Thursday, October 6, 2011


The notion that there must exist final objective answers to normative questions, truths that can be demonstrated or directly intuited, that it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled, and that it is towards this unique goal that we must make; that we can uncover some single central principle that shapes this vision, a principle which, once found, will govern our lives – this ancient and almost universal belief, on which so much traditional thought and action and philosophical doctrine rests, seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.
- Isaiah Berlin, “Introduction to ‘Five Essays on Liberty’ (1969)”

In “Utilitarianism: For and Against” (1973), Professor Williams showed how the theory depended on an impoverished idea of human action and motivation. By reducing people to little more than devices for the efficient production of desirable outcomes, utilitarianism ignores the value of integrity and the notions of personal responsibility and personal goals. Although it appears to provide a guide to life, it in fact robs human action of its point.
- Economist obit on death of Philosopher Bernard Williams.

While there may be evil, or greedy, or ignorant wealthy people, what reason do we have to believe that a government program, empowered to use coercion to seize and rearrange assets, which is immune from lawsuit, which has no incentive to generate economic gains because it’s paid whether or not it does a good job, which people cannot fire, and alternatives to which are not available— why should we believe that it will do a better job?
- [I forgot where Flye found this]

I know something worse than hate, abstract love.
- Albert Camus.

In the name of abstract love, in the name of God and Country, in the name of saving the youth from the drug, in the name of the proletariat, in the name of abstractions, our politicians and war policy makers have committed the most atrocious crimes on human beings, who are not abstractions, who are bones and flesh. That is what our country is living and suffering today: in the name of an abstract goodness, we are suffering the opposite: the horror of war and violence, of innocents dead, disappeared, and mutilated.
-Javier Sicilia

When men once get the habit of helping themselves to the property of others, they are not easily cured of it.
- New York Times, 1909

It stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there's someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.
Howard Roark

Do not the social planners realize that this principle, inherent in man's very nature, will follow them into their new orders, and that, once there, it will wreak more serious havoc than in our natural order, in which one individual's excessive claims and self-interest are at least held in bounds by the resistance of all the others? These writers always assume two inadmissible premises: that society, as they conceive it, will be led by infallible men completely immune to the motive of self-interest; and that the masses will allow such men to lead them.

Finally, our social planners do not seem in the least concerned about the implementation of their program. How will they gain acceptance for their systems? …To induce all men, simultaneously, to cast off, like an ill-fitting garment, the present social order in which mankind has evolved since its beginning and adopt, instead, a contrived system, becoming docile cogs in the new machine, only two means, it seems to me, are available: force or universal consent.
Frédéric Bastiat

The gist here is that grand designs for ordering human behavior (like utilitarianism which survives among economists as "maximizing social good") meet all the definitions of classic Greek tragedy: (1) hubris to assume that individual virtues (e.g., responsibility, charity, integrity, productivity) can be collectivized and maximized without also draining their potency and without collectivizing and maximizing individual vices (greed, dishonesty, waste, intemperance), (2) ate, or folly in granting to a few people a monopoly on violence and the duty to define and enforce morals, to arrange transfers between the needy and the greedy, to control the education of youth, and to basically erase each person's shame and pride, their obligations and motivations, and (3) nemesis, the destruction of organic voluntary social organizations (the subject of a future post) by involuntary, hypothetical organizations.

1 comment:

flyE said...

That quote was from Timothy Sandefur, responding to a mockable Sam Harris book: