Montreal, December 3, 2006 No 204




Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness.


(Part Two)


< Part One

by Bradley Doucet

          Moving toward a truly free society requires that a wider cross-section of people understand the benefits of liberty. In discussing with others the case for freedom, we will inevitably come across various illiberal beliefs that prevent them from accepting our ideas. These beliefs must be challenged in order for freedom to be allowed to grow. To be able to challenge them effectively, though, we must first seek to understand them better.


          What follows is the second in a series of articles briefly presenting some of these beliefs, along with the broad strokes of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful. Once again, the list I have come up with is far from complete, as is the treatment accorded to each item on that list. It is meant as a springboard for further thinking and study. Insofar as the first instalment of this series had a unifying theme, it addressed beliefs relating to more concrete, structural issues like government, theft, and charity. The beliefs discussed here in this second instalment are somewhat more abstract, dealing with issues of motivation, truth, and morality.

6) Good intentions are enough

          There is a tendency among some people to focus almost exclusively on intentions. They may not explicitly believe that motives are all that matter, but they speak and argue as though that were the case. They spend a lot of time praising people they think have good intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to others, while condemning those they think have bad intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to themselves (either disregarding others or knowingly injuring them).

          There are several reasons why being overly concerned with people's intentions in this way is misguided. First, it is simply not possible to be sure what another person's motives are in any given instance. We are not mind readers, so when we infer someone's intentions from his or her actions and declarations, we do so with a greater or lesser amount of uncertainty. To claim to have knowledge of another person's mind is simply arrogant. It is sometimes not even possible in certain cases to be sure about our own motivations, much less someone else's. This is because intentions are complex. We likely have several reasons motivating any given action, some of which even push us in opposite directions.

          A second problem with obsessing about intentions is that actions which benefit oneself often benefit others as well. If I work in order to make money, those who voluntarily purchase the product of my labour also benefit, and this is equally true of any voluntary market transaction. This kind of self-interest should be praised as the motor that drives the world to become ever more prosperous, with condemnation reserved for that sub-category of self-interested actions which actually do harm the interests of others.

          Finally, it has been said before, but it bears repeating: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions alone even redefined to include benign self-interested intentions, and even setting aside the very real knowledge problems involved are simply not enough. What's the use in wanting to help the poor, for instance, if the manner in which I choose to do so succeeds only in perpetuating their plight? If one wants to do good, one must actually learn how to do good, or one may very well inadvertently end up making things worse. Instead of wasting time judging people based on what we imagine their intentions to be, we should focus on whether what they are saying makes sense, and on whether the results of their actions are actually good.

7) The truth is obvious

          Why is the road to hell paved with good intentions? Because reality, especially social reality, is complex. Some people think the truth is obvious or self-evident, but it is no easy task to judge whether or not what someone is saying makes sense, and whether or not the results of their actions are actually good. Indeed, it can be difficult even to know what the results of a particular action are.

"Believing that our ideas are self-evidently true will prevent us from discovering our own errors, just as it can prevent others from discovering theirs. Furthermore, it will prevent us from communicating our ideas effectively if we cannot understand or appreciate what leads others to their different beliefs. "

          In challenging the belief that the truth is obvious, it is useful to leave the charged world of political philosophy for a moment and begin by enumerating some of the many ways in which physical reality is counter-intuitively complex. We all share the expectation, for instance, that a heavier object will fall faster than a lighter one, and we are all shocked when we learn, as children, that this is not the case. The reality is not as simple as it appears, because complicating factors like air resistance vary according to an object's shape and density.

          Well, no less an authority than Einstein said that "Politics is more difficult than physics."(1) Social reality has its share of complicating factors too, perhaps even more so than physical reality. In addition, social reality cannot be experimented upon as readily as physical reality. The social world does not fit as easily into a laboratory, and ethical concerns prevent social scientists from manipulating people the way physical scientists manipulate inanimate matter. Given the added difficulties of examining and trying to understand social reality, is it any wonder, for instance, that many people fail to appreciate (or refuse to accept) that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment? When people come to realize that the truth is not so easy, they will be more willing to keep an open mind, to listen to what others have to say, and to check their premises against reality as best they can.

          Let us not be fooled into thinking that this belief is any less prevalent within the freedom movement than it is among other people. Believing that our ideas are self-evidently true will prevent us from discovering our own errors, just as it can prevent others from discovering theirs. Furthermore, it will prevent us from communicating our ideas effectively if we cannot understand or appreciate what leads others to their different beliefs. We may end up going so far as to ascribe evil motives to those with whom we disagree if we are unable even to imagine that someone could in good faith fail to see what is so obvious. Needless to say, calling people evil is not the best way to foster fruitful debate, or to convince others of the soundness of our ideas. We must remember that the negative consequences of illiberal policies, which may seem obvious to us, are not in fact self-evident.

8) Morality must be enforced

          Between social conservatives on the right and tobacco prohibitionists on the left, it sometimes seems as if everyone wants to impose his or her version of morality on everyone else. After all, if it makes sense to protect us from things like murder, assault, and theft, why shouldn't our representatives in government also protect us from other sinful or harmful activities like pornography and smoking? These self-righteous souls have a clear vision of the good life, and they want you and me to share that life, whether we like it or not. I don't know whether they have good intentions or not whether they are motivated by a desire to help others or merely by a desire to control them, or by some combination of these and other impulses and I don't much care. What matters is whether what they are saying makes sense, and whether the results of their actions are actually good. It doesn't, and they aren't.

          Why doesn't it make sense to treat pornography and smoking the same way we treat murder, assault, and theft? Because these latter acts are clear instances of aggression by one party causing real, unquestionable harm to another's person or property. As actual crimes, they merit retaliation in kind, and the use of defensive force against the aggressor is justified. Pornography and smoking, however, are just as clearly not instances of one party initiating the use of force against another. As long as those who participate in these activities do so voluntarily, no retaliation by the government or anyone else is justified, period. (Of course, to the extent that it happens, forcing someone to participate in the production of pornography is a crime, just as it would be a crime to force someone to work in the tobacco fields.)

          The worst that can be said of things like porn and cigarettes is that they are vices. Vices can harm those who partake of them, but they must also be pleasurable or else no one would ever freely choose them. Those who would impose their version of the good life on others think they know for certain that the harms outweigh the benefits, not just for them but for everyone else as well. They also assume that those harms and benefits will net out the same for everyone, ignoring the simple fact that people are different. (At the extreme, anti-vice crusaders may believe that pleasure itself is actually bad, but I must admit I am stumped about how to address such a twisted notion! It's probably best just to reason with those who are less damaged.) What are the negative results of prohibiting vices? It a) empowers actual criminals by allowing them to profit from the black market in prohibited wares, b) exposes non-criminals to added risks, and c) wastes resources that could be used to fight actual crimes, or for some other purpose entirely. In trying to convince those who worry about vice to allow other individuals to weigh personal harms and benefits for themselves, we should try to redirect their attention to these very real harms stemming from prohibition itself.


To be continued...


1. Quoted on p. ix of Jeffrey Friedman's article, "Popper, Weber and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance," in which that author discusses at length some of the implications of the general public's ignorance of social reality and its complexity. Item #7 in my list owes much to insights gleaned while reading Friedman's article, as well as from a recorded lecture by Barbara Branden entitled "Objectivism and Rage."