Anthony de Jasay on liberalism, democracy and conventions

Despite losing his eyesight, Anthony de Jasay still publishes some of the most thought-provoking papers in social philosophy. In a recent article for the Institute of Economic  Affairs, de Jasay inspects the foundations of liberalism and observes that:

In contrast to made law whose legitimacy is ultimately hypothetical, vulnerable to logic and cannot be confirmed, rules that arise spontaneously have the great strength of being immune to problems of legitimacy…The liberal principle of ownership is neither derived from nor enforced by any authority. Its content is a set of liberties the owner may employ, notably the liberty of use, usufruct, contract and disposition.

Building on these Humean concepts of justice, de Jasay is clear that liberalism, properly conceived, is not compatible with government and political democracy:

The term ‘liberal democracy’ has in recent decades become the standard way to refer to the liberal form of government. The first principles of liberalism are fully compatible only with ordered anarchy, a spontaneously emerging framework of conventional rules. Even imperfectly liberal orders are biased towards small government. Democracy has historically been associated with a dynamic, expansionary area of collective choice, in the shape of big government. Coupling ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ could hardly be more incongruous than ‘smallbig government’….Whether by conviction or by dire need, democratic governments are condemned by political competition constantly to press against the frontier that divides individual from collective choices. They must willy-nilly swallow up and regurgitate a part of the resources produced by society, a part large enough to attract a winning coalition in the face of competition by rivals similarly seeking to form a winning coalition.

In his recent publications de Jasay more explicitly contrasts the role of conventions with government-made law and contractarian approaches to justice. In one of his strongest essays to date, “Fairness as Justice,” he critically reviews game theorist Ken Binmore’s book Natural Justice and highlights the difference between bargaining and conventions and its consequences for the doctrine of fairness:

While bargaining solutions presuppose an intent to agree, conventions are adhered to without anybody agreeing with anybody else. Nobody intends to initiate them. They may be imagined to start from some random bunching of behaviour into a patterned subset within a patternless set of behaviour of the population…Justice in compliance with spontaneously emerging self-enforcing rules supersedes unenforced considerations of fairness; it does all the work in its sphere and leaves none over for fairness.

“Fairness as Justice” is included in Anthony de Jasay’s most recent collection of essays, Political Philosophy Clearly: Essays On Freedom And Fairness, Property And Equalities.

Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

Jim Crawford against natural rights

Jim Crawford’s autobiographical antinatalist manifesto Confessions of an Antinatalist(review here) contains an illuminating perspective on the idea of natural rights:

Concurrent with our wish to understand the human condition through over-simplification is our tendency to ground human desire and behavior in ‘natural rights.’ Such ‘rights’ are often gleaned, reasonably, from empathic awareness of the human condition. Where proponents get off track is when they assume these rights are imbedded in the very fabric of existence, like the laws of gravity or motion. To really get a grip on the fundamental difference between laws and rights, one only has to ask: when was the last time anyone had to enforce gravity? To understand human rights as something above and beyond a status granted by authority–or, conversely, the refusal of authority to interfere in what people want to do–is simply an attempt to elevate authority to the abstract. In a sense, it’s the canonization of the human condition. “This is it! This is good! There’s nothing more to be said!” It’s not so much a reflection of reality, as an attempt to make reality conform to a particular moral structure to settle ontological questions.

There is nothing more representative of this tendency than Austro-Libertarianism in which both economics and morality are placed outside of the realm of empirical investigation. In such views morality is not something that has evolved from the ground up to facilitate coordination and mutual advantage between people but a set of moral imperatives that is deduced from concepts such as “human nature”, “reason” or “action.” Historically, such approaches have been a formidable obstacle to the development of the natural sciences and experimental investigation of human conduct.

An important question when evaluating moral and political philosophy is whether it can be reconciled with what experimental science has discovered about human nature. It is striking how often the answer is “no” in the case of rationalist philosophy. One of the most notorious and embarrassing examples  is Ayn Rand’s discussion of free will. One can only wonder how much progress would have been made if such thinkers would have abstained from scholasticism and would have engaged with the relevant empirical sciences instead.

Thomas Ligotti, Karl Popper and antinatalism

In his recently published non-fiction work The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror the contemporary horror writer Thomas Ligotti takes Karl Popper’s “negative utilitarianism” to its ultimate conclusion:

One who did not balk entirely was the Austrian-born British philosopher Karl Popper, who in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) did have a thing or two to say about human suffering. Briefly, he revamped the Utilitarianism of the nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness.” Popper remolded this summation of a positive utilitarianism into a negative utilitarianism whose position he handily stated as follows: “It adds to clarity in the fields of ethics, if we formulate our demands negatively, i.e. if we demand the elimination of suffering rather than the promotion of happiness.” Taken to its logical and most humanitarian conclusion, Popper’s demand can have as its only end the elimination of those who now suffer as well as “counterfactual” beings who will suffer if they are born. What else could the “elimination of suffering” mean if not is total abolition, and ours? Naturally, Popper held his horses well before suggesting that to eliminate suffering would demand that we as a species be eliminated. But as R.N. Smart famously argued (Mind, 1958), this is the only conclusion to be drawn from Negative Utilitarianism. (p.73)

It is not likely that Popper would have agreed with such an antinatalist interpretation of his work but we should not be surprised about it. Such unintended consequences are basically implied in ethical views that seek to maximize a value or state of affairs for humanity as a whole. It inevitably leads to a teleological concept of society and tortuous attempts to construct some kind of optimal social welfare function where the suffering of one person is weighed against the suffering of another person. Not surprisingly, Popper followed his ethical views with his idea of “piecemeal social engineering” to generate a “social technology” to improve the world.

