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Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Of the Browne resolutions, I find this one particularly important:

I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.

Related to which I’d like to resolve:

I will not let myself be poisoned with negative emotions by things I view as evil but have no power to eradicate.

For God knows, there are so many of them!

Of course, a simpler (though not easier) solution is to stop viewing them as evil. I confess that I have thought of that possibility in the past.

Which reminds of this story. Would you trade your knowledge and moral principles for a simpler, more ignorant existence where you would be happier? I wouldn’t. After all, even if I did, that happy person wouldn’t be me. And there are parts of me that I value higher than an optimum level of serotonin and dopamine.

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What’s so special about Carmen?

For one, the truly great music. Carmen is magical melody after magical melody. As for the orchestration, this is what Richard Strauss had to say:

“If you want to learn how to orchestrate, don’t study Wagner’s scores, study the score of Carmen. What wonderful economy, and how every note and every rest is in its proper place!”

Carmen also has a great story that is wonderfully presented. As the Wikipedia article points out, Carmen is extremely innovative in its drama: it alternates comic or sentimental scenes found traditionally in opera-comique with stark realism.

Yet, there is something beyond music or drama that lies at the heart of Carmen’s appeal to me. It is easy to distinguish good art; beyond that, things get very personal. The truly special works of art are those with qualities that talk to you, touch you, in ways that separate them fundamentally from others. Obviously, this aspect is highly subjective; this is why  people usually disagree on their favourite movie or piece of music even when they mostly agree on which movie or music is good.

The opera Carmen epitomizes liberty. The character Carmen is relentless in her passion for freedom. She is strong, extremely sexy and gives everything in her relationships with her lovers. However, she can never be possessed or exorcised of her passionate love for self-determination. For Carmen, all true interactions are voluntary and devoid of any notion of ownership of another person or duty to any institution.

Carmen is willing to live life only on her own terms.  As this book correctly points out, Carmen is “brash, vicious and callous”, yet the quality that defines her over and above all this is “her willingness to be Carmen, a determination to be free and follow her own bliss.” Carmen never gives up her “tireless obsession to control her own destiny.” And this extends beyond mere action, it is a fundamental part of her morality. In the final scene, even when Carmen knows that she will die she refuses to compromise on her principles, instead she courageously faces her fate. Her death is not a dessert for her sins but a consequence of her essential nobility in an ignoble world; her refusal to give up her self-ownership to another person.

(Of course, early audiences and critics did not view it the same way. Carmen was universally denounced as a vile, immoral, shockingly offensive creation.  Times have changed — modern audiences would undoubtedly be more sympathetic to my vision of Carmen as a flawed but heroic character murdered by a jealous man who is her moral and emotional inferior. That’s another aspect of all great art, like life they have many contradictory interpretations.)

It is these thematic elements of Carmen that, for me, lift it from a great opera to something far more special. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Hardy’s A mathematician’s apology, Carmen talks to me in that special way that is both infinitely subtle and passionately stirring. It will forever be a part of my heart.

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Britain, where prostitution is now legal, wants to turn back the clock and criminalize it again. And like the Swedish, they have taken a bizarre but politically correct position — it will now be illegal to pay for sex but legal to sell it.

As Home Secretary Jacqui Smith put it:

Basically, if it means fewer people are able to go out and pay for sex I think that would be a good thing.

Never mind the fact that you are preventing consenting adults from engaging in an activity that should be no one else’s business.

Smith’s statement also implicitly accepts the proposition that if something is ‘good’, the government ought to force it by law. This assumption is sadly, rather widespread, and goes to the heart of my post from yesterday. The basic premise of libertarianism is that while there may be various levels of ‘badness’, most of them do not qualify for state censorship. The personal is not the political. The moral is not the legal.

It’s funny how governments worldwide share a common disregard for individual liberty and a collective disrespect for reason in their glorious lumping together of the illegal, the immoral, the bad, the unpopular, the merely unpleasant and the illogical. Or maybe it is not so funny.

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1.

And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.

2.

That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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Sometimes I am tempted to modify my moral premises so that I can be more at peace with the world.

I am always saved by the realization that I cannot do such a thing deliberately and retain my self-respect.

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“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality”

Dante Alighieri

[Edit: A reader points out that this quote is actually due to JFK, who (incorrectly) attributed it to Dante]

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Milton Friedman, Nobel prize winning economist  — and one of my personal idols — was among the most influential libertarian thinkers of the last century. Friedman was primarily a consequentialist, meaning he advocated libertarian policies based on the fact that they work better. Such an approach has the great advantage of political effectiveness. If you can demonstrate that greater freedom also leads to better economic results — better solutions to the Roti, Kapra aur Makaan issues — you will have a much easier time swaying the public to your point of view.

However there were some issues were Friedman advocated for liberty on purely moral grounds. The video below — one of Friedman’s last interviews — is a wonderful example:

This is not to say that there is no consequentialist argument for drug legalization — on the contrary, it is perhaps the finest candidate for such analysis. Hell, even Barack Obama accepts that the war on drugs has been an utter failure. The reason, I think, that Friedman took the moral path here is that some things are just too fundamental to leave to utilitarian analysis. They are worth fighting for their own sake, discounting everything else, for they go to the heart of human existence.

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