The Disproof of Collectivist Obligation

April 12, 2007

The is-ought gap, an argument first proposed by David Hume, attempted to cast doubt on the possibility of morality. Hume himself did not believe that the argument disproved morality as a whole, but most have assumed that it does. His argument purported to establish an impassable chasm of justification between statements of facts and statements of morality; that no philosophy could cross this chasm, and that, by virtue of this, doubt could be cast on the whole enterprise, at least as regards to its foundation.

We can express the is-ought gap in the following simple way:

(1) Posit there are two types of statements: statements of facts ("is") and statements of morality ("ought").

(2) No accumulation of relations between statements of facts can justify anything but more statements of facts.

(3) It is impossible to justify statements of morality. (from 1 and 2)

There are many ways, some more fatal than others, to address this argument (one obvious way is to point out that if we accept statements of facts as an a priori, there is also no obvious reason not to take some statements of morality a priori). In my (soon to be published) book on Market Anarchist theory, I detail why the is-ought gap is mainly a semantic and conceptual confusion, and why statements of facts and statements of morality are in fact inextricably linked. But for the purposes of this article, I only need to address the impossibility of morality being meaningless or non-existent.

Suppose that we claim that the is-ought argument is valid. In order to make such a claim, we must have some method, some opinion about epistemology. For instance, we must use logic, and therefore we must agree with accompanying claims such as "logic is a valid method for judging this argument." We must, therefore, pass some judgment regarding valid and invalid methods that one could use in order to judge the argument. This judgment is necessarily a form of moral judgment, i.e. an evaluation of actions as desirable or undesirable based on our values (in this case, the specific value of judging arguments correctly). Therefore, the act of claiming that there is no way to justify morality is itself predicated on moral judgment.

In short, the is-ought gap, as well as the belief that morality does not exist or is meaningless, does not hold, for the simple reason that all our actions are value-laden. Not only that, but no moral agent can survive without some values and some way of affecting them. Therefore, no agent can survive without some form of morality. The form of morality, whether subjectivist, realist, utilitarian, idealist or otherwise, does not interest us here: although I obviously have my own position on the topic (I am a moral realist). All that is needed here is to establish that morality does indeed exist in some form, if only in the most basic "values + judgments" form.

This being established, we must acknowledge that there are two major frameworks regarding the source of morality, and that this division is of direct import to Market Anarchist theory. The two frameworks are the following:

1. Moral collectivism. The source of morality is collective decision (whether autocratic, democratic, or otherwise), which is then imposed on the individual in order to mould him into a virtuous person, imposing exterior meaning on the individual. The values of the collective and its ruling class are favoured over the individual's values. The individual is the passive receiver of moral truths, and cannot generate or discover them on his own (moral submission). Moral collectivism applies to all collectivist systems, including our usual suspects (State, democracy, the welfare state, Greenieism, nationalism, militarism, the family structure, organized religion, cults . . . .).

2. Moral individualism. The source of morality is individual decision (whether emotional or reasoned), which is then extended by the individual into his relationship with the rest of his world, imparting personal meaning to said world. The individual's values are considered more fundamental than group values. The individual is an active manufacturer or discoverer of moral truths (moral autonomy).

One of them must be correct, and while both may be applicable in different contexts, there can be only one correct answer for a given context. These are not merely two of the choices, but the only two choices. At some point, minds must enter into the picture, if only because moral statements are, in the end, contained in minds and justified or rationalized by minds. Even if we believe that, for instance, moral principles or rules are contained in nature, and regardless of the framework, we still have to figure out how those principles or rules get to our minds; by individual discovery or collective decision.

My argument, the Problem of Collectivist Obligation, seeks to prove that moral collectivism is logically impossible to justify because of a conceptual gap similar to the is-ought gap, and that therefore it should be rejected.

First, we have to define what obligation is. An obligation can be roughly defined as something one must do, or be judged negatively for it. For example, we acknowledge that, when we voluntarily sign a contract, we have morally (and legally) obligated ourselves to fulfill our part of the contract. Moral obligation does not have to come solely from relationships with other agents. If we consciously pursue a value, then we are morally obligated to take rational steps towards that pursuit. If we fail to do so, then it would be rational to judge ourselves negatively for it, and to correct our aim. Note that obligation does not necessarily entail scorn or guilt, but is rather, at its core, an evaluative concept.

All collectivist systems recognize some form of obligation imposed on the individual. The State and democracy impose legal obligation, utilitarian statist ideologies (such as the welfare state and Greenieism) impose obligations of the type "greatest good for the greatest number," the family structure imposes filial and kinship obligations, religions impose divine and theological obligation, and cults impose all kinds of systemic obligations to conform and obey. In all of these cases, the source is very different but the end result is similar: obedience is required above and beyond the call of one's personal values, under the guise of "helping society," "curbing selfishness," "setting order" and "giving people much-needed direction."

