Defense of Amorality pt.2

In the previous post, I covered the first two sections of Joel Marks’ book, Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality. In that post, metaphysical morality was defined, which leads us now to ask…

Does Morality Exist?

Since many people do believe metaphysical morality exists, Marks embraces the burden of disproof, adopting the method of “inference to the best explanation”:

It is rational to believe in x if and only if x is an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. The argument for amorality is then simply that morality is not an element of our best explanation of the world as we know it. … All of the familiar phenomena that we associate with morality … can be accounted for without, more plausibly than by, postulating the existence of morality.

pg. 16-17

Marks offers three potential explanations for why different people believe morality exists:

  1. we know God’s commands
  2. we know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself
  3. we know “Darwinian morality”

Elaboration of explanation one

We know God’s commands.

Explanation 1

Explanation one assumes the existence of a God or gods, and proposes that our feelings or intuitions about “right” and “wrong” correspond to God’s commandments. In this conception, God creates “good” and “evil” in the act of approving and disapproving respectively. Such commandments become moral obligations. Simply put, “good” is whatever God commands.

Refutations of explanation one

Marks’ refutes explanation one by showing that it relies on explanation two, which in turn can be rejected. So, assuming we know God’s commands we can ask: how do we know God’s commands are to be obeyed (i.e. how do we know that they are valid imperatives)? Marks claims most people answer this with another intuition, that “God is good.” But how do people know God is good?

Marks refers to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Euthryphro to point out that most people believe that “good” is external to God. Whether most believers believe this is contentious, as many believe that “good” is internal to God as the highest, supreme law-giver. Regardless, “good” Marks tackles the idea that good is external to God. I’ll address the other possibility after.

External good

This position is that God is good by virtue of acknowledging external “goodness” as “good”. That is that God could condone and command “evil”, but sides with “good” and this is what merits God as “good” himself. To be clear, this means that:

  • God’s commands are good and
  • these commands are valid imperatives because
  • God is good because
  • God recognised the good as such which
  • Exists outside of God (this point is explanation two)

Before stating Marks’ main reason for rejecting explanation one, I’ll just raise one question about this believer’s logic. If whatever God commands is intuitively good from our perspective, how do we know that God is not commanding “evil”? We may intuit God’s commands as good, but what if our intuitions are backward? To assume God wouldn’t command evil is to assume that “good” is internal to God (which relies on the other possible belief about God’s character; see below).

Marks argues: if good is external to God, why does it matter what he commands — could we not just have feelings/intuitions about the external goodness itself? In such a case, we might be safer to skip the “middle man” and believe in external/natural goodness directly (a la explanation two).**

Internal good

Marks does not contend with the intuition that “goodness” is internal to divinity (possibly because it is rejected by his atheism outright). So, I’ll do that here. If by definition, God is literally “goodness” itself (whatever this actually means), and therefore “goodness” is not external to divinity, God’s commands are “good” because they are an expression of “goodness”. Such a conception of God would sidestep the need for explanation two, but begs the question: does God exist? More on this shortly.

Another approach would be to concede that God’s commandments are good, but ask: why choose God’s subjective opinions as good and not some other being’s subjective opinions? (Surely it’s not the act of commanding that creates “good”, or could I personally make commandments and thereby establish the “good”? Or if this seems too absurd of a question, going back to Socrates, which god’s commandments are “good”?) One response might be that, God’s commands alone are good because God is the supreme authority in the very real sense that God has ultimate power, down to physical forces, and thus the ultimate ability to enforce imperatives. Such a God would indeed be irresistible, and his might would make right, but again it begs the question: does God exist?***

Having assumed atheism in this argument for amorality, Marks need say no more before moving on to explanation two. But before we do, let’s assess Marks’ “hard atheism”.

Hard atheism?

While Marks never argues for atheism in this book, it is a premise of his argument for moral nihilism. While, I would argue that atheism is not a view that strictly requires justification, the lack of an argument does potentially limit Marks’ argument for moral nihilism to his atheist readers. This depends though on whether his readers believe that the existence of God is required for the existence of morality.

There are a few combinations of views regarding God’s existence and the implications that this has for morality:

  1. Many believers in God claim that without God, there could be no morality.
  2. A relatively recent community known as the New Atheists, disagree, and hold that morality can exist without God or gods. (What they disagree on is the nature of morality).
  3. Marks agrees with the believers in God that “without God, there is no morality” (Marks, 2010). The crucial difference being that he accepts moral nihilism as a logical result of atheism, unlike the New Atheists who hold on to imperatives without a commander. He calls this view Hard Atheism, which is the idea that atheism implies moral nihilism.

But consider that the existence of a God does not necessary imply that morality exists: God may be an entity that created the universe but not anything that is “good” or “evil” (regardless of whether “good” and “evil” are conceived of as his commandments or some mysterious aspect of metaphysical reality). No doubt, it would seem more plausible for a deist rather than a theist to accept this, but in such a case, moral nihilism might still be compelling to some believers in (an impersonal) God.

Elaborating explanation two

We know moral facts that reside directly in nature/reality itself.

Explanation 2

Returning now to the reasons why people feel that morality exists, the second explanation holds that “good” exists, external to God, in the properties of nature. In this conception of morality, “good” is objective, and independent of any subjective opinion (even God’s). Hence “good” is an actual property of things in the universe, and natural forces somehow create categorical imperatives.

To be clear, here I’m not talking about certain empirical facts implying certain behaviours IF we have certain goals (a la hypothetical oughts), I am talking about a morality characterised by commands without a commander. That is, some queer property of reality leaps across the boundary of objective reality, and has implications for human behaviour.

If “good” properties were merely physical forces that could cause natural “consequences”, e.g. gravity causing a fall, then this characterisation of morality amounts to Natural Law, and fails to be morality as has been defined in the book.

Natural Law, e.g. the laws of nature are not categorical imperatives because they cannot be disobeyed and are always obeyed, and it is pointless to speak of ethics (the study of what we ought to do) when immorality is impossible. Furthermore, imperatives cannot be derived from natural facts (a la Hume's Is-Ought Gap). For example, "gravity attracts mass therefore it is good that gravity attracts mass" does not follow.

Explanation two’s conception of “good” is more metaphysically mysterious than that of explanation one because, once the existence of God as a supreme authority is granted (as per explanation one), morality is simply the doctrine of his subjective opinion. In a sense, this subjective opinion is objective because it is outside human minds, and it is absolutely true in so far as God’s subjective opinion is settled. And if God were to change his commandments over time, they would be “good” so long as he commands them. In such a conception of good, morality’s imperatives become meaningful twofold: 1) because there is a commander that commands, and consequences that can follow immorality, and 2) moral statements can be true or false (i.e. moral cognitivism is true).

Refuting explanation two

Explanation two claims that “good” is known to exist in the natural world. Marks states that the ‘problem with … is… [the] lacking [of] an adequate conceptualisation of… metaphysical morality.’ That is, how exactly does morality manifest in the world? If moral facts are in the fabric of the universe, how do they work upon or impact upon human action, intention, and manifest as consequences? This natural morality would have truly mysterious mechanisms. It could create moral obligations from natural properties itself.

Moral nihilism holds that the words good and evil “do not describe any actual properties of anything,” [italics mine] (Marks, 2010). Recall that morality is characterised by categorical imperatives*, so nothing about metaphysical morality could be observed: empirical methods could not measure that which has no consequences. Moral imperatives (which are obligations), cannot be observed directly, only indirectly by their consequences.

Second, Marks points out that morality without the existence of a God’s commandments, makes moral imperatives “commands without a commander”, making the concept itself unintelligible. Without an authority to provide consequences (which could be observable), guilt or motivation to be moral remains just a feeling without justification.

