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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5784/what-was-wrong-with-the-old-world/

What Was Wrong With the Old World

October 20, 2006 by


The problem of human life on this earth, wrote Rose Wilder Lane, is the problem of finding the method of applying combined human energies to this earth to get from it the necessities of human life. This problem has never been solved by assuming that an Authority controls individuals. To the degree that men in Government have assumed this authority and responsibility, and have used their actual police force in attempting to control the productive uses of human energy, to that degree the energy has failed to work. FULL ARTICLE

{ 54 comments }

JIMB October 20, 2006 at 4:51 pm

But if Rose Wilder is to be believed, she has claimed herself as an authority. In fact, there is no real authority of men — there is only the authority of natural law (of dealing honestly with one another) which men routinely violate and that is what causes “wars and oppressions”.

I don’t think we are free in the sense Wilder uses the term. I know Rothbard tried to make the distinction between power and freedom but I see the difference in the other direction. Freedom is that capability to act without being limited, while power is that capability to act whether limits prevent or not. Rothbard claimed the reverse. But there can be no freedom without power, but there can be power without freedom. Rothbard inverted the reality, so does Wilder Lane.

We are indeed subject to ‘authority’ outside ourselves if belief in natural law is at all legitimate — if in fact libertarianism is to be believed, it must of necessity claim itself to be an authority. Submission to natural law is what sets men “free” because the first act of genuine freedom is submission to reality — ask any engineer.

Are people really individuals in the sense promoted by Wilder Lane? Seems to me that it is necessary for the opposite belief as well: there IS “male and female” and it is best if there is traditional family which raises children. The fact is there would be no “people” unless that was understood and – even if imperfectly – honored.

I confess I don’t see the use of Wilder’s line of argument at all. In fact it is so far from reality it is almost bizarre in it’s refusal to see that we are under dominion of an order which we did not design, and that wishing that we were not will not save a single person jumping off a cliff …

Ronald Knarr October 20, 2006 at 9:37 pm

The article says:

“War is caused by the ancient pagan belief that Authority controls individuals, and must and should control them. This belief is in individual minds, and no force whatever can change any man’s mind. War will end when a majority of men on this earth know that every man is free. Each person must see for himself that everyone is self-controlling and responsible.
So long as any large group of persons, anywhere on this earth, believe the ancient superstition that some Authority is responsible for their welfare, they will set up some image of that Authority and try to obey it. And the result will be poverty and war.”
No man is free as long as he is the slave of his passions. It is a fact that as long as men envy, and have not the control of their desires, they will fight to get what they envy. Whether it be their viewpoint, desire for power, or the next door neighbors wife.
Wars will cease when men cease envying, not when a better system, philosophical or otherwise, is developed.
God has laid down laws for the finding the ceasation of wars.
Few listen.

Aakash October 21, 2006 at 12:57 am

It’s great that older pieces like this are being published, as articles on Mises.org.

However, perhaps the date of the piece should be added, somewhere at the top of the article page, so that those people who don’t recognize the name are immediately aware of when that was written and published.

Mark Sunwall October 21, 2006 at 5:16 am

This is really an embarassing article. It’s not that Rose Wilder Lane doesn’t have any good ideas, rather she has too many which she has stuffed in haphazard fashion into what today we would call a “rant.” I understand how isolated libertarians must have been at the time of the writing and my heart really goes out to Rose, but let’s face it, she needed a good editor on this one. The contents are problematic as well. She seems to want to make a case for American exceptionalism…for example, that they would never elect a general for president! RWL’s era doesn’t absolve her on that one. Albert Jay Nock had already seen through that illusion and quotes with approval Neihbur’s (or was it Momsen’s) comment that he could not forgive America for repeating every mistake which had ever been made by the statist Europeans. She also throws in a lot of Rand-like historical synopses devoid of references without even Rand’s (often abused) talent for bringing everything up short for a swift rhetorical punch. Lane seems to embrace a sort of super-nominalist philosophy where “authority” is invalid because it is an abstraction. Well, so far so good…but then she goes on to aboolve the collectivism of fanatical Kansasites and Missourians (in the run-up to the Civil War) as something noble and sui generis in oposition to those foolish Old World nationalists who think in terms of “authority” when they do the same things. Somehow I don’t detect the rigor of these category distinctions. Finally, the use of the word “pagan” seems nothing more than a floating pejorative without any special meaning. Are we talking about Seneca the philosopher or the Indians in upper New York state. As someone with a background in anthropology I am always suspicious when people toss around the word “savages”…and not out of any consideration for “political correctness.” It’s not the sort of term that Nock, her contemporary, or even Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)would have used…not exactly idols of political correctness! No, its just an attempt to evade conceptual precision by using dog-whistle rhetorical terms. Furthermore it gives the wrong impression in this epoch, when libertarianism is trying to disentangle itself from the wrong kind of conservativisms. Like I say, I think RWL meant very well, and had lots of good ideas…its just the rant factor that gets to me. As a matter of fact…what would be really gutsy would be to post some of Rose Wilder Lane’s tributes to primitive Islam as a sort of proto-libertarianism! I’m not going to hold my breath on that one.

