Sunday Sermon: In Defense Of Anarchism


This is going to be a couple of parts, but I’m going to try to tie them all together, in time. I’ve chosen a “selection plus commentary” approach for these sermons, which means I’m almost certainly going to be dropping spoilers about the future pieces of text. Since it’s philosophy, not thriller fiction, I think that’s OK.  On with the sermon:

The Conflict Between Authority and Autonomy

 

- Robert Paul Wolff

– Robert Paul Wolff

Politics is the exercise of the power of the state, or the attempt to influence that exercise. Political philosophy is therefore, strictly speaking, the philosophy of the state. If we are to determine the context of political philosophy, and whether indeed it exists, we must begin with the concept of the state.

The state is a group of persons who have or exercise supreme authority within a given territory. Strictly, we should say that a state is a group of persons who have supreme authority within a given territory or over a certain population. A nomadic tribe may exhibit the authority structure of a state, so long as its subjects do not fall under the superior authority of a territorial state.[1] The state may include all the persons who fall under its authority, as does the democratic state according to its theorists; it may also consist of a single individual to whom all the rest are subject. We may doubt whether the one-person state has ever existed, although Lous XIV evidently thought so when he announced, “L’état, c’est moi.” The distinctive characteristic of the state is supreme authority, or what political pholosophers used to call “sovereignty.” This one speaks of “popular sovereignty” which is the doctrine that the people are the state, and of course the use of “sovereign” to mean “king” reflects the supposed concentration of supreme authority in a monarchy.

Authority is the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed. It must be distinguished from power, which is the ability to compel compliance, either through the use or the threat of force. When I turn over my wallet to a thief who is holding me at gunpoint, I do so because the fate with which he threatens me is worse than the loss of money which I am made to suffer. I grant that he has power over me, but I would hardly suppose that he has authority, that is, that he has a right to demand my money and that I have an obligation to give it to him. When the government presents me with a bill for taxes, on the other hand, I pay it (normally) even though I do not wish to, and even if I think I can get away with not paying. It is, after all, the duly constituted government and hence it has a right to tax me. It has authority over me. Sometimes, of course, I cheat the government, but even so,

I acknowledge its authority, for who would speak of cheating a thief?

[1] For a similar definition of “state” see Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation. Weber emphasizes the means – force – by which the will of the state is imposed, but a careful analysis of his definition shows that it also bases itself on the notion of authority (“imperative coordination”).


This is the opening of Robert Paul Wolff’s “In Defense of Anarchism” (1970). He was a colleague of my father’s at Columbia back in the 60s when I was a toddler in a stroller on the steps of Low Library. Somehow a copy of “In Defense…” wound up in my father’s rather gigantic library and as I was trawling through for something to read, I settled on that slim volume. I still have it on my shelf, with marginal notes by my father, overlaid with my own illegible chicken-scratch.

Wolff begins by establishing a definition of “authority” and then “autonomy” which he then places in opposition. The rest of the book is an examination of various political systems to see how they rationalize the autonomy of the individual with the authority of the state, and fail. Wolff concludes that no state is convincingly legitimate. To be legitimate, a state must rationalize its authority with the autonomy of the individual, or the individual is not being a moral actor since they are submitting to the threat of force and can choose to stop doing so at any time. They have a right to choose to stop doing so at any time, indeed they may have a moral obligation to stop doing so, as in the case where a state is aggressive, militaristic, or corrupt. That latter bit of argument always reminds me of the time, in some forgotten interview, where someone asked Noam Chomsky why he’s so concerned about the US’ injustices and not the more obvious crimes of other states; Chomsky’s reply, “because I help fund the US.”

L'etat, c'est lui!

L’etat, c’est lui!

For the record, Louis XIV did not really think he was the state when he said that. The story, which is probably not true, is that his Conseilleur D’état, Colbert (not Stephen!) at one point remonstrated with him, “Mais, L’état exige..” (“The State requires…”) at which point Louis cut him off “L’état, c’est moi.” (“I am the state!”) Louis VIX ushered the age of absolutism, the final transition of European government from feudalism – the nobility no longer had real power, all power in France was Louis’ to exercise. In a sense, Louis XIV was the quintessential monarch that every tin-pot dictator since has wished to emulate – to the point where most tyrants’ chateaux are inevitably compared to Versailles.

The enlightenment can be seen as, in part, a dialogue between the ascendent absolutist monarchies, and the bourgeoisie, the people who actually make the economy work. And, in France and North America, the monarchies overreached themselves a bit and the results were catastrophic, though they were a great petri dish for political philosophers.

Wolff’s concern echoes Eric’s concern in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”  – “Who died and made you king, then, eh?” Wolff writes:

The fact that something has always been done in a certain way strikes most men as perfectly adequate reason for doing it that way again. Why should we submit to a king? Because we have always submitted to kings. But why should the oldest son of the king become king in turn? Because oldest sons have always been heirs to the throne. The force of the traditional is engraved so deeply on men’s minds that even a study of the violent and haphazard origins of a ruling family will not weaken its authority in the eyes of its subjects.

Wolff is not playing coy, here: he is establishing the idea that the state – whether it’s an absolutist monarchy or a democratic state – is founded on coercion. From there he describes what he calls “de facto states” – states which men believe have legitimate authority (“legitimacy” in a state is when the state’s authority is real and not merely imagined) yet it seems that all states in all times compel compliance to a certain degree. And the issues of taxation or conscripted military service seem to inevitably crop up. So Wolff sets up the first half of a dilemma: if states are legitimate, why do they have to compel the people to obey?

In the next Sunday Sermon we’ll look at Wolff’s decompilation of “Autonomy.”


