On Morality

I’m watching a Facebook discussion on taxation and health care, in which an arch-reactionary is attacking the concept that health care is a human right; specifically, attacking it on moral grounds. Yes, of course, your immediate reaction is to laugh, or perhaps roll your eyes. But for me, there is a significance to this that is important.
It is a reminder that morality does not exist above society, is not handed down from God, is not inherent in the air we breath or the water we drink, but rather is a product of society, of human interaction. Moral systems, moral codes, are invented by human beings, and in class society, any moral system serves the interests of a definite class. In feudal society, to oppose the king was immoral. As the bourgeoisie began to gain power and influence, they created their own morality, in which, eventually, resistance to the king was laudable. In the antebellum South, opposition to slavery was immoral; but to the abolitionist, who represented the future and the interests of Eastern capitalism, and to the slave, whose deepest interest was emancipation, slavery itself was immoral. Today, failure to respect private property is immoral.
Then there are those who attempt to place themselves above society, and either make judgments about the worth of various moral systems as if reflecting eternal values; or, worse, take themselves entirely out of the conflict and make observations about all moral systems as if they were all equal and we can pick one based on whim and it would be no better or worse than any other; or still worse, and still more common, that the value of a moral system can be determined by only examining the system itself, outside of its social and historical context.  These people, too, serve definite class interests.
I am willing to make judgments about certain actions as being good, or bad, or heroic, or vile. I do this based on the morality I have chosen, which is a morality that, to the best of my ability to understand, serves the interests of the working class. All ideologies in class society serve class interests, and that especially includes our sense of right and wrong. If you have not examined your morality, if you have not thought about where it comes from and what class interests it serves, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to do so.
Recommended reading: Trotsky: Their Morals and Ours

Trotksy Their Morals and Ours V 4


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75 thoughts on “On Morality”

  1. I agree with you in the abstract. But, as you point out, things get messy in the mundane world. Classism applies, but I don’t think it is as universal as you claim. Perhaps having more wealth allows having a more generous view of people. There may be little morality in the mud filled trenches, or there may be a lot. Morality requires the ability to help others, but that doesn’t mean people will. Selfish, power hungry people will be selfish and power hungry regardless of their class. Morality is a messy concept.

  2. If one’s morality says that universal health care is bad because the country will go broke and the next generation will be hurt, then we can argue that one’s understanding of economics is poor. If one’s morality says universal health care is bad because, even though it’s cheaper and puts us all at risk – it is necessary to keep the poor oppressed – then there’s not much I can argue. We live in different worlds.

    Lots of people *claim* to have the first morality, but appear to have the second.

  3. howardbrazee, I agree. It seems like this country always has enough money to start another war or give tax breaks to the wealthy, but never enough to do anything to help the common citizen. Funny how that works.

  4. Interesting that such individuals think taxation is theft but don’t (usually) think that profit is theft.
    I happen to be in Germany at the moment and toured a couple of palace/castles yesterday and today. The builders of the places obviously thought that they had great morals–in fact morals were defined relative to them.
    I did learn a new term — sans-culottes, as one of the castles (Ludwigsburg) had a nice museum of fashion.

  5. I used to know a libertarian who believed that taxes were theft. Except for taxes paid to protect private property, which should be per capita. His only morality was the sanctity of property. Even the person with no property to protect should pay taxes to protect his (the libertarian’s) property.

  6. I would just like to point out that the only distinction between “opposition to slavery was immoral” and “failure to respect private property is immoral” is that some people believe that a person can be property.
    And, given how the same subset of people who believe the latter tend to think about women, prisoners, and entry-level employees, it’s not a big difference.

    More on the topic of slavery: Any thoughts about the prison strike?

  7. I’m beginning to think that sociopathy is much more of a sliding scale than people generally credit, that emotional intelligence follows a Bell curve, like every other kind of intelligence, with a solid third of humanity falling into the sociopath adjacent range. It may well be that there is no moral argument that can reach that third.

    If we accept that, we can use the perspective to further justice. The gulf of understanding that keeps that bottom third from understanding our arguments, also keeps them from predicting our reactions. The Trump admins responsible for shaping the zero-tolerance, child separation policies were honestly dumbfounded at that reaction. It never occurred to them that citizens might care what happened to the children of asylum seekers.They thought they could sell the children in for-profit orphanages, deport the parents or slap them in for-profit prisons, and only a few D party members would complain. The widespread condemnation caught them flatfooted.

    You can see that lack of perspective everywhere. Every time an online troll bleats “virtue signalling”, they are announcing their dismayed confusion that another human being can actually care about something outside of their own self-interest. It makes no sense to them. How can you mount a rational argument with an opponent who takes the farcical position that we should care about the feelings and well being of others?

    Arthur Brooks of the AEI, the supposed rational mainstay of the right, recently said:

    “When I talk to people who are really stressed out about politics, they’re never really stressed out about how it’s going to affect them personally-this is the weird thing. I mean, I realize this affects the economy … that might affect your job downstream, or the tax bill, or whether Obamacare exists or doesn’t exist, but the people I talk to who are most wrapped around the axle about President Trump or the Democrats or politics in general … they’re *aesthetically* really freaked out. It’s almost as if the *style* of politics offends them personally, notwithstanding how it affects them in terms of policy.”

    If the right so completely fails to understand the impulse toward altruism, if they cannot recognize it as anything other than a desire for some sort of fashionability, then they will always fail to anticipate the depth of our convictions. Trump/Miller’s plan at the southern border was thrown back because it never occurred to them that someone might care about refugees and their children. They were blind to the possibility. We can always exploit that blindness by speaking out against their cruelty and refusing to yield to undeserved authority.

  8. larswyrdson:
    “I’m beginning to think that sociopathy is much more of a sliding scale than people generally credit, that emotional intelligence follows a Bell curve, like every other kind of intelligence, with a solid third of humanity falling into the sociopath adjacent range. It may well be that there is no moral argument that can reach that third.”

    I’m almost certainly in your “third of humanity” in the sociopath adjacent range. Do you have any support for your claim that sociopathic adjacent people lack morals? In my experience, it’s not true. In my experience, the sociopathic adjacent place a higher value on individual liberty than SJWAs (SJW Adjacent). Did evolution really mess things up? Is there a potential reason 1/3 of humanity is sociopathic adjacent?

