Epistemological Anarchy

Michael Acree, a research specialist in the Department of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco, offers one of the most intriguing articles I've ever seen in Liberty Magazine to date: Who's Your Daddy? - Authority, Asceticism, and the Spread of Liberty.

Acree begins by asking why conservatives and liberals are so resistant to libertarianism. His answer:

What liberals and conservatives have in common, I suggest, is having publicly subscribed to an ascetic code in which they are not wholeheartedly committed. They have simply focused on different aspects of Christian asceticism (an asceticism shared by most other religions) — money or sex. Morality, in the cynical view, was probably invented as a system of social control: the intellectually powerful use guilt to control the physically powerful. Happy people are hard to control noncoercively. There is a limit to what we can offer them as inducements to behave differently. Guilty people, on the other hand, offer a conspicuous lever. Do as the moralists say, and your sins will be forgiven and you will experience eternal bliss. (Some gullibility is required, but not an extraordinary amount.) The ideal moral code, from this point of view, is one that is set against human nature, that people can hardly help violating. Thus the historically successful codes, including those prevailing in Western culture, are ascetic, particularly with respect to sex and money. Tellingly, perhaps, it is rare to find prohibitions on power over other people.

Acree then continues with an exploration of George Lakoff's family models of the state, where conservatives view the government as a disciplinarian father and left-liberals view the government as a nurturing mother. His response to Lakoff's theory is no great surprise:

To libertarians, however, the question is beside the point: we reject any model of the state that sees citizens as children, and bureaucrats and politicians as the only adults. It is remarkable that Lakoff misses entirely the possibility of noninfantilizing social arrangements.

But the real meat of the article is Acree's thoughts on epistemology. Riffing off of Paul Feyerabend, the famous "epistemological anarchist," Acree also shows why libertarianism may have greater appeal to the left than the right.

The alignment of the disciplinary-parent model with a moral and epistemological authoritarianism is perhaps clear. The social orientation of liberalism, on the other hand, leads philosophically to a commitment to openness to other points of view, to an emphasis on the social construction of language and thought, and to philosophies like relativism and postmodernism... So it is hardly surprising that some philosophers have embraced a more libertarian perspective here than have libertarians themselves. Paul Feyerabend, in his book "Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge" (Verso, 1976), argued that scientific progress has often come, not from following, but from breaking rules, and that the only rule that wouldn't inhibit the growth of knowledge is "Anything goes." Simple-minded critics have taken his claim as implying that anyone's opinion is necessarily as good as any other, but epistemological anarchism actually places more responsibility on individual knowers than does a philosophy which conceives of knowledge production as a matter of mechanically following defined rules. There are no rules to hide behind, to shift responsibility onto, no substitute for our own judgment. Epistemological anarchism does not entail the rejection of logic or any particular methodological rules. It merely recognizes their inadequacy as arbiters of dispute and governing authorities of thought...

Whether the movement becomes more libertarian or conservative, however, depends on a more fundamental, enduring attitude among the members it attracts. That orientation is usefully revealed in our view of knowledge. We have already noticed among leftists a horizontal décalage between their authoritarianism in the political sphere and their libertarianism or anarchism in epistemology. That décalage is important to recognize because it offers a potential lever for influence, especially since most leftists would strongly resist being labeled "authoritarian." Brute force just happens to be the unavoidable means of implementing their egalitarian social goals, but the use of guns is something to be masked, to be left implicit, at the level of threat rather than murder. Leftists bridle at the arrogance of fundamentalists, especially at righteous attempts to impose their values on the whole society, yet remain blind to the equal arrogance of their own political authoritarianism. There are thus grounds for an appeal to consistency, to bringing the attitude of humility from epistemology around to displace their arrogance in the political realm. One might expect, for example, Nozick's model of utopia as a "framework for utopias" to hold some appeal to leftists, as the political equivalent of postmodernism.

Now, the position of libertarians, curiously enough, tends to be the mirror image of that décalage exhibited by leftists. Libertarians, again under the obvious influence of Rand, have characteristically been rabid fundamentalists in epistemology, vesting their security in deductive systems. It goes without saying that they would resist the label "authoritarian" as fiercely as their counterparts on the Left, but the arrogance of libertarians, especially Objectivists, in asserting the infallibility of their deductive systems is a match for the arrogance they denounce in efforts at socialist planning. Where socialists ironically tend more to trust the market with respect to ideas, in a more dynamic vision of knowledge and science, libertarians are more inclined to appeal to fixed notions of objective, universal, timeless truths. They are particularly inclined to insist on the importance of "objective," well-defined rules in the legal realm: it is essential for everyone to be able to know in advance whether a given action is legal or not; the potential and actual evils of discretion, in the hands of a powerful judge, are all too obvious.

