Posts tagged History of Philosophy

Herbert Spencer Anti-Defamation League (Part 423 of ???)

Here’s noted evolutionary biologist and village atheist Richard Dawkins, in the course of his review of what seems to be a laughable little documentary that he was tricked into giving an interview for:

My own view, frequently expressed (for example in the The Selfish Gene and especially in the title chapter of A Devil’s Chaplain) is that there are two reasons why we need to take Darwinian natural selection seriously. Firstly, it is the most important element in the explanation for our own existence and that of all life. Secondly, natural selection is a good object lesson in how NOT to organize a society. As I have often said before, as a scientist I am a passionate Darwinian. But as a citizen and a human being, I want to construct a society which is about as un-Darwinian as we can make it. I approve of looking after the poor (very un-Darwinian). I approve of universal medical care (very un-Darwinian). It is one of the classic philosophical fallacies to derive an ought from an is. Stein (or whoever wrote his script for him) is implying that Hitler committed that fallacy with respect to Darwinism. If we look at more recent history, the closest representatives you’ll find to Darwinian politics are uncompassionate conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, George W Bush, or Ben Stein’s own hero, Richard Nixon. Maybe all these people, along with the Social Darwinists from Herbert Spencer to John D Rockefeller, committed the is/ought fallacy and justified their unpleasant social views by invoking garbled Darwinism.

— Richard Dawkins (2008-03-28): Lying for Jesus?

There’s a fair amount to praise here, and a fair amount to pick at. For the moment, though, I’d like to point out that Dawkins’ characterization of Herbert Spencer — the 19th century radical libertarian sociologist and philosopher — is completely wrong on two different counts.

Herbert Spencer, dirty evolutionist hippie

First, Spencer was not a Social Darwinist. He was not, in fact, a Darwinist at all; he published his most famous work on evolution and society, Social Statics, in 1851, eight years before Charles Darwin first published On the Origin of Species. His ideas about evolution, especially as applied to society, were Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian; which is not ultimately that surprising, since he came up with them independently of Darwinian evolutionary theory, and before that even existed in published form.

Second, Dawkins is completely wrong about Spencer’s radical political views, which bear virtually no resemblence to the belligerent Rightism and economic royalism of Thatcher, Bush, Nixon, or Rockefeller. Spencer was in fact a feminist, a labor radical, and a vehement critic of European imperialism (which he described as bearing a very repulsive likeness to the doings of buccaneers). Contrary to the most popular, and most wildly inaccurate, caricature of his social views, Spencer did not believe in cutting off charitable relief to, or mutual aid among, the poor, sick, or other folks whom the powers that be might marginalize and dismiss as unfit, in the name of survival of the fittest. (That is his phrase, but it is being misapplied.) Spencer opposed government welfare programs — because he opposed all forms of government command-and-control — but he believed that voluntary charity and mutual aid were not only a positive moral obligation, but in fact were features of the highest forms of social evolution (Social Statics, pp. 291-2), as the old militant mode of hierarchy and command was supplanted by the new industrial mode of solidarity and voluntary co-operation. Spencer devoted ten chapters of his late work, Principles of Ethics, to the duty of Positive Beneficence. He advocated the organization of voluntary labor unions as a bulwark against exploitation by capitalist bosses, and favored an economy organized primarily in free worker co-operatives as a replacement for the slavery of capitalist wage-labor.. For those — like the cartoon Social Darwinist that Spencer is so often portrayed to be — who advocated indifference or harshness towards the poor and blamed poverty on the ignorance, folly, or vices of the poor people themselves, Spencer himself had nothing but contempt:

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed the great unwashed; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen …. (Social Statics, pp. 203–5)

Of course, there is plenty in Spencer’s views that Dawkins, as a Social Democrat, would object to. But Dawkins has not yet succeeded in identifying what those disagreements would be. Spencer’s humanitarian, pro-labor, pro-charity radical left libertarianism has just about nothing in common with the authoritarian Right-wing political economy that Dawkins rightly condemns.

Further reading:

Silly season

This ad is nothing more than a series of strawmen. Still, it may be the most exciting race to watch in this campaign season. In any case a lot more turns on it than whether or not I personally choose to vote for Ron Paul.

(Via Majikthise 2007-12-10.)

