Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Friday, September 23, 2005

The virtue of non-coercion

Continuing my entries on morality, I will now examine the virtue of non-coercion. It seems that Christians and relativists both think that somehow the clear and obvious evil of genocide somehow proves their point that secular morality is fuzzy. This is very strange.

But of course, to be able to even have a case, they have to argue for a corrupt ideology such as cultural relativism. “The Germans thought it was okay”, they say, ignoring the vast masses of Germans who complained about Nazi policies and were stuffed in concentration camps, “therefore it was moral for them !”. Cultural relativism is a disgusting belief, because it implies that one of the most noble things any individual can do – civil disobedience – is automatically evil. Have any of these cultural relativists booed Schindler’s List or other inspiring tales of civil disobedience ? Or are they just hypocrites ?

Cultural relativism is false because the truth of any principle does not depend on one’s culture, race or language. The law of gravity is in force for everyone, regardless of who they are. Its truth is objective and measurable. Likewise, moral knowledge, as a subset of knowledge in general, is not cultural. The laws of nature and of social life do not change. The society we live in does change, and that influences our decisions and judgments (as all moral judgments are necessarily contextual, as for any other form of knowledge), but our needs remain the same.

So the Christian and the relativist cannot pin cultural relativism on the moral realist, and thus their case cannot get off the ground. Rather, it is their own ideologies which suffer from this flaw.

How, therefore, can we justify non-coercion from a realist standpoint ? Non-coercion is not a value (an object pursued or kept) but rather a virtue (a mental habit favourable to moral action). More specifically, as defined by Kelley, it is “the commitment not to seek values by initiating physical force against others”. As a virtue, we must show that using it as a guideline makes one a better moral agent overall. To do this, we must show that our needs in some way depend on using the virtue, and hopefully few reasons not to use it.

Non-coercion is especially important in the following moral areas :

* I need other people to be productive and rational so they can help me fulfill my values.
* I need to be peaceful with others so they stay peaceful towards me.
* I need to cooperate with other people in order to effect my values, and I need to cultivate the skills and reasoning necessary for effective cooperation.
* I need to live in a society where individual values are respected.

The last point is a political one, but if one refuses to acknowledge the virtue of non-coercion, one will also not acknowledge the necessity of a peaceful and classless society. One follows from the other.

Even if we look at it as a third party, we should still desire objectively for coercion to be eliminated. The fact that I respect another person’s values also means that I will not desire him or her to be attacked in the name of a cultural tradition or agreement. Even if I have no empathy or way to relate to the victims of, say, a mass murder, I still prefer to live in a universe where their values are fulfilled instead of snuffed out, if only because their values helped fulfill mine.

I see few reasons to set aside the virtue of non-coercion. I can imagine, for example, a scenario where you may want to slap or temporarily restrain a drunken friend to try to stop him from doing something he might regret later. But while it’s important to acknowledge these cases, they are not nearly of the same order of magnitude as the needs I listed above. Also, I am in favour of prudent predation, but I do not consider prudent predation as breaking the virtue of non-coercion.

Let me quote David Kelley from the wonderful Logical Structure of Objectivism on the virtue of non-coercion :

(…) the values we obtain from others are wealth, knowledge and visibility (…) [and] others possess these values only if they act on the basis of reason to acquire or maintain them.As we noted in discussing existential independence, these values are all created by production or by the rational, independent cultivation of personal traits, and even inherited wealth is only possessed for any length of time by those who apply reason to maintain it. These values do not appear in nature, and they cannot be produced in any quantity by the sort of animal labor a slave can be induced to provide.

Of course, as any other moral judgment, it is a contextual matter. But the needs I listed are true in all social contexts. The life of the brute is not desirable at any time. Once again quoting Kelley :

The context of discussion in this chapter is the life of the individual in society. To a certain extent, the very idea of succeeding in life as a dictator or aristocrat depends on a wider context: the structure of society. The individual has little control in immediate terms over his social structure: for instance, it would be foolish to seek to become an aristocratic ruler in modern America. One cannot hope to be an aristocratic or dictatorial ruler without endorsing aristocracy and dictatorship, as against a free society. Yet why would one trade the fruits of the industrial revolution for the mass poverty and short, dangerous life that came before it. We now have ample evidence that even an aristocrat of the previous age was less able to live a long, happy, enriched life than the average talented person today. And were such a system to exist, it is highly unlikely one would have any chance of doing so well as an aristocrat.

