Scott Sumner  

Words and meaning (good theft and bad)

Pot Calling the Kettle . . . W... A certain laxity in word choic...

Many people like to attack ideas by linking them up with words that have ambiguous meaning, but either very positive or very negative connotations. Then they use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent. This is a particularly reprehensible way of arguing, and shows a poverty of imagination. I'll start with terrorism, and then move on to science and theft.

I sometimes hear people say that the bombing of Hiroshima was an act of terrorism, which killed many more people than 9/11. Of course the term 'terrorism' is not well-defined, recall the old joke that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. But I do find the claim to be plausible. After all, we killed many thousands of innocent Japanese civilians with the goal of terrorizing the Japanese into meeting our political demands. But here's what I object to. The people that make this claim often believe they have thereby advanced the argument that bombing Hiroshima was a bad idea. But they have not done so. Was it good terrorism or bad terrorism? Did ending the war quickly save many more Japanese civilian lives on the mainland (recall the horrific civilian casualty total in the attack on the relative small island of Okinawa.) I don't wish to debate the issue, and indeed I don't know the correct answer. All I know is that taking a word with an ambiguous meaning and negative connotation and attaching it to a policy you don't like doesn't advance the argument one iota.

Adam Ozimek almost invariably has thoughtful posts, and this one on the question of whether economics is a science is no exception. There is much that one could say on this topic. The meaning of science has changed radically over time, and economics is unquestionably a science by the original definition. But even today the meaning is quite ambiguous. The millions of people who use the phrase "social science" presumably believe it is a science, millions of other people don't think so. Some of the arguments against economics being a science would also seem to suggest that observational fields like astronomy are not science, as well as fields with low predictive ability like meteorology and volcanology. It's all a big muddle. But I do think that Adam overlooked one very important point. It doesn't matter whether economics is a science.

Unlike terrorism, science has a positive connotation. I'd say deservedly, although of course it also gave us the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, it has helped destroy much of the environment, and helped to radically reduce the population of many species (as did economics). Still, overall I like science. But I also like social science, even if it's not a science. And I like art. Many commenters will tell me that science has done much more for mankind that social science or art. That argument seems silly to me, lacking imagination. I suppose an engine seems like the most important part of a car. But without the transmission it still wouldn't go anywhere. Ditto for the wheels.

Life would be almost unimaginably primitive without some crude from of science. But that's equally true of social science and art. Yes, without science we'd be back in the Stone Age, or worse (defining science broadly to include crude engineering.) But social science is equally important. Perhaps the best example is the two Koreas, which have similar cultures and similar access to scientific truth. North Korea builds 100 story buildings and atomic bombs. That's enough science to be at least as rich as South Korea or Spain. But instead it suffers waves of mass starvation, and other horrors like concentration camps. Bad social science.

Art might seem the least important, but if it's defined broadly to include popular art, and even Stone Age art like storytelling, music, and dance, then it's also an essential component of the good life. Without any art at all, life would be almost unbearable, hardly worth living. So if someone tells me that meteorology is a science and accounting and law are not, my response is "so what?" Why should I care? If they have a "nah nah nah" attitude, I make a mental note not to waste time arguing with them.
The esteemed philosopher Matt Bruenig recently taunted me as follows:

Second, libertarian brains desperately crave the feeling that they are super-logical and super-rational and that other brains don't get it. Which is funny because libertarian political philosophy is the most logically incoherent political philosophy, perhaps ever. Lastly, libertarian brains generally (Nozick excepted) fail to realize that property is theft, which it is.
Many commenters noted the irony of the fact that you can't have theft unless you take someone else's property. But let's put that aside. The real problem is much deeper. Over at MoneyIllusion I responded as follows:
I'll take the bait. I agree that property is theft. Or at least I'm willing to grant permission to Bruenig to define words however he wishes. So what next? Property is theft, where to we go from there? That's easy, we start thinking about what sort of theft to allow, and what sort to make illegal. Let's ban theft that reduces aggregate utility, and legalize theft that raises aggregate utility. After all, words are just words, what matters is meaning. So here's my suggestion:

1. We ban bad theft like burglary, slavery, and intellectual property rights for business practices. [Now I would add property like the word 'how.']
2. We legalize good theft like the privatization of Chinese and Cambodian communes, which prevented millions from starving to death. Or stealing from the super rich with a progressive consumption tax and giving the money to low wage workers.

