DVD Movie Review - Open Range

Just out on DVD: Open Range - with Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall and Annette Bening. One thumb up (my thumb).
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The premise is a few open range cattle grazers being threatened by the big, bad cattle rancher. I'll cut to the chase, then start rambling, then digress ('cause that's what I do).

1) I thought the cinematography was beautiful, with some stunning big-sky scenes (at least on the big screen). It's a modern-day western, with the benefit of modern-day film.

2) It's got a romantic thread to the story. Though I think Kevin Costner is not an incredible actor, his style is well-suited to the contemplative, past-haunted cowboy he plays. Annette Bening is very good in her portrayal of a middle-aged woman who sees something more in Costner.

3) In the town within this movie, and in most westerns, "the law" is remote - a federal marshall is several days ride away. What appealed most to me was that faced with this fact, the people of this small town by-and-large submitted to the bullying or extra-legal actions of the evil rancher, and his bought-and-paid-for sheriff. I enjoyed seeing this because I think it's a fact of life that should be recognized: freedom is not free. Bullying is a facet of human nature. Protection from such elements expends scarce resources: time, energy, and lives. The story is a testament to this fact.

4) My favorite scene occurs when Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall find themselves in a crowded bar seeking justice for wrongs committed by the crooked sheriff and other heavies - cronies of the wealthy rancher. The bad guys don't submit, guns are drawn from both parties, and so Costner and Duvall are forced to quickly make their case to the citizens of the town, within the bar, requesting justice.

In my mind this reveals a second set of facts: justice is not free, justice is subjective, but often can be largely agreed upon. The two cowboys did not have the local law on their side, but they felt they might stand a chance because they knew they were in the right - and that this fact could help them.

They appealed directly to the citizens' sense of right and wrong. They did not take the law into their own hands (as the crooked sheriff had done). They sought approval for their actions because it was the most prudent course of action. The citizen's of the town did not owe them anything - including justice. It involved a great expense of time, effort (and perhaps lives?) - and none of the citizens were obligated to help. Doing so would have required sticking one's neck out. And while most would agree that the reward is typically well-worth the cost, sometimes only a well-spoken appeal can convince people that the price (risk) is a good investment.

There is a network effect to this, in that if only one or two people are willing to do what is "right", the investment will often fail. As more people jump on the bandwagon (of demanding justice), success is more assured.

Bottom line: I think that for evils that existed in the past, and evils that exist in the present, the cheapest way to overcome them is to appeal to a sense of right and wrong.

- Slavery was eradicated outside America largely in this manner. Within America, the cost was hundreds of thousands of lives.

- The Soviet Union collapsed when it became clear to enough people that communism didn't work - and was evil.

- If one day the evils of taxation are overcome, it will be because people have been awakened to the facts, because enough people have made the case, because enough people have stuck out their necks. Freedom will not be free. Justice will not be free. Repeated, well-spoken appeals will eventually convince enough people of what is "right".

This movie gives me hope. I recommend it.

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Bill - Enjoyed this movie

Bill - Enjoyed this movie myself, and, your review.

My family just finished

My family just finished watching the "Lonesome Dove" trilogy, Robert Duvall is my wife's latest heartthrob, and we've been Kevin Costner fans since "The Bodyguard" (and in spite of Waterworld). Sounds like this movie will go at the top of our Netflix list!

I'll be eager to see how the movie deals with the themes you talk about, Bill. We had to lead this sort of life in South Africa. Not only was there a constant threat of having to defend ourselves from criminals, but the breakdown of the police and justice system meant that "the law" became a thing to be avoided by well-intentioned people.

Thanks for the review!

I saw a commercial for this

I saw a commercial for this movie yesterday and told Rachel I thought I'd check it out and see how it was. I didn't watch it in the theater because it's Costner, and his movies are so uneven. Westerns are a great way to look past the system we have in place today and see what happens when people are left to their own devices so far as institutions go. The story of the Saint of Killers, in Preacher Book 4 (Ancient History), is one of my most recent favorites in this vein.

have to disagree with you on

have to disagree with you on one point: that the protagonists' public appeal to justice somehow reveals that justice is subjective. It reveals exactly the opposite. The heroes are appealing to some standard of justice that is objective to themselves, and can be intuited by their fellows. They do not say, "In my own name, I call out for X." They say, "In the name of justice, I call out for X."

This implies that others can examine the same standard and come to a conclusion about what is true about justice. Otherwise, the appeal is not to reason, but to bare emotion. It implies that there exists some evaluation of justice which can be objectively true to all individuals similarly situated. To argue otherwise is to fail to capture the essence of moral disagreement. One cannot convince someone of something if he also admits that it can't be really true!