    ” that bottom third ”

    Antipodes dude. We’re the top third. Which is why you’re trying to take our stuff.

    “The Trump admins responsible for shaping the zero-tolerance, child separation policies were honestly dumbfounded at that reaction.”

    I was dumbfounded at the reaction of the populace because the Trump administration was not doing anything different in kind (I concede scope) than what his predecessors had done. The reporting on this behavior was largely ignored until Trump became President.

    “They thought they could sell the children in for-profit orphanages, deport the parents or slap them in for-profit prisons, and only a few D party members would complain.”

    Any support for this inflammatory allegation?

    “If the right so completely fails to understand the impulse toward altruism …”

    Far more of the right contribute to charity than the “left” does. Search terms “Huffington One Thing Red States Do Better Than Blue States charitable giving”.

  9. DSM-IV-TR Diagnostic Criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder (301.7)

    Published Online:2 Jan 2004https://doi.org/10.1176/pn.39.1.0025a
    A. There is a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others occurring since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:

    1. failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest

    2. deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure

    3. impulsivity or failure to plan ahead

    4. irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults

    5. reckless disregard for safety of self or others

    6. consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations

    7. lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another.

    B. The individual is at least age 18 years.

    C. There is evidence of conduct disorder with onset before age 15 years.

    D. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or a manic episode.

  10. kuku- Please don’t take it so personally! I’m not calling you unfit, in evolutionary terms. Evolution doesn’t make mistakes. Extreme selfishness (individualism, if you prefer) is just another survival strategy, and on an individual level, it generally is quite successful. That is why you are here. Altruism is a very different strategy, one that improves survival for a whole population. That is why I am here. Congrats, some of our ancestors didn’t get eaten/starved!

    As for the rest of your arguments, I’m not going to bother to engage. I could spend my day trotting out facts, quotes from the parasites in charge admitting their plans, testimony from the victims. You would dismiss every part of what I said , provide counter examples, we would go on and on. If you were capable of understanding, you already would.

    That is the point I was trying to make. Individualists will never understand a value system based on anything more complicated than “keep your hands off my stuff”. And that is OK. I don’t need to waste my time trying to change them, and they don’t need to change. There is room for all of us.That is the mistake made again and again by the establishment Democrats, trying to reach consensus, not just majority. Trying to appease the reactionary and mollify the fence sitters, always watering down justice in favor of compromise. Oh, and outright pandering to the oligarchs that buy and sell them, but that is a separate issue. I’m not a politician and I don’t need to do that.

    My job is to help form strategies with the people that can get it, I just have to work towards a system that isn’t based on an antisocial point of view. Some won’t like the society that results, but that is also not the goal. There are always individuals that thrive on injustice, that benefit from inequality, that derive pleasure from the suppression of others. If they can learn to find satisfaction in the freedom and well being of others, then good for them! But whether they can or not, we have to stop putting them in charge.

  11. “That is the mistake made again and again by the establishment Democrats, trying to reach consensus, not just majority. Trying to appease the reactionary and mollify the fence sitters, always watering down justice in favor of compromise.”

    That has worked for them so far. They have maintained their status as one of the only two significant parties. They have gotten tremendous amounts of money, and a whole lot of political power.

    I hope things are changing and they will lose all that. Rationally I’m not optimistic, but emotionally I have to stay optimistic because if I give in to despair then I do less toward the possibility we can survive.

  12. “As for the rest of [kuku’s] arguments, I’m not going to bother to engage.” -larswyrdson

    Hmm. Do as you will, but in the spirit of the topic I would appreciate your view on one of them: In your political dichotomy, your “sociopaths” on average give more time and money to charity than your “altruists”. How do you square this?

    “I just have to work towards a system that isn’t based on an antisocial point of view.”

    Many would argue that taking from others without their consent is pretty antisocial.

  13. Nathan- I was feeling particularly ungenerous when I wrote that first post, so lets amend my my scale to Individualists///altruists. No need to be unnecessarily confrontational. Sociopath might be the extreme example from the individualist end of the spectrum, and the altruist end point might be… martyr?

    That statistic about “conservatives” (not an identical set to to low-empathy individualists, but kuku claimed the connection) engaging in more charitable giving is debatable (you can look around Google, if interested, doing other people’s research is something else I gave up for Lent), but even if true, it presumes that giving money to charity is a measure of generosity. Charitable giving covers a lot of ground, and most of it does nothing to help the disadvantaged. People give to many causes, for many reasons. Even when the money is reputedly going to help others, giving through charity allows you to pick winners and losers, giving to those you think are deserving and ignoring the rest. Religious organizations are a prime example. Giving money to your church is not much different from paying dues at a country club.

    On the other hand, if we are taking the American “left” to represent high empathy altruists, again, not identical sets, then liberals tend to give less to private charities but do support societal cures like income support and free health care. Voting to raise your own taxes to help others is no less generous than writing a check, distributes resources much more efficiently, and if enacted correctly, without personal bias.

    “Many would argue that taking from others without their consent is pretty antisocial.”

    Many would, and yet that is the whole basis of capitalism.

  14. larswyrdson: “Voting to raise your own taxes to help others is no less generous than writing a check, distributes resources much more efficiently, and if enacted correctly, without personal bias.”

    Government is more effective? You’re right, debate between is highly unlikely to be productive if you believe this.

    When you vote to raise taxes, you are not voting to raise your own taxes … you are voting to raise everyone’s taxes. Do you want to pay more taxes? Pay more taxes. You can overpay. Do you? Will you answer honestly? I doubt it.

    Your idea of altruism is authorizing an armed agent of the state to take value from A in order to give it to B. We have a fundamental and irreconcilable belief as to what altruism includes.

  15. larswyrdson:

    “That statistic about “conservatives” (not an identical set to [] low-empathy individualists, but kuku claimed the connection) engaging in more charitable giving is debatable”

    Sorry, this statement is false. You drew the connection when you wrote: “If the right so completely fails to understand the impulse toward altruism …” I responded to your inflammatory assertion by quoting you and then writing: “Far more of the right contribute to charity than the ‘left’ does.”

