Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Shame on Sandefur

I am disgusted by Timothy Sandefur's intellectual dishonesty. He propped up a ridiculous "straw man", bizarrely attributing to me views which I explicitly rejected, and then viciously mocked and insulted me on that basis. Further, despite learning that I held his interpretation to be radically mistaken, he went on to write another post continuing to mock the original view. At no point has he engaged with my actual arguments, or even acknowledged the misrepresentation. I wrote to him, politely explaining his error and asking for a retraction and apology, but never so much as received a reply.

The facts of the matter speak for themselves. I encourage readers to read first my original post, and then Sandefur's reply. His misconduct is so apparent that further commentary on my part is quite unnecessary. Still, for your convenience, I will offer some highlights below.

Here's my argument:
Property is a “social construction” [rather than a “fixed and immutable” natural category], and recognition of this fact can open our eyes to the possibility of various different systems of property rights. We can then make an informed moral choice between the various options. We shouldn’t just assume the absolutist propertarian conception from the start.

Note also the open-ended nature of my conclusion, that we should "dispute the merits of alternative institutional systems". Clearly, my purpose is to open the debate, not conclude it.

Now, compare this to Sandefur's straw man:
Since property is created by social mores and by government’s laws, therefore there can be no real objection when the government changes the rules and says that what you own is not really yours.

The mind boggles. This is quite obviously not an accurate representation of my argument. It's not even close. It misses the entire thrust of my introduction and conclusion (i.e. the need for moral assessment of our social/legal institutions). Worse, it contradicts my explicit repudiation of this view. I wrote:
That's not to say that "anything goes", or that any system of legal rights instituted by a society would be equally legitimate. Any system which allowed the rulers to arbitrarily seize all a worker's holdings and leave them to starve would be plainly immoral. The system must be set up in a fair and equitable manner.

There is no possible way that one could reasonably interpret me as suggesting the exact opposite, i.e. that governments may do as they please and "there can be no real objection". Yet that is how Sandefur presents my argument. It beggars belief. A first-year philosophy student would flunk out (and probably be sent to remedial reading comprehension classes) if they offered such an unsupported and uncharitable interpretation of an argument.

[The only way to support this dishonest reading would be to ignore my actual argument (introduction, conclusion, and bits in between) and instead take a couple of select quotes out of context. Sadly, that's exactly what Jason Kuznicki did in his misguided attempts to excuse his co-blogger. Needless to say, that's not a responsible way to form an interpretation of another's argument.]

The matter is simple, really. My post makes it perfectly clear that I think there are limits on what governments may rightly do.* I was very explicit on this point. Yet Sandefur presented me as saying the very opposite, and then he viciously attacked me on that transparently mistaken basis. A plainer case of intellectual dishonesty would be hard to come by. No-one of any intelligence who made a minimal effort to read and comprehend my post could possibly interpret it as Sandefur proposed. And if you're going to employ such scathing invective, you are surely obliged to first ensure that you've understood the other person's position.** His failure here is breathtaking.
* = (My follow-up post explains what I think underwrites those moral limits. But that's a separate question.)

** = (If the ethical reasons don't move one, you'd think self-interest would. Mocking an argument you don't understand is a sure way to make a fool of yourself -- as we've had occasion to note before.)

As if that weren't shameful enough, Sandefur then went and wrote another post mocking those phrases of mine that he'd taken out of context (i.e. the idea of "constructing" institutions, and the distinction between "creating" and "violating" laws). By this time he knew that I considered it a misrepresentation. But instead of revising his interpretation like any minimally honest person would, he instead continued to mock the straw man.

I don't know what else to say. Sandefur's misconduct is plain as plain can be. He made a stunning mistake, and now he refuses to accept responsibility for it. If words fail me, perhaps it's best to let Sandefur's writing speak for itself... "idiotic" and "deserving of the bitterest ridicule", indeed!

I've reluctantly removed Positive Liberty from my blogroll, until such a time as they restore their integrity with the requisite retraction and apology. (It's a pity, because I otherwise like the blog, and the other contributors often write intelligent and interesting posts. But some behaviours are simply unacceptable, and I hold such blatant intellectual dishonesty to be among them.)



  1. Commiserations; Sandefur's behaviour really does seem to put him below consideration. But we can still have some fun here! I'm trying to work out how to make sense of Kuznicki's discussion, purely as an exercise in the application of the principle of charity.

