Socio-Authoritarian Reasoning

Most of the blocks on our creativity are due to memes whose primary function is to smooth social interaction. In social contexts, they can help people get along with one another and prevent them from stepping on one another’s toes, but in the context of reasoning can be obstacles to progress. Many of us spend a lot of time and energy learning how to fit in, not hurt others’ feelings, or not be seen as a weirdo without recognizing that the habits we learn in order to accomplish these goals are obstacles to problem solving outside of a social context. I call this socio-authoritarian reasoning because it is reliance on social authorities instead of taking epistemic or moral responsibility for one’s thoughts or actions.

Learned helplessness is a prime example of how social learning interferes with other learning. A child attempts to do something on their own, but fails. A parent steps in and does the task for them instead of providing encouragement or keeping out of the way of the child learning on their own. So instead of learning how to solve the problem on their own, they learn how to signal to more capable people that they are inept. People who have learned this strategy end up hopelessly lost when they have to solve a problem on their own away from teachers or parents.

Another problem is equating criticism or error with personal insult. If making a mistake is viewed as something that shows one is stupid or inept, pointing out errors in held ideas will be seen as personal insults. One will prefer to conform as closely as possible than to attempt to create new ideas which could be seen as errors and cause them to lose social favor. This focus on the self is also problematic because it can be difficult to refute theories about one’s “essential” self because of the almost metaphysical nature of these theories. An idea or even behavior may be criticized and abandoned easily, but it is often much more difficult to shake a negative self-conception since one can always reinterpret one’s actions as having ulterior motives. It can be difficult to escape or be helped to escape this self-centrism because of the fact that the necessary criticism may itself be perceived as personal insult.

Turning one’s focus from judgments about selves to criticisms of ideas can therefore have tremendous impact. It is much easier to acknowledge that one holds an evil idea than to acknowledge that one is evil. It is also truer in that every person is universal, so all facts about them, including whether or not they are good or bad, are contingent on ideas held. A theory’s truth or falsity, morality or immorality remains unchanged and is therefore a better object for criticism.

Turning the above problem around, many people hesitate to criticize the ideas of others in order to avoid hurting their feelings. Doing this is either paternalistic to the other person or limiting oneself for the considerations of another’s feelings. If the person would not react negatively, you have kept information from them for no reason. You may have done so in part for your own benefit for fear of being unable to deal with another’s feelings. If the other person actually will react badly, it is not right to subject yourself to the dictates of their feelings, no more than it is right for you to subject others to the dictates of yours.

The education system plays a large part in encouraging socio-authoritarian reasoning. Playing, working through problems on one’s own, and developing one’s own sense of what is true and what isn’t without dependence on any authority is important in helping develop the ability to reason independently. Our current education system teaches children to learn to decode what the teacher wants and to provide whatever that is as efficiently as possible. Instead of taking the time and energy to learn concepts that could apply outside of a classroom, children are incentivized to memorize facts or to learn what the teacher likes or doesn’t like. Many of the most creative people are those who have spent less time in classrooms and more times in nature, pursuing some art, or messing around on computers. One learns in these pursuits that there are facts with an existence independent from whatever any individual thinks or proclaims.

Being a creative and effective teacher is difficult, and so many, to some extent, resort to methods that require simply following a script on their part and rote memorization on the part of the students. Instead of finding ways to get students interested in the same problems the teacher is interested in and evaluating attempted solutions, she evaluates the student’s ability to read her mind. It’s often the case that a teacher asks a question only to reject various answers because they are not the answers the teacher was looking for, not because they are inadequate solutions to a given problem. Think of what it looks like when you are asking a genuine question. If you ask “why is the sky blue?” and someone offers solutions, you will either criticize the solution for failing to answer your question, accept their solution, or attempt to learn more about what they mean. When a teacher asks a question they often respond with “that’s not quite what I was looking for” or respond that an answer was a good try, only to reject it without much or any argument.

Being forced to spend time with other children can also contribute to teaching social instead of independent reasoning. Children may choose to play whatever game most other children are playing, or what the cool kids are playing, or what the bully won’t beat them up for instead of engaging with their own interests. Whatever actual game they are playing, the meta-game is understanding and catering to the desires of other children. It is, of course, not always the case that playing with other children is bad, even on the playground. But the kind of play that is beneficial is that in which it is necessary to actively create and recreate the game being played so that it keeps participants interested. This is the kind of situation children are often in when they play in a neighborhood park, where they are always free to go home if the game is boring or the other children act cruelly.

