What follows is a review of John Sullivan’s recent book Notes From the Aboveground. In the interests of full disclosure: the author is paying me to review his book. Conceivably, this could lead me to be too soft on the book. Equally conceivably, this could lead me instead to overcompensate for this danger and so end up being too hard on the book in order to vindicate my independence of judgment. Hopefully these two tendencies will cancel each other out.
Power and Market; or: Private Vices, Public Benefits
On the basis of a gloomy moral psychology that resembles a mix of Glaucon, Hobbes, and Stirner, John Sullivan in Notes From the Aboveground erects an optimistic libertarian theory of social change that echoes Spencer and Molinari. Hence the book’s two major theses are the moral psychology on the one hand and its sociopolitical implications on the other.
The foundation of Sullivan’s moral psychology is an egoistic theory of motivation, according to which the chief (indeed, he sometimes suggests, the sole) aim of human action is to seek power over others as a means of gratifying the ego (by which he seems to mean vanity, i.e., the desire to impress other people). Ideologies are nothing more than rationalisations of the power achieved or sought by those promoting the ideologies. Thus it is a mistake to think of ideology as influencing the manifestation of power; on the contrary, power always determines the content of ideology. And contrary to Nietzsche, altruistic moralities are developed not by resentful subjects but by the rulers, to legitimise their rule.
So what are the implications for libertarian politics? The bad news is that we won’t move the world toward libertarianism by preaching about rights and justice, because people aren’t motivated by rights and justice (and especially not by conceptions of rights and justice at odds with the ideologies promoted by the dominant power structures); nor will we move the world toward libertarianism by preaching about what benefits society, because people are motivated by their own self-interest, not by society’s interest. Man “always seeks his ends politically rather than economically, if possible, because the former represents a less expenditure of labor than the latter.” (p. 36) Indeed, for Sullivan people never choose the economic means unless the successful resistance of others has made the political means too costly. Any ideology such as libertarianism that calls upon people to limit their own pursuit of power voluntarily flies in the face of human nature.
The good news, however, is that the very motivational factors that make the intentional establishment of libertarianism a pipe dream make its unintentional evolutionary emergence a virtual certainty in the long run. Thus, despite Sullivan’s suspicion of grand predictive theories of history (p. 144), he proceeds to offer one of his own anyway. For Sullivan, the eventual triumph of libertarianism is made inevitable by two factors:
First, those who are roughly equal in power are compelled willy-nilly to adopt broadly libertarian norms for dealing with one another (though not for dealing with those in a weaker position), because one is – by definition – not in a position to impose much in the way of forcible requirements on one’s equals. Hence the ruling class in any society tends to develop a libertarian ethic for its own internal dealings.
Second, groups who are excluded from the ruling class will struggle to get into it, and since the excluded groups usually outnumber the rulers they will tend over time to succeed – a process illustrated historically by the transition from monarchy to democracy, the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of the peasantry and of women, and so on. Hence the natural tendency is for the ruling class to grow and the ruled classes to shrink. (Note that this is the opposite of the Rousseau/Marx class theory according to which the ruling class inevitably contracts, forcing more and more of its members out and thus unwittingly strengthening its opposition.)
When these two factors are combined, the upshot is that the portion of society that is governed by a libertarian ethic must continually increase at the expense of those portions governed by non-libertarian norms. Thus “as competition in society intensifies, power tends to become more fairly divided among the competitors seeking it,” so that a libertarian political order, where “no one had power to coerce the behavior of others,” emerges as “the unintended outcome of social competition.” (p. 89) Thus Sullivan in effect transposes to the end of history Glaucon’s account of the origin of justice.
The process of competition and consequent libertarianisation initially leads, paradoxically, to a larger state: “as the masses won political power from the nobility and as wealth grew to such levels as would justify its confiscation and redistribution,” the natural result was “the leviathan state … which allows for the majority to steal from the minority.” (p. 105.) We may wonder whether Sullivan exaggerates the extent to which majorities are actually empowered in present-day so-called democracies, but it’s certainly true that they have more power than under, say, feudalism. In any case, Sullivan thinks this swelling of the state is a transitional phenomenon; societies in which power is more evenly shared tend to outcompete less libertarian societies, since – for familiar Hayekian reasons – with “fewer people making decisions” the latter “employ little knowledge in comparison to free economies.”
Statism is propped up by the collectivist ethic Sullivan calls “tribalism” or “bigotry,” but “as the competition for wealth and power intensifies,” more and more people will “succeed by their merit rather than by their belonging to tribes.” (p. 144.) Bigotry is “the language of power,” but “through competition, both power and bigotry are diffused, equalized, and diminished.” (p. 146.) And “when power is equally shared,” then “the metaphysical constructs that justify and allow for the domination of power will dwindle away.” (p. 110.) “Civilizations will become libertarian” and “merge into one integrated global order, with one language, one currency, and a rule of law based upon the individual ethic.” (p. 144.) The new power structure will shape a libertarian ideology to match it, so that the average person, despite his power-loving nature, “will shun from [sic] behavior that undermines the order.” (p. 144.)
How should we assess all this? Perhaps ironically, Sullivan’s sociopolitical superstructure turns out to be far more defensible than the moral-psychological base upon which he rests it.
Selfishness Without a Self
My principal objections to Sullivan’s theory of moral psychology are, first, that no argument or evidence is offered for accepting it, and second, that in elaborating it Sullivan appears to slide between mutually incompatible statements of the doctrine, some versions so vacuous or so protean as to be insulated from empirical refutation, while more substantive versions prove implausible at best and incoherent at worst.
As Sullivan admits, his “argument begins with the premise [emphasis added] that man historically joins groups for the purpose of expanding his social and political power.” (p. 13) In short, the book’s central claims about human motivation are mostly assumed rather than argued for. (But Sullivan will frequently assert something as an undefended premise on one page, only to refer back to it several pages later as having been “established.”) I suspect the chief case for accepting Sullivan’s moral psychology is meant to be its explanatory power; but if, as I shall argue, the theory makes no sense in its own right, its explanatory power, if any, will be beside the point. In any case, as we shall see, much of the theory’s purported explanatory power will turn out to be vacuous.
Sullivan’s version of psychological egoism takes “ego” in the modern colloquial sense, as the desire “to be recognized, liked, respected, or loved by others.” (p. 20) But Sullivan never explains why we should take the desire for recognition by others, especially in the all-pervading form that Sullivan describes, as a selfish desire. Why isn’t such a strong concern with other people’s opinions and desires the height of unselfishness? Sullivan tells us that “Man’s desire to be liked causes him to act with benevolence to others in order to stimulate the response he selfishly needs from them” (p. 59), but it’s unclear what work, if any, the word “selfishly” is doing in this statement. Is Sullivan neglecting Gauthier’s distinction (echoing an earlier idea from Butler’s Sermons) between interests of the self (i.e., interests having the self as subject) and interests in the self (i.e., interests taking the self as object)?
Aristotle famously (and to my mind convincingly) argues, in Nicomachean Ethics I. 5, that a concern with being honoured by others cannot coherently form the core of our notion of self-interest, for two reasons. First, it places our self-interest primarily in the control of other people rather than ourselves, rendering the successful life hyper-vulnerable – yet a hyper-vulnerable life is ipso facto not successful, just as having unusually precarious health is itself a way of being unhealthy. Second, the fact that we care about who admires us, and prefer being admired by people of good judgment rather than bad, shows that we value being honoured because it enables us to think of ourselves as worthy of being honoured; and since the end is more valuable than the means, that shows that we’re committed to regarding being worthy of admiration as more important than actually receiving it. The task of moral philosophy is to determine which conceptions of the good make sense, and Aristotle shows – or so it seems to me – that no conception of the good organised primarily around recognition from others makes sense. More recently, Rand’s novel The Fountainhead is a lengthy and mostly convincing dramatisation of the idea that a life devoted to winning status and prestige, i.e. the satisfaction of others’ standards and opinions, is the antithesis of a self-interested life.
