This is the second in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts will be available here. Volume II: Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius
The non-aggression principle (or “NAP”) is an important concept in natural rights theory and contemporary libertarian political theory. Essentially, the non-aggression principle holds that one may not forcibly interfere with another or his property. I’ve heard it expressed as: you are free to do as you like so long as you keep your fist away from my nose and your hands out of my pocket.
Wikipedia helpfully lists several other formulations over time:
“Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” – John Locke
“Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’, because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual…. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson
“Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” – Herbert Spencer
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – John Stuart Mill
“No one may threaten or commit violence (‘aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.” – Murray Rothbard
Sounds pretty reasonable to me…
Beer of the week: Mastne Cieszyńskie – This is a really good Polish ale. Mastne Cieszyńskie is light brown and a little bit hazy. The smell is classic and malty with a hint of raisin. The flavor follows the aroma. This is a very enjoyable ale.
Reading for the week: Crito by Plato, 44e to 48d – The fact that Plato is in the same volume of The Harvard Classics as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius seems to indicate the editor of the series sided with the Stoics in the ongoing battle for what school of thought gets to claim Socrates as its own. In this excerpt from Crito, the title character is trying to convince Socrates to escape from Athens, where he has been sentenced to death. In part, he argues that if Socrates choses to die when he might otherwise live, he will be committing an act of violence upon his friends and children.
Question for the week: Particularly in the the formulations by Locke and Jefferson, it is clear that the NAP relies on an underlying assumption of equality. Without that assumption, can the principle still be compelling?
Near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson found himself in a tight spot financially. He had spent the previous 60 years or so in the public service as President, Vice-President, Governor, Ambassador, Regent of the University of Virginia, etc. These various services to his country and state kept him, so he claimed, from properly attending to his own affairs. As a result, he ended up deep in debt.
His solution was to sell some of his property to pay off his creditors. However, the land was very valuable and the market was very depressed, so he feared that there would be nobody willing to pay full price. As an alternative to traditional sale, he proposed a lottery. By putting up the property as the prize of a lottery, he believed that he stood a better chance of receiving full value for the land. The only problem was the the Commonwealth of Virginia regulates all lotteries, so Jefferson would need special dispensation from the legislature. So he made an appeal, recounting all of his services to state and country and waxing philosophical about the moral implications of gambling.
Jefferson starts this appeal by acknowledging that “chance” is merely the name given to causes that we do not or cannot know. “If we know the cause [of a thing], we do not call it chance; but if we do not know it, we say it was produced by chance.” So every human endeavor includes some element of chance. He calls the farmer “the greatest of all gamblers” because the farmer risks his rent, his seeds, and his labor on a crop that may fail because of things beyond his control. And because all human action is a gamble to some extent, gambling cannot be immoral per se. So far, so good.
But then Jefferson holds in opposition those games of chance that are not productive in the way that insurance or capital investment are. (I briefly observe that games of chance are productive in the form of entertainment, which can be hard to measure but clearly has value.) He writes of “cards, dice, billiards, &c.” as games “which produce nothing, and endanger the well-being of the individuals engaged in them.” And he lauds the state’s suppression of these games for the sake of those who would be injured by playing and losing. Here, I think, Jefferson busts.
Jefferson acknowledges that there is a natural right to gamble. This, I take it, is based on two considerations: first, as discussed above, gambling is not immoral per se, but is merely another term for the risks that all of us take in each of our daily actions; and second, that the natural right to property necessarily includes the right to dispose of it by sale, gift, or game of chance. (A previous post on this blog discusses the curious relationship between Jefferson’s and Locke’s notions of the natural right to property.) So once gambling is acknowledged as a natural right, how can its prohibition be justified?