What are some motivations for socio-authoritarian reasoning? First, it can be a relief to to place blame on someone else for the good or bad results of whatever you do. If you are just doing what you are told, you may be able to convince yourself that you are not responsible for what happens as a result of your action. It can even be the case that when following orders is actively bad for a given person, it is more comfortable to stay in the position of having relinquished responsibility instead of taking responsibility for the bad things that are happening to oneself. It is often easier to accept a bad thing than to leap into the unknown.

Second, almost no one is in a position of great power. There are almost always only ever a few people in any given situation or context who have most of the prestiege, power of persuasion, influence, political power, or sheer capacity for domination. People with this power can make things difficult for most people, and so most people try to avoid their ire by appeasing or accomodating them.

Perhaps the most obvious solution to the above problems is to care less about what other people think of you. Another possible solution is to rely on formal etiquette in governing social reactions. Etiquette is a body of knowledge that has, similar to law, developed over thousands of years to help resolve some of the problems people have in interacting with one another. An advantage of a focus on etiquette is that it removes some of the ambiguity from social situations. Following rules of etiquette will help you avoid stepping on people’s toes without proscribing everything that might cause someone else to be uncomfortable. No set of rules of etiquette is perfect of course, but they may provide a starting point for developing a personal code.

AI and Animal Rights

There must be some criterion for when an AI would have animal rights if animals do in fact have rights. We should not deny this possibility for the same reasons we should not deny the possibility of programming an AGI (this because of the universality of computation).
All criteria that attempt to assign animal rights so far posited either:
1. Fail to exclude simple robots and computers currently in existence.
2. Don’t explain the difference between animals and people.
3. Fail to include some conscious artificial intelligences or alien lifeforms.
4. Fail to include animals.
Therefore, and correspondingly, either:
A. Most robots and computers currently in existence have animal rights.
B. Animals are in fact people so human rights and animal rights are actually just the same thing.
C. Non-biological or extra-terrestrial persons do not have rights.
D. Animals don’t have rights.

I assert that A-C are unacceptable implications and so some new criterion is required to avoid accepting D.

Here are the typical arguments that have the consequences laid out in 1, 2, and 3.

1. Claims that whenever some entity has a response indicating a movement away or defensive mechanism include robots programmed to respond in that way. Most animal rights activists would not advocate for the rights of Ferbies.

Slightly stronger behaviorist claims, such as that whenever something responds in a way similar to an animal or human in pain also fail. These cannot discriminate between an animal and an animatronic robot that is programmed to respond to a certain stimulus in a way that simulates the response of an animal perfectly.

2. One criterion often posited as being required for AI to achieve human-level rights is the ability to be creative. The animal rights activist might also accept this as the requirement for animal rights and claim that animals are creative as well. This cannot be dismissed outright, of course. But it is difficult to explain the behavior of animals if they have the same creative capacity as ourselves. Having less creative capacity would either mean that the animal has less processing power and/or less memory. But it would then have to be explained why the processing power or memory are enough to enable the animals to exhibit the wide variety of behaviors they do and yet exhibit a lower level of creativity than a toddler.

Another rough criterion used might be that anything with a central nervous system should be afforded the same rights. This would not differentiate between people and any given type of animal. The problem with this criterion is that it does not explain what is important about having a central nervous system. Does a robot’s CPU count? Does a dead animal count? They would according to this criterion, so (unless one is willing to bite these bullets) it is insufficient. Perhaps it might be mended by saying that the nervous system must have neurons that are firing. But this could count out conscious robots that do not have neurons (so 3). If widened to firing neurons or wiring we fall into category 1 again, because this would include all computers.

3. Biological theories, for instance those that attribute rights based on the existence of hormones or neurons, fail to ascribe rights to persons in the form of conscious robots or aliens with different physiologies. Failing to attribute rights to people that are not made of the same stuff as us as is simply bigotry.

4. Due to the reasoning in 2, creativity is an example of a criterion that does not include animals.

I do not imagine the above categories to be exclusive. There is of course still room for some other explanation of what entities are afforded animal rights. As far as I am aware, however, none avoid the pitfalls above.

What about consciousness? Consciousness can often explain why it is wrong to do certain things to people. It is immoral for a surgeon to work on a person when they could use an anesthetic, or for a coroner to conduct an autopsy on a living person.

One contingent problem with the criterion of consciousness is that we do not understand  consciousness. It is not possible to apply a criterion when one does not know whether or not it has been met. However, let us assume that proponents of this theory are correct when they attribute consciousness to animals.

Consciousness is necessary for the attribution of rights but not sufficient. If a rock is conscious, as the panpsychists would have it, it would not appear to have any right not to be kicked or broken up into pieces. This is because it does not have wants, pain receptors, or any sense organs at all. Whatever consciousness it might have is extremely limited.

