Barely an Argument: A Review of “The Art of the Argument: Western Civilization’s Last Stand” by Stefan Molyneux

This is a guest post by Joshua Stein, a doctoral student at the University of Calgary and @thephilosotroll on Twitter.

There is a great deal to say about Molyneux’s The Art of the Argument, none of it good. The book begins with an introduction to logic that misnames (and misapplies) core concepts like validity, truth, and soundness (Loc 213), confusing how the “truth” relation is supposed to work (Loc 1572-1579), among other basic technical errors. I could dedicate an entire review to showcasing the bizarre and confused claims of the first quarter of the book; when I mentioned reading it on twitter, however, another graduate student reached out to me that he was going to be doing that review. Instead, I thought I’d do something a bit different (and, I hope, a bit more interesting).

In his opening moves, Molyneux differentiates between “Truth arguments” (Loc 68) and “Value arguments” (Loc 70). This roughly maps on to a philosophical distinction between descriptive and normative claims. “The window is open,” is a descriptive claim. “Close the window” is a normative claim. Some philosophers think that some descriptive claims may be normative, and vice versa. (For example, when my girlfriend gives me a look and says, “the window is open,” she is actually directing me to do something about it.)

In keeping with this bit of Molyneux’s analysis, I want to argue that the core argument of The Art of the Argument deserves both a descriptive and normative note (respectively): the argument fails and one who is committed to the argument ought to reject Molyneux’s views about libertarianism. Put another way, the argument is both wrong (a description) and those who accept it ought to reject Molyneux’s libertarianism. (Of course, I think everyone ought to reject libertarianism, but that requires responding to more serious political philosophers than Molyneux.)

Molyneux says we have an obligation to ostracize those who fail to meet certain philosophical standards (Loc 615-630). If I agreed on that point, I would encourage ostracizing Molyneux; it’s clear from an analysis of the first quarter of the book that he’s wildly philosophically incompetent. But I disagree with that tactic on both a pedagogical and moral basis; those who argue poorly can be taught to argue better, and we (as a community) are best served if those who can argue poorly are taught to argue better, so philosophy teachers ought to do that.

Perhaps the only reason many of us are aware of Molyneux is his insistence that various things are not arguments. This continues in the book. He notes “Taxation is not an argument, because you go to jail if you don’t pay.” (Loc 568) This is obvious, though it’s also obvious that dinner isn’t an argument, because potatoes aren’t premises. His positive account of what an argument is involves mixed metaphors and strange assertions. In his introduction, he insists that valid arguments with false premises are aren’t arguments, which is weird.

For the purpose of making this conventional, I just want to use a minimal working definition of argument. An argument is a series of premises adherent to some rules of inference that produces a conclusion. Molyneux often refers to “The Argument,” and so I will set aside that term for his definition.

The following is what I take to be a primary argument of Molyneux’s book, that “The Argument” is a primary condition for civilization.”

  1. The Argument is the primary non-violent means of changing behaviors or attitudes. (Loc 530, 538)

    1.1 A “non-violent” change in behavior or attitude is one where an agent changes their behavior without the threat of force.

  2. Civilization requires principally non-violent means of changing behaviors or attitudes.

  3. Therefore, the Argument is a primary condition for civilization.

One can see why (1) is compelling; it certainly happens in everyday life. If you and I disagree about whether we should go to the movies or the park, then I can make an argument in the hopes of influencing your behavior. Of course, there are lots of other ways one can non-violently compel behavior; Molyneux should know some of them, as their basic stock-and-trade of libertarian thought. For example, instead of presenting arguments, we can make an exchange, agreement, or promise that will lead to satisfying both our preferences.

With this in mind, it looks like (1) is just false on a strict understanding of “primary.” There are lots of other ways to modify behavior. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all expound ways in which humans can develop contractual relationships by presenting their own interests and creating conditions agreeable to all signers. Rawls expands this to include even possible signers. This is a fairly straightforward view in modern political philosophy, and on this very broad sense of contractarian, it seems as though nearly all modern philosophers about it.

