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Saturday February 05 2011

Crikey.  Given how silly this has already become, so quickly, I have become filled with extreme pessimism about the survival of the Libertarian Alliance, in anything resembling the state it has been in for the last few decades.  I shall continue downloading Libertarian Alliance .pdf files.

As for Paul Marks, now might be a good moment for me to say a bit in his favour.  Sean Gabb is right that Paul Marks has a somewhat suicide-note-ish manner of writing.  But Paul Marks is neither mad nor stupid.  He is, however, because of his writing style, easily underestimated.

I underestimated him when I did an interview with him some months ago, very badly, as in I did it very badly.  Paul was fine, or would have been had I done my bit.  Basically, I assumed from his written style that he would also be a somewhat unsatisfactory talker, of the sort who would need jollying along.  Sound editing on the fly, so to speak.  Alas, what I thought was jollying along was experienced by most of those those listening as me relentlessly interrupting.  What I should have done was shut up and let Paul talk, as several Samizdata commenters pointed out.  Despite having known Paul for years, I simply had not realised how well and how persuasively he would talk.  With intelligent editing, Paul Marks is also a pretty good writer, if a somewhat eccentric one.  His judgements are respected by a lot of people.

I have so much respect for Paul. He is so sharp, well read, and (he may not realize this) so funny. I really enjoyed every moment I have spent in his company. He is also a thoroughly decent man, principled and with deep integrity. I wish he had his own radio call-in show!

Posted by Jackie Danicki on 06 February 2011

Crickey indeed.  Over on Samizdata I asked in a comment whether we need an LA in this day and age.  I think the answer is “yes” but mainly to provide meet space.  The internet has removed the need for a publishing operation. 

Unfortunately, (at least from what I can work out), the guy who was doing all the meet space stuff ie Tim Evans has now left.

I really had no idea (which tells its own tale about its general relevance) that the LA blog was such a mess.  I am not sure some of the writers are libertarians at all.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 06 February 2011

Paul is someone with very canny intellectual instincts, I think.

It appeared to me that Tim Evans was the person holding the LA on a relatively even keel. With out him, my feeling is thAt it will lurch off in all sorts of strange directions.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 06 February 2011

Would it be possible to bodge up a communal Skype phone-in, a substitute live radio show, at a pre-announced time with Paul Marks at the centre of it?  Recorded and then available as a sound file?  Patrick?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 06 February 2011

I’ve now backed up the material I contributed to the LA since 1988.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 06 February 2011

Here’s one suggestion:

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 06 February 2011

Should be.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on 06 February 2011

I have backed up everything on the LA website. If anyone wants me to burn them a CD, let me know.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 06 February 2011

What interests me in all this is with what ease I could have been put back to sleep - at many different times.

For example, Kevin Carson (the pushing of whose work was the reason I stopped attending Libertarian Alliance conferences some years ago), could have said (in one of the many opportunites he had down the years).....

“You misunderstand me - I do not want to take the property of all companies [it should be remembered that the LA itself is a corporate enity - like a church, club, foundation, etc] and rich individuals, I am just upset by certain companies and rich individuals getting this or that corrupt favour, I am firm defender of, for example, the property of Charles and David Koch”.

I would have accepted the explination, and gone back to sleep. But Kevin Carson did not say that - on the contrary he just carried on (first it was landed estates were illegitimate because of the Norman Conquest - then this was extended to land that had been held even before the Norman Conquest).

Or Sean Gabb could have said “I oppose these ideas - they are load of old rubbish” and again I would have accepted it.

But Sean Gabb did not say that - in fact he carried on pushing Kevin Carson’s work.

As for the latest unpleasantness....

All Sean Gabb had to say was “I oppose Winston Churchill’s support for government welfare schemes, and I think he drank too much - but, of course, I support his stand aganst Adolf Hitler THE NAZIS HAD TO BE STOPPED”.

Again I would have accepted it.

But Sean Gabb did not say this - instead he attacked my bad typing (spelling, use of capital letters - and so on).

Indeed there were several articles on the LA blog by a Mr Henderson -arguing that the pre Atlee level of state welfarism (the more limited welfarism that Churchill supported) was wrong because IT DID NOT GO FAR ENOUGH (in short Atlee was right).

Sean Gabb did not oppose this pro NHS (and so on) line, not did he oppose Mr Henderson’s claim that Fascism (in fact a cynical power grab by Mussolini and others - using a fake patriotism as a Sorel type myth) was about the defence of “the nation”.

Lastly on “hang Mr Blair” (and confisctate his property - by a mixture of ex post facto legislation and a Bill of Attainder).

Sean Gabb could have simply said “Paul you literal minded person - it was all a JOKE”

But again - Sean Gabb did not say that.

He had many opportunities to do so (for example when David Davis, of the LA blog, suggested it might be a joke), but he did not.

Posted by Paul Marks on 06 February 2011

Michael. Good. I hope it was the LA website and not the blog. LOL

The Libertarian Alliance with Sean Gabb holding 51% ownership and the backing of David Davis and Mario Huet is doomed. The latest bizarre accusations levelled by Mr Huet (including that Tim Evans sometimes wears a pin-stripe suit) tell us plenty out the planet they are living on.

The money is leaving.

Davis, Gabb and Huet, by every pronouncement they have made in the past few days (public or private) have lost friends and will continue to do so as more details emerge of Mr Gabb’s activities. I hope their new white nationalist friends are worth it.

The wrong person has resigned from the LA.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 06 February 2011

I have vivid memories of specific arguments Paul made, in fairly casual conversation, probably twenty years ago.  I’m not sure I could say that about anyone else.

Posted by AMcguinn on 06 February 2011


Exactly what might you be referring to, regarding your rather interesting and mysterious allegation about “white nationalist friends”?

And, if the money’s leaving, I wonder where it could have gone?

And if you never liked the blog (no, of course you didn’t) why then did you not do it all by yourself in, oh, I’d say, about early 2006? Or before? You could have had at least 100 visitors a day by now.

