to provide. Tacit agreements are not substantial enough to constitute a violation of NAP, as that would make any sort of casual arrangement equivalent with an initiation of force. If I have an arrangement to play a pick up soccer game with my friends every week, and one week I decide to play chess with grandpa and neglect to inform them, I can certainly be called inconsiderate, but it would be patently absurd to say that my lack of consideration is the same as initiating force, or participating in fraud. My friends do not have a legal or moral right to my presence at the game, as they might if I were a professional player contracted with a team. My labor is not part of any binding agreement, it remains mine, and so I may dispense with it as I see fit. If this is true at a trivial level for tacit arrangements, on principle it is true at a more substantial level, when there are real consequences: if violating my tacit agreement with my friends is not an initiation of force, neither is violating your tacit agreement with Janet.

However, by failing to gather wood, place it in her stove, kindle and maintain it, and make sure she is warm, you are not killing her yourself, but you are allowing her to die through your negligence. By taking on the task of tending the fire, and making Janet dependent on your labor for her survival, you have tied her fate to your willingness to assist her. You have taken on a positive duty to help her, by virtue of her helplessness and your absolute power over her life or death. Acting as if NAP is foundational precludes moral duties, but this also means it precludes the roles that presuppose all duties. A fireman has a duty to put out fires because he is in that role, and a priest has a duty to shepherd his flock by virtue of his role. In this case, you are not in the role of a caregiver, and so she does not exert an economic or contractual claim on your exercise of labor. However, you are in the role of a neighbor or a friend, and while she has no economic claim on you, she certainly has a moral one. In the same way that a child, by its very helplessness, exerts a moral claim on its parents, Janet exerts a moral claim on you or anyone that is integral for her survival.

The NAP as a Legal Principle

Some libertarians may cry out at this point that the NAP was never intended as a general principle of morality, but more narrowly, as the basis of legal ethics. This is the stance of Rothbard and Hoppe, and while it may get them out of this last dilemma I conjured up, it also may not. You have no legal obligation to help Janet, and so you could not be prosecuted for leaving her (literally) out in the cold under a legal system founded on NAP, but you certainly would be morally stained. The presumption is that legal coercion is not required, for even if the law did not constrain you to act in the right way, your own personal concerns would: your private morality (guilt), or the views and sanction of the community (shame).

This presumption takes an overly rosy view of human nature. At times coercion is necessary to forestall a greater harm by the imposition of a smaller one. If I am drowning, it is a reasonable expectation that those around me will save me, and most moral people would. But I cannot count on other people being moral, so there must be the added threat that, if they do not save me, they will be punished in some way. As Zwolinski writes, “taken to its consistent extreme, as Murray Rothbard took it, the NAP implies that there is nothing wrong with allowing your three year-old son to starve to death, so long as you do not forcibly prevent him from obtaining food on his own. Or, at least, it implies that it would be wrong for others to, say, trespass on your property in order to give the child you’re deliberately starving a piece of bread. This, I think, is a fairly devastating reductio of the view that positive duties may never be coercively enforced. That it was Rothbard himself who presented the reductio, without, apparently, realizing the absurdity into which he had walked, rather boggles the mind.”

I will look at some thought experiments to further elucidate the stupidity of using the NAP as a foundational principle of the law.

1. The judge and the mob

A judge is adjudicating a particularly contentious murder trial. In the course of the proceedings, he receives irrefutable evidence that the defendant is innocent, and so he moves to dismiss the case. A mob forms outside the courthouse and kidnaps five innocent people, threatening to murder all of them if the judge does not hand over the defendant. What should he do?

Analyzing this in terms of the NAP, the judge may or may not have grounds to give up the defendant in the case. On one hand, to give him up would be to condemn him to death, a clear instance of initiating aggression, and thus illegitimate. On the other, merely allowing him to be killed is not in itself a clear case of physical aggression. Indeed, the judge may only have to open the courthouse door and let the mob do the rest. In what way is opening a door a clear case of aggression? Zwolinski writes on this as well:

“The NAP clearly implies that it’s wrong for me to shoot you in the head. But, to borrow an example from David Friedman, what if I merely run the risk of shooting you by putting one bullet in a six-shot revolver, spinning the cylinder, aiming it at your head, and squeezing the trigger? What if it is not one bullet but five? Of course, almost everything we do imposes some risk of harm on innocent persons. We run this risk when we drive on the highway (what if we suffer a heart attack, or become distracted), or when we fly airplanes over populated areas. Most of us think that some of these risks are justifiable, while others are not, and that the difference between them has something to do with the size and likelihood of the risked harm, the importance of the risky activity, and the availability and cost of less risky activities. But considerations like this carry zero weight in the NAP’s absolute prohibition on aggression. That principle seems compatible with only two possible rules: either all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm), or none are (because they are). And neither of these seems sensible.”