More:

Ranum, O. “Paris in the Age of Absolutism

Robert Paul Wolff’s Blog (“The Philosopher’s Stone“)

Robert Paul Wolff: In Defense of Anarchism (various formats)

Robert Paul Wolff: Workshop on political philosophy

Comments

  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I submit he failed to apply one of the basic principles of practical morality: When only morally-bad options exist, the most moral option is the least morally-bad option. Under this measure, anarchy is distinctly worse than the existence of some governments.

  2. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#1:
    I submit he failed to apply one of the basic principles of practical morality

    We haven’t really gotten to his argument, yet. It’s possible I made a mistake in my paraphrasing of it – he’s a lot more careful than I am. The bit about “moral obligation” is in reference to the case where the government is not behaving morally, so the autonomous individual chooses to reject its authority. Wolff is going to claim that the autonomous individial always rejects authority, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

    But:
    When only morally-bad options exist, the most moral option is the least morally-bad option

    Where do you come up with that? What about inaction?

    When only morally bad options exist, I can choose to do none of them. You may argue that by inaction, I am making a choice, but that’s going to be tough because I’ll point out that the situation is none of my responsibility.

    For example, if someone claims that choosing to stand by during a trolley-car experiement, I am somewhat responsible for the death of (whichever) then I have to point out that it wasn’t me that created the situation, the moral burden (if there is one) lies with whoever caused the situation to be. I can act or not as I see fit, actually.

    So, the argument that “if you don’t vote for hillary and she loses, you helped trump” thus: it is morally wrong not to vote for hillary, that holds no water. I don’t accept responsibilty for the situation as I discovered it.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    What about inaction?

    Is a form of action.

    I can choose to do none of them.

    That’s still a choice.

    […] I am making a choice, but that’s going to be tough because I’ll point out that the situation is none of my responsibility.

    It’s still a choice, and it still has consequences. The question “who is morally accountable and responsible?” is a separate question. However, that just plays into the analysis of “what is the least morally-bad option available to me?”.

    So, the argument that “if you don’t vote for hillary and she loses, you helped trump” thus: it is morally wrong not to vote for hillary, that holds no water. I don’t accept responsibilty for the situation as I discovered it.

    Not ridiculous on its face, for the reasons you already mentioned. I still disagree with your moral assessments. I might even describe your position as self-serving and narcissistic. Loosely, I understand that position as “I don’t care how bad it gets, as long as no one can (morally) blame me”, which is a position that I find to be self-centered and reprehensible. Having said that, if you believe that your choice to not vote is part of a plausible plan that will make the world into a better place – compared to a plan that involves voting right now for HIllary, in some reasonable time scale (but which may be a different time scale than mine), then my disagreement becomes a mere polite disagreement, potentially a disagreement over facts, and also potentially a disagreement over what constitutes “morally better”.

    All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
    – Paraphrase of a statement that is often attributed to Edmund Burke. The “original” speaker of that statement is probably John Stuart Mill.

  4. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#3:
    Is a form of action.

    Nice quip, but assertion is hardly argument. If you want to argue that, you’re going to have to go against most ethical philosophy that assigns responsibility based on choice and action. That’s a long row to hoe, I suspect.

    Let’s imagine the trolley-cart scenario and the person presented with the hobson’s choice says “I cannot make a morally defensible decision in this circumstance, so I am going to act consistently with not being here at all which means that the situation is going to play itself out as it would had I not been here – that wouldn’t be my fault and neither will my acting as though I am not here. In fact, I am going leaving right now. Bye.”

    The important question seems to me to be that you can’t blame someone for a situation happening exactly the same way as it would if they knew nothing about it – otherwise it’s my fault that I didn’t rescue that child who just stubbed its toe on the train platform in Tokyo – even though I knew nothing about it, was powerless to alter the situation, etc.

    For there to be choice you can blame me for, it has to be a choice that I actually can make. If you present me a situation with multiple “options” none of which are acceptable, you have not given me a choice.

    That’s still a choice.

    Look, the automatic asserting of your position isn’t an argument

    It’s still a choice, and it still has consequences.

    It still has consequences but none of those consequences are going to be a result of a choice that I would make. So it’s not my fault.

    Basically you’re saying you can construct a situation you can always blame me for. That’s not coherent: such a situation is your fault not mine.

    The question “who is morally accountable and responsible?” is a separate question.

    I just explained why I think it’s not.

  5. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    I thought I was clear enough. Apparently not. Let me try again.

    Consider your example: Suppose a boy will die halfway around the world in 2 days time in a tragic accident, and you do not know about it, and you take no actions to stop it. Great. We should all be able to agree that the world would probably be a better place if you picked up the phone at the right time, called the right persons, and prevented that boy’s death. To put it in other words, I don’t care if you knew about it. I don’t care if you’re personally morally responsible or not for making that phone call or not making that phone call. It should be an inarguable moral fact that if you make that phone call and save that boy, then the world will be a better place. that is a very different conversation about whether you have moral responsibility to save that child of whom you know nothing about. That is also a very different conversation about whether it’s even physically possible for you to make that phone call. If you cannot agree to my assertion that saving the life of the boy would lead to a better world, regardless of whether you can and whether you know about the problem, then I think there’s a very serious disconnect, and that further conversation on this topic is probably pointless.

    Do I hold you morally responsible to pick up the phone and save the life of a boy of whom you know nothing about? No. Would the world be better off if you happened to do so, magically? Yes.

