Archive for March, 2010

Column on Sad Time in America

Sad Times in America

Tibor R. Machan

Graig Furgeson, the late late-night host on CBS-TV, makes a little remark each weekday night to the effect, “It’s a great day for America.” I don’t really get it, I confess, since if it were a great day for America each day, regardless of the details, it would be pretty meaningless to say so. But these days it is especially ridiculous to make such a claim. (I have taken the show off my automatic record instructions on my TiVo because of this, actually, and because I really don’t much like TV these days other than for a few shows and movies.)

As someone who immigrated here from a communist country where health care was deemed a free good, and a free entitlement and where the system went bankrupt eventually so no one had anything to show for all the promises made, I find it scandalous that this myth of health care as a right–as if health care professionals could all be drafted harmlessly into involuntary servitude to us all–has managed to survive and even grow. Yes, it might be a swell thing if what we want in life could be obtained free of charge, if everyone could work to produce all the goods and services wanted from them at no cost to anyone, if dreams and fantasies were reality but, come to think of it, I am not sure this is even a desirable fantasy. It has certainly been a horrible reality wherever it has been attempted since it means, in practice, that both goods and services promised at no charge to the vast numbers who apparently actually believe it could happen will in time run out for everyone except the most clever of us, the ones who can game the system for a little while.

Many moons ago, when I was going to graduate school in California, a new welfare measure was instituted with the announced intention of wanting to help out the poor and disadvantaged who wish to get a graduate degree. No sooner was the program announced and set into motion, it became evident that only the smart and already reasonably well healed will gain from it–means testing had been declared illegal, so there was no way to tell who really might need the help and could make good use of it versus all those who would just try to cash in on a new entitlement that they could obtain at other people’s expense. It was a clear case of socialism at work–promise to benefit all who had a need but put up with the fact that the resources will be squandered in a classic instance of the tragedy of the commons.

Of course, complaining about the forthcoming health care-health insurance entitlement system as if it were the first step on the way to socialism–which is how Utah’s Republican Senator Orin Hatch characterized it–is absurd. From its beginning America had various welfare measures which, however, hadn’t done immediate damage other than establish the precedence so objections to such measures could not be made on principle any longer. But the trend has been on the rise all along.

The realistic promise that America initially offered, in the terms sketched in the Declaration of Independence–namely, that everyone would be free to work hard for the values that make life possible and flourish–seems to be dying and along with it the optimistic outlook on the world’s future, which is slowly disappearing except in some spots where the principles America was founded upon are beginning to be taken seriously. Frankly, it won’t matter much to me directly now–I am getting a tad old–but my children and grandchildren will have to cope with the misery of it all.

What I am hoping is that they will be clever and prudent enough to deal with the mess that’s coming down the pike until things turn around again sometime but certainly many will not be able to do so and that’s going to be what all this phony socialist, “progressive” politicking will have wrought.

Contrarian Reflections on Advertising

[From Think, No. 24, Vol. 9, Spring 2010:47-50]

Tibor R. Machan

Among business ethics teachers, as reflected in their books and papers, advertising is deemed anything but honorable.[1] Quite the opposite. This is mainly because so many business ethicists are convinced that altruism is the proper ethics for people to practice and, of course, advertising is far from altruistic. The following will be a presentation of a position that finds advertising ethical but also rejects altruism as the proper ethics by which human beings should live.

The Benefits of Advertising
Advertising benefits both producers and consumers. It makes possible though does not guarantee mutually beneficial trades that might not have taken place otherwise.
What do advertisers accomplish for themselves when they successfully pitch a product? They will have found a way to make a living.[2] Consider the maligned telemarketer, calling people up in the middle of dinner with a proposal to switch telephone service. Should one hang up on such a person? No. Partly because after a bit of thought, one can simply say, “No, I’ve got a service I’m perfectly satisfied with. Thank you, bye-bye.” One need not growl, instead, “Get off my phone, you a******!”) Even if one is not willing to attend to a seller’s message, one could at least extend some courtesy because one can appreciate what they are trying to do: earn a living. That is a bond between seller and potential buyer. After all, everyone is trying to earn a living. If one pitches one’s latest book at a cocktail party or philosophy conference, one does not want to get bopped on the nose by someone perfectly happy with the latest Stephen King novel who doesn’t want to hear about anything else.

In this age of broadcasting, advertisements are often presented to many millions more than are in the market for the sort of product or service being promoted. As one views a television or listens to a radio program, an ad interrupts and this tends to annoy us (our annoyance is, incidentally, yet more evidence against the notion that advertisers can simply reconstitute our preferences at will). Most viewers, during most commercials, would rather continue attending to the program; the ads thwart this goal.

