Saturday, August 29, 2009

Steely Dan contra Roger Scruton

While on the subject of Roger Scruton and pop culture: I’ve been reading Brian Sweet’s recently updated edition of Steely Dan: Reelin’ in the Years. (As any major dude will tell you, you can’t read Scholastic philosophy all the time.) It brings to mind Scruton’s analysis of contemporary pop music in the “Yoofanasia” chapter of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture – though only, I would suggest, as a counterexample to that (fascinating and otherwise plausible) analysis.

Scruton argues that the contemporary pop star plays a quasi-religious social function, like the totem animal of a primitive tribe. The most obvious evidence for this claim is the cult-like quality devotion to pop stars and groups can take on. A fan’s sense of identity can become so associated with the group or pop star to which he is devoted that interest in other groups or singers is excluded, attacks on the group or pop star are taken as attacks on the fan himself, and the community of fans is regarded as a kind of extension of the pop group, to which the community is “united” as if mystically. But another, more interesting piece of evidence Scruton adduces – and the one that is relevant here – concerns the nature of much contemporary pop music itself, particularly its highly processed character.

In older musical traditions, the focus was on the music itself, which had only a contingent relationship to the performer even when the performer was the one who composed it. Once created, a song took on a life of its own and lost none of its essential character when performed by others. By contrast, Scruton argues, “modern pop songs are meticulously put together, often by artificial means, so as to be indelibly marked with the trade mark of the group. Everything is done to make them inseparable from the group. The lead singer projects himself and not the melody, emphasizing his particular tone, sentiment, and gesture… (Contrast here the tradition of classical performance, in which the singer is the servant of the music, hiding behind the notes that he produces.)”

Hence “in the music of [contemporary] youth, singer and song are fused. Popular songs [of earlier generations] grew from a tradition of ballad and folk music, in which an expanding repertoire of favourite tunes and devices formed the foundation of music-making. Until recently the song has been detachable from the performer – a musical entity which makes sense in itself, and which can be internalized and repeated by the listeners, should they have the skill.” But the processing that marks the modern pop song with the identity of the pop star or group that creates it allows it to serve a new and “incarnational” function. The music is no longer an end in itself. Rather, the point of the song is, as it were, to re-present the pop star or group quasi-sacramentally. It is, in Scruton’s view, the means by which the obsessive fan becomes “mystically” united with the performer or group he idolizes and in whom he finds the meaning of his life. In its own shabby way, then, modern pop music fills a void left by the retreat of traditional religion in the modern world – and also in a transgressive way, insofar as rebellion against the authority and moral code represented by the old religion is one of the major themes of this new music.

Make of this what you will as a general analysis. (Though it might seem a tad overwrought, I find it quite plausible as an account of the role played by pop music in the lives of at least many teenagers.) What came to mind as I read Sweet’s book was Scruton’s emphasis on the “processed” character of much pop music, and its resulting inseparability from the group that produces it.

Even the most casual listener will agree that the “Steely Dan sound” is quite unlike that of any other contemporary pop group. (For you music buffs, there is even such a thing as the “Steely Dan chord.”) Part of this has to do with the heavy jazz influence the band’s principals Walter Becker and Donald Fagen bring to their music. Part of it has to do with Fagen’s unique vocals: Anyone other than Fagen singing “Deacon Blues” (say) is pretty much just doing karaoke, so essential is his distinctive voice and style to the overall Steely Dan aesthetic. But there is also the perfectionistic “smoothness” and polish Becker and Fagan famously bring to every tune, an effect that requires intensive studio work. Indeed, playing live was from the beginning something Becker and Fagen did only extremely reluctantly. Steely Dan has always been essentially a studio band – not only in the sense of emphasizing recording over live performance, but in the sense of frequently using studio musicians in an ad hoc way rather than having (apart from Becker and Fagen themselves) a permanent roster of players, and in the sense of relying crucially on various studio mixing techniques to achieve certain effects that would have been otherwise impossible.

Especially after the mid-1970s, with each individual song on a given album, Becker and Fagen would seek out those session players whose strengths were most suited to it. Different players would often do multiple takes, followed by other players doing further takes on the same part, until exactly the sound Becker and Fagen had in mind was achieved. Often the finished song would combine the work of various musicians who hadn’t actually played together in any one session. Moreover, part of one solo might be combined with part of another. “To create absolute millisecond-perfect drum tracks,” Sweet tells us, “a drum machine, a computer, a live drummer or combination of all three” might be used (p. 121). And so forth. And yet the end result would be absolutely seamless. The way the “Steely Dan sound” was honed to perfection in the famous Aja sessions has been described at length not only in Sweet’s book, but in Don Breithaupt’s book Aja and in the DVD Classic Albums: Steely Dan – Aja. (Here’s the famous title cut, along with “Josie” and “Black Cow.” See here, here, and here for the making of “Peg”; and here for the making of “Home at Last.”)

This painstaking attention to minute detail culminated in the succeeding album Gaucho, in the making of which Fagen and Becker “employed an astonishing 40 musicians and singers, and worked on one song for so long and listened back to it so many times that they actually wore the oxide off the tape” (Sweet, p. 122). When the finished track “The Second Arrangement” was accidentally erased by an engineer, Becker and Fagen were unable to produce a new version they felt up to the austere standards of the original, and decided to abandon it. (All that exist now are various unpolished demo versions – here’s one – none of which necessarily sounds like the version that was lost, since Becker and Fagen would try out various approaches before settling on one.)

Steely Dan’s perfectionism has become enough of a pop culture cliché to earn them some ribbing in The Onion. The point, anyway, is that it seems perfectly to exemplify the tendency toward engineered sound and consequent inseparability of song and performer that Scruton makes central to his account of contemporary pop music. And yet any suggestion that the point of Steely Dan’s music is to “incarnate” the personages of Becker and Fagen would be preposterous. This is not only because of their notorious reclusiveness – their dislike of interviews, touring, entertainment industry gatherings, and the like. It is, more than anything else, because for Becker and Fagen a “nerdish” obsession with the quality of the music, as an end in itself, has always been all that matters. And that their sound is so distinctive reflects, not a desire to call attention to themselves, but rather the pursuit of an overarching aesthetic goal. In the case of Steely Dan, what Scruton calls the “processed” character of modern pop music results, not from a desire to make of the music a means to some ulterior, non-musical end, but precisely from the opposite motivation. The studio is for Becker and Fagen itself but another musical instrument, and not – as is arguably the case for the sort of acts Scruton takes as his examples (e.g. Prodigy, Oasis, Nirvana) – a means of preventing the demands of serious musicianship from getting in the way of pop stardom.

In fairness to Scruton, his analysis also calls attention to other features of contemporary pop music – the triumph of rhythm over melody, the unsophisticated nature of what melody there is, and the neglect of harmony – which are famously inapplicable to Steely Dan. It might seem, then, that his analysis could be re-stated in terms of these features alone, so as to avoid a Steely Dan counterexample. But Scruton’s emphasis on studio engineering techniques is too central to his account of the “incarnational” function he sees in modern pop music. The impossibility of separating the “processed” song from the singer seems to be what is doing the main work in his argument for the claim that the function of the music is to “re-present” the totem-like pop star for his worshipful fans. Yet this analysis simply doesn’t fit Steely Dan.

One gets the sense that Scruton simply objects aesthetically to the use of electronic and other artificial methods in the production of music, and thus is inclined to attribute to them a non-musical function. But while one may try to develop an aesthetic case against music made using such methods, there does not seem to be any good reason for regarding those methods as inherently non-musical. That is to say, it is one thing to suggest that such music is necessarily “inhuman” or in some other way aesthetically objectionable – I do not agree that it is, but that’s a separate issue – and another thing to say that it is somehow not strictly music at all. Studio techniques of the sort in question seem to be, as I have said, just one set of instruments among others for the making of music.

Interestingly, in his treatment of photography in the “Surface and Surfeit” chapter of the American edition of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, Scruton argues that photography per se is not genuinely representational, but allows that techniques for the manipulation of photographs can make of them representations precisely because the photographic elements become in that case analogous to the colors used by a painter, viz. a means of creating novel images. Yet if technological manipulation can facilitate the visual arts, why can’t it facilitate the making of music?

Nor does the inseparability of a song from the singer by itself seem plausibly to undermine its musical quality. Again, compare the visual arts: The paintings of El Greco are stamped with the distinctive aesthetic trademark of their creator, but remain great works despite that fact, indeed in part precisely because of it.

