Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum
hernan

Predation: Virtue Or Vice?

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

I think the confusion stems from conflating the practice of respecting rights on a personal level and respecting rights on a political level. I don't think that there is much argument over why we should establish a government that respects rights from a rational egoist's perspective. Rights, in this political context, serve as "metanormative" principles, i.e. they are the preconditions of pursuing the good but not specific precepts advising us _how_ to achieve the good (man's life qua man). On the personal level, the question is: What is the _normative_ role of respecting rights, i.e. how does respecting another person's rights foster my flourishing as a rational egoist? For the vast majority of cases, violating rights will never be morally justified. However, when your car is on fire and your family is trapped inside, it is morally justified (and morally _mandatory_ if one holds one's life and rational values as the standard) to steal a fire extinguisher if you cannot obtain one peacefully.

The basic reason one should respect rights is because what is important as a human being is your fitness for achieving values, not the particular values you happen to have in your pocket at any given time. If you want to pull a major bank hit, it will require years and years of planning, lying, etc, all of which can get you caught. Even assuming you get away with it, you can't maintain your identity. You will probably have to flee the country, change your name, etc. You certainly cannot keep your career, friends, family, and so on--i.e. the things that are huge values; values more crucial to your life than money. Furthermore, the years spent on the bank heist are years that could have been spent building a great career, finding a great spouse, making friends, and so on. So while you get one value (money), you lose a constellation of more important values AND the ability to obtain them in the future (rather than spending those 5 years on a law degree, you spent them planning the bank job). So, why not steal 5 bucks? Aside from the tiny payoff and the potentially large cost (getting tossed in jail), the question is: why _would_ you steal that money? I don't know about other people here, but when I find money that isn't mine, I return it. I don'd do this for altruistic reasons, but because of pride. I think to myself, am I so weak and pathetic that I need this other person's lost money? So in that sense, pride and self-esteem are central factors. For a good discussion of normative versus metanormative principles and how they factor into a discussion of rights, check out _Liberty and Nature_ by Douglas Rasumussen and Douglas Den Uyl.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Please forgive me if I don't respond directly to each point that has been raised. I will do my best to address the essential points in one post.

Yes, my use of the term "libertarian" I meant normative ethics, not political parties. Libertarianism (and its variants) provides a well-enough defined model of rights and one might take the moral position that it is "wrong" to violate those particular rights but "ok" to violate other "rights" claimed by competing ideologies, namely the supposed connection between individual acts and social circumstances. (And I certainly don’t want to get caught up in internecine warfare between objectivists and libertarians.)

I've seen several attempts to carve out exceptions for violating rights. I find that approach totally unsatisfactory. There is much hidden in this sloppy wave of the hand that is being avoided.

When I say that men are both productive as well as predatory by nature I mean including the conquests by our Roman general. However, let me be clear that I am not suggesting that such a human nature “justifies” anything. I merely threw it out there as a matching bookend to man’s productive nature.

Me) “If there is a rational egoist argument for respecting rights I haven’t heard it yet.”

You) “I believe you have, and it is simple. It is impossible absent the use of force to have rights for myself while denying them to others, and those tables could be turned on me. In addition, if I find rights of value, what would be my motivation for denying them to others. I'm free as long as everyone has rights, when rights can be denied, I could find myself on the losing side.”

You are attempting a connection that does not hold up to rational analysis. You are overlooking the free rider problem.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't understand what your objection is. I gave an example in which violating another person's rights _is_ acceptable. When my car is on fire and my family is trapped inside and the only way I can secure a fire extinguisher is to steal it, then I am morally justified in violating the property rights of the extinguisher's owner. My point, however, was that such cases are emergencies and thus quite rare. I also gave a response as to why "prudent predation" is not a sound long-term life plan; namely because the values one receives from such a strategy (money or some other material good) pale in comparison to the one's that one must sacrifice.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I don't understand what your objection is.  I gave an example in which violating another person's rights _is_ acceptable.  When my car is on fire and my family is trapped inside and the only way I can secure a fire extinguisher is to steal it, then I am morally justified in violating the property rights of the extinguisher's owner.  My point, however, was that such cases are emergencies and thus quite rare.  I also gave a response as to why "prudent predation" is not a sound long-term life plan; namely because the values one receives from such a strategy (money or some other material good) pale in comparison to the one's that one must sacrifice.

I'm complaining about the construction of normative ethics that makes exceptions "in emergencies". I am suggesting that a more general approach would uncover the real tradeoffs involved in these kinds of decisions and lead to a much better understanding of the virtue of predation. Let's analyze first and then decide on it's rarity later. If you begin by assuming that it is rare then you will not treat it seriously.

Our example of the Roman general suggests that the predatory lifestyle, can, indeed, be a sound long-term life plan. (And, no, I'm not suggesting that you don your toga and go butcher the neighbors.)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

What concretely would the life of a prudent predator look like in the United States, year 2004? Certainly Roman Conquistador is out of the picture. What would it mean to be a free rider? Let's say jumping subway turnstiles, cheating on taxes, and so on. If you jump the turnstile every time, you will eventually get caught. If you cheat on your taxes every year, you are going to get caught. _That_ is why predation will be minimal. The only cases in which you can be a full time predator is like your Roman Emperor example. In the modern age, that means Stalin, Hitler, Sadam Hussein, Mussolini, etc. If you know anything about the actual personal lives of these people, they became literal psychopaths. They were neurotic, incapable of having meaningful personal relationships, and utterly incapable of happiness.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

A very fair question. I still want to return to my competing hypotheses but perhaps this will be an interesting sideline.

(Note that I hesitate to use the term "predatory" to mean "bad" exploitation but I'm willing to set that aside for the moment because I understand what you mean when you use the term.)

Let me begin by identifying an entire class of predatory practices that I know you will hate but are illustrative.

Visualize the system of rights that you espouse. Now visualize the American (or whatever) legal system. Note that the two do not match up. Anywhere that there is a difference is an example of "bad" predation that is nonetheless entirely legal. One might further constrain this space of predations by examining the actual tradeoffs involved (taking into account risk and self-esteem). I'm tempted to include every politician in this category.

Another class that is more interesting are predations that conform to law but which violate various other idologies. The mere act of making a profit is "predatory" to some people's thinking. Bill Gates is wealthy but loathed even by other businessmen (and not just the ones he bested).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Politicians are a good example. (I won't include businesspeople like Gates because he has amassed his wealth via production, not predation. As you say, other ideologies might dispute this, but that is a different question). But you commit a non sequitur. You say that their predatory actions are legal. Yet what class of predatory actions are we talking about? A senator taxing me is predatory and legal, but it is not for his direct material gain, i.e. my tax dollars aren't going into his bank account. Were it to go directly into his bank account, _that_ would be illegal and my original objections apply. In essence, legal predatory actions don't benefit the politician directly and illegal predatory actions are subject to my original criticisms.

What exactly do you mean by your "competing hypothesis" question? Is it that we ought to start our analysis with no preconceptions as to whether production or predation is superior? If so, I agree, however before _any_ moral discussion gets off the ground, we have to first define our standard of value. Now I am assuming that you agree with the Randian premise that our standard of value is our life, aka man's life qua man. Therefore, the question becomes, "Does predation foster or inhibit the pursuit of the good life?" which is the question I have been attempting to answer. If the question is, "Why is man's life qua man" our standard of value, we are not asking about predation in particular but about the foundations of value per se.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I disagree that politicians do not tax you for their gain. It's true that your taxes do not go directly into his pockets (at least not in America) but nevertheless the politician gains by the general system of which he is an essential part. Money is laundered around through budgets public projects and interest groups and campaign contributors. Ultimately, the politician chooses a course of action that gets him reelected, keeps him in power, etc. irrespective of who gets chomped in the process. Perhaps class action trial lawyers would be an example that better fits your idea of legal predation. They do skim directly into their own pockets.

I should probably provide a more formal definition of predation but the one I gave in my original post is pretty good.

The competing hypotheses I was referring to were those in my original post.

At the risk of sticking my foot in my mouth, I would hazzard to suggest that I agree with everything I read in VoS. (It's been a while since the last time I read it front to back so I may have to refine that blanket statement.) I happen to digress in that I think there is a positive aspect of irrationality that is not appreciated but I don't want to confuse this discussion with that issue.

So the question "Does predation foster or inhibit the pursuit of the good life?" is at least good enough to move the discussion forward (I suspect we'll be spending some time on definitions though).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Two issues here:

1. "Money is laundered around through budgets public projects and interest groups and campaign contributors."

This is the idea that the politician obtains money via illegal means and my original criticism applies.

2. "Ultimately, the politician chooses a course of action that gets him reelected, keeps him in power, etc. irrespective of who gets chomped in the process."

This is not the issue of predation we have been discussing. This is simply saying that politicians will do whatever it takes to get reelected. In a sense this is predation, however, in this case the "value" in question is political pull, not money. I would argue, independently of this dialogue, that political pull is not a value.

"Perhaps class action trial lawyers would be an example that better fits your idea of legal predation. They do skim directly into their own pockets."

OK, but let's look at this in the full context of our discussion. There is essentially one, or at most several, careers one can choose that enable him to be a predator as a way of life. However, I think that this is a valid question--Why is it better to be, say, a business person and not a class action lawyer? We have to delimit this further to class action lawyers that engage in immoral, predatory lawsuits, i.e. lawsuits against McDonald's. This brings us to your final question:

"Does predation foster or inhibit the pursuit of the good life?"

I am not in full agreement with VOS either, but I do maintain that rationality is the primary virtue and that the other virtues Rand delinates are in fact virtues and necessary for the good life. Do you accept this? If not, then we have to discuss fundamentals. If you do, here is my response. Let's look at the other virtues the lawyer must default on. First would be honesty--specifically, he must evade the fact that these people he is suing are innocent. Certainly justice--knowing that they are innocent, he is suing them anyway and not treating them in the manner they deserve. (I won't mention productiveness, because that is the virtue at issue but I am assuming you can see how he violates that principle) He violates integrity, because he knows he is being dishonest and unjust, yet he proceeds with his lawsuits anyway. He is not independent, because he is parasitic on the people he is suing. I already discussed the pride issue--i.e. Am I so weak that I need to use other people as a crutch?

Therefore, to be this type of lawyer is to violate all of the virtues. Therefore, if you accept that virtue is part of the good life, you see how the lawyer is not living a good life. But do you accept this premise?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I suspect that we've spent so much time on our bloody Roman butcher that we've obscured more pedestrian predation. The original definition I gave included this: "Living by or given to exploiting or destroying others for one's own gain." It just doesn't strike me as controversial to say this fits most politicians. But rather than argue about that let's cut to the chase.

I'm enough in agreement with VoS that I don't think it would be productive to spend time on that.

Unfortunately, your argument about the trial lawyer with the guilty conscious sounds much like the arguments against the Roman general. Most trial lawyers do not suffer these things, if anything they are imbued with extra doses of self-righteousness. The problem, again, is that you are assuming a universal concept of justice. To put it crassly, the trial lawyer's sense of justice is he wins, the other guy loses.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

True, I am assuming a universal sense of justice if by this you mean that there are objective standards of justice that apply to all human beings. Sure the lawyer may get a sense of self-righteousness from winning a case against a fast food company because he thinks that he is exacting justice. Or, you seem to be given us a more Nietzschean lawyer--i.e. justice is me getting what I want. In either case, the lawyer thinks he is just. However, even though he _thinks_ he is exacting justice, _in fact_ he is not. You might say that this is irrelevant; all that matters is what the lawyer personally believes. Yet, much like virtue is interconnected, facts are interconnected. Where does this lawyer get his concept of justice? It obviously presupposes a certain concept of man and of ethics. It's not as if this Nietzschean lawyer, or even the Marxist lawyer who thinks all corporations are evil, has this one, isolated belief but is able to be virtuous in all other things. Again, are we having this discussion in the context of Randian ethics? Someone who believes that might is right is in fundamental conflict with Randian ethics and thus would not be capable of living the good life (if we accept the good life in Rand's terms). It seems as if you have a broader problem with Rand's ethics, not just about predation.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
To put it crassly, the trial lawyer's sense of justice is he wins, the other guy loses.

