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Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Law and Disorder

An excerpt of a letter I wrote today to some friends:
Without getting into applying "shoulds" to the rest of you, I will say that personally I choose my actions purely to benefit myself -- with the immediate caveat that this is never as straightforward as it sounds.

When contemplating "law", I need to think not only of how a law suits me directly (the Simon Is King law, for instance), but also of the odds I'll actually pull it off. This latter point is key because it drastically changes the nature of my options:

In particular, without this constraint (i.e., if Simon Is King after all), the question is: What laws applied to everyone else will best benefit me in the long run? This is the parental view of government, where I ask questions like: Will I get more technological progress if I enslave all the farmers and use the proceeds to fund research institutes? If I immediately kill anyone caught using drugs, will I have a more productive society overall as a result of all the saved brain cells, less ambition lost to marijuana, and so on? And so on.

With the constraint, however, there is a presumption that any law has to be acceptable not only to me, but to whomever else is in a position of authority to enact and enforce laws -- which generally means winning the acceptance of a force majority (a group of people, presumably including myself, who put together can win a battle, be it of will, strength, or firepower, against any and all dissenters). So in that case, I find myself not only concerned with how a law effects me, but also how it effects others in the force majority. I.e., it is from this vantage point that I discuss laws which are ubiquitously "fair", and which I expect my audience to see the wisdom in as well as I do.

Herein lies the rub. *All* of these factors ultimately do effect me. Any given law may have some bearing on my own life directly. It may also have some bearing on my life indirectly, via its effect on everyone else's lives. And then there is the issue of whether it is viable (acceptable to the force majority).

All of these factors sum up to a net effect on my life, and to ignore any of them is simply dogmatic (probably the result of a fanatic belief in some preconceived ideal).

Wire a lever to a lab-rat's pleasure center, and it will thump on it until it dies of starvation. I have little evidence that a vast majority of humans would not do the same thing -- indeed, from a neurological perspective, I have little doubt that there is *some* manipulation of the human brain, possibly even attainable through chemistry, which would render the participant unable to conclude that there is any harm in continuing with what is in reality a fundamentally self-destructive endeavor. Amphetamines are a mild example of this, and before you consider yourself immune ask yourself why you are so convinced that coffee or Pepsi really isn't that bad for you? Hmmmmm?

So what if someone invented Substance #73932, call it slothium, which invariably produced total ecstasy in the user and a complete lack of ambition to do anything other than work enough hours of menial labor to pay for minimal food and more slothium? (Obviously mild forms of slothium already exist.)

Then I have to ask myself: Given the inevitable propagation of unchecked slothium, driven by market forces and a society largely short-sighted enough to embrace it, what is the net effect on *me*? It may be wholly negative, screech the wheels of progress to a halt, since nobody even cares to buy (and thus fund the research for) digital watches any more, let alone gigahertz computers, cinema, good restaurants, music, art, or anything else I currently benefit from in the mass market. I paint the extreme case, but I still have to ask myself in what direction the influence of something is -- so what if it's just a 10% decline, it's still a negative influence on my life.

Now of course there is the opposite side: what if *I* want to live a slothium life? Then clearly it's in my best interest to have slothium freely available! Oh the quandary.

Note I haven't breathed the word "ethics". I'm approaching this purely from a selfish perspective -- as, say, Objectivists claim to do but don't.

If I start with the premise that people have an average IQ of 140, that the majority of the population values ambition, integrity, truth, progress, novelty, or even just one of those, then maybe I can conclude that amongst this body of my peers, the viable rule of the land that would benefit me most is to leave all decisions within each person's domain entirely up to them, and to institute some sort of arbitration for "border disputes" when these domains collide. Indeed, this is what I would choose amongst a body of my peers! And this is the Objectivist ethic, and the Libertarian perspective, and the firmly held assumption of many of the people on this group I gather.

But I ask you: Is there really no evil, no flaw in the human character, no post-evolution technology which would get the better of the majority of the human population if left unchecked? Or, more subtly, are there not countless such things which are on the net quite destructive -- net-negatives to most anyone on this list, measured by indirect societal effects? And finally, assuming we wish to, from our selfish perspectives, strike some balance between the harm to us through other people's aggregate stupidity and the harm to us through constraint of law, where is the proof that that optimal balance lies at, say, the Objectivist extreme, and not somewhere in the ugly middle?


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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com