The Libertarian Case for Immigration Restriction

I read Mr. Woodman’s recent post with some interest since it is generally considered a truism that libertarians are not in favor of government interference, and immigration restrictions being a prime example of said interference, are, ergo, not in favor of that as well.

What I found strange was that the most prominent libertarian advocate for immigration restrictions, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, was not mentioned. This is a particularly grave omission. Hoppe is the foremost critic of the libertarian dogma of freedom of movement, and his arguments possess the most influence. He also pivots many of his arguments around a concern that Mr. Woodman has omitted: tribalism.

In his article on Lew Rockwell, On Free Immigration and Forced Integration, Hoppe writes:

To libertarians of the Austrian school, it should be clear that what constitutes “wealth” and “well-being” is subjective. Material wealth is not the only thing that counts. Thus, even if real incomes rise due to immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for one might prefer lower living standards and a greater distance to other people over higher living standards and a smaller distance to others.

The argument against immigration is fundamentally one of tribalism, though it is cloaked in economic rationalizations. Thus it is tribalism that must be reckoned with if Mr. Woodman desires to dismiss the arguments against immigration restrictions root and branch. That Mr. Woodman has not done so is regrettable, and it is an error I will attempt to address here.

Despite what I consider an omission, Mr. Woodman extensively, and mostly admirably, interrogates several consequentialist arguments “many libertarians” – presumably, he writes of those interlocutors he himself has sparred with – have made in favor of immigration restrictions. I will summarize them below.

I. Immigration Has Bad Consequences

Mr. Woodward summarizes the consequentialist argument against immigration thusly:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

However, if this logic is sound, then it gives the government carte blanche to use whatever force it wants to restrict anyone from doing anything, assuming it can prove that it causes a harm. Mr. Woodward writes:

For an example, as long as we have government-provided Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

Via reductio, this leads to a situation where force can be used arbitrarily and nefariously, which libertarians and likely most people of any political persuasion would find unsavory. Therefore, the argument in favor of government restricting immigration to avoid bad effect X is both morally untenable and inconsistent with libertarian doctrine.

II. Things Fall Apart

There are several weaknesses in this argument, the first being the contention that immigration restrictions are a restriction of an individual’s fundamental rights. As Mr. Woodman writes:

To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.”

Hoppe would argue that borders are anything but arbitrary lines demarcating abstract entities on a map. Rather, they reflect the outermost holdings of a nation, which claims ownership of the land, and has sole use and rights to it. In the aforementioned article, Hoppe writes:

in order to render the… argument applicable, it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).

Yet, very little territory these days is virginal, and the examples can be counted on one hand. In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

More importantly, it is absurd in any other society as well, all of which are predicated on some form of ownership. In a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land in the name of an abstract entity, the public, to whom it is avowedly beholden. In a monarchy, the sovereign wishes to enrich his own holdings and so will adopt an immigration policy that, according to Hoppe, would resemble most individual approaches to free association – acquire high-quality immigrants and offload low-quality citizens. In a democracy, the sovereign association of bureaucrats would seek to enrich itself (because it has temporary custodianship of the monopoly on taxation, rather than outright ownership), often at the expense of the existing citizenry, by allowing the immigration of any individual likely to enrich him – quality notwithstanding (Quote: “In fact, such negative externalities – unproductive parasites, bums, and criminals – are likely to be his most reliable supporters.”). Immigration thus becomes, in a democracy such as our own, a system of forced integration – the negation of the rights of some for the prerogative of others. This is Hoppe’s crucial point and the source of his opposition to opening immigration to all comers without prejudice. Here is the relevant passage:

Like a king, a democratic ruler will promote spatial over-integration by over-producing the “public good” of roads. However, for a democratic ruler, unlike a king, it will not be sufficient that everyone can move next door to anyone else on government roads. Concerned about his current income and power rather than capital values and constrained by egalitarian sentiments, a democratic ruler will tend to go even further. Through non-discrimination laws – one cannot discriminate against Germans, Jews, Blacks, Catholics, Hindus, homosexuals, etc. – the government will want to open even the physical access and entrance to everyone’s property to everyone else. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the so-called “Civil Rights” legislation in the United States, which outlawed domestic discrimination on the basis of color, race, national origin, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc., and which thereby actually mandated forced integration, coincided with the adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy; i.e., mandated inter-national desegregagtion (forced integration).

Even if Mr. Woodman rejects the validity of this argument, there is another weakness to his own: it assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry. Because immigration arguments look both inwards towards domestic concerns and outwards towards foreign ones, Mr. Woodman’s reductio is no longer applicable. (An important caveat: This comes with the assumption that any second-order effects spilling outside the country, such as, say, a global market distortion due to government programs for public healthcare in the United States, are not to be counted.)


Let’s examine that a minute.

When the members of an ingroup debate the merits of eugenics or Medicare, they debate how these policies will affect themselves – alone – well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via taxation or force on themselves will lead to the salutary result they desire.

When they debate over whether to admit immigrants from an outgroup, their debate hinges on whether the assumed future behavior of the members of that outgroup will affect them well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via force on others will lead to the salutary result they desire.

In both cases, the policy that wins does so based on the opinion of the ingroup as to its efficacy for whatever definition of welfare they have set for themselves. As welfare is a subjective term and does not only include economic goods, this ultimately reduces to this: welfare is whatever the people want it to be.

The ingroup can then argue, with complete logical consistency, that it both supports freedom (for itself, within the borders of its territory) and does not support it (for the outgroup, which is outside its territory and wants to come in). The reductio-into-slippery-slope that Mr. Woodman would like us to believe force inherently leads into is, in this case, fallacious. Force can certainly be directed outwards without being directed inwards. One could make an argument that acceding to a government imposition of force in one area is itself a slippery slope to force everywhere, but that is a different argument, and not the one being made.

III. Conclusions

To summarize the lines of argument thus far:

  1. Freedom of movement is a fallacy predicated on incorrect notions of land ownership. Movement from one sovereign territory to another is instead privilege of movement.
  2. Within a publicly held system such as our own, privilege of movement is dependent on the consent of the government which holds lands in the name of its citizens, its own ingroup.
  3. However, because the government seeks to enrich itself – often at the expense of its avowed ingroup – it will often pursue immigration policies that are detrimental to the ingroup, who are in turned forced to bear the burdens of the policy that enriches their overlords.
  4. The end result of democratic “free” immigration is forced integration, a betrayal of libertarian principles.
  5. Various logical points.

Mr. Woodman challenges libertarians to “justify some argument for why it [government] can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens.” It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

While Mr. Woodman has provided examples of policies restrictive of immigration being or becoming harmful economically, that does not negate the truth that a harmful economic policy may also come bundled with a salutary domestic policy. The citizenry, who do not want to associate with X group, have had their biases enshrined in law according to their desires.

Despite the centrality of tribalism in immigration, it is understandable why Mr. Woodman failed to attack the root of anti-immigration arguments. As we can observe in the current American election cycle, arguments against immigration generally take a utilitarian strain. Indeed, Donald Trump has based his opposition to immigration on the following issues:

  1. Immigrants are increasing the level of crime because many of them are criminals
  2. Immigrants are not adequately screened, leading to point one
  3. Immigrants are harming the economy

As stated by Mr. Woodman, there are clear arguments to be made against these points. However, he has failed to address why these arguments are convincing: tribalism, the doctrine of sticking with one’s kith and kin at the expense of others, is the root ideology. And there are clear – and libertarian! – arguments in favor of it.

I expect, and welcome, a hearty critique of Hoppes’s position, my articulation of it, and my response to Mr. Woodman’s article.

Why the Holocaust in Europe?

Advanced technology cannot explain it, for far lesser civilizations such as Cambodia, pre-industrial China, and the many Bantustans of Africa prove that nothing more than a machete, or a pistol, or indifference are required for mass murder. However, it can explain how Nazi Germany could kill off ~11 million people in six years, in multiple countries in Europe and North Africa, while fighting wars on two fronts against industrialized world powers. Without their technological advancement and smoothly functioning bureaucracy, the pace and extent of the slaughter could not have been possible.

The status of minorities within the state cannot explain it, for the persecution of undesirable minorities in Germany was, paradoxically, restrained by the stable governance of the nation until the end of the war. Only in the East, where military “government” was nothing but a term and warlords ruled with impunity over fiefdoms the size of Poland, did the protections of law break down so that whole peoples could be liquidated – only in a state of utter lawlessness were such actions, contrary to all laws and customs, ever possible. This is largely why the extent of the Holocaust remained largely unknown until the end of the war amongst the Allies, and largely unknown in the West for years after.

Material conditions in Germany could not explain it, for if one were to look for the most likely culprit of an anti-Semitic genocide, it would not be enlightened, cultured Germany, but France or Russia. France became notorious in the late 19th century for falsely convicting a highly decorated officer of treason – because he was Jewish. Crowds jeered at this son of Moses in the streets for his creed. His trial became the catalyst for Herzl’s der Judenstaat, the foundational book of modern Zionism. Russia was known throughout the world for its state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, and the many pogroms it allowed or overlooked. That it would be Russia that liberated many of the Jews from the death camps at the end of the war is nothing if not a historical irony.

The success of the Holocaust in Europe shows the lasting triumph of ideology in human affairs. Only in Europe had anti-Semitism enjoyed such a long and insidious history. Only in Europe had hatred of the Jews seeped into the foundation stones of churches and parliaments, into ditties and songs and folk tales and political programs. Only in Europe could the Jew be turned into the root of all evil, rapine, and civilizational decline. The Holocaust could not have occurred without this narrative, constructed over hundreds of years of enmity.

