Monday, June 02, 2008

Oh, honestly.

This is making the rounds. Crispin Sartwell is pimping his new book and he gives this challenge:
My irritating yet astounding new book Against the State (SUNY Press) argues that

(1) The political state or government rests on violence (force and coercion).
(2) Violence is always wrong if it can't be morally justified. (That is, violence is wrong if it lacks a moral justification.)
(3) The arguments for the moral legitimacy of state - for example those of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Hegel, Rawls, and Habermas - are unsound.
(4) Hence, state power has not been shown to be morally defensible.

Until you show me otherwise, I insist that government power is in every case illegitimate.

Not only are the existing arguments for the legitimacy of state power unsound; they are pitiful, embarrassments to the Western intellectual tradition.

So I issue a challenge: Give a decent argument for the moral legitimacy of state power, or reconstruct one of the traditional arguments in the face of the refutations in Against the State.

If you can't, you are rationally obliged to accept anarchism.

Henceforward, if you continue to support or observe the authority of government, you are an evil, irrational cultist.

You're an anarchist now, baby, until further notice.
I'm going to go out on a limb and suppose that (3) is the meat of the book. However, I'm not convinced of either (1) or (2), and I'm certainly not convinced of the following implicit premise:
(0) State power can only be justified holistically.
That is, the argument as given assumes that we're looking to justify state power in all aspects, all at once, instead of piecemeal. I don't think that's right. I think it's perfectly coherent to hold, say, that the state's use of coercion to punish murderers is legitimate, but hold that the state's use of coercion to make us wear seatbelts is not.

That said, (1) I find dubious because I don't think that state power always rests on force and coercion. This seems to me to confuse, in a blatant way, power and authority. Power is based on force and coercion (indeed, it may be said that power is constituted by force and coercion). However, authority is based on normative weight: he has authority who has something like the balance of reasons on his side. Power, then, is a backing for authority, and is legitimated by service to legitimate authority. So, in the end, I suppose I'm suggesting that Sartwell is guilty of missing the point.

As for (2), I find it dubious as it assumes, without argument, that violence is by default wrong. That's a popular line, certainly, but what's the argument for it? I don't know of one, and I can't see what one would look like. Surely the presumption is that violence is neither right nor wrong until either shown to be justified or shown to be unjustified (respectively). Suspension of judgement strikes me as a more reasonable default position than condemnation.

Anarchists. Feh. Even libertarians are less annoying.


crispin said...

well anarchists are annoying. but anarchist pimps rock!
i think violence is wrong unless it has a moral justification (self-defense, e,g.). put it this way: i'd prefer not to be its undeserving victim. maybe you would too?

ADHR said...

Sure, but that's neither here nor there. For one, what I would prefer doesn't necessarily map onto what it's right that happens to me. For example, I suspect that Ted Bundy would've preferred to be allowed out of prison to continue killing people.

For two, the issue is whether we see violence as presumptively wrong or presumptively neither. I tend to think that all actions are neither right nor wrong, as a basic presumption. And then we go and look for reasons to tip that neutral balance one way or the other. For violence, it may turn out that, in most cases, the reasons tip against it -- and, with that argument in hand, a presumption against violence could be defended. But, I suspect that the balance won't actually tip generally one way or the other. That is, my suspicion (and it's only a suspicion) is that violence, like many other actions or action-types (however you want to classify it) is going to be such that, in many cases, it's justifiable and, in many others, it's not.

Catelli said...

If we're going to boil statehood down to one liners, I would lean toward:

The success of any state relies on the inaction of the people it governs.

That inaction can arise through fear (threat of force) happiness (good governance) or complacency (don't care what they do, as long as they leave me alone), or some combination of the above.

And as a summary that makes more sense to me than that twaddle. How many fallacious arguments are made there? I spot three or four right away.

ADHR said...


Fallacies? Where? I see bad arguments, but "fallacy" isn't equivalent to "bad argument". Fallacies are formal errors in reasoning; substantive errors don't count as fallacious.

In re: your suggested slogan, what's key, really, is how we consider a state successful. I'm willing to consider a state successful only if it has an engaged citizenry and it acts for their general benefit. This means, of course, that Canada is not a successful state (nor is the US), while yours would seem to class them both as successful. Good thing or bad thing? ;)

Catelli said...

but "fallacy" isn't equivalent to "bad argument"

I'm going to chew on that a bit. As a layman I have to learn the distinction.

how we consider a state successful

That is key isn't it? I was approaching from the standpoint of stability of the government structure. Failure would be revolution, civil war or any other massive change to the structure and order of the government.

That of course means I'm equating government with the state, which is another discussion in another direction. (Crisping's first point defined his argument around the Political state as well). The citizen's point of view is not explicitly included in my theory. Only their actions in support of or opposition to the state.

Which is the problem with boiling complex issues down to talking points. There are many underlying assumptions that need to be examined and agreed upon.

ADHR said...

The fallacy thing is a pet peeve. ;) When I'm teaching undergrads, I have to break them of the habit of using words imprecisely, and "fallacy" and "sound" are two favourites. Not all bad arguments are fallacious, and not all good arguments are sound (some are simply valid, and others are simply strong).

Re: boiling down complex issues, I think you're right. Philosophically, I get irritated when I see an argument get bogged down in trivial issues and simple distinctions, because I don't see how they matter. Surely what matters if we're considering, say, political justice -- such questions as whether the state is legitimate -- is a broad theory of the state, of government, and of political justification. Whether that makes one an "anarchist", "libertarian", "socialist" or whatever is beside the point.

Government certainly seems necessary for the state -- a state without government is a society still, but doesn't seem to count as a state -- but I would tend to think a state has to have more than just a government. After all, colonies can have governments, yet they don't strike me as states, because the citizenry of the colony doesn't necessarily have any influence on the government. That back and forth between the government and the governed also looks necessary to my eye.

undergroundman said...

Note that there are also informal fallacies. These are the most common, and the most insightful, type.

I guess I agree with Adam. I don't really agree with any of that guys' premises. Violence seems like a POV way to spin force or coercion.

How about the simple argument that government is inevitable? Either it is some faraway bureaucratic authority, which you have some part in, or it is the strongest fellow around. Pick your poison.

ADHR said...

Informal fallacies are a dicey area. I'm teaching a course on critical reasoning in the Winter (actually, two courses, two different universities), and informal fallacies play a role there. Generally, I prefer to keep "fallacy" as a term for a problem with reasoning; and, since informal reasoning obeys completely different rules than formal reasoning, the fallacies are completely different.

Violence, as I understood him, was just the use of physical force. Which I don't see as inherently bad or good. Coercion would be inherently bad, but occasionally justifiable. (Making a child eat his vegetables is coercion, but not obviously bad or wrong.)

I tend to agree that government is inevitable. If you look at apes, they organize themselves into pseudogovernmental structures, and the same applies to other mammals. So, we're going to organize somehow; the question is how.

undergroundman said...

Yeah, informal fallacies are dicey -- some people seem to think that stating "argument from authority" automatically refutes your argument. In fact, in highly technical areas where both sides arguing don't understand, an argument from authority is probably the best you've got.

ADHR said...

Exactly. In purely formal argument, authority is always fallacious. But in informal contexts, authority can sometimes be legitimate. (Indeed, an argumentum ad hominem can sometimes be non-fallacious.)