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Allegory for last week

I’m thinking of writing an essay on themes of moral equality and its consequences for political theory. I’m going to argue that people are morally justified in resisting, by armed force if necessary, when agents of an oppressive, colonialist power routinely violate their rights, acting like a thuggish, occupying army rather than, as their propagandists claim, dedicated protectors of public safety. Part of the basis for this will be the idea that it’s conceptually mistaken to think that there are different classes of person, some of whom are morally better, or more capable of self-control, than others. On that (wrong) view, one would be able to justify all sorts of oppression and rights violations, but on the view I’m going to defend, all persons have equal moral worth, so there’s no good justification for, say, beating peaceful protesters, or arresting them on trumped-up charges and punishing them in kangaroo courts that are rigged to keep them down. I’ll use the fundamental moral equality premise to argue that people’s basic rights are conceptually prior to state power, and that therefore the latter is hard to justify – at a bare minimum its authority would require consent, consent that is conditional on that authority not overstepping its bounds and becoming oppressive. When power is abused, consent is withdrawn, and the power then lacks legitimacy and hence can be resisted. I would think this essay will be welcome in the current climate of protests against police brutality and mass incarceration and policies that treat whole segments of the population as second-class citizens.

I’d be mistaken, of course. In most online discussions of that essay this past week, I saw people getting it wrong in two distinct ways. One set was people who thought it sounded pretty cool, but somehow thought that it meant that the people protesting rights violations were the bad guys and that the brutal repression was justified, and that it’s fine to treat whole segments of the population as if their rights didn’t matter. Some of them actually said that whatever the agents of state power say is ipso facto right. These people say they like the essay, but have managed to miss its point entirely.

The other set was people who agreed with me that it’s bad to systematically violate rights, yet for some reason hated the essay. When I tried to ask them why they hated it, some of them accused me of endorsing the rights violations. That’s self-evidently stupid, of course, since the essay is about why those rights violations are bad. Other people said they hated the essay because not everyone takes it seriously enough. That struck me as an odd reason to dislike an essay. If it makes a sound argument that you agree with, you should like it, even if other people have ignored it. Some people said they didn’t like the essay because some other document, written by someone else, has a lot of flaws. When I said that I agree that that other document has serious problems, and indeed that its problems were largely rooted in insufficient attention to my essay, they simply reiterated in “this-one-goes-to-eleven” fashion that the other thing is flawed.

Anyway, I’m not actually not going to write this essay, first of all because people just insist on missing its point, or on getting mad at me about something other than what’s in the essay, and second of all, because it would be plagiarism, in case this allegory wasn’t obvious enough.

No True “No True Scotsman”

Say you encounter someone, Sam, saying “I dislike [movement/theory/group G], because they say [bad thing B].” Say you’re a member/proponent of G, and you not only agree that B is bad, but you’re pretty sure that’s not representative of G, and indeed inconsistent with G, so you tell Sam that, and Sam replies that some other person Bob says B, and that Bob is a G. Under what conditions can we properly affirm that Bob is in fact not a G? In logic class we encounter the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:
“No Scotsman would drink vodka”
“McGregor [a Scotsman] drinks vodka.”
“Well, no true Scotsman would drink vodka.”
The illicit rhetorical move accomplished by this fallacy is to immunize a generalization against a refutation by counterexample by smuggling in an ad hoc modification to the definition.

But is every scenario like the one I’ve described an example of “no true Scotsman” fallacy? Say Bob claims to be a Christian, but frequently lies and betrays and kills. When asked, he reports that he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even in God at all. So if Sam said “I dislike Christians, that Bob guy is just awful,” and you replied “look, Bob just is not a Christian, so you’re mistaken to dislike Christianity because you don’t like Bob,” would you be committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I think the answer is no. You are correct; Bob, despite calling himself Christian, is not one, and Sam is wrong both to take Bob as representative of Christianity and to dislike Christians on that basis.

This comes up in political contexts, of course. Sam claims to dislike libertarianism because he read something by Bob, who also claims to be libertarian, to the effect that it’s great that the police harass racial minorities and imprison them for minor offenses, or that immigration from Mexico is a bad thing because they’re mostly criminals anyway. This is a fictional example, but I’ve engaged on social media with people who claim that libertarianism is bad because that one guy is a racist, or that one other guy opposes immigration. I generally respond by enumerating the ways in which racism (or closed-borders or protectionism or what have you) just aren’t part of libertarianism. Am I committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I don’t think so. I think, as in the case of Bob the non-Christian, that there has to be a way to respond to caricature and distortion that is not also committing the fallacy. As with the religion case, Bob may simply be inaccurate in his self-description of his politics.