Thus the intuition that we infer good from the universe itself is without support. At best, moral facts do exist but are empirically unverifiable, leaving only an unjustifiable feeling -but not knowledge-, leaving us no better off than if morality did not exist. Our feelings might as well be that “killing people is good,” we wouldn’t know who’s feelings corresponded to external the “good” (or God’s commands -how do we know if God exists?).

In regards to morality (of any categorical kind) and divinity, I am agnostic (I don’t claim to know whether they exist or not), but I’m unable to deny their existence. That said: I do believe that the default/initial view is to not have any belief positively in either Gods or moral facts. But beyond this, I do not think that natural morality (commands without a commander/explanation 2) could be justified.

Explanation three

We know “Darwinian morality”.

Explanation 3

Darwinian morality is the belief in and/or adherence to behaviours and attitudes that puts us at some evolutionary advantage. In this conception “good” is what empirically supports survival of the species. This is pure empirical organic desire, measurable by actions of humans, just like other wills or subjects of a life. (For example, the belief that “killing people is wrong” is observable by its widespread condemnation, aversion, and punishment).

Explanation three explains why people feel that they are in possession of moral facts, even if this reduces morality to preferences derived through natural selection.

Thus using “inference to the best explanation”, Marks concludes that it is rational to believe that people feel they know morality due to Darwinian morality rather than explanation one or two.

Next time…

So far Marks has defined metaphysical morality, and argued that people’s belief in it is mistaken. He argued that Darwinian morality better explains why people feel metaphysical morality exists than intuitions of God’s commands, or natural sources of good. In the next of this series, Marks defends amorality in practice (moral abolitionism). Would amorality be viable?

*Morality has the quality of being obligatory without any prerequisites, i.e. there is no place for if-clauses to derive morality's imperative nature, i.e. the consequences of not obliging moral commandments apply without there being any requirement to accept morality's authority, i.e. the scope of moral commands is infinite and all encompassing, without your assent, and nothing is outside the reach of morality's authority. In short: morality is characterised by categorical imperatives.
** Or is this the function of God? I can imagine this would be an interesting theological argument for why God is good: He created the universe with "Goodness" in it, and commands it to us, because without his commands (which we can instinctively feel), we would not know what is "good" because we do not instinctively know external "good".
***This is the point I personally agree to fully with my Christian friends: if God exists, and has the ability and willingness to apply unstoppable force behind his commands, then God's commands are "good" in a real and actually very conceivable way. For categorical imperatives to exist, the most likely set of facts, in my opinion, would be that there exists an impersonal God which has "good" internal to itself. Such a conception of God could make categorical imperatives meaningful, specifically due to the supreme authority he holds over nature, and the ability to control his property.

In Defense of Amorality pt.1

Marks, J. (2013). Ethics without Morals: In defense of amorality. Routledge, NY: New York. 

Joel Marks’ Ethics without Morality: In Defense of Amorality is a book that is special to me. Not only did it improve my understanding of meta-ethics and specifically moral nihilism, but a particular part of the book spoke to me so directly, that I felt the need to email Joel*. I am grateful to have enjoyed his correspondence ever since.

The book argues for an amoralism of two prongs: moral nihilism and moral abolitionism. The first is the denial of metaphysical morality, the objective, mind-independent morality, which would make moral claims meaningful (true or false). That is the specific concept of “categorical imperatives governing human behaviour” (email, November 2019).

The second prong is Marks’ preference for moral abolitionism i.e. against empirical morality. That is morality as it can be measured by psychology, sociology, anthropology etc., for example beliefs about morality or behaviours that result from moral beliefs.

In this series of posts, I want to present Marks’ main arguments for these views fairly concisely. I do this because others may be interested in this topic and also because I suspect that few people outside academic or philosophical circles have read this book, which I feel is a shame.

All unattributed quotes in this series are from Marks’ book and from the relevant chapter being discussed. I will organise my posts according to the chapter titles from the book, of which this post will cover the first two. The sections are:

  • Introduction/Acknowledgments
  • What is morality?
  • Does morality exist?
  • Would Amorality be Viable?
  • Might Amorality be Preferable?
  • Is Amorality Just another way of being Moral?
  • A Case study in applied amorality: How Shall we treat other animals?
  • What is Ethics?
From Amazon: Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven. He received the B.A. in psychology from Cornell University and the M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Connecticut. Marks has written numerous articles for professional journals and hundreds of op-eds and columns for newspapers and magazines on ethics, astronomy, and other topics. Since 2000 Marks has been a regular columnist for Philosophy Now magazine. Marks is currently a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. His Website is www.docsoc.com. 

Introduction/Acknowledgements

Marks was a firm believer in metaphysical morality for most of his life. “I had never been agnostic but always a true believer [in morality]. … Moreality is a universe in which moral right and wrong are as real as chairs and gravity. Even if everybody … did not believe in morality, in moreality it would exist, just as surely as the earth is spherical and even if everybody believed it was disc-shaped.” But after his professional retirement as a professor of philosophy, specialising in normative ethics no less, he has an “anti-epiphany” and committed a philosophical u-turn. The turn began when his friend Wendell Wallach commented that “… moral theories are first and foremost intuitions.”

Marks’ atheism is a key part of his argument and biography. His starting position, for our purposes here, was that of an atheistic secular Kantian ethicist, holding the ethic: “Never to treat anyone merely as a means, but rather as an end in themselves.” During a discussion about God with a minister, he realised morality is like God.”[Belief in God and morality are …] both simply an interaction between some non-supernatural reality external to the individual and the emotional response of the individual. God was the universe responded to with awe; right and wrong were human actions responded to with approval or disapproval.”

Being an atheist, Marks sees belief in god as mistaken. Therefore once thinking that morality is like God, the belief in moreality (objective morality) is likewise mistaken. At this point, Marks’ conclusion was that morality is essentially relative, but “it did not take long … to draw the further conclusion that a relative morality is tantamount to no morality at all … Thus, [he] began to speak of ‘amorality.’ “

In Marks’ own words: “… the position[s] … I defend herein has been variously called moral skepticism, moral anti-realism, moral error-theory, moral nihilism, moral eliminativism, and moral abolitionism…” This set of terms combines various distinct concepts, including he two already clarified above (moral nihilism and moral abolitionism). Amoralism is then a position of various independent concepts that Marks defends regarding metaphysical and empirical morality.

Note that unlike others who deny moral realism, Marks favours removing moral ideas and language from human discourse (moral abolitionism), and does not advocate moral fictionalism (the advocacy of morality as a social institution despite a disbelief in morality as a categorical imperative). As a moral abolitionist, Marks is joined by Richard Garner and others, unlike Richard Joyce who is known for advocating moral fictionalism.

What is Morality?

As a necessity, Marks begins by defining precisely what is being talked about. Though there are many definitions and contextual uses of the words and concepts relating to “morality,” Marks defines it how it seems intuitive to him and how he believes most people think of it.

Marks’ characterisation of morality is as a “set of absolute and universal imperatives and prohibitions. … universal, unchanging, [an] absolute authority in matters of human behaviour.” Morality, unlike criminal laws, does not vary from place, time, or culture, “it emanates from an unchanging and univocal font … of authority and power”. It is a moral law, like a scientific law, except acting on us indirectly through the will, as opposed to directly like gravity.

To illustrate morality’s “categorical” character, Marks compares moral commands to grammatical commands. Paraphrasing Marks’ example, the command “Grammatically speaking, it is right to capitalise proper nouns’, needs its preface (“Grammatically speaking”) or risks overstepping its usefulness and accuracy. Moral commands on the other hand, function as intended without similar prefaces: “[Morally speaking,] it is wrong to kill babies.” This highlights how morality, unlike other practices (like grammar) does not have a limited scope.