Sullivan tells us that the “passions of grief, pity and sympathy are rooted in man’s fear of death and suffering, and we feel these emotions when we connect the suffering of others to fear for our own” (p. 17), and again, that a person’s “emotion of sympathy is triggered when he associates the suffering of others to the possibility of his own.” (p. 59.) But this notion of associating others’ suffering with our own is ambiguous. On the one hand, Sullivan might intend a view like that of Hobbes, who claimed that we are alarmed by others’ suffering because we fear that what is afflicting them will next afflict us, and that we admire benevolent people because we hope they will turn their benevolence in our direction. But surely this view was soundly trounced by Hume and Smith in the 18th century, when they pointed out that we feel sympathy and admiration for fictional characters and for people long dead. The other interpretation would be the view that Hume and Smith themselves advance – that we simply have a natural (albeit defeasible) tendency to put ourselves in others’ position and see things from their point of view, and that indeed such a tendency is a precondition for even the simplest forms of mutual understanding and cooperation, even language itself. But if the latter is all that Sullivan means, then it seems better described as an explanation of other-concern rather than a debunking of it.
As for the thesis that humans naturally always seek power, Sullivan vacillates between what we might call a “hard-line” and a “soft-line” interpretation of his thesis, according as beneficence toward others is or is not excluded from the notion of power-seeking. Sullivan sounds the hard-line thesis when he announces: “Man does not relinquish his power or curb his passions until fear leaves him with no alternative.” (p. 42) Yet he also maintains, soft-line style, that “All egotistical actions [which for Sullivan apparently means all actions] are based upon man’s need for recognition by others, and there are principally two ways of doing that. One is to be better than others and the other is to help them.” (p. 31.)
Sullivan’s theory is thus an empirically elastic one. If someone acts in ways that are conventionally called selfish, he must be trying to achieve recognition via the path of competition and superiority. If someone acts in ways that are conventionally called unselfish, he must be trying to achieve recognition via the path of benefit to others. Not to sound too Popperian here, but what, if anything, would Sullivan regard as a disconfirmation of his theory?
Sometimes (though not consistently) Sullivan suggests that benevolent forms of power-seeking emerge only when malign forms become unavailable: “Nature forces each man to seek the maximum power he can attain until he is prevented by others from attaining more, and then he ceases and subconsciously redirects his desire for empowerment to the satisfaction of his ego. The word power here is meant in a comprehensive way that includes man’s ability to satisfy both his bodily and psychological needs. If he cannot gain wealth, he may settle for social recognition. Although psychological recognition is the principle [sic] motive of power, two types of power spring from it. Man competes for and shares both political and social power.” (p. 63.)
Bear in mind that for Sullivan, the desire for ego-satisfaction just is the desire for recognition. Thus what he is telling us, within the space of a few sentences, is that the desire for recognition is a) a second-best alternative to the desire for power, b) one form of the desire for power, and c) the principal motive of the desire for power. Even a trinitarian theologian might balk at endorsing the conjunction of these claims.
In support of his egoistic theory of motivation, Sullivan asks whether it is “possible to cite examples where employees explain to their bosses that they are being compensated by them for more than they are worth,” or whether manufacturers ever “tell their suppliers that, morally, they should pay higher prices to them.” Sullivan thinks the answer is obvious: “This never happens.” (p. 123.) But of course it happens all the time! It’s admittedly the exception, not the rule, but most of us, I suspect, can think of cases where we’ve personally known it to happen. I fear Sullivan’s perceptions are being distorted by his own ideological goggles. But of course if Sullivan were to grant the existence of the phenomenon, he would presumably reinterpret it as one more case of trying to gain the admiration of others through an appearance of honesty and altruism.
Sometimes, for example, we’re told that rulers concede rights to their subjects only out of fear of the subjects’ collective strength and ability to rebel; while at other times we’re told that the rulers concede rights to their subjects in order to feed their own vanity by gaining their subjects’ approval. In “real life,” Sullivan assures us (p. 7), nobody in a stronger position has ever voluntarily agreed to respect the rights of others. Not only is this an absurd statement in itself, but it contradicts his assertion elsewhere that “If you go back to the original premise that our nature is to seek power, the act of giving away one’s power would seem to contradict human nature. Yet some people could be brainwashed by an ideology to accept passivity with the belief that they will be better off.” (p. 76)
And this last comment brings us to the puzzling role of ideology in Sullivan’s theory. Doctrines of rights and morality, Sullivan holds, were invented by the ruling classes to justify their rule to the ruled; the existing distribution of power is always sanctified by the reigning ideology. But, to begin with, it simply seems false that the reigning ideology in fact always lends support to the existing power structure; in many cases it seems to undermine it instead. For example, Sullivan believes that “[w]hen slavery exists in a society, the ideology of that society supports it” (p. 119); yet the official ideology of the slaveholding American republic, as embodied in its founding document, was that “all men are created equal” and endowed with inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Did that ideology support slavery? Haven’t most reform movements invoked elements of the reigning ideology precisely to use them against the existing regime? What else, for example, were Olympe de Gouges and Elizabeth Cady Stanton doing in their respective declarations?
Sullivan himself notes that, thanks to power traditionally being more equally distributed within classes than between them, “laws were equally applied within a social class, but unequally applied to disputes between people of different social classes,” so that “despite their erratic application and content, laws pertaining to individual justice began to evolve in every society.” (p. 90.) Yes, absolutely right: the standards of interpersonal conduct within the ruling class tend to have a fair bit of libertarian content. But how, then, can Sullivan deny that these libertarian aspects of the dominant ideology could serve to de-legitimise the unlibertarian aspects (in the eyes of both rulers and ruled)? After all, that’s what historically appears to have happened, over and over. Most ideologies, even if they contain much that sanctions the existing power structure, also contain much that conflicts with it – which suggests that the development of ideologies may be influenced by factors other than mere power-seeking. (And if, as Sullivan insists, one “cannot experience a sense of guilt for something that he was not conditioned to feel over his lifetime” (p. 42), how then can we explain the fairly common phenomenon of people suddenly coming to feel guilty for going along with the dominant values of their society?)
But even leaving aside such considerations, it’s puzzling how ideology is supposed to work given Sullivan’s assumptions about human motivation. Like some versions of Marxism (though arguably not Marx’s own), Sullivan sees a purely one-way relation between ideology and power: “ideology doesn’t determine who holds power, but rather, is determined by power.” (p. 82.) But if ideology were as inert as Sullivan suggests, it’s unclear how it could do the work to which he says the ruling classes put it. On Sullivan’s account, the function of ideology is to legitimate the power of the rulers; but why would such legitimation succeed, why would the subjects care about the ideology, if they are as hopelessly fixated on the pursuit of power and prestige as Sullivan supposes?
While power was initially “required to force the competitors to obey the rules,” Sullivan tells us, eventually “power combined itself with belief to cause voluntary observance.” (p. 40) This seems to suggest that ideology leads the ruled to restrain their own self-interest voluntarily, something Sullivan at other times suggests is impossible.
“Whether by evolution or by conquest,” Sullivan further opines, “every society that grew beyond the size of an extended family developed a social structure whereby the peasantry labored on behalf of the nobility in exchange for protection.” So far so good – but then he continues: “The order of this arrangement was secured by the customary belief that it represented justice.” (p. 36.) Whence this notion of justice? How do these self-centered, power-hungry organisms come to care about justice?
After all, Sullivan also tells us that the only reason anyone engages in “philanthropy” is that he “values his social reputation” (p. 28), and again that the only reason people present themselves as “sympathetic to certain social causes or values” is that “they hope to be highly valued, and liked by others.” (p. 21) But this is a mighty puzzle. If nobody’s endorsement of value A is sincere, then why would my endorsement of value A be a good strategy for getting admiration from you – since ex hypothesi your endorsement of value A isn’t sincere either? How could a commitment to value A arise, as a means of getting approval from others, within a community of people none of whom have any prior reason for valuing A? There seems to be a serious bootstrap problem here. People motivated in the way Sullivan describes simply could not be influenced by ideology in the way Sullivan describes.
Sullivan sometimes writes as though apparently unselfish action is motivated to win the approval not just of others but of oneself, in a manner that can lead to outright self-deception: “Each person is aware of their motives to act, although often they are afraid to divulge those motives to other, or even to admit them to themselves” (p. 15), and it is the “satisfaction of his pride” that “causes him to perform acts that have the social appearance of being unselfish.” (p. 17) But this quest for self-approval is just as puzzling as the quest for others’ approval. Just as it makes no sense for me to simulate unselfishness to win others’ approval unless those others genuinely admire unselfishness, so it makes no sense for me to simulate unselfishness to win my own approval unless I genuinely admire unselfishness. In either case, egocentric values (in Sullivan’s sense) are necessarily parasitic on non-egocentric values. Moreover, the need for self-deception is mysterious: if the value I place on benevolence is genuine, that should be enough to make it at least possible for me to be motivated to act benevolently in fact, with no need for self-deception; while on the other hand if the value I place on benevolence is insincere, then I should feel no shame at faking benevolence and so self-deception will once again be unnecessary.
