What are the ethics of Piracy?

Is it ethically wrong to pirate games? I refute 4 common arguments for this.

The Jolly Roger of Barbossa's Crew, which was ...

So, the moderators of /r/gaming in reddit have decided to make a grandstand against Piracy and as these things go, a big discussion spawned up around this announcement. I jumped in as well, and that turned out into a long thread about the ethics of pirating games. So I decided to expand and clarify my opinion on that point.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’re most likely already familiar with my general opinion on piracy (Long story short: I’m strongly supportive of it.). It is for this reason that I cannot stand silent when the usual moralizing against pirates crops up (with alarming frequency) on reddit.

There are a few common arguments for the moral condemnation of digital piracy which I’ll attempt to refute in this post.

Nobody deserves to experience a game or other intellectual property against its creator’s wishes.

The argument here relies on the concept that whoever creates a game gets to choose who is allowed to experience it arbitrarily. At the most basic level, it tries to shoehorn an intangible or infinite good, such as an idea or a specific expression of an idea, into the natural limitations of a tangible or finite good, such as, say, furniture.

This principle – that the creator decides who gets to use it – comes as almost a law of nature for tangible goods because it is built-in the concept of trade required before any use by another person can happen. In other words, before I can experience sitting in a chair, I have to acquire it from the chair’s creator which implies an agreement. The same is true for services rendered, which might be intangible as well, but are still tied to a finite good which is time spent by the one performing the service. So if I want to experience someone playing music to me, I need to have an agreement from them doing so.

The only reason why an exchange is happening in most of these situations, is because this is the norm for distribution we use in our current economic system and because the experiencing of these goods or services is a zero-sum. This means that if two people want to use the same goods or services, an exchange needs to happen to keep things fair and civil, or another socioeconomic system needs to be in effect, where sharing and communal ownership is an accepted scenario. For bad or for worse, the latter option is dismissed and outright, and thus by necessity market exchange become the only good scenario. To put it simply: If you want to acquire a good or service, the only moral option is to compensate its current owner (usually the creator) for it.

Given that for most people, this is the only moral way to acquire goods, it is not difficult to see why it’s immediately juxtaposed on something which does not need it: intangible and infinite goods.

In other words, the above moral condemnation relies in internalized moral values coming from an upbringing within a market system such as Capitalism where all other options for distribution are marginalized, dismissed and demonized. When market agreement for the acquisition of goods and services is all you know as morally acceptable, it is not hard to see why the acquisition of “digital goods” will be considered as immoral is such a market agreement did not occur beforehand.

It is because of this that for many people, even those who pirate themselves, it feels wrong to see people acquiring games without paying for them in some way. It is this feeling of moral condemnation, from which I believe most people start  and proceed to claim that it’s wrong for someone to experience (“acquire” ) digital goods without the agreement of its owner. But this moral sentiment has no basis because the same laws of distribution do no apply. There is no zero-sum game between current owner and anyone else. If anything, the concept of ownership itself loses its meaning when talking about intangible goods and we start talking about replication of goods, rather than exchange.

It is for these reasons that I cannot simply accept the above ethical proposition, which relies on nothing else than societal conditioning. However, most of the time, if you ask the person proposing the above “why”,  then a different justification may be presented.

Game developers expend tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to create games. They deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and costs.

While I agree that someone who creates something very popular should be rewarded accordingly by society, the argument that someone doing something costly (in time or money) deserves to be compensated does not convince. I could bake very expensive mud pies but it would still not entitle me to money for them. If you’re going to support a market system, the whole point is to give people a reason to buy your product or hire your services. One cannot support a market system in one hand, and on the other claim that someone is entitled to reward for effort and cost extended

The main problem here is not that people are pirating games, but rather that the companies making them are still confused about what they are really selling. Copyright law allows someone to pretend that an infinite good is finite, by artificially limiting its supply. It is for this reason that game companies still create games with the misguided assumption that they are creating commodities, rather than services. This is a flawed business model which is built on top of a very flawed institution: Copyrights.

But copyright is realistically ((Theoretically it’s a law created to promote progress and the arts, but multiple studies and the actual number of modern creative works prove that it is not only unnecessary for this purpose, but actively harmful)) a law created and enforced specifically to support a specific business model: That of selling books in a technological level where printing books is not affordable for the everyday consumer.

So now we have multibillion dollar industries, built around a business model, relying on a law for a different technological era, applied on things it’s not meant to apply to (digital goods). There is no valid reason why any informed consumer should respect such a business model – and this is why the latest generations simply don’t.

A developer of an expensive game, absolutely deserves to be rewarded if their game is popular, but they do not deserve to rely on an obsolete business model, just so that they can achieve hyper-profits; because that’s what it boils down to. Business models relying on artificial state-granted monopolies such as copyrights are by design far more profitable than business models made with the digital age in mind. And there’s no doubt about it that the latter can be profitable as well. Any look at the MMORPG industry as well as the indie game industry will show that the latest trends are for free-to-play games which monetize their audience through other methods.

These may still be relying on copyrights to a larger or smaller extent, but those proto-business models are still evolving and it’s very likely that forms will be found through which one will be able to monetize even free software games.

If a developer wants to give their game away for free, more power to them, but if they want to sell it at 59.99$ a pop, we have to respect that.

This is a variation of the very first argument and relies on the same assumption: That the owner (usually the creator) gets to decide arbitrarily if and how we are to experience their product. I’ve already explained why this is an emotional argument and why it does not apply to infinite and intangible goods so I will not repeat myself.

I will however point the borderline schizophrenic way that this is applied to games (and attempted to be applied to other digital goods as well) where they want games to both be considered individual products, for the purpose of selling them to you as a package and at the same time want them to be considered services as well, for which you need to acquire a revocable license which you are not allowed to transfer to others.

In other words, the developers want to have their cake and eat it too. They pretend that the best part of tangible and finite goods (for their bottom line) apply, while requesting laws and moralizing against that the best parts of the same types of goods, so that the consumer cannot use them.

It is disappointing that opponents of piracy will gladly grant the creators of content the freedom to pretend whatever they wish, simply because they accept the above maxim. That the creator/owner gets to decide how you experience their goods.

But I see no reason why the creator/owner gets to decide which laws of nature apply.

If everyone got those games that costed millions to create for free, then the companies making them would stop.

I’ve dealt with this argument extensively in my analysis of the Economics of Piracy so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say that this is a very flawed understanding of how content creation works within a supply & demand market economy. In short: if there is a demand, someone will find a way to make money fulfilling it.  If the previous business models fail to achieve this, then new business models will evolve to perform this task.

Consider this: 8 years ago, it was unthinkable that an MMO could function without monthly subscriptions. And yet, slowly and as the audience increased, MMOs have discovered that monthly subscriptions are less important than a large user base, and have slowly progressed towards a free-2-play model in order to attract more initial customers. The business plan has changed and now the demand is satisfied for high quality MMOs, while still allowing the companies behind them to make money.

Or take Team Fortress 2: In a day where most AAA games come out at full price with frequent and expensive DLC; TF2 has increased its profits tenfold by going completely free and providing all its (frequent) updates for free as well.

And these are only the beginning. It is completely false to say that if people could get the games for free, such games would not be made. What is true to say, is that the companies which refuse to change their business model to fit with the times and the advances in technology, will go down with them.

But it is not moral to respect the wishes of a company who wants to sustain itself on obsolete plans.

