Archive for August, 2003

That’s an interesting question you pose. The first thing I want to do in response is chew the concepts of liberty and good a bit. What follows will be from a broadly Objectivist perspective, because I’m broadly Objectivist in my outlook on this issue.

From the Objectivist point of view, something is good if it supports or contributes to the survival and flourishing of an individual organism. Something is evil if it frustrates, damages or undermines the organism’s survival and flourishing.

Liberty is the political condition of being free from the initiation of physical force. For liberty to be good for some organism, it has to be the case that being free from force contributes to that organism’s survival and flourishing. Or, putting the point the opposite way, it has to be the case that being subjected to force damages the organism’s ability to survive and flourish.

Why is liberty important for human beings? Because the fundamental tool of human survival and flourishing is the mind, and the mind cannot operate under force. Force creates a breach between my understanding of the world and my ability to act. This breach destroys my ability to use my best life-supporting capacity, and thus undermines my survival and flourishing.

So with respect to hypothetical aliens, the question of whether liberty is a value to them largely reduces to the question of whether using force against them damages their ability to survive and flourish.

With respect specifically to the issue of free will, it seems obvious to me that aliens who lack free will do not face the question of how they should organize their society (because they have no choice in the matter); our treatment of such aliens should be driven by the requirements of our own survival and flourishing.

We accept as a given that liberty is a basic human right. This is due to the inherent nature of man as a sentient, volitional being with free will. Apparently the need for freedom is intrinsic to men and women.

Is that necessarily the case for non-human sentient life, such as might exist on other planets?

Is it plausible that another species might have a different intrinsic nature that causes them to not need liberty the way we do, in spite of their intelligence and volitional capacity for free choice? And if so, would it follow that such aliens are not entitled to liberty as a basic right? Would that make it morally acceptable for us to enslave them?

Don’t ask me why I’m thinking about this. But it got stuck in my head on the way to work.

Some people argue that liberty is a universal right. But I think the implicit assumption there is that “universal” in this context means “the planet Earth and its life forms”.

Does non-sentient life on Earth have a right to liberty? Animal-rights activists would have us believe so, but their opinion is not an objective, valid philosophical inquiry, but rather a gut emotional response based on warm-fuzzies toward animals.

Perhaps liberty is directly related to the free will concept. One cannot exist without the other. In that sense, liberty and freedom are not the same, possibly. Animals can be free, but do they have liberty? Animals can express an individual preference for things, such as flavors, but I do not think that qualifies as “free will”, per se.

When faced with a dangerous enemy, they may fight or flee, but the decision is made in accordance with instinct only. A lion doesn’t meet another lion and think “I’m going to kill this opponent because he’s evil”. The lion fights out of territorial needs, or mating rights. Or perhaps flees if his instinct is not as strong as the other lion’s.

In this sense, animals do not have a right to liberty, nor do they agitate for it. They may dislike living in an enclosed space (if it conflicts with instinctual needs for territory or socialization), but some do not seem to. Hence we have pets and zoos.

So then, back to the question of extraterrestrials.

Is it possible that a species might exist that possesses free will, i.e. the ability to make value choices in violation of pure instinct, and yet not need or desire individual liberty? Could they be content to live as slaves to another of their species, such as a dictatorial government?

Would the desire to become a dictator be motivated by a desire for liberty? Or merely a desire for power over others? Are the two related? Would such a person perhaps be considered abnormal in that alien society?

We know that there is a psychological mechanism by which some people are more sensitive than others to being in control of their environment. Some people have to have everything just so, and have to know what’s going to happen all the time, or they become anxious. Other people are more easygoing and content to accept unknown surprises on a regular basis.

The “control freak” is one extreme manifestation of this phenomenon, which seems to be a prerequisite for insane dictators (Hitler and Saddam come to mind). They would rather destroy their own country (their “possessions”) than allow others to have them. The ultimate result of this is that such people will commit suicide rather than be held captive, which is why many such criminals kill themselves in prison, or just before capture (such as the way Hitler killed himself as the Allies were closing in).

Is this inherent in a desire for liberty? Or is it merely a desire not to be in the control of another? Are they the same?

Further, if it is possible for an alien species to not need liberty the way humans do, would that be an obstacle to the development of their civilization? Is the need for liberty part and parcel with ambition and the desire to create and go forward? Is it a necessary precondition for technological and cultural development?

Incidentally, in any case it would not make it ok for humans to enslave such aliens, because that goes against our moral nature.

Any comments are welcome.

Pejman unearths a link to an interesting proposed change to tax law. I too think this is a clever idea, and have argued for it in the past, but I doubt many people would take advantage of the opportunity to pay more tax “just because they could.”

If you really wanted to have fun with this idea, you could modify it so that paying an extra 1% in tax entitled you to direct 10% of the total to specific programs. An extra 2% lets you control the disposition of 20% of the total. And so on. (Perhaps cap it so that you can only pay a max of 5% extra, so the government retains a source of cash that can be used to fund currently-unpopular but necessary programs. This isn’t a direct democracy we’re living under, after all.)

