(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: So, Doug, you’ve told us your ethical principles can be summed up in two statements:
1: Do all that you say you’re going to do.
2: Don’t aggress against other people or their property.
I have seen you apply this in life. These are great rules that lead to peaceful interactions between people. The first covers how you interact with others and ultimately would govern everything from business to marriage. The second covers how you should not interact with others, and would ultimately govern – prevent – what we might regard as criminal behavior.
It’s admirable to simplify – I know you like to make an analogy to the way physicists try to simplify all the forces in the universe down into one unified field theory – but do these two principles really cover everything?
Doug: Well, perhaps not entirely. But it is said ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. In today’s world, that’s total nonsense, because there are literally hundreds of thousands of arbitrary laws, with new ones passed daily. So I like these two laws because they’re simple, intuitive, and based on ethical principles. But as we discussed last time, I really think there’s just one great law, and it’s even more important: Do as thou wilt – but be prepared to accept the consequences. An observance of that principle would necessarily result in a much more thoughtful and ethical population.
In any event, I only said my principles work, not that they are perfect. For instance, it’s possible to cause others pain without actually aggressing on them. If, for example, some twisted artist created an incredibly beautiful painting designed specifically to appeal to you, and then burned it right before your eyes simply to watch you suffer, he would not have aggressed against your person or property, but what he did would hurt you. It’d certainly not be a nice thing to do, but would it be unethical?
L: Hm. Well, that brings the question of harm into play, and harm is different from aggression. You can harm people quite by accident and perhaps be liable for damages to person or property, but it’s not a breach of your ethics if you didn’t do it on purpose – accidents and aggression are not the same.
Doug: Right. So, is hurting someone’s feelings really harming them? I have nothing but contempt for the politically correct crowd and their attempts to sanitize – sterilize – all human interactions, lest someone’s feelings be hurt. Hurt feelings are not something that can be documented with evidence, the way physical harm can be, and as such are not a proper subject for the law. And yet, if someone does something for the specific purpose of causing pain, even though they don’t aggress, that doesn’t sit well with me. A person that does such a thing will have to accept its consequences, some of which will be the damage to his own spirit and psychology, some may be retribution from others who see what happened and don’t like it.
L: Stalkers and paparazzi come to mind. If they do not physically aggress, is there nothing wrong with what they do? If I’m going nuts because some guy is sticking his camera in my face everywhere I go, am I within my rights to grab the camera, maybe smash it?
Doug: It likely would depend on the circumstances. I’m prone to think that a clear warning to them before taking action would be sufficient, and I suspect a jury would agree 99% of the time. One simply has to use his best judgment in assessing the consequences of actions – or non-actions. Certainly none of the religious books, like the Bible or the Koran, are of much help. They’re full of contradictions, ambiguities, and absurdities, while generally lacking clear ethical principles.
L: Well, some people might say that that statement is insulting or hurts their feelings. However, if the statement is true – the Bible does tell us not to suffer a witch to live, and other things that make no rational sense – and you’re not trying to offend Christians, but to have a rational discussion of ethics, you can’t leave out relevant facts because they might upset some people’s sensitivities.
But I will point out that Jesus did say to love others as you’d love yourself, which would cover at least trying not to hurt people’s feelings – and being “brutally honest” as well.
Then again, I’m not asking you about what Jesus said, I’m asking you about your system. As a matter of law, many libertarians argue that you shouldn’t try to pass laws to protect people’s feelings because it’s impossible. Not only are feelings unprovable – anyone can say their feelings were hurt, and there is no reliable, objective way to measure that or prove it – but they can be harmed without knowledge or intention all day long. Anything and everything can hurt the feelings of a sensitive person – trying to prevent that quickly becomes absurd. Is that what this comes down to? Causing psychological pain is not objective, so it’s not subject to your ethical principles?
Doug: I try never to offend someone who I don’t think deserves it. And I try not to offend unintentionally. But why do we have ethical principles? Because when people behave ethically, they have a positive, constructive system for interacting – a voluntary regulation of behavior that is much more convenient than breaking out into fist fights at every interaction.
Ethics are rules for good living in society; if you’re Robinson Crusoe, alone on an island, ethics are largely irrelevant, because there is no one to do right or wrong to. Although I would also consider plants and animals, in that I believe all living things should be treated properly. In society, however, if you break the rules – that is, if you behave unethically – you definitely increase the chances of someone responding with force. Treating others ethically decreases the odds of violent conflict and increases the odds of pleasant and profitable interaction. Ethics are a survival mechanism. They help make life less solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
So, back to our stalkers and reporters – they may not be engaging in violent conflict, but they are engaging in conflict – a kind of non-physical aggression. In so doing, they increase the chances that someone may respond forcefully because they degrade the peaceful quality of social interaction ethical behavior seeks to establish. That’s one reason it’s correctly said that an armed society is a polite society (as we noted in our conversation on firearms).
L: In other words, it’s just not a very good idea.
Doug: And even if you might be wrong to grab the paparazzo’s camera, he’d be an idiot not to realize that bad things might happen if he makes a practice of annoying people.
It’s also a question of intention. If personal ethics don’t cover psychological assault, then a healthy, human system of social mores might. I’ve never been a fan of “morality,” as such, because it’s a largely arbitrary social construct. It’s a sort of psychological mob rule. And the mores of the mob usually amount to banning, or at least consigning to a dark closet, just about everything that’s any fun: smoking, drinking, uncensored conversation, sex—
L: Everything you’d want for a first-class party.
Doug: [Chuckles] It’s so perverse, sometimes I think I must have been put on this planet full of violent chimpanzees and intrusive busybodies as a punishment for some horrendous crime I committed in some past life.
L: Working off bad karma.
Doug: There’s something to be said for that concept. If you believe that everything you do has consequences – above all to your self – then it makes sense that you create your own reality. That’s certainly true in the here and now. As to whether there’s another kick at the cat… I’m open to evidence.
Interestingly, we got a little flurry of emails from religious folks – all Christians – who made all kinds of assumptions and jumped to a bunch of conclusions based upon last week’s conversation. I believe most of them believe I’m damned to eternal perdition. But a couple were quite mellow and thoughtful, which was gratifying. You can’t convince anyone on spiritual matters. The best you can do, as has been said, is let those who have eyes see. Trying to change people is foolish and counterproductive.
L: But if you’re a solipsist, as you claim, then all of this is just happening in your mind, which makes you a sadomasochist.
Doug: [Laughs] Perhaps I am. If I could master the advanced techniques of Taoism, or Zen, or some martial arts, or some other disciplines, then perhaps I could be much more serene in dealing with both temporal and cosmic unpleasantness and inconvenience. But there are many paths up the mountain, and I’m working on it. As you know, I’m not saying I have all the answers. Thinking about this kind of thing is a rather cosmic undertaking, and trying to sort it all out, defining your own personal system of ethics and acting accordingly, is one of the most important things you can do.
I’m reasonably confident that, at least in my universe, there is no Heaven, nor Hell, no seventy virgins, no world where you get to rule those you baptize here, or other things of that nature. What’s it like after you die? Perhaps it’s just like it was before you were born. But I certainly don’t need some book to tell me what to believe.
L: It’s interesting to me that ethics are not an obstacle to living a better life, as the greedy and shortsighted might think, but are actually the means for achieving the Good Life.
Doug: Just so. Ethics are, in fact, essential tools for survival for social beings like humans. That’s the difference between a decent human being and a criminal; the criminal doesn’t understand this.
L: The really interesting thing about this is that while your view is quintessentially selfish – Ayn Rand would approve – what economics has established, from Adam Smith to Hayek, to today’s Austrian economists, is that such rational selfishness actually leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. That’s especially so if you include your posterity (what’s good for your children) in your view of your own rational self-interest. It’s the very thing utilitarians have found so slippery. But it’s not because it’s utilitarian that it’s good, rather it’s because it’s good that it happens to be utilitarian.
Doug: I agree. No matter what people wind up believing, though, it should be the product of their own thinking and experience. Not something they believe because they were brought up that way or someone scared them into believing. But free thinkers are few and far between, I fear. It accounts for the degraded state of things on this planet.
L: Rand said that ethics is the one subject no one should delegate to experts. To what degree would you credit Ayn Rand with your own ethical development? We talk about her a lot, so she seems to have had a strong influence on you. Speaking for myself, though I’ve never agreed with her on everything, I will always owe her a great intellectual debt, most specifically for her eloquent defense of rational egoism.
Doug: Rand was the most important single intellectual influence I’ve had in my entire life. I didn’t really learn ethics from her – I had always intuitively believed in an ethical system such as she articulated – but I had never put it together and structured it in so many words.
I remember very distinctly when I read The Virtue of Selfishness – after I read the first page of the book, I had to put it down, because I was so shocked that someone had actually crystallized, in words, exactly what I had been thinking, inchoately, for most of my life. So I picked it back up and quickly devoured the rest – it was an intellectual and psychological blockbuster for me.
It’s a book I could not recommend more highly. It’s only about 150 pages, a much easier way to get the idea than reading her thousand-page-plus magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged.
I’m not, incidentally, particularly endorsing her whole philosophical system, Objectivism. It resembles a secular religion, and its followers tend to be strident and dogmatic acolytes. Once people develop a theology – it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Objectivists, Christians, Communists, Hindus, Muslims, or what-have-you – they tend to be dull company at best and very likely a danger to themselves and others.
L: I remember reading The Virtue of Selfishness as well – and the dirty looks it seemed to draw from my college professors. But let’s get back to your personal ethics. They cover a lot of ground, with some questions around the edges on issues like psychological harm, but what about extreme cases? Take the purely hypothetical case in which you have a button you can push and kill anyone you want to, perhaps the politician you most despise, and – this is important – no one would ever know. If there could be no possible harm to you, ever, would you stick with your principle, or would you push the button?
Doug: Well, I can think of a lot of people this world would be better off without, but no, I wouldn’t push the button. Even if I could get away with it completely, it would still seem… cowardly. There are people on this planet who need killing, but if I were going to do it, I’d do it face to face – and the other guy would have a sporting chance of shooting back. Although that’s perhaps more a matter of aesthetics than ethics.
L: You’d bring back dueling?
Doug: Why not? If two people choose to fight, how is that the business of the state or anyone else? Can you imagine what the effect might be on the spineless, miserable excuses for human beings called politicians if people could call them out to duel, as a matter of honor? Apart from the fact that nobody gets out of here alive anyway, I find the people that are willing to preserve their lives at any cost tend to be those whose lives seem to be the least worth preserving.
L: [Chuckles] Well, dueling did make a good riddance of Alexander Hamilton. But are matters of so-called honor really matters of aesthetics? And if you’d consider it unaesthetic to kill someone without confronting them, fine, but what’s the ethic involved?
Doug: Well, as a matter of ethics, I would point out that politicians who steal from the people, start wars just to get reelected, and so forth, have in fact initiated the use of force, and so force used against them is not aggressive but defensive. And defensive force is ethical, according to my principles.
But your question was if I would push your hypothetical button, and my answer was no, based on my aesthetic values, not my ethical principles. Aesthetics help make life worth living, especially since I don’t think life has meaning in itself. You have to endow it with meaning. The cosmos may have a life of its own, but you’re totally in charge of your life, even if they’re going to throw you in a dungeon or execute you tomorrow morning.
L: All we are is dust in the wind – but unlike a virus or a patch of interstellar gas, we can give meaning to our lives in our own eyes. In my mind, that’s the true glory of being human. But let me refine my question: what if it’s not a politician or anyone who has initiated the use of force against you? Suppose you fell in love with a married woman, and she loved you but for whatever reason could not divorce her husband. Here’s the button again. He’s a complete innocent, but no one would ever know. He’s not a bad man you want to challenge to a duel, but simply an inconvenience whose death would benefit you. If your ethics is based on selfishness, why not push the button?
Doug: No. First, she may have an overweening duty to him. If not, then if she really cared that much for me, she’d leave the man. I’m certainly not going to commit a serious aggression because of an emotion.
But beyond that, the kind of person who tries to build a relationship on force or fraud is either a knave or a fool, and likely both. In the real world, all actions have consequences. Becoming a mass murderer is not a good survival strategy, and spending your days trying to hide deadly secrets from the whole world ensures you’ll experience a spiritual hell in this lifetime, regardless of whether there’s another after it.
L: [Chuckles] Okay, one last try then. And this really does happen: suppose you were on your deathbed, with weeks or even just days to live. And suppose you were a man of considerable means… Why would you let the ethics that guided you through life prevent you from joining Heinlein’s Committee for Aesthetic Deletions – i.e., taking a few of those who need killing with you when you are in no condition to duel and pretty much dead anyway?
Doug: It would make no difference to me. As I said earlier, we’re all under a death sentence anyway; I can’t see how the amount of time remaining to you can change the ethics of a given act. Nor do I think you can ever escape the consequences of your actions. And I’m not talking about those that may be imposed on you by a legal system. I’m talking about those within yourself. Plus, if you have loved ones, partners, children – or even ideas and beliefs that you care about – becoming a murderer on your deathbed could subject them to reprisals and social backlash.
That’s the ethical consideration for sticking to my principle of non-aggression, but as a matter of psychology, I can tell you that I’ve seen people in this position, and the only thing they are thinking about is survival – until they slip beyond caring about anything at all. Those people are entirely too attached to their bodies. My view is that it’s much more aesthetic to go out in a duel than wither away with a tube up your nose in some hospital.
L: Very well then. Whether or not Karma is real, the mental stench of blood on your hands can never be escaped. Now, let’s talk about business ethics, which may be where the rubber really hits the road for many of our readers.
Doug: Okay, but you’re really not going to like this…
Editor’s Note: Due to the length of this interview, we will conclude it in next week’s installment.