Ew, Freedom 5: The Empire Strikes Back (On Morality)

It’s been promised for so long, and finally it’s here! Why I hate your freedom!

Sorry, that was last month. Actually it’s… hang on, let me check my notes.

“Why true liberty involves sacrifices to Bahomet”… no, that’s next week…

Ah, here we are. Freedom, morality, and how they intersect with the government.

So the usual argument goes something like this:

Freedom is a vital part of human happiness. Freedom is a vital component of human virtue. Freedom is something loved by everyone! Heroes have died to preserve it, and those that lack it cross oceans and lead revolutions to get it. Yet government and government policies by their nature infringe on freedom. How can this be supported?

Freedom is one good of many.

We don’t just value freedom, after all! We value family, health, prosperity, love, art, knowledge, and justice. Sometimes we trade one of these goods for another. For example, when Ned Stark in Game of Thrones must decide between lying to save his daughter’s life (family) and supporting the rightful heir (duty/honor). If you prefer metaphors that are more based in reality and less based in epic fantasy deconstructions: a student who loves engineering and music might have to choose between knowledge and art when deciding on a career.

People generally act as if these goods have a hierarchy to them. Good A will always trump Good B, and so on. This often isn’t borne out in practice, however. Someone might say, for instance, “Friendship means more than anything to me!” Yet they keep working at their job for filthy lucre instead of quitting to spend time with their friends. And I suspect if you offered them $20 million to miss their friend’s birthday party, it’s the rare person who’d say no.

These goods are valued the same way other goods are valued in a market economy: comparatively. If you have the option to spend time with your friends at the cost of some amount of money, we can work backwards from your decision (and the amount of money) how much you really treasure friendship relative to cash. In the same way we determine how much steel is valued by how many heads of cabbage, or blue rupees, or barrels of oil, or (for the  most part) dollars that people will trade per ton.

Freedom is like cabbage, is what I’m saying. People will likely value it quite a bit, since it’s so vital to human virtue and happiness. People will likely value it very highly.

But – not infinitely highly.

People who valued freedom from government regulation infinitely highly would go to whichever state has the least regulations (Idaho? I’m not actually sure). Or possibly just a platform in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They would give away all their money to whichever libertarian platform had the best chance of effecting even a minuscule change.

You know, I sometimes suspect people don’t really understand the concept of “infinite”?

Most people do not move to Idaho. They value non-Idaho things – like family and friends and high-paying jobs that don’t involve potatoes – more than they value the extra freedom from government regulation.

Most people do not go live on a platform in the middle of the Atlantic. They value non-Atlantic thing, like living on land and being around other people, more than they would the large amount of freedom that doing so would give them.

Most people do not donate all of their money to libertarian charities, although the libertarian charities seem rather disappointed about this.

Freedom, then, is valued in a finite amount. We take trade-offs – a certain amount of goods for a certain amount of freedom.

Suppose that the government is considering a regulation that would ban dumping coal into the local river. I must now consider the trade-off: a certain amount of my freedom will be traded for better care of health. More specifically, I lose my freedom to dump coal into the local river, and I gain the “good” of not drinking coal water.

And since I care quite a bit about not drinking coal water, and not very much about being able to dump coal into the river, I say that this sounds like a reasonable trade-off.

This is the root of modern civilization, and many of its laws (I trade my “freedom” to steal for the good of living in an economic system that acknowledges private property).

This is all an attempt to say that many of the trade-offs proposed in modern politics are not proposed because I, or anyone else, hates freedom. They are there because they are believed to be worthwhile: giving us enough “good” to justify losing unimportant freedoms like dumping coal into rivers.

Image result for those who would trade freedom for security deserve neither

You know something interesting? That’s not the actual Benjamin Franklin quote.

What he really said was:

“Those who would trade essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither.”

Hence why we’re all living under a Constitution, instead of some Articles of Confederation.

But now I think we’re coming to my very favorite libertarian argument of all time:


I don’t think that’s in big enough letters, honestly. It’s the basis of the libertarianism I see all over my Facebook wall, anyhow.

So in response – “How can we have a holiday supporting Martin Luther King Jr? He was a criminal!”

Well, yes. He was a criminal. He broke, rather publicly, some quite racist laws against protests that the southern states had put in place to shut him up. It’s why “Letters from Birmingham Jail” is a thing.

“Criminal” is an extremely emotionally charged word. It sounds incredibly negative. It practically begs for a sharp response. Yet in this instance we’re forced to take a breath and examine the ways that MLK was a criminal – and conclude by pointing out that the ways he was a criminal don’t make him a worse person.