As I said in my comment on Brandon’s recent post:

Christianity has had a fraught relationship with Judaism from its foundation. It could never really get past its humble beginnings as a Jewish cult, and its theologians could not grasp why the Jews would not accept Jesus as the Messiah who was promised in apocalyptic literature. The dominant viewpoint among Christians became that Jews could be permitted to live and work in their lands, but only in a fallen and wretched state, a reminder to all who would not hear the Good News that this is what becomes of the heathen – you can find one of the earliest articulations of this in St. Augustine’s writing. Anti-Semitism became a virulent, and in some ways integral, strain of European culture. In every country, the Jew was forced into ghettoes, required to wear demeaning garments, robbed of the ability to work freely, forced to pay exorbitant donatives at the will of the ruler, and often murdered or driven out. The emancipation of the Jews in the early 19th century eliminated many of the material conditions brought on by institutionalized anti-Semitism, but the attitudes themselves deepened and took on a twisted and contradictory nature: Jews were downtrodden, but their great wealth makes them a powerful menace! Jews have no culture, but these beasts have become our most prized artists, actors, and musicians! The ugly inner nature of the Jew marks him out as benighted among the nations, but lo! He can infiltrate anywhere, he is impossible to spot!

It also led to the development of a newer narrative: the Jew is insidious whether he is oppressed or free – what is the final solution to the Jewish problem in Europe? Assimilation? Expulsion? Destruction? These questions were debated in the closing years of the 19th and into the 20th centuries, without a satisfactory answer. Part of the reason Nazi Germany became so murderous is because, unlike past states which oppressed Jews in addition to other duties, Nazism was a Manichaeism that saw Jews as the pole of evil, and their eradication as the panacea that would usher in an age of pan-Nordic domination. One of many policies became the central pillar of state propaganda. They provided a definitive answer to the new question of “whither the Jew?” That they were so destructive is due to mechanization, but it cannot explain the destruction itself, which was the culmination of 1500 years.

The Holocaust remains an important lesson in many ways. Most importantly, it teaches us that ideology proved to be the great enabler of all the horror that followed. When the Jew came to be seen as evil not as a result of action but of being, his destruction was assured. Can something irredeemably evil be given sympathy and be saved, after all? All other factors are subordinate to this, which gave life and purpose to the machinery of genocide.

This leads to some problems, because it is impossible to live without ideology of some kind. At its most basic level, ideology forms the framework of thought, the prism through which we see the world and can interpret it, the unconscious reaction to and existence in the world. For example, that the world is real, that we act within it, and that our actions have consequences on the other beings we perceive within this world are basic positions that must be held to function.

As an aside, if one philosophically disagrees with them, that only adds an additional layer of complexity to the ideology, without challenging the ideology itself: even if Descartes believed an evil demon could, possibly, be controlling his experience, he would not test the hypothesis by throwing himself off of a cliff. The reality we have, regardless of its true nature or whether it is true in itself, is held to be beyond reproach for all practical purposes. Skepticism is thus a thinking man’s attitude to truths that are taken as given by everyone else. The truths are explored without being denied, and are given a deeper meaning. As Schopenhauer quotes:

The fundamental tenet of the Vedanta school consisted not in denying the existence of matter, that is, of solidity, impenetrability, and extended figure (to deny which would be lunacy), but in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending that it has no essence independent of mental perception; that existence and perceptibility are convertible terms.

Whether this is true is a philosopher’s dilemma, but it is an example of my point that no matter the inquiry, fundamental experience remains unchallenged, and so the ideology becomes enriched without quite changing its essential properties.

If this schema is broadly applicable, then it can be easily seen in the political sphere. The national security state exists to keep us safe, it protects us from the terrorists, and all good Americans hold this to be true – it becomes part of the being of America, and so is no longer questioned. The educational system is necessary to the functioning of the American polity, it is the foundation of our economic might and its lack of quality is a detriment to our competitiveness, hence it is for the common good, the common good is the highest good, and to deny any of this is to deny the foundations of American democracy, and America itself. Global climate change is obviously caused by humans, all the major scientists agree, and to disagree is to not only challenge consensus, it is to challenge science itself – and science is the only rational means of interaction with the world!

When a position descends from something that is questionable to something that is ideological, rational thought will mostly cease. Only loons and freaks will debate these obvious truths. We should be careful, as we stake out our own ideology and what that means for our perception of and interaction with the world, that we maintain for ourselves an openness to the validity of other truths, an ability to question our own deep-seated ideological beliefs, and a willingness to abandon what is no longer suitable to replace it with something good.

In sum, we must not let the ideology we have keep us from creating the ideology we need! And what the hell does that mean? Certainly the topic for another post.

Taoism, Anarchism, and the Divergence of Han Feizi

My colleague Chhay Lin Lim has an excellent article on Chuang Tzu, Taoism, and living libertarianism as a philosophy of life rather than a mere political philosophy. You can find it here.

His post reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for some time: Chinese Legalism. For those not in the know, Legalism was a school of thought that competed with Confucianism, Taoism, Moism, and other ideologies during the Warring States Period of Ancient China. It attained its greatest prominence under the Qin dynasty, after its compiler, Han Feizi, contracted himself to then-prince, Shi Huang.

What is most notable about Legalism is that it is the most notable extension of Taoist life philosophies into the sphere of rulership, an example of when quietism becomes political. The book he wrote, often titled simply Han Feizi, details a variety of methods rulers might understand their people, attain leadership, and maintain it in perpetuity. In a chapter titled “The Way of the Ruler,” Han Feizi describes the attributes of the prudent ruler, and then the state he will naturally develop from his personality and his penetrating insight into the nature of things. He begins with a poem of several very cryptic sentences:

  1. The Way is the beginning of all beings and the measure of right and wrong.

  2. The enlightened ruler holds fast to the beginning in order to understand the wellspring of all beings, and minds the measure in order to know the source of good and bad.

  3. He waits, empty and still, letting names define themselves and affairs reach their own settlement.

  4. Being empty, he can comprehend the true aspect of fullness; being still, he can correct the mover.

  5. Those whose duty it is to speak will come forward to name themselves; those whose duty it is to act will produce results.

  6. When names and results match, the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed.

In (1) and (2), Han Feizi argues that the ruler must know the conditions of the world in order to govern properly, because it is those conditions that provide the basis for his laws. There is no such thing as a transcendental morality for Han Feizi. He compares the ruler who attempts to implement laws based in supposed eternal truths to a “farmer of Song,”[1] who had serendipitously caught a rabbit when it hit a tree stump on its land, broke its neck, and died. The farmer “…laid aside his plow and took up watch beside a stump, hoping that he would get another rabbit in the same way,”[2] but he failed, and was consequently mocked by all the people of the land. Attempting to govern by old rules is similar, for the ruler does not possess the fortunate conditions of his forebears, and so he cannot use the same tools that they did. To know the measure of things, then, is to understand the present and act accordingly, to “bring together the ideas of the pattern (li) of the universe, and the law (fa) of the ruler in order to produce a harmonious society.”[3] This marks out Han Feizi’s political economy as one of balance, with the realities of the modern world on one hand tallied exactly with the movements of the ruler on the other. If reality is neglected in favor of nostalgic idealism or futuristic novelty, the ruler will not “mind the measure,” his actions will be out of balance, and therefore so will the state.

To understand (3), we must begin by understanding Han Feizi’s Legalism. His system fundamentally depends on a sharp distinction between those who obey the law, or fa, and those who rule by the policies and methods of power, or shu. The ruler, “who is the author of law and outside and above it,”[4] operates under a different set of rules because the basis of the state is firmly set in his ability to exercise power, which by definition is not limited by anything but his own material ability to act. While his subjects must obey the limits he has prescribed in the law, which are firm and unyielding, he must himself obey the unwritten laws of power, those “policies and arts which he applies in wielding authority and controlling the men under him.”[5] Part of a leader’s shu is not only to be a shrewd political manipulator, but also to understand the limits of his power as constrained by the fundamental laws of existence: “there is nothing inherent in the commands of the sovereign, not in the laws that he promulgates, that necessitate their according with the pattern of the universe.”[6] However, if they do not accord with the pattern, then the laws will be useless, and so the ruler will be powerless because of them.

The distinction between fa and shu is not between men who ought to be led on the one hand, and men who ought to lead on the other, for Han Feizi’s dim view of human potential caused him to conclude that most people are utterly without merit. Rather, it is solely between the man who has found himself in a position of power, and the mass of men, women, and children he must exercise that power over. If the distinction depended on merit, then the kingdom would in turn be hamstrung by the lack of meritorious men to run it. Instead of being dependent on the vagaries of human ability, the nature of fa is to self-perpetuate what it contains within the apparatus created by the ruler through shu. The world, its people, and those who minister to it are like the waters of a river, and the laws are like a dam that controls the movement of the waters. The ruler is the gate of the dam, and he alone causes the waters to move in a certain way, whether to rise and form a reservoir, or to be released and form a continuous river.

But if they overflow the dam, the gate must open, and the ruler must act. This is the concept of xingming, or ‘names and forms,’ that Han Feizi refers to in (3), which represents the overarching concept of Legalist governance. The ‘names’ are the promises of men in the service of the ruler, or the roles they are expected to fulfill, while the ‘forms are the deeds in actuality that correspond to those promises and roles. If the two aspects of xingming are at equilibrium, “the ruler need do nothing more and the true aspect of all things will be revealed,”[7] as with (6). However, if those aspects do not match, the ruler can “correct the mover,”[8] as with (4). To do either, he must be “empty and still,” for in emptiness alone can he “comprehend the true aspect of fullness,” which is nothing but the movement of the Way – the changing circumstances of the times – and the functioning of the state qua ruler in response to it. The ministers of the state “will come forward to name themselves,” thereby setting up their precise roles within the apparatus of government, and then “those whose duty it is to act will produce results,” fulfilling the exact role within that government they have been assigned. Names and forms tally only if the ministers do not go above or below their station, but they are in discord if the ministers transgress their bounds by doing too much, usurping the power of the ruler, or too little, thereby defying him. The true purpose of xingming, then, is to subordinate the self-interest of the minister, and perhaps of the ruler himself, to the overarching plan of the state – as people only do things for “selfish reasons… [for] abundant material benefits,”[9] the ruler must be selfless in his pursuit of the interests of the state, which are equivalent with his own but simultaneously beyond them.

What I find quite interesting is where this intersects with Chuang Tzu and Chhay Lin, but also diverts from them. Chhay Lin writes:

Left to themselves they live in natural harmony and spontaneous order. But when they are coerced and ruled, their natures become vicious. It follows that princes and rulers should not coerce their people into obeying artificial laws, but should leave them to follow their natural dispositions. To attempt to govern people with manmade laws and regulations is absurd and impossible: ‘as well try to wade through the sea, to hew a passage through a river, or make a mosquito fly away with a mountain!’. In reality, the natural conditions of our existence require no artificial aids. People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature.

