Indirect Proof and Necessary Evils

April 4, 2009

In most fields of philosophy, a set of propositions that entails a contradiction is held inconsistent, following the law of non-contradiction.1 Where one can rank the support for the various propositions, this allows the figure of indirect proof: if adding a proposition to a set of beliefs singly better supported than it produces a contradiction, the proposition added must be considered false.2

In one field of philosophy, however, most people seem to hold this method of reasoning invalid: ethics. Many proposed ethical systems place upon people burdens to two or more incompatible actions. Elsewhere, such a system would be held inconsistent, and in need of alteration. In ethics, however, the law of non-contradiction does not seem to apply: an actor faced with contradictory obligations should follow one, considering his violation of the other a necessary evil, regrettable but not fatal to the system.3

This strikes me as exceedingly sloppy reasoning. We do not hold that although Newtonian physics and relativity are contradictory, they are both true and we should follow one, considering our denial of the other necessary to avoid indeterminacy; we hold that the contradiction renders any belief in both necessarily false. So it should be in ethics. There are no necessary evils; only false ethical systems that produce them. The true ethical system will at no time obligate an actor to two incompatible actions. This does not mean, of course, that I believe that, a priori, if an ethical system is to prohibit, for example, lying, it must do so in all circumstances; that prohibition may have exceptions (“One may not lie except to criminals”, or even “One may not lie except when doing so is commanded by a higher principle”, with the precedence established).4 However, these exceptions must be inherent to the original ordinance, and not produced from the conflict of absolute ordinances.

Law being a subset of ethics governing enforceable interpersonal interactions, rights are also subject to this prohibition of contradiction. No right may be justly violated at the instigation of any other ethical principle. Thus, long lists of “human rights” such as those of the UN are necessarily false, for they place agents under competing ethical claims. Even the rights to free speech and freedom of property are inconsistent, as in the stock case of crying “fire”. Traditionally, it has been held that in this case the latter right overrides the former. I say, on the other hand, that this instead means that one of these rights is not a true right, but rather a manifestation of something else. Legal questions must be solved by argument from sound principles, not by weighing of incompatible principles in incommensurate units.

1: A strong contradiction is, however, necessary. A set of propositions that produces a paradox is not inconsistent unless the addition of other certain premises produces a strong contradiction.

2: Note, however, that this also applies to the better-supported premises; their contradiction of a supported premise lowers their support correspondingly, even though from the assumption that they are better supported than the new proposition their support remains positive. Thus, one cannot use a set of propositions to disprove a large number of propositions only slightly less-well supported; even though it is more plausible that any one of the introduced propositions be false, it is more plausible that some proposition in the original set be false than that all of the introduced propositions be false. Thus, the set of propositions believed true should be the set that minimizes the combined evidence in favor of propositions believed false.

3: And it is not clear to me why he should do one instead of the other. If government is a necessary evil, unjust but necessary to prevent other injustices, why should we not hold that the injustices consequent on the absence of government are a necessary evil, unjust but irremediable without other injustice?

4: This is ultimately the problem with Kantian ethics and rule utilitarianism. Kant’s categorical imperative may be valid in principle (and is a necessary consequence of moral absolutism), but his use of it to obtain, for example, an absolute prohibition on lying ignores that the true rule of behaviour is not necessarily “lying is acceptable”, but rather “lying is acceptable in this situation”, which one could wish to be a universal principle of action without the consequences attending permission of lying in general. Similarly, for any proposed rule under rule utilitarianism one could propose the modified rule that the previous rule is to be followed except when violations of it would improve utility. The rule utilitarian would then have to say that there is no such instance, which requires much stronger support (and, arguably, moves rule utilitarianism indistinguishably close to deontology, merely approaching from the opposite side (assuming the consistency principle)).

Is and Ought

March 28, 2009

Certain concepts are irreducible, lexically explicable only by circular reference. Reality is one such, definable only in terms of itself. One may specify its proper scope (e.g. “what does not cease to be when one ceases to believe in it”), but not its essential meaning.1 Obligation, too, is irreducible: one may say that we have an obligation to do what is right, and the pursuit of good is right, but ultimately must return to say that good is what we are obliged to pursue.

Inherent to the notion of a fundamental concept is that it is explicable only in terms of itself. Therefore, all attempts to define the nature of reality are pointless: we may be able to find an intricately circular definition, but it will ultimately come down to “what exists, exists”. Cartesian demon presentations of skepticism miss the point: if that is the nature of reality, then so be it. It is still reality, still an environment beyond my control. It is possible to argue that nothing is real, that there is no environment, that everything we experience we actively create, but that seems quite implausible (try as I might, I cannot make myself believe that I am a tree).