As we’ve seen, Sullivan holds that we seek to be identified as “sympathetic to certain social causes or values” solely because we “hope to be highly valued, and liked by others” (p. 21), which implies that all ideological commitments are insincere. Yet Sullivan also says: “Not only is he educated to believe in an ideology, but his passions of pride, shame and guilt, among others, are made to respond to his beliefs.” (pp. 26-27) And this makes it sound as though our commitment to social values is sincere after all.
Consider, too, the following pair of sentences: “Man does not feel guilt and shame for murder, per se, but for what those in society will think of him if caught. The conditioning is so powerful that man feels the sense of shame and guilt even if his transgressions remain undiscovered by others.” (p. 42) Don’t these two claims contradict each other? The first says our only reason for caring about X is Y; the second says that our “conditioning is so powerful” that we care about X even apart from Y. Which is it? Even if one grants that our aversion to murder originated in an aversion to others’ disapproval, the fact that it survives in the absence of such disapproval would seem to indicate that the former aversion has become transformed into something more and other than the latter aversion.
Sullivan’s claims about the relation between ideology and class interest are also problematic. He tells us that “the conservative seeks to defend the existing hierarchy of power because he benefits from it,” while “[o]n the power scale, a liberal is situated beneath the conservative and advocates changes that will make him equal to the conservative.” (p. 100.) This approach will have a hard time explaining why members of the ruling class ever become champions of its overthrow (as Lafayette, Tolstoj, and Kropotkin did, for example). Asks Sullivan: “When was the last time one saw a so called homeless man petitioning for a lower capital gains tax?” (p. 101.) I don’t know, but I’ve certainly known plenty of libertarians one paycheck away from homelessness who supported a lower capital gains tax. Likewise, Sullivan maintains that “In democracies, each person seeks power through their votes. They do not seek to empower those besides themselves.” (p. 64.) If that is true, why don’t people vote along class lines more reliably than they do? Such correlations are too easily counterexampled.
But things get worse: “High income earners like low taxes and low income workers like high taxes and redistribution – does it take a genius to figure this out?” Of course this last claim is completely contrary to obvious experience – and in fact Sullivan sensibly contradicts it in the very next paragraph: “Once a person has reached the pinnacle of fame and power,“ he notes, “the only thing left to satisfy their ego is the image they want others to have of them,” which explains “why so many famous people become socialists.” (p. 101.)
In short, Sullivan’s theory is completely unfalsifiable; anything and everything confirms it. When the rich oppose higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to hold on to their wealth; when the rich support higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to look good to the poor; when the poor support higher taxes, they’re seeking power by trying to grab the wealth of others; when the poor oppose higher taxes, thet’re seeking power by trying to look good to the rich. You stunned him, just as he was waking up! Norwegian Blues stun easily.
Finally, if all ideologies are rationalisations of power, so that nobody can without self-deception embrace a libertarian ethic that requires its adherents to refrain voluntarily from aggression (p. 110), how are we to explain Sullivan’s own endorsement of libertarianism? For clearly he doesn’t merely predict the eventual triumph of liberty; he quite evidently welcomes it. How can he explain his own commitment to libertarianism? What power structure is his own ideology intended to reinforce? Or is he an exception to his own theory?
There’s some evidence that he does indeed regard himself as an exception to his own theory. At one point he maintains that arguments for socialism are designed to impress the poor, while arguments for capitalism are designed to impress the rich. As noted above, this generalisation seems empirically false – but in any case, Sullivan goes on to add: “one will never hear opinions that don’t impress anyone – except for perhaps in this book.” (p. 60; emphasis added.) So all ideologies are rationalisations for power and ego – except Sullivan’s own? This seems like a blatant instance of the “fallacy of self-exclusion”; it’s as though Sullivan sees himself as occupying an Archimedean standpoint or God’s-eye-view outside and above the society he seeks to analyse, forgetting that he is himself part of his object of study and so cannot exempt himself from the judgments he draws concerning it. (This attitude may in fact account for the otherwise-unexplained Dostojevskian title Notes From the Aboveground; an earlier edition was indeed titled The View From Above.)
Progress: Its Law and Cause
In short, then, I think that Sullivan’s account of human motivation, to the extent that it amounts to a definite thesis at all, is indefensible (and to the extent that it resolves itself into an army of shifting and mutually incompatible theses, they are all either so specific as to be indefensible or so generic as to have no interesting implications). Yet, surprisingly, it does not follow that the sociopolitical theory he builds on it is implicated in its downfall. I don’t mean merely that his sociopolitical theory might be justified on grounds other than those he proposes; no, I mean that his sociopolitical theory gains genuine support from the very grounds he proposes, even though those grounds are false.
How can that be? Well, we have both empirical and conceptual reasons for doubting that vanity and powerlust can be as central to human motivation as Sullivan supposes; since vanity in particular is parasitic on non-vanity values, it logically cannot be our dominant motive. But the recognition of that fact is perfectly consistent with vanity and powerlust being motives that many people seek to gratify much of the time, even if they do not all seek to gratify them all the time. And so a false theory according to which these are the all-controlling motives may have decent predictive power, as an approximation to a true theory according to which these are at least widespread and influential.
Likewise, while I don’t agree with Sullivan that all ideologies are motivated solely by class interest – indeed I think one can’t coherently maintain such a thesis, since its assertion casts its own assertion in question (and Sullivan arguably entangles himself in just such an inconsistency) – there is no incoherence in holding, and it indeed seems reasonable to hold, that class interest often plays an important role in shaping the content of ideology. Thus we can recognise a fair bit of truth in Sullivan’s contention that whenever “wealth is created in portions that can alter the prevailing distribution of power in society,” then “people rise to question what they have been educated to believe,” and liberal philosophers will “advance a new utopia that includes the classes that have attained … enough wealth to be included in the power structure,” but which “will continue to rely on educational devices that thwart the ambitions of the remaining masses” (p. 61) – even if we don’t think this is the whole truth about such ideologies.
The core of Sullivan’s sociopolitical thesis, remember, is that competition among vain and power-hungry agents gradually tends to equalise power among them; that conditions of equal power are conducive to the emergence of libertarian norms of social interaction; and that such norms are likely to become internalised and so to be stable. I think Sullivan’s overall case for this analysis is not bad. My chief caveat here, however, is that Sullivan has at best identified one tendency of social evolution, and surely it is a defeasible one; the question to ask, then, is: with what other, perhaps countervailing tendencies is this tendency likely to interact, and how much can we say about the probable resultant of these various tendencies? Otherwise we run the danger of being like someone who would appeal to the law of gravity to conclude that the average height of buildings must grow shorter over the centuries, ignoring the offsetting effects of improved technology.
Parerga and Paralipomena
So, a boo for Sullivan’s psychological egoism, but a (cautiously qualified) cheer for the libertarian social analysis he builds on it. Let me finish up the review by noting various additional points, ancillary to his central aims, where I nevertheless had some sort of gripe or objection:
• Sullivan claims that, traditionally, “eastern ideologies were based on obedience to rule,” but that nowadays these are being “challenged by more liberal western ideologies such as democracy.” Taoism and Confucianism seem like fairly salient counterexamples to this claim.
• He also maintains that the function of religion is to “influence human behavior to conform to guidelines that, if observed, will grant or guarantee eternal life after death.” Yet what about Buddhism, the whole point of which is to avoid life after death?
• Sullivan describes Plato (p. 52) as a paradigmatically conservative thinker, resisting the social evolution of values because he felt more secure with the existing social order. Certainly there are strong conservative strands in Plato’s thought – but it’s hard to label as straightforwardly conservative a thinker who advocates sexual equality, calls for the abolition of the family, and favours the subordination of commercial and military pursuits to philosophical ones. (And was attacking Athenian democracy really the best way for Plato to enhance his personal security?)