New from the Scriptorium: Part I of Instead of a Book and Part I of the Principles of Mathematics

One of the things I’ve been working on while I’ve been away from blogging is transcribing public domain texts for the Fair Use Repository. I have a few different projects on tap there; right now, what’s worth mentioning are the following two online editions:

  1. Benjamin R. Tucker’s Instead of a Book, by a Man Too Busy to Write One is a classic of individualist anarchism. It’s also a classic of miscellaneous writing; the title (as well as the subtitle, A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism) refers to the fact that it’s composed of fragments from Tucker’s writing, mainly from Liberty. Bloggers may, thus, feel an odd sense of familiarity in the reading; but for its being arranged topically instead of in reverse chronological order, the way in which Instead of a Book reads — heavily based on dialog and critical engagement, focused on short points, sometimes organizing itself into extended discussion threads between Tucker and other writers — will seem almost indistinguishable from the way that blogs are written today. In any case, Fair Use now has the introductory essays and the entirety of Part I (on The Individual, Society, and the State) available online, including Tucker’s masterful essay on State Socialism and Anarchism, an extended discussion with John Beverly Robinson over non-resistance (i.e., the permissibility of defensive violence) (1, 2, 3, 4), and an excellent long essay by Clara Dixon Davidson on Relations Between Parents and Children. Now it’s on to Part II, on Money and Interest. Stay tuned!

  2. Readers may remember that I mentioned quite a while ago that I’d started on a transcription of Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903). Well, after working on it off and on (mostly off) for the last year and a half, the online edition now includes the entirety Part I of Russell’s book (on The Indefinables of Mathematics, which, along with the two appendices, contains most of the work’s sustained discussion of philosophical logic). Notably, it concludes with Russell’s first sustained discussion of Russell’s paradox. From here it’s on to Part II, on the theory of Number.

There’s more to come soon, both for these works and in some other projects I’ve got coming down the pipeline. Read, cite, and enjoy!

Remarks on Geoffrey Plauché’s “On the Myth of the Founder-Legislator in Political Philosophy”

These remarks were read on 29 December 2006, at American Philosophical Association meeting in Washington, D.C. The event was the Molinari Society group meeting and the occasion for the comments was Geoffrey Plauché’s (excellent) essay, On the Myth of the Founder-Legislator in Political Philosophy.

Geoffrey Plauché’s essay provides a fine synthesis of insights into the sustaining myths of statism: the myth of the Founder-Legislator and the fatal conceit of central planning. In the temples of the state cult there invariably stands an idol of the law-giver. The legends can be divided into those of legendary founders—such as Lycurgus of Sparta and Minos of Crete—and those of legendary reformers—such as Solon of Athens and Numa of Rome. (We might also add some indubitably historical figures to the list—in particular, the sanctified marble Founders who are so gaudily memorialized a few metro stops down from where we sit.) But while the stories differ, the use to which they are put is always the same—as Plauché notes, they serve to perpetuate and to sanctify the notion that a city or a nation is something to be deliberately crafted and worked on to serve a particular end—whether by the great founders or by lesser mortals who muddle through the business of legislating today. Plauché’s efforts to challenge these myths draws from many sources. He challenges the presumption of knowledge involved in statist efforts, drawing from Ferguson’s and Hayek’s work on the importance of spontaneous order and the power of unintended consequences. He traces the planner’s conceit to the corrupting effects of a professionalized political class, and the loss of the distinction between praxis and poesis. He also challenges the moral propriety of the mythological picture—deriving a theory of rights from (a suitably modified version of) Aristotle’s account of freedom and human flourishing. Both the epistemic humility called for by evolutionist insights, and the respect for individual freedom called for by Aristotelian liberalism, ultimately demand not only the containment or minimization of government force, but in fact anarchy—a demythologized society, where freedom is a recognized as a matter of the arrangements that people make with one another, rather than a law given by a Founder, Reformer, or Legislator. Demythologizing legislation ultimately means conceptually divorcing law from authority, and order from the State

There are two main sets of questions that I have at the end of Plauché’s essay. The first turns on his discussion of Aristotelian rights theory, and his endorsement of a supply-side view of justice (or, more precisely, of the reasons for being just). Plauché suggests that Aristotelianism grounds the obligations of justice primarily in facts about the agent, rather than the patient, of just activity. But it seems to me that for all the theoretical advantages of a supply-side approach, the costs of the way that Plauché spells out the approach are just too high. It seems intuitively wrong to suggest that the primary reason for me not to sock Geoffrey in the nose has more to do with my rational nature than it does with Geoffrey’s nose. Of course it’s true that I’d be betraying my rational nature, living life beneath what I am capable, etc. etc. But the primary reason not to sock Geoffrey in the nose is that that would hurt him. It is precisely the indifference to his suffering and the disregard for his wishes that makes the injustice a betrayal of my own rationality.

