Some Troublesome Implications of Ethical Sobriety

A friend and fellow anarchist posted a piece on his tumblr yesterday defending what he calls “Radical Sobriety.” A committed straight edge vegan and feminist, he is part of a community of individualist anarchists in the Norman, OK area who have gained a reputation in the libertarian movement for developing, practicing and defending a thorough and consistent anarchism that synthesizes all the best elements of anarcho-capitalist, individualist, feminist and generally anti-authoritarian thought (which of course includes skimming out the latent orthodoxy and lazy assumptions of every named position).

For those unfamiliar, radical ethical sobriety has a few important distinctions from most reasons people choose to avoid drugs and alcohol. oneunaccountedfor lists an approximation of them at the beginning of the piece:

  • It places sobriety at the center of ethical action and discourse.
  • It addresses inebriation as a root of social problems, especially in a drug culture (a concept which is itself sure to be controversial).
  • It is about a principled commitment to sobriety and teetotalism, in contrast to the timid, highly personalized reasons often given by those who abstain but do not challenge the drug culture or drug use.
  • It is part of a larger radical critique of the status quo characterized by fierce opposition to confinement, limitation, subordination, and deceit, and respect for human dignity, justice, and reason.

It’s difficult not to admire the virtue and steadfastness required to challenge our pervasive drug culture. Excessive drug and alcohol consumption in America is so ubiquitous it permeates the social circles of virtually every young demographic I can think of (with exception to certain religious groups). It’s good to see that the radical left – which is already infamous for critiquing everything that moves – is incorporating it into critiques of domination and oppression.

However, some of the points brought up by oneunaccountedfor and Craig don’t sit well with me. Craig’s quote specifically lends itself to rationalizations for abuse and harm:

The foundational ability that is necessary for humans, and indeed any creatures, to have rights and moral standing is self-reflection. Those who cannot even recognize their own existence and are not aware of their ability to impact the world do not have moral responsibilities and cannot have rights. To remove or hamper the ability to reflect on one’s own actions and thoughts is to abdicate the responsibilities inherent in being a living individual. Any drugs that, for any length of time, impair cognition so much as to impair one’s ability to reflect on the morality of one’s actions strip their users of their humanity.

If drug use strips or even weakens us of our rights and responsibilities, then a lot of the most prevalent kind of abuse is justified. I could see a person argue that because he was sufficiently drunk, he wasn’t really responsible for his abusive actions in the moment. On the flip side, I could see that same person argue that if a girl they took advantage of was inebriated, she didn’t really have the same rights as if she were sober. I don’t doubt that the author of the article is totally, unwaveringly opposed to both of those claims, but they still seem to flow logically from the central points of the article. I’ve brought up this concern with him and he might address it in a later post.

Toward a Theory of Intellectual History

To me, the history of thought has always appeared as a chaotic pendulum. It constantly swings back and forth, attempting with each swing to correct its previous one. The mechanisms that guide its swings do not appear particularly rational, in fact, they seem to evade any possibility of rational conclusion; a logical midway between bouts of self-correction.

At the core of these wild swings which ensure a systematic aversion to conclusion are “fashionable trends” in thought. I have come across two philosophers who describe this tendency quite well. Ludwig von Mises, in his magnum opus Human Action, describes the reason for a runaway worship of science and empiricism that was fashionable when he wrote

A fashionable tendency in contemporary philosophy is to deny the existence of any a priori knowledge. All human knowledge, it is contended, is derived from experience. This attitude can be easily understood as an excessive reaction against the extravagances of theology and a spurious philosophy of history and of nature. Metaphysicians were eager to discover by intuition moral precepts, the meaning of historical evolution, the properties of soul and matter, and the laws governing physical, chemical and physiological events. Their volatile speculations manifested a blithe disregard for matter-of-fact knowledge.

