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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/7319/the-humanitarian-with-the-guillotine/

The Humanitarian with the Guillotine

October 18, 2007 by

Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission, writes Isabel Paterson. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.

This is demonstrably true; nor could it occur otherwise. The percentage of positively malignant, vicious, or depraved persons is necessarily small, for no species could survive if its members were habitually and consciously bent upon injuring one another. Destruction is so easy that even a minority of persistently evil intent could shortly exterminate the unsuspecting majority of well-disposed persons. Murder, theft, rapine, and destruction are easily within the power of every individual at any time. If it is presumed that they are restrained only by fear or force, what is it they fear, or who would turn the force against them if all men were of like mind? …

Therefore it is obvious that in periods when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object. FULL ARTICLE

{ 13 comments }

Tim Kern October 18, 2007 at 10:40 am

Brava, Isabel!
This is one of the toughest passages yet presented in the Mises dailies, precisely because it is so straightforward, so right!
I’m using an excerpt as the basis for my economics students’ term papers. I hope they are curious enough to read this whole passage, to turn these ideas over, to grasp the essential profundity with which Paterson wrote.
If there is any truth to “no pain, no gain,” then this excerpt will prove of immense value.

FT Rouse October 18, 2007 at 11:36 am

I always gain from a reading of the offerings from MISUS. My vocabulary is invariably challenged and improved by each article. This one, “The Humanitarian With The Guillotine”, is no exception. However I am also always puzzled by the fact that all of these offerings take 4 lengthy paragraphs in order to express an idea or concept that can be stated in an equal number of sentences.
The principals of Libertarianism in government will need to be imposed, rather than embraced, simply due to the inability of its advocates to say what’s in their minds in as few words as possible.

David White October 18, 2007 at 4:39 pm

Further proof that the only “humanitarian” — i.e., humane — way to treat others is to respect their rights as individuals – i.e., their life, liberty, and property — and to have intercourse with them solely on this basis.

It begins with recognizing the profound wisdom of the negative (Confucian, Judaic) Golden Rule — Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you — while recognizing the profound folly of the positive (Christian, Islamic) Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For it is via the latter that the humanitarian impulse finds its motivation, with “the political means” (Oppenheimer) providing the wherewithal.

Always with disastrous results.

Brainpolice October 19, 2007 at 1:33 am

This is a classic. Good intentions can have negative consequences and do not necessarily justify the means by which those good intentions are persued. One may desire to, say, help the poor, but this would not justify stealing other peoples property in order to do so. And one may donate stolen goods to charity, but this would not justify stealing the goods in the first place.

Bisaal October 19, 2007 at 3:25 am

< << Most of the harm in the world is done by good people >>>

Why call them good then?.

David White October 19, 2007 at 7:58 am

“Why call them good then?”

A very “good” question, the answer to which is that there’s BEING good and there’s DOING good. Being good requires the restraint (the negative Golden Rule) from which spontaneous order arises, whereas doing good (the positive Golden Rule) requires the activism that lies behind all “good intentions.”

And we all know where those lead to.

gene berman October 19, 2007 at 8:11 am

David White:

You are free to maintain that you find difference in the two modes of expression (of the “Golden Rule”) but that cannot be other than what you, yourself, impute (as secondary) to the clear meaning of each. And, no doubt, there will be many who agree with your particular “take” on the matter.

But that’s just what it is–a “reading into” two sets of words which are nothing more than the very same thing stated one way (positively) and then another (negatively). The equivalence of the two cannot be imagined away nor compromised by anything other than an insistence on a “private” interpretation completely inconsistent with the plain meaning of the words themselves.

Such efforts are a form of “rhetorical trickery” through the use of which words are made to seem other than that which their utterer intended–and usually for the purpose of denigrating or demonizing some perceived opponent or even to construct such an opponent of straw.

I’m lazy–or I’d cite passage and verse (from HUMAN ACTION, I believe,–and mine’s lent out) where Mises makes precisely the same point about precisely the same type of statement(s).

David White October 19, 2007 at 8:59 am

Gene Berman:

On the contrary, it is the ability to distinguish between the two that makes all the difference, as the perversion (via positivism) of the world’s pre-eminent moral principle is the premise upon which the bulk of the world’s horrors have been, and continue to be, based.

