Category Archives: From the Vault Redux

Gun Epidemic?

This is a repost of a Facebook comment on a New York Times article on the alleged "epidemic" of gun violence.

I've already written that the term "epidemic" is only appropriate regarding contagious diseases or quickly reproducing pests.

An epidemic implies that infected people just by walking around pulse with a negative externality: they can transmit their disease to others. Those others are innocents, but the disease carriers are, too, innocent. Moreover, an epidemic is purely a technological problem: we ask what drugs or measures can cure the disease or stop its spread. For example, perhaps a quarantine is called for. Some liberties of those who have the illness may indeed be restricted "for the good of their fellow citizens."

There can also be an epidemic of pests, such as roaches or rats. A house infested with vermin can be a threat to neighboring houses, another negative externality. Perhaps the owner of such a house can be forced to pay for its fumigation and so on.

That's exactly how the left views people who commit crimes while armed, as a natural disaster. Guns are floating out there, reproducing at an alarming rate and shooting people at random. Guns spread, like locusts, and cover entire areas.

But just as we have the technology to control pests, so we have the technology to control guns. Gun control is a valuationally neutral idea. Who could possibly be against controlling the behavior and procreation of flying guns that hurt people? That the peasants resist this control is incomprehensible to the leftists who consider it as obviously needed as control of pollution. The pro-gun people must be depraved immoral filth who want to deny their fellow men some protection against the otherwise intractable gun disease.

The left further views guns as poisoning people morally. A completely normal and meek person, when infected with a gun, becomes a hateful killer. A floating gun will attach itself to a person, whispering evil thoughts, "kill, kill, kill" to him, and the person thereby owned by a gun may succumb to temptation. This evil influence must be neutralized! Guns must be destroyed before they corrupt the populace.

There you have it: an entire ideology revealed by the choice of a word.

A Note on Socialist Egalitarianism

One needs both parts of the description to identify himself as such. For socialism is a form of organizing the social system of production, namely, the idea that the state shall own all the factors of production, including, in this doctrine's extreme variant, all labor. But socialism need not be egalitarian. A dictator or a committee of dictators can have all sorts of arbitrary powers over their subjects. They can have complete authority to kill them, to send them to prison or to life of hard labor, to determine their occupations and their family life (if such there be), to organize gladiatorial battles for the dictator's amusement, to take any girl to bed and then have her executed the next day (the tale of Scheherazade being the familiar example), and numerous other outrageous things the imagination readily suggests. So, they would own everyone as their slaves, who would be miserable, while the dictators and their friends would live it up (to an extent).

On the other hand, egalitarianism is concerned with consumption, namely, that no one is to have more than his fellows to enjoy. And an egalitarian society need not be socialist. In fact, there is an argument for the assertion that a laissez-faire capitalist society becomes ever more equal. To reuse the example in a previous post, there is a bigger difference between a starving man and a sated man than between someone who has only one yacht and someone who has five, or between someone who flies coach and someone who flies first class. Under capitalism, there will always be a "trickle-down" process of luxuries being introduced to the innovators in the art of consumption (indeed, the rich), and after a fairly short while becoming necessities without which the common man could barely imagine his life. But with economic progress, as time goes on, each luxury first created will be ever more rarefied and seemingly "out there" and will improve the lives of the rich to a lesser and lesser extent as compared to the lives of the masses.

As an example, consider the Internet and sites such as Amazon.com and Google Books and so on. Knowledge of the truth about any subject, once the most precious, expensive, and worthy commodity one could ever purchase in his life, accessible only to a select few, has finally become cheap as dirt. Only princes and the aristocracy could at one time afford to hire scholars. The sky is the limit now; truth and debate about pretty much everything, created entirely by the market, is just a mouse click away. Gnosticism, understood as presumption of secret knowledge that perhaps entitled one to salvation or other goods, is dead and buried. That is how capitalism diminishes inequalities.

“Economic Activity”

I am finished with reviewing my early private notes. This is the last one to be unearthed.


Man does not "engage in economic activity" such as presumably buying and selling; rather, in whatever real activity he does engage in, he economizes.

Psychiatrist, Heal Yourself

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defends his practices as follows:

"Yet the psychiatrist who enjoys his trade is also receiving constant feedback: the way the patient holds himself, the expression on his face, the hesitation in his voice, the content of the material he brings up in the therapeutic hour -- all these bits of information are important clues the psychiatrist uses to monitor the progress of the therapy.