Once in a while, of course, an ad aimed squarely at one’s own needs and wants comes up, and then the benefits of advertising for human beings qua consumer begin to be clear. So perhaps one can be tolerant of ads that miss the mark. (And are there no mute buttons?) In other contexts, when ads are more narrowly cast, they are not so annoying. Indeed, sometimes readers of specialized magazines will flip through looking only at the ads.

Advertising also benefits us in cases where we never buy any of the products being advertised. Thanks to TV ads, we don’t have to pay for network television — and the cost of cable television is less than it might be. Without ads, we would not enjoy access to so much free information in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. Internet access itself is now available at no charge, as long as you’re willing to put up with some pop-up ads. Advertising is thus one modern method for spreading the benefits of new products and services from the few to the many.

Advertising and Prudence
Once both parties have done their level best to find out what will be prudent for them to do, but not before, they may properly unite in trade.

Not everyone is always prudent, it’s true. Some people just see ads and without further ado yield to the desire to get what is being offered; they buy on impulse. Impulse buying most closely resembles the phenomenon that the late John Kenneth Galbraith and others thought and still think advertising engenders all the time. But people who buy on impulse don’t have to buy; they merely have chosen to do so carelessly. (And even then, the impulse buyer’s imprudent purchases are confined to the realm of his already chosen values and interests — clothing, lottery tickets, food, or books.)

Just as having the capacity to reason does not mean that one will always reason, so having the capacity to be prudent does not mean that one will always be prudent. Participants in the market can fail to be alert, fail to pay attention to their own responsibility in a trade. They may place all the responsibility in the hands of the other party to a trade and then, afterwards, when they are eating the losses, blame that other party, not themselves. But they are complicit in so far as they neglected to pay sufficient attention to what was going down.

What’s a Good Ad?
The primary responsibility of an ad is to call attention to a product in such an effective way that people will have difficulty overlooking it.

Why is it morally okay to try to capture people’s attention this way? Because it’s important for us to prosper. That means it’s important for us to promote the services or wares that we have to offer for sale. If human life is a value, advertising is a value. It is a positive good.

Contrary to how it is often depicted, advertising is not selfish in any cruel, nasty, or brutal sense of the word; rather, it is self-responsible. People in business must make this effort to take care of themselves, to do justice to the prospect of succeeding and prospering in their lives. Everybody benefits thereby–the customers, the people who own and run the business, and the employees whom businesses are able to hire when the advertising does its work.
Of course, an altruist will object because “‘Altruism’ [is] assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows….Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.”[3] However, is this a sound ethics by which human beings should live? Without entering the topic in full, a brief remark by the poet W. H. Auden suggests a negative answer: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”[4]

[1] See, for example, Mark J. Lovas, “Creating a Cultural Niche for the A-Social?: Or, Speculation about How Cultural Factors Might Defeat Altruism,” Think, Spring/Summer 2008, pp. 59-66.
[2] A little compassion for junk ad mailers might be appropriate here, given what they are trying to do: make a living. They’re trying to call out, “Hey! Here we are! Please, consider us as you embark on trade.”
[3] W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954):109-110.
[4] THE WEEK, Nov. 16, 2002, p. 19

Machan Archives: A Brief Defense of Free Will (updated)

