The long, slow death of a Republic 7/4/15

Three years ago I contributed several pieces to a 4th of July series here at ATiM celebrating American independence. I had hoped they would provide some sense of the way I feel about the birth of America, and perhaps spark those feelings in others, especially about the Founding Fathers who made that birth not only possible at all but an actual reality. Usually when I contemplate the birth of the US on Independence Day, I am genuinely filled with a mixture of gratitude, responsibility, and pride. Gratitude to both the people who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives to make it all happen, and to Providence (to use the lingo of the Founders) for landing me in this, a singular nation with an identity grounded not just in history but in unique philosophical ideals. Responsibility to help protect the legacy that has been given to us. And pride in knowing just what it is that has made this a nation of such promise. This year, however, I feel quite different.

When Ben Franklin left Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked by a woman outside “Well, Doctor, what have we got? A monarchy or a republic?” Franklin replied “A republic. If you can keep it.” The implication of Franklin’s response was prophetic.

A republic is defined as “a state or nation in which the supreme power rests in all the citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives elected, directly or indirectly, by them and responsible to them.” And it is certainly true that we retain the forms, the institutional manifestations, of the Republic that Franklin and his fellow delegates created. We still have a legislative branch comprised of two elected houses of congress. We still have an executive branch headed by an elected president. We still have a judicial branch headed by a Supreme Court comprised of 9 judges, appointed by the president and approved by congress. We still have the several states, with their own constitutions and forms of government. But we no longer operate under true republican rule, nor are the people any longer committed to protecting against the things that the structure of our government was supposed to protect against. Hence while we retain the forms of a republic, we have forfeited the substance of what it means to be a republic, and have become a nation of the ruled.

In 1887 congress, in its infinite wisdom, decided to create the Interstate Commerce Commission, the first regulatory agency in the nation. Nearly 130 years later we now have countless federal agencies. And I mean literally countless. Any attempt to identify exactly how many federal agencies now exist proves fruitless. Some lists will be qualified as “major” regulatory agencies, so as to be able to provide a definitive list. (14 regulatory agencies on that one.) Others, such as Wikipedia, settle for providing “examples” (28 of them) of “independent” agencies – not to be confused with independent regulatory agencies, it reminds us – a comprehensive list, apparently, being impossible to provide. A totally different Wikipedia entry on federal agencies explains the problem:

Legislative definitions of a federal agency are varied, and even contradictory, and the official United States Government Manual offers no definition. While the Administrative Procedure Act definition of “agency” applies to most executive branch agencies, Congress may define an agency however it chooses in enabling legislation, and subsequent litigation, often involving the Freedom of Information Act and the Government in the Sunshine Act, further cloud attempts to enumerate a list of agencies.

And these agencies, however many there actually are, are not populated with elected representatives. They are comprised of both career bureaucrats and political appointees. They are not us.

It is certainly the case that many of these agencies don’t really exercise any real power. For example the US Women’s Bureau, enabled by Public Law 66-259; 29 U.S.C. 11-16.29, doesn’t seem to do much of anything noteworthy except provide a living for its employees. But many others exercise nearly unchecked power to make laws which are never voted on by congress. The people, us, have virtually no say over these laws. The administrative state rules us. We do not rule it.

Defenders of the administrative state will say that is bunk. They will say that we have authorized these agencies through congress, and that they are merely enforcing laws that congress has written. They will also say that the agencies are not making law, but rather establishing “rules” that define their enforcement policies. That is indeed how the administrative state justifies its existence under a constitution that neither contemplates nor authorizes the existence of a law-making bureaucracy. But reality on the ground shows that it is that justification that is bunk.

An example. The Environmental Protection Agency is right now promulgating “rules” regulating carbon dioxide emissions. It does so ostensibly under the authority of the Clean Air Act which requires regulation of “air pollutants”. The Clean Air Act was written and passed in 1963. For over 40 years no one, not the original authors of the act, not any subsequent congress, not “the people”, not even the EPA itself thought of carbon dioxide as an “air pollutant”. Which is not a surprise at all. Pollution is defined as “the introduction of contaminants into the natural environment that cause adverse change.” But carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas the presence of which is vital to life on earth. It is naturally produced by all living beings that have lungs, through the simple act of breathing. It is absorbed by plants during photosynthesis. It is, again, essential to the existence of life on earth.

But due to the rise of “climate change” alarmism, carbon dioxide has now been classified by he EPA as an “air pollutant”. There was no vote. No congressional law. No popular referendum. In fact it wasn’t even the EPA itself that originally designated it as a air pollutant under its authority. It was sued by 11 states which claimed the the Clean Air Act required the EPA to regulate carbon emissions, and despite losing in the lower courts, by a 5-4 vote the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, forcing the EPA into regulation. Of course, under a new administration that promotes climate alarmism, the EPA has embraced its newfound ability to write legislation regulating carbon. But it is perfectly clear that it is, in fact, writing legislation, not simply enforcing existing law. President Obama essentially ended any pretense to the contrary when he demanded that congress either pass carbon related climate change legislation or face the threat of him doing it unilaterally via the EPA. Which he has now done. One doesn’t ask for new legislation to enforce if one thinks that it already exists and needs to be enforced. The notion that Obama is just enforcing existing law is an obvious ruse.