This can be expressed as: there are no contingencies for moral commands to be authoritative. That is, while we can always rephrase non-moral commands in the form of hypotheticals (“If you want X, then do Y”, e.g. “If you want to be grammatical, capitalise proper nouns”), moral commands are categorical, and by their very character exist without if-clauses.

[Morality’s] chief characteristic is that it is required of us, regardless of our desires. … My conception of morality is as the highest telos, by which I mean that the morally right thing to do is supposed to be what we should do … “all things considered”. Thus, the moral should trumps all others, and at all times and everywhere.

Mark’s characterisation is that morality is that “Morality is the set of imperatives (and/or truths about what we should do) that apply to all human beings of all climes and times, and trump all others, and that manifest in our feelings, either as commands to be obeyed, as if from an external Power or Authority, or simply as spontaneous promptings of the ‘heart’ or ‘guts’.”

Further to the clear definition of morality that has been provided, the connection between rationality and morality is severed in this opening chapter. “Morality does not imply rationality, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ one has in mind. … rationality does not imply ‘morality’, no matter which sense of ‘moral’ has in mind.” Marks concludes this after having exhausted leach combination of moral and rational acts being either obligatory or permissible.** In the end, the conclusion is reached that morality and rationality are independent: able to agree or conflict.

Next time…

So far, Marks has given some background about his thinking, and how he eventually came to reject his lifelong belief in objective morality. He defined morality as being characterised as obligation without having opted into such a binding contract, a definition for which the next chapter will specifically reject: Does morality exist?

*"I am indeed a man without an ethical country, for even though there are a few fellow citizens of the Land of Amorality, there may not be any besides myself who live in the district of Animal Abolitionism." Being a vegan animal abolitionist and an amoralist at the time, I emailed Joel.
**Is every morally obligatory act rationally obligatory, Is every morally obligatory act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally permissible, Is every morally permissible act rationally obligatory, Is every rationally obligatory act morally obligatory, is every rationally obligatory act morally permissible, Is every rationally permissible act morally obligatory?

Atheism and amoralism are default positions

Atheists don’t claim that there are any gods and so lack belief by default. Naturally, they avoid the requirement to disprove the existence of God or gods because they don’t claim there are any. On the other hand, if the atheist makes the claim that God and gods do not exist, then they would be expected to justify their beliefs.

Likewise, theists who claim that God exists, are expected by skeptics to justify their beliefs — at least if they want to convince others. There really is no way for a theist or deist to avoid making an implicit claim. Only the soft atheist can claim the default position (of having no position on the existence of God).

The notion of a “default stance”, with respect to a God, gods, or any entities is conceptually the same. Just because someone can claim something exists, doesn’t mean that you necessarily agree or disagree with their claim. It is possible that you don’t know or don’t care about the truth: in either case the fact is that you don’t believe either way. This is analogous to the definition of soft atheism, which is “a”-theism (literally without a belief in a personal God).

Likewise, atheism, being the default rational position with respect to deities, is analogous to amoralism, which is the default rational position with respect to metaphysical moral facts.*

Moralist (noun): those who believe in moral facts and may dabble in moralising.

Moralising (verb): to proclaim moral facts, e.g. “killing babies is wrong”, especially with emotional fervour.

Morality (noun): the set of all moral facts.

As a definition, a moral fact would be a true moral statement. Now, if there cannot be any true moral statements, it is because there are no moral properties in the universe. Put another way: without any moral strand, moral statements cannot refer to anything real in reality. Moral statements become meaningless in a universe without moral qualities. And by definition, if there are no moral facts, then morality does not exist.

For a moral statement to be true, it would need to correspond to a (moral) aspect of reality. It is this (moral) aspect of reality, which would ground the truth of certain moral statements. To be clear, moral components of reality would be moral entities. Now, moralists claim that moral entities exist. It is this claim that amoralists do no accept. By default, amoralists do not believe the claims of moralists.

I guess we could say that hard amoralists claim morality doesn’t exist, and soft amoralists simply refrain from having a belief in morality.

If you believe moral statements like, “killing is bad,” can be true, then you are a moralist. Unless you say this as a completely nonsensical speech act, the root of your claim expresses your belief that the act of killing has a relationship with some moral quality of reality: the act of killing is actually connected to reality in some way other than the physical and conscious act. The important aspect of this moral claim is that there is an imperative to not do it.

The moralist believes moral facts are imperative: i.e. that obligations are upon all humans* to be moral. The moral imperative goes beyond specific moral statements and is broader: not only should we do moral things and avoid immoral things, but we must be moral: morality itself is good.

*Moral persons would be more accurate, as there is debate about what constitutes a morally accountable person: e.g. vegans think most animals are; or another example of some humans (like babies) are not considered morally guilty if they accidentally kill someone.

If we want to claim that “murder is wrong,” without referring to human preferences or situational or contextual parameters, then there must be moral facts. In which case, our feelings about the matter are actually irrelevant. So this is the very question we must ask ourselves: Do moral facts exist?

In other terms, is there at least one moral statement (like “murder is wrong”) which is actually true (or false)?

This of course raises the question of how humans might empirically discover such moral entities, learn moral facts, or rationally deduce moral imperatives.

Unfortunately for moralism, its strongest empirical evidence is intuitionism, after all “it’s obvious that some things are wrong!” But this isn’t an argument, it’s just an appeal to others who already share similar sentiments. Intuition does not establish the existence of a moral rule independent of human thinking: it appeals to examples of human thinking to establish its non-mental origin! (How could mental activity infer non-mental entities? By definition, mental and non-mental domains don’t overlap).

As a moral skeptic, I challenge claims that mind-independent entities that make certain acts obligatory exist. I suspect this entity called morality is just a comfortable narrative that people tell themselves. After all, what reason is there to adopt such a belief?

The amoralist holds the default position, just as the atheist does. This doesn’t mean morality and gods do not exist. It means that I don’t believe in them.

*Not to be confused with empirical morality, of which we can study with science, e.g. people's stated beliefs, common attitudes, etc.

Property, Ownership, and Discrimination

This post was prompted by Hans Herman Hoppe’s claim that “property implies discrimination” (YouTube).

In this post I’m attempting to tease apart the related concepts of property and ownership to uncover implications for free thought, speech, and association/relationships.

Section One – a simple model of reality and definitions that follow

This universe contains, among many things, physical objects. All physical objects can physically interact with each other. Some objects (like much of the animal kingdom, including humans) possess consciousness and can therefore intend their physical interactions.

Consciousness itself is not an object, rather: some objects are sentient and are in possession of consciousness (through unknown mechanisms). Consciousness is a mystery, in that it is not well understood, but we can accept that, whether its origin or mechanisms are purely physical or not, its effect is that subjective activity appears to be the cause of objective physical activity. i.e. My thinking can cause my physical action. I can will my arm to move.

Sentient objects have a will (a set of motivations). Whether these minds are fully aware of their desires, or just acting out of impulse, is equivalent for our purposes here. Minds aim their physical bodies toward specific interactions with other objects.

However, non-sentient objects without minds (e.g. inanimate atoms, rocks, mountains, planets, stars, tables and chairs, or non-sentient living objects like plants, bacteria, and fungi), do not have wills and hence do not intend their physical interactions. For example, a paperweight which has no consciousness, no set of motivations, cannot intend to affect paper, even if it can physically affect paper.

When physical interaction is consciously intended (via a will/mind), it can be said that a mind is controlling an object. Control is therefore different to strict physical interaction (even though both involve physical force upon objects).

