Friday, November 28, 2008

Pragmatism, Fallacies, and Property Rights

In an essay littered with fallacies, arbitrary assertions, and evasions neoHouston inadvertently demonstrates the results of Pragmatism. Responding to my post The Star of the Lone Star State, he actually validates and demonstrates many of the points in my post. However, Pragmatism renders him incapable of knowing this. (I do not intend to respond to everyone who criticizes one of my posts. However, I found this one particularly interesting because of the abundance of errors, and the arguments presented are fairly typical.)

I have included the portions of my original post that were quoted by neoHouston in order to set the context. The original post is in blue italics.

Live Oaks: However, there remains a steadfast group that believes that increasing government control over land use will somehow benefit the city. Despite the overwhelming economic evidence, they remain convinced that prosperity lies in more government control.

Why do they reject the evidence? Why do they remain convinced that more government control will make Houston a better city?


neoHouston: Well, for starters, because the evidence isn’t all that compelling. Again, I *agree* that Houston’s lean regulatory environment helps keep prices lower, but I don’t think that it makes a night and day difference. I say this because Houston isn’t actually THAT unregulated. There are extensive setback and parking requirements mandated across the city, and they are especially high outside the loop.
While admitting that regulations make a city more expensive, neoHouston claims that the impact isn’t large. How does he know this? No evidence is supplied. What constitutes a "night and day difference"? He doesn't say. A comparison of heavily regulated cities to Houston shows vast cost differences, and study after study, as well as article after article, have shown that a large part of those costs are attributed to land use regulations and building restrictions. In Seattle land use regulations add nearly 44% to the cost of a median priced home. I would call that significant.

Live Oaks: The answer cannot be found in politics or in economics. Indeed, despite their words, they are not interested in economic prosperity. If they were, they would be seeking to understand why Houston has done so well while other cities have suffered economic turmoil. And they certainly would not be seeking to emulate those cities.

neoHouston: Ok, big red BS flag all over this.

Everyone is interested in economic prosperity.

People have different beliefs as to what creates it, and what the realization of prosperity is. For some, prosperity means low stress, simple living. For some it means a high-stress career used to make lots of money and acquire large quantities of material possessions. Go ask a family farmer or an Amish crafstman what prosperity means, then go ask a corporate CEO. You won’t get the exact same answer.


This is nothing more than a circular argument. In short, his argument is: Everyone is interested in economic prosperity; people define prosperity differently; therefore, no matter what one’s definition, one is interested in prosperity. If this is true (which it isn't), an ascetic hermit is interested in economic prosperity, because he defines prosperity as an absence of worldly goods. This is clearly absurd.

Further, neoHouston drops the context of my comments. I was comparing cities, and by the measures commonly used to compare the economic health of cities-- such as housing costs, job growth, cost of living, etc.-- Houston has been a shining example throughout 2008 and before. While it is true that an Amish craftsman would define prosperity differently than a corporate CEO, this is irrelevant. When the economic health of a city is measured, it is not compared to an Amish craftsman.

Live Oaks: The answer lies in morality. The answer can be found in the premises that underlie their proposals.

neoHouston: Grow up. This isn’t religion, and if it is your religion, you need a new one. The difference of opinion isn’t moral, it’s philisophical. It’s time we as Americans quit calling each other good and evil because of differences of political opinion. Good is neighbors helping one another, friends and family loving each other. Evil is murder and corruption.

In AMERICA Policy is almost never good or evil, and what genuinely evil policy (Slavery?) has existed in our nation has not lasted forever in the face of a democratic society.
Retorts such as "grow up" are not very intellectually compelling as arguments. But I guess they serve a purpose when one is devoid of rational arguments.

neoHouston apparently cannot conceive of morality without religion. He cannot conceive of a morality derived from observable facts and the use of reason. He certainly isn’t alone in believing that without God, morality is impossible. And he is wrong.

Further, he apparently does not know that morality is a branch of philosophy. While all moral principles are philosophical principles, philosophical principles are not necessarily moral principles, i.e., they may be metaphysical, epistemological, political, or esthetic principles.


Morality is "a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life." Its purpose is to define what is good and evil. Its purpose is to define which actions are good for us and which will do us harm, which will enhance our life and which will negate it.

neoHouston believes that we should quit calling one another “good and evil because of differences of political opinion”. In other words, can’t we all just get along? You have your opinion and I have mine. Who is to say who is right and who is wrong? This is a complete rejection of principles—i.e.,
Pragmatism. So what if someone advocates "spreading the wealth" or forcing women to bear unwanted children or sending teenagers to "volunteer" camps? These are just differences of opinion, and everyone's opinion is equally valid. Or so believes the Pragmatist.

Consider neoHouston's definition of good—“Good is neighbors helping one another, friends and family loving each other.” That is, service to others and love is what defines the good. This is precisely the morality--altruism-- that I argued against. It is altruism that serves as the moral foundation for land use controls, as well as every other use of coercion to impose the community's values upon individuals. And it is an argument that neoHouston completely evaded.

Live Oaks: Zoning, as well as all land use regulations, are founded on the premise that the community has a right to impose certain standards upon individuals. According to this premise, the individual is subservient to the values and dictates of the community.

neoHouston: This premise has a name. It’s called RULE OF LAW. Nobody is allowed to kill you because the community bans it! This is part of our belief that prosperity comes when we can live without fear. The community determines what things pose a danger and write laws against them, then everyone is held accountable to the law.
neoHouston declares that “the community determines” what is dangerous and then outlaws it. Everyone is expected to abide by the dictates of the community. This is the “RULE OF LAW”. So, if the community decides that red heads pose a danger to the community, it would be perfectly appropriate to throw them in jail (or worse). After all, the community has decided so. If you think my example is going to extremes (which is really nothing more than applying his stated principle to another concrete), consider that the community in Salem executed “witches” and the community in Germany executed Jews. In short, neoHouston is arguing that the community is the standard of good and the citizens are to blindly and obediently act accordingly.

Where neoHouston first could not conceive of morality separate from religion, he now argues that morality is derived from the community. But morality is neither a mystical revelation nor a social convention. It is derived from observable facts. Man must exert effort to produce the values necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. He must transform his environment and natural resources in order to create those values. He must use reason and logic to understand reality and transform it to serve his values and his life. The individual who exerts this effort has a moral right to the products he creates. To deny him the products of his labor is to deny him the means necessary to sustain and enjoy his life.

Live Oaks: This is the premise [altruism] that underlies every proposal for regulating land use. It is a premise that has never been, and can never be, justified. It treats individuals as sacrificial animals whose lives can be disposed of by others.

neoHouston: Again, grow up. This isn’t ancient Rome. Nobody is taking anyone to the colliseum to fight lions. Expand your vocabulary and quit being a fear-mongerer.

The rest of the article basically argues that people have the right to do whatever they want with their property no matter what.
It is not necessary to throw an individual to the lions in order to sacrifice his life. Place restriction after regulation after control on his actions, and you prevent him from taking the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. Prohibit him from pursuing his values and compel him to pursue the values of others and you have forced him to sacrifice for others. When an individual is forced to sacrifice for others, he has been forced to sacrifice his life. Make it more and more difficult for him to achieve his life's dreams, place more and more arbitrary obstacles in his path, and slowly but steadily you take his life away. But for one to grasp this one would first have to grasp the principle that each individual has a moral right to his life and the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy it, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others.

The fact is, if an individual is forced to abide by the dictates of the community his life is no longer his possession. His life is under control of the community, to be used and disposed of as they determine.

neoHouston claims that the end of my article "argues that people have the right to do whatever they want with their property no matter what." This is an evasion of what I wrote and intellectually dishonest. neoHouston uses his evasion to erect a
straw man which he can easily knock down.

The rest of my article actually goes on to explicitly identify the moral principles I support:

Live Oaks: If Houstonians wish to retain the benefits of freedom, then they must embrace the moral principles that make freedom possible. They must embrace the right of each individual to pursue his values without interference from others, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. They must embrace an objective morality that defends this right, and they must do so proudly and without reservation.


Each individual-- no matter his race, gender, religion, or ethnicity-- has a moral right to take the actions necessary to sustain and enjoy his life. He has no right to demand that others provide for his sustenance or enjoyment, just as others have no right to make such demands of him.

This is where neoHouston’s Pragmatism shines through. He claims that I support the right of individuals to do "whatever they want with their property no matter what” despite my very clear statement to the contrary—each individual must respect the mutual rights of others.

neoHouston sees morality as a choice between “everything goes” or regulations and controls. He cannot envision objective moral principles derived from observable facts. Either moral principles are handed down from God, imposed by the community, or there are no moral principles at all. Either we act as mindless robots guided by God's dictates, we act as mindless robots guided by the dictates of the community, or we act as a mindless animal guided by our urges and whims.

There is an alternative. An objective, reality oriented morality has been defined. It's name is Objectivism.


6 comments:

Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for publishing your response to the anonymous critic. As you indicate, such criticisms are sometimes worth analyzing point by point for what they reveal about the nature of their arguments (or lack thereof).

Debate seldom changes the position of either debater, but the exchange--and especially the sort of rational analysis you have brought to it--can be very helpful to third-parties, the audience members watching the debate.

Brian Phillips said...

I find it helpful to analyze my critics. It helps me improve my own arguments (or identify errors if I am wrong), and it helps me understand how I might improve my communications.

Harold said...

Yeah, I liked it too. Great post.

There seems to be a pattern among those who criticize objectivism. They say things like, "grow up" or "I used to believe that stuff, but now I'm older", and so on. Of course, they don't have any good arguments, but it's interesting to note.





BTW if the redheads need sanctuary from persecution, I'll gladly take them in.

Brian Phillips said...

In some ways, such shallow arguments are encouraging. They show how weak the enemy really is.

Mike N said...

Brian:
Great post. I would just add that neoHouston is a great example of a person who is what I call a feeler; someone who has accepted a world view with which he feels comfortable or semi-comfortable and who has subordinated his rational faculty to the task of rationalizing, that is, justifying his world view. And that is done to protect his feelings. Condescending words like 'grow up' are are not aimed at the reader's mind but at his feelings. It is neoHouston's way of lashing out at a reality he doesn't want to exist because it doesn't conform to his feelings.

Keeep up the great work.

Brian Phillips said...

One consequence of Pragmatism is complexity worship. Unable to think in principles, the Pragmatist rejects the identification of a fundamental cause as "simplistic". neoHouston did this, offering a laundry list of explanations why Houston's economy has done well. Rather than accept a principled explanation, he asserts a complicated, intermingled set of "causes".