Stubborn Detachments

I’ve known Tyler Cowen for 25 years.  Straussian misreadings notwithstanding, I assure you that he has little patience for open borders and even less for my brand of pacifism.  But given the general moral theory that he embraces in his new Stubborn Attachments, it’s hard to see why Tyler doesn’t already agree with me.  At minimum, he ought to take my contrarian views far more seriously.  What else can he logically conclude, given his endorsement of the “Principle of Growth Plus Rights”?  After strongly endorsing the moral value of maximizing economic growth, Tyler adds:

The Principle of Growth Plus Rights.  Inviolable human rights, where applicable, should constrain the quest for higher economic growth.

Bear in mind that I am working with a pluralistic rather than a narrowly utilitarian approach.  I will return to the status and nature of such rights later, but for now just think of such rights as binding and absolute.  That means: just don’t violate human rights.  If we were willing to trade these rights against a bundle of other plural values, at some sufficiently long time horizon the benefits from higher economic growth would trump the rights in importance, and in essence the rights would cease to be relevant…

Philosopher Robert Nozick wrote of rights as “side constraints.”  The particular specification of these side constraints need not coincide with Nozick’s libertarian vision, and need not coincide with his absolute attachment to all forms of private property or his prohibition of most forms of taxation.  Still, these rights satisfy Nozick’s notion of rights as restrictions on the choice set of an individual or an institution.  As I see it, virtually everyone believes in rights of some sort… namely that they have to be pretty strong and nearly absolute.

Note that the traditional notions of “positive rights” or “positive liberties” – both of which refer to people’s opportunities – do not fit into this conception of rights… The result is that these negative rights, restrictive though they may be, represent a stripped-down set of bare-bones constraints, a series of injunctions about the impermissibility of various forms of murder, torture, and abuse.

Tyler’s big qualification make little practical difference:

…we should violate rights to prevent extremely negative outcomes which involve the extinction of value altogether, such as the end of the world, as is sometimes postulated in philosophical thought experiments.

OK, so why on Earth isn’t Tyler a pacifist in my sense?  In the real world, modern warfare always means deliberately killing innocent people.  What do you expect will happen if you bomb a city?  If anyone other than a government deployed such weapons on a population center, virtually any jury would convict them of murder.  Even manslaughter would be a stretch.

But what about stopping the “end of the world”?  World War II itself hardly qualifies.  Indeed, until the Soviet Union collapsed, it would have been quite reasonable to believe that U.S. participation in World War II was a critical step toward the end of the world.

Much the same applies for open borders.  Immigration restrictions need not involve murder or torture (though they often do).  But even if ICE enforced its laws with kid gloves, barring an innocent person from accepting a job offer from a willing employer or renting an apartment from a willing landlord is extremely oppressive.  Almost everyone would now recognize Jim Crow laws as “abuse.”  How are immigration restrictions any less awful?  You hardly have to be a libertarian to see the force of the question.

Stubborn Attachments is one of Tyler’s best books.  But if you share his abstract moral theory, you should reject his applied moral moderation.  On a personal level, Tyler relishes uncertainty and complexity.  But once you accept a moral presumption in favor of negative human rights, uncertainty and complexity reinforce skepticism against coercion rather than undermining it.  Clearly.

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My Personal Views on Abortion

January 2019: I read this essay and added commentary for Editor’s Break 129 of the EVC podcast.

As a man, am I allowed to have a “personal view” on abortion? I think so. I have many women in my life, including a wife and two daughters. Any unexpected or unwanted pregnancy of these women will affect me to some degree. My daughters are probably at the top of that list. When asked, and I would be asked as their father whom they love deeply, I will be a source of counsel and comfort on any decisions regarding this controversial practice.

My wife would be next on that list, and as a matter of fact, the question of abortion has come up. In 2007 she had an ectopic pregnancy. We were told these were not uncommon. An ectopic pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg attaches inside the fallopian tube on its way to the uterus. Fallopian tubes are not meant to be used as wombs, and so the baby would not have grown much at all before causing my wife even more pain than it was, and ultimately perishing. A chemical abortion was her only real option.