What of the “transgressive” quality Scruton (rightly) sees in much contemporary popular music? Is it to be found in the work of Becker and Fagen? I think not. To be sure, the characters who populate their songs are very often on the seedy side – drug abusers, thieves, persons of dubious sexual ethics, and other assorted losers and oddballs. But the tone is invariably detached, ironic, and observational rather than celebratory. Becker and Fagen are anthropologists, not advocates; they have a story to tell, but never a message to convey.

Sometimes the story has its attractions, sometimes not. But the attractions or lack thereof derive from the human condition – original sin and all – that the songs so faithfully represent, rather than from any manufacture on the part of the composers. Depending on one’s mood, one can imagine wanting to be the down-on-his-luck protagonist of “Deacon Blues”; not so with the loser of “What a shame about me”. The smooth-as-silk jazz-disco fusion piece “Glamour Profession” is as alluring and addictive as the illicit wares of its protagonist, a drug dealer to the stars; and yet both the lyrics and the instrumental framework convey an unmistakable touch of menace. Donald Fagen’s solo effort “Century’s End” captures, pitch-perfectly, the fusion of exhilaration and ennui that defined the life of the on-the-make 1980s yuppie. His “I.G.Y.” beautifully conveys the disappointed optimism of the Mad Men/JFK era.

I could go on, but MS Word’s handy “Pretentiousness Alert” icon is flashing orange, so I’ll stop. I should emphasize in closing that An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture is in any event hardly Scruton’s fullest statement on the subject of music. There is, of course, his The Aesthetics of Music (cited in a previous post), and also the just-released Understanding Music. (I have not had a chance to read the latter yet, but I did check the index while writing this post – alas, no Steely Dan reference!)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is self-ownership axiomatic?

In my recent post on Murray Rothbard, I addressed the question of whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership could be said to be axiomatic. Let’s pursue the question a little bit further. In particular, let’s pursue the question of whether it is even plausible to suggest that the principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense of “axiomatic.”

Notice that I am not asking whether the principle is true; nor am I asking whether there are any good reasons, of some sort or other, to believe it. Those are separate questions. I am asking whether, if it is true and justifiable, its truth and justification are plausibly of the sort that strict axioms enjoy. Again, what I am asking is whether the principle is plausibly axiomatic in the strictest sense.

What sense is that? One traditional way of thinking about it is this: A principle is axiomatic in the strictest sense if any proposition you could give as evidence for it would be less obviously true than the principle itself is. The law of non-contradiction is a standard example. Nothing you could say in defense of the law of non-contradiction is as obviously correct as the law of non-contradiction itself is. Call this special characteristic of strictly axiomatic propositions “self-evidence.”

So, is the libertarian principle of self-ownership axiomatic or self-evident in this sense? Before you answer, keep in mind that the principle says far more than merely that (say) your right hand belongs to you. When you look at your right hand and judge, spontaneously and quite correctly, “This is mine,” you might initially be inclined to think that the principle of self-ownership must be right. Indeed, maybe it is axiomatic!

Not so fast. Your right hand is indeed yours, as is your right foot, your right eye, and every other body part you can name. All well and good – and not terribly controversial. But what exactly does that entail? Does it entail that you are entitled to do absolutely anything you want with those body parts, provided you do not infringe the liberty of others? Does it entail that you can even do things that are immoral – on the grounds that since it’s your body, you have the absolute right to abuse it so long as you harm no one else? More to the point, is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you can do these things?

Let’s be more specific: Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that, so long as you harm no one else in doing so, you have an absolute right to do the following: Commit suicide; inject yourself with heroin, even repeatedly, to the point of addiction; have a major body part surgically removed for no reason other than that you just feel like doing so; deliberately engage in self-deception (it’s your mind, after all); and, in general, do to and with yourself things you believe it is immoral to do?

Consider further: Suppose your adult child or best friend informs you that he has decided to do one of these things. To take a clear and fairly simple example, suppose he has become a devout follower of Schopenhauer and has decided, on well-thought out philosophical grounds (rather than some fleeting whim, say), to commit suicide. And suppose you try to talk him out of it, but to no avail. Is it strictly axiomatic or self-evident that you must not use force to prevent him from killing himself – such as by stealing his glass of hemlock, locking him in a padded room, or whatever? Because that is what the libertarian principle of self-ownership entails.

Again, to avoid irrelevant objections, keep in mind that the question is not whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership, radical implications and all, is true or in some way defensible. The question is whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident, whether it is strictly axiomatic or self-evident that one has a right to do the things mentioned above, and an obligation to refrain from keeping others, even children and friends, from doing any of them.

When we keep in mind what the principle entails, I think it is quite obvious that the principle is not strictly axiomatic or self-evident. Indeed, this is, I submit, so obvious that it is remarkable that anyone would suggest that it is – as Rothbard may have (though, as I noted in my earlier post, it is not at all clear that Rothbard really meant to use the term “axiom” in anything other than a loose and popular sense). Unlike the law of non-contradiction, it is quite easy to doubt whether the libertarian principle of self-ownership is true; indeed (and again unlike the law of non-contradiction) probably most people on considering it would judge that it is not true. Of course, that doesn’t show that it isn’t true, but it is very strong grounds for doubting that it is self-evident or strictly axiomatic. More to the point, any argument one could appeal to in order to convince the doubters that the principle is true would obviously have to appeal to premises that are more evident than the principle itself is – in which case, it simply cannot be said to be strictly axiomatic.

Perhaps the rhetoric of property led Rothbard astray here. In some contexts, saying “It’s my property” does indeed crisply settle the question of whether one may carry out a certain course of action. But not in all contexts. In everyday life, we are all well aware that the fact that you own your back yard (say) does not entail that you have no obligation in justice to allow the fire brigade access to it in order to get to the burning building behind it, or to avoid using it to engage in dangerous scientific experiments. Conversely, we are well aware that the fact that you have these various obligations does not entail that you don’t “really” own your back yard after all. In everyday contexts, that is to say, we are well aware that to say “X is my property” simply does not entail “I can do absolutely anything I want with X provided doing so violates no one else’s property rights.”

It is only when, after the fashion of “rationalistic” approaches to moral and political thinking of the sort Burke and Hayek criticized, we abstract away from the complex details of human life that property rights can seem have such extreme implications. (It happens, as Wittgenstein might put it, when we “sublime the logic of our language [concerning property].”) Property rights are not all-or-nothing. For almost all theories of property historically – and certainly for classical natural law theory, which is in my view the correct approach to moral questions generally – private property rights, even when very strong, nevertheless come with various qualifications. (For those who are interested, I develop and defend such an approach in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” which is forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy. As I argue there, the correct approach to property rights rules out both the level of government and taxation that socialists and egalitarian liberals favor, but also the extreme laissez faire position of libertarianism. It is, in short, conservative.)

To suggest that you either go along with Rothbard or you are logically committed to going the whole hog for socialism is just too silly for words. Rothbardians seem to think their man (or maybe some precursor like Lysander Spooner) was the first thinker in history ever to think about property in a consistent way. In fact all he did was simply invent a grotesque caricature of the idea of private property.

(I recall once asking a radical libertarian what he thought he would be obliged to do if his own adult son informed him that he intended to commit suicide and he could not talk him out of it. Troubled, he thought for a moment and then replied that he hoped he would have the courage to do the right thing and allow his son to kill himself. “This,” I thought, “is a young man whose mind has been rotted out by theory.” But, being young and childless, it was merely theory, and we can have good hope that he will reconsider: Growing older and having children are pretty good cures for extreme libertarianism, though unfortunately not infallible ones.)

Anyway, if this judgment is mistaken, appealing to a purported “self-ownership axiom” is not going to show that it is.

TLS on radio

Today the Son Rise Morning Show ran a brief interview with me about The Last Superstition. You can find the podcast here; my segment appears roughly an hour and fifteen minutes into the show. Had to get up very early to do this one, and I was pretty dopey. Hope it doesn’t show too much. (Go here for previous radio interviews about TLS.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

Derbyshire encounters Gottfried

I have always found the “paleocon”/”neocon” controversy depressing and counterproductive. I know, like, and respect people on both sides of the divide. The “paleocon” and “neocon” labels seem to me mostly unhelpful, covering over many important differences between thinkers within each purported camp and disguising important similarities between thinkers in the opposed camps. By now they serve as little more than a kind of fossilized shorthand for two sets of caricatures, retarding rather than fostering serious thought about conservatism. (I have had both labels applied to me, which is some small evidence of how useless they are.)

