On Reinventing the Wheel

I am troubled by the fact that many  speakers and writers do not acknowledge or are ignorant of previous relevant writings on a topic, and really repeat saying what others have written; thus, “reinventing the wheel.”

What can explain this phenomenon? Well, it is obvious that people want to have personal success and income from their speaking and writing, and so, they try to get attention.  They want people to view their videos, read their books, and be invited to various interviews, debates, and lectures.

They succeed, in part, because they appeal to a wide ignorant audience, which is attracted by the speaker’s or writer’s entertainment qualities, rather then by his or her scholarship.

For example, what do I want from a writer on a topic such as ethics? I want him to begin with something similar to what C. D. Broad did in his Five Types of Ethical Theories (1930). This is what he wrote: “Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics seems to be on the whole the best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written, and to be one of the English philosophical classics.” p. 143.  And the bulk of Broad’s book — 113 pages our of a total 285 — is devoted to a critical examination of Sidgwick’s ethics.

I had tried to do something like this in my dissertation in the fields of epistemology and metaphysics . I did not outright say that Wilfrid Sellars is the best contemporary thinker on these topics, but I did so implicitly by choosing to critically examine his views and claiming that he had verisimilitude. Here is what I wrote: “The examined philosopher provides an occasion for developing one’s own philosophy, and this is especially rewarding if the examined philosophy has verisimilitude, as does that of Wilfrid Sellars. The conclusions I reach are very close to Sellars’ own — so close, in fact, that I am not certain whether what I am offering as correction are of things I am only misinterpreting.” Andrew Chrucky, “Critique of Wilfrid Sellars’ Materialism,” 1990.

I myself have not done any systematic work in ethics, but it seems that being able to pursue a critical examination of morals assumes a cultural and political  context of such things as having had an education which gives one the critical acumen to pursue such studies, as well as the leisure to do so; rather than working at some unrelated area for a wage; and the means to pursue such a study — as access to a suitable library or the means to purchase necessary books. And, most important, there is the necessity of cultural tolerance and the political right of free speech.

Although I have a concern with ethics, there are also the more basic problems of how to cope with people who do not have a concern with morals and how to cope with institutions which allow such people to flourish. It is a question how to wage war against such people and such institutions.

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights (2)

David Ritchie in his book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903, on p. 65,  gives the following description of one kind of anarchism, which he identifies with the French Radicals associated with the French Revolution of 1789.  I see no difference between this description and that of Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism.

“Anarchists are of three kinds. First of all, there is the old-fashioned Radical who repeats the revolutionary creed of 1789 in changed times, to whom an association called a government is an object of suspicion, whilst an association called a joint-stock company is an object of admiration. This old-fashioned Radical does not think himself a survival, but imagines that
he has the verdict of the newest science on his side.  He would abolish legislation, but would leave the judicial functions of government to enforce what he calls natural rights, but what are really the legal and customary rights resulting  from ancient legislation or want of legislation. He professes to give every one a fair start, but does not notice that the runners are unequally weighted. He calls himself an individualist, and is only a half-hearted Anarchist. His anarchy is anarchy based on the existing economic structure of society.  He believes in Nature, but forgets that it is a Nature that has been operating for ages among human beings. Nature to him really means human society under a completely triumphant  “Manchester School.” He would contribute to the amelioration of the species by abolishing all sanitary legislation, but would perhaps leave the tender-hearted private philanthropist a free hand in encouraging the propagation of beggars in order to give scope to his altruistic sentiments.”

Criticism of Murray Rothbard and Natural Rights

Let me start off by saying something about the phenomenon of the so-called “reinventing the wheel.” Sometimes people come up with old ideas (claims and theories) as if they created them.  (I am talking about ideas which have been published previously.) Now there are two ways of relating to previously published materials: either the person does not know of the previous publications, or he does. If he does, then he should give credit; otherwise, he is a plagiarist and a fraud. If, on the other hand, he does not know of the previous publication, then he is not a scholar — though he may be an original thinker. And scholarship — as I am too much aware — comes in degrees. (There is just too much being published.)

