Saturday, April 20, 2013

Debate with David Friedman, Part III: I’m Neither Evil, Stupid, nor Afraid

Friedman opened another post, titled Frightening Ideas, with the following two paragraphs:


“Discussing with my daughter the flap over Steve Landsburg's recent post, I commented that the people who were angry about it, mostly online, struck me as either stupid or evil. Either they were too stupid to see that he was actually raising an interesting puzzle or they saw that he was doing so but pretended not to, in order to have an excuse to attack someone they disliked or disagreed with.

Her response was that I was wrong, that my mistake was not realizing the degree to which many other people were different from me. To me, ideas are real, important, and sufficiently interesting that my reaction to an argument that appears to prove some frightening or ugly conclusion is to be neither frightened or angry but intrigued. Lots of people don't react that way—and if you see the conclusion of an argument as frightening or ugly, it isn't surprising if you skip over the fact that it raises an interesting puzzle or are too willing to assume that whoever offered the argument must agree with its conclusion.”

I certainly believe his daughter was right in one regard: I’d like to think I’m neither stupid nor evil. Even if were, it was pretty presumptuous of Friedman to accuse so many people he does not know of those traits. It would have been fairer to simply say he found their arguments unintellectual, or that Landsburg’s post was over their head. He may have been right to say that. I concede these debates have been a challenge for me. Articulating the reasons Steven Landsburg’s argument is wrong is not easy, and perhaps many who reacted negatively to his post could not do it. But that doesn’t make them stupid or evil.

Most people are not philosophers, so we shouldn’t give what they say on philosophic debates much weight. But they’re still allowed to have opinions. It is okay to make moral claims you don’t know how to logically prove. In fact, very little in philosophy is provable even for philosophers. Perhaps the majority of Americans couldn’t articulate a philosophical framework proving why murder is immoral. Brilliant people like David Friedman could probably nitpick their answers, getting them confused and tongue-tied. But they’d still be right – murder is wrong. And they’d still be neither evil nor, for the most part, stupid.

Nevertheless, in my own case, I do not feel Friedman’s daughter’s observation explains why Friedman and I reacted differently. Unlike some people, I do not become frightened when confronted with challenging hypotheticals. Like Friedman, I too am intrigued by arguments that appear to contradict common wisdom. I too am willing to engage those arguments, and able to separate their underlying logic from the emotions their conclusions provoke. My first reaction when I read Landsburg’s blog was not “that idea makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to refute it, so let me insult whoever floated the idea to hide from my cognitive dissonance.” Rather, my reaction was to roll my eyes and wince at the press coverage his “libertarian” ideas received.

It is true that Landsburg’s post peeved me a bit, but it was not because somebody dared wonder what he wondered. My qualms were twofold. First, he failed to adequately distinguish between posing a thought experiment and asserting the conclusion of that experiment as true. But that’s forgivable for a philosopher writing to a target audience (at least, assuming he does not actually believe raping unconscious victims is okay). More importantly, what frustrated me was that his conclusion was the opposite from what most libertarians believed, but yet was being associated with libertarianism nonetheless. That’s why I titled my post as I did; not “Steven Landsburg is an Idiot”, but “Steven Landsburg is No Libertarian.”

Perhaps this is a better explanation of why Friedman and I reacted differently. As a politically active libertarian, I understand public perception of our movement is critical to electoral success. Since politics are important to me, I’m irritated by anything which inaccurately defames or mischaracterizes my belief system, especially when it gets lots of press coverage. I’m not sure how much Friedman cares about public opinion, but I do know he wrote he was Landsburg’s personal friend. Surely this is not the only reason he defended him, but I can understand the natural impulse to defend our friends when they’re under attack. Maybe that came into play in the moment Friedman formed his initial reaction to the negative backlash.

If there is a deeper difference between us, it’s probably ideological. Unlike Friedman, I genuinely don’t find Landsburg’s hypothetical to be an interesting puzzle, because I find the utilitarian framework it relies on to be simplistic and wrong. If Landsburg proved anything in his argument, it was not that the mental trauma of rape victims can be disregarded in moral philosophy. It was that any moral philosophy which does disregard it is wrong. So wrong, I would say, that people are justified in getting a little impatient with its proponents.

1 comment:

  1. "First, he failed to adequately distinguish between posing a thought experiment and asserting the conclusion of that experiment as true."

    You don't think "I’m having trouble articulating any good reason why Question 3 is substantially different from Questions 1 and 2" is adequate?

    "More importantly, what frustrated me was that his conclusion was the opposite from what most libertarians believed,"

    His conclusion being that he has difficulty distinguishing the cases? Or are you back to treating his post as if it was an argument for a conclusion instead of a puzzle?

    "That’s why I titled my post as I did; not “Steven Landsburg is an Idiot”, but “Steven Landsburg is No Libertarian.”"

    A libertarian being someone who thinks the answer to such puzzles is obvious? I offered an answer to his puzzle in one of my posts, but I don't think it was an obvious one and I don't think I saw anyone else, you included, providing an obvious answer.

    Or do you mean "a libertarian is someone who never explores arguments inconsistent with libertarianism?" That may be true of most libertarians, but if so it's a fault, not a virtue, of the movement. To quote myself:

    "Preaching to the converted leads to fame
    In narrow circles—I've found better fun
    In search of something that might change a mind.
    The stake's my own—and yours if so inclined."

    Or in other words, if you aren't willing to stake your own mind, to consider that your views might be wrong and think through the arguments, you shouldn't expect to persuade anyone else worth persuading.

    "because I find the utilitarian framework it relies on to be simplistic and wrong"

    And I find describing the argument as relying on a utilitarian framework simplistic and wrong. A natural rights argument still requires you to figure out why some acts violate rights and others don't. One obvious basis for answering that question is harm done, and Steve's post is pointing out a situation where that doesn't fit our moral intuitions. If you think you have a better basis, by all means give it.

    "It was that any moral philosophy which does disregard it is wrong. So wrong, I would say, that people are justified in getting a little impatient with its proponents."

    And yet you wrote earlier (and correctly) that:

    "In fact, very little in philosophy is provable even for philosophers."

    And by the end of your post, you are back treating Steve's as if it was an argument for a conclusion.

    So far as the conjecture that I'm reacting as I do because Steve is a friend of mine, I've had similar reactions before with regard to people who were not. I spent a chapter of the second edition of _The Machinery of Freedom_ pointing out why simple statements of libertarian principle don't work. The verse I quoted above is from the same book, targeted at people who prefer ideological purity to thinking.

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