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Justin Schwartz jschwart at
Fri Apr 14 21:14:31 MDT 1995

Lisa asks: how can we decide whose and which choices are mistaken?

Here are a couple of obvious bases for deciding that:

1. If one's choices fail to promote ends one holds to be important;

2. If the ends one has are incompatible with other ends one holds dear;

3. If either the means or the ends one choices are incompatible with one's
ideals, one image of the sort of people we want to be.

4. If a choice of means or end leads to suffering and diminishment which
one cannot explain with the conceptual equipment those ends or means, or
indeed ideals allow.

All these are obviously "internal" in some sense, referring to the
experience of the agent as being in some sense decisive. But more
controversially we might say,

5. If our choices of end, means, or ideals violate what is objectively
good or right, whether relativized to us (good for me, for my group,
whatever), or not (just plain good or right).

Thus a Nazi might choose effective means to his ends which are
internally consistent (die Welt Judenfrei zu machen, z.b.) and comprt with
his ideals as an Ayran knight, but which are morally intolerable even if
he won;t admit it and even if it causes him no suffering or dimishment to
pursue these ends.

For the rest, think of the poor schlepps who huzzah for Rush and love to
blame minorities, women, and the cultural elite for their troubles. Since
they are mistaken about the source of their troubles and beating up on the
helpless and weak will not in fact remove their problems, we can say that
their choice of means does not further their most fundamental ends and
perhaps even conflicts with their ideals, although in many cases their
ideals are pretty wretched too. The kind of lives they choose leads them
to experience suffering and diminishment (or they wouldn't like Rush),
manifested in wifebeating, alchoholism, voting Republican, supporting tax
cuts which reduce their own benefits and services and such. This is a
basis for saying their choices are mistaken.

I am not saying that experiencing suffering and diminishment itself is
evidence of practical or cognitive error. Class conscious workerrs who are
exploited experience such S&D, but it's because they are exploited, not
because they are making a mistake. Their mere recognition of the actual
causes of their S&D will not in itself change these things, and even
militant class struggle may not, even if that is in the long run the only
way to change it. But failing to do the right thing (while trying to do
it) is not an error but a failure.

How's that for a start?

All that said, even if we are in a position to criticize people's choices
as mistaken on some of the grounds, or all of them, we are not therefore
entitled to impose what we take, rightly or wrongly, to be the correct
choices on them.

1. It may be, and I would say is, utterly crucial to the process of
self-emancipation and self-education that people come to recognize their
own mistakes. To impose the right way on them is self-defeating if the
right way is experienced as an imposition. In that case it will tend to be
rejected rather than learned, and the outcome will be unstable.

2. Choice is itself, as I suggested, a basic human interest, which would
be violated by such imposition. (Evidence for this: people experience
suffering and dimishment when they are denied significant choices over
things that matter.)

3. Then there is the Millean point that we cannot be so sure that we know
what is right (erven if we are pretty confident we know what is wrong).

Still, none of us are in any position to impose anything on anyone except
our children, spouses, and for those of you who have them, students. So in
a sense the worru about the proper limits of state action is idle, except
insofar as we are considering whether we should support politicians or
policies who support or oppose state interference.

I do not that those of us who are socialists do advocate one essential
restriction on freedom of choice: we want a society which would deny
consenting adults the right to engage in capitalist acts, sucha s the
purchase and sale of labor power. As Lisa notes. Nonpaternalists amongst
us have to worry about that. I supposrt this restriction because it seems
to me that

1. Capitalist acts among consenting adults result in less freedom for
almost everyone (except the winners in capitalist competition), and
freedom is a value such that other things being equal, the more of it, the

2. They also result in a situation where systematic injustice and
dominaton is unavoidable.

Nonetheless libertarians are right to press the issue against socialists
who care about freedom, and it is a sensitive point.

--Justin Schwartz

On Fri, 14 Apr 1995, Lisa Rogers wrote:

> My right to choose certainly seems valuable to me!  And how shall we
> decide whose and which choices are mistaken?  John, please explain.
> Justin's point about freedom is where I'd like to see the
> conversation go.  My individual right to do what I like [without
> hurting others] is very important to me.
> But we should distinguish between appropriate care-taking and
> inappropriate.  It is not paternalism or maternalism, but parental
> responsibility to do what is right for one's children, although even
> here their will and consent is desirable, but parents must often
> override or veto the "popular" vote.
> Similarly for students.  The instructor's choice of homework need not
> bear much relation to student preferences, especially when students
> have other choices.
> BUT when it comes to somebody protecting me from myself, that's
> another matter.  I should not drive while intoxicated, because that
> endangers OTHER people.  But intoxication of any kind in the privacy
> of my own home?  etc...
> If you care about government intrusion upon individual, personal,
> bodily rights and freedoms, I recommend a book called "Ain't nobody's
> business if you do - the absurdity of consensual crimes".
> For me, these rights do not include the "freedom" to exploit labor
> and make profit in every legal way while also writing laws to make
> legal every possible way to increase profits, although I have seen
> many a Republican imply or explicitly state just that.  I guess
> that's one of the things that makes me a socialist.
> Lisa Rogers
> UUtah
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