The Limits of Philosophy


Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

In an earlier article, I wrote to counter the notion of Matt Zwolinski that libertarians ought to dispense with the Non-Aggression Principle. I have since found another article countering Zwolinski by Jason Kuznicki coming from a different direction, as well as another supporting Zwolinski by Julian Sanchez. Not only do I not find Zwolinski convincing, as I mentioned before, but I also think both Kuznicki and Sanchez have got on the wrong track.

Kuznicki writes,

Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk physics. To model how a billiard ball rolls on a table, one makes simplifying assumptions—the table is a perfectly flat plane, the ball is a perfect sphere, the mass is distributed equally, and the like. One does these things not because the simplified model is perfectly true to life, but for three related reasons: (1) the model is often close enough; (2) the math is vastly easier; and (3) you can use it to say things that are more or less true about billiard balls anywhere: here, in Spokane, and—with only minor adjustments—on Mars.

Moral and political philosophy should be like that. They should make simplifying assumptions. They must, if they are to do anything more than reference isolated cases without any extensive explanatory power. And the ability to extend to additional cases is the very reason we do philosophy, at least as a practical matter.

This is what can be called “physics envy” among the philosophers. How wonderful to find universal rules; why can’t philosophy be the same?

There is a small problem with this, though. Physics and the other hard sciences are concerned with describing what is. There is no “ought” in physics. Now, while I know a thing or two about physics, I am far from an expert in philosophy; but at least in the area of ethics and political philosophy, it is almost all about oughts, if I’m not mistaken.

A further problem is that humans are not machines, not perfectly logical and consistent. They are not like identical electrons, whose behavior in an electric field can be described.

Given these two problems, maybe philosophers ought to set their sights a little lower. Rather than attempting to emulate physics, it would seem to make more sense to work with the human material they have available to them. Maybe general guides to conduct, rather than universal rules derived from the very existence of matter and energy, is as good as it gets with philosophy; and it serves no purpose to bring physics into the matter. Kuznicki came at it from the wrong direction.

Sanchez, on the other hand - while taking no issue with physics envy - writes,

If the NAP were truly a universal, exceptionless master principle—if the apparent counterexamples were either bullets we could bite or cases where the principle would yield the right answer after all once properly understood—then we could employ it directly even at the highest theoretical level. But if, as Jason seems to concede, we are allowing that the exceptions are really exceptions, then we are implicitly relying on some other higher-level principles—respect for autonomy or hedonic utility or Kantian universalization or contractualist agreement—to limn the boundaries.

That doesn’t follow. There isn’t necessarily some higher principle that takes over from NAP, as relativity more accurately replaced classical mechanics. Instead, we are at a place where there are no principles at all. You cannot look at these exceptions to NAP and have what happens in them reflect back on the entire basis where NAP does satisfactorily apply.

These are the “lifeboat arguments” - the sorts of things that philosophers like to play with: At what point does it become acceptable to throw someone out of a lifeboat? The example presented here (via Rothbard) is of a parent starving his child, and whether it is a violation of NAP to trespass on the parent’s land to feed the kid. Yes, believe it or not, the idea here is that whatever may be discovered in the proper conduct of this contrived case, should be applied back to all those other cases where NAP seemed to make sense. Lifeboats overthrow NAP. We can aggress after all! Whee!

No doubt the ruling class loves philosophy.

In reality, in one lifeboat rowing away from the sinking Titanic, a person may be ejected. In another nearby lifeboat, in similar straits, they may refrain from ejecting a person. Neither case affects the general reality. Neither case even matters, although philosophers may argue they do. Imagine the ejectors are later arrested and brought to trial, and convicted by 12 jurors who did not have to sit in that sinking lifeboat. They go to jail for 20 years. What does this outcome say to us? How does that matter at all? The jails are chock full of people who shouldn’t be there. It will affect nothing in the future. It has no bearing on whether A should steal from B in the name of the common good, or of anything else.