Urbanitect October 21, 2006 at 6:39 am

Great article, it mirrors many of the same points as Bastiat’s The Law, but with a lot more focus on the absurd history of government.

jeffrey October 21, 2006 at 7:09 am

Mark, thank you. Where are these comments from RWL about Islam? I would love to post them.

BK Marcus October 21, 2006 at 1:23 pm

I believe Mark Sunwall is referring to Discovery of Freedom, Part Two, Section II — “The Second Attempt” — which was, in fact, our original candidate for a Rose Wilder Lane weekender. Lane’s claim is that Abraham made the first attempt to free Man’s mind from belief in Authority, and that Mohamed made the second attempt.

Unfortunately, Lane’s historical accuracy was challenged at the time of the book’s first publication. She was especially embarrassed by certain errors she made in the Islam section — so embarrassed that she refused to let the book be published again for many years.

We looked at Imad Dean Ahmed‘s annotated excerpt, “Islam and the Discovery of Freedom,” which convinced us of two things:

  1. that RWL’s account was indeed riddled with errors, and
  2. that the kinds of corrections and comments Dr. Ahmed offered would not be especially interesting to any Mises.org readers not yet familiar with Islamic scholarship.

billwald October 21, 2006 at 7:48 pm

“His reasoning therefore continues: Since all men are humanly equal, no man is an Authority controlling other men. If this Authority is no living man, it must be a superhuman, intangible Authority. To find out what this Authority is, observe how men behave. Their first effort is to get food, clothing, shelter. Economic Necessity controls them.”

Sounds like Abraham Maslow???

JIMB October 22, 2006 at 7:17 pm

Ronald – The article is wrong – natural law is not “in individual minds” — it is an external reality. In short, to command nature, first she must be obeyed.

re: “War is caused by the ancient pagan belief that Authority controls individuals, and must and should control them. This belief is in individual minds, and no force whatever can change any man’s mind.”

My claim is Wilder’s argument is self-refuting. It is attempting to say that authority doesn’t exist but then any argument must rely on some authority itself.

My feeling is the argument is made better by direct reference to natural law. Men that exercise authority have it only in proportion to their own subjugation to natural law – else we are not talking “authority” of any sort, but rather exercise of arbitrary violent power – which is in no case “authorized” by any standard common to men.

Authority comes first by adherence to natural laws. The evidence of the truth of this statement is the destructiveness that follows from ignoring the super-authority of natural laws (moral and physical) and assuming one can choose the outcome independent of the action. Such combinations do not happen.

The most one can do is shift the cost of violating natural laws to others which is what politicians routinely do (and why they have no authority for the vast majority of their actions.

Dana October 23, 2006 at 1:24 am

As this piece is more widely dispersed, I hope that RWL’s relationship to the iconic Little House on the Prairie and sequels would be made explicit. Whether her reasoning is perfect, or whether she needed an editor is moot when reading the words of someone illuminated by the halo effect.

David White October 23, 2006 at 8:32 am

After reading the opening sentence of the opening comment, I said to myself, “Got to be Jim Bradley.” And sure enough …

But anyway, so far as natural law is concerned, I believe in it only to the extent that because society is natural to man, so is law, as the former is not possible without the latter.

Furthermore, were laws of human conduct found in nature, this would immediately raise the question as to how they got there. If the answer is “by accident,” then their function as law would be highly suspect, not to mention entirely beyond proof. If by edict, then they would exist by outside “Authority,” which is also entirely beyond proof.

No, try as ye will, ye believers the supernautral, such Authority is incompatible with human freedom and thus an enemy of the human enterprise.

Nay, its foremost enemy, as six thousand years of history have gone out of their way to prove, up to and including the present. For why else but to defend the Authority of “the Homeland” would a US battle group be bearing down on the Strait of Hormuz?

Gary Lee October 24, 2006 at 2:27 pm

“In theory, communism is the total self-surrender of the individual to the will of this intangible Authority, which of course is always The Good.”
In her desire to define all things, she has lumped together under the heading of communism things that work and things that don’t work. The founding fathers of the United States almost to a man looked to God for Authority. With all of its warts, our country has been a literal light in a world of darkness, socially, religiously, and economically, being sought out by freedom desiring peoples the world over. At least it has been until we have allowed the God to be cast out of public life and schools. The Declaration declares self-evident truths “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Freedom was based on submission to God’s Authority, and our society has increasingly unraveled as we ban God’s authority. Look at Enron and the coming hit from failed pensions of major companies as their lack of integrity and truth caused them to promise what could never be delivered.
On the other hand, we have Russia which had as close to true communism that fallen man could ever allow to succeed, without God’s authority. The communist idea was to set up a temporary agency to erase the memory of the evils of God and mercantilism and private ownership. The problem increasingly became apparent that something was wrong. No one ever stepped down so everyone could be free. Besides, man without the authority of God, did not get better. Communism or communism without God makes a grave error in believing that man is basically GOOD, when only men redeemed by God, and then only in eternity, can truly be termed GOOD. Just putting a similar name on dissimilar things does not make them equal. Just saying that all men are equal does not make people act that way. Just saying that lack of Authority is freedom does not make it so. God says that man’s freedom lies in forgiveness of our trespasses against Him. Back to economics, though, the principles laid down by God work to advance economies, when He is the Authority in the lives of people.

