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Can there be honor among thieves?

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hernan
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This is a followup to another thread (Free Markets are for Sissies).

The question I want to pose here is whether or not there can be honor among thieves and, conversely, whether it can be said that those who have honor are thieves.

By "honor" I mean trustworthiness, the ability to cooperate toward shared goals without backstabbing.

If the answer is "no", then theives are at a perpetual disadvantage to the honorable and there are practical benefits to being trustworthy and discerning correctly who to trust. In this case, those who act honorably with one another can undertake ventures that require trust and cooperation whether that be marriage or a corporation or a country.

But there is another possibility: that honor is factional. In this case, it might be perfectly feasible to steal from "others" while retaining trust among "ourselves". The classic examples here is the tribe and nation-state which conquers its neighbors but provides for its own. More interestingly, you have the situation of governments that prey on one class of citizens on behalf of another.

Regarding the second question, it is often said, and I have heard it argued in these forums, that there is no moral or practical difference between taxation and extortion. But there is one practical difference: you know the tax rates at any given time. There is no such assurance that any payment to an extortionist will satisfy his demands.

To pose the question in a most practical way: are there advantages to doing business or otherwise relating to fellow Objectivists beyond that available to a group of socialists? Or are there prehaps organizational advantages available to socialists that Objectivists eschew (e.g. the willingness to bond by force)?

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In short, no. Criminals, in general, do not trust others. (For 0.99¢ you can check out Peikoff's "What To Do About Crime")

As to there being no assurance that any payment to an extortionist will satisfy his demand, have the current tax levels satisfied Washington's demands? At last count, it was $16 trillion and rising.

Edited by dream_weaver
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In short, no. Criminals, in general, do not trust others. (For 0.99¢ you can check out Peikoff's "What To Do About Crime")

As to there being no assurance that any payment to an extortionist will satisfy his demand, have the current tax levels satisfied Washington's demands? At last count, it was $16 trillion and rising.

But the tax authorities have never promised an end to taxes so there is no breach of trust there, only that any given tax payment will satisfy for the given span of time. That is, generally speaking, a perfectly trustworthy promise.

You defined honor, but what do you mean by a thief?

Yes, this is intentional because part of the question relates to what is the proper use of the term theft or criminality. (I don't mean to go off on a tangent on lawful rights violations but, rather, to investigate the question of whether it makes sense to distinguish unlawful from lawful rights violations.)

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But the tax authorities have never promised an end to taxes so there is no breach of trust there, only that any given tax payment will satisfy for the given span of time. That is, generally speaking, a perfectly trustworthy promise.

If it were for the objectively legitimate government expenditures of protecting individual rights, I could concur, (presuming, of course, that the expenses were commensurate with the services.)
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If it were for the objectively legitimate government expenditures of protecting individual rights, I could concur, (presuming, of course, that the expenses were commensurate with the services.)

Of course, though, the trustworthiness of the promise is not dependent upon the use of the monies collected, though one would certainly expect the amount demanded to be much lower in the case you describe.

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What promise are you talking about?

Here is now taxes typically work: The authorities set a rate and mechanism by which you estimate your taxes and pay them (or someone else does, e.g. the merchant in the case of sales tax). The promise is two-fold: if you pay the demanded amount, you are left alone. If you don't, bad things happen to you.

Now contrast this with an extortionist. A kidnaper might say, give me $1M and we will deliver your son back to you alive. Is that a promise you can rely on? Probably not.

In the middle, we might have an organized crime syndicate that promises nothing will happen to your shop if you pay protection money. That's probably a more reliable promise than a random kidnaper but not as reliable as a government taxman.

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That's because kidnapping is illegal. If it was legal, kidnappers would want to establish a name for themselves.

Here is now taxes typically work: The authorities set a rate and mechanism by which you estimate your taxes and pay them (or someone else does, e.g. the merchant in the case of sales tax). The promise is two-fold: if you pay the demanded amount, you are left alone. If you don't, bad things happen to you.

Now contrast this with an extortionist. A kidnaper might say, give me $1M and we will deliver your son back to you alive. Is that a promise you can rely on? Probably not.

