Anarchism and Aristotle’s “Doctrine of Ethical Virtue”
Written by Robert Eschauzier.
Nelson Hultberg, in a recent editorial on The Daily Bell titled “Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard: The Verdict After Fifty Years” and found here, begins by quoting the Aristotelian “Doctrine of Ethical Virtue” – incorrectly and pervasively labeled by him and many others as the “Doctrine of the Mean”; the latter actually being a doctrine of Confucius who predated Aristotle by some 250 years and with whose work Aristotle (given the many striking similarities in their writings) may or may not have been familiar. This Doctrine (by whatever name) postulates that virtue consists of the “rational course” that lies between two opposite and natural extremes of excess and defect. This rational course is called the Golden Mean.
Be that is it may, the author proceeds to apply a deeply flawed interpretation of this ethical doctrine as will be shown below. There is little value in reviewing his subsequent remarks on the works of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. While they may be well reasoned, they rest on his false understanding of the Golden Mean and therefore equally flawed. Liberty and coercion are and always will be mutually exclusive concepts. Liberty cannot logically be shown to be achievable by coercion, nor is there any empirical evidence to show that it ever has been.
To begin, Mr. Hultberg proceeds to correctly demonstrate how in the prevailing political dialectic the Golden Mean is falsely applied to create the following common political spectrum with which we are all too familiar.
Hultberg then (again correctly) points out that the most likely reason why this false paradigm is promoted so heavily in academic and political circles is to make “political bias toward statism look proper and virtuous“. It is at this point that Mr. Hultberg goes off into an erroneous application of the Golden Mean. He writes:
The reason why is that communism, socialism, and fascism are all listed separately here; and they shouldn’t be. They are all collectivist dictatorships. So they belong together on the same side of the spectrum. Dictatorship can’t be on both sides because you have to have an excess and a defect as your extremes. Dictatorship is an excess of government. Thus you need a defect of government on the other side. You need anarchism on the far right.
Thus the conventional [left-right political] spectrum taught today is not a correct picture. The true political spectrum would be like this:
The error in the above is one I encounter frequently and intend to falsify here once and for all. First, the opposite of anarchy (no ruler) is government (ruler); whether total or limited makes little difference. Second, there is the failure to recognize that in human action (even if not in politics) the ethical extremes are in fact aggression (excess) and non-aggression (defect). Using the word government as if it were an activity (it is not) also creates a semantic trap. The trap is this: when we debate ethics, we are considering human action, not inanimate legal fictions. The trap being manifest in the erroneous conclusion by Hultberg that he has defined a golden Mean in “limited” government. Since government is by definition a coercive institution, the only difference between “total” and “limited” governments is the degree of coercion applied and therefore insignificant from an ethical perspective. To speak of limited government is no less ir rational that to speak of limited slavery.
The noun ‘government’ describes a coercive political body (a legal fiction) and is derived from the verb ‘to govern’. Fortunately the semantic error described is easily resolved by using the appropriate verb ‘to govern’, or better yet, ‘governance’, its descriptive noun.
In doing so, by considering the animate activity of governing a society as opposed to describing the inanimate political structure of an institution called “government”, it is acknowledged that we are discussing the ethics of human action, there being after all no such thing as institutional action. A variant of this belief is manifest in the implied assumption common among statists that the rules of moral conduct for individuals who act on their own behalf, somehow do not apply to those who act under color of ‘government’.
One more element of semantic precision needs to be addressed before we proceed. The original meaning of the word ‘anarchy’ is ‘without a [coercive] ruler’; ‘anarchy’ does NOT mean ‘without [voluntary] rules’. That many statists who wish to discredit anarchism as unworthy of consideration clamour incessantly to misrepresent anarchy as being synonymous with chaos, does not make it so.
We can now discern the behaviors to be considered in a correct evolution of the Golden Mean. They are the three distinct modes of governance: coercive, voluntary and none.
On the far left of the spectrum is the moral insanity of governance by coercive aggression whether it calls itself communism, socialism or minarchism (limited government). On the far right is its exact opposite, the moral nihilism of acting without constraint or benevolence towards others. Finally, it may also be worthwhile to note here that the Golden Mean thus identified as anarchism or voluntaryism, also adheres to that greatest of all ethical principles, the Golden Rule:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.