David White October 24, 2006 at 4:30 pm

Gary Lee:

Which God would that be, as I understand that lives have been lost over disagreements about his principles, etc.?

Peter October 24, 2006 at 10:01 pm

The founding fathers of the United States almost to a man looked to God for Authority

That would have been news to them!

greg October 24, 2006 at 11:51 pm

> I don’t think we are free in the sense Wilder uses the term. I know Rothbard tried to make the distinction between power and freedom but I see the difference in the other direction. Freedom is that capability to act without being limited, while power is that capability to act whether limits prevent or not. Rothbard claimed the reverse. But there can be no freedom without power, but there can be power without freedom.

You’re basically correct on power, and basically misunderstanding freedom. “Freedom” in this context is always with regard to social behavior. After all, all social theories (including libertarianism) are concerned with determining the rules of interpersonal (social) conduct. It is not how free one is to jump up and down, throw rocks, or whatever the fictional state-of-nature-before-society” cave man happened to do. So there is decidely no pretense that freedom is the capability to act without limit in this context. After, what else is a set of property rights theory than a set of freedom constraints?

In the social context, libertarians say “everyone should be free to do whatever they want.” Obviously this doesn’t mean X should be free to kill Y, because Y’s freedom to do what they wanted would have been taken away. Obviously it does not mean Z is “free” to earn $1B/year (one needs a lot of personal power to do that). Freedom in the social context has constraints, and under libertarian theory the formation of those constraints circulates around a what is called property rights. You’re misunderstanding is exactly of the same nature that led to “positive liberties,” which is another name for power, or more cynically, a way hide the word power to accomplish an agenda.

This social concept of freedom is hard to grasp, because it is on the razor’s edge. It is a freedom with constraints. Hayek did a very good job on freedom/liberty in the opening chapter of TCOL.

> We are indeed subject to ‘authority’ outside ourselves if belief in natural law is at all legitimate — if in fact libertarianism is to be believed, it must of necessity claim itself to be an authority.

I’m not sure I would agree, but let’s grant it for a moment. Even if what you say is true, libertarianism is the most minimal. All libertarianism calls for is individual freedom/liberty. The principle of individual liberty comes closer to vanishing authority than any other social theory I know of. So close that maybe we could say it does vanish.

> Submission to natural law is what sets men “free” because the first act of genuine freedom is submission to reality — ask any engineer.

I am an engineer. “Submitting” is not how I would describe what I do.

> In short, to command nature, first she must be obeyed.

What a strange self-contradicting statement. “Obediance leads to command.” Or at least it is a very convoluted way of putting things. To exploit nature requires understanding nature. The weird language of “obeyed” doesn’t capture anything useful. Try this: In short, to command nature, first she must be observed. (And then well analyzed.) I realize the common parlance regarding the physical laws is often “obey” — I too plead guilty — but here we try to dig a little deeeper. Don’t take common parlance so seriously.

> Ronald – The article is wrong – natural law is not “in individual minds” — it is an external reality.

Oh please. Natural law most certainly contains a study of humans in society. In fact, that is its primary purpose, even though it can and does also include humans “obeying” the physical laws. {laughs} When one talks about societal or cultural rules of interpersonal conduct, we are most certainly talking about what is in peoples minds (well, at least some of us think about it). The rules of conduct are intellectual and behavioral concepts. Even if many members of society are unconcious of the rules, they still have no physical reality external to human beings in society. Natural law is all those little voices in your head, Jim.

RogerM October 25, 2006 at 8:52 am

Here’s an interesting perspective on Authority: “While the state is a necessary institution, it is a limited institution, incapable of solving every human problem. By replacing God with the state, socialists will almost certainly over-empower the state and take even its legitimate functions to illegitimate extremes.”

This quote comes from the Acton Institute web site at http://www.acton.org/publicat/randl/article.php?id=562

David White October 25, 2006 at 9:59 am

RogerM:

On what basis is the state a “necessary institution”? If no state comes into being but through conquest and subjugation (ours being no exception), then every state comes into being through aggression, which is inherently immoral.

Or as Franz Oppenheimer famously wrote (“The State”), human beings have two and only two means of seeing to their needs — work or theft — which he called, respectively, “the economic means” and “the political means,” adding that “The state is an organization of the political means.”

RogerM October 25, 2006 at 10:09 am

David White:”On what basis is the state a “necessary institution”?”

I thought the more interesting point in the Acton Institute article was the recognition of the evil that a state can do when people replace God with worship of the state.