This is not to say that I think a purely demand-side account of virtue would do better at capturing our moral experience. In fact I think neither standpoint could adequately account for certain sorts of hypothetical cases. Imagine, for example, that you are dropped into a Holodeck, without your knowledge, and while you are there—thinking that you are living and acting in the real world—you decide to go on a pillage-and-murder spree and shoot 50 people to death. Unbeknownst to you, your massacre had no actual victims: the 50 people you attacked were in fact, holographs, and the injuries you did to them were completely fictional. Now it seems in a situation like this, a purely demand-side account of justice will go wrong by being inappropriately lax. Since there were no actual moral patients for you to mistreat, there was nothing directly wrong with going on the rampage. (At the most, you might be faulted for putting others at risk by cultivating and indulging nasty dispositions.) On the other hand, a purely supply-side account goes wrong too, by being inappropriately harsh. Since nobody was harmed for real, it would be grotesque to suggest that you ought to be treated no differently from an actual mass-murderer.

Perhaps the best way forward here is to look to what Aristotle says about another constitutive part of eudaimonia: the value of friendship. Aristotle famously suggests that in the truest form of friendship, your friend is like another self; her welfare is, in some sense, taken up into your own welfare. You care about your friends’ welfare not just because her welfare may turn out to promote some further goal of yours. Nor is it because the concern is virtuous. (Caring about your friends is virtuous and it may have good results, too. But neither of those is the point of caring about them.) In the highest form of friendship, your friend’s well-being enters directly into your own well-being, as an irreducible constitutive part. But where this is the case, it seems like it would be a serious mistake to offer either a supply-side or a demand-side account of the reasons you have to care about your friends. It is neither one side or on the other of the I/Thou divide; if anything, the reason you have for caring about your friends is precisely that that divide has, in some important sense, disappeared.

Now, friendship is a particular relationship that any one person has to a limited number of other people. It is something that you choose to cultivate with some people and choose not to cultivate with others. But perhaps the general duty of respecting the rights of your fellow human beings involves a similar constitutive relationship, where at least part of the eudaimonia of another person enters into your own. If so the way that A should treat B should not be determined primarily by facts about A alone or by facts about B alone, but rather by facts about the relationship that obtains between them.

The second set of questions that I have turns on Plauché’s discussion of spontaneous order and the conceits of planners. I quite agree with Plauché about the importance of spontaneous orders, and I share the suspicion about those who set out to plan others’ lives, and the mythical history that they construct to sanctify their activity. (As Bastiat said, the plans may differ, but the planners are all the same.) But there is a danger here, as well as an insight. Libertarians often speak as if spontaneous order were a synonym for a voluntary arrangement, and constructed order a synonym for coerced arrangement. (Notice how de Jasay, in the passage quoted by Plauché, simply equates constructed orders with orders imposed by authority or the threat of force.) But in fact these two distinctions are independent of one another. In particular, constructed orders need not be coercive orders (you can make plans for coordinated action without coercing anyone, so long as you don’t impose your plans on those unwilling to cooperate). What I wonder, then, is whether the lesson that Plauché want us to draw from Ferguson and Hayek counsels abstinence, or merely temperance when it comes to co-operative efforts at deliberate social change? Of course, the moral case against coercive orders is absolute; it is never justifiable to seize the person or property of the unwilling in order to remake society according to your own plans. But is there any place for non-coercive efforts to make deliberate changes to the order of society? Is there, in an important sense, any place for politics in a free society?

I think this is a point that it’s important to be clear on, because a lot of important questions turno n how severe one takes the problems facing constructivist projects to be. Spontaneous orders have proved very good at some things—the emergence of money, for example, or futures markets and other forms of arbitrage, or large portions of conventional property law. But since Plauché criticizes efforts to deliberately craft social outcomes through the making of legislation, it’s important to note that historically, legal systems that favored the spontaneous order of conventional law over the framing of legislation (as, for example, in Anglo-Saxon common law) have done a fairly good job of developing legal norms that respected the rights of those who were recognized as having standing in legal proceedings—free men. But they also did a very poor job of respecting the person and property of those who were not recognized as having the same standing — women, children, servants. In order to reverse the provisions of the common law that, for example, allowed husbands to summarily seize all or part of their wives’ property as their own, or to substitute their own legal decisions for their wives, or to beat and rape their wives with impunity, first-wave feminist activists organized and made a concerted effort to change the coercive order that had emerged from centuries of conventional law. The results of these efforts could not be criticized on the grounds of being coercive—insofar as the reforms protected rights that had thus far been unprotected, they created new space for voluntary orders rather than overriding them. But in the name of women’s rights to liberty and property, they did overturn a spontaneous order of man-made legal conventions that had emerged gradually over the course of centuries. Did these deliberate campaigns to remake society indulge in the same dangerous conceits as those Plauché criticizes in the Founder-Legislator mythos? If not, then what are the salient differences that set aside the appropriate forms of conscious political activism from the objectionable forms of social engineering? If so, then how much caution do we need to apply in campaigns that deliberately aim at greater liberty? And how far should we avoid even the most voluntarily organized efforts at deliberate, nonviolent social reform?

