In comments on a previous post on discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai, Krishnamurthy asks

…suppose you have a “weak” government, which does not run schools, provide health care, etc.

What’s to prevent the “majority”– “those in power” — from denying education and other resources to the “minority”?

The concern is that a section of people who possess “power” – political and/or economic – engage in irrational discriminatory behavior to the detriment of certain other sections of people. The Indian caste system is a case in point. The issue is whether this concern should be addressed by political measures such as laws against discrimination, affirmative action, reservations etc.

It is clear that political measures against irrational discrimination necessarily infringe on the freedom of the individual to act according to his own judgement and therefore are unjust. On the other hand, the discrimination is also clearly unjust. This is seemingly a moral dilemma. This dilemma must be resolved before one can evaluate the practicality of political measures.

The first step in resolving the dilemma is to distinguish the concept of justice from the concept of fairness.

Fairness (in its most plausible form) is the idea that people are entitled to benefits that are in line with their capabilities – commonly referred to as equality of opportunity. Consider the question: Is it fair that some people are born rich and some are born poor? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? Next consider the question: Is it fair that some people are tall and some are short? If it is unfair, who is responsible for it? It should now be clear that whether one is born rich or poor, tall or short is a metaphysical fact. It is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong, neither fair nor unfair. It simply is. Metaphysical facts are not subject to normative judgement. A person’s genetic makeup, his family, his attributes are part of his identity. Different people will necessarily have different identities. To hold that this is unfair is absurd. The concept of fairness has no basis in reality.

What about justice? What facts of reality is the concept of justice based on?

What fact of reality gave rise to the concept “justice”? The fact that man must draw conclusions about the things, people and events around him, i.e., must judge and evaluate them.

Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly,…

                  — Ayn Rand

The concept of justice arises from the individual’s need to judge people. Justice pertains to the mental process by which an individual judges others. A mental process cannot be forced. The injustice in discrimination lies in the fact that the person making judgements includes considerations that are not relevant to the judgement. The only way to correct this injustice is to make him realize the error in his judgement. The appropriate tool for this is arguement and persuasion, not coercion. Judgement cannot be forced. When one attempts to correct the injustice in discrimination by coercive measures, one is severing the concept of justice from the facts that give rise to it. The motivation for making good judgements is to be able to act on them. Forcing a man to act against the judgement of his mind is the worst imaginable way of improving his judgement. One cannot achieve justice by destroying the need for it. Man must be left free to act on his own judgement as long as he allows others to do so.

The potential for injustice is inherent in the fact that man is neither infallible nor omniscient. As such his judgements will not always be right. It is not possible to eliminate injustice. One can try to reduce its consequences when it is in one’s own interest to do so. That is what proper charity should be about. This is the resolution to the dilemma. As long as the injustice in question does not involve coercion, such injustice cannot be criminalized. It should be worked around by charity.

Now that the moral questions are resolved, one can address the practicality of political measures against discrimination. As the history of caste based reservations in India shows, these reservations do not work. 50 years after they were instituted, political parties continue to call for increasing their scope. If there could be a plainer indication that they do not work, I don’t see what it might be. What does work is just plain self-interest and appropriate charity. Those who see the injustice of discrimination stand to benefit. They get to work with a larger pool of deserving people. Those who engage in discrimination lose out. The free market at work. It takes its time – changing people’s ideas always does – but it is the only thing that works.

As with any idea, one of the most effective ways of determining its truth is to examine all of its logical implications. If it can be beneficial to abolish discrimination in education and employment decisions, why stop there? Why not go further and abolish discrimination in friendships? Why not abolish discrimination in marriage? Surely these would have a greater effect? Most people would shudder at this suggestion. Yet this is just one of the implications of the same idea. This absurd suggestion only makes plain what is a little more difficult to see when one is merely looking at economic effects. Economic judgement cannot be forced just as personal judgement cannot be forced. There is no such thing as forced justice.

Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.

Why should values be agent-relative?

Heumer’s critique of Ayn Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” begins with

…premise 1 [Value is agent-relative; things can only be valuable for particular entities] begs the question.
One of the central groups of opponents Rand is facing is people who believe in absolute value, and not just agent-relative value. The absolutist view is that it is possible for some things to be good, simply, or in an absolute sense; whereas agent-relativists think that things can only be good for or relative to certain individuals, and that what is good relative to one individual need not be good relative to another. (N.B., this should not be confused with what are commonly called “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism.”)
Rand bases her ethics on the agent-relative position, but she offers no argument for it, only a bald assertion.