To use your words: LOL

Posted by David Davis on 07 February 2011

David Davis:
Thank you for your comments. I’ve just agreed not do anything inflammatory for the time being, so I shall not be responding. I apologise if this is inconvenient,

I don’t quite get the bit about “where’s it going”? But I’m sure it doesn’t matter.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 07 February 2011

I do not see where this “make light of everything” line gets us.

Whether it is Sean Gabb’s “who ate this guy’s breakfast” or David Davis’s “laugh out loud” (or his account of me as young student living in London - rather than a middle aged man living in Kettering in Northamptonshire).

I do not have a problem with David Davis - and I hope he does not have a problem with me.

My problem is whether specific stuff that Sean Gabb has pushed over YEARS.

I keep repeating this - it is NOT one or two posts (on the LA blog or anywhere else) it is a whole body of activity over a long period.

I did not just wake up one morning and say to myself “this Sean Gabb person is a bad man” - it is matter of evidence over a very long period.

Look either the Libertarian Alliance (it is NOT just the blog) is for property (which means being AGAINST Kevin Carson) or it is not. It can not push this stuff and then say “it is nothing to do with me Gov”.

As for down-with-Churchill and hang-Blair.

Is the claim that Sean Gabb has a brain tumour or something? I know Alan Clark had one - hence it was unfair to attack him for some of things he said in the last year or so before his death. I have DEFENDED A.C. on those grounds.

But Sean Gabb has no such medical condition (as far as I know).

This stuff is clearly NOT a joke - and libertarians should oppose it.

That does NOT mean that I think that Winston Churchill had a wonderful grasp of political economy (although he was better than a lot of politicians at the time) or that I would have ever have supported Mr Blair.

It is a matter of “do you support Churchill’s stand against the Nazis and their desire for world conquest”.

Someone who says “no” or (worse) “the Nazis had no desire for world conquest” is just .........

As for “hang Blair” - what the f......?

Posted by Paul Marks on 08 February 2011

I have not covered here the Cold War stuff (the weird claims that the Marxists were not out to take over the world - so things like the Korean war were just somehow the fault of Britain and the United States).

And I have not covered the Obama-is-not-a-leftist stuff (which ignores his whole life, apart from getting money from some corrupt businessmen - a story which is much better covered in “Bought and Paid For” anyway).

People have the right to any opinions they want to have, however counterfactual. But an ordinary person who comes upon this stuff is just going to conclude that something called the “Libertarian Alliance” is nuts - and will walk away.

It is like saying that someone should be allowed to drive 100 miles an hour up the wrong side of the road and under the influence of drink and drugs - and calling this the “libertarian “ position (ask J. Clarkson if I am making that up about Sean Gabb).

Rather than saying “the owner of the road should decide how it is used, we believe in the private ownership of roads - but presently most roads are government owned so the government, quite rightly, lays down rules for their use”.

To go for the drive up the wrong side of the road, at any speed, and under the influence of drink and drugs, line seems designed to drive people AWAY from libertarianism.

Again - by making libertarianism seem insane.

Posted by Paul Marks on 08 February 2011

For what it’s worth to anyone, if anything at all, I’ll gladly admit that, since 2002, Samizdata discussions (and many of Paul Marks’ contributions to those discussions) have been instrumental in my education, but to me, the LA have always been an irrelevance (except for one or two papers by Chris Tame and Brian himself, which were mere convenient expositions of arguments I had already reasoned myself into via Samizdata threads). I couldn’t care less if the LA shut down tomorrow, but I’d be horrified and outraged if that were to happen to Samizdata.

Posted by mike on 08 February 2011

And also for what it’s worth - I wrote Gabb off when he started pushing Carson - who’s clearly on the other side.

Posted by DaviNcl on 09 February 2011

Carson believes, for instance, in the labour theory of value. His hostility to private property rights even causes quite sharp disputes among other anarcho-capitalists. He’s a cuckoo in the libertarian nest, like the Henry Georgist crowd with their fixation on land communism. Avoid.

I can see the appeal in the idea of opposing limited liability in its statutory form, but even on this issue, there is no reason why LL might not persist under a Common Law system.

I feel very sad about this whole business. But times change and people move on.

Posted by Tom Burroughes on 09 February 2011

I must confess to being a little baffled as to why a broadly (though far from uncritically) positive review of Kevin Carson’s latest book by Sean is apparently grounds for his excommunication from the libertarian fold. I suspect I’m one of the few people who has actually read the book from cover to cover. Some of it is silly. But some of it is stimulating and well worth any libertarians time. And for the record, I’m about as firmly in the property rights camp as it is possible to be. My goodness, it is not as though Sean has recommended something by Mr. Monbiot.
Also, the review in question was published ages ago. I don’t recall a furore then.

Posted by Julius Blumfeld on 09 February 2011

Julius Blumfeld.

I would also be baffled - if it was just about a book review. But it is not.

Carson (i.e. take all non justily acquried property - oh, P.S., no large scale property turns out to have been “justly acquried") has been pushed for years by Sean.

It was not a book review that led to me not going to Libertarian Alliance conferences anymore - I stopped going before the book review.

Nor is it just Carson - but I am not going to repeat lots of other stuff that I have already written.

George Monbiot (as far as I know) does not call himself a libertarian - Kevin Carson and his allies DO.

So either “libertarian” is just another form of anti property person (like Code Pink, Students for a Democratic Society, the Wisconsin based “Free Press” organization and the endless other organizations of the sort that turned up at the “One Nation” rally last year) or Carson and co are NOT libertarians.

Sean Gabb is not some kid - he is a middle aged man (as old as I am). He knows that there is a globel struggle going on. Pro property based civil society versus anti property.

If the Libertarian Alliance was (say) a gardening society, then this struggle could be ignored. But it is not - it is a POLITICAL group.

Then we get on to Henderson and ...... (I am just repeating myself at this point).

As for “excommunication” - if someone claims to be one thing and is not such as a “libertarian” who actively pushes just about every unlibertarian docrtine he can find (I repeat I am NOT saying that Sean believes in the doctrines he pushes - it may just be a desire to anger people who are opposed to National Socialism, Anarcho Communialism, and so on.........) then he has “excommunicated” himself.

I sometimes wonder if David Hume is at the bottom of this.

One interpretation of Hume (I know their are other interpretions) goes as follows......

