Saturday, May 09, 2009

The bankruptcy of moral libertarianism: In the post on world attitudes toward homosexuality, the argument emerged that there is nothing wrong with family members having sex if they're adults and it's consensual. So if Daddy and Daughter want to go at it, who can complain?

Of course, such bankrupt thinking comes from moral libertarianism: as long as other people are not victimized by your actions, anything you want to do is fine. Let's see how many acts I can think of in 30 seconds that are defined as good by this standard:

1. Using tin snips to cut off all your fingers one knuckle at a time.
2. Being a drug addict.
3. Killing someone because they wanted you to because they thought it would be fun for you.
4. Setting up a guillotine and cutting off your own head.
5. Eating your friend's feces for breakfast every morning.
6. Branding yourself with the words, "I am retard who likes to brand myself."
7. Deciding sex with Mom wasn't enough, so you talk Grandma into it. Then Grandpa.
8. Being in charge of the Kool-Aid at the cult party.

Oops, my 30 seconds is up. Just think Chuck Palahniuk, and you'll get the idea.

31 comments:

padraig said...

wow this is the stupidest argument against moral libertarianism i've ever heard.

and i'm not even a libertarian. i'm more of a paleocon.

it's on par with those who criticize traditional conservative morality by arguing that it leads to Naziism and genocide.

i understand your frustration with the severe moral and political autism that libertarianism can seem to drift towards, but i think your points are just a poor caricature of moral libertarianism.

Ron Guhname said...

Pay attention. I am not arguing that moral libertarianism will lead to my examples. I am arguing that they are good acts as defined by the standard.

Whiskey said...

I think the more developed argument against moral libertarianism is this:

1. Certain tried and true moral systems of society produce the most prosperity, peace, social development, and material progress.

2. Those systems are the tradtional Judeo-Christian nuclear family, mixed with what could be called "Middle classness"

3. All other systems have been proven to produce inferior results in public outcomes, i.e. peace, security, prosperity, and material progress.

4. Therefore, any mature system would prefer the moral system that "works" versus one that does not.

Jason said...

"I am arguing that they are good acts as defined by the standard."

Your argument rests on a straw man built from a false dichotomy and an equivocation. "Not wrong" is not the same thing as "right". And "right" in the moral sense is not the same thing as "good" in the utilitarian sense. There are plenty of morally neutral acts. Which vary greatly in value from a utilitarian perspective.

Moralists are just people who suffer from a poverty of judgment. They panic at the loss of moral standards because they have no others. Do you really need an authority figure in a funny hat to tell you not to eat your own shit, or cut your own fingers off knuckle by knuckle, or buy a house in Vegas with an adjustable rate mortgage?

Blode0322 said...

What's going on here is just the five dimensions of conservative moral thought (harm, in-group, fairness, purity, and authority) conflicting with the two dimensions of liberal moral thought (harm and fairness). This is really a pretty rigid impasse and may not be tractable with a few comments.

Let me share a vignette from my liberal days:
I used to play volleyball in grade school. Whether the ball landed in bounds or out of bounds was the most important thing in every game, the thing which got both teams shouting (and jumping around a lot more than merely playing the game). When asked my opinion, I sided with the other team about half the time. I was thinking about fairness and ignoring in-group like a good liberal. I am pretty sure my teammates had less fun because of it.

Blode0322 said...

One thing we haven't yet talked about is the size of the polity. Conservatives tend to be less centralist than liberals. They seem to want to preserve in-group, purity, and authority for their state, while liberals seem to want to burn those things to the ground nationally or globally. (Yes, I wrote that with a strong conservative bias, and I'll not be the slightest annoyed if a liberal wants to rewrite it.)

I wonder if, like me, Ron G. wouldn't mind so much if his list of Grody Things Liberals Don't Want to Ban was happening in faraway lands, or maybe even a few states over. These aren't the kind of things I see the Inductivist Army intervening in Brunei to stop, but as we've seen the Inductivist Police Force may well intervene to stop them in the next town over.

(I agree about opposing the army intervention but I'm ambivalent about the police on several of the mentioned Grody Things. The Blode Police would stop children from doing these things - I bet most liberals would agree with me on that - but the argument against letting adults do these things is that they're obviously insane, and that's the crux of my ambivalence. I'd still probably stop 3, 7, and 8.)