Nevertheless, I side with Mises on the necessity of the state. He wrote that it was necessary to discourage crime and maintain order, but as does the Acton article, he recognized the evil it could do if not restricted.

David White October 26, 2006 at 8:03 am

RogerM:

Yes, Mises believed that the state is a necessary evil, which is the fatal flaw in his politcal philosophy. For if one evil is necessary, then any evil can be made necessary, this being precisely what the state has done. For rather than discouring crime, institutionalizes it, its regimented order being a form of chaos that flies in the face of the spontaneous order that would other wise prevail.

RogerM October 26, 2006 at 8:28 am

David:”Mises believed that the state is a necessary evil…”

You’re misrepresenting Mises. He never wrote, nor did he believe that govermnment was evil. He saw it as an institution for good in that it restrained people from crimes of theft and murder.

JIMB October 26, 2006 at 8:40 am

David White – the presence of a thing (natural law) can be agreed as separate from knowing the origin of it.

If there is no such thing as “natural law” of relations of men between each other, then there is no such thing as justice, and all arguments here on Mises.org are null and void.

Good luck with that line of argumentation…

JIMB October 26, 2006 at 9:04 am

RogerM – The state is “good” only if it is an arrangement by consent, and it is evil every time it operates in reverse. I think by necessity you must show how government operates under the freely given consent of its citizens, without the presence of duress or threat or violence, (which also would allow its citizens to seceede any time they so choose).

In other words, show where you or I or anyone have given genuine consent of the present arrangement in government. If the government is not instituted by agreement and every person cannot know and is unable to find out the positions of every other person in running it (secret ballot voting), it must be an institution which will be eventually wholly committed to it’s own survival at the cost of the citizenry, routinely offering the citizens their own money back in loot from it’s own thefts after taking their “cut” (i.e. EVIL – if any definition of evil exists, that is it)… Sounds like banking (diluting the value of money by exansion of it and lending it at interest – theft on top of theft; and worse, if the Fed does the money expansion by buying government bonds, then our children (can anything be more evil than to steal from our children their freedom?) are on the hook for the debt and the interest – a triple theft of dilution, debt, and interest on top of debt)

Show me where I can sign: I’d like to opt out of this nonsense and stick with freely offered services.

David White October 26, 2006 at 9:42 am

RogerM:

As Mises wrote in Liberalism — http://mises.org/liberal/ch1sec13.asp:

“All state activity is human action, an evil inflicted by men on men. The goal–the preservation of society–justifies the action of the organs of the state, but the evils inflicted are not felt as any less evil by those who suffer under them.”

Thus did he justify evil, thereby making it necessary.

Jim Bradley:

“If there is no such thing as ‘natural law’ of relations of men between each other, then there is no such thing as justice, and all arguments here on Mises.org are null and void.”

Nonsense. As a social animal endowed with the faculty of reason, man instituionalizes modes of conduct not found in nature (most notably the Golden Rule, as Jesus of Nazareth fully recognized) that best serve the interests of society. And no supernatural being embedding laws in nature is required for this. On the contrary, disagreements over who this being is and what his edicts are remain the greatest source of evil in the world, especially as they are institutionalized in the state.

RogerM October 26, 2006 at 10:47 am

David, Later in the same article Mises writes: “Liberalism neither wishes to nor can deny that the coercive power of the state and the lawful punishment of criminals are institutions that society could never, under any circumstances, do without.” Mises saw government as maintaining the social order, without which free markets could not operate and therefore a good thing, since free markets are good. This is a far cry from claiming government is a necessary evil.

One of the first principles of hermeneutics (the science of interpreting literature) is to remain true to the context. If you take all of Mises’s writing in context, you’ll find that Mises was not worried about anarcho-capitalism. It didn’t come along until Rothbard. Mises was trying to blunt the abuses of government found in socialism which prevailed everywhere and destroying mankind.

I’m not worried about anarcho-capitalism either. I think it might work under the right circumstances, although I think it has a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented. I’m worried, like Mises, about the abuse of power by the state. But claims of illegitimacy, that all taxation is theft and war is murder, don’t help in that fight at all.

You wrote “…man instituionalizes modes of conduct not found in nature (most notably the Golden Rule, as Jesus of Nazareth fully recognized) that best serve the interests of society.”

While it’s true that man can come up with his own rules of behavior, and man does so because he can’t live without them. But the fact that they are man-made eliminates them as morals, for no man has moral authority over another man. Therefore, if Muslims decide that the ethical thing to do is to murder all Christians and Jews in order to preserve their culture, they you have no grounds for telling them they’re wrong or immoral, or for even opposing them. According to your ideas on morals, they simply have created their own rules “that best serve the interests of society.” They merely see their interests in a different way than we do. All you can say is that they’re unreasonable and different.

You wrote, “On the contrary, disagreements over who this being is and what his edicts are remain the greatest source of evil in the world, especially as they are institutionalized in the state.”

Are you counting the slaughters by the Mongols, WWI, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam wars, Hitler’s murder of 12 million, Stalin and Mao’s murders of 30 million each, and Pol Pot’s murder of over 1 million as religious wars?