That is just one particularly infamous example, but this is how the administrative state routinely operates, on big issues and small, constantly writing and re-writing the “rules” to impose whatever desires it currently might have, regardless of whether or not the law itself has changed, and often precisely because the law hasn’t been changed. There are so many regulatory actions that it is impossible for the average citizen to have any idea what his government is doing. The Federal Register publishes between 2,500 and 4,500 new “rules” every single year. The effects of these regulations, laws really, permeates every area of American life. There is not an industry in existence that is left untouched by the federal bureaucracy. Even the most basic and simple of our daily actions are governed by regulatory “rules”.

In Federalist 62 James Madison wrote:

It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.

The federal bureaucracy fails on both fronts. Not only is it making laws so voluminous and incoherent that they cannot be read or understood (or even known, to be honest) by the people, but they aren’t even made by men of their own choice. It would be easy to blame this on the institutions of government itself, and certainly there is blame to be laid there. Presidents have routinely expanded executive power through the creative use of the federal bureaucracy. Congress could stop it if wanted to by simply passing laws eliminating the agencies, but instead it does the opposite, not only creating more agencies but writing deliberately vague legislation that invites regulatory agencies to fill in the blanks with its own will. And the Supreme Court has long since ceased apply the law or constitution, choosing instead to rule based on political preferences.

But the real fault lies in we the people. It was the people that elected Franklin Roosevelt 4 times despite his expansive and unconstitutional use and abuse of the federal regulatory bureaucracy to do things that congress would not do. It is the people that elected Barack Obama twice, despite his open contempt for congress’ role as the voice of the people, proclaiming “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” It is the people that elected a congress that thinks that knowing what is in legislation is what comes after having passed it. Franklin’s cynicism about the people was well founded. He gave us a Republic and we have frittered it away.

On this Fourth of July, our Independence Day, it might be useful to read through the Declaration of Independence, and remember what its purpose was. It was not merely a declaration of America’s independence from Britain, but it was also a justification for the Declaration itself. While the first few lines are the most remembered from grade school civics lessons, the body of the document is comprised largely of a list of transgressions that King George III was said to have rained down upon the colonists, compelling them to revolt. It is worth noting one of them in particular.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

A better description of the modern regulatory state has never been written. It is high time we took Jefferson’s lead and declare our independence from it.

73 Responses

  1. Happy Independence Day. Let’s take today to remember and renew the revolutionary spirit of 1776, and follow the example of the Founding Fathers in craving freedom and casting off the oppressive hand of an unrepresentative government. In many ways our job will be even more difficult than theirs was.

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    • A good plan would be to first identify “do-nothing” agencies and remove [them] the clutter and waste. Low hanging fruit. This would also be a good way to deal with beginning tax reform – rewrite the Code in plain English. Low hanging fruit first.

      Anyone who opposes such simple and self evident steps can be marginalized without a threat of partisanship.

      The second step in bureaucratic reform is also obvious – rewrite the APA so that admin law becomes limited, transparent, and coherent. This move would generate opponents with some power, however. Several agencies have been basically captured by their “clients”.

      Much as budget trimming never works as pick your least favorite items, and only sequestration or something similar could have forced expense cuts, cleaning up admin law cannot be done by keeping agencies clients like, say, NHTSA, and removing those that are disliked, say EPA. The structure requires overhaul, but it also requires an understanding that Congress itself cannot be the enforcer of the laws it writes and that without the Admin state which is at least answerable to Congress the Executive would have a hugely expanded Cabinet and even more direct power. Try to imagine THAT.

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      • Mark:

        The structure requires overhaul, but it also requires an understanding that Congress itself cannot be the enforcer of the laws it writes and that without the Admin state which is at least answerable to Congress the Executive would have a hugely expanded Cabinet and even more direct power.

        Alternatively congress (and the courts) could take the constitution and the ideas which animate it seriously, and limit its lawmaking to the few areas for which it has been granted expressly enumerated and limited powers.

        BTW, I know that in theory at the admin state is answerable to congress, but in reality it is not. Consider Lois Lerner.

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  2. Several agencies have been basically captured by their “clients”.

    When government regulates what is bought and sold, the first thing bought and sold are the regulators

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    • Brent:

      When government regulates what is bought and sold, the first thing bought and sold are the regulators

      Is that a Nyitray original? I like it. Quote of the day material, that.

      Like

  3. Burn it to the ground and start over with the states that want to form Unions with each other.

    Repeat every 200 years.

    No shame as nothing lasts forever.

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  4. Chris Matthews marching with Hillary supporters. The press doesn’t even hide its bias any more

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  5. It might surprise you to learn that I heartliy agree with you that the number of agencies needs to be cut. As a complete SWAG, I’d venture that we could get rid of 75% of them. I’m much more optimistic than you are, though, on the future of the US; having just read Fire and Light by James MacGregor Burns I was encouraged at how much of Enlightenment thinking still shapes our politics today. It seems to me that the GOP is the party which has abandoned many of the principles of that movement.

    Thanks for writing and posting this–it’s an excellent piece.

    Quote of the day material, that

    I agree. When you find out if Brent said it or swiped it you should put it up.

    A very happy Independence Day to all of you! Here’s to many more.

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    • Mich:

      I was encouraged at how much of Enlightenment thinking still shapes our politics today

      You shouldn’t mistake the ubiquitous use of language reflecting enlightenment notions with the actual influence of those notions. When the modern day left speaks of freedom, reason, even liberalism, it is not talking about the same thing that enlightenment thinkers were talking about. Quite the opposite in many instances.