The problem, however, is that judgment is always required in the application of any rule, and a great deal of mischief can be perpetrated by pretending otherwise, by claiming that decisions are given automatically by the rules, without human involvement... For every horror story involving discretion on the part of a judge, there is another involving the attempt to impose a simple rule blindly, without regard to context or circumstances. Philip Howard has amassed a collection of those in his book "The Death of Common Sense: How Law Is Suffocating America" (Warner Books, 1994).

The source of this dilemma, of course, is the investment in someone of arbitrary power — in other words, a monopolistic justice system. Arbitration agencies in a free market are obliged to reach decisions that will be perceived as fair by all parties. An agency which was perceived as favoring wealthy clients, for example, could attract business only from disputants who perceived themselves approximately equal in wealth — a rather specialized market niche. The "marketplace of ideas," in epistemology or law, doesn't privilege one authority over another, and that works better than the assumption that there is one fixed rule or correct answer, and that we — or the government — know it and are applying it.

Just so. I fear, however, that Rand's influence on libertarians is most pervasive in the realm of epistomology, even among those who otherwise reject Rand's ideas. Giving up objective approaches to epistomology, especially in ethics, may be the hardest possible thing to do for most libertarians, which partially explains why those of us who wish to privatize legal decision making have such a difficult time convincing fellow travelers.

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Sorry Micha, not swallowing.

Sorry Micha, not swallowing. It's a nice little rhetorical trick to call an objection "simple minded" but that doesn't make it so. Sure there is "no substitute for our own judgement," but that just begs the question. How do we evaluate our judgements without using logic and empirical checking against reality? "Judgement" without anything to reference it to (i.e. logic and reality) is as good as meaningless whim. You cannot take logic and objective reality out of the picture without falling into incoherence, and as you yourself recently said, blankly accepting incoherence paralyzes critical argument. It makes knowledge impossible.

I am quite aware of the whole Neurath/Duhem-Quine "can't get off the raft" thesis, and it's quite true as far as it goes: every empirical observation we make will be theory-laden. Sometimes a hypothesis we take for granted will be falsified to dramatic effect (the idea of absolute time is a good example). But I don't see why this is a big deal. Unless we make the (admittedly unproveable) assumption that there is an objective reality underlying our (theory-laden) observations which follows some kind of rules (though again we may not understand those rules), then we are totally rudderless on this raft.

All our knowledge must remain open to revision, and our understanding of reality will frequently be shattered and need to be reshaped. This much Feyerabend gets right. But he's essentially pulling a Schopenhauer by putting "judgement" (which in his use is basically the same as "will") as the primary arbiter of knowledge rather than logic and reality. Which is just putting the cart before the horse.

I'd heard it described as

I'd heard it described as pancritical rationalism before, but epistemological anarchism also sounds like a good term.

I use physics theory as a means to impress on people that there is no science where we know every detail. Natural law and its subset, natural rights, are no exception. Thus like the “hard sciences” we need a way to formulate hypotheses and test them. It seems to me that a market based polycentric legal system is the way to do that.

There is a difference between uncertainty in discovering the details of a fixed principle, and uncertainty in discovering the details of something which it is not clear exists. I'm not sure how you can test the hypothesis "X is wrong?". What is the definition of wrong?

Also, a polycentric system does not merely test hypothesis, it can support multiple different answers. Nor do I think the result will be that one answer will work best (for laws or rights or defining an aspect of morality). I am pretty sure that in some areas, there will be best answers, and in others, multiple competing answers will continue to exist for populations with different moral desires. And it seems like a stable multi-equilibrium would contradict the idea that there is a single answer, which I think is what natural rights claims.

…leaving us utterly

…leaving us utterly rudderless and without any useful standard by which to judge the merits of a theory.

I think the sentences preceding the sentence to which you object answers your complaint nicely:

"Simple-minded critics have taken his claim as implying that anyone’s opinion is necessarily as good as any other, but epistemological anarchism actually places more responsibility on individual knowers than does a philosophy which conceives of knowledge production as a matter of mechanically following defined rules. There are no rules to hide behind, to shift responsibility onto, no substitute for our own judgment."

So we may not have any objective standard with which to judge the merits of a theory. That makes our job more difficult. We must come up with our own preferred standards based on what we believe has worked for us in the past (and the often-incorrect assumption that these standards will continue to work for us in the future). We are continually Stuck On Neurath’s Boat:

"There is no way of taking conclusively established pure protocol sentences as the starting point of the sciences. No tabula rasa exists. We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials. Only the metaphysical elements can be allowed to vanish without trace."

