Archives for category: Quora

What are some ways how to not be bothered by people’s ignorance?

  1. Develop the ability to enjoy explaining things, which would work against their ignorance. Then realize that were they not ignorant you would not have much occasion to educate.
  2. Realize that everyone is ignorant, as Will Rogers wisely explained, only on different subjects. Try a little humility!
  3. Impute responsibility for their ignorance correctly — on forces outside your control. As Hellenistic philosophers sagely advised, there is no point in getting worked up about things you cannot appreciably change.
  4. Develop a grand theory of knowledge and nescience, and take comfort in the fact that though people are largely ignorant, we can at least understand why. Once you have a grasp of the reason for something, it becomes easier to handle.
  5. Feel superior to the ignoramuses. If you are proud in your knowledge, you cannot really be bothered by their ignorance, since their ignorance performatively proves your superiority. Revel in their ignorance!

Hmmm. That fifth method seems a bit suspect, eh?

…as answered on Quora, June 10, 2018….

As a libertarian, why did you choose to be a libertarian over being a moderate or centrist?

…as answered on Quora….

I was a moderate “liberal” when I was in high school. Well, maybe. I was strong on civil rights and hated anything that smacked of imperialism, but had rather humdrum and unexceptional notions about economic policy. I sometimes thought of myself as moderate, like my mother, and, at other times, as more liberal than my Democrat father.

But I was not a reactionary. And I was never inclined to socialism — the extremist version, “Communist” socialism — which I knew enough about to regard with utter suspicion.

I was nevertheless very curious about utopian communal experiments. That may have been more a romantic curiosity than an eager political agenda. So, I was a seeker, and my quest led me to a book that was new at that time: Robert Nozick’s 1974 classicAnarchy, State and Utopia. I devoured it at age 17, but — though greatly impressed (and in complete agreement with the final third of the book) — for another three years I assumed that gun control was a grand idea and that minimum wage legislation was the very minimum we could do for the working poor. Nozick had not convinced me of libertarianism, and I was still pretty much in the centrist camp, between left and right — the former which I distrusted and the latter which I loathed.

What changed my mind?

Three things, at least:

  1. I came to see that many statist “solutions” to social problems (minimum wages being a great example) are in and of themselves (a) not what people typically think they are even on the face of it, and (b) do not show the uniformly good benefits claimed for them. Indeed, they often, even usually, produce widespread negative effects.
  2. Since grade school I had been deeply concerned with in-group/out-group dynamics. From observation and from reading I had learned that people become rather irrational in relationship to both their tribes and to outsiders. The sense of justice that so keenly moved me, but seemed fragile in so many others, was almost invariably perverted because of the playing out of this inevitable social orientation. I saw amity/enmity (inclusion/exclusion) in both standard and inverse forms as a huge problem, and I came to see the individualist conception of liberty as the best solution to it.
  3. Being, as I was, an odd duck, I recognized that my values and my developing understanding were largely at variance with common opinion. This landed me with a philosophical problem: value diversity. How could there be any justice if values were diverse? That is, if justice is giving people “what they deserve” but desert is largely dependent upon a specific, invariant value set, how can we determine the substance of justice? Isn’t it arbitrary? “Relative”? This was the question that unsettled me as I closed Anarchy, State and Utopia for the first time. How is justice even possible at all? I came to see liberty as a universally handy and usually easily identifiable social equilibrium boundaryone that could adjudicate competing values by not resting on strategies dependent and understood primarily in values terms. (Whew; sorry about that.) Freedom possesses a formalistic element that allows it to serve as a good balancing point among competing valued agendas.*

And there we get to the answer to our present question: freedom is a moderating principle.

It is not an extremist notion at all — I am with Brandon Ross on this. Both your desire to steal from me and my desire to steal from you must be thwarted. The compromise is no stealing. Grogh’s plan to enslave others, and others’ machinations to enslave Grogh? Both strategies must be given up. I leave you alone, you leave me alone . . . until we can find mutually advantageous opportunities for cooperation. And then we work together (or just trade) to achieve either shared or separate ends.