    I do not care if you feel morally responsible for voting for Clinton. I don’t care if you have constructed some Kantian or Hobbessian system of rule morality where you have moral responsibility for voting for Clinton. If seems that you will choose to not vote, rather than vote for Clinton, in order to make yourself feel better by absolving yourself of moral responsibility in your own eyes. You have chosen to put more value into your own perceived moral superiority compared to the value that you have placed into actually making the world into a better place. You are specifically choosing an option that has an objectively worse outcome, in order to avoid perceived “moral responsibility”, an abstract personal cost. As best as I can describe that, you’re in “cover your own ass” mode regarding moral responsibility, at the cost of actually making the world into a better place. It’s short-sighted and selfish. At a first degree of approximation, that is part of what I would call “evil” on the “good vs evil” metric.

    The selfless and heroic thing to do would be to take an action that will make the world into a better place even when it will make you seem like the villain in the eyes of others, or at some personal cost. That’s what a noble heroic sacrifice is. That is what is required by the trueism “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing”.

    PS:
    This is also why I’m not an anarchist, and why I’m an ardent supporter of government taxes in order to support a government in order to avoid anarchy (e.g. a situation of no official government). We all bear moral responsibility of supporting the system of extortion, “theft”, and violence that is taxation. As an option, taxation, in conjunction with a proper form of government, leads to a better world compared to the option of “no taxation and no official government”.

  6. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    PPS:
    I don’t have an answer regarding the trolley problem. That is a very large and very complicated problem. At its simplest analysis, I do support the option of killing 1 to save 5 in a highly abstract and idealized scenario, but when one starts discussing implications of this to the real world, one sees that are a great many confounding factors on the consequentialist outlook which greatly complicate and change the analysis, i.e. the scenario of a doctor killing a healthy random person in order to save 5 patients who need separate organ transplants. Context matters.

    PPPS:
    Oh yea, I might have forgotten to mention, but obviously all proper moral systems are consequentialist.
    http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/8903

  7. John Morales says

    EnlightenmentLiberal:

    Oh yea, I might have forgotten to mention, but obviously all proper moral systems are consequentialist.
    http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/8903

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/consequentialism

    Also, what Richard wrote is that “All Your Moral Theories Are the Same”; therefore his actual claim is that all proper moral systems are consequentialist and virtue ethics and deontological. It’s rather silly.

    Do I hold you morally responsible to pick up the phone and save the life of a boy of whom you know nothing about? No. Would the world be better off if you happened to do so, magically? Yes.

    You can’t possibly know that.

  8. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#5:
    Consider your example: Suppose a boy will die halfway around the world in 2 days time in a tragic accident, and you do not know about it, and you take no actions to stop it. Great. […]

    I should not have tried to follow you down that rathole; it was my error because your claim was provocative. I don’t think you have anything like a good argument there, and further it seems to me that you may be moving some goalposts around. But, I’d like to actually discuss the topic at hand, which is a question of political philosophy, not thought-experiments that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. I’m not afraid to argue about those thought experiements; I don’t see how they are relevant, though.

    If you’ll recall, what got us down this rathole was;

    To be legitimate, a state must rationalize its authority with the autonomy of the individual, or the individual is not being a moral actor since they are submitting to the threat of force and can choose to stop doing so at any time. They have a right to choose to stop doing so at any time, indeed they may have a moral obligation to stop doing so, as in the case where a state is aggressive, militaristic, or corrupt.

    This was not an attempt to present a general moral principle; it’s specifically referring to a specific situation in which an autonomous individual may or may not act, with various moral consequences or imperatives, when being compelled by the state.

    So, the idea is that someone may choose to act or not act, but that if the state is trying to compel obedience, their choices are controlled and that limits their responsibility.

    I think that’s how we got confused – I was trying to think of this problem in terms of the moral consequences to an autonomous individual being compelled by the state. So, if you want a trolley car scenario it’d look something like: the secret police put a gun to your head and tell you “you must throw or not throw the lever!” in which case the reply I have been making all along is what Wolff is also arguing: it’s a false dilemma because I don’t bear any responsibility in that situation – it’s the secret police’s responsibility and entirely theirs. That doesn’t mean I won’t find the situation agonizing, but I think most people would agree I was not responsible for either outcome because I was being compelled by the state.

    Does that help?

    If you cannot agree to my assertion that saving the life of the boy would lead to a better world, regardless of whether you can and whether you know about the problem, then I think there’s a very serious disconnect, and that further conversation on this topic is probably pointless.

    I think that further discussion down that rathole would amount to substantially moving the goal-posts. I’d want to reset and rethink. But since it’s really not relevant to the point that I am trying to carry in this posting, can we not do that? For another thing, please remember – I am conveying and analysing Robert Paul Wolff’s position – I am being careful to try not to distort his position by extending it. (That would also be unfair; I’m a form of moral nihilist, and I could hardly argue his position in good faith)

    I’m going to rearrange your comment a bit for convenience… Because you’re inviting a personal opinion and I’d rather not rathole into that until I’m done with the anarchy-related stuff.

    This is also why I’m not an anarchist, and why I’m an ardent supporter of government taxes in order to support a government in order to avoid anarchy (e.g. a situation of no official government). We all bear moral responsibility of supporting the system of extortion, “theft”, and violence that is taxation.

    Taxes and anarchism are not diametrically opposed. Why do you assume that anarchists would oppose a system of sharing “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”? You can call that “taxation” if you wish. It does not necessarily have to be organized into a government, though there are certainly what appear to be problems with human nature that would tend toward government carcinogenesis.

    We all bear moral responsibility of supporting the system of extortion, “theft”, and violence that is taxation.