It should be clear that we are dealing with the first rule here, viz. “all risks are permissible (because they are not really aggression until they actually result in a harm),” which as he notes, is not a sensible rule to have.

The five victims do not deserve to die, certainly, but that is out of the judge’s hands. He cannot ensure their safety except through the violation of the defendant’s right to life, assuming such a right exists. And, he does not know if the mob will make good on their promise. Perhaps they will lynch the defendant and kill the other five innocents. Perhaps if he calls their bluff and keeps the defendant, they will not kill the innocents at all. Perhaps Jesus will come down and the Resurrection will occur. If he is a gambler, the judge will clearly see where the odds lie, as the only thing really up to him is what he does with the defendant – every other outcome is out of his direct control.

Sacrificing one to save five is a superior choice in terms of the immediate material consequences. Five human lives will be spared at the cost of one. To refrain from handing over the defendant would be equivalent to condemning five people to death, and so the judge ought to deliver him to the mob, in order to save more lives. However, it is also clear that acquiescing to the mob involves a lot more than six civilians and a judge. Showing the mob that it can buy the decisions of the judiciary through coercion is corrosive to the very idea of justice, which is based on the impartial weighing of evidence and not the clamor of the crowd. Valuing human life on a material scale is corrosive to the idea of the inherent dignity and non-instrumental value of a human being, which is the underlying basis of any justifiable ethics. Finally, giving up a man to the mob is the same as intentionally murdering him, while allowing the mob to kill five people is a decision that is out of the judge’s hands, and entirely up to the mob which controls the situation. To legitimize such a sacrifice is to legitimize the act of murder when it is demanded by a majority, perhaps the most corrosive idea of all. If violating the right to life and liberty for a case of one versus five is wrong, it is equally wrong if it is one versus one, or one versus one million.

2. The NAP is not consistent.

You may notice in the definition of the NAP that “fraud against persons or property” seems tacked on to the prohibition of initiation of physical aggression against persons and their property. The underlying logic is that physical aggression is morally equivalent with fraud, which is also some form of aggression. It is more of an equivocation, though, as the physical aggression prohibited under NAP cannot be equivalent with fraud. Physical aggression, such as striking another person, is fundamentally different literally and conceptually from telling some gullible schmuck that the ring I am selling is genuine gold, when in reality it is brass plated with some low quality gold alloy. If you believe in the principle of self-ownership, and thus ownership of the possessions of the self, then you may say that, yes! I am aggressing against the schmuck by harming his personal property. But even so, the aggression against property versus against a man are fundamentally different, because they are fundamentally different things, connected only by a tenuous abstraction. It is this abstraction that allows the ringbearer to initiate force against me, in order to reclaim his lost assets taken through fraud, just as it permits another man to defend himself after being struck. However, notice the difference: the first case is an initiation of physical violence, because fraud is not violence, while the second case is retaliation against violence initiated previously.

Prohibiting harm of a person’s property is certainly important, but it is not equivalent with harm to the person himself, and it is patently absurd to argue that these two situations are symmetrical. The legitimation of physical violence because of fraud against a man’s property also holds for the NAP in any case of aggression against property. Zwolinski again:

“Suppose A is walking across an empty field, when B jumps out of the bushes and clubs A on the head. It certainly looks like B is aggressing against A in this case. But on the libertarian view, whether this is so depends entirely on the relevant property rights – specifically, who owns the field. If it’s B’s field, and A was crossing it without B’s consent, then A was the one who was actually aggressing against B.”