We respect each other’s separateness and individuality as a baseline, and hold each other accountable no matter what group we belong to. We can be as gregarious or as withdrawn as we want. But neither our “other-interests” nor our “self-interests” provide excuses to harm each other.

And the simple rule that prevents chaos and strife?

Do not to initiate force.

Freedom is the condition where no one is preyed upon by others. It is the condition where we support each other voluntarily. Or not.

Today’s political centrists try to moderate competing claims in amazingly inconsistent ways. On some occasions or contexts your group lives off my group; in others, mine lives off yours. On some occasions “we” sacrifice individuals for group benefit; in others, “we” sacrifice our wealth or attention for the benefit of a few individuals. How the “bargains” are made depends upon political pressure in either a democratic or behind-the-scenes corrupt fashion (there are differences, but the differences are not huge), and it is by historical happenstance that a centrist holds to one program one week, a competing program the next.

A centrist can be talked into just about anything.

Because what centrists moderate are competing expressed political demands, their principles are ad hoc and non-rigorous.

One epoch the blacks are ridden herd over; the next they are released from such oppression; a decade later they are given vast amounts of resources without anything in exchange, enticing them to become wards, “clients” of the State. One decade Asians are allowed in the country to do hard labor; a few later they are harassed and deported; in wartime Japanese are interred; much later some are compensated. There is no real principle discernible. Centrists move to and fro to the winds of doctrine.

They call it “being realistic.”

Libertarianism offers a way out of this appalling back-and-forth of in-group/out-group antagonism.

It is an eminently civilized way out. It is the basic “moral deal”: I sacrifice my options for gain through initiated force, and you do the same — and among all these freed people (freed from each others’ malignity and coercion and exploitation) we find opportunities for mutual advance.

Despite the apparently huge sacrifices for individual or particular group gain, the gains from civilization are vast, and for everybody.

I know, I know: the cost of liberty sure seems high: you can no longer gain a sense of pride — or revel in temporary triumph — in making your enemies pay for what you want. The desire to coerce and be coerced is very baboonish, and suppressing that desire is not always easy. Limiting our lust to dominate down to defense and restitution (and perhaps retaliation)? Easier for some than others. And to restrict the resolution of conflicts to public adjudication, according to public principles that are impartial as to specific persons or groups? Where is the fun in that?

Well, there is nothing much fun in relying upon the rule of law, rather than the rule of regulators, redistributionists, and rent-seekers.

But the rule of law does allow a lot of fun. Not for no reason is freedom commonly associated with fun. Yet that is not the whole story: there is a certain nobility in the responsibility required, in insisting upon an acute focus on actions.

And remember, it is honest.

Centrists, I came to see, were always getting sucked into little grafts and even extravagant boondoggles. And yet they are proud. Their pride can be seen in their over-confidence, their conceit in their discernment. They think they can conjure up wisdom to judge each new situation “according to its merits.”

That is hubristic. No one can do that on the macro social level. The world is too complex.

We need simple rules to live by, and to allow the prudential principle of “according to its merits” succeed or fail on voluntary terms. Failure must be accepted as such — and not merely shrugged off as in moderate statism, where every failure is an excuse to throw more money at it, sometimes also placing “better people” at the top.

Without freedom as a limiting principle, democracies become welfare states and welfare states become “churning states” — where there is so much redistribution of wealth and advantage that in most cases it proves impossible to know who really comes out ahead and who gets the short end of the stick.

I became a libertarian because I saw liberty as a solution to

  1. the craziness of the left’s “cult of the other” as well as
  2. the right’s “no kill like overkill” defense of in-group.
  3. But, perhaps most importantly, to the centrists’ pathetic attempts at moderating those two anti-freedom tendencies in politics in ad hoc and piecemeal fashion, according to the realpolitik of the moment.

I became a libertarian because I did not want to be suckered by incoherent or perverse strategies. I did not want to be a mark. And I did not want to encourage the grifters.

