89 Comments

Divorcing virtue from consequences allows incompetent people to feel virtuous.

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“Drained dry” of what? Unemployment?

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I think they aren't wrong, it's that they half wrong. It does matter what side you are on, but it also matters whether you are right or wrong. Good ideas can be used in the service of evil, there are no excaliburs among them. When we look at the accrual of wealth, money is a 'good' but not good. Because of that, accrual of wealth can be an evil, if it is used for evil. The risk of being right but not on the right side (or not caring what side you are on;) is that your ideas get recuperated and used against you.

There is also ultimately no distinction between being on the right side and being right, if you take the notion of God-as-logos seriously; the all-powerful is the source and creator of truth, being on his side (rather than him being on your side) in that case is what matters. One reason to think of most ideology as a bolt-in replacement for the religious impulse (esp. Marxism!)

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Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy is a superb exploration of a lot of themes relevant to this discussion. That's far to the left (and sympathetic to anarchism) comes through clearly -- all the pro-market characters are pretty horrible people, for example, while the anarchists are fun loving people you'd want to hang out with -- but the virtue of that trilogy is that he takes all the ideas seriously and tries to fairly present the conflict of ideas, even if his thumb strays on to the scale from time to time. Since then, however, his writing has gotten pretty boring because he's standing on the scale, holding weights, to tip it in the direction he wants, which is a tedious left wing fantasy world. Red Mars (the first in the trilogy) is particularly good - I've used it as a reading in a Liberty Fund colloquium (on "Mars as the New Utopia") and it provoked excellent conversations.

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Yes, labeling someone as evil is a convenient way to dismiss them without addressing whether they are right or wrong. An evil person can certainly be right about something, just as a good person can be wrong. Their “moral” qualities do not make them impervious to mistaken notions.

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My reaction to this is to suggest that I try to be more like a fox than a hedgehog.

I don't think it's possible to come up with a _single_ philosophical derivation of ethics that solves the problem of telling everyone what is right in a way that will seem obviously right/valid to all. I think people have come up with several, and they all fail in corner cases, if not worse than that.

I also think that going with "which side are you on" is likely to cause more harm - "evil", if you will - than following most reasonable ethical ideals.

Add to that a problem of values. People tend to have many values in common, but some are just plain contradictory. One culture's "rugged individualist" is another culture's dangerous (and probably insane) non-conformist. With others it's "just" a matter of emphasis, but that can in practice create a huge gulf.

Add to this that just about any halfway intelligent human can come up with a rigorous-seeming ethical justification for just about anything they wanted to do in the first place - or for something that someone they really like has been caught doing.

So I want multiple viewpoints on any important decision, not to derive it from any general principle. Government is not always bad. Capitalism is not always bad. Private property is not always bad. But sometimes each of them blows up spectacularly. Sometimes autocracy works at least as well as any available alternative, for more than just the autocrats. etc. etc. Mostly it ought to be a matter of cases and compromise.

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I always likened this line of thinking to the Plato/Socrates idea that no person does wrong willingly. The implication being that 'evil' is borne of ignorance, not vice. I always enjoyed those dialogues; I think it's a good lesson.

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I spent decades occasionally trying to explain my politics. I suppose anarcho-capitalist leavened by enlightened self-interest trying to foresee outcomes/results 4-5 order effects. Of course that explained little to them, but it generally confused them enough to leave me alone.

I well remember returning to grad school (at age 40+) and being asked by another (young, female) grad student what my "political beliefs" were. I told her the truth. Basically I was/am an anarchist who believes that everyone has a profit motive whether they know it or not. She then asked, "But what about the Free Rider Problem?" I replied that I didn't have a free rider problem, because if I wanted something done, I either convinced enough others of the benefit to themselves and they helped, or I did it myself and didn't worry about who benefited other than me. For instance. Say I'm a farmer in 1820. I need/want a bridge across a deep creek to shorten my walk to the market. No others are willing to help, so I drop a large tree across the creek and thus shorten my walk. Later I find that others are using "my" tree. Are my choices to cut down the tree from across the creek and thus reverting to the old distance, stand guard with a gun and demand payment for anyone using "my" tree, or ignoring the 'trespass' and telling my neighbors I'm glad they appreciate my work? I pick number 3.

In practice in my actual life, I've found that doing things myself and ignoring any "free rider" problem I have received more than the value of my acts in return.

I don't know how that would work over a very large population, but I'd be willing to take a shot at it.

It works incredibly well in the Plain Communities, but they tend to limit the size to around 300 adults, and to 'bud' another community when they reach or exceed that number.

I think I believe (still unsure) that the problem with the Free Rider Problem is that the usual fix requires a large, centralized score-keeping mechanism that is worse than the problem.

