May 11, 2017

Why don’t I have a right to coerce you?

The path to nothingness

Mr. Neff is senior editor of The Last Ditch.


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"So in a libertarian system, what happens to my right to make people do what I think is best?"

I know. It makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

But I actually do hear this every now and then — even with the beginning "so" — or something like it, and I'd like to fire off the short answer, "That would be a self-contradiction." The trouble is, people who ask that kind of question sometimes say, "Why?" Some of them are not even asking in bad faith.

I'm not going to be arguing for the existence of rights or even for a definition of them in this short piece. There are all sorts of people who claim to have arrived at what I think of as the freedom philosophy without resorting to the concept of rights. I remember a conversation I had with Fr. James Sadowsky, SJ (vichnaya pamyat') in which he claimed that he could derive free-market anarchism from any set of premises except one: that the use of force is an end in itself.

I have to suspect that some of the people who ask my opening question are merely being what they think is clever. They imagine they have trapped me in a contradiction of my own making. They think they have composed a kind of "Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it?" kind of question. ("No," I can hear my old friend James Kiefer [also vichnaya pamyat'] replying. "He's omniscient. He knows where such rocks belong, and he prefers to leave them right where he originally put them.")

But what passes for education these unhappy days is such that even an honest fellow may have trouble thinking things through. Certainly, whatever is taught in schools these days, it is not logic. What passes for logic and counter-argument anymore often takes the form, "Eff you." It's very hard to learn to think through matters of any sort when such answers are in the air and all around you. And it's just possible that there are a few minds that really do ask "Why" in good faith.

When I was in college, we Randians would sometimes gather and discuss aspects of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and I was often troubled by the fact that for most of us, the only reason we could come up with for eschewing coercion is that it would be inconsistent with our self-esteem. That answer, of course, prompted its own "Why?" question. It pushed the issue back another step. If there is nothing wrong with using coercion, why would using it injure a person's self-esteem? And if there is something wrong with it such that it would injure a person's self-esteem to resort to it, what is it?

Others suggested that to resort to coercion is to admit that one's arguments are weak. While I would not disagree with that, I myself think it is sensible — when one's arguments are weak — to admit, or at least to recognize, that they are weak. So if they are weak, why not resort to coercion?

No, it is perfectly clear, is it not, that these replies beg the question ...

But wait. Allow me here a digression to express my growing impatience with people, especially with media personalities, who think that "beg the question" means "suggest the question." It does not. It means, "presuppose the answer." If you doubt me, look it up in a dictionary published before 1961. Or study rhetoric. Yes, yes, if you put "beg the question" as a search term in Google, the definition that comes up is not the one I am insisting on. In fact, it is the wrong one. Don't bother me with Google's ignorance. Even Wikipedia manages to get this matter right.

Now where was I? Oh, yes ... that these arguments beg the question under discussion, to wit, What is wrong with coercion?

I know that most people are simply not interested in logic anymore. You can prove anything using logic, right? All you need is an inattentive audience and a premise that doesn't make sense, and Bob's your uncle. No, what people need for motivation is something with feeling. Something with guts in it. Something to make people sit up and pay attention.

"It's a sin!"

Well, that got your attention. But I'm pretty sure it didn't answer anyone's "Why" question at all. The simple, startling fact about people — even people who disparage logic — is that every now and then, they do in fact — and in good faith — ask "Why?" And when they ask "Why" they want an answer that makes sense. They want an answer that settles things. In particular, they want an answer that settles the mind. That is why "Because I said so," is an answer to give only to children. But even children sense that it is not a real answer. They recognize that, somehow, when they ask why they are supposed to do something, they want something, and "Because I said so" does not give it to them. They don't want a motive to do what they are told; whether they understand it or not, what they want is an explanation for being told what they are told.

The only device I have ever found that settles my mind when I ask "Why" is an answer that is logical. Once you have a truly logical answer, the mind may continue to race around, saying, "But wait." It may even say, "But how about ..." And the truly logical answer simply sits there and waits for the penny to drop in your intellect, so that eventually you take in a quick breath and say, "Ohhh." For some pennies, it can, admittedly, be a long trip.

"Twice-two-makes-four is a farcical dressed-up fellow who stands in your path with arms akimbo and spits in your eye." Thus Dostoevsky's Underground Man. He may make fun of farcical dressed-up fellows all he likes, but the logical Twice-two-makes-four is still standing in the way, and he'll spit in your eye if you try to push him out of the way.