Is your questions simply that even tho Ethics are well understood, there will still be those who reject good and genuinely enjoy being evil? The answer is yes. But as you have already noted, the rule does not depend upon the odd exception. Some humans are insane.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Right, to use academicese, Randians are externalist-realists about values. That means that values are not simply constructs of the mind and that these values can be "external" to our motivations, i.e. one can recognize these objective values yet fail to be motivated to live by them. See "Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics" by David Brink for an excellent defense of this metaethical view.

Aynfan, where did you get that quotation from Rand?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

By universal sense of justice I mean simply that everyone gets a guilty conscience over the same things (obviously they don't). But there is actually a more interesting question underlying that one: what use is justice in the rational egoist sense?

At the risk of taking this off on a tangent let me also toss in this grenade: I suggest that the concept of justice is, itself, an irrationality (albeit a useful one).

So maybe our trial lawyer is mistaken in his success and his happiness and his self-esteem and his self-righteousness but surely he will surely burn in objectivist hell.

Suffice it to say that I know that Rand would excommunicate me on the spot but that I do not personally view predation as incompatible with objective, rational egoism.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Oh, my, "good and evil". I'm almost afraid to tackle that one.

I do have an answer for you but let's play out the current discussion a little further first.

I was putting it crasly to cut through the bull. Reality is more complex, of course.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hernan, come now: "So maybe our trial lawyer is mistaken in his success and his happiness and his self-esteem and his self-righteousness but surely he will surely burn in objectivist hell." I know that there are many dogmatic, almost religious Objectivists. However, as you should have gathered, I am not among them. My point was that he doesn't possess genuine happiness and self-esteem. Happiness is not exactly the best word, I prefer flourishing. Flourishing is an objective condition; I can be mistaken about whether or not I am flourishing. So think of flourishing like health--you can think and feel that you are perfectly healthy, but in fact you have cancer. Over the long term of a life, your vices will catch up with you in _this_ world, not "Objectivist hell" (again, come on!) Take the extreme predators like Hitler and Stalin who ended up as psychotics. Trial lawyers don't end up psychotics necessarily because their predation and evasion isn't as extreme. But the idea is the same--there are certain objective requirements for human flourishing, the virtues among them. But now I think we are getting to the root issue: you think that justice is irrational. I'd like to hear your explanation of that. I also have a question--do you think that the Randian virtues are necessary for happiness/flourishing and do you think that the virtues are rational or irrational?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Just having a little fun with the "Objectivist hell" bit!

I suppose we should seriously tackle the question of "genuine" happiness and self-esteem but I loathe to go there. It just seem like we'll end up arguing without actual evidence either way. For my part, I truly believe that the Roman general flourishes in his conquests as does the trial lawyer.

If you really want to get serious on this topic I recommend "Adaptation to life" (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0674004140). It will not entirely satisfy you but it does address this issue in an objective, scientific way.

Again, I could be mistaken but as I recall VoS I liked what I read there (save for the bits like "you must be honest to be rational"). Perhaps I should reread it but I already have a reading assignment (OPAR).

With regards to justice, my contention is that it is a tradeoff, a bargain, a compromise. To really understand justice you have to look behind it at the social relationships it involves. The concept of "good" and "evil" are related this concept of justice (to tie up with anyfan's question). Your system of justice will determine what you regard as "good" and "evil". You will feel guilty when you violate your own sense of justice, not when you violate Rand's.

The Roman general's sense of justice will be compatible with his role as barbarian conquerer. Similarly for the trial lawyer who may genuinely hate "big business" or just love big paychecks (the latter being fodder for lawyer jokes among those with a different sense of justice).