That has nothing to do with honor. Kidnapping is illegal and rare, so a kidnapper has to keep his identity a secret and move on after the crime. There is nothing to gain by returning the kid alive, everything to lose. If kidnapping wasn't punished, he could just settle down and make a name for himself as the kidnapper who always returns the kid safely. Then he'd just as reliable as the government, because that'd be the most profitable way to make money.

In the middle, we might have an organized crime syndicate that promises nothing will happen to your shop if you pay protection money. That's probably a more reliable promise than a random kidnaper but not as reliable as a government taxman.

If the crime syndicate had the kind of power the government has, their rates would be more reliable than the government's, since they wouldn't be subject to popular pressure to bilk the rich with random taxes and regulations, they would just be interested in maximizing revenue.

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That's because kidnapping is illegal. If it was legal, kidnappers would want to establish a name for themselves.

That has nothing to do with honor. Kidnapping is illegal and rare, so a kidnapper has to keep his identity a secret and move on after the crime. There is nothing to gain by returning the kid alive, everything to lose. If kidnapping wasn't punished, he could just settle down and make a name for himself as the kidnapper who always returns the kid safely. Then he'd just as reliable as the government, because that'd be the most profitable way to make money.

I think you are mostly agreeing with me here. But let's consider this further: even though the kidnappers have (for the reasons you cited) little incentive to be honorable toward their victims, they have some incentive to be honorable among themselves. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is a kidnapping ring that has some success in its methods, then they need to work together to put bread on their table. If they are dishonest toward one another then the kidnapping ring breaks down. So there we have honor among kidnappers.

If the crime syndicate had the kind of power the government has, their rates would be more reliable than the government's, since they wouldn't be subject to popular pressure to bilk the rich with random taxes and regulations, they would just be interested in maximizing revenue.

Indeed, it is really power that is key here. A crime syndicate has more power than a kidnapping ring but less than a government. It can be semi-open but it must maintain at least a fig leaf of secrecy even if it has corrupted the local police.

What makes government special is that it is the most powerful institution in any given location. It can, therefore, operate openly and honorably even as it violates the rights of its citizens. It can openly favor one class over another, e.g. openly bilking the rich. Everyone knows what to expect from it and nobody is surprised by what it does. It can make and keep promises and expect those promises to be trusted.

All other institutions have to choose between submission to the government or operating less openly. But as we saw with the kidnapppers, that doesn't mean that such institutions cannot be honorable among themselves.

And, too, goverments may choose to be honorable only to their favored factions. It may well be that the favored faction has every good reason to trust the government while the disfavored factions never know what they will be hit with next (even if they know at any given moment what the bill is). Today you are required to report to detention camps. Tomorrow? Who knows.

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I think you are mostly agreeing with me here. But let's consider this further: even though the kidnappers have (for the reasons you cited) little incentive to be honorable toward their victims, they have some incentive to be honorable among themselves.

Like I said, that's not honor. Honor doesn't mean abiding by your commitments because you're getting paid, it means abiding by your commitments on principle.

The only reason why a group of people might be honorable among themselves but not everyone else is a warped view of human nature. In a slave owner society for instance, a group might treat another as sub-human, but apply the principles of inter-human relationships to their own race. Anywhere else, thieves and thugs who "respect" each other's rights do it out of fear of being ostracized or punished by a superior foe, not out of any sense of honor.

But if someone is willing to kidnap an innocent child with you, you probably shouldn't count on them treating you any better than he's willing to treat that child.

Edited by Nicky
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Like I said, that's not honor. Honor doesn't mean abiding by your commitments because you're getting paid, it means abiding by your commitments on principle.

I'm not sure this is a very useful distinction. In any case, I gave an operational definition of honor in the OP. I can certainly appreciate that you might take issue with that definition but that would really be distraction from the point.

The only reason why a group of people might be honorable among themselves but not everyone else is a warped view of human nature. In a slave owner society for instance, a group might treat another as sub-human, but apply the principles of inter-human relationships to their own race. Anywhere else, thieves and thugs who "respect" each other's rights do it out of fear of being ostracized or punished by a superior foe, not out of any sense of honor.

Slavery is certainly an example of that. But so is nationalism or tribalism or classism, all of which were previously cited. Setting aside your unease with my definition of honor, people of one nation or tribe or even class seem quite capable of acting honorbly toward each other.