The point is, national and state borders are supposed to help us coexist, and to the degree we centralize, the impasses will pop up again. So from a harm and fairness perspective, all the liberals should abandon globalism and embrace states' right (and social democrats in Europe should turn away from European unification).

Did I convert anybody?

Jon Jon said...

“I think the more developed argument against moral libertarianism is this:

1. Certain tried and true moral systems of society produce the most prosperity, peace, social development, and material progress.”

But the exchange often gets only this far and no farther.

A Sample Exchange:

L: Incest between consenting sterile adults should be legal.

C: Are you crazy! We have laws on the books against that sort of thing!

L: But why should we? Where is the harm?

C: You’re nuts. It’s not a matter of harm. It’s a matter of established law -- tradition. Where is the benefit?

L: But slavery was a tradition established in law at one time ...


And so it goes.

Jewish Atheist said...

I agree with Blode about the difference between conservative and liberal moral thought. I also agree with Jason about your false dichotomy. "Good" is not identical to "not necessarily immoral."

I can think of reasons why some of the actions you mention (voluntary killing, suicide, and the Kool Aid) could be immoral but I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a moral argument against eating your friend's feces. Are you really claiming that's *immoral?* Why?

Here's my much milder straw man of your position: "If Ron Gunhame thinks something is icky or if it makes him uncomfortable, it's immoral." Do I have that right?

Jewish Atheist said...

Sorry, "Guhname."

Pro-Infanticide Liberal said...

9. You give birth to a healthy child by yourself(the father was not made aware of the pregnancy). A few days have passed since the delivery but neither you nor anyone else has formed an emotional bond with the child. You quickly and painlessly snap the infant's neck and dispose of the body.

Logically, why would this be considered "wrong"?

Ron Guhname said...

Jason: "Moralists are just people who suffer from a poverty of judgment. They panic at the loss of moral standards because they have no others."

Every society in history has had moral rules of right and wrong--without exception. No society ever simply relied on members' individual judgments. Even the most capable person constantly follows the norms of his society. Those norms range in their moral weight from very weak to very strong, but they are moral in nature nevertheless.

Some people might avoid smoking because they've read the medical research, but people also avoid it because it's bad; because Americans have generally decided it is something you shouldn't do. Ideas like this become social mores. Even with a medical matter, there is a moral dimension. And in this case, the man in a funny hat had on a white lab coat instead. He has MORAL authority.

Any person who can even talk about how only disabled people need norms must be an alien who is impersonating a human being.

Jewish Atheist said...

9. You give birth to a healthy child by yourself(the father was not made aware of the pregnancy). A few days have passed since the delivery but neither you nor anyone else has formed an emotional bond with the child. You quickly and painlessly snap the infant's neck and dispose of the body.

Logically, why would this be considered "wrong"?
That wasn't (and probably isn't) considered "wrong" in some societies. In our society, killing innocent people (defined as post-birth people) is generally considered "wrong."

Is it really a shock to you that your personal morals aren't universal across space and time? Or that they aren't objectively correct?

Blode0322 said...

Is it really a shock to you that your personal morals aren't universal across space and time? Or that they aren't objectively correct? - Jewish Atheist

(Perilous though it may be, I'm going to speak for Ron Guhname here, partly because I dig him and partly because, if I'm wrong, he can correct me.) I surmise that Ron is keenly aware that his personal morals are far from universal, and keenly aware of the hazards that creates. (And of course I'm sure Ron is familiar enough with Hume to know that his morals are not objectively correct. He's not a child.)

Let's say we move to a sexually libertarian (you could say libertine) regimen. Consenting adults do all sorts of weird stuff. A child is exposed to thirty different moralities, and an adolescent is exposed to thirty different sexual moralities.

The young tend to choose their moralities more on what feels good than anything else. If someone says you can have sex in the back of a car and someone says you can't, which morality do horny teenagers usually choose? Liberals ask conservatives to predict exactly what harm or unfairness will result from this, and the conservatives reply that their morality is based on diffuse knowledge rather than explicit propositions. Needless to say, this means little to the liberal rank-and-file.