A trivial point, but it may interest you to know that what we call the Golden Rule is actually short hand for the summary of the Jewish law. Jesus was asked what the two greatest commandments in the law were. He responded that they are to love God and your neighbor as yourself. Jews in Jesus’s day, and Jesus was a Jew, saw those two commandments as summaries of the law in the Torah, which they believed God had given them. The Golden Rule was the opposite of a society coming up with its own rules of behavior to serve its interests.

David White October 26, 2006 at 12:29 pm

RogerM:

Yes, but Mises’ acceptance of the state, however reluctant, was all that proponents thereof needed. For once a monopoly on compulsion and coercion is condoned in any way, the state is justified, meaning that Mises wasn’t really an opponent of the state, just a critic of its excesses, never mind that, given the nature of the state, such excesses are inevitable. I’m not condemning Mises for this; I’m just saying that it’s the fatal flaw in his political philosophy (which Rothbard subsequently corrected).

As for morals, and whatever their source, they are valid only to the extent that they can be universally applied — i.e., to the whole of human society, not just one or another segment of it. Since this obviously can’t be the case if one group annihilates another, such conduct have no basis in morality. (Or rather, one can claim a moral basis but not with true justification.) Furthermore, precisely because the Golden Rule can be universally applied, its status as a moral principle has long been without question. And in its negative mode (as is the case with Confucius and Judaism but not Christianity or Islam), it is fully compatible with the non-aggression principle and thus with libertarianism. Moreover, the Golden Rule is not “the opposite of a society coming up with its own rules of behavior.” Rather, it is simply a matter of the rule evolving over time through the social process, precisely as money did. (Nor is it a coincidence that as gold became the money of choice, society’s most precious rule of conduct would be named after it.)

As for which slaughters I count, insofar as Hegel’s dictum continues to be born out — “The march of God in the world, that is the state” — the last century’s slaughters were about the divination of the state, whether for secular or religious reasons. And surely the present slaughter in Iraq is no different.

Reactionary October 26, 2006 at 12:51 pm

David,

Rothbard’s “correction” was only to create a rational abstraction. The anarchy he describes can only exist in a universe where all persons are always agreed on what constitutes justice. Now, I suppose the idea is that where people are free to bid for various protection/retribution agencies, market competition will limit the power of any one agency. However, all you are going to do is end up with the minarchists. Who would join a community where your particular agency’s judgment for a grievance can be avoided just by the defendant signing up with a competing agency? For that matter, what value can a protection/retribution agency add if it is subject to being trumped by any of a number of other agencies? So instead people will coalesce into like-minded groups and grant one agency a territorial monopoly. If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s been the model of human organization from the dawn of history.

I don’t know his reasoning but I’d venture to say Mises saw where such debates can only end and contented himself with minarchy. In a fallen world, the struggle for liberty is going to be eternal.

RogerM October 26, 2006 at 1:45 pm

David:”As for morals, and whatever their source, they are valid only to the extent that they can be universally applied — i.e., to the whole of human society, not just one or another segment of it.”

Says who? That’s just another man’s opinion. And valid in who’s eyes? You can fabricate any morality you want, and you may think it’s applicable universally, but it’s still your opinion against mine and as such, you have no right to force it upon me.

“Furthermore, precisely because the Golden Rule can be universally applied, its status as a moral principle has long been without question.”

So morality is a democratic issue? In other words, if the majority of people accept it, it’s all right? What if the majority decides the golden rule no longer applies? I think they already have, since no one seems to abide by it. But if the Golden rule is just society’s way of getting along, then if I break it, you have no authority to punish me beyond excluding me from your community.

Abortion provides an interesting example. Until 1963, abortion was almost universally condemned as immoral, as killing an innocent life. Even Japanese mothers after WWII who aborted children because they couldn’t feed them knew that the act was wrong, so they buried the baby and visited its grave often. Then, because of a Supreme Court decision, it suddenly became unversally accepted to murder unborn children. Slavery was also universally accepted until the 19th century.

People adopted gold and silver as money because it benefited them personally. Did you ever look into the Gospels to see how Jesus interpreted the Golden rule? After an instance of teaching the Golden rule, someone asked Him “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that anyone in need is our neighbor.

David White October 26, 2006 at 2:42 pm

RogerM:

Allow me to quote the distinguished biologist E. O. Wilson on ethical precepts (from “The Biological Basis of Morality”):

“They are very unlikely to be ethereal messages awaiting revelation or independent truths vibrating in a nonmaterial dimension of the mind. They are more likely to be products of the brain and the culture. From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates — the behavioral codes that members of society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good. Precepts are the extreme on a scale of agreements that range from casual assent, to public sentiment, to that part of the canon considered sacred and unalterable.”

