Confusing the Issue

As a debate progresses, the number of issues under discussion often increases at an exponential rate, as each new response to a claim introduces new claims, which themselves invite new responses, and in turn more claims, and so forth. The progression is as follows:

I say: P.

You say: Q, not P, because of X, Y, and Z.

I say: No, not Q, because of A, B, and C. Further, X, Y, and Z don't apply because X fails to meet conditions L, M, and N; Y fails to meet conditions R, S, and T; and Z fails to meet conditions U, V, and W.

You say: Yes Q, because...

Both of us quickly lose sight of the fact that we were supposed to be arguing about P and Q, and not all the other incidental stuff.

This is especially true with debates about political theory, because political theory touches on so many other subjects - political science, economics, ethics, metaphysics, and linguistics (usually in that order, with a few more steps in between).

What often happens in these debates is that the participants don't realize that they are mixing issues together and making the discussion unnecessarily complex and confusing. This is what happened in the debate between Richard Epstein and Walter Block, where they confusingly mixed together arguments over economic methodology and the political theory. I also suspect it happened in a Samuel Freeman paper, where he mixes issues of ethical methodology and political theory.

In the Block/Epstein debate, a naive observer might assume that since Block is an anarchist Austrian economist and Epstein is a minarchist neoclassical economist, therefore all Austrian economists are anarchists and all neoclassical economists are minarchists. This is not the case, but neither of the two participants made this point clear.

So too, in the Freeman paper, a naive observer might assume that a libertarian's ethical methodology -- whether based on natural rights, consequences, or something else -- determines or is determined by his favored political theory. This is not so either.

This same kind of confusion has happened again in a debate over libertarian perspectives on the war in Iraq, between Max Borders (pro-war) and Justin Logan (anti-war). Follow Logan's links for the history of the debate.

What is confusing here is that, in addition to the war argument, Justin and Max are also arguing about ethical methodology. Justin holds the conventional libertarian position of natural rights, while Max is some sort of contractarian, with a touch of cultural relativism. While the debate originally focused on libertarian perspectives about the war, it has gradually turned into a debate over the nature of rights and the definition of libertarianism in general.

My fear is that naive observers will conclude that there is some causal connection between a belief in natural rights and an anti-war position, and between a rejection of natural rights and a pro-war position. This is not so. As before, here is another fancy table, this time using contemporary bloggers as examples, taken from those involved in this discussion when possible:

Political Theory
Pro-War    Anti-War
Ethical Methodology     Natural Rights Randy Barnett Justin Logan
Non-Natural Rights  Max Borders Micha Ghertner

By Non-Natural Rights, I simply mean any other position, such as consequentialism or contractarianism.

As this demonstrates, one's position on the war does not necessarily track one's ethical methodology. I am largely in agreement with much of Max's criticisms of conventional libertarian rights theorizing, and yet I find Justin's arguments against the war persuasive and agreeable.

Sadly, my fears were well placed. Several observers have indeed made this mistaken assumption -- the assumption that there is some causal connection between a rejection of natural rights and a pro-war position. My next post will be about one such case.

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Randy Barnett is a

Randy Barnett is a consequentialist, not a natural lawyer. He makes this clear in his _Structure of Liberty_.

Gil, You're right that


You're right that Barnett is not an objective rights advocate like Rand or Rothbard, but he does base his consequential natural rights approach on natural law, i.e., given the world we live in and the nature of man, if we want a happpy, peaceful, prosperous society, then a system of property rights within by a polycentric constitutional order is the best political system to achieve that goal.

But at that point, its

But at that point, its 6-in-1, half dozen in the other. I happen to agree that given reality, the constraints of the intersection between physical reality and the structure of the human brain and the inevitable societies that result, the 'good consequences' maximizing behavior happens to coincide with 'natural rights' conclusions. Any difference in approach is argumentative rather than substantive, unless natural rights people want to actually argue that natural rights have a cartesian existence, I suppose.

This is why, when arguing in

This is why, when arguing in comments threads, it's hard to avoid the 'Scylla & Charybdis' of either
1: Fisking the other guy's last post, going point for point and ad nauseum, causing almost everyone besides the Fiskee to skim past it, or:
2: Responding epigrammatically to the gist of the argument, risking a charge of superficiality and a host of ankle-biting nit-picks in response.