Friday, May 29, 2009


Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you've missed you're nothing, Alfie.

-Hal David

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Positive Liberty a Vacuous Concept At Best

...leftist legerdemain at worst. Here's the gist of it.
  1. First, we expand the concept of liberty to include power and wealth.
  2. Next, we show that since power and wealth are unequally distributed, liberty is unequally distributed.
  3. We then infer that those with more power and wealth are violating the right to liberty of those with less.
  4. Finally, we conclude that those with more power and wealth are obliged to give some of theirs to those with less.
I object to 1 as it makes no sense as an analysis of liberty. It is a redefinition of liberty. It is not an analytic definition; it is a redefinition. It is true only if stipulative. Fine, stipulate all you want, but don't pretend to be analyzing.

2 follows from 1.

3 does not follow. Now that you have changed the concept of liberty to include power and wealth, things which held true of liberty when the concept was narrowly defined as negative liberty no longer necessarily hold true. It holds true of negative liberty that a deficit of someone's negative liberty is a violation of his right. But it doesn't necessarily hold true of positive liberty. If you define "liberty" as fried chicken, don't expect every use of the word to hold true that held true before. In fact, since we are speaking of power and wealth, and we know that there are no positive rights to power and wealth, we know that in some cases an unequal distribution of liberty (as power and wealth) is not a violation of rights. For an unequal distribution of power and wealth in some cases is not a violation of rights. Cases of theft or tyranny are cases in which it would be a violation of rights. How ironic that leftism advocates theft and tyranny in response to distributions of power and wealth which are not in fact unjust. Legerdemain is needed in order to accomplish such a sophistical feat.

4 follows from 3.

In sum, 1 is idle stipulation and 3 is an invalid inference. Positive liberty has very little substance, though it may be used sophistically to marshal us along to the leftist drumbeat.

A coda: Some may wish to preserve positive liberty as self-direction, strength of will, self-control. One is constrained by weakness of will, by vice. However, even this won't work. We can speak of vices as hamstringing us, coercing or constraining our actions only figuratively. For they are not entities distinct from the agent. They are structures and dispositions of the agent. You can be free of your vices only in the figurative way that you can be free of a hamstring injury. A man with a hamstring injury is as free as he would be without it. It's just that there is something wrong with him. And a lack of liberty cannot literally be something wrong with you. Keep your concepts clear. Speak figuratively if you like, but don't use figurative speech as a foundation for a moral or political philosophy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Trouble with Mill, On Liberty

I hold this truth to be self-evident: that all men have rights to liberty. These are basic rights, not in need of proof or any justification other than the fact that they are obviously true and axiomatic. There being nothing that would count as evidence that a system of morals could be acceptable in which men did not have rights to liberty, we could not coherently interpret any such system as a system of morals. I think this verificationist argument shows that the proposition that all men have rights to liberty is a logical truth.

Keep in mind that these basic rights are defeasible; basicity does not entail absolute rules. I hesitate to call the rights to liberty "inalienable" for that reason. However, they could be interpreted as inalienable in the sense that even while one may forfeit one's right to liberty, it still remains the case that were the circumstances causing that forfeiture removed one would have that right to liberty.

In any event, Mill's book suffers for committing itself to rule-based moral theory and assuming that the right to liberty needs to be delimited by a rule and proven. It needs to be neither. This is the big problem with the book.

Of course, Mill will think the right to liberty needs proof if he thinks he needs to reduce it to a rule and prove that rule. The extent of the right to liberty is indefinite and not to be delimited by any rule. The variety of moral claims - duties and rights - is not subsumable under a system of rules. There is no finite decision procedure of moral deliberation that has any plausibility.

That Mill is a rule-based theorist commits him to progressivism. Any rule will be progressive, as it will be markedly different from ordinarily-held moral values. For those values are not subsumable under any system of rules. Thus does Mill become incompetent with respect to the need to preserve tradition. He praises not it but progress away from it. He realizes he should say more than this, and he says, "Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience." But he isn't able to develop this point. (Hayek was able to explain it. Although a utilitarian, he wasn't ensconced in rule-based moral theory as Mill was.)

The result is that Mill's liberty teeters unstably, with its progressivism and dubious basis in utilitarianism. The book has many an eloquent passage defending liberty of speech, thought, and way of life on the basis that these promote utility. Of course this is a reasonable argument to make. But that it is the foundation of the right to liberty is a mistake. We have that right even without those benefits.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Charles Taylor on Positive Liberty III

The basic flaw in Taylor's article is his premise that the defenders of negative freedom and opponents of positive freedom

shar[e]...with the rest of us in a post-Romantic civilisation which puts great value on self-realization, and values freedom largely because of this.

Thus does Taylor think that such people are committed, whether they like it or not, to accepting that self-fulfillment is a species of freedom.