Responding to Stefan Molyneux: "Theft of time", NAP, and common sense

Is “theft of time” an appropriate defense of private property? Is Capitalism an intuitive and natural system for societies?

So, apparently one of my articles has drawn the attention of Stefan Molyneux of the Freedomain radio, I’m guessing after it was crossposted and discussed in this forum thread. You might remember Stefan from the time I tried to call his online station after he asked for input from Anarcho-Communists and I wasn’t particularly impressed back then. This time Stefan made a video responding to my criticism of the Non-Aggression principle which I felt compelled to respond to.


After a few introductory words which addressed minor things (Note:  saying that something is “not half bad” is a figure of speech. Not to be taken literally), Stefan presented his first argument basically arguing that “You cannot say that the initiation of force is virtuous. Thus Non-Aggression is virtuous”.

My contention is not whether the initiation of force is virtuous. The contention is on what exactly constitutes intiation of force, or more explicitly – violence or threat of violence. Yes, of course aggression is not virtuous, but this does not mean that the Non-Aggression Principle becomes suddenly useful as a moral guideline. Yes, aggression is bad and not aggressing is good. Murder is also bad. Not murdering is also good. But we do not create a basis for our entire ethical system out of “Thou shalt not murder”. Not only does one need to first define “murder”, but it is just far too limited a guideline to base one’s entire sociopolitical system on.

The reductio ad absurdum that Stefan attempts, might prove that you cannot have Aggression as a moral guideline, but it does not logically follow from that, that Non-Aggression is a useful moral guideline instead.

Further to that, Stefan makes a huge logical leap: From arguing that Aggression cannot be a virtue, to concluding that “Property Rights are the only thing that can work”. This is not at all evident from the arguments put forth and is blatantly begging the question.

Stefan then goes on a tangent, explaining how Self Ownership leads to property rights. I understand that this is what right-libertarians tend to accept, but it is largely irrelevant to the subject at hand, especially given that I reject “Self Onwership” as an internally contradictory concept. Nevertheless, the reason this is brought up, is to show that one is responsible for one’s actions, and therefore that “theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”.

This is the main thrust of the argument here I believe, but “Self-Ownership” was not required to make this point, so I’m unsure why it was brought up. Nevertheless, I’ll take the time to address this argument from “theft of time”.

The idea presented is as such: When someone puts forth labour to create something, and someone comes around and takes that thing away, then that person can be assumed to have stolen all the time required for creator to make it, which is similar to slavery.

This argument looks solid at first glance, but unfortunately, when one challenges the premises behind it, it shows that it is on very shaky ground based on assumptions of specific property rights.

The most basic counter-argument I would make against this concept of “theft of time” is: Who says that whatever you put labour into creating, belongs to you automatically? Ownership is a split gradient ((By which I mean that the various types of ownership differ by a degree, but there is a hard split in the middle, between possessive ownership and “sticky” ownership” systems because those two are incompatible)) which can take many forms based around social agreement on what constitutes a valid claim or disposal. It is not a universal law. What happens here, is that the type of ownership that Stefan prefers, is assumed into the argument. But as soon as one challenges the premise of what you can own and how you come about owning it, things become much less solid.

Do you own something you created out of the commons? Stefan would say yes, I would say yes as well, with stipulations. My stipulations of course being that you only own whatever you created as long as you keep using it. As long as you do not, it goes back into the commons for anyone else to use. Stefan would have no such stipulation however. Whatever you create, no matter if it came from the commons or not, belong to you forever.

So if Stefan makes something out of the commons and doesn’t use it anymore, and I come and use it in the meantime, for Stefan that amounts to slavery for I have “stolen his time”. Were that to be enforced however, Stefan would have in effect enclosed the commons. An immediate split forms on what is ethical in this case. I do not recognise Stefan’s right to enclose the commons and he does not recognise my right to steal his time. Who is rights is an argument for another day, but suffice to say that “theft of time” only works if you look at it from a propertarian perspective, which is not something everyone will or should do.

Furthermore, Stefan’s argument ends up with some telling conclusions when in mind of his larger worldview as well. The larger worldview of course being Capitalism which is naturally permeated by wage slavery. In this world, taking someone’s labour is just fine as long as it’s voluntary. A wage slave toils all week but does not get to own the product of his labour at all. Rather, they end up with a price for the creation that is lower than the market value of such a creation. In Stefan’s worldview this is a clear “theft of time”, but it’s OK because as it’s voluntary. That is, as long as the wage slave agreed to be one. This naturally leads us to the conclusion that Slavery is OK as long as it’s voluntary.

I’m sure the argument will be put forth that working for a wage is nothing like being a slave so this is not an apt comparison, to which I will counter that in a similar vein, “theft of time” is nothing like slavery either. You can’t have it both ways and I won’t even bother to argue on whether voluntary slavery is AOK either.

Finally, I’ll just make the most obvious counter to this argument. Stefan says verbatim:  “The reason that theft is theft, is because you’re stealing someone’s time”. But this is just a tautology and doesn’t really tells us anything. Theft is theft because you’re stealing? Yes, of course. Perhaps he meant to say that “Theft is wrong because you’re stealing someone’s time” which only makes marginally more sense as it ends up telling us that “theft is wrong because it’s theft”. Circular reasoning.

The argument only “works” at first glance, because Stefan is basing himself on intuitive assumptions and biases from the audience, which is expected to already believe that theft is bad within a specific framework of ownership rights. As soon as those premises are missing, as soon as the audience does not share Stefan’s conclusions, this conclusion becomes baseless. Theft of time is wrong *why* exactly? This needs to be argued, not simply asserted. And it is in the process of arguing “Why is Theft of Time bad?”, where all the nuances and exceptions and outright mistakes will be pointed out and addressed.

After this brief overview of the “theft of time” argument, Stefan concludes that it’s not arbitrary to not-aggress, or respect private property. This, again, does not follow. Those two are still subjective.  The non-aggression principle remains a moral guideline, all of which are subjective (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but as I explained before it is comparatively useless on its own. The stateless propertarian framework is normative as well as it’s put forth as a superior socioeconomic organization (And there’s nothing wrong with that either). It is not a science like physics as Stefan likes to imagine. Defining “aggression” within the stateless propertarian framework, which not everyone accepts, is what is arbitrary and that is wrong.

Next Stefan addresses the difficulty of figuring out what constitutes initiation of force within a propertarian framework, admitting that shooting trespassers is not acceptable and so on. However he misses my point. He ends up discussing how “degree” (degree of what? violence?) is not as important as morality. I.e. it’s not as important to figure out how to deal with something bad, as it is in defining that something is bad in the first place. And I agree with that. Societies of the future will find their own ways to deal with aggressors. But the reason I pointed out the impossibility of intuitively defending against violation of private property rights is to point out that given differing expectations of ownership, the non-aggression principle coupled with private property ends up excusing actual violence against non-violent people. The degree is not important either. The fact is that if I start working on land you are not using, you will have to aggress against me (likely with literal violence) in order to stop me.

To give you a contrast within a possessive ownership framework, If you started using land I am already using for myself, you can have either of two purposes: Co-operate or Violate. If you co-operate with me, then we can share the fruits of our labour, thus benefiting us both. If you violate my work, then you are being visibly destructive and threatening to my livelihood. You are aggressing against me and thus literal violence is then justified to stop such destruction.

The point thus, is that the “Non-Aggression principle” does not help us understand or resolve the former case in the slightest. The point is that both parties can have differing understanding of what constitutes “aggression”. The problem is in declaring that it’s the owner of the private property that decides what is aggression.

Finally Stefan makes the argument that all these issues on attempting to see how the NAP can be useful in the real world, are inconsequential because people work these things out intuitively and organically. And here’s the funny part, I absolutely agree. The difference is that Stefan assumes that people would work out things in such a way as to allow private property to flourish, and this is not just untrue, it’s ahistoric. The example of “tailgate parties” that he brings up is a perfect example of this. I doubt in any of those parties you see people taking up more space than they can personally use. If anything, the temporary ownership setup in those parties is possessive, i.e. claims based on occupancy and use.

It is precisely because societies naturally organize themselves according to possessive and communal ownership, that capitalism requires a state to support it. Because private property is not common sense and it is not an acceptable arrangement by the dispossessed. A society “working these things out naturally” and ending up with some people owning vast tracts of land and factories, while others own just the clothes on their back and live day to day on subsistence is unrealistic in the extreme. The people on the lower scale would absolutely take the first opportunity to use the unused land, reclaim and re-institute the commons and expropriate their productive means. Or do you think that someone working on subsistence on a mega-farm is going to “work it out” with the landowner who owns it? No, the farmers would expropriate the land the first chance they got, while the landowner would declare aggression and bring in their private state defence company to restore order.

To think that such arrangements will be upheld naturally is wishful thinking. There has never been a single society or community where anything remotely like this wasn’t upheld by force. Not one.

So yes. Aggression is likely to be absent from a free society, but not because people morally adhere to a stale moral guidelines such as the NAP, but rather because people absent oppression tend to work out things via possessive rights, making “aggression” primarily about violence, which is dealt with intuitively.

And if people can work things out intuitively even in a propertarian framework, it seems to me the NAP remains unnecessary. It seems to me, that the only purpose of the NAP is to give an ideological excuse to private defence companies to…”reform” individuals who somehow just can’t seem to work out Capitalism naturally with the capitalists and landowners . Those silly people.

How can we design a fulfilling moral system for a video game?

RPGs are the perfect art medium to explore moral issues. Here are some of my thoughts on how we can move towards this.

I recently started replaying Fallout 3 but this time with the addition of a few truly excellent modifications. I won’t got much into this other than to say that Fallout 3 seems to be 100% better when modded but the main thing that  struck me as I was going through the quests is how unfulfilling the moral choices and the relevant moral system is.  It’s nothing more than a Good/Evil scale which seems to telepathically travel around the world making everyone have similar reaction to your character.

I can’t help but be disappointed by it, especially for a game which for some reason has been praised for its wealth of moral options. I guess this is to a large extent due to its open nature and the number of side-quests to take which generally devolves to helping some person for free, helping some person for a reward, or killing them and taking their stuff. Much of this is caused of course by the limitations imposed by full voice acting but that doesn’t change the fact that one feels severely restricted.

Fallout does better than most still, you often have a choice on how to help them and so on, but then the arbitrary karma rewards/punishments come around and travel telepathically around the world which really takes away from the immersion. Fortunately I have a mod which can hide the Karma messages but I can’t escape their effects which makes it very weird when a village I’ve saved from certain doom starts being hostile to me because I murdered a tribe of cannibals and took their stuff, on the other side of the world.

The only way I’ve figured I can immerse myself in such a game is to decide before hand what my alignment will be in terms of a few ambiguous moral rules and stick to them, come what may. For example in the current iteration for example, I’m trying to play a “the needs of the many overweight the rights of the few” kind of character, who is also extremely xenophobic in terms of “weirdos” (i.e. all that are not “proper” humans) and see where that gets me. This leads me to be very nice and fuzzy to humans but extremely callous and downright evil to everyone else. Karma can’t represent this in any meaningful way and thus I end up stuck in the middle as “neutral citizen”, while my relations to most people, human or not, are generally cold. This only is interesting because I keep the experiences of my character in my own imagination as the game does not provide me with any real effect from my actions and even then, the game insists on making things difficult.

For example, in the scenario with the Cannibals Raiders above, I managed to let me talk to their leader at some point but there was no possible combination of dialogue to make them hostile to me once they became friendly. Sure, I could choose between 3 different options to resolve the quest I was in peacefully (all pretty much similar), but none of them fit the personality I’d chosen for my character: The fact that I do not deal with freaks and especially cannibals. There wasn’t even a dialogue choice I could choose to tell them that I was about to wipe them from the face of the earth. I could only proceed to an unprovoked attack which more so ended up triggering a game bug making me fail my quest if I didn’t do it right.

So I started thinking how this could possibly be improved in some significant way so as to capture the more complex effects of my morality. I had a few ideas but then I found this video online and I noticed that it had expressed a part of my thoughts very concisely.

So obviously the concept of factions would go a long way to make the moral system more realistic. Just imagine if one faction asked you to perform a quest which went against the interests of another faction who, when you ended up causing them enough trouble, would mark you as KOS or something. Or if one faction improved their impression of you after word that you wiped out their enemies spread around. Fallout 2 in fact had this, where the reputation system kept track of how each settlement viewed you but in this third iteration, they decided to dumb down the game to the simple good/evil dichotomy.

But further than factions, I’m thinking that games are truly the artistic means where it’s the best way to explore moral issues. Books and movies can only give you a perspective but it’s limited by the ideas of the author and how much one can identify with the characters. However RPGs are made for identifying with the main characters and the freedom to explore paths we wouldn’t normally experience or choose allows for some really interesting thoughts.

Imagine for example, if instead of one Good vs Evil scale, we had more than one, not necessarily as a graph like the video above suggest, but rather as separate counters which moved to either side depending on your actions in the world. Lets imagine for example a gender equality scale where a new character starts in the middle. Depending on the character’s interaction with males or females of the world (i.e. you should get on occasion phrases which allowed you to marginalize particular genders, such as dismissing the opinion of a female or something) this counter would move in either direction.

Now lets say that you have started acting like a misogynist. Initially you would have a few dialogue options which would allow you to move your scale to ther misogynist side of the scale. As you started to move towards it, more and more of your dialogue options would involve being outright sexist, until for example, you wouldn’t be able to refer to females without calling them “chicks” or “bitches”, even to their face. Now obviously this should create friction in the interaction with the women of the world and even a lot of the males through their dialogue, making for example feminist storekeepers have higher prices, women companions desert you and so on.  On the other hand, you could make it so that the player who reaches the far ends of misogyny be eligible for special perks (like the one which is already in the game giving extra damage vs females), special quests and so on. The fact that the initial steps one made into misogyny (i.e. the dialogue options one selected) might not be obvious and yet eventually the player discovers him/herself having progressed towards it might be an interesting result for people who have not even considered how their words and behaviour can be perceived. Not only does this make an interestnig role playing experience, but it might provide people with a new perspective.

Likewise, someone staying in the middle of the scale, at equality, could also be eligible for a perk and might get positive reactions from similarly minded people or factions or negative reactions from sexists.

Other similar scales could easily explore stuff such as racism (even if that is limited to the fantasy races of the game like Super Mutants and Ghouls) freedom of personal choice, mutual aid, respect for property, charity and so on. Therefore, you would not have good or evil characters but you could have a more detailed map of a personality which would be really tough to claim as simply good or evil.