• Sullivan complains (p. 7) that Nietzsche is inconsistent because his desire to “reinvent all values” implies that “existing values must have been a mistake” – but since “values are derived from human nature,” that means that Nietzsche is “blaming humans for being themselves.” But Nietzsche explains quite clearly that he is no more blaming people for having mistaken values than a doctor is blaming a patient for being sick. Moreover, for Nietzsche values are not derived from human nature per se, but rather from an evolutionary historical process.
• According to Sullivan, “Lord Acton’s famous remark that ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ aptly describes the nature of man to wield power – if he can. So, if his posturing implies otherwise, it’s because he can’t.” (p. 63.) First, this is a misquotation of Acton, who actually said only that power tends to corrupt. But second, Acton’s remark, whether in its original or revised form, is about the effect of power on those who wield it, and has no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether those who decline to wield it do so willingly or not.
• We’re told: “Never has anyone, including the philosophers, ever proclaimed that the morality of their society was improving when they compared it to the generation that came before them.” (p. 87.) Is Sullivan kidding??!? Has he never read any of the massive host of cheerleaders for progress that have issued forth over the past two centuries, from Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics to the radical youth manifestos of the 1960s?
• Sullivan claims (pp. 7-8) that Rand’s egoism is inconsistent because she asks people to limit their pursuit of self-interest in order to respect others’ libertarian rights. But of course Rand’s position is that human beings best serve their own self-interest by adopting a commitment to respecting others’ rights. Now she might be right or she might be wrong about that, but that’s her position; she never describes respect for rights as a sacrifice of the rights-respecter’s self-interest.
• Mises is likewise accused of inconsistency (p. 8) because on the one hand he recognises that people necessarily act for the sake of their own individual values, yet on the other hand he asks people to act for the benefit of society as a whole. But Mises, too, thinks people will best serve their individual values by promoting a liberal order. To be sure, he might be wrong about this too; but if so, that would be a factual mistake, not an inconsistency.
• Sullivan treats the concept of “social justice” as inherently anti-libertarian. (pp. 93-94, 141-2.) But as I’ve argued previously, to whatever extent libertarians are concerned to combat systematic patterns of exploitation and oppression in society, they are precisely concerned with social justice.
• “Did you ever stop to wonder,” Sullivan asks, “why greed and ambition are considered vices? Who gets hurt? Those holding power fear challenges from ambitious people ….” (p. 94.) The notion that only the powerful have reason to fear the greedy and ambitious is an odd one for a libertarian to embrace. After all, greed and ambition are precisely what lead the already-powerful to seek to extend their power – which is certainly something the powerless have reason to fear.
• Sullivan notes that the question of whether values are objective or relative is “one of philosophy’s age old debates,” and that “the objective value side makes the argument that if values were relative, no moral certainty would exist, and the moral glue that binds and secures order in a society would be jeopardized.” In fact it is usually preachers and politicians, not philosophers, who stress this particular argument against relativism. (It’s a bad argument, because to show that a view would have unpleasant consequences if generally believed is not to show that the view is false.) Philosophers generally give better arguments against relativism than this, but Sullivan doesn’t address any of the standard philosophical arguments against relativism.
The closest that Sullivan comes to an actual argument on behalf of relativism is this: “Moral relativism doesn’t posit that murder is okay, or that theft is just a minor societal inconvenience. Instead, it is an awareness of the fact that many tenets of yesterday’s immorality [does immorality have tenets?] are acceptable today, which is an observation of history.” But this statement appears to confuse two different meanings of “value” – what people in fact pursue, or regard as worthwhile, and what is actually worth pursuing, or genuinely worthwhile. It’s easy enough to show – by appeal to the “observation of history” – that value in the former sense is culturally relative; but no moral objectivist ever denied it. What moral relativism claims is that value in the latter sense is likewise relative, and no mere “observation of history” is competent to establish that claim. By analogy: what shape the earth is believed to be is culturally relative, but that doesn’t show that what shape the earth actually is must thereby be culturally relative too. (This is a distinction explained in the first few pages of most introductory ethics textbooks.)
• Sullivan doesn’t say precisely what he means by the terms “metaphysics” and “metaphysical,” but he evidently attaches a pejorative meaning to them. (See, e.g., pp. 15, 19, 22, 23, 69, 75, 85, 87, 96, and 110.) As best as I can tell, he seems to think that metaphysics and science are attempts to explain the same phenomena, only science does so by appealing to evidence and real causes, and metaphysics does so by appealing to faith and imaginary causes.
But in fact science and metaphysics do not address the same topics; for metaphysics is a branch of philosophy. Just as the task of ethics is to determine which conceptions of the good make sense and which don’t, so the task of metaphysics is to determine – antecedent to empirical investigation – which conceptions of the nature of reality make sense and which don’t – while the task of the sciences is to determine which of the possibilities left standing by metaphysics is actually best supported by empirical evidence. (After all, there’s no sense in sending scientists out to test for round squares if we already know a priori that they aren’t going to find any.)
To be sure, metaphysicians are sometimes wrong about what makes sense and what doesn’t – just as scientists are sometimes wrong about what the evidence supports. Likewise, metaphysicians sometimes attempt to pronounce on issues which properly lie within the sphere of the sciences – just as scientists sometimes attempt to pronounce on issues which properly lie within the sphere of metaphysics. Nevertheless, the two disciplines deal with different questions, and both are indispensable.
• There is a balance, Sullivan tells us, between liberty and (economic) equality: as economic inequality increases, the poorer majorities are prompted to combine forces to achieve redistribution; as economic equality increases, some members of the majority will begin to lose out and will switch to the side of the richer, pro-liberty minority. (p. 83.) This is an odd description of political reality; in the real world, we see wealthy interests pursuing inequality not by means of liberty but by means of state power – though often in a manner cloaked in pro-economic-equality rhetoric. It’s also unclear how Sullivan’s thesis of a perpetual oscillation between liberty and economic equality is to be reconciled with his thesis of an eventual triumph of liberty – and likewise how his association of liberty with economic inequality is to be squared with his identification of liberty with equality in power. (Economic equality and equality in power are not the same thing, of course; but one would not expect them to be inversely correlated.)
• “In order to found a libertarian society on purpose,” Sullivan proclaims, “some form of social power to do that would have to exist first,” and such a power “would not choose to relinquish their power in order to create conditions of equal power for everyone else.” (p. 110.) Leaving aside the unjustified determinism of this last, I note that elsewhere Sullivan has already acknowledged the existence of a power by which a libertarian society could be deliberately established: “his first step is to stand on his own two feet. At that point, he is free. If others do the same, they will not enslave each other. … But to succeed at this, one first has to rid their conscience of the old ideology, which has brainwashed them.” (p. 88.) Well, yes, that’s the agorist strategy for libertarian revolution in a nutshell; but why is this not precisely a way of “found[ing] a libertarian society on purpose”?
• Sullivan believes that anarchy is workable, but declines to call it “anarchy,” since that word is also used to mean chaos, and “[a] word cannot have two different meanings that are opposite one another.” (p. 107.) I hope he doesn’t intend to sanction, or cleave to, this oversight. (In any case, he calls his preferred legal system “world government” (p. 144), which is surely open to the same objection.)
• “Today,” we’re told, “the civilized west struggles against a muslim despotism that suffers very little feeling of guilt for their savage and barbarian actions. The west’s ultimate victory will be delayed only because they feel guilt.” (p. 111.) It’s startling to see such a “free-spirited” book suddenly mouthing the neocon party line – a bit like Nietzsche sporting a flag pin.
• Sullivan’s claim (p. 121) that slavery contracts would exist in a libertarian society seems contradictory, given that he has defined a libertarian society as one characterised by equality of power, while slavery by definition involves inequality of power (regardless of how it comes about).
• Sullivan asserts: “The price of a product has nothing to do with the cost of making it. Many products can’t be sold anywhere near what they cost to produce, so they simply aren’t made.” (p. 132.) I’m no adherent of the cost-of-production theory of price determination; but if Sullivan thinks that argument disproves it, he needs to read those good buddies George Reisman and Kevin Carson.
• Finally, Sullivan claims: “There is no such event in history as a peaceful withdrawal from a state by a minority power.” (p. 102.) Um … Belgium, 1830? Norway, 1905? Iceland, 1945? Singapore, 1965? Most of the Soviet states, 1991? Slovakia, 1993?