An animal is unlike the panpsychist’s rock in many respects. It has pain receptors and a central nervous system capable of processing inputs from receptors into reactions. We must accept that animals have a far more complex form of consciousness than rocks, if both are indeed conscious. It seems dubious that if animals are conscious they would not feel pain. If consciousness is to serve any purpose at all, it must at least synthesize information about harm and benefit to the organism. However, we must be careful in thinking about what this pain would be like in a non-human organism, just as we should be careful not to impute too much of our own experience onto a panpsychist’s rock. When a Ferby is stuck upside-down and complains, we should not be tempted to imagine that the Ferby is suffering. This is because it does not have any sort of interpretive capabilities. If animals also do not have interpretations of the pain, but instead an automatic response like the Ferby, then they also are not suffering.

We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that animals do not interpret their experiences. We do not have a good explanation for why they are different from robots in this way. In attempting to defend the idea that robots must be different from animals, people usually refer to things like the fact that the animal is biological or that they show very complex reactions to events around them. But neither of these succeed as explanations. Being reliant on the fact that animals are biological rejects the possibility that an animal could be programmed into a computer. Showing complex reactions is also contingent, because we are capable of programming a robot to have very complex reactions to events and are getting ever better at this.

We have a criterion capable of separating all humans from animals and all current computers. That criterion is the creativity of individuals (to be distinguished from the sort of creativity inherent in natural selection). No other animal or computer is capable of this. Seemingly novel results of computer programs are in fact just the implications of the programmer’s inputs and are therefore results of her creativity. Animals are only capable of attaining knowledge through their genes or through mimicry. They cannot create new knowledge.

There are plenty of criteria that could separate humans from other animals that would be arbitrary, such as that we are “featherless bipeds.” Being a featherless biped does not actually explain why we have moral value, and it seems clear that we should not confer moral value on Diogenes’ plucked chicken. Creativity succeeds in picking out morally valuable entities by explaining how moral value and suffering are created.

Contrary to popular belief, pain is not inherently bad. When one works out, she may feel pain or discomfort that, felt upon waking up in the middle of the night, might prompt her to call an ambulance. Pain can therefore be interpreted as a positive. Pain also appears to be neutral in the moments of its occurence, for instance in the moment one’s finger has been pricked before one starts thinking about what has happened. I guess this is also part of what is happening when a child falls and looks around at the faces of adults before deciding whether to cry. This is not to say that all suffering is created by our conscious minds. Much of the suffering we experience consciously is the result of unconscious activity percolating up into our awareness.

It is difficult in the realm of phenomenology to make conclusive arguments. If someone would like to disagree with the idea that pain can be a positive or neutral experience there is not much that I can do but point to experiences in which I experience pain in those ways. In my experience, however, I have only come across one counterexample to this theory of pain. This person claimed that although pain may be reinterpreted to be a positive with our creative capacities, it is inherently negative. Therefore, animals have no choice but to experience pain as a negative because they do not have our ability to reinterpret it.

One advantage of my theory of pain is that it better explains when pain is bad, namely when the pain causes suffering. Suffering is a state of imagining a state of affairs different from those in actuality and wishing things were that way. Being unable to move from one state of affairs to the other is experienced as bad almost by definition, since the experiencer imagines what she wishes would come about would be better. It is difficult to understand where the badness comes in on the opposing theory. The receptors and neurons that fire due to pain are not much different from those that fire due to pleasure, so a reductionist theory cannot account for the difference and it’s unclear. I don’t think the statement “pain is bad” has a good explanatory theory behind it (and also runs into counterexamples), while “suffering is bad” does.

Most people accept the moral difference between pain and suffering and therefore insist that animals feel suffering. It is hard to imagine why this would be the case. What advantage would imagining an alternative state of affairs confer if one could not create new ways to reach that state of affairs or explanations for why one wasn’t in that other state of affairs? There may be a preprogrammed set of alternative states of affairs and ways of moving towards those states of affairs based on a preprogrammed present situation (notice that this would again include many machine learning algorithms). But without the capability of coming up with new solutions this more complex programming would not have any advantage over inborn solutions to given specific problems which run automatically whenever a problem is encountered.

We don’t fully understand suffering because we don’t fully understand consciousness. However, what we do understand about consciousness is not compatible with the theory that animals are conscious. One may decide to err on the side of caution in the case that what we think we know turns out to be wrong. I simply aimed in the above to show that there is reason for doubting that animals have inherent moral value and that it is possible that the avoidance of killing animals for meat for the sake of the suffering of animals is a mistake.