A Heaven Indeed

Over at Catallarchy, Professor Miller proposes a challenge:

Okay, then, here’s my challenge: give me an instance of a pleasure that is bad. Not a pleasure that’s bad because it leads to other pain, but a pleasure that is itself bad. Do that, and I’ll happily admit that I’ve simply lept the is/ought gap.

The challenge is actually ill-framed, since hedonism (and thus hedonistic utilitarianism) would be proven false by any instance of a pleasure that failed to be good — either by being bad, or by being simply neutral. But anyway, here is how another notable consequentialist answered Professor Miller’s challenge, 103 years before he posed it:

That the value of a pleasurable whole does not belong solely to the pleasure which it contains, may, I think, be made still plainer by consideration of another point in which Prof. Sidgwick’s argument is defective. Prof. Sidgwick maintains, as we saw, the doubtful proposition, that the conduciveness to pleasure of a thing is in rough proportion to its commendation by Common Sense. But he does not maintain, what would be undoubtedly false, that the pleasantness of every state is in proportion to the commendation of that state. In other words, it is only when you take into account the whole consequences of any state, that he is able to maintain the coincidence of quantity of pleasure with the objects approved by Common Sense. If we consider each state by itself, and ask what is the judgment of Common Sense as to its goodness as an end, quite apart from its goodness as a means, there can be no doubt that Common Sense holds many much less pleasant states to be better than many far more pleasant: that it holds, with Mill, that there are higher pleasures, which are more valuable, though less pleasant, than those that are lower. Prof. Sidgwick might, of course, maintain that in this Common Sense is merely confusing means and ends: that what it holds to be better as an end, is in reality only better as a means. But I think his argument is defective in that he does not seem to see sufficiently plainly that, as far as intuitions of goodness as an end are concerned, he is running grossly counter to Common Sense; that he does not emphasise sufficiently the distinction between immediate pleasantness and conduciveness to pleasure. In order to place fairly before us the question what is good as an end we must take states that are immediately pleasant and ask if the more pleasant are always also the better; and whether, if some that are less pleasant appear to be so, it is only because we think they are likely to increase the number of the more pleasant. That Common Sense would deny both these suppositions, and rightly so, appears to me indubitable. It is commonly held that certain of what would be called the lowest forms of sexual enjoyment, for instance, are positively bad, although it is by no means clear that they are not the most pleasant states we ever experience. Common Sense would certainly not think it a sufficient justification for the pursuit of what Prof. Sidgwick calls the refined pleasures here and now, that they are the best means to the future attainment of a heaven, in which there would be no more refined pleasures—no contemplation of beauty, no personal affections—but in which the greatest possible pleasure would be obtained by a perpetual indulgence in bestiality. Yet Prof. Sidgwick would be bound to hold that, if the greatest possible pleasure could be obtained in this way, and if it were attainable, such a state of things would be a heaven indeed, and that all human endeavours should be devoted to its realisation. I venture to think that this view is as false as it is paradoxical.

— G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica (1903), § 56

Moore, at least, was one exception to Nietzsche’s pithier response:

If we possess our why of life we can put up with almost any how. — Man does not strive after happiness; only the Englishman does that.

— F. Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Maxims and Arrows #12.

In any case, I should note that many pleasures that have historically been identified as lower, coarse, vulgar, mindless, empty, decadent, or depraved, are not actually so; but pointing this out will not support Miller’s point. Being very often wrong about which pleasures are worth pursuing, and which pleasures are not, does not at all entail that the distinction should not be made, or that no value attaches to the distinction when correctly applied. (People were once largely wrong as to whether the earth was a round or flat; that hardly throws the categories of roundness and flatness into disrepute.)