Sanchez does have a stronger point in the following text:

You can’t resolve a philosophical debate between a classical liberal and a socialist by appealing to the NAP, because each can claim their view is consistent with that principle given their theories of property: The state is not “aggressing” on an individual “property owner” if in fact The People ultimately own (or have some kind of share right in) all property, given the normatively loaded way “aggression” is used here. The appeal of the NAP lies in its apparent simplicity and intuitive plausibility (tautologies tend to be intuitively plausible), but it’s typically deployed in a way that amounts to a kind of shell game: I argue that socialism must be rejected on the grounds that it violates this one simple moral principle, and hope my interlocutor doesn’t notice that I’ve essentially begged the question by baking a theory of strong property rights incompatible with socialism into my conception of “aggression,” when of course libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well.

It’s true that NAP may be useless in resolving a debate with a socialist, but so is everything else. There is no higher principle that will solve this dilemma. Libertarian property rights may well be backed by violence - defensive violence at any rate. Oh, well! The thing to do, if violence is to be avoided, is to embrace Panarchy. Let socialists be socialists, let libertarians be libertarians. There is no need for them to try to convince each other which side is correct. A good thing too, because there is no highest principle that would be able to do it.

I’m not saying that political philosophy never has any effect; Marx certainly had an effect. It’s just that I doubt these corner cases say much that matters. Political philosophy is not physics. Anyway, we don’t have to look at these absurdly contrived situations to figure out rules of conduct. How many people end up in overloaded lifeboats? How many people starve their children? Let’s look instead at what happens every day. Every day governments, using a political philosophy approved by academics, kill hundreds, or thousands of people. Every day governments cage other thousands. Every day governments rape and torture. Every day governments do things that virtually nobody would excuse if an individual did it.

NAP is just fine and healthy despite the fact it may cause philosophers heartburn. I’d rather have the average Joe on the street following it consistently than to have the unanimous support of every philosopher in the world. At best, philosophy and philosophers are pretty irrelevant to what goes on in this world. At worst, they are an apologia for tyranny.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Samarami's picture
    "Physics and the other hard sciences are concerned with describing what is. There is no “ought” in physics. Now, while I know a thing or two about physics, I am far from an expert in philosophy; but at least in the area of ethics and political philosophy, it is almost all about oughts, if I’m not mistaken."

For this single observation, my friend, I've rated your essay a "10" -- which I almost never do. For me, a rating of 8 or 9 can be considered virtually perfect. My philosophy (Ha! My philosophy does not signify it "ought" to be your philosophy. Of course, if you disagree with me, you're wrong :-]) -- my philosophy for equitable grading principles has been that there are no 0's, and almost no 10's. Every idea has at least some merit, and none are 100% free of exceptions. Other than this one. In the area of ethics and political philosophy it is almost all about "oughts".

Someone was on STR a year or so back with an essay on NAP, and included a sort of petition or movement for "all true libertarians" to sign up with -- to agree upon electronically. I didn't. And won't. Not that you "oughtn't". It's just that I don't trust movements or groups or those who are motivated to organize them.

I see rudeness and unkindness as a form of aggression. I try never to be rude or unkind. It's not due to loyalty to NAP -- that has nothing to do with it. It's that I secretly want you to like me. But even more subtle is my understanding that if I ever want you to see or do things my way I'd better refrain from alienating you. So I naturally observe NAP for a selfish reason.

I'm old and feeble and I don't aggress against you because I'm afraid you'll whip my ass. Is that loyalty to the principle of NAP? I'll agree with you -- Zwolinski's arguments are mostly academic nonsense, but he's entitled to his opinion. I guess.

I'm a skeptic's skeptic. Of course I'm skeptical of religion. I'm also skeptical of academe in general, "science" in particular. Did you know the man generally accredited as the father of the scientific method was a devout religionist? Strangely, his religion was the one that today is denigrated and chastised hotly by religionists and atheists alike in this corner of the world. And feared. He and his colleagues uncovered and cataloged some of the most relied-upon axioms in the field of mathematics and "science" today.

"Science" can be a thinly disguised religion. I laugh at "the-scientific-community". I generally want to know who's funding the prognosticators -- what's the pay-off for their pronouncements. When you trace the money trail back to source will it be "tax-payer" (???) funding that stimulates scientific proclamations? Will the existence of the "Higgs Particle" miraculously agree with the theory that has launched the massive search (and billions spent) -- more profusely as funding time looms?

Gary North wrote a good article on academe -- primarily as related to fraudulent "economic science", but applying to academics in general.