    I think we can make more sense of his comments if we attribute to him the thought that there is some strong connection between property & morality, such that the claim that property is a "social construction" entails that what one rightfully (where 'rightfully' has a moral sense) possesses is in some worryingly strong sense socially determined (or, if we want to be more nuanced, that the morally correct system of rules governing property is in some worryingly strong sense socially determined). That would make positivism a bad thing. But as you explicitly disavowed this, this interpretation require taking Kuznicki to have misread (intentionally or otherwise) your post incredibly badly. And I think that conflicts with the principle of humanity. Can anyone else do better?

  2. I don’t know if even Kuznicki is engaging with Richard's post in it's entirety however I think the point is

    1) If you don't assume rights and you do assume something else (e.g. utilitarianism or stateism or whatever other assumptions he perceived) you pre suppose if you will find there is justification for rights to be fundamental.

    > Why should the state be presumed innocent?

    2) I think here he disputes that "law forming" should be above "laws". I.e. if the government can take tax so too can individuals (“reducto”). Then he hops into the “all or nothing” “slavery or no tax” sort of point.

    As it relates to positivism to be charitable I see hints of it but I don’t think I have a tight enough grasp on the exact definition (since how I understood it didn’t entirely match how others were using it). Maybe the point is that if a component of the argument can be attacked the whole can be attacked. I.e. that there is a positivist aspect even if the whole is largely not.

    That aspect could be, for example, if we accept current laws and accept theoretical future tax increases without a specific set of things that MUST be done (wherein there would be a LAW governing the lawmakers) it seems to have a very wide range of outcomes.

    Of course it would probably help if that was explained more clearly if that is the point being argued.

  3. [Jason Kuznicki...]

    But we can still have some fun here! I'm trying to work out how to make sense of Kuznicki's discussion, purely as an exercise in the application of the principle of charity.

    Charity? Or condescension? Really, I'm so sick of this bickering -- between two people for whom I have had so much respect -- that I've been seriously thinking about leaving the blogosphere entirely. It seems so relentlessly to take the good and make it bad. And I want no part of that.

    I think GeniusNZ put it best when he wrote, at my site:

    Richard just happens to be applying a definition (of a law - as opposed to a metaphysical right, which is asserted to not exist), basic assumption (utilitarianism as a creator of such things) and level of analysis (the application level) that makes his view true. I think Sandefur has a potentially legitimate objection (even if I philosophically oppose it) by questioning if this is a relevant perspective but he doesn’t really bring it into the debate instead in a burst of adrenaline he gives us the standard jibes.

    We're tying ourselves into ontological knots here, and using it as an excuse to be uncivil. This has long ago ceased to be philosophy. I wouldn't even call it "et cetera" anymore.

    Also, I think Richard did do well here:

    If one is particularly enamoured of "rights"-talk (and I'm not), one could go beyond legal rights by adopting a conception on which "Human rights are... moral claims on the organization of one's society." In this sense, talk of a "right" to X is really just shorthand for saying that we ought to establish institutions which grant us a legal right to X. That may be true enough, but we should recall that the ultimate basis for the "ought" claim is a utilitarian one, as argued above. On my view, moral significance fundamentally derives from real harms and benefits, not abstract quasi-magical "natural rights".

    His definition of rights in this passage is my own. I do not think, however, that these rights derive from utilitarian concerns. I think they derive from a theory of dessert: When you do the work, you get the reward. When you mix your labor with something, you participate in it, and you therefore own it, or at least a share in it. When you exchange freely, you own what you receive. That's my theory of property rights.

  4. "an excuse to be uncivil"

    On the contrary, I waited over three days for Sandefur to reply to my email, in hopes that I wouldn't need to write this post. Also, you confuse legitimate criticism with incivility. I stand by everything I've said here, and am quite happy for anyone to read all this and judge for themselves whether I've responded reasonably.

    I find it ironic how you keep trying to insinuate some kind of moral equivalence between Sandefur's behaviour and my own. It smacks of relativism.

    Nevertheless, it would be a tragedy if you left the blogosphere over this, and I sincerely hope you don't.

  5. [Jason here.]

    Richard, it's not relativism. Your original post engaged in at least three specific acts of grandstanding, and I called you on all three of them. It's unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that Sandefur replied the way that he did.