So you get a bunch of teen pregnancy, and boys growing up without fathers, etc. At this point, nothing has happened except what adults have consented (except of course that a child doesn't have to consent to anything to be born into a fatherless household). The mothers explain the liberal concepts of harm and fairness and their sons go on a crime spree. Now even the liberals object, and try to confront crime by re-explaining harm and fairness.

"All you have to do," say the liberals, "is assess the effects of your actions. If your action causes an aggregate loss to society, you shouldn't do it!" The means a lot to upper-middle-class liberals, and less to urban street gangs. The conservatives reply that people should be taught that what is wrong, is wrong. The liberals reply that isn't objective, it isn't utilitarian, etc.

The liberals feel the conservatives are treating urban street gangs like they are vicious barbarians who need to be hammered into behaving by swift and sure punishments, simple, mantra-like morality, and generally all sorts of paternalistic things. The conservatives agree.

An impasse, like I said.

Jewish Atheist said...

Blode:

So are you just saying that we should basically lie to children (that there is one version of morality and that it's objective) because we think it will have good results for the collective? That sounds almost socialist.

And then what happens when a generation of adults grows up with these lies but doesn't realize it when they get old enough, like the current Christian right? They believe the propaganda and then where are we? With a nation of imbeciles who think that homosexuality between consenting adults is really immoral.

Is that really the level of thinking you want to encourage among the citizenry?

Blode0322 said...

One of the things that causes leftism to cloud reality is the leftist claim of the "self-fulfilling prophecy". Conservatives claim that progress in certain directions leads us down the road to perdition. The leftists win control of the legislature because their explicit propositions always seem to defeat diffuse knowledge in the debates.

Progress happens, and we arrive at perdition. The conservatives say this proves they were right all along. The leftists say it was all a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that conservatives sabotaged everything.

So what about bastards? It was the marginalization of the conservative prediction, and the cashiering of the word "bastard", which caused the teen pregnancy wave of the 1970s. This caused the crime wave of 1990s. Had the prophecies been taken seriously, promiscuity would have been suppressed even when it doesn't seem unfair or harmful. But now the expectation that a fatherless child (a bastard) will act like a criminal (a bastard) seems surprising, even offensive.

Part of it is just that negative predictions by conservatives are always exaggerated by leftists. So if you say a fatherless child is more likely to be a criminal, the leftists will distort that into the notion that all fatherless children are criminals. (This is the kind of thing that makes me think leftists make terrible gamblers, but I have no evidence of that.) Conservatives want to stop activities which predictably lead to bad social outcomes; leftists seem content to deal after the fact ... after the conservative lower-middle class has moved to Salt Lake City, basically.

Jewish Atheist said...

Blode:

You didn't directly address my point. My point is that, while it may be (and probably is) true that fatherless boys are more likely to turn out criminal, it doesn't follow that premarital sex is immoral. (It also doesn't follow that abortion on demand is moral, which according to this line of reasoning, conservatives should be in favor of.)

So are you okay with basically lying to children (and to the undereducated, the followers, and the less intelligent) in order to achieve what you hope are better outcomes? Is that what you're advocating? And then what happens when the followers become a powerful voting bloc?

Blode0322 said...

So are you just saying that we should basically lie to children (that there is one version of morality and that it's objective) because we think it will have good results for the collective? That sounds almost socialist. - Jewish Atheist

That version does indeed sound fairly socialistic. Socialism projected into a very small polity doesn't bother me, nor should it bother any conservative. Still, when I hear conservatives talking to their children I don't hear any lies. They don't use the term "objective". I don't think valuing purity, in-group loyalty, and authority are lies.

And I don't know where you're getting the "one version of morality" language. Sectarian conservatives generally want their kids to continue in the same sect, and to do so requires some distinguishing of the moralities. We do this, they do that. I can't imagine teaching children morality without doing that (although I'm not sectarian).

