Some Public Moral Goods are Not Optional, A Reply to Roderick Long

In Roderick Long’s essay, “On Making Small Contributions to Evil,” Long attempts to tackle tough moral questions such as veganism, environmentalism, and tax evasion. In each case, participation in the cause comes at great personal expense with very little marginal societal benefit. Long argues that we do not have an obligation to participate in all of these causes, but to pick a number of them to focus on, and disregard the rest. After all, not everyone can do everything, and we can only account for our own morality, not the morality of society as a whole.

Long is right that we should not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of society as a whole. We must pick and choose between those public moral goods because we cannot do it all. I do not disagree that public moral goods exist. However, we can find reasons to fight for these types of causes beyond our own marginal benefit to society, and there are some public moral goods that are not morally optional.

One of the reasons we may participate in a cause is the joy we get from doing what we think is right. Altruism is not pure self-sacrifice when doing good and helping others feels good. Virtuous people derive happiness from virtuous acts, so by cultivating virtue within ourselves, we can more confidently decide which social causes are worth the “sacrifice.” The “sacrifice” is the cost associated with acting on a public moral good, including the opportunity cost of not choosing something else.

Recycling has very little social impact on an individual level, and can be a pain in the ass. Is it virtuous to recycle? That depends on facts about the particularized eudaimonia of the person making the decision. The cost associated with recycling for a person that is already devoting time and resources to many other social causes is much higher than the cost of recycling for a person who is sitting at home doing nothing all day. A person who is especially passionate about the environment will derive much more joy from recycling than someone who could not care less. By taking into account facts about our particularized eudaimonia, such as our individual interests, talents, and commitments, we can best decide which public moral goods to focus on.

Sometimes, however, looking at our particular circumstances is not enough. Take an extreme example: child pornography. Producing child pornography is obviously immoral as a violation of autonomy and consent. But following Long’s analysis, is consumption of child pornography not immoral? One person’s decision not to purchase it will not affect its production. For a pedophile, not buying child pornography may come at a loss of psychological pleasure. However, consuming child pornography for free seems to be no less immoral. Therefore, there must be a reason not to consume child pornography beyond its societal effect. What does it say about a person’s compassion and empathy that they can watch the violation of a child without feeling distraught? An empathetic, compassionate, virtuous person could not consume child pornography without guilt, regardless of the marginal societal benefit of them refraining from doing so.

Long discusses veganism as a public moral good we may consider. Veganism, unlike participation in many other public moral goods, is not time-consuming, so we do not have to choose between being vegan and doing something else. One individual person going vegan does not affect meat production. However, what does it say about someone as a person if they can eat an animal knowingly without feeling any guilt or aversion? If one is an empathetic, compassionate, virtuous individual, eating meat should make them feel bad. Going vegan would have very little societal impact on the status of animals, but one may choose not to eat meat because doing so causes them, as a compassionate, empathetic person, distress. However, if one lives in a food desert or has very little access to vegan food or lacks support from family, the personal costs of veganism may be too high for even the most virtuous individual.

With veganism, just as in the child porn example*, production may be worse than consumption. However, one step of removal from production is far from morally agreeable. Our moral obligations with regard to either do not depend on the social benefit of doing so or our duty to the public good, but on what our actions in either circumstance say about us as people. When weighing public moral goods, we should not forget to account for the relative importance of different social goods or what our actions with regard to public moral goods say about us as people.

Every virtuous decision is the result of reasoning and personal judgment, while taking into account the specific circumstances of the given situation. We cannot prescribe the correct action for every person in every situation, because the correct action depends on facts about the person in question that we do not have access to. When we weigh the benefits of taking on a social cause with the personal costs of doing so, we can determine which causes are worth our individual time and energy.

*I do not think eating meat and consuming child pornography are morally equivalent, but they are similar in that they are morally wrong regardless of the public moral evil associated with them.


