THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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Guest Post: Violence can make us good

In order to be "good" we must be making a choice - a choice based upon logical, higher-order thought as opposed to instinctive reaction/habit/lower level heuristic thought. Most of the time, we do not make choices - we act from habit, we react in accordance to the rules of lower-level thought. It is often difficult to make a choice.

People respond to incentives. Actions which are a response to physical incentives cannot themselves be considered good. The incentive for a good action must come from elsewhere. It is therefore not possible for us to force people to be good directly - but it is possible for us to use force to compel the lower order mind into creating the conditions in which thought and goodness are possible/easier.

For while responding to physical incentives is not good, it does not follow that we should constantly fight our lower level mind. It is not necessary for us all to be ascetics. Further, without certain social and physical conditions, thought itself is impossible.

So violence can make us good in the sense that; our actions are not totally (or even largely) based on rationality, that the conditions surrounding us affect our ability to be rational, that the conditions surrounding us are largely determined by other people and that unthinking people can be affected by both positive and negative (violent) incentives.

Comments

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Mark

OK!

Tom

Until you wrote the delightfully unexpected phrase in this comment "perhaps some constitutional limit upon government power", every word you have ever written here, in comments or in your guest posts, would have involved *more* taxation and a *bigger* state. I would be delighted to read a guest post from you in which you set out ways to make the state smaller and limit its power.

Mark

I don`t think our argument has really been about the form which institutions should take, but rather whether such institutions are morally and practically valid, or if we must instead rely upon individual agency.
If you don`t disagree with the idea that social institutions can make life better for people, I don`t really see why you so vehemently disagree with me.

Hmmmm... I don't think I *am* representing those extremes of government power which you regard as a threat to your way of life. I am representing, what I consider to be, a realistic view of the world, while opposing exactly the same extremes of government power which you oppose.
We don`t all have to believe that the "non-aggression principle" is the be-all and end-all of morality in order to oppose excesses of government power.

Mark

By institutions, I mean - parliamentary democracy, perhaps with some degree of direct democracy, perhaps some constitutional limit upon governmental power, the rule of law, a constitutional monarchy...etc.
I'm pretty conservative. The only major changes which I would propose would be a rationalisation of the benefits system through a citizens basic income and a new constitutional law (similar to the one in Japan which they are sadly planning to get rid of) which makes military aggression illegal.

Moggsy

Mark, People often make decisions using rational logic. So they are "rational" from that point of view, but they may be applying logic to someone els's faulty logic, or reasoning based on false information.

So, if you believe in the existence of magic as an example and it's ability to impact reality, then, even if your logic is constient the results of that logical process won't necesarily model reality.

I do worry that many people use a much simpler system of "reasoning".

They they just accept whatever they are told, without any question (because that might involve hard work) and then think "Ummm... Is there some 'good' (immediate reward) in this for me? ..or some 'bad' (tiny chance of some disadvantage to me... ever)?

Tom

The doctor analogy is flawed. Firstly, we don't trust them unquestioningly unless we are utter simpletons. Our trust is conditional, based on proven qualifications, experience and reputation within certain specialisations. Because I trust a surgeon to cut me doesn't mean I would let him manage my money or service my car.

In a country where the constitution is effectively three words; "Parliament is sovereign" we are called upon to trust politicians completely and unconditionally with all aspects of our lives. I don't. Perhaps I should, but nothing you have written here on this or any other occasion has increased my willingness to try. Quite the contrary.

I *do* believe institutions can limit power. The US Constitution has done so very effectively for a long time. Britain has NO SUCH INSTITUTIONS. You do realise that?

I find it very amusing that you should apply the word "liberal" to yourself. You DO represent the forces in my society that wish to deploy state violence to modify non-violent and non-fraudulent behaviour. Those forces are my only enemies. I regard the threat from terrorism to my life, health and liberty, for example, as significantly lower and more remote than the corresponding threats from the British Government. As to more common criminal threats - the British police have solved precisely none of the many crimes I have suffered in my life.