My personal preference is that no woman ever has the need or desire to have an abortion. I prefer that all would-be moms and dads treat the procreative power that nature has granted them with the utmost care. Be sure not to have an unwanted pregnancy, and you’ll never have cause for an abortion. Let’s say the unthinkable happens anyway, then what? I prefer that all expectant moms desire to keep and raise their babies, and to do so consistent with the principles of attachment/peaceful parenting and radical unschooling. For this reason, I am pro-life.

These are my preferences. If a woman in my life asked for my advice, this is what I would tell her. But also, I would throw my support behind her and be there for her. If this woman was one of my daughters or my son’s partner, they would hold no doubts that as their father I would do everything in my power to help them raise their baby. If the dad is out of the picture, then I feel it is my solemn responsibility to be the dad that every baby needs. I’m already prepared and willing to keep my children with us as they grow up, get married, and make families of their own. I strongly desire to build a multi-generational and extended family household, the sort which I feel is best able to meet the needs of everyone.

Beyond my preference and willingness to support any given woman who faces this question, I don’t feel I have any ground to stand on when it comes to this decision by women. If I’m not willing to throw my support behind a person to keep their baby, then their choice is none of my business. I prefer they make the choice to keep and raise their baby as already described, but I respect that they must do what they feel is necessary for them to do. I am not interested in any action beyond that.

I do not believe that it would be right for me to coerce a woman into making the choice that I prefer. For this reason, I am pro-choice. And as it would not be right for me to coerce a woman away from abortion, I should not expect others, such as those who call themselves “government“, to do it for me. This is one issue where every individual, family, community, and society must decide for themselves, without coercion, how they will act and react to this practice. Personally, I will not shame or push away any woman that makes the choice contrary to my preference. I can’t possibly understand why they did what they did, nor do I need to. If a woman is important to me, their personal choice here will not change that. And if they aren’t, I know how to keep my mouth shut.

I feel I’ve been clear sharing my personal views on abortion. I don’t want anybody to mistaken my position for something that it’s not. My preference is pro-life, but my actions are pro-choice. My daughters will not have to struggle with the question of support or shame if they find themselves in a situation which forces them to make this choice. And I hope all other daughters won’t either.

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Paring Down Your Life

Our lives are overfull.

There’s not a single one of us who is free of that trap, in my experience. We say yes to invitations and commitments, we answer as many emails and messages as we can, we join courses and groups, buy books and take on new hobbies, get involved in new relationships and buy more stuff.

The result of this tendency to overfill is predictable:

  • We spend too much money and get into too much debt, and then have too much clutter.
  • We are always busy and always feel like we’re behind on everything.
  • We don’t have time for what’s really important — relationships, meaningful work, solitude and silence, taking care of ourselves.
  • We can’t really fulfill all of our commitments because we have too much going on.
  • We use full lives to distract ourselves from being fully present.

It’s understandable that we overfill our lives — we are usually acting on desires, and not giving full contemplation to what we want in our lives and what we don’t want.

‘You can’t act on your desires alone. You have to contemplate the details of what needs to be removed and what needs to be cultivated.’ ~Chogyam Trungpa

So how do we change that? I’d like to propose paring down your life.

What It Means to Pare Down Your Life

Paring down means to cut back on what you have in your life:

  • Cut back on possessions — get rid of the extraneous clutter that is just weighing you down, and find joy in owning little.
  • Pare down your commitments — take a look at everything you’ve committed to doing, from being on committees and boards to coaching and teaching to volunteering and being a part of various projects, and more.
  • Pare down your activity online — we spend a lot of time online, usually switching constantly between tabs, cultivating a “switching” and busy mentality. Is this how we want to spend our lives? Can we let go of some of it, and let ourselves be more focused on fewer online activities?
  • Pare down how much you do in a day — we pack our days with lots of things, but what would it be like to do less?
  • Pare down hobbies, travel and other aspirational activities — we are filled with random desires to live a life of travel, activity, beauty, interestingness. But fulfilling these desires doesn’t often lead to a meaningful life, and instead leads to an overfull life. It’s not that we should never do any of these things (I travel and have hobbies), but that we should contemplate what matters most, and pare down to that.

At its core, paring down is about contemplating what you want to cultivate in your life, and what you’d like to remove.

How to Pare Down

So how do we go about doing this? Isn’t decluttering our lives just another thing to add to an overfull list?