How refreshing, then, to see a positive review of a “paleocon” author in a “neocon” outlet – to wit, John Derbyshire’s review of Paul Gottfried’s Encounters over at National Review Online. (Though this sort of thing is actually not as unusual as one might suppose. As Derbyshire points out, John Lukacs often gets treated well in “neocon” outlets. See e.g. this review by Jonah Goldberg of Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism.) And the feeling is mutual, since, as Derbyshire notes, “for a book written by a representative of the losing side in the conservative wars, Encounters is wonderfully free of rancor.” I can testify to the truth of this judgment, having found Gottfried’s book a very enjoyable piece of summer reading.

Not that Gottfried has laid down his arms. It’s just that he is – in his treatment of such topics as Richard Nixon’s legacy, say, or Pat Buchanan’s attitudes toward Israel – “nuanced,” as John Kerry might say. Gottfried is always interesting even when one disagrees with him.

Unfortunately, Gottfried left this reader dissatisfied on one point. What was the recipe of that drink Nixon served him, and which effectively knocked him out for the rest of that dinner party? Inquiring right-wing boozers want to know…

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rothbard revisited

I called attention in a recent post to Prof. Gerard Casey’s reply to a critique of Murray Rothbard that I had posted some years ago at the old Right Reason blog. What follows is a response to Casey. (If they have not already done so, interested readers are urged to read both my original piece and Casey’s reply before proceeding, since I will not be recapitulating everything already said.)

The main point of my original piece was to show that, whatever one thinks of his writings on economics, Rothbard was a bad philosopher and therefore unjustified in the stridency with which he asserted some very extreme positions in moral and political philosophy and attacked those who disagreed with those positions. As I emphasized in that piece, the issue is not whether there might be some way or other to salvage this or that Rothbardian claim. The point is rather that Rothbard’s own arguments for his positions in ethics and political philosophy are extremely bad.

Casey begins his defense of Rothbard’s philosophical abilities by saying that “it is not all that difficult to find examples of fallacious, contentious or less-than-perfectly articulated arguments in the works of philosophers who, by general consensus, are far from being mediocre. One could instance David Hume’s treatment of infinite divisibility in A Treatise on Human Understanding, or cite J. S. Mills’ [sic] erstwhile proof of the principle of utility in Chapter IV of his Utilitarianism, or select Aquinas’s Third Way in the Summa Theologiae which, according to some critics, exhibits modal, quantifier shift, and scope fallacies!”

The comparison of Rothbard to Hume, Mill, and Aquinas might seem too risible to be worth responding to. But presumably Casey means to suggest, not that Rothbard was in their rank as a thinker, but only that these eminent philosophers vividly illustrate that an occasional lapse into fallacy does not entail that one has no talent as a philosopher. Fair enough. But I did not claim that Rothbard was a bad philosopher merely because he committed a fallacy here or there. I claimed he was a bad philosopher because his philosophical arguments were as a matter of course crude, superficial, and unoriginal even when otherwise interesting, that his most central philosophical positions maintained a crude and fallacious quality even when developed and restated over the course of several years, and that his absurd confidence in them was in any event out of all proportion to their actual merit. I focused on one of Rothbard’s key arguments in particular as an illustration, but I emphasized that the point was that the kinds of faults it exhibited could easily be found elsewhere in his writings. These faults cannot be attributed to the thinkers Casey mentions.

There are other problems with Casey’s examples in any event. The trouble with the Hume example is that it does not concern something central to Hume’s philosophy, whereas my Rothbard example concerned, again, his key argument in ethics and political philosophy. And contrary to popular belief (and as I show in my forthcoming book Aquinas) Aquinas’s Third Way in fact commits none of the fallacies Casey mentions. (This is yet another instance in which ignorance of the metaphysical assumptions underlying Aquinas’s theistic arguments has led modern commentators badly to misinterpret them.) To be sure, the Mill example is stronger, since the principle of utility is certainly central to Mill’s moral philosophy; and Casey could have added Berkeley’s “master argument” to the list too (though some would defend even Mill and Berkeley from the charge of fallacy). Still, Berkeley gave other and more interesting arguments for his immaterialism, and Mill’s body of significant philosophical work extends well beyond this one argument for utilitarianism, indeed well beyond ethics altogether. Similarly, Hume’s reputation, and Aquinas’s, are well-established apart from the arguments in question. (As my regular readers know, I do think Hume is quite overrated. But I do not deny that he was nevertheless an important philosopher.)

The trouble with Rothbard is that he has no generally recognized body of serious work in philosophy to which one could appeal, in defense of his philosophical significance, in the face of an attack on some particular argument. His handful of arguments in moral and political philosophy just are his philosophical oeuvre; if they are especially bad, his general badness as a philosopher is undeniable. (“But who ever thought Rothbard was a serious philosopher in the first place?” you ask. Well, Rothbardians think he was; indeed, they regard him as a kind of “renaissance man,” and their absurd overestimation of his significance in the history of thought is comparable to Objectivists’ overestimation of Ayn Rand’s significance.)

But let’s move on to the details of Casey’s reply. In my original piece, I set out four main lines of criticism of Rothbard, and Casey’s paper is divided into sections corresponding to each of them, which he labels “Feser’s First Criticism,” “Feser’s Second Criticism,” etc. (with some sub-sections responding to particular issues arising in the course of dealing with each line of criticism). For ease of exposition I will respond to Casey section by section, each section of what follows corresponding to one of his sections or sub-sections. Hopefully this will make our exchange easier to follow that it otherwise would be.


Casey notes that I object that the principle of self-ownership doesn’t follow from the premises Rothbard seems to adduce in support of it, and he concedes that it does not follow from them. But this is irrelevant, Casey says, because Rothbard was not trying to argue for the principle of self-ownership in the first place; he intended it instead as an axiom. Hence my objection is (Casey holds) misdirected.

Now it is true that Rothbard sometimes refers to the thesis of self-ownership as an “axiom.” Still, there are two problems with Casey’s line of defense. First of all, if Rothbard seriously intended the principle of self-ownership as an axiom, then that surely only bolsters my claim that he was a bad philosopher. For the principle of self-ownership is extremely controversial; whether or not it is true, there are many people – including intelligent, rational, and well-informed people – who do not believe that it is. It is in this respect very different from other principles often put forward as axiomatic – the principle of non-contradiction, for example – which have a “self-evident” character and which very few people have ever seriously denied. Hence it is neither at all prima facie plausible to suggest that the thesis of self-ownership be taken as axiomatic, nor wise as a strategy for convincing people to accept a political philosophy that is extremely controversial (as anarcho-capitalism is) to base it on an equally controversial first principle. Even a non-philosopher can see this. Surely a non-mediocre philosopher would have seen it too.

Secondly, in dealing with this first criticism, Casey does not quote in their entirety the relevant passages from For a New Liberty and “Justice and Property Rights.” I do quote the entire For a New Liberty passage toward the beginning of my original piece. The reader who goes back and takes a look at it will see that Rothbard does indeed clearly give an argument – let’s call it the “reductio argument,” since he tries to reduce the denial of self-ownership to absurdity – in defense of the thesis of self-ownership.

Now it is also true, as Casey says, that it is a logical solecism to argue for an axiom or first principle. But given the textual evidence, what follows from this is not that Rothbard didn’t argue for the principle, but that since he did argue for what he claimed was an “axiom,” he was even more muddleheaded than I let on in my original piece. This judgment is given further support by another passage from For a New Liberty where Rothbard asks of what he calls the “nonaggression axiom,” “how is this axiom arrived at? What is its groundwork or support?” and suggests that “there are three broad types of foundation for the libertarian axiom… the emotivist, the utilitarian, and the natural rights viewpoint” (p. 26). How can an axiom be “arrived at” or given a “foundation”? And even if there is some sense in which it can (see below) how is it even intelligible to suggest that that foundation might in theory be utilitarian or emotivist? (Obviously Rothbard himself rejected utilitarian and emotivist approaches; the point is that if some moral principle really is axiomatic, the very idea of an emotivist or utilitarian “foundation” for it cannot even arise in the first place. For if a principle is emotive in content then it is non-cognitive and therefore cannot be an axiom; and if it is supported by utilitarian considerations, then those considerations are logically prior to it and, again, it is therefore not axiomatic.)

Furthermore (and as the passage just quoted indicates) while Rothbard sometimes speaks of self-ownership as axiomatic, he also often speaks instead of the “nonaggression axiom” as what is fundamental to libertarianism, where the “nonaggression axiom” rules out the initiation of violence or the threat of violence against another person or his property. This is evidently a different principle from the self-ownership principle, though there is obviously a connection between them. Indeed, Rothbard treats the principle of self-ownership as a justification for the nonaggression principle: the reason you should not initiate violence against others is that they own themselves. But if the nonaggression principle is itself justified only by reference to the self-ownership principle, in what sense is it “axiomatic”? And if it is not axiomatic – if Rothbard’s reference to the “nonaggression axiom” is not meant seriously (given that the nonaggression principle is actually something he thinks needs to be justified by reference to some other principle) – then the fact that he sometimes refers to the principle of self-ownership as an “axiom” does not show that he really believed it to be strictly axiomatic either.