    Moreover, you now claim the assertion you were making is “debatable.” Why make the inflammatory assertion if you don’t believe it?

  16. I wrote: “Government is more effective? You’re right, debate between is highly unlikely to be productive if you believe this.”

    I should have written: “Government is more efficient?” The government can be extremely effective and extremely inefficient at the same time. Moreover, larswyrdson used the word “efficient”. My bad.

  17. kuku- I understand you do not agree with my POV or any assertion I may make.I won’t try to convince you.

    I will try to outvote you though. ;-)

  18. So long as you’re only casting one vote at a time, I’m content limiting myself to the soap box and the ballot box.

  19. ” ‘Many would argue that taking from others without their consent is pretty antisocial.’

    Many would, and yet that is the whole basis of capitalism.”

    A choice of who takes the bigger bite out of one’s labor: Doddering and/or malevolent bureaucrats hundreds of miles away, or a company owner one willingly signs up to work for.

    Not really a hard choice… to me, at least.

  20. First, absolutely more willingly than being a subject of the state, and second, you’re correct in the hypothetical sense.

  21. War is basicly a kind of game. But it’s a special game because you don’t get to decide whether you want to play or not. If somebody declares war on you, and you say “Thank you, but I don’t want to play that game” then the way you get to not play is to surrender. And that means they get to do whatever they want to you, including pretend that you’re playing war if that’s what they want to do.

    LIke when the US Marines went after Fallujah. They announced that MAMs (Military Age Males) were the enemy, and would not be allowed to leave the city. Then they invaded the place and basicly killed all the MAMs they found. Over a hundred managed to surrender to Iraqi auxiliary forces, but the Marines accepted very few surrenders. It was a big deal when an embedded reporter saw some POWs. They were badly wounded, and were not getting any treatment yet, and were handcuffed and lying in the headquarters mostly not moving. Apparently a Marine saw one of them move. He yelled “He’s alive!” and immediately shot the POW. Then he kicked the other one in the eye and saw that he was alive too and killed him. It was just a miscommunication, he had thought they were dead and reacted instinctively when he saw otherwise. The Marines got all upset when the reporter reported it. Anyway, my point is that the Iraqis didn’t get a choice whether to play war or not.

    The game of Nobles and Serfs similarly didn’t give people a choice whether to play. As I understand it, it started out with a lot of bandits running around causing havoc, and if you swore an oath with a noble he would protect you. You got some choice which noble to swear to, and if you didn’t want any of them you could take your chances with the bandits. But after awhile it got organized, and mostly the people the noble protected you from were his men and the neighboring nobles’ men. You really didn’t have a choice whether to play the game. If you were on anybody’s land without permission you could be killed for it, and it all belonged to somebody.

    The game of Master and Slave was the same, with the slaves having fewer rights than serfs. At some point you agreed to be a slave — if you acted up too much before you were worth much you’d be killed, and later you’d get punished severely. All the survivors gave tacit agreement to be slaves, by surviving. But it was a minimal agreement.

    The game of Capitalism is better than Master and Slave, or Noble and Serf. You get various rights by custom. You have the right to quit your job. (If you know employer secrets you lose the right to work for your employers competitors for a time.) You get to buy whatever you can afford with your wages. Etc.

    But you don’t have the right to not play the game. If you are employee-class, you can get a job with anybody who will hire you. But if you decide you’re tired of capitalism and you don’t want to play it any more, you have no choice. Once your savings are gone you must get a job or become a thief or die.

    If you don’t want to play capitalism, you must go somewhere they don’t play that — a tribe in the Brazilian rain forest, for example — and persuade them to accept you, and then you can live otherwise until capitalism takes that land away from you. Capitalism has mostly taken over the world, and mostly you don’t get any choice whether you want to play the game or not. Like war. Like feudalism.

    There are around 27 million employers n the USA, and if you need a job that’s a lot of places you can apply! The smell of freedom!

    Our democracy doesn’t give you that many choices. They say you can choose Democrat or Republican. Two choices. But you do get a choice between them, that’s better than a one-party nation where you don’t get any choice. It’s a little whiff of freedom….

  22. Jonah:Yes, basically you have just noted the historical materialism that Marx noticed. Hmm, it used to be that things really sucked and then we moved in the direction of more freedom. This move is generally painful and often seems impossible a priori but then seems inevitable afterwards.

  23. Sometimes we move to more choices, and sometimes we move toward fewer. I don’t particularly see a pattern to it.

    Some evolutionists say that life has a move toward greater complexity over time. I don’t particularly see that so much. Over time, life evolves more effective ways to collect energy, and with more energy comes more life and faster life, and that allows some organisms to get more complex. But the simple ones still dominate. Most of the life in the ocean is build off harvesting algae, and everywhere the prokaryotes way outnumber everything else.

    When the energy available to humans grows faster than population we have room for more freedom, and then when population catches up the freedom evaporates.

    My point though is that capitalismists — people who advocate capitalism — offer freedom as a big virtue of the system. But it’s a game that gives you some small choices in game strategy, but it gives you no choice at all in whether to play the game.

  24. It occurs to me that we could revise the board game Monopoly to include employees.

    Half the players start out as employees. They roll dice to figure out which half. They start with no money.

    Every time they land on a property, they get to look for work. They roll two dice, and if the result is 7, they get enough money to pay the rent, up to a maximum of $100. If they get a higher number they get more than rent, and lower less, work out the details later, but 12 should get them about 3 times rent maxed at $300, while 2 gets them much less. They can roll the dice 3 times and choose which roll to accept.

    Employees don’t have to pay the whole listed rent. They can pay up to $20 less, and when they pay less than the whole rent they add up their savings to their “scrimping” score. The more they scrimp, the more they should imagine themselves living poor. Eating dried beans instead of hamburger, wearing worn-out shoes and rags instead of buying adequate shoes and work clothes, etc.

    When an employee is in debt he does maximal scrimping until the debt is paid off.

    When an employee thinks he has a good deal, next turn he can roll one die and if the result is even he can get the same deal again. Otherwise he has to move on.

    When an employee saves enough money he can start competing to buy properties and gradually invest his way out of employee status.

    Every now and then when an employee is rolling for jobs, the capitalist players can talk about how great it is he gets to choose which job he wants. He has so much freedom! Everybody gets to take his own initiative and improve his position, and nobody coerces anybody else.