However, it is unclear how any of these forms of obligation translate into moral obligation. Let's imagine a little conversation here:

C: "God says you should not be greedy because the love of money is the root of all evil."

A: "Okay. So what?"

C: "So you shouldn't be greedy."

A: "You've changed your approach here. First you said God says it. For the sake of this conversation, I am not going to dispute that. Then you say I shouldn't do it. You are turning a divine obligation into a moral obligation. Why?"

C: "Well, because whatever God says is good."

A: "Well, plenty of people believe they are paragons of virtue, but I don't believe them without evidence, and even if I agreed that they were, I wouldn't just obey them blindly. No doubt your religion says that whatever God says is good, but how does that translate into an epistemic obligation on my part to accept whatever God says as valid? And even if it did, how would that translate into any moral obligation on my part to obey God?"

C: "Because it's true. Whatever God says is valid. He's omniscient."

A: "You mean you believe it's true because your religion says it's true. You are still not proving how divine obligation translates into moral obligation, only that you obey whatever you believe in. You have created your own moral obligation out of blind belief."

C: "Well, you have to have faith to understand it. You don't have faith, and so your life will always remain without meaning. You live a sad existence."

With this short conversation, I not only intended to illustrate a practical use of the argument, but also the distinction between universal propositions and inter-subjective propositions. Collectivist debaters often confuse the objective (things that are theoretically available to all) with the inter-subjective (things that can only be true within a group and the belonging and language of that group). They often claim that things are true for believers and non-believers alike, when they are in fact inter-subjective propositions, such as "God is good." The proposition can only make sense if one believes in God and holds certain specific beliefs about morality. If you do not share the language and the assumptions of the group, or are at least familiar with them, "God is good" is as nonsensical as a sentence in a foreign language you do not understand.

In the same way, someone who says "the State is necessary for roads to exist" believes he is making an objective proposition, but is in fact uttering an inter-subjective proposition, insofar as he is relying on the framework of statism (where the State actually is necessary, because the State is sole provider of order) and not a framework based on evidence (where the historical evidence would quickly dispatch such ideas). To him, "the State is necessary for roads to exist" is not an empirical fact but a logically obvious proposition. To us, it is obvious nonsense.

So the question of obligation becomes: how can one go from inter-subjective propositions to objective propositions? And the answer is, this is impossible. All inter-subjective propositions exist attached to a specific framework of belief, from which they cannot be cut off, unlike, say, propositions of science, which can be understood in any culture, context or language (given proper translation). No sum or network of these propositions, therefore, can transcend this limitation and break the barrier of group understanding.

This principle also applies in reverse. Religious attempts to ground theological propositions into empirical reality have miserably failed because no accumulation of facts about natural law can lead to the conclusion that a god exists: at best, it could lead us to admit that we do not know something, or that we have unknown causes at work. But it cannot lead us to the gods of religion any more than proving that pricking someone with needles does some biological good proves that the arcane belief in acupuncture has any validity. All it proves is that pricking someone with needles does some biological good. The belief in acupuncture as a method is a creature of inter-subjectivity, with its own attendant beliefs, language and constructs, which are no more within the reach of the scientist than a sound understanding of biology is within the reach of believers in acupuncture.

In their daily lives, collectivist believers simply assume that obedience is required, and never question the connection between collectivist obligation and moral obligation. It never occurs to them to wonder whether it's justifiable to obey God or not, or whether the majority could be sometimes immoral, or whether it might not be such a good idea to cheer for their "country." Why would they ponder these questions? As long as they subscribe to the inter-subjective belief that "the group and its doctrines/processes provide direction and order," they have no reason to question the connection at all.

Now, believers do object to lines of reasoning similar to the one I propose here. From my personal experience in debating, there are three main lines a believer will generally take in answer:

1. Argue that submission makes everything more pleasant, or fulfills some desire on the part of the believer. This may be so, especially for the believer, but does not dispel the inter-subjective nature of the act or entail any moral obligation at all, unless one can prove that we are morally obliged to make life more pleasant for everyone regardless of honesty or truth. I see no way by which this could be proven.

2. Argue that punishment will be soon to come after disobedience. This generally puts the believer in a fatally flawed position, as he has basically admitted that his morality is of the "might makes right" type, which is ridiculously easy to refute in its collectivist form. But most importantly, the fact that punishment exists does not imply moral obligation. It does imply that an action may be less desirable because of the punishment that may come, but this is only true because the individual disvalues coercion and feels obligated to escape it, not because he feels obligated to follow the rules. A Market Anarchist who pays his taxes does not do so out of legal obligation, but because he feels obliged to himself to escape the potential punishment. Therefore, this objection must fail as well.