This leads to the ultimate reductio: violence is not the fundamental concern of the NAP, for violence against persons may or may not be legitimate depending on the circumstances of who and whom. But, violence against property is always illegitimate, because property, unlike the man, is always an unalloyed good. Thus, the NAP places the protection of property above the protection of a man himself, a heinous conflation of moral and legal goods with mere material concerns. The marvellous Kant would be rolling in his grave if he saw such foolishness accepted as gospel. As Zwolinski says, “…the NAP’s focus on “aggression” and “violence” is at best superfluous, and at worst misleading. It is the enforcement of property rights, not the prohibition of aggression, that is fundamental to libertarianism.”

***

Even given these problems, I do not think the NAP should be abandoned entirely, as does Zwolinski. It may be broad, and incoherent, but those problems are obviated by:

  1. Denying its status as foundational for either morality or law
  2. Denying the idiotic assertion that fraud merits physical violence
  3. Affirming other moral and legal guidelines that are superior to and/or complement it.

The idea that it serves as an absolute moral principle is misguided, and it should be replaced with the idea that it is a guideline for action, not a foundation for it. Further, its use as a foundational principle for the law is also absurd, and must be accompanied by more, and better, principles to create a comprehensive body of law. The Aristotelian virtues come to mind here. Courage is the virtue of battle, but courage alone does not make a good warrior. The prudence to know when to be courageous, when to storm the barricades and when to retreat, is more valuable. For courage, when puffed up by the vehemence of war, becomes rashness, and when dampened by fear, becomes cowardice. There is a mean between them, and it is the true virtue of the good warrior that he knows where this mean lies.

For morality, instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we must affirm the usefulness of the NAP, while complementing it with other principles that satisfactorily map onto our moral intuitions and maintain our moral principles. Instead of a single, overriding absolutist principle, we ought to have a constellation of principles that inform our moral behavior. For the law, a codified respect of both negative and positive rights and duties is necessary. I welcome any comments and criticism.

Reading the Laws, Part 4

If you haven’t been following along with the series, you can find the last three entries here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

***

I recently began reading Joseph Campbell’s well known work, the Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in the section concerning the challenges of the hero, he uses the example of Theseus and the Minotaur. I instantly thought back to my first entry in this reader’s diary, for the characters of the dialogue are all on their way to the Temple of Zeus, in mimicry of the journey of King Minos, who would go there once every nine years to propitiate the sky god for his aid.

I will quote what I said initially:

“They [the three participants in the dialogue] find each other as strangers on the road to Knossos, where they are all heading to the temple of Zeus for some religious function. The Athenian suggests a discourse, befitting their age and mental alacrity, on the nature of law. Aping the pilgrimage of the mythic king Minos, who would travel every nine years to this very shrine for the purpose of receiving instruction from Zeus on the law, the other two heartily agree to the suggestion.

Plato’s first invocation, and the setting of his dialogue, readily complement each other. The first asks whether the law comes from man or from a god, while the second seemingly answers in favor of the gods, set as it is in direct apposition with Minos’ nine year journey to Zeus himself. Law, and all its attendant meanings, seems to spring from divine reason rather than human craftsmanship.”

Any serious student of literature could make that assessment, as it requires no previous knowledge about Greek culture, mythology, and history. The ability to make inferences, hopefully a faculty shared by all people, is sufficient. Coupling the plain interpretation of the passage with some concrete knowledge about the Ancient Greek cultural milieu will add further depth. I quote now from Campbell:

“…the king of the south Indian province of Quilacare, at the completion of the twelfth year of his reign, on a day of solemn festival, had a wooden scaffolding constructed, and spread over with hangings of silk. When he had ritually bathed in a tank, with great ceremonies and to the sound of music, he then came to the temple, where he did worship before the divinity. Thereafter, he mounted the scaffolding and, before the people, took some very sharp knives and began to cut off his own nose, and then his ears, and his lips, and all his members, and as much of his flesh as he was able. He threw it away and round about, until so much of his blood was spilled that he began to faint, whereupon he summarily cut his throat.