    When a capitalist loses all his money, he becomes an employee in debt and has the chance to scrimp to collect the stake to rebuild his fortune.

  25. That’s a GOOD idea, but I’m probably too cynical to write it. My natural thought is that if a capitalist draws it, then the revolution fails and the capitalist who draws it can take one property from each other capitalist in the confusion.

    If an employee draws it, then they can declare the gave over, the employees won. Or they can keep playing, the full employees decide which of the employee-capitalists to accept as employees. Then they vote on which of their remaining revolutionaries to keep. There will be at least two of them because it takes two to vote out a third. They remove all the hotels to symbolize the property damage during the revolution, and the revolutionaries split up all the properties among themselves by a method they choose together. The former capitalists become employees, and the game continues.

    If an employee-capitalist draws it then he gets to choose. But if he chooses revolution he might get voted out.

    I guess you could play it as a real socialist revolution. You build hotels on every property, and don’t charge anybody rent. Every turn you write down the rent you would have paid as the value of the services you receive that turn, and watch everybody get valuable services at random in ways that will kind of gradually average out. It doesn’t sound like an exciting game. ;)

  26. “Hmm, it used to be that things really sucked and then we moved in the direction of more freedom. This move is generally painful and often seems impossible a priori but then seems inevitable afterwards.”

    Yeah. This. And I’d add, “greater equality” which goes along with more freedom, and might be more significant as it is, at least, easier to define.

  27. Freedom, by itself, is a meaningless term. Free to what?

    As used in this country, it likely means:

    Freedom to die for want of medical care
    Freedom to starve
    Freedom to sleep on the streets
    Freedom to live in fear of your fellow citizens/the police
    Freedom to discriminate
    Freedom to lie, cheat, and steal, as long as you have enough money that you don’t need to

    Equality strikes closer to what we need.

  28. larswyrdson:

    How many people in the U.S. starve to death? Our problem in the U.S. lies with malnutrition, not undernourishment. And that problem can be directly traced to the government’s dietary guidelines (in fairness to your likely viewpoint, the government’s policies were influenced by corporate interests).

    How many die of exposure?

    Being scared of your neighbors/government agents? Identify where people are less afraid of government/neighbors. My review suggests that homogeneity is correlated with peaceful neighbors and robust democracy with non-abusive government agents.

    Discrimination? We have laws that prohibit discrimination based on enumerated characteristics. Do they work? Yes. Have they eliminated discrimination? No. Study the countries that have less significant discrimination than the U.S. My review here leads to no conclusions I am comfortable endorsing. Discrimination ebbs and waxes. What is considered undesirable discrimination is not uniform. In any event, feel free to make the argument that discrimination would be less severe in a socialist country. I’ll just refer you to the number of Jews who emigrated from the USSR as soon as they were allowed to do so.

    The strength of the U.S. is not that it gets everything right or that it is the “best” place in the world. The strength is that we are free to criticize the hell out of how things are done. And criticism leads to change and sometimes improvement. Contrast that with socialism: “None of us desires or is able to dispute the will of the Party. Clearly, the Party is always right… And if the party adopts a decision which one or another of us thinks unjust, he will say: just or unjust it is my party, and I shall support the consequences of the decision to the end.” I condemn this viewpoint and endorse: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.” and “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

    Equality. There’s nothing commendable about being equally miserable. Many of the most influential libertarians in the U.S. are immigrants from eastern bloc countries. They did not enjoy the equality they experienced.

  29. “How many people in the U.S. starve to death?”

    We don’t keep good statistics about that. Most of the people who starve to death are homeless, and we don’t count them very well for some reason.

    “How many die of exposure?”

    Again, mostly homeless and the statistics are not kept well.

    People mostly do not starve or die of exposure while they can make rent. I’m not sure exactly why that is.

  30. I just confirmed that the medical examiners/coroners of both Hennepin County and Los Angeles County publish annual reports on people who die unattended by a physician. The reports list cause of death. Death due to exposure is a tiny number. Neither listed any deaths due to starvation. I’d post links, but then skzb would have to moderate this comment. I’d rather he drink some scotch.

    In my city, we have cooling shelters on hot days and the police department offers rides to our homeless population. That’s relatively easy in my city since our homeless population is in the range of 9-12 individuals who all are known by the police department.

    The idea that “we don’t count them very well” is false. There are extensive data, both government and private, on the homeless. For example, in 2017, 831 homeless people died in Los Angeles County. The vast majority of them were due to untreated illnesses (e.g., alcoholism, pneumonia, cancer, etc.). There were more many more homicides than deaths due to exposure. No deaths are attributed to starvation.

    When you state “we don’t count them very well,” you are revealing something about yourself. Society cares more than you realize.

  31. LA might do it very well, I don’t know. You gave a precise number for 2017, 831. That number could be correct.

    But some places, the police do not always want to go through the paperwork of handing off homeless corpses to the coroner.

    Sometimes it’s just easier to put the surplus bodies with the others.

  32. Any place that tolerates the unregulated dumping of bodies is not going to have a large homeless population.

  33. kuku- Once again, I’m not going to address your individual points, because pointless, and also, who has time, but, let me ask you one in exchange:

    How much hunger/poverty/fear/homelessness is acceptable?

    In the country with the highest GDP in the world, what is an acceptable level of abject poverty?

    I consider the question to be rhetorical, but answer if you like.

  34. In the US, death by starvation is unlikely. Undernourishment leading to susceptibility to disease which is then untreated is almost certain to happen first.

    And why are we talking about this? Because it is very important to someone to show that capitalism is not immoral.

    Why does someone want to show that capitalism is not immoral? See original post.

  35. skzb:
    Pretty much. I would characterize it as malnutrition as opposed to undernourishment (recognizing the concepts overlap). But the point that the vulnerable elements of population succumb to secondary causes of death that are more likely because of malnutrition and other neglect accurately reflects my understanding. I also agree that I don’t believe capitalism is more immoral than any other system being considered.

    Hunger/starvation used to be a real issue in the U.S. As such, it received a lot of attention in the press. Which in turn led to a lot of action by the government and private institutions. Hunger/starvation in the U.S. is significantly less of an issue now than it was previously because of actions taken by private institutions and the government.

