October 2008 - Posts

Rejecting The Natural/Synthetic Dichotomy

I reject the natural/synthetic dichotomy. The natural/synthetic dichotomy is manifested in two fundamental ways: (1) the assumption that humans and/or human constructs are separate from nature and (2) the assumption that certain human constructs are "natural" while others are not. The problem with this dichotomy is that humans and their constructs are a part and product of nature; it is impossible for humans to step outside of the context of nature. Unless one wishes to posit a supernatural, all that exists or occurs is natural by default. Something that is not natural would be something that simply does not exist or occur at all. Hence, it makes no sense to speak of existing things or phenomenon as if they are not natural, or to defend or support a given thing or phenomenon by appealing to it being natural.

Everything is natural, regaurdless of how common or rare it is, when it occurs or doesn't occur, wether its beneficial or detrimental, good or bad, and so on. That which is natural, which is simply to say something that occurs or exists, cannot be construed as being good or bad by mere virtue of being natural. Nature is morally neutral in this sense, because the mere existance of a thing or phenomenon in of itself does not signify value. In other words, nature does not have intrinsic value. Understood broadly, it simply is what it is. This is not to say that there is no purpose or merit to assigning value to certain phenomenon, but that its mere occurance is not what gives it value. For if that which is natural is inherently good or bad, then literally everything must be assumed to be inherently good or bad, and that is absurd.

It's also important to note that just because something is natural does not necessarily mean that it is universal, inevitable or permanent. Nature is not static, it is dynamic, which is to say that it is in a constant state of flux. That which is common in the present may very well be rendered obsolete and archiac in the future. It can be quite fallacious to appeal to phenomenon from the past as if it is representative of an inevitable future or to regaurd current phenomenon as if they represent a permanent state of affairs. What once was natural can be rendered non-existant over time, and what once was little more than a pipe dream can become "the natural order". Appealing to the past as "natural" is simply a weak argument. The present and future is no less "natural" and the "naturalness" of things is really irrelevant.

One way in which the natural/synthetic dichotomy is manifested is in the arguementation of primitivists, anti-civilizationists and radical environmentalists. The contemporary technology and extended division of labor produced by humans is demonized as "unnatural" while more primitive and "self-sufficient" ways of living are romantisized as "natural". Human civilization is characterized as being inherently antagonistic with nature, and nature is assumed to have intrinsic value. Radically egalitarian philosophy makes use of the dichotomy as well, with egalitarianism being construed as "natural" while heirarchy is considered to be "unnatural". Interestingly, primitive societies are often pointed to as examples of egalitarianism, even though a non-biased look at such societies likely reveals quite a bit of heirarchy.

The natural/synthetic dichotomy is also manifested in conservative philosophy. Rigid class heirarchy, religious authority, familial authority, racism, nationalism, have been charactered as "the natural order" (with strong use of naturalistic language used to defend them), as if they are inevitable laws of nature and intrinsic authorities, and deviations from them are construed as synthetic attempts to produce a "new man" in antagonism with nature. Conservative philosophy strongly appeals to tradition as being "natural", and deviations from tradition such as homosexuality, secularism and multiculturalism are construed as "unnatural". All of this could be said to stem from a pessemistic and archiac accessment of nature that lies at the heart of conservatism.

Social contract theory and traditional statist apologetics is riddled with the natural/synthetic dichotomy because it tends to construe centralized political organization as if it involves man exiting "the state of nature", while at the same time there is a very strong temptation to characterize the rise of centralizd political organization as a "natural" phenomenon in the sense that is inevitable. Statism is construed as "the natural order" that inevitably arises from social organization. And statist politics is riddled with debate over precisely what kind of centralized political organization is the most "natural" or what the "natural progression" will lead to. Traditionally, anarchy is either brushed off as "unnatural" or is conflated with a primitivist "natural state" before centralized political organization took place.

While these various types of social phenomenon and organization most certainly can be evaluated, wether or not they are "natural" is really irrelevant to such an evaluation, because they are all "natural" to the extent that they occur or exist at all. The natural/synthetic dichotomy is a misnomer that sidetracks from the real substantive debates that could take place.

Avoiding The Argument From History and Normality

Often times in political debates, market anarchists may find themselves pressured to produce historical examples of stateless market-based societies. Typically, the market anarchist responds to this by refering to particular periods of medieval iceland or ireland, certain aspects of fuedal Europe and the wild (or not so wild) west. And, no doubt, there are interesting case studies with regaurd these societies or historical periods demonstrating the effectiveness of a decentralized and polycentric legal system.

That being said, these are not examples of pure anarchy, they are close approximations at best, and it is dangerous for market anarchists to fall into the trap of defending these societies, many of which had a rather despicable cultural framework and questionable content to their customary laws. There is a danger of the market anarchist lapsing into a sort of primitivism or a general romanticization of the past. It begins to appear as if the market anarchist simply wants to return to some older form of social organization, and this leaves them open to be misunderstood and misaracterized horribly.

