Tag Archives | Ethics

Justice to Antiquity

In a book review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual (which I confess I haven’t read), Roger McKinney – evidently following Siedentop – trots out the hackneyed claim that individualism is a product solely of the West, and specifically of the post-pagan West.

In response to the first claim, I’ll simply point to the many anticipations of libertarian ideas that are to be found in ancient China, particularly among the early Confucians. Ideas of liberty, equality, universal justice, and the value of commercial activity – all of which McKinney rightly associates with individualism – can also be found in ancient India and the medieval Islamic world.

But for present purposes I want to focus on what McKinney says about ancient Greece and Rome. To deny the Greeks and Romans a conception of individualism seems startling, since many of the most individualistic features of modern law have their roots in Greco-Roman traditions, and because most Greek and Roman philosophers made the pursuit of one’s own happiness and self-realisation the core of their ethical outlook. (Of course Greco-Roman individualism was not atomistic or antisocial; but that’s surely a feature, not a bug.) So what does McKinney have in mind?

To start with, he writes:

[In Morocco] cheating others is not considered unethical at all but a sign of an astute businessman. … Moroccan business ethics might be appalling to westerners, but ancient Greeks and Romans would have understood and applauded them ….

CiceroI’m not sure how appalling such conduct is to my business ethics students, many of whom readily agree with Albert Carr’s defense of relaxed ethical standards for business life as opposed to family life. In any case, the applause from ancient Greeks and Romans would hardly have been universal. One of Rome’s leading thinkers, Marcus Tullius Cicero, wrote a whole book, De Officiis (usually translated either as On Offices or as On Duties), which is essentially a treatise on business ethics. In it he records some of the leading debates among Greek and Roman thinkers as to what sort of conduct is and is not permissible in commercial transactions. While a variety of views are canvassed, none of them fits McKinney’s description; and Cicero himself insists firmly that justice and fair dealing are owed to all human beings. (Cicero also argues in the same work that each of us has a responsibility to fulfill the demands not just of universal human nature but of our individualised nature, which certainly seems like a kind of individualism.)

Like Moroccans, ancient Greeks and Romans cared little for non-family members. Those “… outside the family circle were not deemed to share any attributes with those within. No common humanity was acknowledged, an attitude confirmed by the practice of enslavement.”

The attitude described here certainly existed (and continues to exist today; indeed it fairly describes u.s. foreign policy), but the suggestion that this view was all-pervasive and unchallenged in Greco-Roman antiquity is a mistake. The Cynics and Stoics defended a vision of all humanity as a single community, a cosmopolis; and even the less cosmopolitan Aristotle, who defended slavery on the basis of bullshit theories of racial inferiority, insisted that foreign races that were not inferior (and he granted that there were some) could not justly be conquered or enslaved. On this basis Aristotle condemned societies with aggressive foreign policies. Aristotle also insisted (NE 1108a9-28, 1126b19-1127a2, 1155a16-31) that we have duties of friendship toward strangers and foreigners. The legitimacy of slavery was also challenged by thinkers from Alkidamas to Zeno of Citium.

For the ancient Romans and Greeks society consisted of a collection of extended families. The heads of the families, including family-based clans and tribes, held all the power and made all of the decisions. Only the heads of families could become citizens in the polis.

Sure, for the most part – though again hardly confined to antiquity, since even the supposedly egalitarian John Rawls in the first version of his 1971 Theory of Justice had “heads of families” as the contracting parties behind the Veil of Ignorance. But likewise again, this perspective was not exactly unchallenged; Plato famously advocated an independent political role for women in his Republic, as well as the abolition of the family; and similar views were defended by the Cynics and early Stoics (and arguably Xenophon to some extent).

Antiquity had no notion of the powers of the government being limited by the rights of individuals, even for family heads.

The entire Athenian legal system was a vast contrivance to limit governmental power. Ancient constitutional thought focused heavily on the idea of structuring the balance of power between different classes so as to prevent any one class from being in a position to impose injustice unchecked on another. And the idea that individuals have claims of justice that states are bound to respect was defended by nearly every ancient political theorist, including Aristotle and Cicero. (For Aristotle, see Fred Miller’s book Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle’s Politics; for Cicero, see his discussion of natural law in De Republica and De Legibus.)

Consider also Pericles’ funeral oration, as recorded or invented (or some of each) by Thucydides, in which tolerance and respect for individual choice are lauded: “in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes.” Of course Athens did not live up consistently to this ideal (nor do modern so-called liberal societies live up to it today), but the ideal was clearly recognised and formulated.

The ancients had no concept of the equality of man, either. Even for Plato and Aristotle, a natural hierarchy of humanity existed, much like the caste system of India. Some were born to rule, others to serve or fight.

Certainly Plato and Aristotle believed in political hierarchies based on allegedly natural inequalities. But they were not the only political thinkers of Greco-Roman antiquity. The Cynics and early Stoics (such as Zeno of Citium) defended a vision of society in which all hierarchical distinctions of rulers and subjects, masters and slaves, males and females would be abolished. Some Epicureans (like Diogenes of Oenoanda) held similar views. (And turning our gaze momentarily eastward: the caste system in India had its early critics as well, notably among Buddhists.)