So yes, morality is “a democratic issue” in that it is a product of shared beliefs who meaning is entirely a function of the extent to which those beliefs are acted upon by the individual members of society. Thus, even though the Golden Rule is to be found in virtually every culture the world over, being at least 2,500 years old, people could decide to reject it in favor of something else. They would do so at their peril, however, since the Golden Rule (and hence the non-aggression principle) has been shown to have tremendous social value — i.e., doing unto others as you would have them do unto you has proven to be a very effective way to interact with others, not just by refraining from doing harm but in facilitating trade, which in turn allows the members of society to improve their lot in life in ways that they could not otherwise hope to. Else we would all still be subsistence farmers.

Which is to say that as with money, people adopted morals because it benefitted them personally. If it didn’t, why would they adopt them? But insofar as its a matter of personal benefit, it’s a matter of MUTUAL benefit. So while slavery’s still around, as is every other kind of antisocial behavior, since it doesn’t involve mutual benefit — i.e., since it can’t be universally applied — it can’t be defended on truly moral grounds.

RogerM October 26, 2006 at 4:00 pm

“From the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, they are no more than principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictates — the behavioral codes that members of society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.”

What else would you expect from a biologist? Scientists in general have almost no respect for other fields, especially philosophy and ethics. I’m sure Mr. Wilson is a wonderful biologist, but by making such a statement, he declares his complete disdain for 2,500 years of philosophical inquiry into the subject. In much the same way that some economists think they can explain every human act, including morals, in economic terms, Mr. Wilson takes the same arrogant attitude with his field toward morality.

Philosophers have tried to fabricate their own system of morals without God at least since Aristotle. By the late 19th century they had given up. Read Nietzche’s “Thus Spake Zarathrusta” or the writings of Sartre and Camus. That is the point of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. The reason they have failed is that morals are rules of conduct for people and as such require authority. But no man has authority over another man in moral matters. That’s why philosophers from Nietzche to Sartre and Camus have concluded that without God, everything is permitted.

So it doesn’t matter if the “morals” I promote were invented by me or generally accepted by the majority of people on the planet; they’re not morals. They may be good ideas, but they have no more authority than a housing covenant agreed to by a bunch of home owners, because they’re man-made.

Until very recently in history, most people believed their system of morals came from God. All of the original natural law theorists believed it was necessary that morals came from God. That gave them the authority to enforce them and force them upon the rest of society. Obviously Mr. Wilson thinks they were mistaken and that people deified principles that others had simply made up.

That doesn’t mean that people won’t continue to make up rules, but they have no right to call them morals or even ethics. They are nothing but covenants. As such, they have no authority to enforce them other than expelling the offender from their group. If another society with a different covenant decides to kill and eat some of their people, all you can say is that they’re certainly different from us!

Mr. Wilson qualified his assertion with the phrase “the perspective of the natural sciences.” But from that same perspective, mankind is an accidental animal with no more value or purpose than other animals. So no one can blame mankind if he continues to use survival of the fittest as the highest code of conduct. In biology, survival of the best traits of the species is the most important principle. This “ethic” got the euthanasia movement going in the early 20th century and ended with Hitler trying to exterminate the Jews who were corrupting the German gene pool. Mr. Wilson needs to explain why humans gave up the principle of survival of the fittest for cooperation and social contracts in which the survival of our species is threatened by propagation of genetic diseases and other traits.

David White October 26, 2006 at 4:44 pm

RogerM:

“What else would you expect from a biologist? Scientists in general have almost no respect for other fields, especially philosophy and ethics.”

Please substantiate this outrageous assertion.

“If another society with a different covenant decides to kill and eat some of their people, all you can say is that they’re certainly different from us!”

I do but repeat what I have already said: Unless the rule can be universally applied, it isn’t moral.

“Mr. Wilson qualified his assertion with the phrase ‘the perspective of the natural sciences.’ But from that same perspective, mankind is an accidental animal with no more value or purpose than other animals. So no one can blame mankind if he continues to use survival of the fittest as the highest code of conduct.”

Fitness in the human realm is incidentally competitive but fundamentally cooperative, else human society is not possible. Thus, “survival of the fittest” is a function of those who are best able to cooperate with their fellows. We compete to cooperate, in other words, as the objective is mutual benefit through free and open exchange. This endeavor, in fact — i.e., cultural evolution — is already advancing ten thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution — http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=14236&ch=biotech — and now has us on the fast-track to transcendence — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity

You’re welcome to hate that notion (as I’m sure you do), just as you’re welcome to stay behind and wait for Godot.

RogerM October 26, 2006 at 5:14 pm

David: “Please substantiate this outrageous assertion.”

That should be obvious. Did Mr. Wilson discuss any of the philosophers I mentioned? From his perspective, the natural sciences are all that matters.

“Unless the rule can be universally applied, it isn’t moral.

Even if it can be universally applied, it’s not a moral principle if it’s man-made. Neither does it matter if everyone has agreed to the principle. All people have to do is declare an opposing group to be non-human, as the Nazi’s did. What Mr. Wilson, and others, does is reduce the Ten Commandments to the Ten Suggestions.