The root cause of all causal chains of control is a single mind’s control over its associated body. More on this direct control shortly.

In an act of control, a mind controls, while an object is controlled. Therefore, a paperweight which does not have a mind does not control paper, it merely affects paper.

Note that while physical bodies are controllable, minds themselves are not objects and hence cannot be controlled. Consciousness is the unique thing in reality that can will to physically interact but cannot itself be controlled.

“You may chain my hands, you may shackle my feet; you may even throw me into a dark prison; but you shall not enslave my thinking, because it is free!”

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

While the “hard problem of consciousness” itself is not current solved by science or philosophy, so we cannot say what exactly consciousness is, or how it works, we can say that sentient beings have direct control over their physical body with their minds. This is to say, animals’ minds physically interact with their bodies through a direct mind-body connection.

This mind-body interaction is prior to all other (physical) interactions. It is the root cause of all physical interactions that a mind makes. Hence, a mind controls its associated body and, with it, can then control other objects.

The body is necessarily the first object that a mind controls and it is directly controlled. No mind can directly control another mind’s associated body. For example, my mind cannot directly make a dog walk, I can only try to have the dog’s mind walk its body. This is indirect control. Indirect control is ultimately done through physical interaction. For example, a dog can control a ball with its mouth; a human can control a dog with a leash. In each case, the control is indirect: the human does not control the dog’s mind, instead he uses physical force via a leash, whereas the dog does not (and cannot) control a ball’s non-existent mind but uses physical force to control a ball.

Property Redefined

In short, property is any object that is exclusively controlled.

  1. Property is a controlled object. For example, a mind’s body is its property; a dog is its master’s mind’s property.
  2. Property is exclusively controlled. An object can only be controlled by one mind at a time.
  3. Exclusively controlled property is unrestricted by other minds. For example, a mind (A) cannot restrict another mind’s (B) use of its property (or else it would be A’s property).*

Just as object cannot control due to the fact that they do not have consciousness, it follows that objects cannot have property. Even though objects can physically interact with other objects, they cannot choose so, and hence cannot control objects and therefore cannot have property.

Regarding point two: At any one moment, only one mind (the dog’s or the human’s) is in exclusive control of an object (e.g. the dog’s body). At any one moment, the dog’s body is property to only one mind, hence property control is exclusive.**

Regarding point three: A dog being walked by a human does not have unrestricted control over its body. The body is restricted by the human’s control of a leash. The dog is allowed only restricted physical interaction with his own body by leave of the human. The owner allows the dog to walk (confined by the leash) because it suits the human to allow it.

Property control does not imply Ownership

While a dog can be a human’s property, this does not necessarily mean that the human owns the dog: ownership is not the same thing as controlling an object. Property is a controlled object, but property is not necessarily owned. Ownership is rightful control.

Section Two – ethical claims and perspectives

We now enter the man-made world of ethics and norms. What is right is subjective and to be determined by an individual or the society that asserts its norms and rules. I am not stating positively which ownership claims are true or correct, nor that rights exist independent of minds. Here, I am describing ownership as an ethical act, a communication of a mind to other minds about its subjective understanding of its relation to its controlled property.

By telling you, “I own my car,” it is communicated that I perceive my right to exclusively control my car. It may be that I control my car, or it might be that my car has been stolen and someone else currently controls it. Either way, communicating ownership, communicates the perception of rightful control.

Claiming ownership is an ethical assertion. It is an act that contains claims of what ought to be. To say that we own an object is to claim that it is our property and that certain rights accompany this fact. For example, if I claim ownership of my house, I must be in control of it and I am claiming that no one else should take control of it even if they wanted to and could physically succeed in taking it. Furthermore, if others did take my house under their control against my intentions, that act would violate my rightful control of my house — at least from my perspective.

To recap: Objects are physical entities which can interact. They become property (by definition) when they are controlled by minds (which is intentional physical interaction). Minds can communicate (via their associated bodies) their perspective of possessing ownership, which is an ethical claim to rightful control of property. The truth of such claims to rights is only ever subjectively determined, there can be competing claims to ownership over a given object. And so, while rights are subjective, and hence ownership can be in dispute due to many claims of ownership over a given object, there can never be any definitional or metaphysical ambiguity about the objective truth regarding the control of an object. (The mind that is the root cause in the causal chain of indirect control over property is the controller). That is, by my definitions, property is metaphysically unambiguous, whereas ownership is not.

Hypothetically, if it were possible for a mind to physically control all the objects it desired, there would be no need for claims to rights and legitimate ownership. But, of course, this is not a possibility due to the constant competition between minds for limited objects of desire.

In reality where minds control objects, and desire to maintain their control against threat of loss of control and usurpation, a variety of methods are used to maintain control. In addition to physical domination, which is at the root of all other methods of control, and is the least efficient of all methods, is argumentation. Words and arguments are cheaper to use than blood and sweat. And some of the cheapest words are claims to rights.

Control of property can be sustained or ended. If control ends, it was either released by a mind, or taken by another mind. These are merely facts, without need or room for approval or disapproval. Rights, however, being man-made assertion of ethical norms, allow meaning in relation to property disputes.

Owners assert rights over their property, but specifically which rights do owners have? Naturally, when ownership is claimed, the minimum assertion is to the rightful sustained control of the property in question. This is of course in addition to the necessary definition of property, which involves its unrestricted, exclusive control. Ownership necessarily asserts the right to control some property until released or transferred willingly, whether with terms and conditions or not.

From the perspective of a given mind, if ownership is released, there is no ethical consequence, but if ownership is violated (i.e. “rightful” control of property is violated), an ethical wrong is committed.

The system of ethics I am describing here is a subjective one. No doubt the appropriation of property by a mind will be seen as wrong by an existing owner. The appropriator, however, might not accept the previous “owner’s” claim to rightful control. This conflict does not invalidate my definition of ownership because I am not prescribing which claims to ownership are rightful, I am merely describing the nature of ownership claims.***

One meta-question that goes beyond an analytical definition of terms asks: Who has the right to claim which objects as property? This question however is meaningless as it grasps at an objective authority which is not there. Without an outside standard, there cannot be a satisfactory answer to this question. All we can do is defer to descriptive ethics: in short, whoever has the ability and the desire to assert control over property in continuity, does so. Such people may also claim ownership, which is a communication to others about their subjective claims to rightful control.

If a mind disputes a claim of property ownership, the conflict can only be resolved, ultimately by physical force (recall: objects physically interact with each other). There is no higher authority by which a rights-claiming-license is awarded. Rights are taken, not permitted. There are no justifications for ethical claims because there are no objective standards to measure ethical claims against.

Simply put: owners have exclusive, unrestricted control of their property until they have it taken from them. At no time do they, or any other mind, have objective rights over property, objects, or to anything at all. Owners call themselves so, which is an ethical claim “I have the right to perpetual exclusive control over this property”. Other minds may not share this subjective ethical claim. To them, this claim is false. If they are of the disposition, they may be able to successfully take control of another mind’s property. Subjective rights disputes will ensue, but our case is settled: we have described what is, and described the intentional physical force as the mechanism.

Owners assert their perpetual unrestricted control over objects (until released) and maintain this control with physical force. They can choose who can and who cannot have use of their property. If owners cannot discriminate, and if they must give control of their property to others, even temporarily, then they are not fully in control of their property.

So what is ownership?

While there are no objective owners in reality, (there are only subjective claims to ownership), objective owners have the unrestricted control of their property, and hence can discriminate who can use, borrow, or otherwise control their property. The right to discrimination is never forfeited for as long as there is ownership. Even if control of property is granted temporarily to another, if ownership is maintained throughout, rightful control can be resumed at the owner’s discretion.