Obligation is, like reality, a fundamental concept not explicable except circularly. No amount of reasoning can move from a statement of reality to a statement of obligation. Any such attempt must involve an implicit normative premise, and therefore begs the question as an attempt to define obligation in terms of reality. Utilitarianism, for example, is not a simple definition of the good as the greatest aggregate utility; it is a normative statement that the greatest aggregate utility should be pursued. All ethical theories must contain foundational normative premises that cannot be reduced to observation of reality.

Choice relies on both these realms, applying a normative major premise to a positive minor premise returning an ethical statement to guide action. No theory can avoid this: one can explain the actions of others by positive determinism, but by introspection, one must have some other principle to guide one’s own deliberation. One may attempt to act in conformity to the factors determining the actions of others, but this itself is an ethical belief, that it is right to do so. Amoral action is impossible. Furthermore, relativistic moralities are incoherent, relying on the absolute premise that one should follow whatever relative standard is proposed.

The seeming consequence of this is that one can never violate one’s principles, for all actions, insofar as they are willful, arise from normative syllogisms. Thus, what does it mean to do what one knows to be wrong? Not to forsake ethics, but to abandon one’s former ethical system for another. All wrongdoing is intellectual error. However, we must remember that thought and memory is not static. One can forsake one belief for another in a moment and revert as quickly, as when one afraid of insects but cognizant of their harmlessness starts on encountering one. He started because he feared harm, which fear he knows to be groundless. Nevertheless, he deserted that belief when it became important. Similarly, one who does wrong that he knows to be wrong does not act contrary to his beliefs, but rather temporarily forsakes those beliefs. One may, of course, also be continually wrong, without such a reversion to right beliefs; such are those who know neither repent nor regret. In any case, the fundamental error is in the intellect, not the will. One can never act contrary to what one thinks right at the moment.

1 Many argue that one cannot define the essence of any concept. I would agree that one cannot define any term without recourse to concepts not essentially definable, but I believe that derivative concepts may be so defined.

Freedom and Coercion

March 9, 2009

What does it mean to be free? Many, I think, would say that freedom is found in self-determination, the ability to choose one’s course of life. Interference with that choice is destructive of freedom, whatever its intention. To an extent, I would agree. However, we must remember that choice is not of results, but of actions. God, in creating nature, embedded in it a certain payoff matrix: certain actions bring certain results. Freedom is the ability to choose one’s actions and their inherent results, not the ability to choose results independent of action.

Thus, we may identify the first fallacious opinion regarding freedom, that it encompasses such things as “freedom from hunger”, or “freedom from want”. Freedom means the ability to choose a course of action that satisfies one’s hungers or wants, if one is available in nature,1 but does not mean the ability to have one’s desires met regardless of the course of life one chooses. Preventing someone from accepting a job offered him does violate his freedom; however, if he chooses to reject the job offered, his “right to a job” does not entitle him to some other. Freedom means only the ability to choose one’s actions, not the results one would like.

But this definition is incomplete, for it would seem to permit many seeming violations of freedom. The robber who offers the choice of “your money or your life” does not seem to restrict one’s options for action, yet any sensible theory of freedom would regard his action as a violation of freedom.2 Thus, I would add the provision that one may also not interfere with the natural payoff matrix: freedom entitles people not only to to choose their course of action, but also to reap the natural consequences of that action. We may, however, here distinguish between material and moral freedom: the robber’s dilemma infringes on his victim’s material freedom, but the actor still has moral freedom of will, and remains responsible for his actions. No amount of compulsion justifies commission of wrong.3

But by appealing to natural payoffs, I obligate myself to define naturality. Naturality does not mean what would happen without human interaction, for then the criterion would not apply to actions dependent on interaction with other men (as our contrafactual refers not merely to the contrafactual, but to the nonsensical “what compensation would one man owe for stealing from another if that other did not exist?”). I do, however, believe that naturality only involves reference to other humans when their existence is a logical prerequisite of the situation. The settler in a new land does not logically rely on others, despite any potential material dependence; consequently, the natural results of his actions should not depend on others. Similarly, the solitary worker does not depend on others, and his ability to enjoy the product of his labor is independent of others, and their interference would violate his freedom. But what if two men cooperate? We may renormalize, and say that their proceeds do not depend on the presence of others. But what of the distribution between them? I see no reason for preferring any particular distribution, at least on the grounds of freedom, other than that security in their own persons, that not being a product of their cooperation, must remain inviolate (thus supporting any agreement reached; the ethics of promises and future contracts is quite a mess, and I shall not address it here). This similar procedure may be applied, I believe, to all further questions. One case I would like to address, however, is theft (which may be generalized, mutatis mutandis, to other violences). The thief obviously has no right to the proceeds gained thereby, for they are not a natural consequence of his actions. Meanwhile, the goods gained thereby were the natural consequence of the actions of their owner, assuming his title to be just; therefore, he retains title, and the goods remain his. Similar reasoning will, I believe, show that one can similarly derive a right of recompense, although I shall not detail that here.

