The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians: A Concise Philosophical Analysis, J. C. Lester


The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians: A Concise Philosophical Analysis1
J. C. Lester

Philosophical Notes No. 89

ISBN: 9781856376624
ISSN 0267-7091 (print)
ISSN 2042-2768 (online)

An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,
Suite 35, 2 Lansdowne Row, Mayfair, London W1J 6HL

© 2013: Libertarian Alliance; J.C. Lester

J. C. Lester is a Senior Fellow with the Libertarian Alliance.
He is a libertarian philosopher and author of Arguments for Liberty: a Libertarian Miscellany (University of Buckingham Press, 2011)
and Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism, paperback (University of Buckingham Press, 2012).
His magnum opus is A Dictionary of Anti-Politics: Liberty Expounded and Defended (forthcoming).

FOR LIFE, LIBERTY AND PROPERTY

The error of seeking a foundation or justification

Assumptions are unsupported propositions. All observations and arguments require assumptions, and thereby remain ultimately unsupported. Similarly, all theories—whether empirical, or a priori, or moral, or whatever else—require assumptions, and thereby also remain unsupported. Any attempt to support a theory beyond assumption would require an infinite regress (defending any assumption involves making more unsupported assumptions) or infinite evidence (which involves more unsupported theories, in any case). It’s not merely that there’s always a risk of error: no epistemological support is possible (even probability theories rest on assumptions). And because we face a universe of infinite unknown facts and infinite unknown theories with our finite and fallible minds, we cannot know what potential refutations of our theories we might have overlooked. Therefore, it’s an error to think that a theory can be given a genuine foundation or justification that takes it beyond assumption or conjecture.

However, while a theory logically cannot be supported by any amount of evidence or argument, it logically can be refuted by a single sound counter-example or counter-argument (although assumptions cannot be avoided there either, and so we must criticize any offered refutations). Consequently, a theory is better thought of as a floating boat that might be sunk at any time by some, as yet unknown, counter-example or counter-argument. And so we should conjecture boldly to attempt to capture more truth and then test severely to attempt to eliminate error. It needs to be understood that much evidence and argument that is often mistaken for ‘justifying’ or ‘supporting’ a theory (which is not possible) is really explaining, or applying, or defending, or testing the theory (which are entirely possible, but which usually involve various new conjectures). All this is an explanatory outline of the extreme fallibilist epistemology of critical rationalism as theorized initially and principally by Karl Popper.

Libertarianism is, therefore, best propounded as a bold conjecture in some form: for instance, “People should have liberty in normal circumstances (rather than in every imaginable case).” If we are asked what this theory is based on, then we should explain that it is ultimately and necessarily a conjecture—like all theories—albeit one that appears to withstand criticism as far as we can tell. We should then invite criticisms of the libertarian conjecture and answer people’s specific criticisms as best we can. This saves wasting time on elaborating impossible ‘foundations’ and stands the best chance of convincing a critic that libertarianism is not refuted and so might be correct. However, we should also try to criticize libertarianism ourselves. For we want to eliminate errors where we can. And even if libertarianism is approximately correct, it is not complete and without theoretical problems.

The error of taking sides between deontologism and consequentialism, etc.

The first thing to notice here is that one can advocate libertarianism for a variety of more basic reasons without implying that any of these is supposed to be the foundation of libertarianism. For it is also a conjecture that libertarianism is required for protecting genuine rights and duties (deontologism), or has the greatest positive welfare, or utility, or whatever, consequences (consequentialism), or allows the society most conducive to people’s desirable flourishing (eudaimonism), or is the implicit social contract that promotes the good of all (contractarianism), or greatly enhances each individual’s self-control, self-realization, and critical faculties (autonomy), or even that its long-term effect is to maximize the welfare of the worst-off group and other ‘fair’ outcomes (social justice). And the list might be indefinitely extended.

I usually prefer simply to say that I advocate libertarianism: liberty for all. I don’t mind saying that we have a strong prima facie right to have liberty and a duty to respect liberty. But that’s not intended to suggest that libertarianism is logically supported by, or even requires, deontologism. However, the real issue here is the common view that there are serious clashes in these approaches and in particular between deontologism and consequentialism. As far as I can tell, there aren’t systematic clashes in everyday practice between respecting libertarian rights and promoting human welfare. And so if one is advocating libertarianism as a practical ideology, then it’s irrelevant that we can imagine far-fetched or very rare cases where libertarian rights and human welfare clash. Therefore, it’s unnecessary to takes sides between rights and welfare.

That said, there is often a modern mistake about the nature of rights and consequences that earlier theorists tended not to make. Rights cannot plausibly be conceived of and held irrespective of the practical consequences of applying them. It’s absurd to suppose that there could be a genuine right or duty that had disastrous consequences for human beings. Rights and duties tend to evolve just because of their apparent usefulness to humans. Similarly, it’s absurd to suppose a valid form of consequentialism that in practice flouts rights and duties. In fact, libertarianism can be interpreted as a form of rule consequentialism: it provides the rule (respect liberty) that promotes the best consequences. Far from being incompatible, deontologism and consequentialism are more like two sides of the same coin. (And analogous arguments apply to the, obviously related, alleged distinction between rationalism and empiricism.)

Moreover, if conceptually pushed, deontologism and consequentialism appear to have at least some tendency to morph into each other. For if we ought to promote good consequences (however conceived), then presumably we must have some sort of duty to promote, and right to have, those good consequences. And if we ought to promote rights and duties (however conceived), then presumably we ought somehow to promote the consequence of more of those rights and duties being respected.