"The difference between a surgeon and a psychiatrist is that the former considers blood and excision the only feedback worth attending to, whereas the latter considers the signals reflecting a patient's state of mind to be significant information. The surgeon judges the psychiatrist to be soft because he is interested in such ephemeral goals; the psychiatrist thinks the surgeon crude for his concentration on mechanics." (Flow, 56)

Isn't it odd for a person who has written a treatise on happiness to despise people who are not like him, in fact, people who simply perform other tasks within social cooperation? And moreover, to ascribe to those other people the predilection for having similar contempt for himself?

Judging from a few sentences here and there, our author is very insecure about his science. Studying consciousness appears to him to be a "soft" endeavor, unlike the far "harder" chemistry and even biology. Meh. Mises has this to say about economics:

"It is common with narrow-minded people to reflect upon every respect in which other people differ from themselves. The camel in the fable takes exception to all other animals for not having a hump, and the Ruritanian criticizes the Laputanian for not being a Ruritanian. The research worker in the laboratory considers it as the sole worthy home of inquiry, and differential equations as the only sound method of expressing the results of scientific thought. He is simply incapable of seeing the epistemological problems of human action. For him economics cannot be anything but a kind of mechanics." (HA, 8)

Oh well.

Sherlock Holmes

Here's another "from the vault" note from 2010:


Who said that the Sherlock Holmes movie had gay "undercurrents"? That's ridiculous. The Holmes / Watson duo was probably the first superhero / sidekick team in literature.

Well, there was, for example, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza before, but they were real knight and sidekick, and Quixote was an idiot not a superhero.

Anyway, that can be claimed about any such pair of heroes. Remember the 80s Disney Darkwing Duck cartoons? Some web page I recall cast them as "gay," as well. I mean, it's Disney! Have the homosexualists no shame?

It's yet another nasty effect of the political gay movement: men are now afraid to show affection for each other.

When David lamented, "I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women," (2 Sam 1:26) was he being "gay"?

Beam me up, Mr. Speaker.

Thomas Morris on Belief Conservation

In the first philosophy book I ever read, Philosophy for Dummies by Thomas Morris (which is an excellect introduction), the author articulates the "principle of belief conservation." First he argues that some of our beliefs are rational, or else the term "rational belief" would have neither referent nor meaning. The usefulness of this term comes from being able to separate rational beliefs from ir- or non-rational ones. Common sense supports the view that our belief acquisition faculties are at least sometimes reliable.

Here's the principle. For any proposition, P: If

  1. Taking a certain cognitive stance toward P (for example, believing it, rejecting it, or withholding judgment) would require rejecting or doubting a vast number of your current beliefs;

  2. You have no independent positive reason to reject or doubt all those other beliefs; and

  3. You have no compelling reason to take up that cognitive stance towards P,

then it is more rational for you not to take that cognitive stance toward P.

"Your current beliefs," Morris goes on, "are like a raft or boat on which you are floating, sailing across the seas of life. You need to make repairs and additions during your voyage. But it can never be rational to destroy the boat totally while out on an open sea, hoping somehow to be able to rebuild it from scratch, or else to swim without it." (72ff)

The principle passes its own test and is elevated into a basic belief.

I think this opinion is similar to what Victor Reppert has proposed, namely that one should keep believing what he already believes, unless he encounters a good reason to believe otherwise.

A Conversation in Heaven

Imagine the following conversation between God and a creature:

Creature: Why am I like that?

God: Because I made you so.

Creature: Can I be something else?

God: Yes. What would you like to be?

Creature: How can I know until I see the choices and their consequences?

God: Would you like an opportunity to make yourself into whatever you please?

Creature: What do I need to do?

God: Be born.

Thus, God makes us unfinished and orders us to build the rest of ourselves by developing our inborn potentialities. He then accepts or rejects what we have done almost as an art critic would.

This is a combination of the refined "soul factory" and the "evil is necessary" theodicies.

Notes on the Argumentation Ethics, 2

1. Suppose that a robber in a restaurant yells at the customers: "I am not going to argue with you; just give me all your money. Any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!" Hoppe's argument fails to convict the robber of irrationality.

