Moralism, Community, and Civil Discourse

I’ve begun to think that one of the largest problems facing society is moralism, in a variety of forms. I want to try out this claim here. For the moment, take moralism to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the general populace, or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them. I expect to return to this in future posts, but here want to discuss a possible relationship between moralism and our problems with civil discourse.

There are at least three ways to get someone else to believe or act as you. First, one can use force or coercion on the other, perhaps yelling at or bullying them. Second, one can appeal to the other’s emotions, perhaps getting them to feel bad if they don’t accept your view or do what you want. Third, one can use reason, trying to explain why what you want them to believe or do is what they actually should believe or do. All of these are ways that people “argue,” though only the last is “argument” in the philosopher’s sense. I take it as obvious that we should reject the first (as it treats persons as non-agents) and prefer the third (it alone treats persons as what they are, rational agents). Philosophers would prefer only the third be used; we sometimes find it hard to accept how much more prevalent and successful the second is. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely on emotional appeals far more than reason. In doing so—in relying on appeals to emotions—they treat persons as agents, but not rational agents. This is better than coercion, but not as good as reason.

One sort of appeal to emotions I see a good bit of is an appeal to community. If we care about our community, we’re told, we’ll do this. If we care about each other, we’ll do that. This can be turned into a rational argument, of course: community is important, so we should do X which is necessary for community. Even then, we are rarely told why community is important or how X is necessary for it. Still less are we likely to be told how the particular community in question actually has the qualities of community that give it value. (Community can be a real value even if this particular community is not.). In most cases, the appeal is a form of the second type of moralism, where we are supposed to believe that the community requires what the appealer says—that absent our acquiescence the community will be endangered.

Generally, when one appeals to community, the goal is simply to get other people to do, believe, or live as one wants. It’s community as the appealer conceives it. If the appealer wants help with child care, the conception of community will be one where child care duties are shared, including by those who did not wish to have children. If the appealer believes women are or should be subordinate to men, the sought after community will be chauvinist. If the appealer is egalitarian, the sought after community will be egalitarian. If the appealer thinks people currently in the community are of more value than those elsewhere, the sought after community will be anti-immigrant. If the appealer thinks allopathic medicine, western education in STEM fields, or the like are necessary for decent or good lives, the sought after community will be one where those things are provided or even required of all.

Here’s the thing: if one is willing to appeal to emotions in this way to convince others to do, believe, or live as one wants, one does not value the other as a person. While appealing to emotions may be better than coercion, it still treats the other as less than oneself. It is manipulation with an assumption that the other is no more than a being to be manipulated to get what one wants. It excludes belief that the other should be reasoned with, that their reason matters. It thereby excludes, in the instance, belief in rational discourse with the other.

I expect to be discussing moralism further in future posts, but here hope only to have shown how continued reliance on moralism of one form prevents use of rational dialogue. This should be obvious: if we are genuinely committed to rational dialogue with our fellow citizens, we don’t coerce them and we don’t try to suade them with appeals to emotions, even if designed to protect our community as we see it.

The Saga of David Friedman

In my latest YouTube video, I chat with economist and legal scholar David Friedman on free-market anarchism; the Society for Creative Anachronism; tectonic geology; the quasi-anarchic legal systems of medieval Iceland and 18th-century England; being converted to anarchism by Robert Heinlein; how getting a Ph.D. in physics led to being an economist at a law school; the joys of fomenting war and exploiting one’s students; how he repeatedly achieved promotion through violence against his predecessors; how to make medieval armor both for humans and for turnips; how innovations in fireplace design facilitated adultery; and the perils of central planning for wizards.

Section 230: Platforms and Publishers

There has been a lot said lately about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. President Trump had threatened to veto the defense budget unless it were repealed. Trump and others are upset with internet platforms Facebook and Twitter because of their censoring users—users that might propagate false claims about widespread voter fraud or foreign governments somehow hacking our voting system and users promoting false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax, for obvious examples. So what is the issue here?

Here’s the heart of the matter in §230: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This does not mean the provider (the platform) can’t be sued; it means they can’t be sued for information (good or bad) someone posts on their site from another source.  In short, they aren’t publishers.  That all seems good to me.  It would also seem like a simple extension of everyday thinking about private property. 

Consider: if I install a bulletin board on my property (outside my house, near where people walk), I can post what I like on that board and I can allow others to put up posts as well. Intuitively, we wouldn’t think I should be held responsible for what other people post there.  One simple reason for this is that it would be too much to expect me to monitor everything. If someone posts something on my bulletin board—which, assume, I offer my community as a way to increase communication—and I can be sued for false claims they post, I am very unlikely to install such a board in the first place. I don’t have the time or inclination to check the truth of everything posted by others. Section 230 essentially treats internet platforms just like that, though obviously much larger, with millions of posts on their “boards.” If we want them to offer their means of public communication, we shouldn’t hold them responsible for the truth (or fairness) of everything posted on their service. This is why §230 treats platforms as good Samaritans rather than as publishers.

What seems to upset people, I should note, is the removal of posts rather than the leaving of posts that are false or unfair in some way. Consider my bulletin board again. While I am not to be held responsible for things others post, I can take things down as I please. What §230 makes clear, as I read it, is that since its my bulletin board, I can remove stuff you hang even if what I remove would be constitutionally protected if on some state owned medium. I can help you post stuff I like and I can remove stuff I do not. I’m not required to do either, but (because it is my property), I can do either.  Facebook, Twitter, etc, can do the same—remove your posts or help you post—as they wish. And just as my helping you post on my board does not mean I am responsible for your posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc are not responsible for what you post there.

In short, §230 treats firms offering platforms as providing a valuable service on their property that thus should not be overly burdened. Nothing in §230, so far as I can tell, gives platforms any special privileges such that they can reasonably be seen as an extension of the state (which would mean that posts would be constitutionally protected).

The only thing I might find worrisome is if a platform knowingly lied (or knowingly forbid true posts). In knowingly forbidding true information, a platform might cause actual harm. If that can be demonstrated, I might agree that there should be legal interference. Given, though, that users are voluntary participants, this seems unlikely—you can’t claim to be harmed if you are a voluntary participant. To explain: If you come into my house after I tell you I might lie to you when inside, on my view, there should be no legal interference. Of course, in such a situation, you shouldn’t visit me. Indeed, you’d be well advised to unfriend me. Similarly, if you think the internet platform is being dishonest in the way it censors posts, you should probably leave it. At least this is a reasonable response if you’ve given it serious thought and conclude that the benefit to staying is minimal. I would suggest that staying has a clear benefit: exposure to views one doesn’t know or agree with. That can help one improve if one is open to it. But though I think we should all be open to hearing rational discourse, I don’t know that anyone is obligated to do so.

Preferring Purple: Rules for Honest Conversation

My home state, Georgia, has now certified that its Electoral College Votes will go for Biden (as have other states that were in play). Even before the steps for certification were complete, many on the left were thrilled to proclaim that Georgia has turned blue. I think this wishful thinking on their part (and fearful thinking for those on the right). After all, both of our seats in the US Senate are still up in the air. More importantly, this sort of thinking—that the state is blue or red—perpetuates an us-them mentality that, I suggest, is the underlying problem throughout the U.S. right now. (“The state is Blue! I finally can call it Home!” Or “Oh crap! The state is Blue? Carpetbaggers!”) I prefer to say GA is purple. It’s not, of course, a consistent purple throughout the state (far from it). This does not strike me as a bad thing—different people have different views and are somewhat geographically divided. I’m fine with that—It’s hardly surprising and it makes the world interesting. The U.S. is purple in the same way. If we start thinking in those terms, we might get past some of the hostility we see now and see a more consistent purple throughout. Those who have read my previous posts on RCL will not be surprised to hear that I think the way we do that is by improving the way we talk with each other. To that end, here is my working list of rules for honest conversation. (These were started by looking at Braver Angels’ “Ten Principles for Productive Political Disagreement.”)

  1. Speak! Don’t be afraid to ask honest questions. Realize you can only learn from others—and they can only learn from you—if you engage with them.
  2. The Golden Rule. Be respectful and kind, just as you want others to be to you. This means really listening, not just using the time your interlocutor is talking to plan your next statement. What you say should genuinely respond to them. Otherwise you’re having competing monologues, not dialogue.
  3. Admit conflict. And commonality.  We learn by recognizing that parts of our beliefs bother others; those others aren’t likely to engage us if we portray ourselves as completely different. (And we’re never completely different.)
  4. Recognize your feelings. As motivations, not reasons. Relying on feelings in discussion is likely to shut down the conversation and “motivated reasoning” is unlikely to be honestly open. In any case, while you might feel offended, worried, or hurt, declaring that as if it is somehow decisive is asking others to accept your feelings as more important than their feelings and their reasons. Asking yourself why you feel what you do, on the other hand, provides you fodder for discussion and might even make you realize you have no reason for the feeling (and perhaps should try to change).
  5. Use shared terminology. This can be hard, but without it, you may just end up arguing past each other. Getting clear on the terms, though, may show you and your interlocutor that you don’t disagree after all.
  6. Recognize your fallibility. Be humble, open. Qualify your claims, admit nuance. You’re meant to be having a conversation after all and conversations necessarily have more than one view presented (you give a verse, they give a verse, together you converse). If you assume your view is completely right or that your interlocutor has nothing of value to say, you’re not really there for a conversation—and your interlocutor is likely to realize it.
  7. Question Stereotypes—yours and your interlocutors. This should go without saying, but if you don’t question stereotypes, you may as well go home and guess what your interlocutor would have said according to your stereotype of them. That’s not helpful.
  8. Respect the other, even if not their ideas. This is really important both because respect is a fundamental value and because it does not entail thinking all ideas have the same value. Lots of people far smarter than I think my views are wrong. I still benefit from conversation with them because they treat me with respect. I try to do the same.
  9. Recognize it may not be either/or. Sometimes what seem like conflicting views are not really conflicting at all. And sometimes, of course, both are wrong. (See cartoon below–someone posted it on Facebook.)
  10. Be specific about disagreement. You may disagree with your interlocutor about more than one thing, but concentrate on one at a time. Bracket the rest so you can make progress on something. It may be that as you concentrate on one thing, you realize the disagreement is really due to some deeper (or higher?) issue; if so, bracket the original issue and move to this one. You can return to the first when you and your interlocutor better understand the deeper point of contention.
  11. Realize when compromise or civil disagreement is needed. You don’t have to convince your interlocutor and you don’t have to be convinced by them. You can disagree and still respect each other. Indeed, respecting the other means recognizing you might disagree—it means they are as entitled to a view as you are. Sometimes, you’ll disagree but compromise. Sometimes there isn’t any way to compromise and you just disagree. The world is interesting.
  12. Keep the conversation going. When real friends get together, they “pick up right where they left off.” While we won’t develop that sort of intimacy with all of our interlocutors, we should want to be able to come back to at least some of them—and have them come back to us—to ask further questions, raise other points, etc.