I don’t see that there are significant realistic clashes between any of the listed possible reasons for advocating libertarianism. However, I think it’s clearer to view them as various conjectural explanations of how libertarianism works or can be understood—especially in the face of incompatible criticisms—rather than as what libertarianism is ‘founded’ or ‘based’ on. In any case, libertarianism doesn’t need additional principles to make it acceptable. I don’t mean to imply by this that liberty is always an end in itself or the ultimate thing that ought to be valued. I’m a value pluralist: I don’t think it’s possible to reduce everything to a single desideratum. It’s simply that there’s no sound practical criticism of systematically allowing people to have liberty (or, at least, no alternative that withstands criticism better). It’s enough that libertarianism is an unrefuted practical conjecture.

The error of having no explicit, necessary, and sufficient theory of liberty

The biggest error of most libertarians is an absurdity hiding in plain sight: they don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty. They usually have some implicit grasp of liberty that works tolerably well once property is assumed. But they cannot coherently, consistently, and cogently explain exactly how liberty, as such, relates to anything. At the fundamental level, they tend to talk about self-ownership, “homesteading” (initial acquisition), property transfer, etc., and the “non-aggression principle”—but all with respect to “rights”. This not only fails to explain the role of liberty itself, it also confuses matters by conflating morals with the issue. What liberty is, and how it applies, is one question. Whether such liberty is moral is a separate question. (There is the explicit and non-moral zero-sum theory of liberty that a minority of self-described libertarians advocate: whereby, for instance, I gain the liberty that you lose by forcing you to be my slave. But this is not a libertarian theory at all because it fails to distinguish liberty from license or power. And the, occasionally cited, ‘liberty of action’ is not in itself even a form of interpersonal liberty.)

However, the basic idea of libertarian liberty is not hard to explain. The “non-aggression principle” itself is close to being a necessary and sufficient way of capturing it, if correctly and charitably interpreted (for “aggression” can be misleading and the “non” can appear to be absolutist). The Rothbardians—and some of their critics—are mistaken in thinking that a theory of legitimate property is presupposed, or implied, by the non-aggression principle. For the principle can do it all by being understood ultimately in a pre-propertarian sense. First assume that libertarian liberty means not being aggressed against (or proactively constrained, or interfered with) by other people. Now assume that such aggressions need to be minimized in the event of any clashes. Then it clearly follows that secure self-ownership and the ownership-by-use of unowned resources are libertarian. For if people were not secure self-owners or could not have such ownership-by-use, then they could be objectively aggressed against by other people to a high degree: efficient economizing, and even personal safety, would not exist. One way of understanding this is that libertarian liberty tends to “internalize externalities” (as economists call this, but here meant in a pre-propertarian sense). And that also helps to explain why liberty is so productive: efficient economizing is possible and the “tragedy of the commons” is avoided.

Thus we can understand how self-ownership and all non-aggressively-acquired property are entailed by liberty itself. And in the event of any further issues or clashes arising, we can look at what “minimizes aggression” to work out what is most libertarian. For greater clarity and precision, I tend to theorize ‘liberty’ as ‘the absence of proactively imposed costs’ and ‘libertarian practice’ as ‘the minimizing of any proactively imposed costs’. The details can become confusing unless one has first grasped the basic idea. But the basic idea of libertarian liberty is clear and uncomplicated.

A brief restatement

Philosophy can sometimes be hard to follow. Just as with other intellectual subjects, it cannot be made so simple that anyone can grasp it without some intellectual effort. But to attempt as much clarity and ease of comprehension as possible, let me briefly restate the main points in slightly different ways than in the above account.

1) Assumptions are unavoidable and ineliminable. Logically, theories cannot be supported or justified beyond their assumptions by evidence or arguments. But they might be refuted by a single sound counter-example or counter-argument. So instead of seeking impossible support we should advocate and explain libertarianism as a bold practical conjecture that we challenge others to criticize. This makes a virtue of an epistemological necessity.

2) We may conjecture that rights and duties that respect liberty are systematically conducive to good consequences in normal life. Therefore, it’s an error to think that the practical libertarian must either defend rights to liberty in disastrous but unlikely circumstances (absolute deontologism) or ignore libertarian rights and look only at the consequences (act consequentialism). In practice, deontologism and consequentialism evolve together. And logically, each implies a version of the other: maximum rights observance is the best consequence; consequentialism implies rights to those good consequences.

3) Libertarian interpersonal ‘liberty’ is simply ‘the absence of “aggressions” (proactive impositions) by other people’. And ‘libertarian practice’ is ‘the minimization of any clashes of liberty’ (e.g., both allowing and banning all pollution proactively imposes: therefore some compromise to minimize the clash is entailed). By applying liberty alone we can deduce self-ownership, initial acquisition, transfer, etc. There is no need for confusion (the basic idea of liberty is clear and uncomplicated) or for additional principles (it is necessary and sufficient for libertarianism).

References

(1) A version of this essay first appeared on libertarianism.org.

About these ads

34 responses to “The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians: A Concise Philosophical Analysis, J. C. Lester

  1. Robert W Vivian

    Theories based on mere logic require a starting point, what are called assumptions in this article. It is possible to have, in some cases such as mathematics something stronger than mere assumptions; axioms. It is not clear that assumptions are the foundation for theories based on observations from nature or reality. Theories should have some basis in observation. George Stigler’s approach, I think has merit. Economic theories should be judged by three criteria: (1) generality,
    (2) congruence with reality, and (3) tractability. Point (2) is important.

    • An axiom is something that appears (to some people, at least) to be self-evidently true. That does not mean that it is true. We don’t know how we might have been deluded.