    So, the answer to your question is: The amount of a particular evil which is acceptable to society is that amount where society (and I use society as shorthand to reference the cumulative effect of disparate elements) feels that additional efforts to ameliorate the issue are unnecessary.

    The prior answer also explains why I strenuously rejected Jonah’s claim that the homeless are not counted. Homelessness is a growing phenomenon in the U.S. and both private institutions and government study are devoting greater resources to studying and addressing it. We do care. We are acting. We have not yet reached the point where we feel no further efforts are necessary. To the contrary, we are in the phase of increasing efforts.

  36. kuku- yep, that is pretty much the answer I thought you would give. That is the answer required by viewing profit and inequality as necessary facts of life, rather than choices.

    What is an acceptable level of poverty?

    My only answer is none. There is no acceptable level of poverty in a community that produces enough for all of its members. If one citizen owns five homes when five citizens have none, then the system is deeply, fatally flawed. If one citizen eats aged NY steaks while one child goes to bed hungry, then the system is not working.

    You’ve tried to make a lot of hay out of my using the word “starve”, like it is a ridiculous exaggeration that invalidates my argument. Food insecurity is the bloodless, clinical term usually used by statisticians. in 2016, 12.3% of US households were food insecure. That means, at least some of the time, they didn’t have enough food to get through a day. More than 1 in 10 citizens of the richest country in the world sometimes can’t feed themselves or their children. Does that seem OK to you?

    Since 1995, those numbers have gone up and down, but not really changed much. They weren’t new in 1995 either.

    You make it sound in your last paragraph like there is a marvelous cornucopia of aid about to pour out of all the charities, churches, and government entities. Aside from the question of why you suddenly are OK with armed thugs picking your pockets to feed the lazy, I am a little lost about what you are even talking about. Receipts? Last I heard from the ruling party, the only plan was to gut all government aid to the poor, not increase it.

  37. larswyrdson: “There is no acceptable level of poverty in a community that produces enough for all of its members.” Sustained applause.

  38. larswyrdson:

    I have, apparently, miscommunicated something. When I talk about what is acceptable to society, I am not stating what is acceptable to me. When I talk about societal response, I am not talking about what is acceptable to me. I tried, again inadequately apparently, to signal this was an issue when I stated that society is shorthand for the cumulative effect of disparate actors.

    The idea that I am ok with armed agents of the government taking money from me to use for purposes I condemn is incorrect. The idea that I approve of how government spends money (taken from me at gunpoint) on issues I agree need to be addressed, also is incorrect.

    I believe there is substantial truth in the phrase, “Perfection is the enemy of good.” I understand you (and many others who discuss issues on skzb’s blog) want perfection. I want to make things better. I believe there is an inherent tension between the desires of the individual and what is best for society. As already noted, I favor the individualism viewpoint of the spectrum. You favor the societal viewpoint of the spectrum. I am committed to your right to advocate for socialism. I believe your vision of perfection is irreducibly incompatible with the individualism viewpoint. Under my moral framework, the perfection you want (at least as I perceive what you want) is evil.

    You and I are not the only people who read this blog. Kapish?

  39. No, ending poverty is not evil. The question is whether the means to obtain a desirable end can be evil.

    First, define poverty. Most people living in poverty in the U.S. look nothing at all like most people living in poverty in Afghanistan, Mexico, or Nigeria.

    Next, why do you object to poverty? Is it because a person is unable to acquire sufficient food and shelter? Is it because of unequal wealth? Something else? For example, my objection to poverty is at its most acute when it leaves a child unable to obtain food and shelter. If poverty means a person has fewer material possessions than another, then my concern is less acute.

    Next, what do you mean by eliminating poverty? If everyone in the U.S. was equal at 40% of the average income level, would that satisfy your desire for the elimination of poverty? This means that many millions of Americans would have their standard of living lowered. Is raising the standard of living for 5 million people worth lowering the standard of living of 50 million people?

    Finally, as I understand your conception of perfection, the rights of individuals would necessarily be drastically curtailed in favor of equality. This is what I referenced as evil. What price are you willing to pay to eliminate poverty? Everyone living at 40%? 35%? 20%? Compulsory service? You almost certainly agree that some things are not worth eliminating poverty. For example, enslaving everyone so that everyone can have ample food and shelter is wholly unacceptable to me. I am not stating that socialism=universal slavery. Merely making the point that you have to consider whether the means justify the ends.

    As skzb argued in his original post, what we consider moral is very different.

  40. kuku:As usual, you can only picture dystopia.
    The per capita income (bea.gov) is currently 47126. The poverty level is 12060. By just leaving the total amount of income the same, everyone would be out of poverty.

    Of course, that’s not the total that could be available as income. That’s the total currently meted out. The total available is harder to calculate but 80000 looks pretty easy to achieve.

    That’s just two adjustments.

  41. @kukuforguns “Is raising the standard of living for 5 million people worth lowering the standard of living of 50 million people?”

    It looks to me like we’re asking the wrong questions and defining the wrong terms.

    But before I look at that, the big disconnect I have with your arguments is this: You can reasonably argue in favor of personal freedom, non-coercion, free markets, and even capitalism. But somehow it often sounds like you are arguing in favor of the status quo. And what we have now is not particularly personal freedom, non-coercion, free markets, or even capitalism.

    And the only reasonable argument I can see in favor of the status quo is that it is the status quo and there’s nothing anybody can do about it so you have to like it or lump it.

  42. “Standard of living” is a concept that kind of made sense once upon a time. Kind of. But it makes very little sense now.

    It follows as the night the day that if you earn more money, you will have a more expensive car. Does that mean your standard of living has gone up?

    Say that you commute to work. You commute an hour a day through rush hour traffic. Maybe an hour each way. Assuming your car works — particularly the brakes are completely reliable — the main difference between a great car and an adequate car is the seat cushions, the air conditioning, and the stereo. You can use earbuds to substitute for the stereo. You are spending one to two hours a day being punished for your lifestyle, and your great car does not improve your standard of living much at all.

    It’s mostly that way right down the line. The dream is toxic. You can eat great Kobe beef that is toxic. You can live in toxic luxury housing. Some of the cheap stuff is worse, and you mostly don’t know which is which.