But Molyneux’s argument gets worse, because it turns out (2) is also false. Molyneux notes that “Freedom is freedom from force,” and maintains that civilization has to involve non-coercive engagement. The problem is, even if we take “non-violence” to be the absence of force, it is still hard to say what he means by “force.” After all, governments use force to address dissenters, and Molyneux hopes to avoid force by advancing a successful argument (Loc 1292).

The problem is that it is not clear at all when force is being exercised. Is “force” only the actual or possible commission of violence by another agent? Or can conditions “force” an individual to do something?

Suppose a cancer patient goes to see a doctor; the doctor has access to the chemotherapy drugs that the patient needs for treatment. Does the patient’s position force them to make a purchase? The patient isn’t in the same position I am when I look at buying a new pair of jeans; she can’t simply walk away. If she has access to a different doctor willing to provide the treatment at a lower cost, then there’s market possibility, but she’s dependent on the presence of alternatives and the good-faith pricing practices of sellers, precisely because she isn’t “free” to abstain. If she doesn’t buy the drugs, then she’ll die.

If contexts can be coercive, then plenty of instances of argument are coercive. Philosophy classes are coercive, though the stakes are a lot lower than relationship between a patient with an acute condition and doctor. Students who attend my ethics class require the course to graduate; they need to graduate to go into their chosen profession. Could they leave my class? Sure. But the quality of life for those students would suffer significantly, both in terms of career prospects and their own personal preference to pursue a particular sort of career. Is the mere contextual feature a matter of force? Sure. It isn’t violent, but it influences students to take some arguments more seriously than others; as a teacher, I have a responsibility to make that force work for the best interests of the student, but it is silly to deny that it is there.

Molyneux doesn’t address whether these instances count as force, but he does say some very confused things about force. He insistence that the primary mechanism of managing those who do not engage in civilized society is ostracism, but it’s not. It is force, whether forced imprisonment or some other severe consequence. Social contracts are enforced; social norms are enforced; an ostracism itself is a form of force. It isn’t as violent as hitting someone over the head with a club, but as an ex-Mormon about the impact of disfellowship on their life and it becomes clear that it is a powerful, and coercive, force.

As this line of analysis continues, Molyneux’s account looks even worse. Claims about the sensitivity of standards for argument to social factors, the role of concepts, and the like come back to bite him. But, up to this point, it’s clear that Molyneux’s argument fails, since both premises are false.

Molyneux’s argument fails (in part) because it can’t even meet his own basic standards of clarity of definitions. He writes, “Almost all human conflicts result from a lack of clarity in definitions.” (Loc 1173) As absurd as that evaluation of human conflicts is, the notion that definitions matter is right. Whether screwing up definitions of truth (Molyeux’s view should be, “Truth is a two-place relation between a proposition and the world.” Introductory level philosophy for objectivists about truth.)

The more interesting point in this discussion is that Molyneux’s argument is not just demonstrably false and a clear conceptual failure, but that if one takes the argumentative conventions seriously, they should reject the various libertarian claims he makes in the book. Some arguments are bad because they make rudimentary philosophical mistakes; that’s surely true. But Molyneux’s is especially bad because it intends to advance objectionable (and even laughable) theses that includes demonstrably false claims about interpersonal relationships and how they manifest justice in a society.

Much of the book rehearses a familiar strand of libertarian thinking; there are some arguments in the libertarian literature that are philosophically interesting, but Molyneux doesn’t touch on them.

Molyneux maintains that in a “free society,” i.e. one that conforms to the moral values he advocates, the success of individuals is responsive to the quality of their work. If Timmy works hard and Steve doesn’t, then Timmy will be more successful than Steve, but this argument trades on a few assumptions that are demonstrably false. These assumptions are that, in such a society, (1) individuals start off roughly on an equal playing field and (2) individuals’ improvement on the playing field is the result of hard work.

I want to focus on condition (2), because it’s failure is the most destructive to general libertarian arguments like Molyneux’s, but (1) is interesting. It is transparently false that a libertarian society entails that individuals will start in a roughly equal position. Over generations, in a state where individuals can accumulate wealth and pass it on within their family, some individuals are going to be positioned disparately in ways for which they are not morally responsible. If Timmy is born to parents with no educational background, low income and financial security, or other issues (e.g. alcoholism in the home; abuse; etc.) then he is in a demonstrably worse starting position than Steve, born to an upper middle class family, much less one of the Trump or Kennedy children.

Wealth inequality is a fact of any libertarian society, but also of most idealized liberal democratic societies; extremely disparate wealth inequality is only a feature of the former, which makes his own libertarian position untenable. Liberal democracy, at least in formulations offered by Rawls, aspires to putting Timmy and Steve and Baron Trump on a par (though not necessary an equal position), so that it’s plausible that their success is a result of hard work, rather than the circumstances of their birth.

The further problem, and the more egregious error, is that (2) doesn’t track either. A libertarian should be aware of this, but it is common to ignore. Suppose Timmy and Steve (starting on an equal playing field) go in to work for two different companies; Timmy works harder than Steve, the quality of his work is demonstrably better, but either due to errors of management or demand for the product, it goes out of business and Timmy is unemployed. Timmy is not at fault, but is now in a far worse position in his career than Steve, who has a secure position at a company that has invested in Steve’s jobs skills.

This is one style of case where someone’s economic circumstance is not responsive to hard work, but rather to external circumstances; we see this practically in contemporary coal mining, auto-manufacturing, and other fields that has seen enormous job loss through no fault of the workers. The workers then unjustly carry the economic burden of the company’s failure. This isn’t a bug that the libertarian position is equipped to result.

But Molyneux’s position gets even worse. Molyneux insists that a labor market responds to the quality of work, but anyone who has spent significant time watching folks get hired and fired knows that this isn’t true either. Labor markets are responsive to the traits that managers value. If Steve has some other trait that Timmy doesn’t (perhaps he’s a relative; or more sociable; or holds similar ideological views), and prospective employers value that feature, they may overlook the fact that Steve doesn’t work as hard or as well as Timmy. Circumstantial factors matter to hiring and firing.

If we hold the view that working hard and well ought to secure someone at least basic financial safety, a point Molyneux insists it will if the market is allowed to flourish, then the above demonstration shows (contra Molyneux) that a libertarian society will not, and cannot, address this.

A 45-year-old coal miner who loses his job when the mine closes down due to shifts to alternative energy, or an autoworker who loses his job to automation, isn’t faring worse than his friends because he didn’t work as hard. He’s faring worse because market forces he couldn’t have anticipated at 18 have devalued his skills. If libertarianism roughly entails not acting on those market forces and precludes redistribution of resources to compensate for the circumstance’s unfairness to those workers, then it does not provide an answer to this issue. After subjecting you, dear reader, to so much Molyneux, perhaps it is worthwhile to turn to a decent philosopher more attuned to social obligations to fairness and justice. In his seminal discussion, “Justice as Fairness,” Rawls gives a note sympathetic to much of Molyneux’s account of rational deliberation, but without the glaring philosophical errors of general reasoning and political philosophy outlined above. The result is an articulation of the basis of Rawls’s political liberalism:

“The fair terms of social cooperation are conceived as agreed to by those engaged in it, that is, by free and equal persons as citizens who are born into the society in which they lead their lives. But their agreement, like any other valid agreement, must be entered into under appropriate conditions. In particular, these conditions must situate free and equal persons fairly and must not allow some persons greater bargaining advantages than others. Further, threats of force and coercion, deception and fraud, and so on, must be excluded.” 1985. “Justice as Fairness” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14.3: 235

Note: Since I read this on Kindle, all of the citations refer to kindle locations in the book, rather than page numbers.


  1. says

    Taxation is an argument; it’s just an argument from authority. It’s a short form of:
    Caesar: “Render unto me, etc.”
    Libertarian: “Why?”
    Caesar: “Because I say so.”
    Libertarian: “So? You and what army?”
    Caesar: (whistles, a centurion runs up) “Crucify this idiot.”

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thanks, Joshua.

    Your work here reminded me of a couple different previous discussions on Pharyngula that addressed Libertarianism. While I find their policy prescriptions odious (not least the idea that tort is a sufficient remedy for all victims of crime) it is particularly stunning to me how rarely they take their own ideas seriously … even when they wonder aloud why others don’t take their ideas seriously.

    Governance, it is frequently maintained, is engaged in constant, omnipresent violence (or perhaps “unjust force” or, in the language of some sloppy libertarians, merely “force”). Violence when issuing a social security card or driver’s license? “Well, yes,” they reply, as failing to participate in the system must eventually entail violating laws and violations of laws are ultimately punished, when all else fails, with violence, therefore the least act of government is tainted by the hint of violence. Without the threat of violence, it is maintained by Libertarians, there is no government. Therefore, all governments are violent and illegitimately so.

    Nudge them, however, and they agree that some violence is morally justifiable even in their own frames. Violence in self-defense, for example. While governments are made up of people and we will never be rid of unjust violence enacted by government employees (and government officials) acting during the course of their duties, a government that performs its normal and expected functions without violence is perfectly conceivable.

    Taxes, for instance, are frequently assumed to be violence because in rare cases at the extremes, tax laws are enforced via prison. But we can imagine premising the protections of incorporation on collecting and remitting sales taxes. If your company fails to collect and remit sales taxes, then when someone sues your company or the company goes bankrupt, the courts will permit suits against the owners of the corporation as the actual tortfeasors or debtors. Libertarians still believe in suits for torts and for debts, people have long found corporate personhood an important protection that permits engaging in economic activity beneficial on both individual and social levels. It’s easy to imagine that the people who own and run companies would be highly motivated (perhaps more motivated than they are now) to fully, accurately and promptly collect and remit sales tax.

    Yet, if permitting tort suits is acceptable to libertarians, then certainly merely declining to provide special protections against tort suits (or actions to collect debts) should be acceptable to libertarians.

    A similar system can be imagined for income taxes: commercial banks, S&Ls, and credit unions are all highly dependent on national banks lending at the so-called “prime rate” in highly complex transactions that are frequently no more than 24 hours in length from the acceptance of a loan to the payment of the loan. Denying access to funds by a national/central bank would effectively kill a financial institution. Though it’s conceivable a bank could keep a greater store of cash on hand to prevent death via random, short term fluctuations in income and outflow, such a bank would be at an extreme competitive disadvantage and would certainly die a market death anyway.

    If access to money from the central bank was conditional on reporting information competently and correctly identifying depositors and creditors (and the appropriate amounts) and siphoning off a share of new deposits, then it would be perfectly possible for individuals to avoid income tax by dealing entirely in cash … but it’s hard to get paid only in cash these days. Very few people would be able to manage it, and generally the benefit you gain by not allowing banks to remit this sort of income tax would be a reasonably small percentage, and the opportunity cost (the ability to work for a wage at a company that pays by check or institutional deposit) is almost always going to be much higher.

    No force threatened at all.

    Now, I’m not currently suggesting a switch to these policies, but my point is that libertarians will frequently insist that something is not possible without violence (or illegitimate force) without even taking the time to think seriously about even their own definitions of “legitimate” and whether or not the world as it exists really does preclude legitimate acts of governance.

    All of which is to say I’m not at all surprised that Molyneaux doesn’t think through his own premises and definitions. In my experience, that is a hallmark of libertarian thinking.

  3. says

    Crip Dyke@#3:
    Governance, it is frequently maintained, is engaged in constant, omnipresent violence

    And, strangely, capitalists are not. Companies can cut costs, reallocate resources, even break contracts, as long as it benefits their shareholders* – they can probably even bring in strike-breaking Pinkertons goons – and that’s not violence.

    Also: there is much focus on inequality of starting positions, as there should be, but there’s also tremendous inequality that happens as a result of forces that the worker does not control. The worker does not have any control over whether some capitalist decides to “offshore” their job: that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose. Rawls was much more right about a lot of things than Molyneux will ever be, but he was also thinking about a manufacturing and agrarian economy (as existed at the time) and was not taking into account the current environment where sweatshops have gone mobile and global and computers allow companies to automatically take advantage of employees (as WALMART, Uber and Amazon have demonstrated) Is it “violence” to arrange jobs into a gig economy so that workers get 39hr/week to avoid paying them benefits, or is it “that’s how the cookie crumbles”? Saying the government and taxation are “violence” because they monopolize violence to enforce taxation ignores the fact that many companies monopolize local job markets in order to restrict employment opportunities to “our shitty deal” or “no deal at all.” I don’t see how one can be categorized as abusive and the other as beneficial to the shareholders and therefore OK.