Justice is irrational in the sense that in swallowing it you constrain your ego and erect walls around your freedom of action.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not sure what you mean by "justice is irrational in the sense that in swallowing it you constrain your ego and erect walls around your freedom of action." But to address your other point, I disagree that justice is primary and good and evil are derivative. On the contrary--the concept of good is fundamental. Speaking from a broadly Randian framework, we can define the good as "that which supports my life as a rational being." Justice is a means to achieving the good--it demands, in essence, that I evaluate other people correctly and treat them accordingly. The Roman emperor sees the good as personal power let's say, and his sense of justice is derived from this. So he might think it is just to subjugate other people, but this is because his fundamental concept of the good requires it.

You are right--I will feel guilt if I violate my sense of the good and of justice, not Rand's. However, my sense of justice is similar to Rand's and both Rand and I believe that there objective standards of justice applicable to all humans. I really like the health analogy. If you accept the Randian premise that that which supports your life is the good, you can see the analogy clearly. A healthy body is just a body that is living well. Furthermore, there are objective principles of health (i.e. what health is and how to achieve it). And if you accept that the mind is nothing supernatural--that it is a physical thing, you should assent to the proposition that there are objective principles of "moral health" (i.e. what the proper use of one's mind and will is and how to achieve it). Therefore, we can derive objective principles of morality. Thus simply because the barbarian or the lawyer thinks he is just, he in fact is not; just as one can think one is healthy, but in fact, be sick.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There are objective measures of health and that at least is a useful measure for purpose of discussion. (It sure beats arguing about “genuine” self-esteem.) So you are correct that the lawyer or the Roman general (or an objectivist for that matter) might think he is making healthy choices but not actually be so.

My contention is that adherence to Randian justice is not going to be correlated with the Roman general’s objective health. A healthy Roman general is one who succeeds in conquering barbarians. The concept of justice that will most advance the Roman general’s health is one that is compatible with the world he lives in.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Justice is irrational in the sense that in swallowing it you constrain your ego and erect walls around your freedom of action.

Not so, it is only the mishmash mixed system we have in the US now that makes you think so.

If government were to be limited to its proper size an function, outlawing the iniation of force, and monopolizing retaliatory force, the code of law would limited, but not the citizen.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Even in an ideal Randian world (I'm going to avoid the "libertarian" term which seems to raise hackles) one is prohibited from stealing. That is a limitation (even it is one you like).

As important, this is academic. The government is not limited. Trial lawyers get rich raping "innocent" businesses. If your son has a knack for it, you should encourage him to become a trial lawyer and fill him with a sense of indignation against big ketchup.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Even in an ideal Randian world (I'm going to avoid the "libertarian" term which seems to raise hackles) one is prohibited from stealing. That is a limitation (even it is one you like).

As important, this is academic. The government is not limited. Trial lawyers get rich raping "innocent" businesses. If your son has a knack for it, you should encourage him to become a trial lawyer and fill him with a sense of indignation against big ketchup.

The government IS permitted to act only by the governed consent. Do you know the purpose of the Constitution?

The difference between the government and the people is that the government can ONLY DO what it is permitted to do in the Constitution. The people can do ANYTHING EXCEPT that which is explicitly forbidden.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Even in an ideal Randian world (I'm going to avoid the "libertarian" term which seems to raise hackles) one is prohibited from stealing. That is a limitation (even it is one you like).
Stealing is initiating force. Protection from initiated force is the only justification for society. If you are not free to live your life, free to make the choices that make survival possible, then you must fight, to the death if necessary, to restore your freedom or resign yourself to living as a slave. Those are the choices.

As important, this is academic. The government is not limited. Trial lawyers get rich raping "innocent" businesses. If your son has a knack for it, you should encourage him to become a trial lawyer and fill him with a sense of indignation against big ketchup.
Morality only deals with issues open to man's choice. Predation is the use of force and by definition evil. This recommendation belongs to someone who has relinquished judgement, given up on decisions of what is right and what is wrong. You are saying in effect: "The world is a mess, I can't fix it, so I am going to loot with the best of them, and forget questions of morality altogether." If you choice to be evil, you must live with the personal consequences, lack of satisfaction, and self-esteem, and with the effect your example sets for others in society.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×