    What wealth gives you is more choices. Maybe not better choices, but more of them. If you are wealthy enough you can fly across the Atlantic — elite class — whenever you want to. Air travel is not particularly good for you. But you get the choice.

    The way we are living is unsustainable. We will have to give it up. We cannot continue. We can fight to keep it going the same for a decreasing number of people, but at best it will dwindle away.

    We have built our whole way of life on carcinogenic fossil fuels. We are burning carcinogens at least a thousand times faster than they are being produced. Maybe they aren’t being produced any more. We are going to run out. We cannot continue.

    Partly because of zoning laws, we build houses in ridiculously inefficient ways. They are expensive. We can’t build them a lot cheaper, partly because a whole lot of Americans have their retirements tied up in the value of their houses. When the time comes that few people can afford the drafty, hard-to-heat/very-hard-to-cool super-expensive termite heavens, a lot of old people will be hurting. They will try to get the government to bail them out by doing things to keep the price of housing high.

    What we have is not standard of living. Things are not more valuable just because they are expensive and no alternative is allowed.

    Part of the problem is that people have no idea what they want. They tend to want what they are told to want, what advertisers tell them to want. What the movies tell them to want. They get to choose that stuff to the extent they can afford it.

    So when they can’t have it, when lardly anybody can have it, they will feel more deprived.

    There was a time when silk stockings were a big deal. There was no way we could produce enough silk for everybody. But then we got mass-produced nylon stockings, and they’re cheap, and they don’t much matter. They aren’t the same as silk stockings — some people say they aren’t as good. But they aren’t such a big deal either.

    Maybe it will turn out like that about a lot of things.

  43. I capisch. I’ll conclude my discussion with you by saying only this:

    If your individual rights can only be secured by leaving children hungry, then those rights aren’t worth fighting for. I’m not sure you know what evil is.

  44. Lars: Yes, you’re right. But. I keep coming back to this: it is easy to dismiss Kuku as a bad person, or someone operating on an “evil” morality. This is probably not true, and, in any case, tells us nothing useful. Go back to the OP. His morality is that of a particular class, and serves the interests of that class. I reject the morality of that class because of my opposition to their interests, as I believe the working class is the historically progressive class. My morality follows suit.

    That’s the point: in class society, there is no ideology that does not serve the interests of a particular social class. Morality in the service of the ruling class is naturally going to be abhorrent to those of us who have rejected the values of the ruling class. This is what leads some, in the name of “personal freedom” and “individuality” to fight as hard as they can against the sort of social changes that will provide personal freedom and allow the fullest development and expression of each individual according to that individuals wish.

    The first step is understanding the relationship between the class struggle and ideology.

  45. Holodomor=evil

    Great Chinese famine=evil

    The changes that are causing the Venezuelan tragedy=evil


    Good intentions can have consequences more catastrophic than evil intentions.

    “What wealth gives you is more choices. Maybe not better choices, but more of them.” More choices is better. This is one of my deepest concerns about progressivism, the idea that the individual is not the best arbiter of the individual’s best interests.

  46. “This is one of my deepest concerns about progressivism, the idea that the individual is not the best arbiter of the individual’s best interests.”

    I have concerns along those lines too. We are not just seven billion individuals. Somehow we have to make choices on a larger level. We are in the beginning stages of a mass extinction event, that’s likely to be one of the half dozen biggest in the last billion years. It’s because of the sum total of our individual choices.

    Genetic diversity is a wealth that cannot be duplicated. Each species has survived the last 30,000 years in its own way, in its own place in an ecology, and we can’t get that back in less than 30,000 years. After previous extinction events the adaptive radiation went on for millions of years.We are throwing away wealth — maybe our own survival as a species — without much thought. Just the sum total of our individual freedoms.

    But we have not created effective organizations to work in our common interest. Pretty much all of our big organizations are modeled on the Roman army and the Catholic church. A few trained individuals who apply some sort of organization to a horde of people who get much less training. And the Catholic church is as close as we have to an organization that does long-term thinking. From my point of view it looks like its long-term thinking is mostly limited to ensuring its own survival in changing environments. Its policies zig and zag, and that’s the only constant.

    We desperately need to organize on a large scale, for the long-term purpose of human survival, and we just don’t know how.

    Our individual choices spread carcinogens and mutagens widely, without even noticing. We are destroying the environment we depend on.

    Our lack of organization gives some people tremendous “success”. Somebody was in charge of building the Great Pyramid. He organized a whole lot of people who cut well over a million giant limestone blocks, and well over a thousand giant granite blocks, and he got them organized to fit the things together to tight specifications. One of the wonders of the world. I’m sure he personally benefitted.

    Henry Ford invented the modern factory. Thousands of workers who each did one simple job, at precisely the right time and at the right rate, to produce a product so cheap they could afford to buy it themselves. Ford rightly distrusted banks, and he put his millions of profit in his basement and he may have had a major part in creating the Great Depression. He changed the nature of US cities. We could not have our kind of daily rush-hour traffic jam with trolleys. He changed the pattern of teen-age dating. Teen-age couples could not drive a long distance from their relatives and “run out of gas” etc without cars. The automobile created a market for gasoline.

    Every now and then somebody manages to change the whole society around with no particular forethought for the consequences. That’s freedom. We can’t afford it. And we have not found any workable alternative.

    Individualism by itself is not enough. It is not survivable.

    But big government is also not adequate, and big TBTF oligopolies even less so.

    Mostly, science fiction writers have not even imagined something that could work. Frank Herbert imagined the Bene Gesserit, an organization that planned on a scale of thousands of years. but they also had thousands of planets they could try things out on, and write off their failed experiments. Also he imagined a society controlled by an immortal sandworm who remembered all the details of human history.

    None of us have imagined a solution. Maybe we have to just accept that societies will collapse and their populations will crash, and hope we don’t go extinct any time soon.

  47. I am all about increasing choices. Most people currently don’t have many useful choices at all.

    I’m not sure why kukuforguns picks this place (of all places) and argues as if anyone here is against choices. Look at the name — The Dream Cafe — it’s all about imagining and finding choice.

    At its heart, conservative thought is about resisting change. Recent studies suggest this may be a built in fear mechanism.