Similarly, suppose that in some bar a bouncer is throwing out a rowdy drunk. The bouncer tells him in no uncertain terms: "Shut up and don't argue with me, or I'll call the cops on you!" Again, Hoppe's argument does not establish whether the bouncer is right or wrong.

2. Murphy and Callahan argues as follows:

Hoppe has shown that bashing someone on the head is an illogical form of argumentation.

He has not shown that the fact that one has ever argued demonstrates that one may never bash anyone on the head, nor has he demonstrated that one may not validly argue that it would be a good thing to bash so-and-so on the head.

We cannot convince you of anything by clubbing you, but we may quite logically try to convince you that we should have the right to club you.

A Performative Contradiction: Mises on Nietzsche

It's a comely point:

It is noteworthy that the men who were foremost in extolling the eminence of the savage impulses of our barbarian forefathers were so frail that their bodies would not have come up to the requirements of "living dangerously."

Nietzsche even before his mental breakdown was so sickly that the only climate he could stand was that of the Engadin valley and of some Italian districts. He would not have been in a position to accomplish his work if civilized society had not protected his delicate nerves against the roughness of life.

The apostles of violence wrote their books under the sheltering roof of 'bourgeois security' which they derided and disparaged.

They were free to publish their incendiary sermons because the liberalism which they scorned safeguarded freedom of the press.

They would have been desperate if they had had to forego the blessings of the civilization scorned by their philosophy. (HA, 170ff)

Though less ambitious than Hoppe's arguments, it's for all that considerably stinging, it seems to me.

Notes on the Argumentation Ethics

1. Mitchell Jones objects to Hoppe as follows:

Being alive surely presupposes access to food; but, just as surely, it does not presuppose that you have a right to access to food, or even that the particular food to which you have access is yours by right.

(Consuming stolen food can sustain life and the ability to argue.)

This is reminiscent of Rothbard:

if someone says that every man has a "natural right" to three square meals a day, it is glaringly obvious that this is a fallacious natural law or natural rights theory;

for there are innumerable times and places where it is physically impossible to provide three square meals for all, or even for the majority, of the population. (EoL, 43)

But perhaps in order to argue as efficiently as possible, the debaters need three square meals a day. Has Hoppe proven too much again?

2. One can accept that he has no right to his body but keep using it in violation of his own norms. Or, as David Ramsay Steele argues, one can agree that he does have the right to his body but add that he opposes having this right:

It is mistaken to hold that having private property is being in favor of private property, or vice versa.

Someone who owns private property might be against private property.

Someone who owns no private property might be in favor of private property.

Acting so as to exercise a right is not necessarily to claim or endorse that right, and does not commit one to favor that right.

I don't think this criticism works, however, because the right in question here is a natural right, derived from natural law, in this case a philosophical analysis of argumentation procedures.

It's not like this is a piece of positive legislation by Congress which the arguer wants repealed. It is just as absurd to oppose this law, Hoppe might say, as it is to oppose the law of gravity. One can abandon a particular item, by marking what was previously his as "unowned," but he can't claim that he can't in principle own anything or that no one can.

A Critique of Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics

Hoppe's argument in favor of self-ownership is that in the process of arguing a person asserts his property rights over his body and maybe some other objects; therefore, if he argues that he does not have these rights, then he is engaging in a performative contradiction. He is exercising the rights even as he claims that he does not have them.

First things first. In one sense, argumentation is an action. We are trying to get from an unsatisfactory state, namely, not knowing the truth, to a preferred state, namely, knowing the truth, and we are using a means: argumentation. In another sense, however, argumentation is the opposite of action. Action involves use of the body and tools and natural resources, though, of course, motivated by a desire (in the will) and facilitated by a plan of action (in the practical intellect). But argumentation is a purely intellectual, speculative activity. It presupposes autonomy and self-control but not a body.

In other words, if argumentation could be conducted telepathically, as, say, between angels, so much the better; in fact, the less argumentation depends on physical makeshifts (the brain, the speech organs, the air, etc.), the greater your autonomy and the better for you in your capacity as arguer. Angels and God have superior ways of knowing (and therefore, I'd imagine, arguing) precisely because of their incorporeality.

The distinction between the active life and the contemplative life is time-honored and reasonable.