This makes no sense. The fact that freedom is a necessary condition of self-fulfillment doesn't show that self-fulfillment is a species of freedom; it proves precisely that it is not. The "necessary condition" here is of the practical-causal kind, not of the logical genus-species kind. Of course, if you need to have an animal in hand order to have a bird in hand, this proves a bird is a kind of animal. But that is a logical genus-special condition. When we say a man needs freedom in order to fulfill himself, we mean that he needs it as a matter of practical necessity. But if you need a wife in order to be happy, this doesn't prove that happiness is a species of wife. In fact, it proves that it is not. Because that is the practical-causal kind of condition.

Your weakness of will and your failure to understand which endeavors it would be good and fulfilling for you to undertake are therefore not species of unfreedom. They are vices of akrasia and ignorance. You need freedom in order to overcome these vices. When you overcome them, you may speak metaphorically of becoming free. But this is only freedom from your own vices. To speak of one's vices as forces that get in one's way is figurative. As Jeff Goldstein and Friedrich Hayek have advised, we must take great pains to avoid verbal traps.
Unjustly High Taxation is not Slavery

As Hayek points out in Constitution of Liberty, power is not a species of liberty, nor is wealth. To call power or wealth by the name "liberty" is a verbal trap which will cause one to think that because people have rights to liberty, wealth should be redistributed from the rich to the poor. This is to misconstrue the right to liberty as a right to others' property. It is to mistake property for liberty and to assume that since I have a right to liberty, I have a right to be given the property I need to do what I want to do.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, however. Libertarians are fond of arguing that unjustly high taxation is slavery. It is not. It is theft. When a man steals my property, even if it is the fruit of my labor he has not enslaved me or deprived me of liberty. Did the guy who made off with your TV set, enslave you for a day and a half? Of course not. Slaves must work, as they are coerced by their masters. Thieves coerce no one to work.

As Isaiah Berlin said, echoing the Bishop Butler, "Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice...." Unjustly high taxation is unfairness, injustice, and theft. It is not a violation of liberty rights. The price for ignoring this fact is that we let the verbal trap stand and you lose the basis for dismissing out of hand the leftist's argument for redistribution of wealth. There is plenty of reason to indict unjustly high taxation. There is no need to resort to verbal trickery. Leave the verbal trickery to the leftist, isolate it, and expose it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will V

Let's make a final pass over this issue of reasons for action. Frankfurt thinks that the concept of a person is of beings "capable of wanting to be different, in their preferences and purposes, from what they are." But it is impossible to make sense of what would count as reasons for wanting to be different in that way. One might wish that some of one's desires, a small subset radically inconsistent with the vast majority of ones desires, would simply go away in order to liberate one from the irrationality of an inconsistent set of desires. Such is the wish of the unwilling drug addict, for example. But this wish is a desire generated by the set of first-order desires. In fact, it supervenes on them. It even supervenes logically, given a the simple recipe for prudential rationality I've proposed in the earlier posts. In other words, there is nothing to this wish other than the first-order desires themselves.

The picture Frankfurt offers, then, commits itself to externalism about reasons for action: that they are independent of one's first-order desires. This he does in order to rescue free will from obscurity. However, externalism is an inscrutable notion. No one has any idea of a reason to desire that is independent of one's antecedently held desires. Reason is, as Hume said, the slave of desire. Furthermore, as we've seen, the commitment to externalism is not necessary in order to explain free will.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will IV

You may well ask how my alternative to Frankfurt's position of second-order desires does not itself posit second-order desires in order to explain free will. After all, haven't I said that one's will is dependent on one's wanting to maximize the net long-term fulfillment of one's first-order desires? That wanting would seem to be a second-order desire.

Not so. A bonafide second-order desire is a normative standard to the the set of first-order desires. It sits in judgment of them. It chooses amongst them based upon criteria other than their relative strength. In contrast, the desire to maximize the fulfillment of the set of first-order desires which I have posited is a servant to those desires themselves. It is like a political mechanism by which they maximize their fulfillment through compromise. Its particular determinations are derived from that set, rather than being independent norms by which the contents of that set are judged. It is a norm to each on of them but only because it is the resultant vector of all of them. Prudence is the servant of desires.

This theory of will avoids Frankfurt's problem with moral and prudential reasons. On my theory, one's reason for acting is always a given first-order desire. On Frankfurt's theory, one's reason for acting, if one has free will, is one's desire to fulfill a given first-order desire. Frankfurt separates the agent from what ought to be his reasons because he thinks we must be rendered wantons if he does not take this drastic step. But on the contrary, such a step isn't necessary in order to distinguish ourselves from wantons, and it makes it impossible to make sense of our reasons for action.
Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will III

There is a class of people who are my superiors and whom I would therefore be reluctant to think of as lacking freedom of the will. By upbringing they do not flee in battle, do not abandon their children when childrearing is unpleasant, and do not indulge in resentment, self-defilement, or envy. It never occurs to them to do these things, in spite of any momentarily strongly-felt desires to do so which may flare up within them sometimes. They have no need for second-order desires. Yet they are free.