Let us understand just how interesting the "Why" question is. All other questions can be answered with a statement of fact. Who is he? Jones. Where is he? In Churubusco, Indiana. How did he get there? In a car. When did he go there? The other day. What is his religion? He is a Novatianist who believes in the irremissibility of postbaptismal sin. Any of those answers is subject to further questions, but note: At any time, the essential round of questioning can come to an end with a simple statement of fact:

Where is Jones? In Churubusco, Indiana. Where is that? In Whitley County. Where is that? In the northeast part of the state. Eventually, the question comes to an end with a statement of fact. It may be possible to ask other questions about Churubusco (you surely have many), but eventually the process can stop with a simple statement of fact, and the questioner will be satisfied. The only thing "where" questions and others like them demand is a statement of fact; a simple statement of fact answers the question.

It is not so with the "Why" question. Why did Jones go to Churubusco? To visit his aunt. Why did he visit her? Because he hadn't seen her for a while. Why hadn't he seen her for a while? Because ... And so on and on. The simple statement of fact "To visit his aunt" seems to be sufficient for most purposes, but if we examine it, it really does not do the job. In the back of everyone's head — Jones's when he thinks about going to Churubusco, yours when you asked why he went there even after you had learned his aunt lived there — is something else. It may not be made explicit, but "To visit his aunt" simply does not make sense unless that thing in the back of his head and yours is present doing its explanatory work. "To visit his aunt" does not work as an answer to the "Why" question by itself; it needs the help of something else.

And we may call that thing, that "something else" a "middle term." It stands between the particular fact that Jones is going to Churubusco, and the particular fact that his aunt lives there. And that "middle term" may be simple or very complex, but one feature of it is that it is general. It is not particular. When a person wants to visit his aunt in Churubusco, and he is not there, there is something general that will send him there. We could try, "Because he likes visiting his aunt," but that is insufficient. What we need is something like, "When a person likes his aunt, and she lives in Churubusco, and he wants to see her, then he goes there." And it does not matter whether the person is Jones, Smith, or Ringlespaugh. It is a general statement, maybe even a rule, even a principle that will offer the explanation; and in ethical questions, we call this explanation a justification.

What, therefore — we must ask our friend who wants to know why he may not force people to do what he thinks is best for them — makes it right for him to do that? Between his desire and his action, what middle term, what principle will justify his doing it?

And sooner or later he will have to give us a general rule, something along the lines of "Because it is right to make people do what is best for them." It seems to be a perfectly formed rule, I suppose, as rules go. At least it is not a particular. Rather, it is general; it applies to everyone. Not just to our friend who first asked for an explanation. And we all, then, are justified in making people do what is best for them. Every one of us. Including those of us who think what is best for our friend is to leave us alone. And now we have the contradiction I had in mind at first.

We cannot have a world in which it is right for you to coerce me and right for me to coerce you. It is not just that it takes on the appearance of a sort of "After you, Alphonse; no, you first, Gaston" world of coercion. No. Such a world is impossible. Not just inconvenient, but impossible. The principle to which our friend appealed to justify his actions applies equally to me, and to everyone else. It is as if he has invented a machine that does nothing except turn itself off.

In this case, of course, the contradiction is not such that he cannot use coercion. Rather it is such that the coercion cannot be justified. Whatever justifies its use also justifies its opposition. A middle term will not give its justification to contradictory actions, and it will blow itself up. Like a shotgun with its barrels stuffed with concrete.

Except that in logic, there is no blowing up, because there is no time. The proposition that yields a contradiction just never gets a chance to try itself out to see what will happen. Similarly, the middle terms in a logical argument do not act in time. They simply are. The legs of a right triangle do not have to calculate how long the hypotenuse will be; they do not have to apply Pythagoras's theorem. They and their hypotenuse are co-existent.

And if we calculate wrong, the triangle will not pop into existence and say to itself, "Oh, dear, this hypotenuse can't be right," and then pop out of existence. It never exists at all.

Middle terms, if they cannot function, if they produce contradictions, simply are not.

It is in this sense that evil — which has no moral justification — is an aspect (if we may so speak) of nothingness, and has only the strength that reality in the form of goodness gives to it. But since evil is a category of action, and action takes place in time, the nothingness of which it is an aspect must be nothingness in action, which is to say, destruction.

So while it is impossible for anyone to justify using coercion to do what he thinks is best for another, it is not impossible for him to use coercion, and in using it, to injure society by introducing an element of contradiction in the form of warfare into it. Each use chips a little bit from the very nature of society, destroying it bit by bit; and so pushes society a little closer to nothingness. Ω

May 11, 2017

© 2017 Ronald N. Neff
Published in 2017 by WTM Enterprises.

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