Now we are not angels. But with respect of arguing, we wish we were. In other words, bodily functions and physical events such as propagation of sound waves through the air are quite accidental to arguing, while they are not accidental to human action. Human action in the second sense essentially involves pushing particles of matter around.

So, Murphy and Callahan are right that, at best, Hoppe's argument succeeds in showing that control (not ownership) over certain parts of one's body (not the whole body and not other property) is necessary in order for a certain activity (a scholarly debate) to go on among those participating in this activity (not all people) during that time (not at any other time).

E.g., Hoppe's argument fails to establish the content of my property rights. Exactly what am I allowed to do with my property and what are you allowed to do so as not to infringe on my rights? How is the "bundle of rights" to be distributed? The argument is sterile. At most, it shows that you are allowed to use your property for arguing, nothing more.

Also, the argument proves too much: if air is necessary for debate, must air be owned? Clearly, one can be a libertarian without holding that air must be privatized. So, in the process of arguing one asserts control not ownership over air which suggests that he need only to assert control not ownership over all the other resources.

Now there are two ways of resolving the contradiction. First, the person can acknowledge that he does have the right to his body and stop arguing against it. Second, he can acknowledge (perhaps in his mind) that he does not have such a right and also stop arguing against it. So, the same action, namely, stopping making a particular argument, can be a sign of two completely different conclusions.

Two important things do not follow from "I can't argue against my own having these rights":

(1) That I have these rights. Being quiet is not an argument for self-ownership. How does my failure to be able to argue over a point represent concession of the point? I may still be unconvinced by your arguments, even if I can't offer anything in response. The end result may very well be "I don't know if I have any rights."

For example, even if correct, Hoppe's argument establishes that non-libertarianism with respect to self- and property ownership is self-defeating -- it comes without ground for believing in it, because, according to Hoppe, any attempt to establish such non-libertarianism results in a performative contradiction; it does not establish that it is self-refuting -- it may still be true, even if we can have no reason to believe it.

(2) That you have these rights. I can agree that I have a right myself, but I need not extend it to others. Hoppe would have to make an additional assumption that I am so interested in the truth about this subject that I am willing to countenance the rights of other people to their speech organs and suchlike in order to receive feedback to my argument.

Citing the idea that ethical rules must be universalizable at this juncture would be a red herring. The point is that I may think that I (a) have / (b) don't have the relevant rights and argue against your having rights without contradiction.

In (b) I may be using my bodily, etc. powers unjustifiably (or not: perhaps I've been permitted to use them by their true owners), but that is at most a moral failing not an intellectual one (and that may be true of performative contradictions in general).

In (a) there may be some relevant difference between you and me, such as: you are a criminal.

There is, however, a way to salvage the argumentation ethics by pointing out something like the following. In order to engage in a philosophical debate it is arguable that the debaters must be surrounded by a high civilization. People who are barely surviving have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss philosophy. But high civilization is impossible without property rights and freedom and peace. So, any upstart philosopher who wants to do his thing must acknowledge his debt to liberty and thank his stars that he lives in a free society. It has been said that capitalism has, by increasing enormously the standard of living of everyone, created a class of "intellectuals" whose main occupation is denouncing capitalism. Now that is a performative contradiction if there ever was one.

How Much Protection?

Rothbard wonders exactly how much and what kind of protection ought to be given to whom:

there is a vast range of "defense" services that the government (or any other defense agency) could supply to its customers. To take two polar extremes, the government could supply one unarmed policeman for an entire country, or it could sink most of the national product into providing an armed bodyguard, replete with tank and flame throwers, for every citizen. ("The Myth of Neutral Taxation")

There is no non-arbitrary way to determine the optimal amount of protection, he claims.

I think there is a simple answer to that worry, though: it is necessary to produce publicly just enough defense for the defense force to overpower any private person or group in society against which there exists a judicial sentence to be enforced.

If a judge has ruled that company C owes person P $1,000, then C should have no chance in an open armed confrontation with the cops. The police force should be powerful enough to crush any resistance. They beat criminals into submission, capture and hold them, and punish them. There is simply no private replacement for this function.

On the other hand, that is all the cops ought to be able to do. For example, they should not be in business of supplying security (including such as may be provided by tanks and flamethrowers) but only reliable enforcement. Thus, if a town has 50 cops, and only 30 is sufficient for that task, the mayor should fire 40% of the personnel and lower the local tax rates.