Thus far, I have only considered freedom with respect to external sources, yet perhaps there is also compulsion from within. Compelling someone to practice the piano for two hours a day clearly violates his freedom. What if, however, he wishes to become better, and disciplines himself to do so? His freedom is superficially restricted, in that he denies himself other options. But in the same manner, any action restricts one’s freedom, in that it entails not doing whatever else one might be able to do at the time. Thus, the pianist remains free.

This may seem trivial on its own, but bears importantly on Christian freedom. Christian freedom is of two types, which I shall call liberating and restricting. The first is the freedom from “slavery to sin” that enables us to choose to act rightly, which by definition is what is most in our interests. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, is the self-discipline to actually follow that course once it becomes available. These concepts must, I think, remain separate. Liberating freedom is external, for self-imposed bondage is not properly termed such. Restricting freedom, on the other hand, must be internal, for imposed action is amoral. Even though freedom only has value insofar as it allows us to follow a better course of action, it does not follow that “forcing someone to be free” by using compulsion to force him to adopt that course of action increases his freedom; quite the contrary, it restricts his freedom.

1 The necessity of this qualification is evident from the case of famine. If one proclaims a right to the availability of a course of action that satisfies one’s hunger, then a purely natural famine would violate people’s rights (as such a right could not be satisfied for all). By definition, rights are against men, not nature; therefore, the right is invalid.

2 Of course, not all theories do so: see Sen. Reid’s rather entertaining argument that taxes are voluntary at On the other hand, I see no reason to consider his theory sensible.

3 Further, given that one has no reasonable expectation of material freedom, given its dependence on the actions of others, one should care only for doing what is right, not getting what is due.

Circular Reasoning

February 28, 2009

I used to think that circular reasoning should be one of the rarest of fallacies. Would not someone notice that their argument demands the conclusion as a premise? Since then, two things have surprised me: the prevalence of circular reasoning, and the difficulty of its definition. Here I shall restrict myself to practical reasoning,1 under the definition of “using a premise not granted by one’s opponent to demonstrate to him the falsity of his beliefs”. Thus, while a circular argument may be valid, it has (or should have) no persuasive value.

One of the most pervasive examples I have encountered is Hume’s argument against miracles: because a miracle is, by definition, a violation of natural laws, it is of infinitely low probability, and so any explanation consistent with natural laws is of higher probability. Therefore, no report of a miracle can prove their existence, for it is always better explained without resort to miracles. This argument seems to have dominated secular understandings of miracles, but does it actually prove anything? Note the hidden premise: that all violations of natural laws are of infinitely low probability. I, for one, do not grant the premise, and neither, I suspect, do any who believe in miracles (except, perhaps, for Kierkegaard and his followers, but I can make little sense of his intellectual system and thus cannot speak for him): I hold that divine action is unconstrained by the principles that God has chosen to follow in most circumstances, and thus that miracles are not of infinitely low probability. Since the argument thus depends on proof that miracles are of infinitely low probability (which, rather ironically, science cannot demonstrate), it cannot be used independently to discredit reports of miracles.2

The other place I often see such circular reasoning used is in maintaining the necessity of government. I frequently encounter arguments that the credit crisis proves the necessity of government restraints, or that the thalidomide tragedy proves the necessity of the FDA. In neither case was the market free; the banks were regulated in the first case; the FDA existed in the second. Therefore, for the arguments to validly reject the perfectly free market, one must accept the unstated premise that all regulations reduce the probability of problems. Brought to light, this premise should seem absurd to all people, for it is utterly implausible that all government regulation, whatever its form or intention, is beneficial. But even granting that those who make the argument accept that premise, I doubt that very many supporters of the free market would accept it. I would explain the matter differently: each crisis occurred because the government regulation was insufficient (possibly necessarily so) to avert the problem, but was sufficient to cause people to forsake their own responsibilities of monitoring risks. Thus, I would argue the matter in reverse: the existence of such crisis under a regulatory regime indicates the difficulty (although not, prima facie, the impossibility) of effective regulation. These examples only prove the need for government regulation if one assumes its superior effectiveness, which those who would controvert its need would almost certainly deny.