An alternative to Popper’s “negative utilitarianism” and “piecemeal social engineering” would be to think about ethics  and politics “from the ground up” as Thomas Hobbes attempted:

Hobbes’s contemporaries understood politics as something descended from the ages or the heavens, but Hobbes built politics from the ground up. Self-interested individuals, craving protection for their lives, contracted to create sovereign states.

In this view morality is not the imposition of a set of values that a particular person happens to like but a mechanism to coordinate activity between humans. Contemporary Hobbesian philosophers like David Gauthier and Jan Narveson do not seem to agree with Hobbes about the necessity of Big Government (or in the case of Narveson, the need for Government at all) but Hobbes’ secular conception of morality as mutual advantage remains intact.

Thomas Hobbes was considered an atheist and reductionist by his enemies:

Hobbes’s snide irreligion, once the main complaint against him, may now commend him to those who perpetually fear the supposed return of theocracy. His tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts flatters our present eagerness to explain every aspect of human conduct in biological terms. Hobbes was also acutely suspicious of democracy. He considered it a breeder of faction

In light of Ligotti’s book it should also be noted that Thomas Hobbes was  a determinist (albeit not a “hard determinist”). As such, the Hobbesian enterprise can also be conceived as a project to explain how social norms emerge and change.

As for suffering, most people do not think that a life that includes suffering is not worth continuing, or creating, but look at  other interests and the quality of life as a whole as well. As antinatalists like David Benatar have argued, quality of life is not just a simple matter of subtracting (expected) negative things in life from (expected) positive things in life. But such an argument can be developed in both a pessimist and an optimist direction – two possibilities that do not receive equal treatment in Benatar’s work.

Hard determinism and the problem of evil

In an insightful and well organized article (PDF) Nick Trakakis asks the question whether the existence of evil presents a bigger problem for theologies that do not allow any room for free will. He offers a number of theodicies that are available to the “divine determinist” and concludes that although hard determinism introduces complications, these complications are not greater than alternative theological views that permit God less control over His creation. The article is also relevant for non-theists because some of the theodicies can be restated as secular “justifications” or “explanations” of the existence of evil as well.

A problematic section in the article is the use the author makes of the distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil.” He seems to believe that the existence of normal or routine evil can be accommodated in divine determinism but that “horrendous evil” is much harder to justify. In this article the author concedes that a “skeptical theist” can simply argue that humans are not equipped with complete knowledge and should restrain from applying human moral standards to God’s creation. But it seems that the existence of “horrendous evil” can be made compatible with orthodox Calvinist theology as well. One could argue that “horrendous evil” is used in some circumstances to “shatter one’s presumption of self-sufficiency” and “inflated sense of one’s moral worth” to “instill…a sense of absolute dependence on God.” One might even argue that those who are broken down in this way are among the elect that will receive divine grace. The “dehumanizing” aspect of horrendous evil does not necessarily seem to be  at odds with but even supportive of such a Calvinist perspective.

The distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil” itself is too arbitrary to decide which theodicies are credible and which are not. One problematic aspect is its historical nature. As humanity morally matures we should expect to broaden our conception of what constitutes horrendous evil. It is also striking that most of the examples the author gives involve many people suffering the same fate. One could argue that the suffering of many people is a greater evil for the individual that suffers and others but one could just as well argue that this characteristic provides consolation and closure. The distinction between “evil” and “horrendous evil” is not powerful enough to dismiss most of the theodicies that allow for “just” evil.

The real objective of the article is to argue that free-will based theodicies do not have an easier task on their hands. One may believe that Supralapsarian Calvinists have achieved logical consistency at the price of conceiving God as the Author of Sin, but they can at least rejoice in not having to solve the many weird consequences that follow if God and free will are presumed to co-exist. Not to speak of the formidable difficulty of making a coherent or empirical case for the existence of free will as such.

From a secular perspective the existence of evil is easier to explain.  Organic molecules bump into each other in all kinds of physically permissible ways and it is no surprise that there will be joy and that there will be pain.  The “transhumanist” would like to assume more control over this process to alter the balance between good and evil. Theological perspectives about the role of pain and suffering, or how to live in a world without free will, are quite relevant when undertaking such an ambitious project.

Anything that’s peaceful

Libertarians spend a non-trivial amount of time arguing for the obvious. At best, such arguments are redundant because there is no widespread believe that violence or threats of violence are a good thing. At worst, these debates hurt the prospects for a society with less violence because theories about the existence of  “natural rights” are rightly a source of  ridicule. The idea that “rights” just exist out there in the world without actual individuals engaging in contracts to establish rights is not going to persuade anyone with a sober mind.  In that sense, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and the (early) Robert Nozick did not do the renaissance of classical liberalism a favor.