Hence, either Rothbard was not serious about treating self-ownership and/or nonaggression as axiomatic – that is, he was using “axiom” in some loose, popular sense and not a technical philosophical sense – or, again, he was serious about it, and thus was simply muddleheaded in raising the question of what “foundation” one ought to give such principles. Either way, Casey’s first line of defense fails.


Now Casey also suggests, in the next section of his article, that what I have called Rothbard’s “reductio argument” be understood, not as a direct argument for the thesis of self-ownership, but rather as an indirect defense of the sort that tries to show that anyone who denies self-ownership must be led into a performative self-contradiction. This would be an application of what is known as the method of “retortion,” and it is sometimes deployed in defense of axioms, as Aristotle deploys it in defense of the principle of non-contradiction. So, while a direct argument for an axiom would be a solecism, an indirect defense of the retortion sort is perfectly legitimate; and this, Casey claims, is what Rothbard was up to.

But there are three problems with Casey’s suggestion that the “reductio argument” was intended as an application of the method of retortion. First, while Rothbard deploys the “reductio argument” in For a New Liberty, where he makes much of the idea that libertarianism rests on an “axiom” of non-aggression or (alternatively) self-ownership, he also deploys versions of the same argument in both “Justice in Property Rights” and The Ethics of Liberty, where, interestingly, the “axiom” idea does not play a role. But if this argument was not intended as an application of the retortion strategy in the latter two works (since there is no talk there of an “axiom” of self-ownership), but rather as a direct argument for self-ownership, then we have good reason to think it was intended as a direct argument in For a New Liberty as well (where, as we have seen, Rothbard’s use of the term “axiom” is very slippery in any event).

Moreover, even if Rothbard shifted strategies between For a New Liberty and the later works – that is, even if he intended his argument as an application of the retortion strategy in the earlier work but not in the later works – that would hardly help Casey’s defense. For it would constitute a tacit admission on Rothbard’s own part that the “axiom” approach is implausible and should be abandoned. And in that case, Casey’s appeal to the “axiom” interpretation as a way of rescuing Rothbard’s arguments from my criticisms would be undermined.

Second, the retortion interpretation of what I have called Rothbard’s “reductio argument” is implausible even apart from these textual considerations. For the “reductio argument” goes well beyond the appeal to performative self-contradiction that is central to the retortion strategy, making reference as it does to various empirical economic claims.

Third, even if Rothbard really did for all that intend the “reductio argument” as an exercise in retortion, it is still a very bad argument, for all the reasons set out in my original piece. Indeed, given all the problems outlined in that piece, it is an even worse argument if interpreted as an exercise in retortion, since the whole point of retortion arguments is to provide a crisp and conclusive proof that will close off any further debate.

In my original piece, I noted that Rothbard fails to consider and respond to a number of obvious alternatives to self-ownership that a critic might put forward. Casey considers each of these in turn:

The “no one owns anybody” alternative:

Rothbard argued that “since ownership signifies range of control, [the claim that no one owns anybody, not even himself] would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.” In response, I pointed out that “while having ownership of something does imply having a range of control over it, having a range of control over it doesn’t imply ownership … Animals have a range of control over their environment, but since ownership is a moral category implying the having of certain rights, and animals (by Rothbard’s own admission) have no rights, it follows that they have no ownership of anything. And of course, their lack of ownership of anything hasn’t caused animals as a whole to ‘vanish,’ ‘quickly’ or otherwise.”

Casey suggests that I am interpreting Rothbard uncharitably here, and that he intended the claim that “ownership signifies range of control” not as a conditional – in which case he would be guilty of affirming the consequent (since from “If I own x, then I have a range of control over x” it doesn’t follow that “If I have a range of control over x, then I own x”) – but rather as a technical definition and thus a biconditional. In particular, for Casey, what Rothbard is saying in the passage in question is that “the term ‘own’ in the context of one’s body” entails by definition “the right to control one’s body free of coercive interference.”

One problem with this move is that it simply does not fit the textual evidence. In the passage in question, Rothbard doesn’t say that “ownership of one’s body signifies the right to a range of control over it” but rather merely that “ownership signifies range of control.” That is to say, in this particular passage Rothbard is evidently concerned with ownership in general and not merely with self-ownership; and he is not making the (normative) point that ownership entails a right, but rather the (descriptive) point that it entails certain practical abilities such as the ability to feed, clothe, and shelter oneself.

Another, related problem is that Casey’s proposal entirely strips Rothbard’s argument of whatever force it might have had. If Rothbard is saying that the rejection of self-ownership would entail the practical impossibility of doing what is necessary to stay alive, then he is making an interesting claim that, if true, would constitute very strong grounds for endorsing the thesis of self-ownership. But if he is saying only that the rejection of self-ownership would entail the rejection of a “right to control one’s body free of coercive interference,” then he is not saying anything his critic doesn’t already know. The critic can say “Yes, of course denying self-ownership entails denying such a right. But so what? Since I deny self-ownership, I’m quite happy to deny also that there is such a right. What you need to show is that denying self-ownership would also entail something that I would not want to accept – such as the extinction of the human race. And your merely definitional point does nothing at all to show that.”

The “God owns us” alternative:

In response to my point that Rothbard fails even to consider the possible objection that it is God, rather than we, who own us, Casey points out that I myself once asserted in my book On Nozick that “someone might respond that God owns us, so that we cannot own ourselves … But self-ownership is no more inconsistent with belief in God than private property is.” He then says that “Professor Feser is entirely within his rights to change his mind on the matter of self-ownership, if that is what he has in fact done, but he would surely not wish to have it held against his competence as a philosopher that he once endorsed a position that is substantially the same as that put forward by Rothbard.”

But this is weak even as an ad hominem. There is no inconsistency between what I said in On Nozick and what I said in criticism of Rothbard. For my criticism of Rothbard was not that there is no way to reconcile self-ownership with God’s ownership of us. My criticism of Rothbard was rather that he did not even address the issue in the first place, even though it is (as Casey himself acknowledges) an objection that many theists might naturally suppose (whether correctly or incorrectly) has force against the thesis of self-ownership. (Why Casey thinks Rothbard himself held “substantially the same position” as the one I took in On Nozick is something he does not tell us.) Nor is it any good to say, as Casey does, that Rothbard should not be expected to address every possible criticism, since the objection at hand is hardly an obscure one, raising as it does an issue that goes back at least to Locke. Moreover, Rothbard was famously on friendlier terms with theists than many other contemporary libertarians have been, and in other contexts more sensitive to their concerns than (say) a Rand or a Nozick would have been. There is simply no excuse for his having failed to address this issue.

Moreover, to say that self-ownership can be reconciled with God’s ownership of us does not entail that a radically libertarian conception of self-ownership can be reconciled with it. For example, Locke, who claims both that God owns us and also that there is nevertheless a sense in which we own ourselves, denies, on theological grounds, that our self-ownership rights can possibly be absolute. In particular, for Locke, they cannot be strong enough to allow either suicide or the selling of oneself into slavery. (See my book Locke for detailed discussion of this issue.) And since Casey raises the question of my current views on this matter, I should note for the record that they have indeed changed: I would now say that the standard contemporary libertarian conception of self-ownership is not compatible either with classical natural law theory or with theism. (Some of the reasons for this judgment are given here, and my current views on self-ownership are developed in my essay “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy.)

The various “partial ownership of others” alternatives:

Casey’s treatment of these alternatives is brief, and can be found on page 9 of his essay. Go read it if you haven’t already, because since I’m not even clear what his argument is supposed to be, I fear I might misrepresent it if I try to summarize it.

In response to my criticism of Rothbard here, Casey says that “ownership implies the right to dispose of one’s possessions in any way one chooses, subject to the limitations of not infringing upon the rights of others. To the extent that one cannot so dispose, to that extent one is not an owner.” I can only speculate that his point is that talk of “partial ownership” in my proposed alternatives is therefore somehow suspect: one either owns something or one doesn’t. But Casey himself uses the qualifier “to that extent,” which appears implicitly to acknowledge that ownership can be partial. And that it can be partial is in any case obvious from everyday experience. For example, you and your roommate might buy a car together and come to some agreement as to who can drive it and when. True, to the extent that you can’t drive it just whenever you want, “you are not an owner,” but only to that extent; and this is just a roundabout way of saying that you and your roommate are each partial owners, rather than either being a complete owner. So, I am not clear how what Casey says is supposed to be a problem for my criticism of Rothbard.