Intuitions Are Not Fundamental

In philosophy intuitions are usually regarded as the most basic unit of our thinking, like the atomic units of the mind. When arguments reach the point of basic intuitions, it is thought that the two parties will have to agree to disagree. This is because the premises of arguments are thought to be constructed from intuitions, so if you are attempting to argue about intuitions there are no more fundamental intuitions to appeal to you have reached a dead end. This view of intuitions is incoherent and inconsistent with the way we actually think and argue.

Our thoughts are in constant competition for survival in the ecosystem of our minds. This framing is more accurate than the atomic model where intuitions are the basic units from which other thoughts and arguments are constructed. It should be noted first that size in an ecosystem is irrelevant to survival, so unlike the atomic model intuitions are not analogous to the smallest members of their physical world counterpart. Intuitions are not fundamentally different from any other knowledge, they are simply the aspects of our mental ecosystem which have developed the most robust methods of survival. In this respect intuitions are most analogous to humans in the evolutionary environment.

Why are intuitions usually misunderstood? In part it is because the atomic model of intuitions contains some truth. The truth it contains is that while under the sway of some intuition it is difficult to imagine that the intuition could be displaced, just as it is difficult to imagine how humans could be displaced as the dominant species in the Earth’s ecosystem. Because the intuition contains some of our most useful and true knowledge, we are right to refuse to give it up without a good alternative.

The atomic model also attempts to offer an explanation for why some subjects, such as taste, are subjective. If one person likes chocolate ice cream and another likes vanilla, we usually do not think that appealing to argument will bring them into agreement. This is often true in our current situation, but there is no fundamental roadblock that will prevent the advance of argument (perhaps with the development of brain-machine interfaces) to the point where these disagreements will be resolvable. We might even say that today a chef’s dish or an artist’s piece are forms of argument well suited to resolving these disagreements. For instance, I have long disliked the color purple but various paintings have helped soften this position.

Intuitions are also useful in argument for at least two reasons: they are, to varying degrees, widely held across the population and a conclusion argued to from intuitions will be less likely to be rejected. A common and effective approach to argument involves figuring out what the other person’s intuitions are (either by talking with them or assuming they have the same or similar intuitions to others in their culture) and using them to derive conclusions which we would like them to see.

Another possibility is that we introduce some new idea that disagrees with some (or all) of another’s intuitions and although they do not agree with it, they understand and remember it. Over time, they apply the theory as a sort of game, not taking it seriously because they see no way in which it could be true. As time goes on, however, the idea may find new applications and turn out to work as well or better as one or more intuitions. The original intuitions may end up being discarded, either because it is noticed that they are useless or because they wither and die from disuse. Later the new idea might itself be considered an intuition.

 

Why Socialists Should be Libertarians

Four years ago I considered myself a socialist. I voted for Bernie Sanders and supported policies that would raise the minimum wage, make college and healthcare free, and more. Today I am convinced that these well-intentioned policies have a variety of negative unintended consequences (see Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics) and that capitalism is generally better able to address the problems these policies are meant to address, as I’ve argued here. Capitalist solutions also have the benefit of being non-coercive, the value of which I’ve elaborated on here. In addition to these other factors, libertarianism is also superior to socialism in that it is pluralistic: socialists are free to construct socialist institutions within a libertarian society, while the reverse is not true.

Socialism is not inherently immoral in the sense of being a system in which people share means of production. Roommates and families share cooking appliances, furniture, plumbing and other means of production, and it is possible for this to be of benefit to all involved. Socialist systems are only immoral to the extent that they are enforced through violence, as is the case under socialist political systems which manage or redistribute the means of production according to democratic or dictatorial decree. A socialist political system would entail something akin to the expropriation of property deemed to be means of production, a policy necessarily containing ambiguities and immoral consequences. Whether or not personal computers used by writers to produce books or articles, or a personal food garden are means of production to be expropriated is unclear. Whoever the authority making these decisions would be would subject many others to the consequences of their fallible judgments. Even if many offered their possessions up willingly, there would undoubtedly be some who would prefer to keep them, and these cases would require violence or the threat of it.

So, the only moral forms of socialism are those in which people can voluntarily participate. Businesses that are employee-owned and -run are of course fair game and nothing in a capitalist system prevents their creation. Any group of people are free to create a business, create or purchase means of production, and operate cooperatively. What does contradict libertarianism is the idea that the means of production should only be managed democratically or centrally, as would be true in the case where a coercive government plays a part in managing them.