A Brief Defense of Free Will
Tibor R. Machan

The Importance of having Free Will
This is not a common topic of discussion outside the discipline of philosophy and a few other fields. Yet nearly every interesting human issue is related to this philosophical problem, usually in more ways than one.
For example, if, say, a certain system of law or political economy is taken to be just, this implies that it ought to be implemented—even if only gradually, over time. If one claims that aggression or neglecting the poor or fighting a war for oil is wrong, one implicitly holds that people ought to refrain from do such things. And if one promotes bailing out failing banks or car companies or providing health care and insurance for all citizens, that, too, implies that these ought to be accepted as public policies.
And as the philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out, “ought implies can,” meaning in part that only if it is possible to choose to do something can it be the case that it ought to be done. So the very meaningfulness of the advocacy of moral or political ideals and policies implies that free will exists. (The other meaning of “ought implies can” is that some objective standard of human conduct must be identifiable, otherwise one could never do what one ought to do.)
Even as far back as Aristotle it was clear that the moral virtues must be practiced voluntarily, as a matter of one’s free choice or personal initiative. (I advance a fuller case for this in my Initiative—Human Agency and Society [Hoover Institution Press, 2000].) Indeed, even to say that some argument concerning any topic from logic to astronomy is unsound, we are claiming, implicitly, that one ought not to propose or accept it and that people in the main are free either to do so or refrain from doing so.
Thus, clearly, it is of some value to explore briefly whether human beings have free will. In connection with any set of principles in ethics or politics and the need to respect and act in accordance with them, the idea that people must have an area of personal responsibility within which to make choices about their lives or wherein to initiate their actions is, again, implicit and inescapable. In other words, this all assumes, again, that human beings have free will or that they can make basic choices about their lives, initiate basic conduct, that can turn out to be right or wrong. Furthermore, requiring of people that they respect such principles again assumes that they possess free will. Otherwise it would make no sense to require such adherence from them: something they have no choice about cannot be something they morally ought to or can fail to do.
There is also the more familiar matter of the issue of personal responsibility concerning everyday conduct, those matters discussed daily in the home, in the press, and on the various media. Not only is there the issue of who is responsible for various good and bad things, but there is also the question of whether most of us are, as so many people seem to believe, in the grip of various forces over which we have no control. This or that addiction—to drugs, sex, violence, power, athletics, or work—is supposed to be our master, with us as mere puppets on strings moved about by it.
Yet, only if we have free will does any talk of blaming our parents, politicians, insurance companies, the rich, bureaucrats or the rest make sense. But there are many people who believe that modern science, including, of course, all the social sciences, leaves no room for such a thing in human life. Where does it stand, then, with the free will issue? It seems to me worth discussing this topic outside the confines of philosophy graduate seminars and encourage some thinking about it on everyone’s part. After all, it is a central feature of political philosophy that individual citizens in society should be treated in certain ways. What does this come to unless they possess free will, the capacity to produce their own behavior?
I want to argue that there is indeed free will. And I’m going to defend the position that free will means that human beings can cause some of what they do, on their own; in other words, what they do is not explainable solely by references to factors that have influenced them, though, of course, their range of options is clearly circumscribed by the world in which they live, by their particular circumstances, capacities, options, talents, etc. My thesis, in other words, is that human beings are able to cause their actions and they are therefore responsible for some of what they do. In a basic sense we all are original actors capable of making novel moves in the world. We are, in other words, initiators of some of our behavior.
The first matter to be noted is that this view is in no way in contradiction to science. Free will is a natural phenomenon, something that emerged in nature with the emergence of human beings, with their kind of minds, namely, minds that can think and be aware of their own thinking.
Nature is complicated and multifaceted. It includes many different sorts of things and some of these are human beings. Such beings exhibit a unique yet natural attribute that other things apparently do not, namely, free will.
I am going to offer eight reasons why a belief in free will makes very good sense. Four of these explain why there can be free will—i.e., why nature does not preclude it. But these do not yet demonstrate that free will exists. That will be the job of the four reasons I will advance next, which will establish that free will actually exists, that it’s not just a possibility but an actuality.
Nature’s Laws versus Free Will
First, one of the major objections against free will is that nature is governed by a set of laws, mainly the laws of physics. These laws control everything and we human beings are basically more complicated versions of material substances and that therefore whatever governs any other material substance in the universe must also govern human life. Basically, we are subject to the kind of causation everything else is. Since nothing else exhibits free will but conforms to causal laws, so must we. Social science is merely looking into the particulars of those causes, but we all know that we are subject to them in any case. The only difference is that we are complicated things, not that the same principles or laws of nature do not govern us.
Now, in response I want to point out that nature exhibits innumerable different domains, distinct not only in their complexity but also in the kinds of beings they include. So it is not possible to rule out ahead of time that there might be something in nature that exhibits agent causation. This is the phenomenon whereby a thing causes some of its own behavior. So there might be in nature a form of existence that exhibits free will. Whether there is or is not is something to be discovered, not ruled out by a narrow metaphysics that restricts everything to being just a variation on just one kind of thing. Thus, taking account of what nature is composed of does not at all rule out free will. Yet, simply because of the possibility that there is free will, there may still not be. We consider that a bit later.