Good work, Paul. Sam

Glen Allport's picture

Nice comments, Sam -- thoughtful, unpretentious, wise.

Paul's picture

Well, yeah. When I wrote, "Physics and the other hard sciences are concerned with describing what is," I was talking about the ideal. Of course "hard" sciences have themselves also gotten disreputable through their association with governments. All the more pathetic, therefore, that philosophers aspire to emulate them.

Perhaps it is just becoming avant-garde among libertarians to dump NAP these days. Humans!

Samarami's picture

I'm not talking about "dumping NAP". Not in the least. Of course, I can't and won't attempt to speak for "libertarians". I can only speak for me.

And that sums up my assessment of where you were headed in your critique of Zwolinski -- and of Kuznicki and Julian Sanchez as well; all three of whom presumed to know what "libertarians" believe and/or practice (and know what they "ought-to" believe and practice). To repeat, I can only speak for me. They would perhaps be well advised to follow the same principle -- but who am I to say? And to compare the argument over the identity of Higgs boson with how "we" should practice "NAP" is non-sequitur ridiculousness.

My point is that I adhere to what sloganists call "NAP" by my nature -- not because I belong to a group or a movement. It's probably that part of me -- one of my principles if you will -- that makes me the type of individual you might wish to call "libertarian". I can't very well value my liberty unless I respect your liberty as well. Debating a philosophical issue with you without malice could be my way of respecting your liberty (to be wrong -- unless you agree with me :-]).

Another point is the concept that aggression can take two major formats: physical aggression and intellectual aggression. Rudness and/or unkindness (of word) fall into the latter. Fraud might consist of a combination of the two -- telling a lie and chiseling. But in any case what has been isolated and identified as "NAP" is merely one segment of the whole that makes up a libertarian.

In my humble opinion.


Paul's picture

" I try never to be rude or unkind. It's not due to loyalty to NAP -- that has nothing to do with it. It's that I secretly want you to like me."

On re-reading, I see your point here. This may be similar to my linguistic arguments with the word "rights".

People don't usually kill their associates. At some point a philosopher decided to give this tendency a name (at least I imagine so): "right to life".

Likewise people usually don't aggress against each other (or it takes a lot of indoctrination to get them to do it). And things tend to work better all around when they don't aggress against each other. At some point a philosopher decided to give that tendency a name: "NAP".

Looks like I'm on the other side of the argument with NAP than with "right to life". I suppose I am because I don't really have a problem with this naming of tendencies per se, but with making the name bigger than the tendency. "Right to life" is obviously overblown these days, with a poor connection to reality. "NAP" on the other hand has not gone very far down that road, so I am not so concerned about it. But yeah, it certainly is more descriptive to say, "I secretly want you to like me."

Samarami's picture

If I'm a libertarian -- or an anarchist (I'm among the many who have difficulty defining the difference) -- "NAP" is part of the package. If non-aggression is not one of my built-in principles, no matter what I say I don't fit the libertarian or anarchist model. The terms generally mean (to me) "hands off". You're entitled to manifest and express your liberty in any way you see fit as long as you don't encroach upon my liberty. I don't see a need to make an issue (and certainly not a rule, or law) about that -- it's part of the script. One can hardly have one without the other.

I'm with you on "rights" -- although I'm aware some at STR will argue vehemently over the use of the term. I never use it. Where most rights enthusiasts say "rights", I say "choices". I choose to walk down the street. I'd like to do so unmolested. That may not happen. So I need to be prepared to defend myself against that eventuality. Or take an alternate route.

I look to no external force to protect my "right" to walk down the street free from harm.

Glen Allport's picture

Yet another solid column, Paul. I especially appreciate the direct, clear, sensible support for the Non-Aggression Principle. The NAP is the foundation of any civil society, and those who are trying lately to weaken support for the NAP are doing no favors to the cause of liberty.

calinb's picture

>It’s true that NAP may be useless in resolving a debate with a socialist, but so is everything else.

Yes. I also find it to be nearly impossible to debate a statist who frankly admits "it works for me" (the state). At least such honesty permits one to not waste time on a decidely and likely permanently violent individual. (They commit violence via the proxy of the state.)