What is prompting me to think about this is the debate between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux on capitalism.  Molyneux is in the business of making a buck on the Internet as a self-proclaimed philosopher who claims to be an abyss of wisdom. In other words, he is posturing as if he has invented the wheel. And boastfully he characterizes himself as being, among other things, an anarcho-capitalist.

Because of the apparent popularity of anarcho-capitalism, I am interested is assessing  its merits; so I will turn my attention to the writer who came up with this label in the first place: Murray Rothbard.

I will limit my focus on the beginning chapters of his Ethics of Liberty (1982) where he lays down the foundations, or as Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his introduction (1998), wants to put it, the axioms of anarcho-capitalism.

Incidentally, there is a trivial sense of axiom in which any claim which is not derived from any other claim in a piece of writing is an “axiom.” If, however, this so-called axiom can be derived from some other claim not made by the author, then it is not an axiom. “Axiom” is then a relative notion within some system of claims.

As one begins to read Rothbard’s book, it is explicitly acknowledged by Rothbard that he is squarely in the Natural Rights tradition.

Rothbard, however, is definitely not a dialectical thinker. By a “dialectical thinker” I mean someone who will discuss alternative hypotheses and criticisms of the view he is defending. These alternatives and criticisms he can cull from published materials or through the consideration of possible alternatives. Such a procedure was used by Aristotle, by Abelard in Sic et Non, and by Thomas Aquainas.  Mortimer J. Adler recounts how he
discovered and was impressed by this approach in reading the Summa Theologica of Aquinas, where alternatives and criticisms are taken stock of and answered.

However, when we look at Murray Rothbard’s approach, we find at work what may be called Appeal to Authority. A claim is advanced and then a roster of famous authors is drawn up which supports the claim. This is not a dialectical examination. It is fine to cite and use the arguments of others for a claim. In that way the claim can be formulated in its best light. But the dialectical author will then want to summon the best critics of this claim, and answer the critic, like did Aquinas.

Rothbard is working from a natural rights perspective, which seems to culminate for him in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

As to dialectics, i.e., taking stock of alternatives and answering criticisms, Rothbard’s approach is best described as composed of straw man and red herring tactics.

Why do I say this? First, because the only opponent which he deals with is called by him “Positivism.” He understands positivism to consist of the claim that all meaningful statements are either analytic or empirical; metaphysical claims are meaningless, while ethical claims express emotions.

Second, he cites Hannah Arendt, out of context, as a representative of “scientific philosophy”, to the effect that there is no human nature. Now, even if he were correct about Arendt — which he isn’t — to use one example of a philosopher to condemn a generation of philosophers is a very serious hasty generalization.

Not only is Murray Rothbard not a dialectical philosopher, but he is not even a respectable scholar. Why do I say this?

If I were to write about natural rights, I would look for some critical literature on this topic. And I don’t know how it is possible for a scholar to miss David Ritchie’s book Natural Rights: A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions, 2d ed. 1903. This is both a very scholarly book (full of references to previous scholarship) and a dialectical treatment — taking into account alternatives and criticisms.

As to more recent work, how could he miss Margaret Macdonald’s “Natural Rights,” (1946-47)?

A more serious scholarship should have included George Henrik von Wright’s “Deontic Logic” (1951), and his subsequent expansion of his ideas in Norm and Action and in The Varieties of Goodness (1963).

The conclusion all these writers reach is that talk of rights makes sense only in a social context. [“But the rights, in any case, are
determined by a society, and do not exist prior to the society.”  David Ritchie, Natural Rights, p. 267]. Rights are either granted by some authorities, or are agreed to by some group.  Rothbard’s alleged two property rights of self-ownership and homestead rights, and the non-aggression principles, are all a matter of decisions between people. What this means is that one can opt for or prescribe such rights, but without an agreement or coercion from others, these prescriptions are powerless.

[to be continued]