3. Try desperately to paint the coercion of the group on the non-believer as voluntary. This is the rhetoric of the "social contract," where the individual "implicitly agrees" with the rules by virtue of being in a certain location/using certain "services" (State, democracy, nationalism)/using certain lines of reasoning (religion, esp. presuppositionalism). Sometimes, the believer will outright state that all non-believers are inferior (sinful/corrupt/selfish/greedy /individualist) and deserve to be on the receiving end of coercion. This objection also does not prove any moral obligation, since its line of reasoning remains within the domain of the inter-subjective. For a non-believer, none of the things he does necessitate the existence of the collective, and therefore cannot imply agreement with the collective and its coercion.

Now, a more astute believer may read my prior refutation of the is-ought gap and try to apply it to my Problem, by saying that moral obligation to the collective is necessary for all social agents; that without the collective, the individual loses meaning and morality. But we are precisely arguing whether individualist or collectivist obligation is valid (or one or the other in different respects). To use as a premise "the belief in the collective as necessary" is therefore a form of begging the question. In the is-ought discussion, on the other hand, we were not trying to invalidate one form of morality over another, but rather showing that "oughts" are a necessary fact.

This objection would only work if it could be logically demonstrated that individualist moral obligation cannot exist. It is fairly easy to demonstrate how an individual, without collectivist obligations, would develop at least some values, as well as the understanding of how to fulfill them. This is, as previously mentioned, a universal fact for all moral agents. And since this is enough to spark moral obligation, the objection therefore is found to be invalid.

The only truthful answer to the question "How do you get from collectivist obligation to moral obligation?" is that all attempts at this passage are inherently circular. This is partly due to the "might makes right" principle. All belief systems ultimately derive their legitimacy from coercion (physical or mental), and most rationalizations from believers aim at occulting that fact. But most importantly, any moral justification or obligation derived from collectives is inherently circular, as the collective sets the context within which moral agents make their decisions.

Take the State and democracy, for instance. The State sets the choices available to the voter, sets the terms of the process, sets the terms of campaign financing, sets the terms of debates, and then uses the results of this process in order to validate its own existence. Furthermore, it sets the laws, making some actions less desirable and immoral in the eyes of the public, and then claims to be necessary in order to suppress immorality. The whole democratic process is one giant circular machine of self-validation, with not one small iota of reality introduced within it.

There is one way by which collectivist obligation can be demonstrated in certain circumstances, and that is when one voluntarily submits to a collective. A Scientologist who rebels against the doctrines of L. Ron Hubbard may be told, justly, that by joining Scientology, he has obligated himself to follow said doctrines. Due to the brainwashing involved, one may argue that joining Scientology is not entirely voluntary. Either way, non-believers are still not bound to any obligation entailed by the doctrines, and Market Anarchists already support obligations that occur through voluntary trade.

The Problem of Collectivist Obligation can be expressed as such:

(1) One or more of three possibilities must obtain:

a. Morality does not exist.

b. Morality is determined by the individual (realism, subjectivism, etc).

c. Morality is determined by the collective (autocracy, utilitarianism, etc).

(2) Morality necessarily exists, because:

(2a) Morality is axiomatic (cannot be denied without direct contradiction).

(2b) Morality is a necessary fact for all moral agents.

(3) Either morality is determined by the individual moral agent, or the collective, or both. (from 1 and 2)

(4) Collectivist obligation is inter-subjective relative to the collectivist belief system.

(5) Any moral obligation towards the collective would have to be objective (i.e., as a fact that exists independently from group beliefs and language).

(6) It is impossible to go from inter-subjective propositions to objective propositions, as any given sum or network of inter-subjective propositions must still remain grounded to the belief system.

(7) It is impossible to justify the passage from collectivist obligation to moral obligation. (from 4, 5 and 6)

(8) Morality cannot be determined by the collective. (from 7)

(9) Morality can only be determined by the individual moral agent. (from 3 and 8)

To this the Market Anarchist will add that, since it is absolutely unjustifiable to apply legal obligation, democratic obligation, or national obligation, to the individual, the existence of the State remains absolutely unjustifiable, and is nothing more than a variant of "might makes right."

Or expressed more simply:

(1) For statism to be valid, the passage from collectivist obligation (legal obligation, democratic obligation, national obligation) to moral obligation must be demonstrated.

(2) The passage from collectivist obligation to moral obligation is unjustifiable.

(3) Statism is invalid. (from 1 and 2).

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Francois Tremblay's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Francois Tremblay blogs at Check Your Premises, is co-host of the Hellbound Alleee Show and has self-published a book called The Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics.