Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Moral Razor

(also posted on Goosing the Antithesis)

One thing I did not mention in my article "How to Preach Libertarianism" is how to use the Moral Razor. Although I'd like to lay claim to it, the Moral Razor is not my invention. It is the work of Stefan Molyneux, writer for LewRockwell.com and blogger at Freedomain. I have only clarified and formalized his ideas on the topic.

The most famous razor in philosophy is no doubt Occam's Razor, which states that, when confronted with two hypotheses that explain the same set of facts, the ontologically simplest hypothesis is the correct one. In general, a razor is a simple and clear principle which eliminates a great number of invalid or undesirable positions. Occam's Razor is a simple and clear principle which eliminates a great number of pseudo-scientific beliefs and religious fantasies. Its justification lies in the nature of objective evidence.

The Moral Razor operates in the same way. Its justification lies in the fact that moral principles must apply to all persons, otherwise they are mere cultural belief or opinion. We observe that all persons have the same biological, mental and social needs, and that therefore any moral principle which purports to judge the actions of some people differently than the actions of others, or to elevate the values of some against others, must be invalid.

The Moral Razor is this :
A moral principle or system, or a political principle or system, is invalid if it is asymmetrical in application (to locations, times or persons).

This is easily seen to eliminate large swarths of moral systems. All forms of moral relativism are automatically eliminated, as they are based on the premise that moral judgment somehow differs from person to person or from culture to culture. So are all forms of utilitarianism (including democracy) eliminated, because they imply that the values of the majority are superior to those of the minority, with subsequent assymetry of action.

Collectivist worldviews, such as religions, with their sacrifice of individualism in the name of a higher ideal, are also threatened by the Razor. One saliant feature of such worldviews is the strict adherence to a moral system which is usually memetically utilitarian in nature. But this is an inherent asymmetry, and a rational Christian (if there was such a chimera) would be in his right to ask why he is to be considered good only when he follows a set of - to him - arbitrary rules, when only a small subset of people actually benefit from his obedience. And there is also the pesky little problem of believing in an entire moral system ostensibly because it is designed by an all-powerful being, and the inherent asymmetry in this moral master/slave relationship.

Obviously, universality is necessarily egalitarian. And egalitarianism is necessarily individualist. They all go together like glove and hand. The individual can only flourish in a social and political context where everyone is allowed to flourish, and such a context can only exist if everyone is equal under morality and the law. You cannot dissociate the two.

It's not surprising that the most murderous social systems, the most collectivist societies, those of communism and nazism, are predicated upon a strong ruling class that exerts both economic and ideological control. There is nothing less conductive to religion and politics than the firm conviction that everyone should be equally free to express his own values.

The Razor, in its initial form, also applies to a great deal of public policy. Often, the only reason for their perceived universality is the failure to consider where the benefits are going as well as the costs. Take taxation, for example. True, everyone has to pay taxes, but only the ruling class is free to accumulate and use tax money - under utilitarian considerations, as for any other collectivist system. So taxation is asymmetrical.

One easy way to figure out assymetry is to ask whether anyone can act in the same way. No other citizen can raise his own police and force people at gunpoint to pay them tribute (except perhaps the mafia, but they have to contend with the government's guns). The same applies to policies such as eminent domain, censorship, and other governmental initiations of force. If the government does not open itself to the same restrictions, then the policy is necessarily asymmetrical (compare for example victim disarmament and growth in military spending).

There is one exception, and that is when we are looking at scenarios where a valid rule was already broken. Arresting someone when no crime was committed is asymmetrical, but arresting someone who initiated force is a different scenario. In this case we are looking not at a political principle - which is what the Razor is about - but rather at the consequence of breaking such a principle. In that case I would argue that, as long as no other asymmetry is present, singling out initiators of force should not be seen as breaking the Razor a priori.

This leads us to the other use of the Razor, which is the relational level. Here we're looking not at the application of a moral principle, but rather at the relational results. Suppose we say, for example, "theft is universally good". This is problematic since theft is a relational asymmetry : the right of property of the thief subsists (otherwise he would not be a thief at all but rather a hired goon, for one thing), but that of the victim is taken away, creating a contradiction.

We can generalize this idea and say that all coercion implies relational asymmetry, as coercion implies the existence of a perpetrator and a victim, with inherent asymmetry contained therein. So we can say the following :
All moral or political principles based on coercion have relational asymmetry, and therefore imply contradictions in rights.

Since there are only two basic relational modes, coercive and voluntary (the Trader Principle), we see that this principle eliminates a great deal of principles and ideologies as well. The Trader Principle, on the other hand, is inherently symmetrical : everyone gives and receives value at all times. Gift-giving is not an exception to this rule, but rather a confirmation of it, as the gift-giver sees self-interest in doing so. For some people, giving gifts is even more pleasurable than receiving them. If someone is acting of his own free will, then he necessarily sees benefit in his actions, and the Trader Principle cannot be violated.

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