    I would argue that we don’t. But like Robert Paul Wolff’s autonomous individual (or Epicurus, for that matter!) I might choose to pay the taxes anyway, to avoid conflict that I don’t want to have to deal with, or simply because I acknowledge it as an acceptable means of sharing. That is exactly what Wolff is arguing regarding autonomy: if you pay your taxes because you’re aware that the government is going to take your car and turn you out of your house and maybe shoot you – you’re not acting immorally if the government uses those taxes unfairly. You are, in fact, a victim of the government – you’re not responsible for it.

    You’re trying to make the person who gets mugged responsible for their mugging. Are you sure you want to live in a world like that?

    “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing”.

    “Do” in that context is the crucial word. What does “doing” mean? I submit it means: making a choice. And implicit in the idea of “choice” is that there are alternatives to choose among and that one is not being coerced.

    Now to the rather bizzarely personal bit:
    I do not care if you feel morally responsible for voting for Clinton. I don’t care if you have constructed some Kantian or Hobbessian system of rule morality where you have moral responsibility for voting for Clinton. If seems that you will choose to not vote, rather than vote for Clinton, in order to make yourself feel better by absolving yourself of moral responsibility in your own eyes. You have chosen to put more value into your own perceived moral superiority compared to the value that you have placed into actually making the world into a better place.

    I have not mentioned Clinton at all. I’ve mentioned Clinton in other postings, sure, and I almost always say (somewhere) that I will vote for Clinton because the alternative offered by the two party system is worse. In other words, “WTF are you going on about?”

  9. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#6:
    I don’t have an answer regarding the trolley problem. That is a very large and very complicated problem. At its simplest analysis, I do support the option of killing 1 to save 5 in a highly abstract and idealized scenario, but when one starts discussing implications of this to the real world, one sees that are a great many confounding factors on the consequentialist outlook which greatly complicate and change the analysis, i.e. the scenario of a doctor killing a healthy random person in order to save 5 patients who need separate organ transplants. Context matters.

    That’s why I am not a consequentialist.

    If we had a few hours and lots of beer we could argue about consequentialism and all its many flaws. It seems – from your analysis of the trolley car problem above – that you’re not a consequentialist, either.

    A moral system that pretends to help you decide what’s right and wrong, which doesn’t offer any guidance beyond “do whatever you think is best” is a pretty weak system, I think.

  10. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#6:
    obviously all proper moral systems are consequentialist.
    http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/8903

    Please don’t expect me to try to wade through Carrier’s opinions about moral philosophy. Arrgh, he makes me want to wrench my eyeballs out from a combination of boredom and frustration. That piece you linked to gets lots of stuff wrong, and I can’t tell if it’s dishonest or incompetent; and I’m not sure I want to invest the time to try to figure out and decide. Just a few tidbits of wrong: “nihilists […] think there is no discoverable moral truth” Shows that he doesn’t understand the first thing about what nihilists think. Then he goes into his favorite absurd idea that you can assert there are “moral facts” by deliberately begging the question. I.e.: since all tautologies are true, you can state moral facts as tautologies and they’ll be true.* Arrgh! That’s like a mathematician “proving” that 4 == 6 by multiplying them both by 0 and observing that the outputs are the same, therefore the inputs must be the same. Usually when he is challenged on these points he likes to refer to his book, which is a great strategy because it’s hard to finish, being mostly a poor paraphrase of Philippa Foot, who – in her exposition of virtue ethics – conspicuously admits that she doesn’t really address nihilism but hopes the nihilists will play nice. Or something to that effect. I kept throwing Foot and Carrier across the room every couple pages, which was good exercise I admit. I will say in his favor that Carrier is a viciously tenacious pedant and that’s why I’m inclined not to cross him, simply because I don’t want to have to walk around wearing kevlar gaiters while he chews on my ankle; I’m lazy.

    (* Here’s how you deal with that: your opinions about moral facts are your opinions about moral facts. That doesn’t make them moral facts, that simply means you are reifying your opinions)

  11. says

    John Morales@#7:
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/consequentialism

    That’s great! Why has that avoided my eye so long?

    You can’t possibly know that.

    That’s the needle that pops consequentialism. Poom. Just like that.

    That’s where I got on my weird train of thought that consequentialist moral systems ought to yield the same answer, always, forward and backward in history. I’m still struggling with that one and will probably never figure it out to my satisfaction. But it seems to me that if we acknowledge (for example) that the consequences of slavery are dire, now, consequentialists ought to have figured the same thing out 3 thousand years ago. But they didn’t. Probably because – as you say – they didn’t have any way of actually knowing that the consequences of slavery were dire. Or maybe there were no consequentialists 3 thousand years ago. Or maybe consequentialism actually doesn’t help people build useful moral systems.

  12. chigau (違う) says

    Something in me admires people who can be articulate while under the influence.
    I don’t understand why paragraphs are not involved.

  13. says

    chigau@#12:
    I’m not sure who you’re referring to!
    Surely not Wolff, who is pretty articulate for 80-something (but drinking water)
    Surely not me, because I am sober, struggling to be articulate

  14. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Does that help?

    Yes, but I fear that I am lost. I’ll need to re-read everything in order to resopnd properly to the overall points, but I can respond to some minor points.

    We all bear moral responsibility of supporting the system of extortion, “theft”, and violence that is taxation.

    I would argue that we don’t.

    Agreed. I don’t know why I wrote that.

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#6:
    obviously all proper moral systems are consequentialist.
    http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/8903
    Please don’t expect me to try to wade through Carrier’s opinions about moral philosophy

    That’s why I am not a consequentialist.

    If we had a few hours and lots of beer we could argue about consequentialism and all its many flaws. It seems – from your analysis of the trolley car problem above – that you’re not a consequentialist, either.