Prosperity and Ideology

Sidgwick writes that "the lending of money for interest is commonly reprehended in societies where commerce is imperfectly developed, because the 'usurer' in such communities is commonly in the odious position of wringing a gain out of the hard necessities of his fellows." (The Methods of Ethics, 454ff) This implies that the low level of economic development causes lending to be looked at with reprobation.

However, the flow of causation is rather the reverse: whenever lending and many other salubrious business practices are accepted as norm, economic growth skyrockets.

It's not poverty that fosters an infelicitous environment for doing business; on the contrary, it is precisely bad ideology that keeps commerce "imperfectly developed" and indeed fosters poverty. Let the people think correctly and implement their ideas in laws and customs, and human productive powers will be unleashed.

Wealth Redistribution, 2

Victor Reppert thinks that the libertarian argument against government theft is that goods in the market are distributed according to some sort of merit. Not so. The distribution is according to productivity or contribution to the happiness of the consumers.

Therefore, counter-arguments to the effect that there is economic luck and therefore merit is diluted are irrelevant. In fact, we want to have as much good luck for entrepreneurs as possible, even if luck is distributed unequally or even if that results in wealth accruing to "undeserving" -- according to Victor's own preferred moral theory -- people, because such luck will help people to succeed and cause greater consumer satisfaction.

But speaking of merit understood as a simple idea that workers deserve their wages, is it standard procedure for God to take the righteousness that person A has already acquired, rip it out of his soul, and transfer that righteousness to person B who presently lacks it? But if this is not done with moral goods or perfect happiness, why are we so sanguine about doing the same thing with worldly goods and imperfect happiness?

Furthermore, there are numerous things that are required for happiness in life other than marketable commodities and services. From beauty and cheerfulness to friends and honor, none of those things can be shoveled around by the coercive machinery of state. If they could be redistributed, would they have to be? If not, why not?

At any rate, we can't really discuss "distribution" of wealth without a theory of property, its just possession and acquisition, and a theory of violence, namely, a way to tell which actions aggress against person or property unjustly. If the inequalities are just, then they are not problematic. Victor would need to outline his own notions on these matters.

Under redistribution, the connection between the cause of wealth, namely, faithful service to the consumers, and personal wealth as the effect is severed.

For producers, because the cause is weakened. They work but gain little.

For the parasites, the recipients of state welfare, because the effect occurs without the cause.

These corrupt the essence of capitalism which is based in the final analysis on mutual aid or mutual service.

To put it another way, the essential feature of capitalism is freedom of contract, that is, a mutually beneficial agreement to exchange goods or services. Capitalism habituates us to think of property and violence in libertarian terms. Government redistributionism is a glaring exception to the rule. As such, it undermines capitalism and is a decivilizing influence.

Retirement

It has always puzzled me how people can look forward to retirement even while they are still young.

For, first, most of your life you will not be enjoying yourself and your work but dreaming about distant future.

Second, retirement almost by definition entails being useless to your fellow man. It means sitting in your house doing nothing, being bored, and pretty much waiting for death.

And third, you retire when you are old and maybe sick and senile or will become sick and senile in just a few years, and how can anyone desire that?

Evil of Wealth Redistribution

The evil is at both sides of the coerced "transaction." On the part of the receiver, because if the purpose of the world is soul-making, then he defies the God's plan. He fails to exert himself in seeking happiness and in so doing "make" himself. Good things just fall into his lap. He is a nobody; nobody needs him; in fact, other people would be better off if he dropped dead, in which case he would cease to be a drain on them. Yet he is laughing, chaffing, and nectar quaffing while feeling no shame for giving nothing to society in return.

Rothbard trenchantly put it this way:

Parasitic predation and robbery violate not only the nature of the victim whose self and product are violated, but also the nature of the aggressor himself, who abandons the natural way of production -- of using his mind to transform nature and exchange with other producers -- for the way of parasitic expropriation of the work and product of others. In the deepest sense, the aggressor injures himself as well as his unfortunate victim. (EoL, 50)

On the other side we have the victim of parasitism who labors or have labored greatly, yet his actions to further his welfare or the welfare of his loved ones are made less successful.