The justification is by way of analogy. The analogy drawn by Jefferson is between degenerate gambling and “insanity, infancy, imbecility, &c.” If a gambling addiction is a sort of madness, then the state is right to prohibit gambling for the protection of the addicts. But even if we agree that a gambling addiction is akin to a mental handicap – which is at least debatable – the analogy is somewhat unfair. Why should all table games be banned for the protection of the fraction of the population that suffers from a gambling addiction? If we do not allow children or the mentally ill to drive cars by virtue of their infancy or insanity, that does not mean that we would authorize the state to ban cars outright. And if cars are too modern a concept, then consider an example of what children and the insane could not do in Jefferson’s day: neither group was capable of entering into legally binding contracts. Yet Jefferson would not have advocated the notion that the enforcement of all contracts should be banned for the sake of the children and the insane. Rather, the intervention of the state should be limited to protecting the narrow subset of individuals while interfering as little as possible with the rights of everybody else.
Beer of the week: Wieselburger Gold – Jefferson may have found himself short on gold, but who isn’t? If the name “Gold” is used to describe the color this Austrian beer, the name is not very apt. This brew is much more pale than anything that I would call gold. If the name refers to the quality of the beer, they still come up a bit short; this is a bronze medal beer, silver at best. What little head there is dissipates quickly, and there is hardly an aroma to speak of. However, the flavor is not without its charms. There is a bit of malt sweetness up front, and a floral, hoppy finish that leaves the mouth feeling dry, always encouraging the next sip.
Reading for the week: Thoughts on Lotteries by Thomas Jefferson – There is more to dislike about this appeal than the weak analogy between gamblers and the insane. Notably, Jefferson discusses his own political career at length and argues that he should be entitled to exceptional treatment by the legislature on those grounds.
Question for the week: Is there a formula for what percent of the population is impacted before rightful actions should be banned?
It is no secret that the philosophy of John Locke was a profound influence on the American Founding Fathers. After all, his concept of natural rights to life, liberty, and property was prominently displayed at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. But there was also a dramatic change in that document’s language: “property” was replaced with the “pursuit of happiness.”
First, let’s be clear on what Locke actually said: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” How “health” got dropped from popular discourse, I do not know. I suspect that health can easily be subsumed by life, liberty, or both. Health is an integral part of life since an ultimate failure of health results in death. It is also an integral part of liberty, since any failure of health impairs liberty to some extent and a serious failure of health (just short of death) totally prevents one from exercising his liberty. (Those in a coma, for example, can hardly be considered “free”.) So, with health out of the way, we are left with the common formulation of Locke’s natural rights: life, liberty, property.
But when it came time to draft the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson substituted “the pursuit of happiness” for “property.” But why? I have done a little reading and asked a few professors, and gotten three answers:
1. That Jefferson, a land-owner, was appealing also to those who did not own land. Since he did not advocate a system where all men got an equal share of the land, he substituted the pursuit of happiness as something that everybody could achieve (even those destined to be tenants.)
This answer seems least likely to me. Of course the Declaration was a practical document, intended to rally support for the cause of independence, but it was also an exposition of Jefferson’s philosophy. Would he really substitute an entire third of his philosophy of natural rights for a relatively minor appeal to the lower class colonists? I am extremely reluctant to consider anything in the first part of the Declaration to be disingenuous. (Whether all of the complaints leveled at King George were all made in good faith is another question.)
Further, under Locke’s formulation, the right to property relies on the assumption that there is enough property to support everybody. The American continent was regarded as practically limitless in size at that time. Why would Jefferson object to the idea that anybody who did not then own land could just move west and acquire property by mingling his labor with the land? And if he did believe that, then why not present that as yet another reason why even landless Americans should support the cause of independence?
2. That the right to property is merely a subset of the right to pursue happiness.
What could that really mean? Even if we allow that acquisition and possession of property is but a single possible path to happiness, what else falls in that category? What else is included in the right to pursue happiness that is not already included in liberty? And how are these other subsets of the right to pursue happiness related to the right to property?
I have heard that the pursuit of happiness can be divided into pursuit of earthly happiness (i.e. through the acquisition of property,) or heavenly happiness. This makes this language a nod to freedom of religion.