Start with a nearly bare canvas.

Imagine for a moment that your life had only a few essentials:

  • A room with a mattress, a few changes of clothes, a sweater or jacket, a few books, a computer and a phone. A backpack for carrying things. Maybe a couch and computer desk if needed.
  • A bathroom with toilet paper and a shower with soap. Three or four toiletries.
  • Simple food of beans, rice, vegetables, fruit, nuts. A few dishes. Maybe a refrigerator, stove and dining table.
  • No workout equipment, just walking, hiking, bodyweight strength training. No hobby equipment. Maybe a bike if you need to commute, but walk most places.

These are the bare essentials for most people — there are a few other things you’d need, depending on your circumstances, but let’s not get caught up in details.

Now imagine that you could only choose a few things to do each day. For me, that might be:

  1. Meaningful work (mostly writing, with some admin tasks needed).
  2. Spending time with my family and other meaningful relationships.
  3. Reading.
  4. Meditating.
  5. Exercise.
  6. Eating simple foods.

I’d be very happy with just those things in my life! What would your six things be?

Is there anything else you’d like to cultivate? What other things would you add? Imagine a stripped-down, bare life, pared down to your essentials.

Now contemplate what could be removed to make room for just these. Leave space in your life for doing nothing. For contemplation. For being present. For silence and stillness. For the unexpected.

I realize that life won’t always be this simple, and that we have to be willing to flow with things we can’t control. We can’t always pare down commitments that we need to fulfill. We can’t always have a job with meaningful work. Relationships can complicate things. I get it.

But sometimes, we’re just making excuses not to let go. Rationalizing the status quo. Holding on to our attachments.

Paring down asks you to let go of attachments, let go of rationalizing, let go of fixed beliefs. And see what’s possible once you do let go.

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How to Let Go of Any Possession

Over the years, I’ve come to be very good at letting go of just about anything.

In fact, I’ve come to relish the joy of letting go of possessions. It’s liberating and delicious!

But most people I know struggle with letting go of the possessions they hold onto most tightly. There’s nothing physical that keeps us from letting go of possessions — it’s just our attachment that gets in the way.

I’m going to share how I let go of attachment to possessions (other kinds of attachment, I’m still figuring out!) in this short guide.

If you follow this guide, you will become a certified minimalist!

The Guiding Principle

In theory, we can let go of every single possession. Sure, for practical purposes, we’ll need at least one outfit and shelter and a way to eat and use the bathroom. And even more practically, we’ll need a house and things to wear for a job and so on. But letting go of a possession that you don’t absolutely need for practical purposes is theoretically possible.

So what stops us?

Every possession gives us something beyond pure practicality. Or at least, we believe that they do. This is the key to understanding how to let go — understanding what you believe the possession does for you.

For example, here are some common things we think possessions give us:

  • Security: Having items that keep you safe, or that you keep “just in case,” give us the illusion of some kind of security. When we’re feeling uncertainty, we run out and buy things. The truth is that even with a house full of safety items and emergency preparation items and backup everything … we still have insecurity. There is still tremendous uncertainty. We could get blown up by a nuclear missile, demolished by a hurricane or raging fire, or die of a heart attack or cancer, despite our best preparations. Security is an illusion.
  • Comfort: We keep a lot of things because we think they give us comfort or pleasure. For example, snack foods, video games, anything else you find pleasurable or comfortable. They might seem to give you temporary pleasure or comfort from stress … but it’s like scratching an itch that just keeps being itchy, and that gives you sores from scratching it so much. Eating junk food (and all the other forms of pleasure and comfort we all indulge in) only gives you more pain and less comfort over the long term.
  • Self-image: Most items fall under this category — we keep things because we feel they give us a certain self-image. For example, a leather jacket might make you feel cool (or maybe if it has metal studs, you feel tough), or having certain books on your shelf might make you feel educated or smart. If you have a lot of expensive stuff, you might feel they give you the image of success. Most of the things you have that aren’t 100% practical give you a certain self-image. Except … they don’t. The self-image is completely generated in your head. It’s not real, but to the extent that it’s in your head, it wasn’t created by possessions — it was created by you.
  • Love: If you have something given to you by a grandparent, or other loved one … you might think that item gives you certain memories, certain emotions. In essence, you think that cherished gift gives you their love. But their love isn’t in the thing. It doesn’t come from the thing. In fact, the love is in you. You generate the love and memories. The item is unnecessary for this process.