If my children ask me what it is like in Somalia, after a certain age I'll tell them what they do to little girls there. At this point they'll probably talk like moral absolutists and/or cry. I'll just say, "They do that, we don't". If they ask how anyone could be so horrible, I'll tell them I don't know, but that we need to look to make our own community as just and happy as possible. A culture can be proud and noble and still have elements of barbarism within it, which is why when they hear about a date rape in North America, they should neither panic nor "mentally secede".

And then what happens when a generation of adults grows up with these lies but doesn't realize it when they get old enough, like the current Christian right? They believe the propaganda and then where are we?I don't know ... it seems like I here Christians having reasoned, polite debates about morality all the time. Some are sectarian enough to try to read each other out of the religion. Some of their rhetoric is harsh, but it will be much less harsh than what my children are going to say about Somalian grandmothers. Cross-propaganda doesn't bother me.

With a nation of imbeciles who think that homosexuality between consenting adults is really immoral. Is that really the level of thinking you want to encourage among the citizenry?Imbecile means someone who is wrong about the facts even after being exposed to them. I don't see how morality can have anything to do with that. Revulsion at homosexuality doesn't bother me ... I've heard a gay man or two express revulsion at women's bodies, and that didn't bother me either. People should be more reticent both about their sexual habits, and about their revulsion.

I feel the same way about food, actually. If someone wants to say pork or whatever is immoral, fine. It doesn't make him an imbecile. If he sits at my lunch table and describes how disgusting my meal is (let me switch from pork to seafood, to make it relevant to my personal experience), I consider that rude, but I'd try to avoid joining a table where he was already sitting.

This again points back to the "different cultures, different regions" principle. If a group (say, Islamic fundamentalists) is horribly offended by pork or girls' bare ankles, then maybe we shouldn't mix with them, or allow them to immigrate. If Christian fundamentalists are moving to your town and scaring the gays, you have every right to be angry (though your allies on the city council will lack the constitutional right to stop them, unless there are some major changes).

My guess, though, is that if there are a lot of men holding hands or women with "DYKE!" written on their t-shirts in your town, the Xtian fundies are moving away.

Blode0322 said...

You didn't directly address my point.Yeah, I type pretty slowly. By now I have responded to the "lying" point. Replies "crossing in the mail" is leading to confusion.

Premarital sex is not immoral per se, not in my book. Upper-middle class liberals do it all the time without unwanted pregnancy. Then their morals pass to the short-sighted, poor, and young, but their habits don't.

I don't believe European / Asian injunctions against non-marital sex were mainly buttressed by lies. They were simple injunctions based on authority and purity, and the cultures which made those injunctions were more successful, based on the outcomes I care about, than the promiscuous rest of the world.

European conservatives could have said, "If we allow promiscuity, in a few decades our girls will be piercing their genitalia with metal rods, generations of children will grow up depressed, feckless, and neurotic, and we'll have no will to stop Islamization," but you don't need a crystal ball to be a conservative. Much vaguer predictions, also true, were made, and no one believed them either.

Conservatives tend to believe that civilization is a fragile and poorly-understood machine, and that we should be cautious about pushing levers.

Jewish Atheist said...

Conservatives tend to believe that civilization is a fragile and poorly-understood machine, and that we should be cautious about pushing levers.If they expressed their beliefs this way, I'd be a lot more open to them. They tend to express them as "this is the one right way" and even "this is God's one way" though. In other words, they tend to express certainty rather than uncertainty -- the exact opposite of the position you outline.

As for the general theme of morality keeping civilization running smoothly, I think it's perhaps possible in small, isolated communities, but not in the diverse, connected world we now live in. Maybe that's why you guys are so worried about diversity, ultimately. But I think you're trying to turn back time by opening up a clock and pushing the hands backwards. You can't steer an entire culture by pushing morality from the top down. Morality comes from the bottom up in non-feudal societies.

Jason said...

"Every society in history has had moral rules of right and wrong--without exception. No society ever simply relied on members' individual judgments."

Not disputed. In fact, I'll go even farther: most societies have additional standards that have nothing to do with morality at all. These include - as other commenters have already pointed out - utility and group identity signaling. In fact, you provide a perfect example of this: your sola-morality appeals are a form of identity signaling. By saying "I judge only on the basis of morality", you're establishing yourself as one of the in-crowd to fellow members of the funny-hat club.