Han Feizi laughably rejects this. To him, there is no such thing as a transcendent human nature that, if left to its own devices, would assert itself as a lover of harmony and spontaneous order. Man is made by the age, culture, and circumstances in which he finds himself, far more than any essential nature bubbles up in the age in which he lives. Behold Han Feizi’s beginning to the chapter “The Five Vermin”:

In the age of remote antiquity, human beings were few while birds and beasts were many. Mankind being unable to overcome birds, beasts, insects, and serpents, there appeared a sage who made nests by putting pieces of wood together to shelter people from harm. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven and called him the Nest-Dweller. In those days the people lived on the fruits of trees and seeds of grass as well as mussels and clams, which smelt rank and fetid and hurt the digestive organs. As many of them were affected with diseases, there appeared a sage who twisted a drill to make fire which changed the fetid and musty smell. Thereat the people were so delighted that they made him ruler of All-under-Heaven.

In the age of middle antiquity, there was a great deluge in All-under-Heaven, wherefore Kung and Yü opened channels for the water. In the age of recent antiquity, Chieh and Chow were violent and turbulent, wherefore Tang and Wu overthrew them.

Now, if somebody fastened the trees or turned a drill in the age of the Hsia-hou Clan, he would certainly be ridiculed by Kung and Yü. Again, if somebody opened channels for water in the age of the Yin and Chou Dynasties, he would certainly be ridiculed by T’ang and Wu. That being so, if somebody in the present age praises the ways of Yao, Shun, Kung , Yü , Tang, and Wu, he would, no doubt, be ridiculed by contemporary sages.

That is the reason why the sage neither seeks to follow the ways of the ancients nor establishes any fixed standard for all times but examines the things of his age and then prepares to deal with them.

For Chuang Tzu, it seems that spiritual quietism ought to be reflected in political quietism as well. Leaving the people to govern themselves, thereby creating a society of spontaneous order, is superior to governing them like a band of corralled horses with brands and bridles.

Han Feizi rejects this because he represents a different form of political quietism. His philosophy is one of balance between the ruler and the forces he must deal with. If the people are angels, then the ruler’s yoke will be light, or even non-existent, for this is the greatest exponent of xingming. However, if the ruler is faced with an unruly, thieving, murderous people, then he must reign them in to restore the balance they have caused. He argues that people are products of their time, and in so doing dismisses any imputations of agency – they cannot be controlled by appealing to the better angels of their nature, but by beating that nature into submission.

The point of Han Feizi’s reliance on reward and punishment is to accept the realities of human nature, that by default they are lazy, weak, and reprobate, and change that behavior without changing its basic conditions: “when properly applied, [punishment and favor] can change the way that people act on their desire and interest sets without the need to actually change those sets.”  If a man loiters in his property, does not till his crops, and does not pay taxes, his inherent personality will never change. However, his behavior stemming from that personality may be changed through reward or punishment, which must be commensurate to the sin or the virtue – if not, with a punishment an “individual may prefer to loiter doing nothing even when subject to the punishment.”

Indeed, the ruler only corrects their incorrect course, and though he is called harsh, he is only conforming to the natural pattern of the world, so it is simultaneously true that the ruler “deferred [questions about] right and wrong to rewards and punishments” and that “the Way is the guideline of right and wrong.”  Knowing the Way allows the ruler to know proper rewards and punishments, for without knowing the way of things there is no way to “mind the measure,” for the measure is relative to the Way! Although xingming is often implicitly referred to as an aspect of fa, it is evident that even the ruler himself is a part of it, for his own actions must tally with his role, lest he lose his ability to exercise power effectively, and thus become weak – “if you do not guard the door, if you do not make fast the gate, then tigers will lurk there.”  This is ultimately because xingming is also a cosmic concept, with the tally of names and roles being only a particular instance of a complete balance between the state and the pattern of the universe.

Ultimately, Chuang Tzu and Han Feizi are not different, but their emphases – at least as articulated by Chhay Lin and myself – are on different movements in political development, and more fundamentally, on human nature. Chuang Tzu questions the very nature of the state, and argues it is a useless and even harmful appendage to the proper flourishing of the human being. Han Feizi believes the state is a necessary outgrowth of cosmic imbalances, which are cyclical and unstoppable, because human beings develop in cyclical and unstoppable ways. Only the ruler’s machinations, handed down by the decrees of heaven, can possibly halt the imbalances and restore order to the world.

What we’re dealing with are two competing worldviews: the world as full of promise because people are so, and the world as fallen, degraded, and in need of redemption because people are so (forgive me if this has overtones of Christianity and grace. I am only a Westerner, after all). Humanity deserves liberty when it proves itself worthy of it, and it deserves strict rule and terrible punishments when it shows itself in need of them. The world of Chuang Tzu is in balance, and so is Han Feizi’s. What’s fascinating is the extremely different conclusions they can come to, not just in terms of personal liberty, from the very same source.

[1] Han Feizi. Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003): 99

[2] Ibid.,99

[3] Eirik Lang Harris, “Is the Law in the Way? On the Source of Han Fei’s Laws,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy 38.1 (2011): 76

[4] Han Feizi 8

[5] Ibid., 8

[6] Harris 77

[7] Han Feizi 15

[8] Ibid., 15

[9] Paul R. Goldin, “Han Fei’s Doctrine of Self Interest,” Asian Philosophy 11.3 (2001): 152

Legalizing assisted suicide

For opponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia, the central creed of the Hippocratic oath – to “do no harm” – looms large. Because physicians are professionally and morally required to only do good for their patients, the argument goes, assisted suicide is categorically disallowed, as death is the greatest harm of all. There is a problem, however: the Hippocratic Oath never contained this phrase. Instead, it has a curious alternative: “I will keep them from harm and injustice,” or in Greek, “ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν.”

In all its definitions, the Greek word δηλέομαι means to harm through a destructive act, whether to physically hurt a person, to lay waste to a land, or to break a treaty with another. Beyond mere physical harm, however, the physician also has the potential to bring his patient into a state of injustice. He may publicize his patient’s illnesses, embarrassing them. He may fail to treat an illness adequately, even if he has the competence to do so. He may overestimate his level of skill, and undertake a procedure that is beyond his ken. The doctor, as Hippocrates conceived him, was far more than a healer of trauma or a salver of wounds. While he could heal the body, his greatest duty was as a guardian against injustice, and healing was but a part of this.

This points to a broader conception of what the doctor is, or could be. A rigid conception of “do no harm” ignores that perceptions of harm must shift over time in a patient’s life, for example. The adult in his prime would be seriously harmed by a lethal injection, naturally, but the senior in his twilight years, suffering from debilitating diseases and on death’s door as it stands, would perhaps reap a benefit from such an injection: the many days of pain ahead could be cut short, and the absence of pain would thereby outweigh the few days of living that were left to him. To accept this reasoning not only as rational, but as moral and true, is to also accept that life admits of a broader definition than existence or animation. It is also human flourishing, enjoyment, capacity for action, and when these things are taken away the real motive power of a fully realized human life is snatched away also. Allowing people to take their lives, with the assistance of a doctor, is not a position that is anti-life, but one that is against existence for the sake of existence. The doctor who helps his patients take their lives is not acting against life, but is helping these people live – and die – in the way they find most advantageous.

This is not a new position to take, either. For an ancient perspective, witness Seneca’s letter to a friend:

You may consider that the same thing happens to us: life has carried some men with the greatest rapidity to the harbour, the harbour they were bound to reach even if they tarried on the way, while others it has fretted and harassed. To such a life, as you are aware, one should not always cling. For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can.[3] 5. He will mark in what place, with whom, and how he is to conduct his existence, and what he is about to do. He always reflects concerning the quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free. And this privilege is his, not only when the crisis is upon him, but as soon as Fortune seems to be playing him false; then he looks about carefully and sees whether he ought, or ought not, to end his life on that account. He holds that it makes no difference to him whether his taking-off be natural or self-inflicted, whether it comes later or earlier. He does not regard it with fear, as if it were a great loss; for no man can lose very much when but a driblet remains. It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill. And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill.

While some may find the comparison distasteful, this is the sort of mindset most pet owners take when preparing to euthanize the family dog. Fido has lived a good life, loved by his family, played with, adored, yelled at a few times but not excessively, but alas – a cancerous tumor has erupted on Fido’s right lung. Expensive and invasive surgery could give him another month, perhaps, but it would be a month of unremitting agony followed by a painful death. Why put a beloved creature through such needless agony, when a short and painless procedure can end it all immediately?

Many people have a disconnect between their lucid response to the pain of a family pet and their unhinged response to the pain of a human loved one. I would contend that this tension, while often cloaked in an appeal to rational arguments or religious tenets, is largely based on instinctual emotional distaste for death, and the fear of the unknown that it represents. That is not to say that there aren’t clear reasons to oppose it, but that empirically and rationally, there are stronger reasons in favor of it. I’ll go through some of the common arguments below:

  • Assisted suicide will destroy the trust patients have in their doctors. The physician Leon Kass wrote in the 1990s, “the patient’s trust in the doctors’s wholehearted devotion to the patient’s best interests will be hard to sustain once doctors are licensed to kill.” Fellow physician Mark Hall countered in the 2000s “Our study shows that only about 20% of people believe they would trust their physician less if euthanasia were legalized… The empirical support is weak for those who confidently assert that legalizing physician-assisted death would undermine trust in physicians for most people in the United States.”
  • Allowing doctors to legally kill their patients will provide a perverse incentive for insurance companies to encourage these practices. Like the other arguments, there is conflict on this point: one fact sheet states “It is well documented that the legal option to choose aid-in-dying is not related to finances. End of life choices are relevant only AFTER all curative or other treatments have been tried.”
  • Related to this, legalizing assisted and voluntary suicide will inevitably lead to involuntary suicide. According to the head of the Euthanasia and Guidance Organization, “In the Netherlands we have a living laboratory in which the euthanasia experiment in being conducted, and it is claimed that active non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia are openly practiced there, exactly as predicted by the slippery slope argument. But the claim of the open and common practice of involuntary euthanasia has been often repeated but has never been substantiated, and indeed has been repeatedly challenged.”
Quote sources:

Beyond the empirical evidence that assisted suicide is not the bugbear it is purported to be, there is also the moral argument in its favor: the human being, by virtue of having a ruling reason, is entitled to dispose of himself in the same way he disposes of his property or his time. While there are clear and logical restrictions that must be placed on this freedom, such as against harming others, or harming oneself in a state of mental unbalance or insanity, this is certainly not the case for most assisted suicides. People at the end of their lives are not mentally unbalanced when they want to end their miserable time on earth, but acting completely rationally.

In full disclosure, I went through several drafts of this post attempting to justify my instinctual reaction against the very idea of suicide, before I realized I could not do so on rational and consistent grounds. It would be in tension with my other beliefs, in personal liberty and freedom of choice, and also – don’t tell anyone – my belief in the ultimate dignity of the human being, in life and in death. Assisted suicide is an intellectual and moral no brainer.

Feeling Cynical in San Francisco

I never thought I would say this, but I hate San Francisco. Having worked here full time for one month, I have found little to enjoy about it and much to despise. This, despite growing up very close by, having near monthly access to it, and conceiving of it for the first 23 years of my life as a damn good place to be.

But, I have come to a conclusion: San Francisco is emotionally, spiritually, and sexually dead. Not that people don’t have emotions, experiences of spirit, or sexual escapades here. Au contraire! Such things are legion. Rather, that there is behind much of what goes on… a great emptiness. There is no longer anything in this city for an individual of substance but decay and the new cult religions spawned by progressivism: what I’ve begun to call market optimism, the erroneous faith that the next great invention will cure all social ills and forever, eternally, place us in the light of the sun.

It’s all hogwash. If you spend 40 hours per week streamlining the method for buying a car, that may be useful, but it will never prove true the prognostications of our high priests. Giving rich tourists a better way of buying tours will never solve the gulf people feel between what they are doing, and who they want to be.

I’m weary of it here, but I swear if I see someone smile, I’ll take it all back. I’ve written more on my personal blog. Check it out.

On the Virtue of Self-Rule

I wrote a bit on the virtue of self-rule in my last post, Why I Reject Marxism. I suggested that people within a collectivist society, rather than hoping for the inauguration of utopia, should instead cultivate within themselves the lineaments of that utopia. Namely, self-rule. But what is self-rule, and how ought it to be manifested? Can we define self-rule in a satisfactory way? I will attempt.

Self-rule is the capacity to fully own one’s actions, as well as their consequences. The man in prison, deprived of livelihood and liberty, is equally as liable for what he does as the man outside. The president of a nation is as equally liable for what he does as the average citizen on the street. Dodging responsibility for doing wrong (or, rarely, for doing right); blaming one’s behavior on exterior factors such as parents, friends, the state, culture, or an institutional whatever; rationalizing the negativity of one’s actions by pointing to the similar actions of others; or otherwise masking one’s responsibility in some cloak of self-righteousness, rationalization, or victim-blaming, or combination thereof are all behaviors of the man who cannot rule himself, because he does not understand that it is he, and he alone, who is responsible for what he does. This is not to say that exterior factors do not impinge on our lives; to deny that is obviously false. This is to say that how we react in response to these external actions is what defines us as men of self-rule, or as children. Self-rule truly begins when a man understands he alone bears responsibility.

Following on this, the man that knows he alone bears responsibility for what he does knows also that no one can ever be said to be responsible for him. The state is not obligated to provide him with food, money, or birth control pills. His neighbor is not obligated to build him a road so he can drive to work. His parents are not obligated to keep him in perpetual infancy. When he understands that his responsibility for his life is his alone, then he must begin to act with realization of this truth. He must produce, not just have things produced for him: he must take up an industry, converting his labor into something tangible that he can offer to the world. He must repay his debts and mind his contracts: buying a service that is overpriced, as I and other university students have done, is no excuse for reneging on our promises to our creditors after the fact. He must understand that charity comes from the willing heart, and is not pried from the taut fingers of a clenched fist. All the good that he can expect in his life, he must expect from his own industry, and not through thievery of other’s work.

The above ideas stem from the deeper realization that there is little in our actual power. Indeed, self-rule is fundamentally the understanding of what is in one’s own power, and what is not. A major avenue through which I came to libertarianism as a political philosophy was Stoic ethics. I’ve returned to Marcus Aurelius for the last decade, since I bought my first edition of his Meditations. If we are to rule ourselves, we must know what we are capable of ruling, and through a sober reflection we see that we have current ownership over our possessions, our bodies, and our minds, all in greater or lesser degree in relation to our own individual differences of chance or industry. Yet, we see that our possessions are ephemeral. They may be taken from us at any time, whether through a trick of the market or the sadistic power grab of an overreaching government. Our bodies will not only age, falter, and die, but can be taken into possession by others, whether individuals or the state. There is only one place where a man ever has unbridled freedom: the mind. When we realize that is all we truly own, then we will come to focus our efforts broadly on perfection of that mind. Through disciplining our minds, we can move outwards again: discipline of the mind leads to that of the body, and thence to that of our external affairs. A man’s property is nothing but assurance against privation in the present, and is not the foundation of his self-rule. The only thing that can defend against that is the power of the mind to overcome.

Understanding that we are essentially powerless in the world does not obviate from the need to act in it. To be is to do, after all. What this knowledge presents to us is that everything we do may be taken away. It may fail to work. It may never manifest at all. But we do it anyway, not because it will succeed, but because actions that are good – morally praiseworthy things from mundane work to heroic deeds – are worthy in and of themselves. The baker who goes every day to his baker’s shop, makes bread, and sells it to his neighbors is doing something good because he is providing a service of value, he is providing for himself, and for his community. The man who lays bricks can walk by the buildings he has constructed until the end of his days, confident in the knowledge that he has directly contributed to the wellbeing of another.

This brings me to my last point about self-rule. Human beings were not made to be individuals, their industry was not made for just themselves, but everything that is good, just, and industrious always is in reference to a community. The great divergence between the libertarian and the collectivist is that the former sees community as a group of autonomous peers, collaborating selfishly for their own benefit but, directly or indirectly, contributing to the benefit of all. The latter sees community as a being with independent existence, whose needs must be placed above those of its individual members: we must take the money of our citizens to build schools and hospitals, we must forbid them from drugs and alcohol so that they will be industrious, we must embroil them in foreign wars so they will be patriotic, because it is for the greater good. Hogwash. Remember the words of Aurelius: “We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature.” Analyzing this, the hands and the feet cooperate as part of an ordered whole, a body, and they do so because they must – not a must of coercion, but a must of willing cooperation with each other. The foot does the work that the hand cannot do, and the reverse: the feet bring us to food, and the hands craft it and bring it to our mouths. Extrapolating this to the community, each member must interact for the good of the whole, because each member is integral to that whole. Take away one member, and there is diminishment. Rather than this supporting a collectivist viewpoint, it instead supports the absolute preciousness of the members of our community.

Self-rule is to realize who and what you are, and to act accordingly. We are responsible for ourselves, and once we realize this, we come to rule ourselves. We know that we have no obligations to others, and others have no obligations to us, inherently speaking. At the same time as we consider ourselves to be individuals, we then must turn to how we act individually within communities, and we see that our community is naturally suited for cooperation. Thenceforth, when we interact with other men of self-rule within our community, our interactions become voluntary, the natural expression of our free choices. We help others, not because we are forced, but because it is the completely free expression of our desires to fulfill what we are. Heavy is the head that wears the crown alone. Light is the head that shares it.

Why I Reject Marxism

I was recently given a copy of History of Political Philosophy edited by Leo Strauss and his successor, Joseph Cropsey. It’s a superb book, a well curated collection of essays by distinguished scholars in the field covering the time period from Thucydides to Martin Heidegger. Each essay succinctly covers, in about 20-30 pages, the political thought, life, and times of each of the figures studied. You really all should buy it.

That’s not the reason I’m writing, though. I’ve always felt a visceral disdain for Marxism, from the repugnant nature of its premises (I side with Aristotle: “But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good” Politics Book VII 3.5, 1325.b) to the ugly cant of its diction. There is nothing in it that appeals to me, and its followers whom I have encountered, either snide petit bourgeois professors with manicured fingernails and soft hands, or the spoiled and deluded children of middle-class families, have not helped my perception. Always and interestingly for me is that I have never met a single member of the proletariat who has actually referred to himself as such, or has shown anything but a similarly gut hatred of Marxist rhetoric. Marx’s own anti-Semitism is not endearing to a Jew like me, either (I recommend Sander GIlman’s work, Jewish Self-Hatred, for those who would like more information).

Despite my misgivings, I have not found such a beautiful encapsulation of why I reject Marxism until I read Cropsey’s essay on the great thinker:

Unexpectedly, we now see coming into view a ground of agreement between ancients and pre-Marxian moderns on this most important point: political life rests upon the imperfection of man and continues to exist because human nature rules out the elevation of all men to the level of excellence. The connection between civil government and man’s imperfection is expressed by Rousseau, for example, in the form of the distinction between state and society: men can be social while uncorrupted, but in political community they prey and are preyed upon by one another. At the beginning of Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote, “Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections,t he latter negatively by restraining our vices… The first is a patron, the last a punisher.”

Rousseau may be said to have suggested, via the doctrine of the perfectibility of man, that government may be more and more replaced by society: in the perfect freedom of self-government, coercion loses most of its sting. But Rousseau did not at all suppose that all men would become philosophic, nor that there is any perfect substitute for the full rationality of men that would render coercion and rhetoric of all kind, i.e. political life, dispensable. He did not, in brief, expect ordinary selfishness imply to disappear from among the generality of men.

What in Rousseau was a limited suggestion, although an emphatic one, came to be the dogmatic core of a confident prognosis, a strident propaganda, and a revolutionary incitation in Marx: the state or political order will wholly wither away, and homogeneous mankind will live socially under the rule of absolute benevolence – from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No longer will duty be performed incidentally to the pursuit of selfish interest. The link between duty and interest, which is to say the subordination of duty to interest, will be broken once and for all by the abolition of the categories ‘duty’ and ‘interest.’ They will be abolished by the revision of the property relations, by the inauguration of a new economics which will bring on the full perfection of human nature via the transcendence of production for exchange.

Marxism is not simply another political system, or one more ideology. It proposes nothing less than the end of the West – of political life, philosophy, and religion – as the foregoing summary indicates. Perhaps we should look forward with eager anticipation to the end of the West – but we cannot know whether we should without rationally examining the project for strangling philosophy. That rational examination is part of the philosophical quest itself. We cannot free ourselves of philosophy, if only because we must philosophize to pass judgment on philosophy. We begin to suspect the soundness of the anti-philosophic historicism of Marx. Observing its weakness prepares us to concede that history can make room for spiritually impoverished societies: the viability of Marxist nations is a sign not of the soundness of Marx’s prophecy but of the unsoundness of the sanguine historicism on which he based it. We have every right to conclude that history is the opiate of the masses.

Marx’s utopia is impossible because he desires perfection in men, perfection that pre-Marxian philosophers rightly saw as within the province of no one but the philosophical sages. Successful Marxists that came after him maintain their faith in the prognostications of orthodox Marxism in principle but reject it in practice. Mao, for example, rejected his more zealous comrades’ complaints that he had not abolished capitalism in the countryside, arguing that to do so would be inappropriate for a China that had never had a capitalist economy. The fruits of his relative moderation are seen in the totalitarian state he created, which lacked either economic or social development towards any goal but consolidation of the Politburo’s power. When Marxists claim that there has never been a truly socialist state, they are correct, but not for the reasons they think. It is not because socialism has not been fully tried, but because doing so is completely impossible. This impossibility is rooted in man’s very nature, biologically, physically, culturally determined but, crucially, determined without an end. There is no final cause in history. There is only flux, a notion Marx inherited from Heraclitus and stupidly wed to Hegelian progressivism, coming up with the paradoxical idea that the historical change by which past societies arose and fell apart would somehow come to an end in the decay of capitalism.

Libertarianism is an equally utopian vision, but the viability of a libertarian project is considerably rosier, as its utopia does not call for the radical transformation of the human being. Indeed, doing so would conflict with its fundamental principles. Rather, it calls for the harnessing of man’s most self-interested tendencies for a good purpose: selfishness leading to production, production leading to trade, trade to peace and prosperity. The realization of libertarianism in practice is possible. It is a vision of, not better selves, but a better self-actualization of the selves that we possess. Realizing this, we must not make the same mistake that Marx made, for as the popularity of our philosophy shows, we are not the majority. Not even close. We probably never will be. The political life, the state and its coercions, will likely never cease to be a factor in our lives. But what we can do, and what we ought to do, is actualize in ourselves the faculty of self-rule, upon which may be built the more virtuous state.

Dissent and the Media

A few weeks ago a college student came to my door, asking me to support his dream to go to college by buying a six-month subscription to a local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. I don’t read physical newspapers much anymore, so I demurred. But this kid was a natural-born salesman. “Your neighbor has already subscribed, but gave me the $25 for the subscription anyway. I can just give you a free subscription instead of pocketing the money.” Okay, kid, I’ll do that for you.

The papers have been coming to my door ever since, and I still barely read them. Today I decided to open one up along with my morning coffee, and I turned to something I never would have expected in a mid-level newspaper. Take a look at the title of this op-ed, by Stanford researcher Thomas Sowell: “Scientists who might dissent face a new inquisition.”

A new inquisition? I am intrigued! Let’s read further:

“…attempts to shut down people whose free speech interferes with other people’s political agendas go on, with remarkably little notice, much less outrage.

The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting the tax-exempt status of conservative groups is just one of these attempts to fight political battles by shutting up the opposition, rather than answering them.

Another insidious attempt to silence voices that dissent from current politically correct crusades is targeting scientists who do not agree with the “global warming” scenario.”

Would you look at that? Two hate facts in one paragraph, in the Bay Area no less! The third paragraph in that quote is the topic of this piece, and the professor marshals some pretty disturbing information to bolster his accusation:

The head of the National Academy of Sciences has chimed in, saying: “Scientists must disclose their sources of financial support to continue to enjoy societal trust and the respect of fellow scientists.”

This is too clever by half. It sounds as if this government bureaucrat is trying to help the dissenting scientists enjoy trust and respect — as if these scientists cannot decide for themselves whether they consider such a practice necessary or desirable.
The best part is when he turns the rhetoric back on the leftists themselves:

The idea that you can tell whether a scientist — or anybody else — is “objective” by who is financing that scientist’s research is nonsense. There is money available on many sides of many issues, so no matter what the researcher concludes, there will usually be somebody to financially support those conclusions.

Some of us are old enough to remember when this kind of game was played by Southern segregationist politicians trying to hamstring civil rights organizations like the NAACP by pressuring them to reveal who was contributing money to them. Such revelations would of course then subject NAACP supporters to all sorts of retaliations, and dry up contributions.

The emphasis is mine, of course. Modern news media is like a vampire: it attacks in the night and sucks its victims dry, but it can’t stand the light. Professor Sowell totally nails the modern machinations of leftist media, which attacks all dissent from the party’s narrative, usually through a variety of public shaming strategies: concerted campaigns on the spammier side of media, like Gawker; followed by a requisite Five Minutes Hate on social media; ending with public apologies and then ostracization of the sinner. Everyone who has seen how much media works now knows how this goes. That the media itself is now commenting on it, sanctioning it in the pages of their own publications, is new. It’s a welcome sign.

Read the rest of Sowell’s piece here.

Israel/Palestine, an Encyclopedia: Part Two

I confess I became incredibly tired of this topic when, seven months ago, I wrote the first entry. Israel/Palestine always dominates the news to a boring degree, the debate’s participants are all fulsome demagogues, and more important evildoers like the governments Gulf Arabs or the Chinese are routinely ignored for this stupid and aggravating slice of the world. The discourse over Israel/Palestine is so poisoned by divisive rhetoric that it seems a waste of time to try and inject reason into the maelstrom. However, I must confess, I have quite a bit of Schadenfreude over Likud’s flagging poll numbers in this recent election, so in preparation for giving King Bibi the boot, I felt like reviving my plan for a series of posts on Israel/Palestine.

To summarize my last entry, I focused on three topics: the occupation, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement, and “pinkwashing.” In this entry, I’m going to switch gears and summarize some arguments used regarding Zionism and the Zionist project, and what I think of them. There are many, and they are all mostly tiresome, so I doubt I will be able to get to them all.

1. Israel has a right to the land/has a right to exist:

This has always struck me as an inherently weird claim. It appropriates the discourse for individuals and applies it to an abstract entity, the state. How can something abstract have rights? We must return to discussing individuals if we are to understand what it means for a state to have such “rights,” as it is the treatment of individuals that legitimates the state. The state of Israel is the geographical entity between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River from West to East, and the Lebanon and Egypt to the South. It may or may not include Gaza and the West Bank, depending on whether you think the Occupation and the blockades, the complete military control of those territories, and the very real power the Israeli state apparatus wields there constitutes political sovereignty. Within the state of Israel, there are not just Israeli Jews, but foreign-born Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Africans, and smaller minority groups.

The proper theory of a state is that it somehow acts as a steward to the people that it governs, and in doing so, protects their individual rights. All concepts of a nation-state built on the exploitation of some for the benefit of others must be categorically rejected as wrong. For Israel the state to have a right to the land, it must protect the individual rights of all the people within that land, and only upon fulfilling that criterion is it able to wield power over them with any measure of legitimacy. Under that criterion, Israel does not have a right to exist. It cannot claim to act as a steward for the people that it governs, as it treats many of them much like human chattel, and lashes the rest to a military occupation that forces them to fight, and kill, that chattel for their own “protection.” The dictum “war is the health of the state” is clearly expressed in the total mobilization of Israeli society for warfare, which is inculcated as a sacred duty into the minds of its citizens almost from birth.

The fact that Israel, as it stands, certainly does not have a right to exist is well-stated in this post on al-Akhbar:

“What moves me instead in this post-two-state era, is the sheer audacity of Israel even existing.

What a fantastical idea, this notion that a bunch of rank outsiders from another continent could appropriate an existing, populated nation for themselves – and convince the “global community” that it was the moral thing to do. I’d laugh at the chutzpah if this wasn’t so serious.

Even more brazen is the mass ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population by persecuted Jews, newly arrived from their own experience of being ethnically cleansed.”

Israel, like all states, only has a right to exist insofar as it serves the purposes of the people it purports to govern. Israel is not serving the interests of any of its people, and so this canard of an argument must be thrown out.

2. Jews have a right to the land: This is a fundamentally different argument than (1), for Israel is a political entity, a nation-state that represents Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, the Druze, and other ethnic groups domestically and internationally, and provides various goods and services to those people considered citizens. In (2), however, it is not a state and a precisely defined nation that has a right to the land, but the Jewish people themselves.

There is certainly a conflict between (1) and (2) that most Zionists seem to not have conceived, or which they ignore. If Israel as the nation-state has a right to the land, then this is inclusive of all the citizens of that nation-state, the Jews, Arabs, Druze, and others. However, if it is the Jewish people that has a right to the land, and an exclusive right at that, then this precludes any other group from having a right to it. All the people that were there previously – I will not say originally, for now – do not have a right to it, as they are not Jews.

Now, if someone has a right to a piece of land, that does not automatically exclude others from having a similar right. A well held in common by the community may be rightfully used by all the members of that community. Pray, however, look at the way the land is administered by the Israeli government. The “Right of Return” is open to all Jewish people everywhere, and so I, a Jew, could hop on a plane to Israel tomorrow morning and receive my citizenship that evening. A Palestinian refugee, who has a greater claim to the land than I do, may not even be allowed to return to that land at all. At the very least, this implies that, even if other groups have rights, I have greater rights, which supersede theirs. This is because Jews, more so than other groups, have a true right to the land of Israel.

