Wednesday, February 27, 2008


There is an altruistic philosophy that asserts that one should take an action if the benefits to another are greater than than cost to one's self, without demanding any sort of reciprocity. Leaving aside the very significant point that costs and benefits to different people really aren't directly comparable, the idea has a certain intellectual appeal. If one attacks the problem of morality by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave, the altruistic conclusion seems reasonable.

But of course if one asks one's self how one's self ought to behave, it would be absurd to assume that every other human on the planet would, asking himself the same question, obtain the same answer. That different people have different ideas as to what is moral is easily observed to be true. The very idea that we should begin by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave seems to be making an assumption that we know to be false, namely that everyone is the same. Altruism fails because altruists can be victimised by non-altruists.

This isn't to say altruism is necessarily a bad idea in all cases, but in order to avoid self-destruction it seems logical to limit it in scope and extent in pretty much just the way that people do in the real world. People will sometimes perform major sacrifices on behalf of friends and relatives, largely the people they would expect to do the same for them if the situations were reversed. People will generally only do small favors for strangers, and try to avoid relying on strangers doing anything for them. A largely altruistic society could exist, but only if it limited its altruism to members, and punished members for failing to be sufficiently altruistic.

Libertarians often ridicule altruists, but the non-aggression principle seems to me to be a product of the same circular wouldn't-it-be-great-if-everyone-were-just-like-me thinking that leads to altruism. Libertarianism (int its strict sense) must fail because libertarians can be victimized by non-libertarians.

I have become convinced that there is no one correct moral philosophy, nor is there such a thing as a best culture or a best way of organizing society; rather, there may be any number which are "best" according to their own standards of goodness. This of course does not mean all are equally good; one society may consider some other to be better according to the first's standard of goodness, and so will seek to become more like the second. If two societies cannot peacefully coexist, perhaps one will destroy the other. This will not prove that the surviving society is better than the vanquished one in every way, but it must have been better in at least one way.

Every society has rules, with some sort of punishment for members which break the rules. Whatever other rules there may or may not be, for stability there must be the meta-rule: failure to assist in punishing rulebreakers is itself a violation of the rules. Further, a society must have some way of distinguishing between members and nonmembers. It would be unreasonable to expect someone who is not a member of a society in the first place to obey that society's rules (except when as a guest in what it acknowledges to be that society's territory), and it would be surprising if the full set of obligations to members of one's own society were extended to outsiders.

The only way to ensure that disputes can be resolved peacefully and noncoercively is if all disputants (and that means all members of the society) have agreed in advance to abide by some sort of dispute resolution procedure. Perhaps a largely libertarian society is possible, but it would have to have a clear distinction between members and nonmembers, and the strict demand for noninitiation of coercion would only apply to members. This doesn't mean "anything goes" with respect to nonmembers, of course. Limits on what behavior is acceptable would have to be devised based on the need to avoid conflict with other groups and basic human decency. But a strict requirement of noninitiation of coercion couldn't work, both because nonmembers could not be expected to submit to any sort of peaceful dispute resolution, and because it is unrealistic to assume nonmembers would necessarily refrain from initiating coercion given opportunity.


m said...

George, what about Islamic and African societies? From every quantifiable standard, from art to architecture to technological innovation to GDP growth (excluding oil), their countries are failures of the largest magnitude.

George Weinberg said...

I'm not sure what you're getting at. I think highly insular societies are doomed to poverty, because you need a large number of mutually interacting individuals to have the kind of specialization necessary for a high standard of living. The more prosperous groups have learned to form mutually beneficial relationships with those outside the group. I don't know if that has anything to do with where you were going or not.

m said...

What I wrote was in regards to this:

"... nor is there such a thing as a best culture or a best way of organizing society; rather, there may be any number which are "best" according to their own standards of goodness."

There are two ways to judge societies, imo: according to their own standards, #1, and from quantifiable measurements such as the ones I listed above, #2. For example, Crypto-Calvinism is quantatively successful, but it fails the by-its-own-standards test because it's purpose - to bring about the kingdom of God on Earth - is actually the source for a great deal of tension and destruction in the world today.

George Weinberg said...

I think it's a commonly expressed attitude in Muslim societies that they are "better" than western ones because they are more moral (by their own standards) and the material affluence of western societies doesn't matter much. I don't know if people actually believe this or just say it. I think in most of the world saying "our culture is fucked up" will just get you social disapproval, it won't actually help change things. Conversely, at least in certain social circles in the west, saying "our culture is fucked up" will get you approval without costing anything.

Presumably a culture that considers itself to be a failure will try to emulate what it considers to be more successful ones, but I'm not sure that it can, I think maybe what gets copied is just superficial details. For example, Attaturk tried to westernize Turkey by, among other things, changimg the alphabet from Arabic to Latin. I doubt that that accomplished much of anything.

nick said...

Legal systems make a basic distinction between substantive and procedural rules. Substantive rules are the rules of normal behavior, and for these "don't initiate force or fraud" is a very good general principle. Procederal rules are the rules by which the substantive rules are enforced.

The best procedural rules do not in and of themselves follow this libertarian principle of the substantive law. Effective law enforcement involves very coercive acts: arrest, imprisonment, distraint of goods, searches and seizures, involuntary summoning of defendants and witnesses and jurors, and so on. Insisting that procedural law must follow the same principles as good substantive law is a profound mistake. You will end up with a very poorly enforced substantive law that does not implement the principles it aspires to.

Good procedural law must distinguish proper law enforcement from the physically identical crime or tort: arrest and imprisonment from kidnapping, distraint of goods from theft, legal searches from trespassing, execution from murder. It must do so in the face of often profound uncertainty over whether the target of law enforcement has in fact violated the substantive law by initiating force or fraud.

I'll be blogging much more on this in the future. Indeed, who may coerce whom, when, where, why, and how is one of the central themes of Unenumerated.