Albert Jay Nock on the origin of the state

In his article “Anarchist’s Progress” the writer Albert Jay Nock dryly observes that many authors have speculated about the origins and legitimacy of the State but that few of them actually bothered to investigate how states come into being and survive.

So I set about finding out what I could about the origin of the State, to see whether its mechanism was ever really meant to work in any other direction; and here I came upon a very odd fact. All the current popular assumptions about the origin of the State rest upon sheer guesswork; none of them upon actual investigation. The treatises and textbooks that came into my hands were also based, finally, upon guesswork. Some authorities guessed that the State was originally formed by this-or-that mode of social agreement; others, by a kind of muddling empiricism; others, by the will of God; and so on. Apparently none of these, however, had taken the plain course of going back upon the record as far as possible to ascertain how it actually had been formed, and for what purpose. It seemed that enough information must be available; the formation of the State in America, for example, was a matter of relatively recent history, and one must be able to find out a great deal about it. Consequently I began to look around to see whether anyone had ever anywhere made any such investigation, and if so, what it amounted to.

I then discovered that the matter had, indeed, been investigated by scientific methods, and that all the scholars of the Continent knew about it, not as something new or startling, but as a sheer commonplace. The State did not originate in any form of social agreement, or with any disinterested view of promoting order and justice. Far otherwise. The State originated in conquest and confiscation, as a device for maintaining the stratification of society permanently into two classes — an owning and exploiting class, relatively small, and a propertyless dependent class. Such measures of order and justice as it established were incidental and ancillary to this purpose; it was not interested in any that did not serve this purpose; and it resisted the establishment of any that were contrary to it. No State known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose than to enable the continuous economic exploitation of one class by another.

Nock’s observation still applies to much of what we call political philosophy. There is no shortage of ideas about what the State should do but there is little interest in what it actually does and how that might constrain what we can reasonably expect from it. Such an attitude would strike us as an odd approach in science but when the topic involves human interaction strange assumptions about the malleability of humans and institutions guide the mind.

Nock’s complete article is available here.

Into the Darkness

In 1940 the American author Lothrop Stoddard published an account of wartime Nazi Germany called “Into the Darkness.” Although the book is supposed to be an objective account, it is not difficult to note the restraint the author needs to exercise to not be more critical, if not scathing, about many aspects of the Nazi regime. But with a few exceptions, the style of the book is clinical and dry, which make his descriptions of the effects of the Nazi economy even bleaker.

Because Stoddard devotes a lot of space to describe Germany as it is experienced by the average German family, we learn a lot about the  effects of the socialist war economy on the freedom and wealth of its citizens. Stoddard wrote his account in 1939 and one can only imagine the devastation the socialist war state was about to inflict on its citizens when the accumulated effects of socialism,  repression, war, and international isolation fully materialized. As such, Stoddard’s book makes a good empirical companion to Ludwig von Mises’ “Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. (1944),” a classical liberal critique of Nazi Germany.

The title of the book refers both to the perception of Nazi Germany in the US and the war imposed blackouts. The blackouts, the winter cold, and the shortages of even the most basic necessities (let alone luxury goods) do not always produce a content journalist. It is telling that when the author expresses sincere enthusiasm, it is when he leaves Nazi Germany for neutral Hungary:

“Until we reached the border, of course, the windows were kept tightly curtained. Then the train stopped, started, stopped once more. Cautiously I peeked past a corner of the curtain. We were in a brilliantly lighted station bearing the big neon sign Hegyeshalom. On the platform stood policemen and railway officials in strange uniforms. Through the uncurtained windows of the station I could see a restaurant with counters laden with foodstuffs. I was in Hungary–a land of peace and plenty! Standing up in my compartment, I gave three loud Ellyens! Which is Magyar for Hooray!

To enter Hungary from wartime Germany is literally to pass from darkness into light. The sense of this grew upon me with every kilometer the train made toward Budapest, the Hungarian capital….Another wonder was the approach to Budapest–a great city twinkling and sparkling with lights. To one fresh from blacked-out Germany, it seemed like fairyland.”