The logic rests on two basic premises:
P1. The original possessor of a land is the rightful owner of that land
P2. The land was continuously inhabited by its rightful owners, though their claim to the land was not granted by its de facto rulers

(1) is simply incoherent for the goals of the Zionist, because none other than the Torah itself declares that the Jews were not the original possessors of the historical land of Israel. They conquered it by force from whatever Canaanite tribes lived there, and then were in a perpetual contest with other groups over it until the final expulsion by the Romans. If the Zionist wants to claim that Jews were originally there, he would be historically wrong, and if he wants to claim that this premise is the basis for the rightful possession of the Jews, he would also be wrong. Instead, we ought to track down the remnants of the dispossessed Canaanites and give them back their rightful territory. Israelites were simply conquerors, and as conquest is deemed illegitimate – at least, I assume it is, as most Zionists vehemently deny modern Israel is a conquering nation – then the Israelite possession of the land was also illegitimate, which in turn means that Jewish Israeli possession of the land is illegitimate.

(2) builds off of the authority of one, for if members of the original possessors remain in the land, that gives legitimacy to their claim that the land is truly theirs. “Jews have lived in the land of Israel ever since they moved there” may be true, but does it do any productive work for the argument? If I have a claim to a plot of land, but my neighbor wants it, and so drives me off the land, then the land is still mine by right. If I was forced to leave my child there, and in a benevolent state of mind he decided to raise it in my absence, then the presence of the child is irrelevant to my claim of the land. If I were to die, then the claim would pass on to my heir, as the rightful inheritor of my property. This doesn’t require that my heir even inhabit the property, though, for if we all were to be dispossessed, my heir and I, when I die he would still be the rightful heir of the land itself. If (1) is correct, then (2) does nothing additional to legitimize reoccupation of the land by the descendants of the Israelites. Indeed, this sort of principle is what governs real estate in some of the older settlements in Israel. In Tzvat, for instance, it is nearly impossible to buy a home in the old city, because the rightful owners of the plots are very difficult to track down, and that ownership may be divided between multiple heirs, many of whom do not even know they are heirs to a property at all! Their presence, or lack thereof, is immaterial to determining property rights.

The real purpose of these arguments is to deflect the obvious fact that Israel began as a settler colonialist project, which became a project of conquest after the departure of the British. The principle of conquest has been legally rejected since Nuremberg, but that does not mean it has been practically rejected. Such quibbles have not stopped nation-states from practicing it, such as Russia with the Crimea (notwithstanding the various arguments in favor of the annexation). Nor has it stopped private forces such as ISIS from attempting to conquer Syria and Iraq, and then onward to all of the Muslim world. Law is the muslin veil over the cruel heart of man. It is periodically lifted when groups and individuals cannot, or do not desire to, achieve their goals through the proper legal channels.

Though Zionists attempt to mask this with claims that “Jews have a right to the land,” they are tacitly affirming it as the true guiding principle of the philosophy. Why do Jews have a right to the land? Because they were there first, or at least, before the Palestinians. Why were they there before the Palestinians? Because they conquered the land from the Canaanites. Therefore, Jews have a right to the land because they took it by force, and maintained it by force against others. This has the unsavory effect of legitimizing the conquest of the Jews by the Romans and others, but that is a mere historical matter, as the Jews successfully reconquered the land from the Palestinians after the British departed. It also has the unsavory effect of elevating force to the primary principle of politics – but that is what it has always been, hasn’t it? I would tell my Zionist friends that if they want to defend Israel, they should keep the points about Jews having a right to the land, but drop the nonsense about historical possession, or historical inhabitance, or the divine right nonsense. Simply affirm the basic truth, that they took it by force, and will keep it by force, and that is enough.

3. You haven’t been there (so you can’t comment): This is one of the stupidest of them all, and I think anyone with a sound mind can see the stupidity for himself. The argument goes like this.

P1: First-hand experience is more reliable than second- or third-hand experience
C1. Therefore, one ought to prefer first-hand experience

P2. First-hand experience can only be gained by people who have been physically present in the area they are speaking about.
P3. Because first-hand experience is more reliable, it is more preferable.
P4. Because first-hand experience is more preferable, second- and third-hand experience is useless
P5. Many commentators on Israel/Palestine have not been to either place
C2. Therefore, they do not have first-hand experience
C3. Therefore, their experience is useless

The problem is with P(1) and P(4), as you might see. (1) may be mistaken because first-hand experience, though more raw and visceral, may not be more reliable than second- or third-hand experience. Take, for example, a victim of a bombing and a forensic examiner. The victim experiences the horrific event, and has his own account of what happened: “I saw a man place down a suitcase, and then I went back to my iPhone. Then, *boom*! The suitcase blew up, and I was thrown back twenty feet. I’m fine, but the person in front of me was vaporized!” Then the examiner comes, and based on this account, begins to look for pieces of the bomb to reconstruct its design, and the suitcase to reconstruct its container. First she goes to the surveillance tapes to see what happened and, lo! she sees the man put down the suitcase, and then the explosion. But here’s the kicker: the suitcase didn’t explode, but another package, discretely tucked away from the victim’s view. He had been there to witness the event, but had misconstrued a random person for the bomber, and conflated the true cause with a mistaken cause.

First-hand experience is often plagued with problems, as people misremember, misconstrue, and outright contradict the established facts of a case based on whatever conscious or subconscious mental biases they may have. In such cases, second- and third-hand sources of information, established by latecomers such as the forensic examiner, may yield an account of greater truth than anything a witness might say, in opposition to the claim of (4). The lesser reliability of these sources is due, then, not to their ability to establish truth, but to their proximity to an event. And such proximity  may, instead of heightening the truth, distort it. Another example: in the graphic novel Maus, the author is questioning his father about the famous brass band that played for the workers coming in and leaving from Auschwitz. “There was no such band” his father says. “But the historical records are clear, as are the testimonies of the victims” his son retorts. “Yes, but the band was never there, I never saw it.” Even two direct witnesses to an event may contradict each other. What this suggests is that there must be skepticism regarding sources, both from first-, second-, and third-hand experience.  We must look at each source, and to the best of our ability, determine its proximity to truth. This can be harder to do with sources like news media that do not give us direct access to events, or the places where they happen, but that does not make it impossible.

A more substantive objection, though, is that even if this argument is sound, it completely vitiates the claims that history is able to offer an adequately clear picture of the happenings of the past. If we are required to be first-hand witnesses of events, and to experience life from the very place we are commenting on, how can we say anything about the past? Especially, about the past that no one directly remembers, such as the 19th century? Or, more pressingly, the past conquest of Canaan by the Israelites? Who is to say it isn’t all made up? After all, no one living has ever seen an Israelite, because all the evidence is in archaeological finds, and tattered old documents, and folktales like the Bible. If Zionists wish to hold this line of argument, they cannot also hold the second line of argument, viz. that Jews have a claim to the land, unless they modify it along my lines.

4. American/University of California/whatever money implicates us in Israeli “apartheid”

This isn’t a Zionist argument, but it is equally as stupid, so I will address it now. Let’s say I am the head of a corrupt government, call me Georgios Papandreou. And let’s say you are the head of a fiscally sound government, let’s call you Angela Merkel. Now, I want money to pad my private mansion, oops! to pay civil servants and build my pet infrastructure projects back in Hellas. The times are good and the gravy train is rolling on, so you say, sure, why not? And I receive billions in loans from you. Then, oh no! I go bust because I’m a corrupt idiot, and my people vote me out. You are angry, but at least, still in power. Who is at fault? Me, or my people?

Angela Merkel answers the latter, but its a ridiculous argument. The Greeks are no more implicated in decisions they have no control over than the people of America or the students of the UC system are in the decisions of their administrators. The state, and systems of power, generally run in the same direction regardless of voter indignation or agitation for this or that. The great lie that democracy means power of the people enables us to escape this truth, but the fact of the matter is this: groups and individuals with power, whether it be through money or influence, are the ones who drive policy. Poor and impotent citizens have little oversight over the prerogatives of their governments, and so attempting to morally equate the actions of government with the actions of its citizens is foolhardy.

Talking to Greeks and Talking to Germans

Germans and Greeks, despite the glaring differences between their national administrations, do not hate each other. Perhaps the relationship is more akin to that of an older to a younger brother. The elder is mature, self-assured, and judicious in action. He looks at his younger brother, playing with toys, weeping when he stubs his toe, begging for cookies, and other youthful activities with some measure of aloof disdain, but with greater measure of pity. Or, perhaps the relationship is like a tired, Stoic householder with his shrill harpy of a wife. He brings home the bacon, and she spends it all and demands more. Or a number of other interesting metaphors which I have failed to conceive. I suppose my lack of vision here has something to do with the simple fact that I have never gotten the two of them, the German and the Greek, in the same room together. Instead, I have only talked to one, and then to another, at different times and in different places. What they have to say to each other while apart is, in some ways, what quarreling brothers have to say to each other: you are immature, well you are mean!, but, you deserve it, but I don’t! and so forth. It’s also like the tired husband and his old lady: please be more fiscally sound, no, give me more!, but I already gave you-, NO, more! and so on. Who really knows how the exchange might play out, or if these media stereotypes at all hold true, if they came together to talk?

In Patras, on the first night of the last weekend of Carnival, I was milling about the central square waiting for the floats to come by. In one hand I held a souvlaki, the most delicious street food made by man after burritos, and in the other, a bottle of sweet local wine. “A house specialty” the server told me, “very good with souvlaki.” Greeks are a raucous people, and in these times even their holidays are not as enjoyable as they once were. So, naturally, they were holding a protest in preparation for the large crowds that were to come. I spoke with Maria, a local schoolteacher.

  • Self: “I can’t read Modern Greek very well. Can you tell me what those slogans say?”
  • Maria: “Yes, well, I don’t know how to say it in English. But, we owe a lot of money, and we don’t want to pay.”
  • S: “Okay, but why shouldn’t you pay?”
  • M: “Our governments took out the loans for us, we didn’t know about them, and now we’re here. Why should we have to pay for something we didn’t agree with?”
  • S: “Valid points, valid points. But, you all benefitted from that money, right? Your government hired a lot of civil servants on that money. And, you could have voted for a more austere party that wouldn’t have taken bad loans, but you enabled PASOK and the others to accept disastrous loans that Greece could not sustain.”
  • M: “Yes, those things are true. But we don’t want to pay, and we can’t pay. Very few people have jobs, so they can’t take more money from us. All the bailout goes to is the debt. There is nowhere for the money to come from. We need jobs, not more pain.”
  • S: “Certainly, and I wish you luck in that quest.”

