“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
In entry-level philosophy class, a professor will often present a scenario that seems to challenge the students’ perspective on morality.
The argument runs something as follows: “The entire nation of France will drop dead tomorrow unless you kill your neighbor who has only one day to live. What do you do?”
Or “You could eliminate cancer by pressing a button that also kills one healthy person. Do you do so?”
The purpose is to create a moral dilemma. The questions pit your moral rejection of murder against your moral guilt for not acting to save millions of lives.
In reality, the questions are a sham that cannot be honestly answered. They postulate a parallel world in which the rules of reality, like cause and effect, have been dramatically changed so that pushing a button cures cancer. The postulated world seems to operate more on magic than reality.
Because my moral code is based on the reality of the existing world, I don’t know what I would do if those rules no longer operated. I presume my morality would be different, so my actions would be as well.
As absurd as they are, these are considered to be the “tough” moral questions. In grappling with them, some students come to believe that being true to morality requires the violation of morality in a profound manner; after all, there is no greater violation than the deliberate murder of another human being.
But how can the life of one outweigh those of millions in your hands? At this point, morality becomes a numbers game, a matter of cost-benefit analysis, rather than of principle. This is not an expansion of morality, as the professor claims, but the manufacture of a conflict that destroys morality. In its place is left a moral gray zone, a vacuum into which utilitarianism rushes.
Suddenly, it becomes obvious that the good of the many outweighs the murder of the one. The collective outweighs the individual. The majority outranks the minority. Hard “factual” utilitarianism is preferable to gray, inconsistent morality.
The philosophical questions lead directly into politics because murdering a person for the greater good is not merely a moral question, but also one of individual rights. If you accept the morality of doing so, you have also accepted the political propriety of murdering an innocent human being.
Phrased in political terms, nonhypothetical versions of the philosophy question come up often. For example, “Should the rich or businessmen (the few) be heavily taxed to provide national health care (for the many)?” Here, a greater good is pitted against individual rights. But more than this, individual rights of two groups conflict, with the rights of a resisting minority viewed as a barrier to the “rights” or entitlements of “the others.” Businessmen are deemed to have no right to their earnings if it prevents the majority from having health care.
This politically manufactured conflict is as absurd as the philosophically manufactured one.
The 19th-century British individualist Auberon Herbert addressed the issue of the “good of the greatest number.” He stated, “There never was invented a more specious and misleading phrase. The Devil was in his most subtle and ingenious mood when he slipped this phrase into the brains of men. I hold it to be utterly false in essentials.”
Why is it false? Because the phrase assumes as a given that a higher morality requires the violation of individual rights. Or in Herbert’s words, “It assumes that there are two opposed ‘goods,’ and that the one good is to be sacrificed to the other good — but in the first place, this is not true, for liberty is the one good, open to all, and requiring no sacrifice of others, and secondly, this false opposition (where no real opposition exists) of two different goods means perpetual war between men.” [Emphasis added.]
Herbert is relying on two intimately related theories: first, “the universality of rights”; and, second, “a natural harmony of interests.” The universality of rights means that every individual has the same natural rights to an equal degree.
Race, gender, religion or other secondary characteristics do not matter; only the primary characteristic of being human is important. A natural harmony of interests means that the peaceful exercise of one person’s individual rights does not harm the similar exercise by any other person.
My freedom of conscience or speech does not negate my neighbor’s. The peaceful jurisdiction I claim over my own body does not diminish anyone else’s claim of self-ownership. Indeed, the more I assert the principle of self-ownership, the stronger and more secure that principle becomes for everyone.
Only in a world where rights are not universal, where people’s peaceful behavior conflicts, does it make sense to accept the need to sacrifice individuals to a greater good. This is not the real world, but one that has been manufactured for political purposes.
Herbert explained a key assumption that underlies this faux world: the acceptance of the “greater good” itself. He asked, “Why are two men to be sacrificed to three men? We all agree that the three men are not to be sacrificed to the two men; but why — as a matter of moral right — are we to do what is almost as bad and immoral and shortsighted — sacrifice the two men to the three men? Why sacrifice any one… when liberty does away with all necessity of sacrifice?”
Herbert denied the validity of “this law of numbers, which… is what we really mean when we speak of State authority…under which three men are made absolutely supreme, and two men are made absolutely dependent.” Instead of accepting the law of numbers as an expression of greater good, Herbert viewed it as a convenient social construct, calling it “a purely conventional law, a mere rude, half-savage expedient, which cannot stand the criticism of reason, or be defended… by considerations of universal justice. You can only plead expediency of it.”
To whom was the social construct of conflict convenient? Why would a faux world of inherent conflict be created? By solving the manufactured problems, a great deal of power was transferred from individuals to a ruling class.
Herbert wrote, “The tendency of all great complicated machines is to make a ruling class, for they alone understand the machine, and they alone are skilled in the habit of guiding it; and the tendency of a ruling expert class, when once established, is that at critical moments they do pretty nearly what they like with the nation…”
Rather than solve a social problem, the ruling class had a devastating effect on the welfare of common people, who became “a puzzled flock of sheep waiting for the sheepdog to drive us through the gate.” Ironically, by claiming the collective was greater, the few were able to assume control over the many. The “greater good” devolved to whatever served the interests of the ruling class.
But the process can be reversed. It requires “individualizing” the collective and the nation so that “will, conscience and judgment” can return to every person.
At that point, society offers people “the noblest present” and the greatest benefit possible — “their own personal responsibility.”