I asked you to write a post justifying state violence and you have done so in very clear terms. You are at least honest, unlike the former senior civil servant I met recently who cloaked his authoritarianism with bullshit about "social contracts" and "consent".

Navigator

This is close to a deeply dangerous statement. What is it you mean?

It is absolutely possible, and should be the minimum we aspire to, to always do the right thing, make good choices, and live a moral and just life. It is only through doing so that we can achieve our potential. That is why one must develop good habits. It is not easy at times, but it is absolutely possible. It is all up to each of us. If your comment suggests that we from time to time call upon moral guides to inform us what is right, then I would agree. What do you mean by social institutions?

Andrew

""Nature" is always the first resort of those who wish to propose something evil - they want to convince us we do not have a choice."

????

I was offering a possible explanation as to why things are the way they are.

You're the one looking to remove choice through the imposition of a state, not me.

"You reply... Yes there should be a division of labour... Some people should be the state... But that has nothing to do with whether there should be a state."

No, I very clearly did not say that.

A market does not become a state simply because it's offering a service the state used to.

"Some would suggest that the "free-market" produces monopolies..."

But that myth's being destroyed so many times they'd have to be simple in the head to bring it up again.

And if the person was serious about monopolies, the last thing they'd suggest is a state, as a monopoly on violence is the most dangerous monopoly of all.

Mark

I find that any statement involving the words "evolutionary psycology" is aways suspect.
At best it is a tautology.... In the present, I certainly have no need to work in order to survive until tomorrow, and I don't see how working beyond the need for essential necessities could have evolved in the short time frame we are talking about. Really and truely... It's all social.
Please just stop with the... "evolution dictates that Matk must go to the office" stuff.,, it's ridiculous
"Nature" is always the first resort of those who wish to propose something evil - they want to convince us we do not have a choice.

"That's the division of labour and you won't find many people who'd argue against it. It's a key economic driver...But it's got nothing to do with whether certain services should be provided by the state or the market."

The context of the statement was whether it was sensible to agree that there should be a division of labour with respect to some people becoming the "state". You reply... Yes there should be a division of labour... Some people should be the state... But that has nothing to do with whether there should be a state.

"Yeah, you can probably go and find counter-examples. But the trend is clear: Monopolies produce worse results."

Some would suggest that the "free-market" produces monopolies...

Andrew

"I hope that was a joke. I might as well crack heads open and feast upon the goodness within."

No. It was a long time ago when I was taught about it, but I think I recall correctly.

And yes, the instructor did state that most people go through life in a zombie like state.

"we simply don't have time to think about everything, which means we need to rely on institutions which support those who do have time to think about political issues and controls on those who do have power."

That's the division of labour and you won't find many people who'd argue against it. It's a key economic driver.

But it's got nothing to do with whether certain services should be provided by the state or the market.

"OK... I don't think that that is always true."

Yeah, you can probably go and find counter-examples. But the trend is clear: Monopolies produce worse results.

Mark


"Nice."
Thanks. It seemed like a pretty powerful point until I thought about it.

****"Whether we think or not has nothing to do with whether our actions are rational?
Why not?"

Of course it does. I just offered one example to demonstrate it's not always the case.

Over the last four years I've changed a lot of my habits, I still do things without thinking but now they're more rational things.
****

In the context of this conversation, I don't think it is helpful to designate *habits* which may have at some point, have been initially based upon rational decision as "rational" in and of themselves. By rationality, in this post, I don't mean " consistent with reality" or "sensible", I mean "a direct product of rational thought". As such, you can't clasify habit as rational.

****"Maybe that explains why I still go to work every day..."

I believe it's evolutionary psychology. You go to work everyday because doing so lets you survive to the next day.***

I hope that was a joke. I might as well crack heads open and feast upon the goodness within.


