Monday, August 3, 2009

Libertarian Ethics: Life is the Standard

I at no time believed that value-free analysis or economics
or utilitarianism . . . can ever suffice to establish the case
for liberty. Economics can supply much of the data for a
libertarian position, but it cannot establish that political
philosophy itself. Political judgments are necessarily value
judgments, political philosophy is therefore necessarily
ethical, and hence a positive ethical system must be
set forth to establish the case for individual liberty.
--Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (1980)

As I have mentioned before, I am second-generation Libertarian, although in my early adulthood I had a long hiatus from any political activity, and then I made some detours in my thinking. However, the apple does not, so they say, fall far from the tree, and so here I am politically involved in libertarian causes, and in the cause of Liberty.

Recently, on the recommendation of a Libertarian friend, I read L. Neil Smith's book, The Probability Broach. It was not only an enjoyable swashbuckling alternative history sci-fi book, but it also poked gentle fun at some of the early libertarian heroes of my childhood. I am guessing that because I am second generation libertarian, I experienced a certain meta-enjoyment of the book that can only be had by second-generation libertarians. Imagine Rand and Ross-Bird (Rothbard) living in a anarcho-capitalist libertarian society, rather than fighting for liberty in a corporatist-fascistic statist society. But there amidst the adventure and the humor, the heart of Smith's book is a description of a society based on the ethics of individual liberty.

There are those who disparage Liberty as a luxury at best, and as a profoundly immoral system at worst. And those who would defend the cause of Liberty often cut themselves off at the knees by conceding the ethical and moral argument for Liberty by agreeing with the collectivist ethics that are destroying the freest and most productive society in history. Liberty is not a luxury; no, it is an absolute necessity for human productivity and happiness, and this is what makes it good as well.

At a basic level, libertarian ethics rest on the idea that human life on earth is good, and that human beings are rational animals that use their minds to survive on earth. That is, that man's ecological niche is the use of technology to alter the environment in order to survive and thrive.

From an ecological standpoint, human beings, like all other animals, must get the energy required for metabolic processes from the primary producers that convert energy from the sun into chemical energy useful to living things. That is, human beings are consumers. (See The Energy Web). Like all animals, human beings must work for a living by finding primary producers and consumers lower on the food web to consume. But because man is endowed with the rational faculty, humans make and use tools, plan ahead and develop natural resources, increasing the efficiency (in time and energy) of that work. In economics we call that production. And the rule of nature is that production must precede consumption. You cannot consume what has not been produced. This is so by definition.

In the ecological sense this means that plants must live where they can access sunlight, and if they cannot access enough sunlight to produce the amount of glucose (energy stored in carbon bonds) needed to carry out their metabolic processes, they die. Animals must go where the primary producers are in order to consume them, and those consumers lower on the food web. If an animal cannot consume enough energy, it dies. And energy is lost at every step of the way. Natural selection therefore "favors"* those organisms that find ways to produce (in the economic sense) enough to consume so that they can not only live, but reproduce themselves successfully more often than others that share the same niche. And it must be emphasized that natural selection acts upon individuals, not groups. (This does not contradict the fact that it is indeed species that evolve, not individuals. See G.C. Williams, Adaptation and Natural Selection, and R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene). These are the facts of life on earth.

*Of course, being a force of nature, natural selection does not actually favor anything or select anything, it is a blind force operating on the basis of the facts of life on earth. Anthropomorphic language is useful here for conveying meaning, but should not be taken literally. There is no consciousness, and therefore no choice involved, and therefore no morality or ethics implied.

Thus, individual members of a population develop a whole host of different strategies in order to make sure that their offspring (and thus their genes) survive into the next generation. Various forms of aggression against other members of that same population make up some of these strategies. (In evolutionary ecology, the definition of aggression is limited to acts against others in the same population or species; predation is an entirely different activity). Among these is "cheating"--that is gaining advantage by deception or theft upon the productive capacities of other individuals.

There is a maxim in evolutionary ecology that so long as the number of cheaters remains at a minumum in a population, cheaters always win. What this means is that there are costs to the cheaters in a population, but so long as the number of cheaters remains pretty low, the cost of cheating to the cheater is worth paying, and the cost to the "honest" producer for stopping the cheater is not worth paying. In the EEA (evolutionary environment of adaptation), the number of cheaters in a population is kept in stable equilibrium by selective forces. (For a thorough explanation of this dynamic see Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Chapter 5: Agression: Stability and the selfish machine.) However, hypothetically, if the number of cheaters were able to rise above a certain stable minumum, members of the population would not be sustained into the future, and it would crash*.

*This is why the engineers of the current world economic crisis--and it is being engineered by cheaters--may get more than they bargained for. The plan (whether conscious or not) is to develop a world population of serfs over whom they can exert power, and thus establish a system in which the cheaters themselves do not have to exert much individual energy on production. But there are likely too many of them, and their capacity for self-deception is too great, and thus they could end up crashing the civilization, thus destroying the goose that laid the golden egg as it were. If this happens, it is because the honest producers who have been agressed upon were immoral and did not defend against the agressive cheaters.

But human beings are uniquely endowed by their nature to choose between good (life and the fullness thereof) and evil (death and destruction). Human beings are capable of conscious self-deception in ways that the other animals are not. This ability (and requirement) by his very nature, makes the human being a moral animal. As long as she lives, a human being must constantly consciously choose life (good) over death (evil). This requirement devolves on the individual and is independent of social considerations, that is, even Robinson Crusoe had to make moral choices, alone on his island, even before meeting Friday.

Thus the basis of human ethics is that life is the standard by which we measure what is good and what is evil.


Susan said...

I'm enjoying and appreciating your thoughts on a good cause, Elisheva. Keep it up.

I had to rumble the descriptions below through my brain a bit to visualize accurate descriptors for dream life and real-life.

Imagine Rand and Ross-Bird (Rothbard) living in a anarcho-capitalist libertarian society, rather than fighting for liberty in a corporatist-fascistic statist society.

I'll be looking for that book...Isn't it interesting how many sci-fi writers seem to get the libertarian basis of a good life?

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Susan, thanks. It's a wonderful book. I am eagerly awaiting delivery of more from L. Neil Smith.

I was thinking the same thing about science fiction writers this AM as I was walking the dogs. Do a lot of good thinking then. I wonder if it is because sci-fi writers regularly think outside the box? I am sure that is part of it. Because thinking outside the box is becoming increasingly frowned upon lately.

Retriever said...

Hi, Elisheva, I continue to read your posts with admiration and agree with so much that you write...Have been too brain dead this summer to respond in depth...

The reference to the cheaters' situation is brilliant and on target. We were assigned "The Selfish Gene" and "Walden" the summer before I started college and they have always stayed with me.

I will link to this post soon, in hopes that my readers can find some food for thought here that my recent vapor-brained posts may have deprived them of!!

I also love the Bronowski quote (a hero of mine since childhood).

Best wishes from a New Englander much fatigued by work and difficult college-aged kids, but always thoughts stirred up by your posts! Hopin to escape to our northern camp soon and no internet, phone, and lots of outdoor work and books to restore us