* My position before becoming a libertarian was, philosophically, summed up neatly in Walter Kaufmann’s 1973 treatise/self-help book From Decidophobia to Autonomy Without Guilt and Justice. I worked through his congenial non-cognitivism by seeing the Schelling Point aspect of the Non-Aggression Principle, and, later, by incorporating an evolutionary component to establish justice as an emergent property of distributed adjudications of disputes over long periods of social history. The book that helped me see freedom’s utility — a sort of anti-disutility — was Ludwig von Mises’ 1962 classicThe Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science. In that work I saw something even more challenging than value diversity: value subjectivity. And the social function of freedom became apparent . . . but that’s another story.

As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s demise leads to the brain death and moral implosion of the left, I am reminded of a question I answered, two years ago, on the Net’s premiere Q&A site. Here is what I wrote on Friday when I heard the news: “RBG RIP — and sayonara to the last shred of sense in American politics. Not because she was that sense, but because her life held her admirers’ utter desperation in abeyance.”

Why aren’t Supreme Court justices assassinated often, given their political importance and their low number?

…as answered on Quora….

What inspires the anger, hatred, rage, or vendetta to nurture a hankering to kill a powerful person? I think it is the kind of authority that the powerful person represents.

The American Presidency focuses executive power, and is usually accompanied by charismatic and traditional modes of authority. Additionally, the single office-holder in the position has a lot of discretion in favoring or disfavoring a person or group, and is seen — not without reason — to hold a great deal of personal power. And this combination of modes of authority and efficacy for change makes presidents good targets for the aggrieved. A number of American presidents have been shot at, but have failed to succumb to the bullet — Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan come quickly to mind — and the successful assassinations are infamous, numbering precisely four:

  • Abraham Lincoln
  • James Garfield
  • William McKinley
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy

They were killed, historians tell us, by

  • an actor out for revenge (and perhaps working on a bizarre plot to help the South rise again);
  • a disgruntled job seeker (who felt personally and professionally betrayed);
  • a crazed anarchist; and
  • a Communist ex-Marine.

Can you imagine the kinds of men that these four were . . . actually setting their minds against a Supreme Court Justice, to see someone so “impersonal” as worth killing? The kind of authority wielded by the Nine is rational-legal. People tend to have a hard time wrapping their heads around that kind of authority, which is why they keep voting for charismatic men to fill the Presidency role. We understand charisma. Viscerally. And we grok traditional hierarchy, too. (Both are related to sexual selection, so these forms of authority get at us deep.) But rational-legal authority? That does not grab us either by the gut or the groin.

And to kill a man, especially at the likely cost of one’s own life, requires, surely, some deep appeal to the innards.

Well, that was what I wrote on Quora in August 2018. But times have changed. Now we see Democratic luminaries openly threatening insurrection and a deliberately destructive holocaust if the president goes ahead and . . . does his constitutional duty. Would these luminaries actually light the fires, set off the bombs and shoot the guns? Not likely. But their words sure look like incitements to riot. To me. What else would they be?

And they also go some way to feed my deep suspicion that the fires set throughout my state, and the two states directly south, were set, in numerous instances, by antifa/Black Bloc “protesters.”

If this becomes a shooting war, on the streets, between anarchists and antifa and Democrats manqué, on the one side, and those of us who prefer a rule of law to tyranny, on the other, then shouldn’t the breakdown of law and order be directed, in part, at the twits like Reza Aslan who tweet evil threats?

Or Twitter could apply its own rules against these maniacs and de-platform them. That would go some way to reëstablishing a moral order. And show that the apparently partisan microblogging site takes actual threats seriously.

But it is interesting how a Supreme Court position has become so vital to the left. Is this really all about keeping abortion and protecting that bizarre decision, Roe v. Wade?

Democrats sure do like their child sacrifice rights.

Why do libertarians focus so much on taxation?

…as answered on Quora….

Libertarians pride themselves — not unreasonably — on their principles, which they say make sense from root to leaf of society. Whereas most of politics is argument over fruits and twigs, libertarians aim to go much deeper, down the trunk to the structure in the soil.