      Thanks for writing and posting this–it’s an excellent piece.

      Thanks. It was animated by the same general ideas that in other instances have been labelled “silly” and have gotten me called an “ass”.

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  6. t. In many ways our job will be even more difficult than theirs was.

    No parity, gun-wise. Thanks, in large part to the 1934 National Firearms Act.

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  7. It was animated by the same general ideas that in other instances have been labelled “silly” and have gotten me called an “ass”.

    Context is everything, no? 🙂

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    • Mich:

      Context is everything, no?

      No.

      I am curious…do you accept the existence of natural rights? That is, do rights exist outside of those recognized in the law?

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  8. Let me get back to you on natural rights, as I will need to do some reading to see how you’re going to be defining the words.

    In the meantime, have you read Dead Wake by Erik Larson yet? I’m on the waiting list for the audiobook at the library, and am contemplating just buying it if you’ve read it and think it’s good.

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    • McWing:

      Feminists of the world, you know how tiring it can get dealing with the oppression, discrimination and hate that’s all too rampant in our everyday lives. Sometimes you just want to scream, or cry, or rip out all the pages of your favorite feminist manifesto and cover your body in them like a paper fort.

      Yes! Yes, I know exactly what they mean! Just last night I ripped out the pages of my favorite feminist manifesto and covered my body in them. Nothing like it.

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  9. Anything that happens in healthcare that’s thought of as bad, like rate increases, will be blamed on Obamacare.

    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/07/04/us/health-insurance-companies-seek-big-rate-increases-for-2016.html?referrer=

    Good, fuck them.

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    • McWing:

      Health insurance companies around the country are seeking rate increases of 20 percent to 40 percent or more, saying their new customers under the Affordable Care Act turned out to be sicker than expected.

      No way!!! Who could have possibly predicted that?!?!

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  10. do you accept the existence of natural rights?

    You sound like a Jehovah’s Witness when you start down that path. There is so much question begging in that very sentence. I do admire the evangelical zeal of libertarians. They are so optimistic that they can convert people to their cause with pure sophistry.

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    • yello:

      You sound like a Jehovah’s Witness when you start down that path.

      Sounds to me like you know even less about Jehova’s Witness than I do. I checked out their website and didn’t see any mention of natural rights at all.

      There is so much question begging in that very sentence.

      It appears you are about as familiar with the meaning of “question begging” as you are with the meaning of a straw man. One can’t “beg the question” by simply asking one.

      I do admire the evangelical zeal of libertarians. They are so optimistic that they can convert people to their cause with pure sophistry.

      I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. I simply asked a question. I do understand, though, why the question might make you a little uncomfortable, and why Mich is reluctant to answer it.

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  11. A good plan would be to first identify “do-nothing” agencies and remove [them] the clutter and waste.

    Just which agencies are these? The Department of Education is a clear candidate since it is just an overseer of functions performed at the state and local level. But even they do things like administer student loans. Every agency does ‘something’ even if it is not immediately apparent.

    Much as budget trimming never works as pick your least favorite items, and only sequestration or something similar could have forced expense cuts, cleaning up admin law cannot be done by keeping agencies clients like, say, NHTSA, and removing those that are disliked, say EPA.

    Sequestration is performing a haircut with a chainsaw. It rarely eliminates the core function of an agency, only diminishing the effectiveness with which it does it. And why is the EPA so disliked? They enforce regulations for clean air and water, things I am in favor of. It does seem to very unpopular amongst companies which pollute who have engineered a long and successful campaign against the EPA in the public discourse.

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    • YJ, DOEd is Cabinet. (Right?)

      And the “clients” dislike EPA, as distinguished from the “clients” of NHTSA.

      I use “clients” in the loose and cynical sense.

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    • yello:

      And why is the EPA so disliked?

      Because of things like this.

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  12. You sound like a Jehovah’s Witness when you start down that path. There is so much question begging in that very sentence. I do admire the evangelical zeal of libertarians. They are so optimistic that they can convert people to their cause with pure sophistry.

    Is that a no? Sounds like a no.

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  13. I garauntee that a Dow Chemical loves the EPA and actively seeks more regulation.

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  14. I’ll answer the natural rights question, no.

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    • McWing:

      I’ll answer the natural rights question, no.

      In the absence of a belief in individual rights, under what moral authority is the government presumed to operate, and what defines the boundaries of what a government can legitimately do?

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  15. I do admire the evangelical zeal of libertarians. They are so optimistic that they can convert people to their cause with pure sophistry.

    Sounds like the Progressive Left. Did you stick up for obamacare over your 4th of July barbecue like the obama administration directed you to do?

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    • Brent:

      Sounds like the Progressive Left.

      It is a pretty standard rhetorical strategy of the left to accuse others of the very things it is doing itself.

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  16. Best as I can figure, the type of government I’d prefer is one that has the consent of the governed with a written Constitution that explicitly states only what the government can do, and that is relativly difficult to amend. Further, it should expire after a set time (say, every one hundred years) and the various entities that make up the country (read states) decide what type of government, if any they should form.

    But that’s just my crazy Bagger thinking.

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    • McWing:

      I mostly agree on the details, but the question is what gives any government the moral authority to do what it does? The founders believed that governmental authority derived from the consent of the governed. That belief flowed from their acceptance of the notion of individual natural rights. If individual rights do not exist, why does it matter whether or not the governed consent to the institutions that govern them?