Radical Sobriety: Situating the Discussion


Wade Craig initiated this wave of the discussion of sobriety among individualists and anarchists, and introduced the position I have subsequently termed “radical sobriety,” in this post. His ideas, like my own, are the product of many discussions within the community of radical individualist teetotalers and with opponents of our approach. I sought to clarify our position in this post here. Our friend Max LaFave, another individualist anarchist, raised some concerns about the connection between our radical critique of inebriation and rights in a post responding to this one. I offered my own response to him, attempting to clarify my view that inebriation can be seen as a loss of one’s humanity in one sense, but not in the sense relevant to the possession of rights contingent on one’s humanity. Wade Craig offered more thoughts on the relationship between sobriety and rationality, which I posted, and then he expanded on those thoughts on his own blog. Most recently, I have added some reflection on “accidental virtue,” and on the nature of rationality underlying our central claim—that recreational drug use ‘takes rationality itself not to be a good.’

Why “Radical Sobriety?”

I will leave this here in anticipation of a larger, more thorough explanation and defense of the position I am calling “radical sobriety.” I choose to call this position radical sobriety for a handful of reasons.

  1. It places sobriety at the center of ethical action and discourse.
  2. It addresses inebriation as a root of social problems, especially in a drug culture (a concept which is itself sure to be controversial).
  3. It is about a principled commitment to sobriety and teetotalism, in contrast to the timid, highly personalized reasons often given by those who abstain but do not challenge the drug culture or drug use.
  4. It is part of a larger radical critique of the status quo characterized by fierce opposition to confinement, limitation, subordination, and deceit, and respect for human dignity, justice, and reason.

Setting the Scene

First and foremost, it should be stated without hesitation or ambiguity, radical sobriety is political and ethical abstinence from recreational drug use. It stems from a commitment to sobriety, or sobriety as an ethical ideal.

Some sober and teetotal folks like to defang their position by calling it “personal,” thus (apparently) divorcing it from the realm of ethics and politics. There are many given reasons why people choose to live teetotal lives, most of which gravitate toward some version of an argument against addiction—highly particularized, of course, for good measure. Substance addiction is something which should concern us, but in the opinion of this teetotaler, it is not the primary problem. Concerns about addiction, while worthy of our consideration, are not strong enough to justify any kind of robust commitment to sobriety, or principled abstinence from recreational drug use.

Holding the World in Contempt

What, then, is the reasoning behind radical sobriety? For most, the notion is antiquated, and reserved for right-wing Drug Warriors and Christians. We are neither. As our aesthetic friends and ideological enemies at CrimethInc put it in their unexpectedly perceptive pamphlet “Anarchy & Alcohol,”

…partisans of Rebellious Drunkenness and advocates of Responsible Abstinence are loyal adversaries. The former need the latter to make their dismal rituals look like fun; the latter need the former to make their rigid austerity seem like common sense. An “ecstatic sobriety” which combats the dreariness of one and the bleariness of the other – false pleasure and false discretion alike – is analogous to the anarchism that confronts both the false freedom offered by capitalism and the false community offered by communism.

While full of interesting insights and a characteristic flair for the dramatic, this pamphlet does not actually make a case for ethical sobriety as a basis for teetotalism. Their case addresses several relevant political concerns, some of which deserve clarification and refinement—though this will be set aside for the moment. In short, this pamphlet discusses several ways in which recreational drug use (particularly alcohol, in this case) can be the root of social problems, ones that reinforce power structures and exacerbate the evils they generate. As far as radical sobriety is concerned, this provides much of the context for our abstinence. I encourage people to read the pamphlet (at least the first part. No one has time for that crazy primitivist nonsense in the second half) to get an idea of the kinds of issues we see in the drug culture. However, we seek to defend a much harder-hitting conclusion.