Thank you for the depth of your review as I have just read it. Although you don’t like the theory of egoism as I presented it, you don’t mention my source for it, which was principally Bernard Mandeville. I would hope that someday you seriously read his “Fable of the Bees”, volume two in particular where he presents his theory of egoism. All your objections to it in the review were the same as what his book’s protagonists argued. It wasn’t the objective of my book to re-argue what Mandeville had presented in the early 18th century and to which much of modern psychology is still greatly indebted to, but to generally summarize it and establish it as a premise.
I could respond to each and every criticism you made of the egoism argument separately, but it might be easier for you to eventually study Mandeville, who, by the way, was a significant influence on both Hayek and Mises, and some of the modern theories of psychology based upon premises of “self love”. The argument of that school suggests that “Man Never Acts for anyone Other than Himself”—although he is not aware of it, etc. What you see in my writing as contradictory is that man is not aware of what truly motivates his behavior. Our self love is the cause of all our action–good and bad! It is so intense that it enables us to either dominate or love others through a process of need, with our totalitarian nature being the greater of the two.
My theory, based on the above defined premise, is that power determines values and ideologies over time, but you cite what you consider countless exceptions, but none of them are really true exceptions. In the book I explain that power invents ideology to justify its distribution and people then are conditioned by custom to the ideology which makes them feel passions such as shame and guilt for actions that challenge the ideology. I explain that ideology is not full proof. Ideas emerge as justifications for challenging the status quo of power, and eventually power is won by newcomers who eventually instill the ideas, via custom again, into the expanded or replacement ideology. No exception stated by you refutes this process. They may appear to, but under close examination of the actual circumstances, they don’t.
There are always new values emerging to challenge the old ones and ideologies are always under evolutionary tension too. These are the results of groups slowly empowering themselves. Competing values and ideologies overlap but they in all cases represent the justifications of empowerment of groups seeking advancement. One thing you failed to grasp from the book was the degree to which appeasement of the weak is required by the strong in order for ‘order’ to exist. You made a comment that according to my theory, those in power wouldn’t be motivated to give back to those below them, and so any suggestions by me on those lines were contradictory. You even closed your review naming countries that voluntarily allowed secession without realizing that in those cases the seceding entities were no longer minority powers!
I’m not sure what your economics background is in relation to your understanding of the philosophical aspects of praxeology and Misean thought. Mises was certainly a philosophical thinker–as well as was Rothbard, and based upon your comment on my assertion that the cost of making something had nothing to do with its value, my guess is that it didn’t originate from the economics side, such as mine did. The Value of something is always determined by the consumer. It is produced only if it can be for less. When an entrepreneur guesses incorrectly, they go out of business. Austrian economics was based upon the rejection of what was called “The labor theory of value” which they proved as one of the greatest fallacies of prior economic thought.
My criticism of Mises that you commented on needs some clarification mainly because Mises had the most profound intellectual influence on me. An argument for what is best for everybody will not motivate people who can clearly do better for themselves by other (political) means. One doesn’t need to be cynical to see how the masses as well as the elite use the political process. I will stick to my point that Mises based his theories on subjective valuations and individualism but contradicted himself when he then lamented that individual man did not act according to what was best for society rather than himself. What is best for society is a libertarian rule of law, but that might not be best for someone who can secure monopolistic advantages. Of course, according to you, many of us would turn down that opportunity out of principle, but according to me, there is nothing immoral or moral about monopoly, per se, but what people have been ideologically educated to believe, and that any sacrifice of economic power would be handsomely exchanged for a boost to one’s reputation for being observed as principally abiding by the fashionable ideological convention. An example is the bigotry associated with protectionism, yet people line up to defend it because they’re perceived as patriotic.
I don’t consider myself exempt from my theories. Your reference to that was based upon the joke I made with regard to my theories perhaps not impressing anyone. Please understand that I don’t consider the psychological premise of the book as “my” theory. The egoistic theory is not new, although it’s very provocative and I’ve spent countless hours of reflection on it. It’s very disturbing to say the least. It has caused all readers of my book to reject it because they are uncomfortable with the premise. The more ideologically charged a person is, the more they emotionally reject the premise that man builds his ideals around his self interest. It is no surprise that a libertarian will react negatively to it, and the reason I asked you to review the work was because I was curious as to how you would respond to the assertion that liberty is advocated merely as the next best thing if one can’t dominate. It’s much easier to posture that one wouldn’t dominate if they could when the question is hypothetical, then to demonstrate it with action if their opportunity were real. The world is full of the former and bereft of the latter. Of course, once again, everyone considers themself members of the latter in the event the opportunity presented itself to them.
Lastly, you brought up a very good point about how the back and forth political process from equality to liberty could possibly lead to a long run victory for liberty. I think utility may come in to play. It’s simply easier to establish liberty than it is equality, but I am not a believer in the total realization of my speculative theory. I was significantly influenced by the book “Envy”, by Helmut Schoeck and it has been difficult reconciling it with my libertarian speculation. It was much easier reconciling it with egoism. I still believe that equal power will result in equal rights, but the ideal of “equal power” is probably something that will never be reached. However, that doesn’t mean that we won’t be trending toward that ideal indefinitely with or without large or small reversals of fortune for the species.
Thank you once again for the review. I was most surprised by the length of it! To me, the consumer of your opinion, it was worth the value.
Interesting review. Favorited.
Here are a few other comments or clarifications regarding Mr. long’s review of my book.
–I am not an ideological neocon. Wars between societies are an historical fact and ieological guilt felt by the more civilized society has an effect on the outcome.
–Slavery contracts I referred to were voluntary. Today, the state, in addition to regulating minimum wages and work weeks, regulates the nature or type of employement free people would otherwise engage in. To work full time for someone in exchange for food and shelter is presently illegal.
–A world government is not my preferred legal system. I merely predict one. I don’t have a preferred government.
–The effect that ideology has on people causes much confusion in Mr. Long’s effort to understand my thesis. Man, in his associations, seeks empowerment, but competition leads to slatemates and eventual settlement. The settlement establishes the rules of the society and the ideology emerges to condition everyone from birth to believe it. Ideology, in every historical case, makes man more passive than are his natural instincts to secure a greater share of power. If a man refrains from accepting greater power when able, it is because he has been conditioned otherwise. In the book, I stress that this conditioning is only temporary. It doesn’t last forever as man will eventually overcome his ideological repression and challenge the old ideology with new IDEAS. Some people reach this level of challenge faster than others but it describes how societies and their ideologies evolve peacefully. This makes me able to say that man’s nature is to acquire power but also to say that ideological conditioning at worst prevents him and at best slows him down. This process is not incoherent or contradictory. It is very logical and consistent and the book descibes it thoroughly using many examples. In one section I descibe the process by which a slave will win his freedom, rest, and then embark upon a quest to become a slave holder.
–My theory is essentially an argument for spontaneous order. Man prefers victory but settles for equity under competition.
— Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are all religions that lend themselves to obedience to rule as opposed to the Christian concepts of individualism, and contrary to Mr. long’s opinion, Buddhism was merely a reformed version, or liberalization, of Hinduism, and neither viewed human existence as ending with death. No religions are based upon there being nothingness after death.
–Anyone who has read Nietzsche can’t deny that he endlessly critcized humans for the values they held. Values are the components of a prevailing ideology and the ideology is an explanation and justification for the power structure that rules a society. All people have power within a society–even the weak, and values exist to protect them and to keep them in their place. I described how the evolutionary process works more clearly than Nietzsche did, the difference being that I didn’t criticize and insult people for exhibiting their nature.
–Von Mises wrote extensively on the concept of what he descibes as “collectivist idols” and how they are erected by ruling powers to subordinate the individual to them. I referred to them as metaphysical constructs. I defined concepts such as “society” as being metaphysical in that they aren’t real in a concrete sense, but collections of individuals who are real. Popper also made distinctions between beliefs based upon what is concrete and imaginary and further argued that man slowly changes his imaginary beliefs in order to survive. I separated knowledge into categories of metaphysical and scientific or non-metaphysical. A given example of a non-metaphysical fact is that we can see an arm or leg but not our soul. The soul is an example of a metaphysical belief. My perjorative usage to which Mr. Long referred to metaphysics was because I argued that rulers used metaphysical devices (idols) as methods to control their subjects. Most metaphysical beliefs by man that become ingrained in an ideology are designed to control man’s behavior to conform.