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  17. Agreed that it doesn’t matter, as history has and will always point out. It does matter to me, as that is my preference.

    If I don’t believe in a deity, I don’t see how I can believe in Natural Rights or a Universal Morality, it all comes down to preference really, what else can it come down to?

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    • McWing:

      So to be clear, you think the notions of morality, justice, right/wrong are essentially meaningless? That to object to a certain kind of behavior, like say, executing homosexuals, is just a “preference” in much the same way that one might object to having beef for dinner because of a preference for seafood?

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  18. Ultimately yes. Societies have embraced every kind of behavior imaginable as core principles and have thrived at various time with them. History has established that moral codes aren’t universal or certain behaviors, say, pedophiles or human sacrifice wouldn’t been seen in culture after culture in era after era.

    I wish I believed in a Creator and Natural Rights, but absent one, how can you have the other?

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    • McWing:

      History has established that moral codes aren’t universal or certain behaviors, say, pedophiles or human sacrifice wouldn’t been seen in culture after culture in era after era.

      I don’t see how you conclude that. There is nothing about the idea of an objective morality that would, if it existed, compel individuals to necessarily follow it. In fact the very notion of morality is premised on the existence of free will, which gives individuals the capacity to behave immorally.

      I wish I believed in a Creator and Natural Rights, but absent one, how can you have the other?

      There are various theories. Ayn Rand, for one, wrote extensively on that very subject. I have not found one that I find fully convincing, but nor do I find the alternative to be convincing, either. I will try to find some good links for you.

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  19. Scott, if there was a Universal Moral code then surely there would be certain acts that all societies prohibited, I can’t think of a single one. I think organizing principles are important for societies to be “successful,”
    But I can’t find the Universal Morality you desire to exist. Absence of evidence doesn’t mean a Universal Morality doesn’t exist but given eons of existence for modern humans and absolutely no evidence of its existence is a pretty strong indicator that there isn’t one, much as I’d wish there were.

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    • McWing:

      Scott, if there was a Universal Moral code then surely there would be certain acts that all societies prohibited, I can’t think of a single one.

      I am not aware of any society in which random murder is not considered wrong. The concepts of evil, justice, fairness, are pretty much ubiquitous across all societies.

      Absence of evidence doesn’t mean a Universal Morality doesn’t exist but given eons of existence for modern humans and absolutely no evidence of its existence is a pretty strong indicator that there isn’t one, much as I’d wish there were.

      On the contrary, I think the fact that virtually all societies that have ever existed have been organized under the assumption that some objective morality does exist is strong evidence that it is self-evident, or, if not at least that it is a necessary belief, whether it is true or not.

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  20. @Michigoose: “It seems to me that the GOP is the party which has abandoned many of the principles of that movement.”

    I think there are few politicians in either party animated by classic liberalism or enlightenment thinking. They are, at best, functionaries or administrators (i.e., bureaucrats) and at worst completely dedicated to carving out their own fiefdoms.

    To the degree that either party embraces enlightenment thinking, they only do it when there is no cost to them and it won’t put them at odds with others in their party. I think both parties (irrespective of Tea Party rhetoric) see the government as something that should be a much larger agent and actor in the lives of every day people than is truly compatible with classic enlightenment thinking.

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  21. @Scottc1: “The founders believed that governmental authority derived from the consent of the governed.”

    Thus it is that Republicans will continue to get elected at various times, despite ongoing Democratic and liberal predictions that Republicans are doomed by demographics or the shifting moral landscape until they conform to liberal notions of what a politician should be. This is true of predictions of Democrat marginalization, as well. Ultimately, voters almost alway get tired of the people in power and vote many of them out.

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  22. @yellojkt: “And why is the EPA so disliked? They enforce regulations for clean air and water, things I am in favor of.”

    That’s sort of like assuming Google lives by it’s “don’t be evil” motto. They are a huge bureaucracy with a lot of arbitrary power, so they often do things by fiat that make people unhappy, where the necessity of their actions in regards to keeping the air clean and the water pure are highly dubious.

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  23. @Scottc1: “I am curious…do you accept the existence of natural rights? That is, do rights exist outside of those recognized in the law?”

    I am dubious that “natural rights” mean anything outside of our shared beliefs that we all have rights to certain things. Rights don’t mean much if they cannot be or will not be enforced or in some other way guaranteed. I can argue I have a right to something, but if I am helpless to assert the right what good does having that “right” do me?

    I think it is better for society as a whole if we recognize that we have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and behave as to and among each other in recognition of such rights, but I am not sure such rights are written into our DNA or the physical laws of the universe.

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    • Kevin:

      I can argue I have a right to something, but if I am helpless to assert the right what good does having that “right” do me?

      Ask the abolition movement or the slaves that it eventually freed.

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  24. @Scottc1: “Yes! Yes, I know exactly what they mean! Just last night I ripped out the pages of my favorite feminist manifesto and covered my body in them. Nothing like it.”

    I had always suspected as much.

    I do this same thing, only with comic books.

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  25. @scottc1: “Ask the abolition movement or the slaves that it eventually freed.”

    They were able to do something to achieve a goal. i.e.: enforce the right. It was not the presence of a universal right but people with goals and a means to act to achieve them that made that happen.

    *edit: Put another way, if I cannot defend my right and there is no one else to do it for me, do I have it?

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    • Kevin:

      Put another way, if I cannot defend my right and there is no one else to do it for me, do I have it?