    Regarding my analysis of the trolley problem, my analysis is wholly consequentialist. I simply look at more consequences that the short term “one person dies or five people die”. Making a decision, and making the decision official and binding precedent for the future, is another consequence, which itself has many more consequences. I still must side with Carrier’s quite clear and correct analysis of this issue.

    Regardin Carrier’s (potential?) misuse of the word nihilist, while interesting, is irrevalant to this conversation at hand.

    You can’t possibly know that.

    That’s the needle that pops consequentialism. Poom. Just like that.

    As politely as I deem warranted – this is asinine. No one operates with perfect knowledge, and we make decisions all the time. It’s cost benefit analysis. It’s more or less the definition of being a rational agent – performing cost benefit analysis on the basis of incomplete information. So you might get the answer wrong because you made an incorrect probabilistic prediction. How does this invalid consequentialism? I seriously do not understand. Your critique is incoherent to me at this moment.

    Regarding the specific case. I claimed that the world would be better off if we saved that person instead of letting them die. Is the counteragument going to be something of the form “well, he might grow up to be the next Hitler”. I can’t take that argument seriously. For analogy, I also know that the sun will rise tomorow, but there are very, very small odds that it won’t, and I know this too. It seems that you’re demanding perfect 100% infallible confidence and justification in order to be allowed to use the “know” and “knowledge” words, and I object to this is as silly and disingenuous word games.

    I do damn well know that the world will almost assuredly be better off by saving one person compared to letting that one person die, and I refuse to believe that any of you actually think differently. I know that you John Morales and Marcus Ranum also would save a random stranger from certain death. You might briefly consider the “Hitler 2.0” scenario, but I also know that you will determine that the odds of that scenario are miniscule, and I know that you would deem it to be an acceptable risk for the reward, and I know you would save that person. This entire line of argument is flagrantly ridiculous and dishonest.

    A moral system that pretends to help you decide what’s right and wrong, which doesn’t offer any guidance beyond “do whatever you think is best” is a pretty weak system, I think.

    Of course. I made no claim that this is the totality of a moral system, and I would have to be pretty “out of it” in order to pretend to give a complete moral system.

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/consequentialism

    That’s great! Why has that avoided my eye so long?

    That comic gets several things wrong, that I don’t know where to start.

    For one thing, it assumes libertarian free will, which is an incoherent concept. The author needs to read some Dennett, and become a compatibilist.

    For another, it seems to be making the argument that, an innocous motion of my arm might later cause a hurricane which kills thousands of people, and therefore consequentialism is unworkable. I just want to make sure – is that really the argument being put forward? I think it is. It’s hard to take that argument seriously. For starters, it’s missing several implicit steps, and I’m not sure exactly where it’s trying to go.

    As best as I can tell, it relies on the fallacious premise: “if you cannot obtain reliable predictions for all of the consequences of that action for all future time, then there is no value in deciding on actions that are informed by reliable predictions for some of the consequences of that action”. It’s fallacious on its face. “Obtaining some better consequences” is better than not trying at all. Something good is better than nothing.

    Maybe the argument is also relying on the fallacious premise: “if you cannot predict a consequence, then it might be really really bad, and you should value that unknown consequence as infinitely bad”. Of course I also disagree with this ridiculous premise.

  15. John Morales says

    EnlightenmentLiberal:

    I know that you John Morales and Marcus Ranum also would save a random stranger from certain death.

    Sure. But not as some sort of moral imperative, and certainly not on any belief that “the world will almost assuredly be better off”.

    Some time ago, I rescued a sheep trapped in a wire fence. Didn’t have to, it was actually a bit of a hassle. Got lanolin on my hands!

    Point being, I held no consideration about moral issues or consequentialism when I did so.

    (I also evict spiders from my domicile rather than kill them by preference; no specific moral considerations are at hand there, either)

  16. John Morales says

    I feel I should clarify:

    This entire line of argument is flagrantly ridiculous and dishonest.

    Codified morality makes sense in the context of social groups, which is why it’s relevant to political systems; when it comes to personal morality, it is otiose: it has no coercive power in itself, so decent people will still be decent and the other lot will be what they are absent enforcement)

  17. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#15:
    Regarding my analysis of the trolley problem, my analysis is wholly consequentialist. I simply look at more consequences that the short term “one person dies or five people die”. Making a decision, and making the decision official and binding precedent for the future, is another consequence, which itself has many more consequences. I still must side with Carrier’s quite clear and correct analysis of this issue.

    I accept that your analysis is consequentialist. The trolley problem (and problems like it) are constructed to create a very simple (in principle) decision, so that someone can make a decision based on limited reasoning. In other words, it’s a situation constructed for consequentialism – sort of like how the “ticking A bomb” scenarios are created to justify torture. The artificial situation is boiled down to a simple-seeming abstraction.

    Here’s where the problems come in: how do you know which decision is best? What if I tell you that one of the people on the tracks – but I can’t say which – is going to grow up to be the greatest philosopher, ever, who will solve the problem of human misery. You have a 50/50 chance of making the choice that kills them, and they are going to be the most valuable person on Earth in 5 years. Now, you’re not simply weighing the body-count, you’ve got an unknown of importance that dwarfs everything else. Your consequentialist analysis doesn’t help at all, yet the potential future happiness of billions is at stake.

    That’s a hypothetical on a hypothetical but it illustrates John Morales’ point, that you cannot possibly know all the consequences of a choice, or even that there are certain consequences of a choice. The consequentialist pretends to weigh their choices, based on their personal biases, and retcons their reasoning, then pats their own back for a job well done.