Hume (of course) loved challenging the obvious. For example his claim that a thought does NOT mean there is a thinker (leading on to a denial of the “I"), and his attack on the existance of the external world (and so on and so on).

Of course David Hume did not really think there was no external world, or that a reasoning being by the name of “David Hume” did not exist, or that he (David Hume) could not make choices (real choices) and act on those choices (i.e. “free will” - was an “agent” a “being” capable of “agency").

However, Hume challenged all of this (and much more - such as whether constitutional Britain was really better the statist France of the period) - indeed he used all of his (considerable) intellectual powers to dispute what is called “common sense” (by the way the switch from Thomas Reid style “common sense” to Dugald Stewart’s “good sense” was a serious mistake that had terrible political consequences - but, for once, I will resist a tangent).

Now one can react to all this Hume using his vast cleverness to provoke.... by thinking “arsehole” or one can react to it by thinking “how refreshing to challenge the ideas of the common herd - THAT IS WHAT I SHOULD DO”.

It is a bit redundent to challenge the things that David Hume challenged more than two centuries ago - so Sean (to get shock value) needs to challenge new things, or get other people in to play the gig.

Challenge the legitimacy of large scale property - get Carson and co in, so they can push the idea that “the rich” and “the poor” have fundementally different long term interets, thus urinating on the basic point of classcial liberalism - as well as libertarism.

Challenge the idea that there is a large scale violent Islamist movement that seeks to bring about an Islamic world - blame conflict on the Americans, and the Jews.

Big shock value in doing that - a real thrill (one can think of people getting angry - red in the face, neck swelling etc).

Get someone in to push the NHS and attack private healthcare - just at a time that pro free market people are locked in combat with the statists over Obamacare.

Again - a good way to anger free market people.

And, of course, attack the notion that the Nazis believed in world conquest.

Attack Winston Churchil instead - the drunk was just having delusions about the Nazi threat to the world...... and on and on (whilst thinking of people grinding their teeth down the gums reading this stuff).

Again a person does not have to believe in ANY of the above to get a thrill out of pushing it.

Posted by Paul Marks on 09 February 2011

"I don’t recall a furore then” Really?

1) How many comments does the typically LA blog posting get?

2) How many comments did Gabb’s review of Carson’s book get?

3) Who was the first commenter?

Posted by DavidNcl on 09 February 2011

In 3,478 posts we have, so far, 10,455 comments to date, from 700,000 views. That’s about the proportion of people that “write to The Times about something” that irritates them, versus the total of Times readers.

The average comments per post are therefore about 3+ overall. This is up on a couple of years ago when the average was 1.8 comments per post. A lot get no or a couple of comments. Others get dozens. Just like Samizdata in fact.

The following posts by Sean of Kevin’s work have been logged in the past five weeks:-

“Attack tyranny at its weakest link - enforcement” = 29.12.10 = 40 comments (no Samizdatistas)

“Damning with faint praise - an attack on corporate capitalism” = 5.1.11 = 3 comments = IanB,freemarketcapitalist, IanB

“Regulatory capture” = 7.1.11 = NO comments

“The rent’s still too damn high - here’s how to lower it” = 14.1.11 = 14 comments = most agreed = NO samizdatistas

Posted by David Davis on 09 February 2011

Paul, whatever the rights or wrongs of Sean, I have to dispute your position on Hume. I spent some time over at Samizdata recently showing how Humean subjectivism leads naturally to a libertarian ideology; and since Hume is objectively right about the nature of the universe, as expressed in the Is/Ought problem, that’s a pretty good thing.

I know why Natural Rightsists, such as Rothbard, hate Hume; he demolished the idea that there are natural rights, and quite rightly, because there are no such thing. They are a kind of secular faith concept- if you can’t dervive your objective laws from God, you have to appeal to “nature” instead. But much as it would be nice to turn over a stone in a field and find a clearly defined set of rights underneath, it can’t be done. What you can do is derive from Humean subjectivism a proof that nobody else can do that either, which demolishes any justification an authoritarian claims to have for their tyranny. That’s the next best thing, and the best we can ever hope to do, due to Hume’s Guillotine.

Anyway, disimissng Hume because he attacked “common sense” is pretty bizarre. It’s the job of philosophers to attack “common sense”, because most of the time it turns out to be flat wrong.

I probably ought to write a proper post at Cats about this…

Also, Paul, you’ll remember that I joined with you at some length in attacking Sean’s lionisation of Carson, because Carson’s economics are just flat wrong. The fact that Sean actively said that he agreed with Carson that mass production is no more efficient than cottage production (this is a “capitalist lie to keep the evil production lines running") suggested to me that Sean has no more grasp of economics than Carson has. It’s bad enough Libertarians having to waste our time going through junior school level economic basics with our Enemy, but we shouldn’t have to explain these things to our “own”.

But I really don’t see where Hume comes into that. Humean subjectivism fits like a hand in a glove with the economic subjectivism of Marginal Utility theory and the Austrian School. Ayn Rand’s fatal mistake was an attempt to create a libertarian theory based on Aristotelian Objectivism, which is why she ended up with an authoritarian cult instead.

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

IanB, please do write something about this over at CCats, I’d want to read it.

I do actually think that one can make observations about the kind of moral values people can live by when looking at the world as it is; in that sense, natural law ethics is not quite the fantasy that you might think it to be. This is, of course, a huge subject. I am quite attracted to aspects of the Thomis/Aristotelian tradition.

As for the original subject of the post, I have no further interest in this matter. Let’s hope that things cool down.

Posted by Tom B on 10 February 2011

Ian B,
my impression of Hume’s subjectivism is that one can derive from it any number of ethical or philosophical positions, for example a narcissist could justify any behaviour whatsoever without contracting Hume’s subjectivism.

Subjective notions of economic value are not the same as moral subjectivism: the fact that I value my grandfather’s pen more than you do and would pay more at auction for it is of no moral consequence. But the idea that we can all issue what appear to be gold coins, claim they are bullion and dismiss complaints on the grounds as “well they are of equal value in MY mind”, whilst it is morally subjective, has no (durable) place in the market.

I also find claims of the moral superiority of subjectivism to be something of a contradiction in terms: if true, it’s objective so false etc.