Politics and war became the noblest occupations while commerce was held in contempt.

Held in contempt by whom? Successful merchants enjoyed enormous social prestige in Greece and Rome; and Hesiod’s praise of industry and commercial competition is justly famous. As for the philosophers, Plato and Aristotle did disparage commerce (though Aristotle disparaged warfare as well – as did the Epicureans), but again, they were not the only philosophers in classical antiquity. The Stoics in particular were vigorous defenders of commerce, as was Xenophon; and then of course there’s Cicero, whose book on business ethics I’ve previously mentioned. I challenge anyone to read Cicero and come away with an impression of a thinker who is valorising warfare and downgrading commerce. Individualism may not have reigned supreme in antiquity (nor does it today), but its basic concepts were formulated and defended by a good many influential thinkers.

For more on classical Greek and Roman individualism, see my various discussions here.

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Call for Abstracts on Police and Anarchism

[cross-posted at C4SS, BHL, and Public Reason]

Call for Abstracts

for the Molinari Society’s next Eastern Symposium, to be held in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting, January 6-9, 2016, in Washington DC. (Note that this meeting is the week after New Year’s, rather than, as in past years, just before New Year’s. This later time is expected to be the new normal for the Eastern APA henceforth.)

Symposium Topic:
Police Abuse: Solutions Beyond the State

Submission Deadline:
18 May 2015


Abuses of power by police officers, especially abuses motivated by racial bias, are at last beginning to receive increased public scrutiny. Anarchists have long regarded police misconduct as a deep-rooted and systemic problem, one requiring radical rather than reformist solutions, but have not always agreed about what a radical solution should look like. Some anarchists have advocated a system of private security firms held in check by market competition; others have looked to volunteer and mutual-aid watch groups responsible to the communities they patrol; still others have rejected both models as insufficiently different from the government police system they’re supposed to replace.

Would/should there be police, or something like police, in an anarchist society? If so, how might they be restrained from abuses? If not, what institutions or practices might secure protection from invasive behaviour instead?

Abstracts should be submitted for the 2016 Eastern Symposium by 18 May, 2015. Submissions from any point of view (anarchist or otherwise) are welcome. Please submit an abstract only if you expect to be able to present the paper in person at the Symposium. (Final papers should be of appropriate scope and length to be presented within 15-30 minutes.) Submitting authors will be notified of the acceptance or rejection of their papers by 31 May, 2015.

Submit abstracts as e-mail attachments, in Word .doc or .docx format, PDF, or ODT, to longrob@auburn.edu.

For any questions or information, contact Roderick T. Long at the above email address.

(In other news, the Molinari Symposium originally scheduled for this year’s Pacific APA in Vancouver has been postponed to next year in San Francisco; details to follow in due course.)

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CFP: Lockean Libertarianism

[cross-posted at BHL]

Billy Christmas (who was part of the same MANCEPT 2014 workshop as me (“The Current State of Libertarian Political Philosophy”) in September, and who also participated in the Molinari Society’s symposium on libertarianism and privilege with me this past December) writes to tell me that he is convening a workshop on “Lockean Libertarianism” at MANCEPT 2015 (Manchester UK, 1-3 September 2015). Check out the description below and consider submitting an abstract. I greatly enjoyed last year’s MANCEPT gig and can recommend its sequel.


Call for papers: MANCEPT workshop on Lockean Libertarianism

MANCEPT workshops, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, UK.
Tuesday 1st September – Thursday 3rd September 2015.


Lockean libertarianism is a family of theories of justice based upon property rights: those we have over ourselves and those we have over the external world. The connection between these two sets of rights is a contentious issue. The self-ownership principle holds that all individuals are, initially, the full moral owners of their own person, including their body, mind, and the product of their labour. The world-ownership principle specifies the rights we have to use and appropriate external resources, including natural resources (e.g. a plot of land, water, forests, deposits of fossil fuels) and products of human labour (e.g. a house, a pencil, a car). Locke himself claimed there is a proviso on the appropriation of external property that required one to leave ‘enough and as good in common for others’. Nozick favoured a weak interpretation of the proviso, while others reject it altogether (e.g. Rothbard, Hoppe), or believe the only proviso that is consistent with self-ownership is so minor that it has no effect of equality (e.g. the ‘Blockean proviso’). Others still think the proviso should be interpreted as in strong support of extensive redistribution of external resources to those who have less than an equal share (e.g. Steiner, Van Parijs, Otsuka, Vallentyne, Roark). Whereas some claim an unjust appropriation of previously unowned resources is an incoherent idea (e.g. Feser), or that resources do not exist independently of an act of discovery (e.g. Paul, Rassmussen & Den Uyl). Some from outside the Lockean tradition believe that the reconciliation of self-ownership with equality is incoherent (e.g. Risse, Cohen), while some within it would agree and oppose any form of egalitarianism (e.g. Rothbard and Hoppe), others reject the incoherence theses (e.g. Steiner and Otsuka), and others still believe equality should be reconceived as equality of authority, which stands in a natural equilibrium with respect for one’s self-ownership (e.g. Long). Lockean libertarianism then, is a very diverse set of political theories, with diverging socioeconomic implications. This workshop aims to provide a space to critically discuss Lockean libertarianism: what it is, and what its implications are. Whether the Lockean approach is taken to be problematic or promising, we invite papers that discuss self-ownership or world-ownership separately, as well as papers on the conceptual connection between self-ownership, world-ownership, and the proviso. We also encourage investigations into potential applications of these different forms of Lockean libertarianism. How should we conceive of, both philosophically and socioeconomically, things like public property and national borders? Can intellectual property be justified on a Lockean basis? Are children self-owners, or the fruits of their parents labour? How ought a Lockean respond to historical injustices such as land theft and slavery?