    As I see it, there are two ways of dealing with trolley car dilemmas. The easiest is to take the moral nihilists’ stance and say “I may as well flip a coin, but, whatever, I’ll do whatever seems like what I think is the best thing to do at the time, because I want to.” The harder is to reject responsibility for the entire scenario, and pull or not pull the lever, while explaining “this is actually your fault for making me make this decision.”

    Regarding Carrier’s (potential?) misuse of the word nihilist, while interesting, is irrevalant to this conversation at hand.

    Well, yes and no. It’s like someone saying “I am a physicist” and then saying they also have a perpetual motion machine. It’s an indicator that – if they’re a physicist, they’re not a very good one. If someone is presenting what they believe is a category-shattering argument and they make an amateurish flaw in the preamble, it’s a bit hard to take the rest seriously because you’re /facepalming.

    As politely as I deem warranted – this is asinine. No one operates with perfect knowledge, and we make decisions all the time. It’s cost benefit analysis. It’s more or less the definition of being a rational agent – performing cost benefit analysis on the basis of incomplete information. So you might get the answer wrong because you made an incorrect probabilistic prediction. How does this invalid consequentialism? I seriously do not understand. Your critique is incoherent to me at this moment.

    I’ll try. We make decisions without perfect knowledge all the time and we’re comfortable with doing that because we don’t pretend to be able to make a correct assessment of the consequences of our actions. We make a guess. We acknowledge that it’s a guess at best. Since it’s a guess, and it’s based on our personal assessment (which could contain all sorts of biases) I would say at best that it’s an opinion about what’s the best thing to do not the most moral decision. And that’s the problem: you can’t say you have an objective ethical framework if it’s just a bunch of people’s idea of what seems right to them at some given time.

    What if I’m doing the trolley scenario and I instinctively choose one of the paths because there’s a really pretty member of ${preferred_gender} or I have a subconscious racial or gender bias? You can’t say I have a useful objective morality if what I’m really doing is basing my morality on who’s pretty.

    Before you say “then don’t do that” bear in mind that what few social science experiments appear to actually have reliable results all show that humans express subliminal biases everywhere all the time.

    Shorter form:
    It’s cost benefit analysis

    You can’t do cost benefit analysis if you don’t actually know the costs or the benefits. It’s easier to estimate costs but you can only estimate benefits to the degree to which you can accurately predict the future.

    I claimed that the world would be better off if we saved that person instead of letting them die. Is the counteragument going to be something of the form “well, he might grow up to be the next Hitler”. I can’t take that argument seriously. […] I also know that you will determine that the odds of that scenario are miniscule, and I know that you would deem it to be an acceptable risk for the reward, and I know you would save that person. This entire line of argument is flagrantly ridiculous and dishonest.

    I am not being dishonest; you may think I am ridiculous but that’s another matter. I’m being quite serious.

    I might rescue someone because I like to think I’m a nice guy and I’m doing what I think a nice guy would do in that situation. I would agree I am doing some kind of cost/benefit analysis but it’s an extremely close time horizon: “can I rescue that guy without risking myself? Sure. Ok, let’s go!” Cost/benefit is a good way of forming an opinion about what is right to do, if the cost is zero.

    The argument against consequentialism is that the benefit is unknown because you’re making a guess about how the future is going to work out. And we all know that nobody rational expects the future to actually work out the way they expect it to.

    I can’t take that argument seriously.

    I’m OK with that. It’s not my job to convince you that consequentialism is a failure. But if you’re trying to seriously grapple with the question of objective morality, you might want to wonder why pretty much every philosopher who looks at consequentialism raises the objections I’ve raised, and continues to do so. If you can’t take that argument seriously, then I wonder what argument would actually work on you?

    I do damn well know that the world will almost assuredly be better off by saving one person compared to letting that one person die, and I refuse to believe that any of you actually think differently.

    A couple things. I reject your use of the word “know” in that context. I don’t see any way you can claim to know anything about the world being better or worse off to any degree, based on pretty much any action. I can and would agree if you said something like this:
    “It’s my opinion that the world would be better off by saving that one person..”
    because you’re welcome to have your opinion; it doesn’t change anything. It is probably also my opinion, which is probably why I’d save a person if I thought I could do it at no great risk to myself. We all have strong opinions about what’s right and wrong, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    I made no claim that this is the totality of a moral system, and I would have to be pretty “out of it” in order to pretend to give a complete moral system

    If you believe consequentialist reasoning can allow you to know, with a degree of certainty, that a certain decision is right of wrong, then you ought to be able to build a complete moral system from that foundation. Otherwise, why engage in consequentialist reasoning at all?

    You are right to the extent that we base our opinions on our assessment of the consequences of our actions, and we act based on our opinions. That doesn’t, however, equate to a moral system – at best it’s a re-invention of the process of forming opinions.

    For one thing, it assumes libertarian free will, which is an incoherent concept. The author needs to read some Dennett, and become a compatibilist.

    I can’t speak for the author but I have read Dennet, and I think his argument is shallow and facile. It also is subtly destructive of the very thing he purports to be arguing for. In short, Dennet argues that we have a form of free will that is so limited that it’s certainly not what most people think of when they talk about free will, but we have the perception that we make choices that change the world around us, and … therefore we have free will!!! Dennet ignores the completely obvious rejoinder which everyone makes to compatibilism, namely: “You’ve convinced me that you think you have free will. But since you’re basing your argument on your perception that you choose, why are you so convinced that your perception of choice is not an illusion?” I’ll note that people have been making that counter-argument to compatibilists since well before the neurological studies that appear to show that we have brain activity on motor functions for our hand substantially before we report that we “choose” to move our hand. That’s a problem for compatibilism because it renders our perception of choice as merely a perception. It appears that our brain’s higher functions are “along for the ride” and retcon our perception of choice fractions of seconds after some other part of our brain starts our hand moving. Dennet even concludes with the argument that: yes we have free will but it’s probably not the free will you think it is, and it’s maybe not free will worth having. I.e.: it’s not free will.