Politics is the art of influencing the behavior of the State, and taxation is the most basic state activity. Organizations without the power to tax do not qualify as States. Libertarians extol voluntary (reciprocal; multilateral) interaction, and correctly point out that taxation is hegemonic . . . based, ultimately, on initiated violence and the threat of it. So libertarians look at taxation suspiciously — at best.

Classical liberal theorists were of a similar mind. French economist J.-B. Say, for example, argued that “A tax can never be favorable to the public welfare, except by the good use that is made of its proceeds.” The idea here is that taxation itself is the worst way of going about building a civilization, but if there is no other way to protect the public, then tax, and expend the conscript resources only on projects (rule of law, national defense, say) that truly benefit everybody.

Libertarians often argue that most government spending, these days, does not fill the old liberal standard of benefiting everybody. Instead, most spending of taxed resources aids some at the expense of others, and amounts not to serving a plausible public interest, but, instead, serving private, or factional interests.

Therefore libertarians argue against all variants of statism on grounds that would have been familiar to the old liberals, often making arguments like this: government funds built on taxes must inevitably present a “tragedy of the commons” where individuals and factions fight each other to exploit the common resource each for maximum advantage, gaining more than the other — or at least not gaining too little to become a net taxpayer. This endangers the common resource — just as overgrazing of a common field, or over-fishing of a commonly owned lake, river, or stream — and can have the effect of favoring the greedy and powerful over the masses, and eventually leading to the degradation of the commons.

Classical liberal economists, individualist social theorists, and libertarian political philosophers have been elaborating variations on this theme for centuries. These arguments have demoralized statists, over and over, to the point that they turn to obscurantism (Marxian fancies or Keynesian farragoes) or mere name-calling, in response. (Statism is the idea that the public good can be served by massive state regulation and spending, all dependent upon taxation.)

But this is mostly conflict over branches. Down at the root libertarians emphasize what the old liberals usually just “understood”: taxation is expropriation by force, and is an intrinsically bad way to run a civilized enterprise.

And, on this level, we see many to the far left taking the opposite approach. It is not uncommon, these days, for “progressives” and socialists and other statist politicians to look upon taxation as a good thing in and of itself. It is good to take most of the wealth of some people, and some of the wealth of most people, and not only to “do good” with that wealth. People should not have that wealth. They do not deserve it. They cannot properly use it. Marshaling the State to confiscate this wealth is a virtuous and indeed noble activity!

President Barack Obama took that tack when he argued that the capital gains tax rate should be kept high or even raised even if lower rates would yield more revenue. He flouted J.-B. Say’s rule; he flaunted the thief’s ethos, right in our faces. And when he and Senator Elizabeth Warren floated the “you didn’t build that” meme, they were carrying on that fundamentally illiberal program. It is an attack on voluntary society and an upgrading of the State to a kind of super-paternalistic (and maternalistic) Authority.

Libertarians focus on taxation to counter these fiends. Taxation is the key to the whole super-state mania. Libertarians see in the statist defense of the intrinsic righteousness of taxation an assault on civilization’s liberatory principle: the growth of reciprocity, voluntary cooperation, and peaceful relations. And libertarians see in the lip-smacking lust to ply the State to take other people’s money as the grossest corrupter of morals: the celebration of greed and envy and malice under cover of bogus “social justice” and pharisaic “caring.”

Libertarians oppose the demagoguery behind super-state transfers of wealth, hoping that humanity can avoid the cementing of tyranny by means of the greatest long con in history.

I always think that life is like a fairytale. What should I do to come out from this assumption?

…as answered on Quora….

You could do worse. Fairy tales are folk horror stories so concisely told that usually their morals are fairly easy to discern. In fairy tales dangers abound. Magic is not the power of wish, but potency at great cost. Sometimes good triumphs, but only after a huge setback. Sometimes fairy stories are very sad. Even frightening.

Read the Grimms, Hans Christian Andersen, and Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian Folktales. I do not think you will come away from them with a need to purge them from your imagination, but with some wisdom you can apply their lessons to your life.