Please submit abstracts by email to Kasper Ossenblok (kasper.ossenblok@ugent.be) and/or Billy Christmas (billy.christmas@manchester.ac.uk).

Deadline for submissions: 1st June 2015. You will be notified of the success of your submission by 20th June. Please note that the deadline for registering for a graduate student bursary from MANCEPT in June 10th.


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Plato and Voltaire on Vaccination

Voltaire on vaccination is right here. The Plato angle is a bit more complicated.

In Plato’s Laches, the question arises as to the relationship of courage (and by extension, virtue generally) to risk. On the one hand, the courageous person is supposed to be admirable, and so would not take foolish risks; thus being guided by wisdom seems built into the notion of courage. On the other hand, the riskier an action is, the more courage it takes to do it; the wiser you are, the better able you are to reduce your risks, making courage more useful to the less wise. So does greater risk correlate with more courage or less courage?


Plato’s solution, as I read the dialogue, is to distinguish two kinds of wisdom (or expertise): technical expertise, which involves knowing how to reduce one’s risks, and ethical expertise, which involves knowing which risks are worth taking. Plato goes on to illustrate the distinction by asking whether physicians, by being experts on health and disease, are thereby experts on what is worth hoping for and worth fearing (given that health is worth hoping for and disease worth fearing). Plato’s answer (again, as I read him) is that while being a physician makes you an expert on what will cure you, it does not make an expert on whether you are better off being cured or at what cost.

Plato’s distinction is one that is being lost in the current debate about vaccination, as the two kinds of expertise are being persistently conflated. One of the issues under debate is what the benefits and risks of vaccination actually are, in terms of quantified probabilities; that is a medical issue. A different issue under debate is whether, for any given probability assessment of benefits and risks, the benefits are worth the risks; that is not a medical issue, and having medical or other scientific training gives one no special insight into it.

I’m not offering this distinction as a magic bullet to resolve the political dispute. It’s not as though one type of issue falls within the jurisdiction of the law and the other doesn’t; legal expertise doesn’t automatically carry with it either medical or technical expertise, but on the other hand, applying the law will often require taking a stand on both.

As far as the political issue itself goes, I think a consistent libertarian can forcibly quarantine a Typhoid Mary, but forcibly vaccinating on the basis of a possible future risk of measles is too attenuated, and opens the door to all sorts of regulations to prevent behaviour that poses a slight risk to others (like banning Mein Kampf because people who read it might become Nazis). But of course my position requires taking positions on both the medical and the ethical issues. In any case, the point of this post is not to take a side on the vaccination debate, but just to distinguish two issues that keep getting run together.

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Walk Like a Man

Despite some wise words on markets and on war, Voltaire was not a libertarian. Neither, however, was he the apostle of unlimited government demonised by Hayek. Rather, Voltaire was a brilliant but unsystematic thinker whose thought contains both libertarian and unlibertarian strands.

One of my favourite of his libertarian passages is the following bit from Candide:

“Bravo!” cry the blues; “you are now the support, the defender, the hero of the Bulgarians; your fortune is made; you are in the high road to glory.” So saying, they handcuffed him, and carried him away to the regiment. There he was made to wheel about to the right, to the left, to draw his rammer, to return his rammer, to present, to fire, to march, and they gave him thirty blows with a cane; the next day he performed his exercise a little better, and they gave him but twenty; the day following he came off with ten, and was looked upon as a young fellow of surprising genius by all his comrades.


Candide was struck with amazement, and could not for the soul of him conceive how he came to be a hero. One fine spring morning, he took it into his head to take a walk, and he marched straight forward, conceiving it to be a privilege of the human species, as well as of the brute creation, to make use of their legs how and when they pleased. He had not gone above two leagues when he was overtaken by four other heroes, six feet high, who bound him neck and heels, and carried him to a dungeon.

What I like about this passage is the way it demystifies statist categories. Candide is not described as being “conscripted” into the Bulgarian army, or as subsequently “deserting.” The innocent protagonist lacks these concepts, and the narrative dispenses with them also. Instead we are simply told that a bunch of armed strangers abduct him and force him to spend time marching around and practicing firing guns, and that when he tries to exercise the “privilege of the human species … to make use of their legs” by walking away, he is abducted again. The high acts of state are decomposed into their material basis, the use of force by some people against other people.

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