(Otto Neurath, "Protocol sentences," in Logical Positivism, edited by A.J. Ayer, Free Press, Glencoe, Ill., 1959, pp. 199-208, there p. 201)

Sorry, that should read: "If

Sorry, that should read: "If there’s any way of arbiting intellectual dispute that doesn’t depend logic and the idea of an objective reality (even if our impressions of that reality are imperfect or quite often wrong), I’d like to know what the hell it is."

Subtle difference but I'd like to get it right.

I'm all for

I'm all for non-authoritarian epistemology, but Feyerabend goes too far. "Anything goes" is not a useful approach for anybody and totally throws out the baby with the bathwater.

"Epistemological anarchism does not entail the rejection of logic or any particular methodological rules. It merely recognizes their inadequacy as arbiters of dispute and governing authorities of thought..."

...leaving us utterly rudderless and without any useful standard by which to judge the merits of a theory. You cannot have any kind of rational argument or attain anything that could be called "knowledge" in any meaningful sense of the word without the idea that there's an objective reality against which to test our theories, and that there are certain rules (i.e. logic) that any good set of theories should be governed by. If there's any way of obtaining knowledge that doesn't use logic and depend on the idea of an objective reality (even if our impressions of that reality are quite often wrong), I'd like to know what the hell it is.

Me, I'm more of a Karl Popper guy myself.

I don’t mean to desparage

I don’t mean to desparage all Objectivists,

Which is why I said some would be disappointed. I'm not an Objectivist. Maybe an objectivist, definitely not Randian. Not everyone advocating the existence of natural law is Randian.

I use physics theory as a means to impress on people that there is no science where we know every detail. Natural law and its subset, natural rights, are no exception. Thus like the "hard sciences" we need a way to formulate hypotheses and test them. It seems to me that a market based polycentric legal system is the way to do that.

David, I don't mean to

David,

I don't mean to desparage all Objectivists, but this seems to be a major sticking point with many of them when discussing polycentric law. Since they claim that a single moral Truth is always and everywhere discoverable, they conclude that it is only right that we should find it and enforce it, and not have competing views over what is truth. Now, an intelligent Objectivist could alternatively conclude that even though there may be a single right answer, a monopolistic entity may have great trouble finding it, and decentralized competition would fare better. But a certain type of Randian won't even admit this much, because they do not believe that discovering the truth of the matter is all that difficult if one has the proper epistemology and knows how to properly use Reason. This refusal to admit the limits of our knowledge, in turn, shares many similar features with the fatal conceit of socialists.

So as not to appear like I am creating an Objectivist straw-person (straw-entity?), let me point you to the debate between Roderick Long and Robert Bidinotto, if you have not read it already. Though both consider themselves Objectivists (and Long actually specifically argues against the thesis I am raising here, with "Why Objective Law Requires Anarchy"), Bidinotto's argument is a great example of the fatal conceit of Objectivist epistemology when applied to politics and law.

Micha, I do see your

Micha,

I do see your point.

This stuck out to me:

No legal rule can be written in a way that is simple and concise enough to understand and at the same time covers all possible (or even likely) scenarios. At the end of the day, a great portion of it comes down to the judge’s discretion.

Definitely. And I think that if a libertarian style of legal system influences both judge and law, we'll get much better resuls in the future. I think we'd be fine with either the "authoritarian" libertarians or the "competitive-truth" ones. :)

Micha, Thanks for the

Micha,
Thanks for the link. I read Rand about 5 years ago, but only recently have I come across people self-describing as rational anarchists. I'll take some time this weekend and look it over.

And for those who claim that

And for those who claim that there is only one right answer to every legal conflict and that this answer is discoverable, they will not be very satisfied with a competitive system of law or a system that grants lots of discretionary power to judges.

Why do you say this? If a law regarding inter-personal dealings is discoverable in the same manner that laws regarding gravitation are discoverable, then why would I be disappointed by a market process of judicial discretion?

I do have a question on

I do have a question on this. In the argument for private legal decision, is there any distinction made between criminal and civil decision?

I completely agree with the

I completely agree with the quote you posted from Acree. My favorite:

They have simply focused on different aspects of Christian asceticism (an asceticism shared by most other religions) — money or sex.

Imagine the howls of outrage if you insinuate that a liberal is just as moralistic as bible-beater preacher. Yet, not only do they both evangelize and demand compliance with their moral codes, they subscribe to nearly the same ones!

It always struck me as ironic that left-liberal atheists would declare their schismatic break with religion by simply saying they didn't believe in God. As if that were the only feature of Christianity. Yet, they completely accepted the entire Christan ethos of "money/greed/pleasure are bad" and "enforced altruism is good."