For example. how would you label a person who is really strong in standing by and protecting his people but does not respect those who do not follow traditional values or are not human? How about the one who respects the individuality of everyone but sees all interactions with others through monetary exchanges? How about the one who believes that might makes right and that the more powerful deserve to rule but that one should always protect those who cannot protect themselves?

Most people would probably find a mix of good and bad aspects in each of these examples and the good about an RPG is that it allows you to Role Play such a character and see the world through their eyes. Sure, this is nonetheless limited by the developer’s creativity and possibly impossible to properly represent in the dialogue of a full-voice acted game but even so, you can still go at least halfway through a faction system plus specialised abilities and quests in case someone reaches an extreme moral value.

I hope we’ll see something like this in the future or even better, perhaps this is something that could be modded into the already existing games. Certainly when one can implement a scale for good and evil, one can also implement 3 scales for the moral values they’d like to explore in their game. One could even go for more, but as the video above mentioned, sometimes exploring only a particular moral value can be far deeper than a shallow good vs evil concept which cheapens the morality of the game rather than enrich it.

Why the Non-Aggression Principle is useless as a moral guideline

Can the Zero Aggression principle point out to the direct way to act? No it’s so vague as to be useless.

Liberty in need of a light
Image Unrelated by Henrique Vicente via Flickr

Right-Libertarians, “Anarcho”-Capitalists, and assorted propertarians very frequently cite the Non-Aggression principle or Zero Aggression principle (Commonly called NAP or ZAP) as a core tenet of their ideology. It is brought up as the building block of voluntaryism on which free markets can be built and proudly displayed to show how morally superior such a society would be compared to anything else which, by the absence of the NAP, is defined to have an involuntary aspect.

But what exactly is the NAP? The specific details might differ depending on the encompassing ideology, but the central point generally seems to be that no human should aggress over another human. This is meant to mean the initial use of coercive force as well as the threat of such.

Now, if left to this end, this is not a half-bad principle, basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others. However at this stage, it is also pretty much unnecessary to be given an explicit existence as a “principle” as the generic principle of freedom already encompasses this (i.e. attacking another person would violate their freedom). Other moral theories, particularly the utilitarian variants already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions. In the end, this basic form of non-aggression ends up sounding like a shallow “Thou shalt not kill” which, while pretty clear, when strictly adhered to can lead to worse results (such as foregoing killing in self-defence) or requires a more advanced moral framework above it which clarifies when it is, in fact, acceptable to kill.

But propertarians do not generally leave it at just that but rather try to sneakily expand it by linking it with private property rights. You see, the NAP is frequently derived directly from the Self-Ownership “axiom” and thus the wrongly derived property rights are treated as an extension of the self. Therefore one can then treat violation of private property rights as an act of “initated force”, even though no actual violence or threat of violence has been perpetuated. This is turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.

It thus becomes that the NAP, when combined with Self-Ownership conveniently becomes an excuse for someone to initiate real, literal violence against someone else. The right to freedom or utilitarian moral rules reserve the right for people to defend themselves against aggression, that is, to take only as much action as needed to stop the aggression against their person. This is pretty self-evident when achieved, both to the one being attacked and to any observers (i.e. it’s obvious when two people have stopped exchanging blows and threats). When extended to private property however, things get far far more complex.

While it’s easy to understand that someone “aggresses” when they steal something from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong), things get pretty murky when one goes beyond that. Do I “initiate force” when I use a productive machine without paying rent? How about if I pay only enough rent to cover the cost of the machine? Do I “initiate force” when I toil the unused land that is owned by someone else? How about when I trespass?

This is further complicated by the claims of the NAP proponents that the NAP does not excuse any and all acts of self-defence but is rather limited by the level of aggression. We’re informed that it does not in fact, grant the right of shooting trespassers. But this again does not really clarify the matter. Whereas in literal aggression, one is always aware of the level the initiator is using (threats, shoving, punching, lethal weapons etc) and can respond in kind, in this extended field of aggression you’re left to comparing apples with oranges. What is the correct response to someone trespassing your property? Trespassing on their property? Forcibly taking them out? Threatening to shoot them and then follow through if they don’t comply? The truth of the matter is that unlike literal aggression, you cannot discover how you can respond in kind intuitively.

Thus we see that unlike actual aggression where equal reaction can cancel the aggression (i.e. shoving can defend against shoving, punching can defend against punches etc), in “aggression” on property via the NAP, the self-defence enacted is and must always be different and stronger than the act of “aggression”. A trespasser cannot be removed by counter-trespassing. They must be forcibly removed and this is very likely to require (threats of) lethal force if they do not comply. This get even more complicated if that person does not accept the NAP and considers the literal acts of aggression against them as the initiation of force it is and defends in kind.

There is no solution to this issue. The NAP, as a moral rule is incapable of making any suggestions or providing any solutions as it does not say anything substantial other than the vacuous “Thou shalt not initiate violence”. Rather we are told that an extensive legal system will be required which will either interpret some kind of “natural law” or be somehow employ objective judges which make the perfect decisions. Something like the system of wealthy libertarian judges that Murray Rothbard proposed, which would follow some kind of “libertarian law”. In short, nothing more than a subjective legal system built around the principles that people like Rothbard prefer.

And all these issues occur before we even consider that extrapolating private property rights from the “axiom” of Self-Ownership is a non sequitur as it’s impossible to deride a particular set of ownership rights out of it (which is why you can see how much and how many libertarians disagree on what specific ownership rights to use). Due to this, a NAP that ideologically protects a particular set of ownership rights is nothing more than a subjective argument against the things a particular person does not like. That one does not like people trespassing on his property so he calls that “an initiation of force”. That other one does not consider trespassing to be such, but it’s certainly an “initiation of force” when workers don’t pay him rent for a factory’s costs he’s already recovered.

The NAP is shown to be pretty much a shallow principle. When limited to actual physical force, it’s superseded and made obsolete by moral systems which can explain when force is justified or not. When extended to concepts which are not immediately intuitive, its subjective nature quickly devolves it to shouting matches which can only be settled by a homogeneous system of courts and enforcement agencies. A de-facto state.

To me, when someone explains that according to the NAP, this or that is wrong, they mostly sound like “This or that is wrong, because I say so.”

The defenses of State and Religious law are surprisingly similar

Statists love to argue that without the government humans would descend into chaos. Much like theists claim that without God we’d all be beasts. Here’s why they’re wrong.

A detail from Benjamin West's The Death of Gen...
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While discussing with people who are pro-state and even wish to increase its scale there are a few arguments that are most often used to base this position, the most notorious of which is the Argument from Human Nature. The perspective from the statist is basically that humans needs to be controlled from themselves lest they return to a beast-like existence as well as considering the state the most important institution for the advancement of civilization.

It is no wonder that those most supportive of the most authoritarian of states, the absolute monarchy, were also those who initiated the concept of Hard Primitivism to counter the Romanticism of the “Noble Savage” which made libertarian concepts such as self-management and direct action seem natural and possible. In fact the “Noble Savage” is all to often raised as a handy strawman when the idea that humans are not naturally bastards is put forth.

In this, the statists have a lot in common with monotheists who consider that a higher power is necessary to decide the hard rules all of us should follow. It is all too often for atheists to hear that without a god deciding the absolute rules for all of us (as interpreted by the official clergy of course), humans would immediately turn to barbarism. Without absolute objective morals, humans -is argued- would never be able to have a civilization, and thus religion (and the church) is necessary.

The basic idea from these two perspectives is surprisingly similar so lets look at them each in turn.