I wonder how Bruenig feels about theft? Does he oppose all theft, or does he agree with utilitarian libertarians like me?

I can imagine that quite a few libertarians that read this blog will disagree with my support for moderate redistribution. And that's fine; I may well be wrong. Government policymaking is a very complex area, and there are lots of negative side effects from redistribution. But please, do not respond to my arguments with the claim that "taxation is theft." Yes, it's not as silly as the "property is theft" claim, but it really doesn't advance the debate one iota. I'll just respond, "OK, but is it the good or the bad kind of theft?"

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: moral reasoning

COMMENTS (42 to date)
RPLong writes:

I don't object as strongly to your support of moderate wealth redistribution as I do to your questioning whether dropping atomic bombs on Japan was "good terrorism" or "bad terrorism." This sort of sentiment is one of the major weaknesses of utilitarian ethics. The idea that terrorism could be "good" if it produces net positive utility is so starkly at odds with what is meant by words like "terrorism" that it leaves me, personally, nonplussed.

Perhaps it's an Objectivist canard, but Ayn Rand used to lament the fact that pro-market thinkers had conceded the moral high ground to redistributionists. That is what I thought of when I read your response to Bruenig.

Mike Rulle writes:

Your comments make a certain sense, yet one gets the feeling you are speaking tongue in cheek. If so, I agree that many use words with certain meanings in different contexts in order to improve an argument for those not paying close attention. But I assume you prefer language that is more precise as it will lead to better discussion rather than ideological noise to promote one's prior beliefs as more rational. There is nothing wrong with having prior beliefs. But there is something wrong when hiding such beliefs around convoluted and unclear use of language.

Tom West writes:

I find this post amusing, as I will often do much the same with "taxation is theft" and "government is the only entity allowed to put a gun to your head and force you do things".

"Yes, you're right. Now on to the real argument..."

I consider it simply accepting the terminology of the subculture one is interacting with.

Andrew MacKay writes:

Social science is of the utmost importance precisely to combat the existence of lines of thought like:

to be read with mantra esk chanting...

taxation is socialism
socialism is theft
theft is bad

This particular strain of abject credulity is, in my opinion, a prime candidate for the single greatest retardant to the scientific and cultural progression of hunanity. I like the phrase poverty of imagination a lot; the opening paragraph caught my eye.

The post will no doubt be met with criticism of specifics, rather than the framework in question as intended. For this you have my sympathies. I think it's perfectly clear that your point about Hiroshima was intended to discredit stamping the terrorism label on the dropping of the bomb to automatically make it a bad act in the course of an argument. It may have been bad, but not for that reason. The weilder of the terrorism bat is attempting to leave no room to entertain the discussion of it being the lesser evil of possible solutions.

Andrew_FL writes:

It's not merely ironic, Scott, it's the fallacy of the stolen concept.

But you're right, that economics needn't be a "science." The reason that it needn't be so is that we have a false modern notion of science as the end-all beat-all of truth.

I'm being completely serious, here, it's a false notion. Think about it this way: is there any definition of science that would include mathematics? I maintain that there is not-mathematical reasoning is logically prior to the scientific method. But Mathematics is not of the "stamp collecting" variety of science, either. It is, in fact, the only area of human inquiry where we may have, in fact, actual, irrefutable knowledge of the the truth-rather than increasingly accurate approximations.

Logic is a branch of Mathematics, and economic reasoning, properly understood, is essentially applied logic.

This places economics above science, not beneath it, in it's ability to establish truth about the world.

Scott Sumner writes:

RPLong, You said:

"The idea that terrorism could be "good" if it produces net positive utility is so starkly at odds with what is meant by words like "terrorism" that it leaves me, personally, nonplussed."

I think you are confusing what is "meant" by the term terrorism (terrorizing innocent civilians to achieve political aims) with the connotation of terrorism (evil violence.) Perhaps it would be helpful to work backwards, and start with the assumption that Truman was correct (just for the sake of argument.) And let's assume that Truman agreed with the popular prejudice that terrorism doesn't just connote evil, it means evil. Well then Truman would simply deny that the attack on Hiroshima was terrorism. I don't like that approach, as it makes terrorism an almost meaningless term. I'd rather Truman forthrightly admitted that it was terrorism, and then try to defend it. That approach would give clearer meaning to words, and to what exactly is being claimed.