    (* What’s really fun is when they’re talking about a privately-held company)

  4. mikehuben says

    The primary characteristics of libertarian rhetoric are sophistry, bullshit, and/or plutocratic propaganda. It is remarkably easy to find the root sophistry, even for the best known libertarian philosophers such as Nozick.

    M. (like most libertarians) uses his own special meanings for a lot more than “argument”, “violence” and the other terms you mentioned. To a libertarian, “coercion” (which is M.’s meaning of violence) means force or threats of force that libertarians don’t like. They generally will not admit the coercion in all rights and property, because they like that coercion.

    I have some resources at my web site:

    Libertarian Propaganda Terms

    The Short, Simple Dismissal Of Libertarianism

    Mike Huben

    “We have to start by decoding a whole system of intellectual distortion before you can even talk.”
    Noam Chomsky, “Libertarianism vs. American Libertarianism @5:00”

  5. says

    @CripDyke, you’re quite welcome and I’m glad you enjoyed it. I think you’re right that, once we get into broader definitions of force, it becomes obligatory to include things like the threat of lawsuit as a threat of violence, especially in cases where individuals don’t have the means to sustain themselves while under such a lawsuit. This includes fairly obvious instances of enforcement by private entities (e.g. repossession in the event someone can’t pay back the loan) and occasionally exorbitant and predatory lending practices. If financial violence can be violence (and it must, if the libertarian line on taxation is going to work) then there are a wide variety of instances where a libertarian society includes violence.

    The more important point, though, is the bit about the general acceptability of violence as a means of enforcing agreements. You’re right that libertarians acknowledge one can defend themselves; in point of fact, most libertarians maintain a much lower threshold for the justified use of force in self-defense than political liberals, because things like petty property crime are regarded as more heinous. (Jon Haidt and some others have discussed this in passing in some of their moral psychology studies, but the particular phenomenon hasn’t been as well documented as I’d like.)

    @MarcusRanum, you’re absolutely right, of course, that there’s a massive amount the worker doesn’t control. I try to capture that in the expression of the differences when talking about the coal miner and other instances where the industry just turns out not to be sustainable… those sorts of cases are incredibly common, especially in the modern economy where there have been massive changes in energy and communications infrastructure.

    I don’t strictly disagree with your point about Rawls having a shortsighted view of labor protection. He doesn’t explicitly talk about unions anywhere, as far as I know. There are pretty immediate successors to Rawls (Michael Sandel and Peter Levine jump immediately to mind) who do say a lot more on unions in that vein, and provide an important extension of Rawls’s liberalism to that area.

  6. doubtthat says

    Should add that even though it’s a surprise to no one that Molyneux produced a bunch of unhinged horseshit, thank you for shoveling through it to explain exactly where it goes wrong.

    My advisor in undergrad regularly taught a political philosophy course over the past 30 years. The last time I saw him, he expressed utter bafflement at the number of students who requested Nietzsche and Rand. Couple that with the EXPLOSION of these alt-right/glibertarian atheist bros, and as amazingly stupid and intellectually bankrupt as these ideologies are, it has to be seriously confronted.

    Good work on you. It was the philosophical equivalent of Heracles cleaning out the Augean stables…

  7. says

    It was the philosophical equivalent of Heracles cleaning out the Augean stables…

    Let me second that. My comments above should not be interpreted as critique, but rather omitted expressions of admiration. It sounds like it was tough reading, with many a near-backflip from rolling one’s eyes too hard.
    Philosotroll, thank you.

  8. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says


    think you’re right that, once we get into broader definitions of force, it becomes obligatory to include things like the threat of lawsuit as a threat of violence, especially in cases where individuals don’t have the means to sustain themselves while under such a lawsuit.

    Well, no. That wasn’t precisely my point. I don’t think it’s obligatory to include such things. What I think is obligatory is the use of consistent definitions. If a distant, possible use of force qualifies as an immediate threat of violence on every tax payer, even when those taxpayers are happy to contribute their share to the governance of their society, then surely sure the situations you describe constitute genuine threats of violence.

    While I think such definitions can and should be reasonably critiqued – they are not obligatory – the libertarians who are happy to apply such loose definitions to acts of governments are entirely unwilling to apply the same definition in the same way to acts that would surely meet their definitions if only the acts were undertaken by a government and not a corporation. It’s this dishonesty that I wish to particularly address.