      Assumptions cannot be “the foundation for theories based on observations from nature or reality” because assumptions cannot be epistemological foundations.

      Theories can’t be based on observations for at least two reasons: 1) All ‘observations’ are merely theories that we assume to be true (we never perceive reality directly). 2) Theories with universal implications cannot be supported by finite evidence (which is itself theory-laden, anyway).

      Stigler is not really doing epistemology. “congruence with reality” can be assumed but never established, because of 1 and 2 (above).

  2. Why do we have to discuss such a clear and self-evident claim as liberty with “most libertarians” being in “great errors”? Simply because liberty is generally understood as a value in interpersonal, i.e. social action, which makes up an ought-proposition, and as a value competes and conflicts with whatever else can be claimed to be a social value, generally security and equality being the winners in social choice. Please respect my liberty, please comply with the non-aggression-principle. And if not?

    That’s why I feel far more comfortable with self-ownership as a stringent logical deduction from the axiom of action; this is an is-proposition, and as long as I deal with a rational being, I can show aggression to be illegitimate. For this, I do not need infinite regression or any assumptions other than the axioms of action, of diversity and of equal rank. An axiom is here understood as fulfilling the requirements of reflective self-evidence, apriori validity, irreducibility, universalizability, and intrinsic self-contradiction of its refutation. (The third axiom of the equal rank of self-owning bearers of equal rights to valuate has not passed the self-contradictive refutation-test yet.)

    In addition, as in any theory, deductive logic, clear definitions, and, most importantly, a strict and unambiguous use of terms is crucial.

    Axioms are assumptions, open to challenge and criticism, but in the sense stated they are far from being unsupported. Thus, given there are no flaws in deduction, libertarian theory is well taken “beyond assumption and conjecture”. I do not mind libertarianism converging with consequentialism and deontologism at one or another point; but I do oppose a flaw concept of liberty as an ought-proposition that gives way to the historic failure to secure liberty, particularly by its enemy, the state, in the name of some vague deontologic of consequentialist concept.

    Read more in “The Missing Link” on self-ownership.net

    • >Why do we have to discuss such a clear and self-evident claim as liberty with “most libertarians” being in “great errors”?

      I’m not sure what you mean. Do you think that most libertarians have a “clear and self-evident” theory of libertarian liberty? If so, read Zwolinski, or Vallentyne, or Steiner, or Block to see how confused about liberty these self-described “libertarians” are.

      >Simply because liberty is generally understood as a value

      Perhaps pedantically, you can value liberty but liberty itself is not a value: it is a theory or a state of affairs.

      > in interpersonal, i.e. social action, which makes up an ought-proposition, and as a value competes and conflicts with whatever else can be claimed to be a social value, generally security and equality being the winners in social choice. Please respect my liberty, please comply with the non-aggression-principle. And if not?

      Again, you appear to be assuming that it is clear what liberty is. Most libertarians have no theory or a hopeless theory. In other words, they cannot really explain what they claim to be advocating.

      >That’s why I feel far more comfortable with self-ownership as a stringent logical deduction from the axiom of action;

      There is no “logical deduction” from “action” to “self-ownership”.

      > this is an is-proposition, and as long as I deal with a rational being, I can show aggression to be illegitimate

      More fantasy posing as logic.

      >For this, I do not need infinite regression or any assumptions other than the axioms of action, of diversity and of equal rank. An axiom is here understood as fulfilling the requirements of reflective self-evidence, apriori validity, irreducibility, universalizability, and intrinsic self-contradiction of its refutation. (The third axiom of the equal rank of self-owning bearers of equal rights to valuate has not passed the self-contradictive refutation-test yet.)

      You keep claiming to be able to make an argument but you do not attempt to make it.

      >In addition, as in any theory, deductive logic, clear definitions, and, most importantly, a strict and unambiguous use of terms is crucial.

      You waffle about merely imaginary rigour and you have no argument.

      >Axioms are assumptions, open to challenge and criticism, but in the sense stated they are far from being unsupported.

      How?

      >Thus, given there are no flaws in deduction, libertarian theory is well taken “beyond assumption and conjecture”.

      How?

      >I do not mind libertarianism converging with consequentialism and deontologism at one or another point; but I do oppose a flaw concept of liberty as an ought-proposition that gives way to the historic failure to secure liberty, particularly by its enemy, the state, in the name of some vague deontologic of consequentialist concept.

      Is English your first language?

      >Read more in “The Missing Link” on self-ownership.net

      More similar gobbledegook instead of an argument? No thanks.

      • A blog is not the right place to develop an argument at length, is it? This was just the sketch of an outline. The outline of the argument itself can be found at the indicated site, and if you dislike my English: try German.

        • You avoided putting any kind of an argument. But it would have been easy to have done so.

        • Dystopically posted here due to the missing reply-button in JCLesters last post:
          You might have noticed that not one, but a long chain of arguments is necessary to add bone, flesh, blood, nerves, and skin to the outline, few of them being uncontested, but all of them being broadly expounded in libertarian literature quoted in “The Missing Link” on self-ownership.net.
          But after all we all feel so eased to be cured from our errors by the groundbreaking insight: “Libertarian interpersonal ‘liberty’ is simply ‘the absence of “aggressions” (proactive impositions) by other people’”

          • No, a long chain of fantasy arguments is not necessary—or sufficient. And you have not even offered one single argument , however short—just a lot of pompous, obscurantist waffle. You are too much of an intellectual coward to dare to do more than refer to an ‘outline of a sketch’ of an argument that you pretend exists somewhere else. It is only your ignorant pretentiousness that makes you stupidly assume that the simplicity of a theory equates with triviality. And if you had any idea what you are talking about you would know that most libertarian scholars do not have a theory of liberty and are in a theoretical mess as a result. It is a pathetic error of intellectual cowards like you to think that sarcasm can be a substitute for an argument.