He works yet fails to reap the full benefit of his work, some of which is expropriated for the sake of parasites who feed on him. He is a slave for a good part of the year, working for others for whom he has no special feelings such as loving desire to help. It's as if somebody has deliberately hampered his powers of production, e.g., by forcing him to work while carrying a heavy bag of cement on his back or while constantly listening to rap music to dull his intelligence. He is made into a fool or a dupe who seems to waste his energy stupidly.

He is used in a most disgusting manner as parasites use a host without asking the host's consent. He is a tool, a thing; yet, unlike market transactions in which we don't have to worry about people's making use of each other, because we know that everyone is satisfied with the results, in coercive legal plunder one side is treated with utter contempt, as subhuman, exploited as an animal, someone without the most elementary human rights.

Under a system of purely private charity, being supported is considered shameful, as something to be avoided for fear of social scorn, as indicatory of one's failure in life, at best a temporary burden to bear. (Thus, it is being given money that is a burden, not oneself giving to charity which is fundamentally honorable.)

But when a legal title is given to certain specially privileged people or groups to other people's property, being on welfare becomes normal and not a sign of social worthlessness.

Moreover, under the welfare state, the crucial property of parasitism is its perpetuity. It's a permanent imposition on the host, and its forever, for after all, what are the paradigms of inevitable things but death and taxes, with taxes bleeding the host dry precisely until his very death?

Case of the Cleaning Lady

My mother [in 2008] had an interesting experience interviewing a cleaning lady for her house. The lady said that she charged $12/hour in the evenings and $15/hour in the afternoons, because she had to pay her babysitter. My mother was shocked, and that for two reasons.

First, in any firm its revenues are independent of its expenses. One doesn't set his prices by summing up his accounts payable and then adding some arbitrary number to it which will be his profit. Prices are determined by supply and demand, and one should always charge for his product as much as the market will bear. The job of an entrepreneur is to choose that production process in which the revenues indeed are greater than the costs of doing business. But the costs do not determine the revenues! In the economy as a whole the sequence is rather the reverse: the prices of the factors of production are set or imputed by the prices of the final products. In order to underscore the absurdity of the cleaning lady's economic reasoning, it is enough to have her say that she charges $12/hour in the evenings and $115/hour in the afternoons, because she has numerous expenses at that time of day. My mother was not asking her for her life's story or for information on how she elected to spend her income: she wanted a price which would be acceptable to her. She wanted to say: "Am I supposed to pay for your house, as well, honey?"

Second, she told the cleaning lady that she had $X to spend on her, and she would not pay by the hour. Whether she finishes her cleaning in 3 hours or 5 hours, she will receive the same payment. And that's exactly how employment should work: ideally, one pays for results rather than the "labor" expended. "Reality does not reward toil and trouble," Mises writes. "If toil and trouble is expended according to well-conceived plans, its outcome increases the means available for want-satisfaction." (HA, 396)

So there. Ignorance of economic theory is not just a cause of social failure; sometimes it leads even an individual into disaster.

Sacrificing a Utilitarian

How would a utilitarian feel if he were slated to be sacrificed for the common good? He would be delighted that the cause of the common good was served through him. He was at the right place at the right time to ensure his surprising employment in the interest of the whole society. He dies happy, knowing that he has been well-used.

Pure Utilitarianism

In an early article, Robert Murphy objects to the adequacy of utilitarianism:

The fundamental problem with utilitarianism is this: Despite a succession of ingenious proponents, its advocates have yet to explain why the individual should behave morally. The fact that we are all better off if we all behave morally is utterly true and utterly irrelevant. (Such an argument violates the cherished Austrian precepts of marginalism and individualism.)

The truly difficult moral issues resemble the familiar Prisoner's Dilemma; regardless of everyone else's behavior, the individual does better by exploiting others.

It is true that a society suffering from widespread theft would be intolerable, even from a thief's point of view, but any individual robbery has very little impact on the overall level of crime.

The focus of utilitarianism is social. A pure utilitarian has little to say to any individual on why he should not be a thief. But he does recommend a social policy of catching and punishing thieves. (According to pure utilitarianism, then, one would not want exploit others, because he risks being caught and fined or imprisoned.) The utilitarian idea is to structure the incentives of the legal system to minimize the total amount of violence people (including the state) inflict on one another. Utilitarianism counsels rewarding and encouraging good deeds and discouraging behavior that harms social cooperation. And that's it! It thus addresses itself to society and its agent, the state.