Casey also suggests that Rothbard’s assertion of “the absurdity of ‘proclaiming that every man is entitled to own a part of everyone else, yet is not entitled to own himself’” shows that there is something inherently fishy in the very idea of everyone having partial ownership of everyone else. For that idea too entails (Casey claims) “the peculiar situation of people being able to own all or some of other people but not able to own themselves.” Again, I am not at all clear what Casey is talking about. The “partial ownership of others” scenarios in question do not involve “people being able to own all or some of other people but not able to own themselves.” Rather, they involve people who do own themselves at least partially while also having partial ownership of others. Hence the absurdity Rothbard thinks he sees in the scenario he describes is not even relevant to the cases I was describing. Casey seems to be just insisting dogmatically that ownership is all-or-nothing, when whether this is the case or not is precisely (part of) what is in question.


One of Rothbard’s claims was that to assert a right of ownership over others entails asserting that those others are subhuman. In response, I pointed out that some defenders of slavery would deny this, and insist that recognizing the full humanity of others is consistent with claiming a right to keep them as slaves. Once again, I am not clear about what Casey’s reply to this objection is supposed to be. It seems to me he does little more than simply re-assert Rothbard’s position. He does say that any claim on the part of some to have ownership rights over others would have to be “grounded in some significant difference between the two groups. Accidental differences of height or weight, or hair colour or language will obviously not suffice to ground such a right in one group of human beings as against another.” True enough. But it doesn’t follow that the difference in question would entail that the one group is less human than the other. For example, a would-be slave owner might try to argue that while he and his prospective slave are both human, the (alleged) fact that the slave has a much lower degree of intelligence shows that he is more like a human child than a human adult and thus cannot be trusted to run his life for himself. To answer such a would-be slave owner, then, one must do more than merely point out that slaves are human.

For what it is worth, classical natural law theory would absolutely rule out chattel slavery, not on the grounds of the sort of radical self-ownership Rothbard affirms, but rather on the ground that each human being has a natural end to which all other ends – including those of a would-be slave owner, but including also his own contingent ends – are subordinate. That is to say, since I am ordered by nature to certain ends, I cannot be turned away from them by some other human being, as if I were his property; but neither do I have a natural right to do just whatever I feel like doing with myself, as if I were, in some strong sense, my own property. Libertarians often claim that the only way to show that chattel slavery is wrong is to affirm (their understanding of) self-ownership. But in fact, the actual, natural law reasons why chattel slavery is wrong also entail that libertarianism is wrong. (Classical natural law theory does allow that some lesser forms of servitude – a life-long work arrangement as punishment for a crime, say, or as a way of paying off a debt – can in principle be legitimate, but in practice are too fraught with moral hazard to be justifiable.)

Here as elsewhere, though, the issue is not whether Rothbard’s position is or is not correct or defensible. The point is that Rothbard’s own arguments for his position are subject to obvious objections that he does not even consider.


Rothbard asserted that “allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirements for life: production and exchange.” In response, I pointed out that “animals do not engage in ‘production and exchange,’ certainly not in the laissez-faire economics sense intended by Rothbard, but they are obviously alive.”

In defense of Rothbard, Casey says: “Rothbard is clearly not saying that those who do not engage in production and exchange are not alive. If he had claimed this, there would be some point to Feser’s animal counterexample.” Well, of course Rothbard wasn’t saying that, but neither was I claiming that he was. The question isn’t whether those who don’t engage in production and exchange in Rothbard’s sense will instantly die. The question is whether life could continue over time without production and exchange. Rothbard is evidently claiming that it could not; as Casey puts it, “Rothbard’s point, if I understand it correctly, is an economic one to the effect that production and exchange are substantive human activities that are essential to human survival.” But that Rothbard is wrong is obvious from the animal example. Animals don’t ‘produce’ or ‘exchange’ things in the economic sense, and yet they are able to sustain themselves in existence. Human beings could do the same if they needed to, hunter-gatherer style. To be sure, this wouldn’t be a very satisfying way of life for us civilized people, but that’s beside the point. Rothbard is trying to show that unless you accept his conception of self-ownership, you are logically committed to a system that would make continued human life impossible. And he simply fails to come anywhere close to showing that. Indeed, it is obvious that he fails to show it – the animal counterexample is hardly that difficult to come up with – which was exactly my point. Here, as elsewhere, Rothbard makes preposterously bold claims without even bothering to address obvious possible objections.

There are also obvious difficulties with Rothbard’s claim that the “parasitism” of one group living off another is inconsistent with the system of production and exchange. One problem is that it obviously isn’t true: By Rothbard’s own anarcho-capitalist lights, the history of the human race is largely a history of “parasites” (e.g. governments) living off of the wealth generated by those who produce and exchange. If such “parasitism” is incompatible with a system of production and exchange, how has this system been able to survive so long, “parasites” and all?

Of course, Rothbard might claim that, even if this is possible as a practical matter, there is no economic principle that could justify it. But (a critic might ask) since it is practically possible, how could any economic principle that ruled it out itself be justified? Wouldn’t the centuries-long empirical, practical success of such a “parasitic” system falsify any such economic principle? Alternatively, Rothbard might hold that such parasitism is ruled out by a moral rather than economic principle. But if so, it cannot be the principle of self-ownership that rules it out, because that would make the argument in question – which is intended to establish self-ownership – a circular one.

Moreover, it has to be a moral principle strong enough to rule out, not just slavery – which, as we have seen above, there is ample moral reason to reject in any case – but all forms of “parasitism,” since Rothbard’s claim seems to be that parasitism as such is incompatible with production and exchange. But such a principle would therefore entail that children, elderly parents, the infirm, etc. – all of whom are “parasites” in Rothbard’s sense, since they live “at the expense” of others without producing or exchanging – have no right to our assistance. Some Rothbardians would no doubt try to fudge this obscene consequence by claiming that we have in many cases “consented” to help such people, so that our obligations to them are contractual and thus compatible with the system of production and exchange. This is not only ad hoc and implausible – such a libertarian reduction of all human relationships to economic ones is, for my money, as preposterous and repulsive as the Marxist version – but clearly won’t cover every case even by the Rothbardian’s own lights. Fetuses resulting from unplanned pregnancies and cripples without friends, families, marketable skills, or a nearby charity are just out of luck in a Rothbardian “society.” (Indeed, for Rothbard, unwanted unborn children must be regarded as “coercive parasites” – which, from a classical natural law theory point of view, is pretty much a reductio ad absurdum of his entire moral and political philosophy.)

Any moral principle strong enough to get Rothbard what he needs in order to salvage the argument in question would, then, be either question-begging or prima facie highly implausible. But again, whether such a principle could ultimately be defended is not what is at issue. The point is that the potential problems with Rothbard’s position should be obvious, and yet he failed even to consider them.

So, Casey’s defense of Rothbard fails. Indeed, our consideration of it has indicated that Rothbard may have been an even worse philosopher than I let on in my original post. Which is saying something.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rubber souls

Not only can pushing the use of condoms increase the risk of AIDS; condoms are depressing too. Turns out there is evidence that so-called “safe sex” is bad for mental health.

Well gee whiz, that just can’t be right, can it?

Sure it can. After all, as “organic living” fanatics never tire of telling us, living in harmony with nature is the key to happiness. And there ain’t nothin’ more natural than “unprotected sex” – and the large families that result from it. No? (Cf. The Last Superstition, pp. 132-53)

To be sure, the “organic” crowd somehow never seems to draw this conclusion. Live organically! Go green! Go vegan! Be at peace with all living things! Oh, and chemically neutering yourself, wrapping your private parts in plastic before intercourse, and murdering your unborn offspring are all consistent with this.

Right. Got it.

Phony baloney indeed. Or as Someone once put it, “they strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.”

Addendum 8/20: In the combox below, reader Rodak asserts the now common view that the sin of Onan (Genesis 38: 9-10) had nothing to do with either contraception or masturbation. Like so much of what has become the conventional academic wisdom about the Bible, this is simply false. Interested readers are advised to check out this article by Fr. Brian Harrison for a defense of the traditional interpretation of the passage in question.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Cothran on TLS

Here is a substantive (and very kind) review of The Last Superstition from Martin Cothran. As the author of a series of books on traditional logic, Cothran understands the significance of the moderns’ shift away from Aristotelianism better than most.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Woody Herman channels Steely Dan

Bizarre. But interesting: Big band leader Woody Herman’s take on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” (The McCoy can be seen here. Check out that dude groovin’ in the audience at around 1:30.) Haven’t seen anything like this since The Puppini Sisters covered The Smiths’ “Panic.”