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One time I was arguing with someone about judging people not by their sides but by their actions, I got told "If you don't take this side you will be easily corrupted by the other side".

What more can I say ?

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This is a very minor tangent. But it always strikes me as interesting that Dr. Friedman is the only one I ever see use the word “webbed” to describe something posted on the internet. I never see anyone else use that term in that way. I’m mildly curious if my circle of usage is unusual or if his usage is.

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My apologies, I didn't realize I had any incentive to actually read you.

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In my experience, there are people who are sincerely well-intentioned but wrong supporting some political philosophy, but there are also people who support some political philosophy because they have some ulterior motive (which is what I call evil). The latter may well include libertarians and proprietarian anarchists, by the way; these tend to be scammers and frauds, when sincere and "political entrepreneurs" when they are insincere (for instance, I have doubts about Javier Milei of Argentina).

While "evil" people (as per above) always consider those who disagrees with them as either stupid or evil, unfortunately -- as you write -- some well-intentioned people also, regrettably, do it. Even some with whom I agree on most things, except this. Furthermore, I find this attitude of getting angry at one's opponents to be counterproductive in the task of persuasion and spreading the word.

There are, I believe, sound evolutionary reasons why humans tend not to consider the arguments of those whom they consider to be enemies: the enemy might be smarter than us and might successfully deceive us. Therefore, if we want to persuade someone to change their mind, it is important not to trigger their friend-or-foe identification system and paint ourselves as "the enemy", which is often made more difficult by memeplexes that teach that everybody that disagrees with them are enemies as a matter of memetic immune reaction. Getting angry at one's opponents beliefs, implying that they are either evil or stupid to believe what they do is very unhelpful and likely to trip their "enemy" mode even if they would otherwise listen.

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I don't feel comfortable lumping together the likes of Wolff (as you describe him), with Rothbard.

While I don't always agree with Rothbard, I think he and his camp score higher on intellectual humility.

(By the way, I think that's one of the reasons the extreme left has more political success, they prioritize intellectual unity within their ranks).

Also, Rothbard tries to develop a deontological ethical system, where consequences play a secondary role, while the emotional left is within the consequential framework (with a lot of confused thinking e.g. Rawls).

This makes the difference between the two camps vivid.

On the one side, the emotional left with its "ends justify the means" running over and over into the wall of disastrous ends followed by "not real communism" cries.

On the other side, the emotional Rothbardians with "ends NEVER justify the means" inadvertently promoting good consequences without even trying too much.

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Another enjoyable and civil foray - muchas gracias. Seems from my low perch that one of the great examples of this kind of problem is exemplified by Rousseau, the seminal inspiration for so much left-leaning discourse. We who survived the Cold War all know about the miserable track record of command economies and the horrors that accompanied them. I grew up dipped in the critiques on offer in my dad’s copies of National Review, and WFB had no qualms about tracing the toxicity of it all back to Rousseau’s doorstep. There is something to that but as arguments go it also suffered from de-contextualization in much the same way leftist advocacy of its own ideals did. (Yes, when Monsieur Rousseau wrote an awful lot of people actually lived in chains, though that evil practice had been much diminished by the late 20th century.) Would it be fair to hold that our vaunted powers of reason, despite our hubris, never succeed in catching-up to our capacity for self-delusion, homicide, etc.? And that the tenacity of this dynamic is reason enough to be wary of whatever comprehensive solutions they think of next? Asking for a friend.

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I think there’s an argument for moral realism in here. You seem to be arguing that the real disagreements are not over which outcomes we want, but which institutions produce those outcomes. I think this is true because I think morality is real. Unfortunately, moral realism has become seen, by much of western culture, as morally wrong! This is a recipe for the tribalism you are describing. The moment a person tries to conceptualize morality, they are “committing the sin of moral realism. I think western elites consider moral realism to be wrong because if you DID have the real moral truth, wouldn’t that be an argument for things like empire and crushing freedom of religion and freedom of speech? Since those things are obviously wrong, the implicit logic says, “moral realism must be wrong.”

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I wish life were generally as simple as in the time of the old song (Which Side are You On?) about the miners, when you had to be a union man and not a lousy scab. That old song is more meaningful to most people than the metaphysics of morals, not only because Kant is so hard to read but also because people simply know without Kant what's fair and what's not. People also know that they are part of a bargain in which they are willing to trade a certain amount of fairness for other goods, even if it is mere stability, for instance. The fair point Wolff and Rothbard could be making, instead of writing a silly diatribe about the requirement for hating the state, is that human nature does not deal well with purely cosequentislist considerations when profound injustice or evil is being perceived and felt. Human dignity has been upheld through many acts of futility and you will often fail to convince people that surrender to the bully is the most dignified option based on your calculations.

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