    Here are a couple SF thoughts on fear:
    “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

  48. Steve: “At its heart, conservative thought is about resisting change. Recent studies suggest this may be a built in fear mechanism.”

    If the second sentence is true, then shouldn’t the first sentence be “Conservatism is about avoiding danger”?

    And, no, I am not a conservative. Jonah recently made the comment that “But somehow it often sounds like you are arguing in favor of the status quo.” From my perspective, I attribute this perception to my obvious distrust for socialism, which is the preferred solution of many here. I have not voted for a successful Presidential candidate for three decades, for a successful federal candidate for more than a decade. I volunteer on behalf of minority advocacy groups, I donate food, I actively participate in my local government to oversee law enforcement agencies. I am not satisfied with the status quo. I am, in short, trying to change the status quo.

    “I’m not sure why kukuforguns picks this place …” Shit, it couldn’t be because I like skzb’s work? It couldn’t be because I recognize I know shit all about socialism in comparison to skzb and am here learning at the same time as I am posting? It couldn’t be that I don’t want to live in an echo chamber where everyone says things that reinforce my inclinations? Life is a path. I’m still alive. I have not arrived at my destination and plan not to for a long while.

    skzb can tell me to bug off if he wants and I’ll stop posting. And if I don’t, he knows how to use a ban hammer.

  49. Steve:
    Socialism as it has been implemented (or purportedly implemented ) is less compatible with individual liberty than the status quo. I am not convinced that the next time it is purportedly implemented, it “will provide personal freedom and allow the fullest development and expression of each individual according to that individual’s wish.”

  50. Briefly and roughly:
    a) Socialism hasn’t been implemented as far as I know. Trotsky & co. started in the right direction but were betrayed.

    b) Socialism is the economic system in which the means of production are owned, controlled and administered by the people and for the people. For individuals, socialism is an end to the exploitation of capitalism. Free individuals who now have a chance to actually develop their own potentials within an actually classless society.

    That sounds more compatible with individual liberty than the status quo to me.

  51. When people live together they encroach on each other. The more people living in one area, they more they necessarily encroach. Their choices affect each other, and often reduce each other’s independent choices.

    Government is all about an organized way to reduce people’s choices. Government is all about punishing people for breaking the laws and regulations.

    Some people believe that the way things unfold independent of government is somehow natural and normal, and the way it ought to be. People who encroach on each other without government have a natural right to do it, except for the ones who don’t have that right and should be stopped.

    I personally believe that it often has to do with people who had authoritarian fathers. Their fathers ordered them around, and they noticed they don’t like getting ordered around. They don’t want police or governments ordering them around either. They want a world that doesn’t remind them of their fathers. I don’t know how often it’s that way. It’s been that way for every one I know about, but that’s a small sample.

  52. Kuku: I just wanted to correct a statement you made earlier, which also gives some insight to the current discussion. The statement “Our problem in the U.S. lies with malnutrition, not undernourishment. And that problem can be directly traced to the government’s dietary guidelines” is not actually true. There is abundant evidence that what people eat has essentially no relation to what is recommended to them (check various studies based on USDA food availability surveys and Nielsen Homescan data if you don’t believe me. Also, beware of people using the classic trick to mislead with statistics of presenting relative amounts rather than absolute amounts when they, eg. show changes over time based on the NHANES survey data). Also, the most well established facts from nutrition research are that people can’t stick to diets and that they lie to themselves as well as to researchers about what they eat. While in principle people can choose what they eat, in practice it is much more influenced by what is readily available and how it is marketed than anybody likes to admit to themselves. And what is marketed to them is a result of profitability and the ability of corporations to establish monopolies. Control of shelf space in stores by providing multiple versions of essentially the same product from the same company and control of what is sold in schools are two ways corporations use to direct people to eat their products.

    In other words, companies market the illusion of choice, and very few people are self aware enough to realize how much they are influenced by the people doing the marketing. And the marketing is driven by short term profitability, not long term health of their customers.

    Another way to see that people do not logically make their own choices is in how companies advertise. If people made rational choices, companies would just promote objective information about their products. Anybody in a marketing department who actually suggested something like that would find themselves out of a job real quick. But selling illusions that kill people is well rewarded (see any smoking ad ever made).

  53. “shouldn’t the first sentence be “Conservatism is about avoiding danger”?

    Conservatism is about avoiding perceived danger.

    We know the status quo has worked so far. Any alternative has not worked so far and is under suspicion.

    Conservatism says to maintain a strong military because we can only maintain the status quo if we are not defeated by a foreign army. It’s safer to be strong.

    Conservatives oppose radical changes — for example the radical changes that Libertarians want — because anythng that’s done in a new and different way is likely to be done MORE wrong than what we’re doing already

  54. One of the things we have to deal with is tribalism. A tribe is a bunch of people who think of themselves as a separate people. They try to look out for each other, and they cooperate with each other to fight other tribes.

    A person can belong to multiple tribes at once. He can root for a football team, or even be a team member. He can belong to the Lions Club or Rotary. He can have fond feelings for his own state, and for the USA, if he is a Marine veteran he is probably a Marine for life, and he may feel strongly about his chosen veteran’s association. He may be partisan for his union, his church, and his child’s little league baseball team.

    The tribe is the people who feel tribal. Often the tribe will have a defined membership, but the real membership consists of the members who care.

    So for example Israel exists to provide a refuge for all Jews everywhere who need sanctuary. Its tribal membership does not correspond with Israeli citizens. A fair number of Israeli citizens feel no particular loyalty to their government or even to the Zionist ideal. While many Jewish people who are not citizens do feel loyal. And many Jews are anti-Zionist to varying degrees given the inadequate Zionist response to various challenges and the resulting bad publicity. Zionists want to think of all Jewish people as their tribe, but the actual tribe is Zionists.

    Similarly, some people want to think of their tribe as the working class. but their actual tribe is socialists or whatever fraction of socialists they think of as not their enemy. Just like some Jews are anti-zionist, many working-class people are anti-socialist.

    It’s possible though that a group of working-class people might take over. And they might be better for the whole society than the last people who took over.

    One good thing about a working-class take over, is that they would have to organize, and they would have to organize in a way that was effective. And being working-class and lacking money and other resources, their organization would necessarily have to work simply and effectively.