If I was to boil all of that down to an overly simple statement, I would say “be rational and reasonable!” This requires being able to step back from one’s own commitments and it requires being fair—and perhaps working to appear fair—to one’s interlocutors. I don’t think there is enough of this today. Polarization pushes us away from each other, reducing honest conversation. Honest conversation, though, has the power to reduce polarization. Which is stronger depends on us.

110 Harms of Crony Capitalism

David Forsyth interviews me about crony capitalism. While cronyism is both unjust and harmful, I argue that not all businesses that engage in cronyism are equally at fault. And some may not be at fault at all.

But you may prefer to read my discussion of crony capitalism in https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/cronyism-toxic-friendship-between-business-government, where I also reject the claim made by some libertarians that seeking tax credits is not cronyism because “the state never had a right to impose taxes on us in the first place.” This argument proves too much. If it’s ok to seek tax credits, it’s also ok to seek subsidies and low‐​interest or guaranteed loans, because they also draw on the taxes that the state “never had a right to impose on us”.

Libertarians Should Support a Politics of Place (and Vote Local)

I’m reading Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized with my students this semester and while I disagree with some of his prescriptions, his diagnosis seems accurate and at least one prescription seems particularly powerful: the importance of building a politics of place.

Klein’s overall point, which I think is mostly right, is that our focus on national politics polarizes us in a way that is both actively harmful to American civic life but that also undermines the areas where our votes and our advocacy and our opinions have an actual chance of making a difference, namely the state and local level.

In general in American politics, there’s far too much emphasis on national politics and not nearly enough on state and local politics. The reality is that the vast majority of the really awful rights violations – at least those affecting American citizens – are done by the state and local governments. National politics tends to brutalize people overseas or those trying to enter our country, but it is state and local politicians that profit off the poor, brutalize the vulnerable, execute the innocent, and engage in a variety of corrupt and vicious practices that make us all worse off. (The Innocence Files on Netflix, produced in conjunction with the Innocence Project, is a good reminder of how brutally unjust state and local governance can be).

Klein’s argument is not new. It’s basically the same argument made by the Anti-Federalists against the Federalist support of strong national government, made by Hayek in his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society”, and made by many other libertarians in their support for bottom-up economic policies, but I see it less explicitly when libertarians talk about politics. In fact, I’ve seen Facebook posts from a lot of well-known libertarian scholars this week poo-pooing voting in general. What all these posts focus on is the Biden-Trump binary, as though voting for president doesn’t also usually involve voting for lots of other people in lots of other elections that we might very well have an impact on at the same time.

It seems ironic that libertarians seem to have fallen for the same sort of nationalism that other people have. Possibly it’s a visibility issue. The federal government is huge, unwieldy, very expensive, and kills hundreds of thousands of people overseas, so it seems like a good enough target for small government ire. And of course federal elections are in fact pretty stupid. Your vote won’t really count in any meaningful mathematical way (though it may count in a symbolic way, which is often overlooked).

But we need to keep our sights on two levels of government at the same time: the federal government’s bloat and mismanagement as well as state and local government’s immediate effects on people’s lives. And of course as many people have pointed out, your vote may in fact have an effect on a local election, while it’s very very very unlikely to have an effect on a national one, particularly with the electoral college in place.