The Broken Foundation

Granting that there are all kinds of social problems associated with recreational drug use, we can begin to address the deeper issue. Our view is that sobriety is central to morality. Put another way, the whole idea of rationality—in this situation, as my friend Wade Craig puts it,

The foundational ability that is necessary for humans, and indeed any creatures, to have rights and moral standing is self-reflection. Those who cannot even recognize their own existence and are not aware of their ability to impact the world do not have moral responsibilities and cannot have rights. To remove or hamper the ability to reflect on one’s own actions and thoughts is to abdicate the responsibilities inherent in being a living individual. Any drugs that, for any length of time, impair cognition so much as to impair one’s ability to reflect on the morality of one’s actions strip their users of their humanity.

From our perspective, accurately perceiving one’s circumstances, deliberating on one’s actions, and cultivating virtuous habits is the very basis of morality. In order to live a good life, one must constantly navigate a social, political, and physical environment with constantly changing terrain and full of delicate intricacies. This navigation—the conversation, perception, and willpower that comprise the life of the individual—is the basis for all human virtue and, indeed, a constitutive part of human flourishing. This leads us to an inevitable conclusion: sobriety is necessary for morality. Without some conception of sobriety, it is impossible to distinguish between accurate and impaired perception, between rationality and irrationality. Additionally, the desire to impair, rather than cultivate, one’s ability to reason rightly about the world and about oneself, is a vicious desire. It is to prefer immediate pleasure to true satisfaction. But what exactly is the pleasure that recreational drugs provide? Again, according to Craig:

The drug creates a temporary Nozickean experience machine that simply generates good feelings and/or false experiences. To take joy in what is not real, to intentionally seek out false pleasures is to give up one of the most important parts of being human, the ability to experience what is real. To seek out false pleasures is to lie to oneself, to decide that the real person one is or wishes to be is not good enough, not even potentially good enough. It is to hide in the sand and willfully ignore all the possibilities of the entire universe in favor of lies and smokescreens. Perhaps most terribly, it is to choose the illusion over the dream.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that the social problems that attend to the drug culture are in some way related to the abdication of responsibility and impaired reasoning that characterize recreational drug use. The extent to which that is the case should inform the urgency with which we challenge the drug culture, but it is not the primary concern. What is of primary concern is the health and well-being of the individual actor, which we contend are better served by a sober lifestyle.

While it may be the case that recreational drug use is in fact based upon a preference for illusion, that is to say, it is self-deceit, there are surely reasons that people have such a preference. The motivations for recreational drug use range from social anxiety and insecurity to self-hatred and alienation. It is important that we understand these motivations and not arrogate to ourselves the ability or the right to speak for others on their own experiences. If sobriety is to be meaningful, it should be based upon a desire for personal liberation. Radical sobriety, and teetotalism, should have nothing to do with purity and everything to do with autonomy and empowerment. As such, we should encourage sobriety among our friends as part of a larger project of supporting and empowering them to live well. This also means that advocates of ethical sobriety should commit themselves to larger projects for liberation—after all, the prison isn’t just in our mind.

Not All Drug Use Involves Impaired Rationality

One common objection to radical sobriety is that it arbitrarily “bans” the use of certain substances while allowing for the use of others. This is complicated by the Drug War, which has more or less done exactly that (or perhaps not so arbitrarily, depending on the motives one attributes to the relevant political figures). This kind of objection typically evolves into another common objection, namely, that what constitutes “sobriety” is not clear—or, even more dangerously, that “sobriety” as a concept doesn’t even make sense. For this reason, I’ll focus on that objection. Before I address that, I should note that ethical sobriety does not entail “banning” or “limiting” one’s choices any more than a concern for righteousness “limits” one’s ability to dominate others and use them for the satisfaction of one’s own desires at their expense. Sobriety rightly conceived should not be puritanical, nor motivated by submission to some external authority—God, the state, one’s parents, etc.—but by personal liberation from inebriation and self-destructive hedonism. This is a delicate point, but it is an important one.