Being non-controllable, minds cannot be owned and cannot own other minds. Minds have an unrestricted ability to will. Their will is only limited by their inability to control other minds. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs are therefore always free from restriction. The closest that a mind can get to controlling another mind is to coerce secondary obedience to its will. For example, a captor may convince his victim to speak certain words, but he cannot coerce him to alter his beliefs.

Relationships are ongoing agreements between minds to allow some form of physical interaction, whether directly (e.g. a football team), or indirectly (e.g. a debate club, a trust fund, or otherwise). In the final analysis, all relationships have physical effects: a tackle on a field, an idea that indirectly controls a body, or bankruptcy which causes homelessness or hunger etc.

Relationships are between one or more mutually consensual parties, to the exclusion to others. A wife, for example, excludes all men except her husband in their marriage; an employer excludes all candidates except the successful applicant from his business, etc. Any member of a relationship can end it as it was constituted. If not, then it is not consensual and it is not a relationship, it is control and they are the property.

Section Three – Implications for liberty

Having laid the groundwork: as owners of bodies, minds can claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. This includes all of their derived behaviours, speech, and associations (relationships). This means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom. This would not free the mind from the consequences of its choices. In terms of responsibility, only the mind directly associated to an act is responsible for it. If a mind indirectly controls another body or objects (its property), then it is responsible for its acts. And, since it cannot control other minds, it is not immune to discrimination for its behaviours and speech, nor can it compel others to acknowledge them. Minds have the right to enter into relationships with consenting partners and to leave relationships at will. Furthermore, as owners of material possessions (including land), minds claim the right to the sustained exclusive and unrestricted control over them. Likewise, this means the ability to discriminate with respect to how they are used and by whom.

Any argument against your free movement, speech, or thought is an intellectual attempt to indirectly control your body. Such arguments are no more justified than assertions of self-ownership. All that grants ownership over a body (an object), is the ability to physically control it. It is entirely up to a mind to perceive/will control, claim/communicate a right to control, then have/maintain such control over its body (or any other object). It speaks to the character of a mind that does not do any of these aspects:

  1. Perceive/will/desire/intend to physically control;
  2. Claim/assert/communicate this intention;
  3. Take/ensure this control — which is to attempt justify this claim to ownership.

Conclusion

Ownership implies unrestricted control and exclusive property rights.

Property, being controlled objects, may also be rightfully controlled (owned). The minimum claim to ownership is that one’s property shall remain rightfully controlled until released. Such a claim implies the right to discriminate with respect to the property that is in question. These definitions of property and ownership say nothing about what anyone ought to claim ownership to nor how to control their property. Such an answer is provided by each individual mind without recourse to any external standard, measure, or license. Hence, it is not my role to invent positive norms, all I can do is describe facts. You will either assert your rights to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and freedom of association or you will not. This reflects your character.

There can be no owners. Not objectively. So, the outcome for the mind intent on controlling objects of desire is: take control and maintain control in the most effective, and ideally efficient, method possible. Claim rights if it suits (especially if it dissuades usurpers), use sophistry, wit, guile, charm, favours, trade, work, money, or even brute force if you must, but don’t fool yourself, definitions of ownership do not create owners in a reality where there are no objective rights. Take what you want if you can, whether that be a life of giving and sacrifice for others, or a life of manipulation, domination, and Hell for others. This is a warning to sheep and a license to wolves.

* The objection that "objects seem controllable by two minds at once," (e.g. 1: a dog controlling its legs walking, while a human controls its head by yanking on a leash; e.g. 2: two people controlling one tandem bike) can be explained as an inaccurate understanding of objects. An object can be comprised of component-objects, i.e. an object like a dog, has component objects like legs and a tail etc. While two minds can simultaneously control the component-objects (legs and tail), only one mind can control a given object at a time. The objection fails by only seeing a whole object (a dog), and not its parts (legs and tail). The extent to which a whole object is controlled, is determined by the extent to which the control over the whole object's components are controlled. Until a mind controls a whole object, it only control component objects. 
** A dog's body can be controlled directly by a dog's mind or indirectly by a human's body. Consider a person controlling a dog with a leash. The question becomes, who's property is the dog's body? Is it the dog --who has direct control-- or the human --who has indirect control? This is a simple question of defining the specific object being controlled because one object cannot be controlled by two minds at the same time. For example, when a human controls a dog's body, the dog is the human's property; while a dog barks, the dog's throat is the dog's property, but when intentionally muzzled, the dog's throat becomes property of the human. Strictly speaking, the dog's body is the human's mind's property or the dog's mind's property, depending on which mind is in control -- or how accurate the analysis intends to be. While different minds can have similar desires, each mind is metaphysically unique, meaning that no two minds have the exact same desires. If two minds did will exactly as each other, they would be the same mind. So, an object controlled by many minds would by definition have many different wills in conflict over it. The controller of the object would be in perpetual flux. In other words, the property's control will constantly be transferred from one mind to another. Hence, at any one moment, only one mind can control property.  
*** It does not follow that owners cannot violate others' rights or take control of their property, rather, in the purest sense, the concept of ownership only allows for meaningful communication regarding perceived rightful control. The assertion that owners must also respect other's ownership claims if they are to assert their own is a further, separate (egalitarian) claim, going beyond the minimum definition of ownership. In this essay, I am describing what ownership means, not prescribing norms.

Finding meaning with Nihilism: rejecting Fatalism

Nihilism is the belief that nothing has … any final meaning. … “What the hell difference is it going to make, in a thousand years what we do today, or a hundred years for that matter?” It’s a rational reduction of all the experiences of life to rational insignificance: nothing has any final meaning. So the question is … “why do anything?” … “why bear suffering?”

Jordan Peterson – Youtube clip

For Jordan Peterson, nihilism is an inexcusable rejection of meaning. It is the rejection of personal responsibility exchanged for disposable moments of no consequence. What he calls nihilism, the depressive, flippant, and destructive psychology that can follow the rejection of inherent meaning, I call fatalism. Despite our difference terms, it is understandable why Peterson, a clinical psychologist, rails against the growing presence of fatalism in modernity.

In “Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity”, author Brett Stevens characterises fatalism as ” … selfishness…” and the “[belief] that we have no control over the outcome of our actions.” He goes further, pointing out that fatalism is inherently destructive and materialistic because, according to the worldview, all meaning is derived from “physical comforts, wealth and convenience” and the immediate moment.

As a psychologist, Peterson is met with people afflicted by fatalism — people struggling to find purpose, struggling to just get by. What Peterson misses, though, is that the rejection of meaning does not imply fatalism philosophically speaking. So even when he correctly characterises nihilism as rejecting objective meaning, he then connects it to fatalism as if this implication is necessary. This misstep occurs because he accepts the flawed logic that a meaningless universe implies apathy and self-destruction. It does not.

Meaning, values, memory and symbols are artifacts of judging, perceiving minds. Without humanity, the world just is… However, lack of inherent meaning does not preclude humans from choosing meaning, or noticing that they as humans will find some things more meaningful than others…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

At its core, nihilism is a worldview that rejects inherent meaning: nothing means anything else. For example, democracy is not “good” or “bad”, it is just democracy. The consequences of democracy are the consequences of democracy — and not anything else. The nihilistic worldview flows from a subjective value for truth. “Nihilism is the removal of all values to things except reality itself” (Stevens, 2004). Put another way, nihilism attempts to evaluate reality as it is, free from human bias and representation. It merely begins by rejecting objective meaning and universal narratives.