        • I severely underrated what new peaks of “egregiously arrogant” insults you are able to summit, “Foaming With Much Blood”…

          • You insulted me instead of giving me a single argument. I merely pointed out the facts about your intellectual shortcomings.

  3. If foundations are merely assumptions, then logic itself is predicated merely on assumption and falsifiability becomes mere preference. Further, falsifiability is an incoherent criterion if not used in a metaphorical sense: finding a Black Swan does “falsify” the statements that all Swans are white, however it verifies that Swans can be Black or White. Any claim of falsifiability is actually making a metaphysical, is-ness, claim about reality.

    Like all theories which eschew foundations, Critical Rationalism requires a base, in this case logic, from which to criticise foundationalist theories yet their theory undercuts the meaning of their base.

    • It’s not true that “foundations are merely assumptions” because assumptions cannot be epistemological foundations.

      Yes, “logic itself is predicated merely on assumption”. There is no alternative. But that does not entail that “falsifiability becomes mere preference”. We cannot choose our beliefs—including our beliefs about epistemology. Hence, we cannot choose to believe that something is not falsified when it appears to us to be falsified.

      You misunderstand the logic of the epistemological situation. If we assume that we have found a black swan then the statement “All swans are white” has been logically falsified. However, it remains a mere assumption that we have found a black swan. We can try to test that assumption but we cannot verify it. Falsification is about the logic of epistemology. A single counter-example can refute a theory; no amount of evidence could support it. No metaphysical theory about reality is entailed.

      You confuse a “base” (or foundation) with an explanation. This is a very common error. Critical rationalism is explained in terms of the logical situation, but that explanation is a conjectural one and not one that claims to be supported by logic. Hence Bartley’s pan-critical rationalism, which Popper eventually adopted as a consistent correction to his mistakenly thinking that there was a solid logical base, at least. We cannot leave the realm of conjecture or assumption, not even in epistemology or logic itself.

      • “It’s not true that “foundations are merely assumptions” because assumptions cannot be epistemological foundations.”

        So there are no epistemological foundations which is a self refuting statement.

        “You misunderstand the logic of the epistemological situation. If we assume that we have found a black swan then the statement “All swans are white” has been logically falsified. However, it remains a mere assumption that we have found a black swan. We can try to test that assumption but we cannot verify it. Falsification is about the logic of epistemology. A single counter-example can refute a theory; no amount of evidence could support it. No metaphysical theory about reality is entailed. ”

        The problem is that the single counter example of a black swan is not in fact an example of a black swan but a mere assumption of a black swan. So it seems to me then falsifiability is just mere word play where problems are caused by certain definitions and inconsistent usage of them. However, in the “all swans are white” example, the find of “a black swan” is prohibited a priori since the definition of a swan states that all swans are white.. As such falsification only makes sense if it is making a metaphysical claim and as such reverts to verification.

        “You confuse a “base” (or foundation) with an explanation.”

        I’m don’t think I am. A base is an is statement, for example, the external world exists. The explanation of the base then takes the form of a transcendental argument to justify the possibility of that being true.

        “Critical rationalism is explained in terms of the logical situation, but that explanation is a conjectural one and not one that claims to be supported by logic.”

        The problem with this is that your base is essentially extreme scepticism, but then you go on to attempt to convince people who you don’t know exist with logical arguments which is inconsistent with your professed “logical situation.”

        • >So there are no epistemological foundations which is a self refuting statement.

          Then it should be easy for you to explicitly explain or derive the contradiction that you imagine is there.

          >The problem is that the single counter example of a black swan is not in fact an example of a black swan but a mere assumption of a black swan.

          If it is a black swan then of course it is a fact that it is an example of a black swan. And if the assumption that it is a black swan survives testing then we are entitled to assume that it is a fact and use it to falsify “all swans are white.” It is merely consistent with the epistemology that the assumption is always open to revision. There is no problem with a hypothetical falsification. The only problem is with people who think that falsifications must be verified, justified, etc.

          >So it seems to me then falsifiability is just mere word play where problems are caused by certain definitions and inconsistent usage of them.

          There is no word play or problem with the idea of a hypothetical refutation. And there are no “definitions” at all, so they can hardly be being used inconsistently.

          >However, in the “all swans are white” example, the find of “a black swan” is prohibited a priori since the definition of a swan states that all swans are white.

          You are confused. “All swans are white” is not asserted as an a priori account of what a swan is. It is asserted as a contingent statement about swans. No one used an a priori defence when they discovered black swans in Australia.

          >As such falsification only makes sense if it is making a metaphysical claim and as such reverts to verification.

          When Popper uses ‘metaphysical’ he means ‘not refutable by observation’. Falsificationism is the idea that (unrefuted theory-laden) ‘observations’ can hypothetically refute universal theories. It would be inconsistent to hold that those observations can be verified in any epistemological sense.

          “You confuse a “base” (or foundation) with an explanation.”
          >I’m don’t think I am. A base is an is statement, for example, the external world exists.

          Why would you want to call an ‘existential statement’ (which is clear) a ‘base’ (which is ambiguous) unless you are really after a foundation of some kind?

          >The explanation of the base then takes the form of a transcendental argument to justify the possibility of that being true.