    A working-class organization that did not have support from people who control significant resources, would have to eliminate corruption in itself or else fail. So if it happens at all, it’s likely to be pretty good.

  55. MSER: It will take me a while to review and synthesize.

    Steve: Lots of places have stated they have implemented socialism or communism. I understand you don’t believe them. It’s why I included the phrase purportedly implemented.

    In addition, the fact that so many places/people have mis-implemented socialism (typically via corruption), means I’m pretty darn suspicious of anyone who advocates for socialism. Socialism either is currently impossible to implement or currently only charlatans state they are implementing socialism.

    The eternal optimism of socialists puzzles me. If people have attempted in good faith to implement socialism, then it follows that they all have failed. If no one has attempted in good faith to implement socialism, then it follows that charlatans have misled hundreds of millions of souls … typically with catastrophic consequences for the human condition.

    How do you satisfy yourself that failure/deception will not likely follow? Do you have any doubts?

  56. “Also, the most well established facts from nutrition research are that people can’t stick to diets and that they lie to themselves as well as to researchers about what they eat.” -MSER

    Well put, and I’m pretty sure it could be expanded: “The only well established facts from research that utilizes polls are that people are mercurial and that they lie to themselves as well as to researchers about what they do.”

    Steve Halter’s post where he wrote a definition of socialism reminded me of this question: The workers owning the means of production has been tried in small scale through quite a few employee-owned companies. The track record of which, as far as I can tell, is not particularly good. If we can agree that this is the case, what is the reasoning that scaling the experiment up to a country or world size would change the outcome?

    Jonah, you (rightly) bringing up “tragedy of the commons” in regards to the environment reminds me of another – Would a company owned by the people not fall into this much more easily than one owned by a person or small board?

  57. Nathan: It isn’t merely about one company, but about central planning. And, whatever else one can say about the betrayal of socialism by the Stalinists, the socialized property relations and central planning proved their worth beyond question.

  58. kukuforguns:Every human institution has failed over the course of time for pretty much every reason one can think of.So, failure isn’t really proof of unworkability.

  59. @Nathan S. “Would a company owned by the people not fall into this much more easily than one owned by a person or small board?”

    Look at big modern corporations? Owned by a whole lot of people, but usually for al practical purposes they are owned by their CEOs. Sometimes with some review by a Board of Directors, while sometimes the BOD is packed with his lackeys.

    The mass of stockholders guess what’s going on from public information, and decide whether to buy or sell.

    Wouldn’t you expect the model for a company owned by “the people” to be pretty much like that? We don’t have a good way for a whole lot of owners to make decisions. The main decision they make is the occasional proxy war. Big organizations “owned by the people” would probably work out a lot like that. It wouldn’t really mean much.

  60. @Steve Halter “Every human institution has failed over the course of time for pretty much every reason one can think of.So, failure isn’t really proof of unworkability.”

    John Gall in _Systemantics_ points out that most big organizations spend most of their time in failure mode. And that people have adjusted their expectations to consider failure to be normal, and therefore some kind of acceptable success.

    If every human institution fails, maybe that is evidence that human institutions are not particularly workable.

  61. skzb: Interesting. I guess that gives me a followup question on how to avoid such a betrayal (and mismanagement). Seems that the central planning needs to be done by people who will be capable enough to do it, good enough to not misuse the frankly incredible amount of power given, and somehow insulated from any perfidy. Putting the revolutionaries in charge seems to be a bad bet historically, and elected officials? It is to laugh. Is there even enough information for the most brilliant and altruistic to pull it off? Possibly, but forgive me for being dubious. Perhaps AI will be of some use, but that opens up another can of frightening scenarios.

    Steve Halter: I’ll give that paper a read, but on a brief glimpse it seems it is more regarding companies where employees own stock, as opposed to employees controlling policy. Is that what is meant when you say ownership? Your second point, you’re absolutely correct, a socialist economy seems much more complex, with likely an order of magnitude more FUBAR possibilities and consequences thereof. Third point, a benevolent, nigh-omniscient dictator would be a fantastic governor. Problem is finding the blighter. At least in the corporate world, competition tends to weed out the more problematic ‘dictators’ in favor of better ones. No such check on governors.

    So I’m not a fan of dictatorship in government, but pretty much for it in regards to companies, as long as those dictators’ fortunes are tied to the success of the company. The best run companies are ones where the few highest skilled people are in charge, are personally invested in success or failure, and know what policies to set for long term gain, even though that means losing money – their money – in the short term. A company asking all the workers who count on stable income to vote on, say, a pay decrease for an indefinite stretch of time to tool up for a new product line is nearly as bad as having it owned by stockholders halfway around the world just looking for the next quarterly report to be in the black so they can dump at a profit.

    Jonah: As I alluded to above, if ‘ownership’ means the workers and the guy or gal whose family name is on the sign own stock while short term rent-seeking traders don’t, I’m all for it. Not so much if it means the workers take weekly turns to be CEO and their decisions have to be ratified at special biweekly meetings by simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs but by two-thirds majority in the case of…

  62. @Natan S “a socialist economy seems much more complex, with likely an order of magnitude more FUBAR possibilities and consequences thereof.”

    It looks about the same to me.

    Chernobyl versus Fukushima.

    Internally they look similar. A government bureaucracy versus a giant oligopoly bureaucracy, organized about the same way.

    The government bureaucracy gets occasional random orders from Congress or from political hacks appointed to head them. The private bureaucracies are supposed not to pay attention to anything except profit. Which is worse?

    It would be *possible* for a socialist bureaucracy to make more complex brittle planning than a collection of capitalist bureaucracies, because officially they are supposed to share their planning and results, while capitalist bureaucracies keep their plans secret hoping to beat their competitors. But in practice, the socialist bureaucracies would soon find that they can’t depend on each other to do what they say they will do, and so they would plan conservatively, and the result should be about the same.

    If we got something like a real socialism organized along different lines than the existing system or the “socialist” systems, we can’t predict very well what it would do. It would probably be better in some ways than what we have or else there would be no excuse to keep doing it. It would probably be worse in some ways too. But we can’t say much about it because it would be something we can’t predict very well.

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