Can we Know of Free Will?
Now, another reason why some think that free will is not possible is that the dominant mode of studying, inspecting or examining nature is empiricism. In other words, many believe that the only way we know about nature is by observing it with our various sensory organs. But since the sensory organs do not give us direct evidence of such a thing as free will, there really isn’t any such thing. Since no observable evidence for free will exists, therefore free will does not exist.
But the doctrine that empiricism captures all forms of knowing is wrong—there are many things that we know not simply through observation but through a combination of observation, inferences, and theory construction. (Consider: Even the purported knowledge that empiricism is our form of knowledge is not “known” empirically!)
For one, many features of the universe, including criminal guilt, are detected without eyewitnesses but by way of theories that serve the purpose of best explaining what we do have before us to observe. This is true, also, even in the natural sciences. Many of the phenomena or facts in biology, astrophysics, subatomic physics, botany, and chemistry—not to mention psychology—consist not of what we see or detect by observation but of what is inferred by way of a theory. And the theory that explains things best—most completely and most consistently—is the best answer to the question as to what is going on.
Free will may well turn out to be in this category. In other words, free will may not be something that we can see directly, but what best explains what we do see in human life. This may include, for example, the many mistakes that human beings make in contrast to the few mistakes that other animals make. We also notice that human beings do all kinds of odd things that cannot be accounted for in terms of mechanical causation, the type associated with physics. We can examine a person’s background and find that some people with bad childhoods turn out to be decent, while others crooks. And free will comes as a very helpful explanation. For now all we need to consider is that this may well be so, and if empiricism does not allow for it, so much the worse for empiricism. One could know something because it explains something else better than any alternative. And that is not strict empirical knowledge.
Furthermore, if there is no free will, it would mean that our “knowledge” is something that we must have or lack, without our having anything to do with which it turns out to be. So if one is not free in some basic sense, such as free to think or focus or be aware or not, the content of one’s mind must be what it is. So if one believes in free will for example, or determinism, that is just how one must be, a believer or an unbeliever (or an agnostic) about the topic. And, furthermore, if one cannot help being one or another of these, neither can one double check whether one is correct since that, too, will be a matter of one’s having to hold one or another position about it.
The bottom line is that independent, objective judgments about reality, including whether free will is or is not part of it, are impossible if free will denied. So determinism leads to having to abstain from trying to reach any conclusion about anything whatever. One will simply be forced to think as one does and there can be no way to tell if one is right or wrong.
This self-referential problem is a very serious one and it seems that quite a few thinkers are reluctant to be radical determinists because of it.

Is Free Will Weird?
Something that very often counts against free will is that none of what exists in the inert or living world, apart from human beings, exhibits it. Rocks, water, flowers, trees, cats, lizards, fish, frogs, etc., appear to have no free will and therefore it appears arbitrary to impute it to human beings. Why should we be free to do things when the rest of nature lacks any such capacity? It seems an impossible aberration.
The answer here is that there is enough variety in nature—some things swim, some fly, some just lie there, some breathe, some grow, while others do not; so there is plenty of evidence of plurality of types and kinds of things in nature. Free will could be yet another variety in nature.

Should We Become Determinists?
There’s another dilemma of determinism. Determinists want us to believe in determinism. In fact, they believe we ought to be determinists rather than believe in this spooky myth called “free will”. But, as already mentioned, “ought” implies “can”. So then if one ought to believe in or do something, this implies that one has a choice in the matter; it implies that we can choose as to whether determinism or free will is a better doctrine. That, then, assumes that we are free. In other words, even arguing for and advocating determinism assumes that we are not determined to believe in free will or determinism but that it is a matter of our making certain choices about arguments, evidence, and thinking itself. That’s a paradox that troubles a deterministic position.

We Often Know We Are Free!
In many contexts of our lives introspective knowledge is taken very seriously. When you go to a doctor and he asks you, “Are you in pain?” and you say, “Yes,” and he says “Where is the pain?” and you say, “It’s in my knee,” the doctor doesn’t say, “Why, you can’t know, this is not public evidence, I will now get verifiable, direct evidence where you hurt.” In fact your evidence is very good evidence. Witnesses at trials give evidence as they report about what they have seen, which is introspective evidence: “This indeed is what I have seen or heard.” Even in the various sciences people report on what they’ve read on surveys or seen on gauges or instruments. Thus they are giving us introspective evidence.
Introspection is one source of evidence that we take as reasonably reliable. So what should we make of the fact that a lot of people do say things like, “Damn it, I didn’t make the right choice,” or “I neglected to do something.” They report to us that they have made various choices, decisions, etc., that they intended this or that but not another thing. And they often blame themselves for not having done something; thus they report that they are taking responsibility for what they have or haven’t done.
In short, there is a lot of evidence from people all around us of the existence of free choice.

Modern Science Discovers Free Will!
Finally, there is also the evidence of the fact that we do seem to have the capacity for self-monitoring. The human brain has a kind of structure that allows us, so to speak, to govern ourselves. We can inspect our lives; we can detect where we’re going; and we can, therefore, change course. And the human brain itself makes it possible. The brain, because of its structure, can monitor itself and as a result we can decide whether to continue in a certain pattern or to change that pattern and go in a different direction. That is the sort of free will that is demonstrable. At least some scientists, for example Roger W. Sperry—in his book Science and Moral Priority (Columbia University Press, 1983) and in numerous more technical articles—maintain that there’s evidence for free will in this sense. This view depends on a number of points I have already mentioned. It assumes that there can be different causes in nature, so that the higher functioning of the human brain could involve a kind of self-causation. The brain as a system would have to be able to cause some things about the organism’s behavior and that depends, of course, on the possibility that there are various kinds of causes in nature.
Precisely the sort of thing Sperry thinks possible is plainly evident in our lives. We make plans and revise them. We explore alternatives and decide to follow one of them. We change a course of conduct we have embarked upon, or continue with it. In other words, there is a locus of individual self-responsibility that is evident in the way in which we look upon ourselves—and the way in which we in fact behave. (Some, such as Benjamin Libet, in his Mind Time: the Temporal Factor in Consciousness, Harvard University Press, 2004, have argued that our actions aren’t actually a result of our initiative at all. But others, such as Al Mele, have disputed this; see Mele’s Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will, Oxford University Press, 2009. See, also, David Shenk, The Genius in All of Us, Doubleday, 2010.)