    As an anti-violence activist for nearly my entire adult life, I don’t want taxes to be classified as violence and take a dim view of those who do. I don’t even want lawsuits to be classified as violence, however unjust they may be and however dire the consequences they may have. I think it’s useful to have a term for physical force used with reckless neglect of its immediate capacity to harm or injure, or with actual intent to harm or injure. There are times when we need to distinguish these things, and the word violence has traditionally served as a useful label for that category of actions. In fact, I rather resent libertarians for attempting to use such a loose definition.

    This resentment makes it even more upsetting to me that libertarians not only diminish the utility of the word violence but then don’t even do so in an honest way. Adopting a definition of violence as actually used by libertarians in conversation (not as they might wish us to believe they define the word or how they might clarify their definition given enough time and motivation) leads to a diminished capacity to oppose injustice in the word at the same time they are arguing that their definition is a fundamental requirement for increasing justice.

    Frankly, their rhetorical tactics nauseate me.

  9. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Ha! And now I see the Heracles reference. Good show, doubtthat! I third your appreciation for Philosotroll and second appreciation for your metaphor.

  10. says

    Thanks all for the compliment; it definitely felt a bit like overkill, at a certain point, so I wanted to have fun with it in the hopes that it’d provide for some good reading. On that point, sounds like it worked.

    @CripDyke, #9, we’re not in disagreement here; I got your point. I was saying that if one takes the broad view that the threat of government sanctions are a form of force, then you wind up with this wide scope view that has to include things like lawsuits. I definitely think we can define violence in a more restrictive way that removes these sorts of distant or contextually-implied threats of sanction as themselves violent.

    I agree that the differences in varieties of violence you write about produces substantial moral difference, though I’m less of a fan of establishing categories than evaluating other morally salient factors in each case. (I have a bit of a moral particularist bent that way, but I suspect that differences matters vary little to our shared loathing of positions like Molyneux’s.)

  11. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Libertarians still believe in suits for torts and for debts, people have long found corporate personhood an important protection that permits engaging in economic activity beneficial on both individual and social levels.

    Devil’s advocate: The “smart” libertarian would say that they consented to the violence in advance by agreeing to the contract, and therefore the violence doesn’t run afoul of their principles.

  12. says

    @EnlightenmentLiberal, you’re absolutely right. And smarter libertarians (Jason Brennan, Peter Jaworski, Jan Narveson) say something very much like that. However, that winds up committing them to saying all sorts of weird stuff about how exchanges, contracts, and consent work. They’re digging a more interesting hole (one that might actually produce something of intellectual interest when we’re filling it back up again) but one that is just as fatal, albeit it five or ten moves deep rather than Molyneux’s immediate concession.

  13. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    You find no love for libertarianism in me. I agree. I think PZ did a great job in the OP too.

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    Once upon a time, I would have been a slobbering devotee of Molyneux and his brand of politicized selfishness. Of course, I didn’t see it way. I thought it was all about freedom, and who would be against freedom? (“Statist tyrants who wanted to tell you how to live your life, that’s who!”) This was because at the time I was a clueless 20-something who had just abandoned my religious conservative attitudes about sex and drugs but wasn’t willing to give up on capitalism.

    In my experience, the most well-meaning libertarian operate on a simplistic view of human nature. People would NEVER do anything against their own best interests unless they were being coerced by the Big Bad Government; therefore, take away the taxes and regulations and the entrepreneur will make the right decision because right decisions are profitable.

    But what of companies that dump toxic waste in poor neighborhoods or mistreat their workers? The rank-and-file libertarian would reply that a business owner would never deliberately harm employees lest they walk off their jobs or face the wrath of angry consumers? Of course, they seem to forget just how desperate some people are for work (especially in a society without the welfare state the libertarians desire) and the overall apathy of the consumer. Most shoppers don’t care if their products are made in unsafe sweatshops by abused wage slaves, just as long as they are cheap come in the right color.

