A Controvertible Case

Not long ago I found myself alone in a comment section debate amidst the various members of the Zippy Catholic echo chamber. For those who don’t know, the main point of adhesion for this community is their unwavering belief that liberalism (i.e., the political philosophy which holds freedom and equal rights of citizens to be a legitimate and primary goal for a government to pursue) is (1) incoherent (their description) and (2) necessarily leads to mass murder. In this blog post I would like to address the first point (i.e., the supposed incoherence of liberalism) as it relates to the aforementioned comment section debate.

One of Zippy’s zealots named JustSomeGuy became particularly motivated to get me to respond to his logical proof which he believes demonstrates the incoherence of liberalism. It is as follows:

P1: Political acts are about resolving controvertible cases between two (or more) parties.

P2: Controvertible cases are resolved by discriminating between the two (or more) parties at odds, and authoritatively restricting the freedom of (at least) one of them by imposing some substantive conception of how things ought to be done upon them.

∴ Freedom as purpose of political action makes freedom the purpose of intrinsically freedom-restrictive acts.

Before I get to my discussion of JustSomeGuy’s theorem let me first provide some background to the interaction. Ideally, this conversation should have been an exploration of the issues alone. But as with virtually all comment section dialogues this one devolved to a large extent into the realm of ad hominem attacks. In the defense of Zippy and his adherents their ad hominem attacks were apparently not meant to attack my argument but rather my character and intelligence alone. As such they can not be said to have committed the ad hominem fallacy. This is an important distinction to make as Zippy has accused me of committing the ad hominem fallacy in a previous post entitled The Fruit of the Spirit where I remarked on an underlying current of negativity in his and other’s posts which seems to me to be at odds  with the fruit of the spirit as described by St. Paul in Galatians Chapter 5. I suppose in my own defense I could also argue that I was merely attempting to describe the spirit behind the rhetoric and not the logic of the argument itself but this digression I think has run its course.

Let us return to the subject at hand. When I did not respond to JustSomeGuy’s theorem right away he and others became agitated. They accused me of ignoring their arguments. In my defense, the reasons for my delay were twofold. First, at the time I happened to be responding to a number of different people at once. So naturally I could not get to everyone as fast as I or they would have liked. Second, I had to formulate an answer before responding to any one particular point. Unfortunately, this situation was apparently not satisfactory to JustSomeGuy or Zippy. For that, I apologize and offer this blog post as the response they seemed to desire me to give.

First of all, I am not convinced that politics necessarily involves a controvertible case in all matters. As I mentioned in the maelstrom I could imagine a case where a political consensus could give rise to a political act that did not necessarily involve deciding in favor of one party and against another. This, however, did not seem to be the strongest of arguments. Certainly consensuses are not the norm in politics even if it is conceivably possible. Accordingly, let us proceed assuming that politics does indeed always involve resolving controvertible cases between two parties.

As to point two of the theorem let us also agree that controvertible cases are resolved by discriminating against one party in favor of another. The point of clarification that I would like to make is that liberalism as a political concept does not concern itself with freedom in an abstract sense but rather it concerns itself with the freedom of a polity’s citizens. This is important because when a government acts to preserve the freedom of its citizens it is discriminating or restricting itself. We see this in the Bill of Rights in the repeated phrase “Congress shall make no law…” So yes, it is true that the government is restricting its own freedom when it acts to promote the freedom of its citizens. But this arrangement is a perfectly coherent situation as far as that goes.

In this way I would alter the wording of JustSomeGuy’s theorem to more accurately describe the reality of the situation.

P1. Political acts are typically about resolving controvertible cases between two or more parties.

P2. Controvertible cases are resolved by discriminating between the two or more parties and authoritatively restricting the freedom of (at least) one of them by imposing some substantive conception of how things ought to be done upon them.

∴ Freedom of citizens as purpose of political action of government makes freedom of citizens the purpose of freedom-restrictive acts imposed upon the government.

I agree with JustSomeGuy and the rest of Zippy’s adherents that “abstract freedom in general” is an incoherent goal for a government to pursue. For one thing it is too vague. But also, a government (as the echo chamber argues) acts by making decisions which will naturally discriminate against one party in favor of another. This discrimination in theory restricts the freedom of one party as much as it promotes the freedom of another. We see this clearly in court rulings, for example. However (as I attempted to articulate), I disagree that “the freedom of citizens” is an incoherent goal for a government to pursue because a government pursues this goal by restricting its own action as is seen in the Bill of Rights to the U. S. Constitution. If we take the example of the freedom of speech, the government is restricting its ability to stifle specific kinds of speech (particularly political speech). In this case the government is discriminating against itself in favor of a particular freedom reserved for its citizens.

Another point I would make as to JustSomeGuy’s theorem is that although in a liberal society the freedom of citizens is a primary and legitimate pursuit of government it is not the only pursuit of government. For example, the maintenance of law and order is another primary and legitimate pursuit. Therefore, I disagree with JustSomeGuy’s theorem in that it assumes that freedom (in a general sense) is the goal behind every political act, which is not necessarily the case under the definition of liberalism.

Finally, I would like to say that while in the midst of the maelstrom I tried to explain my misgivings as to their core belief about liberalism. It was not my intention nor did I expect to change anyone’s mind in this debate. I was, however, (at least partly) interested in more clearly formulating my position. One effective way of doing so is to test it in the arena of debate. I was and am also open to abandoning my position if it has been sufficiently disproved. I have not reached that point yet concerning liberalism.

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47 responses to “A Controvertible Case

  1. From what I understand of his position, Zippy would disagree with the idea that liberalism necessarily leads to mass murder; his position is that it is incoherent and therefore we cannon know what the implications or necessary consequences of it are.

    Second, if we take “freedom of the polity’s citizens” to be the final standard and that it should be pursued by the limiting of government action, this is still too vague or incoherent as a final standard. If we hold to the idea that the government must act in at least some cases (the punishment of convicted criminals, for example), then we can’t make freedom of the polity’s citizens a final standard; in at least some cases, some citizens will have their freedom restricted by the acts of government. “Freedom of the polity’s citizens” is thereby violated, and so it cannot be a final standard. The other option is that the government ought never to restrict the freedom of the polity’s citizens, and so the government should never act. In that case, the government would cease to exist as anything meaningful. So either the acts of government violate the final standard by which they propose to judge, or it ceases to exist; this principle therefore is either contradictory or meaningless.

    If we hold to the idea that the government is duty-bound to act in certain cases, then we must admit that the actions of government should only be restricted in certain ways. Freedom of the polity’s citizens does not help us determine the ways in which the governments actions should be restricted, because the actions of government necessarily infringe on the freedom of at least one of its citizens. We have to have another standard by which to determine the ways that government action should be restricted, and thus we must necessarily reject liberalism (freedom and equal rights as a final standard) in order to figure out how the government ought to function. Sorry for such a long comment, but I hope it helps.

  2. (1) I am pretty sure I have read specific passages where Zippy makes the case that liberalism leads to mass murder. I don’t find it particularly persuasive that the supposed incoherence of liberalism can lead to anything and so therefore we should reject it because it might lead to mass murder (among an infinite number of other outcomes). I’ll leave it to him to clarify if he wishes to do so.

    (2) My initial reaction to your point that “the freedom of citizens is too vague” is that we have a constitution which makes this standard specific as to how it is to be put into effect. In fact you might say that is the primary purpose of the constitution.

    BTW – I appreciate your comment (and its length). I especially appreciate the respectful, non insulting tone. It is much easier to carry on a reasoned discourse under these conditions.

    • Thank you.

      “We have a constitution which makes this standard specific as to how it is to be put into effect.”

      If we say this, then “freedom of the polity’s citizens” is not actually the final standard, because the word freedom does not admit to any limiting factor; it just means the capacity for an individual to do what that individual would like to do. The government very obviously cannot allow everyone to do what they want, and even when there is no government the people who would like to form one are still barred from doing what they want. It is incoherent as a final standard. So a more accurate phrasing might be “government exists to protect the rights of its citizens.”

      But even this does not help us figure out how the government should operate; the obvious follow up question is which rights should be protected? Making protection of rights the final standard for the functioning of government doesn’t answer the question of which rights should be protected. Because it doesn’t answer that question, making it the final standard means that all rights have to be protected equally, which is impossible; this really just makes freedom the final standard, which we’ve already admitted cannot be a guiding principle for government. There has to be another principle by which the government makes its decisions and determines which rights ought to be protected. It can’t act and protect all the rights of all people equally at the same time.

      However even if we make a specific set of rights the final standard (the constitution for example), it still doesn’t have a way of figuring out what the government should do when two of those rights come in to conflict. The government can’t protect all of those rights equally, and so it has to violate the final standard by choosing which rights should be protected unequally. Even here there has to be another principle in order for the government to determine how it ought to act. Even if we ordered the rights and made that the final standard, the government still would not know how to act in the case of a conflict of the same right of two different people. The government still needs another principle to be the final standard by which to make decisions.

      So which rights ought to be protected? That question can’t be answered by making protection of rights, the protection of a specific set of rights, or the protection of a specific set of rights in a specific order the final standard. We need something other than this in order to figure out how the government should function; so in order to figure out how the government should function, we need to abandon the idea that the government exists to protect the rights of its citizens (even a finite list of those rights in a specific order). If we pick the right principle, then the rights which ought to be protected will be protected as a result of the correct actions of government; however, we need the government to be based on this principle and not on the protection of rights.

      • I see what you are saying. However, I don’t agree that there is no guiding principle. We are not talking about freedom in a vacuum. We are taking about freedom within the context of our political culture and custom which in general terms means our government should be limited in its power over citizens. This is broadly defined (on the federal level) by our constitution and more specifically defined by statutes. We then have our extensively documented legal precedent to guide us.

      • Winston:

        The Constitution and legal precedent are not sufficient as a final principal. They are necessarily incomplete and thus there will be ac case over which there is controversy over how to interpret the constitution and for which there is no legal precedent. In fact, there are cases such as this that have been decided in the United States; in addition, there are cases where legal precedent has been overruled. So it is obvious that legal precedent cannot be a final principal and neither can the constitution, as the interpretation of that document is controversial (and thus requires supreme court decisions, which have been overruled in the past by later supreme courts).

        Furthermore, in order to protect a certain citizen’s right (let’s say to freedom of speech), another citizen’s right (let’s say to freedom of religion) may be compromised. Even if the legal precedent provides for a way to resolve such a case, it cannot provide for a case where one’s freedom of religion clashes with another citizen’s freedom of religion; the government must protect the freedom of religion for one of the party’s at the expense of another’s, or it will protect neither party’s freedom of religion. What is the final principle to resolve such a case?

      • The process is the final principle.

  3. This is a good attempted refutation, and I don’t doubt that the zippy-club can be a little… rough on newcomers. I think my first comment there was met with “but I am not a radical individualist like you are” from zippy.

    However, the move to “the freedom of citizens” as opposed to “freedom in abstract” does not gain as much ground as you seem to think. This is because the particular freedoms which citizens desire, like the “freedom of speech”, are commonly in conflict. When citizen A desires freedom X and citizen B desires freedom NOT X, then any decision the government makes necessarily reduces some citizen’s freedom. And how does the government decide between X and NOT X? It must have a conception of the good. It cannot use the concept of “freedom” or “equality” to help it decide, because both opposing positions are supported under these principles.

    Quick example:
    I desire that unborn children have the “freedom” to be born.
    Feminists desire that women have the “freedom” to kill their unborn children.
    Liberalism’s principles support both sides. But the freedoms are mutually exclusive.

    If the constitution is to be the standard, and not liberalism, then you might have a coherent way to decide. However, the constitution was written on explicitly liberal principles, so who is to say we should not just overrule (or rewrite) it? And in practice the interpretation of the constitution has been far more flexible than any of it’s writers could have foreseen.

    I don’t know if you have read any moldbug, but he makes a fairly convincing argument that “self-limiting government” is a perpetual motion machine. No piece of paper, no matter how strongly worded, can prevent government from doing what it thinks best.

    • I hate to go back to my comparison with North Korea but I think it illustrates the point I am trying to make. I think we can agree that a citizen of the US enjoys a greater amount of “Freedom of Speech” than is enjoyed by a citizen of North Korea. If you accept this proposition then does it matter that if one person’s freedom of speech conflicts with another within this larger umbrella of freedom of speech?

      • Your last sentence is a bit confusing but I think I agree.
        North Korea has less of a particular freedom on offer than the USA. If this freedom is good, then the USA is better than NK in this respect. If this freedom bad, then the USA is worse. If this freedom is morally neutral, then the USA is no better or worse in this respect.

        But liberalism provides no principled way of assuming that Freedom of Speech is morally good, and (say) Freedom of Censure is morally bad.

        So, though we both like it, liberalism is no help to us in defending our preferences. Yet Freedom of Speech is often considered good precisely just because it is a *freedom.* This is circular.

        I get why you want to use NK as an example. NK seems unfree to you. USA seems (relatively) free to you. And I personally certainly like where I live. But given that freedom is just the capacity to choose what you desire, this is not an objective understanding of reality. NK is not *objectively* freer than the USA, merely subjectively freer, from your point of view. I am sure that there are at least a few people living in NK who sincerely subjectively see NK as freer than the USA.

        Now, if someone wants to show that NK is objectively *worse* on moral or material grounds than the USA, they are free to go ahead and (try to) show that, because goodness is objective. But it cannot in principle be shown that any country is more free (in a general sense) than any other. It could only be shown that a country would be more free to you than another. Or that a country offers its citizens more freedom in some particular respect than another.

      • Except that there are many citizens of North Korea who are trying to escape it. Anyone who wishes to leave the US is pretty much free to do so provided they have a passport (which is not difficult to obtain). I think this is more than a random and subjective data point as to the relative freedom of the two nations.

  4. Regarding your other point about “the freedom of citizens is a primary and legitimate pursuit of government [but] it is not the only pursuit of government”:

    I saw you mention this a few times in the comment dog-pile. I think it is a smarter objection than most realize, not the least because it does not occur immediately to most people.

    I think the flaw with it is that the idea of balanced priorities presupposes a principled way to balance them, especially when the priorities are in direct contention.

    But if there is this higher balancing principle, then it is the real primary purpose of government, right?

    To illustrate the difficulty:
    The principle of freedom (and equality) demands that criminals not be put in jail. Jail restricts their freedom, unequally. The principle of “maintenance of law and order” requires that criminals be jailed.
    How shall these principles be balanced?

    It is reasonable to say “we prefer law and order in this case.” But this preference is not principled, for there are some anarchists (and criminals) who think that the principle of freedom should win in this case. This makes the jailing of criminals an “unprincipled exception” to the idea of liberalism.

    And what happens when what people consider reasonable changes?

    • We have a criminal code to work from. Criminal codes are based upon 100s if not 1000s of years of precedent. Moreover, there is case law which provides an additional level of precedent. Moreover, we have a legislative system in place to change laws should they become outdated. Any change to laws goes through a very principled process. So I don’t agree that this is in any way an unprincipled process or system.

      • “Any change to laws goes through a very principled process.”

        What is that underlying principle? Is it liberalism? If it is not, then how do you know when to balance the principle of liberalism with it?

        Are you implying that the true governing principle should be Liberalism, except where it contradicts case law and/or precedent? If that were so, then how could you ever decide that a law needed to be changed or removed?

      • The laws are drafted and enacted by elected representatives. The laws must be in compliance with the constitution. In what way is this unprincipled?

  5. JustSomeGuy

    The point of clarification that I would like to make is that liberalism as a political concept does not concern itself with freedom in an abstract sense but rather it concerns itself with the freedom of a polity’s citizens. This is important because when a government acts to preserve the freedom of its citizens it is discriminating or restricting itself. We see this in the Bill of Rights in the repeated phrase “Congress shall make no law…” So yes, it is true that the government is restricting its own freedom when it acts to promote the freedom of its citizens.

    This is a false dichotomy; a government cannot restrict itself without also restricting its citizens. When it refuses to make a law in the first place, it is restricting anyone who might wish for such a law.

    To use your own example, when the first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” it has just authoritatively discriminated against any citizen who might wish to suppress certain kinds of speech. If person A wants the right to pleasant public discourse, and person B wants the right to publish whatever he likes, then those two freedoms contradict. Freedom is the capacity to choose what one actually wishes to choose, and there is no way to give them both the capacity to choose what they actually wish to choose.

    • Again we are not talking about freedom in the abstract. We are talking about a specific freedom, the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom of pleasant discourse. So the fact that the government enforcing the freedom of speech might discriminate against a person who desires the freedom of pleasant discourse does not make for an incoherent situation.

  6. JustSomeGuy

    Again we are not talking about freedom in the abstract. We are talking about a specific freedom, the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom of pleasant discourse.

    Please give me the principle by which you decided that the former overrules the latter.

  7. JustSomeGuy

    Then you have failed to critique the premises of my original argument.

    • I critiqued it in two ways. First, your argument assumes that the purpose of liberal government is freedom in general when in reality the purpose is to advance a specific set of freedoms for the citizens of a polity. Second, your argument assumes the only purpose of liberal government is freedom when there are other purposes such as maintaining law and order.

  8. Winstonscrooge,

    “Again we are not talking about freedom in the abstract.”

    So why are we talking about “speech” in the abstract then? “Speech” has been defined to encompass quite a large number of human acts (campaign finance, pornography, racist verbiage, Westboro Baptists picketing funerals, etc) which have been restricted to various degrees.

    “If we take the example of the freedom of speech, the government is restricting its ability to stifle specific kinds of speech (particularly political speech).”

    But isn’t that the rub? Is it not the case that even *defining* what are and are not acts of “speech” and thereby protected under “freedom of speech” will constrain the speech of others? Isn’t this the constant refrain from conservatives? That whenever there is some disgusting example of “free speech” (say, pornographers literally marching through the streets) conservatives say well that isn’t *really* the speech that was meant. So they keep whittling and whittling speech-rights down to some supposed fine kernel that’s acceptable (to them). But the problem is that the more one whittles all he does is make the inconsistencies (dare I say, the unprincipled exceptions) more apparent.

    Also,

    “your argument assumes the only purpose of liberal government is freedom”

    Well, to be fair that’s never really been the issue. The argument isn’t that freedom is the *only* purpose within liberalism, but rather that its a *primary* purpose. I can provide links from the echo chamber in support if you wish : )

    • When I say JustSomeGuy’s argument assumes the only purpose of liberal government is freedom I am referring specifically to his logical proof and not necessarily the general arguments proffered by Zippy’s echo chamber.

  9. JustSomeGuy

    First, your argument assumes that the purpose of liberal government is freedom in general when in reality the purpose is to advance a specific set of freedoms for the citizens of a polity.

    I repeat myself, please give me the principle by which you decided that some freedoms overrule others.

    Second, your argument assumes the only purpose of liberal government is freedom when there are other purposes such as maintaining law and order.

    Again, in what principled way is it to be decided when specifically to prioritize such purposes above freedom?

    Basically, all you are claiming is that exceptions in general are being made to freedom as purpose of politics, which isn’t incompatible with my argument (in fact, my argument demonstrates that there will always and necessarily be exceptions). The key here is principled exceptions vs. unprincipled exceptions in particular. If the exceptions are principled, then perhaps they may be able to demonstrate that my argument doesn’t work. But if the exceptions are unprincipled, then my argument successfully demonstrates the self-contradictory nature of liberalism, so just saying “there are exceptions” doesn’t help you.

    • My argument is that your theorem is not descriptive of the reality of liberal government. Whether or not liberal government operates in a principled manner is a separate question.