A moral objectivist (there is Good, there is Evil) doesn’t have to be an economic objectivist (the TRUE price of this pen is X). That’s where I think the better concept of liberty can be found, but I’m not sure enough to disagree strongly with those who think otherwise.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 10 February 2011

If I get Carson right (just skimmed his websites) he believes in somehow perfect competition between individual labourers, and a labour theory of value which therefore proves that in true laissez faire everyone would get rent free rewards, and the economy would it seems evolve and develop all by itself. If reality does not comply there must be something wrong with it that must be smashed. (Not that corporatism is not a problem.)

No entrepreneurship is required. And some oversight system (satallite lasers perhaps) will destroy anyone who has an edge and builds up too much property, because that would refute the theory so cannot be allowed to happen.

I reckon he is basically playing the Philip Blonde stunt - deliver trite leftist ideas with a twist, while claiming to be right/libertarian, in order to provoke controvesy and gain attention.

Posted by David Lucas on 10 February 2011

my impression of Hume’s subjectivism is that one can derive from it any number of ethical or philosophical positions, for example a narcissist could justify any behaviour whatsoever without contracting Hume’s subjectivism.

Indeed you can. That’s a feature, not a bug. Subjectivism teaches us how to deal with others; since we cannot prove a superior objective case, the best we can do is “live and let live”. But it gives us no advice on personal morality. What you do is up to you, so long as you don’t impose it on anyone else. I fail to see how you would go about proving whether or not it is immoral to be a “narcissist” or even define one objectively.

To claim that the universe is objectively subjective is an apparent contradiction in language, but not in logic; more wordplay, really. It is precisely the same as saying that objectively nothing has an objective value, which is the very basis of free market economic philosophy. Fake coins which have a value in your mind but nobody else’s would not gain any market value, just the same as a Jew trying to convince me that bacon sandwiches are morally evil. I just don’t buy that. His morals are subjective; he has no right to stop me eating bacon sandwiches, and there the matter ends.

Basically, we use the same word, “value” for economic values and moral values because they are the same thought process. Which is why, as the saying goes, “every man has his price”.

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

"Subjective notions of economic value are not the same as moral subjectivism”

They are. All of our actions are rooted in our evaluation of the likely consequences of such actions.

My decision to purchase a car, or gold,to fuck someone, lift that briefcase or bomb that city are rooted in the same type of assessments of possible outcomes. And those assessments are the rooted in accumulated, distributed, tacit knowledge of how other decision makers fared in the past.

Some patterns of choices (like fucking your sister, or collective farms) typically result in outcomes we label “evil” and others (like “saving” or sobriety) result in outcomes we label “good”.

Posted by DavidNcl on 10 February 2011

Subjective economic value does not commit a person to general subjectivism.

For example, subjective economic value is an OBJECTIVELY true theory.

Of course Ayn Rand (Madam Objectivism herself) was a supporter of the fact (and it is a fact - an objective fact) that economic value is subjective. Although I the lady did not like to use the words “subjective economic value” - at least not without explaining that it did not mean general subjectivism.

David Hume:

Actually I do not dismiss him - I use stuff he created a lot (for example his work in economics, and his balancing of the Stuart-were-all-bad School of History).

I APOLOGIZE if I gave the impression that I just reject everything David Hume wrote.

However, I do stand by the use-cleverness-to-attack-the-obviously-true charge.

Accept Davy Hume would NOT regard it as a charge - “I am trying to shake people up” he would reply.

And HE DID SHAKE PEOPLE UP, he got people to think about why they believed in the most basic things (for example - even their own existance).

I can not deny that.

Although, with the benefit of more than two centuries of hidesight, I am not really happy with some of the results of shaking people up.

After all a lot of “clever” people fall into the trap of the “half educated man”.

The “common” man believes various basic things - but he does not question them, he does not ask WHY he (or she) believes them.

The first half of education is to challenge everything - to “question with boldness”, question EVERYTHING.

Then education is supposed to explain to people about the basics (but in a formal way - not just informal assumptions) - how they are beings (have reason) how they can use their reason to help them make choices (exercise agency) and so on.....

But the “half educated man” is stuck in the “question everything” stage - indeed he is worse than this.

The half educated man - assumes that the basic assumptions of ordinary human existance are WRONG.

That human beings are NOT agents (are NOT “beings"), that people do not make choices, that good and evil are just words, that the physical universe is just “impressions in the mind” (the very mind whose existance has just been denied) and so on.

I must stress that I do NOT hold that David Hume believed in any of this.

But it the trap which clever (very clever) attacks on the obvious can lead people to.

Think of Mr Adams “Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

A lot of the “reasoning” in these books is clever (very clever), but it is FALSE - the reasoning is not really reasoning at all (their are false assumptions and so on sneaked in at key points - and so on).

That does NOT mean that Mr Adams believed in a word of the tall stories he told.

But think what people who did believe in the “reasoning” would be like.

They would be like an aircraft whose instruments where a degree or so out - the further they travel the more wildly off course they become.

Posted by Paul Marks on 10 February 2011

Kevin Carson - yes he does the things the commentor describes (and other things also), and (I believe) for the reason he mentions.

This sort of stuff is not wildly dangerious - as long as it is not pushed by people with a position of importance in the libertarian movement.

However, Kevin Carson managed to get himself just such support.

Posted by Paul Marks on 10 February 2011

Paul, you’ve not addressed the substantive points made by myself and DavidNcl, other than issuing a flat denial. The values generated by the human brain are inherently individual and subjective. Economic values are just a subset of this general value system. This is what you need to address.

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

David Ncl, your point is interesting.

What I mean is that one can have a conception of ethics that is based on an a priori rejection of subjectivism, which allows for plurality of opinions. Before I go further, I make no assumptions about your or Ian B’s extent to which you are Humeans (I don’t know).

An example. There is no ethical consequence to whether my neighbour chooses to spend $1 or $2 on a cup of coffee. The fact that he thinks it’s OK to pay for it by robbing others would be objectively wrong, but not necessarily wrong in a Humean universe.

I consider that the harm committed by robbing two people of $1 is not the same as robbing one person of $2, the former involves two immoral actions, the latter only one (albeit more serious than either of the $1 thefts).

By considering the two robberies totalling $2 to be worse than a single robbery of the same amount, whilst being morally indifferent to how much the robbers pay for a cup of coffee, I think I am making a subjective judgement about prices and an objective judgement of crime. That is, I think, not consistent with David Hume’s stated views.

One thing about Hume to consider is that I’m never entirely sure when he may be conducting thought experiments to test the limits of absurdity and when he is being serious. If I understand Hume correctly, the only significance of punishing a robber would be the pleasure I might get from inflicting pain or obtaining revenge, or the illusory sense of virtue from administering “justice.” For the robber, the only significance is the inconvenience or pain of being caught and punished, versus the pleasure and satisfaction derived from the original “crime.”

I don’t think such calculations are useless, but I think justice is something more than this. Hume is worth studying, but Rand is not entirely wrong to portray him as philosophy’s version of Attila.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 10 February 2011

There is no ethical consequence to whether my neighbour chooses to spend $1 or $2 on a cup of coffee. The fact that he thinks it’s OK to pay for it by robbing others would be objectively wrong,

I’m interested in how you’d go about proving that, without recourse to some variation on, “it’s obvious”. I can derive an answer to the problem from Hume. I wonder where you’d get one from.

but not necessarily wrong in a Humean universe.

I can prove that the robbery is unjustifiable in a Humean universe. Wiil that do?

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

Ian B wrote:
“The values generated by the human brain are inherently individual and subjective. Economic values are just a subset of this general value system. This is what you need to address.”

I’m not Paul Marks, and I’m sure he has his own answer. ;-)

Your assertion that “the values generated by the human brain are inherently individual and subjective” contains several elements that are not self-evidently true. For example, it seems to me that you’ve assumed without discussion or proof the following:

1) Values are generated by the human brain. This assumes that values cannot derive from another source, eg the laws of physics, genetic programming, God, or natural law. I think you’ll find that plenty of readers of this blog have not written these off. “How” the values are generated may also be worth considering, but that’s another book or two!

2) “inherently individual”? I’m really not sure this is easy to demonstrate. Leaving aside deterministic viewpoints, what about herd effects such as stock market bubbles. Are these “inherently indivudal” or a suspension of individual judgement? This is a question I think The Wisdom of Crowds by James Sierowiecki ( covers well.

3) “and subjective.” Well, no. Not if some (I’ll accept that they aren’t all) of these values are objective. Is the right to life subjective?

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 10 February 2011

Ian I have not issued a flat denial.

Remember I did NOT attack David Hume on natural law or natural rights. I may THINK what he said on these matters is wrong - but I did not SAY it was wrong.

Like most politicians (and military people also) I choose to attack someone on things I can hit with some ease (such as the existance of the self - as a reasoning agent).

Not on things which are hard for me - such as trying to prove the existance of natural law.

Someone could be a utilitarian - and agree with every word I typed.

That is deliberate.

Actually I did make one mistake - and a very big one.

I forgot to mention that it is for the sceptic to “prove” the nonexistance of the self (or the nonexistence of the physical universe) or that A is NOT A, or that 1+1 does NOT = 2. The so called “burden of proof” is on the sceptic.

The nonsceptic does not have to “prove” any of these things - because they are not a matter of “proof” they are “self evident” (matters of basic logic - starting points, not things that can be “reduced” to something else).

“We hold these truths to be self evident” was not written before Hume (or by people who were unaware of his writings), it is from Thomas Reid - but put into an American document.

Of course, I REPEAT, David Hume did not really believe that a reasoning agent (by the name of David Hume) did not exist, or that there was no physical universe, or......

“But Paul I want a reply on ETHICS”.

O.K. - I will give you one.

I do NOT believe that David Hume believed that such things as robbery, rape, and murder were just a matter of arbitrary opinion.

I believe that Davy Hume was a good man - who hated such crimes as much as any other man (indeed more than some people do).

And NO I do not believe that he thought that something was an act of aggression (a crime) in Scotland - but O.K. in India.

The man was admirer of Montesquieu and a friend of Edmund Burke.

You do not admire Montesquieu if you really believe in “geogaphical morality” (he was one of the great anti slavery writers - remember) and as for being friends with Edmund Burke.

Athiests Burke would tolerate - but APOLOGISTS FOR MURDER AND RAPINE - NEVER.

Do not confuse David Hume playing “I am so clever” with a serious position.

By the way - I do not care if it is called “natural law”, “natural rights”, “utilitarianism” or “my Aunt Fanny”.

As long as innocent are protected and the violators are punished.

Posted by Paul Marks on 10 February 2011

Paul, I don’t care about Hume, the man. When I say “Hume” it should be fairly obvious that I mean his philosophy; in this particular instance the Is/Ought problem (otherwise known as Hume’s Guillotine). What he may or may not have personally believed in his private mind neither of us can know; which actually brings us back to the point itself. The contents of the mind are inherently private, individual and subjective.

It is interesting who you think is the “sceptic” here. You are making an assertion- that an objective moral code exists (and you know what it is). As I once asked you on Samizdata- and you did not reply then- please describe the algorithm by which we can derive it from facts about nature.

I’m not the least interested in a discussion of David Hume, the man. It is irrelevant to the discussion.

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

Antoine, you haven’t answered the question.

Please derive your objective values, e.g. “the right to life” from some objective facts about the universe. It’s no use saying that lots of people don’t accept that they can’t. We know that. I’m interested in how you would get from the charge on the electron or some other fact about the universe to “I have a right to live”.

Bear in mind that nobody has actually ever solved this problem, so you have your work cut out. But it’ll be nice to make philosophical history on a blog comments section ;)

Posted by Ian B on 10 February 2011

I am no good at maths. Although I do not mean any disrespect to those who are good at mathematics.

And I have never said that one could derive the principle of justice (and therefore what crime is) from the facts of nature.

When I say “we hold these truths to be self evident” that is exactly what I mean - SELF EVIDENT.

If someone tells me “I think murder is not a crime” or “I believe that robbing people is just”.

I tend to either thing “you are a liar” or “you are trying to be clever”.

Napier’s reply springs to mind.

“So you tell me that you have a custom, that if a women will not burn herself on the death of her husband - you burn her by force”.

“Well I have a custom also - if I find that men have burned a women, I hang them. If you carry out your custom I will carry out mine”.

But Paul that proves moral subjectivism - not moral objectivsm.

Does it?

I wonder what the eyes of the men Napier was talking to looked like.

Posted by Paul Marks on 10 February 2011

Ian B.

The universe and all there is in it cannot be reduced to “the charge of an electron,” is a pretty good starting point.

Either something/someone threw a switch “and there was Big Bang” or it happened spontaneously. I find empirical data on this hard to consider definitive either way (the absence of evidence, given the impossibility of time travel to witness Big Bang, is not sufficient).

If the switch was thrown, the question of intention comes into it. If Big Bang was a random or unintended event, I find it hard to figure out a natural law of ethics.

I hope that answers the question.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 10 February 2011

“There is no ethical consequence to whether my neighbour chooses to spend $1 or $2 on a cup of coffee”.

They’re may well be. Perhaps he’s squandering money buying such goods and planning to rely on the charity of others later in life. Or perhaps he’s ignoring the poor starving in the streets, or the education of his children. All actions are embedded in a context where other actions are possible and the to choose one action over another one makes a series of subjective valuations, economic, moral, ethical, practical etc.

“The fact that he thinks it’s OK to pay for it by robbing others would be objectively wrong.”
The word rob implies “wrong” so this claim is tautological. It’s like saying:

“The fact that he thinks it’s OK to pay for it by wrong means would be obviously wrong”. While true, this kind of statement tells us nothing about some specific actions or means chosen.

The challenge you face is to show or prove that the actual means he has chosen to gain his ends are in fact wrong. The mechanism you typically have access to is called “the law” which is a codification or articulation moral knowledge of a society (or it should be, things have gone awry).

There are no empirical tests you can apply to objectively demonstrate it’s wrongness; all you can do is ask humans to form judgements, possibly wisely.

Posted by DavidNcl on 11 February 2011

Prove murder is wrong.

Prove that 1+1=2 - even my mathematics is good enough to KNOW that it is, but “prove” it?

Prove that A is A - again it is a matter of KNOWING not PROVING.

“Prove” that I exist (that I am myself)?

Ditto with (for example) rape is wrong. One does not “prove” such a thing - one knows it. Even a utilitarian (indeed especially a utilitarian - because they get this example tossed at them all the time) knows it is silly to try and “prove” that rape is wrong by calculating whether or not the pain of the rape victim is greater or lesser than the pleasure of the rapist or rapists.

One can not “calculate” good and evil by trying to measure pleasure and pain (that is a category mistake). J. Bentham may not have understood that but Hutchinson did (and Hutch was saying the “greatest good of the greatest number” before Bentham was born). Good as in pleasure may not be good as in moral - and then we have the distinction between the “right” and the “good” anyway (ouch).

Not every subject is physics (suitable for the method of physics) - for example ethics is not physics.

Of course one can talk about “human flourishing” if one wishes to - and Aristotelian thinkers do just that.

Hume was not well schooled in such matters (as scholastic thought was not really taught in the Protestant universities - it was more sneered at than taught).

However, I am not well schooled in it either - I leave it to those who know far more about it than I do.

For me it is enough to know what justice (to each his own) and that law is an effort to apply the principle of justice to the circumstances of time and place.

To protect the innocent and punish the violators.

So perhaps I am not much of a “lover of wisdom” (a philosopher) as I am not really interested in going any deeper.

But I do agree with Tolkien that someone who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.

To investigate common sense beliefs is all very well - after all people should understand their own beliefs, and put them in order.

For example, look for contradictions in their own beliefs - and we can not do that if we never question our beliefs.

But there is always the danger of just being stuck in the questioning - rather than saying “let us sort out what we believe - let us get it straight and clear” we get “everything is relative, there is no right and wrong, good or evil - or they are just words.....”

“The Aristotelians can get people out of the relativist trap Paul - both the Catholic ones and the Randian Objectivist ones can do it”.

Can they now.

They can PROVE moral points - rather than just know them?

Impressive (if it can be done) - but I do not know enough of their methods to make a judgement about such things myself.

I will stick with Cudworth, Reid, James McCosh and Harold Prichard.

Not because they say everything that might be said (in fact they do not go into the human flourshing thing at all - not being really in that tradition), but they are simple enough for my old brain to understand.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

Paul, you don’t seem to quite have a handle on what we’re discussing here. You are just stating that you know (somehow) in your heart that certain things are wrong and right, and philosophy is bunk if it doesn’t support your views. That is no better than a socialist stating that he “knows” that redistribution is right. You’re using the same reasoning. Or lack thereof.

If you don’t care about this philosophy, then ignore it; be as boneheaded as the Left. But you have to accept that taking that position you have exited the discussion, admitting failure. No amount of CAPITALS will make your position more persuasive. You reject the facts when they don’t suit your beliefs. Fair enough; please go and join your spiritual brothers in the communist movement who do precisely the same thing when rejecting our view of economics on their faith-based moral grounds.

Myself, I have always preferred truth to faith, as you know.

Posted by Ian B on 12 February 2011

Ian I know what I am discussing.

If you do not want to discuss it - that is fine by me. It is not something that is, perhaps, suitable for a long discussion.

I did NOT start off discussing ethics - right and wrong, good and evil.

But you wanted a discussion of that, so I have written what I have written.

If you do not like it - that is O.K.

I have no objection to someone denying the existance of evil acts - as long as they do not do any.

Words and deeds being different things.

For example “I do not think rape is wrong - it is just your opinion that it is wrong” is fine.

But rapeing someone is not fine. Because rape is wrong - it is nothing to do with your (or my) opinion, and it is nothing to do with “proof” either.

Remember what David Hume was doing was NOT philosophy. What he was actually doing was MOCKING philosophy

Now he may have been QUITE RIGHT to mock philosophy - as philosophers may have been trying to do things that can not be done.

But mocking philosophy is not the same thing as doing philosophy.

It goes beyond ethics (as I tried to explain to start with).

There was also the mocking of the existance of the self (with the claim that a thought did not mean thinker).