In a capitalist society there would still be constraints on all businesses, including those operated according to socialist principles. Most businesses fail, and this would no doubt be the case even when all employees own the means of production, or when income is redistributed equally throughout the organization. It is possible that these sorts of companies would have a distinct advantage over those operated more traditionally, in which case a libertarian society could also be a socialist one, in which most or all organizations would be what we call socialist. People would still be free to join or create organizations that were not socialist, of course, but under this theoretical future no one would want to because the relative disadvantages would be clear.

While it is of course impossible to predict the future, I would guess that significant proliferation of most forms of socialist organization would not occur in a libertarian society for economic reasons. The case of Jamestown illustrates the problems with voluntary socialism of a redistributive kind. According to Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority (p. 193):

[Jamestown’s] founding charter stipulated that each colonist would be entitled to an equal share of the colony’s product, regardless of how much that individual personally produced. The result: the colonists did little work, and little food was produced. Of the 104 founding colonists, two-thirds died in the first year – partly due to unclean water but mostly due to starvation. More colonists arrived from England, so that in 1609 there were 500 colonists. Of those, only 60 survived the winter of 1609-10. In 1611, England sent a new governor, Sir Thomas Dale, who found the skeletal colonists bowling in the streets instead of working. Their main source of food was wild plants and animals, which they gathered secretly at night so as to evade the obligation to share with their neighbors. Dale later converted the colony to a system based on private property, granting every colonist a three-acre plot to tend for his own individual benefit. The result was a dramatic increase in production.

Hundreds of lives in this local case and undoubtedly millions on a larger scale throughout history might have been saved by a better understanding of economics. Individuals tend to work harder and smarter when they can benefit from that work (by having more food to eat or more food to trade) than when their work benefits them only through the positive feelings of having worked and contributed to the stockpile (if that!) and the fractional increase to be received in distribution. As evidenced in the example above, provided there are no other incentives for working, one may prefer to go bowling knowing that the fruits of one’s labor will be redistributed, and that one will still receive one’s “fair share” of others’ labor from the common store.

The Jamestown example is of course an example only of a specific type of socialism in which food is included among the resources redistributed, and there are many examples of employee-owned and -run businesses around the world which may serve as examples of ways in which socialist (in at least some sense of the word) cooperatives may develop and succeed. The example only serves to illustrate that the popular variety of socialist utopian vision involving complete redistribution of resources is unlikely to be feasible and could lead to disastrous consequences.

Capitalism, as I use the term, is the voluntary interaction of individuals for purposes of trade or cooperation. To the extent that someone opposes it, they are advocating for violent aggression. There are a variety of arguments for violent aggression, but the ones I am aware of have been refuted. There is a contradiction between socialism and capitalism only to the extent whatever system of socialism under discussion advocates the theft and forceful redistribution of property. Unfortunately, most popular forms of socialism advocated today are of this coercive sort.

Confidence Without Certainty

A prevalent mistake made by critical rationalists and their critics is that a lack of certainty implies a lack of confidence. These critics sometimes denounce the way critical rationalists express their ideas, as if they should be couching everything they are saying in cautious or even probabilistic language. Confidence and certainty are conceptually distinct and it’s worth criticizing the equation of lack of certainty with lack of confidence.

Certainty is a feeling that is entirely disconnected from the truth of its object. Any knowledge may be false and certainty can do nothing to change this fact. It does not follow from this fact that certainty has no pragmatic value, as evidenced by the success of religions and other dogmatic institutions. Certainty is valuable in that it ensures that a person is at least taking the theory that is its object seriously. Certainty can also strengthen the will of a person in the same way other anti-rational ideas and feelings can; by preventing criticism, a feeling of certainty can help maintain a particular trajectory and prevent doubts from entering the mind. Again, certainty is no indicator of proximity to the truth, so avoiding criticism also serves to prevent finding a better theory rejecting the possibility that one exists.

While confidence and certainty both have the advantage of encouraging taking an idea seriously, confidence remains open to alternatives which may show the original idea to be false. Confidence encourages both more readily subjecting ideas to criticism and less readily accepting inadequate criticisms. The important truth that you should be willing to subject any of your ideas to thorough criticism does not mean that you should reject a theory simply because you have encountered a criticism of it. Not taking a theory seriously can cause you to give it up too readily, before it has been successfully criticized.

Another common mistake due to misconceptions about what it means to lack certainty is adopting a position of ambivalence. This position is related to relativism in that it rejects evaluating theories in terms of better, worse, true or false, but is a weaker claim in that it only refers to one’s own ability or right to judge theories and not objective reality. Upon exposure to the idea that any of our knowledge may be false, many conclude that the correct position to take towards theories is one of ambivalence, that one should not adopt any position at all. But this is an overreaction to the nonexistence of justification. Although final justification is impossible, it is possible to make progress by looking for and creating solutions to problems.