It is worth noting that later in 1776, but also in Philadelphia, another important document was drafted: the first Constitution of Pennsylvania. In its Declaration of Rights, the drafters asserted “That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and inalienable rights, amongst which are, the enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Here, the pursuit of happiness is separate from the right to acquire, possess and protect property. It appears that at least the Pennsylvanian Founders did not consider property rights to be a mere subset of the pursuit of happiness. Religious freedom was also provided for by the Constitution of Pennsylvania, undermining the earthly/heavenly distinction suggested above. If property and religion are the two parts of the pursuit of happiness, why name all three separately?
3. That Jefferson did not believe that property rights were natural rights; that property rights are derived entirely from society.
This is a very interesting answer to the question of why property is replaced by the pursuit of happiness. I first saw this hypothesis in an article by Albert Alschuler of the University of Chicago. Alschuler claims that Jefferson’s departure from Locke on the point of property is the result of Jefferson siding with Scottish Enlightenment thinkers (including Lord Kames, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume) on the issue. The Scots apparently diverged from Locke on the question of whether property rights were natural or wholly societal in origin.
Of course, this could explain why the right to property is not listed in the Declaration, but it does not explain what the pursuit of happiness is. I’d better do some more reading and have a beer…
Beer of the week: Philadelphia Pale Ale – From the same city that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Pennsylvania Constitution, and the United States Constitution comes this pale ale. Yards Brewing Company produces this very light-colored beer. It is very crisp and refreshing despite a decent malt body. Although it is an ale, it drinks more like a pilsner. I think that this beer is quite good.
Reading of the week: Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, Declaration of Rights – The rights to life, liberty, and property are accounted for by this document, but there are a great number of more particular rights besides. Among the rights provided for are procedural protections for criminal defendants, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right of the people to modify or abolish the State government if they deem it best to do so. And, since the state was founded by Quaker pacifists, the right of a conscientious objector to refuse military duty is also guaranteed (provided he pays for a replacement).
Question of the week: What is the pursuit of happiness?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
Could anything be less obvious? In all of the most visible ways, men are anything but equal. Some are strong, some are rich, some are intelligent. Very few are all three. In every measurable way, men are simply not created equal. In fact, the inequality of man has been carefully studied and tends to fall into a bell curve.
However, our societal dedication to the idea that everybody should be equal has occasionally resulted in efforts to “rectify” natural inequalities. This can be done either by giving the disadvantaged a leg-up or by handicapping the advantaged. But both of these remedies miss the real meaning of equality in American society.
The way in which all men are created equal is “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Everyone, regardless of his strength or wealth or intelligence, is possessed of equal rights. It is our rights that make us equal, and attempting to achieve other, less meaningful equalities by modifying our fundamental rights is a dangerous mistake.
Beer of the week: Daisy Cutter Pale Ale – This is a delicious and popular pale ale from Half Acre Beer Co. in Chicago. Daisy Cutter is a slightly hazy, amber beer. The aroma is of floral hops with a hint of pine. The body is pleasant and malty with a good hops kick that leaves a pleasant tingle. Overall, this is a very well balanced and very tasty brew.
Reading for the week: The History of Rome by Livy – In much of the English-speaking world, “tall poppy syndrome” refers to a collective desire to disparage or attack the most successful or prominent members of society. This reading contains the origin of that expression: symbolic advice to strike off the heads of the tallest poppies.
Question for the week: Is there a minimum sort of equality in strength/wealth/intelligence required to exercise the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
I went to Catholic primary and secondary school. Being a non-Catholic and something of a free-thinker, I occasionally caused my Religion teachers grief.
One such occasion was the result of a multiple choice test question:
Jesus came especially for ____________.
A. the poor
B. the rich
C. the Jews
D. none of the above
I answered D. none of the above. I’d always heard that Jesus came to save everybody.* The answer that my teacher wanted was A. the poor. The Catholics have a doctrine called “the option for the poor”. My teacher knew the phrase, if not its origin or meaning. As a result, I was unable to get partial credit for my answer, even though I could explain why my answer was the right one. I could even explain how answer C was also correct. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that he came for the Jews and refers to gentiles as dogs:
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Another religion class run-in occurred when one of my teachers learned that there is a bush that produces volatile oils. In the summer, in hot climes, the oils sometimes ignite and burn away without damaging the bush. My teacher proudly proclaimed that this was surely the type of thing that happened in the story of Moses and the burning bush. This was proof that the Moses story is real!