      Yes. That is precisely what makes it a right.

      The logic of your position implies that there is nothing wrong with, say, murdering someone as long as you are successful in doing so. According to you your very success proves that your victim had no right to life. Therefore you did nothing wrong. Basically it is a nihilist rejection of morality in its entirety.

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  26. I am not aware of any society in which random murder is not considered wrong. The concepts of evil, justice, fairness, are pretty much ubiquitous across all societies.

    If the definitions of those concepts were the same across time and place I’d agree with you. Did the Aztecs view Human Sacrifice as evil? I’m guessing no. Was crucifixion of one’s enemies a just punishment according to the Roman’s, I think they thought so. We call the extermination of a people’s genocide but that’s not what the Turks thought when they were killing Armenians, and surely many of those killed were done so in a random way.

    Just because societies organize around things like evil, justice and fairness doesn’t mean that those things have the same meaning across societies and time.

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    • McWing:

      Just because societies organize around things like evil, justice and fairness doesn’t mean that those things have the same meaning across societies and time.

      They do mean the same thing as abstract concepts. That is exactly my point. Different societies may think they are manifested in different ways, but all societies have the concept of good/evil, should/shouldn’t, justice/injustice. And whatever substantive actions it is that they apply them to, they are presumed to apply to everyone, including individuals that themselves happen to reject them. If a given society thinks that wearing a hat on Friday is evil, they think it is true universally, not just for those people who agree.

      I am unaware of any society that rejects the idea that moral claims can have objective truth value. That is not to say that all moral claims are true, only that all societies operate under the assumption that the moral claims they adopt are true. You show me a society that operates under the assumption that morality doesn’t actually exist, and I will show you a society that won’t exist very long.

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  27. On the contrary, I think the fact that virtually all societies that have ever existed have been organized under the assumption that some objective morality does exist is strong evidence that it is self-evident, or, if not at least that it is a necessary belief, whether it is true or not.

    Isn’t that really just evidence than human beings have developed a need for organizing principles (any organizing principles) as a mechanism for survival rather than evidence of something that’s defined the same across all societies?

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    • There is the potential that natural selection has made certain behaviors like child rearing and community and self protection instinctive. Additionally, human self awareness is pretty obvious, so that codes to protect children, self, and tribe would occur to people everywhere.

      I don’t know how far one can take the animal tendencies of primates to these three traits or what other ones might occur naturally.

      “Goose, have you ever studied this?

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      • Mark:

        We need to begin with the concept of free will. If you approach human interaction as deterministic and you reject the idea that humans have free will, then the concept of “should” is reduced to meaninglessness, as is morality. Everything that a person does happens because it must.

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        • We need to begin with the concept of free will.

          I think we must begin with the concept of self awareness, from which the concept of “free will” may be supposed. FWIW, I think I have a range of free will. I also know that I will react to stimuli of some sorts before I can even impose conscious free will.

          This is why the scifi notion in “Terminator” resonates with us. If computers become self aware, they will assume that they can think for themselves and make decisions without us.

          Self-awareness is prime.

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        • Mark:

          I think we must begin with the concept of self awareness

          True enough, but I didn’t think whether or not we are self aware was a matter of controversy or question. To even pose the question is to answer it.

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        • If this is what the people of Oregon truly want, then Oregon is the land of the insane.

          http://www.oregon.gov/boli/SiteAssets/pages/press/Sweet%20Cakes%20FO.pdf

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        • Scott, we have never been able to do this conversation justice.

          You seemingly speak of “morality” as if it could be universal, and as if it could be logically derived. Is that a correct description?

          I think “ethics” can be logically derived, but are most effective in a consenting community. Laws, manners, rules of conduct from the Boy Scouts to the USMC: these and more are ethical codes.

          I think “morals” are distinguished from “ethics”, in this context, because they are assumed to be pre-existing and universal; thus subject to revelation, not construction. We generally think of revelation as either a religious concept or, uncharitably, as a delusion.

          I posed animal behavior, because I think there is some limited derivation of ethics that may be accomplished from that beginning. Here is another example of animal behavior. Studies show that most people can imagine or even at some level sense the pain of others. From this animal behavior, with self-awareness, we might derive an ethic of “do not do unto others what you do not want done to you”.

          It would be useful for the rest of us if you could describe how “morality” is either pre-existing and not a human creation or how it is “derived”, or how we are missing your point.

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        • Mark:

          You seemingly speak of “morality” as if it could be universal, and as if it could be logically derived. Is that a correct description?

          No, although I do not dismiss the possibility. I am making a much weaker claim. I am only saying that moral notions necessarily assume universality. That is precisely what is meant by morality, ie a standard of behavior that is presumed to exist independently of ourselves, and is applicable to everyone. It may be a complete fantasy. It may be totally unknowable. it may be knowable only through other-worldy revelation. I don’t know and I am not making any claims about that. All I am saying is that whenever someone characterizes an action as “wrong” or “unjust” or “immoral”, they are of necessity and by definition making an appeal to some external, universal standard that they implicitly believe exists.

          I think “ethics” can be logically derived…

          Only in the pursuit of an identifiable goal.

          I confess that I have never quite grasped the distinction between ethics and morality with regard to generic human behavior. I understand the distinction in the context of a profession or an organization. The notion of “legal ethics” or the “boy scout ethic” makes sense to me. But any attempt to “construct” or “derive” an ethic for generic human behavior (ie do unto others…) is simply an exercise in proclaiming what morality is, as far as I can tell.