I'm not at all shy about defending utilitarianism. Yes, principles are very important. But so is the difference between 100,000 dead Japanese civilians and 500,000 dead Japanese civilians. Especially to the 400,000 Japanese who are not dead. Lots of things in life are very important; like wheels, transmissions, and engines.

Mike, No, it wasn't entirely tongue in cheek, except at the end where I said I agree that taxation and property are theft. But the first two sections were serious. I think Hiroshima was terrorism. And I don't care how science is defined. Just say what you mean--economics, chemistry, meteorology, etc. I do not believe the concept of "theft" was out there floating around in space before humans appeared on Earth, with a sort of INTRINSIC aspect of evil attached to the concept, only to be discovered by human philosophers.

You said:

"But I assume you prefer language that is more precise as it will lead to better discussion rather than ideological noise to promote one's prior beliefs as more rational."

Exactly. Terms like 'theft' and 'science' and 'terrorism' are often not precise language, in the contexts where they are used. Property and taxation are much more precise terms.

Scott Sumner writes:

Tom, Glad you were amused.

Andrew M. Good points.

Andrew Fl., Yes, Math is an excellent example. Note that even the greatest philosophers don't really know what math is. There's a debate (isn't there?) about whether math is created or discovered. I'm in the created camp, but honestly I don't have a clue, that's just my intuition.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner, what I'm trying to say is the fact that terrorism is evil is not a "popular prejudice," but something that you cannot remove from the word "terrorism."

You can "kill someone in self-defense," or you can "murder someone," but you cannot murder someone in self-defense.

Thus: if dropping an atom bomb on Japan produced net-positive utility, then it wasn't terrorism; and if it was terrorism, then it didn't produce net-positive utility.

Odd (but interesting) that we agree on the importance of words, but disagree on how that importance ought to be applied.

One final, minor point on utilitarianism: Ultimately, it comes down to what you are willing to include in your utility calculus. 400,000 saved lives sounds like a big win until you compare it to the generations upon generations of elevated cancer risks numbering in the millions. I could point that out, then you could point out that subsequent generations have the option to move, then I could point to the disutility of relocation costs, then you could point to the u-max of migration, and so on and so forth.

The point is that there is no one, final utilitarian answer. You can't just add up all the utility and arrive at ethics. You have unstated value-judgments biasing what you choose to include in your utility calculus, and this is an unavoidable psychological fact. At least other ethical schemes acknowledge and attempt to deal with it. Utilitarianism's proponents have never, to my knowledge, proposed a way of overcoming this sort of bias.

Hazel Meade writes:

One could say the same thing about "greed".

Yes, but is it the good kind of greed, or the bad kind?
IMO, people on the left are more prone to this style of thought than libertarians. There's so much reference to what's natural (nature is bad when it kills you). Also involking of possitive connotation words like "sharing" and "community" to arm-twist people into supporting policies because they sound nice, rather than based on whether they make rational sense.

Scott Sumner writes:

RPLong, I'm afraid I don't follow your argument. You begin by saying that it's not terrorism if the net effect on utility is positive. That seems a strange definition, but OK. Then you say utilitarianism leaves something important out, but don't say what that is. If you mean that utility is hard to measure, then of course I agree. But if utilitarianism is the right way to judge whether something is terrorism, then what is your criticism of utilitarianism?

And are you really saying that Osama's actions on 9/11 were not terrorism because he killed 1000s of Americans to achieve political ends, but rather because you don't agree with those ends?

The elevated cancer risk in Japan was no where near the cost of a land invasion, based on what I have read. But of course that's a technical argument and I have no dog in that fight. It certainly is not an argument against the methodological point I was making in the post. As I said, I have no idea if the Hiroshima bombing was justified. And I'm pretty sure the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden were not.

Hazel, I agree about greed, but not the left and the right. I see equal amounts on both sides. But I see more of this bad reasoning on the non-utilitarian right, and less on the utilitarian right.

Bob writes:

I have trouble figuring out what science has to do with anything.

First, I separate science and technology. We can build technology without the scientific method to guide us. The scientific method is a relatively modern concept, but one can hardly deny there was much technological advancement before it was formulated. We can go very far with just observation and rules of thumb. I'd not call those science, but they are still methodologies for gathering knowledge.

So what we are really talking about with North Korea is not really about quality of science, but the technology they choose to use. They use a specific kind of social technology because their leadership has a very different objective function than the rest of us. For the North Korean government, there are many things more important than avoiding famine: It's hard to believe they couldn't fix that problem if they wanted.