    Remember, in libertarian “ethics”, morality is not measured by an analysis of the harm or happiness of an action, it’s measured in profits. i.e. If people thought a company was acting immorally, then they wouldn’t patronize it and it would be run out of business. If a company stays in business, then their must be nothing immoral about unchecked pollution,84-hour work weeks, and paying workers a pittance.

    Business success is not an argument.

  15. handsomemrtoad says

    RE: “Perhaps the only reason many of us are aware of Molyneux is his insistence that various things are not arguments.”


    Like this guy:

  16. says

    “Some philosophers think that some descriptive claims may be normative, and vice versa. (For example, when my girlfriend gives me a look and says, “the window is open,” she is actually directing me to do something about it.)”

    This is a commonplace in speech act theory. (See Searle, Austin and Habermas.) The locutionary act does not determine the illocutionary act — humans decode illocutionary acts in context. If only some philosophers think this, the rest of them are insane.

  17. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    I think PZ did a great job in the OP too.

    Not PZ (unless he’s leading a double life).

  18. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Some philosophers think that some descriptive claims may be normative, and vice versa. (For example, when my girlfriend gives me a look and says, “the window is open,” she is actually directing me to do something about it.)

    I would also take this a step further: Descriptive claims can only exist in the context of certain normative frameworks. In other words, science is a value framework, and facts can only exist in the context of some value framework like science.

  19. freemage says

    The example of the cancer patient also yields an example of libertarians ignoring the full version of their definition of ‘force’. One of the reasons the drug companies are able to demand such extraordinary profits is not only because their customers are often desperate for relief or cure, but because their products are secured through patents. The physical costs involved in making most drugs are not particularly high, on a per-dose basis, even if you’re dealing with government regulators to ensure proper manufacture. If any fly-by-night outfit were free to reverse-engineer and produce a copycat drug five months after a new one hit the market, the industry would cease to engage in research and development at all–but that patent absolutely comes backed up by the threat of government ‘force’. And the definition of ‘intellectual property’ is one that would not exist without a government framework to create it.

  20. pacal says

    One of the important things to know about Modern North American Libertarianism is that many, many of its devotes believe that the only source of coercion, i.e., “violence” is government and that there is literally no such thing has non-governmental coercion. Thus by definition, corporations and businesses cannot ever engage in coercion. To call this stupid it to insult stupidity; it is well beyond being merely stupid. Thus I have read so-called Libertarians actually saying that Capitalism does not rely on coercion of any kind!! Thus laws that punish theft of property, courts that enforce either don’t exist or are not engaging in coercion, and so on.

    In this sort of Libertarianism coercion is so defined that it can only come from government and any thing that looks like coercion coming from non-government is by definition not coercion because coercion can only come from government.

  21. says

    Thanks to those clarifying the guest byline. I am not, in fact, PZ Myers.

    @certantes, @EnglightenmentLiberal, I’m not unsympathetic to the Austin-style view that’s being articulated. As one notes from the example, I’m pretty comfortable with talking about easy cases like that. However, I do have to acknowledge that Searle/Austin aren’t exactly the dominant framework for philosophy of language. Semantic theories inherited from Lewis, while admittedly weirder when it comes implied illocutionary acts like my example, do offer a more robust theory of meaning than Austin’s pragmatics. (Searle is aware of this, and some of his most useful and interesting work on Austin and Wittgenstein has to do with integrating positions on reference, content, and illocutionary force.)

    @freemage, @pascal, I think you’re both absolutely right that the idiosyncratic definition of “force” used by libertarians is really weird. I don’t tend to dwell on this in my responses to more serious libertarians, because I think that the conceptual problems they have “exchange”/”free exchange” (in particular) actually forces them to give up their bad concept of force; I also think that force is a much more unwieldy philosophical concept in the genuine hard cases (e.g. where one might do otherwise, but would face serious, but tolerable, consequences), and so I think offering an analysis of it is much harder, even when libertarians are screwing up easy cases.

  22. DLC says

    In another era, Libertarian thinkers I knew would speak of the only crimes being “force or fraud”, and the only penalty would be that levied on the guilty party by a civil court judge. Yet, some of the same people applauded Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in which a wealthy real estate developer brags with much jocularity about how he rooked people by building homes out of sub-standard materials. I wondered then what level of mental gymnastics was required to say “force or fraud” while admiring blatant thievery.