–Finally, Plato was the classic conservative. There was nothing liberal or libertarian in his philosophy. He begins his metaphysics by claiming perfection exists as an ideal and that human existence is forever moving away from that ideal. therefore, all human action should be to thwart human progress away from that ideal–as he defines it, of course. I suggest reading Havelock’s “The Liberal Temper In Greek Politics” if reading Popper isn’t enough. The totalitarian tribal state is Plato’s ideal and the evolutionary process from tribalism to individualism that I explain in my book, according to Plato, is to be prevented at all costs.
If Mr. Long says the Greeks were right “on everything else”, he needs to explain which Greeks. The father of utilitarianism was Mandeville. Von Mises was a later disciple and their Greek influences were not Plato or Aristotle as much as they were Epicurus and the sophists.
Finally, quoting Aristotilian ethics as refutation of enlightenment theories of egoism and relativism is absurd. It is the theory of egocentrism and the related theory of how power determines morality that explains Aristotle’s justification for slavery and the relativism of his ethicial system in general.
The notion that equals cannot oppress each other is quite true. What counts is military equality. When individuals can access guns and missiles comparable to armies, the scope for statist control is minimal. The spread of the musket and rifle accounts for Western liberty. It’s no accident that the BATF don’t allow people to possess anti-vehicle missiles and other explosives. What would have happened to the helicopter and armored assault vehicles in the Waco siege if the Davidians had Stinger missiles?
Economics factors have some weight in this process. Ideology is least important but not completely irrelevant.
I can’t disagree with you but you underestimate the power of ideology to maintain order and peace in societies of hundreds of million people. We are conditioned to the observance of general rules. In business competiton such as I am intensely involved, I don’t have the ruthlessness that similar people perhaps in Russia would possess. I strategize to beat people under an evolved rule of law without ever thinking that killing some of my competitors is a viable alternative. Even if I could get away with it, my conditioning is too overwhelming to emotionally overcome. But in Russia, without customs and traditions that condition people to general obervance of a rule of law, murdering competitors is common. The weaker the ideology, the less influence it has over the people and the most aggressive types in a society are the first to ignore it in order to secure advantages. Even mafia types in America don’t suffer guilt for killing people because their egos have been rewarded for many years that under certain circumstances, murder is okay. In my book, I examined early societies that forbid murder within their clans but had no problems with murdering people from competing clans. Of all morality, even murder was relative value and defined as right or wrong by the prevailing source of power in the society.
I would hope that someday you seriously read his “Fable of the Bees”, volume two in particular where he presents his theory of egoism. … I could respond to each and every criticism you made of the egoism argument separately, but it might be easier for you to eventually study Mandeville
Certainly I have read Mandeville. (My reference above to “Private Vices, Public Benefits” was a nod to Mandeville.) But I also think he has been pretty thoroughly refuted by the other sources I cited.
You made a comment that according to my theory, those in power wouldn’t be motivated to give back to those below them, and so any suggestions by me on those lines were contradictory.
That’s not quite what I said. I said that, at least as I interpreted you, you were saying both that a) they would give up power only out of fear, and that b) they would give up power to gain an ego boost rather than out of fear. I still don’t see how those two claims are consistent.
You even closed your review naming countries that voluntarily allowed secession without realizing that in those cases the seceding entities were no longer minority powers!
I’m not sure what you mean. How were they not minority powers? Take just the last case: the Czech Republic has a bigger population than Slovakia, no? Or do you mean something else by “minority power”?
I’m not sure what your economics background is in relation to your understanding of the philosophical aspects of praxeology and Misean thought.
On this see my essays here, here, and here.
based upon your comment on my assertion that the cost of making something had nothing to do with its value, my guess is that it didn’t originate from the economics side …. Austrian economics was based upon the rejection of what was called “The labor theory of value” which they proved as one of the greatest fallacies of prior economic thought.
I was referring to recent work of Reisman and Carson which argues that some version of the cost-of-production theory of value (Reisman) and/or the labour theory of value (Carson) is consistent with Austrian value-subjectivism; see the two pieces I linked to above.
Slavery contracts I referred to were voluntary. Today, the state, in addition to regulating minimum wages and work weeks, regulates the nature or type of employement free people would otherwise engage in. To work full time for someone in exchange for food and shelter is presently illegal.
Sure, but slavery contracts presuppose enforcement via specific performance whereas I take the Rothbard/Barnett position that service contracts may be enforced only via damages. But that dispute wasn’t really my point. My point was that since slavery contracts, even if voluntarily entered into and even if legitimate, necessarily result in an inequality of power, they seem inconsistent with a libertarian society as you defined it.
the ideology emerges to condition everyone from birth to believe it
Yes, but the question is how that is possible, consistent with your account of human motivation. If I care about cookies but I also care about morality, and society brainwashes me into believing that it is immoral to eat cookies, then it has used one thing I care about to block another thing I care about. That, I understand. But if I care ONLY about cookies, I can’t see what belief society could inculcate that would block my pursuit of cookies.
Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are all religions that lend themselves to obedience to rule
Have you read the piece I linked to on Confucianism?
Buddhism was merely a reformed version, or liberalization, of Hinduism, and neither viewed human existence as ending with death
True, they believe in reincarnation, but the goal of Buddhism (particularly early Buddhism) is to END the cycle of reincarnation and snuff out (nir-vana) the human personality.
No religions are based upon there being nothingness after death.
What about most forms of deism? Paine, for example, thought there might be heaven for the exceptionally good and hell for the exceptionally bad, but that the vast majority would simply be “dropped.” Or, more recently, what about Hartshorne?
Anyone who has read Nietzsche can’t deny that he endlessly critcized humans for the values they held.
Yes, but the kind of criticism is what’s in dispute.
I defined concepts such as “society” as being metaphysical in that they aren’t real in a concrete sense, but collections of individuals who are real. … A given example of a non-metaphysical fact is that we can see an arm or leg but not our soul. The soul is an example of a metaphysical belief.
It sounds like you’re using “real in a concrete sense” and “perceptible by the senses” as equivalent. But a crowd of people is perceptible by the senses, though you say it’s not real in a concrete sense. And likewise a soul (in, say, the Aristotelean sense) would seem to be concrete rather than abstract, yet it’s not perceptible (except accidentally).
Finally, Plato was the classic conservative. There was nothing liberal or libertarian in his philosophy. … The totalitarian tribal state is Plato’s ideal and the evolutionary process from tribalism to individualism that I explain in my book, according to Plato, is to be prevented at all costs.
We disagree about how to interpret Plato. I agree that he was mostly a collectivist about politics, but he was also mostly an individualist in ethics. As for how and why he combined these, I have some speculations about that in my contribution to Ed Younkins’ Atlas anthology.
If Mr. Long says the Greeks were right “on everything else”, he needs to explain which Greeks.
Above all, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Chrysippus.
The father of utilitarianism was Mandeville. Von Mises was a later disciple and their Greek influences were not Plato or Aristotle as much as they were Epicurus and the sophists.
True. But remember, I oppose utilitarianism.
Finally, quoting Aristotilian ethics as refutation of enlightenment theories of egoism and relativism is absurd. It is the theory of egocentrism and the related theory of how power determines morality that explains Aristotle’s justification for slavery and the relativism of his ethicial system in general.
We definitely disagree about how to interpret Aristotle. For some of my thoughts on that, see my Copenhagen paper (and of course my Aristotle/Rand book).
Thank you again and undertstand that our agreement was not for a prolonged debate, but for a book review, so I won’t go beyond this response. I will read what you mention here although just because someone refutes another’s ideas–such as mandeville’s, doesn’t mean the refutation is valid. From my experience, few have read Mandeville while most know in passing the general themes upon which he wrote. I also know that most people have to refute him in order for their own theories to hold water.
Incidentally, I oppose utilitarianism also, but mainly because it is suggestive of collectivist planning. I won’t read your links on theories of value because I don’t need to. Cost of production is “related to” value but doesn’t determine it. Only the consumer determines value. Nothing there would enlighten me without saying that your links aren’t, per se, worthwhile. However, I will read all you suggest regarding Aristotle, and thank you.