Is humanity inherently flawed?

Whereas theists consider than humans are  inherently evil, coming from an original sin and can be made “civilized” only through strict religious authority and trust in a god’s rules, Statists consider that humans are inherently greedy, vicious and destructive and can be made “civilized” only through strict state authority and trust in the common law. The difference is that the former’s excuse lies in the supernatural, while the later in perceived scientific authority.

In short, the idea that fear of God or fear of the State is the only thing keeping society together and chaos & destruction at bay.

The counter to the former is fairly simple: We’ve observed that in fact humans do not turn to barbarism when religious moral are taken away, in fact many Atheists can be perceived to be “better” morally, even from the perspective of the theists and secular societies have a generally good correlation with civility.

The counter to the later is similar: Much like we don’t expect a Theist to become a rampaging beast when they discard their religion, so will a human not turn into a beast when the state authority drops away. In fact, we would consider anyone who does not become a murderer, rapists or thief only because of the fear of getting caught as having a very stumped moral system. We normally consider such a person a sociopath.

But this is in fact the argument that the statist brings forward. That we are a society of sociopaths, barely being held together by the heroic actions of those at the top, who somehow have managed to escape their personal sociopathy while also convincing all the other sociopaths to elect them.

I hope the absurdity of this proposition becomes obvious.

The truth is fortunately somehow different. While humans do have a capacity for both good and evil acts, they also have a tendency towards cooperation and mutual aid as well as having their moral code internalized rather than enforced externally. This is why when the state authority drops away, such as in national disasters like Katrina, we see humans managing to act civilized (even if they can get away not doing so) and helping each other, while those who assume the worst in humans, end up becoming what they fear.

Examples such as these are all too often in human societies, where those at the top, who consider themselves enlightened and surpassing their own “human nature” act the most brutally, while those whom they condemn end up proving them wrong in reality. One only needs to look at the communes in the Spanish Revolution, the Soviets of the Russian Revolution (before Lenin’s consolidation of power that is), the libertarian projects such as Christania or the Kibbutz. All practical, working examples that humans without the state can function just as well if not better.

Thus, much like a new atheist retaining most of their moral system once they lose their religion, so do people retain their moral system once they lose their rulers.

Is central leadership necessary for civilization?

This is another favourite argument from both camps and we’ll see, it is related to the previous one. Theists will argue that without their god’s code of laws, humans would never have been able to organize and achieve a civilization. Without religious scripture and leadership of the clergy/founding fathers/scribes/etc humans would have forever remained in a state of primitivism. In a similar vein, statists claim that without a state promoting science and reason, humans would have remained ignorant, superstitious and crude.

The religious argument is generally easy to counter by pointing out the existence of civilizations which existed along with religions other than their own. They may argue that no other civilization managed to reach the level we have no except Christianity of course, but one can point out that this happened <i>despite</i> Christianity and in fact we see the rise of secularism and atheism as the best correlation, not a particular religion.

The counter-argument from the statist claims is a bit more tricky. They will certainly point out that a state existed ever since we’ve had civilization but that is through a clever definitional trick: We define “civilization” generally from the point at which a state appeared.

Certainly, almost all cultures at some point achieved a state but that has obviously not been enough for the modern civilization and in fact, very often rolled any progress backwards. Rather, something else was necessary.

That was Rationalism. The Age of Enlightenment saw finally the time where humans started coming out of the dark ages and superstition and religious or arbitrary authority started being superseded by rationality and reasonable authority. And while the initial states and other assorted authority institutes were initially hostile to the concept, as it undermined their rule, rationality still increased as the environment of the time made it a competitive meme.

As this increased, we saw first the mellowing of authority and then the first steps towards reasonable authority as seen by the use of political democracy. Traditional customs were discarded and relationships of domination started getting criticized. As rationality increased feeding upon its achievements, so did human behaviour which was shaped by it, start becoming more civilized.

It is this that defines the rise of modern civilization, not the democratic state. That was a symptom of the need for reasonable authority. As such, the claim that the state was necessary is false. Humans would have progressed to a brighter future with or without a state, and in fact they were on the road of doing exactly that within their medieval cities which freed from the state authority, became bastions of progress. If anything, the state, initially feudal but later democratic as well, was the primary cause of the stalling of such progress, with it violently enforcing a system with a conflicting nature in regards to human progress: Capitalism

How? Well it’s a fact that Capitalism is not good at inventing new stuff. This is because of its necessity for short term profit, while research is a long-term goal. As such, the state is necessary to provide the funds for research and advancement, and it is exactly this fact that Statists will bring up as definite proof of the necessity of the state.

But this argument is flawed. The state is only required as long as a system which is inherently irrational in regards to progress needs to be pushed in the right direction. And then it can only do a half-job. But this argument is defeated once one poses the question “Why is Capitalism required?”. Can we not have a system which does not provide a disincentive for research? We can. And once this fact becomes clear, the necessity for the state collapses. Which is naturally why a statist will also maintain that Capitalism is absolutely necessary while moaning about the inability of the system to do what is needed for humans.

In the end, for libertarian socialists, this defense ends up looking more like schizophrenia, with the Statist on one hand trying to praise Capitalism for its ability to promote progress, while one the other trying to defend the state’s existence by lamenting on how bad Capitalism is for progress.

The Truth? Humans Can do Without Authority.

Fortunately, there is ample evidence to prove that humans are not the flawed beasts that theists and statists suggest in order to maintain the rule of their chosen leaders. While humans are of course not Noble Savages, they do have a natural tendency towards Mutual Aid and Co-operation, something which is both historically and empirically proven. We’re not talking about romanticizing the tribal structures, nor are we suggesting we return to such a living (another favourite strawman of the statists).

What we are suggesting is that since humans have the capacity for both “Good” and “Evil” it is the system around them which naturally selects which behaviour will come to the front. Obviously, a system like Capitalism which promotes Greed, Material Self-interest, viciousness, win-culture etc will require a state in order (among other reasons) to prevent this behaviour from unraveling the whole social order. Of course that wouldn’t happen anyway as without a state or other organized submission, humans would most likely follow their natural tendencies and discard capitalism as well.

But a system which promotes a behaviour based around co-operation and mutual aid, such as any system which has discarded private property, will not risk devolving into chaos and therefore a state would not be required to maintain order.

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Just because others do it doesn't make it right

A marketer (Naomi Dunford) engages in some apologetics for Marketing by using the classic Tu-Quoque fallacy. This post explains why she is horribly wrong.

A case of Tu quoque: "By Jove, what extra...
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I just saw a stunningly fallacious defence of marketing lies and I couldn’t avoid writing about it. Apparently, Naomi Dunford got so upset that someone complained about Marketers manipulating the truth that she decided to say something about it. The type of defence she followed is the type of thing mothers teach their little children not to use, the classic Tu-Quoque fallacy.

Basically Naomi is telling us that because everyone “manipulates the truth” to an extent, we have no reason to complain about Marketers doing the same or taking them to task when they do so. A Marketer is apparently justified in hiding the ugly truth of his products through deceptive tactics as long as they’re not outright lying (only because that’s against the law obviously) since everyone is doing this kind of Marketing anyway; Promoting the good and hiding the bad.

At the very start of the article, we are given some examples of this type of activity that many people engage in to show us that we’re all guilty in a sense. Well, first of all, there are many people who do not do any of these types of activities. By broadly painting everyone as a certain “sinner”, Naomi only comes out as insulting.