          No one needs to explain “the external world exists” do they? Of course it could be true–do you doubt it? It doesn’t need any kind of argument to explain the possibility that it could be true.

          “Critical rationalism is explained in terms of the logical situation, but that explanation is a conjectural one and not one that claims to be supported by logic.”
          >The problem with this is that your base is essentially extreme scepticism,

          You said that a “base” is an existential statement. But “extreme scepticism” is not an existential statement. In any case, critical rationalism does not imply that we cannot know the world. On the contrary, it explains how we can know the world without attempting an impossible verification.

          > but then you go on to attempt to convince people who you don’t know exist

          I know that other people exist is the sense that I am aware that they do. There is no refutation of the assumption that other people exist. It is a mere logical possibility that the world could be a dream, etc. It does not withstand serious criticism.

          >with logical arguments which is inconsistent with your professed “logical situation.”

          If it is inconsistent then you ought to be able to explain or derive the inconsistency that you merely imagine exists. The irony here is that those who claim to have verified theories cannot produce a single verification. They live in a foolish fantasy that they can do what is logically impossible.

  4. Both Liberty and the foes of Liberty need fear a fist in the face, not endless theoretical bullshit.

  5. I do tend to agree, regarding the business of spending time discussing why and how, or if (even) various strands of socialism are more or less valid than other such strands.

    However, it is absolutely true that classical-liberals (which is to say: llibertarians) are the most unsuccessful species still (just) present in the catalogue of political fauna, that I can imagine.

    Since we find ourselves fighting against a tide of individuals brought up “on the telly” to believe that “the state” owes them a living and also owes them “happiness” which I would translate as “freedom from all stress or untoward events”, then I do not see how we are going to “win”: which is to say, straight away to bring about the opposite situation. This is one in which all people watching the telly will say “FUCK THEM, the losers, who are complaining…” “THEY SHOULD get off their arses and “do” ” …

    And in an ideal world, that particular tellychannel would get shut down by its watchers, who would cease so to watch, and so its adrevenue would decline to where it can’t pay its bills, and so its satellite would get repossessed and auctioned off to the LA.

    • Libertarians (anarchists and minarchists) are a subset of classical liberals.

      The general liberal meme of liberty remains the dominant one in the world. Who speaks against liberty? But, sadly, it completes with ‘democracy’, welfarism, nationalism, equality, etc.

      We are going to win when a pure libertarianism becomes dominant among the intellectuals. The state will then be dismantled whatever the people think. They will come to accept it in time.

      There is an efflorescence of libertarian organisations around the world. I see no reason for pessimism.

  6. baloocartoons

    I keep finding the most useful stuff on this blog, really. I’ve reprinted this one
    HERE
    http://ex-army.blogspot.com/2013/06/three-ways-to-go-wrong.html

  7. John R McDougall in BNE

    If this writer had read Popper he would know that what he calls a “theory” would have been described as an hypothesis. An hypothesis which appears to describe “reality” and can not (yet) be falsified is called a “theory”. My question is: Do philosophers use a different language?

    • If this commentator had read Popper, then he would know that Popper used language inconsistently and not carefully. He did this partly because he realised that language is not important. It is the ideas that matter. Popper famously held that all observations are theory-laden. But theory-laden observations can be falsified. Hence, theories can be falsified. Perhaps the commentator is confusing “theory” with “metaphysics”. It was metaphysics that Popper held “cannot (yet) be falsified.” Philosophers use ordinary language as a mere set of tools. As Hobbes observed, “Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.”

  8. “Do philosophers use a different language?”

    Absolutely from necessity to some degree because they are trying to describe that which has no everyday name often enough. Even the most accessible philosophers writing in English such as Hume cannot get away from the need. Some are gratuitously jargon filled – Hegel is about the most culpable example I can think of, although Kant runs him close.

    The other thing you need to bear in mind is the way everyday words and technical meanings used by philosophers change radically over the generations.

    The truly unforgiveable sin of philosophers is to define a word in a non-everyday way then not stick to their definition when using it.

    • Philosophers have a small handful of technical terms, but what discipline or activity doesn’t (most have far more)? However, they remain part of the language. I can’t recall a technical term in Hume, and you do not give one. Hegel and Kant were deliberately and inexcusably obscure. Their philosophy does not require it.

      All languages change over the generations. Philosophers tend to follow ordinary usage.

      Equivocating on a Pickwickian definition is more likely to be an error than a sin.

      • JCL – Philosophers have a handful of technical terms? Tell that to Kant and Hegel.

        As for Hume, he has technical terms in the sense that he gives unusual meanings to words in common currency rather than inventing entirely new words, for example, his “perceptions of the mind” which he divided into impressions (primary ideas) and ideas (derived from impressions)..

        • I explicitly wrote “Hegel and Kant were deliberately and inexcusably obscure. Their philosophy does not require it.” And I obviously meant in the language that they use. But how many technical terms do you think there are for chemists, physicists, biologists, lawyers, physicians, engineers, builders, architects, plumbers, carpenters, etc.? Philosophers probably have fewer technical terms than any other discipline or profession.

          Yes, Hume had only a handful of technical terms. I doubt they would fill a page. Compare that to a medical dictionary.

  9. JCL – Yes, I know your referred to Hegel and Kant as wilful culprits, but on their own they invalidated your “Philosophers have a small handful of technical terms”.

    Comparing the jargon count of Hume or any other philosopher to a medical dictionary would be comparing apples and oranges.

    • Even Hegel and Kant have a small handful of technical terms compared to other professions. To compare them, or Hume, to a medical dictionary is, in effect, only to compare them to a doctor. If someone complains that philosophers have a lot of technical terms then how can it be irrelevant to compare them to other professions and disciplines? And we then see that they have the fewest technical terms.