This is the sacrifice that King Minos refused when he withheld the bull from Poseidon. As Frazer has shown, ritual regicide was a general tradition in the ancient world. “In Southern India,” he writes, “the king’s reign and life terminated with the revolution of the planet Jupiter round the sun. In Greece, on the other hand, the king’s fate seems to have hung in the balance at the end of every eight years . . . Without being unduly rash we may surmise that the tribute of seven youths and seven maidens whom the Athenians were bound to send to Minos every eight years had some connexion with the renewal of the king’s power for another octennial cycle” (ibid., p. 280). The bull sacrifice required of King Minos implied that he would sacrifice himself, according to the pattern of the inherited tradition, at the close of his eight-year term. But he seems to have offered, instead, the substitute of the Athenian youths and maidens. That perhaps is how the divine Minos became the monster Minotaur…”

Whereas the king’s journey to the Temple of Zeus, in connection with the theme of Plato’s dialogue, connects kingship, divinity, and the law thematically for the reader, this passage from Campbell offers a related but different perspective: kingship is not a transmission of divine decrees into a phenomenal space, but is itself bound by a deeper law, a primordial order tied to the revolutions of the planets, and the bloody desires of the gods. Zeus did not give just give Minos the law, but also a limited time to enforce it, for it was dependent on his devotion, and eventual demise. By subverting the will of the divinity in diverting the sacrifice from its typical victim, the regent, to a novel set of seven youths, the king invites calamity: his wife copulates with the bull of Poseidon, bearing the Minotaur, which as Frazer and Campbell argue, is really the personification for the bloodlust of the king himself, effaced over time by myth.

The law cannot be deceived, and it always exacts its due, for it is not the enforcement of human decrees, but an element of the fabric of the universe. The word of Zeus is binding because Zeus is the pillar of existence and the basis of all, “the first and last, one royal body, containing fire, water, earth, and air, night and day, Metis and Eros. The sky is his head, the stars his hair, the sun and moon his eyes, the air his nous, whereby he hears and marks all things,” in the words of an Orphic hymn (quotation from A. Wayman, “The Human Body as a Microcosm,” History of Religions, Vol. 22, No. 2, (Nov., 1982), pp. 174). His words bear the weight of physical laws, which balk at defiance. If Plato had this myth in mind when he wrote the Laws, then his setting of the dialogue in such a place, at such a time, fives a different interpretation for his view of the law: law is the capricious will of the gods, which binds us with the finality of the law of gravity, the pious upholding it and prospering, the wicked flouting it and suffering, though its moral dictums are always enforced in the end, even if it is defied.

There is little to indicate that this was Plato’s intention. Though some Greeks moved into a sort of philosophical monotheism based on the preeminence of Zeus – see Stoic cosmology, for one example – belief in the entire Olympian pantheon was still widespread. If the law is the will of the gods, we must ask first, whose will? All of the gods, or just one, the father, Zeus? Surely all of them, since the poets always depicted the gods as bickering over their own spheres of influence, and with significant power endowed in each. But if all of them, how can their wills be the basis of law? For did not Poseidon support the Achaeans at Ilium, while Apollo took the side of noble Hektor? Plato went over these questions himself in his dialogue Euthyphro, which indicates to me that he would not endorse a viewpoint he ringingly denounced through his mouthpiece, Socrates, in his earlier dialogue. Furthermore, as I have pointed out earlier, it seems to vitiate the whole point of this book of the dialogue, which is to examine different systems of law and define the basis of good laws.

Despite this, there is something to go on here. As Plato’s Athenian has earlier argued, the old should be the only ones with the prerogative to discuss the laws, their bases, their validity, their use, while the young must be enjoined only to obey, lest respect for the law as an institution does not solidify in them. Edmund Burke has a similar argument in his Reflections. From page 29:

“Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot pro- duce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.”

Burke argues for creating a civic religion around the institutions of the laws, which attains its respect from its age and pedigree, in the same way an old man garners respect by virtue of his advanced age. On my foregoing interpretation of Plato, tying the law to a far more awful and terrifying source than human judgment gives it greater security, for there is not just the fear of man’s retribution, but also god’s. Both these thinkers operate on the premise that the law does not necessarily attain respect from its goodness or its appropriateness. These are objective aspects, which can only be comprehended by an intellect habituated to high and lofty topics, and not by the vulgus, which is naturally stupid, and has no capacity for understanding such things. Better to inspire such people, always the bulk of a society, through the antiquity of the law, to awe them with its heraldry and trappings, to set them to quaking with the terrible countenance of the statue of Zeus, in the greatness of its size and the scale of its construction a visible reminder of the awesome power of the god, and of his vengeance.