It is precisely this “excessive reaction” that Mises identifies that guides overarching trends in philosophy, history, historiography, sociology, anthropology etc. Take another example that appears after Michael Huemer’s formal philosophical conclusion in Ethical Intuitionism

Ethical intuitionism was popular among English-speaking philosophers in the early twentieth century. By mid-century, it had suffered a dramatic loss of favor, continuing to the present day.Why? One account, congenial to the anti-realists, goes like this: ‘Intuitionism was the first view of ethics that occurred to people, at the dawn of analytic philosophy, because it is the simplest, most naive view. Intuitionism is similar to Plato’s view of ethics, which, not coincidentally, arose at the dawn of Western philosophy. As people reflected more, thy quickly noticed the various fatal flaws in the system and rationally rejected it in favor of more sophisticated and defensible theories’.

I suspect this is how many contemporary philosophers see that bit of intellectual history. But I think that this is utter fantasy. In my view, the broad movements in the history of philosophy look much more like shifts in temperament and intellectual fashions than like rational movements away from unworkable theories towards more objectively defensible ones.

Huemer’s insight reflects my theory of intellectual history exactly. 

Both Huemer and Mises identified particular trends in the history of thought and explained the irrational premises from which they sprung. Huemer, however, went even farther and drew a more general, inductive theory from his observation about contemporary philosophy’s rejection of meta-ethical intuitionism.

We now have a theory that “shifts in temperament” and “excessive reactions” characterize the curvature of intellectual history. We also have some examples (from a priorism to empiricism/from intuitionism to skepticism) of where these shifts and reactions have left their mark. All that is left is an explanation of where this tendency arises in individuals. What possesses people to forgo reason in developing their theories of the world, and what allows this to come to such prominence that it would characterize the very shape of the history of thought? Strangely, our answer might lie with one of the earliest psychologists.

In a lecture on Pragmatism, William James described how discussions of philosophy are doomed from the beginning, for while we pretend that our arguments are drawn from logical premises, a certain “temperament” sits prior to our logic that channels and dictates our views from the start

The history of philosophy is to a great extent that of a certain clash of human temperaments. Undignified as such a treatment may seem to some of my colleagues, I shall have to take account of this clash and explain a good many of the divergencies of philosophers by it. Of whatever temperament a professional philosopher is, he tries when philosophizing to sink the fact of his temperament. Temperament is no conventionally recognized reason, so he urges impersonal reasons only for his conclusions. Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other, making for a more sentimental or a more hard-hearted view of the universe, just as this fact or that principle would. He trusts his temperament. Wanting a universe that suits it, he believes in any representation of the universe that does suit it. He feels men of opposite temper to be out of key with the world’s character, and in his heart considers them incompetent and ’not in it,’ in the philosophic business, even tho they may far excel him in dialectical ability.

Yet in the forum he can make no claim, on the bare ground of his temperament, to superior discernment or authority. There arises thus a certain insincerity in our philosophic discussions: the potentest of all our premises is never mentioned. I am sure it would contribute to clearness if in these lectures we should break this rule and mention it, and I accordingly feel free to do so.

Perhaps an unuttered pretense need be disposed of before we continue. If the “potentest of our premises are never mentioned”, no wonder the pendulum of historical thought has has failed to slow.

A Question of Targeted Tragedy

All else held constant, if a number of people are killed, the fact of their deaths will illicit a more sympathetic/emotional response if those people belonged to any one ethnic or religious group. It seems to me that if six million Jews or Kurds or Catholics were slaughtered, this would be just as bad as any given group of six million people being slaughtered. I have three ideas as to why the targeted deaths of a particular group of people might yield this heightened response:

1. It’s easier to identify with a group of people if they have something in common. Suffering in large numbers is hard to internalize; as Stalin darkly said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” The idea of “people” per se doesn’t necessarily imply community. If these people all shared a common thread of identification, it could quite possibly hit home that much harder.


The Holocaust, Spanish Inquisition, and Western conquest of Native Americans all yield more popular reference and greater emotional response than Stalin’s 40 million dead or even the 20-43 million Chinese starved during the Great Leap Forward.