    In your follow-up, you went on to claim that Sandefur would flunk Philosophy 101, which is both grandstanding and an argument from authority. From the very outset, you never really intended to engage with his argument at all -- just to laugh at it, and then present your own. Not good enough.

    I've said this before, and I guess I need to say it again: I think that -- given Sandefur's premises -- your argument was certainly open to the criticism he makes. While you may have disavowed the implications that he drew, it was never clear on what grounds those disavowals rested. It is unfortunate that Sandefur will not be engaging with your utilitarian arguments about property (I'm informed he will no longer be reading your blog), but you can hardly complain. It never seemed as though you wanted a genuine discussion to begin with.

  6. Yet (as I explained before) I plainly did engage with his arguments, in some depth. You might disapprove of my rhetorical style, but it was solidly backed with substantive arguments. Yes, I called one of his claims "transparently foolish", and further I explained why I considered it such. None of my criticisms were unjustified or misleading. There was certainly nothing intellectually dishonest about them. I didn't "just laugh", I argued, strongly but reasonably. I would have no objection if Sandefur did the same. He didn't.

  7. (I'd add that my old post on "attacks and arguments" is highly relevant here.)

  8. Excuse me, but you did no such thing. You wrote an insulting, childish blog post, in which you referred to me as an "extremist," who holds "absurd conclusions" and makes "transparently foolish" aguments; is ignorant of the property-is-a-social-construct argument; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Worse, you make a blatantly positivistic argument, and then attach an entirely inconsistent claim that "not anything goes," plainly trying to have my cake and eat it, too--and then charge ME with inconsistency.

    I responded in kind: that your argument deserves the bitterest ridicule, that I've written with regard to this argument many times before, and that I'm bored with such sophistry pretending to be original and profound. You then chose to be oh, so deeply insulted--but not to write me; no, you chose to lobby Jason Kuznicki to get me to tone down. Then, at last, you chose to write me an insulting email in which you claimed that you, and not I, were the injured party. Your email said,

    Mr Sandefur,

    I'm sure you've been following the discussion in Jason's "neighbors"
    thread, where I explained how your recent response to me was entirely
    unjustified and violated basic standards of public discourse for its intellectual dishonesty (compounded with stark incivility).

    Anyway, before I write any further about the matter, I wanted to offer
    you the opportunity to resolve the matter amicably. A retraction and
    public apology for your misconduct would be appropriate. I hope any
    further unpleasantness can be avoided.

    On the contrary. If you were a man of any intellectual integrity or honesty you would have written to me first, and not to Kuznicki, nor in his comments section, and you would have apologized to me for your insulting tone, and you would have asked me to explain why I consider your arguments to be so, to coin a phrase, transparently foolish.

    You've chosen to do none of these things. You've chosen to play the injured party, all while ridiculing me and simultaneously making an argument that would lead ultimately to totalitarianism--oh, but not REALLY! No, no, you believe in SOME rights; rights grounded, it seems, on a combination of wishes, nursery rhymes, and recipes for cheescake.

    I'm really not bothered about being charged with incivility by a person who refuses to grow the hell up.

    This will be my last word on this subject.

  9. Jason, I've got to agree with you. This isn't pretty, though I hope you don't leave the blogosophere over it. You were one of the first bloggers I came across, and the blogosphere would be a lesser place without you. I say that as someone who disagrees with you about 80% of the time, so I hope you understand how much respect I (and plenty of others) have for your intellect and your writing.

    I have to confess that until this mess, I hadn't read a word Sandefur had written. After reading his post titled "What’s the Big Deal?" I'm not sure I'll ever read anything he writes again. It was clearly in response to Richard's posts ("What’s people’s problem with slavery? Don’t they realize that freedom is just a social construct?"), but engaged in a level of intellectual disingenuousness that I've never seen on Positive Liberty. I don't think Richard has done anything equivalent to justify that or in response to it.

    Still, Richard, you aren't completely innocent. I think you're uncharitable in this post, though that's understandable to some degree, given Sandefur's behavior. For example, I believe the quote in this post is not meant to be a representation of your argument, but Sandefur's view of where your argument will ultimately take things. Of course, in none of his posts on the topic does he present an argument for that position, and as the "What's the Big Deal?" post illustrates, it's all just a bunch of slippery slope nonsense from straw men. But it doesn't look, to me at least, like he was misrepresenting your argument, intentionally or unintentionally, in that particular passage.

    I hope that if you post on this topic again, you'll just leave Sandefur out of it altogether. He's shown that he's not capable of discussing this with intellectual honesty, but he obviously brings the worst out in you, as well, and draws you away from the actual issues. I've enjoyed your posts (and Jason's) on the actual issues, when you stick to them, so I hope you both continue to discuss it, and do so with civility.

  10. I share the sentiments behind Chris's post. Richard has noticed the beam in the other blogger's eye but missed the mote in his own eye, Jason is a gift to the blogosphere and shouldn't leave (that would be a clear case of the bad driving away the good), and this whole personal argument has been unfortunate and should be brought to an end as soon as possible. Remember happier times?

  11. I'm with you on this one, Richard. I won't say your original post was as diplomatic as it could possibly have been, but Sandefur was way out of line, and continues to be way out of line, judging by the tenor of his last comment here. There is no excuse for the level of uncivil and unscholarly vitriol he's shown, nor for his persistent thrashing at a straw man and refusal to confront your real argument on the merits. But what really baffles me is that he apparently can't tell the difference between strong criticism of his views and ad hominem attacks, as his comment shows. I've read his writing on the Panda's Thumb and elsewhere and I know he's not an unintelligent person, so why can't he address criticism of his views on this one issue without flying off the handle? That is most irrational of him.

  12. Thanks Ebonmuse, that really does cut to the heart of the matter.

    Re: TMS's comment,

    I'd just like to clarify that the context of my email to Jason was personal, not blog-political. I was offended by a comment of his which accused me of "nasty" behaviour, so I wrote him a private email explaining why he shouldn't think that of me. I wouldn't have written to him purely for "lobbying" purposes, and indeed I haven't spoken at all to the other PL contributors who have kept out of this from the start. (Though even if I had, it isn't clear why this would be "dishonest".)

    Regarding the "insults" (which recall I did defend with reasons), some views -- being both deeply unjustified and pernicious -- warrant such strong rational criticism. Sandefur certainly agrees in principle. He just doesn't like to face the possibility that his own views might be among them.

    (Here I reiterate that I don't mind my views being harshly criticized so long as it's done honestly and reasonably. My objection to Sandefur's response is that it was neither. I'm not going to whine about an "insulting tone" if one's criticisms are apt. But if you argue dishonestly, then yes, you can expect to hear me complain about it.)

    Chris - I'm unconvinced by your interpretation of Sandefur's quote. It would be more charitable, in some sense. But the context makes it hard to see how it could be anything but a summary of the argument (viz., mine) to which he is about to respond. Sure, he later draws "implications" about tanks and China, but the quoted sentence of his introduction is presented as a representation of my "view" itself, and not merely an implication of my view.

    His first sentence is: "here we go again with the argument that property is a “social construct.”"
    Then his second sentence is as quoted: "Since property is created by social mores and by government’s laws, therefore there can be no real objection when the government changes the rules and says that what you own is not really yours."

    Plainly, the second sentence is meant to be "the argument" of mine to which he's responding. How is this anything but a misrepresentation? (For further evidence, see his comment above, where he writes "I've written with regard to this argument many times before". He still believes that the argument he presented is my argument. But of course it isn't. He hasn't addressed my actual argument [quoted in post above] at all.)

    It strikes me as an open and shut case, so I'm baffled by Jason's persisting doubts (let alone his assertion that I "can hardly complain"). Look:

    1) Sandefur presented me as claiming that "there can be no real objection when the government changes the rules and says that what you own is not really yours."

    2) In fact, I explicitly denied this claim.

    3) It is intellectually dishonest to present someone as claiming what they in fact explicitly denied.

    C) Sandefur is intellectually dishonest.

    (I take it Chris wants to deny premise 1, but I've explained why that doesn't seem plausible.) Now I'm getting thoroughly sick of this topic (as, by the looks of it, is everyone else), so I guess I'll just leave it at that.

    "I hope that if you post on this topic again, you'll just leave Sandefur out of it altogether."


  13. Richard, I read his post (the beginning, at least), a few times, and your interpretation could be right. At the very least, he doesn't deserve the charitable reading that I gave him.

    I really do hope you post on the topic of rights, and property rights in particular, some more, and that it engenders discussion.

  14. [Update: I've returned Positive Liberty to the blogroll for the sake of the other contributors.]


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