Nihilism as a philosophical doctrine is simple: the denial of inherent meaning. Nothing inherently, automatically and irrefutably “means” anything. Meaning is a projection of the human mind and does not exist outside of it.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

By deconstructing nihilism, we can identify passive-nihilism, which is the negative component of nihilism: the act of stripping away assumptions, narratives, and belief in inherent value/meaning. By itself, passive-nihilism is nothing more than pure skepticism. This is contrasted by active-nihilism, the positive component of nihilism, which we will explain shortly.

Passive nihilism is the rejection of all inherent meaning. It tends to reduce life to what can be measured and observed, and to file everything else as unproven.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

It is worth noting, logically speaking, that passive-nihilism does not imply fatalism. Just as one could admit meaninglessness and retreat into recklessness, one could just as unreasonably acknowledge the lack of meaning present in the world and conclude that there is no reason not to start a charity. Neither apathy nor affinity for life follow logically from the meaningless universe we find ourselves in. More generally, facts do not imply values. Fatalism values materialism and selfishness –but values cannot be derived from nature.

Unlike active nihilism, passive nihilism does not then reconstruct meaning by assembling what is known into patterns and deriving a sense of cosmic and natural order from those. It merely rejects all; what separates it from fatalism is that passive nihilism also rejects individualism and the group conformist idea that humans can define reality. It thus sets the stage for active nihilism. [bold added]

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Despite this, many people (for reasons Peterson could probably explain), do jump to fatalism from passive-nihilism. In this sense, you could say that fatalism is one response to passive-nihilism. Another response might be depression, which could accompany the newly acknowledged the meaningless universe. But sadness, like that felt from losing Santa from a childhood fantasy, is eventually lost and our mood returns to normal as we accept reality.

A positive response to passive-nihilism is active nihilism. Active-nihilism is the process of asserting subjective meaning as enough. Active-nihilist, of the Nietzschean variety strive for something greater, something not necessarily in the immediate moment, they pursue greatness, accept challenge, and responsibility. Since subjective meaning is all there is, and that there are no necessary implications to be derived from this, an active nihilist could assert any values –Nietzschean or otherwise. Fundamentally, an active-nihilist is one that admits personal preferences are all there are and does not seek to deny them.

Steven’s points out, that nihilists can value the transcendental. Transcendental nihilism is the appreciation of the world’s design and significance, the forgiveness of the world for our suffering, and being grateful for our small place in it. It is seeing life and death as neither “good” and “bad” respectively, but meta-good, for being at all. In this sense, nature/reality is meta-good. It is something that transcends the individual and can be valued subjectively.

Praising what is right in a holistic sense over what is advantageous to the individual is the primary trait of all heroic, idealistic and nihilist philosophies.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism : A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

My journey to nihilism was prompted through existential questions as cliché as they come: “What does life mean? What should I do? How do I justify my beliefs? What is important?” It truly began with an awareness that God is dead, and that this changes everything. No longer could I assume my values are right (or wrong), or that there was correct answer to ethical questions (outside the context of a given preference and situational factors).

A lack of meaning does not mean that one cannot have preferences, even logical ones.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is just the beginning of one’s personal journey in philosophy. You see, the nihilist has more ethical decisions to make than any moralist does. For people that believe there are moral facts (moralists), the world is full of rules. Once these moral rules are discovered and codified, they guide us through life’s various dilemmas. It’s pretty simple, all considered: the moralist either acts well or not (and is “good” or “bad” accordingly), but in either case, they (think) they know what it is that they should do. The nihilist doesn’t have it so cut-and-dry. There are no pre-ordained rules for nihilists to follow.

Just because a nihilist rejects the assumption that moral facts exist, does not say anything with respect to the fundamental question of ethics which is: “What should shall I do?” To address this question, a nihilist assesses their desires, and is motivated towards their fulfillment. There is no obligation to act, nor any external standard to ethically judge/measuring their desires. This analysis is a purely descriptive model of human action.

Nihilists, use and update their mappings of reality (derived through their faulty lens of human perception, empirical experience) to effectively achieve their desired aim. Their mappings of reality may be in the form of conscious rules, Gestalts, traditions, rules-of-thumb, or instinctive/pre-conscious muscle memory, and so on. These rules relate to the mechanisms of how the universe objectively behaves, whether physically, socially, economically, or however. There really is no limit to the topics that might give a nihilist potential to form an understanding of reality, that is useful in serving their ends. Successfully attained desires are obtained through the good, and the bad thwarts their efforts.*

Nihilism means denial of inherent values. It does not mean denial of functionality, or loss of a desire for our actions to be constructive and produce aesthetic beautify in life.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

The nihilist, like all sentient beings, have undeniable desires. This provides fuel to answer the question of ethics: “What should I do?” Joel Marks answers this with his philosophy of Desirism: “Figure out what you really want, that is, the hierarchy of your desires all things considered, and then figure out how to achieve or acquire it by means that are themselves consonant with that prioritized set of your considered desires.” (Ethics without Morals: In Defense of Amorality, 2013).

“The principle of active nihilism is one of ultimate reality: we are real, in a physical world that is real, with real consequences for any given action. There are no inherent goals, so we must pick one. If we like life, that goal is survival…

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

As pragmatic realists, nihilist answer a related question “How do I get what I want?” by studying the constraints of a reality that works mechanically as per the laws of nature. Given their values they must operate within the laws of the universe to obtain their goals. This is the realism that nihilism embraces.

Active nihilism denies inherent values but does not deny the inherency of reality. It tells us there are no default or universal judgments, and all that we can expect is that reality is consistent such that specific actions achieve similar results every time they are tried.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity

Nihilism is not fatalism. Rightly so, Peterson critiques the psychology of purposelessness. Nihilists however are pragmatic and realistic, they study the world and its mechanics. They accept reality and responsibility. The nihilist is part of the world, a human part. There is no escaping human desire, which motivate us to achieve our goals. This purpose might only be subjective, but it can be in accordance with reality and transcendent rather than materialistic.

Nihilism: personal aims constrained and informed by reality. I think Peterson would approve.

Brett Stevens – Nihilism: A philosophy based in nothingness and eternity: available here

*A fair critique may be that we don't know how to judge our scientific or philosophical understandings of objective reality except without making certain assumptions that are themselves subjective. If this critique holds water, then the case being made in this post reduces to the negative critique that fatalism is not implied by the lack objective meanings, and the positive case (that nihilist can refer to anything external, even reality itself stripped of interpretation, for reference in subjective decision making) falls apart, leaving the nihilist to refer to subjective desires which may include a desire for objective, scientific/philosophical truth, but does not imply it. Thanks to Joel Marks for giving me the idea to clarify this point.

Fighting words: Argumentation ethics

Hans Herman Hoppe, a contemporary libertarian theorist, describes the fundamental problem of society and suggests a libertarian solution:

We live in a world of scarcity. Either resources are scarce, or the time in which to use them is scarce. We all have different ideas on how these resources are to be used. Therefore, if we wish to live in a world where conflict over resources is minimised, we must agree on rights of ownership and transfer. It must be taken for granted that we own ourselves. To claim the opposite leads to obvious inhumanity. It raises at least the potential for unlimited conflict over who owns whom. Where external resources are concerned, the ideal solution is that they belong to whoever first appropriates them from the State of Nature, and that they are then transferred by consent — that is, by sale or by gift or by inheritance.

