2013-05-22

My Last Post On Bleeding Heart Libertarians

One of the reasons this issue is of such interest to me is the fact that it is so emblematic of many of the things I frequently discuss here. I have already indicated that much of the problem with so-called "Bleeding Heart Libertarianism" is that it is only accessible at the vaguest level, and is thus a shotgun theory.

To that end, David Friedman's many prescient critiques of BHLism are exactly on the money. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Friedman as a thinker is his ability to accept nuance as nuance, and to accept the shortcomings of an otherwise good theory as shortcomings, acknowledge them, and attempt to solve them as best you can. That, too, with the understanding that perhaps we cannot ever satisfactorily solve them within our lifetimes.

Epistemological Problems Of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism
Attentive readers will note that I am praising Friedman for displaying one of the great characteristics I have attributed to Classical Antiquity. The reason it is important to mention here relates to a couple of comments I made recently at the BHL blog. As I said there:
It is quite clear in The Republic that the participants of the discussion are attempting to arrive at a satisfactory definition of the word justice by exploring various conceptions of it. They do not succeed in defining it, but it is nonetheless the goal of the discussion. The very reason I brought it up here is that [Jason Brennan's] objective seems to be the exact opposite: to avoid giving definitions and specifics in hopes of facilitating a discussion about the conceptions of social justice, moral knowledge, etc.
That is, it seems to me that, when confronted with difficult questions about what exactly they stand for, BHLers would rather put the cart before the horse: The appear to want to skip the difficult part of defining what they are talking about so that they can instead focus on the implications of their beliefs.

This is not at all uncommon. In fact, my experience has been that, during political conversations of any kind, it is most often the case that people prefer to simply state their opinions and discuss the ratification of their chosen policies than to spend their time establishing the philosophical validity of their positions. The principle difference here being that it is not typically academic thinkers who do this sort of thing. Academics do not usually avoid the responsibility of justifying their particulars before moving on to exploring the implications. So, at the risk of offending some, I have to say that BHLism occasionally feels amateurish to me. (That observation, too, coming from an amateur. Yes, I fully recognize this.)

Getting back to Classical Antiquity, Plato's The Republic is an excellent example of how philosophical issues were explored back then. The usual course of action was to agree on a set of logical assumptions, and trace their implications if those assumptions hold true. As in The Republic, sometimes the assumptions must be readdressed, modified, and so on. But for any given set of assumptions, the discourse reveals a set of valid logical conditions. We may agree or disagree with the underlying assumptions, but the logic must remain valid at all times. (Note that valid logic need not necessarily be true.)

This is the way philosophical discourse typically proceeds, and this is the way it should proceed, in my opinion. BHLers, on the other hand, appear to prefer skipping the task of (clearly) defining their assumptions entirely, favoring instead to let their logic proceed however it may.

The problem here is that the audience must then take on the responsibility of defining the assumptions (whether or not they are conscious of this step) in order to make sense of their claims. Some do so automatically, and either write the BHLers off as "statists" or vehemently agree with their rationale under the belief that the BHLers and their audience do in fact share the same assumptions. (Note that until those assumptions are articulated, this is not a foregone conclusion.)

But others, like David Friedman, choose to clarify the assumptions before deciding whether or not they will agree with the BHLers. Confronted by requests for greater specificity, the BHLers have proven highly evasive. Brennan has even gone so far as to claim that knowledge need not be articulable in order to be knowledge!

Thus, the BHLers have exposed a highly problematic epistemological shortcoming: They have started with their conclusions, and have sought to articulate a logical system that justifies it. The result of this is that, when their beliefs are questioned, they either re-define their beliefs, or they re-define their assumptions. Their core conclusions are the only things that never seem to change.

Or, Do Their Conclusions Change?
David Friedman notes that Jason Brennan and Matt Zwolinski, both of whom are Bleeding Heart Libertarians, have extremely different definitions for the term "social justice." Today, fellow BHLer Kevin Vallier offers yet other definition for that term, one that appears to be at odds with the previous two.

It borders on being comical. What all Bleeding Heart Libertarians share in common is a special concern for social justice. What they do not share in common is a unanimous understanding of what the term "social justice" even means. The more of them that attempt to define it, the more unique definitions that appear.

It is worth remembering at this point that the current discussion of what BHLers actually think "social justice" is originated with Jason Brennan's criticism of those he deemed "cartoon libertarians." As I wrote right off the bat, Brennan's attack on other libertarians was little more than conceited dismissal of those who disagree with him. The great irony is that Brennan likely does not even share the beliefs of his fellow BHLers on many of the issues he dealt with in that initial post. But while he may call non-BHLers "cartoons," those who profess to be BHLers are apparently not.

Excepting, of course, the fact that the complete inability of Bleeding Heart Libertarians to agree on the definition of one of their core, unifying beliefs is itself reaching the point of being cartoonish.

Conclusion
I leave it to the BHLers to address anything I have said here. While I was initially interested in figuring out exactly what the BHLers think and stand for, as the days, weeks, and months press on I am left only with the impression that they don't know. It is not really my place or my interest to help others determine what it is that they think. I have a hard enough time figuring out what I myself think! Stationary Waves is my forum for doing so. I now leave the BHLers their forum for figuring out their own beliefs.

As for me, I'm on to other topics for the next little while.