And the mocking of the existance of the external world - PROVE it is anything other than the impressions in the mind (the very same mind he had just claimed did not exist - or at least could not be proved to exist).

If one takes everything that Hume wrote seriously (I repeat that I do NOT believe that Hume did himself) then there is no philosophy.

Not just no ethics - all the other branches of philosophy are destroyed also. There is naught left.

Just a void.

And certainly no room for the physical sciences - remember the physical universe might just be impressions in the mind (the very mind that also does not exist.......).

David Hume was writing in the early to mid 18th century.

There were a lot of wars and so on (there always are), but society itself (at home and overseas) seemed very stable (at least if one overlooked the 45).

So it was fine to mock everything - to question common sense (on all points) to give people a playful shake.

And it was playful - remember Hume called himself the “sceptic”, he thought even the Epicurians (let alone the Stoics) took all this stuff too seriously.

There was no malice in Hume (at least none I know of).

The Logical Positivists of the 20th century were very different.

They started from what seem like the starting points David Hume left us - but they take them as deadly serious (not playful) and their intentions were very bad indeed.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

By the way - none of the above has anything to do with religion.

Also I do not see why you were offended by me saying that right and wrong were not matters of PROOF.

After all - that is exactly what you said yourself.

You just then jumped to the conclusion that if they were not matters of proof (in the sense of physics or whatever) then they did not exist - or were just arbitrary, or were unimportant.

They do exist and they are not arbitrary.

No more than A is A is either false or unimportant.

On the contrary - so called “truisms” are the most important things.

The truths that everything else is based on.

For example.....


The logic of human choice.

But if there are no choices - no human BEINGS (no agents) then economics falls.

Although, I admit, that Hayek did not agree with that.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

The Aristotelian (either traditional or Randian) will at once come back and say “but I CAN prove certain basic moral points”.

True enough - I have not proved that you can not do that.

I leave that debate to Ian B. (as he wishes that I do).

Perhaps Ian is correct, and perhaps the Aristotelian is correct.

My only point (on ethics) is the following.....

If Ian B. is correct and moral points are not matters of proof - he has NOT in any way proved that morals do not exist, or are relative, or are arbitrary, or are unimportant.

But then have you actually claimed any of these things? Not formally. So nothing I have written is actually an attack on you.

David Hume (in my view) did not believe that morals did not exist, or were relative (robbery is O.K. if it is clan tradition....) or were arbitrary, or were unimportant.

What he was saying was “reason can not prove the obvious - so much for reason”.

Or perhaps “reason IN THE WAY YOU ARE USING IT (is from ought and so on) can not prove the obvious - so use it differently”.

In which case the Aristotelian comes straight back in - but he is a different sort of Aristotelian.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

But rapeing someone is not fine. Because rape is wrong

See the problem Paul? You’re just going round in circles. “It’s wrong because it is wrong”.

The philosophical issue is, how can we decide what is wrong? The only method you are offering is “ask Paul Marks”.

That isn’t very philosophically satisfying, is it?

Posted by Ian B on 12 February 2011

Not at all.

I could just as well say - “ask Ian”.

And if you said “no - rape is not wrong” you would be LIEING.

As you know perfectly well.

Of course (yet again) the Aristotelian does these things differently - starting with the point about human flourishing and so on.

But you said (like Hume) you did not like that - indeed you used strong language about it.

Indeed you MAY be correct.

Such things as the principle of justice (nonviolation of the body or goods of another) may not be matters of proof in the manner of physics OR the methods of the Aristotelians.

After all I am no expert on these methods, and neither was Hume, and neither are you.

But is you are correct it makes no practical difference what so ever.

Justice remains the same - either way.

Of course there is always the Ludwig Von Mises reply - given in Human Action.

It went like this......

I do not understand the “I” it is “unanalyseable” (that is a direct quote - the “unanalyseable I”, but do not ask me to spell, especially at this time of night).

However (Mises basically tells us) I am going to base this entire book (indeed all my work) on a concept that I can analyse - indeed that I believe no one else can analyse either.

By the way - I (Mises) am NOT making the claim that any of this is “right” morally. I will say I am a utilitarian (from time to time) but at other times I will say I do not care about any of this stuff.

I am not going to discuss morals (other than to say I am utilitarian - without defending it) - I am going to be value free (in my writing - NOT in my life).

Nor am I even going to say that doing X makes people happy.

I have no idea what makes people happy (which rather undercuts my claim to be a utilitarian) - some people are happy when they are poor and unhappy when they are rich, and to some people DEATH is the most happy thing (they want to die - and do, and die filled with joy).

All I (still Mises) am going to do is tell you (in detail) that if you allow people to be free and yet prevent them from robbing and attacking each other, they will be more productive.

If you do not care that people will be more productive - will have a higher material standard of living.


True Mises never actually uses the words “fuck you” - but that is what he is really saying (over and over again).

He is not promising happiness, and he is not claiming knowledge of moralty.

He is just saying - “do X if you want Y - by the way this is all based on stuff that I am not going to examine because it is formally impossible to do it, the “I” being my bleeding starting point”.

That kills all moral discussion stone dead - which is fair enough, as Mises did not want to discuss such matters.

And as he personally was a hero (I use that word deliberatly) it is not for the likes of me to complain that he did not write about morality.

He did not WRITE about it, he SHOWED what to do and what not to do.

Of course that puts me in my place -as I am NOT a hero.

Risking my life every day for decades (and he did - for example in the interwar years) in the service of good against evil - whilst refusing to talk about good and evil without contempt?

I am Paul Marks - not Ludwig Von Mises, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Those who can do - and those who can not, talk about it”.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

Formally speaking the starting point was “man acts” - you could (with logical strictness) deduce the entire work from it, if you accepted it in the full sense.

That there really was something called a human being, that they made choices and then acted on them.

And if a person did not accept it - then the Mises response really was FUCK YOU.

It is NOT mine - but it avoids any moral discussion (indeed it is intended to).

I suspect that the moral debate in Vienna (including his brother’s moral postivist antics) disgusted Mises more than his service at the front during World War One did.