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  28. Pretty elastic understanding of the concept of Universal Morality, no?

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    • McWing:

      Pretty elastic understanding of the concept of Universal Morality, no?

      No. The question isn’t whether there is universal agreement on what is moral, which is obviously not the case. The question is whether moral claims are assumed to have truth value.

      If you have ever uttered the words “He shouldn’t do that” and meant something more than simply “I wouldn’t do that but hey, to each his own, everyone has their own preferences”, then I think you implicitly accept the idea of a universal morality.

      Like

  29. If you have ever uttered the words “He shouldn’t do that” and meant something more than simply “I wouldn’t do that but hey, to each his own, everyone has their own preferences”, then I think you implicitly accept the idea of a universal morality.

    I actually don’t think this. I have preferences and one of them is that on certain things everybody should agree with me. To the point where I would take action to attempt to insure it.

    I don’t see how the idea that my moral preference implies the existence of a Universal Morality.

    Like

    • McWing:

      I have preferences and one of them is that on certain things everybody should agree with me. To the point where I would take action to attempt to insure it.

      Why “should” they agree with you? Indeed, to what exactly are they “agreeing” if there is no assertion of a universal truth?

      I don’t see how the idea that my moral preference implies the existence of a Universal Morality.

      Why do you refer to “moral preferences” as if they are distinct from other kinds of “preferences”? What makes a “preference” for not raping little girls a different sort of “preference” than one for steak cooked medium rare, such that you are willing to take action to compel others to act on your “preference” with regard to the former, but not the latter?

      To me the distinction is obvious, and is exactly why we have the concepts of “should” and “ought”, or more generally morality itself. Those concepts necessarily imply some standard of behavior that exists external to us as individuals, and which is applicable to everyone, regardless of whether they themselves think so. This is why it makes sense to us to say “Raping little girls is evil” while it would never make sense to say “Eating a well done steak is evil”. To speak of “moral preferences” is sort of an oxymoron. To declare something to be a moral imperative means it not merely a “preference”, but something much more forceful and universal. Assumptions about universality is exactly what distinguishes moral claims from mere expressions of personal preference.

      The only difference between someone who says “I ‘prefer’ behavior non-X, and I demand that all others must also behave in the same way” and someone who says “Behavior X is universally wrong, even for those who may think otherwise” is semantics. They are articulating the same belief in different ways.

      Like

  30. @scottc1: Re natural rights.

    Yes. But that’s my last word on it–no rabbit hole going down for me! Now, about Dead Wake. . .

    Like

  31. Why “should” they agree with you? Indeed, to what exactly are they “agreeing” if there is no assertion of a universal truth?

    My preference is that pedophilia is wrong and should be stopped. Their motivation for agreeing with me is irrelevant as long as they agree, no? I suppose I could argue that a pedophilia free society leads to reduced psychological tolls down the road but ultimately that is my preference as well.

    You keep asserting that there is a Universal Morality yet don’t explain, or I’m failing to understand, how that Universal Morality can have more than one definition. I’m not being obtuse here, just failing to understand how there can be some universality in it if successful societies use two diametrically opposed understandings of it. If there is such as thing as a Universal Morality why can there be more that one definition of it? Doesn’t that remove the “universality” of it?

    Why do you refer to “moral preferences” as if they are distinct from other kinds of “preferences”? What makes a “preference” for not raping little girls a different sort of “preference” than one for steak cooked medium rare, such that you are willing to take action to compel others to act on your “preference” with regard to the former, but not the latter?

    Ultimately I’m not sure they’re different. I take action against an annoying fly. Not being flippant but I think that I have (probably) varying intensity levels of concern over preferences, as do you.

    The only difference between someone who says “I ‘prefer’ behavior non-X, and I demand that all others must also behave in the same way” and someone who says “Behavior X is universally wrong, even for those who may think otherwise” is semantics. They are articulating the same belief in different ways.

    Perhaps, but I’m not arguing that others don’t believe in a Universal Morality, I’m arguing that others do but I think they are wrong and one does not exist. Because societies form around Organizing Principles doesn’t imply there are Universal Organizing Principles, it only implies that societies like to organize around them.

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    • George, I think you and I are talking about ethics -organizing principles under which we act – rules of conduct – but that we do not understand precisely what Scott means. We have now both asked him to clarify.

      Like

    • McWing:

      My preference is that pedophilia is wrong and should be stopped.

      I sincerely have no idea what you mean by “wrong” if you do not mean in violation of some presumed standard of behavior that is universally applicable.

      Their motivation for agreeing with me is irrelevant as long as they agree, no?

      I don’t think you are talking about agreement. You are talking about compliance.

      You keep asserting that there is a Universal Morality…

      No. I just keep asserting that in order to declare a behavior to be “wrong” or “immoral” or “unjust” one must implicitly accept that there is. Maybe there isn’t. But unless I assume there is, claims that something is “wrong” just don’t make any sense.

      just failing to understand how there can be some universality in it if successful societies use two diametrically opposed understandings of it.

      While it is certainly true that many societies have differing notions of what is or is not moral, I don’t think you could ever find two relatively successful societies that have literally diametrically opposed notions of morality. Like I said earlier, show me a society in which random murder is not frowned upon and I will show you a society that won’t long exist.

      If there is such as thing as a Universal Morality why can there be more that one definition of it?