The Meaning of Sobriety

I will say upfront that I have not engaged with relevant neuroscientific and psychopharmacological literature. While those fields are certainly relevant for ironing out the details of this position, I do not think it is necessary to appeal to them to reach a robust commitment to sobriety as an ideal. Minimally, I feel confident taking the position that substances and activities affect one’s rational capacity differently in different circumstances—sometimes impairing, and sometimes strengthening, rationality.

The implication of this assumption is that sobriety may not be clearly defined, but it is not meaningless. If we orient our actions around the cultivation of rationality and sobriety, we will at least have a framework for navigating the realm of substance use. And to be clear, it’s not just substances that concern us. It’s important to consider the way that all kinds of things influence our ability to reason. Some suggested problem areas are romantic and familial love/passionsleep deprivationfurysocial isolationin-group bias, etc. The important thing is that we approach these issues, and substance use, from the perspective of wishing to see and appreciate the world as it really is, to dispense with illusions and overcome irrational emotions and prejudices. The way to do this is to cultivate good habits, which empower one to act virtuously with limited time to deliberate in the moment, and more specifically, to abstain from the recreational (as opposed to medicinal—context and motive are key) use of mind-altering substances which provide illusory pleasure or hinder one’s reasoning ability.

A brief note: it might be objected that our argument paints an unfair picture of recreational drug use. It is certainly the case that many instances of recreational drug use do not involve severe crimes or injustices. There are plenty of people who drink and do not lash out violently or recklessly endanger others. In fact, it is possible to conceive of plenty of bounded scenarios in which one has “taken precautions” to prevent just that kind of trouble. While this should temper our approach to the issue of recreational drug use—how we ought to interact with people in a drug culture and confront intoxication could warrant a post all to itself—it doesn’t touch the central thesis, that recreational drug use is vicious, and not conducive to human flourishing. It’s not merely about whether or not one’s drug use harms others; it’s about whether or not it harms oneself, in terms of one’s own life and eudaimonia.

Keeping Your Head Above the Surface

To wrap things up, it’s worth addressing an important question. While radical sobriety should remain a threat to the drug culture and all systems of confinement, we should still take proportionality, compassion, prudence, and charity into account in our response to the drug culture. Our abstinence is not motivated by smug self-righteousness or social mobility. It’s not to put others down, but to raise ourselves up and bring others with us. This is a common refrain for champions of various moral causes, but to take it seriously means to present our position when it is timely, not to force unnecessary confrontations; It means interpreting our critics with charity, and being considerate of the circumstances of those who choose to use drugs recreationally. Of course, we should never shy away from our convictions, but it is best to remain conversational. After all, part of what we seek to empower through sobriety is our uniquely human capacity for reasoning, and there is a very significant social element to our reasoning. In general, we don’t need to organize massive campaigns through which we condescend to pull others out of the hell of alcoholism and vice. Sobriety is first and foremost about self-help, and the cultivation of one’s own character; through our thoughtful and lucid engagement with others, we will uphold discourse and right-reasoning.


Addendum: A Second Look at Our Premises (Sobriety as a Virtue)

Sobriety is proper consideration for the process of right-reasoning and the habits of thought, intellectual practices, and trained prejudices that constitute the ‘vital organs’ of that process.

The reason that specifically recreational drug use can be said to ‘take rationality not as a good,’ is because it is, in practice, not properly considerate of the process of right-reasoning (which is at the heart of intelligent living, or rationality). In seeking to subvert the vital organs of right-reasoning for sensory pleasure, it performatively degrades rationality.

What happens when one uses drugs recreationally is that the ‘bigger picture’ of the good is obscured, either through disorientation—where sensory pleasures take up one’s attention from other features of the good—or through a disabling of one’s “rational faculties,” or the necessary pillars of right-reasoning—grounding in personal history, deep understanding of interpersonal relationships, inarticulable body of knowledge, prejudices and presuppositions, sophisticated, interpretive “mind-reading” capacities, ‘passing’ theories,’ and so on—and this impoverishes one’s ability to really find fulfillment through intelligent, rational, reasoned living.