Or perhaps, “Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism and went to America! She was a TRAITOR!”

A philosopher might say that we’re equivocating between two meanings of words, with “traitor” and “criminal” in some cases meaning “evil untrustworthy person” and in other cases meaning their dry, legal definitions.

The English language contains a lot of this sort of thing, wherein words package moral judgments with their descriptions. “Greedy”, for example (all companies are “greedy” in that they would like to have more money, but I’m sure that’s not what you hear when someone says “greedy corporation”), or “killer” (an accurate thing to shout at soldiers, maybe, but that moral judgment remains), and of course we have the old saw of “infidel”. It only means a member of another religion.

Using words like this is a cheap trick. If someone tries to use it in a discussion, instead of a speech, I try to assume they’re only a bit obtuse, rather than deliberately trying to emotionally charge a rational discussion.

Optimism like that is what keeps me going.

Calling taxation “theft” is the exact same trick.

It only sounds and looks like an argument because those who use it hope that the people hearing and reading will equivocate “theft” in their minds with “an awful act done by terrible people.”

To be fair, some people really do see taxation as no different than a mugger holding a gun to someone and taking their wallet. I encourage these people to give all their money to libertarian charities and move to a platform in the middle of the Atlantic.

Real arguments have nothing to do with what words you can stick to things, and how nasty they sound. Real arguments have to do with what consequences those things result in.

“But You,” you say, talking to your screen like an absolute git, “since government actions practically by necessity involve the threat of force against innocent people, isn’t that morally wrong?”

Why, exactly, should it be? Consequences, remember.

“Because the threat of force has bad consequences, like making people unhappy or ruining the economy or making people wear spandex bat costumes.”

Sometimes, yes. Other times, not so much.

Take our examples of fish farming, boycotts, and charity in the earlier parts. There, the coordination problems that were solved through force meet an incredible criteria: they benefit the group and every individual in it. Not only that, but every individual in those groups knows that benefit and would vote for it.

There are other cases, such as the retirement savings plan we mentioned in the previous part, that meets a different criteria: it benefits the group and every individual in it, but not every individual in said group might realize that they benefit, and they might not support it. This is what my libertarian friends might call “paternalism.”

Other cases, of course, might fit an even looser set – they benefit the group as a whole, but maybe not every individual in that group. They might even be damaging to some. My libertarian friends might call this “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

All three instances, however, put a lie to the idea that the threat of force must always be bad on net consequences.

“Well,” you say, “it’s wrong because *INSERT MORAL BELIEF NOT ABOUT CONSEQUENCES HERE*

If a moral belief isn’t about consequences, it’s pretty poor.

The Jews believe God commanded them not to commit murder. They also believe God commanded them not to eat bacon. A lapsed Jew will likely continue to not murder, but will probably start eating bacon. I’d probably lapse the first time I saw someone put bacon bits on pizza.

Hard evangelical Christians believe God commanded them not to steal. They also believe that homosexuality is a sin. If they lose their faith and become atheists, they don’t suddenly start stealing – but they will probably stop worrying about The Gay Agenda(tm). Why?

Killing and stealing both have bad consequences; that almost seems to be the essence of why they’re wrong. Fires on Saturday and homosexuality don’t hurt anybody else, but stealing and killing do.

The argument is pretty libertarian: I can do whatever I want with my life, which includes following personal or religious beliefs. Other people can do whatever they want with their lives as well. The stuff that matters – the stuff we pull the government out for, like murder and theft – we do because it has a consequence in the physical, material world like hurting other people.

One argument I’ve seen has to do with the Non-Aggression Principle, which is the idea that no one should ever initiate force except in self-defense.

Well, you know what? It’s circular reasoning, that’s what!

Often, people attempt to derive this principle from self-ownership – the form of “private property” you need to own anything yourself, including your own body, is an extremely complex concept that requires a greater moral heuristic. And although it’s rather obvious that you ARE your body, going all the way back to Descartes, you can’t very well go “therefore the only proper philosophical relationship between you and your body is the concept of ownership as understood by 17th century English law.”

Here we seem to run up against the is/ought dilemma: that just because something IS true, doesn’t mean it necessarily SHOULD be. There may be a fact-based relationship between you and your body, but that in and of itself is not evidence that this relationship is good or important or needs to be guarded by laws.

We will eventually decide it should be (and thank heavens for that), but other values must come first. We cannot use the decision itself as a basis for those values.