If your point is that people can feel similarly about something like justice, well, that's obvious. But if our perception justice is a mere feeling and not an actual intuition of something "real" outside ourselves, then no evaluation of justice can be wrong, as long as it is an honest report of what we feel.

Disagreement about it is therefore impossible, since every idea about justice is true simultaneously. Moral argument, therefore, is completely absurd, amounting to "I feel X," followed by "That's wrong, because I feel Y, therefore you cannot feel X."

Which doesn't seem to be what you are doing when you try to convince someone that socialism is per se unjust (I need no convincing on this point).

Sage, Your comment is fair.

Sage,

Your comment is fair. I should have stopped at justice is not free. I offered no evidence that it's subjective.

Thanks,
Bill

"In my mind this reveals a

"In my mind this reveals a second set of facts: justice is not free, justice is subjective, but often can be largely agreed upon. The two cowboys did not have the local law on their side, but they felt they might stand a chance because they knew they were in the right - and that this fact could help them."

They couldn't know they were in the right if justice is subjective. And there is no basis to agree on the subjective.

Justice is the last human

Justice is the last human institution I have trouble giving up...

Whenever I start talking too much about Justice, my wife soon gets fed up and tells me that in the end, there is only really anarchy and force. Justice only exists between our ears. An alien observer who can't communicate with us would only see that some of us humans submit to other humans, and those who don't are soon approached by somebody with a gun.

Justice, like Science, is an invention of human minds. We communicate about it, putting it to the test of peer review, to see if we can weed out the contradictions, compare it to the observable world, and get it right. Getting Science right means being able to predict the world. Getting Justice right means being able to live peacefully and productively with each other.

This all gets a little too close to subjectivism for me sometimes--somehow I can understand that Science is limited by the human mind, not by the workings of the world. I have more of a problem thinking of Justice this way. I think Reason should always trump Force, and get nervous when I realize we don't have that guarantee.

My wife will say, "The townspeople are just like lions. If somehow Kevin Costner can convince them to join him and use enough force against the evil sheriff to get his way, then the pride will get a new leader. If Kevin Costner uses reason and an appeal to their intuitive ideas to convince the townspeople instead of threatening them, all the better, but in the end the strongest lion will lead the pride."

Mark, Your wife has it

Mark,

Your wife has it right. Justice is subjective, as it is a human contruct. Justice does not exist outside humanity; there is no objective sense of justice.

Contra John T. Kennedy, there is in fact a basis to agree on the subjective: you and I may like ice cream and Picasso, for example. Perhaps we have both accepted the same paradigm, the same worldview, and within this paradigm we may argue about the specifics, but we have a general basis upon which to base our arguments.

However, for those who do not share the same basic values (state-socialists and anarcho-capitalists, for example), there is no basis upon which to argue. At it's most basic level, morality is a subjective judgement call which rests upon intuition. Even if we try to reduce everything to utilitarianism, there is still the argument that utilitarianism's foundation is the value it places on happiness. If one rejects this value, one rejects utilitarianism. And so too for all other values. The best we can do is point out inconsistencies in other people's value systems, and challenge whether their intuitions really support their positions.

Micha, Now you see why I

Micha,

Now you see why I start getting itchy when I get in this conversation. Suddenly, we are using terms like "subjective justice", "utilitarianism", and "paradigm shifts". These are phrases that are usually used to try and justify why someone has a higher claim to my life than I do.

With Science, I believe there is a rock-hard, objective foundation in reality that we are trying to model in our minds. The only place for this model to reside is in our individual minds, or in artifacts (like textbooks and computer programs) that our individual minds can interpret. This is where the subjectivism comes in--there are millions of subjects interpreting each other's communications and their own observations to see if they can predict how that rock-hard foundation works.

What is the objective, rock-hard foundation of Justice?

There is no objective,

There is no objective, rock-hard foundation of Justice. I might even object to the idea that there is an objective, rock-hard foundation of Science, but that is a subject for another day.

I would never try to justify why someone has a higher claim to your life than you do. But that doesn't mean that I believe in any objective sense of morality.

Micha, you say that "I would

Micha, you say that "I would never try to justify why someone has a higher claim to your life than you do." That is always the claim of moral subjectivism--that it does not destroy morality because it does not destroy the moral sense of the subjectivist. But this is obvious nonsense. In fact people do make exactly this claim on others' lives, and many of them do so as groups, with a shared sense of what constitutes justice--the Bolsheviks did, for example. Your assertion is that their claim to others' lives can be judged as really, truly erroneous--merely ugly, and that only as a matter of taste.