In the final chapter the author reflects:

There are so many genial aspects of American life which we thoughtlessly take for granted until we are suddenly deprived of them and are plunged into alien surroundings where we have to fuss and plan and almost fight to get the bare necessities of existence.

Common political fallacies

In Cato Journal, Volume 28, No. 1 (Winter 2008), the independent scholar Anthony de Jasay reviews four common fallacies (as presented in the works of John Stuart Mill, Ronald Dworkin, John Rawls, and Armen Alchian) that many social scientists and political journalists keep repeating without rigorous analysis.

The first fallacy is that production should be governed by the laws of economics, but that distribution needs to be decided by society. As de Jasay points out,

“Output is distributed while it is produced. Wage earners get some of it as wages in exchange for their efforts; owners of capital get some of it as interest and rent in exchange for past saving. Entrepreneurs get the residual as profit in exchange for organization and risk bearing. By the time the cake is “baked,” it is also sliced and those who played a part in baking it have all got their slices. No distributive decision is missing, left over for “society” to take.”

Although these slices can be distributed again by society, this will constitute a secondary redistribution, usually involving coercion.

The second fallacy is that the aim of public policy should not be equality of outcomes, but equality of opportunity. Such “equality at the starting gate” assumes that equality of opportunity and equality of outcome can be separated. But unless opportunities are equalized at the point where acquired advantages are at a minimum (at birth), maximizing equality of opportunity would require stripping away the advantages people have acquired before the starting gate, and continuous intervention in outcomes to equalize opportunities between generations.

The third fallacy is that in a just society individuals must have a right to the greatest possible liberty compatible with the same liberty for all. As de Jasay has pointed out in detail in his writings, the proviso “compatible with the same for others” is meaningless because it is without substance. In its current form it means that I am at liberty to do anything I want (including violence and theft), provided others have the same liberty as well. Clearly, this is not what advocates of this position intended. More troubling to de Jasay is the fact that liberty is presented as a “right”:

“What is deeply worrying about this thoughtless misuse of the word “right” is that it can be straightened out at a single stroke by simply assuming that every feasible act is prohibited unless we are somehow granted a “right” to perform it, in which case it becomes a liberty. It takes a right to lift it out of the universe of prohibitions.”

The fourth fallacy is that society has a right to modify, transfer and revoke property because property rights are granted and defended by “society.” As has been discussed in the first fallacy about production and distribution, redistributing property would be tantamount to ignoring the fact that all who have helped to produce property have already been remunerated in the process. As in the case of a “right to liberty”, the “right to” part is redundant:

“Like all liberties, the kind we call property exists and is exercised within the rules that prohibit certain wrongs (torts). Staying as it does inside the rules, it needs no separate right to exist and be exercised. Nor does it make sense to think of an obligation imposed on all not to do against property what the rules prohibit them from doing anyway.”

Anthony de Jasay: Parrot Talk: The Repetition of Common Fallacies (PDF)

Rights: nonsensical, empirical and hypothetical

If there is one thing that characterizes contemporary political discourse, and contemporary political liberalism in particular, it is the obsession with “rights.” Individual rights are absolute, or “trumps,” that do not permit to be overridden by collective goals, and can only be defeated by another trump. But since every right implies a corresponding obligation (a cost), increasing the number of rights we have also increases the number of obligations. If many of these rights are perceived to be equally important, or to be weighed differently in different circumstances, the scope and depth of collective choice will expand and creation and enforcement of rights will come to reflect the moral and political fashions of the day. Of course, this will largely defeat the trump-like nature that rights were supposed to have in the first place.

The fundamental question is where these “rights” come from in the first place. Rights are supposed to be “self-evident,” can be deduced from God’s will, the logic of reason, or the nature of man, etc. Unfortunately, attempts to find a solid foundation for rights have not been very fruitful, and even philosophers that agree on the same foundation for rights have often derived wildly different conclusions about the nature of those rights. But despite the failure to find objective evidence (either empirical or logical) for the existence of rights, “rights-talk” increasingly dominates public discourse. This is not just confined to modern “egalitarian” liberalism but has been a dominant feature of libertarianism as well, as evidenced by the writings of Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, and the early Robert Nozick.