And since you’re too lazy, I’ll see if I can find the Mises quote to which you allude, having a hard time believing that Mises would have been as blind as you to the implications of perverting an ideal through “rhetorical trickery.”

We still live under FDR’s “Four Freedoms,” after all — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Freedoms — the last two laying the groundwork for the welfare socialism (“paid for” by monetary socialism) that is rapidly bringing the nation to ruin.

mikey October 19, 2007 at 2:13 pm

David and Gene- I disagree with both of you.
David, according to you, If I stop to help someone stuck in a snowbank then I am an activist on the road to hell paved with good interventions.(Since I am doin more than avoiding
causing them harm).Libertarian thought would oppose any law making it mandatory stop and help (as in the Seinfeld finale).

Gene- “Treat others the way you would like to be treated” This usually involves just doing others no harm. However there are times when you wish others would actively help.And there is a fundamental difference between the two.I don’t see where pointing this out is any sort of verbal chicanery.

Do I agree with Paterson?- Yes.Benevolence can’t be legislated.

David White October 19, 2007 at 4:45 pm

Mikey,

You miss my, and Paterson’s, point, which is not at all opposed to the purely voluntary activism of the Good Samaritan; it’s how such activism becomes coercive — i.e., no-good — as soon as political power is resorted to effect it.

As Bastiat rightly said, “The law is negative” in that, properly speaking, it never requires one to act. On the contrary, it requires that one NOT act — i.e., not aggress against another’s life, liberty, or property — beyond which one may act as one will.

mikey October 20, 2007 at 12:53 pm

You miss my, and Paterson’s, point, which is not at all opposed to the purely voluntary activism of the Good Samaritan; it’s how such activism becomes coercive — i.e., no-good — as soon as political power is resorted to effect it.

whereas doing good (the positive Golden Rule) requires the activism that lies behind all “good intentions.”

And we all know where those lead to.

Dave- I made my comment based on your earlier post
as I disagreed with the words “all ‘good intentions’”.

gene berman October 20, 2007 at 7:54 pm

David and mikey:

My criticism was not intended as an accusation that David was engaged in rhetorical trickery but rather to suggest that, in his original analysis, he had succumbed, himself, to such a form.

The original statements mean exactly the same thing, one in positive phrasing, the other negative. In finding a difference, one “tortures” one or the other (or perhaps, even both) of the versions in order to “load” it with an interpretation not contained in the plain statement and, thereby, tailor it to fit the outline of an argument made or intended. My guess is that the technique can be found in that catalog of such tricks compiled by one of those philosopher guys (Schopenhauer–ring a bell?).

Probably the most famous example is the plain statement of fact concerning all human action: “the ends justify the means.” And, as statement of fact, no fault whatever can be found with it. But that same statement has been used for about 150 years to mean something dramatically different from the plain meaning of the words themselves, to propagandize for and exculpate the most ruthless policies and behaviors. Today, the mere words suggest, almost universally, not the plain statement meant by the words themselves but the particularized interpretation seized on by Marx.

David White October 21, 2007 at 8:39 am

Gene,

“Probably the most famous example is the plain statement of fact concerning all human action: ‘the ends justify the means.’ And, as statement of fact, no fault whatever can be found with it.”

Come again? If the ends are not justifiable — e.g., extermination of the Jews — how can the means be? And even justifiable ends — e.g., “freedom from hunger” — do not justify the means, at least if they involve (as they with all such statist schemes) aggression against others in the form of wealth distribution.

But be that as it may, I’m amused by the rhetorical trickery you yourself have engaged in by denying, on the one hand, that I had engaged in it, while, on the other hand, that I had in fact succumbed…to such a form.”

More to the point, however, is your failure to understand the vital difference between restraint (non-aggression) as the basis of the law and its perversion via positivism. For properly speaking, one has no duty to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and one only has to imgagine putting such a duty into practice to know how absurd it is. Not so for the negative Golden Rule, as it essentially says, “First, do no harm,” with the implication that society may then go about its business (the free and open exchange of goods, services, and ideas) unencumbered.

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