Such a tweak might actually lead people to make use of it. I suspect there are a bunch of lefties who would be willing to pay more tax if it allowed them to partially defund the military. I might do the same if it allowed me to push my tax dollars towards the military and away from, say, pointless welfare-state boondoggles or counterproductive foreign aid. And the motivation of the government to implement such a system is obvious: more tax revenue in a way that people would actually be happy to pay!

One argument that is sometimes raised in the context of government controls on immigration is the idea that that the government doesn’t have the authority to restrict immigration. As an individual, I can block someone from living on my property. But the government doesn’t own the country in the same way that I own my (hypothetical) house. Where does it get off telling otherwise peaceful people where they can and can’t live?

From a libertarian perspective, the fundamental purpose of the government is the protection of the individual rights of its citizens. All the powers the government possesses should be connected to this underlying purpose. The key to connecting the protection of the rights of citizens to immigration control is the fact that the government is not an independently existing organization. A government is a creation of its citizens — a tool crafted by them for the purpose of protecting their rights. In a very real sense, the citizens own their government. It is their property.

When someone immigrates to a nation, part and parcel of that is subjecting themselves to the authority of its government. In effect, the immigrant is going to be making use of the tool crafted by the original citizens to protect his rights as well as theirs. Since the government is the property of the citizens, however, the citizens plausibly have a say in whether their tool may be put to this use. To take an extreme hypothetical case, imagine that the citizens of Liberia decided to annex themselves to the United States. They hold a referendum and declare themselves to be under the protection of the U.S. government, and that the land they live on is a U.S. territory. Nobody would think that such a declaration imposed any special obligation on the United States to accept the Liberians as falling under U.S. jurisdiction. Some positive action by the representatives elected by the current U.S. citizens would be required. The current citizens would have to consent to the use of their rights-protecting tool in that way.

In principle, immigration controls are similar. They are a set of rules laid down in advance by the current citizens of a nation that define the terms under which the rights-protecting tool they have created may be used for the benefit of other people. These rules cannot be totally arbitrary; they should have some rational connection to preserving the function of the government as an agent of rights-protection. So, for example, we prevent known criminals and terrorists from immigrating because there is a reasonable expectation that they will violate the rights of citizens. We require prospective citizens to learn something of the history of the United States and to swear an oath of loyalty, to try to ensure that the new citizens understand and support the role of the government as rights-protector. And so on.

Of course, in reality, the United States government does a lot of things besides protecting the rights of its citizens, and some of those additional welfare-state functions create additional immigration concerns. And there are aspects to current U.S. immigration law that aren’t congruent with the above principles. But the above covers the basic source of the government’s authority to restrict immigration. It is at root the authority of the current citizens not to allow their control over their property to be diluted without their consent.

So noted. And the fish thing was an accident.

Well, the first one wasn’t. But the second one was.

Anne may have facts and logic on her side, but at least I can figure out how to put titles on my posts. So nyah. B-P

First of all, I wrote that post the day it occurred, and emailed it to myself for preservation. The quotations are verbatim.

And the reason I couldn’t post it that day is that the blog got broken during the move to a new server, and Kyle dragged his feet on fixing it (so nyah).

Also, I did not attempt to blame him for not having clean shirts for me to wear (and I will note that that is a completely separate incident that occurred more recently and is not related to the incident I originally posted about). That’s an inference that he made, and which I never actually stated. I was irked, but at the situation, and he insisted on taking it personally (because of course I blame him for everything that goes wrong in my life).

Please. *sticks tongue out*

The simple fact remains that he got annoyed at me for borrowing a shirt when he had plenty to wear, after it had already been established by him that buying duplicates was a waste of money.

I should note, in my own defense, that the events Anne describes below did not in fact occur on the morning of August 1st, 2003. And if she can’t even remember when they happened, can you trust the accuracy of her memory on any of the other details? I think not.

She also left out the part where she didn’t do her own laundry, ran out of shirts, tried to borrow one from me, discovered I didn’t have any clean ones either, and then tried to claim that her lacking-of-clean-shirts was somehow my fault.

And don’t get me started on the way she goes through fish. I mean, really.

What the hell is it with men, anyway? A couple of weeks ago Kyle ordered 4 T-shirts from (which I recommend, btw). So this morning our conversation goes like this:

Me: “Can I wear one of the shirts you ordered?”

Kyle: (hisses at me, the way he does when I want to use something that “belongs” to him) “Get your own.”

Me: “When you bought them I said we should buy 2, but you said that was a waste of money because we wear the same size, and we could just share.”

Kyle: (hisses again, repeatedly, in spite of me pointing out that I have nothing to do with it).

I deliberate brought up the issue when he was ordering the shirts, because I knew that this conversation was going to occur at some point. I was, of course, right.

This is the same man who yesterday found a quarter on the floor by my closet about 30 seconds after it fell out of the jeans I was hanging up, and refused to give it back because “money is fungible” and “it all belongs to both of us anyway”.

I tried to make him give it back (it’s the principle of the thing), and he just stood there looking at me. So I tossed up my hands and left. “Fine. Whatever. Jeez.”