      People disagree over the nature of reality all the time. That doesn’t mean reality is non-existent, does it?

      Like

  32. @Scottc1: “The logic of your position implies that there is nothing wrong with, say, murdering someone as long as you are successful in doing so. According to you your very success proves that your victim had no right to life. Therefore you did nothing wrong. Basically it is a nihilist rejection of morality in its entirety.”

    Ultimately that becomes the case in war, for example. Killing someone for self-defense. Capital punishment is a case where it’s not just a matter of getting away with it but having institutionalized support. There are clearly societal reasons not to accept murder in cold blood, and perhaps there is some karmic adjustment that means you never truly get away with cold blooded murder. But I’m not sure what right I have not be murdered except that which is conferred by my ability to prevent it or in the larger society that objects (for obvious reasons). Which is not to say we should regard and treat rights as real things, just like the equator is real, but it seems to be the same place that ultimately all presumed rights come from: the society’s willingness to see a right to life or a right to gay marriage as rights.

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  33. I sincerely have no idea what you mean by “wrong” if you do not mean in violation of some presumed standard of behavior that is universally applicable.

    I mean that I don’t like it. I don’t care what others think of it as long as they don’t do it. Luckily, most people don’t like it either and have banded together to do things to try and stop it or limit it.

    I don’t think you are talking about agreement. You are talking about compliance.

    Fair enough.

    No. I just keep asserting that in order to declare a behavior to be “wrong” or “immoral” or “unjust” one must implicitly accept that there is. Maybe there isn’t. But unless I assume there is, claims that something is “wrong” just don’t make any sense.

    I disagree, I reject the concept of a Universal Morality as I don’t believe in a Creator. Given that, preference is all that a rational mind is left with. What else could there be for a non-theist to accept?

    While it is certainly true that many societies have differing notions of what is or is not moral, I don’t think you could ever find two relatively successful societies that have literally diametrically opposed notions of morality. Like I said earlier, show me a society in which random murder is not frowned upon and I will show you a society that won’t long exist.

    Pretty sure the Romans didn’t oppose the random murder of Christians or the Nazi German’s the random murder of Jews. No society exists for long in the grand scheme of things and it’s hard to argue that the Nazi’s weren’t successful for a time. The Romans were successful for a long time.

    People disagree over the nature of reality all the time. That doesn’t mean reality is non-existent, does it?

    The fact that I exist is enough evidence for me that there is reality. A hope for a Universal Morality isn’t enough evidence for me.

    Where does this Universal Morality come from and how is it different than instinctual survival behavior like the instinct to, say, eat or mate?

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    • McWing:

      I mean that I don’t like it.

      So everything you don’t like is wrong? It is certainly true that I don’t like things that I think are wrong, but it is definitely not true that I refer to as wrong anything that I don’t like. I use the two to refer to totally distinct concepts.

      I reject the concept of a Universal Morality as I don’t believe in a Creator.

      It sounds to me like you reject the concept of morality itself.

      Pretty sure the Romans didn’t oppose the random murder of Christians or the Nazi German’s the random murder of Jews.

      The murder of Christians and Jews was pretty much the opposite of random. But sure, societies that target and kill minorities can indeed survive. But I think you would be hard pressed to claim that Rome or even Nazi Germany was diametrically opposed to, say, prevailing notions of morality in the US, even if we do have significant disagreements.

      A hope for a Universal Morality isn’t enough evidence for me.

      From my perspective it isn’t a hope. It is just an assumption. When people speak of right/wrong, just/unjust, this is what I understand them to be referring to. In the future I will have to alter that assumption with you, and understand you to mean, rather idiosyncratically, nothing more than things you do or don’t like.

      Where does this Universal Morality come from and how is it different than instinctual survival behavior like the instinct to, say, eat or mate?

      That is a very good question, and one that has kept philosophers busy since the dawn of philosophizing. My answer is a humble “I don’t know.” Maybe it doesn’t even exist and all the handwringing over good and bad behavior is just a monumental waste of time.

      Like

  34. So everything you don’t like is wrong?

    If “wrong” is the same as “I don’t like it” then yes. Is swatting away a fly as wrong as, say, murder? No, I have an ability to prioritize wrongness.

    It sounds to me like you reject the concept of morality itself.

    I think that’s probably true.

    The murder of Christians and Jews was pretty much the opposite of random.

    I get your assertion and it has merit. The point though is a society that embraced an aspect of Justice and Fairness that is diametrically opposed to any rational understanding of a Universal Morality, yet those societies thrived for a period of time. Your definitions of what can constitute Universal Morality seem so broad as to be virtually meaningless.

    In the future I will have to alter that assumption with you, and understand you to mean, rather idiosyncratically, nothing more than things you do or don’t like.

    That would be my preference. 🙂

    Like

    • McWing:

      If “wrong” is the same as “I don’t like it” then yes.

      Well that is what I am asking you…is that all you mean by “wrong”? To me they are definitely not the same, nor do I think most people mean that. But if you use them interchangeably, that is something I need to know in order to try to understand where you are coming from.

      I think that’s probably true.

      Which is interesting to me. I wonder if there has ever been a culture or society that has rejected wholesale the concept of morality.

      Your definitions of what can constitute Universal Morality seem so broad as to be virtually meaningless.