“Fitness in the human realm is incidentally competitive but fundamentally cooperative, else human society is not possible. Thus, “survival of the fittest” is a function of those who are best able to cooperate with their fellows.”

That’s the problem with biological evolution, evolutionary psychology and cultural evolution. Anytime a skeptic asks why did some trait develop, the answer is always “it must have contributed to survival.” It can explain everything, even opposites, which makes it no better than simply saying “it just happened.”

I agree that humans are more social than animals. But how does Mr. Wilson explain the switch from animal competition to cooperation and sociableness without the trite saying that it enabled them to survive better. How did it enable them to survive better when competition worked so well for so long.

Besides, most cultures operated on the principle of competition for most of history. From ancient Babylon down to Protestant Reformation, one empire after another slaughtered and enslaved others and did quite well. They only cooperated within their own cultures. When did we discover that cooperation works better than competition? Not until the Protestant Reformation introduced freedom of religion and ultimately the free markets that formed the basis of liberalism.

“This endeavor, in fact — i.e., cultural evolution — is already advancing ten thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution and now has us on the fast-track to transcendence.”

Well pardon me for sounding skeptical, but that’s what socialism, eugenics, and Naziism promised, too.

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 4:55 am

David W – Are you asserting that justice is not a real concept by which people can agree? That the prohibition, say against murder, is an arbitrary construct?

I think it’s pretty clear that libertarianism disagrees with you in every way.

Good luck again…

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 5:52 am

Greg – Better / worse, cause / effect implies natural moral law. (Are you a libertarian? If so I need say nothing else but to point out that your position is self-contradictory).

Immateriality has no bearing on this discussion (“all in the mind”). Natural laws are immaterial and you believe in them.

Survival requires mental submission. After all, you believe that engineering principles will be valid in the future although there is no logical necessity they must. (I note that the laws themselves are mystical, magical, unexplainable, immaterial).

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 6:04 am

RogerM – See comment directed to Greg. If God is the source of good – and order (as opposed to arbitrariness) is good – natural law is real.

David White October 27, 2006 at 7:25 am

Jim Bradley:

I’m asserting that people agree, and have for millennia, that murder is wrong. And because murder constitutes aggression par excellence, my fellow libertarians are in full agreement that it is a violation of one’s right to one’s life.

Good luck trying to get away (yet again) with putting words in my mouth.

RogerM October 27, 2006 at 8:43 am

JIMB,
Yes, natural law is real. But it can only exist with God. The early natural law thinkers determined that God intended for mankind to survive and prosper. So they tried to discern the basic principles that would establish the conditions for mankind to do that. They reasoned that if God intended man to survive and prosper, and the principles they discovered through reason promoted both, then those principles must be from God. In addition, all, until very late, were devout believers so they had the benefit of the Bible to confirm their principles.

But if you remove God from the process, then you’re left with nothing more than suggestions for helping mankind survive and prosper with no more authority than comes from Opra. You have no right and wrong, just differences of opinion among men. You also lack authority to punish murder, rape and theft, because those acts are just your opinion of what is wrong, or the opinions of a group of people like you. And it doesn’t matter if the principles can be applied universally or if the majority accepts them, they’re still nothing more than opinions. I may agree with your opinion and I may not. The Mongols, for example, enforced those principles within their society, but not for non-Mongols and considered that to be good.

Now if you take the further step that many people take and claim that mankind is an accidental animal, coughed up like a cosmic fur ball, then we are nothing more than the sum of our chemical reactions. In that case, we have no free will and are not responsible for our actions. Again, morality is destroyed.

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 11:41 am

David W – Then we agree that natural law exists and it is an authority. Please notice the first post …

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 12:04 pm

Roger – Are “God’s ways” better? If so, we’re right back to better / worse, cause / effect implying natural moral law.

The argument need go no further.

People that disagree with God being the center of morality are a legitimate part of society, or else you must deny their God given right to action.

Reactionary October 27, 2006 at 12:15 pm

JIMB,

Cause and effect do not get us to morality. I can commit rape and the effect will be a shattered woman. I may also have angry relatives of hers to deal with but not if I have more guns than they do. Better/worse is, of course, entirely a matter of opinion.

“People that disagree with God being the center of morality are a legitimate part of society, or else you must deny their God given right to action.”

If you disagree that God is the “center of morality,” then you must likewise disagree that God has given you a “right to action,” whatever that is. If you want to stand on this argument, then you are simply admitting, albeit in a circular fashion, that God is the source of the natural law.

Many rationalists have tried to bootstrap reason into morality. It simply cannot be done.

David White October 27, 2006 at 12:38 pm

Jim Bradley:

“Then we agree that natural law exists and it is an authority.”

No, I maintain that because society is natural to man, so is law, as the former cannot exist without the latter. And since law, as an old saying goes, is whatever the people stand behind, society will be moral to the extent that it stands behind law that is morality-based. And if the members of society stand behind law based on the non-aggression principle and the concomitant protection of life, liberty, and property, then that society will not only be civil but prosperous, as its members reap the rewards of the free and open exchange that is the essence of the social enterprise.

