Be virtuous, or else

The reasons people support power and coercion can be easy to understand. They want something somebody else has. They’re looking for the favor of the powerful. They can pursue their violent inclinations. They feel safer from real or imagined dangers. But when they feel virtuous about it, it can be harder for libertarians to understand. Why do some people want to kill those who disagree with their notion of God? Why do others want to take away people’s freedom to decide whom they’ll do business with? And why do they feel they’re better people for pushing these things?

There are lots of contributing factors. One which comes to my mind right now is the belief that you can force people to be virtuous. If you can make people be good, that’s a good thing, right? It’s possible, of course, to make people do things, if the alternative is going to jail or worse. But can doing this really them better? (Let’s leave aside, for the moment, what “better” really means.) Can force and threats make people believe in somebody’s ideal and live by it? The answer isn’t a clear “no.”

There’s something in many minds that equates power with moral authority. Signs in stores say “It’s not just wrong, it’s illegal,” presenting penalties as a higher standard than mere rightness. Punishment can induce a sense of guilt, not just fear. It’s as if people equate the humiliation of being overpowered with the humiliation of wrongdoing. In the extreme case there’s “Stockholm syndrome,” in which people take the side of those who hold power over them.

This has to be related to social pressure and tribalism. In an earlier post, I wrote about social pressure as a substitute for argument. Being afraid of disapproval, people pretend to themselves to accept what they think is the dominant view. Fear of punishment works much the same way, and if people imagine they believe something, then eventually they’ll start really believing it.

It makes a difference whether people see authority as part of their own group or not. Prisoners of war don’t often feel guilty of being on the wrong side, unless their captors are expert at brainwashing. Clever authorities play the good cop-bad cop game, acting as if they could be friends instead of punishing you. These tricks let authority seem less like an enemy and more like a “big brother.”

The exercise of power really can change people’s standards. The problem is that it can promote any standard, whether it’s good or horrible. Boko Haram uses brutal power to spread the idea that education is evil and rape is good. In a “debate” based on force, it’s the side with better armaments, not better arguments, that wins.

But when people decide they’re right anyway and don’t need reasons, force looks like an attractive option. They forget that the only way they can know they’re right is to use the best reasoning possible, or perhaps they never knew it. If a bludgeon can beat sense into people, they think, why not use it?

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5 Responses to “Be virtuous, or else”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    But when they feel virtuous about it, it can be harder for libertarians to understand.

    Frankly, Gary, I’m very puzzled to see you say that. Surely you know that Ayn Rand was the first thinker to understand the fundamental reasons why people feel virtuous about forcibly imposing their views on others, and that she thoroughly and clearly explained it. Libertarians – at least those libertarians who have read Rand and remember her discussion of this subject – are precisely the ones for whom this is easiest to understand.

    But when people decide they’re right anyway and don’t need reasons, force looks like an attractive option.

    You’re really putting this much too tentatively. For those who have no reason for supporting their own beliefs and morality, force is not just “an attractive option”; it is the only option. The two methods of settling disagreements between people are reason and force; when one’s own ideas of virtue are based on faith rather than reason, that leaves force as the only method of getting others to be virtuous.

    Faith, and the idea of imposing virtue on others by force, are usually associated with religion, but religion in itself is neither necessary nor sufficient. Many religious people today have been sufficiently influenced by modern, western, irreligious ideas that they are happy to live and let live with those who believe differently, and are just as horrified by attempts to impose religion by force as any libertarian; ultimately they are being inconsistent, but it is an inconsistency that many modern, western religious people do practice. Conversely, many progressives are formally not religious, but they hold their progressive beliefs with the same unreasoning faith as any religious dogma; and so when they work to forcibly impose their beliefs on others – for example to force employers to pay for covering contraception, or force photographers to take photos at same-sex weddings – they feel just as virtuous about it as any jihadist.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      In a lot of these cases (e.g., contraception), the claims of virtue are just a cover for wanting stuff at other people’s expense.

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        In the case of the Hobby Lobby decision, the fact is that the vast majority, of those expressing outrage over the decision, were not in any way personally affected. Also, the Obama administration has offered an “accommodation” to religious non-profits that allows their employees to get contraceptives at the insurance company’s expense without the employer formally covering it, and the court decision left them free to offer the same “accommodation” to for-profit businesses; there is no way that even one woman will lose access to contraceptives at other people’s expense as the result of this decision. So the outrage over the decision simply cannot be explained as “a cover for wanting stuff at other people’s expense”.

        The reason for the outrage over the decision is that choosing to run a business consistently with Christian principles, including not helping to provide types of contraceptives that one religiously objects to, is a lifestyle choice, just like the choice to marry someone of the same sex. Both are choices that some people believe to be sinful. And in both cases, the base of the belief in faith rather than reason leads people to want to forcibly impose their belief on others, and to feel virtuous about doing so.

      • Eyal Mozes Says:

        I would add that if there’s any “cover” going on here, it seems to be in the opposite direction from what you’re suggesting.

        Note that those attacking the decision are not explicitly saying that the decision require toleration for the sinful choices of businessmen like the Hobby Lobby owners. Instead, they’re saying that the decision will make women lose access to “free” contraceptives; a patently non-sensical claim that is refuted by a moment’s attention to the facts.

        So what seems to be happening here is that people are pretending to demand staff at other people’s expense, as a cover for their desite to forcibly impose their conception of virtue on others.

        • Gary McGath Says:

          A lot of these people aren’t paying a moment’s attention to the facts. They’ve just heard that they might not get free contraceptives and are just jumping off from there.


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