"Those norms range in their moral weight from very weak to very strong, but they are moral in nature nevertheless."

That's your assertion, but begs the question. Those who have no desire to join the funny-hat club are free to see several dimensions of judgment that are entirely orthogonal to morality.

"Any person who can even talk about how only disabled people need norms must be an alien who is impersonating a human being."

See? Group signaling. Us vs. the outsiders. Literally, aliens.

Blode0322 said...

If they expressed their beliefs this way, I'd be a lot more open to them.I express my beliefs that way a lot, out of habit. It is why I am a failure as a schoolteacher. Other teachers tell me, "Don't argue, that'll just encourage them to flout the rule," but most teenagers have learned to couch all their arguing so it sounds like they're asking honest questions. They ask what the reasoning is behind every rule they break; I tell them I don't know, but I do have responsibilities that come with my paycheck. They take that as a license to do whatever the hell they want.

They act surprised when they get written up, and I believe in some ways they actually are surprised. To be legitimate to a liberal, a rule needs a good reason. To be legitimate to a conservative, a rule needs to be back by effective punishment. The liberals who run the schools make up rules with good reasons (that nevertheless can't be made clear to a teenager in a brief sentence) and back them with punishments which are effective (to the tiny minority of students who care about things like winning the respect of adults).

Thus I rob the taxpayer each week.

Ron Guhname said...

"Not disputed. In fact, I'll go even farther: most societies have additional standards that have nothing to do with morality at all. These include - as other commenters have already pointed out - utility and group identity signaling."

Both of these things involve morality. The first one proposes, say, that we should educate children because it will lead to a prosperous country. Well, prosperity is a value. We are saying wealth is good and poverty is bad. Valuation has a moral quality to it.

Morality is more obviously indicated with group signalling. "I'm saying these things to show you I'm not one of them" is saying your group is good while "they" are not. It's approval/disapproval which is a social/moral thing.

"In fact, you provide a perfect example of this: your sola-morality appeals are a form of identity signaling."

Who said right and wrong is the only dimension to all this? It is simply silly to claim my approach has been exclusivley this. Most of my posts are empirical.

(Ron) "Those norms range in their moral weight from very weak to very strong, but they are moral in nature nevertheless."

"That's your assertion, but begs the question. Those who have no desire to join the funny-hat club are free to see several dimensions of judgment that are entirely orthogonal to morality."

I don't know what you are talking about. I haven't mentioned religion in this whole discussion. Morality is much, much broader than religion, and would be just as omnipresent in an atheist society. You're missing my point that the moral is bound up in the social, and the social in the moreal. You're arguing with types who quote scripture or something, not me.

Ron Guhname said...

Correction: I should say an atheist society COULD be as moralistic as a religious one.

Jewish Atheist said...

To be legitimate to a liberal, a rule needs a good reason. To be legitimate to a conservative, a rule needs to be back by effective punishment.Yeah, I think that sums it up pretty well.

Ron Guhname said...

Let me add, much of what I am arguing in this post is Emile Durkheim, pure and simple. He was an atheist.

Jason said...

"Both of these things involve morality. The first one proposes, say, that we should educate children because it will lead to a prosperous country. Well, prosperity is a value. We are saying wealth is good and poverty is bad. Valuation has a moral quality to it."

False. Good and bad in this sense has nothing to do with morality. In fact, it is often opposed to morality. There are many things which enhance the bottom line that are downright immoral. (ie. Harmful to others.)

In this case, we have two dimensions of judgment, defined by two separate goals.

1. Profit.
2. Non-harm. ("Do unto others.")

Sometimes these two go together, sometimes they're in opposition, sometimes completely independent.

And these are not the only goals, or the only standards. You could also add...

3. Social stability.
4. Technological progress.
5. Group identification.

Pick an act, or an issue, and you can plot it in an n-dimensional space against each of these, and possibly more.

Stem cell research from fetuses, for instance. High on technological progress, moderate-to-high on profit, high on group identification, inconsequential on social stability, and negative on non-harm.

Insisting that only the moral dimension matters or holds weight, or trying to map every goal onto one dimension is gross oversimplification which makes it impossible to rationally consider the overall issue.

Ron Guhname said...

(Ron)"Both of these things involve morality. The first one proposes, say, that we should educate children because it will lead to a prosperous country. Well, prosperity is a value. We are saying wealth is good and poverty is bad. Valuation has a moral quality to it."

"False. Good and bad in this sense has nothing to do with morality. In fact, it is often opposed to morality. There are many things which enhance the bottom line that are downright immoral. (ie. Harmful to others.)

"In this case, we have two dimensions of judgment, defined by two separate goals.

1. Profit.
2. Non-harm. ("Do unto others.")

"Sometimes these two go together, sometimes they're in opposition, sometimes completely independent."

Why would you think that values never go in different directions? You're just describing conflicting values: profit is good, but so is non-harm, and they can work in opposite directions.


"And these are not the only goals, or the only standards. You could also add...

3. Social stability.
4. Technological progress.
5. Group identification."

The list is potentially endless, but it makes perfect sense for me to say social stability is good, we ought to have technological progress, and identifying with groups is fine. When people say this kind of thing, they are saying they approve of it; they support it. I'm sure you don't like the term "moral" because of the baggage is carries for you, but when I say moral, I mean nothing more than "people approve of it." It's a social valuation. What you call oversimplification, I call a powerful, broadly useful analyic tool.

Of course, you can think of acts that are neutral. You probably wouldn't get a group of people to say they approve or disapprove of "a cat sits on a mat." My example is much superior to yours for this purpose.

This pervasiveness of moral valuation I'm talking about does vary, I think, from person to person and culture to culture. Our culture currently is less comfortable with this phenomenon than other cultures--this is probably where you're coming from--we want more and more things to be not seen as good or bad. We want people to disapprove of fewer things. There is much more "let people do what they want to do" now. But at the same time there is tremendous moral zeal now, as well as ordinary approval and disapproval; it has just shifted. Previously people were closer to positive or neutral on smoking, now it's clearly negative. People were quieter before about domestic violence; now it's a very serious crime. You get the point. And of course, the tolerant start to froth with judgment at someone who seems intolerant. But I defy anyone to argue that this approval/disapproval dynamic is not a HUGE part of life, even in contemporary society. I need to do the research, but I'm sure the overwhelming tendency for people to approve and not approve is hardwired.

Jason said...

...when I say moral, I mean nothing more than "people approve of it."We already have a perfectly good word for this. "Popularity". Why not use it instead? Oh, that's right, it doesn't give you as weighty a stick to beat unpopular, beg pardon, immoral people with.

But thanks for being honest, anyway. Now your readers can mentally make that substitution whenever you talk about "morality" from here on out, and understand you better.

Ron Guhname said...

"...'when I say moral, I mean nothing more than people approve of it.We already have a perfectly good word for this. "Popularity".

Take it up with Durkheim. It's his term. But popularity is inaccurate anyway. In a gang, killing the member of a rival gang is good, yet they are a minority.

"Oh, that's right, it doesn't give you as weighty a stick to beat unpopular, beg pardon, immoral people with."

Now you're learning. Norms and values don't exist for no reason. They're just about pointless if they don't guide and influence behavior and give meaning to it.

Blode0322 said...

I think the difference between Durkheim and today's secular-left types is that the former is truly atheistic and looks only at results (i.e., whether folks are jumping out of skyscrapers) where the latter have a set of unfalsifiable moral beliefs they won't really fess up to, i.e., they have a lot more in common with the religious than they'd like to believe. They have a distaste for Christian theology and rites that makes them always want to duke it out with the Spanish Inquisition or the Puritans or whoever.

I still think their underlying beliefs come out when they talk about the poor. They talk about love, charity, kindness, turning the other cheek, etc. - everything except the most unsecularizable concepts like God and Jesus - and they never talk about eugenics except to condemn.

tommy said...

The main problem with moral libertarianism is that it rests upon unrealistic assumptions concerning the degree to which self-destructive behavior can be isolated to the individual.

Liberals are moral hypocrites. They encourage moral libertarianism by arguing that individuals harm no one but themselves by taking certain actions. When the harm inevitably impacts others, they then demand taxpayers pick up the tab.