I must note that use of circular arguments (under this definition) is not itself irrational; I think that all people do and even must use them continually to themselves to address challenges to their position. If any challenge to my belief required me to reprove my positions a nihilo, I would never accomplish anything else(actually, I would never accomplish even this). Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to respond to an argument against one’s position with an argument drawing on the position as a premise, thus maintaining the consistency of one’s beliefs even in the face of the counterargument.3 However, what suffices to maintain one’s own position against a counter-argument does not necessarily suffice as an argument against another’s position. Proper form in an informal debate requires basing all of one’s arguments on premises that one’s opponent accepts. If neither can do so, then the debate must remain inconclusive. Above all, one must not declare irrational one who does not agree with one’s conclusions because he does not believe in one’s premises; unless one can object to his premises on some lower common ground,4 one cannot question the rationality or truth of his opinions. However, this seems to be the form of almost all modern debate (from both sides, I must note; this is why I cannot stand Coulter), particularly in religion and politics. It is possible to demonstrate that miracles are impossible, if one assumes that they are impossible; but what does this prove concerning the rationality of those who hold them to be possible?

1 Circular reasoning has no firm place in classical two-truth value logic, most formulations being trivial or proscribing all valid arguments.

2 Does it even prove that much? It seems to me that Aristotle’s dictum that an impossible plausibility is preferable to a plausible possibility applies to life, not merely poetry. Take the example of Christ’s resurrection: to admit the possibility of resurrection seems less momentous than to admit that so many people would lie with expectation of harm. On the other hand, I must acknowledge that this argument is, itself, somewhat circular, for to admit the possibility of resurrection would be far more momentous to an atheist.

3 However, one must be careful to avoid using one’s position to reject the argument: I believe A, P implies not A, therefore not P. Instead, one must either disprove P without reference to A or prove that P is consistent with A. The statist who holds that state regulation of drugs is beneficial can, while maintaining local rationality, state that failures of state regulation do not disprove its utility because it might be worse without the state control (to dispute which would be to commit the nirvana fallacy). However, if it is then demonstrated that conditions would have been better without the state agency, he may not say that because that contradicts his belief in the state system, the demonstration must be false; he must address the demonstration itself.

4 Which will, I believe, always exist, but may be very difficult to find. Of course, one could merely deny all points of agreement to avoid “losing” a debate, but one hopes that one who does so would still question his beliefs. I would also dispute that he has really avoided losing, for the only way to lose a discussion is to fail to aspire to the truth.

Social Contract Theories of the State’s Justification

February 4, 2009

I have lately been arguing primarily over the expediency of the state, which is not, I think, where the decision among governmental systems is best made. Precise determination of the actual results of a system of governance is impossible, relying as it does on indeterminate human action, and even approximate prediction is rather difficult. By comparison, ethical determination is determinate, and easier. Consequently, I believe that we ought to compare systems first on account of their ethical rectitude.1

Here I work from the assumption that individuals have a right to their possessions and body, which implies that they also have a right to seek recompense for violations of their rights unless they alienate that right to another. Justifications of the state that deny this assumption I shall treat elsewhere.

The state I here define as an institution that maintains a coercive monopoly of compensatory justice (as opposed to a de facto monopoly arising from the unlikely event that all people turn to the same agency for protection). While many entities that meet this definition would not be considered just governments, I doubt that any would consider a state any institution that does not prohibit competition. In consequence of this definition being underspecified, I accept the burden of proving that no contractual theory can justify any states so defined. I might note in passing that nearly all states tax their citizens and most aggress against rights in many other ways; however, as social contract theory cannot justify any violation of rights, I shall consider only the minimal definition above.

In order to justify the state’s coercive monopoly in light of the above assumption, one must explain how the right transfers from the individual to the state. The recognized method of alienation of a right to another in free society is the contract; thus, all theories that I have encountered in defense of the state within a negative rights framework posit some sort of contract between the individual and the state whereby the individual alienates his right to compensatory justice to the state (the one seeming exception, IV below, does not actually accept individual rights, but as it calls itself a social contract theory and seems popular among American traditionalists who claim to recognize rights, I shall address it here).2 I shall thus consider the four theories I have encountered; if I have overlooked any that is differentiable from those following in more than name, please bring it to my attention.