I saw Herman once playing at Disneyland one summer back in the 80s. Poor guy looked like he was going to have a coronary right there. (Nor did he last much longer – he died in 1987.) I saw Artie Shaw “play” at the same place during the same summer. I use the scare quotes because though Shaw had re-formed his band, he had famously quit playing clarinet decades before and refused to try to re-learn it. So he’d just introduce the tunes, stand back, and snap his fingers the whole time!

As it happens, I’ve got a post in the works about Steely Dan and Roger Scruton. I Kid you not.

Scholastic’s Bookshelf, Part II

Continuing my series of posts on recommended reading in (mostly pre-Vatican II) Neo-Scholastic and Thomistic sources. This time up: works on natural theology.

As I emphasize in The Last Superstition, Aristotelian-Thomistic arguments in natural theology are often very badly misunderstood – not only by skeptics but also by many modern theists – because contemporary readers are not familiar with the metaphysical concepts underlying them and tend to read into them all sorts of alien (and from the A-T point of view, false) modern metaphysical assumptions. This is true not only of arguments for God’s existence (like Aquinas’s Five Ways), but also of arguments concerning other topics in natural theology – the divine attributes, the problem of evil, divine providence, divine foreknowledge, miracles, and so on. Indeed, there is virtually no topic that fails to take on a dramatically different complexion when seen through the lens of classical, and especially A-T, metaphysics. (For example, the contemporary tendency to think of God in terms of “theistic personalism” rather than classical theism – a tendency I have discussed here briefly a couple of times before – is, I would say, a natural outcome of the move away from classical metaphysics, and has all sorts of often-unnoticed implications, none of them good.)

In light of this, two very useful books for understanding the A-T approach to philosophical theology in general are:

John F. McCormick, Scholastic Metaphysics, Part II: Natural Theology

R. P. Phillips, Modern Thomistic Philosophy, Volume II: Metaphysics

As their titles indicate, each of these books is part of a series of books on A-T philosophy in general. But this particular McCormick volume is entirely devoted to natural theology, and the last 100 pages or so of the Phillips volume is as well (the rest of it being an introduction to general Thomistic epistemology and metaphysics).

McCormick’s book is intended as a fairly elementary textbook, but since it shows how all the main topics mentioned above are understood from a specifically A-T point of view, it provides something that is simply not readily available in the current literature in philosophy of religion. It is probably a little bit better than Phillips on this score, though Phillips has the advantage of also treating other philosophical topics.

Phillips is also probably a little more useful in its treatment of the Five Ways, though neither McCormick or Phillips is as good on this subject as some of the books I’ll be mentioning in a moment. Overall, McCormick is probably the best book I know of for the beginner who wants a basic overview of the A-T approach to topics in natural theology other than the classical arguments for God’s existence. (I’ll mention some more advanced books below.)

Like many of the books I’m recommending in this series of posts, the McCormick volume is out of print, but used copies can be found online fairly easily for just a few dollars. An affordable reprint of Phillips is now available, though even cheaper older copies can also still be found.

Some of the same, general topics in philosophical theology are also usefully treated in the next set of works I want to mention:

Celestine Bittle, God and His Creatures

Maurice Holloway, An Introduction to Natural Theology

G. H. Joyce, Principles of Natural Theology

Henri Renard, The Philosophy of God

A more distinctive advantage of these books, however, is their treatment of the classical theistic proofs, particularly those summarized in Aquinas’s Five Ways.

Of the four of them, Bittle is probably the least helpful for someone looking for an overview of each of the Five Ways, but it does have a fairly useful treatment of several of the arguments, especially the argument from motion. Renard’s treatment of the arguments is not really any longer than that found in McCormick or Phillips, but it does seem to me to give a somewhat clearer idea of what is distinctive about the Thomistic understanding of cosmological and teleological arguments (e.g. Renard puts special emphasis on the “existential proof” from Aquinas’s On Being and Essence). Joyce and Holloway have especially good treatments of the Five Ways in general. Joyce is particularly good on the argument from motion and Holloway on the (often neglected and badly misunderstood) Fourth and Fifth Ways.

(As I keep emphasizing, A-T arguments in natural theology simply cannot be understood apart from A-T metaphysics, and this is probably even more true of the Fourth Way than of any of the other arguments. I will be devoting a future post to works in metaphysics, but it is worth mentioning now that Charles Hart’s Thomistic Metaphysics is particularly helpful in situating the theistic arguments – especially the Fourth Way – within the framework of Thomistic metaphysics in general.)

Again, all of these books also offer treatments of other topics in natural theology, though in some cases at least slightly less comprehensively than McCormick and Phillips. (In particular, while they are all useful vis-à-vis the divine attributes, they are generally less helpful than McCormick and Phillips on topics like miracles.) Only Joyce has been reprinted recently, though old copies of the others can be found fairly easily and affordably.

Overall, I’d say that anyone reading even just Holloway and McCormick (say) will come away with a pretty good introduction to the A-T approach to all the main topics in natural theology. For a more advanced treatment of the subject, you cannot do better than:

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and His Nature (in two volumes)

Garrigou-Lagrange was the greatest 20th century thinker in the period of the Neo-Scholastic revival. (Obviously lots of people would give that honor instead to Gilson or Maritain. Not me. But that’s a big topic all by itself.) This work has recently been reprinted and is a must-have for anyone who wants to pursue these issues in depth. (G-L pursued some of the same issues in other works, but this is his most substantial treatment and the one-stop place to look.)

Now, unlike much that is written today on Aquinas’s natural theology, none of these books is particularly interested in the historical or textual context of his arguments; instead, they are interested simply in whether the arguments are correct and defensible today. And that is, ultimately, what matters. Still, historical and textual context can obviously be illuminating, and can in particular help to free us from common misunderstandings. Two invaluable works providing such context are:

William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz

John Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas

Craig is very helpful vis-à-vis the first three of Aquinas’s Five Ways; Wippel provides background on all five.

There is also the question of how A-T positions in natural theology relate to the sorts of issues and assumptions characteristic of contemporary analytic philosophy. Four very useful books in this connection are:

Christopher F. J. Martin, Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations

Eleonore Stump, Aquinas

Norman Kretzmann, The Metaphysics of Theism

Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil

Martin’s book is the most thorough sympathetic examination of the Five Ways currently in print, and is written from an “analytical Thomist” point of view. Stump does not say much about the classical theistic arguments but has much of interest to say on divine simplicity and some of the other divine attributes. Kretzmann is mostly a detailed examination of Aquinas’s arguments concerning the various divine attributes. (It also treats some of Aquinas’s theistic proofs, but in my view Kretzmann is more impressed than he should be with some of the objections to these proofs.) Davies briefly defends the “existential proof” from On Being and Essence and then very helpfully distinguishes the Thomistic approach to the problem of evil from the approaches usually taken in contemporary philosophy of religion. Readers unacquainted with contemporary analytic philosophy will find these works difficult; Davies is the most accessible.

(While on the subject of analytic philosophy and Thomism, I might also briefly mention David Braine’s The Reality of Time and the Existence of God and Barry Miller’s trilogy From Existence to God, A Most Unlikely God, and The Fullness of Being. Even more than the other books mentioned, though, these books are for the more advanced reader, and go well beyond the bounds of a traditional Thomistic approach to natural theology and into issues the understanding of which requires extensive knowledge of the literature in analytic philosophy.)

These books are all very recent compared to the ones I’m emphasizing in this series of posts. Another recent book worth mentioning is:

D. Q. McInerny, Natural Theology

which is written in the style of an old Scholastic philosophy manual – indeed, it is part of a series of textbooks written in this style – but (given that it was published in 2005) addresses recent issues and objections the older manuals do not discuss.

Finally, some books devoted to miscellaneous topics:

Harry R. Klocker, God and the Empiricists

James A. Weisheipl, Nature and Motion in the Middle Ages

William A. Wallace, From a Realist Point of View

Klocker’s book is a useful study, from an A-T point of view, of the ways in which the development of empiricism affected philosophers’ understanding of the classical theistic proofs. What makes the book especially interesting is its extended treatment of Ockham as the forerunner of Locke and Co. The Weisheipl and Wallace books are anthologies largely concerned with issues in the philosophy of science and philosophy of nature, but many of the essays are relevant to understanding and evaluating the argument from motion.