You get the idea. There might be other things you think that your possessions give you … but they don’t really give you those things. They come from within you.

You give yourself a sense of security, comfort, self-image, memories and love. Not any item.

Letting Go of the Most Difficult Possessions to Release

Of course, we don’t have to get rid of everything … but what would it feel like to let go of your most tightly held attachments? Could you discover a new sense of self, a sense of liberation, a world full of new possibilities?

What would it be like if you let go of everything you didn’t absolutely use and need on a regular basis? Sure, keep your car, phone, computer, basic clothing and toiletries. Keep your most essential dishes and cookingware. Keep your couch and bed and dresser drawer. But see what it would be like to get rid of most of the other stuff — I bet you’ll find it as enlightening as I do.

With the Guiding Principle from the previous section in mind, let’s look at how to let go of the possessions that most people have difficulty releasing:

  1. Books. If you love books, you probably have a hard time letting them go. You might not even question the need to have so many. It’s part of who you are. But instead of solidifying who you are, consider who you’d be without all of them. What if you had zero books? Who would you be? It’s an open question. You can reinvent yourself, and you don’t need books to find out who you really are. Try this: pick the books you’re actually going to read in the next 6 months. Base the number on how many you’ve actually read in the last 6 months. Now let go of everything else, because you don’t need them. You can usually get them at the library, if you ever really want it again. But you can find free or cheap books all over the place, and won’t need the books on your shelf in a year.
  2. Photos, mementos. I’m not saying you need to get rid of all photos and mementos. But they don’t give you what you think they do — the love for your loved ones is in your heart, not in the photos, and the memories of your trip to Greece aren’t in that trinket you got in that store in Santorini. Instead, why not just snap photos of everything using your phone, and put them in a folder you use for a rotating screensaver? You’ll still have the reminders of your experiences and loved ones, but without the possessions you don’t need.
  3. Gifts. Often we keep these for the same reason as photos and mementos — they remind us of loved ones who gave us the gifts. Deal with those in the same way as photos and mementos above. But often we hold on to gifts because of a sense of obligation, as if we owed it to our loved ones to hold on to every gift they have given us. No! Gifts aren’t an obligation, a burden to carry for the rest of your life. They are a gesture of love, one that is received as soon as the gift is given, but the love isn’t in the gift itself. And the love certainly isn’t in the sense of burden and obligation. Instead, snap a photo of the gift, and give it to someone who will actually use and treasure it.
  4. Clothes that make you feel a certain way. Maybe your clothes make you feel cool, trendy, beautiful, badass. Maybe it’s not clothes, but shoes, a bag, a pocket knife, or some gadget you carry around. We wear or carry these things to give people a certain image of ourselves, and to feel a certain way. In truth, we create this feeling and self-image, not the things. And we can’t control how other people will see us. Even better, let’s let go of that worry, and just be as true to our hearts as we can be, without posturing or pretending by dressing a certain way. Imagine if you just wore minimal, functional clothing, and let people form their impression of you by interacting with you, by experiencing your raw open heart. What a world that might be!
  5. Exercise or outdoor equipment. Do you actually use the equipment? I can’t tell you how many people I know who have bought a treadmill, elliptical machine, rowing machine or nautilus weight set and then used it only three times. The machine sits there for years, gathering dust. Let it go! You can still get fit without it — try going for a walk, adding in a few running or sprint intervals if the walk is too easy. Try doing some pushups, lunges, squats, chinups. Try some sun salutations for 20 minutes. Try pliometric exercises if those are too easy. We barely need anything (if anything) to get fit and healthy, to enjoy the outdoors.
  6. Items for hobbies you’re not actually doing. Over the years, I’ve gotten into a few hobbies that I was into for a month or so, and then fell out of interest with them. I kept thinking I was going to start them again sometime soon. And I kept not doing it. Finally I let go of all of those items, and it was a huge relief. I didn’t have to keep feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing those hobbies. I could just do the things I love doing right now, without some kind of placeholder for the future.
  7. Just-in-case items. These are things you might need someday, but haven’t used for years. Let ’em go. Ask yourself, “What are the chances I’ll really need this?” And also ask, “In the slim possibility that this need actually arises … how hard would it be for me to make do without, borrow the item, or find a cheap replacement for it?” For most things I’ve let go like this, I’ve never once needed it again. For others, I could get at a thrift store, borrow from a friend, or buy a cheap version at a big box store if necessary. I have never regretted letting go of these items. The security they give you is an illusion anyway — why not try living without any of that false sense of security? Why not embrace the uncertainty of life, and trust that you’ll be able to deal with whatever comes up? You always have so far.
  8. Things you spent a lot of money on. There is the guilt of getting rid of that item because you spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on it. The feeling that you’re wasting that money by giving it away. But you wasted the money when you bought it … holding onto it for longer and not using it doesn’t change that fact. Let go of the sunk-cost fallacy and just cut your losses. Forget about what you spent on it in the past (that’s gone) and think about what benefits you’ll get going forward … and what the costs are going forward. Most likely the costs of holding onto these items is much more than the (non-existent) benefits of holding onto them.