I. Explicit social contract

Explicit social contract theory posits that documents such as the US Constitution constitute a contract between the people and the state, and thus that states are by contract the exclusive agents of the citizens. While such an explicit contract would justify a state, this theory cannot justify extant states for three reasons. The first is that many states generally considered legitimate have no such document (such as that of the United Kingdom). Thus, at best this theory could justify only a subset of even democratic states. The second problem is that no contract binds the descendents of the signatories.3 Consequently, for the Constitution to be binding on those not alive at its initial adoption by explicit social contract theory, they would need to somehow explicitly adopt it. Even if one believes that those who do not object to it accept it by implication (“silence is consent”), explicit social contract theory must hold that if I repudiate the state as my agent, my alienation of my rights to it ceases. Thirdly, explicit social contract theory fails to account for the fact that no Constitution has, to my knowledge, been adopted unanimously. Therefore, were the state justified by an explicit contract, it would not bind those who did not approve of its initial ratification; the state’s prohibition of their pursuit of compensatory justice by other means is unjust.

II. Majoritarian social contract

Majoritarian social contract theory attempts to solve this third problem by positing that the majority in a nation have a right to bind the minority. I would first note that this is incompatible with any theory of individual rights, except if one arbitrarily exempts certain rights from the domain of the majoritarian contract (thus positing a distinction between societal rights, at the whim of the majority, and personal rights): if the majority may justly violate the rights of the minority, can the minority be said to have any rights at all? Also, this is not actually a theory of contract, for where else is a contract binding on those not signatories? If two in a group of three decide to despoil the third, is this not robbery? Is it not also if the majority of those in a neighborhood do the same? Why, then, does a different rule apply to the nation? How does the decision of some part of the population to pursue justice in a certain manner compel me to do the same? The justification of democratic elements in a state rests on the legitimacy of the state as a whole; founding the legitimacy of the state on majoritarianism then begs the question unless one posits some principle that says that “the majority of those forming a ‘nation’, but not those forming a neighborhood, nor those in only incidental relationship, have a right to bind the minority to do the bidding of the majority.” And what proof will be raised of this notion, aside from its necessity in justifying the state? In ethical determinations, let us accept only self-evident principles and those derivable therefrom; I hardly see how majoritarianism is self-evident. Two men may no more be justly despoiled by the two than by the one; why should the principle change when the numbers rise to the millions? Finally, majoritarian social contract theory cannot justify any deviations from democracy, thus invalidating the US Constitution (for although it binds individuals, its ratification did not grant votes to the states in proportion to population), and it still cannot explain how those two centuries dead bind me today.

III. Implicit social contract

Implicit social contract theory, on the other hand, attempts to explain the first two problems with explicit social contract theory, the occasional lack of explicit founding documents and the absence of intergenerational binding, by positing that by residing in a nation one consents to its government. This, however, requires a belief that I find difficult to grant. One may make continuance upon his property subject to any conditions he might choose, but his neighbor has no right to do the same. If one should say to his neighbor that if that neighbor does not pay a certain sum per month he would extract it by force, unless the neighbor moves away, it would be robbery; the fact that the neighbor “consents” to the force by refusing to move makes no difference. Therefore, if the government should tell me that my continuance within its borders is conditional on my alienating my right to pursue justice on my own account to it, it is ultimately asserting that it, not I, holds the allodial title to my land, and I hold it as a tenant at its pleasure. How, I must ask, did it acquire this title? Not originally; one appropriates title to land by mixing it with one’s labour. When did the state stir itself to help the settlers who tamed the land? When they left, it forced them to purchase the land, to which it had contributed nothing; when they produced, it burdened them with taxes, taking from them what they earned without its aid; when they prospered, it burdened them with its regulatory fist, lest it be thought that prosperity outside the control of the state is possible. By what right, then, does the state claim the land? Perhaps it wishes to claim that it purchased most of the land from other nations. And when did those other countries acquire the ultimate right to land developed by others? How do the petty transactions of the tyrants place obligations upon me? Perhaps it wishes to claim that the allodial title was transferred at the ratification of the Constitution. But where does the Constitution say that those who consent to it sacrifice thereby the true ownership of their property? If that is the case, then our government is founded upon sheer fraud and theft. And what of those nations that have no defined beginning, no constitution? How do the actions of the warlords of centuries past bind the English citizen of today?4 Furthermore, I again raise the point that not all consented to the Constitution. How does one’s rejection of a contract bind one to its terms? One could, of course, add to implicit social contract theory the argument of majoritarian theory, that the majority, in their consent, rightfully despoiled the objecting minority. But need I say anything in reply? The government claims to be under the laws. What law permits the two to despoil the one? Furthermore, all varieties of implicit social contract prove too much. If my residence in the US justifies its government’s power over me, then surely residence in a tyranny justifies the actions of its government. Who has so little heart as to tell the starving, oppressed peasant that he invites his hardship upon himself by his continued residence? But one might say that his master compels his residence, while our state does not. But where can I go, to be free of the state? Everywhere I turn the oligarchs have claimed sovereignty. What refuge offers me an actual alternative? Choice implies no consent if all the options are unjust. Can the thief justly claim that because his victim freely chose to part with his money rather than his life he parted with his money voluntarily, and thus that the thief’s action was not unjust?