You will notice differences between them and your life. The dangers in the woods in the old European fairy tales can at best serve as metaphors for today’s dangers, and the malign and delusive magics in those stories need to be translated to somewhat more mundane if still quite potent dangers, such as fraud, ideology, and so much else of word work and imaging.

My favorite American writer is James Branch Cabell. In his The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck: A Comedy of Limitations (1915), Cabell synopsizes a sad little Hans Christian Andersen story and then tells a romance set in Virginia (or “Sil.”) in the early 20th century. There you will see a master take a fairy story and apply it to life. After reading that book, I trust you will see a way to transcend superficial “fairy tale” mentality, and grow beyond naïvety. And in “The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome” (it can be found in The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy about Her [1948] and elsewhere) you may conclude that a fairy-tale vision is in no way enviable, but also, perhaps, not evitable. The themes in fairy tales are the stuff of life.

If you “always think of life as a fairy tale,” my suggestion is: study fairy tales.

For what I think you really mean is that you tend to think of life as offering up temptations as the magic in fairy tales tempts those that encounter it. If you look at the literature of fairy tales, you will see that in story as in life the magic is not what it seems.

Hans Christian Andersen

Did President Trump prove our system is so corrupt you can buy the presidency or any other position?

…as answered on Quora….

No. The opposite, in fact.

He did not outspend Hillary Clinton. Not by a long shot. That someone might think so is likely the result of widespread misunderstanding of how politics works in America.

Here is Bloomberg’s factual take:

He didn’t win the money race, but Donald Trump will be the next president of the U.S. In the primaries and general election, he defied conventional wisdom, besting better financed candidates by dominating the air waves for free. Trump also put to use his own cash, as well as the assets and infrastructure of his businesses, in unprecedented fashion. He donated $66 million of his own money, flew across the country in his private jet, and used his resorts to stage campaign events. At the same time, the billionaire was able to draw about $280 million from small donors giving $200 or less. Super-PACs, which can take contributions unlimited in size, were similarly skewed toward his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, Trump won the presidency despite having raised less than any major party presidential nominee since John McCain in 2008, the last to accept federal funds to pay for his general election contest.

Clinton and her super-PACs raised a total of $1.2 billion, less than President Barack Obama raised in 2012. Her sophisticated fundraising operation included a small army of wealthy donors who wrote seven-figure checks, hundreds of bundlers who raised $100,000 or more from their own networks, and a small-dollar donor operation modeled on the one used by Obama in 2012. She spent heavily on television advertising and her get-out-the-vote operation, but in the end, her fundraising edge wasn’t enough to overcome Trump’s ability to dominate headlines and the airwaves.

Trump out-maneuvered Clinton.

Trump has charisma, believe it or not, and a keen sense of self-promotion; he is a genius at branding and marketing, which carried over into the political realm. Hillary, on the other hand, has all the charm of a hitman disguised as a cackling circus automaton, and none of the political wisdom of her ex-president husband.

Trump is the Middle American common man’s candidate. Hillary Clinton was perceived as the feckless and corrupt candidate of the coastal elites. He did not buy the election. She blew it.


Did Frédéric Bastiat use the slippery slope fallacy to manipulate the facts?

…as answered on Quora….

I would need some examples to work with.

But let us remember: the “slippery slope fallacy” is merely the misattribution of slipperyness to non-slippery slopes, or (more rarely) misattribution of a slope where no slope exists.

Misattributions are errors by definition. But slippery slopes do exist, so, technically, there is no special error in talking about the “slippery slope.” What we are dealing with are attribution errors. Is this or that usage of the “slippery slope” reasonable or not?

It is also worth noting that sometimes we must transit slippery slopes. We cannot help it. It is the way of the world.

That being said, when I use Slippery Slope arguments, I am doing one of several things, and I hope I do them consciously:

  1. I am identifying a slope where others see plains or peaks or valleys.
  2. I am identifying slipperiness where others see sure footing.
  3. I am cautioning care where others, though recognizing their necessary transit across (or up, or down) a slippery slope, seem unduly reckless.

