Posts tagged rape
No Excuse for Coercion
Tibor R. Machan
I am always baffled and now and then really angered when people defend using coercion against other people. (Some will say I must be biased since I come from several early years of tyranny and since one of my parents was an out and out brute. How could I be objective then, about the merits of coercive force?)
For my money coercive force is not only when someone threatens to beat up or kill another unless that other does as told. I start much earlier, when someone presumes to have the authority to entice or nudge his or her fellow human beings to do as told (hoped for)! I don’t see that the importance of the project that’s to be served by such coercive force has anything to do with it–people aren’t supposed to be other people’s tools, unwilling devices for the sake of achieving even the most magnificent objectives. Certainly no one is made a morally better individual by way of being beaten or threatened to be beaten into being such, to do what is morally right. How could they, since moral goodness, if it amounts to anything intelligible at all, must involve the agent’s free choice. Without the chance to choose to do the right or wrong thing any kind of worthwhile conduct amounts at most to good behavior, like what we want from dogs or horses.
But never mind the complications–nearly everything in human life can be made to appear utterly complicated, so that people can be intimidated into thinking they have no way to tell right from wrong about it. Sophistry is a very potent motivation for withdrawing from the moral game, as some philosophers would put it. Make it all appear to be incomprehensible to us, a matter of the facts and laws of highly specialized science, at best, or beyond the pale altogether and only to be intuited by leaders. As the late Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed, only technologists of human behavior can be entrusted with the authority to make us all do what is desirable to do. Since, of course, there are umpteen schools of psychologists who are candidates for this role, using force to decide in the end who shall be our technologists is immediately unavoidable. So power will decide!
What really gets to me is how casually these advocates of nudging, manipulating, incentivizing, and so forth think past the idea that they are proposing using force on other people, not all of whom will protest but many others who would not comply other than from fear for their lives and liberties and that of their loved ones. How they can just get past the policies for how to treat people that their ideas imply? They have to do some serious evading, since one cannot easily imagine that they would advocate such coercive policies concerning themselves or those they respect and love. And would they happily embrace the idea of, say, rape, pedophilia, kidnapping, assault, torture, etc., since all these are but variations of coercive conduct toward other people in support of some kind of desired objective? How can their defense of coercive policies against other human beings–be they filthy rich, unfairly tall, racists, and anyone who does anything morally wrong that doesn’t qualify as violating anyone’s right to life and liberty–be sustained when they must know that when human beings are involved, what is due them is civilized persuasion, not coercion. So integrity, clearly, is not a strong virtue for such folks. Yes, I think some serious evasion is afoot here, people really failing to live up to principles that aren’t mysterious but plainly enough the foundation of civilized human interaction. To be civilized is to deploy not coercive force in how one acts toward others but rational persuasion, often indeed patient and prolonged rational persuasion.
Some will say, “Well all this preference of coercion is simply the natural hunger for power in human nature,” but that surely can’t be right since millions have no such hunger at all, quite the contrary. What millions and millions have yearned for and are yearning for is peaceful, civilized interaction with others but with a fraction–albeit influential faction–choosing the shortcut of coercive force.
Yes, there are cases that make it difficult to tell the difference between such untoward, barbaric ways of acting and the civilized ways but that is one reason we have minds, namely, to work on figuring out the distinction and to act and shape policies and institutions accordingly. It is no excuse for continuing with coercion against one’s fellows that now and then coercion isn’t easy to differentiate from peaceful interaction and that perhaps once in a billion it seems justified. Most human endeavors pose such difficulties, borderline cases as philosophers have dubbed them, yet they manage with building skyscrapers, massive dams, MRI and Cat Scan devices–you name them and people have handled them all despite the occasional difficulties and even quandaries.
So, no, there is no excuse for coercive treatment of one’s fellows, not in 99.99% of the cases where such treatment is deployed. Let no sophistry distract anyone from that.
Stealing Just a Penny
Tibor R. Machan
Over the centuries it had been pretty much routine for some (powerful) folks to raid the wealth of those not fit or well armed enough to resist this. Widespread trade entered the picture late in the game, as did generosity, charity, and other voluntary transfers of resources useful to people. In time, however, it dawned on most people that involuntary transfers are wrong and even to be prohibited. Yet this development has not always been fully embraced, not, especially, by certain formidable advocates of political economic systems that rest on wealth redistribution.
In a recent book highly critical of the free society as understood by libertarians, The Libertarian Illusion (CQ Press, 2008), the author, William Hudson, makes a snide comment by which I can only imagine he means to indicate how ridiculous the right to private property really is. He says, and I am paraphrasing, that taking even a penny from a millionaire is regarded by libertarians as theft. Now how silly can they be!?
Well, I am not willing to accept this “reductio ad absurdum” argument. Consider another area libertarians consider important, namely, personal liberty such that, say, rape or assault is regarded by them to be impermissible and should be illegal. Of course, there are relatively minor instance of date rape or quasi-sexual engagements with minors, as well as cases of minimal assault, such as bumping someone while walking past him or stepping on someone’s toes and libertarians would not give these a pass either. Even some really minor sexual intrusiveness, such as ogling some very young person, may qualify for moral and even legal rebuke. Few may have suffered major injuries from such conduct, perpetrated by others against them, although some kind of untowardness could well have come from them, such as causing fright or anxiety. But it is clear that these would be minor, compared to out and out rape or mugging.