Their government has won objective function, you and I have objective functions too, but with a different idea of what 'good' is, and different priorities, the lives we would choose, and the governments we would set up, could be extremely different. A big difference is people's preference of following simple principles as opposed to looking at long term outcomes. Some people prefer a simpler, more 'readable' society, even if the ultimate result leads to worse life outcomes. What we often called utilitarian doesn't mean that we have objective functions while non-utilitarians do not, but that for an utilitarian, reaching specific outcomes that have little to do with principles and readability are more impotent than any kind of purity people tend to look for.

James writes:

The kind of argument Scott dislikes here has been dubbed the "non-central fallacy"

The other post actually uses the same "taxation is theft" example.

AbsoluteZero writes:

Agree. A few things.

1. It's a very common tactic. The key is to find a word with extremely unclear denotation and highly biased and emotional connotation. This gives the user of the word the maximum emotional impact, while also providing an "out" because the word is ambiguous and the meaning debatable. And no, it doesn't advance the argument. Often I think people who do this are really just talking to themselves.

2. Mathematics. Yes there's a debate, but honestly it's considered irrelevant by practitioners, for the same reason it's not important to you if economics is a science. To ask if it's created or discovered is an example of binary thinking. It's both. The axioms are created by us. But they're not created out of nothing. They came out of our observation of the world around us. So even in that creation there is an element of discovery. The question is how much, and this is actually a very important (and scientific) question that's addressed in cognitive psychology and, to a lesser extent, linguistics. Once we agree on the axioms, the consequences are not up to us. It is in this sense that theorems are discovered. But they're discovered in a world we created. This is a point not understood by many. It's easy to create a formal system with just a few symbols and a few simple rules, and yet not know much about what's really in that system.

3. Art versus science. The word science is from the "Latin scientia knowledge, equivalent to scient- (stem of sciēns), present participle of scīre to know + -ia -ia, ..." Science is about knowing. Natural science, for example, is about knowing the natural, physical world. Based on this, I have no problem with economics being a science. And yes, this includes mathematics as well. We want to know about these nonphysical worlds we created. Art is from the "Latin ars (nominative), artem (accusative), skill, craft, craftmanship ..." Now consider the word technology, from the "Greek techniká, neuter plural of technikós, of art and craft, equivalent to téchn (ē) art, craft + -ikos -ic; (adj.), ..." And we use the term "state of the art" to describe things in technological and scientific fields. So, science is about knowing, and the process we investigate things in order to know. What we investigate doesn't matter, it's still science. Art, and technology, is about making things, which involves skill and craft. What we make and for what purpose doesn't matter, it's still art, and technology. There's no dichotomy. Clearly we want all these things.

CC writes:

Less Wrong referred to this fallacy as "The worst argument in the world". Well worth reading (along with Scott's post!).

Andrew_FL writes:

I am firmly in the discovered camp, for what it's worth.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner,

No. I began by saying that the idea of "good terrorism" is at odds with the idea of terrorism itself. Only after making that point and reading your objection did I proceed to make the point that engaging in a perceived utility-maximizing military strike fails to qualify as terrorism, unless we decide to equivocate on absolutely every word used to define the concept of "terrorism."

This point is similar to yours, except that you apparently have reached the conclusion that we should just admit that Fat Man and Little Boy were terrorist vehicles, and that the question should be "good" versus "bad" terrorism; whereas, I say it's only worth differentiating between "terrorism" and "not-terrorism" because terrorism is by definition never good.

Ultimately we might be making the same point in a different way, but I don't personally see the usefulness of employing the concept of a supposed "good terrorism." This is not a "prejudice" on my part, but rather an accurate use of the English language, unless you can cite examples of the word "terrorism" connoted positively.

You missed my point about what gets included in utilitarian calculus, so I will leave it be.

mico writes:

I think one could argue that North Korea is the society most shaped by conscious design and therefore social science as a professional discipline. That it is bad social science is not in question but perhaps not the point. Is the purpose of social science really to arrive at knowledge based on the empirical testing of predictive models, or is its purpose to justify those who seek to either consolidate or seize power and therefore fund such endeavours?