Even Frankfurt sees that such spontaneously prudent beings (SPBs I'll call them) are free. He must because they obviously are. His picture of free will as conformity of action to second-order desires cannot easily account for this, however. He could propose that the second order desires of SPBs are subconsciously held, but that would be idle speculation. He could bring up his wanton again, the fellow who doesn't care how his first-order desires cause him to act or doesn't care on which of them he acts. Unless we accept his theory of free will, we will have to accept that the wanton is free, Frankfurt might say.

So, let's propose another psychology in order to settle these quandaries. If the wanton cared about which of his desires he followed in that he wanted his actions to maximize the net long-term satisfaction of the largest set of them - in other words if the wanton wanted to be prudentially rational - then he would have the potential to be free. If he successfully endeavored to act in such a prudent manner, he would be free in the sense that momentarily strong desires would be unable to sway him from his choice to maximize his larger set of desires. If this became effortless and unreflective for him, he would become an SPB.

The psychology we need, then, is not Frankfurt's top-heavy structure of orders of desires but only the rather more cognitive than connative capacity to reflect on the set of desires in order to determine which cause of action most satisfies it. Freedom of the will, then, is a mechanism for remembering which course of action is most desirable in the sense of maximizing the fulfillment of one's set of first-order desires. Employing this mechanism in order to repel temptation to do otherwise is enough to constitute freedom of the will. No desirability in the sense of second-order desires to follow first-order desires is needed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will II

Frankfurt proposes an ordering of desires as a structure which explains free will. Free will, he says, is the success an agent has in choosing to act on those of his desires which he desires to be the ones he acts on. In other words, to have free will is to desire certain of your desires to determine your actions and to succeed in acting on those and not on the others. The desires for certain desires to be effective are second-order desires. Their objects are first-order desires.

Something is wrong with this picture. I touched upon the problem in the previous post. But let's look at it from a different angle: reasons. (By "reasons" I mean internal reason, or motives, rather than facts external to desires which may be cited as grounds for having those motives.) Your reason for action should be your first order desires, should it not? For instance, if you play tennis or defend justice, it would be fitting if your reasons for doing so were that you most desired to do those things. But we wouldn't want to say that it would be fitting for your reason to be that you desired to desire to do those things, would we? Well, I wouldn't. For instance, I wouldn't like to tell my son that I desired to raise him but my reason for doing so was because I desired that that desire be the one I acted on. It would be better if my reason for raising him were that my desire to raise him was the strongest amongst the competing desires. I call this competitive strength "preference." I assume that reasons for action and will are pretty close to one and the same. So, we shouldn't appeal to second-order desires to explain free will. Preference is what one most desires. It is the resultant vector of all the component vectors which are the set of one's desires. Free will is acting on that resultant vector because one knows it is the resultant vector. Unfree will fails to do so but moves one to do something else.

Frankfurt has will and preference down to second-order desires, rather than the resultant vector of first-order desires. This is too ornate. It may be that sometimes we have to reflect on competing first-order desires and choose which we desire to win the tug of war amongst them, for the most part this does not seem to the best picture of what's most commonly going on in the head. As we noted in the first post, Frankfurt portrays the person most at ease in freedom as not at all undergoing this sort of reflection. This shows that even he can tell that second-order desires are not part of the best picture of things.

More in the next post.
Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will I

The essay, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" is chapter 2 of The Importance of What We Care About.

Let's broach the issue by simply laying out two points in the essay which seem to me to be mutually inconsistent:
  1. "[I]t never occurs to him to consider whether he wants the relations among his desires to result in his having the will he has."
  2. [T]he conformity of a person's will to his higher order volitions may be far more thoughtless and spontaneous than this." [Where "this" refers to "formed deliberately and...[with] struggles to ensure that they are satisfied."]
Quote 1 describes the wonton, a non-person with no freedom of the will or even any preference amongst his desires. Quote 2 describes a person to whom the enjoyment of freedom of the will comes easily. I think that if we unpack this in the next post, we will see that 1 and 2 are mutually inconsistent. In brief, Frankfurt loads up his theory of second-order desires (which the wanton lacks) so heavily that it is to blunt an instrument to discern between the wanton and the effortlessly free person. There certainly is a role for 2nd order desires in a theory of personhood and freedom, but not such a heavy role. Something simpler will do and also allow us to make the distinction which Frankfurt's theory cannot make.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Oh, so I'm on the right and you're on the left? You're more towards the Bolsheviks, and I'm more towards the National Socialists, then? But you are not all the way over there with Lenin and Stalin, because you side with Hitler on some points. You're more moderate than Stalin because you tend toward the fascist on some issues, I guess. Right? We all lie somewhere on a spectrum that runs from Stalin to Hitler, in your view. Bolshevism and National Socialism together are the entirety of political philosophy, in your view.