Well, we are in a similar situation with stealing even a penny from someone who is very rich and might not notice it. But stealing isn’t merely removing something from another. It is a kind of invasion. Even the removal of a penny could be seen as such because for some folks it could be very important to hang on to whatever belongs to them and anyone who breaches this could produce serious malaise for them.
But even aside from any specific harm that could well come from stealing even a penny from a rich person–or just well to do one–what about the slippery slope effect? It is like telling white lies which in an of themselves could receive a pass but in forming someone’s character is likely to lead to serious damage. If stealing of even little things is going to be approved of, especially by moralists, ethics teachers, and so on, at what point will a theft reach a level that may be condemned as morally wrong?
It is one thing to overlook, forgive, various minor moral transgressions, another entirely to approve of them, including as public policies. When governments perpetrate the transfer or redistribution of wealth from completely innocent citizens to others, they are not only injuring the former but establishing a precedent. So now it is fine to do a bit–or maybe even a good bit–of stealing because, well, Barack Obama made it clear that he approves of it (in his chat with Joe the Plumber during the election campaign). Indeed, reportedly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told several wealthy people in a talk she gave in San Francisco that “You have money and we are going to take it from you.”
Ethical transgressions, even legal ones, are not like violations of the principles of Euclidean geometry of formal logic but neither are they inconsequential matters to indulge in, not among civilized people at least. The entire point of being civilized, of being civil, is to deal with one’s fellow human beings peacefully, respectful of their rights, even in small matters. And while small transgressions can be forgiven, they should never be praised.
Instead, though, in our current public policy climate we have out and out official flaunting of the fine points of human morality, especially those pertaining to respecting other people’s property rights. From the U. S. Supreme Court to the Congress and the President, officials are practically proud of not caring about adhering to such principles of right conduct. The president of the United States of America and many of his supporters in the academy proclaim themselves to be pragmatists, which is to say indifferent to principled conduct and willing to bend ethics and principles of social life whenever these stand in the way of their grand plans.
But this is the way to building a corrupt society, not just an impoverished one.
Tibor R. Machan
Yes, it sounds paradoxical because by “pragmatic” is usually meant “practical, workable, functional.” So when President Obama made it clear last year that he is a loyal pragmatist when it comes to economic policy, he received praise from some, especially those who denounce ideology or ideological thinking.
Yet this is not a sound approach to life or public policy because telling where one should be pragmatic and where one should hold on to one’s principles no matter what is impossible. If, say, one is ideological about a woman’s right to choose whether to continue her pregnancy beyond a certain point, or, alternatively, whether to preserve the life of a budding human being no matter what, is that all to the good or not? Or if one opposes rape under any and all circumstances, is one being ideological, dogmatic, a fundamentalist in the bad sense meant by the likes of Professor Paul Krugman who think that market fundamentalism is something really, really bad? What about parents who insist that their children tell the truth and not lie, ever? Are they dogmatic, mindless people and is their child rearing seriously flawed?
Yet when it comes to confiscating the resources of people for various supposedly public purposes, as per the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London Connecticut, serious legal scholars claim this is wise pragmatism, a sensible rejection of mindless market fundamentalism or ideological thinking? Why is the principle of private property rights less binding on us all than the principle of the integrity of a woman’s body? Why are these same intellectuals not being pragmatic about torture or child molestation, why don’t they condemn those who insist that under no circumstances may anyone commit statutory rape, as crass dogmatists?
Could it be that these folks find it convenient, to their and their preferred people’s advantage, to downplay the principles of private property rights? That is surely what one would think about anyone who would counsel flexibility about matters such as rape or child abuse. There is no excuse to abandon principled thinking and conduct about such practices but for some reason it is OK to accept stealing a bit here, robbing a bit there and dogmatism or ideological to oppose that attitude?
The bottom line is that pragmatism is fatally flawed. No champion of it can identify where it is permissible or acceptable to be pragmatic and where pragmatism would be something odious and intolerable. In the case of President Obama and his public policy cheerleaders they, too, have no clue when principled thinking and conduct are required and when it is dogmatic or ideological to strictly adhere to principles. No clue at all, which then gives them carte blanche about how they should carry on with public policies or even personal conduct. Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods then can cry out, but why are they condemning us for breaking our marriage wows when they break all sorts of principles? And, worse, supporters of water boarding or even more Draconian forms of torture can invoke pragmatism, saying well it works sometimes, so given the importance of getting information from the victims it would be dogmatic or ideological to forbid it. Where is the line between conduct that may follow the pragmatic approach and conduct that may not? Where is principled conduct expendable? And why there and not someplace else?
It seems that champions of pragmatism like President Obama and his intellectual supporters have a problem here and if they think that a president should lead by example, they could be guilty of providing an impossible example for others to follow. Indeed, it is an interesting question just what Mr. and Mrs. Obama teach their own children about principles–may they be tossed whenever they become inconvenient, wherever they stand in the way of pursuing certain desired objectives like bailing out banks and auto companies with other peoples’ money?
Looks like pragmatism is not at all practical, the very thing for which it is often praised. It cannot be practiced consistently, coherently, in either personal or public affairs.