Some People are Determined; some are not.
There clearly are cases of conduct in which some persons behave as they do because they were determined to do so by certain identifiable forces outside their own control. A brain tumor, a severe childhood trauma or some other intrusive force sometimes incapacitates people. This is evident in those occasional cases when a person who engaged in criminal behavior is shown to have had no control over what he or she did. Someone who actually had no capacity to control his or her behavior, could not control his or her own thinking or judgment and was, thus, moved by something other than his own will, cannot be said to possess a bona fide free will.
Those who deny that we have free will simply cannot make sense of our distinction between cases in which one controls one’s behavior and those in which one is being moved by forces over which he or she has no control. When we face the latter sort of case, we still admit that the behavior could be good or bad but we deny that it is morally and legally significant—it is more along lines of acts of nature or God by being out of the agent’s control. This is also why philosophers who discuss ethics but deny free will have trouble distinguishing between morality and value theory—e.g., utilitarians, Marxists.

The Best Theory is True.
Finally, as I have alluded to earlier, when we put all of this together we get a more sensible understanding of the complexities of human life than otherwise—we get a better understanding, for example, of why social engineering and government regulation and regimentation do not work, why there are so many individual, religious and cultural differences, why people can be wrong, why they can disagree with each other, etc. It is because they are free to do so, because they are not set in some pattern the way cats and dogs and orangutans and birds tend to be. (I develop this point in my Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite [Rowman & Littlefield, 2004].)
In principle, all of the behavior of these creatures around us can be predicted because they are not creative in a sense that they originate new ideas and behavior, although we do not always know enough about the constitution of these beings and how it would interact with their environment to actually predict what they will do. Human beings produce new ideas and these can introduce new kinds of behavior in familiar situations. This, in part, is what is meant by the fact that different people often interpret their experiences differently. Yet, we can make some predictions about what people will do because they often do make up their minds in a given fashion and stick to their decision over time. This is what we mean when we note that people make commitments, possess integrity, etc. So we can estimate what they are going to do. But even then we do not make certain predictions but only statistically significant ones. Clearly, very often people change their minds and surprise or annoy us. And, if we go to different cultures, they’ll surprise us even more. This complexity, diversity, and individuation about human beings is best explained if human beings are free than if they are determined.

Is Free Will Well Founded?
So these several reasons provide a kind of argumentative collage in support of the free will position. Can anyone do better with this issue? I don’t know. I think it’s best to ask only for what is the best of the various competing theories. Are human beings doing what they do solely as the consequences of forces acting on them? Or do they have the capacity to take charge of their lives, often neglect to do so properly or effectively, make stupid choices? Which supposition explains the human world and its complexities around us?
I think the latter makes much better sense. It explains, much better than do deterministic theories—be they hard or soft—how it is possible that human life involves such a wide range of possibilities, accomplishments as well as defeats, joys as well as sorrows, creation as well as destruction. It explains, also, why in human life there is so much change in language, custom, style, art, and science. Unlike other living beings, for which what is possible is pretty much fixed by instincts and reflexes—even if some extraordinary behavior may be elicited, by way of experiments in laboratories or, at times, in the face of unusual natural developments—people initiate much of what they do, for better and for worse. From their most distinctive capacity of forming ideas and theories, to those of artistic and athletic inventiveness, human beings remake the world without, so to speak, having to do so! And this can make good sense if we understand them to have the distinctive capacity for initiating their own conduct rather than relying on mere stimulation and reaction. It also poses for them certain very difficult tasks, not the least of which is that they cannot expect that any kind of formula or system is going to predictably manage the future of human affairs, such as some of social science seems to hope it will. Social engineering is, thus, not a genuine prospect for solving human problems—only education and individual initiative can do that.

Column on Is The U.S. Self-Interested?

Is the U. S. Self-Interested?

Tibor R. Machan

It baffles me why so many people are apologetic about the U. S. having a self-interested foreign policy. When President Obama recently declared that the U. S. “is not a self-interested empire,” the part about being self-interested, pace Obama, sounded just right to me. (It is the “empire” portion that would be disturbing since an empire is a country that aims needlessly to lord it over other countries.) Being self-interested could mean no more than being vigilant in the defense of one’s country, making sure it is safe from invasion or attack.