I think it's important to reject the premise upon which the argument from history is based, which is the assumption that something must have existed or functioned in the past in order for it to exist or function in the present or future. This isn't to completely deny the value of empirical examples, but to avoid the fallacy of ruling things out simply because they have never been done yet. All progress throughout history inherently has involved deviation from the norm, and expecting people to appeal to the norm in order to prove the possibility or viability of something that is a relatively new idea and blatantly outside of the norm is simply nonsensical.

For example, if such an attitude was taken in the 18th or 19th centuries, one could just appeal to the historical normalcy of slavery to argue that its abolition is impossible and slavery is simply the inevitable "natural order". And precisely this same attitude is commonly taken with respect to anarchy. The more reasonable response is not to sift through history for obscure examples of quasi-anarchic societies, but to point out the problem with the argument from history to begin with.

Beyond the fundamental problems with the argument from history, there are questionable elements and incoherancies to the historical examples that market anarchists often find themselves giving. For one thing, these are mostly pre-industrial societies, and market anarchism in the present or future is in the context of an industrial or post-industrial society. This isn't necessarily to say that market anarchism cannot contain some agrarian elements to it, but nonetheless it makes no sense to act as if the economic framework of these societies is remotely resemblant of what the framework of a modern market anarchy may look like.

Another problem is that, by and large, many of the cultural attitudes and customs of these societies were very unlibertarian, or by the very least simply archiac. It could hardly be said that the bulk of the people that existing in these societies were particularly a bunch of "rugged individualists" who valued non-aggression. And the content of some of their customs would make just about any modern man, libertarian or not, very weary.

I do not mean to deny that case studies into these historical examples can be insightful in some ways, but they should not be held up as solid examples of a libertarian anarchism, because they simply aren't. I'm not necessarily pleading that libertarians give up these historical examples altogether, but perhaps they should be more careful and selective in their use of them and be weary of opening themselves up to be strawmanned horribly.

Thoughts On Punishment

I think I reject the traditional concept of punishment (this is not to say that I'm opposed to measures that compensate victims though, because that isn't really punishment in the way I'm thinking of it, since the emphasis is on the victim's rights rather than simply harming the aggressor). I have trouble seeing how punishment is anything other than revenge, and I don't think that revenge and justice are the same thing by any stretch of the imagination.

The traditional view, however, is essentially that punishment is a moral remedy for a breach of morality. But I don't see how this can be the case when by definition punishment takes place after a crime has already been commited, I.E. it is ex-post-facto revenge. It has no productive value whatsoever, it merely increases destruction to appease people's desire for revenge. It does not actually correct the wrong at all; if anything, it's "two wrongs make a right".

For example, putting someone to death in and of itself does nothing to remedy any crime that person may have commited. To be sure, it may ensure that the person doesn't commit any more crimes, since they aren't alive anymore to do so, but this does absolutely nothing to address the issue of why people commit crimes in the first place (and here I'm using the word crime in the narrowest libertarian sense of the term, I.E. a negative rights violation such as theft or assault or murder). All that's really gone on is that another person has been killed.

While there may be an extent to which the fear of punishment makes some people less likely to commit a crime, the fear of punishment in and of itself is obviously hardly enough to stop someone who's determined to commit such an act to begin with, since criminals by definition are people who engage in such acts anyways regaurdless of the law or any possible punishments they may face. If anything, the ability of people to defend themselves, combined with social pressure or custom, deters crime far more than the mere fear of punishment could possibly do.

It also may sometimes be the case that punishment has the oppose effect of detering crime. In particular, the current prison system essentially puts all of the criminals together (although of course a good deal of the people in there are there for victimless crimes) in a place where they can train as criminals and form criminal alliances. The vast majority of people who go to prison and make it out end up repeating the same behaviors or going on to engage in worse activities than before. Indeed, people who were otherwise peaceful citezens before can be made into criminals by their prison experience. There is a vicious cycle at play.

It is of course true that the fact that someone is in prison ensures that they can't commit crimes with regaurd to people in society, since they are isolated from society. Of course, the reductio ad absurdum this thinking leads to is locking everyone up in cells for their entire lives on the grounds that they might commit crimes in the future. In either case, the amount of actually serious criminals who are in lockdown for life in prison as compared to the amount of actually serious criminals who are running free is quite small, and it would be practically impossible to keep track of all of them. The fact that a handful of murderers are in prison hardly even begins to crack the problem.

The amount of people in society who are serious criminals (such as murderers) is likely fairly small to begin with. Outside of the criminally insane, there are very few people who would ever actually engage in an act as extreme as murder. It hardly seems to be the case that in the absence of draconian punative laws everyone would go around murdering eachother; a ridiculous argument from doomsday if I've ever heard one. The person who says that in the absence of such laws or the punishments that go along with breaking them they would have no problem engaging in theft and murder either has a very low moral barometer or they are simply deluding themselves.