Among other motivations for maintaining ambivalence in regard to theories may be: fear in taking a stand that would lead to social discomfort or awkwardness, a desire to avoid the embarrassment of confidently holding a position that turns out to be false, or a fear that taking a firm position will lead to becoming “biased.” I won’t attempt to refute the first two motivations here except to say that fear of embarrassment is useless when it can be applied universally (it is always possible to discover error in idea or action). As to the third motivation, taking a firm position is more likely to lead you into positions that will refute the theory, so long as you do not avoid means of correcting yourself if you’ve made an error, while remaining ambivalent is more likely to lead to a position of never understanding any side deeply enough to come to a clear conclusion. Biases are just a category of error and are equally unavoidable, but piecemeal corrections of them are possible. Remaining ambivalent towards all theories or an arbitrary subset of them is one such bias ripe for correction.

The acknowledgment that it is always possible some action has been taken or some idea held in error may weaken confidence if applied solipsistically, as in that oneself is prone to error and others are not. But the fact that everyone is prone to error can also strengthen confidence in the way of denying the supposed “authority” of “authorities.” Confidence is also valuable for correcting errors in that it can encourage formulating theories so as to allow others to subject them to criticism, offer better alternatives, or find ways to improve them.

Confidence is also optimistic in the sense of acknowledging that while problems are inevitable, they are also soluble. Certainty that events will go a certain way may be irrational, but confidence that there is some way in which whatever problems will arise can be solved is not. Confidence is more likely to put you in situations in which you are solving problems faster than you would have otherwise, and, while it’s important to avoid overreaching, increasing the rate of problem-solving can help increase well-being.

Advice, Thoughts on Responsibility

Confidence is something that is not precluded by a lack of certainty, and it can improve one’s ability to act and think rationally. Techniques for gaining confidence is another matter I am not particularly well-equipped to discuss, but in addition to the rational understanding argued for above I have found the following strategies and arguments useful.

It is important to first clearly recognize that confidence is not something to be avoided. Many people avoid being confident because they think that it contradicts being nice or conscientious, or that confident people are arrogant. It’s important to clear up these confusions in order to avoid sabotaging one’s own efforts. Lacking confidence can even self-reinforce by putting a negative value on all forms of confidence through labeling as arrogant in order to avoid confronting the problem.

It can be helpful simply to recognize and appreciate good (non-arrogant, kind, etc.) people because developing and maintaining confidence is something that requires a good deal of implicit knowledge that may be learned by watching or spending time with people who have had success in this area. It can even be helpful just to spend time with people who value confidence in others with which you can recognize confidence in a non-depracating way, as viewing confidence as a positive trait helps prevent one from sabotaging one’s own efforts towards confidence.

In terms of social fears, confidence may be strengthened by the recognition that most people usually are too busy paying attention to themselves to notice your mistakes, and that even when they do notice, you are not responsible for the way that you have made them feel. People may object to what you have to say or the way you behave, but it is their responsibility to offer reasoning to change your mind, and yours to remain open to sources of error correction.

Whether how one behaves or speaks is moral or immoral is independent of how a listener responds emotionally. It is still wrong to intentionally insult people, or to yell fire in a crowded theater, and a variety of other things. These acts are wrong even if no one is hurt by them. A person operating a vehicle may not be responsible for hitting a person who jumped out in front of them without any time for the vehicle to stop, but the vehicle’s operator is at least partially responsible if they are driving at an unsafe speed or in a reckless manner. But just as it would be preposterous to severely restrict the behavior of the driver to avoid the possibility of ever hitting a passenger who intentionally leaps into traffic, it is ill-advised to take responsibility for the feelings of listeners who have freedom to choose how they respond to your words. Doing so puts them in the position of tyrant by making you responsible for things in their control and outside of yours. It is also impossible to maintain this position consistently, as according to it an obligation to not hurt one person’s feelings may violate an obligation to not hurt another’s.

Libertarianism and the Solubility of Problems

My previous post Critical Rationalism and Libertarianism may provide helpful background knowledge for the present one. 

One of the most common criticisms of libertarianism is that it is not “practical”. The implication whenever people ask the question “then who will build the roads?” is that the lack of coercion under libertarianism might be nice in some theoretical sense, but that there are a variety of situations in which the use of force is necessary in order to solve specific issues. Another oft-cited problem is failures of markets, such as when the medical industry fails to develop new antibiotics because financial incentives do not align with encouraging their development. While there are a plethora of good responses to these individual criticisms, critical rationalism provides a general response that covers them all.