In my opinion, paternalistic Christians and socalistic liberals are philosophically equivalent. It's not just a joke that you can replace "Jesus/God" with "society" and get almost the same thing.

However, the second part you quote confused me, this line especially:

It goes without saying that they would resist the label “authoritarian” as fiercely as their counterparts on the Left, but the arrogance of libertarians, especially Objectivists, in asserting the infallibility of their deductive systems is a match for the arrogance they denounce in efforts at socialist planning.

The author seems to equate the arrogance of objectivists saying "morality is objective" with socialists saying that "the economy must be centrally planned." This seems to be a faulty comparison. The objectivist (whether you agree with him or not) asserts that unless it you're using force on me, it's not wrong. The socialist asserts that it is right that he be able to spend your money for you. It seems to me that the objectivist assertion contains no arrogance -- he only says "don't tread on me" -- which is hardly worthy of the label "authoritarian."

If the "authoritarian" nature the author is simply referring is the fact that the objectivists view themselves to be "right," that seems to be a rather trivial claim to make.

For every horror story involving discretion on the part of a judge, there is another involving the attempt to impose a simple rule blindly, without regard to context or circumstances.

The author seems to characterize libertarians as proposing this world of "simple rules imposed blindly." But I don't think that's what you would get if somehow libertarians got to rewrite our legal system. Ignoring the "legal market selection" people (who have very interesting points to make), even if the objectivist/libertarian people were in charge, you'd have a legal system on the basis of "initiating force is wrong," followed by the interpretation of this into law. (Plus all the attendant "details" we have today like search warrants, legality of evidence, etc...)

Certainly, this "simple rule" could be wielded unfairly, but laws can always be wielded unfairly by corrupt judges. The question is, would it be more likely in this "libertarian-legal-code" world, or in ours today? Given the EXTREMELY subjective nature of some of our current laws, I'd think it would be much harder to do in the libertarian fantasy world.

Overall, I agree with the aims of the author, but not his characterization (and therefore irrelevant nature) of libertarian/objectivist viewpoints.

Brad, I think that would

Brad,

I think that would depend on what arbitration firms and customers in the market decide. But in terms of efficiency and which is more likely to appear in a free market for law, David Friedman gives an extended argument for civil law over criminal law while acknowledging some of the drawbacks:

Should we abolish the criminal law? Would we be better off if we turned all crimes into torts, replacing enforcement by the state with enforcement by private police selected by the victims? To put the question differently, is there any logic to our present system, where if someone assaults me I call the police but if he reneges on a contract I call my lawyer?

The civil system has some obvious advantages. It replaces a centralized, government run system for catching criminals with a decentralized market. In many other contexts, from schools to postal delivery, there seems to be evidence that markets produce a better product than governments at a lower cost. In addition, a civil system provides reimbursement to the victim. This not only appeals to our sense of justice, it also provides an incentive for victims to report crimes, even when doing so involves a certain amount of risk or inconvenience-something notably lacking in a criminal system. And it eliminates the conflict of interest between the enforcer and his employers that appears as bribery, and precautions to prevent bribery, under current institutions.

There are, however, some problems with a pure civil system...

Brian, What Acree means by

Brian,

What Acree means by authoritarian arrogance is the idea that there is a single version of Truth that we are capable of discovering, rather than viewing truth as a competitive pursuit, and not a static end result. The following sentence captures this idea perfectly:

Where socialists ironically tend more to trust the market with respect to ideas, in a more dynamic vision of knowledge and science, libertarians are more inclined to appeal to fixed notions of objective, universal, timeless truths.

Continuing with your response...

Even if the objectivist/libertarian people were in charge, you’d have a legal system on the basis of “initiating force is wrong,” followed by the interpretation of this into law.

I think this misses the difficulty in defining what it means to "initate force" and how difficult this can be to interpret, especially in a monopolistic legal system, even if libertarian.

The question is, would it be more likely in this “libertarian-legal-code” world, or in ours today? Given the EXTREMELY subjective nature of some of our current laws, I’d think it would be much harder to do in the libertarian fantasy world.

I completely agree - the job would be much easier than it is today. But nevertheless it would still be quite difficult - much more difficult than many libertarians realize. The job of interpreting what at first seems like simple, straightforward legal rules is rarely as easy as it looks. No legal rule can be written in a way that is simple and concise enough to understand and at the same time covers all possible (or even likely) scenarios. At the end of the day, a great portion of it comes down to the judge's discretion. And for those who claim that there is only one right answer to every legal conflict and that this answer is discoverable, they will not be very satisfied with a competitive system of law or a system that grants lots of discretionary power to judges.

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Too Much Freedom?
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