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!

Veganism is Compatible with Libertarianism

While most vegans are left-wing supporters of government, it doesn’t surprise me to meet libertarian vegans who see veganism as a natural extension to their political philosophy. Libertarian principles of (human) self-ownership and the non-aggression principle can graciously be extended to (non-human) animals. While Rothbard and other libertarians would not grant animals rights, veganism is compatible with libertarianism.

The fundamental question of animal rights is, “Are animals individuals?” In other words, are animals members of the “moral community” or merely objects that require little or no ethical concern.

The strongest philosophical strain of veganism in the West is the abolitionist approach to animal rights (AAAR). The AAAR claims that all sentient beings are members of the moral community and so cannot be used, exploited, or killed. It would seem then, that those who accept this position would be open to libertarian principles of non-aggression and self-ownership. However, while most vegans are strongly left-wing, it seems their bleeding hearts bleed for all except the tax-payer.

Veganism as a way of life is completely apolitical. Whatever their reasons, a vegan is someone who attempts to avoid animal use as far as possible.

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

The Vegan Society, retrieved from https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism

Conversely, libertarianism is completely a-nutritional. Libertarianism does not state that using animals is required, so there is no fundamental inconsistency in being vegan and a libertarian. Even though libertarians like Murray Rothbard claim that animals cannot be granted rights, one could be hold a vegan diet and lifestyle without claiming animals have rights.*

… individuals possess rights not because we “feel” that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe. In short, man has rights because they are natural rights.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

But, even if animals do not have rights, it would not be against libertarian principles for someone to be vegan. A libertarian might choose to be vegan even if “natural rights” were not granted to animals. Libertarianism does not forbid veganism. Rothbard continues:

… [rights] are grounded in the nature of man: the individual man’s capacity for conscious choice, the necessity for him to use his mind and energy to adopt goals and values, to find out about the world, to pursue his ends in order to survive and prosper, his capacity and need to communicate and interact with other human beings and to participate in the division of labor.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

This view is anthropocentric, a self-serving definition of rights; for humans-by humans. If you were able to communicate with pigs, frogs, fish, or bacteria, they would likewise define rights so as to secure their interests. Pigs would state that their natural ability to forage and make nests establish their “natural” right to forage and make nests –preventing humans from “processing” them for bacon. Fish would state that their natural ability to breathe underwater establishes their “natural” right to breathe underwater uninterrupted — preventing humans from removing them from the ocean for consumption.

Perhaps the following questions becomes more obvious now that animal examples have been used: How does any natural fact establish any natural “right”? And why do we assume human supremacy in the “rights” making department? Why would the pig or fish’s definition of rights be rejected in favour of the humans?

I am not claiming that humans ought to live timid lives, wary of harming other beings. I am not saying humans ought to accept the pig (or fish’s) definition of rights. I am not saying that humans can’t assert themselves, flourish, and live according to their own values (whatever they may be). I am not saying that it is wrong to eat meat. I am merely recognising that all “rights” are man-made inventions. Even human “rights” and other ideas like egalitarianism. This is why there is no inherent contradiction in being vegan and libertarian. We can invent both animal rights and libertarian principles.

One reply to my view is that we could also invent horrible or evil values and principles. This is true, but then the people who hold these values don’t see them as evil. In fact, your values seem evil to them. Another critique of my view would point out that we can’t invent and hold contradictory values. I could attempt to argue that usually people don’t try to, but then it is more robust to reply that logical consistency is itself a value premise. But without theorising about madmen, it is enough to state: veganism is not logically inconsistent with libertarianism.

Grounded in emotivism, we can assert our values, and grant whatever rights we prefer. As such there is no inconsistency in preferring to grant rights to animals — even to the extent that eating meat is prohibited — and being a libertarian –maintaining the non-aggression principle and self-ownership.

Of course, modern natural-rights libertarians would oppose laws that forbade eating meat. To them, this would be an initiation of force upon an individual’s right to act (eat meat) without initiating force against anyone else. But this begs the very question that animal rights raises: are animals individuals? How do we define individuals, and what rights do they have? If animals are merely objects and not individuals, they do not have rights and can be property. As property, the owner can do as he or she wishes. (This is the point that the AAAR raises and challenges).

In short, man is a rational and social animal. No other animals or beings possess this ability to reason, to make conscious choices, to transform their environment in order to prosper, or to collaborate consciously in society and the division of labor.

Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 1998

Rothbard is making a similar mistake that Rene Descartes made. Descartes claimed that “animals could not reason nor use language rationally”. As such, they did not have souls, and therefore had no need for rights. But Rothbard’s view like Descartes’, is contrary to the 2012 Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness which states:

Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates. [bold added]

Retrieved from http://fcmconference.org/img/CambridgeDeclarationOnConsciousness.pdf

So, even if some animals have consciousness, to what extent should we grant rights to animals (and to what extent)? To answer this, first consider why libertarians grant rights to humans. Natural-rights libertarians say that they grant self-ownership rights to humans because they derive from people’s natural ability to think, feel, etc. The argument is that the “nature” of something determines what rights it has: since “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” they must have rights to self-ownership (Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 1973). But by this same logic rights can be granted to animals: Since each sentient animal must be conscious, …, in order to survive and flourish, then must have rights to self-ownership. This would establish the animal’s right not to be bred, killed, eaten, or made into shoes.

You may disagree with me, like my friend did:

Natural rights are derived from argumentation ethics. And due to reciprocity of rights they can’t be extended to animals.

One libertarian’s rebuttal to my argument (from an actual conversation)

But Hans Herman Hoppe’s “argumentation ethics” doesn’t derive natural rights. Argumentation ethics states that, as an assumption, when we argue we implicitly agree not to physically fight. Hoppe assumes that libertarianism’s principles cannot be argumentatively refuted — which may be true — but this is a separate concept to whether it is being able to argue itself that establishes rights.

Assuming that animals cant be extended rights because animals can’t make rational arguments begs the question: Why do you assume that it is rationality (and the ability to argue) that establishes rights? Why not assume it is the ability to be sentient (as the AAAV does) that establishes rights?

What characteristic does establish rights? (Or stated in the emotivist way: what characteristics do we want to define for establishing rights?) The natural-rights libertarian Hans Herman Hoppe answers in the following:

Every person is an exclusive owner of his physical body as a primary means of action, no person can ever be the owner of any other person’s body, for we can use another person’s body only indirectly, that is, in using own directly appropriately and controlled own body first, thus direct appropriation precedes indirect appropriation.

Hans Herman Hoppe speech Youtube.

So, if libertarians are granting property rights to humans exclusively due to their ability to directly control themselves, then they must also grant property rights to all beings that are in direct control of themselves: ala sentient beings.

Veganism is compatible with libertarianism, not incompatible.

While consuming animal products causes unnecessary suffering I prefer not to consume animal products. While I can’t avoid animal use completely, that does not mean I don’t want to avoid it as much as possible. Yes, my house was built on cleared land that animals homesteaded, yes my vegan food is currently fertilised with manure that was taken by force from animals, and yes, you could point out many reasons that veganism doesn’t avoid using animals completely. For others, it may be health or environmental reasons that motivate their veganism, but for me, it is primarily an emotional response towards the way humans use animals that maintains my veganism. The overlap of veganism and libertarian thought is obvious and wide.

*Rothbards's libertarianism is based on the natural rights justification. I have attacked such groundings elsewhere, and contrary to Rothbard, I do claim that "rights" are granted only by human preferences (by having a "feel"/desire/preference in granting animals rights).