  10. >Then it should be easy for you to explicitly explain or derive the contradiction that you imagine is there.

    There are no epistemological foundations. This is a truth laden. However the truth laden statement denies the existence of truth laden statements. So it is contradictory and self-refuting.

    >There is no word play or problem with the idea of a hypothetical refutation. And there are no “definitions” at all, so they can hardly be being used inconsistently.

    How can you falsify something if we don’t have agreed definitions about what it is we are attempting to falsify?

    >You are confused. “All swans are white” is not asserted as an a priori account of what a swan is. It is asserted as a contingent statement about swans. No one used an a priori defence when they discovered black swans in Australia.

    I think I may have been unclear. My point was that unless definitions we use can in principle make an is statement about reality all we are left with is word games. So, for example, if we define being white as a necessary attribute of being a swan it is a priori impossible to falsify since if we find a “black swan” it is not in fact a swan since it is not white, it is something different. Any apparent contradictions are created by inconsistent applications of definitions. To be clear, I am not making a historical point but a logical one. Falsification only makes sense if the statements can actually say something about how reality actually is which is what you are denying.

    >When Popper uses ‘metaphysical’ he means ‘not refutable by observation’.
    Popper may well do so but I’m using it, and I think it is pretty clear, to mean a statement about what is.

    >Why would you want to call an ‘existential statement’ (which is clear) a ‘base’ (which is ambiguous) unless you are really after a foundation of some kind?

    Since foundations are necessary. See my first response in this post.

    • >There are no epistemological foundations. This is a truth laden. However the truth laden statement denies the existence of truth laden statements. So it is contradictory and self-refuting.

      False. To deny the existence of epistemological foundations is not to deny the existence of truth. ‘Truth’ is merely ‘accurate description’. Either a statement or is negation must be true.

      >How can you falsify something if we don’t have agreed definitions about what it is we are attempting to falsify?

      Because we both understand the same language. In any case, the attempt to define each part of “All swans are white” would imply an infinite regress (as every definition would require a further definition of each word it uses).

      >I think I may have been unclear. My point was that unless definitions we use can in principle make an is statement about reality all we are left with is word games.

      We don’t use definitions. We make statements.

      >So, for example, if we define being white as a necessary attribute of being a swan it is a priori impossible to falsify since if we find a “black swan” it is not in fact a swan since it is not white, it is something different.

      Science is about making statements that can be falsified by observations. A priori definitions are pointless.

      >Any apparent contradictions are created by inconsistent applications of definitions.

      It is your delusion that everything must be about definitions. Please define every word in your above statement. Then define every word in every definition. Etc.

      >To be clear, I am not making a historical point but a logical one. Falsification only makes sense if the statements can actually say something about how reality actually is which is what you are denying.

      You are not making a logical point. You are hopelessly confused. “All swans are white” does “actually say something about how reality actually is”. No one is denyng it—unless you are.

      >>When Popper uses ‘metaphysical’ he means ‘not refutable by observation’.
      >Popper may well do so but I’m using it, and I think it is pretty clear, to mean a statement about what is.

      You can call existential statements ‘metaphysical’ if you wish. But that is an idiosyncratic usage.

      >>Why would you want to call an ‘existential statement’ (which is clear) a ‘base’ (which is ambiguous) unless you are really after a foundation of some kind?
      >Since foundations are necessary. See my first response in this post.

      Since foundations are not possible they are not necessary. Try reading some Popper instead of ignorantly rambling on about what you do not understand in the slightest.

  11. Jan:

    1) RE: “In fact, libertarianism can be interpreted as a form of rule consequentialism: it provides the rule (respect liberty) that promotes the best consequences. Far from being incompatible, deontologism and consequentialism are more like two sides of the same coin.”

    THIS IS A NIT: Not a coin with two sides but a spectrum. Virtue ethics, Deontological ethics, and Teleological (consequentialist) ethics simply place an increasing burden on the knowledge of the actor, and his choice is a combination of his ability and the standard to which his community will hold him accountable. Generally, as long as you use one of them, the community will forgive errors that are endemic to all uses of moral principles.

    Virtue is pure imitation. Rules require we understand the application of them as norms. And consequences require understand of how the world works. It is quite possible for any ethical statement to cover the entire range from virtue to deontological to teleological. In fact, the ability to express any ethical statement in all three domains is probably a good test for any ethical statement.

    2) RE: “[libertarians] don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty.”

    Libertarians, at least, Anarcho Capitalist Hoppe-Rothbardians do have a theory. Your argument is either a) not all libertarians have a theory, not enough of them, or too few of them understand Rothbard and Hoppe’s arguments for property and institutions, including intersubjective verifiability. Or b) the scope of their answer is insufficient for your criteria. (Which is correct. It is insufficient.)

    The difference between your arguments and Hoppe/Rothbards are not argumentatively meaningful, they are only more meaningful in that yours have broader explanatory power. You talk about forcing costs, they talk about non-aggression in the transferring title of objects. That your argument (which is largely correct) is that the scope of actions which ‘force costs’ is greater than the scope of actions that violate the voluntary transfer of title between individuals. This addresses (I can’t quite tell yet whether you’ve articulated this so far) the difference between the objectionably narrow ‘ghetto’ ethics of Rothbard, and the wider scope of high-trust ethics intuited by, but unarticulated by, classical liberal libertarians and conservatives. But that’s because the moral scope of rothbard’s ethics is narrower that the scope of classical liberal ethics. But that’s all it means.