Why indeed should value be agent relative? The answer lies in Rand’s claim that

The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
(emphasis in original)

The clue to the answer is in the question “Why”. If X is an absolute value (not just agent-relative), one can ask “Why is X an absolute value?”. There are three possible responses:

a) God said so:
This is unacceptable to me since the existence of God is an arbitrary claim and I do not want to elaborate further in this post (especially since this is not Heumer’s response).

b) It is self-evident:
It is impossible to argue with someone who really means this. If a particular proposition seems self-evident to him and it does not seem self-evident to me, how do we argue? I can only say that apart from the axioms in metaphysics and epistemology (‘Something exists’, ‘I am conscious’, ‘entities have identity’ and ‘I have free will’) no proposition which is not a direct observation is self-evident to me. For example, ‘the sky is blue’ is self-evident because it is a direct observation. But I have no sense organ that senses value – no sense organ that tells me that the sky is valuable. If someone who gives this answers (It is self-evident) really means it, then we have fundamentally different natures – so that I do not even know what he means when he says ‘It is self-evident that X is an absolute value’. But I don’t believe this. To see why consider just one example of a self-evident value that Heumer cites – justice. Heumer claims that it is self-evident that “It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit.” It is obvious that different people have widely varying understandings of the concepts ‘crime’ and ‘justice’. For example, I don’t think it is just to punish or compensate people for crimes that their ancestors committed or suffered. But the whole concept of affirmative action depends on doing just that. Therefore even if the affirmative action advocates say that they believe it is unjust to punish a person for a crime he didn’t commit, they mean something very different from what I understand by it. The only way to say that justice is a self-evident value is to broaden the concept so much that it becomes useless. 

c) The question why is not appropriate:
There are some things about which really does not make any sense to ask why. For example, it makes no sense to ask “Why does anything exist at all?”. Is the question “Why is X an absolute value?” like that, atleast for some X? If so, then the why immediately turns into a how – “How do you know that X is an absolute value?” One answer to this could be that it is self-evident, but I have already dismissed that. Another answer could be that it is axiomatic (like the four axiomatic propositions I stated above). But just claiming that something is an axiom is not sufficient. Even axioms have to be validated. An axiom can be validated by assuming that it is not true and then looking at the implications. If the axiom is true, one immediately reaches a contradiction or an absurdity. I won’t actually demonstrate this for the four axioms I stated. Anyone should be able to see that this is so. For what X does the proposition “X is not an absolute value” lead to a contradiction or an absurdity? I know of no such X (and none of the supposedly self-evident principles that Heumer cites – more on them in another post – indicate the existence of any such X). Anyway it is not my task to prove that no such X exists. Obviously I cannot (just like the existence of God). It is upto someone who believes that such X exist to identify them. Even one example would be enough.

But if one actually wants to answer the ‘why’, one will have to say something of the form “because it [verb] [noun]” where noun is some purpose. And only agents can have purposes. Atleast I cannot think of any other way to answer the ‘why’. If one does give the “because it [verb] [noun]” answer, then X is a value relative to the agent who has the particular purpose and not in any absolute sense.

Moral Absolutes

In a comment on my previous post “Terrorism and moral outrage“, wgreen asked

The inward sense of justice is evidence of the existence of moral “absolutes”. How do you justify the existence of such absolutes?

Is an inward sense of justice really evidence of the existence of moral absolutes? Consider the concept ‘justice’. Without any absolute (universal and objective) moral standards, it would be impossible to judge any action (particularly the actions of others). And without such judgement, there could be no such thing as justice. To the extent that a person has a sense of justice, he recognizes the existence of moral absolutes. An inward sense of justice is evidence of a (possibly implicit) belief in the existence of moral absolutes, but in itself, it is not evidence of the existence of moral absolutes. But where does a sense of justice come from? What is the basis for the moral absolutes on which a sense of justice depends?

A sense of justice comes from the constant necessity of judging actions (both one’s own and those of others) to achieve one’s goals. Those actions that further (or appear to further) one’s goals are judged as good. Those actions that hinder one’s goals are judged as bad. The requirements of one’s chosen goals become a personal standard by which actions are judged. This personal standard can be used objectively, since the requirements of any particular goal can be objectively determined. But by itself this standard is not universal. It is only when one projects one’ s own goals on other people (whether consciously or unconsciously) that the personal standard becomes a universal one and gives rise to a sense of justice. Is such a projection proper?

Since man has free choice, he may choose any goal. But the achievement of his goals is not merely a matter of choice. He cannot achieve any goal without meeting its requirements. No matter what his goal is, he cannot achieve it if he is not alive to pursue it. In this sense, his own life is his ultimate goal. Without it, no goals can be achieved. The requirements of his life are a part of the requirements of any goal he may choose. Since the requirements of life are essentially common to all men, the principles required to pursue these requirements successfully are moral absolutes – moral because the principles are guides to action and have to be voluntarily followed, absolute because they are objective and universal.

