Saturday, February 16, 2019

Meanness and the Moralization of Concretes

Many years ago, a friend debated a woman on a radio show about environmentalism. My friend, of course, argued for free markets while the woman argued for the use of the government as solution to nearly all problems.

After the show, I asked my friend what the woman looked like. He said, “She looked mean.”

His statement has stuck in my mind all these years because I think it says something about the motivation of the left, even though judging people by surface appearances can be risky. Just because someone looks mean, or sad, or happy does not indicate the essence of their psychology deep down.

And not all leftists would have the same mean look as this woman. Some are ignorant (of many things, not just the nature of socialism, but also of history). Others may act like our best friends, as con artists are capable of doing, and some may be close relatives.

Be that as it may, meanness is essential to the nature of socialism because government-imposed regulations and laws that violate individual rights are imposed through initiated coercion and enforced through initiated coercion. At some point, punishments of violators of the regulations and laws must increase from fines or minor jail sentences to major imprisonment and executions.

This is where the meanest, or rather, morally worst, as F. A. Hayek refers to them (1; 2, chap. 10), rise to the top of the “compassionate” socialist ladders and become vicious dictators.

In today’s culture with the collapse of epistemology and ethics, intellectual arguments are no longer given for socialism and socialist policies. What passes for reasons why such policies should be followed and approved are, well, “mean looks,” also known as “virtue signaling,” often of a peculiar character that might be called “the moralization of concrete objects and actions.”

Universal abstractions, which are what ethics works with and attempts to demonstrate by reference to an objective standard, have disappeared from discussion. Aside from dirty air and water being declared immoral, today it is likely to be red meat. Or a wall around your home (or country). Or fossil fuels. Or plastic shopping bags, straws, gasoline cans with air holes, many books said to contain “bad” ideas, which, of course, then also means certain ideas, especially those that can be interpreted as “offensive” and therefore “bad,” and so on, ad nauseam. The list is potentially endless.

A universal abstraction says something like “do not lie,” which then applies in all concrete instances in which lying could occur. Or, to state the principle in a less deontological form, that is, allowing for personal consequences, “do not lie unless under threat of physical force or invasion of privacy.” This latter abstraction is what underlies and justifies self-defense in our Anglo-Saxon legal system.

Note that neither principle singles out to condemn as immoral any one concrete object or action. In ethics (or morality—the words are synonyms), broad abstractions are applied to concretes. It is the actions of individuals that can be moral or immoral. The concretes are neither.

Two principles, opposed to each other, do lie behind most discussion today of political issues. The first says: “Objects (usually products) and actions that are inherently harmful or dangerous must be regulated or banned.” The second states: “Acts that initiate physical force against another must be banned, whereas acts between consenting adults that inflict no harm should be legal.”

The former is the Progressives’ guide to lawmaking in the United States, though it probably goes back to the Divine Right of Kings, Roman Emperors, and any chieftain in control of a tribe.

Two questions undercut the universality of this principle: (1) what is meant by inherent harm or danger? and (2) who is going to decide the issue? What one person considers  inherently harmful or dangerous may not be so viewed by another. Think skydiving several times a week versus crossing a busy intersection. People differ in their assessments of potential harm.

In controlled societies, rulers in charge claim to know what is best for their subjects. Chieftains, emperors, kings, and bureaucrats and legislators all decide what is inherently harmful or dangerous. Controlling and banning more and more objects and actions, all of which is accomplished through coercion—because that is the only way to maintain such control—is what eventually leads to dictatorship. Dictatorship by excessive law, or just by fiat.

The second principle above derives from John Locke’s theory of individual rights, as clarified by Ayn Rand. The starting—the beginning, the initiating—of physical force, as opposed to the defensive repelling of an attacking thief or potential murderer, is what must be banned from human relationships.

This universal principle, applied consistently to every area of our lives, gives us laissez-faire capitalism. When all of us are left alone to pursue our own values according to our own judgment, we—each one of us—can then decide for ourselves what is inherently harmful or dangerous. We then—each one of us—can decide for ourselves whether or not to engage in such an inherently harmful or dangerous action.

It is frankly no one else’s business whether we choose to take the easy path or the more challenging one. This is what is meant by a free society.

Now we may sometimes get a mean look from someone close to us, say a relative or spouse, who says something like, “You’re crazy. You can’t do that. It’s dangerous!” But whatever “it” happens to be, the relative or spouse is not likely to be pointing a gun at us.

The mean look of my friend’s environmentalist debater, on the other hand, along with many other of her leftist colleagues, consider their holier-than-thou virtues to be signaling only one thing: “You are immoral—for thinking this concrete object or action should not be regulated or banned. We know best and aim to make it law that you will be fined or imprisoned if you continue to use the object or take the action.”

This is a government gun talking and this is how government guns, when the law is passed, violate individual rights.

Mean looks do say something and do have consequences. Are the people with mean looks well-intended?


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