Secondly, and far more importantly, all of these activities are condemned to a degree, depending on the severity. If I continuously lie to my friends, blaming my wife for not going out when in truth I’m not in the mood, then sooner or later the time will come to pay the piper. Someone will figure it out, either my wife or my friends and I will get my just condemnation. This tells us that while some people may be manipulating the truth, it does not make it accepted.

What Naomi seems incapable of distinguishing is that there are many types of “truth manipulation”. There’s white lies, there’s lies and there’s damn lies (and then there’s Statistics.) Many of the types of examples she gave us would fall into the category of white lies or simple lies. The former, while are generally accepted by society due to them being utilitarian (lying in this case bring about more harm than good) can still be considered wrong by the target. The later, while they can be occasionally tolerated, certainly are frowned upon and one too many of them will strain a relationship. That is, all these acts that Naomi pointed in her Tu-Quoque, do not really prove that we are wrong to condemn her career’s tactics, but is rather a puny attempt to skirt the issue for those poor marketers.

But in truth, “manipulating the truth” in marketing is for most people a much greater evil than either white lies or lies. It falls in the ‘damn lies’ category and for a very good reason. There’s no recourse for the person who was mislead. You can always break a relationship with someone who always tries to come out good through lying, and this act by itself is punishment enough most of the time, especially if you inform other people that he knows. But for a consumer, once a product is bought and there was no “lying in advertisement”, there’s nothing they can do.

This kind of manipulation hurts people in a very practical sense and thus we have reason to discourage it. We do not appreciate your “Marketing” making us buy the wrong product just because you failed to mention something. If your product is good, then list all the good and bad together and let it stand on its own merits, not by manipulation.

So we have reason to discourage Marketing, but how do we do it? By the only way we can, words and private actions. We condemn the Marketers who engage in such behaviour and we boycott procucts and companies who insist on hiring their services. We do this in far more intensity then other lies because the weight of the harm that marketing does is greater as well. The purpose of all this is clear. We want this type of truth manipulation for profit to stop.

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In Defence of Greed

AmericanEvilI’m having a lively discussion over at Ebonmuse’s recent post “Why I am not a communist” where I’ve mostly been discussing with a member of the audience, Mrnaglfar.

At a point in our discussion, Mrnaglfar asserted that greed is not inherently bad after I explained that it is not possible to have a perfect society based on a vice (greed). Specifically, his comment was:

More to the point, where do you get off even calling greed a ‘vice’, as if greed was inherently morally wrong? It’s like calling a hammer wrong; greed is merely a tool that can be used for many things. In the proper context, greed can be good – it can inspire innovation, make people strive for lofty goals, and without greed, very little would have ever been accomplished. However, greed can also throw people in poverty and lead to acts of violence, among other things. To merely paint greed a wrong with one broad brush stroke is similar to denying human nature entails greed and that in a perfect society it would vanish, and that through merely teaching children we can somehow undo over a billion years of evolution.

In all honesty, this perplexed me as I’ve never seen someone defend greed before. I’ve heard people claim that greed was a human flaw that capitalism has been built to exploit so that the end result is better for everyone. I’ve seen people believe that greed is part of human nature, a necessary evil and unchangable. But never that greed is not a vice.

As the conversation progressed and more thought was poured into the subject, it became obvious to me that Mrnaglfar’s idea of what greed is is quite different from what anyone normally associates with the word:

A selfish or excessive desire for or pursuit of more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions” – from the Wiktrionary.

A telling example being how honour is explained as “greed for social status”. While Honour certainly entails a social status concept, there is nothing inherently greedy about it. People did not amass personal honour as an end in itself. Rather, if they did, then they had greed for honour or social standing, or to put more plainly, greed for glory and/or fame.

From the context, he seems to treat “greed” as a synonym for “desire” in order to base the idea that greed, by itself has a neutral moral value. However, greed entails aspects that go beyond the concept of simply desiring something. A Desire for money is not the same as Greed for money. A Desire for love, is not the same as greed for love. Indeed to treat greed like that in order to defend a concept is a form of equivocation.

As part of the converstation, there was a distinct defense of greed that I would like to tackle.

Greed as a tool

This was the initial argument that was raised in defence of greed. The concept being that since greed drives forward innovation, creativity and personal advancement under capitalism, it should be considered a tool and as such have a neutral moral value in the same sense that a knife can either be used for good (cutting food) or evil (killing people).

Initially I went with this definition although it did not sit well with me. Someting was amiss. I asserted that if greed is to be considered a tool then it is similar to a tool like a gun, whose main purpose is to do harm. However even this did not sound correct.

So I slept on it and with a fresh mind I think I can see what the problem is. Greed cannot be considered a tool at all.

A tool is something you manipulate in order to accomplish something. As an instrument it has no intrinsic value which is why you cannot label a weapon bad by default. However, even though the instrument has no moral value by itself, the action it is used to accompish does and that action takes its moral value not from the tool but by the desires.

And Greed is a desire.

You do not manipulate greed in order to accomplish something like you would a tool. Greed manipulares you (please save your “In Soviet Russia” jokes).
Say that I have greed for money. This is then my desire; to acquire money even though they are more than I need. My tool in this case is not greed as well but my brain and muscles. This is what I manipulate in order to acquire more money. The action that I decide upon on how to make more money can be labeled as good or bad depending on cumulative value of the desires and beliefs that manipulated me to do it.

Consider the following scenarios

A person robs a bank. The desires that led to this are:

  • He had more than enough money to live on but had a greed for more. – bad
  • The person has no avertion on intimidating and/or possibly killing innocent people. – very bad
  • He has no avertion to taking items that do not belong to him – very bad
  • He person was too lazy to find a legal way to acquire money. – bad

The cumulation of these three bad desires led to a bad action. You will also notice that the degree of how a desire or belief is bad varies. Thus a non-aversion to killing people is much worse than being lazy.

Now,if we are to take the same scenario with a twist on his desires:

  • He did not have enough money to live. He had a desire to survive. – marginally good
  • He did not have enough money to feed his family. He had a desire to help them. – good
  • Even though he has an avertion on intimidating and/or possibly killing innocent people, it is not enough to overcome his desperation – very bad
  • Even though he has he has an avertion to taking what does not belong to his, it is not enough to overcome his desperation – bad
  • The person is very hard working but for various circumstances cannot find a job. This leads to desperation – good (hard working)

Even though the person has more good desires than bad, his weak avertion to intimidation and killing is cumulatively worse than all the good desires together. Nevertheless, any court of law would recognise the circumstances and would give him a more lenient sentence compared to the previous example.

Next, lets try something different but more related to greed. Say a televangelist is misapropriating funds from his wealthy church in order to have a wealthy lifestyle

  • He has more than enough money to live. He is however greedy for wealth – bad
  • He has no avertion to lying to cover this up – very bad
  • He uses a very small part of his wealth to help the people who built up his wealth – marginally good
  • He has not avertion to lying about his church’s powers in order to get more money. – bad

Now this person is not doing anything illegal under the law, but any moral person would condemn his actions.

Finally, let’s look at an example where the action of a greedy person is good. This person is a used car’s salesman.

  • He is greedy for weath – bad
  • He has a small avertion to lying but it can be overcome by greed – bad.
  • He has a strong desire to avoid illegal activities – very good

Now this person, even though greedy and occasionally a liar, is still considered good (only marginally) as regards to his work. It is not because greed is neutral and does not count but rather because his good desires outweight his bad.