****It's possible to break the habit, many have (including myself), but you need to believe not just that you don't like it, but that you have a viable alternative.
****
OK

***"most people do not act rationally and that our system of property rights still requires further reform.... and that therefore there is still a broader role for government."

So most people do not act rationally, therefore other people should tell them what to do.
***
Yep... not just tell them though - make them.

***"If we don't understand medicine, how can we judge whether someone who claims to be a doctor is treating us right?"

As you say, we judge based on outcomes.

And the reason I became a libertarian was that government doesn't produce the best outcomes.****


In comparison to what?


***"The answer of course is that we can rely upon institutions which have proven to produce reasonabl results an attempt gradual reform based upon knowledg and rational thought...
right?"

You called me on what you saw as manipulative language. But you're using words like "government" and "institutions" when it's just people. They're either rational, or they're not. There's no magic process which elevates those working for the state to a higher level than the rest of us.***

That's only the case if you believe that people must *always* be rational or irrational. Personally, I believe that people are capable of rationality but generally are not. This makes perfect sense from the evolutionary perspective - we simply don't have time to think about everything, which means we need to rely on institutions which support those who do have time to think about political issues and controls on those who do have power.

"proven to produce reasonabl results"

Even if I accept that (which I do not), markets produce better results. You can clearly see the closer an industry is to the state, the worse it is.

OK... I don't think that that is always true.

Andrew

"We have here what I like to call "two unrelated assertions made in close proximity to give the impression of mutual support"."

Nice. I'm making quick, short comments on a blog post.

"Whether we think or not has nothing to do with whether our actions are rational?
Why not?"

Of course it does. I just offered one example to demonstrate it's not always the case. Over the last four years I've changed a lot of my habits, I still do things without thinking but now they're more rational things.

"The fact that people might make decisions based upon their beliefs, doesn't mean that they are rational."

As I said in the very next paragraph.

"Maybe that explains why I still go to work every day..."

I believe it's evolutionary psychology. You go to work everyday because doing so lets you survive to the next day.

It's possible to break the habit, many have (including myself), but you need to believe not just that you don't like it, but that you have a viable alternative.

"most people do not act rationally and that our system of property rights still requires further reform.... and that therefore there is still a broader role for government."

So most people do not act rationally, therefore other people should tell them what to do.

"If we don't understand medicine, how can we judge whether someone who claims to be a doctor is treating us right?"

As you say, we judge based on outcomes.

And the reason I became a libertarian was that government doesn't produce the best outcomes.

"The answer of course is that we can rely upon institutions which have proven to produce reasonabl results an attempt gradual reform based upon knowledg and rational thought...
right?"

You called me on what you saw as manipulative language. But you're using words like "government" and "institutions" when it's just people. They're either rational, or they're not. There's no magic process which elevates those working for the state to a higher level than the rest of us.

"proven to produce reasonabl results"

Even if I accept that (which I do not), markets produce better results. You can clearly see the closer an industry is to the state, the worse it is.

Mark

"But social institutions are created and run by "us". They are just "us" writ large. There is no supply of pure-minded aliens to staff them. Surely therefore we should not be surprised when they amplify, rather than eliminate, our faults?"

I don't see how this contradicts my "doctor" argument given above. We trust certain people to take certain roles within society - If it is their job to consider these things and there are institutions in place to ensure that they do so, then presumably they will - that is specialisation. Now, you might claim that the role of politician is particurly dangerous (though in practical fact, surely no more dangerous than a doctor?) but where is the evidence that we can never have mass-institutions which are preferable to complete individualism?

Of course, there are dangers in the political class being the ultimate judge of all rules - but I view this as an argument for a division of powers rather than one for complete anarchism.

" The main problem is, firstly, that you can't prevent poor choices made by flawed humans by giving those choices to other flawed humans with no personal interest in the outcome. Secondly public election, so far from identifying unflawed humans, seems rather to attract highly flawed ones."

Isn't this just the same point as the one given above? I mean... almost exactly... the same point as the one above.