      I think we are still talking at cross purposes somehow. I have not tried to identify what I think is the true content of morality. That is, I have not endorsed catholic morality, or muslim morality, or progressive morality, or libertarian morality, much of which is, as you suggest, mutually exclusive. They can’t all be right, for sure, and maybe none of them are. I have merely tried to make plain that, when each one of those groups (and pretty much all others) refers to moral notions (whatever the specific behavior it is that they are directing them at), I understand them to be implicitly proclaiming the existence of some standard that exists outside of themselves, and applies to everyone. This understanding is neither broad nor meaningless.

      Like

  35. Well that is what I am asking you…is that all you mean by “wrong”? To me they are definitely not the same, nor do I think most people mean that. But if you use them interchangeably, that is something I need to know in order to try to understand where you are coming from.

    I’m not trying to be cute, just precise and responsive. I don’t think there is a Universal Morality as defined by a specific set of morals that individuals are compelled to follow. I believe there are certain strategies for survival, like an imperative to mate, and an imperative to cooperate with family so as to increase the likelihood of survival. Absent a Creator, I don’t see how one can assume anything that you call Morality be thought of as anything other than instinctive survival behaviors and learned behaviors, an example being monkey troops (?) that use sticks to fish out termites to eat. Monkey troops are quite cooperative and have a distinct pattern of behavior that is very close to how humans behave in tight knit groups, do you believe troops of monkeys have a Universal Morality above survival instincts? I don’t.

    Which is interesting to me. I wonder if there has ever been a culture or society that has rejected wholesale the concept of morality.

    See above, I think what you might call Morality I’m calling instinctive and learned survival strategies.

    I understand them to be implicitly proclaiming the existence of some standard that exists outside of themselves, and applies to everyone. This understanding is neither broad nor meaningless.

    I am not differentiating it from survival instinct and I think you are. Do you have evidence that morality exists outside of survival instinct

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    • McWing:

      I don’t think there is a Universal Morality as defined by a specific set of morals that individuals are compelled to follow.

      I don’t think anyone thinks people are compelled to follow a specific set of morals. The concept “should” is quite different from “will”, and it obviously contemplates the possibility of “will not”. In fact the whole point of a moral code is to guide people who have the free will to choose not to follow it.

      I believe there are certain strategies for survival, like an imperative to mate, and an imperative to cooperate with family so as to increase the likelihood of survival.

      Fair enough, but don’t those strategies exist independently of your own subjective “preferences”, and don’t they apply to other people, even if they reject them? The fact that you may disagree with others only suggests that one (or both) of you is wrong in your assessment, not that there is no objective truth to the matter.

      Absent a Creator, I don’t see how one can assume anything that you call Morality be thought of as anything other than instinctive survival behaviors and learned behaviors…

      Fine, but again, how does this run counter to my characterization of morality as a standard of behavior that exists independently of any individual and is applicable universally to everyone? You may think this standard is derived from the nature of reality and the ability of humans to survive in it. Others think the standard is derived from a God and the role he wants human to play in the world he created. You might be correct or they might be correct or neither of you may be correct, but, again, the fact that you disagree doesn’t imply there is no objective truth to the matter.

      Monkey troops are quite cooperative and have a distinct pattern of behavior that is very close to how humans behave in tight knit groups, do you believe troops of monkeys have a Universal Morality above survival instincts?

      To whatever extent they have free will and reason, sure. I don’t know to what extent that is, but I am guessing it is very low, if at all existent.

      I am not differentiating it from survival instinct and I think you are.

      This gets into the content of morality rather than the nature of the concept itself. My own view is that it is very much related to survival, although I think that while we all have moral intuitions, it has more to do with reason and choice than pure instinct. Indeed, it is very possible that some of our instincts may actually run counter to the best survival strategy.

      BTW, there is no need to keep using the qualifier “universal” when referring to morality. As I have said, I understand morality to imply universality by definition.

      Like

  36. I don’t think anyone thinks people are compelled to follow a specific set of morals. The concept “should” is quite different from “will”, and it obviously contemplates the possibility of “will not”. In fact the whole point of a moral code is to guide people who have the free will to choose not to follow it.

    I regret not saying “should.” I just don’t see that there is some set of Moral Laws laws that can become knowable.

    Fair enough, but don’t those strategies exist independently of your own subjective “preferences”,

    I’m not sure my preferences exist independently of survival strategies. It could be that a wide variety of preferences between individuals increases the likelihood of species survival because there would be enough individuals capable of existing in any given environment
    So they could reproduce.

    and don’t they apply to other people, even if they reject them? The fact that you may disagree with others only suggests that one (or both) of you is wrong in your assessment, not that there is no objective truth to the matter.

    I’m not so sure, different survival instincts for different people / environments would increase the likelihood of some number surviving to reproduce, right?

    I think survival instincts can be exceedingly intricate and can create the illusion of actions outside of survival instincts. Like the complicated mating dances of certain birds, or their colorful plumage.

    Like

    • McWing:

      It could be that a wide variety of preferences between individuals increases the likelihood of species survival…

      Well, I suspect survival strategies for species may be different than that for individuals. My concern within the context of discussions of morality have entirely to do with the individual, not species, especially since it is human individuals, not the human species, that make behavioral choices.

      Maybe I should ask you what I asked Mark. Do you believe humans have free will, or do you think everything is deterministic?

      Like

  37. I don’t know. I have my doubts.

    Like

    • In that case I suppose you had no choice but to say that. 😉

      Certainly the concept of morality is meaningless, or at least useless, in the absence of free will.

      Like

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