But if someone is willing to kidnap an innocent child with you, you probably shouldn't count on them treating you any better than he's willing to treat that child.

That's precisely the question (albeit an extreme version of it). Is it really reasonable to conflate how a kidnapper treats the victim with how he treats his fellow kidnappers or, more ordinarily, is it reasonable to rely on other means of determining trust.

Note that if your claim is true then honor is purely a function of power. If you have power then you can operate openly and honorably. If you do not then you can only act honorably by submitting to those in power. Honor, then, becomes a function of power.

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I think alot of this line of questioning deals with what Rand called the stolen concept. I am not sure if in the examples the terms such as legitimate, honor , trustworthiness can be rightly applied to the acters or situations you describe.

No, you are confusing a definition of terms with a logical fallacy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-refuting_idea#Indirectly_self-denying_statements_or_.22fallacy_of_the_stolen_concept.22

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Note that if your claim is true then honor is purely a function of power. If you have power then you can operate openly and honorably. If you do not then you can only act honorably by submitting to those in power. Honor, then, becomes a function of power.

My claim was that honor means keeping your word on principle. I have no idea what you're on about.

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My claim was that honor means keeping your word on principle. I have no idea what you're on about.

By "honor" I mean trustworthiness, the ability to cooperate toward shared goals without backstabbing.

Edited by hernan
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No, you are confusing a definition of terms with a logical fallacy:

http://en.wikipedia....olen_concept.22

I don't think I am , but be that as it may , I submit then that no there can be no honor among thieves, because the idea of thievery repudiates the idea of honor, or legitimate or trustworthiness. Why do you want to have it both ways?

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I don't think I am , but be that as it may , I submit then that no there can be no honor among thieves, because the idea of thievery repudiates the idea of honor, or legitimate or trustworthiness. Why do you want to have it both ways?

Well, as I said to Nicky, I'm not unsympathetic to your qualms over the definition of honor I gave but I'm assuming your not just complaining about that but that you're making a more substantive criticism. Some evidence, or at least some examples, would help explain your position.

I have given some examples already but they were mostly hypotheticals designed to draw out the issues. Let me now offer more practical reasons for aligning theory with reality.

Let us suppose that I encounter a criminial gang. Can I rely on their lack of honor to inhibit their ability to act together against me? Probably not. This applies even more in the case of a government that is violating my rights. There is every reason to expect that they are quite capable of maintaining trust within their organization.

On the other hand, can I trust only those who act on the basis of the "right" principles? Or is it reasonble to trust others more generally? My experience is that trustworthiness is quite possible among those who do not, for example, hold Objectivist principles.

Trust is an important topic and getting it right is thus important.

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Well, as I said to Nicky, I'm not unsympathetic to your qualms over the definition of honor I gave but I'm assuming your not just complaining about that but that you're making a more substantive criticism. Some evidence, or at least some examples, would help explain your position.

I have given some examples already but they were mostly hypotheticals designed to draw out the issues. Let me now offer more practical reasons for aligning theory with reality.

Let us suppose that I encounter a criminial gang. Can I rely on their lack of honor to inhibit their ability to act together against me? Probably not. This applies even more in the case of a government that is violating my rights. There is every reason to expect that they are quite capable of maintaining trust within their organization.

On the other hand, can I trust only those who act on the basis of the "right" principles? Or is it reasonble to trust others more generally? My experience is that trustworthiness is quite possible among those who do not, for example, hold Objectivist principles.

Trust is an important topic and getting it right is thus important.

Well as to an example of trust as it refers to actions of people who either do or do not hold O'ist principles, I think our experiences are probably similar. I drive and stay on the appropriate side of the road and I trust others will also.

As it relates to trusting the actions of a government, I trust the office of Presidency of the United States to act in accordance with the provisions in the Constitution. Trusting the man that at any time holds that office is a different matter. A government of laws and not men would be a trustwothy agency. A governemnt based on the actions and or whims of men without having a preset standard of action based on principles would be less trustworthy , to say the least.

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Well as to an example of trust as it refers to actions of people who either do or do not hold O'ist principles, I think our experiences are probably similar. I drive and stay on the appropriate side of the road and I trust others will also.