First of all, we might distinguish between (a) people who are academics, writers, attorneys, people who think about things enough to have what could even be considered a coherent set of views, and are libertarian, from (b) right-wingers (or whatever) who like 2 planks of the LP platform and then say they’re libertarian while nevertheless disagreeing with the other 95% of it. People in (b) are not coherent, and their self-labeling just cannot be taken for what libertarianism is. To act as though that is what libertarianism is is either unserious thinking, or deliberate dishonesty.

I can see how it might look like I’m doing “no true Scotsman,” but I am not. I’m saying that just because Bob says “yeah, I’m a libertarian,” that doesn’t mean that Bob is representative of libertarianism, and it might not even mean that Bob is libertarian at all (in the same way that he’s not a Christian). Here’s how: It’s possible that people can like something about a label, or what they heard that one time, that makes them think “that’s me,” when in fact they’re so misinformed that it really isn’t. This happens all the time – for example, lots of college-age people report a self-identification as socialist. On investigation, though, this turns out to mean they favor universal health care and free college, or are worried about income inequality, not that they want to abolish private property and nationalize all industry. So they say “I’m a socialist,” but in fact are not, because they don’t even really understand these theories well enough to have a coherent view. They’ve heard that free health care is socialist, and they want free health care, so they say they’re socialists. But if you give them some Marx to read, that’s not what they want at all. So too with libertarianism. Libertarians call for lower taxes, Bob wants lower taxes, so he says he’s a libertarian. But that’s obviously wrong if he simultaneously rejects the other 95% of what libertarians say. Bob is like the free health care kid in my analogy.

Of course, there are things libertarians disagree about, and in most cases it’s unhelpful to apply “purity tests” and excommunicate people. But if labels can mean anything anyone wants them to mean, there’d be little point in doing political theory, or philosophy at all, because nothing means anything, humpty-dumpty style. Socialist, fascist, libertarian, Austrian – we have to have some usage standards about when these words are deployed or we can’t really have any discussion at all. Most people are very confused about politics in general and labels in particular, so those of us “in the business” need to help promote clarity. It’s as if people debating medical issues said “hey, I say it’s virus, so just because you call it bacteria doesn’t mean I have to agree. It’s a virus to me”; or if people debating astronomy said “look, comets and asteroids are the same thing in my book, so I don’t care what you think the distinction is.” Nothing productive would come out of discussions like that.

We not only can help out by pushing for clarity and precision, we should do so. Whatever your political position, your cause will be poorly served by imprecision and humpty-dumptyism. I think it’s fine to claim that lots of self-labeled “socialists” aren’t actually socialists, and that lots of self-labeled “libertarians” aren’t actually libertarians. People’s self-claimed labels may not be accurate, especially in a world where labels are often a substitute for philosophy. It isn’t a “no true Scotsman” fallacy to point that out.

Free Expression And Evolving Standards

The letter in Harper’s magazine has generated a great deal of discussion around free speech, and whether we are in an era of diminished capacity to speak one’s mind. I am quite interested in maintaining a culture of free expression, and have written on the subject in the past, and hope to write more in the future. I think it’s worth noting a few things that may help us think more carefully about our current debate.

1. Free expression is probably at an all-time high right now, at least in the West. There is a huge variety of different venues for your writing, there’s a whole new world podcasts for speeches, and an ever-increasing supply of video outlets. The availability of these platforms and publishers doesn’t guarantee you an audience, but that’s not what free expression means.
2. Related to that, some of the technologies that have enabled easy speech have made counter-speech extraordinarily easy as well.
3. There are a lot more people who are not you than there are people who are you, and so easy counter-speech means that it’s entirely possible to get inundated with unpleasantness.
4. Because of (2 and 3), people are often careful about what they say, and may feel burdened by this.
5. It is hard to get (1) without (2). The ability to broadcast to others means that they can broadcast back.
6. (4) may hit socially well-positioned people, but it hits vulnerable people far more.