State and local governments are precisely the best targets for libertarians for a lot of reasons. States decide who gets life in prison or the death penalty and local prosecutors decide whether to use coercive plea deals or hide exculpatory evidence and local police decide whether to police for safety or profit or whether to choke unarmed men to death. Not only that, but your state representatives also decide how democracy itself functions when they decide whether and how to gerrymander districts, whether third parties like the Libertarian Party get a chance at all with systems like ranked choice voting or whether, as in New York State, the governor simply wields election law as a way to punish third parties that criticize the job he’s doing.

If we took Hayek seriously we’d reject national politics as largely out of our control and instead embrace local and state politics. If we took Hayek seriously we’d vote more often in local elections, we’d use our Facebook platforms to encourage local voting on issues relating to criminal justice reform and other areas of serious injustice, and we’d run for local office more, advocate for local reforms more, and generally engage in much more local activism than I think we as libertarians generally do.

That’s a loss not only for the visibility of libertarian principles, but it also weakens our bench when it comes to actually getting libertarians into political office upstream (assuming that’s a worthwhile goal). But more than anything, the libertarian disdain for democracy (rightly criticized by people like Jacob Levy) knocks us out of the elections – whether as voters or candidates – where libertarian positions are the most needed and most likely to be heard. And that’s a loss for us all.

Meanwhile, in a Parallel Election

I voted!

No, not in the u.s. election – Ἀθηνᾶ κρείττων!

Nah, I voted for which book we will read next in the Auburn Science Fiction and Philosophy Reading Group.

This was a more cheerful and civilised affair than the u.s. election in at least seven ways:

1.  Minority choices have no trouble getting on the ballot; any individual member of the group can nominate a book (or several), without having to collect multiple signatures on a petition.

2. The number of participants is small enough that any individual vote has an actual chance of making a decisive difference to the outcome.

3. Voting involves rank-ordering the candidates via an online Condorcet poll, so no one has to choose between voting for their favourite among the front runners and voting for their favourite absolutely.

4. We choose a new book every month or two, so there’s strict rotation in office with very short terms – no perpetually incumbent books.

5. The reading group is a purely voluntary association. If any members aren’t happy with the winning choice, and want to go off on their own to read and discuss a different book, the rest of us wouldn’t dream of trying to stop them, let alone telling them that by voting (or by not voting) they have committed themselves to reading the winning book.

6. All the books nominated look worthwhile, and I would be happy to read and discuss any of them.

7. Facebook has not been reminding me every few minutes to vote for the next book.

O idéal lointain!

Honest Dialogue Needed on Social Media

In my last post, I issued a plea for civil discourse. This post is something of a possible explanation for its rarity on social media couple with a further plea. Most people in the US seem to have chosen sides, picked a team. More than that, they seem to have made their chosen team a large part of their identity—who they take themselves to be. If they see someone post negative things about their candidate, they react against that person. If they repeatedly see that person posting negative things about their candidate (and perhaps positive things about the other candidate), they see the other person as attacking who they are. Or as completely fooled. This is, of course, polarization.

Here’s the thing: in reality, someone who posts only positive things about a candidate and nothing negative, is—at least in the US over the last several decades—not doing what is necessary to be rightly seen as posting truth. If what you believe to be true about the current candidates for president (and thus post on social media) is all one-sided, you’re almost certainly wrong. The duopoly candidates are all bad and have been for years. The truth is complex. Trump has had some good policies and done some good, but he’s also done some things badly and caused problems. The same would be true of a Biden presidency (judging from his history).

I agree that one of the candidates is better than the other. And I voted for that candidate. Honestly, I’ve voted in all or most national elections I’ve been eligible to vote in. I’ve always gotten a kick out of it. I did again this time, but I felt dirty in a way I never have before when voting. (Which is at least partly explained by having voted for third party candidates, skipped votes for some positions, writing in candidates, and never before voting for a whole party line.)

So what can be done? Here’s the plea: post honestly and recognize that if all your posts are pro-Candidate A and against Candidate B, you are not likely posting honestly. Civil discourse requires that interlocutors trust each other to speak honestly. If people see your posts as all one sided, they will rightly conclude that you are not being an honest interlocutor. There are at least 2 possible bad outcomes from that: your social media will become more of a bubble as people for the other candidate unfriend you or you’ll get into unnecessarily heated debates with people seeking to prove you wrong, no matter how futile that might be.

By contrast, if you are willing to see—and show that you see—the faults of the candidate you prefer (even if you think they are great!), you can invite and sustain honest dialogue with others. In all likelihood, you will discover that you have things in common with them even if you disagree about the candidates. The fact is we are all multi-faceted and not well represented by any single label. When we hide behind superficial identities or labels—or force others behind them—we fail to learn who our interlocutors really are. When we do that, we miss out on all there is to discover and make it more likely that we stagnate instead of growing. (For more on this, see Irshad Manji’s Don’t Label Me-CE*.)

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.