How do we reconcile the popularity of “rights-talk” with the lack of evidence for the existence of rights? The most obvious explanation is that by presenting an individual preference in the form of a “right” we depersonalize the nature of the claim. The “right” element confers credibility because it evokes truth, not individual preference. This effect is further enhanced by the fact that historically a lot of rights were assumed to be “self-evident” or derived from God’s will. The liberal philosopher Anthony de Jasay notes that the popularity of rights may be explained by its feature of hiding its redistributive nature and costs:

“‘Rights’ survive and crowd ‘goals’ out of circulation even if both convey the same substantive message, because rights-talk cheers and gratifies all who are accorded rights by it, and threatens no one overtly. Goals, on the other hand, unless they are innocuous, usually suggest not only the promise of something beneficial, but also the cost of attaining it, the effort it takes, and sometimes (in the case of visibly redistributive goals) an implication that if some gain by it, others must lose. Rights-as-goals are presumably easier to propagate and fitter to survive in the public consciousness than goals tout court.” (Anothony de Jasay, Choice, Contract, Consent: A Restatement of Liberalism)

Right can exist in an empirical sense when they reflect a contract between individuals to perform or refrain from certain actions. But in this case rights follow from actual agreement. The evidence that such rights exist can be found in a (written) agreement. And the existence of such rights is usually confirmed by both parties because it is advantageous for them to accept the benefits and obligations of the agreement. The situation is different in the case of rights that do not reflect (implicit) agreement by the individuals who have to incur obligations and costs. Anthony de Jasay notes that “a ‘rights-based’ political theory in general, and rights-liberalism in particular, is losing determinacy and self-restraint when it loses sight of where the burden of proof lies.”

The existence of specific rights and obligations are often defended with the argument that they reflect a “social contract,” similar to a contract between two individuals. A major weakness of this line of thinking is, of course, that such a contract has never been agreed to in reality. This would not necessarily present a major obstacle in case the rights involved would be minimal and non-distributive, but most modern rights do not have this characteristic. For example, an agreement to abstain from harming someone can be complied with by doing nothing, but an agreement that says that “every person has a right to food and shelter” comes with far reaching obligations that will not likely generate universal agreement.

Some modern liberal philosophers (such as John Rawls) do not prefer a social contract so “trivial” and claim that more extensive rights can be justified by means of an hypothetical contract in which rights are derived behind a “veil of ignorance” in which individuals are deprived of information about the individuating characteristics of the citizens they represent. This raises the question of what the relationship is (or should be) between such agreements and what actual individuals would agree to in real life. The reason why such hypothetical agreements should create moral (and legal) obligations in real life is that they correspond (or should correspond) to our conception of justice. Unfortunately, such a justification runs into the same problems as the more straightforward derivation of rights earlier; it lacks objective empirical or logical content. So far the only credible attempt to derive rights (or explain their existence) from non-moral premises is found in Hobbesian contractarianism as represented by Thomas Hobbes, David Gauthier and Jan Narveson.

Andy Nowicki’s Considering Suicide

Andy Nowicki’s book ‘Considering Suicide’ belongs to, what I would call, the cultural alienation genre. Nowicki’s alienation is not of the Marxist variety that rails against division of labor and harbors the juvenile desire that all work should be play. No, Nowicki is fundamentally not at home in this world and believes that everything that makes life worth living has been lost to a meaningless, shallow and vulgar culture. People with Nowicki’s beliefs and temperament have a real problem. They have nowhere to go. To Nowicki, this culture is of such a universal and invading nature that the only choice is to endure it or live outside modern civilization itself. In this predicament, it is not surprising that the author considers the question of suicide.