The argument of ownership that comes from this rather questionable assumption runs into even more problems shortly. If your body picks an apple, the apple is yours, even though you didn’t make it. If you land on Palm Beach and plant a flag and trim a couple of trees, Palm Beach belongs to you and your descendants forever, even though you absolutely didn’t make it. If someone sails to Palm Beach the day after you landed, they have to do whatever you say or leave.

There are economic and practical arguments for all of this, but they are not moral ones. All of these rules about owning islands and not randomly punching people are good rules! But saying they all stem from you simply owning a body begins to seem somewhat… unsteady.

On a slightly related subject, most libertarians will agree that the use of force to levy taxes is acceptable in certain areas. If the nation is under external threat from a foreign aggressor, or internal threat from criminals, they will say that a small amount of taxation is necessary to get the army/police to restore order. Again, this is a very good idea (or at least, it is if you want your nation to last for any length of time), but it is a blatant violation of the Non-Aggression Principle.

(I will note that some libertarians believe even taxes for the military and police are wrong. I admire their consistency, and regretfully note that I’ve played enough strategy games to know what I would do if I was sitting next to a country with no military or police.)

My last objection to the Non-Aggression Principle is that it just isn’t very good. It’s too easily toppled by conflicting rights. For example, a person may live where he or she wants to: that’s a right! Unless that person is a child, in which case … I suppose the rights of the parent to the child trump the child’s right of self-determination. Unless the parent is horribly abusive and keeps the child locked in a closet, in which case the right of the child to decent living conditions trumps the parents’ right to the child even though that one trumps the right of self-determination. Or maybe it doesn’t, because there shouldn’t even be authorities of that sort passing laws about it? Difficult to tell.

“Well for goodness sake,” you say in a huff, realizing this has gone on far too long already, “then YOU think of a better one than the Non-Aggression Principle.”

I don’t have to! It’s called consequentialism, the idea that it is moral to do, on net, whatever has the best consequences. It’s the principle that most people use throughout their lives, as well as the one which is the driving force behind capitalism – people are trying to do what has the best financial consequences for themselves. Consequentialism just thinks we should do that with everything and for everybody, instead of just “money” and “myself,” respectively.

“So… best consequences for me, or best consequences for everyone?”

That actually kind of depends on you. If you’re completely selfish, then consequentialism says “do whatever’s best for yourself!” This likely means you wouldn’t be a libertarian, though. Thankless activism for a misunderstood and slightly unpopular philosophy seems like a rather rubbish way to go looking out for Number One. It would probably mean cheating off of other people – welfare, perhaps, if you’re poor and lazy, or people in general via crony capitalism if you’re rich and lazy. You could probably just be a liberal, too, as you get invited to all the good parties.

But. If you really care about people other than yourself, then consequentialism tells you to seek out the best consequences for those you care about. This could mean your family, your country, or the world.

Most of this essay, and the one that will follow, has been working on the assumption that you do in fact care about people, just a little.

“But people all want different things!” you say. “We’d just end up in a massive war, until all have been slaughtered or one remains as a tyrant!”

Does that sound like a good consequence? No? Then most consequentialists would try to avoid it. The same goes for slavery, dictatorships, and dystopias, the other popular boogeymen brought up in the same breath as consequentialism.

The rule doesn’t mean “do whatever sounds best if you have an IQ of 20 and only think about what’ll happen in the next five minutes.” It assumes some amount of epistemic virtue; that you’ll actually think about what might have the best consequences. This occasionally means not pursuing every harebrained idea that comes to mind.

“Still! If everybody does what they think is best, even if they all think very carefully about trying to avoid a massive dystopian war, it STILL might happen!”

That is indeed an important distinction. But that’s why most moral systems have two uses – the first is defining what morality is; the second, what to do as a moral action in situations. Consequentialism does the first, but I don’t believe it manages the second as well.

As I love metaphors, I’ll use one here.

A doctor may use the gold standard in diagnosing Alzheimer’s – an autopsy of the brain after death will offer undeniable proof. For a clinical standard, however, things like tests of memory are more common.

I argue that consequentialism is the gold standard for morality: the purest, most sophisticated explanation there is. At the same time, it might be an awful idea to make everyday life decisions based on it, just as a doctor shouldn’t test his patients for Alzheimer’s by giving them all autopsies.

Once we’ve established consequentialism, though, we can begin looking at clinical standards to see which “clinical standard” of morality will result in the best overall consequences.

That, however, will have to wait.

This time, I promise it won’t be an entire month. Au revoir, friends!


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