Pajser writes:

Property is theft. But, what is stolen if property didn't existed? The right of use is stolen. If beach is not anyone's property, then I have the right to use it. If someone proclaims that beach is his property, I lost the right to use it. Scott is right - if every property is theft, then one can talk about good (or at least relatively good) theft. But it is nitpicking. The statement on concise and surprising, paradoxical way reveals one essential but not obvious truth about property. That's why it is so popular and relevant.

Hiroshima is a war crime. Typical terrorism is lesser evil than typical war crime; terrorist kill few to frighten many and to remove them from his way. War criminal kills many to remove them from his way. If we know that Hiroshima is war crime, then additional qualification of that as terrorist act brings little to the table. But I don't want to be too harsh toward Americans; other Allies also committed war crimes.

Economics is science. For my taste, it is enough that one is serious in his search for the truth to say that his activity is science.

Scott Sumner writes:

Bob, I mostly agree.

Absolute zero, Excellent points.

CC, That linked article is excellent.

RPLong. I think our dispute is can summed up as follows. Consider this statment:

"Hiroshima was an attempt to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering to American political demands, and hence was terrorism, and hence was wrong."

We both agree that this is really bad reasoning, but locate the flaw in different places. (You blame the first "and hence" I blame the second.) Can we at least agree on that point?

Mico, I'd say all countries are shaped by social science, some good and some bad (such as Marxism).

Scott Sumner writes:

Pajser, OK, but not sure how any of that relates to this post.

petar writes:

"neoliberal(ism)" is one of those words.

Damien writes:

I don't see the first argument as "particularly reprehensible" if all parties involved typically reject utilitarianism. Sure, according to utilitarian standards, it's a bad argument. But what if people agree that what is defined as terrorism is in and of itself wrong, and you can show that the bombing of Hiroshima fits that definition?

Are you not just faulting people for rejecting utilitarianism? It's not a universally accepted fact that consequences are the only relevant factor and, in fact, most professional philosophers are not utilitarians ( "It's always wrong to intentionally target noncombatants with lethal violence for political purposes" is a perfectly valid ethical position.

More generally, I have the impression that those who use this argument are uninterested in the bombing of Hiroshima. The idea is more to show that the average American is hypocritical as they use different theories to ensure that America ends up looking good. If someone adopts a nonconsequentialist approach to morality when talking about 9/11, but immediately switches to utilitarianism when they discuss Hiroshima, they're being very inconsistent. And it's fair to expose that hypocrisy. Especially when "terrorism is always morally wrong" is used to argue that we have a moral duty to fight a "war on terror".

Silas Barta writes:

Another Scott developed this point into an essay, calling this the Non-central fallacy. I'm surprised no one else has linked it.

Like you, he argues that instead of debating whether X is a Y, one should debate whether X is a good case of Y or a bad one.

Scott Sumner writes:

Petar, I once presented a paper at Bentley defending neoliberalism and other professors were surprised, as they simply assumed "neoliberal" was a bad word.

Damian, You said:

"But what if people agree that what is defined as terrorism is in and of itself wrong, and you can show that the bombing of Hiroshima fits that definition?"

I strongly recommend you read CC's link to the worst argument in the world.

In the terrorism case there are no shortcuts. Lets say everyone agrees that terrorism is wrong, but people disagree about Hiroshima. Then will you succeed if you can convince them that Hiroshima is terrorism? Perhaps, more likely people will disagree on what terrorism is, while agreeing that it is wrong. There are no shortcuts. You still must convince people using the specific facts of the case as to why Hiroshima is wrong. But that's not what I object to. People aren't using these words as tools in an intelligent argument, but rather as clubs. It does not advance the debate one iota.

It's hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who believes terrorism is always wrong, but Hiroshima was justified. But that group probably makes up at least 1/2 the US population. So I presume they have their reasons. And based on the actual reasons I've heard when talking to them, they are a mixture of dumb non-utilitarian reasons ("they" deserved it, they attacked us first), and utilitarian reasons (it saved lives.) I have to say that the most common reasons I hear are the utilitarian, but that may reflect who I talk to.

Scott Sumner writes:

Silas, You can stop being surprised, CC linked to it (above.)

Greg G writes:

Great post Scott. When people attempt to win arguments by using commonly used words in unconventional ways they almost never advance their argument. Language is nothing if not conventional.

I never know what I am going to find when I check your blog posts but I know it will likely be something interesting, and fair minded and often something a bit original.

Thanks for that and for the patience and generosity you show in responding to criticism and questions.

Tom West writes:

When people attempt to win arguments by using commonly used words in unconventional ways they almost never advance their argument.