In the modern context, dictatorships show a similar sort of pattern. Their economic failings are well known, but consider the life of the leader: Even a relatively long-lived dictator such as a Stalin lived a life of distrust, paranoia, threats, and insecurity. And for every Stalin or Mao who survives over the long term, there are many more Trotskys who do not. There is nothing, then, to recommend the quest for brute power as a mode of life.

To end this post, I will state, as I stated before, that the Christian assumption of God is mentally deficient. Anyone who needs Christianity to know that hurting other people is generally not a good thing, is an imbecile who has not grown up to respect other people. Perhaps the overwhelming percentage of Christians in prisons proves that Christians do not pursue the value of non-coercion as much as they should.

Both Christianity and relativism fail to account for the basic moral assumptions we all make. Only forms of moral realism can do this.

Post a Comment


At 9/23/2005 7:31 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

Excellent Franc! This is one of your best morality posts yet. I knew non-coercion would be a great topic!

At 9/23/2005 10:36 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Thanks Aaron !

I am looking forward to more of your suggestions as to where I should go on this morality issue and clear up more relativist/Chrisitan misconceptions.

By the way, I also defy any Christian reading this to give us any moral proposition that is known on a Christian basis – without first deciding to follow the Bible or divine revelation, without induction, without concepts, without valuing knowledge or rationality at all. I bet you can't do it...

At 9/24/2005 7:05 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

“Cultural relativism is false because the truth of any principle does not depend on one’s culture, race or language.”

Once again, you have proved to me in one sentence that I have been guilty of lazy thinking. Thanks a lot; I hate that about myself! Unfortunately, I am not alone. There are many dictates of society and culture that pass for morals, and whether these dictates are benevolent and beneficial, or malevolent and detrimental, they constitute a false morality. This is the framework that cultural relativism is recognizing. It does exist, and it is a part of social fabric, it is also the difference between mores and morals.

So... then... Once one removes the beliefs of a specific culture from the definition of what is moral and what is immoral, one is left with that which can be universally agreed upon. Therein lies a problem. If the best and brightest and most morally conscious of us decide for everyone, then a universally applicable moral code will be established, but who are we to decide? I don’t think this is wrong, that’s not what I am saying; I only know that there will not be universal acceptance. So who is “right”? I believe in John Locke’s “inalienable rights”, not because there is any great precedent in nature, but because I choose to, and because I believe that this is a healthy belief from a social and co-existent perspective. In the same way, I believe that you are correct in saying that there are moral absolutes. The problem I have is with the definition of morality itself. If a male great ape attempts to kill a child that is not his own, we call it instinct and do not pass moral judgment on that action. If a misanthrope is caused great emotional discomfort by the persistent presence of an intruder into his privacy, is he immoral to attack? Was the provocation sufficient? Are there mitigating circumstances, like giving warning, demanding to be left alone before the assault? The extremes of morality are easy to define. You are quite correct to point out the fallacy of moral relativism with the example of the non-Nazi Germans. My question then becomes, is there a way to build a moral framework complete with subtleties without turning it into a socially relative construct? Follow-up: Is anything but a basic moral framework desirable or necessary?

At 9/24/2005 7:24 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...


"If the best and brightest and most morally conscious of us decide for everyone, then a universally applicable moral code will be established, but who are we to decide?"

should read, "If the best and brightest and most morally conscious of us decide for everyone, then a universally applicable moral code will be established, but who are THEY to decide?"

Who am I, but a pompous ass, to assume that I belong in that company?

At 9/24/2005 7:27 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

I hope you're not asking me, because I've already stated my moral position on many entries, including this last one. Moral principles are derived from causal facts of science and social life, and transposed into values and virtues. No agreement of any kind is required for a law to be true, any more than we determine laws of science by majority vote (scientific journals are another matter). It's not anyone's values any more than it is anyone's law of gravity.

At 9/24/2005 7:29 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

Everyone is a moral agent. You already decide what is good for yourself. You can't decide for another. These are not debatable facts - it's just how it is.



Create a Link

<< Home