Both Nietzsche and Von Mises, interestingly, would not fault man for immoral action. They both solidy belived that man is incapable of acting against his will at the moment of action and that this action was always a measure of his true values when the action took place. Therefore, one might only claim that a man has neither been educated to the proper values or that his intellect is insufficiently developed to question and alter his values. Thus, criminals might be quarantined but should never be judged by orther humans. This is the level of determinism that, in my estimation, is Mandevillian, and proper. Idealists such as a Rand expect more from man. I understand that you would agree with me that rational self interest is a huge motivator of action and from your review and responses I feel that you don’t reject that element of my thesis as much as you reject how far I took it in relation to the needs of man’s ego and the resultant determinism that it suggests.
Lastly, my theory of man’s totalitarian nature, ideology and rational self interest explains why there exists ideologues on both the right, middle and left. Your ideology can’t explain it. It can only claim itself as being right. You offer no explanation why billions of people disagree with you—which, respectfully, makes your ideological positions as somewhat self righteous. I am saying this openly to you not because I am an ideologocal opponent of yours, but totally because I lived and argued the same positions.
It was when I sought to understand man as he is, rather than as I think he should be, that I began to think along different lines. I wanted to know why man disagreed so much with each other. My book offers a thoughtful explanation for man as he is, and any refutation of my book would not be complete without offering a substitute theory for why all men aren’t, by nature, libertarian like you. To answer that, you can say that they haven’t evolved or that they’re simply immoral, but those don’t suffice to me as explanations. It is here that philosophy is superior to ideology.
Your position againt my thought is the identical position I held prior to my quest for greater understanding about man.
Sorry, I was writing in haste. I meant that I understand that this is your site and that debate was not part of our original agreement.
I will read what you mention here although just because someone refutes another’s ideas–such as mandeville’s, doesn’t mean the refutation is valid.
As philosophers use the term “refutation,” it’s like “disproof” rather than like “critique”; i.e., nothing counts as a refutation unless it’s successful.
I won’t read your links on theories of value because I don’t need to. … Nothing there would enlighten me.
Well, um, that sounds a bit like the priests who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope because they already “knew” there couldn’t be any thing to see there.
Cost of production is “related to” value but doesn’t determine it. Only the consumer determines value.
But what you said in your book is “The price of a product has nothing to do with the cost of making it.” (p. 132) That’s surely false even according to orthodox Austrianism, let alone Reisman’s or Carson’s revisionism.
They both solidy belived that man is incapable of acting against his will at the moment of action and that this action was always a measure of his true values when the action took place.
Yes, but I think they confused the claim “Necessarily: (If we choose X at t, we most prefer X at t)” with the claim “If we choose X at t, we are causally necessitated to do so by our preference for X at t.” I accept the first claim but not the second. (Aristotle and Aquinas explain why the first doesn’t entail the second.)
I understand that you would agree with me that rational self interest is a huge motivator of action and from your review and responses I feel that you don’t reject that element of my thesis
But your thesis, as I understand it, is that people are mainly motivated by vanity and powerlust. I agree that these are among the many influential factors, but I would not describe them as rational self-interest. As an Aristotelean, I’m persuaded that a life of rational self-interest involves preferring virtue for its own sake over either vanity or powerlust.
Lastly, my theory of man’s totalitarian nature, ideology and rational self interest explains why there exists ideologues on both the right, middle and left. Your ideology can’t explain it.
Well, of course I deny that your theory explains it, since, as I argued above, your theory seems to make false and/or inconsistent predictions as to what people’s ideologies will be.
As for my own theory, I don’t see why explaining ideologies is a problem for it. There are all sorts of reason why people might come to have mistaken views either about which ends are worth pursuing or about which means will achieve the relevant ends. If you want a monocausal explanation, I don’t see why one should expect one.
You offer no explanation why billions of people disagree with you
Actually I’ve written about this many times. See here, for example.
which, respectfully, makes your ideological positions as somewhat self righteous.
I don’t understand what you mean about this last.
To answer that, you can say that they haven’t evolved or that they’re simply immoral, but those don’t suffice to me as explanations. It is here that philosophy is superior to ideology.
I agree; but both this style of explanation that you reject here, and your own style of explanation that you accept, seem from my point of view to be very much alike — they both move in the space of causes rather than, as I would prefer, in the space of reasons.
I meant that I understand that this is your site and that debate was not part of our original agreement.
Well, having a comments section means I welcome debate.
I find this is all to be immensely amusing. Unfortunately, it’s an excellent argument for anarcho-communism as the ideal socio-economic system.
Next year in Jerusalem….
For anyone wanting summary background information on pyschological egoism go to wikipedia. Even there it lists Aristotle as, arguably, a proponent of it. Arguments against it because they say its reasoning is circular or non refutable are not refutations of it. What is circular is for me to argue with the administrator because the theory hasn’t been completely proven or disproven to date. He is wrong to claim it as having been refuted. He simply doesn’t want to believe that his moral values are held to make him feel happy about himself, or to buttress his feeling of self worth. His review would have been more honest if he claimed he didn’t believe the theory rather than saying my presentation of it was irrational and incoherent—which it wasn’t, but by doing that, he seems to want to avoid havng his opinions scrutinized by the theory.
Let’s examine this closely because he actually does agree with the theory to the point where it personally suits him. Rand argued for selfishness, and like Aristotle, rational self interest, but they claim that should include what they define as virtue and, as the argument unflods, virtue often contradicts what would be considered as rational self interest. So, in order for them not to contradict themselves, they have to prove that acting virtuous is our real rational self interest and we would be mistaken to think that something better had to be sacrificed in order to be virtuous.
This thinking is an attempt to establish objective values that are timeless, and since values often clash, it is an attempt to rate them in hierarchal fashion. In this, our administrator is no different than a thinker like Leo Strauss except for the fact that they differ over the details of what constitutes virtue, or its natural hierarchy. They both have an ideal in their mind that they want to claim as distinct from utility and human experience.
With Hobbes and the Enlightenment, and there is a reason for calling it the Enlightenment, came theories that explained how Aristotlle might not view all people as deserving equal rights, and these theories were based upon a view of values and virtue as being relative to power, utility, and convention.
If, according to the administrator, virtue is the true representation of rational self interest, what do we do when our conception of virtue evolves to become the opposite of what it used to be? He can’t answer that without advocating relativism of both values and virtue.
The egoist position solves the dilemma. Man is educated to the values of his time and his ego is rewarded (pride and flattery) for holding opinions as well as for actions that conform to those values—-whatever they may be. One’s convictions and perception of their self-worth as humans is based upon the values they were educated to believe. Man does not see a tree of values and meditate upon which ones might be edible. He eats first and reacts to what he’s bitten.
In early tribal societies the degree of envy that madly possessed the members was so strong that any actions suggestive of individualism created strong feelings of guilt in those who made them. If values and our conception of human rights were objective and timeless, the tribal emotions described above couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened.
The truth is that man is educated to conventional virtue and the vehicle to which that is possible is his ego, which is reduced to his desire to be loved and respected by other humans. Contrary to the administators references to Aristotle’s ethics, acting virtuous means nothing if he won’t experience love and respect from it.
Rand argued that man would not survive unless he was innately selfish, which makes performing acts of virtue, however relative, selfish too. The man who acts virtuous has been educated to like himself better for it. If he doesn’t pyschologically gain, he won’t act virtuous. HIS EMOTIONS (EG0) ARE EDUCATED TO A MORALITY BEFORE HE HAS DEVELOPED THE MENTAL CAPACITY TO QUESTION IT! So, it is logical for man to believe that whatever his emotions respond to were innate—such as the feelings of sympathy he experiences for others, but the reality is that the only thing innate is our emotional capacity rather than the phenomena that our emotions respond to. If you change childhood education, you change what and how their emotions respond to events. This explains why things that shock people in one society don’t in another. The administrator’s belief is that if someone’s emotions inspire them to virtue, then it must be real within them. From one perspective, yes, everything that happens is real, but the virtue exhibited here was not of man’s complete choosing. His emotions were trained from childhood to influence his choices, and had he been educated differently, he would not have experienced the same emotions that led to his choice of virtuous action.
So, to begin my book as Hobbes did his in saying that man’s unlearned nature is totalitarian is not something radically new. To go on and argue that virtue and values are the result of evolution and competition can only be understood if man’s ego is the malleable tool required for this to happen.