As a self-identified “Catholic reactionary” there is an obvious problem about committing suicide. The author discusses a number of arguments in favor of suicide and  ultimately dismisses them. If suicide is to make a statement, there is the real possibility that after the heroic act is executed no one cares, and those who do, only briefly.  Nevertheless, Nowicki writes that “what I want is for them to know is that I haven’t settled for the lie that life is worth living in a choose-your-own-meaning culture.” But I doubt this makes a strong case for suicide. The rest of the world still doesn’t care and, for respectable Epicurean reasons, the author will not experience this gratification himself.  Most people will not even understand what the author would be trying to convey. Many people are not obsessed with the decay of today’s culture, suffering or death. In a moment of real clarity the author asks, “is the luckiest person the one who dies in such a profound state of ignorance?” At least since Erasmus wrote ‘The Praise of Folly’, the answer is “yes.” The only credible reason to commit suicide that survives scrutiny is the straightforward determination that the the pain of life outweighs its pleasures. But even in this case, most people still have a hardwired instinct to survive.

Let me entertain two arguments that could provide counterweight to the author’s deep desperation and pessimism. The first is a logical argument about meaning. It does not make sense to apply the word “meaning” to existence as such. Just like it does not make sense to search for categorical imperatives. The existence of God does not end the quest for ultimate meaning.  The most coherent Christian theology (orthodox Calvinism) arrives at the conclusion that we exist for God’s self glorification. And then what? Does this satisfy our thirst for “meaning?”

I doubt Mr. Nowicki is a Marxist. If he were, he could argue that all the unfair and ugly things in the world are interrelated and reinforcing and reality is exhausted by them. But we are fortunate that reality defies such determinism. A decadent political system can co-exist with the most beautiful expressions of art. Great technical progress can co-exist with dumb ideas about economics and public policy. An impoverished and crude  mainstream culture does not exclude longer and healthier lifespans. It is tempting and easy to think that all imaginable bad things in life come bundled, but there is little evidence that this is the case.

If these arguments do not persuade, I think there are two real possibilities: (1) the suffering of the person is not dependent on his environment but reflects an unfavorable physiological state of the brain, which may be mitigated by pharmacological treatment; or (2) the person’s suffering is of an abstract existential nature. Here the problem is not contemporary life but the fabric of the universe, and our awareness of it, as such. At that point we enter the nihilistic and Godless universe of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Liggotti. Since the writer is a self-identified “Catholic Reactionary” I do not think we should go there but I sometimes have the impression that Nowicki wants to have his nihilist cake and eat the bread of Christ too.  For example, in chapter 7 the author ponders the question of God’s sovereignty and it is not clear to me whether he is converting to Calvinism (or Augustinianism) in this chapter or expressing serious doubts about his own religion.

To Nowicki, death “comes to everyone” and is a source of despair. He writes that  “the Carpe Diem” attitude quickly makes one miserable, for the very reason that one can only seize the day for so long.” The view that everything is futile when life is ultimately futile has a strong following. On the other hand,  the view that is it exactly death that gives meaning to life (see humanist death apologetics) has a strong following as well. The, otherwise not very enlightening, neo-Marxist Herbert Marcuse rejects this alleviation of death from a contingent natural feature of life to something that gives or takes away meaning:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…

Aging or death is not a biological necessity and cryopreservation of the brain after legal death may even allow people who are given up by contemporary medicine to benefit from a second opinion from a future medical professional. Our habit of burning or burying a person that is “dead” by contemporary medical criteria gives the question of what it means to be “pro-life” a whole new meaning.

Nowicki has also written a book about the psychology of liberalism, and if his his observations in ‘Considering Suicide’ about contemporary politics are an indication, this should be well worth reading. He holds a special animosity for modern liberals and contemporary intellectuals who practice ethnomasochism to signal their own moral superiority and use the threat of “hate” to pursue their own power-hungry and hateful agenda:

“No one hates the way hate-haters hate ; no one is more dishonest about his intentions or in his overall self-representation than one who loudly proclaims that his goal is to rid the world of “hate.” Those who profess to hate “hate,” who cannot tolerate “intolerance,” seem capable of anything. More on point, they are capable of justifying anything.   If they are harsh, shrill, and mean, if they make unfair accusations or commit outrageous slanders, if they ruin or destroy lives, they feel no shame or guilt. After all, even if they go too far sometimes or make mistakes, they can fall back on the noble crutch. Their hearts are in the right place. “We only want to stamp out hate!” they scream.