Reactionary October 27, 2006 at 1:18 pm

David,

You seem to be saying that a society’s morality is judged by the NAP, as in, a society with laws that violated the NAP would be immoral, and a society that did not violate the NAP would be moral. You then seem to argue along the lines of “by your fruits ye shall know them,” and a moral society will be civil and prosperous.

I see two problems with this. First, there are many civil, prosperous societies that violate the NAP. The US is a prime example. Second, your syllogism still provides no a priori reason to be civil and prosperous and many places in fact choose to be neither. So it would appear the NAP is simply one of two courses of action that can be taken without a moral judgment attaching to either.

David White October 27, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Reactionary:

Because of its complete corruption of money (a gross violation of the NAP), the American welfare-warfare state is now the world’s largest debtor nation and indeed the largest debtor nation in all of history. It’s prosperity is therefore a house of cards that is doomed to collapse under its own weight (or rather, the weightlessness of its Monopoly money). And because the corruption of money is a global phenomenon, not only the dollar but its fellow fiat currencies are doomed as well. See, for example:

http://www.safehaven.com/article-5205.htm

Thus, the appearance of civil, prosperous societies is just that — mere appearance — and when economic reality finally sets in (which could be any day now), it will be all too clear (at least to those whose eyes haven’t been wide shut) that no matter how subtle (or perhaps the more so on account of that subtlety), violation of the NAP can only wreak havoc with society.

So, yes, a society can be judged by the extent to which it honors the NAP, which will be made manifest by the peace and prosperity, or lack thereof, that it enjoys.

It’s really that simple. And ought to be.

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 2:54 pm

David W – Congrats. A method of becoming “prosperous” presupposes better / worse and cause / effect, which presuppose an order (natural law).

Frankly you can make no argument containing ANY better / worse or cause / effect concepts w/o presupposing order and therefore natural law.

David White October 27, 2006 at 3:24 pm

Jim Bradley:

If you want to make it a natural law that being is good and nonbeing is bad, that’s fine with me. There’s no cause and effect involved, however; it’s simply a fact of our existence, as we naturally seek to maintain our being and improve the experience thereof. And as this is self-evident, the only question is how our being is best maintained and improved.

The answer is through the social process and the free and open exchange that characterizes it. And the less the process is thwarted by aggression, the more successful it will be.

JIMB October 27, 2006 at 3:57 pm

David W – Exactly, “a fact of our existence”, you can see why “natural law” is such a powerful authority because to deny it is to commit suicide … and that is why Rose Wilder’s comments that man is under “no authority” is, in my view, counterproductive.

David White October 27, 2006 at 9:28 pm

Jim Bradley:

You misunderstand my meaning. I’m saying that because we naturally seek to perpetuate our being, it is self-evident that being is accordingly good. If you want to call this primordial value a natural law, fine, but its recognition requires no outside Authority, especially one that is presumed to constitute the fullness of being. For why, then, would it create, or even allow, imperfection?

No, I see a universe in which the flight from nonbeing is evident in all that is and that, as free beings endowed with the faculty of reason, we humans can engineer that flight to the point that not just life, but intelligent life, spreads from our tiny planet to the solar system and beyond, one day to engulf the physical universe and go on to create new ones.

And as a libertarian, I maintain that the best — indeed, the only — means to this end is for the members of the human community to follow one simple rule:

First, do no harm; then do as you will.

JIMB October 28, 2006 at 10:08 am

David W- Harm presupposes better and worse (truth and falsity) which presupposes a standard for mankind which is the same as saying we exist under natural law.

greg October 28, 2006 at 10:12 am

JimB, I hardly have any idea of what you’re driving at. I think it may somehow be related to what a bedrock moral priciple is and how it is recognized. Who knows? Your post was:

Better / worse, cause / effect implies natural moral law. (Are you a libertarian? If so I need say nothing else but to point out that your position is self-contradictory).

Immateriality has no bearing on this discussion (“all in the mind”). Natural laws are immaterial and you believe in them.

Survival requires mental submission. After all, you believe that engineering principles will be valid in the future although there is no logical necessity they must. (I note that the laws themselves are mystical, magical, unexplainable, immaterial).

When you say Survival requires mental submission you’re making the same upside-down mistake you already made. Human beings make nature submit, that is what makes them different. Stunningly, you don’t even understand this on your own terms:

26Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Do you understand what it means to “have dominion over?” It is not “submission.” Also, I think you probably have a crude understanding of what it means when it is said something is a “physical law.”

JIMB October 28, 2006 at 4:54 pm

Greg – You confuse dominion over nature with dominion over natural law.

JIMB October 28, 2006 at 5:06 pm

Reactionary – On the contrary, many rationalists have desperately tried to evict morality from reason: it simply cannot be done.

The subject is MORALITY (i.e. affecting other people) not a psychological report of what you like. Don’t take better / worse out of context. Consider your example: isn’t “I do what’s best for me” a moral statement?

I did not make the claim “God is not the center of morality”. Read carefully.

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