    That said, I”m not sure your criticism stands. They have constructed epistemological tests which are quite clear (homesteading, voluntary transfer., non-aggression etc.) These are exceptionally good tests of intersubjective verifiability for the scope of their ethics. You have done the same. I’m not sure that there is any difference to the quality of either argument. Just the scope.

    Your claim that you’re not justifying yours is something I can’t prove – it certainly looks like it. :)

    3) They argue that ‘liberty’ is a synonym for ‘private property rights’. I”m not sure that needs further elaboration. The problem is a question of the scope of those rights given that they rely on epistemic tests ALONE. Again, this is a problem of scope, not method. (I hope this is coming across because it’s meaningful for how you approach your core thesis. .) Non aggression is indeed insufficient, because it is an epistemic test of whether a transfer is volitional or not. The same applies for externalized costs.

    4) Moreover, both your method and their method are partial solutions because they do not address how morality is constructed in general, and how either your epistemic criteria, or their epistemic criteria can possibly be adopted by others who may intuit morality differently. Absent this argument as to the necessary or preferential definition of ethical action supported by empirical evidence, one theory is only better than another because it appears to have greater explanatory power. Implicit in your argument is that people object to forced costs. But you don’t run with that and go into why (or at least I couldn’t find it in the book). And it isn’t backed by data (despite the fact that this data exists today – and would counter some of your arguments in favor of liberty if you used them. I know. I use them. :) I am also not clear why you think anyone would want to adopt libertarianism vs any other political and personal philosophy. I mean, I don’t see how you’re just justificationist who hides it better. :). (tongue in cheek)

    5) Why libertarians (or anyone else) can’t argue their positions:

    The Definitions Of Libertarianism
    http://www.propertarianism.com/2012/09/28/a-definition-of-libertarianism-draft-two-from-intuitive-sentiment-to-institutional-framework/

    Why Libertarians Cant Articulate Libertarianism
    http://www.propertarianism.com/2013/03/09/answered-why-cant-many-libertarians-articulate-libertarianism/

    The Descriptive Definition of Property
    http://www.propertarianism.com/2013/01/15/the-complete-definition-of-property-excerpt-from-propertarianism/

    The Sea Change In Libertarianism
    http://www.propertarianism.com/2012/07/21/an-example-of-the-sea-change-in-libertarianism/

    I don’t assume i’m right here in understanding you in two days. So please correct me where I err. I don’t mean to sound antagonistic either. It’s a byproduct of the analytical argument rather than the appeal. I’m actually kind of thrilled that I’ve found someone else who has gotten so close, and just a little annoyed that I haven’t been introduced to your work earlier that the day before yesterday. :)

    Heard about you and our book E.L. from someone in the L.ibertarianAlliance. yahoo forum, who posted on FB.. You’ve come closer than anyone else to extending existing libertarian thought, but you’re still trying to make arguments by rational rather than empirical means. Demonstrated preferences are what they are. They don’t need justification. We’re swimming in data. (I use the term, borrowed from law, of ‘involuntary transfer’, which is a little more precise I think. However the general idea is the same. )

    Be fun to work with you on a paper sometime.
    Cheers
    Curt Doolittle
    The Propertarian Institute
    Kiev

    • Curt,

      sorry about the delay.

      >>1) RE: “In fact, libertarianism can be interpreted as a form of rule consequentialism: it provides the rule (respect liberty) that promotes the best consequences. Far from being incompatible, deontologism and consequentialism are more like two sides of the same coin.”

      >THIS IS A NIT: Not a coin with two sides but a spectrum. Virtue ethics, Deontological ethics, and Teleological (consequentialist) ethics simply place an increasing burden on the knowledge of the actor, and his choice is a combination of his ability and the standard to which his community will hold him accountable. Generally, as long as you use one of them, the community will forgive errors that are endemic to all uses of moral principles.

      Thank you for the “nit”. I shall reciprocate the nit-picking throughout; as such pedantry is the very stuff of philosophy. I wouldn’t want to place too much emphasis on a mere metaphor. Perhaps we agree about the substantive point: there are no severe and systematic moral clashes in these approaches when it comes to what is practical in the real world. I’m not sure about the relevance of the community/collective here.

      >Virtue is pure imitation.

      It might usually arise that way, but it is not an identity.

      >Rules require we understand the application of them as norms.

      What a rule is, is one thing. How it is correctly applied is another. Whether it is or ought to be a norm, is a third.

      >And consequences require understand of how the world works. It is quite possible for any ethical statement to cover the entire range from virtue to deontological to teleological. In fact, the ability to express any ethical statement in all three domains is probably a good test for any ethical statement.

      That is an interesting thesis. I would need to see some concrete examples of what you have in mind before I could get to grips with it.

      >>2) RE: “[libertarians] don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty.”

      That is inaccurate. I wrote “most libertarians … don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty.”

      >Libertarians, at least, Anarcho Capitalist Hoppe-Rothbardians do have a theory.

      What is it, then?

      >Your argument is either a) not all libertarians have a theory, not enough of them, or too few of them understand Rothbard and Hoppe’s arguments for property and institutions,

      No, my thesis is that “most libertarians … don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty.” What have “Rothbard and Hoppe’s arguments for property and institutions” got to do with “an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty”?

      >including intersubjective verifiability.

      I can make no sense of “intersubjective verifiability” if it is supposed to take us beyond conjecture.

      >Or b) the scope of their answer is insufficient for your criteria. (Which is correct. It is insufficient.)

      Where is their “explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty”?