They may not advance their argument, but they do persuade people. Argument is only one way of persuading someone, and my guess is that it's only about 3rd or 4th on the list of effectiveness.

Thanks for that and for the patience and generosity you show in responding to criticism and questions.


Scott Sumner writes:

Thanks Tom and Greg.

Joel writes:
Hazel, I agree about greed, but not the left and the right. I see equal amounts on both sides. But I see more of this bad reasoning on the non-utilitarian right, and less on the utilitarian right.

I think it's interesting that you both admit that the practice happens, and that your side does it, but then say "but our side's not as bad".

I see this a lot, and when it's for 'my side', I usually agree, but the more I think about it, the more I think comments like that are somewhat useless, not because of a lack of truth but because it's impossible to separate the bias from that truth.

vikingvista writes:
The statement on concise and surprising, paradoxical way reveals one essential but not obvious truth about property.

The statement makes about as much grammatical and logical sense as your own.

But unlike your own statement, it does serve as an inspiring, if nonsensical, political slogan to motivate those looking for justification to violently acquire the production of others.

Nicolai Hähnle writes:

Scott, this is continuing what Pajser wrote: The whole "property is theft" thing obviously depends on how you define words. Mostly it's a way to raise eyebrows in the hope to get people to think outside of the box.

To expand on that, compare "property is theft" with "taxation is theft". A favourite point of Bruenig (as far as I understand him) is that for reasonable definitions of "theft", either both statements are true, or none of them are.

You can define "theft" in a legalistic way: illegal ways of obtaining (access to) stuff are theft, legal ways of doing so aren't. With this definition, property obviously isn't theft, but neither is taxation, because taxation is one of the legally-defined ways in which access to stuff is passed from citizens or companies into government control.

Or you can define "theft" without first defining the legal system [0]. Then you get a definition such as "preventing others from using something by force or the threat thereof". In this case, taxation is theft - but so is property, because that's what property is: exclusive access to things, and the right to use force (or have others use force) to ensure this exclusive access.

[0] This is typically preferable, and it is the only useful kind of definition if you want to use the word in a discussion about which kind of legal system you want to have - though, ironically, I bet most people's everyday use of the word is using the legalistic definition.

I'm sure Matt would have no problem with this. Here's a quote from him saying something largely similar:

So calling it aggression when we are disputing whether it belongs to you literally does nothing in the debate. You’ve just restated that you think the thing belongs to you with different words. You didn’t do any argumentative work. You just said the same thing — I am entitled to this thing — again. Non-aggression doesn’t justify any claims regarding entitlement. It’s the reverse: entitlement claims justify your assertions about what is and isn’t non-aggressive.

This means at all times the debate is about who is entitled to what. Aggression and non-aggression literally do nothing for anybody at any time in the debate. But libertarians actually think it is doing stuff for them. It is one of the most obviously failed moves I have ever seen.

Libertarians believe, like basically every other economic justice theory in history, that it is ok to use violence that is consistent with their theory of who is entitled to what (labeled “defense”), but not ok to use violence that is inconsistent with it (labeled “aggression”). But unlike every other theory of economic justice, libertarians are uniquely confused into believing that calling things defense and aggression can give you any insight into who is actually entitled to what in the first place.

Granted, there are two major types of libertarian: utilitarian and deontological, and I rarely/never see you appeal to non-aggression. But in any case Matt agrees with you here.

Pajser writes:

Proudhon said that first time exactly with intention described by Nicolai.

    "If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is a power of life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: What is property! may I not likewise answer, It is robbery, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?

English translation here.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner:

We both agree that this is really bad reasoning, but locate the flaw in different places. (You blame the first "and hence" I blame the second.) Can we at least agree on that point?

I'm afraid not. :)

I don't see a material difference between saying, "X is terrorism," and "X is morally wrong." The second statement is implied by the first.

This sounds like a fancy way to just skip to utility calculus to me. You're not addressing the issues raised by your interlocutors' different ethical frameworks, you're just temporarily adopting their language to get back to doing utility calculus.

It's clever rhetoric, but it doesn't really address the arguments you're hearing. I understand why you'd prefer to simply go back to doing your own personal utility calculus, but then you ought to at least say, "That's not how I look at; I do utility calculus. See, watch..."

Michael Stack writes:

This is the best blog post I've read in a very long time.