If we are to define greed as a neutral tool instead of a bad desire, then these calculation fail for we would have to define all desires as neutral tools. Lazyness is a tool (just not useful in capitalism as Mrnaglfar says), lying is a tool, intimidation is a tool etc. They can all possibly be used for good or bad purposes but if we are to make all desires and beliefs into neutral tools, how are we to judge an action as good or bad?

The answer is, we cannot. To do so would be to judge an action as good or bad on strictly subjective basis without any base. Even I do not promote such a way to judge.

So, Greed, like all desires, is not a tool. It has a moral value and that value is that greed is condemnable. One would thus be inclined to ask:

Why is greed wrong?

Circular reasoning

fisheye washing machineIn regards to capitalism, greed does not apear to be all that bad, but I would like to show how this is a form of circular reasoning. It goes as thus.

  • Greed is good because without it, capitalism would not work.
  • Capitalism is good because every human is greedy and capitalism is the only system that can make it to serve good purposes.

This kind of circular reasoning does not allow a window where greed could be potentially phased out with a better desire, say, a like a desire to help people for emotional gain. As long as as capitalism remains the dominant culture, greed must be maintained and indeed increased if possible. As long as greed remains a powerful desire in most people, capitalism will work until it hits its other inenvitable hurdles.

Under this logic it is impossible to change things and indeed greed takes a perverted good moral value only because it derives this value from the perceived good value of capitalism.

The morality of Greed

Circular reasoning aside, how do we decide the moral value greed? I believe we can extract the value of greed from the definition and results it produces by itself, when not tempered by any other value.

Lets take the definition of greed once more.

A selfish or excessive desire for or pursuit of more than is needed or deserved, especially of money, wealth, food, or other possessions

I’ve highlighted the parts which are relevant.

  1. A selfish desire: is the desire to hold yourself above others or have your own well being as your most powerful desire. This is not inherently bad but as far as desires go, it’s pretty low on the list (Objectivists begone!)
  2. An excessive desire: is bad by definition. Excess is never good.
  3. More than is needed: This denotes that this person, even though he has anything he might ever need from the subject of his greed, would still require more. This would in turn shift the supply and demand chain in a way that would create indirect suffering to other people.
    As an example, to borrow one from the Atheist Ethicist, is the desire to wash your dog every day when there is a shortage of water. You do not need to wash your dog every day, indeed, washing it less would aleviate the urging problems of other people with the small drawback of a little stink.
  4. More than is deserved: Once again, this is bad by definition. Someone who desires things he does not deserve is prone to performing actions that deny these items from people that do deserve them.
  5. Possesions: Indeed, it is true that greed mainly manifests itself for material goods. It does occasionaly appear as a greed for power or fame but it is the minority of cases and does not really work with capitalism that well (unless fame or power is gained through wealth).
    The problem with this is that excessive materialistic desires are prone to create a problem in a world where the resources are already severely limited.

But lets not jugde just by literal semantics. Greed can be shown to be wrong philosophically.

As mentioned above, greed is usually for material possesions. This goes contrary to the knowledge that the resources of this world are limited. A greedy person, would not care if what he takes (legally) would indirectly cause someone who needs it more to miss it. As long as he has it then his desire is quenched. This is easily shown if you look at the recent problems with gas. Even though poor countries are not necessarily the ones that are producing the food, the rising food prices all over the world because the food is being used as gas by rich countries is indirectly affecting them.

Secondly, greed feeds upon itself. When someone has a excessive desire to get more than what is needed, it means that when the current target is reached, the desire remains and a new target is acquired. It is not true that the person will stop acquiring the subject of his greed after the current objective is reached for this would not be greed anymore.

Thirdy, greed causes needless suffering to the humans who posses it. Someone who is driven by material greed will always crave for more material possesions, no matter how many he already has. This will never allow him to be at peace with himself.
Even if his greed is stopped by other desires, like an avertion to crime or an avertion to other’s suffering, his greed will not go away. It will stay within him, causing emotional pain for the things he desires but cannot have.


And thus we come to the end of my little article. I hope I’ve sufficiently proved, by definition and philosophy that greed is a vice for it is a desire with an inherent negative value. Claiming that greed is good because it can occasionally lead to good deeds it akin to saying that the end justifies the means.

One last thing I’d like to tackle is the “perfect society” comment. I, like many others, strive to better the world. There are various things that are ambiguous and difficult to label as bad or good but we try. When I mention a better world, I do not know what I mean. I have no solid idea if the perfect world would be communism, anarchism or a socialist capitalism or whatnot. However I do have a clear idea of what does not belong in a better world, indeed, what is contrary to the spirit of it. Vices.

And greed is one of them.

Truth as a tool for immoral purposes

The Barefum Bum today used the movie Fitna to discuss the issue of wether accurate information can be used for racist purposes and I have no reason to disagree. However during the course of our short discussion, the issue of whether Geert Wilders is a racist keeps coming up.

Initially, I assumed that this was some kind of subtle Ad hominem, in effect using Wilder’s presumed racism as a way to discredit the movie but the issue at heart, I believe, is more complex.

You see, if Wilders is a racist, he deserves all the condemnation he can get; however, what I see people are trying to accomplish is to argue that because Wilders is/might be a racist, the movie itself should be labeled racist as well and thus condemned. Call me slow, but this does not follow.

Lets say that, given Wilders background, he is indeed a racist. Lets also say that he probably has his own, deeper purposes for making this movie. Lastly, lets assume for now that the movie is factually correct and also that there are no racist insinuations within but rather just strong anti-Islamism (but without any propaganda.)

Do the first two points make the truth (in this case the Movie as I defined it) racist as well? I would argue not.

The truth is the truth. The truth can be a tool.
The fact that the untwisted truth might be used for the wrong purposed does not make the truth wrong in the same sense that because nuclear energy can be used as a weapon, nuclear energy is not wrong.

Someone might argue then, that there are many types of tools and some might be inherently wrong, like, say, a pistol which has no other purpose than to injure and kill humans.Setting aside for a moment whether a tool can ever be inherently wrong, my questions are thus:

  • Is it possible that the truth might be packaged in such a way so as to become a tool suitable only for immoral purposes?
  • Is the use of truth for immoral purposes (not the purposes themselves) condemnable?
  • At the end of the day, don’t all of us have some purposes for which we use the truth to argue for?

Moral Relativism (and why I do not embrace it)

This is a post that was actually triggered by a piece (The Necessity of Combating Relativism) I discovered on the 90th Carnival of the Godless and further prodded by a recent comment over at the Atheist Ethicist. This label is one which, for some reason, has been directed at me various occasions in the near past.

Apparently, I am a “Moral Relativist/Subjectivist”. As an explanation of this label I will quote what was, in turn, quoted at me in the past before I was banned.

Moral subjectivism is that species of moral relativism that relativizes moral value to the individual subject.
In ethics, this amounts to saying that all moralities are equally good; in epistemology it implies that all beliefs, or belief systems, are equally true. Critics of relativism typically dismiss such views as incoherent since they imply the validity even of the view that relativism is false. They also charge that such views are pernicious since they undermine the enterprise of trying to improve our ways of thinking.
Perhaps because relativism is associated with such views, few philosophers are willing to describe themselves as relativists. Although there are many different kinds of relativism, they all have two features in common.