Who can dispute that self-defense is self-interested? Of course, with the prominence of altruism among intellectuals and public figures, it is probably no great surprise that Mr. Obama would reject characterizing American foreign policy as self-interested. “Selfish” has this bad odor about it and has had that since when philosophers, theologians and psychologists have decided that the human self is something malign.

At one time, of course, it used to be a good thing for one to be self-interested. I am thinking of ancient Greece where both Socrates, as presented by his pupil Plato, and later Aristotle defended self-interest and self-love, respectively. That’s because the ancient Greeks tended to view human nature favorably, not as innately tending toward evil, something that became more in vogue later in the history of Western thought. Both religious and secular thinking veered off in this misanthropic direction in part through the doctrine of original sin and then with Thomas Hobbes’ idea that everyone is basically motivated by a fierce passion for power, including, especially, power over other persons. If that is indeed what the human self aims for, then no wonder it doesn’t have a sterling reputation and selfishness or being self-interested no longer amounts to something honorable as Socrates thought it was.

Yet even in our time something of the ancient Greek attitude remains in play. Just notice how often people say “You take care now” or “Take care of yourself” as their parting words to each other. I have been noticing this for many years and just a few days ago it was in evidence again as I watched some saying farewell. No hesitation at all: Go and make sure you do well for yourself! So self-interest, prudence, taking care of oneself cannot be taken to be all that bad by most of us, even though the sentiment isn’t given much support among those who write on morality and public policy, including American foreign affairs.

For some it is just a matter of cynical realism to accept that a country’s foreign policy will be dictated by its international interests. But is this something one must apologize for or even deny, as Mr. Obama apparently feels necessary to do?

Only if self-interested conduct, including in matters of diplomacy and military policy, must be reckless. But must it be? Does one’s country really benefit from a reckless, loose cannon foreign or military policy? No. Properly conceived and undertaken self-interested foreign and military policy, just as personal conduct, needs to be decent, guided by virtues or moral principles. Indeed, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others have maintained–but recently with only a few such as Ayn Rand and quite a few psychotherapists joining them–the virtues are necessary to advance one’s proper self-interest. Morality for these thinkers is about making it possible to succeed in one’s human life, doing well at living as a human individual. It includes the virtues of prudence, honesty, moderation, temperance, courage, and such but also generosity, compassion, and even charity when it is needed. Only with these virtues in full display in one’s life will someone accomplish that most vital task in of being morally good, being a good person.

The same, it can be argued, applies to foreign and, especially, military affairs. A country’s foreign policy must not aim for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice. Thus, putting this into practice, General George C. Patton Jr. is supposed to have told his troop, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.

Essay on The Democratic Ideal

The Democratic Ideal

Tibor R. Machan

Democracy is a process by which some decisions are made and in the context of politics it means the kind of system that depends upon the participation of the citizenry for certain purposes. What grounds democracy as a just mode of political decision-making is that citizens have the ultimate authority concerning certain matters in the polis. And the reason they do have this ultimate authority is that they are, as adults, equal in their status vis-à-vis the stake they have in their political institutions, their laws, public policies, foreign relations, etc. That they have this equal status hinges on certain extra or pre-political matters, to be discerned by way of reflection upon human nature and proper human relations. For now I’ll simply note that as I understand political matters, they arise from the moral fact that each individual adult human being has as his or her task in life to live it rationally, to flourish as a rational animal. Since this task for adults can only be achieved if they are not subject to another’s will―in which case it is that other’s rational choice that would be the ruling principle of one’s life—in communities human beings must be sovereign. From this it follows that they must have a say in their own political fate, ergo, democracy.

In any case, democracy is derivative of what human beings are taken to be as they find themselves within a community that aims at justice, a polity. From the Hobbesian framework, democracy is recommended because all of us are nothing but bits of matter- in-motion and thus lack any significant, fundamental differentiating attributes. Even our human nature is but nominal, a status in the world established by means of the human intellect’s response to the motions that affect the brain, a response itself motivated by the drive for self-preservation or keeping in continued motion in part by naming groups of impulses affecting the brain. We make the categories, create them by naming our sensory input as we will.1 So the reason for democracy a la the Hobbesian view is that nothing justifies differentiating some people from others (indeed, if one were to be fully consistent, anything from anything else, at the metaphysical, fundamental level of being.) A somewhat different reason for democracy arises from the Lockean view, one closer to what I sketched above as my own. For Locke, at least when we turn to his political treatise, we are all equal and independent in the state of nature, i.e., prior to the formation or apart from civil society or the polis. Adult human beings begin, never mind the precise point of reaching adulthood, as equally embarking on a human life, one that is to be governed by the laws of nature, which is reason, if one but consult it. In other words, we are all moral agents having to live up to our moral responsibilities or duties, and in this we are all alike. So we are all endowed with natural rights, which spell out for each of us a sphere of sovereignty or personal authority or jurisdiction. There are no natural masters or natural slaves (although there may be borderline cases of defective or crucially incapacitated persons). If this is kept in clear focus, one will realize that a human community starts with no one superior or inferior regarding the issue of the authority to make law and to govern. Thus, democracy.