More recommendations could be given, but that’s enough for now, and will already strain either your wallet or your librarian’s patience…

Saturday, August 8, 2009

G. A. Cohen (1941-2009)

Marxist philosopher G. A. Cohen, about whose work I said some nice things recently, has died. Libertarian David Gordon says some nice things about him here. Another libertarian, Jan Narveson, says some nice things about him in the Crooked Timber combox. On the other hand, libertarian Tom Palmer takes a very different view of Cohen here.

After reading Palmer’s comments, you might ponder Chris Bertram’s admiring remark at Crooked Timber that Cohen “was quite brilliant at striking the right balance between the discipline of following the argument where it leads and the importance of hanging onto one’s deepest convictions.” (Just a thought: Can you imagine anyone at Crooked Timber praising a religious thinker who balanced “following an argument where it leads” with “hanging on to his deepest convictions”? Me neither.)

UPDATE: Check out the comboxes to the Gordon and Palmer posts linked to above for some vigorous debate over how libertarians ought to regard Cohen.

Rothbard as a philosopher

Some years back I wrote a very critical post about the libertarian anarchist Murray Rothbard for the old Right Reason blog. Professor Gerard Casey of University College Dublin has just published a response in Libertarian Papers. My original post is archived here, at the Wayback Machine. But since Wayback Machine links can be temperamental, especially when faced with heavy traffic (as this one seems to be this morning, after Casey’s article was posted) I’m re-posting my piece below. It’s from April 25, 2006 and refers back to several earlier RR posts which are also archived at the Wayback Machine, for anyone who is interested. Casey’s reply is here (where you will find an abstract followed by links to two different electronic versions of his article). I’ll post a response when I’ve had a chance to read it carefully.

Murray Rothbard was an influential proponent of an extreme version of libertarianism known as anarcho-capitalism, according to which all taxation is theft and government per se is intrinsically evil. In several recent posts I have expressed a low opinion of Rothbard as a philosopher, and some Rothbardians think I have been unfair to him. In this post I want to examine a typical piece of Rothbardian philosophical argumentation, which I think will show that my estimation of his philosophical skills is warranted.

The example is “typical” in three senses. First, it concerns the very foundation of Rothbard’s moral and political philosophy, rather than some peripheral matter about which a lapse in argumentation could easily be excused. Second, it is an argument that Rothbard repeated in several contexts in virtually the same form over the course of many years, so that it is obvious that he regarded it as a good one. Third, it seems to me to be exemplary of the degree of precision, depth, and detail that characterize Rothbard’s arguments in moral and political philosophy in general (i.e. not a very high degree at all). If Rothbard was capable of giving an interesting philosophical argument, then, we would naturally expect to find one here, and yet (as we will see) we don’t. While I do not claim that this one example decisively establishes Rothbard’s philosophical mediocrity all by itself, I do think it provides a pretty strong indication. And I also think that anyone who reads further in Rothbard’s work will find that it doesn’t get any better.

I want to make it clear at the outset that my low opinion of Rothbard as a philosopher is not based on the fact that I find his arguments ultimately unpersuasive, or even on the fact that I think many of them are just flat-out bad arguments. Obviously, there are lots of important philosophers who have given unpersuasive and even bad arguments. The reason he is a bad philosopher is that he seems incapable of producing even a minimally respectable philosophical argument, by which I mean an argument that doesn’t commit any obvious fallacies or fail to address certain obvious objections. (An argument can be ultimately unpersuasive or even bad while still being minimally respectable in this sense. For example, I think that Rawls’s argument for his two principles of justice is ultimately unpersuasive, but it is not a flat-out bad argument and is certainly at least minimally respectable. And I think Wittgenstein’s argument against the privacy of sensations is a flat-out bad argument, but it too is at least minimally respectable insofar as the fallacies it commits are not obvious ones and he does try to deal with obvious objections.)

I should also make it clear that my low opinion of Rothbard’s philosophical abilities has nothing to do with the particular conclusions he wants to defend. I certainly share his hostility to slavery, socialism, communism, and egalitarian liberalism. I also agree that much of what modern governments do is morally indefensible and that many of the taxes levied by modern governments (maybe even most of them) are unjust. And while I strongly disagree with his claims that government per se is evil and that all taxation is unjust, these are at least philosophically interesting claims. The problem is just that Rothbard seems incapable of giving a philosophically interesting argument for his claims. (Moreover, the claims in question were borrowed by Rothbard from 19th century anarchists like Lysander Spooner, so even where Rothbard is philosophically interesting he isn’t original.)

Here, then, is the example. It is Rothbard’s main argument for the thesis of self-ownership, which is, as I have indicated, the very foundation of his moral and political philosophy, without which his moral case against taxation and government totally collapses. I know of at least three places where he presents it (there may be others): in his book For a New Liberty (first published 1973, revised 1978); in his essay “Justice and Property Rights” (first published 1974, reprinted in his anthology Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd edition); and in his main work on moral and political philosophy, The Ethics of Liberty (1982, revised edition published in 1998). In the revised edition of For a New Liberty, the argument begins as follows:

“Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (pp. 28-29)

The rest of the argument attempts to rule out alternative (2) and has its own problems, but I won’t bother with it because the passage quoted is enough for my purposes. I think this argument is a very bad one; indeed, I think that to anyone with any philosophical training it will be quite obvious that it is bad. And not only is it bad, but given that Rothbard says nothing more in defense of the claims made in this passage (apart from trying to rule out alternative (2)), I think it is clear that the argument fails to be even minimally respectable in the sense described above. I suspect that most readers can immediately see at least some of the problems with it. Here are the ones that occur to me:

1. Even if it were true that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish” and that “the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation,” it just doesn’t follow that anyone has a right to self-ownership. For all Rothbard has shown, we might also be able to think, learn, value, etc. even if we didn’t have any rights at all. (That X could get us Z doesn’t show that Y wouldn’t get it for us too.) Or we might need some rights in order to do these things, but not all the rights entailed by the principle of self-ownership. Or we might really need all the rights entailed by self-ownership, but nevertheless just not have them. After all, the fact that you need something doesn’t entail that you have it, and (as libertarians themselves never tire of pointing out), it certainly doesn’t entail that you have a right to it. For example, wild animals need food to survive, but it doesn’t follow that they have a right to it (indeed, Rothbard himself explicitly denies that animals can have any rights).

Furthermore, why should we grant in the first place that “each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish”? Children survive and flourish very well without choosing most of their means and ends. Some adults are quite happy to let others (parents, a spouse, government officials) choose at least some of their means and ends for them. Many physically or mentally ill people couldn’t possibly survive or flourish unless others chose their means and ends for them. Even a slave or serf could obviously survive and even flourish if his master or lord was of the less brutal sort. And so forth. And if surviving and flourishing are what ground our rights, how could we have a right to suicide or to do anything contrary to our flourishing, as libertarian defenders of the thesis of self-ownership say we do?

Also, why should we grant that respect for each individual’s self-ownership really would ensure every individual’s ability to choose his means and ends, etc.? A leftist might argue that respect for self-ownership would benefit some but leave a great many others destitute and bereft of any interesting range of means or ends to choose from.

Of course, there might be some way a Rothbardian could reply to these objections; I certainly don’t find all of them compelling. But the point is that they are obvious objections to make, and yet Rothbard doesn’t even consider them, much less answer them. Even a brief acknowledgement of some of these objections and a gesture in the direction of a possible reply might have been enough to make the argument minimally respectable, but Rothbard fails to provide even this.

2. The claim that there are “only two alternatives” to denying the thesis of self-ownership is just obviously false. Here are some further alternatives that Rothbard fails to consider: (a) no one owns anyone, including himself; (b) God owns all of us; (c) one class of people has a right to only partial ownership of another class (e.g. the former class has a right to the labor of the latter class, but may not kill members of the latter class, or refuse to provide for their sustenance, or forbid them from marrying, etc.); (d) everyone has partial and/or unequal ownership of everyone else (e.g. everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, but not to the fruits of his labor, which are commonly owned; or everyone has an absolute right to bodily integrity, and an absolute right only to some percentage of the fruits of his labor, with the rest being commonly owned; or everyone has a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden in extreme cases, with a right to a percentage of the fruits of his labor; or the weak and untalented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a large percentage of, though not all of, the fruits of their labor while the strong and talented have an absolute right to bodily integrity and to a much smaller percentage of the fruits of their labor; or the strong and talented, unlike the weak and untalented, have only a presumptive right to bodily integrity, which might be overridden if someone desperately needs an organ transplant; and so on and so forth).

Alternative (b) was defended by Locke (for whom talk of self-ownership was really just a kind of shorthand for our stewardship of ourselves before God), and it would also have been endorsed by natural law theorists in the Thomistic tradition. Rothbard explicitly cites both Locke on self-ownership and the Thomistic natural law tradition, so this alternative should have been obvious to him, and yet he fails even to consider it.