At another time, at a taverna in Meteora, I had a caveman-like conversation with a gaggle of old Greek men, having dinner with their wives.

  • Old Greek man one: “Me, I am fat communist. I have very important work tomorrow. I drink coffee, I drink tea, I read newspaper. Very important!”
  • Old Greek man two: “Bah. You always so lazy, Kostas.”
  • Old Greek man three: “We like Tsipras. He [points to OGM2], he capitalist. He no like Tsipras. Tsipras make Greece strong! [laughter]”
  • Me: “But what about the debt?
  • OGM1: “Debt no important, Tsipras will do good.”
  • OGM3: [Says nothing, shakes head, spins worry beads]

There seems to a be a certain cavalier attitude amongst the Greek people, whether young or old. The old are happy and fat, living on their pensions from the government, which despite recent cutbacks still seem sizable enough to allow for daily trips to the local taverna. They look on the struggles of the youth with kindly pity, but without the necessary foresight to see that their present happiness is built on the suffering of their descendants. It seems that a man can never escape his times and his view of the world. This view is dominant amongst the older citizens of Hellas unless, like OGM3, they have to do serious work for a living. He was an olive and tomato farmer, and was struggling to make a profit in the face of an onerous tax burden and the shrinking market for his products, most of which he was now forced to ship abroad. Throughout the dinner his face oscillated between one of benevolent, bemused distraction, and one of painful contemplation. The young, by contrast, are bitter and cynical. They have no jobs, no prospect for practical work, and no use for their university degrees. They spend their time, like many children of the West, in idle amusements like smoking, drinking, and fornicating at college parties. As Russell observed in his History of Western Philosophy, in times of decay there are always two countervailing tendencies in man. One leads to a resigned morality, convinced that the world is terrible and all we can do is respond to the terror. This is the ethic of the Stoic, which cut its teeth as the Hellenic world decayed and made way for Rome. Another leads to an unrestrained libidinous and orgiastic hedonism, which has no aim and no long term satisfaction. The worship of Dionysus, or of strange mystery cults, social fads, and passing fancies. You can guess which road the youth have taken. They are correct in saying that they really shouldn’t have to pay, because the burden foisted on them was made before their time. But they are correct for a world that is ideal, where Germany does not assume that a debt contracted is a debt that must be paid, regardless if the beneficiaries do the paying or not. They are, as Homer says, between a rock and a hard place: pay the penalty to Charon and eventually cross the river, or spit in his face and feel the pain all at once. Germans are more annoyed than anything at the behavior of their southern neighbor. One beautiful morning in Freiburg, in southern Germany, I was drinking tea with my host, Matthias, and asked him what he was reading in the paper.

  • Matthias: “This nonsense” [tosses the paper my way]
  • Self: “So Greece wants World War Two reparations? Didn’t Germany already pay?”
  • M: “Yes, but the Greeks are saying that we only paid individual reparations, and not structural reparations. Hitler forced the Greek national bank to give him a loan roughly equaling 11 billion Euros in Reichsmarks. But I don’t think it will go anywhere.”

The next day, while I was on a bus to Hamburg, I met a German named Vincent. We talked amiably in Hochdeutsch until he realized I wasn’t a local, which only happened when I said those four magic words: “Ich kann nicht verstehen…” His attitude towards the Greeks was less of bemusement, more of annoyance.

  • Vincent: “These people are ridiculous. They want reparations now? And then I heard they want to give European papers to thousands of illegal immigrants and send them by bus to Germany. This would be funny if it weren’t so sad.”
  • Self: “Yes, but I understand them. The young didn’t make the debt, and they can do nothing about it now. There are no jobs, no opportunities for them at home. What should they do?”
  • V: “Beyond me. But their government is out of place. We have given them so much, and they have nothing to show for it. In the past couple weeks two foreign firms have tried to invest in Greece, but the Greeks wont let them. ‘No no, this is a public part of the economy’ or ‘no no, we won’t privatize this!’ It’s ridiculous. They can’t even help themselves.”

It’s a position I also sympathize with because, like many dilemmas such as these, both sides are in the right. Greece destroyed its own position with years of financial mismanagement, though the real crooks are still free while the burdens they created are borne not by them, but by the young. Germany gave bailout money to Greece, but on harsh terms which have done little to ameliorate the problems. Both have alienated each other with rhetoric and with stupid actions, which is reflected in the sentiments of their people. Like an older brother, Germany has indulged Greece in its flights of fancy for some time now. But I think they will soon pull out the rug from under their younger ward, and let them rot.

Some thoughts on moral duties

I came across a blog post while browsing through Reddit’s philosophy subforum* concerning Adam Smith’s theory of duties. As the writer says,

“According to Smith, you know an act is right when an impartial spectator would sympathize (or empathize) with the emotions motivating your act. Smith says that an impartial spectator will always empathize with both the kindness of someone who acts to benefit others and with the gratitude of the recipients of that kindness.”

Obviously there are problems with this if you believe, as I do, that judgments do not proceed from one universal reason or emotional basis common to all, but that reason and emotional responsa are conditioned by time, place, upbringing, and so forth. If I were to give a homeless man one dollar on the street, an impartial observer might see that action, deduce that I did it out of sympathy for the plight of the man, and empathize with my sympathy. Another impartial observer might scorn my action as naive weakness, and not see it as beneficent. There is also the question if emotions are spontaneous upsurges of feeling (nonrational reactions) or judgments (which are dependent on rational thought), and then, whether there is such a thing as an impartial observer at all.

But I feel that I am digressing now, for the universalism of Smith’s doctrine is not important compared to whether it is applicable in a given situation. Most commonsensical ideas of beneficence converge on certain actions, such as charity, because despite superficial differences in evaluations of moral actions, there is always an underlying universal idea that is instantiated in different forms. The cynic may find my charity stupid, but he does not necessarily reject the idea of charity in general, only this specific application. Most people will, in fact, sympathize with an act that is truly worthy of sympathy.

As Smith bases his moral calculus on sympathy, he believes that all acts which elicit sympathy – that is, beneficent acts – are morally right. The author of the blog piece then inquires: “Does it follow that acts of beneficence are moral duties?”

This is an important distinction. An action may be beneficent, but it does not follow that it is also a duty to do it. For example, if I believe that my act of charity is beneficent, and beneficence is morally right, then it follows that it is morally right for me to do it. However, I do not have to do it, as the homeless man is not entitled to my charity, as I am free to dispose of my private property as I choose, whether in something morally correct (charity) or morally indifferent (buying that exquisite panini from the shop down the street). If the case were opposite, that every act of beneficence is also a moral duty, then it would be impossible to live oneself. Each moral agent would be required to give charity to every homeless man, to donate to every worthy cause, to spend one’s entire time devoted to bettering the lives of others – something that is obviously ridiculous, save for thinkers like Peter Singer, who believe in the absolute maximization of utility.

But something that is beneficent may also be required. It is beneficent for me to give a man who is starving to death food, as most impartial observers will agree, but it is also morally required that I do so: if I do not, he will die, and I was the only person capable of saving him from death. Why is the former not necessary, but the latter is? Both cases are of positive action, but in the former case, the homeless man is not dependent on me to help him. His situation is only marginally different whether I act or not, and he will continue to exist irrespective of my choice. In the latter case, giving charity means the difference between a clear moral good (a person lives) and a clear moral bad (a person dies). The starving man is entirely dependent on me to keep him alive, and the mere fact that a human being is dependent on me gives me a moral duty to help him.

What this ultimately points to is an underlying moral order that one must appeal to in order to make sound moral judgments. There is a distinction between something that is morally right but not morally necessary, and things that are right and necessary. This is the division between imperfect duties, which are good to do but are not owed to anyone in particular, and perfect duties, which are absolutely good and owed to everyone. However, the next question follows: where does the division lie?

The author gives the following thought experiments:

  1. A friend that brings you coffee in the morning
  2. Shipwrecked sailors on your private property
  3. A dying man at your oasis
  4. Stealing to save humanity

And then he analyzes each in terms of Smith’s own moral basis. I will only look at the first two for the sake of brevity.

1. Here, “a friend usually brings you coffee in the morning. If he fails to bring you coffee one morning, are you justified in resenting him? Has he acted immorally?”

The author and I both agree that resenting him is unjustified. You have come to expect receiving coffee in the morning, but an expectation of beneficence from your friend does not make a moral claim on him. He is, at all times, free to dispose of his private property in any way he sees fit. At best, you can consider him rude, especially if he stops his habitual action abruptly and without explanation, but rudeness does not necessarily have a moral component (I refer you to my post on an ethics of offense).

By Smith’s logic, you are also not justified, because an impartial observer would see your indignation as nothing more than a hissy fit. Furthermore, “an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind,” because an act of beneficence done out of resentment isn’t really beneficent at all according to Smith’s logic, because it does not have the underlying emotive force. A consequentialist would view it as beneficent because the result is good, but this lacks the nuance of the situation: a man who accidentally shoots and kills his neighbor while cleaning his loaded gun is different from the man who breaks into his neighbor’s house and shoots him in cold blood, as most people of sense realize.

2. “Let’s say I own some beachfront property. One day a ship wrecks offshore in a storm, and the exhausted voyagers crawl ashore on my beach. Do I have the right to expel them from my property back into the ocean, presumably to die?”

This seems to be the same case as the first, because it deals with the disposal of one’s private property. However, in the first case, there was no duty for my friend to bring me coffee. It would be an act of beneficence, sure, but I am not entitled to his beneficence. In this case, the dependence of the shipwrecked sailors on my beneficence gives me a perfect duty towards them. Because they depend on me to save them, I must save them.