The point is that if someone did make such a claim, you would have no really moral basis for objecting. Your objection would be as valid, but not moreso, as your objection to my claim that chocolate is better than vanilla. This is the consequence of the notion that justice has no metaphysical substance, as it were, but is merely a word and a shared concept. And this in turn means that might literally does make right, since justice literally is whatever most (or the most influential) people say it is.

Incidentally, to say that justice is not objective because it is a human construct is circular. You might just as well claim that it is objective because it isn't a human construct.

And Mark, I think you worry

And Mark, I think you worry needlessly about the role of reason coming to close to "subjectifying" morality. You're on a track similar to my own personal conclusions about the matter.

What I think you've realized (if I may say so) is that the moral law can be discovered, like physical laws, in part through experience and in part through reasoning about our experience. We say that scientific theories are approximately true so long as they "work," that is, make accurate predictions. Moral theories aren't any different. Utilitarianism is a lousy moral theory because its predictions don't work. People do not, in fact, live well (which is the aim of moral living) under strictly utilitarian principles.

Science is a human activity, but that doesn't mean that the thing under study--nature--is also a human construct. It's there before we discover it (geometrical formulas, black holes, Neptune, cell division and so on would qualify here). I posit that the moral law, like the law of gravity, can be investigated and understood. You can't see gravity per se, but you can observe its affects. A pen falling to the floor isn't gravity, but it is a gravitational phenomenon. The degradation of life under slavery isn't morality, but it is a moral phenomenon. You can't point to it, but you can see it in action.

Sage, The main problem I

Sage,

The main problem I have with your argument is that you aren't actually arguing for the existence of an objective sense of morality by providing any evidence for it; rather, you are arguing against subjectivism in ethics because you don't like its consequences. I don't like its consequences either, but that is not a good argument for the existence of objective ethics.

Similarly, many people justify their belief in God with the claim that if we do not believe in God, we will not be able to make any objective moral claims. That may very well be true, but that doesn't make God suddenly exist if he didn't already.

Incidentally, to say that justice is not objective because it is a human construct is circular. You might just as well claim that it is objective because it isn't a human construct.

Hmm. You might say this, but the argument would only work if you could demonstrate how justice came to be in the absence of humans.

What I think you've realized (if I may say so) is that the moral law can be discovered, like physical laws, in part through experience and in part through reasoning about our experience. We say that scientific theories are approximately true so long as they "work," that is, make accurate predictions. Moral theories aren't any different. Utilitarianism is a lousy moral theory because its predictions don't work. People do not, in fact, live well (which is the aim of moral living) under strictly utilitarian principles.

I actually agree very much with this line of thinking, although I still maintain that it is ethically subjective. Randy Barnett makes the following three-part argument, which is called a hypothetical imperative:

A) Given the facts of nature and the world in which we live,

B) If we wish to achieve certain goals, such as living in a society wherein people lead happy, healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives,

C) Then we must implement certain rules which guide human behavior.

Now, scientists can go about determining (A) without resorting to any claims of objective morality, and economists can go about determing (C) given the requirements set forward in (B) in the same way. But in order to determine our goals, we must rely on some form of subjective criteria, i.e. we cannot figure out what our goals should be by studying nature.

Taking your example of slavery, we certainly can see the effects of slavery in action, and most of us rightly reject it as a terrible institution which is in dire conflict with our goals and the goals of all decent folk. But we make this judgement based on our goals, not on some objective set of goals found in nature.

Micha, There is no

Micha,

There is no objective, rock-hard foundation of Justice. I might even object to the idea that there is an objective, rock-hard foundation of Science, but that is a subject for another day.

Is this your personal position, or does it have a background in Austrian Economics? I haven't done any reading in Austrian Economics, but I seemed to have reached most of the same conclusions by way of Objectivism (though the kinder, gentler sort). If you don't think that many people converge toward a common understanding of Justice or Science because there is an actual, objective world we are all observing and understanding better, then don't you fall victim to a moral relativism where any concept of Justice is just as valid as any other?

I need to apologize--I didn't mean to imply that you specifically would try to justify a claim on my life. I've been reading here long enough to know that you are an advocate for individual liberty!

(Sorry for posting twice in

(Sorry for posting twice in a row--I just caught up with the other thread)

Micha,

I think the main argument for objective reality is convergence, not utility. Many minds are applied to figuring out a non-contraditory system that is in agreement with our senses. If they are converging on a robust model, then presumably that model is a close match towards something real.

Of course, this is not infallable. There are other reasons why everyone likes to agree (Thomas Kuhn's "Paradigm" ideas, if I remember correctly), and we can agree on simple models only to find out there are subtle shortcomings that suddenly demand more work.