2. The more you know about someone, the more you empathize. This is closely related to no. 1, but different in some important aspects. While no. 1 deals with group identification, this has more to do with people as individuals- or in this case, the individualization of groups. If you hear about the death of a friend’s relative whom you know nothing about, it’s tragic in that your friend has suffered a loss and someone died. If you hear about your friend’s Aunt May who was a practicing Christian who went to church every Sunday, cared for her tulip garden and baked cookies whenever the grandkids came over, her death becomes a far more personal tragedy to you by some degree. With every additional piece of information gathered about an individual or group, one is able to paint a clearer picture of the departed, thus bringing their abstract loss closer.

3. This hypothesis stands independent of nos. 1 & 2. Historically, great travesties are carried out against or in the name of (or in conjunction) an ethnic or religious group. An observer of history might anticipate this when learning of an additional travesty. Some of the first instances of historical oppression we learn of in American school are the Nazi massacre of Jews, the Spanish Inquisition that forced Jewish and Muslim conversion to christian orthodoxy, and the Western conquest and slaughter of an estimated 10 million Native Americans. This pattern of group massacre might have established itself as a sort of “properly historical” mechanism in the minds of historical observers: “History has shown us that the massacre of ethnic and religious groups are the most brutal, consequential kinds of mass murder, therefore any true massacre is a massacre of an ethnic or religious group.”

All of these possibilities seem viable to me, but none alone feel satisfactory. I welcome criticism, confirmation and disconfirmation, as well as additional hypotheses.

A Word on the Veto of SB 1062

It’s important to remember, following the fortunate vetoing of SB1062, that Jan Brewer didn’t “do the right thing” in the same sense that you and I make moral decisions. What she did was bow to popular pressure, the fact that it was right was incidental. Politicians and bureaucrats always take the politically viable route, 100% of the time. It’s only through activism and vocal resistance that we can prevent them from passing laws like SB1062, so keep your ear to the ground from here on out.

Free Markets: Changing the Conversation

The conversation on free markets needs to be changed.

 As passionate, vocal advocates for liberty, we’ve all come face to face with that person who insists that we produce an example of a society with a purely free market on the spot: “If having a free market is such a good idea why can’t you point to a time in history where there’s been a ‘free market’?”/ “Has there ever been a truly free society?”

 Their skepticism is certainly not without warrant.

 Notable attempts have been made to reconcile some picture of a historic “free market”. David Friedman likes to point to the examples of Saga-period Iceland and medieval Ireland. While both of these might pass as perfectly good examples of freedom prevailing in history, the dissenter will not typically be satisfied. What they’re really asking for is a modern, observable example- one that they’re already familiar with, and, as anthropologist and early “Occupy” movement organizer David Graeber explains, one they’ve already decided you can’t satisfy.

 Thus, in combatting the dubious, loaded demand to “provide an example of a society with a free market”, I propose a new answer: All of them. That’s right, every society that has ever existed has had a free market, but not like you’d think.

Charles W. Johnson explains that “when libertarians talk about markets, or especially “the market”, singular, we often mean to pick out the sum of all voluntary exchanges- any economic order that is based, to the extent that it is based, on principles of personal ownership of property, consensual exchange, free association, and the freedom to engage in peaceful competition and entrepreneurial discovery.” Clearly, no matter how totalitarian the regime, every society imaginable has had some measurable degree of a free market. This can be seen from the spontaneous market economies that crop up between prisoners living in harsh, oppressive conditions to Lysander Spooner’s  American Letter Mail Company that boldly and outwardly challenged the U.S. postal monopoly in nineteenth century America (Unsurprisingly, Spooner’s ALMC outperformed the U.S. Postal Service, effectively lowering the price of mail while it was allowed to operate).

Both the prisoners and Spooner were living under conditions of government oppression. The important thing to recognize is that the two examples contain varying degrees of government, and, thus, varying degrees of liberty. In light of this, one might even ask the skeptic “Do you know of some society where government rules over our every action?” Total freedom and total liberty are theoretical poles on the spectrum of political society. As libertarian columnist Anthony Gregory succinctly put it, “Government is the negation of liberty, so- total government- you can do the math…”

As libertarians, we recognize that the freer the society, the better. The connection between political freedom and human flourishing can be observed with a mere cursory glance at history. It is our job to articulate this truth, and what better way to address the question of where liberty exists than with a simple “look around.”