Sean Gabb summarising Hoppe’s views, from the introduction to Getting Libertarianism Right by Hans Herman Hoppe

Hoppe claims the libertarian “rights” of self-ownership and non-aggression are argumentatively irrefutable. According to “argumentation ethics”, argumentation is the process of resolving conflicts through dialogue and the absence of physical conflict. Hoppe assumes that we should argue (i.e. discuss) rather than physically fight:

“Now let me emphasise that I consider these elementary insights argumentatively irrefutable and, because of that, also a priori true.” [bold added]

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy, Democracy, Civilization, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

I agree, conflict without discussion means violence. But even if we can’t argue against libertarian principles, why must we agree to avoid physical conflict? Despite the fact that many people do want to rationally justify their beliefs, there is always the option of their physical enforcement instead. Argumentation itself is a matter of preference — as is violence. The pertinent question is, “Would you rather engage in rational discourse or fight?”

It would be wise to remember that all man-made concepts are built on premises (“if-clauses” and assumptions). It is foolish and can be dangerous to assume that others share your premises (including preferences for argumentation). While useful, all man-made concepts are constructed with the formula: “if we want X, then Y is a useful concept.” Hoppe can be seen doing this here:

“If you want to live in peace with people … you must have private (or exclusive) property in all things scarce and suitable as means or goods in the pursuit of human ends.”

Hans Herman Hoppe, Democracy De Civilisation, and Counterculture (PFS 2015) YouTube

This argument has two parts: an “if-clause” and a “then-clause”. Without the initial assumption (“If you want …”), Hoppe’s argument would become a decree: “You must have private … property…”, which would naturally raise the question: “Why ought we have private … property… ?” On the other hand, without the conclusion (“[then] you must have private … property …”), all that remains is a question: “[do you] want to live in peace with people[?]”, which naturally raises the questions: “what happens if someone doesn’t want to live in peace?” and “do I want to live in peace with people?”

There will always be people that reject the principle of non-aggression — at least at some times and in some situations. More generally, the preference for peace and equal treatment is itself a premise of egalitarianism (that all are equal or should be considered equal). But there will always be people that reject egalitarianism.

Why would Vladamir Putin, a highly powerful and influential Russian President and influencer in world politics, accept a libertarian premise “to live in peace with people”? Accepting this premise would amount to him disarming himself of his powerful position in order to equalise himself with others in society. He currently has the ability to not respect his citizen’s self-ownership, and why would he give that ability up? Why would a burglar with two guns give the homeowner one when robbing a house? Frankly, Putin and those with the ability to ignore libertarian principles, will ignore them if it is in their interest to — because they can.

“I don’t see how it is the case that just because I am engaged in an argument with you I must therefore respect your self-ownership. I could just be arguing with you as opposed to being in a state of conflict because it is cheaper, as violence is very expensive –far more so than arguing. If not through the explicit cost of weapons or the damage I might take from doing so, it is also expensive considering how others may treat me after I have acted violently. So naturally, I could argue that you don’t own yourself because I can’t afford the expenses of coercing you …”

Truediltom, “On the ‘non-aggression principle'” On ‘The Non-Aggression Principle’ retrieved Jan 20, 2019.

“Sticks and stones may break bones,” but words and decrees only compel if they are backed by force, i.e. only enforced words can break bones and coerce action. Even then, it is the force (and not the words) that does the coercion. (All man-made laws are secondary to the laws of nature, (which cannot be broken. Gravity cannot be refuted, ignored, or paused, whereas rules such as “thou shalt not kill” can be and are often broken.)

How could a libertarian rule of law be established? Ironically, if a libertarian society contained people that rejected libertarianism, there would be a performative contradiction: libertarianism’s non-aggression principle would be violated when libertarian rule of law was enforced upon individuals in society. For example, a pimp would be legally punished for violating his associate’s rights. To him, being put in a jail cell is an initiation of force — a violation of non-aggression.

One solution to this is Hoppe’s private law society. Private cities, operated like corporations would have their established rules. Built on libertarian principles, each private city could have differing sets of incidental laws and rules. Citizens could be free to associate (or disassociate) with any city that would let them in, but once inside, they would have to agree to the rules or be physically removed.

… So to speak…

Hans Herman Hoppe

In a libertarian society, there will always be conflict about its principles. Dissenters will always exist. People may argue with the premises of libertarianism, but according to argumentation ethics, by definition they will always lose. Their only avenue for winning is to disband with argumentation itself. But, while argumentation persists, there is peace and libertarianism is practised. However, as soon as libertarian’s detractors reject argumentation itself, the society must be ready to implement physical removal.

Here we have come full circle: preferences for libertarian principles such as self-ownership and non-aggression are asserted with the acknowledgment that physical force is the ultimate/final means of justification. This might be ironic, but it is in accordance with the laws of nature.

Power: Is Might Right?

Every one who would be free must show his power. … He who exalteth himself shall be exalted, and he who humbleth himself shall be righteously trodden beneath the hoofs of the herd. “The humble” are only fit for dogs’ meat. Bravery includes every virtue, humility, every crime. He who is afraid to risk his life must never be permitted to win anything. Human rights and wrongs are not determined by Justice, but by Might. Disguise it as you may, the naked sword is still king-maker and king-breaker, as of yore. All other theories are lies and — lures. Therefore! If you would conquer wealth and honor, power and fame, you must be practical, grim, cool and merciless. You must ride to success (by preference) over the necks of your foemen. Their defeat is your strength. Their downfall is your uplifting. Only the powerful can be free, and Power is non-moral. Life is real, life is earnest, and neither heaven nor hell its final goal. And love, and joy, and birth, and death, and fate, and strife, shall be forever.

Ragnar Redbeard, Might is Right

Ragnar Redbeard’s “Might is Right” is unforgettable. It is both poetic and jarring. Redbeard’s relentless attacks are not confined to “safe” topics like the government or religion, but extend to ideas like the Golden Rule, egalitarianism, and secular notions of “goodness”. But despite Redbeard’s various tirades, his message is clear: “the only binding contract upon man’s conduct is the natural law of “might”. Do with that, what you will…”

It is might against might, remember, by land and sea, man against man, money against money, brains against brains, and — everything to the winner.

All quotes are from Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right, unless stated otherwise

While the phrase “might is right” only appears three times in the book, it has become synonymous with Redbeard’s racism, sexism, anti-theism, misanthropy, misogyny, anarchism, brutality, and gore-filled anecdotes. But what does the phrase “might is right” really mean? Can we sift gold from Redbeard’s book? Aside from being an exhilarating (if not exhausting) work, there are truths contained within.

While the phrase “might is right” can be interpreted in a few different ways, it is most valid as the observation: “that which did, could.” Asked another way:

Is “might” a law of nature?

According to this first interpretation, “might” is a method of nature. Just as gravity describes how mass attracts, “might” describes how social and even metaphysical entities compete.

“Love in sexual relationships, power in social adjustments, polarity and magnetism [in] physics[, …] gravitation in astronomy, and might in ethics, are exact synonyms; – correlated phases of one primary assertive – ‘the persistence of force.'”

But there are other interpretations. Unfortunately, “might” is hopelessly abstract. What exactly is it?

Yes, superior armies defeat smaller, untrained, uncommitted forces,
and it is their combination of fire-power, skill, cunning, maneuverability, persistence, and raw numbers that secure their victory, but how is this insightful? Does it even need stating? In other words, victors win because they have the ability to.

That which did, could.

To admit “might” is a method of nature, is not a commendation or condemnation. It is simply an objective observation, a description of how things are. It is as unremarkable as stating two is greater than one.

Clearly therefore, in every department of life, the lesser force must be overthrown by the greater; which (being interpreted) meaneth: — MIGHT IS RIGHT, absolutely, unreservedly.

Another side of the same coin is to state what “might” does. Rather than say that “might is right“, we might say “might is left” because “might” has determined what is leftover. This defines the mightier as those that overpower, succeed, persist, assert and establish themselves in contrast to the defeated, destroyed, or overcome. This too is just an observation, neither a commendation nor condemnation.