But democracy is a process, morally required by the right to take part in deciding or to give consent. It is in fact our natural right to person and estate that lies behind the right to be part of the decision-making process involved in politics. It is not a process that is applicable to everything one might want to influence, however. There is a proper sphere of democracy.

Clearly there are those who propose that democracy is unlimited-only the fact that people will things to be one way or another matters. Some interpreters of Locke have claimed this—e. g., Wilmore Kendall and his followers—as well as some conservatives, e. g., Robert Bork. Thus they argue that once human beings are no longer in a state of nature, they have in effect adopted democracy as a decision-making process regarding whatever comes up for public discussion, whatever a sizable number of them want to subject to this process.

Yet this seems to me to be wrong, whatever the proper interpretation of Locke might be and I would dispute that Locke can be coherently interpreted this way. For in Locke the justification for government lies in the need for the protection of natural rights, a protection not easily obtained (except by the strong) in the state of nature. (And the state of nature need not be a source of much intellectual consternation—it refers to a circumstance not governed by due process or the rule of law, one that we may even encounter in a back alley or away from civilization where we can be easy prey for thugs. In the classic movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it was the situation prior to when John Wayne enabled Jimmy Stuart to establish law and order. In actual life it is the situation one may face in the middle of the Mojave Desert or in any inner city park where law enforcement is nearly nothing.)

So Locke sees the protection of everyone’s natural rights as the proper purpose of government. Since establishing, maintaining and protecting government is itself a form of human activity that can be done well or badly, it must be guided by the principles of natural rights-its creation, development and operations may not encroach upon those rights, lest its proper purpose is undermined. Perhaps the best way to understand this is by recalling the common sense notion that even the securing of highly valued goals does not justify the employment of immoral means.

Quite a part from Locke, in any case, unless democracy is itself guided by norms-unless the people express and implement their will as they should and not as they should not-it becomes self-defeating. Not only is there the problem that such a process is in violation of the rights of innocents who would be made victims of the use of arbitrary force. Unlimited democracy, furthermore, can undo democracy itself. If democracy, for example, is applied too broadly, it is bent upon defeating its very purpose, the goal that justifies its employment. To provide a hint via a possible result of the democratic process, suppose that we democratically vote to exclude some people from the voting process. This is a legacy of some state governments in the United States of America, as well as the efforts of the federal government. When the possibility of voting is linked to property ownership or some other condition, the democratic process is weakened. It also occurs when the federal government focuses on what has come to be called inclusiveness so that, for the sake of including into the governing process members of some minority groups, it is decided that other members should be given lower representation. Such group inclusiveness undermines the natural rights of individuals to take part in the political process, a right that derives from their right to liberty of association. Yet the underlying justification for democracy is that individuals have the right to consent to their government. In other words, if the democratic process can justifiably produce governmental measures that violate the natural rights of individuals, this undermines the capacity of these individuals to be full, equally free participants in the democratic process.

Other kinds of cases abound. If by the democratic process the rights to life, liberty or property could justifiably be abrogated or violated, those taking part in the process no longer can act freely and independently. The majority can threaten their free judgments. It can enact measures that will authorize vindictive official actions against the minority, something that inevitably leads to the undermining of democracy. That is just why the “democracies” of Eastern Europe were a complete farce despite the great numbers of participants in the actual electoral process. Thus parties, however, had no liberty to vote as they wanted, for whom they wanted.

If when I vote I know that voting my conscience will result in having my sovereignty undermined, leading to my partial enslavement or involuntary servitude, I will not likely vote my conscience. I will act like the victim of the mugger who is told, “You r money or your life!” When I hand over my money I do it under compulsion not by choice. (It is a myth that we always have a choice, for a choice that is set out by others regarding one’s life, that robs one of one’s life and takes away the prospects of a self-governed future, is no choice.) If a democratic process allows the similar act on the part of the majority, the members of the minority will vote-voice their judgment, indicate their preferences-under severe constraint. No true majority will can emerge under the circumstances.

We can extend this analysis now to the realm of contemporary politics in Western democracies. Let’s focus on the general situation in the United States of America today.