IV. Nonconsensual social contract

This is not really a theory of social contract, for a contract achieves nothing without consent. Glossing utilitarianism with the terminology of freedom does not justify the transaction. However, I shall address this theory here, in accordance with its self-proclaimed identification. The theory is that the state is a necessary evil, for rights will be violated whatever happens; a state that prevents violations of rights greater than those that it causes is justified.5 It ought to immediately strike the reader that, while phrased in the language of rights, this theory is in fact about no such thing. If I have a right to something it means not that other people must promote it (the liberal’s error), but respect it. A system of negative rights makes me responsible for the harm one does to others, but not done by others. Therefore, if one wrongs one man to help another, the wrongs for which he is responsible increase, while the reduction is in wrongs for which he is not responsible. For this theory to work, it must deny individual rights, and instead proclaim broad societal goals for which all are responsible. It then becomes nonsensical for anyone to claim his individual right to the proceeds of his labor, or to his life itself, for all is subsumed by the societal interest. But let me leave aside that argument, for I neither wish nor need to rest on the assumption of individual rights here. This justification rests on a calculation impossible in both practice and theory, for at what ratio may the state exchange life for property, or vice versa? How much may it steal from its citizens, if it should show a life saved at the end? How many may it kill to prevent a theft? Individuals may make decisions were no exchange ratio exists, for they may subjectively weigh two states of the world and choose the one which they prefer, but the state’s justification must be objective, not subjective, and thus he who wishes to justify the state on such utilitarian grounds must identify and justify his equations. Furthermore, since no such equations have been proposed, how can we claim any state as legitimate by this theory? It serves at best as a hypothetical theory that might justify some future state, but which can do nothing at present. Furthermore, theft by the US government exceeds theft by its citizens by a ratio of 150:1. Even if the demise of the government increased private theft one hundredfold, theft would diminish by one third! The expediency of the present US government is far from obvious. Finally, why is this provision, like that of majoritarianism, restricted to the state? Why is the thief who steals to feed the starving culpable, but the state not? Why do the actions of millions follow different rules than those of individuals? Furthermore, let us note that the state prohibits other means of obtaining justice. When has a monopoly ever been found to provide more of its product, and of a better quality? Yet the state establishes such a monopoly. Can it be claimed that the establishment of a monopoly on the protection of rights better protects them?

V. Generalization

I may generalize my observations: If individuals have a right to pursue justice on their own behalf, then that right, by its very definition, be taken by another without the consent of the individual. Thus, a social contract theory is only tenable insofar as it is also a private contract theory, in which each individual chooses for himself whether and to whom he may alienate his rights.6 Even if all men at some time decided to alienate their rights to a certain agency, creating a de facto monopoly, they would not be justified in preventing the creation of a new agency, or in forcing a newcomer to join the old.7 Thus, by simply positing that a contract that alienates one’s right to pursue compensatory justice to some agency must follow the same standards as any other contract, we arrive at anarcho-capitalism, with free choice of security agencies. I am a contractarian, and for that reason I find myself compelled to by an anarchist.

1 I would then apply the consistency principle and say that what is right cannot be inexpedient, although acceptance of this principle is unnecessary for acceptance of the primacy of ethics. More specifically, the consistency principle tells us that the practical and ethical determinations are both solutions to the same problem, and that, as an intuitive rule of thought, we should use the simplest approach (exempting some pedantic purpose). Actually, however, my argument is even stronger for someone who accepts the primacy of ethics but rejects the consistency principle, because then the solutions need not align and a determination of expediency is neither necessary nor sufficient (nor even relevant) for determining the proper course of action.

2 Strictly speaking, the contract would not be between the individual and the state because the state is formed by the contract, and therefore its existence is subsequent to the contract and it cannot be a signatory to it (unless one wishes to posit a powerless state predecessing the contract and then being granted its powers by the contract, but that seems counterintuitive). Thus, strictly, the contract should be among the citizens alone. However, few of these theories make sense viewed that way, for while a contract with one party being a group not all of whom consent to the contract may be plausible to some, I cannot see how a valid contract to which one signatory does not assent is plausible in the least.