Is that what you mean? Such is the depth of your political wisdom. Maybe it's not what you mean. But if you are on the left, either this is what you mean or you are so confused that you mean nothing at all when you speak of these things but only intend to give voice to your resentment. Which is it in your case?

I don't share any of the values of the National Socialists, not even moderate versions of them. What are your political values? Individualism and freedom from government control didn't exactly leap to mind, did they? In fact those concepts are slightly suspect in your view. You resent them for reasons you can't put your finger on. Someone has made you resent them. Why would someone do such a thing?

But while I share nothing with the National Socialists, you share many of Stalin's values, perhaps in moderated form. Don't you? For example, you are in favor of enormous government power over the American economy and severe limitation of private property rights. You also want capitalism to end. You don't want it to end but just to be under complete government control? Then you tend toward the fascist on that issue.

Have you ever given much thought to self-reliance, private property rights, limited government, gratitude, innovation and hard work? No, you prefer to dream of the American government controlling half of the economy and also controlling private enterprise, as well as eliminating the American health insurance industry and replacing it with more government. The prospect of government spending at 50% of GDP carries on importance or significance for you.

In fact, then, you tend towards both Stalin and Hitler. You see, they were on the same page. "Right" is a word leftists use to mean "enemy of my favored kind of totalitarianism." That's how you use it, just as the Bolsheviks wanted you to do. It is a leftist brickbat; it has no philosophical content. You've been hoodwinked by your "education" into believing that Stalin and Hitler, left and right, were polar opposites. You probably think that Hitler was conservative, don't you? Such is the profundity of your confusion and ignorance, flaws which you should take steps to correct but will not. Stalin and Hitler were both totalitarians who believed in government control of property and business and the elimination of individual liberty. Perhaps you are more moderate in your views than they, but your views are of the same kind. Do you eschew violence as a means, though they do not? Perhaps not. You will, after all, support the police as they arrest people unwilling to participate in your new government-controlled system. What if great numbers of these people really get in the way of the implementation of your totalitarian vision? Perhaps they should be eliminated. 100 million of them were eliminated in favor of totalitarianism in the last century. What's a few more if it will get you where you, in your ignorance, think justice (it's really revenge and the gratification of resentment and guilt, but you wouldn't know the difference) may be found? Never mind the economic impossibility of it all. That never stopped Stalin, Mao, or Hitler, your less moderate intellectual forebears.

You have filled a hole in your mind with twaddle festooned with pompous language intended to create a semblance of political philosophy. You are cheering as the American experiment in liberty, self-reliance and prosperity, which created more prosperity and freedom than any other force in history, is taken out back and shot. But never mind, your hatred of the rich is as far in political philosophy as your ken will take you. You even think that conservatives were in bed with big business but that the fascist government you currently applaud is not. You have no idea what ramifications the federal debt has or what the significance of permanent yearly deficits of $1T is, and you don't know anything about economics. But you support the spending that will cause these deficits. You somehow vaguely think that this must be done because of what conservatives did to your country, even though you don't know what conservatism is or how much damage the enormous size of your government has done to your country in the last 75 years.

You probably resent this post but have very little grasp of it. Resentment is your modus operandi in the political forum.
True Love

Of course, I'm talking about romantic love, not one's love for one's children or friends or non-spouse family members. True love exists, though I'd guess it's uncommon. It's not necessary for a good marriage or a happy life. There can be good marriages in which the spouses love one another but one (or both) doesn't "truly love" the other. There are lives which lack true love but are much better than some lives that have it. It can cause trouble in a life, too. So, it's not a cardinal purpose of life. But I digress. The point is to define it.

Here is an analytical definition of true love:

"S truly loves R" =df "S admires many of R's characteristics in the categories of the psychological and moral (character traits, talents, dispositions) and the physical (appearance and behaviors), and including the large and important characteristics and also the small and unimportant ones. Also, S deeply admires some traits of R from each category. Finally, S also has romantic feelings for R (desires to show R affection physically, desires to couple with R, desires R sexually, and so forth.)

To refute an analytical definition, think of a counterexample. I don't know what would count as a case of true love in which S wasn't described by the definiens I've given. Nor can I imagine evidence that would suggest that although S could be described by the definiens, S did not truly love R. That is the argument for this definition. But it could collapse under the weight of a good counterexample.