Whenever public programs are being cut, those who have their benefits reduced offer cries of need and those who feel for them cries of compassion. Yet whenever public programs are proposed, which also cuts out the benefits of those who need to pay for i t from higher taxes, it is contended that this is just the result of social life. After all, “we” have decided to fund social security, unemployment compensation, the national parks, public broadcasting, or whatnot, haven’t we? So it is no objection to this that some of us suffer losses, that some of us now have to forego benefits, experience reduced income which can lead to reduced quality of education, recreation, home life, dental care, transportation safety, cultural enrichment, and so forth. None of this is supposed to matter because “we” have decided to tax ourselves higher to fund all those public programs.2 Why is it that it is OK to violate the individual rights to liberty and property of millions of people when the lot of us decide to do this but not OK to reduce the benefits of people when a somewhat differently configured lot of us decided to do that? Why may the choices of some individuals be ignored and thwarted by democratic decision making but not that of others trumped by the same process? The fact is that most people who talk of and like democracy in the context of the currently bloated understanding, they do so only when it supports their agenda. It is fine to use democracy to rob the rich-it makes it valid public policy instead of theft. But if the poor are the targets than suddenly democracy is invalid.

Indeed, the reason is, as suggested earlier, that democracy is never enough. There must always be some specification of the goals for which democracy is appropriate. It isn’t enough to have a democratic process-it can lead to results of widely different quality. Sometimes the majority does right, sometimes wrong. And the task of political theory is, in part, to identify those areas of public life that should be subject to democratic decision making.
What are those areas? And why are they the ones?

Whether alone, or with one’s fellows, a human being may not do some things to other human beings. Especially no one may take over another’s life. This is so whether that other’s life is fortunate, well to do, talented, accomplished, and beautiful, accepted by others and freely granted benefits. In short, neither those who are fortunate—let alone those who are accomplished—nor those lacking in good fortune, are available for others to be used when permission hasn’t been granted, when consent is not given. In either kind of ca se, no one or group may take over another’s life-it amounts to the kind of crime classified, variously, as theft, robbery, assault, kidnapping, murder, battery, rape, and other forms of aggression. And the fact that the numbers of those who do such thing s is increased and even constitute a majority of those concerned makes no difference. Nor does the fact that some procedure has been followed as these policies are instituted, for lacking the consent, tacit or at least implicit, of those who are to be deprived, makes any such process invalid, unjust, undue.

It is wrong to steal on one’s own as well as with the support of millions. It is wrong to enslave, to place others into servitude when they refuse, etc., no matter whether one is in the minority or the majority.

Nor can majorities authorize certain people, such as their political representatives, to carry out such deeds, even if they do it indirectly, by threatening those whom they would rob, steal from, kidnap, assault or whatever with aggressive enforcement at the hands of the police. It is wrong, then, even for the government of a representative democracy or republic to carry out such deeds. Having done it with democratic “authorization” makes it no more right than if no such authorization had taken place. There i s simply no moral authority for anyone to delegate to another such powers since one hasn’t got them in the first place. If my friends and I enact an elaborate process, surrounded with pomp and circumstances, ritual and ornamentation, to commence kidnapping your children or confiscating your wealth, all this is morally and politically trumped by the fact that your consent to the process has been lacking. Unless you are a criminal, who has by his or her crime in effect tacitly agreed to accept our forcible (self-protective) response, you may not be intruded upon.3 Most of this is admitted by all the parties to the debate. This is why even when the people elect certain political representatives (for example, conservative Republicans), others (for example, liberal Democrats), often claim that what results, in terms of legislation, is wrong and should not have been done. They maintain this in various political forums that are supposedly the spheres of democratic decision making. So they evidently think t hat what the democratic process produces is not decisive as to what ought to be done. Even if a law passes, critics will call it wrong-heartless, unkind, lacking in compassion. Even supporters of legal positivism, who discount any moral dimension of the legislative process, such as the obligation to be guided by natural or divine law, will protest democratic attacks upon values other than democracy.4 Because no one simply accepts the answer to a challenge of a democratically arrived at result which the y find morally abhorrent that, well, it was brought about by way of the democratic process-”we” did it, so it’s OK, a matter of society’s collective will. (Even in criminal trials, the mini-democracy of jury verdict is governed by firm provisions of due process and with opportunities of appeal.)

It is, then, no valid answer to those who protest the taking of their life-time, income, good fortune or whatever by way of majority vote that, well, this is OK since it is done democratically. The violation of the rights of individuals is no less justified by democracy than is collective callousness. This raises the problem of how to be kind, compassionate, generous, and helpful to those in genuine need without violating the rights of individuals to their life, liberty and property? The answer is actually quite simple: Do it, promote it, and exhibit it by your own conduct! When members of a society learn that moral principles cannot justly be violated by the democratic process, so they may not violate anyone’s rights with the excuse that “we” did it so it’s OK, they learn, also, that when the right thing must be done, it has to be done by choice, free of coercion. So the help that the poor and needy should be given must be given at the initiative of the free citizen—via charity, generosity, philanthropy, and, yes, the facilitation of productive opportunity.