Good example.

As it relates to trusting the actions of a government, I trust the office of Presidency of the United States to act in accordance with the provisions in the Constitution.

Really? I trust the president (or any head of state, for that matter) to keep hew generally close to constitutional law but not to act stricly within it. There are plenty of dramatic and droll examples to the contrary. One might make a distinction between obeying the courts and the constitution and there I would expect most nations that have a track record of rule of law to do better but this is complicated by the governmental nature and role of the judiciary itself.

Trusting the man that at any time holds that office is a different matter. A government of laws and not men would be a trustwothy agency. A governemnt based on the actions and or whims of men without having a preset standard of action based on principles would be less trustworthy , to say the least.

This brings us toward one of the lines of thought here: rule of law vs. principle. What I have argued (loosly speaking), is that the two are orthogonal. It is perfectly possible for someone to act lawfully, literally in accordance with the law, while violating rights, insofar as rights are seperately established principles. (Obviously if you hold that governement defines right then this makes no sense; by definition government can do no wrong.)

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rule of law (should)vs principle (ought)? being at right angles?

Right. Rule of law means, simply, following the law or, more generally, a rule following society. It says nothing about the nature of the laws being followed but much about a conformance to a shared set of rules.

Principle, on the other hand, is primarily personal. Now in an ideal world the law would conform to principle but that's not the world we live in.

That brings us to the question that I raised in the previous thread but which is obviously related to this thread: what to do when rules and principles conflict.

Now obviously here we are primarily talking about Objectivist principles but I might as well put on the table that not everyone shares those principles and thus you have the additional issue of a conflict of principles.

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Realistically that end (rules and principles never being in conflict) is improbable. Man is not infallible, there will most likely exist, even within a near wholly consistent 'system', a mistaken idea or notion which leads to a rule that will be inconsistent with the underlying principles. The degree of rights violation this mistaken rule would necessarily cause would, I think, be minimal.

From my point of view establishing a rational society would in the practical sense take at least a generation. A consistent raional philosophy to be apprehended by enough of the general population to be seen as the zeitgist(?) would require almost total revision of accepted cultural norms.

As to what can one do now? I guess the answer is the best that one can, given what is. I do not think the alternatives are mutually exclusive, we do not have such a society now therefore we never wil, nor since no society like that has existed prior to now , therefore none will.

I do think the motive power behind the establishment of such a society is ideas. Everyone may not hold the same principles as O'ism, that does not mean the principles themselves are incorrect.

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Principle, on the other hand, is primarily personal. Now in an ideal world the law would conform to principle but that's not the world we live in.

That brings us to the question that I raised in the previous thread but which is obviously related to this thread: what to do when rules and principles conflict.

A principle is simply a fact, or general truth, upon which other general truths (principles) can be built upon. I would hardly consider that subjective. You have a choice to determine if your principles are true or false, integrated or contradictory. The kind of world we live it is a product of many laws (rules) which are in contradistinction to valid principles. As was also pointed out in the referenced thread, there are only two fundamental ways with which to deal with others along these lines.

Edited by dream_weaver
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Realistically that end (rules and principles never being in conflict) is improbable....

I'm going to pass on this simply because it recovers ground we already covered in the previous thread and I want to focus on something else here. It's not that I don't think you make some interesting or even relevant points.

A principle is simply a fact, or general truth, upon which other general truths can be built upon. I would hardly consider that subjective. You have a choice to determine if your principles are true or false, integrated or contradictory. The kind of world we live it is a product of many laws (rules) which are in contradistinction to valid principles. As was also pointed out in the referenced thread, there are only two fundamental ways with which to deal with others along these lines.

Well, I was careful not to say "subjective". For our purposes here it is sufficient to note that law and principle, as you define it or even more generally, do not generally coincide. Let us assume that each person has made at least some effort to establish that his principles are true but that, for whatever reason, the law is inconsistent with your principles (and probably with many others as well).

Also, I don't want to repeat here all the discussion of the previous thread but rather to focus on the more narrow issue of trust in a world, which we both seem to agree this one is, where laws and principles conflict.

Can you trust someone who does not conform to your principles? Can you be trustworthy when your principles are illegal?

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