I pointed out, however, that if the burning bush is explained rationally, it loses all of its meaning. In the Bible, the burning bush is a miracle, not a horticultural oddity. If the story is about a guy witnessing an interesting plant doing what interesting plants occasionally do, who cares? For the Moses story to have an impact, the burning bush has to be a miraculous.
I’ve seen this same thing done with the crossing of the Red Sea and the Seven Plagues. Some people take these explanations as proof that the Biblical accounts are real. But explaining the miracles does not make the story more believable, it only makes the story less meaningful.
Beer of the Week: Long Trail Belgian White – Although there is technically a few weeks of summer left, this sure feels like the end. There are still summer beers to be had though. Light, refreshing wheat beers are a popular summer choice. This unfiltered wheat beer is much like most other wheat beers I’ve reviewed: cloudy, sweet, citrusy. But there is something about the flavor that I can’t quite put my finger on. I think that the coriander that Long Trail uses imparts an earthy finish that I does not work for me. Overall, I don’t think I like this beer very much.
Reading of the week: Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley – This letter, from the author of the Declaration of Independence to the man who discovered oxygen is, predictably, very interesting. The topic, however, is not politics or science; it is religion. In the letter, Jefferson outlines a project to compare the moral teachings of Jesus to those of ancient philosophers. In so doing, he would leave out any miracles or divinity and view Jesus as a philosopher rather than a messiah.
Question of the week: Questions of divinity and miracles aside, how do the teachings of Jesus hold up when compared with the teachings of ancient philosophers?
*One Lutheran pastor I knew held a particularly interesting (and thoroughly heterodox) belief: Jesus died for the forgiveness of all sins, even those not confessed or repented. The logical conclusion is that all people are saved. And, what’s more, salvation cannot be lost or avoided. There is nobody in hell because God has forgiven all sin, even the most vile or obstinate.
Freedom of religion is widely accepted as one of the founding principles of the United States of America. However, religious freedom was not there from the start.
Every one of the colonies had laws regarding religion. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, non-Puritans were pretty thoroughly persecuted. Quakerism (one of the most peaceful and oatmeal loving of all Christian sects) was expressly forbidden. Some Quakers were even executed by the Massachusetts Bay government for their faith.
One of the first great strides toward religious freedom in America was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson. He regarded the Statute as one of his greatest accomplishments and instructed that it be memorialized on his tombstone. (His presidency and all of his accomplishments during that period of his life are notably omitted.) In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson asserts that “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself,” so nobody should be coerced into participating in any specific church. Such a claim seems so obvious to us today that we recoil at the idea of state mandated church attendance.
What is striking to me is the analogy that Jefferson draws between the soul and the body. “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself ,” just as the care of his body and possessions belong to himself. “Well what if he neglect the care of his health,” he asks rhetorically, “Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick?”
How ironic! Jefferson appealed to the obvious freedom and sovereignty over one’s own body to demonstrate the freedom and sovereignty of over one’s own soul, but today the shoe is on the other foot. Freedom of (and from) religion seems so obvious to us, but the idea of personal physical sovereignty is constantly eroding. Imagine suggesting to Jefferson that one day the state would ban alcohol, “for our own good.” (Jefferson specifically mentions that “consuming his substance in taverns” is an activity in which every man has liberty.) Or, for that matter, the state would ban marijuana or super-sized colas. How incredulous would he be?
The fact is that a man’s body and soul, at least in this world, are inseparable. The state can’t save a man from himself physically any more than it can save him spiritually. “Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”
Beer of the Week: Taiwan Beer Gold Medal – At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese rulers in Taiwan decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with tobacco, alcohol, opium or salt, so they set up a state-owned monopoly company called the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. Compare this to state monopolies on vice in America, such as state lotteries where gambling is otherwise prohibited “for our own good.” Today, however, Taiwan is a huge free-market success story and the TTL monopoly has been broken up. However, the 90 year head-start means that Taiwan Beer still dominates the market. Gold Medal is a cheap, mass-produced rice beer, so it is no surprise that it is basically bland and unappealing. The single part of this beer that stands out is the fairly distinct rice flavor. Sure, plenty of beers use rice and other adjuncts, but in this beer the rice plays a very prominent flavoring role. That is not to say that there is much flavor, but it actually is rather interesting how much this beer is unlike even other beers of its genre.
Reading of the week: Notes On Religion by Thomas Jefferson – This excerpt starts with a very interesting question: “How far does the duty of toleration extend?” This is especially important specifically with regard to religion since most religions assert that they are the one “right” religion and everybody else is not only “wrong”, but damned for it. “Every church is to itself orthodox; to others erroneous or heretical.”
Question of the week: Why has freedom of religion become so widely accepted while other freedoms have eroded?
Samuel Adams defended (if not participated in) the destruction of private property as a form of protest. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Ben Franklin was probably some sort of super villain. Besides not being perfect, (who is?) what did these men have in common? Well, they were all talented writers. They were all white. All land-owners. They had lots in common actually. But the most important things they have in common were that they were Americans and they are on this blog’s Reading List. And these two things are related.
I, like so many Americans, have a certain respect and curiosity about great Americans. Because we have a nationality and history in common, their lives and ideas seem to have more direct baring on my own life and ideas. As the Venerable Bede wrote, ” take care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former men of renown, especially of our own nation.” Because one’s own countrymen present a more immediate and relateable example, it is easier to take that example to heart.
The book from which I quoted Bede is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Astute readers may have observed some irony in me quoting a British author when talking about the value of studying the lives of great Americans. However, I regard Americans as supremely fortunate in their lineage. The American government, culture and language all have a mixed heritage, so when I want to study the lives of “former men of renown” I regard more than just Americans as my predecessors. The history of America includes much of the history of England and, indeed, of most of the world. From Homer forward, there is an intellectual common thread that runs right down to the present. And that is why this blog is not only American authors.
One may object that my Reading List has a number of categorical omissions. Every single reading to date was written by a European or an American man. The closest thing to an exception would be the colonial works of Kipling and Orwell, inspired by their time in India and Burma, respectively. Of course, they maintained their Britishness throughout their colonial adventures. In fact, one could argue that there is nothing more British than staying British while colonizing the world. But that is another topic all-together.
Clear omissions include: women and anybody not of European heritage. These are not intentional. The omission of women is the product of probability: this is basically a classics blog and the bulk of classic literature and philosophy has been produced by men. I have read some female authors in my day, but the idea of combing Middlemarch for a 5 paragraph excerpt worth writing about is a bit daunting.
As far as non-Europeans, the problem is that there is a certain remoteness about them. I am not sure how to approach, for example, Confucius because his writings and ideas are not ingrained in the culture around me. I suspect that there are common threads that can be grasped, but they may be harder to find.
So I will appeal to you, the reader: If there is an author or class of authors that you think I should read and discuss here, make a recommendation on the appropriate page or in the comments section. (Just as a heads-up, I am not likely to write about anything very modern or very obscure because the Reading List is only possible because the texts I use are in the public domain.)
Beer of the Week: Old Speckled Hen – America’s mixed heritage shows itself in its beer as much as anything. Although the biggest producers are inspired primarily by central European lagers (cf. the American and Czech Budweisers,) American brewers are getting back to their roots by brewing more ales. And the English have been a big influence on us in that regard. This smooth, malty ale is a real treat. The malt is balanced very nicely by a very pleasant bitterness that lingers slightly, beckoning to be washed away by another smooth, malty sip. This cycle continues until the glass is suddenly empty. Plus it is very nearly the same color as my beard… so that’s cool.
Reading for the Week: the Preface of Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Venerable Bede, Excerpt – Bede is the only Englishman included in Dante’s Paradiso and is the only English doctor of the Catholic Church. So as it turns out, Bede is one of the most renowned men of his own nation, and rightly so. Although much of the Preface is Bede citing his sources, he slips in at the end that the “true rule of history” is “the instruction of posterity.”
Question for the week: What, exactly, is posterity supposed to learn from history?