But what about goals that are not consistent with the requirements of life – goals that can only be achieved with damage to one’s life? It is certainly possible to choose such goals. Indeed, altruism – the dominant moral code today – considers such goals and the sacrifice necessary to achieve them as noble. What does the acceptance of altruism do the idea of moral absolutes? When man’s life was dominated by religion and a concern with the supernatural, it was possible to hold moral absolutes inconsistent with life. Today, when the influence of religion has weakened and men are concerned with their lives on earth, moral absolutes inconsistent with life cannot survive. Since it is impossible to practise altruism consistently – the ‘noblest’ men would become martyrs – an (implicit) acceptance of altruism inevitably leads to a rejection of moral absolutes and a gulf between the moral and the practical. It leads to a culture that believes that the manufacturing of cars requires adherence to absolute principles, but the life of a man (which is far more complex and sensitive) requires none.

As long as man is concerned with his life on earth, he must consider any goal that is inconsistent with the requirements of his life as destructive. He must discover the correct moral principles that are required to lead his life successfully. He must recognize that some of these principles are absolute and others are contextual but all of them are objective – based on his nature and the facts of reality. The resurgence of violent radical religious movements (like Islamic terrorism and Hindu vandalism – both of which bemoan decaying moral values) is evidence that man cannot live without absolute moral principles in perpetual doubt and uncertainty. The decay of moral values is a definite trend and it cannot be addressed by an uninspiring stew of tolerance, moderation, permissiveness and compassion that rejects all moral principles. Reversing that trend requires a discovery and assertion of the absolutism of correct moral principles.


The doctrine of equality is a key one in modern politics. Yet it is fairly ambiguous. Does it mean equality of wealth or equality of opportunity or equality under law or something else? The doctrine is widely held as a given, a primary, as something that needs no justification. Is it really a primary or can it be derived from more fundamental principles?

Men are born with widely varying abilities (both mental and physical) and are brought up in widely varying environments and circumstances. These differences are metaphysical. They are not open to human choice.

In what way are men equal then? They are equal in that they have the same nature. They all have a need of knowledge to survive and they have the same (and only) means of obtaining that knowledge – a rational mind. They all have free will. They all have a mind that must think and judge on its own. This equality too is metaphysical, not open to choice. No man can think for another nor can he force another’s thoughts.

Man’s nature requires that he be free to act on his thoughts, his mind being his sole source of knowledge and sole standard of judgement. A man who acts under force (or the threat of physical force) acts against his nature.

The only way for a society to be civil is to outlaw the initiation of force since the only proper response to an initiation of force is retalliation to end it. It is man’s nature that is the source of his right to be free of force. Since men are equal in their nature they all have this right equally. That is the only moral doctrine of equality and the only one that is achievable in practice.

What is the nature of attempts to enforce other forms of equality? They are a revolt against the nature of existence and the nature of man. They are attempts to change that which is not open to human choice. They are a revolt against the fact that sustenance is not free, that man must produce in order to live, that the extent of his ability (and favorability of circumstances) will determine his success.

Attempts to enforce equality of wealth have led to disastrous consequences in the last century in about half the world and now stand mostly discredited. Attempts to enforce equality of opportunity, however, are very popular today. They can be observed in policies such as progressive taxation, affirmative action, social security, socialized medicine, subsidized goods etc. “Opportunities” such as the “opportunity to a good education” or the “opportunity to a good job” or the “opportunity to health care” are not free. They are created by the efforts of men (such as the efforts of investors, educators, entrepreneurs, doctors, etc) and must be paid for (by one’s own efforts or by ones’ parents’ efforts or by charity). Asserting a right to equal opportunity is asserting a right to enslave the men whose efforts create the opportunities in the first place. Since these attempts are not as radical as attempts to enforce equality of wealth, their consequences are milder but not different in nature. If an attempt to enforce equality of wealth is murder (and not just figuratively, as history shows), then the attempt to enforce equality of opportunity is murder by slow torture.

K. M.

Social Justice

In another instance of “social justice”, the Indian Supreme Court upheld the 27% quota for OBCs (Other Backward Castes) in seats in central educational institutions. The article linked to mentions that two aspects of the case received attention from the court.
“Two aspects received a fair bit of attention from the apex court. First, the mode of determination of backwardness — whether it should be caste-based or economic condition, and secondly, whether the creamy layer should be excluded or not.”
Note that the court did not bother to consider whether quotas are legitimate in the first place. The ideas of social justice – that government should step in to make sure that men get what they need (whether they deserve it or not) – are so firmly established that they don’t even get challenged.

What is Justice?

“Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature…
…that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero…”

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Social justice is the negation of justice. It demands that men be rewarded for their needs instead of their actions or their abilities. Since there is no universal standard by which the needs of men can be compared, the meaning of need defaults to a lack of ability. Who provides the rewards? It can only be the men of ability, the men who can produce the rewards. That is the obscene evil of social justice – that it punishes men for their abilities and rewards men for their incompetence.

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