Doug Rasmussen on Particularized Eudaimonia and Ayn Rand

Doug Rasmussen on Particularized Eudaimonia and Ayn Rand

I was randomly reading this essay today and came across an insight that hit me in the face like a (pizza) pie. I don’t know how I never made the connection before. But first, let me give you some context.

In discussing the nature of value, Doug writes,

Though there are some advocates of eudaimonia that take an agent-neutral approach, I don’t think agent-neutrality is the hallmark of the eudaimonist tradition.  This is not the basic issue, however.  As I implied in my earlier remarks, it has to do with the place of individuality in one’s understanding of human good.  Human flourishing is always and necessarily individualized, and this means not only that human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals but also that it only exists in an individualized manner. Though we can speak abstractly of generic goods and virtues and thus note what is common, these goods and virtues do not take on determinacy, reality, or worth apart from the excellent use of practical reason. This does not mean that there must be conflicts between one individual’s good and that of another’s, but it does mean that there can be.  But more importantly, it does show that human flourishing is something different for each of us.  Here is the pluralist dimension of ethics.  (See Norms of Liberty, chapters 6 and 7)

Doug packs a lot into this concise passage, but I think we can draw two morals from it:

1. Agent-neutral value doesn’t exist. How can something be valued if not by an agent? To be valued is to be valued by someone. While there are values that are “generic” and “common,” it makes no sense to talk of things that are really valuable, “apart from the excellent use of practical reason” since “human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals,” and practical reason necessarily only takes place from an individualized level by a single agent that isn’t conceptually capable of taking a “neutral” perspective of the world (we can’t step outside our own perspective*). The very meaning of the term “value” implies a relationship to a thing that can value. So if goods are only valuable insofar as they are valuable to a thing that can value (so far, only humans and perhaps some higher level animals), ethics, or the branch or philosophy that deals with what’s good or choice-worthy, concerns individual agents and their use of reason to determine whats really valuable to them (this is what I mean when I say I’m an ethical egoist).

2. It seems reasonable to call a thing that consistently achieves its values determined using (theoretical) reason and appropriately acts upon them using (practical) reason to be flourishing (or to have achieved the Greek eudaimonia). But while some values (those that are generally involved in theoretical reasoning) are related to the kind of thing you are (the good for a human will be different than the good for a dog will be different than the good for a chair), other values (those that are generally concerned with practical reasoning, which is built off of theoretical reasoning) are related to the particular thing you are (For example my values are partially informed by the fact that I’m someone who likes pizza, is a student, likes reading comics, and all the other specific facts about me that make me who I am). That is, our values and goods are informed both by our nature as the kind of thing we are (human), but also the content of our particularized individual character (dispositions, innate desires, biological traits, etc) and commitments (our contracts, obligations, relationships with others such as family and friends, etc). For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says,

To be sure, there may be occasions when a good person approaches an ethical problem by beginning with the premise that happiness consists in virtuous activity [thanks theoretical wisdom -cm]. But more often what happens is that a concrete goal presents itself as his starting point—helping a friend in need, or supporting a worthwhile civic project. Which specific project we set for ourselves is determined by our character [thanks practical wisdom]. A good person starts from worthwhile concrete ends because his habits and emotional orientation have given him the ability to recognize that such goals are within reach, here and now.

Or as Aristotle puts it, “excellence… is a settled disposition determining choice, involving the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by reason, as the practically wise person would determine it. (emphasis mine)”

Doug continues,

This is why Rand’s failure to have a place for practical wisdom in her ethics is so disappointing. Practical wisdom is necessary for the presence of all of the virtues, including the ones she notes, as well as those she ignores or fails to emphasize [Doug is mainly talking about generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity here.-cm]. Indeed, it is indicative of a failure to truly appreciate the importance of individuality for ethical deliberations.  I think this comes from an excessive rationalist approach to morality. I [and this is the (pizza) pie in my face. -cm] also think that this is part of the reason for the cultish behavior of many of her followers and some of the foundations devoted to her thought [emphasis mine].