Have I milked this metaphor for all its worth?


During the Reagan presidency, Congress seems to have become fundamentally more divided than it was in the past and has remained that way since. What factors caused/may have caused this?

…as answered on Quora….

A political scientist who has studied the actual complexion of the two chambers might give us some fascinating perspectives. But I, who have not studied the data carefully, but merely lived through the period in question, will make a few guesses.

One is that the central government of the federal union grew progressively nationalistic over time, with the executive branch and the judicial branch growing in power, and the scope of their purview widening considerably. And because the general government took on more and more tasks, Congress just could not keep up with the demands to ‘regulate the regulators,’ so Congress off-loaded many legislative functions to the other two branches. The executive branch naturally tends to grow, considering the nature of centralized power, and in America, with a written Constitution, the power of judges to ‘legislate from the bench’ was always possible, and increasingly instantiated. So the process now appears inevitable.

Further, as the centralization process continued, regional differences became less important. So the two parties, having become dominant in part as a result of the electoral methods Condorcet wrote about centuries earlier, had to compete on something other than regional grounds. This meant that they became more ideological. Whereas in the first half of the century the two parties each supported a progressive and conservative wing, on those two grounds the parties increasingly sorted themselves out.

And, with the ideological divide now falling on party lines, compromise became more difficult.

And as compromise became more difficult, rancor grew.

But something else was in evidence: massive failure. The 1960s were violent and costly, and in the 1970s the economic situation became chaotic. And the politicians had little clue of what to do about it.

Further, a great deal of dishonesty and cluelessness grew at a fundamental level, and ideological blinders became a huge aspect of normal politics. This was true in both parties, but I will give an obscure example regarding the Democrats: Ted Kennedy orchestrated a deregulation of the petroleum industry, and Jimmy Carter signed it into law. But Carter and Kennedy were fearful of their own program. They talked endlessly about ‘windfall profits’ in the petroleum industry, which is what one would expect, initially, upon deregulation. But these profits were important to the whole market process, for correcting the widespread misallocation of resources that had plagued the 1970s’ gasoline shortages, caused largely by regulations and setting markets up for exploitation by OPEC. But Carter and Kennedy talked endlessly and sententiously about taxing the profits out of existence — which hampered recovery — and insisted on slow deregulation. And Carter, in his famous ‘malaise speech,’ did not even mention the ongoing deregulation, but talked up government subsidies to alternative energy instead. This ceded to the Republicans the glamor of market reforms (on taking office Reagan made the deregulation immediate) and left to the Democrats the fantasies of central planning. Basically, this sealed the fate of the direction of the two parties, making their differences more ideological yet.

But I am not speaking of the elephant in the room: rogue Deep State action and its influence on partisan politics.

It was Mark Felt, Associate Director of the FBI, in his role as Deepthroat in the Watergate scandal, who took down Richard M. Nixon. This shocked Republicans, considering that corruption and illegality in the White House was s.o.p. during the Johnson administration. While the electorate was shocked by Nixon’s corruption, it was indeed nothing compared to what had gone on before — the assassination of JFK itself was likely an inside job, too. Resentments like this have deep effects. But Republicans also played the corruption game: Nixon got into office by a treasonous interference in the Vietnam peace talks, and Reagan/Bush pushed around Congress with the Iran/Contra biz. Each side increasingly engaged in vendetta politics, ramping up discord in the increasingly divided Congress.

But that FBI intervention into political life with Watergate was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg — make that ice sheet. The Church investigations into the CIA had shown a rogue element that demonstrated Eisenhower’s prophecy of the dangers of ‘the military-industrial complex.’ Then a former director of the CIA became Vice President — George Herbert Walker Bush — and the level of imperial corruption grew by orders of magnitude. This was not lost on Congress, which became increasingly sclerotic and corrupt itself.

