Fascists and Rakes

Cross-posted from my blog

It feels like most peo­ple have a moral in­tu­ition along the lines of “you should let peo­ple do what they want, un­less they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple”. We fol­low this guideline, and we ex­pect other peo­ple to fol­low it. I’ll call this the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple, that be­havi­our should be per­mit­ted by de­fault. When some­one vi­o­lates the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple, we might call them a fas­cist, some­one who ex­er­cises con­trol for the sake of con­trol.

And there’s an­other moral in­tu­ition, the harm-min­imis­ing prin­ci­ple: “you should not hurt other peo­ple un­less you have a good rea­son”. When some­one vi­o­lates harm-min­imi­sa­tion, we might call them a rake, some­one who acts purely for their own plea­sure with­out re­gard for oth­ers.

But some­times peo­ple dis­agree about what counts as “hurt­ing other peo­ple”. Maybe one group of peo­ple be­lieves that tic-tacs are sen­tient, and that eat­ing them con­sti­tutes harm; and an­other group be­lieves that tic-tacs are not sen­tient, so eat­ing them does not hurt any­one.

What should hap­pen here is that peo­ple try to work out ex­actly what it is they dis­agree about and why. What ac­tu­ally hap­pens is that peo­ple ap­peal to per­mis­sive­ness.

Of course, by the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple, peo­ple should be al­lowed to be­lieve what they want, be­cause hold­ing a be­lief is harm­less as long as you don’t act on it. So we say some­thing like “I have no prob­lem with peo­ple be­ing morally op­posed to eat­ing tic-tacs, but they shouldn’t im­pose their be­liefs on the rest of us.”

Ex­cept that by the harm-min­imis­ing prin­ci­ple, those peo­ple prob­a­bly should im­pose their be­liefs on the rest of us. For­bid­ding you to eat tic-tacs doesn’t hurt you much, and it saves the tic-tacs a lot of grief.

It’s not that they dis­agree with the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple, they just think it doesn’t ap­ply. So ap­peal­ing to the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple isn’t go­ing to help much.

I think the prob­lem (or at least part of it) is, de­pend­ing how you look at it, ei­ther dou­ble stan­dards or not-dou­ble-enough stan­dards.

I ap­ply the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple “un­less they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple”, which re­ally means “un­less I think they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple”. I want you to ap­ply the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple “un­less they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple”, which still means “un­less I think they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple”.

Mean­while, you ap­ply the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple un­less you think some­one is hurt­ing other peo­ple; and you want me to ap­ply it un­less you think they’re hurt­ing other peo­ple.

So when we dis­agree about whether or not some­thing is hurt­ing other peo­ple, I think you’re a fas­cist be­cause you’re failing to ap­ply the per­mis­sive­ness prin­ci­ple; and you think I’m a rake be­cause I’m failing to ap­ply the harm-min­imi­sa­tion prin­ci­ple; or vice-versa. Nei­ther of these things is true, of course.

It gets worse, be­cause once I’ve de­cided that you’re a fas­cist, I think the rea­son we’re ar­gu­ing is that you’re a fas­cist. If you would only stop be­ing a fas­cist, we could get along fine. You can go on think­ing tic-tacs are sen­tient, you just need to stop be­ing a fas­cist.

But you’re not a fas­cist. The real rea­son we’re ar­gu­ing is that you think tic-tacs are sen­tient. You’re act­ing ex­actly as you should do if tic-tacs were sen­tient, but they’re not. I need to stop treat­ing you like a fas­cist, and start try­ing to con­vince you that tic-tacs are not sen­tient.

And, sym­met­ri­cally, you’ve de­cided I’m a rake, which isn’t true, and you’ve de­cided that that’s why we’re ar­gu­ing, which isn’t true; we’re ar­gu­ing be­cause I think tic-tacs aren’t sen­tient. You need to stop treat­ing me like a rake, and start try­ing to con­vince me that tic-tacs are sen­tient.

I don’t ex­pect ei­ther of us to ac­tu­ally con­vince the other, very of­ten. If it was that easy, some­one would prob­a­bly have already done it. But at least I’d like us both to ac­knowl­edge that our op­po­nent is nei­ther a fas­cist nor a rake, they just be­lieve some­thing that isn’t true.