You might have other aspirational items (see the sections above on books and hobbies) or items that make you feel a certain way (see the section on clothing above) … but it all boils down to this:

You don’t need possessions to give you a feeling about yourself or your life. It all comes from within yourself — you yourself are the creator of who you are.

With that in mind, try letting go of that which you don’t absolutely use and need, and explore what happens. It’s one of the things I savor the most.

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A Case Against Optimizing Your Life

Many people I know are on a quest to optimize their lives — some of my favorite people in the world will spend days trying to perfect a productivity system, get things automated, or find the perfect software for anything they’re doing. They are on a continual search for the perfect diet, the perfect work routine, the perfect travel setup.

Optimizing can take quite a bit of time and energy.

What would happen if we let go of optimizing? Who would we be without the idea that we should optimize everything?

One idea is that if we decided not to optimize everything, we’d stop caring, stop trying to make things better, and live suboptimal lives. But I know myself pretty well — I will always care, even if I am not trying to optimize. I will always do my best, which is different than optimizing — it’s taking care and giving love, even if things aren’t optimized. I believe most of you are this way, pouring your hearts into something with pure love, without needing to make everything perfect.

So why shouldn’t we optimize? And what would it be like if we didn’t?

Give me a few moments to make the case against optimizing, and present an alternative way.

The Case Against Optimizing

I don’t think people who optimize are idiots (many of the smartest people do it), nor is it a life-ruining thing to try to optimize. I’ve done it many times.

But consider:

  1. The savings never get realized. When you try to optimize, you are spending some of your precious life moments trying to find the perfect setup. Sure, once you’re done, things will theoretically be set up perfectly from then on, so over the long run you should save a lot of time and effort, right? Well, first, let’s acknowledge that there’s a big cost to optimizing up front. And the savings would only be realized after running the optimal system or method for a good while. Unfortunately most people who optimize don’t just set it up and forget it — they continue to try to optimize over and over. It’s a never-ending quest, so the cost keeps adding up but the savings never catches up.
  2. Optimizing is a trap of dissatisfaction. Optimizing is the quest for something as close to perfect as you can get it. But that’s an unrealistic ideal. It doesn’t really exist. And we’ll never get to optimal — when we get close, we’ll continue the habit of being dissatisfied with the way things are. We’ll have put in a lot of work, but then not be happy. Because the search for perfect is a trap, where you’re strengthening the mental habit of dissatisfaction.
  3. Optimizing is a focus on what’s not important. Coming up with the perfect productivity system, the perfect todo list software — it’s not important. It’s procrastination on the things that are truly important. The tasks at the top of the todo list you already have, that you’re not working on, so that you can optimize. Coming up with the perfect diet system isn’t important — eating vegetables is. Eating nuts and beans and fruits is important. Forget the rest, just do that. Coming up with the perfect vacation isn’t important — you’re missing out on what’s right in front of you, there at home, when you are trying to optimize your next trip.
  4. Even if you could optimize, such a perfect life would suck. Let’s imagine for a moment that you could spend a week optimizing every single thing in your life. Everything is now perfect, most things are automated, life because ridiculously easy. (Hint: it’s not possible.) Even if were possible to make life this perfect, life would absolutely suck. If everything ran easily, you would never appreciate any accomplishments, because they came too easily. Nothing would be earned, nothing would feel amazing. People run ultramarathons not because they are perfect and ideal and easy, but because they are such a struggle. The struggle makes it meaningful. Sure, get some good tools, learn how to do things well … but don’t worry about a little extra work. Don’t worry about don’t something a few too many times. A little repetition helps you to get really good at something. A little difficulty helps you to really learn something. A little irritation helps you to find patience, let go of ideals and love things as they are.
  5. Optimizing is a good way to get things to break. Imagine that you optimized a series of software tools so they all ran perfectly together, a huge complicated structure of connected machines … amazing work, well engineered, well thought-out. But when things are optimized like this, they are fragile. If one thing breaks, the others do too. If your life is optimized, it’s easy to break. To give you another example … let’s say you have an optimized sleep routine. It’s amazing, and you get great sleep this way! But then you have to fumigate your house, so you have to sleep at a relative’s house. Your entire optimized routine is thrown off, so you get horrible sleep for a few days. Then you try to optimize your sleep for travel, getting a great setup for sleeping on the plane and trains. Then your favorite sleep mask, ear plugs (or noise-canceling headphones) and travel pillow get stolen. No sleep! The most optimized thing to do, then, is to not optimize — get good at dealing with everything, from sleeping on trains without any kind of setup to sleeping on the ground. Unoptimize your life by getting good at dealing with unoptimal situations. Throw randomized craziness into your life. Forget about optimizing, and learn flexibility, learn to deal, learn to let go, learn to adapt.
  6. Optimizing is a distraction. It’s like cleaning the decks when the Titanic is sinking. It’s not important that you optimize. It’s important that you are present, that you learn to be mindful, to be compassionate, to work from a place of love, to let go of your attachments, to see your interconnectedness with others. To be pure love, and to give your gift to the world. Not what todo software you use, not what bulletproof coffee you drink, not what perfect backpack you carry. Don’t get caught up in the distractions — focus on what truly matters.

So what’s an alternative way? There isn’t one way, of course, but I’ll share some ideas.

An Alternative Way

Consider a different way of being:

  1. Instead of optimizing your schedule, pick one thing to do and focus fully on it. Do it with all of your heart, out of love. When you’re done, give a bow of gratitude. Take a moment to pause and not rush to the next thing. Repeat.
  2. Instead of trying to find the perfect software, the perfect tool, the perfect travel clothes … focus on being content with where you are, who you are, what you have, what is in front of you right now. Contentment is much more important than getting to perfect.
  3. Instead of building a fragile optimized routine, system or setup … give yourself less-than-optimal situations, randomness, things you need to adapt to. Develop flexibility, agility, adaptability, robustness, antifragility.
  4. Be present. Appreciate the fleeting moment, because there won’t be many more before you die. Be fully immersed in the moment, cherishing the beauty of this life.
  5. When you find yourself with the urge to optimize and find the perfect setup, recognize that you’re letting yourself be distracted from what’s important. Then ask yourself, “What’s most important right now?” Focus on that, even if it gives you discomfort and makes you want to run. Get good at that, rather than good at optimizing.
  6. Let your path be less controlled, more random. Let it be filled with messiness, because that’s how you adapt to messiness. Let it be filled with chaos, because then you can find peace in the middle of chaos. Let it be filled with the joy of life exactly as it is, because that’s optimal. What is. Not what you wish it could be.

And do it with a smile and joy in your heart. What a life we have been gifted with!

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For the Love of Reason

Far be it from me to divide humankind in two, but were I so inclined, I’d divide it into those who love reason and those who are indifferent if not outright hostile to it. Members of the first group adore the reasoning process and their own reasoning faculties. The others find the process burdensome and discomforting, something that threatens long-held beliefs and intuitions. When I say the members of the first group adore their own reasoning faculties, I do not mean that they are arrogantly confident in their intelligence or immunity from error. Quite the contrary: the love of reason contains within it humility, doubt, an awareness of one’s limits and fallibility, and a recognition of the inherently social nature of reason (and language) and the growth of knowledge.