"they are just us writ large --- you can't prevent poor choices by humans by giving chices to other humans."

"we should not be surprised when (institutions chosen by us) amplify our faults--- public elections seem to attract highly flawed humans"

Again,where is he contradiction of the "doctor" point?


"Corruption is a problem if anyone is given too much power over others."

I agree.


"Give me absolute power over you and - virtuous though I aspire to be - I cannot guarantee I would not play with you like a cat with a mouse before giving you the freedom you are so keen to deny me. I am human too and you are - after all - the living representation of every evil in my life."
I am a moderate liberal. What on earth are ou talking about? This passage is shameful and i true indicitive of slight mental illness.

"The state in Britain has absolute power. To convince anyone here you will need to answer Juvenal's old question quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Since sometimes when you say "we" and "us" you mean everyone and sometimes you mean an elite group of guardians to which you seem to think you belong, this seems problematic for you."

Only God has absolute power, Tom. If you don't believe that institutions can limit power, then what possible hope could there be for libertarianism?

Tom

But social institutions are created and run by "us". They are just "us" writ large. There is no supply of pure-minded aliens to staff them. Surely therefore we should not be surprised when they amplify, rather than eliminate, our faults?

Yes, the powers granted to them (a subset of us) by "us" lead to corruption, but that is not even the primary objection. It is just a symptom of the flawed reasoning that underlies them. The main problem is, firstly, that you can't prevent poor choices made by flawed humans by giving those choices to other flawed humans with no personal interest in the outcome. Secondly public election, so far from identifying unflawed humans, seems rather to attract highly flawed ones.

Corruption is a problem if anyone is given too much power over others. Give me absolute power over you and - virtuous though I aspire to be - I cannot guarantee I would not play with you like a cat with a mouse before giving you the freedom you are so keen to deny me. I am human too and you are - after all - the living representation of every evil in my life.

The state in Britain has absolute power. To convince anyone here you will need to answer Juvenal's old question quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Since sometimes when you say "we" and "us" you mean everyone and sometimes you mean an elite group of guardians to which you seem to think you belong, this seems problematic for you.

Mark

It's impossible for us to think about everything all the time which is why we must rely upon social institutions to guide us.

Mark


"I didn't really have to think about driving down town this morning as I've done it so many times before. But that's got nothing to do with whether it's rational or not."

"People make decisions based on their values and what they believe to be true."


We have here what I like to call "two unrelated assertions made in close proximity to give the impression of mutual support".
Whether we think or not has nothing to do with whether our actions are rational?
Why not?
The fact that people might make decisions based upon their beliefs, doesn't mean that they are rational. That surely depends upon why they believe things. In fact, I'm not even convinced that the majority of people do actually do things largely on the basis of what they believe to be true. Personally, I generally act according to habit, even if I believe what I am doing to be mistaken. Maybe that explains why I still go to work every day...

Anyway, I think that there are two different arguments here which I want to address and which easily get confused - firstly the moral issue with respect to government intervention - the idea that if each person is assumed to make a rational choice then the legitimate space for government action is limited to preventing deliberate infringements on other people's liberty - I think the non-aggression principle is a version of this - and secondly the practical argument that either (1) (the market extremist view) that unhindered rational humans will always produce the best or most efficient outcome or (2) that no matter the problems with respect to individuals, it is simply impossible for the government to improve the outcome due to corruption; an amplification of the existing flaws of individuals on a larger and less controllable scale.
My view of the moral issue is that if each person were acting rationally and if we cold establish property rights which were generally acceptable to most rational people that this would basically be true... but also that in fact, most people do not act rationally and that our system of property rights still requires further reform.... and that therefore there is still a broader role for government.

My view of practical issue (1) is that it is not really reality based and of (2) that it is based upon real concerns which I share, but that I see absolutely no reason to give up entirely on reforms of the institutions of law and government and instead resort to total anarchism.
It sounds to me a little like "people in general are ignorant of medicine... so how can anyone claim to be a doctor....? If we don't understand medicine, how can we judge whether someone who claims to be a doctor is treating us right?"
The answer of course is that we can rely upon institutions which have proven to produce reasonabl results an attempt gradual reform based upon knowledg and rational thought...
right?