A similar problem is encountered with terms like “liberty” and “freedom.” There have been extensive debates about the meaning of liberty as if there is a God-given “real” meaning of the word that just lies out there waiting to be discovered. Many libertarians would argue that we should seek a free society. But as Anthony de Jasay has noted, “The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive. ”

“Consequentialist” libertarians have rejected the emphasis of “moralist” libertarians on (absolute) rights and liberty and have argued for evaluating public policies in light of their consequences. Liberty founder R.W. Bradford (1947-2005) repeatedly held the moralist libertarians responsible for the poor acceptance of libertarianism.  But it is hard to see why conventional consequentialist libertarianism would do much better. Most people do not come into this world seeking to optimize some kind of social welfare function or overall efficiency. In this sense consequentialist libertarianism is even further removed from reality – a point that has been well recognized by former utilitarians like Jan Narveson.

A small minority of libertarians have hopes of reconciling egoism and libertarianism. These authors often spend considerable time making the case for ethical egoism. For people who tend to look at such questions from the perspective of empiricism and modern science such investigations are rather excessive. The interesting question is not so much whether there are objective moral truths but what happens when people who have left such beliefs behind interact.  This question can be approached from a Hobbesian perspective or from an evolutionary perspective. But what often is discovered is a general desire to discourage and prohibit violence.

It is not likely that Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard will be remembered for their breakthroughs in moral philosophy but what these authors have in common is their identification of classical liberalism with non-aggression. This re-conceptualization of classical liberalism has been an important breakthrough because it enables to see things like “regulation” and “public policy” in fairly non-ambiguous physical terms. If one strips away all the rhetoric about “rights” and “democracy” one is left with a State that mostly engages in violence and threats of violence against peaceful people. One of the major contributions of modern libertarians has been to show this is the case – even when the State only claims a  “monopoly on violence” to solve public goods problems.

Contra libertarians such as R.W. Bradford, the desire for peace is neither outdated nor ineffective. People may differ on the importance of “negative” or “positive” liberty or growing “the economy” but few people go out in public  speaking out in favor of violence against the innocent. The main task of libertarians is not to look for “justifications” or “foundations” but the demystifying of the State and the defense of anything that’s peaceful.

The theological orientation of philosophy

In spite of the empiricist trend of modern science, the quest for certainty, a product of the theological orientation of philosophy, still survives in the assertion that some general truths about the future must be known if scientific predictions are to be acceptable.  It is hard to see what would be gained by the knowledge of such general truths…How does it help to know that similar event patterns repeat themselves, if we do not know whether the pattern under consideration is one of them? In view of our ignorance concerning the individual event expected, all general truths must appear as illusory supports.  The aim of knowing the future is unattainable; there is no demonstrative truth informing us about future happenings. Let us therefore renounce the aim, and renounce, too, the critique that measures the attainable in terms of that aim.

Hans Reichenbach – The Theory of Probability (1949)

Hans Reichenbach on empiricism

“The crisis of empiricism, expressed in David Hume’s scepticism, was the product of a misinterpretation of knowledge and vanishes for a correct interpretation – such is the outcome of a philosophy grown from the soil of modern science. The rationalist has not only presented the world with a series of untenable systems of speculative philosophy – he had also poisoned the empiricist interpretation of knowledge by inducing the empiricist to strive for unattainable aims. The conception of knowledge as a system of statements that are demonstrable as true had to be overcome by the evolution of science before a solution of the problem of predictive knowledge could be found. The search for certainty had to die down within the most precise of all sciences of nature, within mathematical physics, before the philosopher could account for scientific method.”

From: Hans Reichenbach: Rationalism and Empiricism (1947)

David Stove and the Plato cult

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personality traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

James Burnham on liberalism and decline

James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism proposes the thesis that modern liberalism is the ideology of a society in decline; its doctrines motivate and justify the contraction of Western civilization and reconciles us to it.

In the chapter “Liberalism vs. Reality” Burnham observes that liberals feel uncomfortable about power and force. Liberals are reluctant to use force against  ordinary criminals (which are, after all, just “victims” of an unjust society) but feel little hesitation to use it against those who are productive and successful.

It is not that liberals, when they enter the governing class…never make use of force; unavoidably they do, sometimes to excess. But because of their ideology they are not reconciled intellectually and morally to force. They therefore tend to use it ineptly, at the wrong times and places, against the wrong targets, in the wrong amounts.

Although Burnham ends his book by considering the possibility of a reversal of modern liberalism, the section that precedes it reads as follows:

Liberalism permits Western civilization to be reconciled to dissolution; and this function its formulas will enable it to serve right through to the very end, if matters turn out that way: for even if Western civilization is wholly vanquished or altogether collapses, we or our children will be able to see that ending, by the light of the principles of liberalism, not as a final defeat, but as the transition to a new and higher order in which Mankind as a whole joins in a universal civilization that has risen above the parochial distinctions, divisions and discrimination of the past.