The Dalai Lama on Inequality

There are many people who blame “capitalism” for the world’s economic problems, such as poverty, unemployment, inequality, and environmental destruction. This common belief is based on a confusion of meaning, and a lack of analysis. It is neither surprising nor noteworthy that many people fail to apply consecutive thought to economic issues, but it is sad that the Dalai Lama, as an influential religious leader, has not fully applied his compassionate thought to examine the causes and effective remedies of social problems.

The Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has identified himself as a Marxist socialist. He blames “capitalism” for economic inequality, and sees the Marxist alternative as the alternative that would increase equality. He advocates a more “human approach,” which implies less “capitalism” and more socialism. The Dalai Lama adds that he is not a Leninist, meaning that his Marxist views do not imply a desire for a totalitarian state.

The Dalai Lama believes that Marxism is founded on moral principles, such as economic equality, while “capitalism” is founded only on the pursuit of profit. His social and economic views were published in the 1996 book Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses. He said there that Marxism is concerned with the poor and with exploited minorities. Therefore, he said, “I think of myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” The Dalai Lama had studied Marxist ideology in China during the 1950s, and became attracted to it.

The essential problem with the word “capitalism” is that it is used both as a label for current economies, which are a mixture of markets and governmental interventions, and for the concept of private enterprise and free markets. Its use as a label for mixed economies makes it meaningless to blame “capitalism” for economic problems.

This confusion is similar to blaming diets for ill health. The diet of most people is a mixture of healthy foods such as vegetables and unhealthy stuff such as excessive sugar. The proposition that “diets” cause illness may be true, but it tells us nothing about which elements of our diets are causing the problem.

Likewise, to blame “capitalism,” meaning the mixed economy, for economic inequality, is meaningless, as this does not tell us which elements of the economy are causing the problem, whether it is markets or interventions. Blaming “capitalism” is worse than useless; it fogs the mind, because the label for mixed economies gets confused with the other meaning, private enterprise, so that, in a sly tacit shift of meanings, markets get blamed for economic woes.

It is meaningless to accuse “capitalism,” as a label, as only caring about profit and ignoring the poor, because the actual “mixed economy” cannot have any thoughts or feelings. Moreover, the concept of a pure market economy does have an ethical basis. The pure market is an economy in which all activity is voluntary. The concept of voluntary human action implies the existence of a universal ethic, or natural moral law, that designates acts as good, evil, or neutral, with voluntary action being good or neutral, and involuntary action consisting in coercive harm, which is evil.

One of the premises from which natural moral law is derived is the concept of human equality, that human beings have an equal moral worth, and should therefore be equal in the application of law. Human equality does not imply that all persons should have an equal income or wealth, because moral equality implies an equal self-ownership (or ownership of one’s body) of all persons. Therefore, each person properly owns his wage and the goods and investments bought from his wage. Income, however unequal, that comes from labor, including entrepreneurship, is not an evil outcome.

The mixed economy does create poverty, but not from private entrepreneurship. The poverty comes from government’s taxing the poor and subsidizing the rich. A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and the Pew Research Center recently concluded that the poorest fifth of households pay more than twice the state and local tax rate (11 percent) as the richest one percent. Also, although the rich pay a much higher tax rate on their income, many of the rich get their money back implicitly in the form of the higher rent and land value generated by government spending, paid for by taxes on wages, goods, and enterprise profits. The taxes on the poor are even higher than that found in the study, as there are federal excise taxes included in goods, and also, federal taxes and restrictions on labor and self-employment add to the interventionist burden of the poor.

The economist Henry George wrote that “There is in nature no reason for poverty.” Poverty and excessive inequality are caused by human institutions. If Marxism implies income redistribution or government ownership of industry, this treats, and mistreats, the symptoms, not the causes. The main causes are the stifling of labor and enterprise from taxation and imposed barriers. The ultimate remedy is a completely free market, with voluntary, contractual, decentralized governance. Given today’s states and taxes, government interventions can be minimized with a constitutional prohibition of restrictions and imposed costs on peaceful and honest enterprise, thus with taxes only on bad effects – pollution – and on the ground rent generated by government’s public goods.

If he understood the ethics and economics of liberty, then the Dalai Lama would become a much greater global leader in promoting effective reforms that would not only promote liberty but also greater prosperity and social peace.