In David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, two truths are said to be worth carving in stone: the first is that problems are inevitable and second is that problems are soluble. Here, a problem is a conflict between two ideas. This sense of problem covers a wider variety of cases than the conventional sense of the word, which implies a subjectively negative situation. The fact that the infinite implications of any idea cannot be instantiated in any individual mind means that the vast majority of problems have not been consciously attended to.

So, restated using this definition of problem: conflicts of ideas are inevitable and conflicts between ideas are soluble. It’s important to recognize that the way in which problems will be solved in the future is usually impossible to know ahead of time, as most problems require growth of knowledge, which is inherently unpredictable. It is not a valid criticism of the possibility of something to say that it can’t be imagined how it would be accomplished, nor that no one has yet offered a solution for how it could be accomplished. The only valid criticism that can be made of something’s plausibility is that it is forbidden by the laws of physics. Everything else is, by definition, possible.

Unless one offers an explanation as to why it is physically impossible to solve the climate crisis, develop antibiotics, or build roads without coercion, they have not successfully criticized the possibility of doing any of these things. The same goes of course for doing any of those things well. What is often imagined to suffice as a criticism of libertarianism is the non-existence of a practical solution in the past or an intellectual solution in the present to some problem expected due to the lack of a government. Neither of these actually indicate impossibility, just as the possibility of landing on the moon was not impossible in a time when it had neither happened nor been comprehensively worked out theoretically.

It is one thing to say that it is possible to do anything that is currently done using coercion (paying for a variety of things through the levying of taxes) without coercion, but it is another to say that anything done through coercion could be done better without coercion. Popperian epistemology explains why the latter is true. There is no infallible authority to which to defer on any matter, so the best thing to do is to ensure that the means to detect and correct errors are protected and improved.

The current democratic system in place in the freest countries today is the best yet instantiated because it is far better at correcting errors than authoritarian systems such as dictatorships. Dictatorships prevent the correction of errors by placing one person (often one family) in the position of dictator without offering a means for removing them peacefully. Most dictatorships end in violence for exactly this reason. Democratic systems are an improvement because they allow for the removal of government officials without violence.

Democratic systems still leave room for improvement in the removal of organizations and this is exactly where capitalism excels. Capitalism is an evolutionist system in which entire systems (businesses, corporations, non-profit organizations, etc.) can be dissolved and created based on the demand or lack of demand from customers. Organizations only exist through their ability to offer some desired service or product to people through voluntary exchange, whereas a democratic government can maintain a monopoly on a variety of services through the use of theft (often referred to as “taxation”) and force generally.

It is important to note that capitalism is a system of evolution applied to organizations, not people. While people are certainly not exempt from genetic selection, capitalism offers a far better, fairer, and compassionate form of selection than the natural sort. Organizations can dissolve without having significant impacts on the well-being of individuals, as opposed to the inherently violent system of natural selection. Today the loss of a job can have a significant negative impact on individuals’ lives, but this is not a problem inherent in capitalism anymore than the inability to create cell phones was a problem inherent in capitalism before their development and spread. Non-profit organizations, charities, or unemployment insurance agencies are free to develop which may offer benefits to those without work and generally take over for a variety of government functions. But again, while specific solutions to various problems may be comforting or pragmatically relevant in the context of instantiating them physically, they are unnecessary when arguing for the possibility of solutions. What is important is that capitalism offers the freedom for individuals or organizations to offer up solutions and strenuously test them against competitors.

The sense in which organizations must adapt or die under capitalism, therefore, is only metaphorically violent. They must adapt to the needs and demands of consumers or be outcompeted by rival organizations, but this need not inflict suffering on the individuals that make up the organization. Businesses very often grow and then go out of business only after making all involved (customers, employees, etc.) better off than they would have been before. Voluntary organizations are required to meet important criteria in order to exist: they must be the best known option available for employees, customers, and/or members. Without meeting these criteria, they cannot continue to exist.

Governments and other coercive institutions are not required to meet these criteria because they receive revenue by force. Someone might have a better idea for how to provide protection to individuals from criminals, but under a government which holds a monopoly on force, individuals are not free to offer these services to customers. So government can force an inferior service on individuals at whatever price.

Critical Rationalism and Libertarianism

One of the biggest revolutions in my thinking due to critical rationalism (CR) has been in the realm of political philosophy. What political philosophy is implied by CR is somewhat controversial. Popper himself appeared to think that some form of socialism was compatible with CR, while also criticizing utopian conceptions of socialism such as Marx proposed. Many critical rationalists today are proponents of libertarianism, and I count myself among them. I contend that libertarian ideals are an implication of the CR worldview.