The thing to read in this regard is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, a paean to the free and competitive marketplace of ideas. Mill wished to establish that this marketplace was indispensable to learning or at least to approaching the truth. My favorite line, which admirably summarizes most of the little book, is this: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

Taking that proposition to heart puts one in the right frame of mind to engage in argument. It’s tempting to approach an argument like a high-school debater: I have a proposition to defend, and, damn it, I intend to do just that. This need not imply a willingness to lie or to make dubious moves; rather, it merely implies an overinvestment in the proposition, a sense that, if I lose the argument, I have lost something big, something like a piece of myself. This is understandable. Beliefs form a worldview; a belief shaken is a worldview shaken, and that’s not easy to take. Losing could also mean being or feeling obligated to do things I would rather not do or stop doing things I’m fond of doing.

But, in my view, that’s a bad attitude. I try to think of argument the way I think of trade: both sides gain no matter how the interaction comes out. (Think of what John Stossel calls the “double thank you” moment that occurs at the store checkout counter.) How can that be?

Mill’s sentence tells us. If you “win” the argument — and you can do this even if the interlocutor doesn’t seem convinced — you will likely have learned more about your own position simply by hearing it criticized. Being required to answer counterarguments will prompt you to plumb the depths of the topic you’re exploring, and you are likely to think of things you might never have thought of otherwise. That’s good! You’ll know your own position better because you know at least some arguments against it. Since you don’t know whether other counterarguments exist, you can look forward to the next intellectual joust as an opportunity to find out.

On the other hand, if you “lose” the argument, you still gain because you have shed an erroneous belief and are now closer to acquiring knowledge that you lacked before the argument. That’s good too.

It’s win-win, just like trade.

I’m not saying the process is one of unmitigated joy. We human beings naturally become attached to our beliefs, intuitions, and conclusions. We can develop a proprietary interest in them. As a result, we are not eager to see them rendered worthless. The reasonable person is not one who never feels that attachment but rather one who puts the attachment aside for the sake of learning. Like an Aristotelian virtue, openness to intellectual challenge can become second nature as one strives to make a habit of it. Practice makes virtue, and discomfort fades.

It’s no coincidence that argument resembles trade: it’s a form of trade, even if it doesn’t always feel like one. The marketplace of ideas is like the marketplace of goods and services. (Of course, access to an idea can be a marketplace good.) In both cases, people assert propositions — goods embody propositions — and they’ll find out whether better alternatives are available. In the commercial marketplace, sellers present their case that their goods at the asking price offer the best way for potential buyers to accomplish their objectives. Competing sellers make counterarguments. Prospective buyers weigh the arguments, looking for flaws. Thus the epistemological case for a free market in goods and services is identical to the case for a free market in ideas. We learn important things about how to flourish that we would likely otherwise not learn. (This was Ludwig von Mises’s and F. A. Hayek’s argument against central economic planning.)

Finally, the libertarian philosophy of full individual liberty — which includes the right to justly acquired material objects — embodies the love of reason as I’ve described it. The libertarian ethic — the nonaggression principle or, as I prefer, obligation — holds that, if you deal with others, you ought to deal with them through reason, not just for their sake but for your own. Persuasion is the opposite of force, though I acknowledge that someone people’s discomfort with reason stems from their conflating the metaphorical compulsion of a good argument with the actual compulsion of a government command. The libertarian philosophy embraces Athens — reason and persuasion — over Jerusalem — revelation and commandment.

I think this provides a case for the free society that is in a sense Cartesian. Descartes of course wrote that one can doubt everything except the existence of doubt and the doubter. (I’m not saying I agree with Descartes.) Applying something like this method to ethics and politics, we may say that, while one may reasonably doubt propositions about how society ought to be constituted, one cannot reasonably doubt the value of doubt and thus the freedom to doubt.

So stated, my proposition might win something broad assent, so I’ll push it further. If one should have the freedom to doubt — call it the right to doubt — then one should also have the right to express doubt. Expressing it is necessary to ascertain if it is reasonable. And if one has the right to express doubt, one has the right to acquire the physical means of maintaining one’s life and of expressing doubt. I’m using right to mean a valid claim to be free from aggressive force and to defend against such aggression, so naturally one’s exercise of this right cannot entail the use of aggressive of force against others, who also have the right. Needless to say, respect for such rights will generate a variety of humane institutions.

Any doubters out there?

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