I don't think you can fairly call something subjective, though, only because it is a mental activity. Then everything you name becomes subjective, and the term looses any meaning. The real questions is: "Is Justice the same for everyone?" When I say, "I own my life", does this match the way the world really is, or is it just flowery talk that helps hoodwink people into letting me do what I want?

Sage,

You're on a track similar to my own personal conclusions about the matter.

Probably--you have fairly summarized how I like to equate Justice to Science. I think Justice is the science of ethics. It has the same features of peer review, reason, and empirical observation. This has a side effect that I think it is wrong to condemn someone or their ideas or actions as "evil" unless they have been tried for a crime before a Just court. This puts me at odds with some hard-core Objectivists. If we have such a well-defined method of judging people, why are some Objectivists so willing to judge based on a single Usenet post?

I feel like I am on the right path with my musings about Justice, but I don't think I am quite there yet.

Okay, I've talked with my

Okay, I've talked with my wife some more between last night's post and now. I think I have a definition of Justice that I am happy with.

There are two pillars to the foundation of Justice.

1) Every individual owns their life. This is a rock-hard, objective fact of the world. Someone can threaten you or try to persuade you, but ultimately you decide what you want to do. Someone might physically constrain you or even destroy you to prevent you from actually doing what you want to do, but they cannot choose your actions for you.

2) If you respect my life, I'll respect yours. This has no guarantee in the world. Someone can commit a crime against you and try to take your life or possessions against your will. An individual chooses whether or not to live according to this principle.

Justice is the application of these two principles to the behaviour we observe in the world. This definition doesn't go as far as determining fair punishment for an individual that commits a crime against someone, it only lets us label an act as right or wrong. We look at the facts of the case and decide whether the accused was guilty of an act which caused injury to another individual. We use reason to pick apart the subtleties of the case to distinguish bad luck from intentional harm.

If you accept this definition of Justice, then when you say, "Marxism is wrong", what you mean is, "I can show you that Marxism is inherently dependent upon some individuals lacking the respect for others' lives that they demand in return." Someone can certainly set up a government based on Marxism, but that doesn't make it right. Even if no one makes the argument against Marxism, you can expect to see the effects of the crimes on which it is based in its real world application.

I need to polish the presentation, but at least I feel like I have a working definition.

Micha, can you find traces of the subjective in this definition, or of trying to justify the definition because it leads to some particular outcome?

Sage, how close is this to your own personal conclusions?

Bill, does this make sense in the context of "Open Range"? (Netflix says I can expect a "long wait" until it is available to rent!)

Is this your personal

Is this your personal position, or does it have a background in Austrian Economics?

No, unfortunately I have not yet had a chance to study Austrian economics. My position is a result of my own personal thinking and my study of conventional philosophy.

If you don't think that many people converge toward a common understanding of Justice or Science because there is an actual, objective world we are all observing and understanding better, then don't you fall victim to a moral relativism where any concept of Justice is just as valid as any other?

I would put it quite differently: any concept of justice is just as invalid as any other. But I would still argue that given the three-part hypothetical imperitive, libertarianism is the best way to achieve a society wherein people lead happy, healthy, fulfilling, and meaningful lives.

Convergence may help us realize that we are probably correct about the best way to achieve our common goals (assuming, of course, that we have common goals), but I don't this establishes in any meaningful way that our concept of justice is "objective." Given different goals, we would have a different concept of justice.

And I think it is fair to say that something which exists only in the mind, and not independent of it, is subjective. Whether this is too strong, and leads to skepticism, is a discussion for another day.

Every individual owns their life

I think you may be confusing an "is" with an "ought." While it is true that individuals ultimately act, and no one controls their intentional actions directly, no normative principles follow directly from this. Just because you have full control of your will does not necessarily mean that it is wrong for me to threaten you to act in accordance with my will.

I highly recommend reading this article by Randy Barnett in which he gives a revisionist account of Natural Law theory.

Just because you have full

Just because you have full control of your will does not necessarily mean that it is wrong for me to threaten you to act in accordance with my will.

I realize that. That's why principle 1 on its own is not enough. But you cannot threaten me and simultaneously claim to respect my life (principle 2). For example, you can't tax me "for my own good"--this is a contradiction and is therefore unjust. You can simply threaten to lock me up if I don't give you money without trying to justify yourself to me, but then I know that you do not have the same respect for my life that I was willing to extend to you.

What I am claiming is that Justice is a logical consequence of the single normative decision to respect others' volition so long as they do not attack you.

Mark - please check your

Mark - please check your email.

Continued here.

Continued here.