3 Note that although debts may be claimed from estates, they may not be claimed from the possessions of the heirs.

4 I must here note that feudalism is legitimate (those who hold any true social contract theory cannot consistently claim any form of government lawfully contracted to be unjust); however, the feudal owners of the land in times past acquired the land over which they claimed dominion by theft, and thus they were not true owners of the property, and their nominal feudalism was invalid.

5 Alternatively, one may add the qualification that the government must minimize violations of rights to the extent possible without compromising its protections of rights, but it makes little difference. Can any right justify the slightest wrong?

6 Therein lies the distinction between the inability of choice among nations to justify the state and the ability of choice among protection agencies to justify the market: only in the latter case is there an option of abstention. No man has a right to purchase any product, but all men have a right to refrain.

7 Some might object that in this case the agency would probably not permit the split. I must agree (although I think the presence of such a de facto monopoly agency even less probable). However, even if this does occur, then we have again a coercive monopoly over the provision of justice–a state. If the possibility that anarchy would give rise to a state is the strongest argument against anarchy, then surely the certainty of a state would be worse?

Anarchy and National Defense

January 28, 2009

One of the most pressing difficulties for stateless government would seem to be national defense. While police protection can be well internalized, being primarily a service to individuals, businesses, or neighborhoods, defense against foreign enemies yields non-rival and non-excludable benefits to all, and thus would seemingly encounter a severe public-goods problem. But, in associating national defense with a military, I believe that we may be equivocating. If the nation can be made secure without the need for a military, there is no defense problem with anarchy.

I can see two reasons why one nation might invade another: preemption of threat, and ambition for land or resources. The first reason, preemption,1 need concern us little. Preemption is, by nature, against a threat; a nation that does not threaten others need not fear preemptive action against itself. If a nation has too weak an organized military to defend itself, it cannot have enough to pose a threat to another, and need not fear preemption; if it has a strong military, then concerns about its military weakness are unfounded. Therefore, in no case is defense against preemption a unique concern for an anarchal nation.

Thus, we are left with defense against territorial expansion. In this case, the aggressing nation does so with expectation of benefit; an expected cost greater than the expected benefit would suffice to deter the threat, even if it could not avert suffering if the attack were made.1 Furthermore, even conventional national defense does not prevent harms; consider England during WWII. Thus, all increases in the cost of a successful invasion equally serve national defense.

In considering this, I believe that Machiavelli’s argument from Ch. IV of The Prince is relevant: “[H]e who considers both of these states will recognize great difficulties in seizing the state of the Turk, but, once it is conquered, great ease in holding it…. But it is impossible to hold with such tranquillity states constituted like that of France. Hence arose those frequent rebellions against the Romans in Spain, France, and Greece, owing to the many principalities there were in these states, of which, as long as the memory of them endured, the Romans always held an insecure possession;” Although a decentralized state may not erect such a hard outer defense, and thus may be easier to defeat in pitched battle, it leaves no centralized mechanism with which to seize control of the country. Look at the Vichy government of France during WWII: once the military fell, the country on the whole (neglecting isolated private resistance, which would be if anything greater were occupied nation originally anarchist) served the purposes of the conquerors in subduing the country. If a decentralized nation is difficult to govern, how much more one with no institutions of government, with its people accustomed to freedom?

Iraq, too, presents a good example. Hussein’s regime should be the model of those who look to government for national defense: a centralized state lacking democratic hindrances to its warmaking and with a high military budget.2 Yet each time the United States invaded, the demoralized military of Iraq crumbled. Notably, the last time, when we sought to gain control of the government (rather than mere military defeat), a private resistance arose which we have not yet quelled, despite the support of Iraq’s government and much of the population. How much more problematic would be an invasion of a nation with no legitimacy and no domestic support on the side of the conquerors? Thus, it seems to me that far more effective at deterring invasion than a conventional military would be the assurance that an invader would have to suppress the population man by man, without support from the local state. A privately funded military is, I admit, difficult to conceive; but we must remember that a military is but a scarcely sufficient and wholly unnecessary means of achieving national defense, which could be as well or better achieved by other means under anarchy.