If people (like Paul Marks) really were going to waste their time on such stuff - rather than SHOWING THEIR VIRTUE IN THEIR OWN LIVES then Mises was disgusted by us (by me - although he never met me).

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011


the difference between political and social ideologies is basically one of different moral codes. For instance, a socialist thinks that it is moral to take from a wealthy man to assist a starving man, and that that takes moral precedence over, say, idealised property rights.

If you refuse to address the moral discussion, instead dismissing it with, “FUCK YOU”, how do you expect that anyone is ever going to listen to your opinions? Do you think that merely asserting your position, louder and louder, without justifying it, and dismissing any request to do so as a distraction and beneath your contempt, will make them agree with you?

You have adopted an old and underhanded gambit of trying to focus on an emotive issue- in this case rape. This is a tactic we know from the Left- you begin talking about the economics of welfare, and they shout “BABIES WILL STARVE!” and you are left apparently advocating the starving of babies and do not get to present your rational arguments regarding welfare.

Let’s move onto something else emotive then. Let us imagine that somebody with a different moral code to you has his sexual incelibate daughter before him, and his pile of stones ready with which to pummel her to death. And when you ask him to desist, he tells you that he knows that what he is doing is right because that is what is in his heart and, FUCK YOU.

Bit of an impasse, isn’t it?

This is why we need to explore philosophy, however much you may not wish to.

I have an answer for our stoner. I can say that in a subjectivist universe- which I can prove to be the case- his moral code can be shown to be of no greater value than her moral code, and that he thus cannot declare a right to impose his code upon her. I can show him a series of deductions from observable facts of reality that he can claim mastery over himself, but over nobody else. It directly follows from subjectivism that no moral code which asserts moral mastery over others is justifiable.

It thus becomes the case that only when one person asserts their will over another does a retaliation become justified. Out of that fall the basic laws of man; against murder, against rape, against theft (once property boundaries have been agreed between participants). I can thus get a whole code of interactions- a proof of the requirement for consent in interactions- out of subjectivism.

I can also write this out more thoroughly and rigorously some time, but can’t be arsed in this teeny comment box.

Or, I could just go with the FUCK YOU principle, but I’ll stick with the intellectual rigour, for now. It makes more sense to me.

Posted by Ian B on 12 February 2011

“I think murder is not a crime”

is pretty much the same statement as:

“I think murder is not illegal”

since being “a crime” means (or is substitutable for) “illegal”, and we can re write it again:

“I think illegal killing is not illegal”

since “murder” means “ illegal killing”

and since “not illegal” = “legal”

“I think illegal killing is not illegal”

which is structurally identical to “A = not A” which is nonsense.

We can do the same with *some* other statements in English or other human languages.

A set of simpler examples which you keep shouting would be

Murder is wrong!
Rape is wrong!
Theft is wrong!

Which we can rewrite like this:

Wrong killing is wrong!
Wrong sex is wrong!
Wrong taking is wrong!

Wrong is wrong!

These sort of statements are well formed, syntactically correct, but they are of no use, since they are self referential statements about the symbols in a (half understood) axiom system and are not connected to observable reality in any obvious manner.

Unlike statements such “all objects continue in motion or remain in a state of rest unless acted up by an external force” or “most swans are white”. We can make connections to reality to such statements by referring to human experience and to observation. The nature of such connections is highly contingent however..

In any case the bulk of human knowledge lies outside of the realm of such articulable knowledge.

Posted by DavidNcl on 12 February 2011

Actually proving 1+1=2 rather than just knowing it was a major problem in mathematics and wasn’t really cracked until the 20C by the ilk of Allonzo Church.

First I have to define what numbers are.... and what addition and equality means.

See Alonzo Church and the Lambda Calculus. One of his PhD students was Alan Turing.

wv science24 !

Posted by DavidNcl on 12 February 2011

I recall a story about Madsen Pirie.  Someone asked him what he thought of the statement “A is A”.

Longish silence.

Then: “It depends what you mean by is.”

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 12 February 2011




I was NOT saying that you should go fuck yourself.


Like Bill Clinton!

Although it is ironic that something that was supposed to make people less dogmatic (the playful sceptical attack by David Hume) has the logical effect of making the situation more dogmatic.

If there really is no way to prove a moral point (by Aristotelian or other means) that does NOT lead to “tolerance” (tolerance of rape, murder and so on).

On the contrary - it can only lead to a more dogmatic position.

Instead of using a method (for example the human flourishing method) we just get a STATEMENT.

This should please people who denounce “trying to get an ought from an is”.

Till they understand that what Thomas Hobbes called “the Kingdom of darkness” (the complex reasoning of the Schoolmen) is replaced by a statement.

A statement backed up by punishment.

“I want to violate people - and do not give me any of the that moral guff, I reject the idea that one can prove morality”.


“You mean you except that I can violate persons and possessions - that there is no moral law”.

“No - it just means that after you commit your crime you will be punished”.

Remember the very act of asking (for example) “why is murder wrong?” proves that you know it is wrong.

If you did not know (if you were just a savage animal) you would not ask the question in the first place.

It is much the same as a person who asks “do I exist”.

He KNOWS he exists.

And it is NAUGHT to do with “relgion” or “faith”.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

Just to keep hammering the point over the SHOUTING:

“Remember the very act of asking (for example) “why is murder wrong?” proves that you know it is wrong. “

is just the same statement as :

“Remember the very act of asking (for example) “why is wrong action wrong?” proves that you know it is wrong. “

And is every bit as useful as a guide to how I should act. That is, not at all.

Posted by DavidNcl on 12 February 2011

I use the caplock thing because I am too dumb to remember to use italics.

You do not need a “guide” to tell you that to violate others is wrong.

You already know that.

The question is - why do you keep asking for it to be “proved” as if it was a bit of physics or something.

Of course you can still choose to violate others - but “I did not know it was wrong” or “no one has proved it is wrong” is no excuse.

Posted by Paul Marks on 12 February 2011

This is obviously Brian’s blog, but don’t folk think that this thread has run out of steam? Time to wrap up, I think.

Posted by Tom B on 14 February 2011

Yes - it was my fault.

I went off at a tangent - as I too often do.

Posted by Paul Marks on 14 February 2011
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