Not surprisingly, Nowicki feels little affinity for contemporary “conservatives” who seem more eager to  export America’s civilization-in-decline to other countries than to roll back modern liberalism,  abortion (to which he devotes a powerful chapter), the welfare  state, and other manifestations of secular modernity. He attributes a lot of the ills of contemporary society and politics to the view that there are no objective standards for right and wrong anymore.

When he writes, “If God does not exist, then all claims to legitimacy are a ruse. Politics is gang warfare writ large, and all high minded talk of “justice” mere cant and hypocrisy,” there is little reason to disagree. Politics, per definition, concerns, non-unanimous, collective decision making that is an imposition on spontaneously evolved conventions that foster peace and trade. In modern times, the locus of power has shifted from God (his “representatives”) to the State but the power and obedience relationship remains identical. There is a serious debate between those who think objective values exist and can be discovered through reason and those who question this whole project. According to the moralists, these objective values put limits on what politicians  and public officials may do. Those with more empirical and skeptical views disagree, and argue that the existence of politics rests exactly on such metaphysical illusions. To them, contemporary politics feeds off the residual metaphysical thinking of religion and the quest for power and money is hidden by appeals to “rights” and “social justice.” The need for politicians to cultivate such illusionary concepts is obvious because the legitimacy of the state would greatly suffer if politics is simply seen as “gang warfare writ large.” Nowicky is clearly on the right track about the pathologies of modern political culture, but he seeks the solution in less modernism instead of a more analytic / scientific worldview. For a stimulating contrast, consult L.A. Rollins’s ‘The Myth of Natural Rights and Other Essays’ (review here), by the same publisher. Nowicki’s book ends with some reflections on existence and non-existence that set the stage for another uplifting Nine Banded Books publication, Jim Crawford’s ‘Confessions of an Antinatalist.’

Despite the main subject of the book (suicide), I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Considering Suicide.’ The cover artwork and the use of lower-case fonts for the title are appealing. A lot of the author’s cultural and political observations are dead-on and, I think, can be sustained with solely secular arguments as well. His relationship with death, meaning, and God seems more tortured to me and reminiscent of his indecisiveness about suicide. The author may be a Catholic but the tone of the book is decidedly nihilist, including his reflections on religion. In ending, I was surprised to detect the occasional use of strong language and open discussion of sexual matters in this book. If we can no longer rely on a Catholic Reactionary in such matters, all hope must be lost indeed!

The politics of travel guides

In a politicized society one should not be surprised to find politics in the most undesirable places. One would not expect political bias in travel guides. After all, most travel guides are published to sell as many copies as possible and therefore need to be factual and “inclusive.” Strangely enough, most travel guide writers seem to interpret this mandate as a stamp of approval to show disdain for any developments in a country that are not deemed cosmopolitan enough. The social and political history chapters in travel guides are so predictable that it makes you wonder if all travel book writers work from the same template and just tweak the details for each individual country or city. In the worst travel guides, social history is political history and the only exception to this rule is the obligatory discussion of the protest generation, which is generally discussed in a favorable light as a form of enlightened protest against cultural oppression instead of the start of a power quest of a spoiled and entitlement-seeking generation.

In most travel books there is one specific phenomenon where all attempts to be neutral are consciously ignored. Most European countries have witnessed the rise of social movements and political parties that challenge the ethnic and cultural egalitarianism of the political class (the political class now being the “protest generation” discussed earlier). The associated parties are almost invariably designated as “far right,” “ultra right,” and “xenophobic.” Upon reflection, there is something strangely incoherent about the way in which such cultural and political movements are treated. Travel guide writers usually pay lip service to the importance of countries preserving and cultivating their traditions and strongly encourage tourists to respect those traditions as well. But at the same time, any cultural or political movement within those countries that seeks to preserve those same traditions through means such as restricting immigration or discouraging the practice of non-traditional religions are treated as a bunch of unenlightened neanderthals. Some writers must sense the incoherent nature of their perspective and resolve this by postulating that the essence of the country or city that they write about is its “tolerance “or “diversity.” What started out as a review of a region’s unique culture culminates in the idea that the essence of that culture is to welcome and celebrate its own demise.