Alternative (c) was the standard view taken by defenders of slavery, most of whom would not have endorsed the unqualified ownership of other people implied by Rothbard’s alternative (1). One would think that Rothbard, who fancied himself a historian of ideas, would be aware of this, and yet here again he simply ignores what should have been another obvious possible alternative.

Some version or other of alternative (d) is arguably implicit in the views of many leftists, very few of whom (if any) would really claim that all of us have equal quotal ownership of each other. At the very least, a minimally charitable reading of left-wing arguments about taxation and redistribution would acknowledge that this, rather than Rothbard’s alternative (2), might be what egalitarian leftists are committed to. But Rothbard fails even to consider the possibility. He suggests (later on in the argument, after the passage quoted above) that “communist” ownership by everyone of everyone would entail that no one could take any action whatsoever without the permission of everyone else, but while this might be true under option (2), it would not be true under the less extreme egalitarian possibilities enshrined in (d).

Alternative (a) is one that Rothbard finally did consider – almost a decade after first giving the argument and after once again ignoring this alternative when repeating the argument in “Justice and Property Rights” – in a brief footnote in The Ethics of Liberty. (He attributes it to George Mavrodes, apart from whom, apparently, Rothbard might never have seen the obvious.) Rothbard’s reply to it is to say that “since ownership signifies range of control, this [i.e. no one’s owning anyone, including himself] would mean that no one would be able to do anything, and the human race would quickly vanish.” But the badness of this argument should also be obvious. While having ownership of something does imply having a range of control over it, having a range of control over it doesn’t imply ownership. I have a certain “range of control” over my neighbor’s flower bed – he couldn’t stop me if I walked over right now and pulled some flowers out of it – but it doesn’t follow that I own it. Animals have a range of control over their environment, but since ownership is a moral category implying the having of certain rights, and animals (by Rothbard’s own admission) have no rights, it follows that they have no ownership of anything. And of course, their lack of ownership of anything hasn’t caused animals as a whole to “vanish,” “quickly” or otherwise, which makes evident the absurdity of Rothbard’s claim that alternative (a) would entail the extinction of the human race.

3. Alternative (1) just obviously doesn’t imply that the members of class B are “subhuman.” Not all defenders of slavery have denied that slaves are fully human; their view is just that some human beings can justly be owned by other ones. Rothbard’s assertion that this “contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans” is just blatantly question-begging, since what is at issue is precisely whether there are any natural human rights that might rule out slavery.

4. Rothbard’s claim that the “parasitism” entailed by alternative (1) “violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange” is also just obviously false. Animals do not engage in “production and exchange,” certainly not in the laissez-faire economics sense intended by Rothbard, but they are obviously alive.

In this one brief passage, then, Rothbard commits a host of fallacies and fails even to acknowledge, much less answer, a number of obvious objections that might be raised against his argument. Nor is this some peripheral argument, which might be written off as an uncharacteristic lapse. It served as the foundation of his entire moral and political theory, and was repeated several times over the course of a decade virtually unaltered. And if things are this bad in the very foundations of his moral and political theory, you can imagine how bad the rest of his philosophical arguments are.

It only compounds the offense that Rothbard was so self-righteous, strident, and uncharitable in his criticisms of those who disagreed with him. The more extreme and untested one’s ideas are, the more rigorous one’s arguments for them need to be and the more tentative and humble one ought to be in presenting and defending them. Yet Rothbard, though his ideas could be very extreme indeed (see here for a particularly grotesque example) gave flimsy arguments for them and tended to dismiss those who disagreed with him as wicked apologists for “statism” and “aggression.”

It is no defense of Rothbard to note that there may be ways for Rothbardians to try to surmount the objections I have raised. No doubt there are, but that is beside the point. What matters is that Rothbard himself never tried to surmount them, nor did he even consider them, even though they are extremely obvious objections. That is the mark of a bad philosopher.
It is also no defense of Rothbard to suggest that he was better as an economist than as a philosopher. Perhaps he was – I’ll leave it to the economists to judge – but that is irrelevant since his moralistic stridency, and in particular his claims that government and taxation are inherently unjust (and not merely inefficient), could only be justified by philosophical arguments, not economic ones. And as I have argued, his philosophical arguments come nowhere close to justifying either the claims themselves or his unshakable confidence in them.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Monton on ID

In response to those who’ve criticized the polemical tone of The Last Superstition, I have emphasized that while the arguments are directed at secularists in general, the polemics are directed only at those who, like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens, have themselves already taken an arrogantly polemical and condescending tone with defenders of religious belief. As with physical violence, ideological aggression justly can and sometimes should be met with equal and opposite force.

But I have also emphasized that there are honorable and formidable atheists with whom I would never take such a tone. (I was a convinced atheist for a long stretch of my own life, after all.) J. L. Mackie, Quentin Smith, and J. J. C. Smart are three examples. Another is Bradley Monton, who has just published Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design. Monton rejects ID, but regards it as worthy of serious consideration and eschews the usual straw men and ad hominem attacks. I have not yet read the book – I just ordered it – but I look forward to doing so.

In TLS and in a long WWWtW combox exchange some months ago, I have been critical of ID from an Aristotelian-Thomistic perspective. But I have always deplored the thuggish, dishonest treatment ID theorists have received from most of their secularist critics. Monton hopes to move the debate to a more serious and fruitful level.

Monton is an honorable and courageous man. Go buy his book.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Superheroes and sentimentality

My Watchmen post below generated some interesting combox feedback, much of which I agree with. Thinking about the subject further, it occurs to me that there might be yet another factor at work in the phenomenon I described.

In The Aesthetics of Music, Roger Scruton (building on some ideas of Michael Tanner) puts forward a brief but illuminating account of sentimentality. A sentimental person, according to Scruton, tends to be quick to respond emotionally to a stimulus, will appear to be pained but will enjoy his pangs, will respond with equal violence to a variety of stimuli in succession, will nevertheless avoid following his emotional responses up with appropriate actions, and will respond more readily to strangers and to abstract issues than to persons known to him or to concrete circumstances requiring time, energy, or personal sacrifice. In short, a sentimental person is one whose emotional life becomes an end in itself and loses its connection both to the external circumstances that would normally shape it and to the behavior that it ought to generate. Feelings of moral outrage, romantic passion, and other emotional states become valued for their own sake to such an extent that the actual moral facts, the well-being of the beloved, etc. fade into the background. Sentimentality thus involves having one’s emotions “on the cheap” – enjoying them, as it were, without paying the costs they entail. For that reason, Scruton says, it is a vice.

I would suggest that the following behavior patterns are pretty clear signs of sentimentality in this sense:

“Doing something” about “world hunger” by making (or buying) records like “We are the world,” watching Live Aid, etc., while knowing or caring little about what actually causes food shortages or what actually happens to emergency food supplies sent to Third World countries.

Badmouthing capitalism while collecting gigantic paychecks (actors, pop stars, etc.) or otherwise living comfortably off of the capitalist system (professors, students, etc.)

Thinking that the following sorts of behavior evince great virtue: voting a certain way; going to a political rally; signing a petition; sorting one’s garbage into different bins; driving a Prius; sticking an anti-Bush sticker on the bumper of one’s car; etc.

Thinking the following sorts of behavior are not particularly virtuous: refraining from sex until you are married; staying married for better or worse, richer or poorer; not aborting a baby despite the fact that it was unplanned, will be an inconvenience, is disabled; etc.

Expressing outrage over the plight of the people of this or that war-torn country when doing so might cause political damage to some conservative politician, but ignoring them otherwise; denouncing proposals actually to do something about their plight (e.g. economic sanctions, military action), while offering no concrete alternatives.

Believing it takes real courage to “stand up” to an evangelical Christian who publishes a book or gives a speech, while refusing to say anything that might offend a jihadist who slits a throat or blows up a pizzeria.

Weeping over the cramped conditions inside chicken coops and dog kennels while heartily approving of those who kill and dismember fetuses.


Suppose there were people prone to this sort of vicious sentimentality – purely hypothetical I know, but let’s just pretend. Is it possible they might also be prone to the following sort of cognitive dissonance?

Thinking movies like Watchmen present us with deep moral quandaries and characters whose motives and actions, however horrific, we must seek to “understand” rather than either “condone” or “condemn.”

while, at the same time

Thinking that the decisions made by the Bush administration in the face of the threat of future 9/11-style attacks, the persistent flouting by the likes of Saddam Hussein of a series of UN resolutions, etc., represented no moral difficulties at all but only evil, evil, evil.

To ask the question is, I think, to answer it.