The full measure of the bipartisan craziness can be seen in insane budgeting practices: deficits and debt. This is driving the whole country crazy, though not on the surface. Indeed, repression of these issues may be the cause of much anxiety that cannot be assuaged. Add to that the ratcheting up of the power of the national security state, and . . . well, it is amazing we are not in the dustbin of history already.


Photo by Karolina Grabowska on


A key to ideological polarization: your side (whatever side that is) lies or evades a major truth, indeed, concocts a lie; the esoteric effect is to solidify behind the lie; but the exoteric effect is that many others, outside your group, see the lie or the evasion and then leap to the opposite of your position.

Now, this would not be so bad if everything you said were wrong. But what if you be half-right? Well, you encourage the extreme of the reaction against your position, which would be to reject the good in your position as well as the bad.


With our media controlled/influenced to an astounding extent by CIA/Deep State measures (Operation Mockingbird and successor programs, but not exclusively), and with disinformation and propagandistic spin being an integral part of almost every news presentation, when people find this out, when they begin to see that they are indeed being lied to and quite thoroughly, there is a not surprising tendency for them to leap to an extreme anti-grand-narrative narrative.

Thus QAnon is born.

Assuming Q were nuts. But even if Q be true and not nuts (and I have no evidence to falsify its major claims, and I doubt if you do either), its attraction to many is that it is a grand narrative running completely counter to the media-disinformation complex.

The major corporate media news purveyors created, perhaps inadvertently, QAnon.

Yesterday I answered a question on Quora. So far, over a hundred views but only one upvote. I realize that my contributions to civilization are not widely appreciated nor easily marketable.

By refusing to hold a position on something, do you, by default, accept all positions or reject all positions?

…as answered on Quora….

Neither. To suspend judgment on something is to set the default position to “Unknown” or “Undecided.”

There is a word relevant here: Epoché.

Sextus Empiricus, from whom our word “empirical” derives, explained the word like this: “Epoché is a state of the intellect on account of which we neither deny nor affirm anything.”

Now, this sort of generalized withholding of assent is, I think, impossible. It is meaningless, for reasons American pragmatist philosopher C.S. Peirce gave when, while discussing Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, he argued that we cannot doubt everything at once:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices which we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has given up. It is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

Ultra-skeptical positions are mere poses. You cannot really “reject all positions.”

And by refusing to judge the facticity or the value of something, you are not “accepting all positions,” for by not taking a position on the issue in question, you have indeed not taken that position, and your having taken a position to not accept the position you are merely assenting to that “meta” level of the issue, not the substantive level.

You see we find ourselves in the realm of the paradox. Even if you aimed to be a Pyrrhonian skeptic, by not taking a position on all positions you have taken one position: that of not taking a position on all other possible positions!

This problem of paradox rears its head if you attempt to “accept all positions,” too — for in taking the meta-position of “accepting all positions” you have rejected the position of rejecting all positions.

Bertrand Russell developed his theory of the Logical Types to handle such paradoxes. They are fun little puzzles, the kind of thing Raymond Smullyan wrote wonderful little books about. But, though not trivial, they are not of great moment, either.

So, what can we conclude?

To withhold judgment on a limited number of matters is not only possible but advisable. For, as Marcus Aurelius said:

“You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you.”

The question at hand is very much something like an attempt to extort a verdict from you — for, odds are, when someone tells you that by not taking a position on something you really are taking a position, they are trying to trick you into changing your opinion.


Now, there is one additional way to look at this that we must cover: action.

We are sometimes asked to form an opinion on a matter relevant to action, let us say, whether war or pacifism be moral. If you, not without reason, withhold your judgment on the matter, you are apt to practically favor the pacifist side as a performative matter. The proponent of war will then accuse you of materially siding against war, and, indeed, siding with his enemy by not resisting the enemy in question.

And there is indeed something to this. But by refusing to settle your opinion and, as a consequence, not get involved, out of indifference or confusion, you will take a position on one side of the practice, but not on the matter of ethics, which was the original question. You could take a very different active position: you could, like Arjuna under the advisement of Krishna, take up battle, performing the action with some emotional distance, recognizing that the war is ghastly and complex but your position in the world is less murky. The decision to behave this way is a decision to bracket out the moral question and risk committing an immoral act. Jean-Paul Sartre called this tragic stance “dirty hands,” I believe. Make of it what you will.

Now I’ve gone and put a spin on an ancient text (Bhagavad-Gita) that I have not read in decades! So my position right now is to stop.


How can a Libertarian ever work for the government without compromising his/her beliefs?

…as answered on Quora….

The libertarian might hold to some variant of “relative ethics” as written about in Herbert Spencer’s Data of Ethics. Libertarianism is a formulation of Spencer’s conception of “absolute ethics.”

Spencer gave several cautionary principles when discussing ethics. One of them is this: “A great part of the perplexities in ethical speculation arise from neglect of this distinction between right and least wrong—between the absolutely right and the relatively right.”

The principles of liberty depend upon conditions wherein equal freedom is possible, where there is enough reciprocity regarding forbearance and tolerance that sticking to strict principles makes sense. When most of the people around you will not grant you your rightful freedom, then, well, all bets are off. Spencer writes that the “perfect conduct which is the subject-matter of Absolute Ethics” is not always possible, and must be distinguished from “that imperfect conduct which is the subject-matter of Relative Ethics.”

We live in a messy world, filled with coercion and conceptions of authority that run against the grain of libertarian ethics. Must we confine ourselves to living as if all this did not exist? Spencer wrote, early in his career, of a “right to ignore the State.” But just give that a try. The State will crush you, destroy you. So, as compensation for the impositions it places upon us, seemingly demanding to make martyrs of us, perhaps a few benefits from the system is more than allowable.

Most libertarian ideologues I know bristle at this penultimate chapter to the Data of Ethics. But it has long seemed to me that much of this objection to relative ethics is just denial of reality. Many libertarians prefer the fantasy. But facts don’t care about our preferences. It is simply the case that “a large part of human conduct is not absolutely right, but only relatively right,” and we have to deal with that.

And it is worse, “we have to recognize the further truth that in many cases where there is no absolutely right course, but only courses that are more or less wrong, it is not possible to say which is the least wrong.”

So, a libertarian who understands the actual nature of our lived experience would not pretend that ethics must serve only a straitjacket that we are obliged to tie ourselves into while those who would do us much harm are comparatively free.

The truth of the matter of liberty is that it all depends upon a general practice of reciprocal forbearance from initiating coercive interference. When that forbearance is not forthcoming, then the relevance of libertarian justice loses its traction.

This is something libertarians generally do not acknowledge. I think they are wrong not to.

And, I suspect, when they do acknowledge this feature of the moral universe, their consciences will be free to make quite a few compromises that rub up against their principles. It is inevitable. Indeed, it is almost required, as Spencer noted: “Among people who are treacherous and utterly without scruple, entire truthfulness and openness must bring ruin.

If all around recognize only the law of the strongest, one whose nature will not allow him to inflict pain on others, must go to the wall. There requires a certain congruity between the conduct of each member of a society and other’s conduct. A mode of action entirely alien to the prevailing modes of action, cannot be successfully persisted in—must eventuate in death of self, or posterity, or both.

Hence it is manifest that we must consider the ideal man as existing in the ideal social state.

And that the ideal social state — the free society — does not exist. And its strictures cannot fully apply.

That being said, I have found it difficult to even conceive working for some realms of government. Take policing, a job that usually entails the enforcement of evil laws — malign and harmful both. I would find working for that kind of government a disgusting business. Even activities like teaching in heavily subsidized colleges strikes me as too much compromise. But I rarely criticize those who compromise differently than I. If your only talent is for teaching, for example, and you lack an entrepreneurial bent, you will probably find yourself teaching somewhere in a government school or at least in a tax-subsidized, government-controlled institution.

Ugh, I shudder. But such is this messy world.

We are so far from a perfect society that we can just barely conceive of perfect conduct. Which is what Absolute Ethics is all about. In this creaky, state-ridden world, we must make do with Relative Ethics.