    Anyhow, that’s all a rat-hole. Don’t assume people haven’t read Dennet, and I would argue against assuming that Dennet is right simply because he wrote some stuff down in a book.

    an innocous motion of my arm might later cause a hurricane which kills thousands of people, and therefore consequentialism is unworkable. I just want to make sure – is that really the argument being put forward? I think it is. It’s hard to take that argument seriously. For starters, it’s missing several implicit steps, and I’m not sure exactly where it’s trying to go.

    Well, yes, I guess it appears to be. You cannot fully understand the consequences of your actions. Consequentialism purports to be a moral system based on projecting the consequences of your actions. How can your inability to understand the consequences of your actions allow you to argue that you can make moral choices based on the consequences of your actions?

    “if you cannot obtain reliable predictions for all of the consequences of that action for all future time, then there is no value in deciding on actions that are informed by reliable predictions for some of the consequences of that action”. It’s fallacious on its face. “Obtaining some better consequences” is better than not trying at all.

    That’s not what I’m arguing. So whether it’s “fallacious on its face” is probably irrelevant.
    I would rephrase that as:
    “Since you cannot understand the consequences of your action, either immediately or in the future, and you cannot reliably predict the consequences of an action, you cannot reason about the consequences of that action. You can, however, form opinions – to some degree or another informed opinions – about an action’s benefits or non-benefits. But you have no realistic expectation that anyone else will form the same opinion in the same situation, therefore your ‘morality’ is indistinguishable from ‘whatever I think is right, right now, is right,’ which is pretty lame.”

    Something good is better than nothing.

    You don’t appear to have any way of knowing what “good” is. You have an opinion about what is good, to you, at a particular moment in time. I’m happy to hear your opinion, in this situation, about what you think I or John Morales or you should do, in this situation. But I may form a completely different opinion for different reasons.

    “if you cannot predict a consequence, then it might be really really bad, and you should value that unknown consequence as infinitely bad”. Of course I also disagree with this ridiculous premise.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that. I am arguing that you actually don’t have a way of valuing unpredictable consequences, therefore claiming to be making moral choices based on potentially inaccurate evaluations of unpredictable consequences isn’t much of a moral system.

  18. says

    John Morales@#16:
    Sure. But not as some sort of moral imperative, and certainly not on any belief that “the world will almost assuredly be better off”.

    Yep, same here. I’d just do it because that’s the kind of thing I’d do in that situation. But I wouldn’t try to convince myself I’d weighed the consequences and made a moral decision.

    When I was 22 or so, I was boarding a subway in Paris and a woman got on behind me with a child in a stroller. The doors started to close with the child and the stroller outside and the woman inside and she was trying frantically to get the stroller un-stuck. Literally, without thinking about it, another guy and I grabbed the doors and wrenched them open just as the train started moving. I can’t speak for the other guy – perhaps he was a consequentialist who weighed the full import of his actions – but I did what I did because that appears to be the kind of thing I do in that situation.

    If someone asks me how I decide what to do, and when, I usually explain things with an aesthetic argument – “it’s how I roll” or “It was fun.” I don’t do that to be dishonest or clever; I actually think it’s the honest response, because it embeds the idea that I’m expressing an opinion. Most of us seem to understand that “fun” is very dependent on our individual preferences/opinions.

    In the case of John Morales’ sheep, I would say “I did it because I like sheep.”
    I probably would even free Donald Trump if I encountered him stuck in barbed wire, but I wouldn’t use my bare hands and I might lecture him a bit while I was doing it, because “I don’t like Donald Trump” I set my decision up as: “I don’t like seeing creatures suffer” versus “I don’t like Donald Trump” and my opinion about what to do might fall in one direction or another. But I’d always rescue the sheep because “I like sheep”

    A consequentialist would be obligated, I imagine, to think through the consequences of rescuing Donald Trump from the barbed wire. I can’t begin to imagine what those consequences might be.

  19. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Wow. We may have insufficient common ground to make any progress.

    Your critique of compatibilism is not compelling. You’re using the libertarian meaning of “choice”, and I believe that there is no such thing. You don’t need choice in that meaning to have morality and to assign morality responsibility. That is the compatibilist position. I reject your premise that we need libertarian choices in order to have morality and moral responsibility.

    As for the other points, it seems like you are doing a critique on all of science and knowledge itself, and reducing every’s scientific knowledge to “mere belief”. It’s like I’m arguing with a Feyerabend follower, or someone who misunderstands Kuhn to argue that science is entirely culturally relative, or something.

    Can you agree whether there are objectively right and wrong answers about whether I’m sitting in a chair? Can you agree whether someone can have sufficient evidence and reason to come to probabilistic but still objectively right beliefs about whether I’m sitting in a chair? Can you agree that if someone from another culture says that I’m not sitting in a chair, when I am sitting in a chair – can you say that this hypothetical person is just objectively, factually, wrong? And course, I’m not asking you to say “I know he’s wrong beyond all possible doubt”, just “I know he’s objectively wrong to an extremely high level confidence, just like I know that the sun will rise tomorrow to a non-absolute but still extremely high level of confidence”.

    PS:
    I am actually horrified by this entire conversation. In my view of the world, your position is an absolute rejection of morality. That’s how wide this gulf is. I’m starting to become scared to be in the same room as you.

  20. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#20:
    Your critique of compatibilism is not compelling

    Like I said, it’s a sidetrack/rathole. This posting was not intended to be a deep review of Dennet. Nor am I actually interested in doing such a thing. So my comment about Dennet was brief and sketchy; it’s not necessary for me to try to refute Dennet at length and I’m probably not interested in doing so – I was simply explaining why I thought Dennet was unconvincing. After all, if he’s arguing that we have something called free will it’s his problem to show it and make that case, not mine.

    You’re using the libertarian meaning of “choice”, and I believe that there is no such thing

    I am not. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to see where I offered a definition of “choice” other than using the word to describe my interpretation of how Dennet uses it. I.e.: using it in a way that allows a form of free will because of a perception of “choice” – I didn’t even get into Dennet’s definition. And from that you say I am using a libertarian meaning of “choice”? I don’t see how you get there.

    You don’t need choice in that meaning to have morality and to assign morality responsibility. That is the compatibilist position.

    Excuse me? The compatibilist position on free will doesn’t say anything about morality at all. It merely argues that there is a form of free will, under certain interpretations of the components of free will. Even Dennet says that, somewhere.

    Now, from a notion of free will, one can say that a person may have responsibility, and so forth, because they are making choices under their will and therefore the consequences of those choices are relevant.

    I’m unconvinced by compatibilist arguments regarding free will, in general, and Dennet’s in particular. If, as a consequence of not accepting compatibilism, you want to say that I also reject the concept of responsibility and choice, you’re probably right. But that’s really a different subject especially since this posting is about Robert Paul Wolff’s idea of individual autonomy not mine. Why don’t you decide what you’re arguing about and who you’re arguing with – you’re probably confusing yourself and you’re definitely confusing me.

    it seems like you are doing a critique on all of science and knowledge itself, and reducing every’s scientific knowledge to “mere belief”

    That’s irrelevant, but I will say I am unconvinced about many things, and I am unconvinced by a lot of arguments including Dennet’s compatibilism (for reasons I explained) And, no, I am NOT doing a critique of all science and knowledge, I am discussing Robert Paul Wolff’s idea of “autonomous individuals” and I am unconvinced by certain arguments including many of those from Richard Carrier and Dan Dennet.

    Besides, a critique of science and knowledge would probably require me to take a dogmatic position of asserting something contradictory, like that I knew knowledge was impossible, and I’m going to try to avoid making a mistake like that.

    Can you agree whether there are objectively right and wrong answers about whether I’m sitting in a chair?

    You mean, by “objectively” that you and I would share a perception that you’re sitting in a chair? I’d have to be in the room with you, for starters.

    Can you agree whether someone can have sufficient evidence and reason to come to probabilistic but still objectively right beliefs about whether I’m sitting in a chair?

    I think you can probably have those beliefs. But I don’t know whether you’re mistaken or not, how could I?

    And why are my beliefs relevant? I was trying to discuss Robert Paul Wolff’s beliefs, not mine or yours.

    “I know he’s objectively wrong to an extremely high level confidence, just like I know that the sun will rise tomorrow to a non-absolute but still extremely high level of confidence”.

    So you are willing to equate high probability with knowledge? Why not simply deal with the probabilities? If you believe there is a 90% chance you are sitting in a chair, you could merely announce that you believe there is a 90% chance you are sitting in a chair. Yay. Or, as the pyrronian skeptics would have said, “It appears to me now that I am sitting in a chair.” You’d seem to be more likely to be right if you did that, and you wouldn’t have to worry about making claims to some objective truth of chairness and sitting and knowing about chairness and sitting and you.

    I didn’t intend this posting to be about epistemology 101. But, yes, it’s inevitable that we get there when you start talking about concepts like consequentialism, which makes claims of knowledge that it doesn’t appear to be able to support. But, as I have pointed out repeatedly, I am not trying to make such claims; I’m discussing my interpretation of Robert Paul Wolff, and not trying to offer a moral system of my own.

    You appear to be extrapolating from my comments about Robert Paul Wolff to what you believe about my beliefs, and then attacking my beliefs. And you find my beliefs off-putting?

    I am actually horrified by this entire conversation. In my view of the world, your position is an absolute rejection of morality. That’s how wide this gulf is. I’m starting to become scared to be in the same room as you.

    Take a deep breath or two, and try to remain calm. Stay focused and don’t worry about my beliefs, OK?

    By the way, you’ve just made the same epistemology 101 mistake Carrier makes in that article you referenced: you appear to be assuming that being unconvinced by particular arguments regarding certain moral systems that I, therefore, am adopting a “position [that] is an absolute rejection of morality” Going from “Marcus sees and points out glaring flaws in consequentialism” to “EEEK! ABSOLUTE REJECTION OF MORALITY!” is a stretch. The epistemology 101 mistake you and Carrier appear to make is that nihilists make a dogmatic claim that there is no morality. Nihilists are often extreme skeptics (and there are a whole spectrum of nihilisms!) and many withhold judgement about the moral systems they have encountered, because they’re unconvinced by them. Making an assertion such as the straw-man nihilism (“there is no morality!”) would be implying they are convinced there is no morality, which is a very different position from being unconvinced by particular moral systems.

    Maybe you should not worry so much about my moral system. Especially because you appear to know nothing about it, and therefore have no knowledgeable basis for concern.

  21. John Morales says

    EnlightenmentLiberal, you did open the comments with a digression. The OP was about the distinction between authority and power, and the observation was that the State’s authority actually derives from its power.

    BTW, here’s an utopian anarchist society: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture

    (Shame it’s fictional — who wouldn’t want to live there?)

  22. says

    John Morales@#23:
    In passing, the very term ‘anarchy‘ is a privative, like the term ‘atheist’.

    That’s a new word for me! Thank you, I have uploaded it to my vocabulary.

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