The administrator thinks that man’s innate nature is not totalitarian because our mental capacity is powerful enough for us to reason ourselves better in advance of history and experience, whereas, my view is that we’re educated to the past which provides the platform to where our selfishness takes us into the future, and included in that selfishness are the virutes ingrained in our emotions of past compromises man made with his fellow competitors.
Going back to Rand, if a selfish ego is the source of life, then she should be consistent and admit man is an animal as Hobbes did. His selfishness should not end at the point where the socialist thinks it should end or where the libertarian thinks it should end, but where his competitors make it end and then educate him to believe it.
Plato, Aristotle, The Church and Power:
If one says that Virtue is always truly in one’s self interest, whether one knows it or not, and that it must always lead to maximum total happiness, then one justifies the legislation of it since it can be argued that everyone will be happy for it. Moral Slavery will thus bring forth maximum eudemonia. Socratic arguments often end in this. Again, I suggest reading Havelock’s “The Liberal Temper in greek Politics” for those seeking arguments against Plato and Aristotle’s anti-liberalism.
Concepts of right and wrong have been used historically more in the service of slavery than freedom. One can’t argue that Plato was politically illiberal yet was still an individualist. He was an individualist only for people equally empowered with each other.
“But what you said in your book is ‘The price of a product has nothing to do with the cost of making it.’ (p. 132) That’s surely false even according to orthodox Austrianism, let alone Reisman’s or Carson’s revisionism.”
Great point. The conclusion I have drawn from Reisman’s piece is that “orthodox” Austrian price theory, as explicated by Bohm-Bawerk recognized that costs of production (themselves, of course, determined via backwards imputation) play causal role in price determination, not only via their effect on supply (as was argued by Jevons and certain later Austrians), but also based on the entrepreneurial judgment that were producers to offer their goods for prices far in excess of the monetary outlays necessary for competitors (both actual or potential) to (re)produce them, said entrepreneurs will lose market share and eventually their net revenues will decline.
“Yes, but I think they confused the claim ‘Necessarily: (If we choose X at t, we most prefer X at t)’ with the claim ‘If we choose X at t, we are causally necessitated to do so by our preference for X at t.’ I accept the first claim but not the second. (Aristotle and Aquinas explain why the first doesn’t entail the second.)”
Can you point me to any sources, quotations, etc., from Aristotle and/or Aquinas where this point is argued? Also, at least in Aquinas’s case, is there any relation between this point his resolution of the distinction between reason/intellect and will?
For anyone wanting summary background information on pyschological egoism go to wikipedia. Even there it lists Aristotle as, arguably, a proponent of it.
Aristotle, like most of the major Greek philosophers, thinks all action has as its ultimate end the agent’s own happiness. One can call that psychological egoism if one likes — I’m not that interested in merely terminological disputes — but it usually isn’t called that because it differs form “standard” psychological egoism in several standard ways. Here are two:
First, the content of the agent’s happiness — what is to count as happiness — isn’t simply handed to the agent by his or her own motivational psychology, but has to be constructed by philosophical argument along the lines: what conception of self-interest, and what conception of the self, are we logically committed to? (For some of what that involves, see here, here, and here.)
Second, once the content is spelled out, it turns out to include non-instrumental concern for both virtue and others’ interests.
He is wrong to claim it as having been refuted. He simply doesn’t want to believe that his moral values are held to make him feel happy about himself, or to buttress his feeling of self worth. His review would have been more honest if he claimed he didn’t believe the theory rather than saying my presentation of it was irrational and incoherent — which it wasn’t, but by doing that, he seems to want to avoid havng his opinions scrutinized by the theory.
Well, I didn’t just claim that the position was incoherent, I presented arguments to back up that claim. Now maybe my arguments are no good. But once they’re on the table, it’s dialectically incumbent on you to say where they go wrong. Just ignoring my arguments and indulging in psychological speculation of my motives is a de facto concession of defeat.
Let’s examine this closely because he actually does agree with the theory to the point where it personally suits him.
What you mean, I take it, is that although I disagree with your version of psychological egoism, I accept another version (namely Aristotle’s). (Again, let’s leave aside the question of whether “psychological egoism” is the best term for Aristotle’s view.) Fine. But the way you describe it here makes it sound as though this is just a matter of personal preference on my part. Maybe you think my arguments are mistaken, but please stop pretending I don’t have any.
In this, our administrator is no different than a thinker like Leo Strauss except for the fact that they differ over the details of what constitutes virtue, or its natural hierarchy. They both have an ideal in their mind that they want to claim as distinct from utility and human experience.
You keep systematically ignoring the question of what your opponents’ arguments are for their positions. Some arguments are good and others are bad. Until you grapple with their arguments, you’re not entitled to dismiss them psychologistically as you do. Please leave behind the space of causes and enter the space of reasons; that’s the only place where debate is possible.
With Hobbes and the Enlightenment
You’re very selective as to what you consider the Enlightenment. I don’t consider Hobbes a distinctively Enlightenment thinker; chronologically, he’s too early, and content-wise, his views are mainly a retread of the Greek sophists. The distinctive ethical views of the Enlightenment I should think include people like Hutcheson, Hume, Smith, Butler, Price, and Godwin, all of whose views are deeply antithetical to the Hobbesian and Mandevillean version of egoism.
If, according to the administrator, virtue is the true representation of rational self interest, what do we do when our conception of virtue evolves to become the opposite of what it used to be? He can’t answer that without advocating relativism of both values and virtue.
The conception of virtue that is part of self-interest is whichever one is best supported by rational argument What views of virtue people happen to have at various points in cultural evolution has nothing to do with the question. Again, that belongs to the space of causes, whereas I’m talking about the space of reasons.
Why do you say things like this about virtue when you wouldn’t say it about the shape of the earth or the theory of marginal utility?
If values and our conception of human rights were objective and timeless, the tribal emotions described above couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened.
No — again, you’re confusing what people happen to believe at any given time and what is actually best supported by reasons
It’s sometimes said (on the basis of 1 Kings 7:23) that according to the Bible the value of pi is 3. I suspect that’s actually a bit unfair to the Bible, that it ignores the issue of significant figures — but never mind. Suppose the people who wrote the Bible really did think the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was 3. Then what would you think of someone who argued: “If the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter really is timeless, then the people who wrote the Bible shouldn’t have had a different value of pi from the one we accept today”? It seems to Me that your argument about morality is exactly analogous to that argument.
Contrary to the administators references to Aristotle’s ethics, acting virtuous means nothing if he won’t experience love and respect from it.
So what is your response to the Aristotelean argument I gave? At which step(s) does it go wrong? I stand by my argument until you show me a reason not to.
Rand argued that man would not survive unless he was innately selfish
No, Rand did not think selfishness was innate.
The administrator’s belief is that if someone’s emotions inspire them to virtue, then it must be real within them.
I’m not sure what you mean by this, but it doesn’t sound to me like anything I said or am committed to.
the virtue exhibited here was not of man’s complete choosing. His emotions were trained from childhood to influence his choices, and had he been educated differently, he would not have experienced the same emotions that led to his choice of virtuous action.
Well, sure. Education and training influence our values. Who ever denied that? But you seem to be running this together with a claim about the content of our values. Are you saying that because we acquire our initial values via a process in which social approval/disapproval play a crucial role, therefore there is nothing to whatever values we end up with beyond the desire to gain social approval? If so, that doesn’t follow. After all, we also learn to distinguish squares from circles and nouns from verbs via a process in which social approval/disapproval play a crucial role, but it doesn’t follow that our concepts of square and circle, noun and verb, are not about anything but social approval.
Going back to Rand, if a selfish ego is the source of life, then she should be consistent and admit man is an animal as Hobbes did.
But you haven’t yet given any reason for thinking her view is inconsistent. You’ve just made the assertion over and over.
If one says that Virtue is always truly in one’s self interest, whether one knows it or not, and that it must always lead to maximum total happiness, then one justifies the legislation of it since it can be argued that everyone will be happy for it.
No, that doesn’t follow, because part of virtue is respect for others’ autonomy, and so one cannot impose virtue on others without violating the requirements of virtue oneself. It’s true that Greek thinkers did often favour a fair bit of state paternalism, but that’s because they grasped one half of the picture while modern libertarians grasp the other half
One can’t argue that Plato was politically illiberal yet was still an individualist. He was an individualist only for people equally empowered with each other.
Not true; read the Gorgias and the first book of the Republic.