1) They all assert that one thing (e.g. moral values, beauty, knowledge, taste, or meaning) is relative to some particular framework or standpoint (e.g. the individual subject, a culture, [a society], an era, a language, or a conceptual scheme).
2) They all deny that any standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.

– Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy.

What initially strikes me as peculiar is that this is a position that not only have I never espoused directly but I find myself actively disagreeing with. Specifically, while I do agree with the 1st point, I most certainly do not agree with the second.

Initially this whole characterization was assigned to me in, what I believed then, an attempt for ad hominem against me. I was labeled as such when arguing against the notion that you can have morality without more than one person and at some point I expressed my sentiment that all morality is subjective.

Now apparently this triggered an automatic reaction on behalf of my opponent who assumed I was espousing all sorts of ideas I do not. For example, I would never accept that all moral values are equal, nor that we should not criticize other cultures’ morality. Nevertheless, this is how I keep getting labeled as and I thought I’d clear the misconception a bit. Here are my current beliefs in morality.

Morality is subjective

What I mean when I say this is that, throughout the ages, people have held various beliefs of what is right and wrong. From what I have understood (and feel free to correct me on this), these values are the result of the current period and environment the society existed in. Ultimately, the values are the result of evolutionary advantage of one morality meme over another. One of my favorite examples to explain this is Slavery.

A Perspective on Slavery

You see, in the vast majority of the history of mankind, slavery has always been a reality. Since the early Egyptian history, to Classical Greece, to Romans, Dark Ages and finally the American Revolution, slavery was something that a sufficiently large amount of people accepted.The reason this moral value (slavery = good) was accepted, was solely based on competitive advantage of the society that espoused it.

In the days before industrialization, slaves were the only real source of cheap production. As a result, any society that accepted slavery, gained the means to faster production (Egyptians), ability to concentrate on other tasks (Spartans on Warfare) and/or better standard of living (Romans). Especially in the largely agricultural societies of the time, the ability to assign the menial labor to cheap assets meant that there was a distinct competitive advantage to be gained by utilizing slaves.

This does not mean that all societies used slaves. It only means that those societies that did, were fated to overcome or conquer the ones that did not. This is precisely what was happening in most of the world until the recent centuries (I would consider feuds and imperialism as a form of slavery.) and as luck would hold it, the people of that time, happened to write down their ideas on how slavery is right as a proof for future generations (see the Christian bible or the Hindu caste system.)

Slavery, like most forms of production had some disadvantage. Specifically, even though the cost was relatively low, it was very prone to abuse. This could lead to destabilizing situations for the society that used it, as is what happened with the Romans and the slave revolution or Spartacus. This kind of disadvantage was not enough however to overcome the significant benefit of slavery.

Abolishing and the morality of it all.

Now, most of us living in the modern society automatically consider slavery wrong. This includes me.  The reason we do this is because our upbringing distilled in most of us the notion of freedom as a higher moral value than most others. Thus, for us, owning the freedom of another person is deemed as one of the lowest situations.

But how did we reach this level from when slavery was considered acceptable by most? Once again, competitive advantage.

As I mentioned before, Slavery has some disadvantages that were not sufficient to overcome it’s advantages. However, even during the time of slavery, there were people that considered slavery to be immoral. If you want, you can see this in an evolutionary perspective. The competing organisms in this case, are the societies (or even the members of each society). The traits of the organism are the various memes in effect (Slavery, Warfare, Tolerance, Religion etc). The Environment is the technological level.

People in each society would have various ideas on slavery. If that meme (Abolishing Slavery) took hold, then the society’s paradigm would shift. You could see this as a mutation in the society as a whole which was then called to prove it’s competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, as history has shown, this trait was actually disadvantageous to the society that possessed it as it could not compete with the ones that still accepted slavery.

What was necessary for this trait to gain the competitive advantage was a change in the environment. This change was the Industrial Revolution. Once that happened, it served as the catalyst that allowed the abolition of slavery to take hold. Not because of any objective goodness but because the already existing mentality that freedom is good, coupled with the alternative way to have cheap production (industrialization) as well as the lower cost (no chance of social upheaval) gave the society that abolished slavery a competitive advantage over those who did not.

Tying it all together

It is my impression, that history has shown us that all moral values that we accept in the western society are the result of such processes. A merciless war of ideas where only the ones that were competitively superior could survive. I cannot bring myself to call this process objective for I truly do not see it as such.

The morality I have currently is subjective, not in the sense that I cannot consider anything right and wrong but in the sense that the morality memes most of us possess are the result of natural selection and not of objective truths.

How does that leave me however? Am I predestined to be a “moral subjectivist” and decry all morality as inconsequential and relative? To this I respond no. This is not what I believe.
I have my own morality that is based on personal experiences, beliefs and desires. I base this morality on my reasoning and can explain why I think my moral values are superior to others. I can have a discussion and attempt to convince or be convinced. Always based on reasoning.

I just cannot go one step further and call my personal reasoning as objective as it seems disingenuous. Morality values, in the end, can be rated as better or worse by the degree to which they lead to a better life for the individual and the society that espouses them. However, each individual is different in their desires so the same things will lead to different results.

The only thing we can do is be the example first as individuals and then as a society.

In the first step, this will lead first other people who see our life to follow our example in order to achieve the same level of happiness. They do not need to copy all of our values but even a few will be enough. Given enough people who do this, the paradigm of the society’s moral values will shift.

As a society, all we need to do is the same. A more successful society can only lead to other societies copying the moral memes that led to this success. And thus the world paradigm shifts.

What I believe is that all this can be done peacefully but not by “bending over” to other cultures. On the contrary, when an individual performs an immoral action by our perspective, it should be our duty to speak against them. When a society as a whole acts in an immoral fashion, then is should be our duty to speak against them and/or take measures to disentangle ourselves from them.

Not speaking against an immoral person (by our beliefs), because of some misguided desire to “respect his culture” is only hurting ourselves. Nor speaking out against a society or a culture because we want to proudly display how tolerant we are, will only lead us to be overtaken by the more aggressive memes out there.

This is, for example, the primary reason I speak against European “tolerance” against Islam. Not only is it not helping anyone, it is outright dangerous as the immoral behavior of Islam is given ground to fester and spread.


This has gotten quite long-winded so I think it is time for me to stop.

I hope I have sufficiently explained how I can consider morality as subjective but not be a “moral relativist” myself. I am, however, the first person who will agree that I can be mistaken – indeed, this is the main reason why I shy from calling my beliefs objective. There are many very interesting takes on morality that I am currently checking out, as Desire Utilitarianism. I can see the point but I am not actually convinced that they are objective rather than just superior to what we have.

If I am convinced, I will only help to spread that idea and thus help make this meme the accepted paradigm. Even then however, there is a case that we will fail. Even if DU is “superior” to most other moral systems, if the competitive advantage is not enough, it will be lost in the pages of history.

It has happened before.

Comment on Subjective Morality

Amazing! I was randomly reading my feeds and the Exapologist mentioned the Prosblogion and I though to take a quick look. There, checking up on a recent post, I happened upon a comment that perfectly describes my opinion on subjective morality.

That’s the essential distinction. People almost always seem to think that if the basis of morality is subjective then its arbitrary and any set of values is as good as another.

This (considering morality subjective) was something that the Objectivists I was recently discussing with, stood (and still do) upon to declare that I was using a defeated philosophy (or whatever).

Nice to see that there are others that think, at least similarly. I think I might visit that place again to find other such juicy nuggets of thought.