Thus, I think that national defense under anarchy would not consist of multi-billion dollar jets and a vast military-industrial complex, but rather the free ownership of weapons and the reluctance of free men to submit to tyrants. Even a committed minority of the population could make invasion prohibitively costly. Such a defense would be far less costly, with respect to both resources and rights. Gone would be the annual 650 billion dollar drain on our nation’s resources. Gone would be the ever-present excuse for violations of our rights that “wartime necessity” demands them. And, of course, if a group of people thought that an aircraft carrier would be a good thing to have, they would be free to fund one–but with their own money, and not, as at present, their neighbors’.

1 Exactly the same justification as for imprisonment of criminals: imprisonment does not seek to alleviate the original wrong, but seeks to alter the costs considered by the prospective criminal in order that he might not commit the crime. That imprisonment does not prevent the crime from occurring if it does occur need not influence our practical analysis of its effectiveness (although from a consideration of justice, I think that imprisonment and such defense as I describe are wholly incommensurate).

2 National defense being considerably more difficult in a democracy or under Constitutional government, why do not those who raise the objection to anarchy also raise it against limited government as a whole?

Regarding the works of M. C. Escher

January 20, 2009

At some point over the past week (I oddly cannot remember any specifics), I encountered two of M. C. Escher’s drawings, and it struck me that he is truly doing nothing more than combining well-formed units into not-well-formed wholes,1 a process that should be very familiar to us in a different context.

In the English language (and, mutatis mutandis, any using a phonography or syllabary, although not a logography), the fundamental unit of writing is a letter. Letters are composited into words; words are composited into sentences (this three-level hierarchy is somewhat arbitrary; in an inflected language, one could say that letters are composited into roots and endings and these into words, while in most languages one could say that words are composited into subjects and predicates and these into sentences. However, three levels are all we need here). One could print letters at random, but the result would make no sense. Thus, we may distinguish a written word (a sequence of letters) as well-formed if it corresponds to a conceptual word and ill-formed otherwise. Any sentence (a sequence of words) that involves one or more ill-formed word is inherently meaningless; among sentences of well-formed words, we may distinguish between well-formed sentences where the sequence of words corresponds to a thought and ill-formed sentences where it does not. Hence:
“Adw” is an ill-formed word
“Adw oin wfe.” is a sequence of ill-formed words
“Cat” is a well-formed word
“The cat sat on the rug.” is a well-formed sentence
“The cat rug sat the.” is an ill-formed sentence

What does this have to do with Escher? Escher is not, strictly speaking, an abstract painter: no aspects of their paintings are well-formed, and thus the lack of proper formation does not seem incongruous (whatever its artistic merits, or lack thereof). Escher, on the other hand, clearly does use well-formed elements; most sufficiently small sections of his paintings correspond very well to what we see in reality. The painting as a whole, however, is not well-formed; while each flight of stairs corresponds to something that might exist in reality, the staircase as a whole could not.2

What causes our reactions to Escher’s paintings to differ from our reactions to ill-formed sentences? I cannot say for certain. But I cannot escape noting that while language deals primarily with the constructed, sight deals primarily with the natural. All writing is directed by the mind with no structural barrier to the production of ill-formed sentences; only the fact that ill-formed sentences do not serve the purposes for which we use language cause their rarity (at least among the mature). Sight, on the other hand, primarily looks upon what actually exists. Only through some hindrance or through some artificial object of sight (artificial here meaning not man-made, but a means of presenting the eye with an image intended to be taken as something other than the physical object beheld) can sight yield an ill-formed image. When the sight is hindered, as by water or a deficiency in the eye, one tends to recognize it quickly (and, moreover, typically all levels of objects perceived are equally ill-formed, e.g. as out of focus for a near-sighted man. Thus, hindrance of the sight tends to produce ill-formed images, not ill-formed composites of well-formed images). In other instances, such as the infamous case of the oar in the water, while the hindrance causes the image as actually received to be false (here thinking of the image before the mind compensates for hindrances), it does not cause an ill-formed image. Only in the case of drawings such as those of Escher does the eye behold without deficiency an ill-formed composition of well-formed objects. Thus, what seems the product simple lack of skill when it occurs in language, a medium to which ill-formed figures are natural, may seem quite tantalizing when met in a medium to which ill-formed figures are foreign.

1 Well-formed: a composition of symbols that possesses meaning, without regard to whether the meaning is true or false (true meaning “corresponding to reality”; a well-formed image corresponds to what could exist in reality, a true to what does exist).

2 Note that here I distinguish between images and diagrams. A well-formed image produces an image in the eye that corresponds to the image formed by a potential reality; a diagram is meant to communicate a concept without such correspondence. Escher’s diagrams must be classified with images because they move the mind to attempt to imagine the object that would produce the corresponding image, even though the attempt cannot succeed.