This is in accordance with Smith’s logic, for an impartial bystander would not sympathize with my selfish use of my private property, but with the poor sailors, who I am condemning to death. What this really illustrates though is the limits of an ethic based on beneficence (if Smith actually based his ethics on appraisals of beneficence, which I am not sure of as I have not read his work). Emotional appraisals of action are, as I have outlined, often relative to specific individuals, and always conditioned by one’s previous experiences.

When the shipwrecked sailors come to your beach, you may feel annoyance instead of beneficence, but you help them anyway. An impartial observer might notice the scowl on your face and deduce your mental state, so whither the basis for the judgment of the action as morally correct? How can one sympathize with an emotion when there is no emotion to sympathize with? Again, “an impartial spectator would never want to force someone to be kind,” but at the same time, he would also find it wrong to expel the sailors. This is because the action goes beyond beneficence, which may or may not be a duty, to justice, which is absolutely good and is always a duty.

I once had a discussion with a woman over the Jewish versus (Protestant) Christian views on following the word of God. She held that one had to cleave to the love of Jesus, and if one did not feel complete love for his word and what he wanted you to do, what is the point in doing it? I held that love and emotions fade, and if all you have is fervor to sustain you, you will inevitably fall off the path. There must be a sense of duty, no matter your feelings on the matter at hand. God commands, and you follow, not because He loves you or you love Him, but because the relationship between God and man, like soldier and officer, demands obedience.

What obedience really is in this case, is a trade-off between one’s absolute freedom to do as one likes (the negative right of non-interference), and another person’s positive right to exist. When one’s negative right to non-interference conflicts with another’s positive right to live, I think morality demands that we yield to that positive right. This may lead to a slippery slope, as the ever-proliferating list of positive rights, such as healthcare, a “living wage,” and other such progressive inventions have shown. However, within the right to live there is a clear distinction between the right to survive, and the right to thrive. It is a perfect duty to defer to someone’s right to survive, even if it demands usage of your private property, but it is not a perfect duty to provide for others so that they may thrive – you are required to give the starving food, but not the poor healthcare, for example. Thus, this right to another’s property is contingent on immediacy and dire need.

Furthermore, though a person may have a right to another’s property in dire need, he does not have a right to obtain it by force: the shipwrecked sailors may petition me for usage of my beach, and I also may refuse. I have committed a moral wrong by sending them out in violation of my perfect duty, and I ought to be prosecuted for this. However, the sailors may not, upon my refusal, unsheathe their cutlasses, cut me down in my house, and use my property as they please. They may not coerce me to make use of my property, but must petition me for its use, and if need be, compensate me at a fair rate.

I am sure I can use more thinking on this matter, and would welcome any comments or concerns.

*As an aside, while most of Reddit is a spectacular waste of time, there are some truly spectacular resources you can tap into if you so choose. I tend to frequent the subforums on philosophy, Stoicism, history, and Ancient Greek. The help I have received there for my questions and my arguments, from intelligent and skilled people, has been invaluable.

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.

From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

Dr. Khawaja and his colleague Dr. Riesbeck have a very lively discussion on the ethics of offensive behavior on his blog, which I was privileged to join and offer my thoughts.

The post and discussion are all worth reading, but for now I’ll just quote the summary I gave of both Dr. Khawaja’s and Dr. Riesbeck’s points, along with some of their comments, with edits for flow:

“As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
-The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
-The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine without intimate knowledge.
-The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
-Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park?

This idea is based on three principles, really just one:
1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
2. We must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles
3. We must do this at a minimum cost to the well-being of the other parties”

Discussion centered around several thought experiments:
1. Putting up one’s feet in Greece, where it is purportedly considered offensive.
2. Printing a picture of the prophet Muhammed in a textbook and using it in class
3. Public displays of affection.
4. Saying that Islam is false.

I’ll quote Dr. Khawaja in his response to No. 2:

“I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.”

There is plenty of room to disagree with the eudaimonistic principle, especially concerning the many exceptions that were deemed necessary to make it coherent. For example, Dr. Khawaja highlights what I will call the “asshole clause” as an exception:

“…there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second.”

With such people, we do not desire to bring out the best in them, presumably because we consider them to be irredeemably noxious individuals. The general principle to not offend is the basis for this theory of social interaction, and since it has been suspended, so too has its subordinate principles: to minimize harm to our principles, and to the sensibilities of our interlocutor. Calling an asshole an asshole to his face presents no issue, even if it is done offensively and without tact, because it may be in our best interests to retaliate more vehemently against a real ass than we would against a more sensible person.

Indeed, it might be said that doing so would do the asshole a favor. “Shocking” a person out of their bad habits through a corresponding breach of social etiquette is often an effective tactic. To cite my own experience, I once had a friend who was widely regarded as a real asshole by all the friends in his social circle, me included. Case in point: during a rainstorm he intentionally pushed me into a puddle, and then laughed as I got soaked. We eventually all told him he was an asshole and that we wouldn’t spend any more time with him. He mended his ways immediately. Dr. Riesbeck earlier credits his personal intuitions as a guide for determining the costs and benefits of giving – or not giving – offense in these cases. In general, I would agree that intuitions aren’t too far off the mark. Everyone knows an asshole when he sees one, after all.

Furthermore, even if the general principle is maintained, it will often conflict with other principles, that may have greater weight. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense (apologies for the tortured prose). To quote Dr. Khawaja one more time:

“If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)”

I enjoyed the discussion, and I would like to open it up to further comment and critique from the fine readers of NOL. What do ya’ll think?

Islamic Murders in Paris

Twelve people have been confirmed dead in a shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the gunmen forced their way into the building by coercing a mother with her child to give the key code. They then went from office to office, asking for staff members by name, before gunning down each in turn. The attackers are reported to have shouted things like “Allahu Akbar!” and claimed to have been members of al-Qaeda. They then fled the scene in a stolen car, dumping it in the vicinity of Pantin, an impoverished African and South Asian neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris – where, incidentally, I spent New Years one year with an ex-girlfriend – and then hijacked another car before fleeing from the city. As of now, they are still at large.

The natural question most people ask in reaction to these sorts of events is “why?” Why did these three people decide to kill all these other people, over a cartoon? Answers always fall into four categories: their fault, our fault, nobody’s fault, and squid ink. As you might expect, the distribution of responses breaks down fairly neatly along ideological lines.

1. Their fault puts the blame on “radical Islam,” Islamists, terrorists, or sometimes just “Islam” plain and simple. This article from National Review Online argues that Islam is against freedom of expression at its core. Another article, also from NRO, seems to intimate that this is the beginning of some sort of clash of civilizations. CNN lists responses from the journalistic profession, all of which express solidarity against the “forces of unreason” that are on the warpath and have “corrupted the heart of Islam”

2. Our fault puts the blame on our collective intolerance of others, or on our governments’ foreign policy. We in general, or the victims in particular, somehow have it coming to us. This article by Slate does not overtly state that the employees of Charlie Hebdo asked to be murdered, but the author asserts that they have a “long history of courting controversy.” This cyclical from AP states similar claims. If we, or at least Charlie Hebdo, should have expected this, what is the implication?

3. Nobody’s fault straddles the line, asserting that such a colossal crime is the result of nothing in particular. Crazy people warped the tenets of their faith to justify their evil actions, and only they can be blamed, not the social environment that produced them, nor their creed, nor the laxity of Western society, nor any other sort of causal explanation. It just “happened.” I have not yet found an example of this in the media, but I am sure it will be offered sometime between when Europe goes to sleep mourning this tragedy, and America wakes up to ponder it.

4. Squid ink is the attempt to divert blame from targets that the speaker or author believes will likely be blamed. This article from Salon attempts to divert blame from an assumed target, Islam, by diverting it onto the onerous figure of Richard Dawkins. This article, also from Salon, has nothing to do with the current controversy, but by framing other articles on the front page of the site, acts as an implicit tu quoque: Christians are murderers too! Islamic murder isn’t that bad!

It’s always popular to say that the truth lies somewhere in between, or beyond, the options the media offers us. And so I too will follow convention. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in a combination. It is undoubtedly true that there is a great deal of resentment in the Islamic world over Western policy over time, and I don’t doubt that this played some role in the minds of the murderers. I also don’t doubt that the reactions of Westerners to increased immigration to their countries has also factored in. Resentment against the encroachments of a foreign group on one’s territory is always resented, leading to friction between the natives and the implants. In France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, car burnings in immigrant neighborhoods are a frequent occurrence.

Personally, I think that, like all things, this is merely a struggle for power. The governments of the West have allowed large numbers of immigrants from poor countries with inimical social systems to immigrate to their countries, often for legitimate reasons. The Belgian government, for example, entered into an agreement with the Moroccan government to allow vast numbers of Moroccan citizens to immigrate to Belgium for work purposes, as the country lacked the amount of labor it needed. However, when any new population comes to an area that is already populated, there are many ways to deal with that population. Assimilation was the dominant strategy in the United States for some time: “if a Pole is made into an American with American habits and American values, great!” In Europe, however, there was precious little done to assimilate the immigrant populations, so that they instead formed large communities of their own folk that did not interact with the natives. In Germany, for example, many Turks have lived there for decades without being naturalized, and as Germany follows jus sanguinis, none of their children are citizens either, despite having no immediate connection to Turkey except on paper.

As these immigrant populations have grown in size, many of the younger generations have learned the local tongue, assimilated into the social patterns of their host nations, and fanned out into the country as a whole. One of my friends, a Belgian of Moroccan ancestry, speaks little Berber but perfect French, and has much more affinity for the country of his birth than the country of his ancestors. Many have also become more entrenched in their immigrant communities, and have agitated for special rights and privileges for their people; not only the social services they are always alleged to be parasites on, but also special zones for sharia, halal meals in schools and prisons, the right to not view objectionable material such as cartoons they do not like, and so forth. As they grow in size, they also grow in power, and like all people will assert that power to mold their environment in the ways that they choose – ways that are not compatible with Western society. What we are seeing is, I think, the latest installment in the slow bleed of the West, its slow transformation into a multicultural, and finally a non-cultural, entity.

Or, I could be full of it. Such is a consequence of immediate reactions and thinking out loud. Dear reader, please let me know thy thoughts in the comments.