Murphy goes on:

Moreover, if everyone agreed with Yeager and other utilitarians that it were foolish to sacrifice oneself in these rare instances, an element of doubt would arise in all social interactions.

Although pangs of conscience might be a wonderful evolutionary byproduct, it would be in the interest of everyone to steel himself against such "irrational" feelings (while still behaving in accordance with them under normal circumstances).

One's very life might one day depend on it.

Here there is a truth-digging game going on between society and individuals. Individual soldiers will want to hide their cowardice and merely pretend to be willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause (thereby getting paid for doing no work), while society has an incentive to detect their cheating and punish them for it or at least refuse to hire them. Utilitarianism thus addresses itself not to the soldier contemplating whether to sacrifice himself for the greater good, but to the general choosing the soldiers who, in his estimation, are most likely to follow orders even unto death.

It does not say to the soldier: "Sacrifice yourself." Rather, it says to the general: "Pick self-sacrificing soldiers." And it is an empirically true statement that people do not always behave selfishly, carefully hiding their egoism until the time comes when they are put to the test, and then to everyone's consternation they up and do their own thing. Sometimes society wins; other times individuals win (perhaps unjustly and wickedly) at the expense of society.

A soldier may indeed be directed to sacrifice himself but not by utilitarianism but by the contract he must have signed with the military before going off to war. He is duty-bound to act as his contract stipulates, including sacrifice himself in certain situations.

Further:

Utilitarianism seems to rob the words good and bad of their specifically ethical character. The utilitarian cannot make a distinction between guilt and simple error. The person who robs a bank to achieve happiness has made a mistake in qualitatively the same sense as a person who overcooks a steak.

Once again, we don't care about whether the robber acted virtuously or not. All that pure utilitarianism commands is that the police try to deter and minimize bank robberies as much as possible consistent with other goals. The rule according to which robberies go unpunished results in an unhappy society, despite the benefits to the robbers.

Even individual robbers have an interest in society being tough on crimes. Weak-willed robbers will be deterred and steered into productive occupations, both benefiting society and perhaps saving their souls. Especially competent robbers will still get away with their crimes but will enjoy diminished competition and a productive society, so they can actually spend their ill-gotten money. The losers of a regime that efficiently prosecutes robbers will be the stupid criminals who are neither deterred by the law nor evade detection and capture. But their misery is a utilitarian price we pay for a happy society overall.

Now it is true that utilitarianism ignores the obvious point that the robber commits an injustice. This is not a failure of this ethical theory but merely its limitation. Other theories will need to be brought to bear to complement utilitarianism.

It follows that "we as a society" must calibrate the legal system and other methods of apportioning praise and blame so as to promote general happiness. As David Friedman writes, contrasting the economic approach to law with other approaches, "An economist points out that if the punishments for armed robbery and for armed robbery plus murder are the same, the additional punishment for the murder is zero -- and asks whether you really want to make it in the interest of the robbers to murder their victims." (Law's Order, 8)

As to the fate of the robber's eternal soul utilitarianism is silent.

Pure utilitarianism teaches people how to attain their goals (which may include the goals of others toward whom they feel benevolent).

On the level of the individual, utilitarianism collapses into the virtue of prudence-in-act. (Of course, utilitarianism does not lose its character as social even here, because this is merely a limiting case wherein the society consists of a single individual.)

On the level of society, it also teaches people how to hinder the goals of those whose actions would destroy social cooperation if left unchecked. A utilitarian thus seeks to educate the public about the actual means to their actual ends, enhance their practical wisdom.

In the final analysis, utilitarianism attempts to spread the virtue of prudence far and wide. That does not mean there are no other crucial virtues, such as justice, that would be dealt with by other ethical theories. Utilitarianism is not worthless, merely incomplete.

Ruritanian Philosopher: Solution

I underestimated myself; I wrote a solution to the puzzle at the same time.

Obviously, any genocide is monstrous and unthinkable, but I am doing philosophy, and so the task is to solve the problem on own utilitarian terms.