Finally, we’re in a period of shifting cultural attitudes, and (hopefully) increasing equality of persons, and everyone is attempting to police different boundaries of what they take is appropriate. There have always been boundaries, there will always be boundaries, and it is a reasonable thing to argue about. Especially as new voices and new arguments come to the fore, some established views and voices may come to look less appealing. What was once ok might now be seen as out of bounds. But that may well be because what was once out of bounds is now acceptable. Likewise, newer voices may be ones that had a harder time being heard before. That there is a shift in the boundaries does not mean that they have necessarily shrunk. They may have just changed. That may well influence whose voices are more easily heard.

I predict that this debate will flare up with some frequency, in part because it is now so easy to pile on, and it’s easy to find examples of social punishments getting excessive. It would be good if we could figure out some better way of dealing with proportionality, but in a decentralized system of speech that is going to be very difficult.

Violent Protest and Lesser evil

Recently I argued that the deliberate destruction of the property of innocent persons by otherwise justified protesters is condemned by the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE), which requires that such collateral harm be merely foreseen, and not directly intended.

But someone may reply that the DDE is wrong and that whether intent is direct or oblique doesn’t really matter. She may propose instead the Doctrine of the Lesser Evil (DLE). According to DLE, we are sometimes justified in harming persons directly in order to achieve a worthier cause. A classical example is a person starving at a mountain. He is permitted to trespass into someone else’s cabin, eat their food, and so on, in order to survive. Surely everyone accepts this. Similarly, protesters who burn the neighbors’ buildings as a way to end racial injustice are justified, given the disparity of values at stake.

But the case of violent protest is disanalogous to the case of the starving person at the mountain. In the latter, breaking into the cabin and eating the food is surviving. There is no causal relationship between the harmful act and the worthy end. They are identical. In contrast, in the case of violent protest the causal relationship between the harmful act (burning buildings) and the worthy goal (end racial injustice) is (to put it mildly) tenuous. It is improbable that burning buildings will end racial injustice.

The upshot is that in order to dispense with the intent requirement of the DDE, the agent’s probability of success must be high. The DDE, perhaps, condemns some actions that the DLE allows. But even under the DLE it is unlikely that this intentional harm to third parties can be justified.

(Many thanks to Alejandro Chehtman of Di Tella University, Buenos Aires, for flagging the issue.)

Introducing Radical Classical Liberals

As many of you know, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog ran from 2011-2020. At least two blogs are taking up elements of BHL’s project. If you haven’t checked out, we highly recommend it. This, though, is Radical Classical Liberals. Welcome.

A view like that (re)developed and encouraged on BHL is needed in the blogosphere, in academia, and in our broader culture. This blog will provide that—a classical liberal view that maintains a clear and unapologetic concern for the plight of the less fortunate—at a point in time when it seems the world is finally being forced to take those concerns seriously. Importantly, we’ll do so in a way meant to encourage greater civil dialogue. We hope to provide a counter to the sound bite culture so prevalent in contemporary media; we do so in order to provide greater understanding—both to our readers and to ourselves.

We are all academics with an interest in encouraging more informed, reasoned, and civil discourse outside academia as well as inside. A majority of us here are philosophers, some are law professors, some are political scientists, and one is a business professor. Many of us take the original classical liberals—thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill—as intellectual heroes. Some also favor Aristotle or Kant. On our pages, you might read about those famous denizens of the history of thought. You might also read about some unfortunately lesser known thinkers—Frédéric Bastiat and Voltairine de Cleyre, for examples. And you may read about difficult issues in academic debates. Most of what you’re likely to see on these pages, though, will be comments about social, legal, moral, and political issues in our society. You are likely to encounter arguments for specific views that one or more of us think follow from our classical liberal commitments. We may also argue with each other about these.

Our hopes for the blog are varied. They include showcasing the attractiveness of dynamic markets and anti-authoritarian solutions to contemporary problems, how these are often the best hope for those concerned with issues of deprivation, exclusion, and subordination, and how, far too often, government solutions are more pretense than substance. We are all concerned to show how freedom (we may disagree about what that is) goes hand in hand with prosperity for all. Putting that differently, we all recognize the value of markets and social justice on some understanding that recognizes (minimally) the basic moral equality of all human adults. Within that framework, our opinions are likely to vary considerably.

We hope to appeal to those who are curious about moral, legal, political, and social thought. While we all have our own existing biases, we hope to be able to bracket our prior beliefs and argue from acceptable premises to important conclusions—all with respectful and reasoned discussion. No doubt you will sometimes disagree with us. We hope to remain intellectually honest, open-minded, and charitable—and to show the value of those virtues.

So, welcome to the blog of Radical Classical Liberals.