At this point, one wonders if those writers really fail to understand that the simplistic self-congratulating cosmopolitanism that is implicit in their writings contributes to the very homogenization of culture that makes so many big cities in different parts of the world so culturally indistinguishable from one another.  The most amusing example of this phenomenon can be found in the discussion of  “diverse” neighborhoods. These high-crime, high-unemployment neighborhoods are invariably being praised for being “colorful,” “exciting,” and “innovating.” This sounds appealing until you discover that the descriptions of such neighborhoods are nearly identical, regardless of the city or country being reviewed.

It appears that most writers of travel books think that the identity of a country or region is simply the joint acceptance of a set of abstract cultural norms and folklore. Of course, in modern Western societies there is anything but the joint acceptance of cultural norms and practices. One does not have to be a rabid right winger to observe that you cannot just replace one group of people with another group of people and expect no effects on the culture and traditions of a city. Surely, one can claim that such a development is dynamic and that cities have always been vehicles of change. In this case, however, that change is not a spontaneously evolved response to new technological and cultural events of a people, but an authoritarian top-down engineered experiment of a self-righteous political class with cosmopolitan aspirations.

It may be too much to expect that travel guide writers and editors restrain their political biases, but surely, there must be something better than travel guides, where substantial segments of the native population of a country are pictured as ignorant buffoons and cosmopolitanism is celebrated as the country’s defining identity.

Is politics neutral?

One assumption that has greatly contributed to the growth of government is the belief that the practice of politics as such is ideologically neutral. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the most abstract level politics concerns the making of non-unanimous collective decisions. To endorse and participate in this practice undermines a strict interpretation of liberalism. Similarly, political democracy is not compatible with liberalism either. Is is therefore not surprising that the objective of classical liberalism/libertarianism is increasingly being recognized as the depoliticization of society.

At a more practical level politics is far from ideologically neutral either. The low probability of affecting the outcome encourages rational individuals to abstain from voting. After being elected to office, politicians are routinely accused of selling out and becoming part of the system. Considering the incentives elected politicians face this should not be surprising, but this aspect of politics is not neutral in terms of ideology either. When a limited government politician sells out, the result is invariably more government. But when a “liberal” politician sells out the result is  generally not less government  but  more opportunism, corporatism, and political calculation.  There are few examples of elected politicians reinventing themselves during office to pursue a less interventionist agenda but there are many examples of elected politicians betraying their small government rhetoric.  The typical conservative response is “this time is different.” There is little recognition among most conservatives and many libertarians that the practice of politics itself is biased towards undermining their goals.

Faced with a system that encourages  irrational behavior and that is biased towards the growth of government the only remaining  response for an advocate of strict liberalism is to sell his vote. Unfortunately, the selling of votes is not permitted. Such an obvious feature of democracy becomes a little more mysterious if one considers that  politicians routinely buy votes by promising certain segments of the population redistribution of taxable income. As Randall Holcombe writes:

While at first one might be uneasy about selling votes, it happens in Congress all the time.  Senators and Representatives will agree to support a bill only if it has some specific special interest benefit added to it, and often special interests pay for that support through campaign contributions or other payments to the legislator.  People take this for granted, as the way politics works.  If it is OK for elected officials to trade or sell their votes, it is not immediately apparent that ordinary citizens should be prevented from selling theirs.

Not voting is not much of a political “strategy.” From an individual perspective not voting is just as ineffective as voting. But there are not many “activities” that convey the core message of classical liberalism as clearly as not endorsing, or participating in, the political process.  When attempts are made to overcome the addiction to politics, more fruitful means to restore individual liberty can be explored.

Further reading:

The calculus of voting
The addiction to politics

Beyond politics

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.

Scientific consensus

Scientific consensus seems a reasonable concept. If a great number of individual scientists arrive at a similar opinion this is generally a sufficient reason to have confidence in those views. Skeptics about scientific consensus often use examples of scientific views that started out as a minority view to become the majority view later. Although these examples raise interesting questions about how science evolves as a collective undertaking, they cannot be used to argue against the importance of scientific consensus as such. For every minority view that became a majority view there are a lot more examples of crackpot theories that are still crackpot theories today. Nevertheless, there are a number of situations where the concept of scientific consensus is of limited value.