      >The difference between your arguments and Hoppe/Rothbards are not argumentatively meaningful, they are only more meaningful in that yours have broader explanatory power.

      While we (Hoppe, Rothbard, and I) are all libertarians, we all have a lot of different arguments and there are many significant differences among them all.

      >You talk about forcing costs,

      No, I don’t. It impedes argumentative efficiency when confronted with inaccurate and misleading paraphrases.

      > they talk about non-aggression in the transferring title of objects.

      But I also claimed I could make sense of “non-aggression” (at least).

      >That your argument (which is largely correct) is that the scope of actions which ‘force costs’

      I did not mention “actions” or “‘force costs’”.

      > is greater than the scope of actions that violate the voluntary transfer of title between individuals.

      I do not recognise my argument in this, unnecessary, paraphrase.

      >This addresses (I can’t quite tell yet whether you’ve articulated this so far) the difference between the objectionably narrow ‘ghetto’ ethics of Rothbard, and the wider scope of high-trust ethics intuited by, but unarticulated by, classical liberal libertarians and conservatives. But that’s because the moral scope of rothbard’s ethics is narrower that the scope of classical liberal ethics. But that’s all it means.

      You have lost me here.

      >That said, I”m not sure your criticism stands.

      What criticism? That “most libertarians … don’t have an explicit theory of libertarian interpersonal liberty”?

      >They have constructed epistemological tests which are quite clear (homesteading, voluntary transfer., non-aggression etc.)

      Those are not “epistemological tests”. And they are not “quite clear”. They are, more like, imprecise principles of legitimate property.

      >These are exceptionally good tests of intersubjective verifiability for the scope of their ethics.

      Principles are not tests. Tests do not verify (they falsify or fail to falsify). What libertarian property is, is a factual matter. Whether libertarian property is ethical or moral is a separate matter.

      >You have done the same. I’m not sure that there is any difference to the quality of either argument. Just the scope.

      You are not sure because you have applied insufficient philosophical precision to the various arguments that are involved.

      >Your claim that you’re not justifying yours is something I can’t prove – it certainly looks like it. :)

      To explain and defend a theory—even if successfully—is not to justify it.

      >3) They argue that ‘liberty’ is a synonym for ‘private property rights’.

      Do you have a quotation? In any case, it cannot be a synonym for all ‘private property rights’ but only for certain kinds. Namely, those that tacitly observe what libertarians mean by liberty.

      > I”m not sure that needs further elaboration.

      It is the very heart of the thing that needs to be properly explained.

      >The problem is a question of the scope of those rights given that they rely on epistemic tests ALONE.

      You have not cited any epistemic test.

      > Again, this is a problem of scope, not method. (I hope this is coming across because it’s meaningful for how you approach your core thesis. .)

      This is a problem of confusion on your part.

      > Non aggression is indeed insufficient, because it is an epistemic test of whether a transfer is volitional or not. The same applies for externalized costs.

      More confusion.

      >4) Moreover, both your method and their method are partial solutions because they do not address how morality is constructed in general, and how either your epistemic criteria, or their epistemic criteria can possibly be adopted by others who may intuit morality differently. Absent this argument as to the necessary or preferential definition of ethical action supported by empirical evidence, one theory is only better than another because it appears to have greater explanatory power. Implicit in your argument is that people object to forced costs. But you don’t run with that and go into why (or at least I couldn’t find it in the book). And it isn’t backed by data (despite the fact that this data exists today – and would counter some of your arguments in favor of liberty if you used them. I know. I use them. :) I am also not clear why you think anyone would want to adopt libertarianism vs any other political and personal philosophy. I mean, I don’t see how you’re just justificationist who hides it better. :). (tongue in cheek)

      Confusion cubed.

      >5) Why libertarians (or anyone else) can’t argue their positions:

      >The Definitions Of Libertarianism
      http://www.propertarianism.com/2012/09/28/a-definition-of-libertarianism-draft-two-from-intuitive-sentiment-to-institutional-framework/

      >Why Libertarians Cant Articulate Libertarianism
      http://www.propertarianism.com/2013/03/09/answered-why-cant-many-libertarians-articulate-libertarianism/

      >The Descriptive Definition of Property
      http://www.propertarianism.com/2013/01/15/the-complete-definition-of-property-excerpt-from-propertarianism/

      >The Sea Change In Libertarianism
      http://www.propertarianism.com/2012/07/21/an-example-of-the-sea-change-in-libertarianism/

      I shall follow those links, but possibly not comment.

      >I don’t assume i’m right here in understanding you in two days. So please correct me where I err. I don’t mean to sound antagonistic either. It’s a byproduct of the analytical argument rather than the appeal. I’m actually kind of thrilled that I’ve found someone else who has gotten so close, and just a little annoyed that I haven’t been introduced to your work earlier that the day before yesterday. :)

      Please be as analytically antagonistic as you can. I hope I have not replied too brusquely.

      >Heard about you and our book E.L. from someone in the L.ibertarianAlliance. yahoo forum, who posted on FB.. You’ve come closer than anyone else to extending existing libertarian thought, but you’re still trying to make arguments by rational rather than empirical means.

      Philosophers do have that tendency.

      >Demonstrated preferences are what they are. They don’t need justification. We’re swimming in data.

      The empiricist delusion of the philosophical innocent.

      > (I use the term, borrowed from law, of ‘involuntary transfer’, which is a little more precise I think. However the general idea is the same.)

      “More precise” than what?

      >Be fun to work with you on a paper sometime.

      My philosophical pedantry might try your empirical patience beyond its ultimate tensile strength.

      Best wishes,

      Jan