A different interpretation of the phrase “might is right” is that might is justified.

Power and Justice are synonyms; for Might is mighty and DOES prevail.

Does “might” justify actions taken? Does the victim deserve their fate?

What are (in popular parlance) called “rights,” are really “spoil” — the prerogatives of formerly exerted Might: but a “right” lapses immediately, when those who are enjoying it, become incapable of further maintaining it.

At times, Redbeard seems to claim “might justifies actions”. For example:

When not thwarted by artificial contrivances, whatever argument Nature promulgates is— RIGHT.

To justify something is to measure it against a standard. For example, to legally justify is to measure something by the laws of the land; to justify text is to align it against a margin; to culturally justify something is to measure it by a cultural norm.

When justifying, the meta-questions are 1) should we justify X by a standard, and 2) which standard should we use?

Justification is a human action, its requirement is a man-made concept. Things occur (nature happens) whether they fit according to another schema or not. Justification does not exist outside of the human mind. So, unless Redbeard is expressing a personal preference for nature as a standard for measuring acts/events, his claim is false. If Redbeard is claiming that nature objectively justifies actions, he is be wrong. Actions cannot be justified objectively because there is always the meta-question of what standard to use, and why the human concept of justification requires completion at all. There is no imperative to adopt human desire for justification as an objective goal.

The natural world is a world of war; the natural man is a warrior; the natural law is tooth and claw. All else is error.

But Redbeard would be the first to point out that it is “might” –not ideas– that are the only binding contract upon action. Justification is not required. We do not need to justify actions or preferences, and there is no imperative to choose any particular standard if we did. Even rational justification is a man-chosen standard — and there is no imperative to rationally justify actions or preferences.

So, “might is right” should not be interpreted to mean that “might” justifies, or that the weak deserve their fate, or the mighty deserve their rewards.

“You have just put your “right” (your desire to live) over the intruder’s “right” (their desire for you to die) via your might (the gun). This is the meaning of “might is right”.

James Theodore Stillwell III, Power-Nihilism: a case for moral and political nihilism

Is “might” obligatory?

In the following quote Redbeard implies that the strong ought to get “the delights of life” because it is natural and moral:

Why should the delights of life go to failures and cowards? Why should the spoils of battle belong to the unwarlike? That would be insanity, utterly unnatural and immoral.

But when Redbeard claims “oughts” or obligations without stating a conditional premise, he attempts to derive what ought to be from what is. This is the well known “is/ought gap”. The only way Redbeard could claim obligations exist is to propose a condition, for example: “If we want to act according to natural principles… then the delights of life ought to go to the strong”. But this condition is merely a preference, and we are not forced to hold it.

The further man gets away from Nature, the further he departs from right. To be right is to be natural, and to be natural is to be right. The sun shines, therefore it is right that it should shine — the rain falls, therefore it is right that it should fall — the tides ebb and flow, therefore it is right that they should ebb and flow.

Even though Redbeard is not comparable to Shakespeare or Dante,
Might is Right is largely a work of poetry. Redbeard favours bombastic language and cathartic self-expression over clarity and consistency. As such, we can salvage a favourable (and reasonable) interpretation that “might is right” is a description of nature rather than an imperative derived from nature.

Does “Might is right” mean a rejection of man-made doctrines?

By identifying Redbeard’s fallacies and faulty interpretations of the phrase “might is right” we can maintain a clear perspective of his valid points. It is in moments where Redbeard critiques established doctrines that he is most consistent and clear:

All ethics, politics and philosophies are pure assumptions, built upon assumptions. They rest on no sure basis. They are but shadowy castles-in-the-air erected by day-dreamers, or by rogues, upon nursery fables.

Equality can only exist amongst equals. Civilization implies division of labor and division of labor implies subordination and subordination implies injustice and inequality. Woe to me if I speak not truth!

Broadly speaking, meta-ethical writers like Redbeard, do two things: they negate and affirm. Redbeard rejects much of his society’s ideology. In its place, Redbeard espouses values of aristocracy, Western civilisation, Aryan race, patriarchy, etc..

The phrase “might is right” might symbolise Redbeard’s values, but then almost any set of values could be asserted under a Redbeardian meta-ethical perspective. As long as someone understands their values are preferences, then there is no layer of deception between desire and reality.

Too often people project their desires onto the universe and claim their preferences are objectively “good”. Redbeard would say: have your preferences –if you can take them— but don’t delude yourself that they are externally “good”.

Taken as a practical lesson, this is one of empowerment. You can believe what you want, if you can, you can attain your goals. There is nothing hypocritical about rejecting man-made ideas like “good”, egalitarianism, or God, in order to assert your own. Make your life what you want can.

[Our ancestors] did not … [speak of] … ‘Liberty,’ ‘Justice,’ and ‘Equality of Opportunity,’ or ‘Rights of Man,’ when they knew full well that not only their lives, but everything they nominally possessed was ‘by leave’ of their conquerors and proprietors.

Does “Might make right”?

This final interpretation says “might” is intrinsically “good”, i.e. that “might” is an end-in-itself rather than a means-to-an-end. However this interpretation has it backwards. “Might” is a means, not an end.

Subjectively, “good” is that which is desired or that which completes its purpose well. In the first case, a “good” car is a desirable car, at least to someone who desires it. In the second case, a “good” gun is one that shoots well, or one that looks “good”, depending on who gives the object a purpose.

Since every person desires differently, and assigns different purposes to things, there is nothing objectively “good”. There is nothing in the world that is objectively “good” unless there is something that is universally desired, or has a universal purpose. And even if there was something that everyone desired, and had been prescribed the same purpose, a newborn baby would not be obliged to share this sentiment. There is no imperative to desire anything, and there is no necessary purpose for anything.

“Might” facilitates the attainment of desired goals, so it is inaccurate to say that “might” is itself desirable. To illustrate my point, consider the phrase “life is good“. It is inaccurate to claim “life is good” because “good” is what we desire, and without life, nothing can be desired. More accurately, life facilitates desiring, and that which we desire we call “good“. All subjective “goods” require life so there is no use in stating this prerequisite. Since “might” is a prerequisite for the attainment of goals, the statement “might is good” is just as useless as stating “life is instrumentally desirable”.

The interpretation that “might” is “good” is fundamentally confused. It confuses what is desired with how it is attained. “Might” is not intrinsically “good” or “bad” (nor moral/immoral or any other moralistic terms). It is the means to attain a desired goal –a natural mechanism for attaining “ends”. “Might” is a means, not an end.

So, is might right?

At its worst, Ragnar Redbeard’s Might is Right is an inconsistent work, and can be interpreted myopically. At its best, it is a rejection of false doctrines and an incitement to embrace natural law.

I can hear Redbeard from the grave: “Don’t believe lies that others fall for. Feel-good ideologies like egalitarianism are designed to castrate you and keep you from asserting yourself. Only your natural ability limits you. Take what you can from life. Revere the successful! Struggle and succeed, or die trying!”

But we are taught ‘all men are created equal’?
You are taught many a diplomatic Lie.

But for one man to reign over another is wrong?
What is ‘wrong’? The Strong can do as they please.

Who are the ‘Strong’?
They who conquer. They who take the spoil and camp on the battlefield. All life is a battlefield.

But that is a harsh philosophy?
Nature is harsh, cruel, merciless to all unlovely things. Her smile is only for the Courageous, the Strong, the Beautiful and the All-Daring.

You praise the Strong, you glorify the Mighty ones?
I do. They are Natures noblemen. In them she delights: the All-Vanquishers! the Dauntless Ones!