After so much time reading Rand and interacting with Objectivists of all sorts of stripes, Doug’s explanation for that tendency makes a lot of sense to me. Rand didn’t seem to distinguish between theoretical and practical rationality, which proves to be a crucial mistake later down the line. Without a good sense of the individualized nature of eudaimonia and the crucial role that practical rationality plays in achieving one’s values, its easy to start assigning one’s own purely individual, unique preferences objective moral weight.

Clearly Rand and her followers, to varying different degrees in different kinds of ways, are guilty of this rationalism and preference for one’s…preferences. While you can’t step outside your own agent-relative perspective to the world, we can see the difference between a morality that respects the irreducibly individualized nature of one human being’s eudaimonia and a morality that treats humans as generally the same in terms of their values and goals. But the fact that one uses their own practical reason to determine their truly subjective and unique values in life (ones that are partly contingent on and take into account one’s individualized character and commitments), means that when others use their practical reason, which references their subjective character and commitments, they will naturally come to different values and goals. The values that leads to one’s flourishing are contingent upon two things:

1. The essential characteristics of the kind of thing we are (human being) and the conceptual implications of being that thing determined through theoretical reasoning.

2. The individual characteristics of the kind of thing we are (specific roles like father, debtor, doctor, pilot, student, which inform our responsibilities, commitments, and goals) and the practical implications of being that thing determined through practical reasoning.

The former is something we can’t choose. The latter is. If we confuse cases of the latter for the former, morality can be used as an excuse to justify one’s own desires and preferences by passing them along as objective and rational, while also convincing others they ought to pursue those desires and have those preferences instead of the ones that can be determined by their own practical reason in the context of their own life and their own individual existence. And the more that someone’s subjective desires and preferences are commonly viewed as the acceptable or appropriate standard even when there is no clear derivation of those principles from basic moral premises, the more that that person is treated as special, flawless, or more knowing than others. We are in dangerous territory. For Rand’s popularity to grow and the philosophy of rational egoism to gain momentum, this kind of moralizing should be avoided like the anti-mind, anti-life, collectivist ethical rationalization it is.

Doug concludes, “but I think that the omission of practical wisdom is a fundamental flaw because it undermines her ethical individualism.” As first and foremost individualists, we must remember the importance that practical reason plays in determining one’s own good and be very careful to not drift into the waters of agent-neutral value. Or as Robert Nozick (far from an egoist, but his point is all too relevant) puts it,

Wittgenstein, Elizabeth Taylor, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Merton, Yogi Berra, Allen Ginsberg, Harry Wolfson, Thoreau, Casey Stengel, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Picasso, Moses, Einstein, Hugh Hefner, Socrates, Henry Ford, Lenny Bruce, Baba Ram Dass, Gandhi, Sir Edmund Hillary, Raymond Lubitz, Buddha, Frank Sinatra, Columbus, Freud, Norman Mailer, Ayn Rand, Baron Rothschild, Ted Williams, Thomas Edison, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Ellison, Bobby Fischer, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, you, and your parents. Is there really one kind of life which is best for each of these people?

Acknowledging that everyone is who they are not someone else (A is A!) requires acknowledging the existence of specific, subjective characteristics about each person, the context they are in, and the “golden mean relative” to them. People are very special, and hence each of their paths to eudaimonia will be special and particularized. Ironically, Objectivism (or at least an Aristotelian reading of Ayn Rand) implies a very subjective content of morality, despite correctly acknowledging the existence of objective reasons to act.

*It may very well be good to strive towards a somewhat neutral perspective in decision making in an effort to cultivate virtues such as fairness and justice, which are constitutive of a rational agent’s good, however, the reason to strive towards a neutral perspective is not because that perspective is fully possible or an end in itself, it’s valuable insofar as it advances your own agent-relative value.