In the previous post the "puzzle" is that utilitarianism seems to sanction or even mandate genocide. Yet utilitarianism is a respectable moral theory. So, what goes wrong? Here are several suggestions:

1. Rule utilitarianism may not permit it, and that genocide of "inferior" people is legitimate is a dangerous rule. It is a distinct possibility that the people of Ruritania may themselves split into hostile groups (such as the redheads and the redheads-haters), such that it will be demanded that one group ("we") exterminate the other ("them"), too. Logically, this process of mutual slaughter need not stop until only one person remains.

2. In particular, the rule that the smart can rightfully kill the stupid is easily generalized into the permission or even duty for smart Ruritanians to kill stupid Ruritanians. This is ominous, as it entails also that the smartest Ruritanian has the right to liquidate everyone else in Ruritania.

3. The philosopher neglects the law of comparative advantage / association. On the free market the "strong" or "smart" do not prey on the "weak" and "stupid"; the strong will benefit from dividing labor with the weak even if he is better that the weak at all the tasks being divided.

4. Violence need not be involved in the process of colonizing Waldavia. If the land and resources are unowned, as they would likely be with only hunters-gatherers inhabiting Waldavia, then Ruritanian businessmen can exploit its land without asking anyone's permission. If they are owned, then they can be bought from the Waldavian tribes, possibly cheaply, and again developed without violating anyone's rights to life and property. And, once again, killing to steal is a bad and decivilizing rule, as it habituates the aggressors to do the same with their fellow Ruritanians, as well. In fact, it is likely that the Ruritanians have achieved their level of civilization precisely by scrupulously adhering to universal moral laws. If they had been predatory, then they would not be "smart" even regarding their narrow self-interest as the puzzle postulates.

5. Whose welfare do we care for? Utilitarianism takes the scope and intensity of benevolence as a given. Whatever the group (which may be everyone in the world) we love and will good to, (rule) utilitarianism recommends institutions, practices, character traits that will maximize general happiness over that group. It may thus be objected to the philosopher's argument that we value the happiness of the present occupants of Waldavia, as well. Hence killing them will be contrary to his own moral theory.

Moreover, if Smith loves Jones and vice versa, then their wills intertwine, and they enjoy spiritual union and mutual indwelling. They are able to feel other other's happiness. Therefore, utilitarianism may recommend charity as increasing the joy of the lovers. But the Ruritanians are immediately prevented from doing harm to the Waldavians by their charity to them.

6. If the Waldavians really are stupid, then they will enjoy lessened income in the integrated Ruritania-Waldavia economy. (Though the Waldavians will still benefit tremendously from being part of international social cooperation.) Therefore, given also their small numbers, their claim on the social resources will be vanishingly small.

Moreover, as long as the Waldavians are not put on any welfare but make a living honestly, they will be able to "afford" fewer children than the more capable Ruritanians. At the same time, the smarter Waldavians will have a greater incentive to procreate. The tendency in the market economy is toward genetic enrichment or luxuriation of the populace.

Thus, in the short term, the market economy will naturally assign to the Waldavians a lower place in the social hierarchy, such that they may be quite invisible to the average Ruritanian in the course of daily life; and in the long term, for the present generation's great-grandchildren, there may occur a convergence between the Ruritanians and Waldavians in terms of IQ and other desirable traits. There is therefore no need to wipe out the Waldavians even from the Ruritanian philosopher's point of view.

7. In general, we can't create a better world by killing X who is "stupid" and have some couple create child Y who is "smart." Consider the following scenario: suppose you have a kid who is, say, 15 years old or even a pet cat you've had for a while; and let someone offer you a deal: he will kill your child or your cat and give you instead a better (in some sense) one. Would you accept? Of course not! You love that child, that cat for what they are. They are genuinely irreplaceable. So, we cannot start killing people we love to replace them with better versions of themselves. That would devalue our love, substituting for it a kind of eugenics program, wherein we do not value people for their own sake nor think of them as subjects but seek to satisfy some aesthetic view of society, e.g., by allowing only "beautiful people" to live, thinking of people as mere objects, means to ends.

8. It may happen at some point that the human population will reach an optimal level, defined as the number of people at which a new child somehow costs society as much happiness as the child himself will enjoy. Either increasing or decreasing the population would yield less overall utility. But that limit has not been reached and will not be reached for a long time (if ever), given our commitment to freedom and capitalism.