When I was a kid I'd watch baseball with my Dad and I'd see a poor call by the ump. I'd say, "that wasn't a strike!" and my Dad would counter with, "well it is if the ump says it is." Of course this was confusing a dictionary definition with the actual meaning of what I was saying -- in this context a "strike" could mean either, "what the ump said" or it could have meant, "by the rules of baseball the pitch was within the strike zone".

One ought not confuse assigning a definition to a word with actually advancing some type of argument.

Hazel Meade writes:

Hazel, I agree about greed, but not the left and the right. I see equal amounts on both sides. But I see more of this bad reasoning on the non-utilitarian right, and less on the utilitarian right.

Maybe this is an empirical question. I'm pretty sure I've seen Google do all sorts of word-association maps and search term frequency analysis. I would bet the data is out there, such that one could identify, based on the language used in newspaper articles and op-eds, the frequency with which loaded terminology is used and the correlation of loaded terminology usage with political alignment.

Andrew_FL writes:

Pajser, Proudhon is just wrong.

Slavery is an awful thing, but it isn't murder. For one thing murder is permanent and there is no coming back from it.

His connection of two incorrect metaphors is nothing but a non sequitur.

And again, he's doing nothing but engaging in the fallacy of the stolen concept.

The argument that everyone has a right to use the unowned property is absurd. If everyone has the right of use, any one of their number has the right to claim it (by "mixing their labor with it") as well. It's not theft from those who no longer have the right to use what they failed to claim. They never claimed it, therefore it cannot be stolen from them. That's just sour grapes.

Scott Sumner writes:

Nicolai, You don't have to convince me that the claims are rather silly. So they have that in common. In any case, it doesn't matter whether property and taxes are theft, or are not theft. It has no bearing on the desirability of property.

Unlearningecon, If Matt "agrees with me" he has a funny way of showing it.

RPLong, You said:

"I'm afraid not. :)"

Then I guess I didn't understand any of your arguments.

You said:

"I don't see a material difference between saying, "X is terrorism," and "X is morally wrong." The second statement is implied by the first."

"Or really? Is there any material difference between saying "X is infidelity" and "X is mortally wrong?"

None of the arguments I made in the post rely on utilitarianism being the correct moral system.

Hazel, Try it on Fox News and the "loaded terms meter" will blow a fuse.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner - I believe if I were to accuse someone of infidelity, I would - by definition of what "infidelity" is - be accusing that person of immorality.

Let me try to sum it up more clearly:

You and I both agree that merely using the word terrorism is insufficient to prove anything. But you make it sound like this is the starting point of the analysis. (Now that we know it's terrorism, let's use utility calculus to determine whether it is "good" or "bad" terrorism.)

Whereas, to me calling something terrorism is the endpoint of the analysis. (Based on my system of ethics and the relevant data, I have decided that X was terrorism.)

Thus, when you say that you agree that something is terrorism or theft, but that now we must decide whether it is "good" or "bad," you are basically ignoring the decision criteria I may have used to reach a conclusion of "terrorism" or "theft." You're not responding to those criteria, you're just returning to your own utility calculus to make a good/bad determination.

This seems all the more so, considering that you are calling the "terrorism" designation a "bad argument" without ever considering anything that lead up to that designation in the minds of those who hold that view.

Was I any clearer this time?

Pajser writes:

Andrew FL: yes, Proudhon's original argumentation is not strict and it cannot survive analysis; clearly, slavery is not same thing as murder. But this argumentation was not intended to be strict. It was intended to be poetic, strong, eye opener. Exactly as Nicolai wrote. My argumentation above is stricter.

"The argument that everyone has a right to use the unowned property is absurd. If everyone has the right of use, any one of their number has the right to claim it (by "mixing their labor with it") as well. "

I don't think that - in general case - mixing the labor with matter justifies ownership of the matter. If I make perfume and spray the air, it doesn't justify my claim that it is now my air and that other people do not have the right to breath it. In some special cases - maybe. But in general case - no.

Scott Sumner writes:

RPLong, Well I certainly don't think that saying X is infidelity is the same as saying X is morally wrong. Infidelity is cheating on one's partner. That's the definition. Then you can consider when and if that behavior is morally wrong.

RPLong writes:

Prof. Sumner, it might help me better understand you if you cited an example in which infidelity was not morally wrong; or a situation in which terrorism was good, keeping in mind the fact that your point is not dependent on utilitarian calculus. :)

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