Diogenes

You have a higher threshold for evil than me.

Not thinking or caring about other people's consequences is the defining characteristic of evil.

Andrew

I didn't really have to think about driving down town this morning as I've done it so many times before. But that's got nothing to do with whether it's rational or not.

People make decisions based on their values and what they believe to be true.

And naturally people - all of us - make mistakes because our values and beliefs aren't always correct.

Which is a far greater problem for the statist than the anarchist (any type):

If people can make bad decisions, how do we know they'll make the right one when it comes to government?

And all government is, is a group of people (those same people who can make bad decisions).

Plus, when in government their incentives change (meaning what's rational for them changes), for example they're now spending other people's money on other people.

And if an individual makes a bad decision it only affects them, and maybe their family and a few other people. But when government makes a bad decision it affects an entire population, those who agreed with it and those who fought against it.

When it comes to overturning a bad decision, most of the time an individual can easily change his mind. That's not so for government as there might be jobs, votes, money, etc. on the line.

So if you don't think people are rational, then it's too dangerous to have government. If you do, then there's no need for one anyway.

Mark

This is actually a good demonstration of what I am talking about - most people don't think at all about their vote - it isn't rational- it's a matter of habit (the rational ones don't vote at all). If we could create a system, create laws which would make people act more rationally we might have a better system of government and we then... underpants gnomes... we might be better able to live as free individuals...

Mark

By the way, there is a very definate difference between evil and unthinking - evil requires a choice.
It might at times be evil to choose not to think about certain things...

Mark

Sorry to disappoint, but I'm actually a daily mail man.
To be honest, I don't think there are any major newspapers which wouldn't share the "statist" thinking outlined here...
I personally think that the (tending towards) anarcho-capitalist wing of the libertarian blogosphere is being a little optimistic in their view of how rational people actually are - I know I very rarely think about anything I do.

Mark

Well, that's a different question - certainly, a comcentration of power will always be dangerous, "bad" ideas might be worse than nothing at all - as such we'll always need a seperation of powers. Presumably those whose job it is to think about laws will be thinking rationally about it. - ideally in a representative democracy, voters would stir themselves to think rationally for the short while it takes to elect a trusted representative who could make sensible legislation.
Obviously withh the current party political system this is very far from the case, though I suppose our democracy might act as a limitation on the most flagrent abuses of power - though checking the news I'm not so sure it does...

Diogenes

Admirably honest if terrifying post.

It is telling that the statist mind, which ostensibly represents the most disadvantages in society, is in fact just scared of the lumpen proles and wants them controlled and diverted from their evil nature.

Neatly encapsulates the modern Guardian reader.

Moggsy

The KGB, Stasi and Gestapo all found ways, and where there is State will (der Wille zur Macht?), there is always a way.

Tom

It also leaves open the question of how the kindly über-menschen are to be identified and selected to exercise violent power over (and, of course for the benefit of) the unter-menschen. How will Mark's "mostly irrational" citizens choose their masters?

Moggsy

I don't really agree that in order to "be good" we can't be acting "instinctively". I expect human "instincts" are pretty modified by experience and mind anyhow, how instinctive are they? People will just react to try to save life. They don't necesary go through some laborious shall I shan't I? thing, but maybe there is thought involved? maybe it is not hard wired then built into the latest version of the human bios ^_^

I can also see this might apply to switching a kid. Someone not reponsible for themselves.

The touble is it also might justify state coercion... obviously for what the state sees as the unthinking citizens (practically children really) own "ultimate good"... and you know? That might not necesarily be what an informed citizen would agree was their own ultimate good.

Authoritarianism? Paternalism?

And honestly? That makes me so suspicious of the logic/motives behind the post. Tell me I am wrong.

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