  10. Terry Morris

    Winstonscrooge:

    Except that there are many citizens of North Korea who are trying to escape it. Anyone who wishes to leave the US is pretty much free to do so provided they have a passport (which is not difficult to obtain). I think this is more than a random and subjective data point as to the relative freedom of the two nations.

    It is interesting (given our previous conversations on this very subject involving Nazi Germany) that the Nazis made that exact argument for the “freedom” of German citizens as compared to the supposed “freedom” of the Communist Russians under Stalin at the time.

    • A key component to this discussion that goes overlooked is the rule of law. Free societies have the rule of law and this works not only to protect the professed free nature of a society but also to give it credibility. I’m not sure why you guys are so quick to extend the benefit of the doubt to societies that claim to be free but are dictatorial police states without the rule of law.

      • “Dictatorial police states” tend to have a large number of fairly well enforced laws, even if those laws are not written down. In the Bad Korea, I would assume that one of those laws is “do not offend the Supreme Ruler.” People who break it are summarily punished. Sounds like “rule of law” in a sense.

        The distinction is between good countries and bad ones, good laws and bad ones, good rulers and bad ones; not between
        “free” countries and “unfree” ones.

      • So you see no difference between a country with a representative legislature / independent judicial system and a country where the law is whatever the supreme leader deems it to be at the time?

  11. The process is the final principle.

    So as long as the right process is followed, pitchforking babies is perfectly liberal.

    Unless ‘the right process’ is defined as a process which produces good results. In which case the process isn’t actually the final principle at all.

    By now you ought to be able to see the question-begging incoherence in your own attempts to defend liberalism.

    Free societies have the rule of law …

    Which is another way of making the same incoherent assertion that the process is the final principle (except that it has to be a good process).

    • Do you really see no difference between a society that operates according to the rule of law and one that does not?

      • Do you really not see the difference between good procedures and ‘the process is the final principle’?

      • I do see a difference.

        Is that a retraction of your contention that the process is the final principle?

      • No. But I will amend my statement to say the process is the embodiment of the final principle.

      • Of course he sees a difference; the problem is that if the written law is the final principal then there is nothing which cannot be justified. Abortion is liberal, “three generations of imbeciles is enough” is liberal, any and all amounts of taking freedom away from the citizens is liberal as long as it went through the process and is codified in law. But liberalism is supposed to be about protecting specific freedoms for the citizens, so the process cannot be the final principle because it can (and has) taken these freedoms away from at least some citizens.

      • And has given some to others…

      • TimFinnegan:

        … if the written law is the final principal then there is nothing which cannot be justified.

        The idea of a written body of law being the final principle is provably self contradictory. See Godel, and the fact that sola scriptura produces disunity in doctrine rather than unity, and many other instances of positivism.

        And yes, any self contradictory doctrine can ultimately ‘prove’ or ‘justify’ any conclusion or its opposite.

      • And it can be blamed for anything as well.

      • And [a self contradictory doctrine] can be blamed for anything as well.

        If you’ve just conceded that liberalism is incoherent, well, welcome to the echo chamber. Two drink minimum.

      • Zippy:

        I understand that. My understanding of the argument was that the final principle was the written law in conjunction with the process, so that the process filled in for any incompleteness in the codified law.

      • “Written law plus formal process” is subject to the same Godelian constraints as written law alone, I would add.

      • Hmmm interesting. I will go read up on Godel then. Positivism seems to be very difficult to escape.

      • While I do understand that the phrase “rule of law” is not to be taken perfectly literally, I still feel compelled to point out that law is just words on a page. Paper never rules, only people. You can have good rulers and bad laws, or bad rulers and good laws, or any variation thereof, but what you cannot by any sophisticated contrivance actually get away from is personal authority. It exists. People rule.

        No country operates according to true “rule of law.” There are only countries which operate well according to good laws enforced by good men, and those which don’t.

      • Yes and there are systems which allow for that and systems that do not.

  12. Pingback: The Legitimate Liberal Process | Winston Scrooge

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