A good example are fields that are so interdisciplinary that there is no clearly identifiable group of scientists who can be perceived as authorities on the matter. For example, what is the scientific consensus on cryonics? The consensus of biologists? The consensus of cryobiologists? The consensus of neuroscientists? The consensus of experts on nanotechnology? The consensus of those who study cryonics in all its aspects? It is clear that when there is no clearly identifiable group of experts, the concept of scientific consensus becomes problematic. Another example of cases where the concept of scientific consensus is of limited use is when the scientific issue in question concerns such a marginal field of inquiry that few people can be considered qualified to comment on it. Only the people who are engaged in the field can be considered experts whose views should matter. Obviously, this presents a major problem for evaluating such views because the marginal nature of the field can either reflect some real innovative research or complete hokum. In those cases the best approach is to evaluate disputed claims on general scientific criteria. Can the claims be substantiated through empirical observations?  Which observations would confirm or falsify the hypothesis? etc. Many crackpot views can be dismissed on methodological grounds alone.

There are areas of research where the concept of scientific consensus completely breaks down. These are areas of research in which one of the competing views is culturally or politically controversial.  This can range from mild disapproval to outright hostility and persecution of those who express them. Throughout history there have been many examples of views that were not even allowed to be expressed, often because its widespread dissemination and acceptance would undermine the existing scientific, religious, or political establishment. When an individual researcher has a strong incentive not to engage in a field of research or express his/her views about it, the practice of  simply counting the number of people in favor and against a view to establish scientific consensus is utterly unreliable. Unfortunately, it is exactly in fields that are (politically) controversial that people like to abuse the concept of scientific consensus; climate change, evolutionary psychology, heredity and intelligence, animal research etc. There is little value in stating that the majority of someone’s colleagues reject a view when the price of embracing such a view is the end of an academic career, or in some countries, political persecution.

Then there are areas of inquiry that are such a draw for people with non-scientific motives that the whole field can become a dubious undertaking. The social sciences and philosophy suffer from this kind of academic activism.  The field of macro-economics is currently one of the worst examples of a politicized science in which scientists cannot even seem to agree on the meaning of the terms that are used. Strangely enough, this condition does not produce more humility but increased arrogance among its practitioners.

Is there anything that can be done to bring sanity to these controversial fields of research? For an answer we may want to look at the natural sciences.  There is no such thing as “conservative physics” or “feminist chemistry.” This is useful because any credible science can be reduced to the science of physics (or mathematics). Biology can be translated into biochemistry. Biochemistry can be translated into physics. Such an effort will give some scientific endeavors a firm foundation but will expose other areas of research as methodologically immature.

This position is prone to be misunderstood. For example, it does not necessarily mean that one should prefer “nature” over “nurture” in scientific disputes about behavior. If  “genes” and “environment” are properly conceptualized they will both refer to the same material world that can be investigated through scientific means. Unless one wants to argue that the “environment” works its way through unknown mysterious ways into the soul, the researcher who argues that behaviour is predominantly shaped by a person’s environment should be expected to present such views in the language of neuroscience and biochemistry. Unfortunately, few “environmentalists” are prepared to do so.

One obvious objection to this position is that it will leave us with little we can have great confidence in. In other words, we would often feel compelled to simply say “I don’t know.” But there should be no shame in that. It is better to be modest than to be arrogant.

Further reading: Robert Higgs – Peer Review and Scientific Consensus

Ayn Rand: Russian fanatic

In some respects, Rand is almost Soviet. Her habit of remaking the past in accordance with her wishes or needs of the present is most striking… Allied to this tendency to remodel the past was Rand’s megalomaniac notion that moral philosophy had been nothing but a tissue of sentimental error until she came along….In her expository writings, Rand’s style resembles that of Stalin. It is more catechism than argument, and bores into you in the manner of a drill. She has a habit of quoting herself as independent verification of what she says; reading her is like being cornered at a party by a man, intelligent but dull, who is determined to prove to you that right is on his side in the property dispute upon which he is now engaged and will omit no detail.

From: Anthony Daniels – Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. A critical account of the “Chernyshevsky of individualism.”