Libertarianism can be drawn as a conclusion of the Non-Agression Principle (NAP). The NAP may be stated simply: it is never moral to take aggressive violent action towards other people. Violence is only moral when it is in retaliation or defense.

The idea that ‘taxation is theft,’ a common libertarian catchphrase, can be drawn from the NAP. The NAP implies that taking someone’s property under threat of violence (arrest and imprisonment) without their consent is an agressive action that is neither retaliation nor defense. The NAP also implies that the only crime should be violent crime; enforcing a non-violent crime would itself be violating the NAP by taking aggressive action against the criminal. Crime without a victim does not violate the NAP.

If libertarianism can be derived from the NAP, the only task left is to derive the NAP from CR principles. CR’s claim is that all of our knowledge consists of unjustifiable guesses. Since our knowledge can never be perfect or justified, the only way to further the growth of knowledge is to criticize our current knowledge and attempt to make better guesses.

The most fundamental moral truth is that the means of error correction, criticism, must be protected. This is the most fundamental principle both because moral progress relies on criticism and because the only way we can know that the moral principles we hold are the best that we have access to is by subjecting them to criticism and seeing that they do not fail.

Since none of our guesses can ever be justified, and all of our proposed plans of action are themselves guesses, we can never justify our actions. This is a refutation of utilitarianism as a comprehensive moral system capable of justifying our acts. No moral calculation can justify any particular action, although it may serve as criticism for one. Utilitarians are not wrong to point out that an action that is expected to provide net negative utils (units of pain subtracted from units of pleasure) provides strong incentive not to take that action, but an expected net positive cannot justify an action. For instance, if two actions are both expected to result in the same util value, but one of them violates the NAP, the one that does not violate the NAP should be taken.

Admittedly, the above is a simple case and in the real world things are often more complex. The point is only that moral theories can serve as criticisms, but since an action can never be fully justified, irreversible harms should be avoided. Coercive actions are inherently anti-rational; they prevent error correction by not resolving a disagreement (problem) rationally.

Knowledge grows through conflict within already existing knowledge. When we have an argument with someone, our opponent may find a way to cause us to abandon some theory we previously thought was true. This may occur with all of our practical or scientific theories. It is possible that either or both parties of a conversation are wrong and the only way of discovering this is for both parties to engage in conversation with one another. In order to convince someone else of your position you must be creative; you must find new ways of communicating the idea you have to them so that they will understand what you are saying. It also requires creativity on the part of the person being convinced, otherwise they would not have been able to move to a new position.

Coercion prevents the resolution of a conflict in ideas by arbitrarily favoring one over another. The coercer’s position survives, but because a rational discussion was prevented between the coerced and coercer, it remains unclear whether that position is true or false, or whether the position of the coerced is true or false. Rational discussion and creativity applied to the problem might also have revealed that both positions are flawed and that some other position should be held.

People act on the knowledge they have. One might argue that people often act on intuition or emotion. This is true, but intuition and emotion are themselves forms of knowledge, sometimes knowledge that has developed over millions of years of evolution. Even if we concede for a moment the idea that emotions or intuitions are irrational, they are still affected by relatively intellectual thinking. If you come upon a snake in a field, you may feel intense fear, but this fear will dissipate when you recognize that it is actually just a rope. Your feelings change based on a change in understanding about the facts.

Knowledge often exists independent of any individual person. One type of this kind of knowledge is institutional knowledge. For example, no one person knows how to build a NASA space rocket, but the institution of NASA knows how to build space rockets. Any top-down prohibition or commandment that NASA leadership makes will be at least somewhat coercive in that it will override pre-existing knowledge that has been adapted for making rockets. Unless the institution has a healthy tradition of criticism that allows for pushback against misinformed commands, significant damage can be done in this way. Orders may actually destroy the knowledge needed in order to build rockets.

The economy is essentially an incredibly large computation and store of institutional knowledge that helps individuals know how to allocate resources. No one person knows everything about how the economy works. In a completely free market, no action is coerced. No one can be forced to do a job that they don’t want to and no one is forced to purchase something they don’t want. Knowledge grows or is sustained by these voluntary exchanges by providing information about supply and demand to consumers and business owners. If wages get too low, or prices for goods or services get too high, people will abstain or go elsewhere.

Libertarianism is not itself a solution to all of our problems, or a positive vision of utopia. But it is the best way we know of for organizing a society that is able to solve problems as quickly as possible. It is a system that helps prevent the destruction of the means of error correction by minimizing coercion and maximizing individual freedom to create revolutionary ideas.


See Libertarianism and the Solubility of Problems for more on critical rationalism and libertarianism.